Monday, November 7, 2011

Van Halen: 1984

Van Halen: 1984

I bought 1984 in coincidentally 1984 with lawn mowing and paper route money on cassette. The first song I heard on from it was the mega successful hit single Jump. Of course I didn't actually hear the song on the radio I saw the video on "the MTV". I was 13 and Edward Van Halen was unquestionably the hottest guitarist around and 1984 featured the single greatest riff I had ever heard up until that point in my life: "Panama". At age 13 I was also really liked Marvel comics, although if I had money it was spent on cassettes and video games, not comic books. I had friends and cousins who did buy comics and let me read theirs so I never had to buy any of my own. I also pictured in my mind a superhero who was a cross between Marvel comics Sandman and the Human Torch using "Panama" as his theme music. Not that any of Marvel's characters used theme music, but that didn't matter to me. It just seemed like a really cool idea. It also never occurred to me that such a character would instantly turn to glass either.

At 13 I was also really into Dungeons and Dragons. My friends and I played, but we really bent the rules. Our characters were artificially inflated to a degree never seen before or seen since. I also remember making up my own role playing game based around the Marvel Universe with several dozen self invented heroes and villains as well. I even managed to convince some of my other friends to play it as well. In retrospect I think it really speaks well of my circle of friends, that although we spent our fair share of time playing video games, we had pretty well rounded imaginations and were actually interested in a creative form of interactive story telling. In short we were creating our very own "crummy world of plot holes and spelling errors".

Musically, 1984 still kicks serious butt. It is sad to think that this was the last original lineup Van Halen album ever. No one knew it at the time but once 5150 hit the shelves you realized what was gone. I'm not a total hater Van Hagar either. I think F.U.C.K. is the best of the Hagar era and all of the Hagar discs have merit, but none measure up to 1984. Also, 1984 hinted at where Van Halen was headed in the future, with "Jump", the title track, and "I'll Wait", so all the blame of the direction change can't shouldered by Hagar.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Deep Purple: Who do we think we are!

During the second semester of my sophomore year in high school (spring 1987), I really got into Deep Purple. The main reason I got into this band was because of I was a fan of the spinoff band Rainbow, who got a decent amount of airplay on MTV back in 1981-1983 or so. This was also the semester of school I spent a lot of time trying to earn money to buy my first guitar so I could learn that famous first riff: "Smoke on the Water". Machine Head is considered the classic Deep Purple record, but my favorite is Who Do We Think We Are.

In 1987, Deep Purple was pretty much viewed as a standard classic rock band amongst my peers. Most of school friends, who were rock fans, liked the songs "Smoke on the Water" and "My Woman From Tokyo" but no one was really a fan of Deep Purple, except me*. In a lot of ways it was more puzzling to my peers than anything else. Friends would say things like:

"I like Mississippi Queen"
"wow, I've heard of them but I never heard anything by them"
"they are really old aren't they?"
"are they psychedelic"
"my brother was into them"
"Bon Jovi!"

Another interesting thing happened when I talked about Deep Purple to guys who were 10+ years older than me. They were impressed that I liked the band, but also surprised since they were about a decade out of date. One person I remember in particular was the guy who drove the bus on our band trip that year. I remember getting into a long conversation with him about music for some reason. I also remember that he was an Aerosmith fan, which was still a little unusual in early 1987. Contrast all this to now when youtube is full of teenagers making videos of themselves playing 40 year old music and no one thinks twice about it. It's also amazing that my fandom with Deep Purple goes back 24 years, and that Deep Purple is still recording and touring, albiet on a very infrequent basis. Even more amazing is that the only consistant member is drummer Ian Paice. It's like a reverse Spinal Tap. Another thing about Deep Purple is that they have a much larger fan base in St. Louis, where I live now, than they have back home again in Indiana. Even better is the fact that the musicians around here also truly get Deep Purple.

I also spent a crazy amount of time obsessing over the various lineups of Deep Purple, the spinoffs and related bands. In early 1987 the same teenagers who had no clue who Deep Purple was, were about to become major fans of their most successful spin-off, Whitesnake.

Who Do We think We Are is my favorite DP disc based on the second side of it. There are only 3 songs on side 2 of WDWTWA: Rat Bat Blue, Place In Line, & Our Lady. Rat Bat Blue is a great lost classic. Great riffs, killer vocals and one crazy Jon Lord solo. Place in Line proved once again that Deep Purple could be a great blues-rock band, much like Lazy on Machine Head did. Our Lady is a musical outlier in Deep Purple's long career. It's almost a power ballad but not very atmospheric and ethereal. Who knows, maybe 40 years from now teenagers will still be listening to late 60s - early 70s rock.

*I think by the 1st semester of my junior year the second real Deep Purple fan showed up.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kiss Unplugged & Blazefest

It would be nearly impossible to say something about Kiss that hasn't been said before either pro or con. Their influence on the industry is nearly unmatched. If you are a rock fan you are a Kiss fan, either directly or indirectly. Meaning, either you are a fan or some band you are a fan of has Kiss fans in it. And if you play rock or metal, and started playing after 1978 or so, either you are influenced by Kiss or one of your influences was influenced by Kiss. You cannot escape the influence of Gene, Paul, Ace, Peter or (INSERT NAME OF HIRED GUN MEMBER HERE). I'm not going to write about any of the classic discs, because I was way too young when they came out. I really didn't become a card carrying fan until the early 1990s. It seems a little strange to write about how a disc that came out in 1975 reminds me of 1992. So, in my life the two biggest Kiss related events were Blazefest(1994)and the official conventions in 1995.

Blazefest was a radio station sponsored show in suburban Chicago in 1994 and it was one of two shows that Kiss played that year. The CD is a bootleg. What is significant about this show is that it proved that Kiss was not just a gimmick. Kiss played a 100% request only show with no light show, no makeup, & no special effects in a small venue. Basically, you got to see Kiss as a "pure" rock band. They had nothing to hide behind and musically it stood up. It also proved that the Gene, Paul, Bruce K., Eric S. lineup was as strong as the original and could make the vintage Kiss music their own. I went with my old college bud Chuck K. It was the second show we had gone to together that year, the first being Rush w.s.g. Primus on the Counterparts tour. One of the opening acts at Blazefest was guitarist Dave Uhrich, who I have been a fan of ever since and I even became friends with him on Facebook.

The Kiss conventions of 1995 are what spurred the reunion tour in 1996, and the rebirth of Kiss as major stars. Kiss conventions gave fans the chance, for the bargain price of $100.00 a ticket, to
 *see costumes/instruments up close
 *interact with other Kiss superfans
 *see never before seen Kiss footage from the 1970s on
 *see a tribute band
 *see Eric and Bruce give clinics on their respective instruments
 *have a candid no B.S. Q&A session with the band
 *see/participate in an unplugged Kiss concert, which became the basis of the Kiss Unplugged CD.
 *see Paul Stanley's real personallity. a/k/a Stan Eisen
 *meet & greet Gene, Paul, Bruce, & Eric, get pictures & autographs.

Compared to what concert tickets cost today, it was a HELL of a bargain. And a once in a lifetime experience. I even had 3 seconds of a conversation with Paul Stanley. It's too bad this happened before the days of cheap digital cameras/recorders. I wish I had more than just a few snapshots and memories of this event. I went with my musical co-conspirator Greg C, who has been a major Kiss fan since the late 1970s. This was also during the early stages of forming our first band together, Primal Faith. In retrospect Primal Faith was almost the perfect storm of "striking while the iron is cold". We lived in Indianapolis, IN which is totally dominated by country and blues music, and it was the mid 1990s, which was totally dominated by corporate alternative, rap and country. Timing is everything in the industry.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

4 for 1994!

Dream Theater: Awake
Queensryche: Promised Land
Savatage: Handful of Rain
Fates Warning: Inside Out

1994: A year of transition. Movies were still generally speaking original ideas, not remakes of old TV shows, comic books or other movies. The TV landscape was still 3 big networks, 1 smaller network and a few specialty cable channels, not like today where there are dozens of single subject cable channels. "The Simpson's" were really starting to enter their peak years with great humor and almost true to life characters. The internet was taking baby steps towards becoming mainstream. Grunge/Alternative was at its peak but the boy bands were beginning their 15 minutes of fame. The guitar solo was beginning to die off entirely. Shred was dead. Classic metal was dead too. Hair bands were double, super dead. MTV was transitioning out of playing videos and into showing reality TV shows. But somehow 4 major label releases by progressive metal bands hit the shelves in the fall of 1994. My life was in transition too, from college to post college.

1994 was the year that these bands were transitioning too. All four of these discs represent in my mind the closing of a chapter. "Handful of Rain" was the last CD Savatage would record as a set of unrelated songs. The next 3 discs would be rock operas and in 2 years a little side project called Trans-siberian orchestra would record their debut Christmas album and become a world wide sensation. Savatage eventually became absorbed by Trans-siberian orchestra and hasn't been heard from since 2001. I consider my self lucky that I got to see them live, and meet them, before they made the transition.

Queensryche's "Promised Land" sold a fraction of what "Empire" did 4 years earlier. In my view, it's the last Queensryche disc that sounds like Queensryche. In 1997 they recorded their first alternative rock disc and in 1999 they gave us their first genuine grunge CD, "Q2k". Fates Warning's "Inside Out" proved to be their last (so far) disc recorded as 2 lead guitar quintet. Musically, this disc is hit and miss. Hits are "Island In the Stream", "Monument", "Pale Fire", "Inward Bound","Outside Looking In", and the weird ballad "Afterglow". The rest isn't bad but, compared to their earlier work mostly forgettable. I really do miss the old Queensryche and Fates Warning!

Dream Theater's "Awake" is my favorite of these 4 discs and also, but alas, DT was also "in transition". Keyboard player Kevin Moore recorded the disc with the band but left shortly thereafter. I know Jordan Rudess is the definitive keyboard player for DT, but Kevin Moore is still my favorite. I don't think DT has ever sounded as good as they did on they disc. Part of the reason was Kevin Moore's heavily distorted keyboard tone. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of classic Jon Lord. I remember buying and listening to this disc on its release day. I was working at National City Bank at the time and didn't quite have the resources to move out, which put a huge damper on my romantic life. Within 6 months, I got my first place on my own and was perfectly willing to work 2 jobs to pay the bills, buy CDs, and have a good, but frugal post college life. Things weren't perfect for me, but I was willing to work and be self reliant, a strategy that worked well ever since.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Judas Priest "Painkiller" & "Jugulator"

Although "British Steel" is arguably the definitive Judas Priest album, I have much better stories associated with Painkiller and Jugulator.

1990 was my first year at Ball State University. One of the first people I met there was named Matt P. (he's actually one of three guys named Matt I was friends with there, if you can't keep them all straight don't worry about it.) Anyways Matt P. was (is) a huge Judas Priest fan too, although Matt P. is not what you would call a total Metalhead, like me. He lent me a couple of Judas Priest tapes I had never heard before. (Sin After Sin and Hero, Hero) Judas Priest was also in a slump in the late 1980s. Turbo was a bit too poppy and full of sythesizers and Ram It Down was too mechanical and by the numbers sounding.

Painkiller changed all that. With a new drummer (X-Racer X-er Scott Travis) and a new outlook Judas Priest suddenly redefined themselves. They hit the road with Megadeth and Testament opening up for them. My concert going bud, Matt Socey, got tickets to see them and by the sheer perserverance of waiting 5 hours in line, we got 2nd row seats! Testament and Megadeth were awesome from 10' feet away but Judas Priest still blew them out of the water. The craziest part of the show? When they hit the stage the set of some pyrotechnic bombs that were about 10' feet away from me. I remember being completely dazed and disoriented when this happened. Suddenly everything moved in slow motion for what seemed like a minute or two but really only a few seconds had passed. This is sometimes called time dilation. One of the best known examples of this is in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. I'm probably lucky I didn't crap my pants too! I also remember this happening to me in 1981 when I was hit by a car at age 10. I was too young to buy my own music at that age so there's no CD associated with that incident!

Jugulator is a forgotten Judas Priest album recorded with Tim 'Ripper' Owens on lead vocals. Judas Priest did their first tour in 6 years and I was not going to miss them. It was a general admission show in a small theater and I managed to make it to the front row. After the show, I decided I was going to meet the band, because I would probably never have a chance to do so. Amazingly all of them came out to meet their fans and behaved exactly like a bunch of stereotypical middle aged Englishmen. It was one of the best experiences I had during the late 1990s which were not exactly a golden period of my life, or a golden period for heavy metal. All the guys were so willing to talk to fans and just hangout with no reservations and without security. This right here is the biggest perk of being a metal fan. Your favorite bands are (usually) not a bunch of superstars. Most of them came from working class backgrounds and they still have that outlook.

Painkiller is considered a power metal classic, but I do wish Rob had toned down the falsetto screaming just a little bit. His natural voice is really good and we all know he can hit the highest notes, therefore he doesn't have to sing entire songs in his highest octave. Ripper did well as a temporary replacement. The biggest difference between in sound between Jugulator and the rest of the Judas Priest catalog is the fact that K.K. and Glenn tuned down a whole step for a looser and lower feel. There are definitely 2 classic songs on Jugulator: Bullet Train and Cathedral Spires. If you haven't heard them, download them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

AC/DC For Those About to Rock

AC/DC: For those About To Rock, We Salute You (and others)

My first exposure with AC/DC was in grade school seeing long haired scary teenagers wearing shirts with the logo on it. Most of them were probably named Rob or Travis and drove what would now be considered classic Chevy Cameros and Monte Carlos.

I first became aquainted with AC/DC's music in 1982 or 1983 when MTV put the title track to this record in semi-regular rotation. I remember loving the sound of the guitars, the riffs and especially the cannons. Even though AC/DC has been hugely successful they have never become generic celebrities like Aerosmith, Metallica, Green Day or Ozzy Osbourne. So I still have a lot respect for them for that.

It is often said, even by the band, that AC/DC has released the same record over and over since their debut. (There is some truth to that but some are definitely better than others)

In the spirit of that observation, I will be talking about more than one AC/DC disc. AC/DC was a huge part of my musical life and will always be connected with 1986 - 1992 to me.

1986:I spent this year buying as much AC/DC on cassette as I could. Most of the money came from lawn mowing. During the summer of 1986 I was mowing at least 4 lawns a week from $5 to $10 a pop. My grandfather was the only person paying me $10.00 but he did have a pretty big lawn. I managed to get Back in Black, For Those About To Rock, Fly on the Wall, and Who Made Who. I also remember watching Maximum Overdrive every chance I got when it was on Showtime, which is still one of the great horrendous sci-horror movies of all time. AC/DC was one of Steven King's favorite bands and had them do the sound track to Maximum Overdrive. Early printings of the record emphasized this, later printings de-emphasized this. I also remember various people denying this connection existed in college.

1988: My first disillusionment with AC/DC came. "Blow Up Your Video". I'm not a huge fan of the disc even to this day. It has 2 good songs and the rest was filler. I was still a pretty big fan though and even learned how to play a song or two by them.

1990: Saw them live with my friend Matt Socey at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. I remember being underwhelmed because a large part of the set was Bon Scott era material that I wasn't as familiar with. Also, some of the dragged out versions of songs got annoying. One or two extended songs is fine but they did at least 2 or 3 songs that passed the 10 minute mark. I felt the pacing got a little tiresome. The opening act was also pretty lame, Love/Hate. Ironically, the Razor's Edge came out in 1990 which is when AC/DC had officially lost their edge, although this disc was MTV gold and made them piles of money.

1991: Saw them again on the same tour as before at an outdoor venue and I did enjoy it more because I was a little more familiar with the Bon Scott era songs. I remember going to the show with a guy I worked with at the time and running into one of my college friends and his girlfriend. This was also the year my college friend's band really got going and they played at least 3 or 4 AC/DC songs a night which always went over well. L.A. Guns opened for them this time around who have 5 or 6 songs that I really like, but I'm definitely not a fan of them.

1992: AC/DC's live 2 disc set comes out. I think this was actually the point where my fandom with AC/DC peaked. This was the last AC/DC disc I went out of my way to buy. I still like AC/DC but I don't go out of my way to get the new discs and I haven't seen them live since 1991. I guess that's the risk of making the same disc over and over and over. Certain devoted fans will move beyond what you are doing and seek out something different.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Iced Earth: Alive In Athens

2000 Iced Earth: Alive in Athens

I got this disc during the summer of 2000, 5 or 6 months after the Y2K bug was supposed to have ended civilization. I spent the summer of 2000 working as a temp doing accounts payable for the Indiana Pacers and this was the year they made it to the NBA Finals. For the past couple years I had been doing similar accounting jobs. The biggest difference was that sometimes names like "Reggie Miller", "Derek McKey" or "Austin Croshere" would show up on invoices. I didn't get to meet any players in any real way, but occaisionly I did see Al Harrington, who now plays for the Denver Nuggets, the afore mentioned Derek McKey and Brian Cardinal, who now plays for the Dallas Mavericks. I did manage to see a few memorable games for free too.

But back to Iced Earth. They are a legendary power metal band thoughout Europe who are chart toppers in Germany and Greece. This disc is as great as any of the classic live metal albums of the 1970s and 1980s. (Live After Death, Alive I and II, World Wide Live, Unleashed in the East etc) But what is really crazy is that these guys at that time were living outside of Columbus, Indiana. I found this out when my friend and bandmate Greg went to see Dio live at a bowling alley that was converted to a bar. I just happened to run into their lead singer Matt Barlow and their guitarist Jon Shaeffer. I saw three people wearing Iced Earth T-Shirts after the show and I asked them kind of sarcastically "Are we having an Iced Earth convention here?" and suddenly I realized I was looking at lead singer Matt Barlow, but my brain is telling me, "That's Impossible!" Matt then tells me that he lives in Columbus, IN because that's Iced Earth base of operation because Jon Shaeffer lives there too. We also met Ronnie James Dio, Jimmy Bain, Craig Goldy and Simon Wright that night too. More on that later.

Academically, I was kicking ass and taking names as a student of computer technology. Not only was I understanding the subject matter, I was getting A's as well. For the first time ever no one could accuse me of slacking off academically. Conventional wisdom says that older students will do much better than their younger counterparts and this really was the case for me. This actually led to first real position as a software developer.

Musically, this was also a disc that proved that metal was still alive, even in the darkest days of boy bands, grunge rock, alternative and all of the other manufactured musical trends of the 1990s. Better days for metal were just around the corner.