El Supremo : For The Love of Steely Dan’s ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’

It’s sad that only when someone dies do we feel driven to talk about them. I guess its only natural that after someone you admire passes that you want to explore their past work and see if maybe you’d missed something. For me, with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker passing away last week I wasn’t going back to see what I’d missed about the Dan while the guy was alive. I’ve loved the duo of Becker/Fagen for over 20 years now and have dug into the Dan discography more times than I can shake a stick at. I’ve never got tired of the Steely Dan discography. Never. Not once. I can’t even say that about the Beatles, the Kinks, or even JHubner73 stalwarts Wilco. Steely Dan have always intrigued me(once I “got em”.) The mixture of sci fi-meets-beatnik-meets-downtown derelict lyrics, subtle funky rhythms, and intricate jazz breakdowns were the things of late night drives, young man contemplation, and stoned conversations. Theirs was a confection of William Burroughs, 50 years of jazz history, and burnt out 60s disillusionment turned into sardonic 70s pessimism.

It was a biting and beautiful thing.

No, what I was going after this past week was digging through that decade of Dan and finding what I might’ve overlooked. I hadn’t really overlooked things, but I never truly appreciated Steely Dan as a “band”. I was always drawn to the later records that were Becker/Fagen- conducted affairs. The revolving doors of wizard-like studio musicians that Don and Walter would direct into meticulous solos and takes. Records like Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja were my jams. They felt like these alternate universes where lowlifes and degenerates ruled the city streets. Each song felt like stories half written by Jim Thompson and half written by Philip K. Dick with the music arranged in the spirit of Wayne Shorter’s Juju. That was what initially brought me in. But the last few years I’ve been drawn to the first half of their career. Can’t Buy A Thrill isn’t played a whole lot by me, though it does have its charms(“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, “Only A Fool Would Say That”, and “Fire In The Hole” are standouts.) For me, Countdown To Ecstasy is the record that truly introduced the world to Steely Dan. It led to the excellent Pretzel Logic which was the last album to feature the original 5-piece band of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jim Hodder. Countdown To Ecstasy was their most rock and roll record. It’s gritty, out there, and holds within it a cast of characters Robert Altman would be thrilled to put on screen.

When you open an album with a hyper speed boogie number called “Bodhisattva”, a track that boast serious guitar solos, keyboard solos, and lyrics like “Can you show me the shine of your Japan/The sparkle of your china, can you show me“, you’re not just laying down the grooves just to jam. The definition of Bodhisattva, for those that don’t know it, simply states: “(in Mahayana Buddhism) a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.” Fagen was never one to write simple lyrics. He was out to tell a story each time out, and throw his literate lyrics over top a serious jam like this and you’re bound for greatness.

Then they follow that with the excellent “Razor Boy”. “Will you still have a song to sing, when the Razor Boy comes and takes your fancy things away/Will you still be singing it on that cold and windy day?” Put to to jazzy vibes and Baxter’s beautiful pedal steel playing, this song is the perfect example of how well Steely Dan could create these subversive songs and make them fluffy radio friendly. Look at a hit like “Peg” which subtly refers to the business of the porn industry(“done up in blueprint blue/it sure looks good on you“) or their biggest hit “Hey Nineteen” referring to “the fine Columbian“(I’m sure they were referring to a cup of coffee.) “Razor Boy” is a nod to drug addiction under the guise of some street punk carrying a blade. It’s really quite genius.

“The Boston Rag” is another stellar track that showcases Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar wizardry, courtesy of his pedal steel. There’s an ominous vibe here that Fagen lays on it with his vocals. “You were Lady Bayside/There was nothing that I could do/So I pointed my car down/Seventh Avenue“, Fagen sings over a seriously tight groove. There’s a grimy downtown vibe in this track. For an album that was recorded in Colorado and Los Angeles there’s some serious New York vibes here.

One of my favorite jams is “Your Gold Teeth”. It’s just an all out barn burner. I never truly appreciated this song till many years later. Fagen’s keyboard work on this is absolutely brilliant. Victor Feldman’s percussion work also makes this song burn brightly. Absolutely brilliant.

One of the most biting tracks opens side two. “Show Biz Kids” is Fagen’s ode to stuck up LA kids blowing mom and dad’s money and generally not giving a shit about anyone else but themselves. He says as much in one of the lines, “Showbiz Kids making movies of themselves, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.” There’s talk of a “Steely Dan t-shirt” and “shapely bods”, and one of my personal bits of favorite lyrical gold “After closing time/At the Guernsey Fair/I detect the El Supremo/From the room at the top of the stairs”. You can almost see Fagen’s smirk as you listen to this track.

“My Old School” was I think the only long lasting radio track, something you still hear on classic rock radio from time to time. It’s another great story song about a drug bust at Bard College when Becker and Fagen were students. I seriously don’t know how this wasn’t a hit song back in 1973. It’s a great tune with a earworm of a melody and excellent storytelling.

“Pearl of the Quarter” for years was one of my favorite Steely Dan songs. The story of a prostitute and the “John” that fell for her. “I walked alone down the miracle mile/I met my baby by the shine of the martyr/She stole my heart with her Cajun smile/Singing voulez vous“, Fagen sings over some beautiful pedal steel and melancholy piano chords. I remember being in a dive bar in town 20+ years ago and going to the jukebox and seeing Countdown to Ecstasy in it. I happily dropped an abundance of coin in the slot and played this track more than a few times. I got plenty of jeers, but the one guy sitting by himself singing along to his bottle of Micheloeb was enough to make it all worth it.

“King of the World”, an ode to the last man on earth is a sci fi rocker that closes the record on a uptempo groove. Complete with synthesizers, jazzy drums, Becker’s excellent bass playing, and more of Baxter’s great slide playing. Lyrically Fagen paints a portrait of a dead world with the guy that pulled the shortest straw, aka the King of the world. “No marigolds in the promised land/There’s a hole in the ground, Where they used to grow/Any man left on the Rio Grande, Is the king of the world/As far as I know“. I think these are probably some of the best lyrics on Countdown To Ecstasy.

Surprisingly(to me, anyways), while this album was highly regarded by critics and fans it didn’t yield much in the hits department and was seen as a disappointment by the record label. Of course they’d follow this up with the monster that is Pretzel Logic only a mere 7 months later and from that point on they would put out one stellar record after another until 1980 when they would take a 20 year hiatus until 2000s Two Against Nature.

Though they would inevitably go on to make better albums, there’s something about Countdown To Ecstasy that makes it stand out in the Dan canon. Maybe because it’s a “live” album, written for a rock and roll band to perform. Maybe because there’s a heavier sci fi slant here that makes the record seem like more of an outlier. Or maybe it’s the grittier, street-sweaty manor of the songs here that makes Countdown To Ecstasy a record I find myself going to as of late. I guess it doesn’t really matter what it is that keeps me coming back.

If the Razor Boy approves, then that’s what matters.

Proggy Bottom Boys : Zombi’s ‘Surface To Air’

I can’t remember when I first discovered Zombi. I think it was back in 2013. Back when things were simpler and the imminent destruction of existence as we know wasn’t just one North Korean missile launch or Donald Trump tweet away. This was really ground zero for me as far as my deep fall into the synth well. Somehow or another I happened upon their 2011 album Escape Velocity and never looked back(maybe it was the naked chick running on the cover.) That album introduced me to the one-two punch of Steve Moore and AJ Paterra. Moore is this maestro on the synth and bass, while Paterra could easily sit in for the now retired Neil Peart and give new life to Rush. While these guys have been given the label of “synthwave”, I’d have to completely disagree with that assessment. These guys are prog as f*ck. Space rock on the next level. Just listen to those drum fills and bass lines. Listen to those synths oscillating into some musical worm hole.

No disrespect to the synthwave crews, but Zombi are on another level musically.

Steve Moore and AJ Paterra write hard and lean musical epics. Listen to records like Shape Shift, Spirit Animal, or the aforementioned Escape Velocity. These two are pulling from bands like Rush just as much as they are Goblin. They’re also coming in from a horror/sci fi slant(they’re named after a Lucio Fulci classic after all…and they hail from Romero’s stomping grounds of Pittsburgh.) I recently picked up their 2006 album Surface To Air and I have to say it’s been eating up some serious platter time. It has all the things Zombi are known for: killer drums, aggressive bass lines, and plenty of mind-melting synths. You know, something for everyone.

It opens with the excellent “Challenger Deep”. It almost sounds like the opening of Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” before an almost “Subdivisions” by Rush vibe crashes in. The interplay between Moore’s synth and bass parts and Paterra’s killer drums pushes the track into the stratosphere. I imagine some bizarre space scene happening with this track. Like intergalactic forces battling it out over an ever growing black hole.

“Digitalis” starts out with an arpeggiated synth line that is accompanied by some serious Edgar Froese sonics. Let the Tangerine Dream vibes wash over you. If you’re at all familiar with Pinkish Black(their Brown Rainbow is a hell of an album), then you’ll recognize some of the synth tones here(both bands are on Relapse Records as well.) Steve Moore’s synth work here works in some great melodrama adding to the epic vibe.

The nine minute “Legacy” lays on a heavy robo-groove. Besides the amazing synth work, Moore and Paterra are one hell of a rhythm section. They lock in hard and lay on some airtight rhythms. The synth is the icing on the cake.

End side one.

When I’m listening to Zombi I’m reminded of all the great Rush instrumentals there have been over the years. With this album in particular I get a real Signals vibe. How everything works together to give both the feeling of virtuosity and of a feeling of emotional heft. There’s probably not much room for improvisation as I’m sure there’s some very specific programming in the synthesizer department. But it never comes across as stiff with these guys. It feels like there’s room to move around, despite those robo-grooves.

“Surface To Air” sounds like what would happen if Goblin and Tangerine Dream took on Rush’ “YYZ”. That may sound like a pretty out there comparison, but trust me. It’ll feel kind of weird at first, but just go with it.

Closing track “Night Rhythms” is over 18 minutes of proggy synth machismo. This one definitely hints at Moore’s later film score work. There’s a looming doom that hangs over the first few minutes of the track. It brings to mind both Goblin’s work for Dawn of the Dead and Fabio Frizzi’s score for City of the Living Dead. Soon enough the track kicks into gear and we’re treated to some serious prog rock tendencies courtesy of Mr. Paterra’s incredible drumming.

Zombi are a band that seem to get better each time out. This being only their second record there was a lot to live up to. I think they’ve done a good job of keeping an upward flow going, but if this record was released two years ago instead of 11 it would still be pretty damn impressive. If you like heavy synth music, or progressive rock, or late 70s-early 80s Rush(right after the heavy concept albums and before the 80s washed-out synth pop) then I don’t see any reason as to why you’re not buying up Zombi records left and right.

Surface To Air is a great place to start.

Persian Dervish Salad Surgery

Every year that we have a family vacation down in Brown County and get back with nature(in an air-conditioned cabin with game room and hot tub) I always try to bring one or two records back from our stay. On one of the days we head 25 minutes west to Bloomington where I put my family through a tortuous 45 minute visit to Landlocked Music. It’s tortuous for them, for me it’s heaven. When I’m at Landlocked I always try to bring home something I can’t find in a 45 minute drive from my house. Landlocked has the most amazing electronic/experimental/avante garde section I’ve seen in any brick and mortar. In years past I’ve brought home gems from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Klaus Schulze, Wire, and Tom Verlaine. In 2014 I brought home Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air. This past June Landlocked had the brand new reissue of Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes. How could I say no to that? I couldn’t. 

So here’s the scene:

It’s 1971 in a warm Los Angeles music hall. There’s something in the air that hangs low. A smog of breath, heat, and re-purposed smoke that leaves the lungs of waiting listeners. Soon the looping and loping organ lines of avante composer Terry Riley make their way out into a crowd wanting to expand their minds, both musically and chemically. There’s a hypnotic quality to Terry Riley’s organ work. Phrases seem to repeat over and over, but if you listen closely you can tell there are small shifts in the music lines. The music feels like individual puzzle pieces that eventually create spots to fit into each other, right before your eyes.

So here’s the scene:

It’s 1972 in a warm Parisian music hall. There’s something in the air that hangs low. A smog of breath, heat, and re-purposed smoke that leaves the lungs of waiting listeners. Soon the looping and loping organ lines of avante composer Terry Riley make their way out into a crowd wanting to expand their minds, both musically and chemically. There’s a hypnotic quality to Terry Riley’s organ work. Phrases seem to repeat over and over, but if you listen closely you can tell there are small shifts in the music lines. The music feels like individual puzzle pieces that eventually create spots to fit into each other, right before your eyes.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes.

I don’t think I can adequately describe this record. It’s improvised music done by the genius Terry Riley. One record was recorded in Los Angeles in 1971, while the other record was the same piece improvised again and significantly different in Paris in 1972. This is totally zone out music. You put it on, close your eyes, and try to transcend your surroundings. For some of my readers this may sound boring or tedious, and I understand that. But if you let the music work its magic you could possibly psychically work some stuff out.

Maybe.

I first came into contact with Terry Riley through his A Rainbow In Curved Air back in 2013 or early 2014. I’d discovered Steve Reich and was on the hunt for like-minded cats that went about creating music in a unique and heady way. I listened to A Rainbow In Curved Air an incredible amount of times. I eventually picked up a reissue of it the summer of 2014. I also found a first pressing of Riley’s In C, which influenced me to improvise a song with my Cambodia Highball partner entitled “In D” in the cold harsh winter of 2014.

Riley seemed(and still seems) like a guy that wanted more out of a piece of music than just the satisfaction of composing. He seemed to be searching for enlightenment through music. His performances were more like a gathering of tribes. He looked more like a Yogi than he did a beat generation music composer. Each successive music project got closer and closer to what he arrived at with Persian Surgery Dervishes. And what he got to was another state of mind. It’s a trance-inducing musical piece that improvises on organ(which is specially tuned to just intonation). It works to put you into a free-floating spot in your own little universe. I think it works in the same way Indian music does or Middle Eastern music. It serves a purpose to enlighten the listener, and in Riley’s case the creator as well.

This isn’t the record you’re going to throw on when company is over and you’re playing a few rounds of euchre. It’s also not one you put on when the kids have friends over as you’ll certainly scare them away by the trance-like sound that will emanate from the speakers. I think Terry Riley is an acquired taste, but he’s a taste I have certainly acquired. Bands as heavy as Om, Sunn O))), and Sleep have taken the simple ideas of transcendence through repetition that Riley perfected way back in the late 60s and early 70s to new, crushing heights. Terry Riley is in his 80s now and still playing live. I think there may be something to his spiritual style of improvisational composition. He connects with an audience on an existential level and gives that connection back through the organ. In these times I think we need all the help we can get in connecting back to the universe.  It’s a beautiful thing, really.

So is Persian Surgery Dervishes.

Gut Reaction – The Fragile : Deviations 1

I don’t often start vomiting out words of praise on a first run of an album, but since the album is from Nine Inch Nails and that album is a bizarro world take on the classic The Fragile called The Fragile : Deviations 1 I felt it was okay to do so. So here’s a few thoughts upon dropping the needle.

I knew what I was getting into when I handed over my money card digits back in December and preordered what was being touted as an instrumental version of Trent Reznor’s ode to nervous breakdowns and substance abuse, 1999s The Fragile. Even when The Fragile was released way back before we could ever imagine a world where Donald Trump could be voted in as the leader of the free world, I wasn’t all that into NIN. I got my copy of The Fragile for free by calling in and answering a question on the local alternative radio station during a lunch time program. I drove an hour to the tiny radio station in September of 1999 and got my winnings in the form of a double CD and listened to it on the way home. This was the first time I ever really liked something from NIN. But still, it didn’t really sink in for me till 2005s With Teeth(my best friend and I did get stoned and watch scenes from Star Wars with “The Wretched” soundtracking it, so that was cool.) But with With Teeth, that’s when the teen angst that was supposed to fuel my NIN love was replaced with adult angst and I found myself screaming “Don’t You Fucking Know What You Are!!!” on my way to work in the mornings. Year Zero was another favorite as well, with Reznor making an intimate and angry electronic record for all to enjoy. But it wasn’t until Ghosts I-IV came out in 2008 that I found myself head over heals for this guy that was so angry in my youth. Instrumental pieces that felt like mini-suites of anger and desolation, I thought to myself I’d love to hear Reznor start scoring films. Two years later him and Atticus Ross began a fruitful scoring career with David Fincher, and so began my love of everything Trent Reznor.

This brings me to The Fragile : Deviations 1. For the person that absolutely LOVES Reznor’s film work this record is for you(meaning me, but it could be you, too.) There was always something very cinematic about The Fragile. At times I felt that beautiful and ugly melodrama was wasted on words and screaming, so with the vocals removed the record takes on a whole new meaning and feel. Instead of hearing a man’s descent into lovelorn, chemically induced madness it sounds as if we’re hearing the score to a faintly familiar film that we can’t quite place. I’m currently finishing side 4(there are 8 sides here, guys) and it’s probably one of the cleanest, crisp mixes I’ve heard in a long time. Reznor and Ross have gone back and tweaked the original songs to accentuate certain parts that may have gotten lost in the mix the first time. The buzzsaw guitars are even more biting(as on “Somewhat Damaged” and “We’re In This Together”.) There are also unreleased pieces strewn throughout as well that add a whole other dimension to this record.

I think having a few years of film work under their belts, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have learned how to build mood and create aural scenes in the studio. I truly feel that they’re in their element scoring for film. I loved Hesitation Marks and dug Not The Actual Events, but I’m finding myself drawn to records that talk through the music and not lyrics these days. Reznor’s songs resonated with so many not only because of the music but because he was speaking to the disenfranchised with his lyrics. These days Reznor isn’t really the disaffected, pained guy that he once was. Hearing him sing “Head Like A Hole” these days seems a bit much. But hearing him re-imagine that youthful angst and pain into something new and refreshing is quite the thing. What he’s doing here is nothing short of brilliant.

And I’m not even half way through.

These are just gut reactions, folks. There will be a proper review. But for now I’m giving a resounding JHubner73 thumbs up. This record is absolutely stunning. If any of this kind of interests you, grab a copy while you still can. It will only be available on vinyl, with no digital release at all. Maybe he’ll drop some flash drives in various dirty men’s toilets throughout North America and Europe for shits and giggles with the album on it, but that’s it.

Time for another rum and coke and see what else awaits.

Martin and Uncle Cuda

I think one of the more bizarre films in the George Romero canon is 1978s Martin(and yes, I’ve seen Knightriders AND Bruiser.) It wasn’t bizarre in a “bad” bizarre way. It was Romero’s take on the vampire story, but done in a modern way. Watching it back in the 80s I came away from it feeling kind of icky and queasy. It disturbed me. It wasn’t the typical tragic romantic take on the vampire lore. There was no melancholy, handsome Dracula feeding on big-bosomed women lying in ornate king size beds wrapped in satin sheets. There was no fear of sunlight or garlic or crucifixes. Martin, the film’s namesake, was a skeazy young man with a 70s hairdo and turtleneck shirt drugging, raping, and slitting the wrists of women and feeding on their blood till they had been bled to death. There was nothing mythical about the guy, other than he was a solid stalker with a taste for blood and a tendency to mix sexual tendencies with violence and murder.

He was basically a barely adult version of Ted Bundy with a blood fixation.

Now you’d think that since there was no magic involved here that the fear level would’ve gone down. “Hey, he’s just some skinny asshole that could be taken down with proper Chuck Norris fist punch to the throat or a Don “The Dragon” Wilson roundhouse to Martin’s whiney face. I got this.” But the fact that the vampire in this movie was just some skinny asshole was exactly what made the movie so disturbing. I don’t think a movie disturbed me more than Henry : Portrait of a Serial Killer. No powers or super human strength or demon possession there. Just some drifter that murdered people at will, and with no remorse. Martin got me to this familiar icks.

Martin isn’t a movie I revisit very often, or ever. Not like Dawn of the Dead which I watch at least twice a year in its entirety. It’s just something I don’t often think of sitting down and revisiting. Once or twice was enough, really. But recently on a vinyl-buying bender over at Light In The Attic I saw they had Donald Rubinstein’s original S/T for the film on sale for $9. Whether it’s a favorite or not I had to drop the cash for it. Just to say I have it, really. And you know what? It’s not too bad.

Donald Rubinstein is the brother of Richard P. Rubenstein, Romero’s producing partner on nearly all of his movies. While trying to find someone to score Martin, Rubinstein suggested they visit his brother in New York. After meeting and Donald nervously playing some music for the giant Romero, Romero was thrilled with what he heard. Rubinstein got back to work and finished scoring the new Romero vampire flick.

So how does it sound? Well it sounds like a ramshackle of 70s noises. Electric piano, eerie theremin-like sounds, and a touch of white guy jazz for kicks. Highlights include “The Calling/Main Theme”, which is all piano and mournful vocals. “Phased” is a quick punch of phaser-effected electric piano that sets some eerie mood. “Fly By Night” is some lounge-y jazz thrown in for good measure, while “Exorcism/Classical Funk” almost has an avante garde vibe with staccato-plucked strings and quirky piano lines.

Basically this is a minimalist score for a low budget 70s horror film. That’s what this is. It’s quirky, dark, melancholy, and at times kind of weird. But it’s endearing in its own way. I mean, you’re not going to be throwing this one on at parties or to impress your music nerd friends. But maybe on some quiet evening when OK Computer, London Calling, or Blood On The Tracks isn’t cutting it and the absynthe has run out, you might just feel like Donald Rubinstein’s Martin S/T could scratch that musical itch for you.

But more than likely not. For $9, I’m glad it’s available for just in case. And I’ll be ready with the Chuck Norris fist to the neck, in case any turtlenecks come knocking.

Ode To Karin Krog

Man, the air seemed brand new today; sharp, cool, and crisp going into the lungs. It was like walking out of an underground bunker from a four-month stay and having the first blast of air hitting you. I don’t know why I don’t usually notice the air that surrounds me normally, but today it hit me. Could be that driving the company van from the plant to one of our suppliers gives me the urge to just keep driving and not look back until the sun has sunk into the west. It’s probably the fact that every time I’d get out of the van that fresh air taunted me and begged me to stay in it. Just leave that lousy van running and start walking. Where? Who cares. Just keep your feet moving, one in front of another until you come across something worth stopping for.

If only I’d a worn my walking shoes today.

Be that as it may, I didn’t leave the company van running in the parking lot of the local anodizer and begin walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu. I merely took a couple big hits of that freshly squeezed oxygen, hopped in the van, and made my way back to my lonely desk that sits on a large dock and received in those anodized parts. I couldn’t just walk away from it all. I have yardwork to do and Marvel flicks to see with my son this year yet. The wife and I have plans to hit a brewery or two in Michigan and stay the night up north sometime soon. We’re heading to Chicago at the end of the month so my wife and daughters can go see Hamilton at the Chicago Theater, while the boy and I pretend to be men of wealth and fame in the hotel for the afternoon. Maybe we’ll swim or drink scotch in the hotel bar. Maybe even hit on a beautiful baroness or an Italian beef sandwich, whichever one comes with steak fries and an IPA.

Plus, I’ve only just begun to get to know Karin Krog.

Karin who? What? Whaaa? Hey now, just simmer down and let me talk here. You see, I found out that one of my favorite record labels Light In The Attic was having this spring clean sale where they were parting with a bunch of albums at nearly half off the original price. My local record guy said he could get ’em direct from LITA and save me the shipping. Well hell yes! So I headed to the sale page and started perusing to see what I could find. I figured I’d do the old blindfold and dart trick and pick some random albums. Some stuff I wouldn’t normally buy but since it was half off why the hell not? I picked out Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg, Martin S/T by Donald Rubinstein, and Karin Krog Don’t Just Sing An Anthology : 1963-1999. I put my children through the Gainsbourg album last night. Through the moans and breathy whispers of “Je t’aime…moi non plus” my son asked as he sat in the living room with an aural advantage “What are we listening to?” Birkin and Gainsbourg will be for me on those lonely afternoons and evenings. Or when the wife and I want to get all French New Wave on some tawdry Saturday evening. I haven’t listened to Romero’s vampire soundtrack yet, but I did crack the gatefold sleeve of Karin Krog’s 2LP gatefold and I have to say I’m loving it.

Prior to this, I had never heard or heard of Karin Krog. The album cover appealed to me, and also the fact that it was a double LP they were selling for $12. Oh, and Dexter Gordon played with her on a few of the 60s cuts(bonus.) Krog is obscure here in the states, but in Norway she’s a household name as a famous jazz singer, collaborating with a who’s who of musicians over her 40+ year career. In 1994 she was the first Norwegian artist to ever release an album on the US jazz label Verve.

So the album. I have to say my favorite is album one. It seems to have the more bop-style jazz with bits of experimental vocal stuff. Krog has a hell of a voice and she shows it off beautifully on a be bop cover of Bobbi Gentry’s “Ode To Billy Joe”. It’s groovy and full of swing, with Gordon laying down some great tenor saxophone. The rhythm section of Neils-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Espen Rud on drums is a pivotal ingredient here. Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” gets the Karin Krog treatment here as well, and to stunning effect. “Lazy Afternoon” is another great one with Krog showing her precise melodic skills vocally. She uses her voice like an instrument playing its part. At times she’s like a psychedelic Rosemary Clooney, and other times she’s something quite cosmic, chanting, panting, and squealing through drone-y experiments like “Glissando”. I don’t care for the experimental stuff as much, but I can appreciate it for sure.

Most of these tracks were recorded in the late 60s and early to mid-70s, with just a handful scattered throughout the 80s and 90s. There’s a killer cover of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” that is as soulful as it is unique to Krog. “Cloud Line Blue” has some seriously amazing horn playing by John Surman. Seriously, holy cow. And there’s even a reading of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” that closes out this anthology. It’s nothing but Karin Krog singing and Nils Lindberg on a church pipe organ. It’s actually quite haunting as Krog sings Coltrane’s Psalm from “A Love Supreme” poem. I guarantee you haven’t heard anything quite like it before.

Occasionally I like to do the blind grab with music. I’m not independently wealthy so I need to make my money stretch as far as I can, especially with this horrible vinyl addiction of mine. So far I’m not disappointed with my “go for it” choices. If you like jazz and occasionally adventurous music, I can’t recommend Karin Krog enough. She’s 79 years young and still creating music in her home country of Norway. She sounds amazing on this LP set, and it’s a beautiful sleeve with a great booklet inside that includes an interview with Krog. Grab it. Why not?

I wonder if the air will be as crisp tomorrow? I’ll bring my walking shoes, just in case.

 

 

Grindhouse : Joel Grind’s ‘Equinox’

An equinox is when the day and night are of equal length, usually around March 20th and September 23rd. An equinox is also usually the start of spring or fall, or metaphorically the beginning of life or the end. I’m weird, so I like to look at it in terms of one’s life. I can remember being in high school and writing terrible poetry and going heavy on the metaphors. There was one in-particular that I wrote about how each season was a representation of one’s life span. Born in spring, living and growing through summer, aging through fall, and death comes in winter. Ridiculous crap to impress some girl or my creative writing teacher(it did neither.) But at 17 it was some profound shit, I tells ya.

I imagine musician/producer Joel Grind was more interested in the fall equinox, where everything starts dying. The days get colder, the nights start to become longer, and the glowing, orange-hued harvest moon makes its appearance. And I bet his favorite Peanuts cartoon is It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

When you see a picture of Joel Grind, with his bleach blonde hair and bandana tied around his head, he looks like an L.A. glam metal dude. It would be a mistake to assume anything about Grind. He’s not that at all. He’s a true metal dude with a love for horror and classic synthesizers. Grind is also a heavyweight producer, putting his handiwork on some of today’s best extreme metal albums. With each thing he does he seems into it 100%, whether it’s extreme metal, hardcore, or in the case of Equinox, gloomy synth music. It’s a great shot of retro horror and dystopian synth sounds.

Joel Grind? Who? What? When? For those not in the know, Joel Grind is a one man musical operation. His main gig is the speed/thrash outfit Toxic Holocaust. He records everything in the studio and then tours with a band. He’s one of these super talented guys that can do everything without anyone’s help. I mean, they say if you want something done right you should do it yourself. Grind takes that very literally. Besides the Toxic Holocaust stuff, he records under his own name. There’s The Yellowgoat Sessions that sounds a bit like the Toxic Holocaust stuff, with maybe more of a hardcore slant. Goat heads, pentagrams, and songs about masters of Hell and bloody vengeance. Then there’s his synth-heavy stuff. There’s the two song EP Fatal Error that has the hallmark of a doomed group of cosmonauts heading into a black hole or some dark star purgatory. Then you have his full-length Equinox. Equinox, Grind’s debut on the Mondo/Death Waltz Originals label celebrates all that is dark, gloomy, and sprinkled with dust, cobwebs, and bad juju. In other words, it’s a hell of a fun listen.

My affinity for retro 70s and 80s synth is no secret(you didn’t know? Stay after the meeting and we’ll talk.) Death Waltz and Mondo have taken a good portion of my money(and my childrens future fortune I imagine), but I’m not complaining. The trip these albums take me on are worth not having any sort of inheritance when I pass onto the great beyond. Joel Grind seems to appreciate all those old horror soundtracks created heavily by the synthesizer. A song like “Secret Oath” wouldn’t exist without A Nightmare On Elm Street and that film’s music composer Charles Bernstein. Then there’s “Psychic Driving”, a cross between John Carpenter and Ms. 45s composer Joe Delia. It’s sickly synth and sleaze disco groove make you feel like you need to take a shower. “Open Wounds” has a dystopian, post-apocalyptic vibe to it. It puts me in mind a bit of Finland’s Nightsatan, with even some touches of Depeche Mode. “Funeral Arcana” is a big nod to Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi. It has a bit of a metal vibe as well with the drums and driving bass.

Grind tips his hat to Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Fabio Frizzi, and Jean Michel Jarre as influences and inspirations for Equinox and you can definitely here their spirits haunting these tracks. But the cool thing is that Grind has been doing this for years and that experience and the style he’s developed permeates the album. There’s a harder edge to these tracks. You can definitely bliss out on something like “Seance”, as well as the ominous vibe of title track “Equinox”, but there’s always an existentially heavy vibe looming just around the corner.

We’ve just passed the spring equinox. Only six more months till the fall equinox. Until then, pass the time with Joel Grind’s Equinox.