Saturday, March 23, 2002

I'm going to step back from the music-related stuff temporarily, although what I'm going to talk about does have a slight connection to rock 'n' roll. A few years ago I saw a movie at the Ridge that I'll never forget--Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. This documentary chronicles the aftermath of a triple murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three 8-year-old boys were killed, their bodies dumped in a ditch. Three local teenagers were accused and convicted of the crime based on extremely flimsy evidence. It seems that, down Arkansas way, wearing black, listening to Metallica, and reading Stephen King is enough to get you sent away for a couple consecutive life sentences. One of the convicted boys, Damien Echols, received the death penalty and is still awaiting execution.

I borrowed the video from the library and watched it again this weekend. It's not all that far removed from Harmony Korine's legendary freak show, Gummo (another night I spent at the Ridge that provokes nervous nip-ups upon recollection) in that there's plenty of mobile-home squalor and malformed people on display. If you ever see Paradise Lost, pay attention to John Mark Byers, the father of one of the murdered boys. He gets scarier with each new revelation, and his head gets progressively more peanut shaped until at the end you're expecting it to erupt and expel a clump of God-fearing brain matter into his lap.

Anyway, here's the site for the Free the West Memphis Three campaign, where you can read the latest updates on the case, buy a t-shirt (as seen on Eddie Vedder) and contribute to the legal defense fund. Paradise Lost also has a sequel, Revelations: Paradise Lost 2, that I haven't come across yet, but I desperately want to see it.

It's true, Satan does have all the best tunes. Here is one band's story, and it's a sad one. I'm also intrigued to see that lyrics like "We're gonna Rock, Rock, Rock/Rock with the Rock!" apparently go over big with the kids.

Is that what's gonna happen to Stryper?

My friend Bruno pointed me to Metal Sludge, a site devoted to the more carnal side of rock 'n' roll. There's nastiness, innuendo, and mud-slinging aplenty. I like the site's unabashed attitude, but I don't really care for any of the personalities involved. Does anyone care about these people anymore? To my way of thinking, heavy metal isn't about sex (except for Led Zeppelin, but are they metal to begin with?). It's about wallowing in misery, catharsis, and craftsmanship. Still, this is a fun site, especially if you're interested in various rock stars' shameful pasts, and have prurient curiosities about certain guys' dimensions, in-bed performance, and predilections. So, enjoy. I'm washing my hands of the whole thing.

Saturday, March 16, 2002

Okay, this week’s installment moves us into the visual realm--album cover art. I’ve always been fascinated by the packaging of recorded music. The artwork really affects the way I think about a particular release. The mental picture I have when I recall a piece of music is usually some variation on the cover art. Led Zeppelin IV brings to mind grey skies and crumbling walls. Dark Side of the Moon conjures up the wavering trajectory of an electrocardiograph reading. Husker Du’s New Day Rising is suffused with sunlight smothered by river-silt brown, matching that album’s glorious waves of guitar fuzz and the locked-in-the-trunk vocals. Hemispheres, Rush’s 1978 masterpiece, elicits thoughts of planet-sized cerebellums and elegantly clenched male buttocks... Oh dear.

Lovely Floating Landscapes
Roger Dean’s art went hand in hand with the ascendancy of Yes as hugely popular prog-rockers in the mid-'70s. He was there for their breakthrough album, Fragile, and stayed with them until 1977’s Going For the One album, for which Hipgnosis supplied the artwork. (More on them later.) Dean set the standard for fantastical sleeve art and hard-to-discern band logos. The average punter would associate his imagery with Yes, but he’s also done covers for two of my faves, Uriah Heep and Budgie--two of the greatest no-hope outfits that ever existed.

Mad as a Hatter
I LOVE Paul Whitehead’s album covers for Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator circa ’70 to ’72. They’re sort of "John Tenniel meets the space age" in exactly the same way as those bands’ music was reaching back while looking forward. My favourite Whitehead covers are for Nursery Cryme (Genesis, 1971), Pawn Hearts (VdGG, 1971) and Fool’s Mate (Peter Hammill, 1971). 1971 was a good year, I guess. Anyway, Whitehead’s official site has many great examples of his work past and present, and it’s nice to see that he hasn’t lost his gift for trippy imagery in the least.

Like Roger Dean, Derek Riggs is intimately linked with one band--in this case, Iron Maiden. Riggs has been with them right from day one, with a brief respite sometime in the ‘90s, I believe. He created their adorable mascot, Eddie, and his album sleeves have played a huge role in Maiden’s growing popularity throughout the ‘80s. It’s all about visual consistency. The kids couldn’t get enough of it. My favourite Riggs covers are Maiden’s first album (before Eddie became too cartoony--back then he was just creepy) and 1983’s Piece of Mind. What must have America’s moms and dads thought? Be sure to check out some of Riggs’s other work for bands like Gamma Ray and Stratovarius. And, if you’re an up-and-coming group, why not buy an original Derek Riggs for your wicked debut? Or if you’re an aspiring author with a first-draft novel you’re desperate to have published, you can buy a cover for your paperback masterpiece, particularly if your book has a rural setting and features half-clothed characters wandering through wheat fields, casting steely glares, and shagging.

Note: a few of these sites are heavy on the Flash and Shockwave, so if you’re visiting via a dial-up connection, be prepared to wait.

Storm Thorgerson
Formerly known as Hipgnosis (the design studio he formed with Aubrey Powell in 1968), he’s responsible for some of the greatest album art ever--Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Houses of the Holy, and on and on. His website is a total knockout, too. For background/technical info on some of the most iconic imagery in rock music, it’s a worthwhile visit.

Travis Smith
This guy must work his ass off, because he's popping up everywhere these days. He’s the artist of the moment in the heavy metal world. As you can see at his official site, much of his work has a really cool hazy, misty quality to it, but he’s not afraid of being garish either. Opeth and Devin Townsend are examples of the former approach. Demons and Wizards and Iced Earth get more of a D&D treatment.

H.R. Giger
This infamous Swiss artist's work has appeared on albums by artists as diverse as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Celtic Frost, and Debbie Harry. And who can forget when The Dead Kennedys included a poster of his Penis Landscape with their Frankenchrist LP? Tipper Gore shat blood. Ah, those were the days.

Saturday, March 09, 2002

This week, I'm taking some inspiration from a few of my PRFU 340 classmates and diving into the seedy underworld of rockers who've seen their time in the spotlight come and go. Thank god they have the Internet, otherwise we'd forget about them completely.

The Whackmaster!
Ted Nugent. Wang dang, the Nuge sure had rock fans in a stranglehold during the free-for-all that was the '70s. He may have been distracted by chronic Cat Scratch Fever, but that didn't stop him from inflicting tinnitus on an entire generation of Camaro owners. Ted hasn't had a hit in a long while, but he's still active on the musical front. However, Ted's official site downplays the rockin' in favour of a fusillade of pro-hunting, wildlife-conservation, "America: love it or leave it" ethos. It looks like the Nuge has carved out a cottage industry based on his passion for the hunt. As a child of the suburbs who placates his carnivorous tendencies at Safeway, I can't really relate to all the killin' (I know I'm guilty of distancing myself from the realities of the slaughterhouse and the general nastiness and waste of commercial meat-packing, but it's one of those small hypocrisies I have to live with if I'm going to stay sane), but what can I say? Ted walks the walk.

Domo Arigato!
While cruising through Styx's official website (they're pretty active these days, with the surprisingly-popular-in-Eastern-Canada Lawrence "Larry" Gowan replacing Dennis DeYoung on keyboards/vocals) I found an article that talks about the phenomenon of aging rockers finding their original audiences again. It seems that older fans are rediscovering the bands they followed back when they--the fans and the bands--still had hair, flares, and drug habits. It's cool, and I approve, but it would be even better if, instead of following the same old bands, the average over-35 rock fan had the curiosity to check out groups like Spock's Beard, who are making music that's a helluva lot more vital than what most classic rockers are cranking out these days.

Born and Raised in South Detroit...
What can I say here? I thought I'd send you on a little A/V excursion. This kind of thing justifies the Internet's existence. Even though the song is as wimpy as a meal of tofu dogs, carrot sticks, and rice pudding, I just know that the Nuge would approve.

Saturday, March 02, 2002

At the behest of my instructor, Gladys, my task this week is to find some music-related blogs, blogs that are worthy of mention on the almighty Difficult Music. Is anyone else engaged in a sad monologue about music that nobody else likes? Here are my findings:

I found this one via the 2002 Bloggies (it was a nominee. The winner focuses on the chronically under-publicized U2). musicrag put itself in my good books almost immediately, with reviews of The Breeders (reunited and live in concert!) and a list of someone's top albums of 1993. Funny thing, I'd just been talking about the music of 1993 with a friend, and it really was a good year, what with the aforementioned Breeders' Last Splash album, Liz Phair's opening statement, Exile in Guyville, and Urge Overkill's tribute to '70s pop-metal, Saturation. Didn't Nirvana release the repellent and compelling In Utero that year, too? Ah, 1993. Back then, the songs had tunes you could hum, and every Sunday we gathered 'round the old Victrola with mugs of cocoa and buttered slices of fresh pumpernickel. We also called sandwiches flat freddies and you could buy six of them for a nickel. But really, they don't make years like that anymore.

But I digress. musicrag has a number of contributors--five (or possibly six) guys and one woman. The site also has a reviews section (with a scant two reviews so far--for shame!), interviews, feature articles, a "fivesongs" page where you can vote for five songs that relate to a given topic, and a store featuring musicrag merchandise. Yes, these folks have some big ideas for their site. The typeface is tiny, and the line length is a little excessive, but the writing's snappy and the Blogger-powered site looks sharp.

People Talk Too Loud
This is another 2002 Bloggies nominee, and another good-looking site (it's powered by Movable Type). They pretty much cover the same music that musicrag does--indie/alternative rock, the kind of stuff that carries on the spirit of '93. Like musicrag, PTTL has a reviews section. It's not huge, but at least the reviews number more than two. And one of the reviewers is a metal-head! Nice reviews of Emperor and Neurosis, dude!

I wanted to find out more about the contributors to this site, but the "about us" section was under construction.

21st Century Schizoid Man
I set myself a small challenge for this assignment: find a blog that mentions either Peter Hammill or Van der Graaf Generator. Hammill fronted VdGG in the '70s and continues as solo artist to this day, toiling, as ever, in obscurity. Both the man and the band are my favourite artists of all time, but that's a tale for another entry. Anyway, I wanted to see if there were any kindred spirits out there.

As I predicted, most blog entries that mentioned my heroes weren't in English. Zut alors! Hammill's always been most popular on the continent, where folks are more attuned to the classical tradition and to the dramatic delivery that Hammill deploys, especially in concert. Anyway, I found the above site, which gave a brief nod to VdGG in a description of another band's style: "Jade Warrior are so obscure, they make Van Der Graaf Generator look like Yes." Ha-ha, I hear you, man! I don't know who this guy is, but I'm linking to his blog just because he's obviously VERY FAR GONE! He's big on the prog rock, and does a lot of reading on the subject. He buys obscure stuff on eBay, checks out the latest Mojo magazine, makes "best releases of the year" lists--in short, all the right things. I wish he lived on my block, so I could drop by and listen to his Cressida albums. I'm still waiting for the one I ordered from Scratch Records to arrive.