Can bassist and sonic provocateur was a potent musical force from the ‘70s all the way through the present.
BY FRED MILLS
The music world has lost another giant: Holger Czukay, of Krautrock pioneers Can, has passed away from as-yet-undisclosed causes. He was 79.
According to The Guardian, Czukay “was found by a neighbour at his apartment, converted from Can’s old studio in Weilerswist near Cologne.” His body was discovered yesterday, Sept. 5.
Czukay was born in Poland in 1938, his family expelled after WWII. While growing up he took a job at a radio repair shop and became familiar with engineering and electronics, in particular shortwave radio. Later he studied music under avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1963 to 1966 and eventually became a fan of underground rock music—which of course would lead to co-founding Can, for whom he oversaw most of their recordings as primary engineer.
Among the great German bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s none stand taller than Can. The group’s groundbreaking sound, a throbbing cauldron of psychedelia, dub/funk, jazz improv and warped worldbeat, influenced artists as diverse as The Fall, Gang of Four, PiL, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Stereolab, and the group’s back catalog continues to inspire new generations who whiff Can’s rare essence.
Speaking to me in 1999 in an interview to promote the archival release Can Box Czukay observed how in the band’s time, “Can was never very successful, commercial-wise. But as I said at the very beginning to all the others, ‘This, what we do here, will become one day our life insurance that we give our children, and you don’t need to make insurance contracts with insurers. Just this music will do.’ And it turned out exactly this way.”
Indeed. Although he was speaking to me from overseas, I could picture him grinning broadly as we talked, offering a mischievous little giggle from time to time as he reflected on his work over the years and his ultimate legacy, of which he was deeply proud—but there was no hint of ego or vanity, for the easy-going way we conversed suggested he was a man very much comfortable in his own skin. (Below, watch the videos for his “Good Morning Story” and “Cool In the Pool,” both of which showcase Czukay’s delightfully whimsical sense of humor.)
Can came together circa 1968 at the hands of double bassist Czukay, classically trained pianist Irmin Schmidt (also a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen), free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and rock guitarist Michael Karoli. Initially the group’s vocalist was American sculptor Malcolm Mooney, although he was soon replaced by Japanese street busker Damo Suzuki. Such diverse backgrounds, plus a collective appreciation for the underground sounds of Hendrix, Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, meant that Can’s goal of fusing leftfield and oftentimes incongruous musical elements just might be attainable.
That the world outside Can’s rehearsal space, an old castle near Cologne, was undergoing huge social and political upheavals meant the Can aesthetic was nothing less than an artistic imperative. And from the outset, boundary pushing marked Can recordings and performances. The former’s outlines and textures were shaped by Czukay’s mad-scientist tape-editing techniques (must-hear early Can: 1971’s sprawling, psychedelic Tago Mago), while the latter frequently left audiences so stunned they didn’t know how to react. (A striking display of Can’s live prowess is the Peter Przygodda-filmed “Can Free Concert,” from Cologne ’72, included on 2003’s Can DVD.)
Can’s reputation soon spread beyond Germany’s borders – in ’72 the song “Spoon” became a hit single in Britain — even as the group evolved at a rapid pace. With 1973’s Future Days, Can arguably introduced ambient music to the rock world; 1975’s Landed was a then-unlikely collision of electronica, heavy metal, fake reggae and protopunk.
Still, internal pressures gradually mounted. Suzuki had left in ’73 to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, leaving behind a hole that was never fully filled. Czukay, whose attentions were turning towards non-traditional instrumentation (e.g., short-wave radios, Dictaphones), quit in ’77 not long after the arrival of bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah, both from English band Traffic. The original Can chemistry had been permanently altered, and as 1978 came to a close the decision was made to disband. (Go HERE at the Blurt site to download a pair of good sounding Can concerts from 1975 and 1976.)
The members subsequently took up their own projects, although they did come back together for a one-off reunion to record 1989’s Rite Time (documentary footage of the sessions is on Can DVD). Over the years Can aficionados have also been privy to such treats as Liebezeit’s Phantomband and Club Off Chaos ensembles; Karoli’s Sofortkontakt combo plus collaborations with Damo Suzuki; Czukay in a dizzying array of solo and collaborative guises (see below); and Schmidt’s film scores, his Gormenghast opera and his work with producer/deejay KUMO.
1999 saw the release of the above-mentioned Can Box, an elaborate book/video/live CD package. Neatly coinciding with that were “The Can Concerts” in Germany: Schmidt, Czukay, Karoli and Liebezeit each presenting his then-current solo project on the same stage — although, significantly, they did not perform together as a unit. Karoli performed with Sofortkontakt, Liebezeit as Club Off Chaos, Schmidt as Kumo and Czukay with experimental vocalist U-She. During 2004-06 the group’s back catalog was reissued as remastered SACDs, while 2012 saw the release of The Lost Tapes, a box set comprising previously unreleased material. And in 2014 the group’s back catalog was reissued on vinyl.
Czukay’s non-Can projects over the years were nothing if not intriguing. 1981 solo album On the Way to the Peak of Normal remains a critical favorite (the psychedelic gem was reissued in 2013). Other notable solo releases were 1991’s shortwave-as-live-instrument Radio Wave Surfer and 1999’s Good Morning Story featuring U-She on vocals. Two collaborations with David Sylvian were also well-regarded, as was the album Snake Charmer that he recorded with Jah Wobble, The Edge, and DJ Francois Kevorkian. He also worked with Brian Eno, Trio, and U.N.K.L.E. And 2013 brought the reissue of the uber-obscure Les Vampyrettes, an esoteric 1980 recording of Czukay and Can producer Conny Plank described along the lines of “a metallic and ghostly voice in a state of nocturnal intoxication welcomes us to a sonic backdrop of hallmark krautrock pings, drones, susurrations and clatters.”
Czukay’s beloved wife Ursula passed away this past July. Can guitarist Karoli previously died, in 2001. And Liebezeit died in January from pneumonia. Czukay’s impact upon music was profound and lasting—he will be deeply missed.
On their ambitious new album, the Chapel Hill trio aims for emotional involvement.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Emotion has always been the essential element when it comes to crafting great songs. Indeed, when all else fails, it’s those seductive sentiments that lead to the most memorable music. The trio that refers to themselves as Happy Abandon expressly echo that mantra, crafting an expansive sound that reflects the obstacles and perils that confront us all in everyday life, often at times when they’re least expected. The Chapel Hill-based trio — consisting of long time friends Peter Vance (vocals, guitar, songs), Jake Waits (drums) and Justin Ellis (bass) — make a habit of sharing their feelings through music, while spinning a rich melange of atmosphere and ambiance in the process.
Facepaint, the trio’s debut album, stirs those sentiments with a knowing aplomb, a propulsive, populist sound that leaves no possibility unturned when it comes to their decidedly bittersweet narratives. Loneliness, abandonment, family frailties and even an ultimate demise work their way into the material, only to leave listeners gasping in amazement at the honesty and earnestness that Happy Abandon brings to the fore.
Consequently, we couldn’t help but be intrigued. As a result, we took the opportunity to ask the three men about their motivation for making music and their apparent desire to elevate their intents. (Full disclosure: Facepaint is the first full-length on the Schoolkids Records label, formerly called Second Motion. Schoolkids, along with the three-store North Carolina record store chain, is BLURT’s sister business. And, I hasten to add, we have dug the band from the beginning, even inviting them to perform at our annual day party in Austin during SXSW. —Ed.)
BLURT: For starters, give us an idea of where you get your inspiration for these songs. You seem to have some very lofty ideas. So how do you translate those thoughts to your material?
Peter Vance: The inspiration for the songs are simply the most pivotal emotions and feelings I’m feeling at a specific time. All of these songs represent a mindset I found myself in, and that’s how it influenced my choices and perspective. Each song stands independently as an idea, though they work together to paint a broad picture of exposure to loss.
Production seems to be a major additive in your presentation. So tell us how you come up with the arrangements and, in turn, what it takes to bring these songs from start to fruition?
Justin Ellis: It’s very much a collaborative process. Peter usually writes the bones of the song alone on acoustic guitar or piano, and he’ll tinker with it for months before he shows it to us. We then typically jam to the song with electric guitar, bass, and drums to properly fit the dynamics of the song’s structure. Then the fun part comes in; this is where we figure out what the sonic icing might be. Typically whenever Alex (Thompson, keyboards and arrangements) is in town, that means adding loads of keyboards, piano, and synth tones, or we may start arranging string parts. We almost always add three-part harmony to the songs, but the songs aren’t really done, in my mind, until they’re recorded. Sometimes it’s because the lyrics aren’t done until it’s time to record, and sometimes it’s because there’s a violin part we discover by accident while recording, and we then must find a way to incorporate the part on another instrument so it’s present in the live show. Sometimes it’s just that the mood or energy of the song is kinda hard to pin down until it’s committed to wax, as it were. But on the flip side, the songs that we’re working on that aren’t recorded yet are really fun to work on, because nothing is concrete, and they could go through infinite permutations before we settle on the finished product.
Please give us an idea of your influences, past and present.
Peter Vance: My musical influences stem from artists who exude a combination of incredible lyricism and complex composition. I find that the one artist that has influenced me the most in both aspects — and is a nostalgic idol for me — is Sufjan Stevens. He and a few other bands/musicians (Belle and Sebastian, Andrew Bird, Bettie Serveert) exposed me to what can be accomplished when one takes chances and only uses musical tropes when it is tastefully implemented, rather than using the same formula with different variables.
As far as contextual influences go, well that comes from my background in literature and theater. My focus in college was theater, and in my earlier years I was fortunate enough to spend my time as a working actor in the Washington, DC theatre scene. This exposed me to many different playwrights who used many different writing techniques to move a plot forward. I found myself liking and disliking different writing styles, and was able to use the ones that I liked in my songs. I use a lot of imagery and alliteration because I think the combination of the two is very fun and ear catching.
Justin Ellis: I absolutely love what Alt-J, Fleet Foxes, and Local Natives have been doing lately; specifically, being able to make catchy, engaging music that is fairly popular while also having its own defined sound. I also love what those bands do with vocal harmony, and I think a lot of their musical philosophies rub off on Happy Abandon. I’m also a huge classic rock head, with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Queen being absolutely massive to my own musical formation.
Jake Waits: I came up in the school bands, the orchestra, the drum line, playing in the pits for musicals. I studied world percussion and classical percussion. Learning to play all that sheet music informed my repertoire and influenced my style — I actually had to break out of the rigidity that was drilled into me with marching drum music and learn how to relax and groove in the pocket more. Along with bands and artists across many genres. I grew up loving classic rock, and I got into some heavier metal music for a good few angst-ridden teen years. Lately, my ears have been perking up to jazz. Anything with a good beat gets me going.
You are also said to have a very dramatic stage presence in live performance. Can you describe it for us? Does it take a lot of effort and expense to make it all happen?
Jake Waits: We don’t always perform with our light show, but when we do, it adds a visual energy to our presence that encompasses the emotional energy coming from the songs. We look for ways to add colors and visual effects that enhance our set and connect the songs in ways that couldn’t be done through sound.
What was it like going into the studio for the first time? Was it an easy transition or did you find you had to make a lot of adjustment to convey your live sound to the recordings?
Justin Ellis: We have all been in bands before, and Peter, Alex, and I all studied audio production at the University of North Carolina, so I’d say we feel rather at home when we record. Facepaint was a really “homey” record to make, as we lived in Jason’s (Merritt, producer) lake house for about a week nonstop, just getting up every morning, making eggs and coffee, then playing music all day and into the night. We all play several instruments, so it was a lot of fun to just try ideas out on instruments that never make it to our shows, like banjos, mandolins, penny whistles, gongs, tubular bells, timpani… although I certainly wouldn’t rule out incorporating those in our live concert one day.
How was it that you three were able to coalesce so quickly? Did you find that your individual ideas were mostly always in sync?
Justin Ellis: I think what sets us apart from most bands is that our shared background isn’t being in rock bands since we were in high school when we met. We all studied theater at some point, and I think the work ethic you need to make theatre happen rubbed off very decidedly in this band. We take rehearsals seriously, we make sure all our voices are heard, and we know when to back down for the good of the song or the overall project. Plus, as a three-piece, we all kinda have to overplay to fill the sound in live performance, so it’s not like we ever feel boxed in. It’s really nice.
Can you share some insights into maybe four or five songs from the album that have particular significance for you?
Peter Vance: Oh man, it’s Sophie’s Choice here…
“Take Me,” “Severed Seams,” “If I Stare,” “Stop Taking Care of Me,” and “Cursed or Worse” are some of my favorites off the album. Each one not only delves into different contexts of loss, but also gives different perspectives. They’re all a bit dark, but “Take Me” ends on a bit of a brighter note, stating that if you can’t take anything from the situation, well, you can at least take me. “Severed Seams” also ends on a brighter note, but not because things worked out for everyone. It ends with the realization that things won’t work out. That in itself is an accomplishment. “If I Stare” takes a more aggressive approach to the idea of coping, where “Stop Taking Care of Me” is a plea. Finally, “Cursed or Worse” rambles through thoughts and feelings that are hard to take hold of after a traumatizing experience.
Peter is the principal songwriter—how much input does everyone else have in the crafting of the material?
Justin Ellis: I’d say we all have a pretty equal stake. Jake and I almost never have anything we want to change with Peter’s songs at their core, but sometimes we’ll suggest a slight lyric or feel change, and we go with that for a bit and see how we end up feeling as a group. But generally, because Peter spends so much time refining his songs, for the most part all we have to do is help arrange it and flesh it out once he shows them to us. We all write our own parts and backing harmonies, etc., but there is a lot of communication that goes on to make sure all the ideas suggested are at least attempted without drastically affecting the initial energy of the song.
You experienced three deaths of people that you were close to late last year. Who were the people who passed, and how did you deal with these tragedies? How did it reflect in your music?
Peter Vance: All three were incredible, beautiful people. One was a friend from middle and high school whose death was fairly prepared for by friends and family simply because of the context of the situation. However, this did not make it any easier. The other two came completely unexpectedly, and struck everyone with such force that people are still feeling the repercussions.
Jake Waits: One was my buddy since second grade. We had more adventures than I can count. He was thoughtful and loyal, and he always had a way to cheer you up. A friendly word or some sage advice he gathered from his travels would always help, whatever the trouble. He was a hell of a singer/songwriter, too. And he was number one on my Zombie Apocalypse team if it had ever come to that first.
How do you temper those more reflective elements with the more populist sentiments that you bring to the stage? Given some of these themes, you could have emerged as a very downcast outfit, no?
Justin Ellis: I think duality is important in a band. The band name itself is a little oxymoronic, and plenty of bands before us have made “happy” sounding music with “sad” lyrics. Just look at The Smiths and The Cure. You could argue that these two different identities can cancel each other out, but I feel being a large, loud-sounding band with really introspective songwriting isn’t mutually exclusive.
How many songs were left over from the recording sessions, and will any of them surface later?
Justin Ellis: Only about four songs from our current live set didn’t make the cut for Facepaint, but they all had a similar, perhaps more “rock” vibe that didn’t quite fit the mood of the record. Still, they’re great songs and we’re proud of them, and it’s likely we’ll record and release them in some capacity. We also have about ten sketches in various stages of completion that will eventually all become songs too hopefully.
What are the challenges facing a new band like yours? What have been the peaks? And what, if any, have been the low points so far in the trajectory?
Justin Ellis: We’ve all been in bands before, which was helpful going into this project, because we all knew what to expect. Sure, making rent is tough sometimes, and sometimes we play to nobody when we’re miles away from home. Sometimes, the van breaks down, like it has three times. But before we put out this record, we got a chance to tour in five countries, play almost every major U.S. and Canadian city on the East coast, play in London, Dublin, and Amsterdam, and play most of North Carolina’s major music venues. The good definitely outweighs the bad for us… and we’re really lucky to be in that position.
So what’s the plan going forward?
Justin Ellis: We’ll be touring the West Coast this fall for the very first time, with tentative plans to return to Europe at some point between late October and March 2018. We’ll probably head to SXSW in the spring as well. As the album gets written about and listened to, all we can do is keep ourselves onstage, ready for any opportunities that may come our way.
Happy Abandon performs this week in Raleigh at the annual Hopscotch Music Festival, that will also include an appearance at the Schoolkids Records day party. Then on September 18 they’ll hit the road headed west. Check tour dates at their official website and at their Facebook page..
An expanded reissue of the late rocker’s ’95 opus, A Man Called Destruction, underscores something that most people don’t talk about: When the mood struck him, Alex Chilton could be a lot of fun, period. (Photo: Pat Rainer)
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
It’s easy to let yourself be disappointed by an Alex Chilton record. But that’s only if you insist that he re-make Sister Lovers or Radio City over and over again. Let such notions go, and his post-Big Star solo work becomes much more enjoyable. Especially when you consider that Chilton wasn’t abandoning his best-known work – he was merely returning to his roots, indulging in the R&B-based sounds that ignited his passion to play music in the first place.
Originally released in 1995 and now reissued by Omnivore as an expanded edition, A Man Called Destruction is Chilton’s fourth solo album following his mid-‘80s resurrection, and it’s a corker. Half originals and half covers, the set list includes, as expected, 60s-style R&B (Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired”), rawboned rock & roll (“Devil Girl,” “Don’t Stop,” “You’re Lookin’ Good”), smooth blues (“Don’t Know Anymore,” Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go”), something Beach Boys related (Jan and Dean’s “New Girl in School,” co-written by Brian Wilson) and winsome pop (Danny Pearson’s “What’s Your Sign Girl”).
But he also threw some typically Chiltonian curve balls: the jazzy rock instrumental “Boplexity,” the phonetically-sung Italian rockabilly number “Il Ribelle” (originally sung by Adriano Celentano), the half-serious/half ridiculous classically-styled instrumental “It’s Your Funeral” (quoting the familiar Chopin dirge). Recorded live on the floor without EQ, the songs all have a dry clarity, with no layers between performance and ear; combined with Chilton’s clear enjoyment in making the music, it makes every track come gloriously alive.
This edition includes a slew of strong bonus cuts, wherein even the repeats are worth hearing. Though the alternative version of “Devil Girl” notes “double-track vocal,” the real difference is in the slowed-down tempo and bluesier feel. (Listen to it below.) “You’re My Favorite,” while sounding slightly unfinished, rollicks nicely along, while “Please Pass Me My Walkin’ Shoes” rides a greasy blues groove home. Even a cover of John Addison’s “Why Should I Care,” while clearly more of a rough sketch than a song, gets by on easy charm.
It also underscores the chief asset of A Man Called Destruction: it’s just fun. Chilton sounds like he’s smiling through most of the songs, and with that energy behind them, you can’t help but smile as well.
Below, view the official Omnivore trailer for the album. And a big thank-you from the BLURT crew to everyone – from Omnivore and music publicist Cary Baker of Conqueroo, to Chris Stamey and author Holly George-Warren – involved in continuing to fly the flags of Chilton, Chris Bell, and the entire Big Star extended family. – Ed.
For his fourth full length as the War On Drugs, Adam Granduciel marries pop, psych, and Prog to create a brilliantly cathartic record that’s an “album” in the most traditional sense possible.
BY FRED MILLS
His name, in case you’ve forgotten, is Adam Granduciel, which, while not rolling incident-free off the tongue, still seems likely to stick in your mind. Equally likely: There’s not a more misleadingly-named outfit right now than the War On Drugs. A moniker like that connotes aggression and dissonance, if not outright musical violence, with a like response—moshing, fist-thrusting, stage diving—expected from the audience.
Hardly. When this Philly band performs, the crowd’s swaying beatifically to the blissed-out drone-pop and rambling rock narratives being spun by the long-haired, charismatic frontman. And the War On Drugs’ ascent from clubdom to festival favorites has been organic, to say the least. There was 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues, for which, at the time, the band included another indie buzz-artist-in-the-making, Kurt Vile. His departure left Granduciel firmly at the helm of the group’s musical vision, and that vision gradually morphed from a brand of indie-rock tilting Americana into the dreamier, more expansive creature that was 2011’s Slave Ambient.
At that point Granduciel certainly wasn’t renouncing his indie inclinations, although he had already proven to be fond of cramming a lot of lyrics, Dylan/Springsteen style, into his verses. He was also blessed with a lovely, soaring singing voice that at times could suggest a young Roger McGuinn, helping him make the kind of emotional connection with listeners that might have eluded a less confident vocalist. (Indeed, a lush, cinematic track like “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” with its pulsing, motorik percussion and rippling cascades of keyboards and guitars, suggested nothing less than a marriage between McGuinn’s cosmic cowboy-period Byrds and Krautrock psych icons Neu!.) Clearly, Granduciel was in the process of evolving, and the little glimpses he offered the public of that process were fascinating.
By the time of 2014’s Lost In the Dream—as with its predecessor, released by stalwart independent label Secretly Canadian; and significantly, per the then-booming vinyl resurgence, it arrived as a limited edition purple wax 2LP platter of pure eye candy—Granduciel had nigh-on perfected his vision, fulfilling all the promise, and then some, of his earlier work. Factually speaking, it was “indie rock,” but aesthetically and structurally it was pure Classic Rock with a capital “C” and “R.” Song after song revealed how Granduciel has studied the masters, from Fleetwood Mac (the thrumming, exuberant “Red Eyes,” with its “Go Your Own Way” percussion motif) and Dire Straits (“Disappearing,” whose clean, resonant guitar lines were pure Knopfler), to Springsteen (one listen to the anthemic “Burning” was sufficient to have you, ahem, dancing in the dark) and Seger (“Eyes To the Wind” not only nodded at “Against the Wind” with its title, but also bore an “ATW”-inspired piano melody).
Speaking to BLURT’s own Susan Moll around the time the album was released, Granduciel even admitted that his sensibilities had shifted more in the direction of traditional introspective singer-songwriterdom than the indie milieu’s tendency towards ironic distance and meta concerns. “I feel like, for a long time, I just didn’t look inside at all,” he admitted. “I think that’s kind of what the record is about—finally taking that journey to the inside.”
None of the foregoing is to suggest LITD was imitative or derivative, but some of the references were so direct that one at least had to think “homage.” War On Drugs retained certain touches of the so-called indie rock “DIY aesthetic,” yet was also infused with that distinctive classic rock vibe, via overtones of the aforementioned icons—the good parts of those artists’ music, not the self-indulgent ones. And in both the sequencing and packaging, it was clear that Granduciel viewed the album as part of an artform tradition, and not merely a collection of disparate tracks destined for Spotify streaming and playlist cherry-picking.
Which brings us to 2017. In rock lives, a lot can go down in three and a half years. Granduciel has (a) gotten sucked into a ridiculous hip-hop-styled indie-rock beef with Mark Kozelek, of Sun Kil Moon; (b) landed on—and in a number of instances, atop—music critics’ year-end best-of lists for LITD; (c) scored a major label deal with the venerable Atlantic Records; and (d) secured status as a headliner, including at a number of outdoor festivals. With all that going on, it’s not surprising that he decided to take his time sketching out his next move. On A Deeper Understanding Granduciel’s still taking those “good parts” and crafting intensely melodic, rhythmically focused, deeply emotional tunes—part-pop, part-psych, even part-Prog—while simultaneously expanding his sonic palette.
The record opens with “Up All Night,” all shimmering guitars and throbbing, programmed percussion. “Strangest Thing” is a massive, echoing, Spectorian chorale of massed guitars, grand keyboard flourishes, and heavenly harmonies. And later, 11-minute epic “Thinking of a Place”—originally released as a limited edition 12” for this year’s Record Store Day—offers up an impressionistic musical travelogue of alternating textures, ethereal/choirlike backing vocals, and deep-mix instrumental flourishes that ultimately tug the listener down into a near-bottomless pool of sound. Hold that thought: Granduciel even turns this aquatic sonic metaphor into a lyrical one, singing, “See it through my eyes/ Walk me to the water…Lead me through tonight/ Pull me from the water/ Hold my hand as something turns to me/ Just see it through my eyes.”
In its sonic cohesion, this is an “album” in the most traditional sense, cathartic and unencumbered by instant gratification internet GIF culture. That most of the songs clock in at six minutes or more suggests Granduciel isn’t overly concerned about having radio or iTunes hits. Each track follows logically from the previous one, eschewing jarring tonal or rhythmic shifts in favor of subtly recurring melodic motifs. And throughout, Granduciel’s keening, passionate vocals serve as a reassuring connective glue, his introspective lyrics probing themes such as uncertainty towards the future, holding onto love in order to beat the odds, and yearning to break out in order to explore life’s myriad possibilities. That’s about as Springsteenian as it gets.
Don’t be fooled by the name. With the War On Drugs, Adam Granduciel’s not battling anyone here: he’s already won. The “drugs” part of the equation is optional.
Worth Noting for Fans and Collectors: The A Deeper Understanding Limited Edition Deluxe Vinyl Box Set includes vinyl pressed on 2 12″ coke-bottle-green color vinyl plus one 7″ coke-bottle-green color vinyl (“Holding On” b/w “Nothing to Find”). Also in the package is the RSD ’17 release “Thinking of A Place” 12” (standard black vinyl), a custom made case, an exclusive 16-page photo and lyric booklet, a double-sided 12” x 24” poster, and the A Deeper Understanding CD.
Scott “Wino” Weinrich is the unsung hero of metal from the past three-plus decades, toiling in the shadows with his various bands (Spirit Caravan, Premonition 13, the Hidden Hand) and guest appearances (Probot, Clutch) and earning the respect of his peers, but rarely coming close to the headbanger mainstream. The Marylander came the closest while serving as singer for Saint Vitus, but considering he rarely unleashed his formidable guitar or writing chops in that Dave Chandler-led band, it’s not exactly the the finest showcase of his talents. That was with the Obsessed, his doom-laden power trio with a history going back to the early ‘80s, when the band stormed stages alongside the hardcore hordes in the D.C. punk movement. (Scene leaders like Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins loved the Obsessed.)
Now, over twenty years after the last Obsessed studio album The Church Within, Wino reconvenes his original powerhouse for its fourth album Sacred (Relapse). Unsurprisingly, given Wino’s creative ambition, Sacred picks up right where the last album left off, as if the intervening two decades hadn’t passed. The band’s acid-tinged stoner doom feels as fresh now as it did in the Reagan Years, let alone Clinton’s. The overt psychedelia of the title track, the blazing roar of “Punk Crusher” and “Be the Night” (Wino has always liked a side of Motörhead with his Sabbath), the distinctive rocking doom of “Sodden Jackal” and “Stranger Things” – the trio fires on all cylinders here. Wino’s axemanship has always taken inspiration from his forefathers without copying them (cf. the instrumental “Cold Blood”), which makes the Obsessed an act that pushes its chosen genre forward, rather than coast on its established merits. While Sacred could have been simply a document to fill the merch table when the band hits the road, instead it’s the band’s latest masterpiece.
Pallbearer is a couple of decades younger than the Obsessed, but is just as devoted to taking doom to the next level. Heartless (Profound Lore), the Little Rock quartet’s third opus, doesn’t evolve so much as refine the band’s sonic wash. Though less prog rock-dusted than previous LP Foundations of Burden, Pallbearer still turns the dial up on melody – a wise decision, given guitarist Brett Campbell and bassist Joseph D. Rowland’s clean, clear singing. Tracks like “Lies of Survival,” “Heartless” and “I Saw the End” have a mournful majesty, as the guitar winds around the hearts Campbell and Rowland keep pinned to their sleeves. “Dancing in Madness” alternates between acoustic delicacy and crushing heaviness, but does it organically, everything blended by melody and harmony. Ultimately it’s Pallbearer’s ability to balance tender and tough, light and darkness, that makes it a special band in the metal universe.
Venomous Maximus hails the era when peanut butter 80s metal got mixed up in chocolate 70s doom on its third album No Warning (Shadow Kingdom). Sort of like a cross between Pentagram and King Diamond, the Houston quartet bears down on the kind of occult philosophy gleaned from old Hammer and Amicus horror films, adding a soupçon of beer-guzzling biker attitude to leaven the gloom. “Blood For Blood” and the title track are rifftastic, horns-throwing delights, but the band really gets going at the end, using the acoustic instrumental “Endless” as prelude to the ten-minute epic “Sea of Sleep,” one of its best-ever tracks.
Meanwhile, doom supergroup With the Dead (and it is a supergroup, what with its ranks being filled out by ex-members of Cathedral and Electric Wizard) rumbles back into town with its second album Love From With the Dead (Rise Above), seven long cuts of growling, scornful, heavy-as-fuck thud. Bandleader Lee Dorrian really only has one gear with his declamatory style and fondness for backing it with sloth-speed riffs dirtier than the back of your refrigerator. But he’s flown the flag for brutal heaviness longer than anyone except the original practitioners, and these guys know what they’re doing. Check out “Egyptian Tomb” or the massive “CV1” for the kind of kicks you get from a rhinoceros after too many Quaaludes.
Brooklyn’s Tombs has only gotten better with age, creating its own distinctive blend of black metal, sludge, doom, prog and gothic rock. The Grand Annihilation (Metal Blade) may well be its slickest concoction yet. Less dense, more melodic, more accessible in general – even leader Mike Hill’s gravel-gargling growl is more articulate than ever before. Old school fans of the band’s seething brood may be taken aback by how clean “Underneath,” “Saturnalian” and “November Wolves” sound, but there’s little here that comes off as outright compromise. The Grand Annihilation simply opens Tombs’ sound up to the outside world, letting some light into the band’s dark universe. New Orleans’ (not that it means anything).
Goatwhore also takes a few steps toward accessibility on Vengeful Ascension (Metal Blade), its seventh album. That doesn’t mean the blackened death quartet has gotten any friendlier, mind you – “Mankind Will Have No Mercy,” “Chaos Arcane” and “Drowned in Grim Rebirth” still raise a bloody axe toward anything genteel. But an incipient thrash consciousness and the rumblings of something resembling a groove make “Under the Flesh, Into the Soul” and the title track songs a headbanger DJ might consider playing on midnight radio.
Expulsion doesn’t bother nodding to anyone’s delicate sensibilities on its brief, ugly debut Nightmare Future (Relapse). Featuring members of Intronaut, Phobia and Gruesome and led by Matt Harvey of Exhumed and Matt Olivo of legendary grindcore pioneers Repulsion, Expulsion lives up to its name with seven wild-eyed explosions of filth and fury totaling less than fifteen minutes. Poison Blood also believes that briefer is better with its eponymous EP (Relapse). The duo of instrumentalist Jenks Miller (Horseback, Mount Moriah) and Neill Jameson (Krieg) grinds out bits of raw black metal, eschewing Miller’s usual sophistication and Jameson’s classicist approach for a punky take influenced by underground obscurities like Beherit and Rudimentary Peni. The brutality is leavened by synth pad “The Flower of Serpents” and psychedelic anthem “Circles of Salt,” but they pale in the face of the 51-second slice of blackened aggro that is “Shelter Beneath the Sea.”
Denmark’s Amalie Bruun, better known as Myrkur, returns after the palette-cleansing acoustic live album Mausoleum with Mareidt (Relapse). Bruun’s unique vision truly crystallizes here, swirling majestic black metal, ethereal gothic pop and moody doom into a towering edifice built with all the precision and clarity that her classical training can provide. She moves from ghostly croon to demonic shriek like it ain’t no thang on the roiling “Ulvinde” and “Måneblôt,” whilst amp-frying doom underscores her emotional keen in “The Serpent” and “Elleskudt.” “De Tre Piker” and “Børnehjem” indulge in a heavy folk influence, but no one’s going to mistake any of it for “folk rock.” Proof that likeminded souls find each other, Bruun invites Chelsea Wolfe to contribute to “Funeral,” and the result is a song that could fit comfortably on either artist’s LP. Bruun’s lyrical blend of mythology, paganism, magick and empowerment will fly over the heads of anyone but native speakers, but it doesn’t matter – the power of Myrkur’s music and the intent in her singing provide all the message you need.
Dallas destructors Power Trip toured their debut album Manifest Decimation to death, so the release of sophomore non-slump Nightmare Logic (Southern Lord) is a relief. As with the first LP, the quintet pledges its troth to old school thrash, blasting away as if Metallica’s Black Album – hell, …And Justice For All – never happened. The sheer power of “Soul Sacrifice” and “Ruination” is impressive to behold, even through computer speakers, but the secret to Power Trip’s success lies in its ability to sneak hooks into the hair-whipping aggression. Check the “If Not Us Then Who” and “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Ax),” which has thrash classic written all over it.
Tokyo’s mighty Boris has long been one of heavy music’s most consistently interesting practitioners, and the trio keeps its fire burning on its 25th anniversary album Dear (Sargent House). Ironically, it does so by reinvesting in the ambient sludge and dinosaur-heavy doom on which it made its reputation. That’s not to say the band has abandoned its experiments with shoegaze, as “Beyond” demonstrates, or just plain ol’ weirdness, as on “Dystopia.” But the slow grind of “D.O.W.N. (“Domination of Waiting Noise),” the pounding repetition of “The Power” and the radioactive decay of the title track will induce flashbacks of Boris classics like Flood. Dear was intended to be a farewell album, and if it turns out to be that, it’s a fine way to say goodbye. But given how focused and engaged Boris sounds here, it seems more likely the triad is starting a new chapter, not closing the book. (Note: the song “Absolutego” shares only a title with the band’s debut LP.)
Finland’s Circle has a quarter of a century’s worth of experimental, improvisational psych metal under its belt, some of it within the realm of accessibility to adventurous rock fans and some of it farther out than the rings of Saturn. Terminal (Southern Lord), the quartet’s thirty-first studio album, leans more toward the former, doing a mash-up of doom, motorik, acid rock and anything else it likes for a set of jamming, riff-oriented anthems that veer from aggressive to tripped-out. Vocals range from operatic to extreme, but it’s clearly the music that matters. Check out the thirteen-minute opener “Rakkautta Al Dente” for a mind-melting summation of what this veteran underground act is all about. Hailing from Seattle, He Whose Ox is Gored field a quirky mix of doomy sludge, doomy synthwave and doomy weirdness that makes the foursome stand out in any lineup. The band’s latest 7-inch “Paralyzer” (Chain Letter Collective/Void Assault) pairs the roaring title track – which can’t seem to make up its mind if it wants to rip off the skyline or dig up the foundation – with a pair of remixed older tunes, all brilliantly produced by Jack Endino. Montreal trio BigǀBrave blends a foundation in battleship-heavy doom but a drive to bring that sound to a different plane. On the band’s third album Ardor (Southern Lord), guitarist Robin Wattie’s Bjork-like soprano contrasts mightily with her lowdown six-string crunge. But the dichotomy is what helps drive the three slowly unfolding tracks of ethereal metallica, making this like a post rock band after being forcefed the first Black Sabbath album.
Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats first hit the scene like a sloppy punch in 2011 with what we thought was its debut, Blood Lust. To paraphrase Yoda, however, there is another. Vol. 1 (Rise Above) was originally released in 2010 in an edition of 30 CD-r copies, which allegedly took several months to sell through. Now it’s back on CD and vinyl in all of its lo-fi, proto-metal glory. The raw nature of both the recording and the craft is pretty obvious, but this isn’t the barely competent flounderings of an amateur. Quite the contrary – as loose as some of the harmonies and arrangements can be, the psychedelic “Lonely and Strange,” scuzzed ‘n’ fuzzed out instrumental “Do What Your Love Tells You” and lean ‘n’ mean “Dead Eyes of London” come from a band that already knows where it wants to go, how it wants to get there and how many trolls it has to kill to do it. Berlin’s burly Kadavar romps through similar fields on its fourth record Rough Times (Nuclear Blast), minus Uncle Acid’s occult leanings. With “Die Baby Die,” “Tribulation Nation” and the title ditty, the trio’s fuzz-slathered blast rock crosses Blue Cheery blues metal with urban proto-punk and Black Country doom for a guaranteed good time favored by riff-ravenous air guitarists everywhere.
Mike Patton joining a supergroup is now such a common occurrence that it’s easy to greet such projects with a shrug. But the self-titled LP (Three.One.G/Ipecac) by Dead Cross won’t be ignored. Joined by the Locust’s Justin Pearson, Retox’s Michael Crain and Slayer’s Dave Lombardo, Patton slams together various iterations of thrash, hardcore and noiserock, hits “puree” and stands back as he pours the concoction over the heads of anyone who gets too close. Unsurprisingly, the musicians keep their heads down and concentrate on keeping the grind grooving, letting Patton do his usual scream/howl/growl/roar/sing thing at the front of the line. “Obedience School,” “Divine Filth” and “Church of the Motherfuckers” do the dance between accessible and obnoxious as gracefully as any of Patton’s other projects, but the capper is a bonkers version of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that’s as much violation as tribute.
The ever-prolific Melvins never fit comfortably under the metal banner, but then, the San Fran band never fit well under any genre designation. But certainly the trio’s doom-laden foundation and love of ear-rattling volume attract audiences of likeminded headbangers. That said, A Walk With Love & Death (Ipecac), the band’s recent double album, pushes the boundaries like few Melvins records before. Each disk represents a different project, with the Love side being a soundtrack to a short film and Death being a “normal” Melvins album (whatever that is). The soundtrack consists mainly of samples, feedback and studio tomfoolery, with only the occasional foray into something resembling an actual song, a la the funky “Give It to Me.” Nothing heavy, but nothing close to easy listening, either. Death follows the trends of the band’s recent work – more melody, more psychedelia, less tar-pit sludge – for another solid set of riff-rocking songs like “Euthanasia” and “Flaming Creature.” Shout-outs to “What’s Wrong With You?,” which channels Redd Kross honestly by being written and sung by RK bassist Steven McDonald, now pulling the same duty in the Melvins, and “Sober-delic (acid only).” a freaky indulgence that never loses its grip on tunefulness.
Though Mastodon has its own new album out and making noise, its members have no interest in down time, as the members’ myriad side projects (Gone is Gone, Giraffe Tongue Orchestra) make plain. Drummer Brann Dailor takes an interesting detour with Arcadea, a trio with Withered guitarist Raheem Amlani and Zruda guitarist/keyboardist Core Atoms. The band’s self-titled debut (Relapse) eschews six-strings to concentrate purely on analogue synth sounds backed by live drums, with clean voices and sci-fi-themed lyrics thick in the mix. Though the electronics wash away any metallic edge, the prog-infused melodies of “Electromagnetic” and “Gas Giant” will ring true to anyone familiar with Dailor’s singalong anthems in his main band, and the synths give everything a cosmic edge. Metal or not, Arcadea is a cool record that hopefully doesn’t signal a one-and-done side project.
Speaking of side projects related to metal more than enmeshed in it, Liturgy drummer Greg Fox joins fellow eclecticians Shahzad Ismaily (synths, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, Secret Chiefs 3), Toby Summerfield (guitar, AJ Kluth’s Aldric) and Colin Stetson (sax, Transmission Trio, Tom Waits, Arcade Fire) in Ex Eye, whose eponymous debut (Relapse) is an improvisational tornado of jazz heroics and metallic fury. While his bandmates lay down a brooding crunch, Stetson – who may pay his bills as an indie rock sideman but has a long-running career in free jazz and ambient weirdness – wails like a rock guitarist in thrall to his eBow, shooting out long, legato lines that cut through the high end and pin down the low. On “Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil,” Fox sticks mainly to four-four (on the floor) time signatures, while Summerfield and Ismaily build walls of space metal as foundation for Stetson’s excursions. Order breaks down on “Anitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc,” however, as chaos lays waste to a city, allowing drones to perform flyovers in the few moments of peace. “Form Constant; The Grid” brings serenity of sorts, as Stetson runs down a repetitious riff under which his bandmates flow like the receding waters of a tsunami. The clouds part, the sun peeks out and the earth settles back into slumber before the next cosmic seizure.
While we’re on the subject of instrometal, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Blurt fave Blind Idiot God, who made a stunning comeback with 2015’s Before Ever After, has begun its long-promised reissue program with Undertow (Indivisible). Originally released in 1989, the New York trio’s second LP finds its patented blend of thrashing doom and jazzy dub in almost bifurcated form, with neither side of the band’s coin rubbing up against the other, at least not in-track. Thus “Watch Yer Step” and “Clockwork Dub” skank spaced-outedly via clean guitar chunks, as “Alice in My Fantasies,” “Atomic Whip” and the squealing “Drowning” pound mightily with throbbing drums and grunged-out riffs. But that’s fine – 25 years ago, just the fact that BIG could switch gears so definitively in either direction was enough. The new edition also comes with some collaborative bonus tracks: two versions of “Freaked,” the theme song to Alex Winter’s film of the same name that guest-stars an exuberant Henry Rollins, and “Purged Specimen,” an outside-the-lines freakout with sax fiend/jazz gremlin John Zorn.
The rush to reissue classic albums and unjustly overlooked obscurities on vinyl hasn’t passed by the world of metal. Real Gone Music jumps into the game with a pair of albums from the glory days of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Shock Tactics was the third platter from Samson, one of the most overlooked and yet most important groups of the era. The band inserted a gonzo theatricality into the scene via masked, caged drummer Thunderstick, but most significantly introduced the world to singer Bruce Bruce – better known as Bruce Dickinson, who became the singer for the NWoBHM’s most successful and influential act: Iron Maiden. Shock Tactics is fairly meat-and-potatoes compared to leading lights like Maiden, Angel Witch or Diamond Head, but that’s not to say it’s bad. Far from it – the combo of Dickinson’s monster vocal chords and guitarist Paul Samson’s skilled riffery remains potent on tunes like “Bright Lights,” “Riding With the Angels” and “Go To Hell.”
Jaguar is pretty obscure compared to Samson – it didn’t contribute any members to future superstars and is rarely namechecked as an influence by anyone. Which seems a bit disingenuous on the aural evidence of Power Games, its 1982 debut. Guitarist Garry Peppard (who leads the band to this day) rips out proto-thrash licks with eager aplomb, while the rhythm section barrels forward like it’s allergic to any tempo beyond “stampede.” (The acoustic bits of “Master Game” are significant exceptions, but they don’t last long.) Singer Paul Merrell is a plainspoken powerhouse, keeping up with his bandmates without overindulging in screams, growls or screeches. “Dutch Connection,” “Cold Heart” and “Prisoner” kick all kinds of ass – simply put, these are some of the most aggressive NWoBHM bangers you’ll hear anywhere. If the members of Metallica didn’t have this record in their collections before they started rehearsing Kill ‘em All, we’d be very surprised.
As long we’re gabbing about reissues from classic metal acts, we’d must mention King of the Dead (Metal Blade), the second album from the notorious Cirith Ungol. The Ventura, Cali quartet never quite fit in with its 80s peers – though essentially proffering a similar mix of crunching doom and soaring NWoBHM as Trouble, the influence of fantasy-driven prog rock and the unusual vocals of Tim Baker put CU, for better or worse, in a class by itself. Baker’s register-wandering screech can be a dealbreaker for some, but if you go with it, it’s a uniquely expressive instrument, helping to elevate fist-wavers like “Atom Smasher,” “Death of the Sun” and the title track beyond being merely solid metal. Originally released in 1984, King of the Dead is generally acknowledged to be Cirith Ungol’s high point, not least amongst the bandmembers themselves. This edition also includes some in-concert cuts that highlight the band’s onstage power.
Michael Toland also authors BLURT’s “Rockin’ Is Ma Business” blog and he knows way more about rock ‘n’ roll than you, so get used to it. A resident of beautiful Austin, Texas, he is rumored to be making plans for marriage in the near future. Feel free to send wedding gifts (no denominations under $20, please) to him in c/o the BLURT office.
Audio and Video Samples of the Bands Mentioned Above:
Porcupine Tree. No-Man. Blackfield. Storm Corrosion. IEM. Bass Communion. Production work for notable prog and metal acts. Surround-sound remix wizard for everyone from Jethro Tull and King Crimson to Simple Minds and XTC. We’re talking Renaissance Man territory. (No, “Renaissance Man” is not a band, although the day’s still young.) The British rocker talks all this, along with musings on his latest, excellent solo album and why he’s big on videos and performance. “Although the MTV era is certainly over,” notes Wilson, “a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it.”
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Steven Wilson first made a splash in the early nineties as leader of the British band Porcupine Tree. Though the band began as a one-man goof on psychedelic rock (cf. its first LP On the Sunday of Life), it quickly evolved into an actual group, one that took elements of progressive rock, psychedelia, pop, folk, metal and electronica and filtered them through Wilson’s distinctive sense of melody and texture-driven production acumen. Despite a series of strong records, culminating in 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, the Tree’s most critically acclaimed and bestselling LP, the band never quite caught on with the mainstream’s rock-loving fringe in the way its fans expected. That said, by the time of Porcupine Tree’s final album The Incident, Wilson had well established himself as a songwriter, musician and producer of note, one willing to experiment at will without losing a devotion to melody that should be the envy of tunesmiths everywhere.
Those qualities have also stood him in good stead in both his solo career and extracurricular activities. Though he first tested the solo waters while still a PT member with 2008’s Insurgentes, he really began in earnest with 2011’s Grace For Drowning, a double LP in the grand prog rock tradition. 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing was practically the apotheosis of his style, which meant he had to change tack, precipitating the turn toward pop with 2015’s Hand.Cannot.Erase. But working his pop jones didn’t mean a loss of thematic ambition – H.C.E. wears its apprehensions about the alienation of twenty-first century life on its sleeve. The idea that advancing technology creates new barriers even as it knocks down the old ones is a common notion Wilson has grappled with throughout his artistic career.
To the Bone, Wilson’s brand new album, brings those themes even more to the forefront of his concerns, but wraps the bitter pills up in music sweeter than any he’s made before. In the tradition of the ‘ artists he grew up with, from Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk to The The and XTC, Wilson mixes instantly appealing melodies with ideas more aspirant than musings on romantic love or personal introspection – an album that beckons to and braces you at the same time. It’s the kind of record that might very well make Wilson the star he’s been feted to be by fans and critics, but even if it doesn’t, it’ll set a new standard for his future work.
Meanwhile, Wilson quietly but consistently keeps busy even when he’s not making records under his own name. He’s co-led the art pop group No-Man with singer/songwriter Tim Bowness since 1987, issuing a variety of excellent LPs alongside those of Porcupine Tree. He’s collaborated with Swedish progressive death metal act Opeth’s leader Mikael Akerfeldt in the atmospheric prog band Storm Corrosion and Israeli singer Aviv Geffen in the anthemic, still-running Blackfield. He’s made explicitly motorik-based space rock as IEM and haunting ambient music as Bass Communion. He’s worked as a producer for Opeth and Israeli metal act Orphaned Land and made a number of guest appearances with his prog rocking peers. Wilson also works as a remixer, specializing in Surround Sound and DVD-Audio to create new, highly acclaimed versions of classic albums by Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Simple Minds and, most notably, King Crimson and XTC, leading to lasting friendships with those groups’ respective leaders Robert Fripp and Andy Partridge. Happiest when he’s busiest, Wilson has consistently followed his own muse in whatever direction it leads him, confident enough in his own ability and identity to never worry that it will steer him wrong.
We spoke to Wilson by phone from England about making To the Bone, the themes to which he returns from album to album, the importance of visual media to his work and the importance of balancing dark with light.
BLURT: I’ve been listening to the new record and it’s excellent – a new highwater mark in your career. I’m especially impressed with the pop element. You’ve talked about the progressive pop records – Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, that kind of stuff – but it seems to me that what this focuses on is your very distinctive sense of melody. Was there a conscious decision to put the melodies more up front that usual?
STEVEN WILSON: Very much so. I think the press release angle is a bit of a simplification. The reason those records are referenced in the press release is this idea that’s very much out of fashion these days, which is you can make a record that is both accessible and ambitious. There was a period in time, lest we forget, not so long ago in the ‘[P80s, when I think that the art of making accessible but ambitious records was kind of at a peak. You look at records like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode – even Michael Jackson’s records from that period, to an extent. There is something about them that is completely distinctive, very ambitious, but at the same time, very easy to enjoy as just great pop songs. The question you asked was, was there a conscious decision? Yes. There was a conscious decision to focus much more on the art of creating hooks and pop melodies, but without any sense of having to dumb down or compromise in the ambition of the music.
One of the things that makes your music consistently interesting is that even though you have that distinctive sense of melody – you know a Steven Wilson song when you hear it – you’re always pushing yourself, pushing your own boundaries. You’re not just redoing Fear of a Blank Planet over and over again.
No, quite the opposite! I’ve moved further away. I mean, I’m very proud of that record – it was the peak of my interest in metal. You won’t hear anything like that on this record. Although, even as I’m saying that, I’m conscious that some of the lyrical strands off an album like Fear of a Blank Planet are still present in To the Bone – this interest in how technology creates borders between people rather than bringing them together, and that whole thing about how technology essentially creates a lot of alienation in modern life. So that’s still there.
But musically it couldn’t be further away, and to come back to your question, I think that one of the things that always drives me on is that if I’m going to make another record, if I’m going to add to my already substantial back catalog, then there has to be a reason for each album to exist. There’s no point in making a repetition of one that already exists – trying to cater to the existing fanbase’s expectations. I think it’s very important to always be confronting those expectations. Many of my favorite artists over the years have adopted that approach, whether it’s Bowie or Prince or Neil Young or Frank Zappa. These are people that always had a sense of evolution from album to album, and a sense of sometimes having to confront the expectations of their audience. To be fair, a lot of the industry is based on delivering more of the same, and that’s what most artists do. I’m not denigrating that at all, but that’s not right for me. I have to feel like every album has a distinctive place in my catalog.
It always seems to me that an artist has to make himself happy first – if he’s not happy, then how can he make the audience interested?
I think it can even go further – that’s the definition of an artist. An artist is someone who’s essentially very selfish. And I say that in the context of an artist being very distinct from an entertainer. If you want to be an entertainer, give the audience what they want, give them a greatest hits show, that’s fine. But that’s not being an artist. Being an artist is in some ways a very solitary, very selfish thing. But I believe that’s a good thing. I think Radiohead is a great example of a band that could so easily have gone the nostalgia route, and probably would’ve ended up being the new U2 or something by now. Because there was a point when I think they were headed in that direction. But the art – the sense of self-expression – was more important. That’s what being an artist should be, and sometimes I think fans forget that, and they should be more encouraging. Because the bottom line is the old work is always there, isn’t it? You can still go back and listen to the old records.
It seems that this is actually paying off for you. It seems like you get more and more popular every album the more you push yourself in new directions.
The bottom line is you never know. Taking risks sometimes, obviously, can pay off, and other times it can be a disaster to your career. The most important thing, I think, is to make the work in a kind of vacuum, where you don’t think about those things. But you’re right – I have been very lucky. But I’ve also worked very hard making these records. I have to say, every time I make a new record, it seems like you have to work a little bit harder – it’s almost like you have to work twice as hard to stand still. Because there’s too many records in the world, too many people releasing music these day. You have to fight so hard, even when you’re an established artist. In some respects I am established, not in the mainstream, perhaps, but most people at least know who I am and what I do. Every time I have to fight a little bit harder to get the column space in the magazine, or the attention on the Internet, or some radio play, or to sell tickets. I’m working harder than I ever have before in my career. And I’m 50 this year – in some respects I feel I should be able to slow down now. But I’m still ambitious, and as you alluded at the beginning of our conversation, I feel like I’m making my best work. Of course I want that work to reach as many people as possible. So I’ll still go out there and put in the hours and do the work that I need to do to achieve that.
You worked with some new collaborators this time. I’m curious about Paul Stacey – you co-produced it with him, which is unusual for you. Did that open up the sound?
I think that one of the other things you can do as a solo artist that I could never do in the context of a band, is you can change the people around you from album to album. The one thing you can never change is you. All of my kind of clichés and musical tropes and things that I fall back on – they’re always gonna be there. But one of the things that I can do to make things fresh and perhaps take the music in a different direction is to change the people around me. With Paul, it wasn’t planned that he would be the co-producer. It’s one of those situations where I wanted someone really good to engineer the record. I was recommended Paul by a few people, and we got on really well and I hired him to record the record. But about halfway through the process I realized he had obviously gone way beyond that remit, and was having very strong influences on the actual direction of the record, and bringing out performances from myself and the other people involved. Which of course is very much a production role. So it’s almost like he very naturally drifted into that role, and we ended up making the record together. I have to say, I really enjoyed that process. I am a bit of a control freak, which is why I rarely do those kind of things. But when something happens in that organic, natural way, I’m very willing to embrace it, particularly if I think it’s going to make the record better, which I think it has.
You also worked with Andy Partridge, which would be a dream for a lot of people. I assume came out of your remixing of the XTC records.
Certainly that’s how I got to know Andy. I’ve been very fortunate to count him as a friend these days. One of the most amazing things about my career is that I can say that some of the people whose music I grew up with and is very much in my musical DNA have become collaborators and friends. Andy is obviously one of the greatest for me, one of my favorite songwriters of all time. So I think it was almost inevitable that there would come a point where I would say, “Do you want to write a song with me, Andy?” [laughs] There was this one song, which became the title track on the album, where I knew what I wanted it to be about, but I really didn’t know how to go about approaching it. Because it’s almost semi-political, that song “To the Bone.” It’s obviously very much about the post-truth era, about fake news and the Donald Trump era of politicians. And I’m not one who feels very comfortable writing about something like that. Politics is not really my area. Not that the song is overtly political, but it certainly nods its head in that direction. So I didn’t feel necessarily like I knew how to approach it. It became the very obvious thing to call up Andy and say, “Do you wanna do this, Andy?” And he did a fantastic job.
Not too many people can call up Andy Partridge and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea – can you flesh this out for me?” That’s pretty cool.
I know! like I say, that’s one of the greatest privileges of all in my career, to meet these people, and to realize that now, people whose music I grew listening to in my bedroom are my musical contemporaries. That’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? It’s amazing.
Speaking of collaborators, you usually have excellent taste in side musicians. Who are you playing with on this album?
A lot of it is actually me, and one of the reasons why Paul became so integral to the record is because I was doing a lot more playing this time. So most of the guitar, bass and keyboards are me. When you cast yourself more in the role of a performer, you obviously need to rely a lot more on your engineer and your co-producer, which is why Paul was so important. But there are musicians on the record. There’s the two guest singers – Ninet Tayeb, who I’ve worked with before, and also a Swiss singer called Sophie Hunger, who sang on “Song of I” with me. So there’s a very strong vocal female presence on the record. Musicians-wise, a couple of drummers: Jeremy Stacey, Paul’s brother, who’s in the current lineup of King Crimson, and also my regular live drummer Craig Blundell. They pretty much did 50/50 for the record. Adam Holzman, my keyboard player, is on the record, but mostly handling the piano parts this time, as I did most of the synth stuff. A fantastic harmonica played called Mark Feltham, who I wanted to work with because he’s the guy on those old ‘80s Talk Talk records. If you’re familiar with those – Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, The Colour of Spring – you’ll know how harmonica is a very strong part of those records. So I hunted Mark down and was very privileged to have him do some incredible stuff on the record.
Let’s talk a bit about the themes you were mentioning earlier. How technology should be bringing us together, and yet it seems to be pushing us more and more apart. Communication in general seems to be breaking down. Why do you think that is when we have the technology for everyone to be so close?
It’s obviously not the fault of the technology – the technology is extraordinary. The Internet is one of the most extraordinary inventions ever, in some ways even more significant perhaps than the TV. The TV changed the way that people live, but I think the Internet has changed the way people live much more so than even the television – the way we communicate and understand what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, through no fault of the technology, it also taps into the very worst aspects of human nature. There’s a tendency we have to be very passive about the way we interface and engage with the rest of the world and with other people. I think the problem with social networking, because it creates the illusion of being connected to the rest of the world, people tend to be satisfied with that illusion – the illusion of having friends. Friends that you’ve never met! [chuckles] This illusion of having friends, of being connected, of having your whole existence up there on the Internet available for other people to experience and to share. It’s all complete bullshit. Basically we now have potentially seven billion people now who are all critics, who are all celebrities, who can all go on the Internet and share pictures of themselves, share their opinions on anything from movies and music to politics, and unfortunately it taps into a lot of the worst aspects of human nature: ego, narcissism, the need to be heard, the need to be noticed. If that means being negative and critical, or being an Internet troll, then so be it – that’s better than not being noticed at all.
I think the problem is, at the moment, the technology’s so new that we haven’t really learned properly how to make use of it. We’re going through that traditional transitional period in our evolution where we’re not quite sure where the Internet, where cell phones are taking the human race. There’s a lot of negativity – I think that’s easy to see – but there’s also some positivity too. So I think what will become clear is probably not going to become clear for another half a century or so. Then we’ll really see how this technology has influenced the world.
In the meantime, I think it’s important for people like myself and filmmakers to raise our concerns. Because I think one of the great things that art can do is create debates and raise these issues, and kind of hold up the mirror to the rest of the planet, saying, “You know what? This is what I see. Do you think it’s good? Do you recognize yourself in the mirror?” I guess that’s what I try to do, hopefully without being too preachy.
When you’re writing a record like this, do you sit down and say, “Wow, this is getting really dark really fast. I better put something else in there so people understand that I don’t think it’s hopeless.” Or were more positive songs like “Song of Unborn,” “Nowhere Now,” “Permanating” just a natural part of the song cycle?
It’s funny you should ask that, because I think, for the first time, I did say it to myself. “You know what? It would be very easy to allow yourself to make one of the most downer-sounding records of all time, unless you stop yourself from doing that.” Because the truth of the matter is, even in the two-and-a-half years since I made my last record, the world arguably has become even more concerning and worrying. It’s even easier to be down on everything. You look at what’s happening in the U.K. with Brexit, at the whole political scene in America, at what’s going on with the refugees in Europe, the religious fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks that in the space of the last three years have come very much to our doorstep here in the U.K., and in Europe in general. So things have got even worse in that respect. It would have been very easy or natural for me to allow myself to make a record that was even more negative.
But you know what? I don’t think that would have been a true reflection of what I really feel about the world. So I think it was a conscious decision. You mentioned “Song of Unborn” there – that’s a good example, really. Because that song is in a nutshell really what I’m talking about here. The song is basically saying to the unborn child, “You’re looking out to the world right now, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Why the hell would I wanna be born into this crazy, messed-up place?’” And the answer that comes back is, “Because the gift of life is something extraordinary and unique to every individual, and if you choose to, you can make something amazing out of your life, and you can make the arc of your own life profound.” I think that is a very positive message, and an important thing to remember as well. That we can all do something incredible with our lives, and we don’t have to allow all this other stuff to drag us down. It’s easy to get depressed looking at the state of the world, but we can all do something amazing with our lives. The gift of life is something extraordinary and very profound, and I really believe that. Without sounding like a hippy or something, at the end of the day, I do think that’s the reality. It’s a nice way to end the record on a positive note, which I think is important.
I’ve always thought the best dark records are the ones that have at least a glimmer of hope in there, just to balance out. It makes it more realistic. As bad as things get, there’s always good in the world.
On a lighter note, because you have this ‘80s vibe for the record to a certain extent, I thought it was very fitting that you’ve put out a lot of videos for the album. The time of MTV being any kind of dominant force is over, but it’s very appropriate that you’re putting out videos.
Well, although the MTV era is certainly over, a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it. Of course a lot of people listen to their music through YouTube, which is the world’s most popular streaming service. For all Spotify’s success, and other streaming services, YouTube is still the number one, and YouTube is of course a video-based service, so I think a lot of people expect some kind of visuals. I’ve always been very interested in the combination of music and video, and I think in many respects the combination of sound and visual can be the most powerful combination of all. And I’ve always been very interested in that, and these songs are stories -they lend themselves very well to visual interpretation. So we’re having a lot of fun with it, and we’re gonna do a lot more for the live show, as well. There’ll be a lot of video content, all very, very exclusive and very much fundamental to the presentation of the live show.
In fact, one of the reasons I went solo was because I really wanted to explore that side of my performance more. One of the things that’s difficult when you’re in a band is to go to your band and say, “Hey, guys, wouldn’t it be great if we blow all the money that we make on this tour on some amazing visuals?” Usually, they’ll tell you where to go. So one of the reasons I decided I needed to be a solo artist was so I could explore that side a lot more. Because I’m very good at spending all the money I make [laughs] on video material, because it’s not cheap to do that kind of presentation. But it’s important – that’s part of the magic for me.
What have you got planned for the future besides this tour? Because you seem to never sleep.
I am focusing a lot on the tour, because there is a lot of preparation to do, not just for the visuals, but obviously for the musicians and the audio side. But I’m also doing a lot of promotion right now. There’s a couple of months’ worth of going around the world doing radio and TV and talking to people, which I’m very happy to do – I enjoy doing that stuff very much. In terms of other projects, we touched on it earlier with the XTC thing – I do a lot of working on these amazing remix projects – remixing these classic records, which is both a privilege and very hard work. But I love doing that stuff, and there’s a lot coming in right now, which I’m gonna try and squeeze in before I disappear off on tour. But really most of next year is going to be committed to touring what I hope will be a record that has resonated well with people, and people will be interested in seeing the presentation of the album in a live context.
The prolific Chapel Hill rocker and Americana maven unexpectedly pivots to classic ‘70s soul and funk. “I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life,” Rank tells BLURT. “I have no interest in writing the same sad ass country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again.”
BY FRED MILLS / PHOTOS BY MISSY MALOUFF
When Michael Rank set about writing his latest solo album—his seventh in just five years—he felt an emotional and stylistic push in a markedly different direction from its predecessors, all of which were, to varying degrees, Americana-informed. 2015’s Horsehair, in particular, featuring Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, was a deep, lingering dip into outlaw folk and Appalachian country territory, McEntire playing Emmylou to Rank’s Gram (or Bonnie to his Clyde, as some observers put it). Americana, in fact, was what Rank has been known for as a solo artist, itself a marked contrast from his previous work with Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink, which, for two stints (late ‘80s/early ‘90s with the original three-piece; then again from 2003-07 in an entirely different configuration), purveyed a singular brand of hi-nrg Stones raunch and Heartbreakers ‘tude. (You can check out my assessment of Snatches elsewhere on this website; by way of spoiler alert, it is titled “Why Snatches of Pink was the Greatest NC Band of the Late ‘80s.”)
Yet if one peered closely at his work over the years, it was possible to detect a cornucopia of influences, and stirring occasionally among them was the classic soul and funk of the ‘70s, with artists like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield clearly sharing shelf space in Rank’s music library with his beloved rock ‘n’ roll. For the 24 songs populating the new three-disc (!) album Another Love, then, soul is the operative term. As you’ll read below, those two soul icons, along with several others, loom large here, with Rank’s guitar ditched in favor of Rhodes and Wurlitzer and the live band mostly supplanted by drum programs and keyboards. Crucial to Another Love is co-conspirator Brian Dennis (late of ‘90s outfit DAG), who performed his studio and sonic wizardry upon Rank’s instrumental and vocal tracks; Rank claims the record wouldn’t have happened without Dennis, which is high praise indeed, considering the songwriter’s prolific nature that, since 2012, has seemingly resulted in an album every nine or ten months.
As one might imagine, with 24 tracks to contend with, there are highlights a-plenty on the album, far too many to isolate here. Yours truly’s favorites—as of this writing, and subject to change tomorrow—include the sleek minimalism of “Kings,” what with Rank deploying one of his more emotive vocals, doubletracked at that, a frequent strategy on the album. There’s the relative swagger of “I Do,” a low-down-and-down-low Prince-like confection featuring Dennis on guitar, his old DAG bandmate Bobby Patterson on bass, and guest vocalist Raney Hayes joining Rank at the mic. You want funky? The title track is pure Sly & the Family Stone—maybe a hint of Stevie Wonder too, with Rank (speaking of doubletracked vocals) singing the low and high parts. Hold that thought: Throughout Another Love, Rank relies on his falsetto to underscore the soul component; “Women in Love,” for example, finds him soaring aloft with remarkable passion, like the aforementioned Mayfield or a classic gospel singer. He’s always had the capacity to hit the high notes, but in 2017, he seems to have climbed the mountain.
And on penultimate number “Horses,” possibly the standout, and perhaps the most “live” sounding one as well, Rank, Dennis, and Patterson get their funk/blues band mojo seriously working. It’s an incredibly infectious track with a psychedelic edge, one which seems destined to be a crowd-pleasing show-closer in concert, maybe even with a cape-draping finale. (Rank claims that he has no plans to perform the album live, however, but we can always hope.)
The bottom line: Rank has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and then some. (2012’s two-disc Stag, in particular, was a harrowing document of a brutal breakup, but one can trace Rank’s emotional journeys through his early Snatches songs, too.) On the nakedly confessional—and, significantly, ultimately defiant—“Roll Away” he sings:
“Well honey I ain’t wondering why
I ain’t countin’ my time
I feel there’s something goin’ on…
Well baby this ain’t workin’ for me
I think there’s something goin’ on…
Roll up to the window sill
Baby watch you roll away
I’m better off these days
There ain’t nothin’ left to say.”
I would propose, then, that the pure essence of soul—exploring the vicissitudes of love in all its good/bad/transcendent/ugly dimensions—has always informed this man as a songwriter. He really feels it as a concrete thing, not in the abstract.
Rank and I convened recently via email to talk about the new record, and we touched on a number of things, from obvious questions about what inspired him this time around to how he looks back on his early Chapel Hill days. I couldn’t resist asking him about his son, Bowie Ryder, because fatherhood is a topic he and I always seem to slide into whenever we have the chance to get together in person. We’re a long way from those drunken club nights, following a particularly explosive Snatches of Pink gig. (Rank: “Bowie’s ten years old and all cool. Thank you for asking, I really appreciate that. Parenthood is the ride that just keeps on spinning. Here, lately, I feel like it’s just holding a mirror up to all the areas of my personality I need to do a lot of work on(!!!). But shit, better late than never, right?”) Bowie has always gotten a dedication and shout-out on Rank’s record sleeves, a small but telling gift that the young man will surely cherish many decades from now, and Another Love is no exception, with Rank writing, “I love you always… forever and a day.” To me, this is also emblematic of Rank’s current immersion. He really experiences love as a living, breathing, pulsing creature, never less than a constant presence, day or night.
Incidentally, Rank has his entire back catalog available at his Bandcamp page, and in the case of those long out-of-print Snatches of Pink records, you can even grab them as free downloads. (Nice touch, that.) Check ‘em out, and also visit him at his official website and Facebook page.
BLURT: By way of a long-winded first question: Starting with Stag in Feb. 2012, you’ve released seven SOLO full-lengths, which is an average of 1.4 albums per year; broken down another way, we’re talking 65 months and 87 songs that appear on those seven albums, which is an average of 1.34 songs per month. While it’s not unusual for songwriters to be writing constantly, in terms of recording and releasing material, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many who are this prolific—most would have to plead to having a backlog of songs they haven’t finished or haven’t gotten around to properly recording; only Robert Pollard comes to mind as your peer in this regard. Please discuss why you are a statistical outlier.
MICHAEL RANK: Man, whenever I hear the word “outlier” I always imagine a bunch of villagers with torches and shit, snaking through the marshes yelling “Outliiiierrr!!!”. Hunting Frankenstein-monster style… But yeah, I write a lot of tunes. But to be honest, when you do the math like you just did it somehow doesn’t sound quite as impressive. I feel a little let down; seems like it should be more(!!). If I had a “team” like I did in the old days, I’d get them to start fact-checking and re-crunching those numbers(!!). But songwriting is still cheaper than therapy, after all…
On a slightly more serious note: Give me a sense of your writing regimen or habits—do you work on a particular song until you feel it is completely finished, or do you always have several that you’re working on at the same time? Do you ever have material left over after you’ve finished an album? There were a couple of significant changes for me in regards to the writing for Another Love. This was the very first time in my life where the songs were all written starting with the beat. That was the entry point. All 24 songs. I had never done that before with any song from my past. The other difference is this is the first time in my life that I wrote entirely on keyboards. I haven’t even touched a guitar in well over a year. Everything was created on old drum machines and Rhodes/Wurlitzer keys. I try not to ever have songs stockpiling while I’m writing. I like to write a song and then immediately record it before I move on. And nothing gets carried over. If a track doesn’t make an album then it’s done. Tough love.
It’s a three-disc album, so do you think of each disc as a separate entity, or do you view the songs as one continuous flow? Someone listening to it as a digital download might get a different experience from, say, me, listening to it disc by disc. I’m someone whose real awareness began in the ‘70s. For everything, but especially music. So for me, album lengths should ideally be 35 minutes or so like back in the day. Maybe a touch longer. The last thing I wanted was to put out a single physical CD that played for 2 hours straight. Ain’t no one got time for that. But I put a lot of thought into working out the sequence for this album so that it would work not only as a triple disc experience, but also as one continuous flow. It was a jigsaw puzzle laid out on my living room floor for a few weeks there towards the end.
The obvious question is, why the pivot away from your signature Americana-tilting singer-songwriter sound to a classic soul/funk approach? What kinds of records were you listening to leading up to writing and arranging these songs?How about when you were growing up? The album that completed the circle for me from growing up to the making of Another Love was Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That work has been a constant for me for a long, long time. Arguably my favorite album ever. But other albums that specifically played into the making of Another Love were D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah. Brian Dennis, who created this album with me, and I spent a lot of time with the sounds on those two D’Angelo albums. Bilal, Erykah Badu, Curtis Mayfield, Bernie Worrell, Shuggie Otis, obviously Prince… we dug through all those artists’ sounds and vibes. And in regards to pivoting away from the styles I had been previously working in, I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life. I have no interest in writing the same sad ass Country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again. And don’t get me wrong—I love that shit dearly, but there are plenty of folks already spending a lifetime doing that.
Your singing style on the album doesn’t so much break from the past as it finds you exploring your upper register more. How much of this was a conscious thing, and how much was just a natural reaction to the music you were creating? Were any of the songs originally more in a twang-and-strum style that you wound up remaking/rearranging for this album? All my favorite singers take the “high road” when it comes to vocal range. D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Eddie Kendricks… and certainly all my favorite Stones’ Mick moments were when he worked his falsetto. It’s a comfortable place for me to exist in. It’s the aesthetic I’ve always dug the most. And again, it’s what I personally want to be hearing. And none of these songs were ever in a different style. They all were born to be exactly who they are.
Pick a few songs on the record that you feel are most representative of the album and your current direction and what you think “works” in them. “Women In Love”: I know it’s bad form to choose favorites but this one’s probably mine. It’s just got that thing. It bubbles. It’s sexy. It’s like the sound of wet marbles.
“I Love You”/ “40 Days”: Man, I have always dug Disco. I never had any problem going from The Dead Boys to The Bee Gees. And I still don’t. I really dig these two tracks ‘cause they are dusted in that Disco gold. The sound of where I’m headed next.
“Sing”: This was the very last song that got recorded, maybe second to last. I had sent Brian my vocals, keyboard, and the beat for him to add his performances to. When he sent back his files for me to hear I got a message from him saying that he had actually scrapped my keyboard entirely and only used my vocal and beat. Now I’m a Leo, and I was proud of my shit, so when I heard that message in the car I was sitting at a stoplight and I was instantly bummed out and starting to cop an attitude. When the light turned to green I pressed play on the mix he sent me and then totally lost my shit. I was screaming and dancing in the seat and just over the moon. When I hit the next red light and called him back up I was literally hoarse from the five minute party I had just had listening to what he created. True story. I adore this track.
How did you come to work with Brian Dennis? What did he bring to the table? Certainly, employing drum programming instead of a live drummer is a radical shift for you. It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to say this album wouldn’t exist without Brian. Brian was the very first artist in my entire life that I sought out a collaboration with and then handed over the wheel. And anyone that knows me knows I don’t relinquish that wheel when it comes to my creative shit. But with Brian it felt right. I trust Brian. And from very early on, it became crystal clear to me, and to any innocent bystanders, that Brian knew exactly what the songs were asking for. I literally felt like a kid on Christmas morning every single time I’d get his tracks to a song. And I’ll never forget that feeling. He’s as good as it gets, he honestly is. And now, God bless him, he’s tracking the follow-up album with me!
What are your plans for performing the material live? No plans for any gigging this year. What fulfills me the most is writing songs and creating in the studio. That’s where I’m feeling the most alive. In a perfect world, I woulda dug doing a handful of cool dates but the time and expense involved in putting together a new band is just not where my focus is at right now. I’m already way into the next album at this point.
Looking back on your previous solo albums, which are your favorites now? Man, I try not to look back too much to old albums. But Horsehair [released in July of 2015] was pretty special. As an artist you are always trying to capture something that often goes beyond any easy definition. Visions are an elusive animal. But I think with Horsehair we got real close.
If we go all the way back to your first solo album, 1993’s Coral, and Snatches of Pink’s Bent With Pray, from 1992, I can definitely hear some early groundwork for Another Love being laid, as both those records steered in a more soulful, atmospheric direction than previous Snatches albums. Is that a fair observation? Yea, totally. Especially with a track like “Dove” off of Coral. That tune’s got Another Love written all over it. And certainly there were many moments on 2016’s Red Hand (another solo album I really dig) that led right into Another Love.
So how do you remember the original Snatches of Pink period, you, drummer Sara Romweber, and bassist Andy McMillan? The original Snatches of Pink lineup was my life in a lot of ways. It’s the elephant that never really leaves the room. I only clearly remember it in bits and shards. We were so committed, well beyond the actual music. It was all so proudly worn on our sleeves. So much attitude. It didn’t get to where I dreamed it would have, and that honestly took a piece of me that I’ll never quite recover, but I’ll always feel so proud of what we left out on the field. Day in and day out.
Sara and I still talk every few months and I can’t convey how grateful I am for that. She was so giving and so loyal. We always needed her far more than she ever needed us. She’s beautiful and I’m so grateful I remain in her life. Fred [Jenkins], our long-time road manager, and I still talk every week. We go see concerts together. I still seek out his approval and thoughts with every one of my releases, month after month, year after after year. And Andy has chosen not to talk anymore. At least not to me. And that has really broken my heart. Every memory always begins with him and me. But there are only so many times you can leave a voicemail for someone telling them you love them and that you miss them and then never get a single reply. The last time I saw him I was crossing the street and he saw me, put his head down, and quickly walked to his car and drove away. And I struggle with that. And I struggle with the absence of any explanation… aww shit, man, I’m sorry but I don’t wanna talk about any old news anymore today. That shit just leaves me sad.
Lastly, what’s on the horizon? Man, it’s all about the next [record] right now. I’ve got another new album entirely written and all my vocals, keyboards, and beats are all tracked. Brian is just about to dive, and hopefully this time I can keep it down to a single disc.
Fans and admirers of Glen Campbell knew the day was coming; we’d been prepared for it since 2011, when he went public with the news he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, along with details of a farewell tour and plans for releasing some final recordings. Still, that didn’t make the news yesterday, August 8, any less brutal, when Campbell’s publicist at Universal Music released a statement that read, “It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved husband, father, grandfather, and legendary singer and guitarist, Glen Travis Campbell, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease.” According to the New York Times, in an obituary published late yesterday, on his final tour the musical icon “performed 151 shows over 15 months… [his last one] was in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012, and by the spring of 2014 he had moved into a long-term care and treatment center near Nashville.” He’s survived by his wife Kimberly along with eight children, three sisters, two brothers, “and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.”
Speaking personally, I’ve been listening to Glen Campbell since the mid-Sixties and the release of his hit single “Gentle On My Mind”; I still own a battered 45 of that and other Campbell gems, like “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” a song that will eternally be in my personal top 20, and one which I found myself playing over and over again this morning. Here at BLURT we’ve covered Campbell on a number of occasions, so I thought it appropriate that we republish a pair of features by A.D. Amorosi and Rick Allen that particularly stand out in my mind as fitting tributes to the man. I hope you enjoy. —Fred Mills, Editor
BY A.D. AMOROSI and RICK ALLEN
A number of years ago longtime BLURT contributing editor A.D. Amorosi was able to sit down with Campbell and talk about his career, his then-new album and the upcoming tour. We published the interview in issue #11 (Winter 2011). The story is one we remain deeply proud of here at BLURT, unquestionably among the best we’ve ever had the pleasure to present.—Ed.
Memory fades. Sifting through images and ideas is no easy process, not for the young or old, not where the distant past and recent immediacy is concerned.
When Glen Campbell announced that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that his new album, Ghost on the Canvas, would be his last and that his recent tour would put a cap on his long career, the desire to mourn – to treat him differently – kicked in. This was, after all, the golden boy of epically cosmopolitan country pop whose every ‘60s hit from Chris Gantry’s “Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” to the soaring subtlety of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” the latter two reminiscent of Bogart’s phrase at the end of Maltese Falcon – “the stuff that dreams are made of” – became the soundtrack to my youth.
These sonic gems were only made bolder by knowing that Campbell – a masterful guitar picker – was a touring Beach Boy that nearly replaced Brian Wilson and had played on hits by Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees and Elvis Presley, the latter a fellow country boy whom Campbell befriended. Campbell’s image, too, is burned into the collective retina as he had starred in the original version of the revenge western True Grit and his own network TV show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
Certainly he had his Rimbaud-esque season in Hell – the post ‘60s comedown of boozing, drugging, carousing (notoriously with firebrand country howler Tanya Tucker) and various arrests. Yet, Campbell had commercial hits into the ‘70s and ‘80s with “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights,” “Sunflower” and “I Have You.” He kept the live fires burning with gigs in Branson, found God, a good woman Kimberly Woolen to whom he’s been married since 1982 with three kids who have their own Arcade Fire-y band (Instant People) currently backing Campbell on tour. This latter day joy – to say nothing of the potency of the deeply etched Ghost and its ruminatively ratcheting lyrics and still expressively clarion vocals – made Alzheimer’s an even more heinous verdict. (Below: Glen and Kim; photo by Scott Weiner)
Look into Campbell’s eyes and despite the lines in his face (he’s 75) and his occasionally forgetful demeanor and you see a man not so much struggling with memory but more alive with the past then the present. This author isn’t trying to soften the blow or demystify the disease but seriously, I have a better grasp on what I did ten years ago then what I did ten minutes ago. Yet here they are, Glen and Kimberly sitting before me, frankly discussing the problem without letting it ruin their future.
Campbell, his producer Justin Raymond (who worked with the singer on his previous recording Meet Glen Campbell) and a crew of instrumentalists such as Dick Dale, Brian Setzer and Chris Isaak were already at work on the riveting Ghost when the diagnosis was announced. Suddenly the press made a big deal out of it, something that doesn’t affect the Campbells – as long as the disease doesn’t overshadow the work,
“No. it doesn’t bother me,” says Campbell with a slight cough. “I’m used to it by now. I leave it in God’s hands that it’s gonna be the way He wants.” His wife Kim follows that with an understanding of an audiences’ curiosity – how the disease works, how it affects her husband. “We understand,” she smiles. “But the music is just so good we hope they get to that message as well.”
Mention the contribution of songs from Paul Westerberg, Jakob Dylan and Robert Pollard along with self-penned tracks with Raymond (culled, interestingly enough, from the producer’s daily diaries of what the singer/guitarist said), and you’ve got quite a set of messages. As Campbell starts singing the new album’s title track in a strong burst of melody, he states. “I’m really not a songwriter so if I hear a song, I feel it and like it, I’ll do it. But I’ll make it the way I want to hear it.”
Part of this comes down to asking songwriters if he can turn negatives into positives (“but with their permission of course,” says the gentlemanly Campbell) and accommodating where Campbell’s heart is now. “She’ll be running around the mountain” just doesn’t sound right,” he laughs. “It ain’t the way the song goes. “She’ll be coming around the mountain,” is more like it.”
Campbell slowly and deliberately tells me how he takes songs one a at time and lets the good ones carry him away, the songs of other writers as well as the tunes presented by Raymond, a hands-on laid back producer who, during Meet Glen Campbell, started writing down what the singer said about life, confusion and happiness. “Julian wrote down the meaningful things that Glen would say about being baffled by what was going on in his head, as well as how life was good to him,” says Kim who recognized that Campbell’s memory was slipping during those 2008 recording sessions. “We’re so glad Julian got those meditations down and put those verses to music.”
“I need the ones I love more and more each day.”
“This is not the road I want for us.”
Mention Campbell’s famed sense of perfection and he laughs. “Nah. I may sound like one,” he laughs. “But I want it be natural. If I get a song – a GOOD song – I just sing it the way I hear it in my head. If anybody else wanted to add whistles and bells and chains rattling that’s fine. Just not too much. I actually just do things as straight ahead as possible. You add the ifs, ands or buts.”
To that end, Ghost has the richly orchestrated jangle of Pet Sounds with a country twang.
Campbell knows he’s been blessed with great collaborators and productions, a powerful clear voice that was forever gifted with dynamic songs that suited his vocal range and challenged his playing skills.
“Things turned out pretty well,” says Campbell. (Below photo by Robert Sebree)
Pretty well indeed.
Blame, in part, his having come from a large all-singing all playing Arkansas family who took Glen to church regularly to express him self in song. Other than getting his first guitar at age four, a seminal moment for Campbell came when he nearly drowned at age three: his Army-bound brothers dragged him out of the water, pumped the water and did CPR on the young Glen. “That night back at the house while keeping time to the radio, I didn’t say anything. I just sang. Something had changed me.”
His distinct guitar playing, inspired by the likes of Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt (“Django was my main influence”) gave him the confidence to form western swing bands and, by age twenty-one, head to Los Angeles where he quickly became a sought-after session musician. “I think I mainly got all that work because I was the only guy who could use a capo,” he laughs.
As he was just starting to make his session-man bones, he recorded a single for the Crest label. When I mention that 1961 track to him, “Turn Around Look at Me,” Campbell flashes a big smile. “Well I thought that was ‘it’ you know,” smiles Campbell who starts singing the lines “there is someone/walking behind me” so mellifluously, it’s as if he’s a kid in 1960 again. “Even then I did songs that I liked, never tunes that I didn’t care for. Otherwise it wouldn’t be satisfying.”
Campbell stops, leans into me and turns to his wife. “Excuse me, honey,” says Campbell who then turns from his wife and conspiratorially pulls me forward. His long fingers become a circle with another finger on his other hand barely peeking through the top. He’s made a tiny cock of it all.
“It’s like a guy going into a whorehouse with THIS little thing and the woman says, ‘Well who you going to satisfy with THAT?’ And he says, ‘ME.’ That old joke, that stupid analogy – that’s the best way of describing what I want to do: satisfy me.”
Campbell fast-forwards and says he did things he didn’t want to do: lousy albums, hell-raising backstage antics of cocaine, booze and sex. “I spent some time in Hell,” he smiles. “I got so high I could fart in a Martin box,” he starts slapping his knee. “I’m glad that’s over with – it was a stupid place. I drowned,” he starts to say, realizing that he told me that story before. Then again, perhaps he meant the psychic drowning that led to the rejuvenation of finding God and his wife. (He teases about meeting her on a blind date. “I thought she was blind,” he yuks, then quacks like Daffy Duck.)
Dipping backwards to his session career and “Turn Around,” he mentions how he stayed in the studio and played for the greats so that he stick close to home and make more money doing session work than he could promoting a struggling single on the road. The wrongs of the road remind him of Elvis Presley, an old friend whose “Viva Las Vegas” he played on. “He was a good man but I understood the peril his career had taken on. I didn’t have the luggage he had, that entourage he had to take care of. I should’ve kicked his ass from here to Japan to get some sense in him. His old friends from Memphis were just bringing young girls backstage and crap like that – distracting him.”
Campbell went on to work and play with the Beach Boys and was nearly the front man when Brian Wilson broke down and left in 1965 yet Campbell was more into doing his own music than joining a band (Capitol wound up signing Campbell on the basis of his strong showing with the Beach Boys). “Plus, you know, Mike Love was there. He’s talented, but,” Campbell scrunches his face.
The young Campbell continued to play on records by Frank (“Strangers in the Night”) and Dean (“Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”) guys a generation before him – the establishment – before the counter cultural hippie-dippie movement took hold. He was no hippie but he was a young cat. What was he thinking?
“They were the tops. If you heard their stuff up close and saw them on stage – they were incredible actually,” says Campbell of the Rat Pack titans. “There was no mistaking their voices or their presence.” Campbell was hanging on the musician side of everything, playing guitar by their side. .But he got wise watching those men that singing would get him farther.
Enter guys like Jimmy Webb and John Hartford, songwriters whose best work came through the conduit of Campbell’s rich voice. It was a blast according to Campbell, wonderful those melodies at his ready and those sorts of storytellers in his corner. “If you have guys like this in your corner, you better have your chute together or you won’t get down,” he laughs. In particular, Campbell has a warm long smile reserved for Webb’s longing literate lyrics and winnowing melodies. “My wife will tell you. I pray to the Lord and thank Him for letting me do those songs. When my dad heard those tunes he said “it’s a good thing we didn’t throw you back in the water.” (Kim reminds me how, famously that Webb used to pray, after hearing “Turn around Look at Me,” that Campbell would sing his songs)
Though the Ghostly songs of Westerberg and Pollard aren’t quite the stuff of “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” they are crucial, rare and deeply ruminative. They feel like the contemplative stuff of a finale. At 75 – anybody at 75 – the level of winding down that the Campbell’s plan on doing would seem essential and right. While Kim confides to me that she wishes they did more recording during the Branson days, she also mentions more tracks featuring Campbell and their kids, might be recorded at tour’s end. “We still have a few special tricks up our sleeves. Other than that, we’re happy to go to Hawaii, watch Glen golf and sit by the side as the kids start their career,” says Kim Campbell…
As for Glen Campbell, a singer and guitarist whose recent tour finds him in strong voice and ticklish guitar skills, he’s content to go out with an album as rich as Ghost on the Canvas. “I want to slow down – you know, it’s really about whatever she wants to do – but the record? You throw them out to the world and hope it comes back positive. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did. I have to listen to it, you know.”
Also in 2011, shortly after the release of the Ghost On the Canvas album, contributor Rick Allen penned an appreciation of Campbell that we’re also quite proud of. “As the famed guitarist and song stylist prepares for his final bows,” wrote Allen, “let’s pause for a moment and think about what that really means.” Given that those final bows are truly final — Campbell released his final album, titled Adios, just a few weeks ago — now more than ever. —Ed.
Glen Campbell never became a darling of the too-cool set that embraced Johnny Cash, rightfully, but who could not also see the true folk musician in someone like Merle Haggard. Likewise, Campbell has never been appreciated by the crowd that thinks a performer cannot be popular and valid at the same time; too bad for them.
Campbell is one of the best rock and roll/country guitarists ever, a veteran of the famed collection of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Other Crew members, Carol Kaye, James Burton, Leon Russell, Mac “Dr. John” Rebbenac to name a few, accrued much more hip cachet than he did. Had Campbell continued to record material like “Gentle On My Mind” and even some of the better Jimmy Webb pop classics like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” or Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” he might have done better with the NPR crowd. But his reliance on songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the admittedly artificial and overblown production of it (and others like it) meant that few of Campbell’s albums could be listened to without hitting a “Rhinestone Cowboy” or other such musical bump or two.
On what’s being billed as, most likely, Campbell’s final album, Ghost On The Canvas – which is to be accompanied by a farewell tour; the musician’s been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s – there’s considerably less artifice.
Campbell shows exceptional depth with brilliant takes on “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,” written by Jakob Dylan, “Hold On Hope” by Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard and some magnificent pieces of California pop music including a Paul Westerberg composition called “Any Trouble.” (The title cut, another Westerberg number, is slo good but marred slightly by so-so lyrics.) Campbell’s voice is as robust and clear as ever and he is likely playing a significant amount of guitar although there are no specified credits. “Strong” reflects (musically) his time with the Beach Boys but the entire album has got “Beatles” written all over it. Producer Julian Raymond seems to have cut his teeth on post-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles music, including the solo albums of Lennon and Harrison. One can imagine Jeff Lynne gnashing his teeth at hearing that someone got this stuff right. The guitar solo on “There Is No Me…Without You,” probably from Billy Corgan, Marty Rifkin, Rick Nielsen, or Brian Setzer who all play guitar on the cut (Setzer, Chris Isaak and Dick Dale also add guitar to Teddy Thompson’s “In My Arms”), is an elegant cop of George’s Harrison’s in “Something” while the drums are pure Ringo. The tune extends Beatles-like into infinity a la “A Day in the Life” and provides some of the album’s best moments.
Campbell chose to go out big. The orchestration is big, the production here is big, almost “Rhinestone Cowboy” big, but tempered by taste and restraint, and the album only improves with repeated listening. Most important, the themes are big, life-and-death-big, as is befitting an artist who knows he is near the end of his career. Like a battered athlete he will also outlive it and not necessarily under the best of circumstances. As the world watches Campbell ring down his own curtain will there be a rediscovery, a re-evaluation of a great but often dismissed career? Will people learn about Glen Campbell as they seem to have learned about Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones, that a superiorly talented pop artist who doesn’t write much of his or her own material (Campbell did co-wrote several of the cuts here) can be just as great – often greater – as any of the so-called “hipper” acts?
It’s all showbiz folks, all of it. No matter how tattooed, pierced, smack-addled, in-you-face, amped-up-to-10 the act is. Even that bearded, bobbled headed, slacks/vest-wearing emo vocalist singing about growing up in simpler times out in the Midwest is in showbiz. They are all song and dance men (and women), as Bob Dylan once referred to himself. The best of them, like Campbell, realize that and they consider entertaining you to be a worthy pursuit. Sometimes they do it with some damn good songs, too, and underneath the rhinestones is a person concerned with living and dying just like everyone else.
With Ghost On The Canvas Glen Campbell has chosen to share such concerns, but like the pro he is, he’s done so without sacrificing a drop of entertainment value. Campbell is at the top of his game even at closing time. If there’s no more to come then this is as good a spot as any to ring down the curtain.
At this point I’ve done several of these song inspiration interviews and I was thinking “Hmm….who could I ask next?!” Then it dawned on me, Agent Orange’s Mike Palm. He’s still at it, touring like crazy and heck, even skateboarding, too. Palm seems like the eternal Southern California teenager, seemingly always chasing the sun wherever he may go. His band’s classic debut, Living in Darkness, was released 36 years ago, but sounds as fresh today as it did then with a perfect mix of punk, surf and power pop. The title track is one of my favorites from that record and judging by what Palm states below, a lot of folks favorite as well (maybe even eclipsing their classic debut single “Bloodstains”). Some new material by these guys would be very welcome, but in the meantime go back and listen to said debut if it’s been a while (their two others, 1986’s This is the Voice and ‘96’s Virtually Indestructible, while not the equal of the debut, are no slouches either). Before hitting his next skate park with the band, Palm gave us a few minutes and weighed in on that song.
BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?
MIKE PALM: I was pretty much sleeping all day, and either playing shows or going to clubs every night. There used to be an all night record swap in the Capital Records parking lot. It was great. I hardly ever went out in the day.
Did it take long to finish writing it?
I really can’t remember how long it took to write from start to finish. I do remember it came together smoothly, music and melody first, then the lyrics. Once I got it going it almost wrote itself.
Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (ie: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)
Everything off of the first album is kind of mandatory. It’s the album title track, so I guess that makes it significant.
Was it a staple of your live sets even years later?
It still is. We only cut it if we need to play a shorter set, like at a festival or whatever.
Is there anything about the song you’d change?
Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
It was recorded in L.A. at a studio that was owned by the guy who later wrote “Papa Don’t Preach” for Madonna. We cut all the basic tracks in one night, then went back the next night to do minimal overdubs and vocals. When we pulled the track up on the second night, we realized that one of the microphones on the drums was broken, and the rack tom part was missing. They wanted to replace it with hand claps, but I hated the idea. It was a full-on stand-off that held up the session for a long time, until i compromised and let them use metal trash can lids from the alley out back.
How do you feel about it now?
It’s the longest song in our live set, so sometimes it feels like a marathon, but it has a good resolve that ends with a strong positive feel. It works well near the end of the set, just before “The Last Goodbye”. but that’s another story…
Onstage at The Slowdown, the rock ‘n’ roll gunslinger had an Omaha showdown to prove he is, indeed, one of our finest living elder statesmen.
TEXT/PHOTOS BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Steve Earle is a hardcore son of a bitch.
For the better part of four decades, he has blazed a trail of truths that few, if any, in music today will even broach, let alone have the lyrical prowess to hang with Mr. Earle. Finally, after years of fandom, I was getting to see Steve Earle live, the man himself in action and it was everything I thought it would be. The intimate setting of The Slowdown, a venue situated in downtown Omaha next to an Urban Outfitters, holding 800 strong in attendance, was the perfect place to see Earle and his band The Dukes, weave tales of lost love, immigrant strife, a drunken week, or the Holy City of Jerusalem.
On the road supporting the exceptional new record, Steve Earle and the Dukes’ So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, Steve and the Dukes showed why they should be considered in the “best of” conversation; stacking the 25-song-strong setlist with the most standout tracks from the new record, notably “Goodbye Michelangelo” (written in memory of the recently departed mentor/songwriting great Guy Clark), the shout out to all the “hot shots” out there battling the ever present wildfires (“Firebreak Line”) or the sound of a man at peace with his choices in life, at peace with his place, his future. (“Fixin’ to Die”).
Where Earle stands above the rest as a songwriter is his ability to convey heartbreak, a sincerity that is strong to a fault, and the joy he seems to find with the creation of art that will stand long after he has shaken loose this mortal coil. He has mined the self-doubt and resignation that hangs above those that staff the death houses in America’s prisons (“Ellis Unit One”) and Earle’s stance on the deeply flawed culture built around retribution, the misguided belief that two wrongs make a right. He’s told stories of moonshiners (“Copperhead Road”), confusing religion with God (“Jerusalem”), gunslingers (“Hardin Wouldn’t Run”), immigration (“City of Immigrants”), segregation (“Taneytown”), or what happens when you turn your back on responsibility and head for the border (“A Week of Living Dangerously”).
Steve has spent his life telling those who would listen what he believes in, even as he fell deeper and deeper into his own demons, channeling the frustration that comes with the hells of addiction, the soul shattering bottoms and otherworldly highs, all the while becoming one of America’s greatest songsmiths. Earle helped create a genre, blending country aspects and rock n roll spirit, and on this August Midwestern night, as he has done on countless nights in endless towns before, he proved that he is not planning to go quietly into that good night.
Building a legend through his words, marathon length shows, surviving seven marriages (twice to the same woman), sixteen records, and a drug intake that rivalled Keith Richards, the granddaddy of rock star excess, he survived it all and still has very moving stories to tell. For those that focus on the legendary wild times and the even wilder truths, they are missing the point.
Earle’s body of work stands higher than the stories, his approach to writing, drawing from his personal heroes Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, helped lay the bricks for a road that he shares with Dylan, Springsteen, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young in terms of songwriting ability and lyrical superiority. This, my friends, is a road that faux country stars like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert, and every other joker out there claiming to be country, insisting to all that will listen to be outlaw, will never see, much less tread. When all those are washed away by time and changing fads, Earle’s work will stand above the wreckage as an example of how to write and song and rise above chaos to leave an indelible mark on the world.
The Steve Earle that took the stage this night is not the Steve Earle of old. This man on the stage was older, wiser, happier, and somehow better than he was in his so-called glory days of “Guitar Town”; he’s accepted that he is doing what he was put here to do and that he does it better than most anyone out there running today. He has aged into an elder statesman of country injected rock n roll, a champion for all those left behind or oppressed. Much like Cash before him, he speaks to the common man, speaking for those that have no voice.
Steve Earle is a hardcore son of a bitch, he speaks the truth and I am glad I finally had the chance to hear it.
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