Sunday, September 25, 2016

Black Sabbath's "Technical Ecstasy" at 40: An Eclectic Moment in Metal

… And on their seventh album, Black Sabbath rested.

Forty years ago today, Black Sabbath released Technical Ecstasy, the follow-up to 1975's Sabotage. A love-it-or-hate it line in the sand for many Sabbath fans, the eight-song record finds the band (singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler and drummer Bill Ward) at their most experimental. According to Ward, Technical Ecstasy also found Sabbath starting to feel the considerable effects of years of hard and reckless living.  

 “We’d done such a lot of touring by the time Technical Ecstasy was written and recorded...There was some wear and tear on the band.”

To record Technical Ecstasy, the band set up shop at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, where they would often bump into fellow musicians like Mick Fleetwood or Andy Gibb. It was a location as far removed from the group’s humble beginnings in Birmingham, England as you can imagine.

[Criteria] was becoming a popular studio,” Ward says. “We were always looking at what advancements were being made at [a particular] studio technically. We also had an opportunity to kind of live in a quieter world where we could all get some sleep…We were always looking for a place of refuge. (laughs) In general, all of us had the idea that if we moved to somewhere that’s comfortable, we’d write better or we’d play better.”

What resulted from the change in scenery was unquestionably the most eclectic and polarizing album in Sabbath’s history. Although there were plenty of softer moments before this time (“Planet Caravan” on 1970’s Paranoid, “Solitude” on 1971’s Master of Reality, "Changes" on 1972's Vol. 4), nearly the entirety of Technical Ecstasy reflected a shift from Metal to radio-friendly Hard Rock. Strings permeated the mournful “She’s Gone,” while more than a few moments on the record could have found a comfortable spot on a Foreigner record. Ward recalls that this new direction developed organically.  

 “I think it was something that happened as the process moved along. As far as I know, we’ve never been a band that’s gone, ‘Oh, let’s do this.’ We didn’t design it and then go in and play it. It’s always been something that actually shows up whenever we get together. It’s like, ‘What’s going to show up, and how is it going to be?’ In hindsight and just thinking about Florida and the way it was, it was pretty laid back. That could have easily reflected, in part, the way some of this music came about. Looking at it now, I can see where it may have had some influence on the musical ending of that album… There are definitely departure points that I think were quite quite risqué. But at the time, it all seemed to fit perfectly okay. To me, we seemed to be okay with it. I wasn’t aware of any grumblings that we’d gone too far left or right and we weren’t the same band that we used to be. I think there was some unique playing on some of the tracks. It sometimes reminds me of a band that’s been working so hard and they become a little tired – which happens to a lot of people. They become more laid back or they need to breathe in longer or rest longer.”

This lighter approach is felt throughout Technical Ecstasy, with the band’s trademark distortion largely replaced with piano and keyboards courtesy of future Robert Plant collaborator Gerald "Jezz" Woodroffe.  

“We needed a keyboard player, and Jezz was a friend of mine,” Ward explains. “We were adding more and more stuff to our music; we we doing more 'stringy' things, and we needed extra support. I got the job to ask Jezz; I said, ‘Would you like to play with the Sabs and see how it goes?’ He joined, and I think he had a very hard entrance into becoming part of the band. He was teased a lot; at times, my heart went out to him. [It was like], ‘Oh My God! Give the guy a break!’ But he actually did very, very well. He’s a very, very good musician. I think the work he did with Robert Plant was excellent, and he is a nice guy. I was a friend with him way before he happened with Sabbath.”

Perhaps the band’s greatest departure on Technical Ecstasy is Ward’s gorgeous, Beatlesque ballad, “It’s Alright,” which also featured the timekeeper taking over lead vocals for the first time on an album.

“Way before Technical Ecstasy, I had a song called ‘It’s Alright.’ I first recorded it at Field Farm way back in the early '70s, [along with] a lot of other stuff as well that I’ve still got lying around somewhere. I never thought any more of it; I just liked the song, and we recorded it... I never dreamed for one second that it would end up on a Black Sabbath record. At the time, I might have had aspirations of maybe one day making a solo album, which is what I think everybody goes through in a Rock ‘n’ Roll band (laughs) But we were just writing as individuals as well as collectively as a band that jammed together…We were all growing as musicians, and this [track] had been around for a long time. I'd play it every once in a while when we were in the studio, or I’d sing it if we were in the car. The guys in the band really liked it; they [said], ‘Oh, that’s a great song, Bill,’ and that’s as far as it went. I think at the time [of the recording of Technical Ecstasy], we were one or two [songs] short, so ‘It’s Alright’ came up as an idea to put on the album. I felt really, really nervous about it because it was something that’s private to me. It’s kind of like some of the softer songs that I write, [like] ‘Light Up The Candles’ [off my 1990 solo album, Ward One: Along The Way] or other things that I've written over the years. I have that in me as well; I do like to write soft melodies and things like that. 'It’s Alright' would be the part of me that likes to write the softer songs. But the idea came up; I don’t know who suggested it. I think it might have been Ozzy, but I’m not sure. At the time, I think it was he who suggested I sing it as well, which I felt really uncomfortable with. I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of me singing on a Sabbath album; it didn’t feel right. But eventually, I stepped up to the post and did the best I could in singing the song. In hindsight, the whole thing felt a little bit awkward for me. I like the outcome; I thought, ‘Well, that sounds really good.’ I like what Tony did in the huge guitar solo. I had the bass drum part in the middle worked out, but when we were trying to mix it, I asked Mick Fleetwood to give me his ears and listen to that bass drum because I got really tied up with it in terms of, 'Is it sonically okay?' 'It is too loud, or does it need an extra dB or minus a dB?' I remember asking Mick if he could listen to it. (laughs) He was really a gentleman; he was actually quite amicable about listening to it and giving his thoughts to it.”

“It’s Alright” returned to the world’s attention in the early '90s, when Axl Rose would perform a solo piano cover of the song live with Guns N’ Roses. (A recording can be found on the band’s 1999 collection Live Era '87 – '93.)

“I thought [Guns N’ Roses] did a great version, and I was ever so pleased,” Ward says. “I was pleased about that because it validated me as a songwriter. I thought their version was like, ‘Yeah, fucking great!’ I’ve enjoyed listening to other bands' versions of Black Sabbath’s music… Some of the bands have really done great work on re-doing a Sabbath song, which actually gives credit to Sabbath in terms of how much longevity is in those songs.”

Created by iconic sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson (1944-2013) of Hipgnosis, the cover art for Technical Ecstasy was a dramatic departure from previous album visuals – and it hit a sour note with Ward. 

“When I first saw it, I thought, 'You’ve gotta be kidding,' because there’s nothing dark about it or anything. I saw it as something of a joke. It was okay; it seemed to fit with whatever else we were doing at the time, [but] I’m not blown away with it. My favorite album cover is Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; that, to me, is the best album cover that we’ve ever done. I’ve never really been that pleased with the Black Sabbath album covers. I guess I’m just a fussy bugger, you know?” (laughs)

In addition to showcasing a different sound and vibe, Technical Ecstasy represents the final time Black Sabbath released an album without a lineup change. Following the tour in support of the album, Osbourne quit the band and was replaced for a handful of months by former Savoy Brown/Fleetwood Mac singer Dave Walker. (An extensive feature on Walker, including his thoughts on his time in Sabbath, will appear on this website in the not-too-distant feature.) Although Ozzy rejoined in time to record 1978’s Never Say Die! the fractures within the band never healed, and the singer was sacked and later replaced by Ronnie James Dio for 1980’s Heaven and Hell. Ward says that he knew something odd was in the air when the band agreed to have him sing "It’s Alright" in the studio instead of Ozzy.

“Even though everybody was saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s great; let’s do it,’ and Ozzy was like, ‘Yeah, sure, go do it. It’s a good song,’ I didn’t like the idea of replacing what could have been an Ozzy Osbourne vocal... It felt a little strange.”

Despite the internal turmoil that was just around the corner for Black Sabbath, Ward feels that Technical Ecstasy possesses some strong musical moments that still stand up four decades later.

“I think the rhythm section on 'Back Street Kids,' and the feel on it, is really, really good. Tony played some marvelous guitar throughout [the album], but I really like Tony’s playing on ‘Back Street Kids.’ On the end of ‘Dirty Women’ – which you cannot hear, but I assure you I was doing it – there’s a huge double bass drum build-up that goes on. It’s full of crescendo and actually lasts for about two minutes. When we did ‘Dirty Women’ live, I would crescendo those bass drums for at least two to three minutes. We’ve actually made the end a little bit longer on stage live. That takes a lot of work; I was just pushing the crap out of the bass drums on the end of that song.”

Another highlight of Technical Ecstasy was Ward’s explosive, tom-heavy intro on “Gypsy.”

“As I drummer, I play orchestrationally. As soon as I’ve got a little bit of what Terry might play or what Tony might play or what Ozzy might sing, I reflect that. I try to put the drum in there as if the drum was a voice. All I had to hear was Jezz’s opening chords… As soon I feel anything, I go to where I think the drums are going to be the most effective. That’s how I play; I try to play to really support the track. The idea was [to have] a lot of toms in that, but I played a lot of tom music anyway in Black Sabbath.

“I don’t play beats; I’m not very good at playing rhythm,” he adds. “I don’t really like playing 'time' or rhythm in those terms. I like to respond with my heart and feel what might come out overall and give [the music] a big orchestrational feel.”

While it may not be every Sabbath fan's to-go release, Technical Ecstasy proved that Black Sabbath were still more than willing to take major chances seven albums into their career. With more and more people discovering the album each year, Technical Ecstasy could vey well end up being the sleeper hit of the entire Sabbath catalog.

“I think we risked a lot; I think we stepped out from our mold or [from] what most people conceived us to be,” Ward says. “We took the chance of being whoever we were at the time and allowed that to come out. That’s always been one of Black Sabbath’s standards – Be who we are, play what we are and be true to our music.”

Bonus Feature-
Sabbath Disciples: Musicians Share Their Thoughts on Technical Ecstasy and the Fathers of Metal

Brant Bjork (ex Kyuss/ ex Fu Manchu/various projects)
"I think Black Sabbath pretty much defined what heavy Rock was and would be. There’s no other band like Black Sabbath. I’ve had a 25-year friendly debate going on with a friend of mine from the desert about Zeppelin versus Sabbath, and I always, always proudly and shamelessly take Sabbath…To me, Black Sabbath was a freak of nature in the most beautiful way. They completely just personified – musically and spiritually and everything – what it means to be in a Rock band. They were a Rock band, and Bill Ward was a huge part of that. He’s one of my all-time favorite Rock drummers; there’s no one like him. Even though he’s celebrated, I still think he’s underrated. Technical Ecstasy is a fun record. Back then, bands were around for a long time and they put out a lot of records, and that’s the way you did it. A band like Black Sabbath put out so many good records that they were bound to put out some records that people might not have celebrated on the same level as some of the other [ones]. That’s just natural and kind of inevitable. I would arguably say Technical Ecstasy is one of those records, but it is a good record. You can still hear the greatness, and you can hear some exploration and you can hear some exhaustion. But it’s awesome; it’s still real and still authentic. I don’t put it on every day, but when I do stumble upon it, I always enjoy listening to it. I always kind of get off on those records in certain bands’ catalogs that are kind of like the one that sits in the corner. The one that people just kind of don’t celebrate too much is the one I always like to pick up from time to time."

Karl Willetts (Memoriam/ex Bolt Thrower)
"I have lived all my life in Birmingham, and I am very proud of the musical heritage of the city, which I often refer to as the Metal Metropolis. Black Sabbath are the premier product of Birmingham, and I have grown up listening to their music; it has formed the soundtrack to my life. Black Sabbath have been hugely influential in the music that has been created in the bands that I have played in throughout my career in music, with both Bolt Thrower and more recently with Memoriam. I come from a Punk music background and play in an extreme Metal band. Black Sabbath stand head and shoulders above the other bands from the Heavy Metal genre, with the sheer heaviness of their doom-laden riffs and intensity of the music that they create. They are a band that any musician aspires to be like, and I consider them to be a major source of inspiration."

"It took me a while to dig Technical Ecstasy in the deserved manner. It is not the obvious first choice among the high ranks of your favorite Sabbath albums. Maybe it is the not-very-typical artwork. After all, I have to confess that I did pick many records as a teenager led by a magnetism towards certain visuals. When you’re 14 and you’re standing in a record shop with enough money for one record, you have to make a very painful choice between several equally appealing albums. In my case, I went for the first Sabbath album to start with. Technical Ecstasy just wasn’t dark enough visually and musically to me then. When you really love a band though, you’ll luckily inevitably end up with the hidden gems working your way through their discography. And Technical Ecstasy is a gem and an underrated one, too. I deeply love the production and songwriting of this album now, and I did fall in love with the artwork, having become a huge fan of Hipgnosis, the English design group responsible for many of my favourite sleeve designs, like Led Zeppelin's Houses Of The Holy, UFO’s Phenomenon or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. I often DJ, and I never leave the house without my vinyl copy of Technical Ecstasy. Favourite spins here are usually the galloping 'Gypsy,'  the moody 'You Won’t Change Me' and when the night is getting drunk on booze and conversation, the sentimental 'It’s Alright' - so touchingly sung by Bill Ward because Ozzy was too strung out to show up at the studio that day, if I remember correctly. 'It’s Alright' is one of my all-time Sabbath favourite songs, and I sometimes wish Bill would have gotten a few more numbers than this and 'Swinging the Chain,the only other song he ever sang on a Sabbath recording. He had such a humble and sincere way about him. My former band The Oath was heavily influenced by Technical Ecstasy. In fact, we paid tribute to this album by ripping off the 'Dirty Women' riff (no pun intended!) directly for the ending of 'Psalm 7,' the last song on the The Oath’s album. For Lucifer, you can absolutely say the same. Our guitarist Gaz Jennings is very influenced by Black Sabbath and counts Technical Ecstasy [as] one of his faves as well. Our songs mirror this influence very much, I think. This is a beautiful album and up there in my top 20 of favourite albums of all time."

Dave Ingram (Hail of Bullets/various projects/ ex Benediction/ ex Bolt Thrower)
"At age 7, I was introduced to Sabbath by my older sister, and it was a moment of musical crystallization for me. I remember it well, and every other time afterwards that an unheard Black Sabbath album came into my possession. Technical Ecstasy was one I got to purchase some years later and, even at a young age, I picked up on the controversy that release had on the scene at the time. That didn’t bother me one iota though, as I still air-guitared my way through it. My first band at school covered - badly - the track 'Dirty Women' and years later, I made the mistake of playing 'It’s Alright' at my sister’s funeral. Now I can’t listen to that song without being deeply moved. 'Tech Ec' - as it got nicknamed - stands as a classic and somewhat criminally underrated slice of Rock history. Those Back Street Kids from Brum sure did well."

Stephan Gebédi (Hail of Bullets/ Thanatos)
“Getting into Heavy Rock around 1978 via KISS and growing up on new exciting NWOBHM bands, I must admit I did not delve too much into Heavy Rock’s originators apart from buying a few compilation albums like 24 Carat Purple  and Attention! Black Sabbath in those early years. I loved the Sabbath album and went out to buy their debut album and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, because those two had the most evil-looking album covers. But since they were releasing great albums with Dio in the early '80s as well, I didn’t get the complete back catalogue until some years later. Technical Ecstasy was one of the later Sabbath albums that I added to my collection, probably because it didn’t have the status of the first five to six albums and didn’t have that many ‘hits’ or rather well-known songs on it. But once I finally got it, the album started to grow on me. Obviously, it’s pretty different from the first couple of albums, but giving the album another spin right now, songs like 'Back Street Kids,' 'All Moving Parts [Stand Still]' and 'She’s Gone' still sound great and maybe were somehow ahead of their time; a band like Mastodon have obviously also listened to the aforementioned "All Moving Parts [Stand Still].' All in all, still a really good Sabbath album that definitely deserves another chance.”

Fred Schreck (The Ancients/Crush/Satellite Paradiso)
“Black Sabbath was one of the earliest and most influential groups in my career. The first album unsettled me so much as a 10-year-old kid; I was almost afraid to listen a second time. But I did. Over and over again. Everything about them spoke to me in a way that was so much more powerful than anything I'd heard before. Ozzy's lyrics provided a sort of working class profundity that I could understand and relate to. Especially being from an environment not unlike the one he was probably from. I anticipated each album with great enthusiasm, and they never disappointed me. That is, until Technical Ecstasy. It's not that it was bad record; it's just that I had been so spoiled with the previous six. Each of those, in my opinion, were perfect in their execution. There wasn't a bad song on any of them, and each of them had a strong thread to connect them. While there are some great songs on Technical Ecstasy ('Back Street Kids' and 'Dirty Women'), it was the first time, as an avid fan, that I felt they may be losing the plot - and worse, breaking apart. My fears were confirmed on the follow up, Never Say Die! That being said, six perfect albums is an extraordinary feat for any artist. They cemented Black Sabbath's legacy as one of the most important bands in Rock and Roll history. I never cared much for the later incarnations of the band. I know a lot of people loved the Dio era, but it was a different band to me, and just not my cup of tea. I followed Ozzy's solo career for a few years, but I thought that he increasingly became a caricature of himself. Still love him, though. The last album [13] was quite good, and brought back great memories of those early days. I just wish Bill Ward had played on it. With Black Sabbath as a unit, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.”


Friday, September 23, 2016

Life After Death: Richard Christy Watches the Damned

Millions of radio listeners know Richard Christy from his work on the legendary Howard Stern Show, but Metal fans and serious drumming aficionados know him as one of the most innovative players in the genre. Already a major player in the underground music scene for his work with the mighty Death long before he joined Stern and Co., Christy has continued to solidify his reputation through his ongoing project, Charred Walls of the Damned.

Featuring former Judas Priest singer Tim “Ripper” Owens, guitarist Jason Suecof and master bassist Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus/Death/Testament), the band unleashes their first album in five years (and third overall), Creatures Watching Over the Dead, today on Metal Blade Records. The record represents the latest evolution in Christy’s creative partnership with Suecof, whose credits as an in-demand producer include Death Angel, Deicide, Cryptopsy, Motionless In White, Job For A Cowboy and Battlecross.

“Jason produces so many bands; I think that’s definitely influenced him,” Christy says. “Jason’s a big part of our songwriting. I write all of our music and play everything on our demos. Then, Jason and I get together for pre-production, and he has a big hand in shaping these songs. I think the more experience he gets in the studio, the better songwriter he becomes. I think that’s definitely evident on this new album. I think we’ve done our best job of just writing really catchy, melodic songs. It’s like anything; the more you do it, the better you become at it. After doing two albums, I kind of know exactly what we need to do to write good songs now. We kind of have our sound now, and I know what people are kind of expecting to hear. From experience comes better songwriting.”

Longtime fans of Owens’ bulletproof voice are in for another treat on Creatures Watching Over the Dead, which features some of his most powerful performances to date.

“Tim’s voice is so strong now because he tours so much. A lot of times, we’ll record our albums after we’ve been on tour, and his voice is just incredibly strong. When we did this album, the vocals just took four days. His voice never went out on him once; he never got hoarse.”

Of course, Christy’s vision for Charred Walls of the Damned is also helped along by the ongoing involvement of one of the genre’s greatest bassists. 

“I’ve been playing with Steve for a long time. I don’t know if a lot of people even know that back in ’97 when I first joined Death, he flew to Florida and played on demos for [1998's] The Sound of Perseverance. I was like freaking out when I met him because I’ve been a fan of his playing since Sadus, and [Death’s 1991 album] Human was probably my favorite Metal album of all time – although the bass was a little hard to hear on it... When I met Steve in 1997, it was such an honor. We got to practice together, and we really locked in perfectly. It’s fun to play with a bass player who is able to follow every little nuance that you do on drums. He picks up on every little roll and every little cymbal accent that I do.”

While Christy has been involved in numerous projects over the years (including drumming on former Prong guitarist Monte Pittman’s new album, Inverted Grasp of Balance, alongside bass legend Billy Sheehan), he’s most at home with Charred Walls of the Damned.  

“It’s very satisfying for me as a songwriter and a drummer to have this band. There are certain songs where I allow myself to go crazy on the drums, like the song ‘The Soulless,’ and there are other songs where I want the song to kind of shine through, with the vocals or the guitar or something, so I’ll lay back a little bit. I’ve learned a lot [about] being a songwriter in addition to being a drummer. By having this band, I’ve been able to really just concentrate [on this as] my main musical thing now… With my day job and this band, I really don’t have a lot of time to play on a lot of other albums, so I am able to focus on Charred Walls of the Damned.”

Considering Christy’s high-profile gig with Stern, it comes as no surprise that the band’s fanbase is expanding beyond traditional headbangers.

“Howard played our new song ‘The Soulless’ and he really liked it. I was freaking out; I was so happy that he liked the song. It’s cool when you can get people who wouldn’t normally listen to Metal to like one of your songs. That’s always pretty awesome. A lot of people who listen to the Stern show have reacted very positively to Charred Walls of the Damned, especially ‘The Soulless.’ I’m really psyched about that. It’s a challenge to write a Metal album that Metalheads are going to love, but also [one that] maybe other people who normally wouldn’t be Metalheads would love.”

As Christy continues to earn international recognition as one of the strongest drummers in today’s Metal scene, he is quick to offer credit and respect to those who inspired him.

“[Cynic/Human-era Death drummer] Sean Reinert is a massive influence on my playing. When I heard Human, I was just totally blown away. I got it right when it came out. I was also a big Cynic fan. I remember hearing their demos back in the late ‘80s. I was already a huge fan of Sean Reinert’s drumming, and then I heard him on the Human album and was just blown away. Immediately, I started practicing to that album, and it became a huge influence on my drumming. I’m also a huge fan of Watchtower; I love that technical-type drumming in a Metal environment. [Their 1989 album] Control and Resistance is a huge influence on me as a drummer and as a songwriter. [Watchtower] were melodic and technical and heavy all at the same time. That’s kind of what I’m trying to achieve with Charred Walls of the Damned, although we’re not nearly as technical. But I like to throw a little craziness in here and there as kind of a tribute to bands like Watchtower.”

Christy also cites Alex Marquez’s drumming on Malevolent Creation’s 1992 classic Retribution as a turning point in his development as a player.

“He did these rolls with the toms and the kick drum that just blew me way. I immediately wanted to learn how to play rolls like that, and I still play rolls that are influenced by him. [Also], when I first heard Morbid Angel’s Covenant and [drummer] Pete Sandoval, that [became] an album I practiced to all the time. Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated was a huge influence on me as a drummer. Then, when I heard Gene [Hoglan] on [Death's 1993 album] Individual Thought Patterns… I was already a huge Gene Hoglan fan from Dark Angel. I remember the Ultimate Revenge 2 video that had Death, Dark Angel, Forbidden and I think Raven. I was just mesmerized by Gene in that video. I’ve always been blown away by drummers who have kind of an open-handed drumming style, where they play right-handed but they lead with their left. I think that’s amazing when a drummer’s able to do that. When I heard Gene on Individual, I was blown away. But then when I heard [1995's] Symbolic, I was completely floored because – especially on the first song, ‘Symbolic’ – he does these crazy ride cymbal/double bass fills. I didn’t know what the heck was going on! (laughs) It took me forever to learn how to do that. Luckily, by the time I actually joined Death, I had practiced to all of Death’s albums for many years, so I was pretty prepared. It was still a challenge playing Sean’s and Gene’s drumming parts, but it was a fun challenge because I’m such a huge fan on those guys.”

Although Christy is firmly focused on the here and now with Charred Walls of the Damned, 2016 is a significant year in the history of Death. In addition to this December being the 15th anniversary of the untimely passing of Death leader Chuck Schuldiner, this November will bring the vinyl reissue of Christy’s album with the band, The Sound of Perseverance. Looking back at his time with Schuldiner and the rest of the lineup during the Perseverance era (including late bassist Scott Clendenin, who passed away last year), the drummer is quick to express his fondness for his departed friend. 

“Chuck was such a humble, down-to-earth guy. If he knew that Metal fans are still listening to his music every day and still talking about him like we are, he would be so honored. I think the fact that he left so much great Metal music is such a great legacy to have. Also, his lyrics meant so much to so many different people. He was such a poet, and his lyrics are so beautiful. That's another great legacy of Chuck’s that he left us – just these beautiful, really deep, meaningful lyrics. I remember when I was in the band, he got a book in the mail, and it was from a fan from Iran who published a book of [Chuck’s] lyrics. It was going to be in like 50 different libraries in Iran, and they considered it poetry. Chuck was so honored by that. I’m so honored that I was in the band with Chuck, Scott and [guitarist] Shannon [Hamm] and that people really regard The Sound of Perseverance as a classic. I’ve got to give thanks to Relapse [Records]; they’ve been re-releasing a lot of Chuck’s music and really doing an awesome job with it. Also, Chuck’s family and [Death manager] Eric Greif have been really making sure that Chuck’s music is out there for the fans, and they’re keeping his legacy alive. It’s great that Chuck had such an awesome family and friends, and I’m so glad that people are still able to appreciate his music.”

Thankfully, Christy is one of many former Death members whose current endeavors are keeping the spirit of the band alive. As you’ll hear soon enough, Creatures Watching Over the Dead is one of the most blistering listening experiences you’ll have this year.

Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions


Monday, September 19, 2016

Megadeth's "Peace Sells..." at 30: A Thrash Masterpiece Steeped in Jazz

Thirty years ago,* Megadeth brought Thrash Metal to the mainstream with the release of their second album, Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? While the record remains a milestone in the history of Metal, perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is that it was fueled mostly by a couple of Jazz guys from New York.

Before moving to Los Angeles in the late '70s, New York-based guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson were a couple of young Jazz Fusion players looking to expand their musical vocabularies. After arriving in California, they put together a Fusion band called The New Yorkers with bassist Robertino  “Pag” Pagliari and Gar’s brother Stew on guitar. 

A few years later, a young Metal guitarist named Dave Mustaine pieced together a new group called Megadeth from LA-area musicians after being tossed out of the biggest band in the scene, Metallica. After going through a series of temporary musicians including drummer Lee Rausch and Slayer guitarist Kerry King, Mustaine and bassist David “Junior” Ellefson were on the lookout for a more solid lineup. It was then that these two disparate musical camps collided to make Metal history.  

“Me and Stew wrote a lot of songs together,” says Poland of The New Yorkers. “We did it for years and years and years, then one day, we said, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ We just weren’t getting anywhere, so we just stopped playing. Our manager, Jay Jones, was managing Dave [Mustaine], so he said, ‘Hey, I know a drummer.’ So they got Gar in Megadeth… They were a three-piece, and they desperately needed a second guitar player. I didn’t have anything to do, and Gar was in the band, and I thought, ‘Well, shit. I’ll go play with my friend Gar.’”

Despite being added to what was soon to become one of the most influential bands in Metal, Poland wasn’t about to abandon his musical roots for the sake of a gig.

“I liked Randy Rhoads a lot, but I was mostly just into my thing. I was really into weird, esoteric stuff. I was really into Jan Hammer’s solo records and his stuff with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was really into [Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist] John McLaughlin, but more [for] his writing. His phrasing and all that stuff was great, but his tone wasn’t where I wanted to be, but everything else was. I wanted to try and do something like that, but I was also really heavily influenced by Jeff Beck, Leslie West, Hendrix, Trower and people like that. But as far as the Metal stuff that Dave and those guys were listening to… I wasn’t into Priest; I wasn’t into a lot of that stuff… Dave turned me onto Mercyful Fate. That was one of the bands that I actually liked of all the stuff that those guys were playing.”

Although Megadeth was more “Metal” than Poland was used to at the time, that didn’t mean that the band didn’t possess truly impressive chops. Already a fan of complex strong structures, Mustaine now had two bona fide Jazz guys in his band to bring his musical ideas into intriguing higher territories.

“Dave’s stuff was challenging,” Poland recalls. “Me and Gar were used to playing that kind of music. His music’s not that much different than what we were trying to play. If anybody reading this has Birds Of Fire by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, there’s a song that’s called ‘One Word.’ It’s starts off with a Billy Cobham drum roll. For all practical purposes, that’s a Speed Metal song. If you listen to it and you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to pretend Dave Mustaine’s playing rhythm to this,’ it wasn’t that far away from what we were into. It was challenging enough that it was never boring, ever.”

That’s not to say that musical differences didn’t cause friction in Megadeth. Although Mustaine was open-minded enough to be an Elton John fan, he was far less accepting of many of Poland’s listening choices on the road. One time, he bought a copy of Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveller and put it in the cassette player while he rode shotgun. The next day, he went to look for it before being informed by a crew member that Mustaine had thrown it out the window. 

Of course, this is just a minor example of the combustible personality issues that defined early Megadeth. It is no secret that all four band members indulged in hard drugs, with heroin being Poland and Samuelson’s substance of choice. These chemical indulgences (mixed with a fair share of testosterone and attitude) led to numerous physical and verbal blowups within the band. One such incident led to Poland being temporarily replaced on the road in 1985 by Mike Albert, former guitarist for the Frank Zappa-produced band Ruben and the Jets.

“I’m in the band, we’re rehearsing and everything’s cool,” Poland recalls. “We’re living in a studio together, me and Dave. All of a sudden, one day I hear, 'Oh yeah, we just signed a t-shirt deal.’ And it was [for] Dave and Dave. It was like, ‘Dude!” When I joined the band, Dave said, ‘I want you guys to be in this band, and we’re going to split everything down the middle.’ I said, ‘You know what? Awesome!’ I got so pissed off [over the shirt deal], I said, ‘Fuck you;’ I said, ‘Go on tour.’ Somebody told me that in his book [2011’s Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir], Dave says I got arrested for heroin possession and I couldn’t make the tour. That’s total bullshit; I was sitting at home mad because I realized that [the arrangement in the band] wasn’t like he said…When I joined the band again, it was all like, ‘No, man. It’s all cool. We just did [the t-shirt deal] because we had to get it done.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and took him on his word.”

With Poland firmly back on board in time to hit the studio with producer Randy Burns, Megadeth set out to create an album that eclipsed their 1985 debut, Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good!

“I think the first record was totally a good record, but we had only been together for a month. When we did the second record, we had already toured on that record for over a year, with at least four different tours. Then, we came off the road and went right into the studio and recorded the record. We kind of felt like we knew what was strong and [what wasn’t]. We knew the parts really well, and we thought like we could try to capture that energy that we had live in the recording.”

Although much has been said about Megadeth’s various chemical indulgences around the time of Peace Sells…, Poland insists that the band was a focused, well-oiled machine in the studio.

“We had rehearsed that record for a year in front of an audience before we recorded it. As far as drug abuse during the making of that record, some days we worked 18-hour days. We were doing opiates, and Randy Burns was doing speed. When things got to the point where we were kind of fading, he would just give us a little speed and we’d do another five hours. That’s how we did it on that little tiny budget we had, which I think was like $26,000 or something. It wasn’t like we were passed out on chairs or anything; we were working our asses off.”

Poland is quick to credit Burns for being the first producer to record Megadeth’s sound in a truly representative way. 

“Randy Burns did a really good job. Not to take anything away from [Killing Is My Business... co-producer] Karat Faye, but I just don’t think [he] knew how to capture that sound, that much information. When you have that much shit going on, you need to really know about compression and EQs between kicks and bass and guitars.”

Despite Burns’ good working relationship with the band, his mixes for Peace Sells… were not featured on the original 1986 Capitol Records release. Jumping from indie label Combat to Capitol during the album’s recording, Megadeth soon experienced their first dose of major label input when producer Paul Lani was brought in to give the Peace Sells… recordings a new sheen.

“I prefer Randy Burns’ mix,” Poland says. “There was so much reverb [on the other one]… I was just bummed about how the drums got buried. There was so much reverb everywhere, man. It was like, come on! But in hindsight, I guess it gave it that darkness. Randy Burns’ mixes are a little bit more stark; everything was kind of just right there.”

Set off by an iconic bass line written by Mustaine and performed by Ellefson, the album’s title track remains one of Megadeth’s brightest moments – even if it was originally conceived as a very different song.  

“Peace Sells’ was like an eight-minute song, and Gar refused,” Poland recalls. “He said, ‘No, man. This song’s too good to draw it out like that. We’ve gotta make this song short and sweet.’ He was right.”

Looking back, Poland is ultimately pleased with how Peace Sells… came out.

“I really like all the songs; it was a real strong record, man. My only qualm was, I know we were playing a lot different style than Metallica, but the production on Master Of Puppets [released that previous March] was just so good that it just hurt every time I listened to it. Both records came out at the same time, and it was like, ‘If we could have gotten that vibe and that sound with our production…’ I’m not sure we could have, because you get what you get, you are what you are. The mic’s on; it only records what you give it. Maybe we weren’t sonically in the same cool space those guys were at the time, guitar-wise and recording technique-wise. I think honestly, Peace Sells… and Master Of Puppets are the two best records of that whole era.”

Although Metallica and Megadeth were clearly leading the genre circa 1986, the two bands weren’t exactly celebrating their achievements in the same room together. Poland recalls that considerable friction still existed between Mustaine and his former Metallica bandmates at the time.  

“I really didn’t know any of those guys. Because of this whole feud, every time they were near me or whatever, I was just like, ‘Well, I don’t know. Should I go talk to them?’ I really wanted to talk to [Metallica frontman/guitarist James] Hetfield about tubes and tone and how you do this and that, but I just never did.”

In September 1986, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus accident at the age of 24. Despite what was going on between Mustaine and his old band at the time, Burton’s tragic passing was deeply felt within the Megadeth camp.

“Dave took that so hard,” Poland says. “That was really rough on him, because those guys drove to rehearsal together…He was out of it for days, just crying constantly.”

On a much happier note, Peace Sells... succeeded in elevating Megadeth to the next level. The album reached #76 on the U.S. Billboard charts (and was certified Platinum six years after its release). Videos for “Peace Sells” and “Wake Up Dead” hit MTV, adding new headbangers to the band’s expanding audience. Megadeth’s leap into the mainstream occurred during an era when most Metal acts were regularly accused of” selling out” for doing far less. But Poland is adamant that Megadeth maintained their integrity throughout the Peace Sells… era.

“We never sold out…I don’t think Megadeth sold out just because we went to bigger label; that’s bullshit. Were we supposed to sleep on people’s couches for the rest of our lives? Really, listen to Peace Sells... That’s a sellout record, huh?”

The album’s unforgettable artwork was created by Ed Repka, whose vast credits include Death, The Circle Jerks, Municipal Waste, Massacre and The Misfits. His involvement in the project came at suggestion of Andy Somers, who Poland describes as Megadeth’s “agent, babysitter, big brother, father, everything.”

“I believe it was Andy and Dave’s idea. The were having lunch in New York across the street from the UN building, and that’s how that came about.”

Although Peace Sells… marked Megadeth’s arrival in the mainstream, it was also the final album to feature the legendary Mustaine/Ellefson/Poland/Samuelson lineup. After departing Megadeth and sobering up, Poland took an unexpected musical left turn and joined the Circle Jerks as a bassist.

“I actually auditioned with 200 other bass players, and I got the gig.”

Partnering up with the Punk legends at the suggestion of Somers (who also worked with them), Poland was soon given the nickname “Carl” by the other members of the band – singer Keith “Johnny” Morris, guitarist Greg “Gingles” Hetson and drummer Keith “Adolph” Clark.

“They had all these names; they asked me, ‘Which ones do you like and which ones don’t you like?’ I said, ‘Well, I don't like Carl.’ They were like, ‘Well, that’s your nickname!’”

While one would expect an accomplished player like Poland to breeze through a set of fast Punk numbers with ease, he admits that playing in the Circle Jerks was “a hard gig.” In fact, the tendons across his elbows were so beat up from playing the band’s set that he had difficulty touching anything with his arm without experiencing pain.

“I was putting all kinds of stuff on them to get them to stop hurting. Then, about halfway through the tour, I think they just got used to it.”

After roughly a year with the band, Poland moved on.

“I was really bummed out. We were in Texas, and we were going to do a live record, and [the band’s label] Relativity just totally caved in and we never got to do it. That would have been good for me financially, too. That thing would have sold forever, but it didn’t happen.”

Despite this disappointing conclusion, he looks back at his time as a Circle Jerk fondly. In fact, former drummer-turned-accountant Keith “Adolph” Clark still does the guitarist’s taxes every year.  

“I never saw a band that had their shit together more than the Circle Jerks as far as what to do, how to do it and how to make money,” Poland says. “I was in Megadeth for years, and I never had a dime to show for it. I’m out on my first tour with the Circle Jerks, and I come home with $9,000 in my pocket.”

While Poland was putting his arms to the test with The Circle Jerks, Megadeth was carrying on with a restructured lineup comprised of Mustaine, Ellefson, guitarist Jeff Young and drummer Chuck Behler. While 1988’s So Far, So Good…So What! had its moments (including the extraordinary “In My Darkest Hour,” written in part as a tribute to Cliff Burton), few would disagree that it lacked much of Peace Sells...’s energy and musical prowess.

“I thought the drums were just kind of laying there, and I thought the guitar playing was okay,” says Poland of the album. “The best thing about that record was ‘Hook In Mouth.’ It was the best song I think Dave ever wrote.”

As Poland approached the '90s, it appeared that many of the trials he faced in the previous few years had subsided. In addition to landing a solo deal with Capitol, he was succeeding in embracing sobriety. Then came an offer to rejoin Megadeth following the departure of Young and Behler and the addition of new drummer Nick Menza. Although he did turn up at the studio to record some demos for tracks that would eventually land on Megadeth’s 1990 classic Rust In Peace, Poland’s third stint in the band wasn’t meant to be.

 “My manager kept saying, ‘You’ve got to think about this. You’re sober now…Do you think this is a good idea?’… I was seriously thinking about joining the band. At the last minute, I was like, ‘No! If I join the band, I’m going to die.’”

The lead guitarist spot in Megadeth eventually went to former Cacophony member Marty Friedman. Although Poland’s return to the band was short-lived, the experience allowed him to briefly meet Menza - a man who would eventually play a major role in his life.

“Nick wasn’t there [much]; I think I said hi to him, and that was it. If Nick would have said, ‘Come on, let’s go get a soda,’ I would have joined Megadeth [again]. That’s how much I loved Nick. From the first time I met him [years later], we just became fast friends.”

By 1990, Poland was not only separated from Megadeth again, but also moving forward without the support of Capitol Records. His solo record, the all-instrumental Metal-meets-Fusion masterstroke Return To Metalopolis, ended up being released on the California-based indie label Enigma.  

"Basically, Dave put the kibosh on me having a record released through Capitol, so that’s how I got dropped down to Enigma…That’s my theory.” he reveals. “Enigma was cool. You know why I liked being on Enigma? Because [Jazz Fusion legend Allan] Holdsworth was on Enigma. I was like, ‘You know what? If it’s good enough for Holdsworth, it’s good enough for me!’

Featuring Poland’s brother Mark on drums, Return To Metalopolis was a strong release that showcased Poland’s clear ability to stand on his own away from Mustaine and Co. Unfortunately, the album was barely given a chance to shine.

“David Cassidy had released a record, and one of the guys who was running Enigma took all of their money and put it all into this David Cassidy record and bankrupted the company. It turns out he was managing David Cassidy and running the company, and that’s a total conflict of interest.”

Following the Enigma debacle, the Poland brothers formed the short-lived Progressive Metal band Damn The Machine, who released an eponymous album on A&M Records in 1993. Mark later played in White Zombie, while Chris returned to his Jazz Fusion roots with the creation of his long-running band, OHM, which pairs him with former New Yorkers bassist Robertino “Pag” Pagliari.

“Some point after Damn The Machine broke up, I just called up Pag and said, ‘Hey, dude. Let’s just play together. We’re not going to try to get a deal; we’re not trying to do shit. We’re just going to have fun playing.’ That’s all we’ve done since.”

After spending close to a decade hosting a revolving door of drummers including the late David Eagle, OHM finally solidified its lineup with the addition of Nick Menza in 2015.

In 2004, Poland received an invitation to work with Megadeth again – this time as a guest guitarist on the band’s The System Has Failed album. Initially conceived as a Mustaine solo project, System showed Poland just how far his bandmate has grown as a songwriter and musician in the years since Peace Sells... 

“It was like night and day, man. When I first joined and Dave would show me and Junior songs, I would look at Junior and go, “I think he means this,’ and he’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ When I went in to do [The System Has Failed], he was like a whole different guitar player and a whole different deal. He had his shit together playing-wise and tone-wise and production-wise. I was very impressed with how far he had come.”

Although the two musicians continued to have personal ups and downs following the System sessions (including a lawsuit by Poland against Mustaine that was later settled), Poland says that his friendship with his OHM bandmate Menza (who played in Megadeth for nearly a decade) helped him overcome his ill will towards Megadeth’s notorious bandleader.

“Nick had no hatred towards Dave. He would tell me these stories that would make my hair stand up on my arms, but he just was like, ‘I don’t hate Dave. Look at all the things I did with Dave.’ I think the same way now because whether we had our stops or not, when I went in to do [The System Has Failed], it was like I never left. After four hours, it was just like we were making Peace Sells… again. I don’t have any animosity towards Dave.”

With Megadeth behind him once and for all, Poland focused his energies on OHM, working with Pag and Menza in making the group one of LA’s most popular live bands. The trio was a regular act at The Baked Potato, an intimate venue in Studio City, CA known to attract Los Angeles’ best musicians as both performers and audience members. On May 21 of this year, OHM was performing at the club when Menza suffered a heart attack and collapsed on stage. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. (Menza’s posthumous art series, Influx, was released July 23 - on what would have been his 52nd birthday). Poland is still trying to come to terms with his friend’s unexpected passing.

“[Nick] brought an energy that we had been lacking for years and an optimism that I had lost and that he gave me back. It’s just really painful that what happened happened. I know we’re not going to find somebody who’s going to fill that space as a drummer and musician the way he did… He was an amazing drummer, man. I wish we just got to record it.”

Following his time in Megadeth, Samuelson resurfaced in the early '90s as a member of Fatal Opera, a Florida-based Progressive Metal band that also featured his brother Stew. Although his playing on Killing Is My Business… and Peace Sells… is legendary, fans are encouraged to check out Fatal Opera to experience the absolute pinnacle of Gar Samuelson’s drumming skills. The band released a self-titled album in 1995 and a follow-up, the extraordinary The Eleventh Hour, two years later. The latter record featured singer Andy Freeman, a multitalented musician who had grown up with Megadeth posters on his wall.

“It was kind of funny; I just happened to live about a mile from Gar and I didn’t even know it,” he recalls. “At that time, I was in cover bands and stuff. I was doing some studio work in the next city, and I just happened to be there when Gar came in. This was right after [former Fatal Opera singer] Dave [Inman] quit. He saw me in there singing, and he came back again and gave me a tape and was like, ‘Hey, man. You want to try out?’”

Freeman remembers Fatal Opera as an opportunity for Samuelson and the other musicians to push sonic boundaries.

“It was constantly changing. I think early on, Stew did a lot of the writing. A lot of the earlier Fatal Opera stuff was what you could [call] ‘Speed Metal’…Stew was the best Speed Metal guitar player I’ve ever seen, but then Gar had some strange influences when it came to Jazz, Blues and stuff like that. I think he put a lot of those into his songwriting and came out with some weird music. With some of the stuff, we sat around debating whether we should even play it or not. We’d write this song, and we’d think to each other, ‘This isn’t Fatal Opera. This is some kind of Blues song or something.’ Towards the end, it was kind of morphing, and everybody was having more say, even myself. If we would have continued, who knows what would have happened.”

Unfortunately, Samuelson’s years of addiction and hard living had finally caught up with him by the time Fatal Opera started demoing tracks for a third album.

“Gar was sick, and we didn’t necessarily know how sick. I think Gar was making decisions about which way the band was going depending on his health. We were just oblivious to the whole thing; we were just in a band wanting to do this and wanting to do that. It did cause a little bit of pulling back and forth between the members.”

The severity of the situation was made clear when a planned European tour with Queensryche was scrapped.

“We all had got our passports and all of that, and then we go to practice, and Gar cancels it and kind of didn’t tell us why,” Freeman remembers. “He knew he was sick; I didn’t know if he knew he was going to die.”

On July 14, 1999, Gar Samuelson died at the age of 41.

At the time of this writing, Freeman, Stew Samuelson and former Fatal Opera guitarist Billy Brehme were participating in an extensive reissue project for the band’s two album. The Fatal Opera re-release will include bonus tracks, while The Eleventh Hour will boast a complete remix based off tapes of individual tracks that had been saved in Stew Samuelson’s attic. In addition to featuring an added crispness to the drums, the remix almost completely reimagines the record in places.

“To some extent, it almost sounds like a whole new album,” Freeman says. “We found guitar parts that were buried and not even on the album. There are even some vocal tracks [that weren’t there on the first release]; I listened to [the tapes] and went, ‘Wow! I like that vocal track better!’ so we stuck it on there…I think we did [the remix] to today’s standard. As far as Progressive Metal goes, I think it’s right where it needs to be production-wise.”

According to Freeman, both reissues are slated to be released by Divebomb Records within the next six months. In the meantime, he has completed an album under the name Berean Mind Project. Awaiting an official release, the CD features a guest appearance on five tracks by none other than Chris Poland.

Also on the horizon is a third Fatal Opera album built from demo recordings made prior to Samuelson’s passing. The release will feature around 12 songs and represent where the band was going musically before their drummer’s health took a turn for the worse.

“I talked with Bill and Stew, and we went back in and cleaned [the recordings] up. A lot of the tracks we’re using were the ones we recorded back then, but we’re going in and recording new tracks because there might be, like, a guitar track that stops halfway through a song. I found a lot of that, but all of the drum tracks were there… It was really exciting to know that we had these songs and we can finally finish them.”

Looking back at his time with Samuelson, Freeman believes that the drummer’s talents added a new dimension to what could be accomplished by a Metal player.

“I think the biggest thing he brought was intelligence. When you look at the early '80s when Thrash Metal and all that was just starting, Metal bands were more like just hyped-up Punk bands. Gar kind of crossed the bridge to where you can say, ‘We can write a heavy song and do it in an intelligent way so that it’s not a free-for-all.’”

Three decades after Peace Sells…,  Megadeth continues to thrive as a recording and international touring act. After numerous lineup changes, the band is currently comprised of Mustaine, Ellefson, guitarist Kiko Loureiro and drummer Dirk Verbeuren. The group’s latest album, Dystopia, was released in January. Nearly 35 years after forming in Los Angeles, Megadeth remains one of the most popular Metal acts in the world and will forever be known and honored as one of the core creators of American Thrash.  

In the words of Chris Poland: “The fact that Dave is still doing it? Jesus. That’s just a testament to his art, man.”

*Author's Note: Although Peace Sells... came out in 1986, the exact release date is unclear. Lars Ulrich's liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album say that it was released in October, which contradicts Megadeth's own website (November). I have decided to post this feature today - September 19 - to coincide with the most common release date referenced online.

**This piece is dedicated to the memory of my dog and faithful office companion, Wampa Roky Erickson. This article is the first thing I've written for this site since his passing on September 9.


OHM on Facebook