Tuesday, August 25, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW - The Ancients: Mind

It's impossible to review Mind, the first release from The Ancients in nearly 25 years, without diving into how this album got here in the first place.

Anyone who was a part of (or – like yours truly at the time – too young to do more than just read about) the late '80s/very early '90s underground music scene in New York/New Jersey surely remembers what a glorious hodgepodge the whole thing was. Grab an old EC Rocker from the time period, and you'll see shots of poofy-haired Glam bands sharing space with Goth groups in the paper's “Banding Together” section, ads for Punk and Metal bands (or, as the case often was, Metal bands comprised of old Punks) sharing the stage at The Pipeline or Studio One... and sporadic mentions of a small number of bands that were starting to make some interesting noise way out in Seattle. It was a beautiful time when everything seemed to blend together, resulting in bands that looked like Sonic Temple-era Cult but sounded like The Sisters Of Mercy (or Hardcore Punk guys who suddenly started looking and sounding like Circus Of Power).

One of the more intriguing characters to come out of this era was Fred Schreck, whose strong, Peter Murphy-esque voice first won over listeners during his stint as leader of Shoot The Doctor, a criminally underrated New York band best remembered for their appearances on the TV talent show Star Search in 1990. (Videos of these impressive performances are available on YouTube courtesy of keyboardist John Foster.) Despite this national attention, Shoot The Doctor dissolved after failing to secure a record deal, leaving Schreck to forge ahead with a solo project called “The Ancients.” Championed by major fan Joey Ramone, The Ancients quickly built a strong reputation in New York City's Lower East Side. With assistance from NYC club impresario Rob Sacher (Sanctuary, The Mission, Luna Lounge), Schreck brought The Ancients to the studio, resulting in a brilliant 1991 eponymous CD. The record's greatest track, “Release Me,” stands alongside Peter Murphy's “Cuts You Up,” The Mission's “Deliverance” and The Sisters Of Mercy's “More” as one of the strongest songs of the time period. 

The album boasted guest appearances by then-Psychedelic Furs keyboardist Joe McGinty (who went on to front the incredible Loser's Lounge project), Psychedelic Furs/Siouxsie And The Banshees collaborator Knox Chandler, former Clock DVA/Siouxsie And The Banshees guitarist John Valentine Carruthers and then-former Killing Joke drummer Big Paul Ferguson (fresh from an often-overlooked stint with Warrior Soul).

Schreck's working relationship with Carruthers and Ferguson would grow in significance two years later, when the singer was invited by the two to front their East West Records-signed act, Crush, after the band (originally known as Pleasurehead and signed to Island Records) saw the departure of original singer Michael Bramon. With Schreck completely re-recording the lead vocals at the last minute with great aplomb, Crush (completed by exceptional Lloyd Cole/Cats On A Smooth Surface bassist John Micco) released their fantastic self-titled album in 1993 – and nothing happened. Despite being a solid release (and boasting a should-have-been-hit with “The Rain”), the album – and the band – swiftly fell victim to the weight of the Grunge era, leaving Crush to sit in various cutout bins ever since. (A hunt for the album is highly recommended, as tracks like “The Rain, “Mary [Sing],” “She Came Down,” “Days Of Joy” and “We- The Love Child” are absolutely essential listens.)

Shortly after the release of Crush, Schreck found himself in the studio working on a second Ancients album with a new co-pilot. Initially involved with The Ancients when he mixed “Release Me” on the first album, British multi-instrumentalist and producer Morgan Visconti became a crucial part of The Ancients' second chapter, co-writing songs with Schreck and contributing keyboards, strings, backing vocals and drum programming. Others who contributed to the recordings included Ferguson, drummer John Socha, guitarist Chris Sokolewicz, backing vocalists Diva Gray and Robin Clark (best known for their work on David Bowie's Young Americans) and Schreck's former Shoot The Doctor bandmates Albert Zampino and Dave Tsien. Over the next four years, Schreck and Visconti worked to piece together the sessions into a full-length album.

And then... silence. By the time the 14 songs were completed, Schreck and Visconti found their personal and professional lives being pulled in different directions. For Schreck, this meant starting a new life in Nashville, where he raised a family and launched the popular Alternative Country group, The Billygoats, with old cohort Zampino. Visconti stayed in New York, building a career as a composer of ad music and releasing a solo album, Ride, in 2014.

With the duo splintering off into successful-but-separate lives, it appeared that The Ancients' lost second album would remain one of a long list of promising music projects that never left the ground. However, the surprise digital release of the collection, christened Mind, comes as the latest chapter in Schreck's unexpected second life in the Rock world. In 2012, Schreck resurfaced (at old friend Rob Sacher's suggestion) in familiar musical territory as a member of Satellite Paradiso, an all-star project helmed by former Psychedelic Furs guitarist John Ashton and featuring (among others) Sara Lee (Gang of Four/ The League of Gentlemen), Jonathan Donahue (Mercury Rev/The Flaming Lips), Cheetah Chrome (The Dead Boys/Rocket From The Tombs) and – interestingly enough – Big Paul Ferguson. With Satellite Paradiso's stellar 2014 debut album gaining well-earned attention, the timing was perfect for Schreck and Visconti to finally unleash Mind to the masses.

Not surprisingly, Mind boasts numerous highlights. As soon as an acoustic guitar kicks off album opener “Dope,” it is clear that Mind is an infinitely more organic affair than its drum machine-driven predecessor. (For those familiar with the first Ancients album, the groove found on the track “Rain” - not to be confused with the similarly titled Crush song - is indicative of what to expect on Mind.) Highlighted by Schreck's soaring vocals (comparable to his unforgettable highs on “The Promise” off the first album), “Dope” gives way to Big Paul's driving pulse on the mid-tempo “Things Fall Apart.” The irresistible “Circa 1977” mixes Low-era Bowie and “Fade To Grey”- era Visage with amazing results, while the chest-hitting drumming on “Shovel” finds timekeeper John Socha delivering a potent beat originally conceived by Ferguson in the Crush days. (Socha's performance on “Divine” is equally impressive).

“Wonder Element” is perhaps the track on Mind that most resembles the Crush days, with Schreck, Ferguson, Visconti and Tsien offering strong performances that could have easily found a comfortable place on the East West album. With Visconti putting down impressive drum programming, the stellar “Nowhere Bound” finds Schreck and Zampino joining forces to produce a driving Rock number reminiscent of The Mission's better moments. Anchored by Schreck's tasteful bass playing and Ferguson's solid groove, the gorgeous title track alone is enough proof that this album's release is an overdue gift to the world.

Mind is one of those truly special albums that gets better with each passing song - a collection of music clearly made by passionate people committed to producing genuine art. The greatest star of the show is Schreck's ever-versatile voice, an instrument that reaches its zenith when the man sings his heart out on “Free.”

Brimming with brilliant ideas that are far from dated, Mind truly sounds like an album recorded in the here and now. The album's release is even more important considering that many of the places (and at least one very special Punk singer) that helped shape The Ancients' original era are no longer with us. It would be a shame if the Schreck/Visconti partnership doesn't take advantage of Mind's arrival to create new sounds in the future. The world needs more music as perfect as this.

Purchase Mind on iTunes

The Ancients' Official Website

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

FEATURE: Still in Eden: Inside 10,000 Maniacs' Newest Tale

Left to Right: Dennis Drew, Steve Gustafson, Mary Ramsey, Jeff Erickson and Jerry Augustyniak (Photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR)

Releasing a collection of Folk songs from the British Isles is probably not be the best way to achieve Pop stardom in 2015, but it was how 10,000 Maniacs succeeded in making one of the year's finest albums.

On Twice Told Tales, the veteran Alternative Rock group (singer/violist Mary Ramsey, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson, drummer Jerry Augustyniak and guitarist Jeff Erickson) takes on music rarely (if ever) embraced by a commercial act. Although exploring sounds from the British Isles is an esoteric task for most other artists, this style of music has been a recurring theme in both 10,000 Maniacs and Ramsey's solo work (and her endeavors with John & Mary) for some time.

“The way I sing and the way we play and write music is sort of based on the style and the story content of a lot of the old tunes from the British Isles,” says the singer over the phone from the western corner of New York. “It was a real natural fit to find pieces that I had played before and the band had played before, record them and put our own treatment to those songs.”

Fans of 10,000 Maniacs will surely know more than a few songs off Twice Told Tales from the band's shows in recent times, especially "The Song of Wandering Aengus,” which Ramsey has performed a cappella in concert on numerous occasions.

“It would be a moment when the crowd was just ready to hear something quiet because whenever I've done it, the room goes just pin-drop quiet,” she explains. “The words to that poem are just beautiful.”

This audience's reaction to this approach served as a catalyst for the band's most recent adventure in the studio.

“When we kept doing it and it got that same kind of response, Dennis and I were talking [and said], 'Wouldn't it be neat to do just a whole CD of just these British Isles songs that we've all kind of liked?'” Ramsey recalls. “They do work very well with our band instrumentation.”

Like 2013's Music From The Motion Picture, Twice Told Tales was funded thanks to a successful PledgeMusic campaign. Using crowdfunding was a sensible move for 10,000 Maniacs, as Ramsey credits the band's fanbase for helping them maintain momentum in recent years by building a “cyber portal” of like-minded supporters around the world through social media.

“It's not about the selling of the CD; it's about having an artistic outlet, having a project and getting it completed and feeling like this is the representation of what we are for ourselves,” she says. “And then to share it with the audiences that want to hear us is cathartic for us as a band and for the individuals in the group.”

Twice Told Tales features contributions by 10,000 Maniacs co-founder John Lombardo, who was involved with the creative direction of the entire project and has been performing live with the band on an occasional basis. Although Lombardo's presence in the band has been on and off since his first departure in 1986, Ramsey is pleased to have had his involvement on this most recent collection.

“I think he has a lot of different interests,” she says of his sporadic membership in the band. “He's a visual artist, so I think his time is quite occupied with that. We're just glad that we have the chance to have this CD [with him] and continue to do collaborations.”

Ramsey's artistic relationship with Lombardo dates back to the late '80s, when the two began recording and performing as John & Mary. (Their 1991 debut, Victory Gardens, is an essential listen.) Initially hitting the stage with the Maniacs to add backing vocals when John & Mary were the opening act on the band's 1990 tour, Ramsey continued to augment the group during their hit-making Our Time In Eden/MTV Unplugged era. When original lead singer Natalie Merchant left the band in 1993 to pursue a solo career, Ramsey took over the vacancy and Lombardo officially rejoined the fold. Despite the personnel shakeup, the revamped lineup's first effort, 1997's brilliant Love Among The Ruins, remains one of the strongest releases in the 10,000 Maniacs catalog.

“I think [that album] really has stood the test of time in terms of the recording sound, but more importantly, I think that everybody played really well on that and sang very well,” Ramsey says. “[Our cover of Roxy Music's] 'More Than This' was [the] Maniacs' biggest-selling single in their history... I feel like it's nice to have something where you go away from it for how many years now – it came out in '97, so it's almost 20 years – and it's interesting for me to look back on that and listen to it and say, 'Wow!' I notice things that I hadn't noticed before. It's kind of turned into something a little bit different than what I remembered years ago. I'll be in the grocery store and I'll hear something like 'Even With My Eyes Closed' and I think, 'Oh, that sounds familiar.' Then I go, 'Wow, that's me singing!' That's weird!'”

After one more album (1999's criminally underrated The Earth Pressed Flat), Ramsey and 10,000 Maniacs parted company. Oddly enough, history repeated itself in 2007 when she rejoined the band (then fronted by Oskar Saville) to once again serve a support role singing backups and playing viola. Before long, it was 1990-1993 all over again, and she was back in the lead vocal spot. The “weird fate” behind her second and current stint in 10,000 Maniacs suits the free-spirited musician just fine.

“[When I initially came back], I just thought, 'Well, I don't have any problems just coming back and playing violin, viola and singing a bit','” she recalls. “At that point, I had decided to move back to Buffalo, so it all sort of fit in.

“What was really wonderful was that once I got back into singing and writing, it was just a natural fit,” she adds. “It all came back to us like old muscle memory.”

In addition to tracks off the new album, the band's recent performances have included older treasurers like “Pit Viper” from 1983's Secrets of the I Ching, “Can't Ignore The Train” from 1985's The Wishing Chair and “Cherry Tree” from 1987's In My Tribe. The band has even been known to throw in an exceptional rendition of The Cure's “Just Like Heaven” from time to time.

As Ramsey explains, “I said to those guys about five years ago, 'Let's try this. I've always loved The Cure and I love this song. I want to do this.' At one soundcheck, we started doing it and it worked out so well, and people love it... A lot of the people in the audience are from our era and people who know these tunes and remember going out, dancing and having fun – and they're doing that now.”

A portion of the PledgeMusic funds raised for the project has been set aside for the Rob Buck Memorial Scholarship, which was established to honor the memory of the band's founding guitarist. Fifteen years after Buck's untimely passing, the band is committed to ensuring that his musical legacy lives on.

“[The Scholarship] is something that we will continue to have because [Rob] was a very special person we lost too early,” Ramsey says. “Our goal is to have a scholarship fund that will help young people who are interested in music develop their craft. There are a lot of people who need funding and support like that. It's something that we hope spiritually will keep the memory of Rob alive – [not just] his music, but the idea of creativity and a place for a person to feel a sense of self, expression and identity. Music can help people of any age, but it really helps a young person if they have a sense of themselves and a sense of value.”

With Twice Told Tales, 10,000 Maniacs prove that a band can produce some of their most captivating work more than three decades into their career. Every note on the album serves as a reminder of the magic first developed when Dennis Drew, Steve Gustafson and John Lombardo co-founded the group in 1981. With Augustyniak keeping time since 1983, Erickson supplying guitars for 15 years and Ramsey involved with the band in one form or another for a quarter century, it is clear that 10,000 Maniacs is as much a family as they are a working band. In Ramsey's mind, 10,000 Maniacs' inspiring longevity is based on a mutual love of making music.

“There's a lot of life to [the band],” she says. “Every time we do a show, it's another validation that, yes, people do like this music, identify with it and value it. When you have people clapping and standing up and giving a positive response, sometimes you wonder, 'Wow, this is really surprising!' It's something that's contagious. I think that's been a big motivation for all of us.”

10,000 Maniacs have several live performances scheduled in New England next month. More information is available here

ALBUM REVIEW: 10,000 Maniacs: Twice Told Tales

With a history dating back nearly 35 years, 10,000 Maniacs have earned the right to do whatever they want. Years removed from the top of the charts but still drawing a devoted following, the group has used the crowdfunded Twice Told Tales as an opportunity to explore the kind of traditional Folk music that inspired their earliest days. Just like everything else released by the band through the decades, Twice Told Tales is a beautiful experience produced by players at the very top of their craft.

The album's greatest strength is its balance between the band's celebrated past and eclectic present. While songs like “Bonny May,” “Carrickfergus” (a song performed live by John & Mary over the years) and singer Mary Ramsey's breathtaking a cappella rendition of William Butler Yeats' “The Song Of Wandering Aengus” showcase the decidedly uncommercial aspects of the album, the more conventional “Dark Eyed Sailor” and “Canadee-I-O” could have found a comfortable place on an earlier Maniacs album like Blind Man's Zoo.

Yes, it is hard to imagine something like “Misty Moisty Morning” or “Marie's Wedding” being a Pop hit in 2015. Yes, the album's string-heavy approach guarantees a limited audience. But what Twice Told Tales offers most is an immensely enjoyable representation of a maturing band doing nothing but creating art out of love. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all of our favorite bands lasted long enough to reach that point?  

Official Mary Ramsey Website 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

FEATURE - Breeding New Art: A Conversation with Kelley Deal of R. Ring

Mike Montgomery and Kelley Deal of R. Ring (Photo by Chris Glass)

Those of us who came of age during the '90s Alternative boom will surely never forget the first time we saw The Breeders' “Cannonball” video on MTV. After the initial “what was that?” response to the visuals wore off, we were left with one pretty amazing song etched in our minds. Fronted by twin sisters Kim (of the then-disbanded Pixies) and Kelley Deal, the "Cannonball"-era lineup of The Breeders became one of the most successful and celebrated bands of the era. In addition to continuing her work with that group (which has sporadically reformed and released music since halting as a full-time unit in the mid '90s), Kelley has spent the last handful of years releasing some absolutely brilliant music with fellow musician Mike Montgomery (Ampline) under the name R. Ring. (Fun fact: Kelley lives in Dayton, Ohio, while Mike lives in Dayton, Kentucky.)

The R. Ring story dates back to 2010, when Misty Dawn Briggs of No More Fake Labels hit Kelley up to be a part of a Guided By Voices tribute record she was putting together called Sing For Your Meat. With fellow Ohio musicians The Buffalo Killers backing her up, she went to Candyland Studios in Cincinnati to lay down a cover of “Scalding Creek.” While there, she struck up a friendship with the studio's co-owner, Montgomery. Before long, the two were writing material together – giving each an opportunity to explore new things outside of their regular band environments.

“This is definitely our chance to do things that we can't do with our other bands because there are more people in our other bands,” Kelley explains. “The minute you get more people involved, it's just different. With this thing... it's like a mobile assault unit where you can just do quick stories and come back and make decisions really fast.”

One of these decisions was to present R. Ring's limited-edition releases in fascinating ways. While some artists are happy just to simply throw their tunes up on Bandcamp, R. Ring have released music housed in (among other things) wood blocks covered in grip tape (their cover of Devo's “Mr. DNA”) and Kelley-crocheted CD slip covers (Naked Salt). The band's more recent releases include split seven-inch singles with Kentucky-based garage rockers Quailbones and the Detroit-based band Protomartyr. Although Kelley has no problem with buying and distributing music online, she feels there is still a place in this word for something beautiful you can hold in your hands.

As she says, “Having music online and being able to download it at a moment's notice is great. It's sharing music, but's it's not really sharing art, is it?”

Of course, exploring the esoteric is nothing new to Kelley. While she is best known for her work with The Breeders (including their 1993 smash Last Splash), her history of unexpected side projects is downright mind-boggling. For example, did you know she once recorded a cover of Willie Nelson's “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” with Kris Kristofferson? It gets better: In 1996, she formed a supergroup called The Last Hard Men with Jimmy Flemion of The Frogs ( “the best guitar player I've ever seen,” she says), Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and none other than former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach. As you'd expect, the band's lone eponymous album (initially released independently in 1998 in a 1,000-copy pressing and later reissued in a drastically altered form by Spitfire Records in 2001) is a gorgeous mindfuck. (Take a listen to their covers of Alice Cooper's “School's Out,” Rodgers and Hammerstein's “I Enjoy Being A Girl” and The Scorpions' “In Search Of The Peace Of Mind” or tracks like “The Most Powerful Man In The World,” “I Hate The Way You Walk” and “Spider Love.”) The band came to be while Kelley was spending time in Minnesota after a stint in rehab. She was flipping through a copy of Spin one day and came across a “where are they now?” article on Hair Metal bands that featured an image of Bach. Looking for a way to go outside of her comfort zone and work with new people, she got the idea to get in touch with the singer and pitch him the idea of doing something. Before long, the two were getting music together with Flemion and Chamberlin at Minnesota's Pachyderm Studios.

“It was super fun,” says Kelley of working with Bach on the album. “He's very charming, very enthusiastic. His voice is an amazing instrument. He's got a phenomenal voice; he really does.”

One time, Bach was on the phone with a friend when he handed it to Kelley.

“He goes, 'That's Slash,'” she recalls. “I said [to Slash], 'Are you still a junkie?' He said, 'No. Are you still a lesbian?' I said, 'What?' because I'm not. Where does that come from? But he was a very nice guy. It was a very funny conversation.”

Looking back, Kelley lovingly refers to the Last Hard Men project as “some quirky fucking art with four really sad people in a room together – four odd people who should not be there together playing music.”

Kelley's music trajectory is made even more exciting when considering that she was a basically a novice on guitar when she debuted with The Breeders on the Safari EP in 1992.

“I still have a problem playing open chords!” she says with a laugh. “The first time I ever played barre chords was for the video of 'Safari'! I'm looking down and going, 'Oh! Now this seems easy! This I can play!”

Although it has been seven years since The Breeders released a full-length album (2008's Mountain Battles), various musicians from the band's history continue to cross paths for interesting projects. Last year, Kelley joined up with Kim and original Breeders drummer Britt Walford (Slint/Squirrel Bait) to record the Steve Albini-engineered song “Biker Gone” as part of Kim's 7-inch singles series. The recording gave Kelley a new opportunity to re-connect with Walford, one of her favorite collaborators.

“[Britt's] always such a gentleman, and always such a gentle person, whenever I see him,” she says. “He's super supportive.”

She also remains intrigued by Walford's unique drumming style.

“It's not like a rhythm instrument; it's like a melody instrument with him because of what he plays and his selections in how he hits,” she offers. “He's playing repetitive drum melodies. He really sings on the drums. It's crazy. His choices are beautiful and simple.”

In addition to R. Ring's touring schedule, Kelley has been meeting up with the other members of The Breeders' Last Splash lineup (Kim, bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson) as often as possible to work on new material.

“I know we're going to have an album,” she shares. “It's just a matter of when.”

For Deal, these get-togethers serve as brilliant reminders of what made this particular incarnation of the band so successful.

“We can't wait to see each other,” she says. “When we go to practice, we have to allocate an hour before we even start working because we're just going to talk... We really are tickled by each other and enjoy each other's company.”

As for R. Ring, Kelley says she and Montgomery plan to keep the music, art and fun coming.

“We both have degrees; we both could go get a job somewhere doing that kind of 9-to-5 thing and relegate any of this stuff that we love, are passionate about and makes life worth living to the weekends or nights,” she says. “We could do that, but I don't want to do that, and I know he feels the same way.”

R. Ring performs tonight at O'Brien's Pub in Allston, MA. More information is available here

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Sunday, June 28, 2015

For Chris Squire

Very sad to start the day with the news of Chris Squire's passing. Prog is just as important to me as Punk or any other genre I cherish, and it's devastating to know that the world will no longer hear new creations from one of its key progenitors. For me, Yes' greatest moment will always be the Drama album, where they were brave enough to match the technical prowess of their past with the New Wave vibe that was going on at the time. That lineup of Squire, White, Downes, Howe and Horn was magnificent. The magic of that album was easily matched on 2011's Fly From Here, which marked the return of Downes and (in the producer's chair, but not on the mic) Horn. Of course, there are countless extraordinary moments from the Jon Anderson era – a catalog with far-reaching influence. (Don't believe me? Ask Pat Smear, who started The Germs' “No God” with a guitar line from “Roundabout.”) The common denominator through all of Yes' various lineups was Chris Squire.

I'm grateful I was finally able to see Yes live in 2013, when they hit New England to play The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One in their entirety. There they were, mostly guys in their 60s, playing flawlessly for hours. And there was Chris Squire, leading the pack as he always did. And now he's gone. Hard to take.

Yes had more great music in them. While the loss of the sole original member could spell the end of future possibilities, at least there's some solace to be found in all those great record that came before this sad day. They will be filling the air here today.

Farewell, sir. And thank you.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Thursday, June 25, 2015

FEATURE: The King from Queens: Bruce Kulick on KISS, KKB and Beyond

Left to right: Bruce Kulick, Mike Katz and Guy Bois, circa 1974 (courtesy of Leighton Media)

The creature's alive!”

These were the excited words spoken to me by former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick over the phone in early June, just as his Got To Get Back CD/download with KKB finally hit the finish line. A true labor of love for the 61-year-old industry veteran, Got To Get Back is a special album containing songs recorded in 1974 by Kulick, bassist/singer Mike Katz and drummer Guy Bois. Based in the Jackson Heights area of Queens, the then-unnamed trio lasted long enough to write a handful of original songs and record them live in a NYC studio. Now, these songs have been packaged in an impressive release that chronicles the magic these three musicians shared during a unique time in their lives.

For Kulick, holding Got To Get Back in his hands symbolizes the realization of a project that took several months to complete.

[Putting out a record] always takes a lot of work,” he explains. “I have to pace myself in between everything else I do. It's not my full-time job, and it's not a band that's active and touring, but every product needs to have its own careful coordinating.”

While best known for his 12-year stint in the incomparable KISS, Kulick's decades-long career has included work with Meat Loaf, Andrea True, Blackjack (with Michael Bolton), Billy Squier, The Good Rats, Union (with former Motley Crue/The Scream singer/guitarist John Corabi), The Eric Singer Project (E.S.P.) and Grand Funk Railroad. As listening to Got To Get Back makes abundantly clear, Kulick's extraordinary talents were in full force even before his 21st birthday. (A review of Got To Get Back immediately follows this feature.)

Despite the power of the music, the three piece's studio recordings sat on a cassette in Kulick's closest for years until he came across a TEAC tape deck at a local garage sale in 2008. Thrilled to hear the material again, he christened the band “KKB” (after the first letters of their last names) and issued the tracks as a limited edition CD entitled KKB 1974, which quickly sold out of its 1,000-copy run.

Five years later, another chapter in the KKB story unexpectedly took shape when Katz found the original tapes for six of KKB 1974's eight tracks. The discovery kickstarted an entirely new undertaking for Kulick.

I always felt a little frustrated that [Mike] didn't know where the [original] tapes were and that he didn't really have much else from his past like the way I've archived my career,” he shares. “But he actually found the tapes finally – the actual individual tracks. Before I made any decision about doing anything with it, I wanted to hear that, so I asked him to transfer them. He lives in New York, so he found a studio to run them off. The quality was better, and it was professionally transferred. When I got those digital files and listened to individual tracks of those songs that you knew from the 2008 release, I realized that they all individually sounded better. They were probably [at] the right tempo, whereas the tape I had might have been a copy that was slightly different or maybe a little slower or something. But having that ability to manipulate those [tracks] and professionally mix it was what I was attracted to.”

In addition to giving the songs a proper shine, Kulick saw the new project as an opportunity to connect with Katz and Bois to create and record a brand-new song. This desire led to “Got To Get Back,” an incredible number that effortlessly fit in with the vibe of the original KKB studio sessions.

I wasn't interested in moving forward on it unless Mike and I could come up with a legitimate new song that still felt like us,” Kulick says. “That's a tall order, because how do you time-capsule yourself 40 years? But the song kind of does feel in an odd way like something that we could have done years ago.”

The recording of “Got To Get Back” saw each member of KKB record his part in a local studio where he lived – Bois in Paris, Katz in New York City and Kulick in Los Angeles. The trio succeeded in making the track so reminiscent of the past that it has fooled more than a few people - including Fred Coury of Cinderella, who helped Kulick out with guide drum programming for the track before it was sent to Bois.

[Fred] was convinced it was a 40-year-old song; he got completely confused,” Kulick says. “That only gave me more ambition.”

On top of this all-new composition, Kulick brought in longtime collaborator Jeremy Rubolino to score an added string quartet for the ballad “Someday,” while Katz added a vocal part to the track “My Baby” that was not used on the original version. Mixing and mastering duties were handled by engineer Brian Virtue, whose lengthy resume includes work with Jane's Addiction, Audioslave, Deftones and Shadow Project.

Limited to 500 copies, the Got To Get Back package includes a numbered CD, a two-sided photo card (including a brief history of the band), a KKB guitar pick and a download card. The hard copy release, which is available in both signed or unsigned editions, contains an exclusive bonus “hidden” track of a 74-second rehearsal.

I swear to you, it sounds like Queens Of The Stone Age, maybe 25 years before that band existed!” Kulick says.

The album (minus the rehearsal track) is also available at all major digital outlets – a source of great excitement for Katz and Bois.

They're both really thrilled to think that something from that many years ago [is something that] the whole world can now explore with just a couple of key strokes on your smartphone,” offers their guitarist. “That's one of the advantages to the way music is [now] shared and enjoyed.”

Not surprisingly, the three members of KKB were heavily inspired by Cream during their short time together – a point driven home by Got To Get Back's dedication to the memory of Jack Bruce. However, Kulick insists that their fondness for the British supergroup was only one aspect of KKB's musical world.

As much as we were doing the trio the way Cream was a trio, Mike was delving into some other kinds of music,” he offers. “I'm not even sure what his other influences were, but some of KKB is very Progressive at times, and there are intricate time signatures that could lean towards King Crimson or Yes or something like that. But wherever it came from, everybody [in KKB] loved music.”

With Got To Get Back finally available for the world to experience, Kulick is hopeful that his audience will enjoy listening to KKB as much as he enjoyed giving the band's tunes a new life.

It was something that Mike, Guy and I were doing that was wholly unique for the time,” he says. “I guess that's why I never get tired of listening to it, and why I've been so aggressive about getting it out there.”

In addition to sharing the music of KKB with fans, the six-stringer currently maintains an active touring schedule with Grand Funk Railroad, the Rock legends he joined in 2000. Celebrating his 15th year as a member of the band – and thus his longest-ever stint with an artist – the guitarist believes that Grand Funk's ongoing success comes down to inter-band comfort, mutual respect and the ability to make any show they perform a memorable and magical event.

Our last gig was at a really great casino in Atlantic City, the Tropicana,” he says. “The showroom was incredible – great sound, great lights; it was a beautiful place. We can take a gig that's really going to be easy for us, or we can take that outdoor city festival where there's bugs everywhere and it's 90 degrees with 100-percent humidity and still put on a killer show. That's a real testament to just the way we're all dedicated to being the best we can.”

This dedication has resulted in the group – Kulick, original drummer Don Brewer, original bassist Mel Schacher, former 38 Special/Jack Mack and the Heart Attack singer Max Carl and former Bob Seger/Robert Palmer keyboardist Tim Cashion – maintaining the same lineup for the last decade and a half.

Don's really the leader, and rightfully so,” Kulick says of the band structure. “He definitely gets what Grand Funk is about, and I think everybody plays their role. Like most bands that are successful for a long period of time, everybody gets what's expected of them and knows how to deliver.”

Being a team player also served Kulick well way back in 1984, when he replaced Mark St. John to become the fourth lead guitarist in KISS. The following year, he made his official recorded debut as a member of the band on the Asylum album. With that record hitting its 30th anniversary this September, Kulick looks back at the Asylum experience with fondness.

First of all, I got to record at Electric Lady [Studios], which is a real dream because of Jimi Hendrix being such a favorite of mine,” he says, “[He's] still actually my favorite guitarist, and then Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. To be in the studio that [Hendrix] built was really mind-blowing. It's down in Greenwich Village, which was still kind of happening in the '80s.”

Of course, Kulick wasn't a complete stranger to the KISS camp before becoming a member. His brother, Bob – a renowned session player whose credits include everyone from Lou Reed to W.A.S.P. – had a long history with the band dating back to 1973, when he first auditioned for the spot taken by original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley. Later, he played on Paul Stanley's 1978 solo album, co-wrote the song “Naked City” for KISS' 1980 Unmasked album and contributed guitar session work to the KISS releases Alive II (1977) and Killers (1982). Despite this longstanding family connection, Kulick didn't gain true insight into the inner workings of KISS until he landed the job and started working alongside Stanley and Gene Simmons, who both co-produced Asylum.

It was kind of funny; I didn't really know how they worked together as a band,” he recalls. “I had a little bit of a taste of working with Paul in the studio, because I did some of the ghost guitar work on [1984's] Animalize. I never actually worked in the studio with Gene [before Asylum]. I saw them one time [in the studio] when they were doing Creatures of the Night, because my brother and I visited. My job as the lead guitarist was, look, I knew they were the principal creators of KISS. Not to take anything away from Ace and [original drummer] Peter [Criss], but you know that Gene and Paul were always really the driving forces in the band. They really had a vision for a Rock band that could be huge, and they succeeded. I was just going to basically do my job... I was just that guy who could interpret what they wanted and then be able to create and lay it down there. I didn't go in really with any expectation except for doing the best job I could.”

As Kulick soon learned, doing the job well meant balancing the creative directions and demands of two different personalities.

Gene would work any day – no matter [if it was] a holiday or weekend – and Paul would want the weekend off,” he says. “I remember one time, I think I worked 22, 25 days in a row in the studio, being passed back and forth between the two of them! It truly was exciting for me.

Paul was a little more methodical about how he wanted to work,” he continues. “Like [on] 'Tears Are Falling', I love the solo that I came up with [for] it. Some of it was definitely [from] some ideas from my music vocabulary, but some of it was very clearly his melodic approach to what a lead guitar could do.”

Asylum's arrival on record store shelves coincided with the height of Glam Metal Mania in the United States. Although KISS' fashion sense circa 1985 was indicative of the era, the band's gradual transition from Clown White makeup to Aqua Net Pink hairspray was still a shock to many of the band's original fans. The band's willingness to embrace then-current trends was reflected by the record's cover – a hyper-Glam design created by longtime KISS art director Dennis Woloch that is said to have been inspired by the imagery used for The Motels' Shock album.

I was concerned about the cover, even though I didn't have a problem with it,” Kulick admits. “That era had a lot of neon colors in it, but for a Kiss album, it was a little odd. At least this time, everybody knew who was playing on a Kiss album, whereas I toured with them [for Animalize] and nobody was sure who they were seeing. At least I got my foot in the door of, 'Now the real lead guitar player in the band is Bruce Kulick.'”

Three decades after Asylum's release, the album remains a favorite among members of the Kiss Army.

I can't tell you how many Asylum records I've signed,” Kulick says. “Of course, songs like 'Tears Are Falling', 'Who Wants To Be Lonely' and 'King Of The Mountain' are really, really cool tracks from that album that I'm real proud to have been a part of.”

As pleased as he is to discuss and celebrate the past, Kulick is firmly committed to building a bright present and future for his music and career. Last year, he made his three solo albums – 2001's Audio Dog, 2003's Transformer and 2010's BK3 – available digitally for the first time. Two months ago, he released a vinyl edition of BK3 to his enthusiastic fanbase.

It took forever to create vinyl; the plants are all backed up,” he shares. “That is one medium of music product that people are supporting better, but don't be fooled – it's not like numbers that are going to make anybody rich. But the point is, that's the only medium that's increased. It's nothing like what it was, but vinyl has a certain cachet about it that people are attracted to.”

Looking ahead, Kulick is in the planning stages for his fourth solo album and is considering using “a proper Kickstarter kind of thing” to get the project rolling.

I do want to pre-sell it so I know what I can afford to spend on it,” he explains. “If I can raise x, I know [how] that kind of budget would work to make sure I can record it and then provide everybody with a quality product. If I make as much as three times x, maybe I'd get even biggest guests and maybe a better studio. I don't know how it's going to go, but I can't ask anybody for money until I've written at least three quarters of the record, if not all of the record.”

Of course, fans who can't wait for something new have plenty to check out and enjoy on Got To Get Back, a document of how one of music history's most incredible journeys began.

From the artwork to the intention of what I'm trying to celebrate here, I'm really proud of it,” Kulick says. “The fact that I was doing something like that at 20 blows my mind.”

ALBUM REVIEW - KKB: Got To Get Back 

Listening to Got To Get Back by KKB, it's nearly impossible to believe that this was the first time former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick had ever worked with fellow musicians in composing original material. At only 20, he was already demonstrating the skills that would eventually elevate him to a spot in one of the most successful bands in music history. Boasting the kind of top-tier technical prowess that critics often said was lacking in the original KISS at the time, these KKB sessions from 1974 showcase a bulletproof trio often reminiscent of classic Cream, Decca-era Thin Lizzy and Mark I Deep Purple – with an added touch of Rush felt in some truly impressive spots (especially the 3:20 mark in the explosive “You've Got A Hold On Me”). Kulick's ability to crank out a powerful solo – always the secret weapon of late '80s-era KISS – is on impressive display throughout the disc.

Although Kulick is the most recognizable name on this release, bassist/singer Mike Katz and drummer Guy Bois are deserving of equal attention and praise. Together, the create a groove not unlike Paranoid/Master of Reality-period Black Sabbath. The members of KKB were serious musicians who created a set of songs that easily measured up to some of the most celebrated names of the Classic Rock era. Overall, Got To Get Back delivers a Prog-powered punch without falling victim to the unnecessary bombast that often plagued that genre. The same can be said for the brand-new title track, which finds the trio delivering an amazingly retro vibe with undeniable vigor.

Infinitely more than a just a novelty item for members of the KISS Army, Got To Get Back is a solid release that easily succeeds on its own merits and proves that even four decades apart can't diminish the strength of three special musicians who were meant to play together. My suggestion would be to purchase the physical CD edition of the release – beautifully packaged and individually numbered with a photo card, guitar pick and download card.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

FEATURE - The Heretics Return: Valor Kand on the 'Evilution' of Christian Death

Photo courtesy of www.facebook.com/christiandeath

The album cover with the image of Jesus shooting up dope. The anti-religious song lyrics. The combustible inter-band relationships. The incendiary music. Long-running Goth legends Christian Death are known for many things. Existing in one form or another for more than three decades, the band (currently a trio of guitarist/vocalist Valor Kand, bassist/vocalist Maitri and drummer Jason Frantz) has carved out an ever-controversial niche for itself by blatantly attacking the elements in society that seek to manipulation and control. Currently, this longstanding goal is driving the creation of The Root Of All Evilution, the first new Christian Death album since 2007's American Inquisition. The group is in the final days of a special PledgeMusic campaign to fund the recording and manufacturing of the album. Exclusive items and incentives for fans range from special art created by Kand's daughter Zara to having the band play your funeral. (“We’ll be on standby until your demise” says the band on their PledgeMusic project page.)

In Kand's mind, funding the upcoming album through PledgeMusic - and thus not working with a record label - allows Christian Death a level of freedom they haven't enjoyed in some time.

You don't have to deal with other people doing it this way,” he says. “With labels, you're talking about their money; you're talking about they way they do things as opposed to, 'Let's just do this and that's all there is to it.' Another reason it's not worth dealing with record companies is that they don't have any money because people really don't buy CDs and vinyl anymore. That was their mainstay, so now the cash flow isn't there to really fund projects and put bands on the road to do good shows.”

Five percent of any money raised beyond the band's funding goal will go to the Freedom from Religion Foundation. According to its website, the Foundation exists to “promote the Constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”

[The Foundation] is not just trying to argue a point; it's basically out there to help people who come into conflict with societal control through religious morality,” Kand explains. “I don't think they're huge enough; there are too many big things above them that could squash them, but they have been winning in legal courts.”

Clearly energized by the endless possibilities provided by the crowdfunding concept, Kand was excitedly bouncing around numerous ideas for fan incentives during the course of our conversation, even drawing inspiration from the cedar trees he was cutting down on his New England property just prior to picking up the phone.

For the cedar trees around here, the common size is six inches,” he observes. “If you slice the trees thin enough and put the pieces together, it could make a great cover for a CD!”

Naturally, the album's title and overall tone stems from Valor's long-running interest in the darker sociological aspects of human existence. As he sees it, the evolution of evil has been an ongoing process throughout history– from the deeds of Adolf Hitler to the hypocrisy of disgraced religious leader Ted Haggard.

How evil can it really get? How cruel can people really be?” he asks. “The things [these people] did were just completely opposite of what they were selling. It's something that I'd like more people to think about, because it would really have an effect on all of our lives if we get a handle on the insanity of it all.”

In addition to gearing up for a new album, Christian Death currently boasts the most stable lineup that's ever existed in their long and often-tumultuous career. Maitri has appeared on every Christian Death album since the 1992 compilation Jesus Points the Bone At You?, while Frantz has been with the outfit for nearly six years.

He's very good at everything he does,” says Kand of the skinsman. “He's a wonderful person; he's also a great mediator when people are having conflicts, because he's so mellow. It's always nice to have that around.”

Formed in California in 1979 by singer and artist Rozz Williams, Christian Death experienced a number of member shakeups before splitting in 1983. Later, Williams joined forces with the group Pompeii 99, which featured Kand, Gitane DeMone (vocals/keyboards) and David Glass (drums). At the strong urging of the French record label L'Invitation au Suicide (who had released Christian Death's 1982 album Only Theatre Of Pain in Europe), a reluctant Williams and Kand re-branded this configuration as “Christian Death.” This new foursome (aided by a revolving door of bass players) recorded two classic albums, 1984's Catastrophe Ballet and 1985's Ashes, before Williams left the group to pursue other interests. The rest carried on under the “Christian Death” banner, although DeMone and Glass both departed by the close of the '80s. Glass went into band management, while DeMone pursued a solo career. Tragically, Williams (whose extensive body of work includes releases with Shadow Project, EXP and Daucus Karota) took his own life in 1998.

While the band's past personnel predicaments (including that very strange time in the early '90s when Valor and Williams each had their own version of the band gigging and putting out records simultaneously) are infamous, today's Christian Death is a considerably more harmonious unit.

As their guitarist explains, “All three of us enjoy and appreciate the same pleasures in life, and we're tested by the same issues. I'm obviously philosophically and politically motivated, Maitri's more in tune with Eastern philosophies and Jason is right there in the middle. We have great conversations; we work together well and we play together well.”

Although Christian Death is clearly focused on the present and future, the band has devoted time over the last two years to making a large chunk of their post-Williams discography (from 1985's The Wind Kissed Pictures to 2000's Born Again Anti Christian) available digitally for the first time. What was it like for Kand to shift through decades' worth of music and memories to complete the project?

The emotional content obviously varies from time to time, and the music is an emotional representation of the lyrics,” he replies. “The lyrics are inspired by events that happen to you as they're happening. It could be finding out about something from the past or worrying about something from the future or discussing something in the present, but it's something that's happening to you at that moment. I can reflect on those emotional feelings I felt that those times; they come back in full force each time I hear old stuff. But I try not to dwell on and listen to old stuff; I mostly hear it when I'm in the presence of other people because they're playing it for me. I'm very anxious; I just have to create music more than I have to listen to what I've done before.”

That said, Valor remains especially fond of the three Christian Death albums created at Rockfield Studios in Wales, the iconic studio responsible for classics ranging from The Damned's The Black Album to Bauhaus' The Sky's Gone Out.

I loved Catastrophe Ballet, Atrocities [1986] and The Scriptures [1987] because they all had a specific sound that was achieved in that specific studio, and we had the luxury of doing that,” he says. “We had issues with record companies in the '90s; we never got back to a studio that I was happy with. We were encouraged to go to places we really didn't want to go to, but we said, 'Okay, we'll do it' just because it was a budget thing. Rockfield was where 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was recorded; it was just a fantastic studio. The engineers there knew how to work the room and equipment.”

Recently, both Catastrophe Ballet and Ashes were re-released as limited “30th anniversary” vinyl editions by the French label Season of Mist. Seeing Ashes back in the world in this fashion is especially poignant, as it marks three decades since Kand last worked with Williams in a studio. Looking back, he has mixed feelings on the album that resulted from these sessions.

Ashes should have been a longer record than it was, and that was a budget issue as well,” he recalls. “We had to record in LA because of people's personal issues. I never liked the studios in LA, but I tried to make Ashes work. I'm not saying that I didn't succeed, but it was seven songs. I could have produced 10 songs at Rockfield in the same amount of time and for the same money. That's a sore point for me, but I love what we did with it. I love everything about it.”

Kand remains especially fond of the Ashes' jarring closing number, “Of The Wound.”

The orchestration is just so magical,” he says. “I had six or seven different cellos and six or seven different violins recorded... I just remember being so excited in the studio when the mix was coming together for that song.”

With a new album in the works and tour plans unfolding as I type this, Christian Death are soon to embark on another fascinating journey. While many of his original contemporaries have left the scene, Valor Kand soldiers on, guiding the Christian Death saga forward with a desire to always explore new methods of spreading his confrontational gospel to the masses.

Evilution indeed.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com