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.






READ JOEL'S BIO
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.






READ JOEL'S BIO
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.









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Friday, June 19, 2015

INTERVIEW - Spreading the Virus: Bill Laswell Returns to Praxis



Photo by  Toshiya Suzuki 

On June 30, the renowned New York label M.O.D. Technologies will issue Sound Virus, a new digital release from the legendary Praxis. Led by bassist/producer Bill Laswell, Praxis is a highly experimental project that has featured a fascinating array of contributors including guitar wizard Buckethead, Bryan “Brain” Mantia (Primus/Guns N' Roses/Godflesh), Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic, Afrika Baby Bam of The Jungle Brothers, Mike Patton of Mr. Bungle/Faith No More and Iggy Pop. As discussed in my review of Sound Virus, the new release features what the label calls “re-stored, edited, enhanced and remastered” versions of Praxis tracks from their early '90s albums Sacrifist and Metatron. This particular era saw the band's core lineup (Laswell, Buckethead and Brain) joined by Mick Harris (PainKiller/Napalm Death/Scorn), John Zorn (PainKiller/Naked City) and Yamatsuka Eye (The Boredoms/Naked City).

I recently connected with Laswell to discuss the creation of Sound Virus, his working relationship with some of Praxis' key participants and the very real possibility of new Praxis releases down the road.

Sound Virus features “re-stored, edited, enhanced and remastered” versions of songs from Sacrifist and Metatron. Why did you decide to revisit and restructure this material for this new release?

Just kind of going back and digging out things that had come before, I realized that there are some pretty intense pieces there, and probably not everyone heard it [because] it's been a while. I'm not trying to pitch [Sound Virus] to people who know the music – and it wasn't that visible anyway – but I was imagining it would be heard by an audience of new people who haven't really experienced it before. To me, it's like a new release. I've been going back and digging out a lot of things – a lot of outtakes and things that could be remixed and sort of reimagined going back that far. I'm kind of in that area right now – just restoring things and bringing them back.

How long did the process take to regenerate these songs and change them in the ways you did?

Not long. Piece by piece, probably a week of listening and just putting things together, and [then] the mastering session. It wasn't complicated. In hearing it, I familiarized myself again with it. I was a little out of touch. I'm trying to put all these groups [out]. With a group like Massacre, we have a lot of live records, and we've just done a lot of new live stuff, which is much better, so I hope there will be quite a bit of that recent stuff coming in the future.

For Transmutation [1992], you had Bernie, Bootsy and Afrika Baby Bam on board. After that album, Zorn, Mick and Eye stepped in for Sacrifist. What led to change in personnel between those two Praxis albums?

It's not really a band; it's sort of a logo or a brand. You could really put anybody on it. It's not a fixed group that tours and has a history of working together for long periods of time. It's always just really been a name. When I did Transmutation, I learned about Buckethead; when I met him, he expressed interest in working with Bootsy, and Bernie has always been around. Whoever was interested in working together just came together. Again, [it was] not really a band; [it was] more of a production or a project. That name came up, and we used it. After that, I was experimenting a lot with harsher or Noise-related music at a time [when] Zorn and I had a group called PainKiller with Mick Harris. I think it was exactly around that time, so things got a little more distorted, edgier, intense and faster [with] a lot of Hardcore and Noise references – and even slightly Metal sometimes. That was kind of a chapter [with Praxis], so I didn't want that to totally disappear, so I keep trying to go around and bring it back a little bit.

Since you were also working with Mick Harris and John Zorn at that time through PainKiller – and there were of course a lot of musical similarities between both acts – how was a piece of music the three of you developed determined to be for a Praxis thing versus what would end up on a PainKiller release? Was Buckethead's involvement really the deciding factor?

Not really. PainKiller, you could say, was a group. We were a trio that had a name, and we did some touring and did some recording. It was a little bit more like your typical band, whereas Praxis never really was. The real difference between Praxis and PainKiller is that you had these other elements that never really gelled. With something like PainKiller, you wouldn't have Bernie Worrell or Bootsy or P-Funk or people from the Hip Hop background; it would always be a heavy Noise band. Praxis always had the chance to go in a lot of different directions. It'll come again and might be something totally different. It's just really a name you put on something, but I guess it should have some connection in some way with whatever past experiences happened.




When and how were you first introduced to Buckethead?

It goes back a little bit before the Praxis project, which I used to meet him. I was introduced to him by a band in San Francisco called Limbomaniacs, and Brain was the drummer... They had met Buckethead and were friend of his, and they gave me two videos of him playing in his room, just goofing around. I sent one immediately to Bootsy because [Buckethead] had said his favorite musicians were Bootsy and Michael Jackson. I was working with Bootsy at the time, and he loved [the tape]. I said, 'Well, maybe I could put together a budget for a project; that way, everybody could meet.' I did that and we created Praxis. Everybody came to our studio, and that's where we all met.

Brain was the other mainstay in Praxis. What ultimately made him the best drummer for that project?

He's versatile and he has all this experience with heavier music like Godflesh, but also syncopated music with Limbomaniacs. He's really more like a Hip-Hop/Funk drummer who finds himself in Rock situations; he's not really a Rock or Metal drummer. The syncopation was an interesting contrast to some of the heavier riffs. Everybody got along, and he was the one who really introduced me to Buckethead, so it kind of goes back to the beginning of the whole idea.

You've worked with hundreds of musicians across all different genres. How would you say the experience of working specifically with Buckethead and Brain over the years has most impacted you - not only as a bass player, but as a general explorer of music?

They were younger than myself, and it was always good to find new people with new perspective and different experience and a different kind of energy, enthusiasm and ambition. It's nice to see people kind of learning as they go. You don’t necessarily get that from older musicians. You might work with the greatest musicians ever, but there's something about the enthusiasm of meeting new people and playing different directions of music. You feel part of the experience, and it's encouraging... I'm always looking for new people and try to encourage them to continue [because] it's not easy these days. In those days, [Buckethead and Brain] were an example of that type of energy.

In addition to Sound Virus, you're also releasing the Realm 1 collaboration with Barton Rage on June 30. How did this endeavor with him come about, and how would you describe the end result?

That's another one who kind of came out of nowhere and didn't really have a background or history and feels to be just starting. I didn’t really have much understanding or experience with what he was doing or what he had done, but I had a conversation [with him], and he seemed like someone who was genuinely excited about music and trying things. To get better, you're probably going to need a little help in the beginning. If you people don't get it, sometimes they get disillusioned and things don't happen. I just felt inclined to encourage him. It's not complicated to play in the kind of environmental or ambient music he's doing. I'm pretty versed in that territory, so it was kind of a natural thing to do. Once again, I did it because it was someone new and a new name and a beginning. It can't all be resolved; you have to keep looking for a beginning.

You're days away from curating another series of shows at The Stone. How will these events differ from your previous time there in 2014?

I guess it's down to each night. On the last one, I gave a few nights to different artists where I wasn't participating. Again, some of that was new bands and new people. On this one, I think I'm pretty much committed to five out of six of the nights. It's a little different in that I have to be ready to contribute every night [and] do something different. With the first group [Blue Buddha], we recorded with that band, but [there's] not a lot of experience playing together. That's obviously improv, and then playing with James “Blood” Ulmer... I've worked with him a lot, but not in this configuration. He's got him own perspective and concept and music, and you kind of have to adapt to his world. [With] the duets with Zorn with Milford [Graves], we're still developing a kind of language, so that's just continuing things that we hope will always advance, and that vocabulary gets bigger and bigger. With Method of Defiance, it's always experimental. It could go Drum and Bass or Dub, or it could be complete improv or Noise-related or DJ- related. One of those nights is with a kora player, so you have to adjust to these kinds of patterns and scales from West Africa. The Last Poets, which is a legendary statement, will probably play on their own. I'm hoping that people who never got a chance to experience that – because they don't play that often in New York or in the States – will go back and check the history of that, which was really important.

With Sound Virus renewing interest in Praxis, what can fans expect in the future? Will there be more Praxis on the way?

We have a lot of really powerful live recordings. A lot of them feature guests artists like Rammellzee or New Kingdom or Antipop Consortium and lot of different vocalists. I'm going to go back first and see if I can make sense of some of that archival stuff, but there's always the chance that there would be another live configuration. I don't know what it would be, but I'm not retiring that brand or that name. It'll come back as a statement, but it'll have to be a little closer to all the other work that's [been] done. I can't just throw it onto something random; it's got to fit the progress of how that name has been going.


*Some portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 


Photo by Yoko Yamabe 




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Thursday, June 18, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW - Praxis: Sound Virus





As previously discussed on this website, the great Bill Laswell has a musical history that has embraced virtually every genre imaginable. A visionary workaholic to the nth degree, Laswell currently showcases several of his projects via his label, M.O.D. Technologies. On June 30, the perpetually expanding Laswell discography will welcome a new addition in the form of Sound Virus, the latest title by the mighty Praxis.

Issued as part of M.O.D. Technologies' Incunabula Series of digital-only releases, Sound Virus features what the label calls “re-stored, edited, enhanced and remastered” versions of Praxis tracks from their early '90s albums Sacrifist and Metatron. Praxis stands alongside Bladerunner and PainKiller as one of Laswell's most brutal musical endeavors. Although the project's discography has its fair share of reasonably digestible moments (including a good chunk of 2008's brilliant Profanation [Preparation for a Coming Darkness]), this eight-track collection offers the group's most uncompromising creations. This comes as no surprise considering that Sacrifist-era Praxis saw the band's core lineup (Laswell, guitarist Buckethead and drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia) joined by the likes of Mick Harris (PainKiller/Napalm Death/Scorn), John Zorn (PainKiller/Naked City) and Yamatsuka Eye (The Boredoms/Naked City).

As soon as the double bass drum fury kicks in on the Metalized opening track,“Suspension,” it is clear that Sound Virus will be uneasy listening. If you're able to work your way through the album's saxophone squeaks, high-pitched screams and other eardrum-pummeling noise, you'll marvel at Buckethead's otherworldly talents. At its strongest, Sound Virus demonstrates the magic possible when a seriously gifted guitarist is surrounded by – and is sometimes causing – caustic noise. To get a clearer picture of what to expect here, somehow imagine Vernon Reid jamming with N. U. Unruh – or simply check out the nine-minute “Warcraft Triad,” a track as skillful as it is unsettling. Elsewhere, Metal plays a big part in shaping the sinister “Skull Crack Cathedral” (colored by arcade-like squeaks and chirps) and the stomping “Turbine.”

While such intense experimentation makes for an intriguing listen, it's also nice to hear musicians of this high caliber simply kicking out some straightforward jams. That comes in the form of “Inferno,” which starts off with Buckethead delivering a blistering Hendrix vibe before the song flows into some funky bass/drum interplay, veers off into some Dub and finally shifts its main focus back to the guitar. This is followed by the mellow ambience of “Low Time Machine.”

With the breather complete, it's back to the slaughterhouse with the 96-second Grindcore/circular saw/John Zorn nightmare of “Stronghold.” The aural ugliness sprinkled throughout Sound Virus reaches its zenith on the closing “Nine,” which finds Zorn blaring away on sax over a blast of Thrash not unlike Arise-era Sepultura.

Praxis certainly isn't for everyone, but adventurous music fans will find plenty to appreciate on Sound Virus.  

M.O.D. Technologies

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

FEATURE - A New Extreme: Inside iwrestledabearonce's 'Hail Mary'



photo courtesy of Atom Splitter PR

There is absolutely nothing about iwrestledabearonce (IWABO) that is conventional.

First, there's the name. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it? Second, there are three Mikes in the band - drummer Mikey Montgomery, guitarist Mike Stringer and bassist Mike Martin. (Actually, they call Mike Martin “Ricky” or “Rickshaw," 'cuz why not?) Stringer and singer Courtney LaPlante live in Victoria, BC; guitarist Steven Bradley lives in Los Angeles; “Ricky” lives in Texas; and “Mikey” (not to be confused with Mike a.k.a. “Ricky,” or Stringer a.k.a. “Michael”) lives in Oklahoma. Now... if your head isn't already spinning, it will after you listen to the band's explosive fourth album, Hail Mary. Released today on Artery Recordings, Hail Mary is a glorious musical mindfuck, mixing experimental noise in the grand tradition of The Boredoms and John Zorn's Naked City with a heavy dose of Prog-inspired Metal. I could go on with the descriptions, or I could just show you this:





Although IWABO have already built a reputation for brutally confrontational music, Hail Mary represents the band at its darkest and most abrasive. The inspiration for the album’s direction hit the band while on tour, when they realized over time that their set lists consistently featured their most aggressive material from past albums. This led to the decision to write what LaPlante calls a “heavy-as-shit record” from the ground up. This mission was helped along by the addition of LaPlante's significant other, Stringer, to the band.

“Michael was on tour with us pretty much the whole time that I've been in the band, just coming out to visit me,” offer LaPlante, who made her debut with IWABO on the previous album, 2013's Late For Nothing. “It would have just happened anyway very organically because we all love spending time with him. The best part is that he's also an incredible musician. We're so excited to have him writing music with us. He's very, very technical, but that's not the purpose of the songs he writes. The point [with Michael] is to have a well-formed, thoughtful piece of music. He's very methodical in the way that he writes the songs, but he's also an extremely great guitar player. I think that really makes Steven step it up, too. I watched them kind of challenge each other to play differently while recording this [album].”

“When I first started writing for this record, it was kind of up in the air because I felt like our styles were a little bit different,” observes Stringer. “I ultimately wanted to just make something that was still IWABO. This has always been one of those bands that kind of did whatever they wanted; they didn't really follow a path. When I started writing and showing Steven what I had, I was a little bit worried at first because it's a little bit different, but he was just like, 'Cool!' He would show me what he was doing, and it was kind of a mutual 'This is awesome! Let's keep going in this direction and see what's up.' It was a little overwhelming at first, but at the end of the day, I think we both met in the middle and it worked out.”

While Hail Mary succeeds in hitting the listener over the head with its sheer intensity, the album's greatest strength is its ability to bounce to the completely opposite extreme with ease. This is best showcased in how the Evanescence-esque ballad “Doomed To Fail Pt2" is immediately followed by the grotesque Death Metal onslaught of “Killed To Death.”

“I put that song transition on for my mom, just to frighten her,” jokes LaPlante. “She was bummed out. It was awesome!”

Hail Mary represents the latest chapter in LaPlante's whirlwind experience with iwrestledabearonce, which began when she discovered the group nearly a decade ago and became an instant fan.

“I specifically remember first hearing my band before I was in it,” she says. “My brother showed me the band on Myspace. Before he pressed play, he was like. “Okay...get ready..for this.” I heard it and I just couldn't believe that was a girl [singing]. I was in a band with my brother at the time, and we were kind of becoming a little heavier, and people would look at me in disgust when I'd do these type of vocals at shows. This was at Metal shows where all the men [on stage] would be doing those types of vocals, but when I would do it, it would be, like, so unattractive. Also, I was bad because I was just starting; I probably sounded like garbage. But no matter how I sounded, the fact I was doing it just bummed people out. When I first heard this band in 2007 and heard a girl doing that and being praised for it, I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to fully keep practicing this and fully do this in songs and not have this just be a small thing I put in.' By 2009, I felt more comfortable with it.”

Fast-forward to 2012, and LaPlante gets an offer out of the blue to join the band after former singer Krysta Cameron abruptly quit during their run on that summer's Warped Tour. Before she knew it, LaPlante was fronting IWABO for more than a month's worth of dates.

“I didn't know the guys at all,” she recalls. “I was at work, and I got a call from the band's [management], and they asked me to come on the tour. They just said, 'The singer just quit the band, and they just went on stage and played without her. She's not coming back. Can you come out here tomorrow and join the band? I said 'Alright.' (laughs) I met them on their day off on the 4th of July; the next day, we played a show. I had never practiced with them, and they had never practiced with me. I just went out there and played the show.”

Her first date with the band was in St. Louis – an experience remembered for more than just the music.

“It was so hot that day!” LaPlante says. “I came from Canada. I live in a very mild place; it doesn't snow and it's not hot. It was so hot... I put my phone on Steven's amp while I was playing the show. We played for like 25 minutes; when I got back, the plastic and rubber on my phone case had melted to his amp!”

All in all, a pretty insane series of events for a singer who got the attention of the band that had actually inspired her to do what she does in the first place.

“I'd walk around Warped Tour, and random people would be like, 'Mark Wahlberg!'” she jokes, making a reference to the classic 2001 film Rock Star. “It's not every day that one of your favorite bands comes to you and is like, 'If you don't join the band, we're done.' That's a weird thing to think about, because it's like, 'If I don't join this band, then my favorite band won't make music anymore.'

The band first became aware of the singer's talents through Unicron, the group she had with her brother, Jackson. Looking back, it's obvious that the Unicron's efforts to build a strong online presence paid off.

“If I was dude, [iwrestledabearonce] probably would never have heard of me,” she observes. “Because I'm a girl and there aren't a lot of girls who do this kind of music, their friends over the last five years or so had probably [said to them], 'Check this out. This is weird,' or 'Check this out. These people are totally stealing your style! (laughs)' They were aware of me, and they always joked with each other, 'If the singer quits, we can call this chick!' (laughs)”

In addition to celebrating the release of Hail Mary, iwrestleabearonce is gearing up to hit the road this July/August for the All Stars Tour, a jaunt that also features Upon A Burning Body, Within The Ruins and others. (Dates are available here.) Although touring can be a stressful and demanding time for any musician – let alone two who are in a relationship – LaPlante and Stringer rise above these challenges as a team.

“We both have the exact same mentality when it comes to music and what we want to accomplish; we're both very driven in that way,” offers the guitarist. “When we're on tour, we treat it like we're in the band and this is what we're here to do; when we're at home, it's different. It's a one-in-a-million shot that it would work, but it works.”

With the band's ever-challenging music hitting larger audiences all the time, LaPlante looks forward to seeing how new and old fans alike will react to Hail Mary, one of the finest – and most uncompromising – albums of the year.

“I just want it to perk everyone's ears up,” she says. “I want it to be the kind of thing that if your friend puts this on in the car and you guys are having a conversation, you'd be like, 'Shut up! What are you playing right now?' That's my goal.”
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