Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Box of Bernie

As anyone who regularly reads this site knows, Bernie Worrell was my favorite musician.

In the summer of 2015, Bernie’s wife, Judie, posted on Facebook that they were in the process of moving to Seattle from their home in New Jersey. Unfortunately, they had boxes of Bernie’s CDs that they couldn’t afford to transport across the country. She asked fans if they were interested in making offers on those boxes before they were taken to the dump.

These were difficult words to read. Bernie Worrell, one of the most gifted musical minds in history, didn’t have the money to keep boxes of his own recordings. Two years earlier, he had to start a Kickstarter in order to raise funds for a tour van.

Like many true innovators, Worrell wasn’t enjoying a particularly comfortable life at the time. Although he had contributed to some of the richest music in history, financial success eluded him – a fact made depressingly clear in the 2005 documentary film, Stranger: Bernie Worrell On Earth.

A Bernie Worrell show was a sonic roller coaster that literally took you somewhere else as the maestro worked his magic. As each song ended, audience members (at least those truly paying attention and feeling it) were delivered back to Earth grateful to have taken the trip. Tragically, very few people knew about or appreciated this. As Bernie’s former P-Funk bandmate Bootsy Collins said in Stranger, “If you’re not watching or listening, you’ll miss him.” Most people did.

When I saw The Bernie Worrell Orchestra perform in Massachusetts a few years ago, he had to shoo away rowdy drunks bumping into his keyboard setup and rise above the hipsters who chose to talk throughout the show. Bernie deserved more than that.

Although I was very short on recreational funds at the time of Judie’s announcement due to recently buying a house, I couldn’t bear to see Bernie’s work simply thrown away like trash. I reached out to Judie and made the best offer I could - $50 for a box of 25 CDs. In my heart, I knew I was committing a moral crime, but it was all I could do then. Judie wrote back, “$50 for one box plus shipping is better than dumping them.” The box arrived at my doorstep a few days later.

A few months later, it was revealed that Bernie was battling cancer and had moved to Seattle to be closer to family and take advantage of the city’s marijuana laws. For years, I had avoided the temptation to reach out to Bernie for an interview. I respected him so much that I felt that any time he would spend on the phone with me would take him away from what was really important – making his extraordinary music. But when faced with this upsetting news and the knowledge that Bernie’s time was running out, I reached out to Judie to see if I could chat with him for a story that would hopefully bring greater attention to his plight and raise funds for his treatment. Judie accepted my request and gave me their number.

When I called, Bernie’s son answered the phone and told me that his dad was sleeping. I urged him not to bother Bernie, but he insisted that it was okay. I really had to make this worth it. What followed was one of the most beautiful conversations I’ve ever had with another human being. He left me with these words: “Be careful out there; [it's a] crazy world.” The article that resulted from this chat is one of my proudest moments as a writer, but I still can’t read it without crying.

In April 2016, good fortune put me in Seattle on the same evening that Bernie was performing a show - on his birthday, no less. The night served as the live debut of his latest project, Khu.√©ex', an extraordinary group of musicians mixing Funk with Native American sounds. Bernie was incredibly frail, but his soul and fingers were as amazing as always. He was nearing the end, but he was still reaching for new sounds and directions. It was the greatest Bernie Worrell performance I ever saw. I left the venue feeling like I had reached a new cosmic plane, but I was also aware that I would never see the man on stage again. It was hard to take.

Bernie died two years ago today. I’ll never get over the loss. I’m glad this box of CDs is here.

More on Bernie Worrell 


Saturday, June 23, 2018

VINNIE PAUL: 1964-2018

Photo source: Billboard

In 1989, I became aware of a college radio station in Hackettstown, NJ called WNTI that had a Metal show on Thursdays nights. I often stayed up late and listened to every note that came through the speakers. It was a great experience for a 12-year-old kid, as it provided me a chance to hear a ton of bands that were new to me at the time. Testament, Exodus, Armored Saint, Laaz Rockit, Sepultura and New Jersey’s own Overkill (who had just released the epic The Years Of Decay album) were just some of the acts regularly played on the air.

As the months carried on, the show began reflecting changing times for the genre. The DJ started playing demo recordings from an unsigned New York band called Biohazard that mixed Hardcore with elements of Metal and Rap, while early tracks by “Pete from Carnivore’s” new band – still known as Repulsion at this stage – also started making waves. Then came Prong, Mordred, Faith No More, Saigon Kick, Lucy Brown, 24-7 Spyz, Scatterbrain, the Troy Gregory-conceived cerebral mindfuck of Flotsam & Jetsam’s When The Storm Come Down… Musical lines were getting blurred in real time, and those Thursday night listening sessions were always adventures in discovery. It was an intriguing time to be a Metal fan.

One evening, my ears met one of the heaviest grooves – and some of the best-produced drum and guitar sounds – ever committed to disc. I was blown away. It was another new sound for a new decade; it was another step forward.

The song was “Cowboys From Hell.” The band was Pantera.

Pantera would soon own the ’90s, selling millions of albums without compromising the intensity and integrity of their sound. At the height of Grunge, their most savage album, Far Beyond Driven, reached #1 on the Billboard charts. They sustained Metal’s place in the public consciousness more than any other group during that decade. They were untouchable.

I receive dozens of albums from new Metal bands every week through my website, and there are shades of Pantera in nearly all of them. Their influence is undeniable. They were the Black Sabbath of their time.

And Vinnie Paul was a huge reason why.

Sadly, success rarely comes without heartbreak. Vinnie saw his brother, Dime, die on stage at the hands of a deranged soul. Somehow, he found the strength to carry on with music. A man of lesser heart would have crumbled. I never knew or even met Vinnie Paul, but that tells me all I need to know about the man.

Now, that strength has been silenced. A legend has left us. The brothers are together again.

My deepest condolences to my friends who knew, worked and toured with Pantera and/or the Abbott Brothers and who now have to weather the sorrow of another loss.

Despite this terribly sad news, Vinnie’s music survives, and a lot of stereos will be very loud today. What a fucking drummer.


Friday, June 22, 2018

EP REVIEW - BPF (Big Paul Ferguson): Remote Viewing

From his humble beginnings on vinyl backing up Reggae singer Mataya Clifford (a.k.a. Mat Stagger) to his career-defining work with the incendiary Killing Joke, Big Paul Ferguson has always brought a unique vision to the world of drumming. His tom-centric performances on classic Joke albums (particularly 1981’s Whats THIS For...! and 1983’s Fire Dances) introduced a new standard for percussive expression that has since been regularly emulated but never surpassed. (Master skin basher Martin Atkins, who served as Ferguson’s replacement in Killing Joke in the late ’80s/early ’90s, has quipped on more than one occasion that copying Big Paul’s patterns nearly killed him.) In addition to various releases by the mighty Joke, Ferguson’s magic can be heard and felt on recordings by a slew of acts including Warrior Soul, Crush, The Ancients, Pigface, Transmission (with Killing Joke bassist Youth) and the early-’90s Killing Joke offshoot Murder Inc. Now, he has released his first music on his own (under the abbreviated moniker BPF) in the form of the stellar Remote Viewing, a seven-song EP featuring instantly identifiable cover art by longtime Killing Joke collaborator Mike Coles.

High expectations? Absolutely. Exceeded expectations? Without question.  

Naturally, it takes mere seconds into the opening “Hungry Gods” to know exactly who’s supplying the beat. Bolstered by the addition of hand percussion to his usual sonic arsenal, Ferguson flavors the track with a spoken word piece delivered in a fashion not unlike his one-time Murder Inc. collaborator Chris Connelly. Seventy-five seconds in, the drums rise to meet the fiery guitars of underground veteran Mark Gemini Thwaite (The Mission/Peter Murphy/Tricky), whose presence is felt throughout the EP. The track fulfills everything the words Big Paul solo release promise.

With Thwaite adding dark menace behind the curtain, the drums unsurprisingly take center stage on the Techno-tinged “Reboot,” a song that demonstrates the trance-like power that can be accomplished when a simple, bulletproof groove and a relatively mellow vocal track are placed in the right hands. (You can practically feel the osmosis effect of longtime associates Youth and Alex Paterson [The Orb] flow out of Ferguson’s pores on this one.) A similarly simple (but equally effective) beat drives the EP’s greatest moment, “Fear The Great Motivator.” While Ferguson is best known for his tribal drive, sometimes his strongest statements come when he sits back and lets a minimalistic vibe take over. (For another prime example, check out “The Rain” off Crush’s criminally overlooked eponymous album from ’93.) The drums here (and throughout the EP, for that matter) are powerful but never gratuitous, thus brilliantly showcasing the skills of a player devoted to serving the songs and establishing a mood through rhythm instead of resorting to histrionics.

Lyrically, Ferguson has plenty to say. Perhaps the most pointed sonic criticism of modern culture since Nicole Blackman gave the world a vitriolic verbal smackdown on KMFDM’s “Dogma,”  “XBOX” (featuring electric violin courtesy of Niklas Rundquist [The Leather Nun/Brainshadow]) hurls plenty of savage chestnuts at the deserving masses. Here’s one of them:

Ayn Rand was an evil bitch with a bad idea
But she is the prophet of the West
And they won’t stop until her dreams become a reality.  

There’s plenty more about Remote Viewing that could be discussed here, but this EP – much like the band Ferguson calls home – is something you need to feel to fully appreciate. At 60, he has just unveiled one of his most fascinating works. Like the brightest moments in his musical past, Remote Viewing will provide new treasures to listeners years after their introduction to it. An essential addition to the discography of one of underground music’s most innovative minds.


Monday, June 4, 2018

The Real Shit: In the Septic Tank with Scott Carlson

Shit out your soul/Day by day/Accepting lies they throw your way…
Septic Tank, “Septic Tank”

When the band is called Septic Tank, the album is called Rotting Civilisation and the Stewart Easton cover art looks like what see above, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re not getting a Pop record.

Formed way to back in 1994 as an occasional side project for various then-members of UK Doom Metal legends Cathedral, Septic Tank is a band focused on celebrating and following the tradition of raw sonic intensity first established by old school Hardcore/Punk bands like Discharge and Siege. Originally featuring the late Barry Stern (Trouble/Zoetrope/Cathedral) on drums, Septic Tank currently features vocalist Lee Dorrian (Napalm Death/Cathedral/With The Dead), guitarist Gaz Jennings (Cathedral/Acid Reign/Lucifer/Death Penalty), bassist Scott Carlson (Repulsion/Cathedral/Death) and drummer/producer Jaime ‘Gomez’ Arellano (Cathedral/Ghost/Paradise Lost/Ulver/Electric Wizard). The long-awaited follow-up to the band’s self-titled 2013 EP, Rotting Civilisation features 18 blistering tracks of distorted rage that demonstrate Dorrian’s most savage vocal performance since Napalm Death’s From Enslavement To Obliteration. Fans of that classic Napalm record, Carlson’s work on Repulsion’s immortal Horrified and the heaviest moments of early ’80s Hardcore now have a new soundtrack to listen to while punching holes through the wall. Rotting Civilisation is the real thing delivered by true underground music vets who know what this kind of noise is supposed to sound like.

I recently touched base with Scott Carlson to discuss Septic Tank’s ongoing journey of brutality, Discharge and the enduring power of extreme music. 

This new Septic Tank album on Rise Above Records is the first one you’ve done in five years, and of course the last one was an EP and not a full-length. This whole Septic Tank thing has been around for decades at this point. Why was now the best time to finally come together and do a full-length record?

It was really just a matter of convenience. I was actually going over to England to check out the last Black Sabbath shows with Lee and Gaz, who were also in Cathedral and are huge Sabbath fans like me. We were planning to do that, and then Lee said, ‘Hey, while you’re here, why don’t we just knock out a Septic Tank record?’ We’d been sort of working on the tunes on and off; I had a bunch of stuff written, and Gaz had a bunch of stuff written. We just got together and knocked out the music portion of it real quick.

You have a history with Lee and Gaz through Cathedral, and this music is much different from what you guys had done under that banner. Musical styles aside, is there any difference between working with those two guys in Septic Tank and working with them in Cathedral?

Not really. We all sort of have a similar vision, and we work really well together. Gaz and I work really well together when we’re just like banging riffs off of each other, so that part of it works out really well in either setting. We don’t really butt heads too much about anything; it just kind of all flows really well. It’s a pretty great relationship. It’s a pretty similar approach, although the Cathedral stuff had much more thought put into it. We’re going more on feel with the Septic Tank stuff. A lot of the songs were written rather quickly. We’d come up with a cool riff and then just knock together an arrangement and try to capture it while it’s still raw.

There’s obviously a very strong Discharge vibe on this record, and I’d imagine they’re a huge influence on you guys. What was your first introduction to Discharge, and how has that band influenced you over the years?

I heard [Discharge’s 1982 album] Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing not long after it was released. I think I was standing in line at a Venom gig or something, and I had on a GBH t-shirt. The guy next to me was like, ‘Do you like Discharge?’ I was like, ‘Never heard of them.’ He was like, ‘If you like GBH, they’re even more intense.’ With the way he described it, I was like, ‘Oh, I've gotta have that!’ I ran out and bought it immediately. It blew my fucking head off at the time; it was just so nihilistic and heavy, and the imagery was so strong. It immediately struck a chord with me that never faded.

Left to right: Gaz Jennings, Scott Carlson, Jaime ‘Gomez’ Arellano and Lee Dorrian of Septic Tank. (Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions.)

I interviewed Lee last year, so I know he always has a full plate. With that said, where do you see Septic Tank going in terms of possible touring or more music beyond this point?

Maybe not tour, but we’re definitely going to play. We’re in talks right now to go to Japan, and I’m sure some other stuff will come up. It’s just a matter of time. Once the album gets out there and people are aware that it’s a band, we’re sure more gigs will pop up. But I don’t realty see us going on a full-blown tour – probably just some minor stuff here and there. There will be more music for sure. The record was so much fun to make and came together so easily that I’m sure we’ll do another one.

I want to discuss something that came up when I talked to Lee. There was a short-lived time in the 90s when a lot of extreme Metal bands – like Godflesh, Napalm Death and of course Cathedral – ended up going through the major label filter. Because you came up musically before that happened, what are your thoughts on that particular major label era when you look back at that now? Did you see that having any impact – either positively or negatively – on the genre and its history?

I don’t think it was negative in any way. I actually came aboard Cathedral right at that time. The Soul Sacrifice EP [1992] had been released on Columbia, and The Ethereal Mirror [1993] wasn’t out yet. They were just starting to do press for it, and I met with them in New York, went back to England with them and started jamming. I was there from the beginning of the whole major label thing, and I’m glad it happened. It was an interesting and educational experience to be on a major label at that time in the early 90s and see how big the operation was. It was amazing.

Photo shoots cost $10,000, and there were $50,000 videos. Just a lunch to talk about the photo shoot had like 15, 20 people at a super-expensive restaurant! The stereotypical excessive behavior of these labels was ridiculous. The amount of money they wasted on just shit that was going nowhere…There were a handful of people who knew what they were doing and understood the music and knew exactly what it was. In fact, the people who signed all of the Earache [Records] bands to Columbia were actually very smart people who were totally in touch with the scene and everything. These guys knew what they were doing, but the people above them had no idea what was going on. The executives were just throwing money around and ordering photo shoots and stuff that was just absolutely ridiculous.

That was fun; I enjoyed it. There were certainly some ridiculous ideas. I think they wanted [singer] LG [Petrov] from Entombed to start going to the gym and get pumped up like [Pantera’s] Phil Anselmo. They just didn’t understand what they had, but the bands made the records that they wanted to make. There was no meddling in the creativity part of it. That part of it was fine; it didn’t affect the music much, and it probably did give that music some wider exposure. Napalm Death had videos on MTV – at least on Headbangers Ball. That part of it was cool, and most of those bands are still around. Cathedral lasted for another 17 years after that. Napalm are still around, Carcass are still around, Godflesh are still around and Entombed are still around in one form or another. All those people are still out there.

Aside from Septic Tank, what are you up to musically these days?

I play in a Rock band in Los Angeles called The Superbees, and then there’s just various things. Repulsion still plays gigs here and then, and I still write stuff all the time at home. I have lots of instruments and amplifiers at my house, and I’m always messing around with stuff. I made a record with Church of Misery last year or the year before. I’ve always had my hand in something, and I’m keeping myself busy - plus I work at a major studio in Los Angeles. Between work and all the little side projects I do, I’m way too busy most of the time. (laughs)

You’ve been playing extreme music for a long time – well over 30 years at this point. For you, what is it about playing music with that level of intensity that still keeps you in the game and still looking to go in that direction?

I think it’s just fun. That sort of never leaves you once you’ve done it. The opportunities keep arising, and the people who are involved are my friends and great people. If something comes along like, say, Tatsu [Mikami] from Church of Misery wants me to sing on the new record, why would I turn that down? The guy’s a brilliant musician; I would love to work with him. Working with Lee and Gaz? Anytime. I love those guys; we’re like brothers. It’s a shame that Cathedral isn’t around anymore, but those guys just felt that it reached its logical conclusion. It’s cool to be able to work with them in another [band]. In fact, we’ll probably have more fun with the Septic Tank thing because it’s a little more unbridled. (laughs) One thing I will say is that Cathedral didn’t really have any rules; there was a lot of experimentation going on. With Septic Tank, we sort of have a theme and an idea that we’re going with that all comes together really quickly, and it’s lots of fun. That’s sort of what keeps me coming back to it, I guess. I find it to be fun. Even playing Repulsion gigs – where we haven’t written a new song in forever – when we go on stage and play those old songs, it’s like it’s 1985 or 1986 again. We’re just having a blast!

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

Septic Tank at Rise Above Records