Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Sad Songs Say So Much: A Listen to MOAT's "Acid Rain"





Last month, MOAT – a collaboration between former The Church guitarist Marty Willson-Piper and Niko Röhlck of Weeping Willows – released the fantastic “Gone By Noon,” the first single from their forthcoming second album, Poison Stream (due in early 2021). Now, they have just unveiled a second tune, “Acid Rain,” in time to coincide with the launch an Indiegogo page in support of the new album.

Those (like yours truly) who absolutely loved “Gone By Noon” and were struck hard by the song’s sense of loss and disconnection will find more of the same on “Acid Rain,” which uses a more upbeat musical presentation to cushion another Willson-Piper walk through lyrical melancholia:

You flick the pages
Of your book
Trying to find
The right line

Then there it is
That famous quote
That explains
Away your life

You flip a coin
You laugh out loud
As it’s lost.

However, “Acid Rain” is far from a complete downer, as the song’s arrangement (highlighted by the simple but highly effective charge of drummer Eddie John) flavors its sentiments with hooks that last for days. Synth player Torbjörn Svedberg and backing vocalist Dare Mason add just the right amount of light to the proceedings, while Willson-Piper’s return to guitar (after assuming bass duties for “Gone By Noon”) is instantly recognizable and characteristically pristine.

Based on the two songs available thus far, Poison Stream will be a fairly dark and cynical affair. And that’s okay… Emotions are emotions, and it’s an artist’s job to convey them. And there will surely be plenty of sonic beauty in the tracks to come to balance out whatever dark alleys MOAT choose to take us down upon the album’s release. I can’t wait to hear and feel where the journey takes me.

Have a listen to “Acid Rain” below:



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Thursday, September 24, 2020

REVIEW - The Damned: The Rockfield Files





“It’s great to be back at CBGB!”

When The Damned’s Captain Sensible made the above quip in front of the sold-old crowd at Madison Square Garden last October when the band opened for the reunited “Original” Misfits, he did far more than elicit a few thousand chuckles – he also reiterated just how important The Damned have been to the history and evolution of Punk.

Formed in 1976, The Damned hit the ground running with their debut single, “New Rose,” (several months before The Sex Pistols first put their anarchy to vinyl) and have been going ever since. Through decades of heavy dues paying, lineup changes and varying degrees of mainstream success, The Damned’s high-caliber output has remained sonically bulletproof. Listening to a Damned record or seeing one of their note-perfect gigs is like going to school in the best possible way: No matter how great we all might think our bands are or how cool we think we look on stages or album covers, The Damned effortlessly – and bloody always – remind us of just how far we still have to go to even come close to reaching the vibe and skill these bastards perfected at the very beginning. They did it first, and they’re still doing it better than everyone else.

Case in Point: The Rockfield Files, the band’s brand-new, four-track EP coming October 16. In 2019, the band – Sensible (guitar), singer Dave Vanian, keyboardist Monty Oxymoron, bassist Paul Gray and (since departed) drummer Pinch – returned to Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, Wales (the site where they recorded the legendary early ‘80s triple-shot of The Black Album, Friday 13th and Strawberries) to put down their first new music since 2018's Evil Spirits. How are the results? Well, it’s not hyperbole or mere new-release excitement to say that The Rockfield Files could have been a side on The Black Album.

Yes, this thing is that good.

Bolstered by an intriguing ‘60s Psychedelic feel throughout the proceeds, the EP showcases some of the strongest Damned material in years. Still boasting one of the most recognizable voices out there, Vanian absolutely soars on this one, a feat aided by perhaps the richest backing vocals the band has ever committed to disc. As a collection of songs, The Rockfield Files falls somewhere between the aforementioned Black Album (the opening “Keep ’Em Alive,” the all-guns-blazing “Manipulator”) and the mid-‘80s Goth-tinged masterpiece that is Phantasmagoria (“The Spider & The Fly,” the breathtaking “Black Is The Night”). Cheers to the brilliant Monty Oxymoron – a Damned mainstay since the mid ‘90s – for again demonstrating how critical his keyboard work has been to the band’s sound over the years. Full marks as well to Ghost producer Tom Dalgety for giving the EP a modern sheen without sacrificing an ounce of soul.

While most new releases by veteran acts often prompt respectful if unenthusiastic listens from fans while they reminisce about the artists' past glories, The Rockfield Files finds The Damned at the peak of their powers. In 2020. Nearly 45 years after their first gig.

Who knew that would be possible? Well, anyone who’s ever heard The Damned.

Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions 




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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Words for Lee Kerslake




In a year of continued loss, we now say goodbye to Lee Kerslake - a brilliant drummer and a lovely man.
It was no accident that he was nicknamed "The Bear." He was tough, gruff and spoke his mind without a filter, but he was also funny, friendly and without pretense.
His impact on the world of drumming was more significant than some might realize. Listen to Steven Adler's tom-heavy fills that usher in the epic finale of "Paradise City." Steven came up with those by playing Lee's intro to "Over The Mountain" backwards. Just ask him; he'll tell you just how great Lee was.
Most of all, Lee spent decades fighting against music industry mistreatment by demanding fair acknowledgement and compensation for his work. While this was largely an unfulfilled mission, his efforts shone a light on the struggles of many drummers to get their due. All of us who hold sticks in our hands are in his debt. He was a soldier in the field for us.
Lee sent me the above picture in March 2019 after I contributed some money towards his cancer treatment. I will treasure it as much as I will be forever awed and inspired by his remarkable body of work.



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Saturday, September 12, 2020

New Noir Now: Inside MOAT's "Gone By Noon"


   
 Niko Röhlck (left) and Marty Willson-Piper of MOAT (photo by Olivia Willson-Piper)


Get Marty Willson-Piper on the phone once and you’ll never forget it.


My 2018 conversation with the English musician – best known for his former decades-long membership in Australian legends The Church – was a sprawling ride colored by the man’s undeniable love of music. Even as a fellow sound obsessive, I found it difficult to keep up with the man as he bounced from praising ’80s Hard Rockers Kingdom Come and obscure living treasure Robert Wyatt to detailing his dreams for his stunningly extensive In Deep Music Archive project. And when he got to discussing his then-in-progress Noctorum release (The Afterlife) with longtime friend and collaborator Dare Mason and his various musical plans for the future…Good God! Thirty years after arguably The Church’s greatest success in the States, he was still firing away in as many sonic directions as possible with the same enthusiasm as someone recording their first single.


Willson-Piper’s chat-ending rundown of his 2019 plans included a mention of work on the second album from MOAT, his project with Niko Röhlck of Weeping Willows. Now, the first taste of what is to come from that forthcoming release (Poison Stream, due in early 2021) has arrived in the form of “Gone By Noon.”


From the morose opening keys to Willson-Piper’s concluding croon of the song’s title, “Gone By Noon” (which finds him passing guitar duties to Röhlck, who also plays keyboards, in favor of handling the bass) is a decidedly somber affair. While Willson-Piper’s past work with The Church often hid lyrical gloom behind shimmering arrangements (1988’s “Reptile” is a prime example), there are no grey shades – neither musically nor lyrically – to be found here. The sense of loss and disillusionment is direct and palpable:


Silence spills like a wave in the dark

The films you play

Black and white

A final scene – crying

And you’re gone.


The “black and white” reference is perfect, as “Gone By Noon” is 3am noir music tailor-made for full ashtrays, empty bottles and that call you’ll never receive again.


Full marks to the track’s other performers – Mason on additional keyboards, Eddie John on drums and Olivia Willson-Piper on backing vocals – for so brilliantly contributing to the emotional depth of Willson-Piper and Röhlcke’s latest creation.


Have a listen below (then purchase via your favorite digital music platform):







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Saturday, September 5, 2020

Queen's Show Goes On: Brian May on Innuendo's Most Enduring Moment


Queen + Adam Lambert (Photo: Brohan Hohnjec)


“I'll face it with a grin.

I'm never giving in.

On with the show.”


When the late Freddie Mercury (born on this day in 1946) sang the above words with every ounce of his being on “The Show Must Go On,” the closing track of Queen’s 1991 album, Innuendo, he and the other members of Queen – guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor – were well aware that the sentiment would soon carry a deep significance far beyond the recording studio walls. When Innuendo was released that February, it launched what appeared to be a typical series of events for Queen. Videos were filmed, singles were released and critics either loved the album or hated it – just as it had always been throughout Queen’s long-running career. But when Mercury succumbed to AIDS nine months later, the album’s name and several of its song titles and lyrics were reevaluated. Although the album is full of sonic treasures (making it perhaps Queen’s most consistently strong release since their ’70s heyday), it was “The Show Must Go On” that truly represented the glory and emotion of the final full-length Queen album completed during Mercury’s lifetime.


“Even though we were all aware of Freddie’s impending tragedy, we had some inspired and joyful times in the studio making the Innuendo album,” May recalls. “We didn’t speak much about Freddie’s illness – he just wanted to get on with ‘business as usual’ as far as possible. But already there was only a day or two per week when Freddie was well enough to come in and work with us. We grabbed those precious moments and made the most of them. I’d been working on ‘The Show Must Go On’ as an idea, but I was uncertain whether the title was too obvious. Freddie heard it and loved it and dismissed any thoughts that there was a problem with the chorus or the title. He wanted to work on it.

 

“We didn’t discuss what the meaning of the song was, but it was of course evident in the background that it was an attempt to give a voice to the feelings that Freddie’s valiant fight against AIDS created in all of us, and even in Freddie,” the guitarist continues. “He was too low in energy to create it himself. But I had one unforgettable special afternoon working together with him – on solidifying the lyrics of the first verse of this embryonic song about a clown whose make-up hid his pain – before he slid out to attend another treatment. That gave me enough lyrical material to later expand into the eventual two verses. I finished mapping out the song, sang the whole thing as a demo – including the added ‘wings of butterflies’ section, which somehow appeared in my head very late one night – and I played it to him when he was next in the studio. The melody called for some very demanding top notes, and I’d only been able to ‘demo’ them in falsetto. I said to Freddie, ‘I don’t want you to strain yourself – this stuff isn’t going to be easy in full voice, even for you!’ He said, ‘Don’t worry – I’ll fucking nail it, darling!’ He then downed a couple of his favorite shots of vodka, propped himself up against the mixing desk, and… delivered one of the most extraordinary performances of his life. In the final mix of [the song], when you get to ‘on with the show,’ you are listening to a man who conquered everything to deliver his finest work.”



Now, just a few months shy of 
Innuendo’s 30th anniversary and at a time when the world is gripped by the horrors of COVID-19, “The Show Must Go On”’s spirit of survival thrives in the present tense thanks to its appearance on Live Around The World by Queen + Adam Lambert. Out October 2, Live Around the World presents concert highlights captured the world over and personally selected by Lambert and still-active Queen members May and Taylor. (Deacon retired from band activities nearly 25 years ago.) The tracks are drawn from over 200 shows performed by this configuration since 2014. The live recording of “The Show Must Go On” featured on the album comes from the second of the band’s two shows at London’s 02 Arena on July 4, 2018.

Above all, Live Around The World proves there is still plenty of vitality left in Queen despite the tremendous loss of Mercury. The first signs of continued life post-Freddie appeared via May and Taylor’s mid-to-late 2000s collaboration with Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, which resulted in the 1999 album The Cosmos Rocks under the moniker “Queen + Paul Rodgers.” Although The Cosmos Rocks was a solid (if somewhat pedestrian) Rock release, Rodgers' gritty Blues voice removed all of the operatic magic that defined Queen’s classic work. The course correction of Lambert’s 2011 arrival in the vocal spot continues to be well-received treat for both Queen diehards and newer fans introduced to the group through the massively successful 2018 biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. While there will never be anyone who could adequately follow Mercury’s legacy on the stage, Lambert’s undeniable gifts as a singer and frontman are clear on this version of “The Show Must Go On” and the other 19 tracks that comprise Live Around The World.



“‘The Show Must Go On’ is a song with a very deeply resonating message,” Lambert says. “I think we all have moments in life where we feel the odds are against us and the climb is a steep one. I always sense a great cathartic release throughout the audience during this song. I think we all recognize that it was a big statement for Freddie at that point in his journey as well; he was fighting for his life
.”

As our collective struggles carry on through 2020 (and perhaps beyond), “The Show Must Go On” is still here for us. As Roger Taylor so succinctly puts it, “The song says it all.”


Pre-order Live Around the World here.







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Friday, February 14, 2020

REVIEW - Gang of Four: This Heaven Gives Me Migraine




Listening to This Heaven Gives Me Migraine, the upcoming five-track EP by Gang of Four, is simultaneously exciting and devastating.

Regular readers of this website know that anything released under the “Gang of Four” banner gets my immediate and enthusiastic attention. It has been a habit of mine to deeply dissect the band’s releases and/or area live performances as soon as possible, thus making them one of my most-covered acts. While not everything I’ve written on the Andy Gill-led version of the group over the years has been favorable, every syllable I’ve delivered has been the honest reflection of a longtime fan who truly and deeply cares about everything this band does.

Or did.

That part still stings like hell. Twelve days ago, I spent an afternoon composing my tribute to Andy, who passed away on February 1 at 64. I won’t repeat what I wrote, as it was difficult enough for me the first time. However, I will say that I’m far from over this loss. Selfishly, I spent the days following my post mourning the fact that I would never again get an opportunity to hear where Andy’s mind might have taken us next. He was always searching, always retooling, always striving to say things with a bravery and insight that many of us could only dream of possessing. It was tragic to think that work as brilliant as Andy’s would cease to be when it so clearly wasn’t time for it to stop.  

Fortunately – and quite surprisingly – there was more coming.

Today, the surviving members of Gang of Four announced the February 26 release of this new – and very likely final – EP. The digital-only release contains three songs – which Andy had been working on mere days before he died – bookended by brief clips of him speaking. According to the band, it was Andy’s desire to create a project that “revisits and re-imagines his musical legacy.”

“From the hospital, Andy continued to give final notes on mixes of music that he looked forward to releasing,” shares Andy’s widow, Catherine Mayer. “Since his death, I have been working with the band to fulfill his vision. The only change we have made is to include on the EP two brief recordings of Andy speaking, both, in different ways, essence of Andy.”

“This collection of songs was recorded just before Andy died, and it was his intention to get these out – to represent the way we played them on tour, late last year,” adds John “Gaoler” Sterry, who had fronted Gang of Four since the departure of original vocalist Jon King in 2012. “All three songs were recorded in Andy’s home studio in London, and there’s a fly-on-the-wall intimacy to this EP – from the song selection to the snippets of spoken word.”

Considering the posthumous nature of this release, it is quite appropriate – and heartbreaking – that This Heaven Gives Me Migraine (a reference to a lyric from 1979’s “Natural’s Not in It”) would feature a re-worked version of 2015’s “The Dying Rays.” As previously discussed on this site, the track is one of Andy’s greatest songwriting victories and a prime example of his many gifts as a lyricist. In the original version, guest singer Herbert Grönemeyer perfectly personifies the quiet sorrow that hits many of us as we age and begin to contemplate our mortality. In this new incarnation, Gaoler breathes a new perspective into the existing words. While Grönemeyer’s performance embodied the ravages of time and regret, Gaoler’s take resembles a young man – and a world of fans and admirers – who got to experience the world under the tutelage of a world-renowned mentor, only to see that magic come to an abrupt and sad end:

Control and power
Empires were built in our minds
But it will all go up in a blaze
Only dust
In the dying rays.

One quibble I expressed in my review of 2015’s What Happens Next was that Andy had largely overlooked Gaoler’s gifts as a vocalist in favor of filling a fair amount of the album with guest performers. This version of “The Dying Rays” corrects that misstep and provides Gaoler a further opportunity to thrive in a well-earned spotlight.

The EP’s second song is a version of “Natural’s Not in It” recorded late last year by the band’s final lineup. While most diehard Gang of Four fans will understandably favor the original version off the Entertainment! album, this new rendition brilliantly showcases what the live Gaoler-fronted lineup – which had impressively grown from disappointingly pedestrian to absolutely fucking scorching in the span of about 18 months – was all about. This energy carries into a loose recording of “Toreador,” which slays the original version off last year’s Happy Now thanks in large part to a ton of added oomph in the drumming department. As for the spoken pieces, I won’t spoil their content except to say that it was nice hearing Andy’s voice again today.

Does This Heaven Gives Me Migraine serve as a fitting sonic epitaph for Andy Gill? No, but nothing would ever succeed as an adequate final statement from someone whose career was devoted to forward motion. That said, this EP demonstrates that Andy – revolutionary and irreplaceable – was still working and exploring right up to the end.

For that alone, the man left on a high note.  


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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Words for Andy Gill







I’ve written thousands of words on Andy Gill over the years, but this is one piece I never wanted to do.

Time stood still for me yesterday when I read the announcement posted by his band, Gang of Four, that he had left us. History will remember him as one of the most innovative guitarists of our time, but he was much more than that to me.

A much as I love Jon King as a singer and frontman, I’ve always connected most with the Gang of Four material that featured Andy at the mic. For me, his deadpan delivery often spoke to the disconnection we all feel at times as we struggle to find meaning in the madness surrounding us. When I first heard his turn on vocals on 1982’s “We Live as We Dream, Alone,” it felt like he had just summed up the universe:

We live as we dream, alone
To crack the shell, we mix with the others
Some flirt with fascism
Some lie in the arms of lovers…

Man and woman need to work
It helps us define ourselves
We were not born in isolation
But sometimes, it seems that way.

For many diehard Gang of Four fans, the band began to rapidly lose its fire once the original lineup ceased operations following 1981’s Solid Gold. I’ve always considered this an unfortunate misconception, as the group’s subsequent albums – with Andy increasingly at the helm – offered even greater insight into the guitarist’s take on the world. The lyrical content on the tragically overlooked 1995 album Shrinkwrapped is among Andy’s finest output, with the man reaching new heights in describing a person’s emotional lows with the track “Unburden.” If you read the first story in my forthcoming book while listening to that number, it will be obvious how much his work has informed and inspired my own.

In 2015, Gang of Four – with Andy as the sole remaining original member – released the album What Happens Next. While many scoffed at the idea of a King-less record (while at the same time dismissing the effort as “Gang of One”), those who gave it a chance heard what is perhaps Andy’s most exquisite – and heartbreaking – creative moment. With German singer Herbert Grönemeyer delivering the mournful guest vocals, “The Dying Rays” still guts me every time I hear it:

What I wanted
Disappears in the haze
A speck of dust
Held forever in the dying rays.

Breath on the mirror, nothing in sight
The horizon's bare, but in the night
I missed the pilots' light.


Control and power
Empires were built in our minds
But it will all go up in a blaze
Only dust
In the dying rays.

“It's very much written from the heart,” Andy once told me. “It's not a young man's song, let's put it that way. I think with a little bit of experience and a certain amount of looking in the rearview mirror, you have some ideas about time, wasted time and things like that…I was in this Elizabethan house, [a] hotel in England. The sun was going down, and I was sitting in the chair and doing nothing, staring off in the middle distance. I just saw this speck of dust coming down in front of my eyes. It mesmerized me; I was hypnotized like a cat. [Those were] the first words...the 'speck of dust' thing. Everything came from that.”

The older I get, the more I refer back to this song. In 2017, as I found myself newly in my forties and heading towards divorce, I connected with “The Dying Rays” in ways that eased my pain. And when my most recent relationship ended late last year, it was the first song I played. What began as a speck of dust for Andy has become an irreplaceable lifeline for me when I’ve needed one the most.

My personal dealings with Andy were interesting, to say the least. When I received a promo copy of What Happens Next, I dissecting that thing for days. I enjoyed it immensely, but it was far from a perfect Gang of Four album – and I made my misgivings known in a review on my website. A few days later, I received an email from Gang of Four’s publicist saying the Andy really liked “how well thought out and fair” my review was and that a phone interview could be arranged so he and I could discuss the album one on one. Naturally, I jumped at the offer.

Andy and I soon had a lovely chat, and of course my review came up in that conversation. The impression he gave me was that he cared very little about whether a review was positive or negative; he seemed most interested in knowing whether a listener had seriously thought about what he was presenting in his work. As we were wrapping up, I mentioned that I intended to include a chapter on Gang of Four’s 1982 album, Songs of the Free, in a book I’ve been working on in dribs and drabs since 2005 called Albums that (Should’ve) Changed the World. He immediately offered to assist me in putting that together, and we agreed to stay in touch moving forward.

So, how did I reciprocate Andy’s graciousness and openness towards my criticisms of his new album? By potentially shitting all over my newfound connection with an artist I deeply admired, of course. When the band hit the Paradise Rock Club in Boston a few weeks later, I was invited to review the gig. Frankly, the show largely sucked; I didn’t think the new lineup cut it. I ended up skewering Andy’s new Gang of Four on my site the following day. (“If any other band on the planet delivered a gig like this, they would receive a more favorable review,” I wrote. “But this is fucking Gang of Four; this stuff really matters. I respect Gill enough to give his work an honest review, for better or for worse.”) Sure, I was proud of myself for keeping it real, but I began to strongly doubt that Andy would ever want to speak to me again.

About 18 months later, I got another email from the band’s publicist, this time inviting me to attend another gig at the Paradise. The email came with an additional message: “Andy would love to say hello.” Uh oh. Surely, I couldn’t face the guy after that last review. And what if I found his version of Gang of Four mediocre again? I went to the gig anyway.

I’m glad I did, because they absolutely blew my goddamn mind that night. Fucking incredible. The band on stage that evening WAS Gang of Four. Andy had been right all along, and I had been a schmuck for ever doubting him.

After the gig, the band’s manager brought me backstage. I was unsure of how my presence would be received. Fortunately, Andy was simply wonderful. He was in a jovial mood, greeting me with a wide and enthusiastic smile as he playfully joked around with his bandmates – all of whom were equally warm and hospitable. It was clear that he didn’t hold my negative words about the band against me.

“You’ve taken a lot of hits on my website. Andy, but I stand before you tonight to look you in the eyes and eat my words.”

I told him how much I loved the show and how impressed I was with what the other members delivered. He was glued to my every word, intensely nodding and clearly considering everything I had to say. I don’t think that had anything to do with the fact I was being complimentary; I think it was because I was giving his efforts my time and genuine thoughts.

I have no delusions about my place in this world. At best, I’m a semi-successful cult musician and a music fan with a Blogger account. Andy’s career would have gone on just fine without my opinions, but he made me feel that my reactions – even when they were far from rosy – were of tremendous value to him. I will forever respect and appreciate that.

Photos were taken and laughs were shared, and Andy reiterated his commitment to participating in my Albums book. Then, life went on as it always does. My focus drifted towards more pressing matters, and the Albums project continued to sit on the back burner.

The last time I heard from Andy was in March 2018 when he sent me a quick “hey Joel - how’s it going?” on Messenger. His timing was impeccable; I had just written a piece for my website on the then-new Gang of Four track, “Lucky.” I shot him the link, which soon appeared on the band’s official Facebook page – thus demonstrating a level of reciprocity between band and press that is sadly lacking in most corners of the music business. I had hoped for more connections with him from that point, but life and schedules again took us in different directions. I thought I had time. I was wrong.

Andy gave us much to listen to and ponder in his 64 years. Solace can be found in the fact that people will be discovering Gang of Four’s music for years to come. They will dance. They will sweat. They will read those lyrics. They will think. Most of all, they will find comfort in knowing they are not as alone in their living and dreaming as they once believed.

Farewell and thank you, dear man. You mattered. So much. 



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