Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Swiss Army Man

If there was any doubt that Daniel Radcliffe could play a character other than Harry Potter, his portrayal of a talking, farting, water-logged corpse whose boner serves as a compass is a surefire way to shed that wizardly image.

Swiss Army Man (2016) has one of those premises that tells you this movie is either going to be very good or very bad. There is no middle ground. The story is so bizarre that only people who truly believed in it would have had the guts to even to attempt it. Those who seek the comfort and assurance of reliable, bland formula would not have dared.

Shipwrecked Hank (Paul Dano) is about to kill himself out of loneliness and despair when he sees a washed-up corpse (Radcliffe) on the beach. Using the corpse's explosive flatulence, Hank manages to reach to another shore, closer to potential rescue. But usefulness of the corpse, whom he dubs Manny, continues. Soon, Manny begins talking, and Hank begins teaching Manny, who has no memories, about what life has to offer, the good and the bad.

Read that summary again. Can you imagine that being the foundation of a "serious" movie? Well, Swiss Army Man is a funny movie, really funny at times. It's crude, in bad taste, awkward, uncomfortable, and kind of gross but elevated to the point of comic surreal. In its own way, it's rather moving.

Manny is almost child-like in his understanding, and Hank has to explain everything to him, including music, the bus, food, love, social norms of farting, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (this is how they discover Manny's erection points the way to where they need to journey), masturbation, etc. Manny also can't move (His head tends to hang lopsided at a sickening angle), so his body goes through a ton of abuse that would have killed him if he weren't already dead.

He also farts. A lot. To the point Hank shoves a cork up his ass, but not before he made use of this talent. The sight of Hank riding Manny's body over the water like a jet ski or through the air like a rocket is outrageous to the point of glorious. Manny also serves as a freshwater spigot when Hank is thirsty, and Hank discovers he can put objects in Manny's mouth and hit him in the stomach to create a human pistol. The montage of the two slaughtering a host of wildlife using this method is a highlight.

But the movie is not a silly romp. Dano and Radcliffe play their roles completely straight-faced and sincerely, and there is genuine pathos to their relationship. The filmmakers have taken lowbrow subject matter - farting, gross out, necrophilia - and churned it into something with a higher meaning and emotional resonance. It's almost a coming of age story, figuring out your place in the world, and the connections we foster to escape the pain of loneliness.

The ending, where the pair return to civilization, stumbles a bit. It's not bad, and what's revealed fits; it just feels too long and too slow, as if the movie doesn't want to end and is stalling. That said, I can't think of another movie in which the timing of a fart played so critical a role to the climax. The premise might put you off, but if you can stomach it, you're in for a treat.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Rocks

Aerosmith broke out in 1975 with Toys in the Attic, but in 1976, they created their finest work. Rocks album stands as one of the best pieces of sleazy, bluesy hard rock of the decade. It's lean and mean while it slides, rocks, boogies, and grooves, never wasting a moment. The opening track, "Back in the Saddle" might be about a cowboy's one-night stand, but it could just as easily describe the band hitting its stride.

Actually, the cowboy imagery might not be too far off. On Rocks, Aerosmith comes off as a bunch of outlaws, vagabonds who cannot be tamed. Steven Tyler's sexually charged lyrics manage to come off as both funny and kind of dangerous. Plenty of groups sing about sex and women, but Aerosmith sound like they know about both firsthand with some suggestive lines.


"Mmm, come easy, go easy
Alright 'til the rising sun 
I'm calling all the shots tonight 
I'm like a loaded gun. 
Peelin' off my boots and chaps 
I'm saddle sore 
Four bits gets you time in the racks 
I scream for more."


The album rocks and drives, from the galloping intensity of "Back in the Saddle" and the sliding riffs of "Combination" to the speedy, almost metallic "Rats in the Cellar" and the massive "Lick and a Promise." These songs are loud, brash, and full of swagger and swing. Aerosmith is often compared to the Rolling Stones for their bluesy, gritty rock style, and it's a fitting comparison here. No song goes on too long, and the music has a sublime, laid-back confidence to it. These guys know how good they are, and they are going to drag you in. On "Get the Lead Out," Tyler sings:

"Do ya like good boogey

Like the real boogey woogie
Hear the juke box singin'
Get the dance hall swingin' 
Won't ya grab my shaker 
Got to meet your maker 
Mmm, get out the lead, get out of bed, get the lead out."


The second track, "Last Child," has a positively funky feel as Tyler sings about "My hot tail poon tang sweetheart" but also feel nostalgic when it slows down in the pre-chorus lines of "Home Sweet Home. Mama, take me home, sweet home" before diving right back into the groove with Tyler declaring, "I'm just a punk in the street."

Yet, Aerosmith also get tender or at least more emotional on other songs. The album closer, "Home Tonight," is a straight-up power ballad with a piano melody. For an album built on grit, sleaze, and sex, it's a surprisingly sincere and romantic song to go out on, but somehow, it works and makes for a great capper.  Rocks takes the listener on a rollicking ride and then brings you for a bit of quiet remembrance.

"So baby, don't let go 

Hold on real tight 
'Cause i'll be home tonight 
Tonight."


The band has never sounded better on a studio album. Tyler shrieks and howls like no other while still capable of a sleazy turn-of-phrase. Joe Perry remains one of hard rock's best guitarist while his fellow axman Brad Whitford provides appropriately heavy but swinging rhythms. Bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer are also in top form.

Standout Songs
Back in the Saddle - The album opens on a high note from which it never dips.
Combination - Joe Perry sings and rocks an awesome riff.

Favorite Moment
That opening riff of "Combination" is just monstrous.

Album Cover
Five arranged diamonds, one for each member of the band, surrounded by black. Direct and polished, letting you know you can expect top-of-the-line quality music within.

Track Order
1) Back in the Saddle
2) Last Child
3) Rats in the Cellar
4) Combination
5) Sick as a Dog
6) Nobody's Fault
7) Get the Lead Out
8) Lick and a Promise
9) Home Tonight

Personnel
Steven Tyler - Vocals
Joe Perry - Lead Guitar
Brad Whitford - Rhythm Guitar
Tom Hamilton - Bass
Joey Kramer - Drums

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Painkiller


There's no shortage of candidates for the title of best Judas Priest album, but 1990's Painkiller might very well have them all beat. Arriving after the somewhat cool receptions toward Turbo and Ram It Down, Painkiller finds the iconic group back at the top of the heavy metal heap where they belong.

Unlike groups such as AC/DC and Motörhead, acts comfortable sticking with their trademark sound, Judas Priest always pushed themselves to grow and try something new. No two of their albums sound alike; they are part of an ongoing evolution that is Judas Priest. You can listen to their work chronologically and chart the progress.

Painkiller finds the band showing all those thrash metal bands how it's done. Priest plays faster, heavier, darker, and more aggressively than ever before, and the result is an album that sinks its hooks in you immediately and never lets go. The only thing you can do is hang on for the ride.

"Faster than a bullet
Terrifying scream
Enraged and full of anger
He's half man and half machine."

Even the "slower" numbers such as "Metal Meltdown" and the instrumental "Battle Hymn" feel less like breathers and more like ominous eyes of the storm: with any second, the tempest can begin raging again. Other songs have atmospheric flourishes - the thunder of "Night Crawler," the industrial sound effects of "Between the Hammer and the Anvil," and the keyboards of "A Touch of Evil" - that don't overwhelm or distract but instead give those numbers a dark, delicious flavor.

Lyrically, Painkiller has a strong fantasy feel. The title tracks refers to a super hero savior of mankind, "Night Crawler" warns us to "beware the beast in black," and in "A Touch of Evil," Halford sings of a "dark angel" who "mesmerizes" and "put me in a trance." Priest couples that with songs about heavy metal: "Leather Rebel," "Metal Meltdown," "Between the Hammer and the Anvil." "Metal Meltdown" in particular sounds like it's describing the most metal show ever.


"Something's calling
In the night
Electric madness
Roars in sight
Heat is rising
Blazing fast
Hot and evil
Feel the blast
Out of control
About to explode
It's coming at ya."

Painkiller marks the debut of drummer Scott Travis, who's been with the band ever since. He opens up the album with the thunderous title track, setting the tone for the whole enterprise. Some drummers will sacrifice technique for aggression or vice versa, but Travis' playing is both intense and complex.

Travis seems to push the rest of the band to keep up with him, in a good way. The guitar tandem of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing had never been heavier, and their duel lead attack matches breakneck speed with bone-crunching tone and technical wizardry. Their riffs drive furiously, and their solos erupt. Ian Hill joins in with his reliable bass, and Halford, what else is there to say about Rob Halford, the Metal God?

Halford has never sounded better. His voice truly is an instrument all its own, cutting through the fury around him. He hits those shrieking high notes, muscles alongside those heavy riffs, and lends those somewhat silly lyrics (a staple of Priest) a power and conviction few can match. You'll follow this guy into battle, preferably on a motorcycle, to defend heavy metal.

One shot at glory
Driving hard and seeing red
Destiny calls me
One shot of fire
One shot at glory.

Standout Songs
Painkiller - This song is a battering ram. It opens the album with an assault.
Hell Patrol - My personal favorite off the album.
Nightcrawler - The crackling of thunder to open gives this song a dark, eerie touch.
One Shot at Glory - An epic climax to the whole album.


Favorite Moments
The end of "Battle Hymn" as it transitions into "One Shot at Glory." As the guitar begins building up, you'll feel like you've just clawed through a hard-fought battle, victory is at hand, and now is the time for the final charge. 


Album Cover
A metallic angel rides across an apocalyptic landscape on a demonic motorcycle. It's captures everything ridiculously awesome about metal in one image. It's over-the-top, fantastical, and cool.

Track Order
1) Painkiller
2) Hell Patrol
3) All Guns Blazing
4) Leather Rebel
5) Metal Meltdown
6) Night Crawler
7) Between the Hammer and the Anvil
8) A Touch of Evil
9) Battle Hymn
10) One Shot at Glory

Personnel
Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
K.K. Downing - Guitars
Ian Hill - Bass
Scott Travis - Drums
Don Airey - Keyboard (on "A Touch of Evil")

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Ace of Spades

When you move past the music, the bombast, and the loudness, heavy metal is about attitude, a state of being that defiantly declares, "I am important to myself, and I don't care what you think."

Few, if anyone else, embodied that spirit better than Lemmy Kilmister, the late, legendary frontman of  Motörhead. Over the course of a 40-plus year run, that only ended when Lemmy died from cancer at age 70,  Motörhead cranked out more than twenty albums worth of in-your-face, sped-up rock n roll while touring almost non-stop. Trends came and went, other musicians changed their styles, and the mainstream all but shunned them, but  Motörhead could always be counted on to unapologetically deliver music that sounded like  Motörhead.

Ace of Spades arrived in 1980 and cemented  Motörhead's legendary status. No frills. No gimmicks. Just straight-ahead rock. Critics tend to group in  Motörhead in with heavy metal, but Lemmy always insisted what he played was rock n roll. Well, Motörhead could rock, and they rocked harder, faster, and louder than just about anybody else. Whether you call it rock or metal, their style kicked ass, and it never kicked more ass than it did on Aces of Spades.

The album leaps out of the gate with the title track assaulting the listener like a punch to the face. Less than three minutes in length, "Ace of Spades" the song is a sonic blast: fast, hard, driving, and full of swagger.


"You know I'm born to lose, and gambling's for fools,

But that's the way I like it baby,

I don't wanna live forever."
Most of the songs can be described as blunt and to the point. Only one, "The Chase is Better than the Catch," climbs above the four-minute mark, while the rest remain in the two-three minute range. The loudness, speed, and distortion give them a metal coating, but from a rhythm standpoint, they're catchy rock.

Lemmy and cohorts "Fast Eddie" Clarke and "Philthy Animal" Taylor stick to the classic three-chord structure. The music is not complex, but the speed and intensity at which they play is face-melting. Lemmy lays down the fast, aggressive baselines, Fast Eddie blazes off the lightning fast guitar hooks, and and Philthy Animal pounds the drums like he's trying to kill someone.

Lemmy does not sing so much as growl. He's not crooning a soft, dewy-eyed love ballad here. He sings about sex, drugs, and rock n roll (you know, life's essentials). His voice sounds like he's gargling rusty nails. It's not clean or pretty, but you can't argue it. On the closer, "The Hammer," he declares:

"And I'm here to stay, it's gonna be that way.
Don't try to run, don't try to scream.

Believe me, the Hammer's gonna smash your dream."
With Ace of Spades, you can either rock out or get out.

Standout Songs
Ace of Spades - The song that defines Motörhead.
Love Me Like a Reptile - I want to sink my fangs in you.
(We Are) The Road Crew - A tribute to the roadies who make the band's work possible.
The Chase is Better than the Catch - A (somewhat) slower song that still drives a hard, catchy beat.

Favorite Moment
The opening measure of "The Chase is Better than a Catch." It's so menacing, it sounds like Lemmy on the prowl.

Album Cover
Decked out in Wild West regalia, Lemmy and company look like outlaws ready to blow you away. Fitting and cool.

Track Order
1) Ace of Spades
2) Love Me Like a Reptile
3) Shoot You in the Back
4) Live to Win
5) Fast and Loose
6) (We Are) The Road Crew
7) Fire, Fire
8) Jailbait
9) Dance
10) Bite the Bullet
11) The Chase is Better than the Catch
12) The Hammer

Lineup
Lemmy Kilmister - Lead Vocals, Bass
"Fast Eddie" Clarke- Guitar, Backing Vocals
"Philthy Animal" Taylor - Drums

Denim and Leather

Heavy metal, especially in the 1980s, had something of a Dungeons and Dragons bend. Many bands wrote songs about mythical battles, swords clashing, axes flying, giant monsters to be slain, and lands to be conquered.

With that said, one would assume "Princess of the Night," the opening track off Saxon's fourth album, Denim and Leather, would belong in the fantasy realm with a name like that. Actually, the song is about a train and how singer Biff Byford feels nostalgic for it. As he puts it:


"Ninety tons of thunder
Lighting up the sky.
Steaming red hot pistons
See the wheels flash by.
Hear the whistle blowing
Streaking down the track.
If I ever had my way,
I'd bring the princess back one day."

Yes, the train is the princess, and if you still question the song's fealty to metal - even with the references to thunder, lighting, and red hot pistons - then consider another lyric from the song. "Iron striking metal, the sound of racing steel, it's all I ever want to hear. It's music to my ears."

Arriving in 1981, Denim and Leather proved to be the third in a string of classic albums from Saxon, putting them at the forefront of the then-burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Saxon played their best (and still do) not as larger-than-life superstars but as scrappy, blue-collar rockers. These are guys more comfortable riding motorcycles from bar to bar than taking a limo to a club.

That attitude is best exemplified in this album's title track, which proved to be one of metal's most iconic anthems. In this song, Saxon pays tributes to their fans, the ones who "queue for your ticket through the ice and snow," "read the music papers from the back and to the front," "listen to the radio every Friday night," and "hang around your local record store." As the thunderous chorus declares, "Denim and Leather, Brought us all together, It was you who set the spirit free!"

This grounded perspective carries through the whole album. "And the Bands Played On" chronicles Saxon's performance at the Monsters of Rock Festival, "Midnight Rider" is about their American tour and encountering all the interesting sites, and "Play It Loud" celebrates listening to Deep Purple and other rock and roll that pisses off your parents and other authority figures. On Denim and Leather, Saxon come off as a bunch of music fans living the dream, still in awe of their success.

Musically, Saxon is as strong as ever: aggressive, hard-driving, and catchy. They might not be as heavy as some of the bands they inspired (such as Metallica), but one can hear the influence they had on the thrash bands that followed them, their high speed matched by their technical chops. Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver make a great pair of axemen and Biff's in fine voice. Produced by Nigel Thomas and the band, the album is cleaner from a production standpoint than their preceding albums, but here, it's a nice balance between melody and crunch. You'll bang your head as you sing along.

Following the release of Denim and Leather (along with Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law), Saxon appeared poised to explode into the stratosphere. Alas, the departure of drummer Pete Gill meant the end of the group's classic lineup and misguided attempts to crack the U.S. mainstream watered down their sound into sub-par Def Leopard imitators. The band eventually recovered and continues to churn out strong releases today, but Denim and Leather remains one of their best.


Standout Songs
Princess of the Night - Proto-thrasher opens the album in high gear.
And the Bands Played On - You'll feel like a Monster of Rock.
Denim and Leather - Anthemic rocker celebrates heavy metal.

Favorite Moment
During "And the Bands Played On," Paul or Graham plays a sweet lick in the middle of the chorus, right after Biff sings, "We sat in the sun, whoa-oh-oh." When Biff follows that with "And the bands played on," it's electrifying.

Album Cover
A simple, blue background with the band's name and logo (the iron eagle) in highlighted black and the album name in white. Nothing fancy. Simple and direct.

Track Order
1) Princess of the Night
2) Never Surrender
3) Out of Control
4) Rough and Ready
5) Play It Loud
6) And the Bands Played On
7) Midnight Rider
8) Fire in the Sky
9) Denim and Leather

Lineup
Biff Byford - Vocals
Paul Quinn - Guitars
Graham Oliver- Guitars
Steve Dawson - Bass
Pete Gill - Drums