The Importance of Being Metal: Iron Maiden-Somewhere In Time

September 29, 1986; EMI; Compass Point Studios, Bahamas and Wisseloord Studios, Netherlands

1. Is It Any Good?

Iron Maiden's golden age is often put on the same pedestal as those of Metallica, Slayer and Black Sabbath, and with very good reason. While they didn't innovate as much as those three bands, they made up for it with hair-raising, swashbuckling fun that generations of metalheads have reveled in, and these albums don't show any signs of losing relevance anytime soon. Somewhere In Time has the dubious distinction of being the album that started to move Maiden away from that golden age, and while it's maybe the weakest of their best albums, that's still an honor that a lot of bands would kill for, especially with Iron Maiden's pedigree.

One of the most controversial aspects of this album, and the one that takes the longest to get used to, is the use of synthesizers. They haven't aged particularly well, and while Iron Maiden has always excelled at making goofy music, the synths push "goofy" into "cheesy" much of the time and threaten to spoil the party.

Luckily, Maiden was smart enough to not let the synthesizers completely dominate their sound, a common sense move that many metal bands trying to move into "relevance" during the '80s didn't take into account. The title track is arguably the best song on the album: It puts the "speed" into "speed metal" and gallops with an intensity and sense of purpose that rivals some of the best material from Number of the Beast. "Wasted Years" suffers a little bit from overly-'80s production but remains a fun singalong anthem nonetheless. "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" is the closest that Maiden gets to a sincerely moving song since "Flight of Icarus" on Piece of Mind, and if "Heaven Can Wait" isn't in the running for Iron Maiden's best song, it's certainly a top contender for their most delightful.

Unfortunately, there are definite drags in Somewhere In Time that weren't present to the same extent on their earlier albums. "Sea of Madness" seems to plod along despite its jaunty pace, "Stranger in a Strange Land" has a memorable riff but fails to evoke a reaction otherwise, and "Deja Vu", without skirting the issue, blows. Three crappy songs wouldn't ordinarily be a huge deal, but this is an eight song album, and those songs take up around a third of the albums 51 minute run time. "Alexander the Great" is an appropriately theatrical epic and a great way to end the album, but by then the damage of the weak links has already been done and you're left feeling like a lot of potential was flushed down the drain.

Still, while it doesn't flow amazingly well as an album, on a song by song basis Somewhere In Time has a lot of worthwhile content and a few songs that rank as some of Iron Maiden's best. Put it on an MP3 player and hit shuffle and you'll notice the quality of the album go up significantly. It doesn't live up to past glories, but in the context of casual listening, Somewhere In Time succeeds as a fun collection of anthems.

2. Is It Influential?

It proved that a metal band could add synthesizers to its repertoire and still be considered legit. During the '80s that was no small feat, so I would say this definitely has a significance of a sort.

3. Is It A Good Starting Place For Beginners?

As an album not really, as it tends to drag in places, but songs like "Heaven Can Wait" and "Wasted Years" would definitely be very palatable for someone just starting to get into metal. Put your two or three favorite songs off of Somewhere In Time on an '80s metal mix and see how it turns out.



A Token of My Extreme: Magma- Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (1973)

A&M; 1973
Of all the classic late '60s and early '70s European progressive rock acts, French collective Magma might have very well been the strangest. This is saying something. Sure Jon Anderson may have been off riding Paramahansa Yogananda's dick, Peter Hammill had his own brand of hammy Gothic melodrama, and Damo Suzuki wasn't even singing in fucking words half the time, but none of them can compare in eccentricity to Magma's Christian Vander. The man's inspiration and creative process is on some serious other shit. From Wiki:

MDK is story of the prophet 'Nebehr Güdahtt' who delivers to the people of the Earth this insight: If they want to be saved from themselves, they must morally cleanse themselves to worship of the Kobaïan supreme being, 'Kreuhn Kohrmahn', by learning sacred "Zeuhl Wortz" music (already wildly popular on Kobaïa, of course). In response to this blatant cultural imperialism the people of the Earth initially march against Güdahtt, but slowly like any true believer Güdahtt attracts enough of a base of adherents to survive, to sing the Kobaian music.

.... got that? Well it makes little to no difference, as all the lyrics are written in Zander's own invented language anyway. Yeah, 30 years prior to Sigur Ros and "Hopelandic" (which barely counts as a language seeing as it's only 4 or 5 syllables, whereas Kobaïan sounds a lot like some bizarro dialect of German). This is delivered by both male and female choirs in a variety of quasi-operatic timbres from thick baritone to demented falsetto, and the end result sounds like Zappa's "Sofa No. 2," if it was being performed completely straight. The choirs are backed by a veritable small orchestra of brass, woodwind, guitar, hypnotic piano and Vander's fascinating but understated work behind the drums--this is an intriguingly unique animal, its sound hovering somewhere between Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and jazz fusion with a noticeable touch of late Coltrane (Zander has repeatedly cited him as an influence), the rich melodic framework fit for concert halls instead of crowded clubs and sitting outside the world of "rock" almost completely.

So yeah, Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh is pretty goddamn weird even now. But what that description up there doesn't accurately convey is just how huge and EPIC it all sounds. Sure it often and unabashedly teeters on the very edge of goofiness, mostly thanks to the vocals, but the surrounding music is performed with so much verve, ambition, and a very holistic solo-free approach (repetition and slow-building climax are the name of the game here) that even these odd touches become somehow endearing. The themes of "Hortz Fur Dehn Stekehn West" are continued throughout the album with varying degrees of intensity and drama, culminating with the huge blowout "Mekanik Kommandoh" and the softer "Kreuhn Kohrmahn Iss De Hundin" (my spellchecker just had an aneurysm) forming a satisfying conclusion and "epilogue" to the album. It's all a very cohesive, grandiose 40-minute song cycle that's one helluva ride, and for all its bizarre excesses, it's never very longwinded or even particularly hard on the ears. Japan's Ruins and numerous spinoffs notwithstanding, you'd be hard pressed to find a band that can duplicate the Magma experience.

And their live show is apparently something to behold, as pretty much every critical review I've read (including Steve Wilson's if that matters to you) ends in pants being creamed in spectacularly gooey fashion, so make note of that fact should Vander and company pass near your area.


As noted Magma is a pretty singular beast, and even an extensive background in '70s prog is no guarantee you'll like this. As I haven't heard all of their music, it's hard to say exactly where to start, but Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh seems to get strong props among the newly converted so this is probably as good a place as any. This band pretty much defines "acquired taste," but it's one worth acquiring.



BBC's Guitarist List is Dumb, Here is a Better One: Part 3

I actually liked the list a bit more than the other two, thinking that just about five of the ten on it are damn good guitarists. The other five though, goddamn. I mean, goddamn. What the fuck? Here are my picks:

J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr)

The whole concept of indie rock really came about in the eighty's, at a time when the mainstream's arteries were clogged with the cholesterol gunk that is arena metal, chock full of huge guitar riffs and solos. As much as they hate to admit it, indie tends to be ruled by going against whats on the top of the charts, and so for the eighty's underground loving you guitar the epitome of uncool. No big riffs, no solos, no crazy distortion. The guitar driven band was out. This guy brought it back. Employing searchingly loud tones and more effects pedals than could fit in the average three bedroom apartment, he somehow was able to create some of the funnest nosiest guitar tones of the time while still pulling some self desecrating understated songs. J Mascis was here to show us that three full stacks of Marchall amps and being a douche bag do not always go hand in hand.

Favorite performance: Kracked

Kaki King

Really, it doesn't seem like Kaki King actually knows how to play guitar. Which is to say she seems to think its a drum set, or a slap bass, or a god knows what. Extreme virtuosity does not even begin to describe the crazy shit she does to it. And further more, she makes it look easy. Makes it look like she could do it with her eyes closed, fuck, sometimes does do it with her eyes closed. She makes the guitar her bitch and, sure, when she tries to sing the songs don't come out that great, but it takes a while to pick you jaw up off the ground before you notice that.

Favorite performance: Playing With Pink Noise

Victor Villarreal (Cap'n Jazz, Ghosts and Vodka, Owls)

Heroin junkie, recluse, and general fucking crazy person, Victor Villarreal has been crafting some of the most ridiculous guitar lines ever herd for about twenty years now. His playing tends to sound something like a cross between avant-jazz and punk rock played by a man in a blindfold. His fingers jump up and down the fretboard in a seemingly random pattern that pulls everyone listening in a hundred different directions. Start-stops? Check. Time signature changes? You bet. Abandoning a melodic line in the middle for no reason? Yep. Anything to make listeners tick. And somehow it works out beautifully.

Favorite performance: Everyone is My Friend

Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai)

A good deal of post-rock bands employ huge orchestrations and classical music inspired licks to build their trademarked crescendo. They also do this to separate themselves from what's seen as the standard rock sound. This being said, Mogwai surely is the guitarist's post-rock band, going against the norms of the genre to create something that shows the instrument without filter or distraction. Braithwaite moves his band from arty and awkward licks to metal and shoegaze straight back to post-rock, from beautiful to destructive, from the blissfully ambient to something that grabs immediate attention, all with an astounding natural fluidity. He also has a really cool and uncommon first name...just gonna put that out there.

Favorite performance: Yes! I am a long way from home

Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie)

Despite playing with obnoxious sentimentalists Death Cab for Cutie, Chris Walla rocks in pretty much every way. Its not like hes changing how the guitar is played but there is something continuously beautiful and captivating about his instrumentation. Never too intricate, and never at all showy, he finds the most remarkable tones that add such an amazing element to the generally lackluster songs of his band. It really makes you wonder why hes hanging out with those guys.

Favorite performance: 405

Glenn Branca

Alright, to be fair he does slightly exceed our thirty year cut off, but no one has affected how a guitar is played like this man. "Played" in itself might be a bit of a stretch to describe mind numbing violence he inflicts on his instrument, creating some of the most unpleasant and passionate sounds his side of Merzbow. After messing around a bit in a few no-wave bands, burning holes in eardrums throughout downtown Manhattan, he began writing entire symphonies for between three and one hundred guitars. In no time this man was able to establish himself as a kind of Philip Glass for dissonance junkies and managed to enlist an impressive array of young proteges, such as Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. It could be said that he raised the guitar to the status of chamber instrument, but it also could be said that reviled the potential in classical composition for rage and destruction. Either way he's done wonders.

Favorite performance: THIS

Brian Gibson (Lightning Bolt)

I know what your thinking: Brian Gibson doesn't play the guitar. Alright, your probably not actually thinking that right now but either way - I don't give a fuck. The fact that he is wielding a bass even further emphasises the ridiculous ability of this man. In a technical sense he has his fingers flying up and down the fretboard faster than the synapses fire in most guitarist's brains. Creatively he is able to improvise the most energetic and explosive lines this side of.... no, there is no other band that even approaches the energy of Lightning Bolt. Even technologically he triumphs, with a mountain of different amps and just a few pedals he squeezes out of his bass guitar sounds ranging from the screeching high to thunderous lows. This man is surly a machine.

Favorite performance: 2 Morro Morro Land

Mike Kinsella (American Football, Owen)

After hanging around on drums or bass in a number of his brother's bands, Mike finally took the spot light and reviled himself to be... whiny as a mother-fucker. All joking aside, he also came out as one of the premier guitar voices of the zeros. Boiling down all the progress made from the stream of post-hardcore bands him and all his former band-mates had been involved in, American Football emerged awashed in flowing pattens. Mike frequently alt tunes his guitar and uses a stream of single notes as a rhythm part to keep afloat his plain spoken lyrics. His guitar style would also keep afloat scores of imitators in the later part of this decade.

Favorite performance: A Fever Analog

Gihm does not write his own songs. He only plays covers. Gihm does not release albums. He only displays on youtube. Gihm does not show his face. Gihm is basically everything we should, as music snobs, look down on. Gihm is also a god. There is no other way to say this. He works by striping down a song of multiple guitar lines and arranging them for one guitar. Which is to say he plays three or more parts at the same time, he is a band all onto himself. Let me say this again. He plays three guitar parts all at the same time all on one guitar. He creates building emotional compositions of absolutely ridiculous technical skill that often times surpasses the songs he is covering. He is the king of all virtuosos. He is... Gihm is a fucking god.

BBC's Guitarist List is Dumb, Here is a Better One: Part 2

My response to BBC 6's list was about the same as CJ's, more or less. "Really? Jack White? Slash?! Peter Buck?!? Fucking really?" Lowest common denominator popularity contests riddled with cliched, derivative and overrated artists have given the mainstream music press in general and the British press in particular a bad name, but this list was so craptastic I expected to see Rolling Stone's name affixed to it.

Anyway, I take no issue with CJ's well-considered alternative to BBC 6's pile of shit--all his guitarists are worthy picks, even if Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman's lead guitarwork continues to annoy the hell out of me, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has been off in spinning shithead land with Mars Volta since Frances The Mute. What can I say, I'm impossible to please.

Also, you named only one Kyuss song. That is a crime.

But a list of ten is bound to leave some important ones out (however obscure they are) and I figured I'd drop in a few more names, duos included, because they're just too good to go unmentioned. To wit:

Marc Ribot

From undiluted free jazz to lyrical Latin stylings and No-Wave outbursts, few guitarists can boast the diversity of NYC musician Marc Ribot. Along with his own astounding solo work, his mile-long credentials as a session guitarist feature playing alongside legends such as Tom Waits (his first appearance was 1985's classic Rain Dogs), Elvis Costello, John Zorn, McCoy Tyner, Jim Thirwell, T-Bone Burnett and countless others. His cosmopolitan tastes, boundless imagination on the fretboard and tightly honed precision (despite being a southpaw playing guitar right-handed) have stolen the show on pretty much anything he takes part in, but without being a preening egotist or boring technician. Ribot's primary talent is a mature virtuosity that shines regardless of what setting you put him in.

Favorite performance: "Hoist That Rag"

Steve Albini (Big Black, Rapeman, Shellac)

Indie/DIY curmudgeon, analog extraordinaire and all-around badass, Steve Albini has another widely overlooked talent--guitarist. You'd have to look long and hard for another musician that can pull off Albini's brutal-as-fuck sound, which sounds less like a guitar and more like sheets of steel being scraped together in front of a bullhorn. His confrontational, amp-destroying performances set high standards for underground rock as Grand Guignol back in the '80s, and years of supervising other successful artists behind the mixing boards has not diluted his abrasive originality one bit.

Favorite performance: "Ready Men"

Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets, Eyes Adrift)

Compressing strains of psychedelia, punk and country into an unpretentious, vivid and endearingly disjointed showcase, Curt Kirkwood was an indie guitar hero in a genre that generally shunned that kind of ability. His early work with the cowpunk trailblazers the Meat Puppets was widely emulated and idolized by many underground artists (including one Mr. Cobain), and resulted in the development of modern alt-country. Despite two decades of tightening the shaky vocals and cleaning up the lo-fi sound, Kirkwood's chops remain formidable to this day.

Favorite performance: "Plateau"

Thurston Moore & Lee Renaldo (Sonic Youth)

Watching the duo of Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo gradually mature from alienated No-Wave alumni into elder statesmen of DIY rock has been a fascinating journey, equally as fascinating as their continually evolving technique. The unearthly sounds they manage to cajole, wring, pummel and torture out of their unconventionally tuned guitars are unrivalled in rock, and their level of interplay and ability to sculpt even the most subtle of tonalities out of sheets of noise flatly owns any wanktastic Berklee grad you'd care to name. While their singing chops leave much to be desired, Moore and Renaldo are up there with Hendrix in revealing the potential of the electric guitar.

Favorite performance: "(I've Got A) Catholic Block"

Fredrik Thordendal (Meshuggah, Fredrik Thordendal's Special Defects)

Since Allan Holdsworth is not eligible for this list (anyone reading this, look him up posthaste) I'm going to have to "settle" for mighty Swede Fredrik Thordendal, who appropriates elements of Holdworth's utterly insane jazz/fusion technique and turns it into viciously heavy cyborg metal. Employing the full use of his custom 8-string with unique mathematical riffing that has helped make Meshuggah a household name among metalheads and wildly imaginative, alien solos that melt the faces of all listeners within earshot, Thordendal brings a new level of intelligent virtuosity to 21st century extreme metal.

Favorite performance: "Stengah"

Dr Know (Bad Brains)

Hardcore punk's original guitar hero was one of its most unlikely contributors--a black Rastafarian and former jazz/fusion musician hailing originally out of D.C., Dr Know brought truly blistering, breakneck riffs and proper quasi-metal guitar solos (!) to the minimalist boundaries of punk rock, influencing countless other bands in the process. The fact that he could pull a seamless 180 and follow the maelstrom with authentic, chilled dub/reggae without losing an ounce of proficiency made him one of the most original guitarists of the '80s. Even Joe Strummer and Mick Jones would've given a kidney to play like Dr Know.

Favorite performance: "Don't Need It" (1982 version)

Stevie Ray Vaughn

SRV is quite possibly one of the most heralded musicians of all time, and for good fucking reason. Since Hendrix, simply no one has managed the same level of crossover appeal--if you like blues, rockabilly and/or rock, you like Vaughn. His appreciation for classic blues and R &B performers such as Albert King, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Elmore James and Stevie Wonder along with his stupendous string-bending and excellent feel for a genre generally only vaguely understood by white people brought 12-bar blues back into mainstream vogue in an otherwise depressingly overproduced decade. In addition, his cover of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" rivals the Olympian heights of the original. Find another guitarist from the last 30 years you can say that about. I'm waiting.

Favorite performance: "Texas Flood"

Page Hamilton (Helmet)

No Page Hamilton means no Korn, no Sevendust, no Limp Biz... ok, I'll stop before you start throwing rocks at the poor guy. But truthfully, all those shitty nu-metal poseurs couldn't hold a single candle to Hamilton's taut, thundering drop-D riffing and screeching solos. With years of jazz training and tutelage with Glenn Branca under Hamilton's belt, his band Helmet excised all of metal and hXc's usual bullshit for a punishing, straight-up display of determined minimalism. Musicians, take note--music is just as much about what you don't play as what you do.

Favorite performance: "In The Meantime"

Kim Thayil (Soundgarden)

Despite the claims of how grunge was a Gen-X rejection of increasingly moldy classic rock trappings, many of the '90s best rock bands were all about repackaging Sabbath, Who and Zeppelin riffs in a newer, edgier wrapper. And underrated Kim Thayil, always sitting in the shadow of frontman Chris Cornell was among the best of the revivalists, regularly coming up with Eastern-tinged, razor edged, and gloomily grinding riffs that probably made Iommi sit up and take notice (in a good way, not in a "Call my fucking lawyer!" sort of way). Along with Jerry Cantrell, Thayil deserves kudos as one of the few genuinely excellent guitarists of mainstream Seattle-era rock.

Favorite performance: "Holy Water"

Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine)

The mopey and meticulous God-Emperor of the shoegaze genre, Kevin Shields' studio wizardry is matched by his incredible skill with a guitar. Basing his style less on pure technique and more on walls of atom-smashing LOUD but enveloping and welcoming layered textures, no one can engulf you in a cocoon of warm sonic goodness like this guy. Now that shoegaze's gauzy, voice-as-instrument (aren't we all tired of that fucking phrase yet?) aesthetic is being co-opted for use in every genre under the Sun from the sunniest of indie pop to the grimmest of underground black metal, it's high time that Shields got his due in the mainstream. In the meantime, All of Us Who Know (TM) can curl up with our copies of Loveless and drop out.

My favorite performance: "What You Want"

Runners Up:

Agata (Melt Banana)
Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)
Adrian Belew (King Crimson)
Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard)
D Boon (The Minutemen)
Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar)
J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.)
Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth, Bloodbath)
Mike Banfield & Ian Williams (Don Caballero)
Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad, Devin Townsend Project)
Greg Sage (The Wipers)
Stephen O'Malley (Sunn O))), Burning Witch, Khanate)
Kurt Ballou (Converge)
Ian McKaye & Guy Picciotto (Fugazi)
Paul Leary (Butthole Surfers)
Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Jesu)
Pepper Keenan (Corrosion of Conformity, Down)



BBC 6's Guitarist List is Dumb, Here is a Better One

BBC 6 recently conducted a listener poll to find out who they think the ten best guitarists of the last 30 years were. They picked John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as #1.

As you can probably already tell, the list was not great. Here it is in full:

1. John Frusciante(Red Hot Chili Peppers)
2. Slash
3. Matt Bellamy(Muse)
4. Johnny Marr(The Smiths)
5. Tom Morello(Rage Against The Machine)
6. Kirk Hammett(Metallica)
7. Jonny Greenwood(Radiohead)
8. Prince
9. Jack White
10. Peter Buck(REM)

Holy crap, dude. Some of these I get, but Matt Bellamy of all fucking people?! And the guy from REM? Wasn't his whole thing that he couldn't play the guitar all that well?

All things told it's pretty standard stuff, not too surprising. Still, here are ten other guitarists to consider for the best of the last 30 years. I included some "teams" because it's hard to know who's playing what sometimes and also that's how a lot of bands get their sound. I'm also starting the 30 year limit from studio albums, so yes, I realize some of these guys were on EPs in the '70s. Also keep in mind that I'm not flat-out saying "These are the ten best of the last decade, straight up". They're just ten guitarists that I happen to like a lot more than most of the ones they listed. Don't see this as a definitive list, by any means.

Greg Ginn(Black Flag)

Along with Minor Threat guitarist Lyle Presnar, Greg Ginn helped define what the new era of punk would sound like. So why does he make the list instead of Presnar? Pure, visceral rage. His guitar sounds absolutely furious, and he was able to rip out a solo like nobody's business. As inimitable as bandmate Henry Rollins' vocals were, Ginn's guitar work is driving, frantic and dissonant in a way that gets across the anger of the hardcore scene in a way that no other punk guitarist since has quite been able to capture.

Essential Tracks: "Rise Above", "Damaged I", "Nothing Left Inside"

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez(At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta)

Say what you will about the excesses he displays when playing with The Mars Volta(and you can say quite a bit), but Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is one of the closest things we have today to a guitar god. His use of effects pedals in his "war against the guitar"(he actually said that!) has resulted in some of the most awe-inspiring tone this side of Tom Morello, and his jazz-infused compositions are close to untouchable in terms of sheer skill. His driving prog-punk guitar with At The Drive-In and his samba/jazz/progressive/classic rock inspired playing with The Mars Volta are distinct from each other, but are both unmistakable as only being able to come from one person in music today.

Essential Tracks: "Arcarsenal", "Sleepwalk Capsules", "Cassandra Gemini"

Chuck Schuldiner(Death, Control Denied)

Let's not even take into account that the man invented an entirely new subgenre of music in the form of death metal. Even if he was a latecomer to the genre, Chuck Schuldiner would have earned his status as one of the greatest guitarists to ever live. Chuck started off playing with an ultra-fast, impossibly heavy grind, the likes of which nobody had ever heard before. Not content to rest on his laurels, Schuldiner grew as a guitarist and started learning more progressive techniques, and by the time that Death's final album, The Sound of Perseverance, rolled around, Schuldiner had perfected his guitar playing into an assault that was as savage as it was technical, shooting out licks and solos that left other metal guitarists speechless with awe. We'll never know where he could have taken the genre before his tragic passing, but even with his brief time on this earth, Chuck Schuldiner proved that he was one of the greats, no matter what genre you're talking about.

Essential Tracks: "Scream Bloody Gore", "Crystal Mountain", "Flesh And The Power It Holds"

Elfrim Menuck, David Bryant and Roger Tellier-Craig(Godspeed You! Black Emperor)

When you think of the greatest guitarists of the generation, Godspeed You! Black Emperor probably isn't the first band that comes to mind. That said, GYBE's powerful guitar playing comes not as much from the sheer technical ability of the guitarists, but from their ability to integrate their playing into an orchestral setting. The violins and the cellos provide the backdrop and the grounding for the music, but it's Elfrim, Bryant and Tellier-Craig that really take the music to their heights. GYBE's songs often build to an emotional climax, and when that happens it's usually the guitars that are whirring like enraged mosquitoes or humming along and blending in in such a way that you can hardly tell they're there. That said, their presence in the song is always felt, and when it's time for the song to explode it's the guitar playing that's forcing you to your knees. It's these three guitarists' ability to make the music feel spiritual, to push the music through its stages almost from behind the scenes, that almost reinvents the idea of what a guitar can be used for in music.

Essential Tracks: "The Dead Flag Blues", "East Hastings", "Sleep"

Buzz Osborne(Melvins)

Buzz Osborne has played the guitar and led his band through every incarnation of music from hardcore punk to grunge to sludge metal to straight-up avant-garde, and he's excelled at every single one. One thing that he's never lost no matter what genre he's playing, though? His signature, unmistakable boom. When it comes to guitar riffs that melt through your body like molten syrup, Osborne is almost impossible to top. His guitar playing is slow, heavy and menacing, always rushing right to the throat, and he never plays the same riff twice. That sounds small, but when making "heavy" music it's easy for all your songs to sound the same, and Osborne hasn't fallen into that trap once in almost 25 years. A major contributor to the creation of what we know today as "stoner metal", Buzz Osborne is arguably the heaviest guitarist of the last 30 years. And if he isn't, then the guy who is knows who to thank.

Essential Tracks: "Boris", "Honey Bucket", "Civilized Worm"

Josh Homme(Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age)

If "hard rock" is a pejorative term in music today, I'm almost inclined to state that it shouldn't be, simply because Josh Homme does it so fucking well. Starting out with stoner metal band Kyuss and eventually forming the chart-topping Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme may not be the most technical guitarist working today, but he very well might be the smartest. He knows how to distill that smokey, feel-it-in-your-guts sensation that a good classic rock riff can give you and combine it with a pounding, larger than life edge that leaves you clamoring for more. It's simple and fun, but also dangerous, like blowing up home-made bombs on the railroad tracks. Guitarists can be described with any number of adjectives, but "addictive" is rarely one of them. When it comes to Josh Homme's playing, it's the first word that pops to mind.

Essential Tracks: "Green Machine", "Monsters In The Parasol", "Battery Acid"

Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman(Slayer)

Do you hate metal? Do you like it? Either way, these two guys are the ones you need to thank/despise, because almost every metal song since 196's Reign in Blood has been a direct result of the guitarwork of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman. Finding squealing, echoing tones that were previously unheard of in metal and playing them at impossibly fast speeds, every metal guitarist out there owes a huge debt to these two pioneers. They started off with a more New Wave of British Heavy Metal sound, but by the time the mid '80s rolled around these two had become a force unto themselves, and it's largely due to the frenzied, eardrum-bursting solos of King and Hanneman. Even when they slow it down and meld into a fierce groove they pack the force of a nuclear bomb, proving that they can dominate the genre no matter what kind of metal they're playing. I'm not a huge Slayer fan, but seriously: Bow your head to these motherfuckers.

Essential Tracks: "Angel of Death", "Seasons in the Abyss", "Jihad"

Isaac Brock(Modest Mouse, Ugly Casanova)

Indie music: Kiss this man's ass. No, for real. Isaac Brock can do everything you guys can and more. He can play ambient, gliding through spacey, echoing chords like a fish through water. He can play epic, epic enough to get your heart to swell at the very first note. He can do gut-buckety ass garage rock, slamming through his strings like the production budget was five bucks and a sandwich and still practically physically forcing your body to rock like all holy hell. And through every single style he plays through-and he plays through a lot-he never loses the slightest bit of precision, never fails to make the tone something you've never quite heard before. He is one of the cleanest, most innovative guitar players working today. Your music is "real"? This guy breathes real, and he doesn't have to sound like an amateur to pull it off. What've you got?

Essential Tracks: "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine", "Doin' The Cockroach", "I Came As A Rat"

Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman(Megadeth)

What in the living hell is that noise? That's your jaw slapping the floor as you hear the neigh-unbeatable team of Marty Friedman and Dave Mustaine playing with the hands of the devil himself. With Mustaine's rhythmic fundamentals, Friedman's classical training and a musical chemistry that is rivaled only by King and Hanneman, these two created the most iconic metal anthems of the '90s. Forget "Enter Sandman": Give "Hangar 18" a spin if you want to see what real metal should've been aiming for in the grunge era. To this day, many guitarists cite that song as one of the most difficult to play, ever. Now imagine those kinds of riffs and that magnitude of blinding solos filling two whole albums and-hey man, you wanna do something about that jaw? You're getting slobber all over my floor.

Essential Tracks: "Hangar 18", "Tornado of Souls", "Psychotron"

Joey Santiago(Pixies)

Tell me, have you enjoyed an alternative rock song made in the past 25 years? You should talk to this man. And then thank him with all your heart.

Essential Tracks: "Gigantic", "Vamos", "Debaser"


  • East Bay Ray(Dead Kennedys)
  • Britt Daniel(Spoon)
  • Joe Satriani
  • Matt Pike(Sleep, High On Fire)
  • The Reverend Horton Heat
  • Spencer Seim(Hella)
  • Tyondai Braxton(Battles)
  • Jus Osborn(Electric Wizard)
  • Judah Nagler(The Velvet Teen)
  • Wata(Boris)
  • Davey von Bohlen/Victor Villarreal(Cap'n Jazz)
  • Ian Mackaye/Guy Picciotto(Fugazi)
  • Paul Masvidal(Death, Cynic, Aeon Spoke)


A Token of My Extreme: Ornette Coleman Double Quartet- Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960)

Atlantic; December 21, 1960

Alright, I'm going to come out and say it right now: Free jazz is some of the hardest shit to write reviews for. I'm not trained in music theory, and I'm sure a lot of the techniques and nuances probably sail right over my head. Shit, most of the musicians who are playing the stuff are often feeling it out to some extent as they go. What hope do I, some dumbass amateur columnist, have in accurately capturing one of the most controversial watersheds of post-bop jazz in my typical avalanche of hyperbole, redundant verbiage and four-letter words?

No fucking idea. But I've decided that it's important you know this album. So on I go.

At the time of Free Jazz's release, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman was pushing the jazz form, already expanded by ten years of bop and "cool," right to its ragged edge. 1959's somewhat boastfully titled (but for good reason) The Shape of Jazz To Come, even in an era of Monk, Mingus and Taylor, was pretty far "out." Sure it was (mostly) pretty harmonious, and it was mostly in blues scales, but by throwing out chordal structure in general and the piano altogether, it was a fairly radical release at the time. Although some argued that this album would be the downfall of jazz into realms of skronky noise, most listeners today would find the work of the quartet (Coleman, Don Cherry on cornet, Billy Higgens on drums, Charlie Haden on double bass) beautiful and shapely listening that's aged very well after fifty years of relentless musical advances.

Not satisfied with this classic, in 1960 Coleman showed the world he wasn't fucking around and rounded up his next ensemble of musicians; see above, but add another quartet--Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Scott LaFaro on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. Now if you know anything about jazz, those are some impressive names. Dolphy in particular might be my favorite reedist (I think that's a word) in the whole genre. The session was recorded in stereo with one quartet in each channel, a pretty interesting use of then-novel technology.

Anyway, now that I've bored you with the technical details: Free Jazz is where the controversy really starts. To this day, there are plenty of listeners and conservative music critics that still think this album sounds like a bunch of car alarms going off. They are wrong.

Sure, this nearly 40-minute session (it's the only track on the album, unless you count the bonus 17-minute rehearsal) starts out somewhat frenzied, with a big burst of reeds and brass going every which way but then Ornette's plastic sax, Cherry's horn and Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet acquire a clear focus, state an elegant melody, and split off again. A number of similar, short fanfares are introduced and elaborated on throughout, with Ornette trading wry lines with Dolphy's cheeky clarinet, Hubbard's deep trumpet and Cherry's rounder sound. There are no clear solos, per se--while there is space for them, the other musicians are free to "comment" at any point. The double rhythm section whips up a complex uptempo pulse, with one drummer playing "straight" and the other playing in double time. The overall effect is like that of a conversation at a lively party where long streams of amiable dialogue from the individual voices are interrupted by a "laugh" or a lengthy aside from another voice, while bass and drums form the sounds of a crowded, busy room. There is a natural give and take and rhythm to this piece, and despite the "free" moniker it's not chaotic in the least.

Around the 25-minute mark, the blowing trails off leaving some space for the two bassists to chew on, and the two drummers continuing their steady shuffle. This is one of my favorite parts of the gig, as Haden (who has the deeper sound of the duo) is a BEAST on his upright and LaFaro is no slouch either. Then the whole band comes in with a big burst around 29:50, and fades into the background to let the basses continue their back and forth. The album concludes with a few more blowouts and the two drummers cutting loose with some excellent soloing, trading blows like a couple of prize fighters. Magnificent.

After listening to this album, it's clear that while Coleman is no doubt an innovator (the dude's still around; his 2006 live recording Sound Grammar won a Pulitzer for Music), the man's roots are still in classic bop players like Hawkins and Parker, never truly rejecting melody or structure (hence the rehearsal) while retaining the improvisational fire and groundbreaking spirit that characterizes the free jazz artist. He was sometimes panned and misunderstood (he was even attacked and had his sax destroyed by some asshole at an early gig) for being so ahead of his time, yet now his music sounds fresher and more relevant than boring "preservationist" poseurs like Wynton Marsalis ever will. Ornette's work would be built upon by future saxmen--Albert Ayler, John Coltrane in his later years, Peter Brotzmann--all of whom would at some point emulate the unconventional ensemble and loose structure of Free Jazz and take it to even greater extremes.

Those guys will eventually make it to this column, by the way. But it all starts here.


While it's probably not the best pick for a newbie to this genre, Free Jazz shouldn't intimidate anyone who has some affinity for '50s jazz. I would start out on some Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and the aforementioned The Shape of Jazz To Come. Maybe a few Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie recordings, too. This album is a little harder to get into than those, but compared to later free jazz releases this is downright pleasant. Just ignore Ken Burns and dive in.



Gorillaz-Plastic Beach

2010; Parlophone

Here's something you should know right off the bat about Plastic Beach: It's not really a Gorillaz album. It's more like, "Friends of Damon Albarn, Featuring Production by The Gorillaz".

Here's something else you should know about Plastic Beach: This is their "serious" album, which means the Gorillaz and Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed and Mos Def and De La Soul are going to try to tell you about the evils of pollution and consumerism.

That leads me to the final thing you should know about Plastic Beach: It's not all that great.

This is the poppiest Gorillaz album released thus far-Albarn freely admits as much. This wouldn't be such a problem if there was any sense of adventurousness in playing with the pop music format, but there isn't. The orchestral sections are at best pleasant and at worst tired sounding, sparking not so much feelings of "Wow, I've never heard the Gorillaz do anything like this before" as much as "Wow, another Goddamn pop group falling into the strings-and-horns act, really?" That aside, the synths and beats aren't up to snuff. Much of the time it sounds like Albarn is trying to achieve a pop meets hip hop vibe, and most of the time it results in something so deflated and palatable as to be completely forgettable. "Stylo" in particular sounds like an Afrikaa Bambaataa track that hit the cutting room floor, for good reason. Bobby Womack sings like he's on a much better song, which is admirable for him, but it doesn't make the track any less hackneyed.

Most of the songs on this album are collaborations, 12 out of the 16 to be exact, and most of the time they don't work out so well. Lou Reed has never been what one might call "excitable", but he sounds like he'd rather be doing anything else in the world on "Some Kind Of Nature", and if we're being honest with ourselves, Snoop Dogg has never really been "good", per se. De La Soul did the charming goofball thing way better during the early '90s/late '80s than they do on "Superfast Jellyfish", although it's still an entertaining enough song, and it's hard to figure out why Paul Simon needed to be involved with the title track at all. Giving credit where credit is due, Mos Def absolutely murders the track on "Sweepstakes" and, as I alluded to above, Womack is a pleasure whenever he decides to sing on the album.

All this in mind, it's not hard to believe that the best songs on Plastic Beach are the ones that feature no collaborators. "Rhinestone Eyes" and "Melancholy Hill" are undoubtedly the best songs on the album, the first being a throwback to the sharper, more driven Gorillaz tracks of old and the second being a gorgeous, mesmerizing song that's sure to be stuck in your head for the rest of the day, in a completely positive way. It reinforces the idea that Albarn really should have spent less time trying to cram as many of his friends on as many of the tracks as possible and spent more time doing what he does best, which is making creative, melodious electronica songs.

There's nothing on Plastic Beach that really takes you by surprise or grabs ahold of you in any lasting fashion. You're not going to get any bursts of insanity like "White Light" or anything that touches the brilliance of "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head" from Demon Days. You're not going to get any of the acid-drenched dance tracks that define Gorillaz' b-sides. You're not even really going to get anything you can dance to. You're going to get a series of tracks that float melodiously but blandly from one to the next, and for the most part that's all you're going to get.

Plastic Beach is a dull, dry affair that completely lacks any of the manic creativity that has defined the Gorillaz' previous releases. It's a hodgepodge of genres and ideas that you've already seen before, diluted for maximum possible mass appeal. For an album that purports to be anti-consumerist, Plastic Beach is by far the most predictable, shopworn release from the Gorillaz thus far. If this is what Damon Albarn needed a five year break to create, let's hope the next release comes out as quickly as possible.




2010; Merge Records

Spoon is something of an institution at this point. When you think of the leaders of indie at the moment, Arcade Fire and Animal Collective probably jump to mind first, but Spoon is a fixture of college dorms across the country, and I think if somebody says "ugh, I hate this shit, change the song" when a Spoon track is playing you're legally allowed to revoke their status as a person. They're a hard group to argue with, because arguably no group has been more consistently excellent over the last ten years, and musically they've got the charisma of ten similar bands.

It's largely due to that charisma that they can get away with albums like Transference.

That is not to say that this is a bad album, simply that it is a Spoon album. Have you heard a Spoon album before? Congratulations, you know precisely what to expect from Transference. There will be catchy hooks, sexy vocals and funny lyrics when they make sense at all. No risks are taken, no expectations exceeded or disappointed.

There is a little bit more of a pop edge to this album than their past efforts. Certainly the single "The Mystery Zone", with lines like "Make us a house, some far away town/Where no one will know us well and your dad's not around" evoke a sense of almost classic-rock style optimism. Similar musings on love and life are not unlike the material on their previous albums, but they have a sense of earnestness and sincerity of wonder that replaces the wry sarcasm of albums like Gimme Fiction.

This is, once again, not to say this is a bad album, and that relative optimism and slightly poppier production are really the only things that set this apart from any of their other albums. Rob Pope deserves to be mentioned as one of the best bassists working in indie rock today and the smart mix of piano and radio-rock guitar fundamentals is still going strong. "Written In Reverse" grooves like nobody's business and their penchant for witty nonsense in songs like "Trouble Comes Running"("Slaves are on the horses, princes walk the grounds like they're slaves") is as charming as it always was.

This is fundamental Spoon, and you can argue that they're using the same old bag of tricks that they've been utilizing for the past ten years. Just look at that prick on the cover, all lounging around and glancin' sideways like he's better'n me! But the material here doesn't sound bored or stagnant. The songs are still lively and sharp and the songwriting hasn't gone stale yet. It simply sounds like Spoon recognizes what they're good at, and what they're good at is...well, being Spoon.

In other words, this is a Spoon album for Spoon fans. If you're not expecting them to turn their formula on its head, if you're already a fan of their music, or if you're curious about the group and just want to hear some good old rock and roll with a dash of class, Transference won't let you down.

(Man, I don't think I've ever typed the word "Spoon" so many times in my life)



A Token of My Extreme: Sonic Youth- Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols (1983)

Neutral Records; February 1983


Ah Sonic Youth, everybody's favorite indie touchstone. They were always the Rolling Stones to the Pixies' Beatles--a bit more raw, a lot more down 'n' dirty and loose in their noisy explorations of the rock form, and lyrics that, while not necessarily any more meaningful or less marred by irony, are a lot darker and snarkier than Frank Black's quirky musings. What they lacked in consistency across entire albums, they made up for in iconic cuts ("Teen Age Riot," anyone?) that captured the zeitgeist of underground music. And that's just about where the connection to the Beatles/Stones dichotomy ends--Sonic Youth have had a much broader, more adventurous career over the course of fifteen LP's and God only knows how many EP's, limited releases and side projects than just about every other long-running band in the past 30 years; and while Mick and Keith have long since degenerated into fogey cliches of their younger, more feral selves, Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley in their fifties are more than capable of blowing just about any retirement-age rock star not named Lemmy Kilimeister off the fucking stage.

While sometimes panned by naysayers as undeserving hipster darlings, SY have more than paid their dues. Just look at that discography--the Evol/Sister/Daydream Nation trilogy is still one of the most celebrated runs of "alternative" music (back when that term actually fucking meant something), and early '90s records like Goo and Dirty and the later Murray Street and The Eternal are all models in how to combine accessibility and tighter songwriting with the same famous feedback-heavy, experimental textures of their old work.

However, that band is not the Sonic Youth of Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols.

Rewind to 1983. Still fairly fresh out of the New York underground art scene and avant-garde ensembles like Glenn Branca's guitar orchestra, and playing alongside fellow No-Wave freaks Swans, SY was a band that would scare the shit out of parents, critics (Rolling Stone writer and massive dildo Robert Christgau was an early hater), and corporate radio alike with their disemboweling blasts of sturm und drang.

Perennially underrated duo Moore and Renaldo would commonly shove screwdrivers into their cheap guitars' frets, beat the strings with drumsticks, and play in the most unconventional tunings imaginable to produce swarm-of-pissed-hornets feedback and church bell-like timbres entirely foreign to guitars before or since (best showcased in the opener "(She's In A) Bad Mood"). The lyrics were frequently stream of consciousness, chanted or screamed over the head-shearing, metal on metal racket; and while SY's vocalists Thurston and Kim were never what'd you call particularly "tuneful," here both are blatantly confrontational and atonal, well suited to the lo-fi artfuck quality (and notably, Kim's off-key delivery sucks a lot less in this context). The end result is hair-raising, tense and moody, like some dark pagan ritual. In particular the horror movie crawl of "Protect Me You" might be one of the creepiest things they've ever done.

Yet despite the defiantly anti-commercial trappings of this release, Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols probably serves up one of the best hits of furious punk energy in the entire SY canon, an energy that was sadly diluted from Bad Moon Rising on. With songs generally limited to around the three to four minute mark, the pre-Shelley tribal thump, and the dirty guitar-torturing, bass-heavy aesthetic, you could probably bang your head or pogo to a good portion of this. Especially the cracked-out anthems "Inhuman," "Brother James," "The World Looks Red," and "Kill Yr Idols," all capable of shredding wallpaper from three miles. Of course, this is also the record with an absolutely BLISTERING cover of The Stooges classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on it, shrieked to great anarchic effect by Kim, so all told the punk vibe makes sense.

While Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols might pale a bit next to the peaks of more mature and fully realized albums like Sister and Daydream Nation, its primitive, art-damaged sonic adventurism is essential to an understanding of SY's development into the DIY/indie icons they are now. Plus it rocks the fuck out in its own viciously dissonant blacked-out fashion, and everyone could use more rocking.


Unless your tastes already lean toward the sonically unfriendly this isn't a good intro to SY, no sir. You will want Sister or maybe even Dirty long before you get this one, and even then the snide hipster vibe that unfortunately characterizes a good percentage of SY's work may be an impediment to enjoyment, so take that into account. Some knowledge of early SY contemporaries Swans or Big Black (both of whom are pretty damn extreme and impressive in their own right) can't hurt your chances with this record either.