Best Compilation Albums of the 1990s

Though I’m a prog man at heart, I like to think of myself as open to all forms of music.  Granted, I have yet to hear a single country or rap song that I like, but I certainly love much of classical and symphonic, jazz, and various forms of rock.  One thing I miss in the rock world are compilation albums.  I definitely don’t mean “greatest hits” packages.  I mean albums that contain songs by various artists coming together for a particular purpose.  Usually, this purpose was for movie soundtracks, but not always.

Looking at my own collection–however limited–it looks to me that the best of these came out in the 1990s.  I will admit, though, that my love of these specific compilation albums might have much to do with some happy nostalgia for a pre-9/11, far more innocent world.

Here are my favorite four from that time period.

until the end of the world
Before it’s too late. . .

4. “Until the End of the World”–a soundtrack for the Wim Wenders film of the same name.  The album features songs–every one of them good–by a number of artists I would never listen to, otherwise, such as Depeche Mode, Lou Reed, and T-Bone Burnett.  Even the major bands that appear–such as Talking Heads, Nick Cave, and U2 give it their best.  My favorite song, by far, is “Calling All Angels,” performed by Jane Siberry and K.D. Lang.

Continue reading “Best Compilation Albums of the 1990s”

Review: Remark – Keep Running

Keep Running

REMARK’s second offering Keep Running is an affirmative new chapter in a book already filled with trials and tribulations. You only need to look at the striking album cover to gain a sense of what you’re in for – grunge that bounces from heavy to soft, to everything in between. You’re in for a ride.

Whilst you may typecast the realm of grunge to bands such as Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, from the outset, REMARK put a modern twist onto an already formidable genre to dip into. ‘Comeback’ opens with your stereotypically sexy distorted guitars, before plunging into elements of alternative rock that bring it bang up to date. The same can be said for its partner ‘Purple Haze’. Its emotionally thirsty in lyrical content, which is backed up by self-assured punk-like guitar tones.

Although the 1990s nostalgia is laid so bare it could slap you in the face, the EP’s lead lines and riffs are contemporary additions that create a positive genre bending journey.

REMARK have truly come up trumps with this record, with two closing songs — both covers by Tears for Fears and Alex Clare — supporting that statement. Keep Running is infinitely catchy and brings back a genre that the original greats still hold the crown to, but rethinking it in a way that makes it accessible to the masses.

Honest, compelling and obsessively alluring, Keep Running is a masterpiece in post-grunge. Head over to Bandcamp to stream / download the EP. REMARK are also on FacebookYouTube, and Instagram.

soundstreamsunday: “Winter Song” by Screaming Trees and “Whirling Dervish” by Thin White Rope

deserttruckstop-rightmid-1Years before the hybrid of classic rock and distorted garage psychedelia and punk became the legendary  Grunge that vanquished the Hair Metal Dragon in the early 1990s, Screaming Trees and Thin White Rope plied their trade in relative obscurity and penury.  Even as “punk broke” in America and they were afforded greater opportunity for exposure, as groups they had already cycled through lineup changes and masterwork albums, and the timing for broad success never really synced.  Yet you can sight through the lens of their recorded legacy an understanding of what Grunge in America was, where it came from, what it meant, how it drew upon American roots music, acknowledging what Greil Marcus called the “old, weird America,” of everything from 13th Floor Elevators and Neil Young to the folk revival of the 1960s to the hillbilly/race records of the 1920s and 1930s.  The references aren’t always apparent, but they’re embedded in the dust devils Thin White Rope appeared through and the rain-soaked northwestern pines the Screaming Trees turned dayglo.

By the time Screaming Trees came to record Sweet Oblivion (1992), they were already five albums deep into a psych rock career stamped by Gary Lee Conner’s guitar raveups and Mark Lanegan’s authoritative, rumbling wail.  On their sixth album, though, there was a changeup:  the band, with new drummer Barrett Martin, followed the Americana-nuanced maturity evidenced on Lanegan’s first solo album, 1990’s The Winding Sheet (a record that had a profound influence on Seattle’s rock scene and on Nirvana particularly — Kurt Cobain was a contributor on that record and Dave Grohl has commented that it had a big impact on their approach to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance).  On Sweet Oblivion, the band set their controls to the heart of the West, making the followup to 1991’s excellent Uncle Anesthesia a harder yet subtler, less ornate affair.  Gone were the psychedelic trappings, in their place a clutch of straight-up riff rockers and ballads, going deep by going personal rather than into the purple, foggy haze.  Beginning to end a great record that to this day sounds distinct and powerful listened to alongside Nevermind or Ten or Temple of the Dog or Superunknown or Dirt, Sweet Oblivion just never took off, and to my mind the greatest of Seattle’s bands never recovered.  “Winter Song” begins and ends with the line “Jesus knocking on my door,” and it’s as fitting an epitaph for a band that shouldabeen that I can think of.

Like Sweet Oblivion, Thin White Rope’s fourth album, Sack Full of Silver (1990), is an American music classic.  Ported through a Television-worthy twin-guitar attack, its power is in the finesse of its six-string thunder and Guy Kyser’s gruff, horror show bark.  It is a record that manages to contain both a cover of Can’s “Yoo Doo Right” AND a 7-11 parking lot rewrite of “Amazing Grace” and makes them work as if they absolutely belong on the same album.  Along with guitarist Roger Kunkel, Kyser’s vision of 1980s western America on Sack Full of Silver — highways and truck stops and stoned mirage images — is fully realized, but feels like it could have as easily been recorded, had the technology been possible, in the 1850s, with a mix of frontier terror and mundane everyday life.  Profound, pounding, and heavy, Sack Full of Silver is the distillation of all that Thin White Rope brought to rock.  As opaque as any of their songs, but endlessly interesting for it, “Whirling Dervish” is ostensibly about detritus caught in a duststorm, and may as a consequence be ultimately descriptive of all of us.

Sweet Oblivion on Amazon

Sack Full of Silver on Amazon

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive

Rockin’ genius to the Hult: Chris Cornell’s magical evening in Eugene, Oregon

Waiting for the show to commence….

Nearing the end of his stunning two-and-a-half hour concert last night at the Hult Center here in Eugene, Oregon, a clearly delighted Chris Cornell noted that while he had enjoyed his two previous stops in Eugene, this particular night was “special”. He was quite right. I was at his October 19, 2013 show at The Shedd—a smaller and more intimate (that is, cramped) venue—and while it was a very good show, Cornell topped it last night with a generous mix of newer and older tunes—a total of 26 songs in all— the occasional accompaniment of Brian Gibson on keyboards and cello, and a vocal performance that rivals any I’ve heard from him—and I’ve listened to numerous live performances on albums and via YouTube.

Simply put, Cornell’s songs are demanding, requiring the sort of range, strength, stamina, and flexibility that very few singers can pull off on a regular basis. And there have been times when the strains of traveling and performing have taken a toll on Cornell’s voice, especially on Soundgarden tours. But the legendary singer and songwriter (Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple of the Dog, solo) is, without doubt, in a wonderful place as an artist, making great new music and embracing his older songs with unashamed enthusiasm. Late in the set, introducing “Black Hole Sun”—a huge hit that he has sung countless times—Cornell mused that he didn’t understand why some artists end up “hating” those defining hits. “If you don’t want to sing it,” he said, “don’t write it and record it in the first place.” And then he tore into the song as if he had written it just last week, clearly thriving on the interplay between his acoustic guitar riffs and Gibson’s dynamic cello excursions.  Continue reading “Rockin’ genius to the Hult: Chris Cornell’s magical evening in Eugene, Oregon”

Mandala’s MIDNIGHT TWILIGHT. Open Your Wallets and Get Out Your Credit Cards.

Review: Mandala, Midnight Twilight (2015).

Begun in 1997, finished in 2015. Like a fine wine, well worth the wait.

I’ve been following the work of Rhys Marsh for several years, but not to the extent I should have.  Even a cursory examination of his website and the realization of all he’s done in the music world over the past is somewhat overwhelming.  He’s a singer, a songwriter, a musician, and a producer.  I’m sure he’s a million other things as well, but this is what he has listed as his main occupations and pre-occupations.  He also looks like he could easily grace the cover of GQ or Esquire.  I would also add: he’s a perfectionist, a quality common in the progressive music world but all-too often absent in the vast majority of earth’s citizens.

Marsh has his own solo career as well has being a member (I presume the lead member) of Mandala and Kaukasus.

As it turns out, his most recent album, made with his band Mandala, originated eighteen years ago.  And, some of the songs on the album still seem haunted by the grunge of that decade.  Indeed, there’s a strong Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees aura that lingers over about half of the album.

This isn’t a bad thing.  Quite the opposite.  It really adds texture to the album.

That Marsh is immensely talented is written into every single word and note of these various and varied albums, but they are especially evident on on Mandala’s Midnight Twilight.  His ability to make diverse things while also maintaining his own singular integrity and injecting his unique spirit into each project reminds me of the work of Arjen Lucassen, Steven Wilson, and Sam Healy.  Not that he sounds like any of them, but he shares that perfectionist, OCD, creative streak that so predominates some of our best musicians in the rock world.

As readers of Progarchy know, I’m no musician.  Back when complex stereo systems were the norm, I joked that the instrument I knew how to play was the stereo receiver.  The on/off switch.  I’m actually trying to teach myself piano, but my wife tells me I sound more like a percussionist when playing than a pianist.  Regardless. . . I know what I like, and I know what I love.  I am usually most taken with the texture of the music, the flow of the album, the beauty of its resolutions, and the power of the lyrics.

When it comes to the four things I most admire in music, Mandala is aces.  Totally and happily aces.  No song on Midnight Twilight is like any other, and, yet, rather than feeling like a mix of singles, Midnight Twilight holds together perfectly.  The flow is excellent.  From the already mentioned grunge to the experimental time signatures of King Crimson to the intensity of Rush, Midnight Twilight is a thing of wonder.

And, it’s a must own for any lover of prog or rock.

Just be forewarned.  Once you start following Marsh’s career, you won’t stop.  I guarantee that listening to Midnight Twilight will make you grab the credit card for more.  Just remember: your spouse won’t see the statement for at least a month.  Time heals all wounds.

Zac Brown + Chris Cornell = Southerngarden

Chris Cornell cemented his reputation long ago as one of the greatest rock vocalists ever, first with Soundgarden in the 1980s and ’90s (and currently), and then with Audioslave in the early 2000s. But Cornell, who is now 50 years old, has a rather intriguing history of crossing genres, beginning with “Temple of the Dog” (1991), which was certainly rock, yet with hints of gospel and folk. His surprising 1997 version of “Ave Maria” (on “A Very Special Christmas 3”) indicated an interest in music far outside the usual grunge/metal arena. And with his 1998 song “Sunshower” (on the “Great Expectations” soundtrack), which became a hit without ever being released as a single, and “Euphoria Morning” (1999), his first solo album, Cornell further demonstrated his ability to sing (and write) within numerous genres. His 2009 album, “Scream,” caused plenty of screams—from fans who welcomed the electro-R&B-Timbaland-produced songs and from those who hated it and saw it as a sign of the apocalypse.

In recent years, Cornell has written and performed a hit song for a blockbuster movie (“You Know My Name”, the theme song for the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale), sang lead on the funky, Euro-fusion tune “Lies” with Gabin, and crooned a mellow, old-school duet (“All I Have To Do Is Dream”) with Rita Wilson on Mrs. Tom Hanks’s 2012 solo album, “AM/FM.” And in his various solo acoustic tours [see my October 2013 review of one such show], Cornell has always played some left field tunes, such as Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” which he first played unplugged many years ago as a slow-burning blues song (and inspiring a similar take from “American Idol” winner David Cook in 2008).

There are more examples, but that’s enough of an intro to Cornell’s latest collaboration, which was released last week: the single, “Heavy Is the Head,” with the Zac Brown Band, which appears on ZBB’s forthcoming album, “Jekyll + Hyde”. I’ve enjoyed the ZBB’s past albums, which are a mixture of Souther-country-rock, traditional country, and some Jimmy Buffet-type tunes, and I expected I would enjoy the tune. In fact, I think it is a great cut; it is far heavier than expected and is a near perfect marriage of Southern/country rock and grunge, hence my use of the word “Southerngarden”. The song is built on a distorted, grungy bass line, which leads into some distorted guitar and Cornell’s somewhat menacing vocals; it builds over some fine riffs and, at the 3-minute mark, a nifty Soundgarden-ish breakdown and some trademark wailing. Here is a recent performance for SNL, marred only by a bad mix (the vocals are pushed too the back):

Slaying Evil: Kingbathmat Overcomes the Monster

overcoming coverTomorrow (or, for those of you not in the western hemisphere, today), Kingbathmat releases its seventh album, OVERCOMING THE MONSTER.  Reviewing CDs has its privileges (many, actually), and one of the best is the early arrival of review copies.  I don’t want to sound like a gnostic in some mystery cult, but there is something really wonderful about getting to hear these CDs for the first time.

A little over a month ago, I received a copy of OVERCOMING THE MONSTER.  I’ve been playing it–along with four or five other cds–pretty much non-stop since it arrived.

As many of you know, I have no musical ability whatsoever.  Back in the days of huge stereo systems, I used to joke that I was really good only at hitting play and setting the EQ.  So, as always, take my comments as those from one who appreciates the music, but does so with no expertise.

The sum of it: I love this album.  Love it.  And this in the midst of amazing releases and rereleases: from Big Big Train, Nosound, The Tangent, Cosmograf, Glass Hammer, Sound of Contact, Shineback, etc.

What to Love?  The music.

What to love.  First, the music, of course.  Imagine mid-period Rush, but then prog it up–a lot.  Imagine Grace Under Pressure seriousness with Hemisphere song structures.

Or, imagine the Seattle grunge scene of the early 1990s having gone majorly prog.  A bit of Soundgarten, a bit of Screaming Trees, etc.  This is better.  Much better.

Throw in some Tool and maybe some My Bloody Valentine and maybe even a small measure of space rock (Alan Parsons at its most sublime).

If you could put all of this together, you’d start pointing toward the brilliance of Kingbathmat.  Last year’s album, TRUTH BUTTON, was really good; OVERCOMING THE MONSTER is exceptional.

What to Love?  The lyrics.

What else to love?  The lyrics.  Ok, admittedly, I’m not at all sure what to make of the lyrics if taken line by line.  I have a feeling there’s a lot of stuff going on in the lyrics, probably much of it psychological and deeply intellectual.

For the purposes of this review, I’ll just take them literally.  See the Monster–the gorgon, the Medusa?  She’s evil, and she needs to be destroyed.  It’s that simple.  That’s evil, and we’re good.  Nail it with all the strength imaginable.  Don’t flirt, don’t compromise, and don’t hold hands.  Kill it.  Now.

Remember your classical myth, though.  If you look at it, you turn to stone.  So, killing it is no easier for us than it was for Perseus.

Good luck, and may the gods be with you.

What to Love?  The band. 

Finally, what to love?  This band.  Here’s how they describe themselves:

KingBathmat are a powered up independent/psychedelic/progressive/alternative rock band, hailing from Hastings in England. Initially started by singer/songwriter John Bassett, KingBathmat have now independently released six albums to date “Son of a Nun” (2003), “Crowning Glory” (2004), “Fantastic Freak Show Carnival”(2005), “Blue Sea, Black Heart” (2008), “Gravity Field” (2009) and “Truth Button” (2012) . The 4 piece band comprises of John Bassett (guitar,vocals), David Georgiou (Keyboards), Rob Watts (bass) and Bernie Smirnoff (drums).

Sketch of Bassett by Anne-Catherine de Froidmont.
Sketch of Bassett by Anne-Catherine de Froidmont.

I’ve had a chance to correspond–just a very bit–with Bassett.  What a great, intelligent guy.  Even if Kingbathmat were mediocre, I’d be interested in following them simply because of how interesting Bassett is.  They’re far, far from mediocre, however.

Every time I listen to OVERCOMING THE MONSTER, I think: vocals really make this album.  Then, I think: the drums really make this album.  Then, I think, the guitars really make this album.  And, keyboards.  And, bass.  Then, about my sixth listen, I realize–now, it’s how perfectly well these instruments play individually while working together so well.

So, I give OVERCOMING THE MONSTER my highest recommendation.  It’s prog.  Not like Big Big Train, not like The Tangent, not like Nosound, not like Cosmograf.  No, it’s Kingbathmat.  Just look at the name of the band.  These guys do whatever they want.  And, I’m going to keep watching and listening.

One last quote for their webpage:

KingBathmat do not align themselves with convention, they have ditched the giblet hustlers and they endeavour to buck the trend and to not take themselves too seriously. For they do not look for, or court approval. KingBathmat are not beholding to a multi-national company, a debt, or a self proposed obligation. They do what they want.

KingBathmat Publicity Photo13For some bands, I’d think this was pure anti-establishment hype.  Look how cool Bono is, etc.  Nope, when it comes to avoiding conformity, these guys mean it.

Still, I don’t believe for a split second that they don’t take themselves seriously.  They take themselves and their art VERY seriously.

Yes, Howard Roark laughed.

Their official website.

Their first video from OVERCOMING THE MONSTER.

Anxious to bag, tag, and play “King Animal”

(I wrote an incredibly deep and moving intro to this, but it all disappeared when I posted it. So, here is the shorter version.) I came to Soundgarden very late, just a few years ago, having (wisely) mostly dismissed the meaninglessly named “grudge” movement of the early 1990s. The only Seattle group I listened to c. 1991 was Queensrÿche, whose brilliant “Empire” came out around the same time as Nirvana’s overrated album, the very aptly named “Nevermind” (exactly right, boys). I am now a staunch Soundgarden advocate, convinced that Chris Cornell is not only one of the finest rock vocalists of the past thirty years, but also one of the finest songwriters of the same era. He also has some proggy tricks up his sleeves. More on that in future posts. For now, here is a fine preview/review of the band’s new album, “King Animal”, due out in early November; it was written by Clare O’Brien and posted on the “Chris Cornell News” blog:

The cover of Soundgarden’s new album depicts a pile of bones, arranged almost ritualistically within a snowy forest clearing. And although rock music is no stranger to the gothic, this doesn’t come over as the usual kind of heavy-metal art cliché. It suggests not so much the trophies of an unseen hunter as something unearthed by an archaeologist – something powerful left underground, now brought to the surface and bathed in the light of a new winter’s morning.
It’s a good enough metaphor for a creative entity that’s been invisible for fifteen years. Although its individual members continued to work and make music during the band’s absence, there’s been much speculation about what kind of album they’d choose to make in 2012.  Would they do as others have done and try to recreate their own past? Or would they strike out in a new direction?
The answer isn’t a clear-cut one.  All four members of the band compose (Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd even contribute a lyric each) and the songs are as varied as that might suggest. Hearing ‘King Animal’ is a bit like tracking a mysterious beast through a wilderness, encountering all kinds of different terrain, changing light and changing weather on the way.
The search begins with ‘Been Away Too Long’, which seems at first like a crowd-pleasing slice of AC/DC inspired rock triumphalism. On the surface, it screams “we’re back”, and it was the obvious choice for a first single. But look a little closer at this white-knuckle ride through the band’s origins, and disorientation and dysfunction aren’t far away. “You can’t go home, no I swear you never can….and no one knows me, no one saves me, no one loves or hates me.” Cornell has described this radio-friendly track as a “door” to what follows, and in spite of its accessibility, its violent riffing and oddly dreamlike middle section hint at the jagged complexities beyond.
What follows is one of the most varied musical explorations you’ll hear for some time. ‘Non-State  Actor’ has lyrics [mostly] by Kim Thayil which ooze an angry scepticism, riding uneasily on Shepherd’s restless musical undertow. It’s a thorny song, difficult to grasp, its twitching rhythms evoking a sense of paranoia and suspicion.  ‘By Crooked Steps’opens with a dreamy Beatles canvas of backwards tape effects and then hurls you under a furious jackhammer riff which never relents, while Cornell spins a looping, questioning melody – in a different time signature –  seamlessly over the top.
Read the entire review. And how about that cover art? Phew!