soundstreamsunday #99: “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath

blacksabbath1.jpgIf they’re the only band on the infinite linear mixtape to be featured twice, and back-to-back at that, it’s because of the singularity of their two lead singers, who so influenced their respective versions of Black Sabbath that each iteration of the band made a distinct impact on rock and metal.  Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi has stated that the difference lay in writing for Ozzy Osbourne, who sang the melody of the riff, versus writing for Ronnie James Dio, a far more technically accomplished singer, who sang around the song’s chords.  But even with Dio’s vocal expertise stretching Sabbath’s range, the core of Black Sabbath’s legacy really does belong to Ozzy, whose shakily intoned shriek conveyed — at least across their first six records, and before it became Ozzy’s schtick — the terror of a man trapped inside a nightmare.

When Sabbath took to the studio in October 1969 to make their first record, they were like dozens of other post-Cream British blues rock bands struggling to find their own voice.  But, they had some advantages that maybe weren’t immediately apparent.  Iommi’s short and ultimately unsuccessful stint in Jethro Tull in 1968 was an education, as that band was finding its own, heavier feet following the departure of Mick Abrams (Martin Barre, the definitive Tull guitarist, would be hired shortly after Iommi filled in, with a thunderingly loud but finessed guitar style not unlike Iommi’s).  And Ian Anderson provided an object lesson for Iommi when Iommi went back to his band Earth: success would largely depend on the labor you put in.  Tull worked for its fortune.  As Earth transformed itself into Black Sabbath, Iommi demanded the band become a workhorse, and the group began developing a set of songs around bassist Geezer Butler’s night frights, a fascination with horror movies (e.g., Black Sabbath), and two significant technical issues that became key to a conceptual breakthrough: the tips of Iommi’s fingers on his right (fretting) hand had been shorn off in an accident in 1965, and it was while developing his newly renamed band’s sound and songs that he down-tuned his guitar to make it easier to play with the plastic tips he adhered to the tops of his fingers; also, Butler’s facility on bass was limited in their early days, so he ditched melodic runs and just mimicked Iommi, also down-tuning his bass.  The result was literally diabolic.  From the opening notes of “Black Sabbath,” the sound sends shivers, and it is here that heavy metal was born, out of imaginative use of limitation — such is Art — and the doom-laden tritone, the diabolus in musica, that Sabbath employed as its calling card.  Iommi, riffing on Butler’s attempt to mimic Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” from The Planets suite, produced a metal manifesto so potent that it resonates almost 50 years on, remaining a rock touchstone of its era as significant as Velvet Underground & Nico, Astral Weeks, Forever Changes, or Funhouse, ever begging the question: What is this that stands before me?

Studio version here but also the Paris ’70 version, with Ozzy jumping like Iggy.

There is, in fact, none more black.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #98: “Children of the Sea” by Black Sabbath

heavenandhellMetal is a tricky business.  So is memory.  I first heard “Children of the Sea” soon after it was released,  I think, as a young teenager in 1980, tutored by an older sister in thrall to Rush’s Permanent Waves, Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East, and, most of all, Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell.  It was later that I learned of Sabbath’s late 70s identity crisis, their parting of ways with Ozzy Osbourne, and Ronnie James Dio’s efforts to help salvage a band worthy of his prowess.  It couldn’t have been an easy road, and by all accounts wasn’t, BUT… the fruit of Osbourne’s dissolution, Dio’s post-Rainbow quest, and the Sabbath juggernaut’s need to produce a next record, was a pair of LPs blueprinting one way forward for metal: operatic vocal facility, pop-tinged melodies, subject matter less doom-and-gloom than dungeons-and-dragons.  With, of course, guitars fully and thunderously intact.  It was what Heart showed it could be with 1978’s “Mistral Wind,” and would be taken to its natural conclusion by Iron Maiden in the next decade; but, as the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal began to draw its borders as the 70s turned into the 80s, it was Black Sabbath, the original metal wellspring, still sitting in the center of the compass rose.

Of course, many die-hard Sabbath fans don’t acknowledge Dio’s Sabbath as the real Black Sabbath — a respectable point of view, in fairness, that such distinction can only come with the inclusion of Ozzy and in consideration of the first six, genre-defining, Sabbath LPs — and the band itself acknowledged this when reuniting for a tour and LP with Dio in 2007, calling themselves, naturally, “Heaven and Hell,” out of respect for both Dio and Ozzy.  But for a certain generation of us the Dio-led band was the gateway to Black Sabbath, with Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules (1981) jewels in the crown equal in quality heaviosity to the  First Six.  And it turns out that Dio’s here-be-dragons sensibility was just what Sabbath and metal needed: dramatic vocal flights, lyrical escapism, and a feel for the sheer cliff riffs.  I imagine too that his maturity (he was in his late 30s at the time, older than the rest of the band by at least six years) brought a steady, compositional, horns-flashing hand to a Sabbath dearly in need of it.  Dio would set a solo course soon after Mob Rules but would never stray far from the tone he set in his work with Sabbath.

From the flawless first side of Heaven and Hell comes “Children of the Sea,” the kind of fantasy piece Dio trademarked, where the story lines are drawn vaguely enough to appeal broadly, and are there, ultimately, in support of the Riff King, for if there is one true hero in the story of metal, it is and will forever be Tony Iommi.  Two versions here: the original studio take and, because it counts, the Heaven and Hell band version from 2007, with Dio, at the age of 65, still bringing every bit of showmanship to the legacy he was so justifiably proud of.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #97: “Mistral Wind” by Heart

heart2As a commercially successful American hard rock band fronted by two women in the 1970s, Heart was unique, and while it’s Patti Smith and the Runaways that have turned legendary (with merit, no doubt) for their stories, Heart’s impact on women in rock is, must be, outsized, and deserving of the same attention.  While their 80s albums were marred by a soft rock sheen (but still, wildly successful), the early catalog resonates strongly: “Barracuda” with its gallop and biting reaction to a record company and music press that wanted, badly, to portray the Wilson sisters as objects of sexual intrigue; “Crazy on You”; “Magic Man”; “Straight On”; “Heartless”; “Dog and Butterfly”; “Dreamboat Annie.”  For what they did and when they did it, Heart’s story is that of women in rock and roll itself, playing off and pushing against an industrial complex bent on making them something they weren’t.

What Heart was in the 70s was a band with a heavy jones for Led Zeppelin, a singer with unearthly vocal breadth and firepower, and a band with the chops to back it up.  They could bring it live and in the studio, and even if their records had the typical filler allowed for groups tasked with putting out an album or two a year, Ann Wilson’s vocal flights had every bit of Plant-ish Zep swagger with room to spare.  Nancy Wilson’s light acoustic touch was given heft by Roger Fisher’s advanced, melodic shredding, and was propelled by a cracking rhythm section.  They could lay waste.

“Mistral Wind” is straight out of the school of Houses of the Holy, with, in its no-nonsense thundering second section, a darker lean towards Sabbath.  Written with friend and co-writer Sue Ennis for Dog and Butterfly (1978), the song never received radio play but maybe describes Heart — both the music and the relationships and tensions in the band –as well or better than any of their other work.   Along with the studio version here are two live versions, one from the year of its release and the other from the 2007 Dreamboat Annie anniversary show.  All are worthwhile in their way, but the 1978 Largo version, even with all its bad lighting and video dropouts, is most compelling, the song still fresh, growing as a performance piece.  Get out your lighter….

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #96: “Huey Newton” by St. Vincent

stvincent1It’s no real surprise that “Huey Newton” is not about Huey Newton but rather the rabbit holes of internet searches and the semi-free association that can result.  St. Vincent’s self-titled fourth album (2014) is full of these tricky ‘scapes, it’s second single, “Digital Witness,” a frugging Beefheartian horn romp through the minefield of social media and probably the catchiest song you’ll ever hear about our accursed blessings.  Annie Clark’s musical and lyrical smarts match the task of knotty commentary, so even as she obliquely declaims she does so riding a wicked beat, multiplexing fluid melodies with giant, nasty riffs shooting distorto-style from her guitar in subtle nods to Hendrix, Fripp/Belew, and other noise monsters of yore.  She is a musical polymath, a pop loving prog rocker with, importantly, a penchant for the editorial process, and as such working with hitmaker Jack Antonoff on her latest record, Masseduction (2017), is a supreme act of sincere irony.  It is a gauntlet waiting to be picked up by the Taylor Swifts of this world, for certainly St. Vincent has no need for the pop audience but, eventually, many of today’s iHeart radio stars may yearn for the legacy Annie Clark has already built.

HueyNewtonLyrics

“Huey Newton” is part cool-down dance nugget and part ZZ Top riff rocker, a product of an Ambien fever dream, where synthesizers are really guitars and basses are really synthesizers.  It all comes off sounding as if it and the entirety of the album was the most exciting of adventures to undertake, a feeling reinforced by a 2014 interview Clark did with Marc Maron, where she acknowledges her guitar skills but seems grateful that she’s “not so masterful that the magic is gone.”  Imagine, that there should be magic and not just mastery, allowing in the dark wilds….  In producer and fellow Texan John Congleton, who also produced Strange Mercy (2011), St. Vincent has an able partner (the ZZ Top reference is for real — Congleton’s a big Top fan).

Two performances of the song here: from the album and from an appearance on Letterman in the wake of the record’s release.  Both are devastating in their way, and recall for me, more than anything, early Roxy Music, with its skewering adoration of pop, the best kind of love letter to the muse.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #95: “Jezebel” by Anna Calvi

calviYou could do worse than follow the 1951 Wayne Shanklin song “Jezebel” as a guiding aesthetic for launching a recording career.  A hit for Frankie Laine (1951), Edith Piaf (1951), and, remarkably, Herman’s Hermits (1966),  “Jezebel” is built around a flamenco figure that adapts itself well to pop drama and, as Anna Calvi demonstrated on her first single, shows a sympathy to the reverb-y guitar dynamics and thundering tom-driven drumming favored by surf guitarists and Italian directors of Spanish-set westerns.

Taking rough cues from Piaf’s French version of the song, Calvi here adds a visually arresting, emotional core lacking in many of “Jezebel’s” versions, setting the table for the feast of her self-titled debut (2011), a record ripe with passion and shadow, with unified sonic and narrative themes that you might call cafe goth.  Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons certainly apply, but there’s an Americana bent to it, too, inhabiting the same territory Chris Isaak mines to such great effect, or even the darker work of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood in the 1960s.

The video for “Jezebel” is a live performance by Calvi and her band, Daniel Maielen-Wood and Mally Harpez.  It is a power trio upended, confounded, confirmed by Harpez’s harmonium, transporting the song to the bars of Sevilla, approaching midnight, as the walls jump to the shadows of a guitarist and her dancers….

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #94: “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac

fleetwoodmacThere is a little irony that Fleetwood Mac hit superstardom ten years into its existence, having jettisoned numerous guitar heroes — including the group’s founder, the inimitable and brilliant Peter Green — and did so as a West Coast soft rock band rather than the grimy British hard blues act that inspired contemporaries and was absolutely formative for Jimmy Page in his vision of Led Zeppelin.  By 1975, beleaguered and getting old in the rock and roll tooth, and years since it had anything approaching a hit, the band made a last ditch, daring sea change that saw them bring on the largely unknown singer-songwriting couple Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, who radically reshaped Fleetwood Mac’s sound.  1975’s Fleetwood Mac was their breakthrough, while 1977’s Rumours proved the formula worked, as Nicks and Buckingham brought a finesse of songcraft sorely missing since Peter Green left the band.  More than this, though, the two Americans integrated, rather than overlayed, their sound on Fleetwood Mac.  Onstage, Nicks became Green’s “Black Magic Woman” incarnate, a gypsy witch with a unique vocal power (and a sexual presence that didn’t hurt the band’s progress), while Buckingham, a gifted, complete guitarist, could play lines summoning the group’s bluesy manalishi ghosts while feeding the ravenous pop machine he was building.

The last song on Rumours, Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” is an ode to coke, interwoven with the legendary California cartoon of disintegrating relationships and romantic triangles making up Fleetwood Mac’s lore.  It completes side two of the LP as assuredly as “The Chain” begins it, the two songs dancing at the edges of Peter Green’s blues terrors, advancing into soft rock classic dark jazz torches like “Lush Life” while setting the stage for future L.A. creatures like “Babylon Sisters.”  Like the LP it finishes, the song is a dark star, a downer completing one of the unlikeliest of pop albums.  “Rock on, gold dust woman.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #93: “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens” by Sandy Denny

Sandy-DennyIn September 1971, Sandy Denny — on the heels of an incendiary contribution to “Battle of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin‘s upcoming fourth album — released her first solo record, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.  It carried with it the strength and grace of her previous efforts, and featured many of the musicians with whom she had built her reputation, namely Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention and the entirety of Fotheringay.  It was a confident beginning to a too-brief solo career, and in its quiet power illustrates why Denny’s influence on the British folk and rock scenes was so profound.  Like other inhabitants of her world — thinking Thompson, Nick Drake, Lal Waterson — she was writing ahead of the curve, making deeper and contemporary connections to the wellspring of traditional folk while avoiding the easier middle earth sword epics so much of the rock world was obsessed with at the time (“Battle of Evermore” being a successful example of this).

A sailor’s life, a lament, an existential sea chanty, “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens” has everything describing Denny’s talent:  lyrical finesse, melodic beauty, the alchemical relationship of words to tune.  And of course, that voice, the kind of voice that could sing the traditional “Tam Lin” with menace and authority on Fairport’s Liege and Lief (1969), and turn on a dime to deliver something as hauntingly beautiful as “The Sea,” a song of her own devise, from Fotheringay (1970).

There are three striking versions of “North Star.”  The lovely studio original is shaded with classic early 70s British folk rock production (courtesy of John Wood), unfussy and earthy with a dynamic pop of bass and drums, Thompson’s restrained acoustic guitar not show-stopping but providing rhythmic chug while Ian Whiteman’s flute organ is suggestive of the hornpipe.  A solo live appearance on the BBC has Denny at the piano, owning the song without a band, a confident performer on her way to becoming a national treasure.  Denny recorded her last “North Star” in November 1977, just months before her death.  Here, with a full electric band, the song has morphed from somber reflection to country rock grandeur.  The recording was marred by technical difficulties in the guitar tracks and only released twenty years on, after Jerry Donahue (Fotheringay, Fairport) overdubbed new parts.  Even with this in mind, Donahue’s playing and his history with Denny wins the day, making Gold Dust: Live at the Royalty one of the better samplers of her work.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.