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Gangs Assemble in the Old Arcade
UFO: Walk on Water
It will probably come as a surprise to even most of those few people who still care that UFO, who nobody but me seems to have paid much attention to since the late Seventies, is still around making albums. The bulk of their supporters appear to have largely written them off back when guitarist Michael Schenker defected to the Scorpions, decades ago. I was too young to care about them until later, though, so for me the definitive UFO album is 1982's Mechanix. I like 1983's Making Contact a lot, too, and 1985's Misdemeanor has several songs that often float into my mind without any obvious provocation. After that, though, even I concede that things began unraveling. The demo-ish EP Ain't Misbehavin', in 1989, while it broke a long silence, was terminally disjointed and, in places, embarrassingly inane even by UFO's not particularly sophisticated standards, and seemed to hint at dire record-label difficulties. The studio album High Stakes and Dangerous Men, which eventually emerged in 1992, didn't get a US issue until two or three years after its UK release, which turned out to be just as well, I think, as it's one of the saddest, most demoralized albums I've ever heard. Phil Mogg, one of my very favorite rock singers, has always had a melancholy tinge to his voice, but on this album he sounds utterly dejected and lifeless, and the rest of the band seems to sleepwalk through the exercise in the same dolorous state. A better example of the walking-dead effect in rock is hard to come by.
But a while back I heard that Michael Schenker, having run his solo career ignominiously into the ground (I still insist that the hilariously uninspired McAuley-Schenker album Perfect Timing ought to have been called Rigid Timing), was rejoining UFO, and while as a career move this seemed a bit like a slide rule manufacturer hoping that getting bought by a typewriter company was going to turn their fortunes around, I was at least willing to hear what they came up with. In fact, not only is Schenker back for Walk on Water, but drummer Andy Parker and keyboardist Paul Raymond rejoin Mogg and loyal bassist Pete Way, and they unearth producer Ron Nevison, thus reuniting the entire cast of 1978's Obsession, which is the only Schenker UFO album I actually own.
Any hopes I had of this record fostering a UFO rebirth on my continent vanished once I discovered the manner in which it was to be released. Somehow, in the process of grinding themselves into oblivion, UFO have been transformed from a rock band into that most perplexing of variants, a rock band that the Japanese like. This album appears on a Toshiba-subsidiary label with the historically alarming name Zero, and in fact, if the word of importers is to be trusted, there is not intended to ever be a Western release. A full Japanese translation of the lyrics is included, as well as two separate liner-note bio-pieces. The "first edition" I acquired even comes with a holographic sticker and a luminescent UFO guitar pick, which I guess the Japanese don't regard as annoying crap that is always falling out of the jewel case when you open it. The most damning and pathetic touch, though, is the final track, listed in the credits as "Message for Japan". If I can do you no other favors in this life, let me at least do this for you: if a copy of this album ever finds its way into a CD player in your vicinity, please, for your own sake, do not play track 11. I promise, I solemnly vow, I assure you with utter certainty, that you will be happier if you don't. It is not a song, you are not missing anything musical. Please believe me. The spectacle of five grown adults attempting to abjectly abase themselves before an entire nation would be bad enough if the ridiculously patient tone their voices take in the process didn't make it sound like it hasn't yet occurred to them that the noises their listeners' mouths make might be an actual foreign language, rather than signs of drooling mental incapacity. Nobody warned me, and after hearing it I felt like an entire hemisphere had just soiled itself.
As for the other ten tracks, these are entirely more respectable. These guys are getting old, but they still remember all the things that made UFO special. Schenker's guitar-playing is electrifying enough, but the soul of UFO to me always was two things. First, Phil Mogg's voice has a warmth and sincerity to it that I find eternally appealing, a sort of amalgam of John Waite's clarity and Bryan Adam's heartfelt roughness. His lyrics are rarely even vaguely remarkable on paper, but when I hear him sing them, they seem to me to turn into emotional talismans. I still get choked up every time I hear him sing "Terri, is it over again?", and even though there's nothing here as overtly sentimental as that, his delivery lends even leering boogie a humanity that it doesn't often possess. Second, I continue to believe that UFO is one of the only heavy metal bands to ever incorporate synthesizer as a completely natural component of their sound. Raymond plays like it's never occurred to him that five-piece isn't the archetypal band configuration, and his presence is as much a part of UFO's sound to me as Jon Lord's organ was to Deep Purple's.
Only eight of these songs are actually new. "A Self Made Man" and "Knock, Knock" are steady and measured, a bit like "Night Run", from Misdemeanor. "Venus" and "Stopped by a Bullet (Of Love)" are faster and more charged, like "We Belong to the Night", from Mechanix. "Pushed to the Limit", "Darker Days" and "Running on Empty" have old-style grooves like "Doctor, Doctor". And the slow, tender "Dreaming of Summer" reminds me of Mechanix's "You'll Get Love". The album is rounded out with 1995 remakes of "Doctor, Doctor" itself, and "Lights Out", two venerated UFO tunes that I guess Japan showed a particular fondness for. The most obvious question, though, is whether UFO can still a) rock, and b) do so without sounding like a preposterous Spinal-Tap-ish parody of themselves. To whatever extent my reactions are indicative, the answer is that they rock just as convincingly as they ever did, and if there's any significant element of the absurd, it's lost on me. UFO were never heavy, originally, in the way that Black Sabbath or Motörhead were, and they aren't now, either. Their version of heavy metal always treated metal as a stylistic variation on mainstream rock, not an outgrowth of punk, industrial noise or arcane cult ritual, so to listeners weaned on Metallica and Slayer this stuff may sound worryingly like Journey. But it counts.
Ozzy Osbourne: Ozzmosis
A year or two ago, this next Ozzy album was going to be the first dispatch from his retirement from touring. Weary of walking the world, he was going to hole up at home and just make records. (That scene in Decline of Western Civilization, Part Two, where he's making breakfast, kept coming to my mind, and I had the mental image of Ozzy ensconced in a hopelessly disarrayed home studio, recording with a similarly extravagant abandon, and the same bathrobe on.) Then, after a dramatic momentary Black Sabbath stage reunion late in Ozzy's "farewell" tour, it appeared for a time that Ozzy's "No more tours" pledge really just meant "No more solo tours", and a reunited Ozzy/Sabbath album was in the works. That could have been cool; I would love to hear what the original version of Black Sabbath would sound like with twenty years more experience and 1995 production technology. That fell through, though, and then the rumors were that Ozzy was holed up somewhere with Steve Vai, writing a joint masterpiece that Steve would play on and produce, possibly with Lemmy from Motörhead also helping out. In the end, this too failed to emerge. Finally Ozzmosis appeared on the release schedule, Ozzy announced the "Retirement Sucks" retraction tour, and things seemed to have come full circle.
I wasn't sure what to make of this, because I thought Ozzy's last album, 1991's No More Tears, had a distinctively conclusive tone. In particular, "Road to Nowhere", the ambivalent ballad that ends the album, sounded both like an elegant farewell and a logical conclusion to the stylistic progression implicit in Ozzy's work, running all the way from Black Sabbath through No Rest for the Wicked. I'd thought that The Ultimate Sin and No Rest for the Wicked had shown Ozzy slowly running out of energy and inertia, and I thought No More Tears managed to complete this process, but regained control of Ozzy's dignity in the process, so that in the end he was bowing out with aplomb instead of simply slumping into collapse.
There are trace elements of all these directions evident in what emerges. While Tony Iommi and Bill Ward aren't in evidence, ex-Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler is, and even the partial reunion represented by rejoining his distinctive bass playing to Ozzy's trademark metallic singing is exciting. The Vai liaison yields one co-written song, and there's one on which Lemmy's name appears, as well. Rick Wakeman, of all people, plays keyboards on a couple songs. Zakk Wylde returns for his third (and, supposedly, last) Ozzy record, providing the musical continuity of his fondness for squalling harmonic feedback. Production this time around is handled by Michael Beinhorn, whose recent credits include Grave Dancers Union and Soundgarden's distinctly Sabbathian Superunknown. And instead of seeming weary or at rest, I think this time Ozzy has unexpectedly rediscovered a neglected vein of big, stirring, rock-and-roll, stadium-metal anthems, and thus found a nice for himself that has, of late, been otherwise unpopulated.
The album opens with perhaps its most refreshingly anachronistic moment, the surging homage "Perry Mason". It's been a while since I've heard a song based on a pop-culture reference that manages not to dissolve in self-consciousness. Ozzy doesn't make any attempt to load the song with allusory detail, instead merely using Mason as a cultural icon for diligent diagnostic responsibility. There's a ghosted murder setup in the lyrics, but the climbing choruses seem to remove the context from the cry "Who can we get on the case? / We need Perry Mason", so that it's all of us that something has happened to, and calling for Mason's investigative services is a desperate plea of social angst emanating from among the casualties. Asking for Perry Mason in particular, implying that it is less a question of saving the world than of trying to understand how it died, is a disturbing and pessimistic notion, but at least it's not one I've heard a million times before. I guess it says something about me that I'd rather be depressed in a new way than cheered by a cliche.
There are a few Sabbath-esque songs here, dark and menacing mid-tempo things like "I Just Want You" and "Thunder Underground", and the spooky "Tomorrow". When Ozzy sings "Beware the contradiction", on "My Jekyll Doesn't Hide", I keep thinking he's going to slide right into "Because of crucifixion". The majority, though, are slow, dramatic songs that seem to me to arise from the gray territory in between ballad and anthem. "Ghost Behind My Eyes" and "Denial", with their quavering guitars and steely synthesizers, remind me of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun". "See You on the Other Side"'s verses' moody repeated guitar figure gives way to soaring Wylde howls on the redemptive chorus. Vai's "My Little Man" frames sketchy sitar-ish pirouettes in slow metal drama. And "Old L.A. Tonight", with Wakeman's graceful piano, is a triumphant metal ballad of timeless, epic grandeur, it's tagline "It's gonna be all right" as fittingly optimistic a conclusion as No More Tears's "The road to nowhere leads to me" was resigned. It's strange to think of Ozzy Osbourne, once the poster child for satanic, child-corrupting depravity, as the guardian of old-fashioned musical values, but he does seem to be doing a pretty good job.
g//z/r: Plastic Planet
In between trips to the studio to record his bits of Ozzmosis, Geezer Butler has also been busy working on the first side project of his own. Deen Castronovo drums on both albums, but they're about as different as two heavy metal albums with half the cast in common could be. Guitarist Pedro Howse and Fear Factory vocalist Burton Bell fill out this foursome, and they turn Plastic Planet into a jarring, apocalyptic exercise in bone-shaking belligerence.
It shouldn't be surprising to find that an album by a band lead by a bassist is a little bass heavy, but I don't remember listening to Greg Lake's records feeling this much like being caught in a bison stampede, somehow. Butler's bass playing, Howse's guitar and Castronovo's drums all thrash the lower registers within a watt of equalizer meltdown here, and every time I listen to this album I expect my upstairs neighbors to plummet screaming from their windows, under the only slightly mistaken impression that the sound below them is that of a couple dozen horrific prehistoric monsters battering their way into the building by ramming their heads into the underside of the foundation with inhuman frequency. Bell's guttural, shouted, industrial vocal style doesn't exactly brighten the proceedings, either, and the lyrics Butler provides him are a bizarre mixture of comic-book references, cyber-cultural buzzwords, choppy locution, dire dystopianism and a pervasive undercurrent of violence, disease, black magic, abuse, oppression and other sundry unpleasantnesses. The lack of any real semblance of melody probably means that for me, personally, this album's initial thrill won't translate to enduring affection, but if you've been in need of some diligently macabre battery I enthusiastically recommend this for the role.
The Upper Crust: Let Them Eat Rock
The Upper Crust are a new band, but they operate in an old musical tradition. The specific tradition I mean is "songs like the ones AC/DC plays". I'd try to describe exactly how their basic sound differs from AC/DC's, but it's really too subtle to matter. This is a gimmick record, and the gimmick isn't musical. The joke of the Upper Crust is that they're supposed to be a band composed of Anglo-European nobility, complete with powdered wigs, tights, those shoes with big buckles on the top, and silly names like "Lord Rockingham" and "the Duc d'Istortion". The songs (like "Let Them Eat Rock", "Little Lord Fauntleroy", "Rock 'n' Roll Butler", "Who's Who of Love", "I Got My Ascot 'n' My Dickie" (say it) and "Friend of a Friend of the Working Class") all have lyrics with some sort of silly class angle, though they do all come off like they were written by rock slobs, not aristocrats (not that that's a bad thing).
The most remarkable thing about the Upper Crust, really, is that I've read at least five reviews of this album, and every one has attempted to describe it in character, as if the album was a challenge to reviewers to play along with the joke. I don't understand this, but it's impressive in its own way. The problem is that the we're-nobles joke lasts, at most, through one listen to the album, and for those of you quicker on the uptake, the point may be grasped adequately by reading through the lyric sheet while the first song is playing. If that were all this album had to recommend it, well, now you know, and that would probably be sufficient.
Underneath the joke, though, is a rather decent album. The players, alumni of a host of other Boston bands, including Mente, the Titanics and the Bags, are very good at big-guitar rock. The overall AC/DC feel is supplemented with some speed-punk Buzzcocks-ish moments and the occasional Beatles-y harmony or psychedelic flourish, and the silly lyrics, despite my usual antipathy for goofiness in rock, seem to me to suit this style quite a bit better than the meatheaded drivel that AC/DC usually equips it with. In the end, though, as with Spinal Tap, the joke eclipses the music, for both the listener and the players. I'm left enjoying it, but still have the unsatisfying feeling that the Upper Crust could have made an album a whole lot better than they let this one be.
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