Behaving Like Cavemen
52 · 25 January 96
The way my apartment is set up (bear with me), there's a big living/dining room, then you go down a hall to a small middle room, and farther down the hall to the bedroom. Here in the middle room (which, for personal reasons, I call "the middle room") is where I do whatever passes for work in my personal time, unless you count cooking as work, which I do elsewhere in the apartment, in a room I will neither name nor locate, so as to retain some small element of surprise in case you ever visit. Anyway, the stereo is in here, and cables running through the ceiling out to the living room connect to auxiliary speakers out there. This is a useful arrangement, particularly since I got one of these Leapfrog things that go on the end of your remote control so you can use it from the next room. However, it leaves the bedroom music-less. I've been meaning to rectify this for some time, and after Christmas, through a series of developments too tenuously related for even me to go into, I finally came home with some new audio gear with which to accomplish this. Since I already had a portable CD player, I got Cambridge Soundworks' smallest powered subwoofer/satellite system, the one they mean for hooking up to computers or taking with you on your boat (you do have a boat, don't you?). The subwoofer is the size of a small shoebox, and the satellites are literally three-and-a-half-inch cubes, which makes them take up less space on my night-tables than the Mickey Mouse alarm clock that my parents got me so when I wake up late for things I can paw ineffectually at it while cursing vehemently in an English accent. I just wanted a little music for getting dressed to, reading in bed to, going to sleep to, or, well, that's actually about the limit of what goes on in my bedroom currently. I certainly didn't expect anything earthshaking from speakers that small. But to see what kind of sound they'd produce I put in this CD by Everon, which I'd picked up literally at random at a prog-specialist booth at a recent record convention.
And while "earthshaking" might still be a bit hyperbolic, it's not more than an order of magnitude off. I was, and continue to be, dumbfounded by how good these tiny speakers sound. I'm not a raving audiophile, admittedly, but the sound of Everon's sweeping keyboards, crashing drums and blazing guitars roaring out of a system you'd be likely to overlook if you didn't know it was there was thoroughly intoxicating, and for a couple days I'd come home from work, yawn theatrically at an imaginary camera, and then dart into the bedroom to listen to Flood a couple more times on my new speakers. I've since managed to pry it loose and play some other things through them, and they sound good, too, but I think the experience has earned Flood a permanent position as my audio-gear audition material of choice.
Everon is a German neo-progressive-metal band (singing in English), with some stylistic similarities to Dream Theater, Fates Warning and Rush, but with a musical complexity level a little closer to Saga's. Pallas is probably the closest point of reference for those of you who know them, or perhaps IQ in their harder moments, though with some hints of the distinctively European gaudiness of metal bands like Gamma Ray and Helloween. The muscular thrash of Ralf Janssen's guitars, the sturdy throb of Schymy's bass and Christian Moos' intricate drumming give the music easily enough aggressive metal edge to separate the Queensryche fans from the early-Genesis legions, but to me the distinguishing characteristics are songwriter Oliver Philipps' soaring voice and dense keyboards. There are plenty of right-angle tempo shifts, but unlike some of the other stuff I have from Dutch "symphonic rock" label SI, Flood never lets instrumental sojourns wander far from mercilessly catchy melodies.
The album opens with perhaps its finest stretch, the long "Under Skies of Blue", which is indexed as tracks one and two for reasons that escape me. The keyboard parts are a stunning collection of examples of how the artificiality of synthesized substitutes for conventional instruments can have their own virtues quite separate from the instruments they are nominally imitating. The rain-like faux-piano cascades that open the song are uncanny, the sawing unison strings breathtaking, the synth brass recapitulation that the strings give way to warm and bright. I'm not sure if these effects could be produced with real instruments, without applying so much processing as to make the "real"ness irrelevant, and I'm certain I wouldn't care to try.
"Black River" is a little less grandiose, but the galloping "Very Own Design" returns to joyously overblown form, despite a waterfall bass hook that I could swear they've borrowed from some old Rush song that if I ever publish this column in book form I'll go track down for the footnotes. "In All That Time" flirts with preposterousness, but wisely decides not to make the quasi-Asian keyboard flourish towards the beginning into a central motif, opting instead to anchor the song around slabs of surging guitar and some massive drum echoes. "Lame Excuses" starts out with ghostly keyboard voices and a robot rhythm, which quickly give way to a gentle, undulating bit of near-pop that reminds me a little at points of Clutching at Straws-era Marillion. "In Silent Grace" is particularly Rush-like, and its instrumental lead-in could also easily be adapted for soundtrack work. "Cavemen" has another especially inhuman bit of sequenced piano (reminding me of Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano compositions, though I strongly suspect I will be the only reviewer to ever link Everon and Conlon Nancarrow), leading to a cathartic chorus on which Philipps gets so carried away that he even forgets his careful cover-up-your-German-accent training for a moment. "Simple Truth" is what passes for a ballad in Everon's argot, though it probably writhes from tempo to tempo a little too much to make the short list for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard II. And "Flood" itself, the final track, drifts for a couple minutes as a hushed atmospheric instrumental punctuated by muted sonar noises, before resolving to a peaceful conclusion that sounds to me like a new age mood-control sax solo overlaid on one of the more abstract songs from Marillion's Afraid of Sunlight.
Personally, I find this all mesmerizing, and I'm sure I've now listened to this album many more times than some other records that I'd want to go on record as saying I like better. There are a couple obvious qualifiers to mention, though. First, if you can't, or don't wish to, let yourself be caught up in absurdly overbearing pomp and enjoy it despite its excess, then despite a number of more subtle moments scattered through this album, the overall effect is probably not going to be your thing. Second, while I've enjoyed albums with much worse lyrics than this (see next, for example), Philipps does subscribe to a sort of sub-Rush school of lyric writing that may produce a few too many lines like "Call it kind of madness, / Call it just a dream, / Call it lack of reason, / Or you can call it lack of self-esteem", "Is the pain and frustration / To dance on the strings?" and "Somehow we have dislearned / To communicate, and that's why we have turned / Into a form of silent conversation / That led us straight into alienation" for your tastes. And lastly, all the cover art has that sort of science-fantasy semi-armored-mermaid lost-worlds goofiness that for some reason I've found that very few women ever go for. Though since I've observed the same thing about progressive rock, perhaps this is just as well.
Helloween: Master of the Rings
Now, if you want to talk about really goofy, overblown and ridiculous German music, there's always Helloween. This album has a 1994 copyright date on it, but it only came out here late last year. One assumes that it took that long to clear quarantine or something. Several things must be said, right up front. First, yes, their name really is Helloween. No, I don't know for a fact whether they got the name from an automatic stupid-heavy-metal-band-name generator or made it up their own selves. Yes, in their logo the "o" in the middle really is drawn as a pumpkin. Yes, they are the band responsible for the video Beavis and Butthead occasionally play in which a guy with a huge glowing pumpkin on his head does something that neither you and I will ever remember precisely, because we were too busy hyperventillating hysterically at the guy with the huge glowing pumpkin on his head to follow anything else in the video. Yes, this is the band that Kai Hansen left to form Gamma Ray, who despite being paragons of cheesy Euro-metal excess, still can't quite top Helloween themselves for outright inanity.
The strangest thing, given all this, is that Helloween don't seem even vaguely aware of what a laughingstock they are. One gets the distinct feeling that if you said to them, barely able to keep a straight face, "Your logo has a pumpkin in it, man!", they'd just smile and go "Yeah! 'Cause it's like: 'Helloween', 'Halloween', pumpkin! Get it? Let's rock!" And then they'd pour beer all over you, mess up your hair, and leave you backstage with half-a-dozen ludicrously appealing German Penthouse Pets in leopard-print leotards while they went off to open their early-afternoon Monsters of Rock set by screaming "We! Are! Helloweeeeeeeeen!" at the top of their lungs while thrusting their groins toward the audience in a way that will eventually give them all enduring back trouble.
But okay, I admit it, I'm into it, at least when it's packaged in a safe, sanitary CD form. I enjoy Andreas Deris and Roland Grapow's ongoing "Who's the Shrillest?" vocal contest. I'm amused by the convoluted (and grammatically suspect) background tale in the liner notes (though not amused enough to actually plow through the whole thing in that painfully unreadable font they insist on using for everything). I don't mind that most of their songs could be played by, if not composed by, any half-decent high school talent show band. True, their lyrics are largely awful (with the lowest point undoubtably being the nauseatingly embarrassing "Ding by ding, can you dig my dong? / It may come short but it might come long"), but the Scorpions made do with far worse material than Helloween's, and we forgave them. Or I did, anyway. For one album, when I was fifteen.
Whether this is technically an advantage or not, I won't try to say, but the US edition of this album includes a bonus disc. In addition to four more Helloween classics, this appendix adds covers of Thin Lizzy's "Cold Sweat", Grand Funk Railroad's "Closer to Home", and Kiss' "I Stole Your Heart". If you're still smiling at the end of the first disc, you'll still be smiling after the second. Possibly you are dead, and were just embalmed that way, but why quibble?
Meat Loaf: Welcome to the Neighborhood
Let nobody intimate that we Americans can't produce histrionic keening on our own. It's just that while the Germans require a small cottage industry to produce enough of the stuff to frighten anybody, we have streamlined things so as to meet all our domestic needs with only the services of Meat Loaf and Cher. It's a shame they don't duet on this album, in the same sense that it's a shame California keeps not dropping into the Pacific. Between them they've turned "bombastic" from a vaguely derogatory adjective into something that sounds like it has exclamation points permanently attached, and was thought up by some soulless breakfast-cereal ad execs ("Thirty-two percent more Crunch-O-Licious!" "Now over sixty-four percent more Bom-Bastic! than the leading brand!"...).
Part of Meat Loaf's secret, in the past, has been the songwriting and production of Jim Steinman, and Jim's glaring absence from this album (he wrote two of these songs, but his name doesn't otherwise come up in the credits until a (sarcastic?) thanks for "all of his cooperation, support and contributions") raised the spectre that instead of following up on the comeback Meat Loaf made with Bat Out of Hell II in 1993, this might be a return to all the albums in between the two Bats that pretty much nobody but Meat Loaf's immediate family bothered to distinguish from each other. Dunk a spaniel's head in a tub full of molasses enough times, though, and he'll eventually learn to make waffles. (I have no idea where I was going with that.) While Meat Loaf hasn't yet learned to write his own fodder, he's managed to locate several other people who can. Diane Warren contributes "I'd Lie for You (And That's the Truth)" (which a year from now I predict nobody alive will still be able to distinguish from "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)"), "Not a Dry Eye in the House" and "If This Is the Last Kiss (Make It Last All Night)" (remember "So now I'm praying for the end of time to hurry up and arrive"? Diane evidently does). Add to these Paul Jacobs and Sarah Durkee's "Where the Rubber Meets the Road" (what would a Meat Loaf album be without a song that uses driving as a metaphor for sex, though by "a metaphor for" I here I just mean "an excuse to sing about", not anything complicated and English-major-y), the group concoction "Runnin' for the Red Light (I Gotta Life)" (which either Meat Loaf had a hand in, or else one of his real-life relatives did), Sammy Hagar's "Amnesty Is Granted", Tom Wait's "Martha" (in case there are any Wait purists around that Rod Stewart's version of "Downtown Train" didn't already kill off) and Steven Allen Davis' "Where Angels Sing", and you've got the raw material for an album that stands up to Bat Out of Hell II on just about any metric you could think of, possibly including detailed note inventories. The only significant variances from that album to this is that this one is less than an hour long, and it includes two extremely short tracks that have nothing whatsoever to do with Meat Loaf (and precious little else to recommend them).
Which leaves one important question unanswered. Why would anybody who experiences music with enough of their mind engaged that their leading reason for buying more CDs isn't "Because I lost all the other ones I had" want to buy another Meat Loaf album? Well, I'll stop repeating my standing answer to that question when Meat Loaf stops making albums that sound just like the last one I applied it to: a chocolate eclair the size of a watermelon has no appreciable nutritive value, and you'll be thoroughly ill by the time you finish eating one, but there's something perversely ecstatic about them, and if you allow at least two years between indulgences then they probably won't kill you before something else does.
So dig in.