The Things You Learn First
204 · 24 December 98
Black Sabbath: Reunion
There are phases in all of our lives, I suspect, when "What are your favorite bands?" and "What kind of music do you listen to?" amount to the same question. The phase could span your entire music-aware life, if your tastes are sufficiently focused, or if going too long without new music doesn't make you feel, as it does some of us, more hollow and anxious than going without food or sleep. The last time my musical world seemed that self-contained, I was fifteen, it was 1982, and the universe contained, for most practical purposes, four bands: Boston, Rush, Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath. It was a sober, reasoned reduction, provided that "sober" and "reasoned", to you, encompass buying albums because the cover had a spaceship shaped like a guitar (both Boston records), because this kid named Robert was forever singing bits of it in metal shop (Rush; his comically-piercing rendition of "The Temples of Syrinx" turned out to be usefully accurate), or because the bands (BÖC and Black Sabbath) were featured on the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal, which was obviously extremely cool, although I wasn't actually allowed to see it. Those particular four bands form, now that I see them in a slightly wider context, an interestingly logical progression. Boston is the mellowest of the set, obviously, but Tom Scholz's distinctive guitar tone is a conscious modulation of heavy metal's Marshall-stack overdrive. Rush weren't heavy metal, either, but they took a significant step down the road from the learn-to-play-guitar sparkle of "More Than a Feeling" towards metal's epic grind, and Neal Peart's science-fiction allegiances (and at the time "What kind of books do you read?" had a simple answer for me, too) ran much deeper than Boston's never-elaborated-upon cover paintings. Blue Öyster Cult counted as metal, since they had an umlaut in their name, and although even my fifteen-year-old self noticed that Agents of Fortune was rather wispy for something that I wanted to call a metal album, my introduction to them was Fire of Unknown Origin, which takes itself a little more seriously, and includes a song whose lyrics were written by the manifestly cool dark-fantasist Michael Moorcock. And Black Sabbath, of course, were the definition of heavy metal.
But the things you learn first, or think you learn, in whatever weird way you arrive at them, can turn out to be your biggest blind spots. Because I associate Black Sabbath and Rush so vividly with a period in my life that I regard, in retrospect, as woefully underinformed, I tend to assume that I don't really like them that much. In Sabbath's case, only after being prompted by Reunion did it finally occur to me that I didn't even own all their albums. This may not seem incredible to those of you who are not obsessive completists, but to me, who rushes out, the day after I've heard a new album once, to buy all the supporting import singles and fill in the back catalog, allowing seventeen years to slip by without purchasing two whole widely-available studio records (Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy) by a band I claim to love borders on the psychotic. I could protest that I discovered Black Sabbath during the Dio period, and so never formed as strong a bond with the earlier Ozzy albums, but given that I own all of Ozzy's solo records, every Sabbath album from the post-Dio vocalist-grab-bag era, most of Dio's solo work, both records by Geezer Butler's side project, and even one of the solo records by Bill Ward, this seems like a pretty feeble excuse. The two jolts that finally, arriving together, roused me from this odd stupor, were Reunion's pounding rendition of Technical Ecstasy's "Dirty Women", which is so propulsively The Mob Rules-ish that I was aghast to admit I'd never heard it before, and the fact that, despite writing about how content I was with my aging array of electronic gear barely three months ago (or perhaps because of it), I finally bought a new, semi-audiophile CD player, which made a shelf full of remastered Black Sabbath albums seem like a sensible companion investment. Leaving aside the reasonable question of whether I can tell the difference between the players' sonic qualities (after a few direct A-B comparisons of some albums I happen to have two copies of, I decided I couldn't, but in the subsequent course of day-to-day listening, to my surprise (and I wouldn't trust the impression if it hadn't surprised me), everything seems noticeably clearer, and I find myself leaving the volume up, late in long listening sessions, where before I would gradually ratchet it down to combat fatigue), the aural difference between Castle's lavish new editions of the early Sabbath albums and the frill-less Warner CDs they replace is breathtaking, so as I've worked my way through them all (to my officemate's, well, perhaps "dismay" is a little too strong), some for the first time, but also remembering how much I like the others, I feel somehow like they're the audio equivalent of health food, like enjoying them is also good for me. Perhaps if the PMRC would sit down and listen to how the cymbals on Master of Reality now sound like real musical instruments, rather than lumpy bursts of radio static, the relentless macabre character of the lyrics would bother them less.
Reunion, though, the double live album recorded at the two shows, at home in Birmingham last December, that reunited the original four members (Osbourne, Butler, Ward and guitarist Tony Iommi, the band's only permanent fixture) for full sets for the first time in nearly two decades (and on a band-sanctioned live album for the first time ever), doesn't bother reinventing, updating or apologizing for anything. The premise for the shows was that at least a stadium or two of people wanted to see the old band, defying the years, play a bunch of similarly ancient songs, so most of the track listing is basically pre-ordained: "Behind the Wall of Sleep", "N.I.B." and "Black Sabbath" itself, from the embryonic debut album; "War Pigs", "Paranoid", "Iron Man", "Electric Funeral" and "Fairies Wear Boots" from the decisive follow-up; "Sweet Leaf", "Children of the Grave", "Orchid", "Lord of This World" and "Into the Void" from my favorite of the Ozzy albums, 1971's Master of Reality; "Snowblind", from the blasted Vol 4; "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (reclaimed from the Cardigans) and "Spiral Architect" from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; "Dirty Women"; and nothing at all from the dying breaths of Sabotage and Never Say Die, nor, naturally, anything from Ozzy and Tony's separate ways since then. To the band's enormous credit, these songs, many of them pushing towards thirty years old, sound exactly as unearthly and inspiringly irrelevant as they ever did. Ozzy's voice, though it retains his plaintive trademark whine, has softened and filled out a little, over the years, so in one sense, as is often the case, redoing these songs amounts to correcting them for the passage of time, making them sound more like they've come to in our memories. Iommi's guitar riffs, alternating between sledgehammer concussions and distended groans, are the curls of smoke from the nostrils of a demon horde. Better technical drummers than Bill Ward have had their chances in Black Sabbath, but Ward's careening, cliff-edge rattle captures something essential about Sabbath's charm (if "charm" can be stretched that way), and these songs never sound quite the same without Geezer Butler having to hold them together from in the middle somewhere, his bass darting back and forth between doubling Iommi's runs and keeping Ward on course. The audience appears to be enjoying themselves mightily. It's hard to imagine how anybody at the show could have been disappointed, and the rest of us can have a piece, at least, of the night. The souvenir nature of the album is reinforced by the inclusion of rather more of Ozzy's effusively inane stage banter (he clings, doggedly, to the notion that the crowd is exhibiting some noise-making reticence) than I'd have put on anything I intended to listen to more than two or three times.
Perhaps in deference to the inherent transience of the live portion, though, the set also appends two new Osbourne/Iommi studio tracks, "Psycho Man" and "Selling My Soul" (a detailed inspection of old Ozzy and Sabbath track listings is necessary to convince me that neither of these suspiciously-familiar titles have been used before). "Psycho Man" does a fair job of updating Iommi's guitar crunch to 1998 production values, although that would be more remarkable if it weren't for the other four perfectly-contemporary-sounding Sabbath records he made during the Nineties; "Selling My Soul" (with somebody uncredited sitting in for Ward), is an intriguing graft of ominous "Iron Man" wail and some of the band's disarming mid-Seventies elegance. It's hard for me to tell, from these two indicators, whether I think the reunited band have a new album in them, or not, but with this much life left in the old ones, maybe it doesn't matter.
Rush: Different Stages
Rush, conversely, have spent twenty-four years as logistical marvels. Excepting the single line-up change between their first and second albums, the same trio has produced, at an only-recently-slowing pace, sixteen studio albums, with a live album after every fourth studio record (all of which have also been remastered recently, although in Rush's case the old versions weren't as appallingly mangled as Sabbath's). Where the bottom would fall out of Reunion without the tracks from the first three Black Sabbath albums, Rush's concert albums have always concentrated on reinforcing recent material, with older songs chosen carefully enough that the only repeat selection on the first three live albums is two appearances of the standard "Closer to the Heart". The effect of this practice, though, for me, has been that their live albums all sound so much like the corresponding studio records that I was never totally sure what the point was. The first two discs of Different Stages (a sign of the times: the first three "double" live albums each fit, at least in the new editions, on a single CD) break with that tradition in two important ways. First, this time the chronology isn't nearly as biased. Of the last four albums, 1989's Presto is represented by only the admonition "Show Don't Tell"; 1991's Roll the Bones by its glittery opening triptych "Dreamline", "Bravado" and "Roll the Bones"; 1993's stripped-down Counterparts by the surging "Animate" and "Stick It Out", the redemptive "Nobody's Hero" and, perhaps oddly, the elliptical instrumental "Leave That Thing Alone"; and 1996's Test for Echo by the fierce title track, the circling, half-acoustic "Driven" and the soaring freedom-anthem "Resist". The other half of the songs come from as far back as 2112 (the Ayn Rand-transcribed-for-guitar suite, streamlined a bit in its modern incarnation), on through A Farewell to Kings ("Closer to the Heart", naturally), Hemispheres (the leveling allegory "The Trees", the other concert sing-along staple), Permanent Waves (a frenetic, swirling "Natural Science", a menacing "Freewill" and a delirious, stadium-lifting "Spirit of Radio", possibly the set's highlight for me) Moving Pictures (the swooping, moralistic "Tom Sawyer", the buoyant, near-pop celebrity-warning "Limelight" and the strident, percussion-heavy instrumental jam "YYZ") and Signals (the yearning "The Analog Kid"), with an extended Peart drum solo thrown in for form, leaving only the mid-Eighties series Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, all amply represented on 1989's A Show of Hands, unaccounted for here. I'm particularly cheered by the inclusion, with no apparent sarcasm, of what seem to me like the two most embarrassing moments of Rush's career, the wildly unhip rapping in "Roll the Bones" and the overwrought lifestyle tolerance of "Nobody's Hero", as they encourage me in my wish to believe that the band doesn't think there's anything preposterous about them. Even more significant than the track list, though, is the fact that Rush, circa the late Nineties, is playing in a much rawer and more electric style than they were when they made the older half of this material (and possibly this also explains the absence of songs from the synth-heavy middle albums), so for once a Rush live album doesn't sound like the studio versions. I'm still not sure I regard the stylistic shift as a welcome change, overall, as it doesn't cater to what I've traditionally considered Rush's strengths, but for concert use it seems virtually ideal. Even flattened onto a disc, the performance energy is palpable. Now I want them to go back and re-do the other three live albums this way.
The third disc in the set, listed on the jacket like they knew about it all along, but folded into the package like an afterthought (in a separate sleeve, held in place only by the shrinkwrap; I predict that used copies of this will be two-disc sets), is a completely separate recording, eleven songs from a 1978 Hammersmith Odeon show. All the World's a Stage, the first live album, came out in 1976, so it shouldn't be very surprising that much of it reappears here: the token first-album nods "Working Man" and "In the Mood", no less incongruous then or now; a strangely edgy and rushed version of Fly By Night's usually-restrained title track, a half stately and half shrieked rendition of "Anthem", and band's first fantasy epic, "By-Tor & the Snow Dog"; Caress of Steel's bustling opener "Bastille Day"; and the choppy 2112 b-side "Something for Nothing". In place of the 2112 suite, though, they substitute all but five minutes of the then-new A Farewell to Kings (everything except "Closer to the Heart" and the easily overlooked "Madrigal"). The three long, complicated pieces, "Xanadu", "A Farewell to Kings" and "Cygnus X-1", are painstakingly true to their studio selves, but for the finale, "Cinderella Man", the band seems to let their momentum start to get the better of them, and the sound quality begins to degrade a little, and it's in precisely this moment of adversity that I feel, suddenly, most confident that Rush are, as they seemed when I was too young to know what I meant, and periodically still do now that I should, the most purely talented rock band I know of.
Dream Theater: Once in a Livetime
It's a dwindling cult that would admit to caring about such an honor, but two of my three other remaining contenders (Marillion being the third) have, in what can't be a total coincidence, just put out double live albums of their own. In Dream Theater's case this is already their second live record, after 1993's Live at the Marquee, with only two albums before that and two and a nominal EP (longer than many band's albums) since, but their live presence is as much about virtuoso pyrotechnics as about songs. The showpiece here is parts one, two, four and seven of "A Change of Seasons", the epic from the EP, but in and around it are woven the pummeling "Just Let Me Breathe", the measured "Trial of Tears", the hushed and delicate "Hollow Years" (about as close as Dream Theater comes to soft-rock accessibility), the swelling Marillion-crossed-with-Journey-ish ballad "Take Away My Pain", a becalmed Metallica/Pink-Floyd hybridization of "Peruvian Skies" and the part-pensive, part-furious "Lines in the Sand", all from Falling Into Infinity; unmistakably Rush-like versions of Awake's "Voices" and "Scarred", a crazed take on its "Caught in a Web", and a Rage Against the Machine-ish blast through "Lie"; a spiky thrashing of the influence-scattering Images and Words rant "Take the Time", a crunching version of the breakthrough single "Pull Me Under" and a medley (although when a Dream Theater record says "medley" it just means they don't pause between songs) of the stomping "Metropolis" and the rumbling "Learning to Live"; the band's rococo quasi-theme song "Ytse Jam" (read it backwards), from When Dream and Day Unite, and individually-indexed guitar, piano and drum solos. Dream Theater don't even start thinking about ending a song until it's creeping into the double-digit minutes and they've thrown in at least one passage in every related style they can think of, so a two-and-a-half hour concert record is unlikely to convert anybody new, but it seems to me that this imposing form, constraints and all, might be truer to Dream Theater's soul than their studio albums. I haven't gone to see them when they've been here, because I don't think I could last, standing up in a crowded club, for that many notes, so while it's a sad irony if that's really where Dream Theater are best and I'm missing it, I guess that's another reason for live albums.
Fates Warning: Still Life
I've slipped into thinking of Fates Warning as the backup Dream Theater, an impression encouraged by the near-simultaneous release of their double live album, Still Life. In a bit of attention-span one-up-man-ship, Fates Warning decline to rearrange their selections to make it easier for them or anybody else, instead blowing through the 1997 concept album A Pleasant Shade of Gray in its entirety on the first disc, and saving the individual songs for the second. Recapitulating a studio record on a live album seemed odd when Marillion did it (twice), and it seems just as strange here, in principle, but in practice there's some sense to it. A Pleasant Shade of Gray, in its original form, was a little too gray for me, and the version here seems to have more spark, as well as the novelty, which holds my attention better than I would have thought, of knowing that the band is indeed playing it in real-time. Also, even if they aren't intermingled, the seven songs on the second disc provide effective counterweights to the overcast epic. I tend to forget, but am here reminded, that Fates Warning's repertoire represents a wider range than Dream Theater's. "Prelude to Ruin" and "The Ivory Gate of Dreams" are from their early, comparatively shrill period (from Awaken the Guardian and No Exit, respectively, which are cased together in the edition I have), before the "progressive" half of progressive metal had sanded off most of the Iron Maiden-ish New Wave of British Heavy Metal mannerisms. "At Fates Hands" (which ought to have an apostrophe somewhere), with its long, drifting opening movement, is a transitional excerpt from 1989's Perfect Symmetry, "The Eleventh Hour", "Point of View" and "We Only Say Goodbye" are from the more mainstream- and rock-inclined successor Parallels (Once in a Livetime plays down Dream Theater's pop-song trace-elements, but Fates Warning actually use the resolutely conventional "We Only Say Goodbye" as their finale), and "Monument", from 1994's Inside Out, finds the band edging away from the straightforwardness of Parallels toward the patterned gloom of A Pleasant Shade of Gray. There are plenty of quick and violent moments hidden in these songs, but if Dream Theater buries their shards of calm in quarries of chaos, Fates Warning inverts the structure and lets the speed-metal flares erupt out of smoother, more textural backgrounds. The result isn't quite as wearying, which could be worse or better depending on whether you came seeking therapeutic exhaustion or not, but I'm heartened to play these two records back to back, and four hours later realize that the niche Dream Theater and Fates Warning cohabit is bigger than I thought, easily big enough to accommodate them both, and might even have recesses I haven't heard the echoes from yet.
Cyndi Lauper: Merry Christmas...Have a Nice Life!
I loathe Christmas music, so a holiday season to the tune of old Sabbath songs and looming prog-metal monoliths would be fine by me, but I'll offer one non sequitur concession to the date. As the title implies, Merry Christmas...Have a Nice Life! (there's a smiley face in the title, right after the ellipsis, but I don't know why and I refuse to try to reproduce it here) is Cyndi Lauper's Christmas album. This sounded like a worrisome idea, to me, since there was a good chance it would contain joke Christmas songs, and I hate joke songs and Christmas songs enough, each by themselves, without their needing to be combined. The prospect of Cyndi yelping "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" made my blood freeze (but two minutes in a microwave and I was fine again; technology!). And, in fact, at least three of Cyndi's eleven songs could qualify as jokes: the drum-machine skating-rink polka "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", the self-explanatory "Christmas Conga" and the goofy Santa seduction "Minnie and Santa". The thing that redeems them, for me, along with the rest of the album, is that almost everything is performed in a beepy, thoroughly out-of-fashion style that makes me wonder whether this isn't how all Cyndi's songs sound, in her head, and she's just trained herself, since She's So Unusual, to tolerate other arrangements. The muted, elegant "Home on Christmas Day" has Cyndi playing rhythm guitar and dulcimer, while Rob Hyman and William Wittman wind threads of jangly guitar, sinuous synth-cellos and a crisp drum loop around her, and instantly takes a place in my pantheon of long-distance Christmas love-songs alongside the Pretenders' "2000 Miles". Cyndi and Jan Pulsford's effervescent "Early Christmas Morning", originally the bonus track on the Japanese version of Cyndi's 1996 album Sisters of Avalon, opens with a minute of children's choir, before launching into a dance strut laced with sighing half-Cajun accordion and cascading bells. The impish "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" gets a timelessly cheesy drum-machine groove, bubbly organ, Rob on melodica, William on omnichord, and Cyndi doing a chirpy Harry Belafonte imitation. Jan sets "Christmas Conga" up on another swishy beat-box and percolating sequencer-beep frame, while Rob jams on accordion and a horn section marshals the Christmas assembly on towards New Year's. Cyndi herself handles the Casio drum line and mock-banjo for the bizarre "Minnie and Santa", equal parts They Might Be Giants, histrionic caroling and wide-eyed musical theater. The accordion-and-drum-loop reel "Feels Like Christmas", from Cyndi's Hat Full of Stars, is my favorite Christmas song, so I can hardly resent its reprise here. Cyndi and Jan rearrange the traditional, cycling "Three Ships" for clogging, tin whistle, recorder, dulcimers and Tennessee Music Box, and get a dance soundtrack for Renaissance fairs. "New Year's Baby", Cyndi's 3/4 first lullaby for her son Declyn, with Jan's Yaz-like synth loops and Cyndi's slide ukulele, is one of the most unselfconsciously pretty and heartfelt songs I've heard all year. "December Child", the second, is even simpler and more soothing. Cyndi sings the spare, courtly "In the Bleak Midwinter" in a Celtic flutter almost without a trace of her usual accent. And she ends the record, lest you think she isn't sincere about the Christmas theme, with an ethereal "Silent Night", whirring synth pads gradually joined by a children's choir's endearingly out-of-sync harmonies. Christmas purists will point out, no doubt, that most of the songs on this record don't actually sound like Christmas music, which is undoubtedly why I like it, but it's a circular argument. If you'd rather build your holiday around luminescent noses, animatronic snowmen and old Perry Como records, that's your prerogative. But red fishnet stockings, carefree dancing, a pile of musical instruments that could also be toys and a few cherished children to either play them or just clap delightedly, even if they don't necessarily understand the fishnet, seems to me like an interpretation of the season that Declyn will, when he's older, if he's smart, come to recognize as a great gift.