439 · 26 June 03
Helloween: Rabbit Don't Come Easy
I do not stand between you and your mall. This is not a consumer guide, and I probably don't believe the concept is meaningful for music. It sort of works for first-run movies because there are so few of them at a time, which means that a diligent review publication (and in some cases even a diligent single reviewer) can cover most of them, and readers of multiple publications or metasites can thus easily assemble a mass of perspectives. Each of the perspectives is likely to be hopelessly subjective in some way, but against this inherent flaw we have numbers, which should never be enough but sometimes is.
But there's way too much music, and the only practical subsets are the ones you can hear parts of for yourself and thus least need anybody else's insights into. And if our comparative-aesthetic grammar for objectively evaluating storytelling and mimicry is poor, our languages for measuring the power of music are inarticulate and uncalibrated. We cannot grade music. Maybe in a thousand years aestheticians will laugh at this incapacity the way we laugh at Aristotle struggling to understand the origin of eels, but that's my belief about the current state of human self-awareness. It is impossible for circa-2003 humans to assign values to music that correlate to individual unknown listeners' personal emotional reactions in any deterministic way. Play us a record neither of us know, and we will not be able to deduce each other's responses. At best we can try to guess, the more hope the more precedents we know, but you may take my expert testimony, as a person whose tastes are a matter of public record in interminable detail and who receives frequent guesses from readers, that sometimes no reasonable amount of information produces useful extrapolation. You don't know what I'm going to think of the new Liz Phair album. I don't know what I'm going to think about it. Maybe science will someday figure this all out, but it's nowhere close yet.
But for every way we can't say a song is good or bad, there are a hundred ways any given person could love or hate it. And if I think carefully about the ways I love or hate a song, I may be able to explain some of them, and maybe they'll sound like ways you'd want to try to love or hate it. And since I don't usually opt to voluntarily spend my time listening intently and repeatedly to things I hate, mostly you get my attempts to explain my loves. If I write what seems like a negative review, it's probably because I think I've found something I hate occluding something I want to love. If I re-held myself to my own standards in hindsight, there are probably a few reviews I shouldn't have written. And if this were a column held to newspaper style guides, there are many stories they'd make me tell in different orders. But I do what I can in the time I can spare, and if you don't read all the way to the end I take no responsibility for your misapprehensions.
And if I'm subject to a slow trickle of vitriol from defenders of the vanishingly small percentage of artists I've arguably wronged, then I can't imagine how much abuse people who routinely write negative reviews receive. This week's installment, for me, was an infuriated email from Berlin producer Mitchell Sigman in response to my December review of Voyeur. His note was almost as long as my review, and there wasn't much I could say to most of it. Insults did comfortably outnumber compliments in that piece ("Did you really call them 'shitty and opportunistic'?", asked Belle, reading the email over my shoulder), and I couldn't tell him not to be angry, because I think anger was his proper response. It was a bad review. I don't just mean it was insulting, I mean that as a review, it was at least poorly structured and/or misassigned. I write very few insulting reviews, but a lot of bad ones. Sometimes I do it by accident, but usually it's on purpose. Usually (hopefully) the bad reviews are bad at being reviews because sometime on Wednesday night I decided to write something with the silhouette of a review but some other purpose inside. In Voyeur's case I was trying to write about the experience of being tantalized by something you can't quite endorse. Long ago Terri Nunn sang two songs I love about as much as anything ever recorded, and then she sang a few dozen other songs that simply make me feel ill. I keep listening to her hoping that there are a couple more songs like that still trying to get out, and I amuse myself by trying to imagine what could free them. Maybe you feel that way about someone, and even if it isn't Berlin, maybe it helps one of us to hear the story told, with whatever characters. If not, we move on. Obviously this is easier to do with equanimity when you are not a character in the story.
I have not, to date, received email from any of the members of Helloween. Sigman wasn't even in the incarnation of Berlin that I called shitty and opportunistic, so presumably the members of Helloween, a band I once referred to as heavy metal's bleakest evolutionary dead-end, have a more pressing grievance. I have heard from several of their fans, on their behalf. None too literately, and I would have it no other way.
But I actually quite liked The Dark Ride, Helloween's 2001 album, so I greeted the "Helloween return to their classic sound!!!" sticker on the front of this new album, and the rebrightened orange of the pumpkin in their logo, with some apprehension. There's a real idea to the title, that sometimes pulling a rabbit out of a hat is made even more difficult by the rabbit, but the illustration gives the magician a huge bionic hand, with which he is tugging on the ears of a singularly exasperated anthropomorphic bunny whose two pudgy paws are dug tenaciously into the hat brim. It gets worse on the back cover, where the bunny, the pumpkin and the battered hat pose for a group shot. I gets worse still inside, where we're not through the first verse of the first song before Andreas has shrieked "There's something growing in my pants!", and running illustrations on the lyric pages lay out the fitful quasi-romantic pursuit of a pumpkin-headed stripper by a squat pumpkin-headed gnome with anger issues and an erection of implausible girth.
The sticker means what it says. The Dark Ride was a more serious metal album than Helloween had previously given anyone reason to expect, darker and heavier. Rabbit Don't Come Easy is Helloween giving up on any hope of transcending themselves. "We are what we are!", keens one of the choruses, just to make sure we know that they know. The drummers rattle their kick-pedals, Sasha Gerstner and Michael Weikath trade florid guitar solos, Markus Grosskopf's bass rumbles like quarry trains, and Jørn Ellerbrock slathers keyboard goo over anything that stays still long enough. The production treatments are a little fuller than they would have been in the late Eighties, but the songwriting and general extravagance are unapologetically vintage, and the band otherwise gives no sign of having been cognizant of any new development in metal in the last fifteen years.
But I liked metal in 1988, and liked it rather more than many of its subsequent mutations. I'd be very suspicious of twenty-three-year-olds appropriating this style self-awarely, but Helloween has earned the right to make as many albums of it as they want. If you don't care, they won't mind. I am pleased. In the past month or two I've heard too many supposedly-important new albums with which I could make no personal connection. This album is trivial, and I'm enjoying it fiercely. "Just a Little Sign" gallops like Jolt-addled caribou spooked by wasps the size of ostrich. "Open Your Life" lumbers and pounds with expansive menace. "The Tune" skitters restlessly up and down scales, and I was convinced it was a trenchant political allegory until I checked the lyrics and found that a key bit of the chorus is "eternally", not "in Germany". "Liar", a surprisingly coherent story-song about the stripper going undercover to take down a mob boss, is a far better heir to early Metallica by way of NWOBHM than anything later Metallica themselves have done. The first thirty seconds of "Sun 4 the World" are ill-advised (somebody misplaced the note-to-selves Post-It saying "no 'world music', you bloated kretins!"), but the rest of it is concussive and electrifying enough to make Dio proud. I would probably have tried to talk them out of the acoustic guitar and piano on "Don't Stop Being Crazy", too, but they pull it off with some of Ozzy's weary dignity. "Do You Feel Good" is better if you sing your own loud nonsense over the verses, but I find myself wanting to do that anyway. "Hell Was Made in Heaven" is their version of a sweet love song. "Back Against the Wall" is a bit turgid, but "Listen to the Flies" is happily histrionic, and "Nothing to Say" grinds the album off over the horizon in a dizzying blur of style pastiches from Zeppelin and AC/DC and Motörhead through ska-metal into flute-laced tranquility, back to pummeling, and finally into frogs croaking and somebody crashing a moped into a phone booth. This is metal trying to be fun again.
Helloween have often undermined their own sense of musical fun by being textually crass, and they're poised to do so again here. The little cartoon pumpkin-head romance is bound to end lasciviously, that's the point of making the girl a stripper. But it doesn't. The embrace comes a few songs early, and in the last split-screen frame they're actually apart again, having a difficult long-distance conversation on the phone. She's trying to break up with him. It's hard to blame her. And he should just let her, get off the phone, and go out. They're in different towns, and the one he's in has other strippers. That's his point of making her a stripper. The metal boor he's supposed to be doesn't even answer the phone to begin with, doesn't even leave a number. But there he is, waiting for her call, knowing what she's going to say, feeling part of a world he's not supposed to want slipping away from him. It's a break-up call, but as the album ends he's still on the phone, and if he can keep the call going, maybe it will turn into something else. The music is hopeful, so why can't it be relevant? Play what you know long enough, it may lead somewhere.
The small irony in my enduring affection for Helloween is that although I love them for playing metal like I liked when I was fifteen and twenty, they weren't actually one of the bands I was listening to at those ages. I discovered them later, suspended leeringly in time. Possibly if I'd known about Helloween first, and only found Dio and Iron Maiden later, my Helloween albums would be the ones I'm now neglecting. Part of the nostalgic appeal of Helloween, no doubt, is that they aren't literally part of my youth, so when I hear them it feels more like nostalgia is something we're doing together.
Quite a few of the metal bands I loved at fifteen and twenty are still playing, in one form or another. Not very many of them still evoke the same feelings, for me. Either their styles have evolved, or they haven't, or I have or haven't. UFO are one of the rare exceptions. Many purists, of course, would insist that they aren't exactly a metal band. Phil Mogg was always a blues-rock singer, far closer to Eddie Money and Paul Rodgers than Dio or Bruce Dickinson. Their best claim to metal was the occasional presence of guitarist Michael Schenker, but they made more albums without him than with him. Schenker is on hand for Sharks, in fact, and I think he's now a legal requirement, though for me Mogg and bassist Pete Way are really UFO. Aynsley Dunbar has been drumming with Mogg and Way for a few years and albums now. Keyboardist Kevin Carlson hasn't earned band status yet, but returns for his second UFO album. Producers Mike Varney and Steve Fontano have worked with all four band members in various combinations. Everybody sounds very familiar with each other. It's very easy for me to imagine these songs written in short afternoons and recorded in first and second takes, less deliberate compositions than acknowledged implications of the band's intimate self-knowledge and internal comfort.
And I don't think UFO planned this when they were younger, but their style ages gracefully. Helloween try to pretend they aren't growing older, while UFO can simply ignore the fact that they were ever young. Mogg stays out of the high range he might lose, and always sounded tired anyway. Schenker shows off some, but the cores of UFO songs are more rhythm guitar than lead, which gives him plenty of opportunity to conserve energy if necessary. UFO never went for sprint drummers, and Dunbar's presence is reasonable and calming, working timing finesse and effective crash-cymbal placement instead of hitting every micro-beat to make sure he gets the right ones. Carlson lends some support, but doesn't have a whole lot to do here, as most of these arrangements largely make do with straight guitar/bass/drums/voice and sparing overdubbed solos from Schenker. When all these elements are at balanced tension, as they are through nearly all of Sharks (Schenker's throwaway instrumental coda is the only real outlier), UFO operate in one of the most understatedly impressive cohesions I know of. Blues impulses are grounding, but not constraints. Rhythms ribbon from Schenker's frayed guitar, verse/chorus shifts feel like the changes in airflow when Mogg moves a step closer or farther from the microphone, Way reconciles Dunbar's pacing and Schenker's flares. UFO may not be a great metal band, but they may be the most underappreciated archetypal rock band since Thin Lizzy.
Genre divisions don't apply inside my head, though, and the key advantage of UFO over most of the truer metal bands, for nostalgic purposes, is that nostalgia is a wistful emotion, and not many bands ever did wistfulness better than UFO. Their old songs sounded distracted and nostalgic when I was hearing them for the first time, and thus now I can listen to the new ones both as the subject of my recollections and the soundtrack of the exercise of recollecting. UFO sing me through reveries I know no other way to reach. I just wish I knew who else still wants albums like this. There's not currently much market for casual craftsmanship that isn't cloaked in period affectation or overproduced into abstraction, or discretion that isn't couched as coyness or jaded irony. UFO do no individual thing that some other band doesn't push to an extreme. I understand the logic of extremes, too, maybe too well. Maybe that's part of what I'm nostalgic for, an age when I knew less, when my world wasn't yet distended in so many directions, when the center didn't always seem so far away.