Here in Oblivion
483 · 29 April 04
UFO: You Are Here
It will be difficult for the younger among you to imagine this, but in the dark and confused years before information was freed, we used to have these things called "record stores". I know, that sounds like a database subsystem, but they were even cooler than that, and they played four important social functions.
One, they were where you went to get music. Imagine that you didn't have wireless, so to download something, you had to go into the other room and plug the computer into a wall socket. Then imagine that the other room was three miles away, in a strip mall, and instead of a computer you only had a beat-to-shit dirt bike with waffle grips and (inexplicably) a banana seat.
Two, they were where you went when you didn't have anything better to do. This would be like, today, having a power outage right when you just ran out of batteries, except that in those days it was kind of always like that, so instead of freaking out and hoarding Powerbars we went outside and did stuff, which took longer to get boring than you'd guess, but eventually did and then we'd go to the record store.
Three, they were where the people who were cooler than you got part-time jobs. This was usually bad, because then you had to worry about them seeing you there, but once in a while somebody you knew would be one of them, and then that was excellent, because in addition to going to the record store when you had money to buy music (it cost money then), or had nothing better to do, you could also go to visit your cool friend who worked there, unless their boss was watching, in which case they had to pretend they didn't know you, but that's the price of having friends who are cooler than you, anyway.
Four, they were the main way you understood the universe of possible music. This is the hardest detail to conceive, but in those days we basically didn't have anywhere to look things up. For reference we had books, which were kind of like the All Music Guide without searching or browsing so you could only get to whatever was linked from the front page, except without linking either. For current info we had magazines, which were kind of like printouts of blogs written by the smuggest assholes you don't know. For audio previewing we had radio stations, which were kind of like MP3 jukeboxes stuck on shuffle with thirty songs you didn't pick and all the buttons broken except Play and Bass Boost. Oh, and ads. So if you wanted to have any idea of all the music there really was, you went to the record store, where all the names of the bands and their songs were printed on big squares of cardboard and alphabetized in bins.
This made for some strange associations. To this day, I cannot think of the bands UFO, Uriah Heep or Utopia without immediately remembering the other two. That, except for when some moron misfiled a Gary Puckett and the Union Gap album, was the U section I grew up with. (Eventually somebody invented a fourth U band called UK, but by then they'd also invented a whole separate section of the record store called "import", and everything was different.) Utopia didn't get played on the radio, and Uriah Heep had a dumb name, but UFOs were cool. U was that simple.
Twenty-five years or so later, U is more complicated and Utopia and Uriah Heep are history, but Phil Mogg and Pete Way are still making records, and I'm still buying them. Since 2002's Sharks they have lost Aynsley Dunbar and Michael Schenker again, but talked Schenker into finally giving them control of the band name. I imagine this negotiation being somewhat bemused, as I'm probably in a particularly small minority of people who care about UFO without caring much about Schenker, and even Mogg and Way themselves seemed to bargain-hunt rather ruthlessly for replacements when he wasn't around. "Go ahead", I can hear Michael muttering. "Call 'em 'UFO' records if you insist, I'm tired of arguing about it every year. Nobody's going to be fooled."
It turns out they've been sandbagging all this time. With Schenker's signature in hand, Mogg and Way recall keyboardist Paul Raymond (Schenker out, Raymond back in: coincidence?) for identity, skip a generation to replace Schenker with the equally flashy and similarly inclined Vinnie Moore, and skip two or three generations to replace Dunbar with Zeppelin heir Jason Bonham. Arguably, in modern currency, this gives UFO more star-power than they've had since the late Seventies, but rather more importantly it gives them a drummer with both the demeanor and stamina to hit things hard and a guitarist who's willing to do more than drop by and try to jam in all his guitar parts in a spare weekend.
Together, the five of them stomp happily towards a rebirth. Mogg and Way had been fading gracefully for years, graying into shadows, but this time they hit the lights. "When Daylight Goes to Town" crashes and peals, Bonham even sneaking in some backing vocals one morning before Mogg shows up. "Black Cold Coffee" churns and shudders, Moore and Bonham dragging Way into a cheerfully menacing grind he seems to ends up absurdly pleased about. "The Wild One" is stately and yearning, Moore leaping alertly into the upper ranges where Mogg's voice doesn't reach anymore, adding a guitar solo in the middle that seems to me like an explanation of what Steely Dan could sound like if they hadn't been exposed so much jazz while their skulls were still soft. "Give It Up" stretches out into a bruised gallop with a lineage all the way back to Mechanix. "Call Me" shows how easily a surging modern-metal arrangement can be humanized by a warmly bellowy vocal delivery. The elegant "Slipping Away" is a minor Moore tour de force, acoustic jangle lacing under stabbing electric rhythm and alternately acoustic and electric lead lines. The slow, pulsing "The Spark That Is Us" could be what Fish has been too self-conscious to get to, and "Sympathy" even vaguely reminds me of Marillion's Rare Bird cover, but Bonham's boxy kicks and Moore's florid asides follow Mogg's timbre into sage solidity, and as usual UFO find a way to bend the progressive elements back until they form hard-rock buttress-arches again. "Mr. Freeze" and "Jello Man" aren't as inane as the titles seem (the chorus of the latter sounds more like "Ghetto Man" to me, although maybe that's worse), but it probably wasn't so smart to put them back to back. "Baby Blue" (not the Badfinger song, sadly) rises from quiet acoustic guitar serenade to arena roar and back, and reminds me pleasantly of GLAY, who may well have grown up with even more UFO records than I did. "Swallow", the finale, nearly amounts to a reprise medley.
Then again, a lot of UFO songs sound more than a little like medleys of whichever of their other songs I've heard most recently. Moore and Bonham provide welcome new drive, but no new direction. Mogg and Way have been doing this for more than thirty years, and if UFO still attract new fans, it's not by chasing them through strip-mall parking lots, it's by waiting in the bins for them to come inside. And looking out of the windows, we cling with shaky aplomb to the stubborn and perhaps helpless belief that there are still people who will. UFO are doomed, but noble. We are doomed, but blessed when we can pretend to forget, and blessed when we are not alone. Record stores are dying, radio is dying. But music is not. Summer still comes, once a year or so, and we still have evenings and engines, and still dream that we can escape. UFO have outlived everyone they were ever measured against, and maybe that's the most honest way you ever become great.
Into Eternity: Buried in Oblivion
UFO are about as far from death metal as you could be while still qualifying in some peripheral way as any kind of metal. Canadian quintet Into Eternity are, by most measures, a lot closer. Four of the five members are credited with "Death Vocals" in addition to their instruments, and most songs feature at least some growling. The album cover has wrinkly creatures squatting on tombs, a raven perched on a gravedigger's shovel, and a track listing that is that flavor of relentless bleakness characteristic of young people who would like to be angry but aren't actually depressed or bitter about anything in particular.
And death metal is, to state the gruesomely obvious, intended to be bleak. It would be inane to credit a band with bringing the fun back to death metal, because there was never supposed to be any. The proper death-metal facial expression is a rictus of strain, sporadically modulated by a flickering implication that abject terror lurks just beneath the fragile, cursed flesh.
But this idea doesn't appear to have been communicated properly to the kids in Saskatchewan recently, nor perhaps to the kids in Dallas in the late Seventies, and so certain people persist in the dopey idea that metal is basically a blast, and that death metal in particular is eminently apt to engender guileless smiles and the same kind of happy jumping around that accompanies old Supremes singles or the new Corrs song.
And so, despite the nagging feeling that we're participating in some other universe's music taxonomy, Into Eternity and I are having an inordinate amount of fun. Into Eternity's fun consists of overwhelming the tenuous macabrity of their gruff death-metal riffing with effusive melodic exuberance. When in doubt, sprint for the nearest chorus. I didn't think, after their previous album, that they could keep this up for another one, but whatever I expected to corrupt them hasn't managed to make any impression yet. If death metal is the music of mole people, Buried in Oblivion is the version made by dive-bombing hummingbirds punching into the tunnels twittering like maniacs. At various moments Into Eternity channel Rush, Iron Maiden, Voivod, Metal Church, Styx, Threshold, Queensrÿche, Hallow's Eve, Symphony X and Candlemass, in addition to the standing allegiances to Fates Warning, Megadeth and Slayer, and for the time being they're my favorite metal band on the planet for not acting like there's anything weird about this. The songs are all largely the same, but it's a marvelous sameness well worth ten reiterations, rich with twittery harmonic-scale solos, unison kick-drum/bass flurries, frenetic rhythm-guitar churn, obsessively sharp stop-start careens, and death-verse/clean-chorus vocal oscillations suggesting that even metalheads from the North Pole learned something from Nirvana. "Embraced by Desolation" adds some glassily sighing harmony vocals and choppy high-range guitar probably destined for electronica sampling. "3 Dimensional Aperture" has the clever idea to bridge the two singing styles by pushing the death vocals into a faster, better delineated rhythm, and edging the clean vocals towards a gnashing fury. "Point of Uncertainty" has some excellent everyone-at-once cacophony and charmingly early-guitar-lesson-ish solos. "Spiraling Into Depression" slows down a couple beats to pick up some menace, but both it and "Isolation" blow the setup with unexpectedly clear drum (and especially cymbal) production that leaves me actually listening to the nuances of Jim Austin's playing instead of getting lost in its roar. "Buried in Oblivion" itself and the closing "Morose Seclusion" are the ballads, spun in nylon-string guitar and a fabulously unconvincing fake orchestra.
And I'm left, again, proud and scared for Into Eternity at once. I'm virtually certain they don't understand how unique they are, because I believe this is the kind of target you only hit by aiming for something else and missing. It isn't that they've crossed the lines everybody else carves between metal subgenres, it's that they still haven't noticed them yet. They think, or I think they think, like I thought when I was as young as they were when I think they started thinking this, that metal is the grand end-product of centuries of progress in both the art and technology of Western music, and thus that all metal bands are automatic kindred spirits in the celebration of human ingenuity. They've been so busy collecting other bands' cool tricks that they haven't bothered to come up with any new ones of their own, and therein alights their fleeting genius and remains their likely downfall. They are derivative of everybody they love at once, and thus represent a collective gestalt of metal that no mature band individually embodies. They play metal the way I experience it, breadth and depth collapsed into an imaginary centerpoint. Any day now they will begin to take themselves seriously. As they prepare to make the next album, maybe, they will glimpse their own distinct identity, and start learning how to pare away the aspects of their music that don't express it. They will outgrow their indiscriminate awe and, for all the excellent reasons that any artist discovers in finding themselves, turn into one more dark hole in the perforated geography of this and every genre. Everything they experience will drive them towards this betrayal of their own joy, like everything any of us experiences goads us towards surrender or collapse.
And yet, we don't always give in. So I play these two albums, tonight, one serenely ageless and the other ecstatically unformed, and maybe they will be beacons across the distance between.