Thursday, 13 November 2014

Missed Opportunities, Edition 1: The *Ga *Ga's

This is the first installment in what I intend to be an ongoing, irregular look at bands and artists who, for one reason or another, never quite got the break they deserved. In some small way, I hope to raise the profiles of these also-rans, hidden gems and unsung heroes, starting with a band I've loved for years: The *Ga *Ga's.

I first saw this band on a Classic Rock Magazine DVD. I remember it like it was yesterday, because it was that DVD that introduced me to rock n' roll proper. Until then, I had been blindly fumbling my way around like most 12 year old kids do. But it was popping that disc into my Xbox and discovering bands like Alice Cooper, Therapy?, Black Label Society, and the videos of Marilyn Manson (although I was already a fan of the music) that really converted me. 

The video for the Ga Ga's single "Sex" really stuck with me, for some reason. The most obvious impetus for my interest was primarily the music, which the magazine itself described as "rock meets goth, meets pop, meets indie". As the more astute of you may have noticed, the haphazard conjunction of so many genres as comparison indicates that this band might well have been a complete original. Their music and visual married perfectly the emotional honesty of the then only nascent emotional punk trend, without the mawkishness that would condemn the "emo" trend that would follow soon after, with the androgynous swagger of goth and the big, weighty musical heaviness of hard rock. For a teenager exploring the world on his own, as I was, they were the perfect band. The fact that there were a whole bunch of gorgeous women writhing and humping around the band didn't do any harm either. 

It took me a hell of a long time to find their album, Tonight The Midway Shines, but by God I did find it. It was, and remains to this day, almost flawless. From the opener "Sex" the band ran the gamut of heavy-metal paeans to lost love ("Replica") to more melancholic, thoughtful fair ("Air") with a sense of truth and sincerity to their lyricism that never felt affected. The fact that they could have a sense of humour ("The Real World" has a fine line in sneering anger and righteous contempt at poseurs and self styled 'anarchists' and 'rebels', while the song itself still rocks like a bastard) was just the icing on the cake. Every time I hear the album again, and I listen to it in its entirety at least once every six months, it's confirmed for me: This band were, for their brief time on this earth, the greatest rock 'n'roll band in the world. They had complex, interesting songs you could relate to. They had a gorgeous shimmering liquid silver guitar sound, and some glorious vocal harmonies (a dying art in rock 'n' roll). 

I never got a chance to see them live, and only knew one other person who even knew who they were. I remember feeling so betrayed when I heard they'd broken up, after their second guitarist went, according to the band's statement, to go and "nosh off Brian May". I don't know what that statement means, I mean apart from the obvious, and I don't particularly want to either. Bear in mind that I was still somewhat naive about bands splitting up (Why can't they just get along?) and the concept of such a band calling it a day was hard to deal with. 

The rest survived, though. The remaining members not committed to gobbling the dong of the Most Overrated Band Of All Time (I hate Queen so much) regrouped, and snatched a new guitarist from similarly unknown band Ariel X, and formed Slaves To Gravity. STG have had a modicum of mainstream success, amping up the grunge level and putting out a couple of damn decent releases. But while Slaves To Gravity have songs like "Mr. Regulator" and "Big Red" to their name, nothing they've done quite matches up to the effortless glory of Tonight The Midway Shines. That album is on Amazon still, so if you grab a copy and have a listen, I promise you won't be disappointed. Some of the songs on the album are growers, I must admit, but that too is a dying art: Making an album that has some staying power, that you're not all too familiar with a month later, one that you can really take some time getting to love.

The *Ga *Ga's might never have been the superstars they certainly looked, acted and definitely sounded like, but I'm still grateful for this album. It's one of rock's true hidden gems - a genre-defying, honest, emotional, hard-rockin' son of a whore. So take a moment to consider what might have been, and revel in what we have. 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group

Ian F. Svenovius is a fascinating dude. Lead singer for punk band Nation Of Ulysses and later The Make Up, a band who founded their own "Gospel Yeh-Yeh" sound with a Marxist ethos and an absolutely aching cool, he's now singer for Chain And The Gang and describes himself as "Chairman of the Rock 'n' Roll Comintern". I feel that this phrase is going to be quite overused by the time I finish, but... how cool is that?!

In his spare time, Ian F. Svenovius writes books. His first offering was a collection of insightful essays under the title of The Psychic Soviet, (again, how cool is that?!) and now he's given us this handy guide for the perplexed, Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group, wherein he details his consultations with various dead rock stars via mediums, with a view to giving advice on the practice of rock 'n' roll bands.

He's so cool he can pull of the Boris Karloff shot.
This, however, is merely a framing device for Comrade Svenovius' philosophies and theories. He starts off by giving a political history of rock 'n' roll, linking it to street gangs and youth rebellion, before it was co-opted by the CIA for use in the Cold War as a marketable and intuitively understandable form of Capitalist propaganda, culminating with the Beatles and moving on from there. Taking this fact as re(a)d, he surveys the current state of music, by way of offering wry, amusing and insightful advice to young wannabe rock stars. Ideology, he claims, is what makes rock 'n' roll, the rest (catchy songs, a dashing look, sexy band photo shoots) will all naturally follow.

If you want to be a rock 'n' roller, then short of actually coming over to your house, sitting you down and writing songs with you, Ian F. Svenovius couldn't have done you a bigger favour. He leaves no aspect of the rock 'n' roll experience out of the dialectic, from the van you will drive, how to deal with critics, sex, drugs, manufacturing nostalgia (read it and find out) to naming your band and using a photograph of yourselves as "unveiling".

What with the references to other Leftist movements throughout history (Dada, Surrealism, Bolshevism, the IWW) and rock 'n' roll's place within that pantheon, it's clear that this pocket-sized parcel of fun is just as much Ian Svenovius' own manifesto as much as it is genuine advice for the dewy-eyed youth with dreams of rock stardom. But neither aspect diminishes the other. If it were being used as a Rock Bible by a group of skinny kids in their garage determined to thrash out their own music, there's no doubt it would produce a pretty unusual group, especially in the days of corporate popular music stardom. But perhaps that is just what's needed in this day and age. A group with the same outlook as the author of this book, who believes that rock 'n' roll may not be as big as it was, but by God it's clever. Groups who see rock 'n' roll as a unifying force, not as the divisive classist commodity that it's become. Groups who see popular music for the bourgeois crap that it is, who tire of meaningless factory-produced love songs.

Hell, if you think that sounds good, I can't recommend this book enough. If it doesn't sound good, I still can't recommend this book enough. Even if you disagree with Mr. Svenovius, (and I certainly do on a few points) his book is still erudite, charming, witty and has some truly unique insights that are well worth thinking and talking about.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Review: Emilie Autumn - Fight Like A Girl (And An Open Letter)

Creative Stagnation! The Musical

Emilie Autumn's had a lot of problems in her life, you know. I know this because she pours out her difficulties in her music, turning her lyrics into a confessional stream of cathartic anger, violence and righteous fury. In theory. In practice, I listened to her previous album, Opheliac, and found it to be a rather enjoyable album, even if the lyrics were my least favourite part of it. Ms. Autumn has, if I may be blunt about it, no finesse. She seemed to have no concept of making lyrics more vague and therefore, more relatable and profound. But this was something I could easily overlook, because the music, a combination of romanticised Steampunk British Victoriana and industrial/electronica, was innovative and skillfully implemented and good gothic fun, if you didn't mind the ham-handedness or repetitiveness of the words.

So now we've got Fight Like A Girl, which Emilie Autumn's website proudly announces is musical theatre, and damn proud of it. Well, I'm not really a fan of musical theatre, Ms. Autumn. And good thing too, because if I were looking for musical theatre, I'd be a little bit disappointed with this cack-handed, stupid, insulting pantomime.

Things get off to a flying start with the title track, which has a synth bass riff remarkably redolent of "Misery Loves Company" off her previous, more enjoyable album. It has a chorus about annihilating 49% of humanity, which flows terribly, and it's about a minute and a half too long. Not great. Not a bad song, mind you, but not great. Which is a crying shame, because it's all downhill from there.

The problem with Emilie Autumn, as far as I can see it, is that although her "Victoriandustrial" style is interesting, and has a lot of potential, she doesn't seem to know what to do with it. Her violin work is excellent, but it takes a back seat on this album, to make way for songs that are written with Broadway in mind, but sit rather uncomfortably on a quote-unquote "rock" album. The songs show a rather annoying lack of natural progression, and the bad habit of repeating a lyrical witticism until all wit and meaning to the phrase that was the occasional fly in the ointment on the last album ("You're so easy to read, but the book is boring me") is back again, on pretty much every song.

So, Ms. Autumn, if I may speak directly:

I know you can do better than this. You've shown so much potential. Laced/Unlaced was a great album. Opheliac had some absolutely brilliant songs (the execrably bad "I Know Where You Sleep" notwithstanding), there were flashes of truly profound lyricism, such as "Thank God I'm Pretty" and "Let The Record Show" was an excellent industrial song. Fight Like A Girl, by contrast, seems to have taken the previous album and stripped out, for the most part, the Gothic aroma, the literary-mindedness, and replaced it with a Broadway musical sensibility which is at best tacky and at worst comes across as selling out really hard.

The Steampunk style, which you, with your first few releases, gave such a timely Victorian Gothic-Revival spin on, is something with vast potential that always seems frustrated. Some luminaries have taken advantage of it, for instance Dr. Steel, whose entire output is a bald-headed barrel of fun. Johnny Hollow are just as good. Your Victorian Nightmare Asylum aesthetic, with its rats and leeches and white coats and harpsichords and righteous insanity, is so wonderfully evocative. There are so few artists these days willing to commit themselves so wholeheartedly to a well-thought-through image, which is such a huge part of rock n' roll. With this album, you do yourself an enormous disservice.


Review: A Storm Of Light - Nations To Flames

Following the recent resurgence in the popularity among the heavy metal community for slower, more atmospheric, doomier fare, there's been a gratifying glut of releases characterised as "Stoner" "Post-metal" "Sludge" and so forth, which, for those of you unaccustomed to metal-magazine jargon, means low, slow and concerned with moods of desolation and nihilism. And it's about bloody time this new Renaissance of metal bands with actual songwriting talent got some recognition. So, for what it's worth, here's some glowing praise. 

With that in mind, here's the fourth album from American Sludge/Post/Doom/And So Forth metal band A Storm Of Light. And it's a fucking corker. Right from the opening moment of "Fall", Nations To Flames starts an avalanche of stumbling, cascading guitars, vocals that crackle with rage, and absolutely sublime ambient keyboard drones that create a real sense of what heavy metal is supposed to make you feel: So righteously goddamn angry you could take a sledgehammer to the face of The Man, wherever that bastard's hiding, but it'll have to wait a second because I want to listen to this absolutely delicious riff.

The mercurial presence of Soundgarden guitar-torturer Kim Thayil on this album (and old Kim's become something of a post-metal touchstone, with his involvement with Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson of Sunn O))), Boris, and Ascend of the Southern Lord Records Scene. Who are A Storm Of Light signed to? Answers on a postcard) adds a delightful frisson of rock-star attitude to three of the songs on this album. His shrieking solos, which hit the exact sweet-spot a lead guitar should, are superbly well-timed to erupt at moments when things are getting a bit too po-faced, or worse, threatening to denigrate into the same tired old hardcore-influenced chugging we've heard before. A Storm Of Light, clearly well on their way to becoming masters of their craft, know to avoid such overused metal tropes and side-step them adroitly. 

Which isn't to say that this isn't for everyone; if I had a friend whose knowledge of heaviness began and ended with Pantera (and I have many such friends) then I'd have absolutely no qualms recommending Nations To Flames. Then again, if I had a friend who was familiar with such luminaries as Isis, Neurosis, Jesu, and so on, I'd happily recommend A Storm Of Light to them as well (if they hadn't already heard of them). This album is probably A Storm Of Light's heaviest to date - the vocals of singer Josh Graham put one in mind of Scott "Wino" Weinrich, and the electronics are decidedly more in the raw, more industrial sounding vein than on their previous efforts. It all comes together to have a terrific sense of emotional honesty and genuine fury to the material. 

That said, this album isn't without it's faults. It can be a little touch exacting at times, with a few of the songs being a bit too similar and sounding unnecessarily padded. It's a minor nit-pick, however, and it's not going to turn anyone off. So if you're a metal fan and you are (quite justifiably) sick of the tyranny of Kerrang!-style bores (naming no names, so Children Of Bodom don't sue me) or of derivative, Neanderthal frat-boy thrash posers (again naming no names, so Municipal Waste don't sue me) then you could find an excellent start with A Storm Of Light's Nations To Flames