1969: Randy Holden - Population II
In 1969, proto-metal guitarist Randy Holden owned no less than 16 amps, each encased with 200 watts of power, which might explain why this record, Population II, has guitars that sound not like heavy metal falling from the sky, but like black holes disintegrating chunks of the earth’s core. It’s an admirable sound achieved by just Holden and drummer Chris Lockheed (who also played keyboards simultaneously), coming together to make the tracks even more unbelievable. The album is a showcase for a great guitarist who was well versed in a variety of styles, who focused on distilling everything he knows into something monolithically heavy and, for most of it, slow, like an octogenarian driving in the left lane. The end result is music that weights down on you, but ultimately feels satisfying, like the best doom metal from any decade.
Sadly, Population II was a fluke, an occurrence that happened once and then quickly fell into oblivion. Soon after its release on Hobbit Records, a large portion of Randy’s gear was stolen, and the album was left in limbo until a couple of years ago. I wonder what metal would’ve been like had Population II directly influenced it with such dragging beats and thicker-than most-of-its-contemporaries riffs. I guess it’s something we’ll never know. But what’s undeniable is that history would’ve surely regarded Randy Holden as one of metal’s greatest blueprinters.
1998-2001: Black Dice’s early years
After recently hearing Black Dice’s forthcoming Mr. Impossible, I found myself thinking about their oft forgotten early days. Before Williamsburg and DFA, back in the depths of the Providence noise rock scene, this formative version of Black Dice could have been confused for a different band. Eric and Bjorn Copeland, earlier member Hisham Bharoocha, and very early member Sebastian Blanck generated an incredibly unique permutation of noise rock. Moments like on the dense-pulsing “The Raven” off Cold Hands (2001) have a nihilistic bluntness to them, something that was eventually stretched and deconstructed on their masterpiece Beaches and Canyons (#9 on TMT’s favorite of the decade).
Meanwhile, Black Dice #3 (2000) begins with nearly a dozen brief 30-second tracks that melt into one another in a blur of Boredoms-inspired aggression. Eventually, it evolves towards more structured pieces in its last few tracks, the 14th of which reveals itself to especially brutal peak as they show early on their knack for distorting guitars like no one else. Keep in mind, most of this material existed in the late 1990s, before the DFA, Kid A, or the massive Brooklyn music scene had come to fruition.
A decade later, Black Dice are still around, and this rediscovery of their early work has given me an opportunity to look at their career and especially the new record with a fresh perspective. For example, in the last minute of single “Pigs,” after multiple bursts of violent glee, Black Dice break a final time into that propulsive stomp, and you can hear that same energy howling away from nearly 14 years in the past. Recently, in an interview with Stereogum, Bjorn Copeland discussed the sound of his band’s new work: “In a lot of ways this album is stripped down, you can get really hung up on gear and equipment and sometimes you forget that some of the music you love best that satisfies your needs is just made with a guitar and vocal.” This quote certainly rings true in the present, but it also shows how their approach to music-making today has clear continuities with their aesthetic of the past.
1977: David Bowie - “Heroes”
Once upon a time, David Bowie moved to Berlin, snorted epic amounts of cocaine, and recorded some killer tunes. So killer, in fact, that what has come to be know as the “Berlin trilogy” – Low, Heroes, and Lodger – have been universally recognized as some of the most groundbreaking and influential pop music ever recorded by a strung out ninety-pound drug addict (though John Frusciante certainly gave him a run for his money). But in all seriousness, these albums kick ass like few have before or after and have managed to sound fresh to this day, a feat not much electronic based pop from the 70s has been able to pull off – I’m looking at you Styx. Though Low is easily the best album of the three, the high-point of the trilogy is the track “Heroes” from the album of the same name.
The thing that sets “Heroes” apart from three albums worth of brilliant electro-pop is the stellar live performances from Robert Fripp and David Bowie. Fripp conjures some downright strange but shimmeringly pretty sounds from his guitar, tapping into the style of violin-like sustain long before it was popular and doing it better than almost every imitator that followed. Bowie’s vocal is a masterclass in angsty longing, using three mics staggered 9 inches, 20 feet, and 50 feet away to capture the pure anguish in his voice. When he finally opens up on the third verse, he radiates pain in a way few singers have ever managed. Thank God for cocaine and the Thin White Duke.
1998: Ted Hawkins - The Ted Hawkins Story: Suffer No More
“Good morning my darling, I’m telling you this/ to let you know that I’m sorry you’re sick/ no, tears of sorrow won’t do you no good/ I’d be your doctor if only I could/ What do you want from the liquor store?/ Something sour or something sweet/ I’d buy you all that your belly can hold/ You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.”
So goes the opening of Ted Hawkins’ “Sorry You’re Sick” and the inspiration for a 1998 greatest hits CD, one of many Ted Hawkins retrospectives. He’s an immensely talented bluesy soul singer who simply slipped through the cracks of widespread mainstream success. Somewhere between Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, the booming voice snugly fits into a long tradition of singers who seem capable of stopping time.
What little we know about Ted Hawkins’ history: he was born into a difficult life in Mississippi and was sent to reform school at 12. After that, the personal mythology starts – with tales of Hawkins drifting in and out of prison/various American cities and eventually (in the late 60s) hitchhiking to California to make a career as a musician. He accrued fans playing on a milk crate at the boardwalk in Venice Beach, gaining the attention of record producer Bruce Bromberg in the early 70s. But drug problems and another jail stint prevented him from recording his debut album, Watch Your Step, until 1982. The album gained impressive critical acclaim but little commercial success. Three years passed (with no knowledge of Hawkins’ whereabouts) until he recorded his next album, Happy Hour, with Bromberg, which managed to gain the attention of European fans. The famed British broadcaster Andy Kershaw invited him to Europe where Hawkins’ brought his milk crate songs to packed venues. However, when he moved back to the U.S. in the 1990s, he returned to street performing – until Geffen producer Tony Berg convinced him to record his songs with professional musicians. The subsequent album would gain him the U.S. fame that he had never been able to accumulate in the 20 years prior, but Hawkins would pass away months after the album was released.
It’s a remarkable story. As for the music itself, it’s a crudely wonderful mix of gospel, country, blues, and soul music. Hawkins plays in an open tuning, reportedly distinguishing between happy and sad chords. The 1998 collection boasts many great songs (“Watch Your Step,” “The Good and the Bad,” “The Lost Ones,” “Happy Hour”) but the real fun is tracking down the bootlegs and cover renditions that Hawkins’ recorded into relative obscurity throughout the years. There’s a beautiful image I have of him sitting on a milk crate at the Venice Beach boardwalk belting out songs for those passing by – the Temptations “Just My Imagination,” John Denver’s “Country Road,” Sam Cooke’s “Bring it On Home to Me,” and (my personal favorite) Charley Pride’s “All I Have to Offer You is Me.” If you’ve read the 2007 Pulitzer-winning article about renowned violinist Joshua Bell conducting a street performance experiment, it does make you wonder what it takes for people to truly recognize musical brilliance – even if it’s just sitting right in front of them on a milk crate.
2002: 90 Day Men - To Everybody
I don’t know many people that like To Everybody. Admittedly, 90 Day Men aren’t exactly a band that comes up in conversation all that often nowadays (well, maybe as an aside when discussing front man Brian Case’s current band Disappears), but of the people I know that were aware of them, most fall into one of two camps: either they like the band’s earlier “Fugazi and Slint go to University together” material, or the full-blown arty prog-psych of Panda Park. I vastly prefer the former, but I admire how each of the band’s records sound distinct, demonstrating the Chicago-via-St. Louis group’s artistic tenacity in continually pushing themselves forward. That said, I think Panda Park, with precious few moments aside, is a turgid mess of a record, losing much of what makes its comparatively overlooked predecessor, To Everybody, such an intriguing album to revisit.
To briefly contextualize, To Everybody signals a turning point in 90 Day Men’s discography. The band’s previous record, (It (Is) It) Critical Band, was more or less the summation of where they could take their contemptuously self-aware (I mean, look at the album’s title!) math-rock at the time. Not content to stagnate or make the same record again, the time following Critical Band saw them foregrounding keyboardist Andy Lansangan and making To Everybody, a piano-laced collection of lengthy, often-grandiose art rock songs. No wonder the red flags of suspicion popped up.
It would be easy to designate To Everybody as a transitional record, having been released between the vastly different Panda Park and Critical Band, but the more I listen, the more this feels inaccurate. There are elements of transition, to be sure, but To Everybody is more concerned with exploration, like a riskier version of what Fugazi did with The Argument – that is, to make a dynamic, challenging record that demonstrates a band’s strengths while also making an assured journey into unexplored territory. The key difference here is that 90 Day Men also shifted instrumental focus – Lansangan’s keys are all over To Everybody and, combined with the album’s density and prog-leanings, it initially feels alienating. Furthermore, there’s a sense of detachment here, as To Everybody makes relatively few concessions to reveal itself to an impatient listener; however meandering it may feel at points, this is a record that can’t be gently absorbed in passivity.
For me, the best parts of To Everybody are when the band will latch onto a groove and utterly refuse to let go. Take “St. Theresa in Ecstasy,” a track anchored by Robert Lowe’s fluid bass pulse set alongside blossoming piano keys and a steadfast, deceptively intricate drum pattern. Throughout the song’s last half, there are moments where it feels like drummer Cayce Key is battling to keep the enveloping swirl of instrumentation neatly contained and flowing, with errant fills resetting the track’s shifting sense of timing. This last half of “St. Theresa” is the most lucid, well-sustained segment on the record, and I could listen to it for hours.
To Everybody was an ambitious album, and while I don’t think it fully succeeds (the second half has some questionable moments), I find its ability to remain polarizing and unique ten years after its release commendable. I may listen to Critical Band more often, but To Everybody is the more interesting and distinctively artistic record, despite its inconsistencies and comparatively neglected spot in the band’s discography. If someone tries to tell you that Panda Park is the best 90 Day Men record, I’d wager they haven’t listened to this one since it came out.
On the surface, Necros are a generic band. All their songs are made from a template used countless times before by predecessors and contemporaries. They have the slow song, the noisy chaotic song, the mid-tempo rocker with floor tom action, and track after track of double beat “too-pah” thrash to inspire mosh pits the world over. These miscreants from Maumee, Ohio were quintessential 80s hardcore.
Yes, many others were breaking things up and doing something different during the Reagan/Thatcher era, but Necros had that IT factor that makes a great punk band. Their music is unadorned and monolithic without being monotonous, they had the passion and the “don’t give a fuck” attitude of getting hurt and getting their instruments out of tune to make it feel like a beatdown on your nervous system; in other words, all you needed in life. They got blood flowing without being original, like folk music (to indulge a tired simile), using the same forms and rules but finding a way to sound all their own.
The other factor that makes Necros good is that, consciously or not, they used the low quality of recording technology available for them at the time to work in their favor. Like the EP version of “Police Brutality,” the guitar sounds massive, like nothing else before or since, which makes us lucky that they weren’t millionaires with a major record label paying a large recording studio.
They might have been following footsteps, but, like all the great hardcore bands, the Necros managed to sound like no one while trying what everybody else was doing.