Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums (Revisited)

(August, 2010)

Okay.

Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15″ (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better –and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #2 (Revisited)

2. Black Sabbath, Never Say Die! (1978)

Maybe Ozzy really did sell his soul to the devil. How else to explain his solo albums getting more love—even amongst old school Black Sabbath fans—than the last album he made with his first band? It is genuinely inexplicable, and more than a little exasperating. There is no need to diminish the moments of excellence contained in those first two solo albums, which briefly brought Randy Rhoads the mass audience he deserved and should have had for many more years. However, it has to be said and without the slightest bit of hesitation: nothing Ozzy did after 1980 can hold a candle to anything he did with Sabbath, and none of those solo albums (even the first two) belong in the same conversation as Never Say Die! which is not only a near masterpiece, but boasts some of the band’s best playing and Ozzy’s all-time best singing.

Who cares that Ozzy was a miserable mess during the recording, or that he left (or was fired) after its release? Who cares that the album did not have any big hits (though it could—and should—have), and who cares whether or not any of the actual band members rate this as highly as the others? On any objective and rational level, the songwriting is for the most part heads and shoulders above the previous effort, Technical Ecstasy (which, while having some outstanding tracks, is the closest Sabbath every came to mediocrity in the ‘70s). It is, in many ways, easy to compare Never Say Die! with the soon-to-be-discussed In Through the Out Door: both albums represent the last recordings by the original band, and each one is largely dismissed not only by the majority of the critical establishment, but more importantly, the fans themselves. In the case of both records, some of the band’s best work appears and it is because it is a departure from the “classic sound” of earlier albums that less adventurous, not to mention less astute, ears can’t hear the myriad glories contained in each.

Taking it on a song-by-song basis, it’s not even necessary to bring in the last couple of songs: the brass-heavy “Break Out” (which is nothing if not an interesting departure) and the album-closer “Swinging The Chain” (which features robust, if unfamiliar vocals from drummer Bill Ward—a curiosity that many folks can’t get behind). I may be the only person on the planet who feels it would have been a ballsy, and possibly brilliant gambit to carry on as a trio and have Ward sing for Ozzy instead of recruiting outside services (no hatred here for Ronnie James Dio, but anyone who compares anything the band did with him with anything the band did with Ozzy is kidding themselves).

What I’ve never been able to reconcile is the general indifference and/or disdain with which this album is met. It can’t be the musicianship, which is not only up to par, but as good as anything the band did. In fact, the production is a marked improvement over most of their work, and the listener can fully (and finally!) appreciate the intricacies and delights of Geezer Butler’s bass playing. Bill Ward is the great unappreciated drummer of that decade: on every Sabbath session he is nothing less than professional and it’s difficult to imagine how different (and not for the better) any of the songs would sound with a different guy behind the skins. But the real head-scratcher is why this album is not worshipped (by Sabbath fans, but also by everyone) as one of the all-time great guitar workouts. Tony Iommi is second only to Jimmy Page in terms of the sheer quantity—and quality—of riffs and melodies, and his playing, the fast, the furious, the subtle, the sweet, inspired a literal generation of imitators. On every single song here he unleashes solos that are blistering but logical; sizzling but soulful. Even Ozzy, as truculent or burnt crisp as he may have been, managed (or was prodded) to deliver some of his most affecting vocal work.

The title track should have been an anthem; of course it’s more than a little ironic that the resolve and exultation it depicts turned out to be the swan song of a band about to splinter. The keyboard flourishes on both the adrenalized “Johnny Blade” and the almost elegant “Air Dance” (this features Ozzy and Iommi as good as they ever were) may alienate fans (though those same stylings were evident on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath not to mention Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy). How could anyone argue with the scorched earth celebration that is “Shock Wave”? What could anyone possibly find underwhelming about “Junior’s Eyes”, from Geezer’s funky fingerwork on the extended intro to the multi-tracked layers of guitar sounds to the way the song builds to a shrieking climax (Iommi!) and then, instead of fading out, doubles down? And finally, how can anyone be unmoved by the crowded pub singalong of “Hard Road”? This last song, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice, is a tour de force of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code to Sabbath’s last great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past/And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.”

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Storm Thorgerson, R.I.P.: An A/V Appreciation

You know Storm Thorgerson.

Even if you’ve never heard his name before, you know him.

More, if you are any kind of fan of late 20th Century rock music (most especially progressive rock music) he has played a role in your world that ranges from influential to indescribable.

You see, he was the guy that introduced –and depicted– our first (and lasting) impressions of so many of our favorite albums.

He has recently passed on, more on him and his accomplishments HERE and HERE (go to that second link, scroll down and marvel at the sheer number of classic albums he designed the covers for).

His website is, obviously, the best resource to see how much enduring work he did, HERE.

It would be ridiculous to try and narrow down my personal favorite album covers; the list would be too long. And that’s just the ones he did for Pink Floyd!

(Seriously, though: while so many prog-rock avatars invited ridicule because of their album covers, Pink Floyd, thanks to Thorgerson, elevated this function to high art. Indeed, during the late ’60s and all through the ’70s what was once an obligatory vanity shot of the band became an opportunity –and a challenge– to create provocative and rewarding associations, connected to and apart from the music.)

In tribute and with respect, I’ll nominate some of my favorites, accompanied with a track from said album.

First, a trio each from a trio of some of my favorite artists, then a trio from some very diverse acts.

We must begin, of course, with the band that Storm was so closely and indelibly associated with.

Back when Pink Floyd was the biggest underground band in the world, they remained mysterious—and hip—by being invisible. With few exceptions their faces weren’t on the album covers, which underscored the obvious: it was always all about the music. For a band that would come to suffocate on its seriousness (or, the seriousness with which Waters regarded his work, and his place in the band served to suck the air—and life—out of the later work), Floyd displayed a subtle sense of humor for a spell. Take the ingenious cover for Atom Heart Mother: at once a non sequitur, it is also disarming; a close-up glamour shot of a cow, with no mention anywhere of the band. This could be regarded as the band taking the piss out of the critics (and themselves) while also announcing that the ‘60s were over not only literally, but figuratively. (A lot more on them HERE.)

Led Zeppelin

Peter Gabriel

Black Sabbath

Styx

The Mars Volta

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Ten Songs That Never Fail

With the emotional baggage associated with things like Mother’s Day and my birthday, it’s nice –and necessary– to step back and fully appreciate my family and friends.

This was my birthday message, via Facebook to that extended network: I’m blessed, to the point of embarrassment, by the number of amazing, generous, inspiring people I’m fortunate to call friends. I love all of you!

And so I do.

But sometimes even that considerable bulwark against negative thoughts is not enough.

Fortunately, for me, I always have music. Let me say that again: I ALWAYS HAVE MUSIC.

(When all else fails (and all else always fails) there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-recall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those interminable hours when you are not even certain what is real or who you are. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.)

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

Here are ten of the best things that have ever happened to me. The sounds never cease to make me smile, and restore me. Naturally I could list many thousands of alternatives (and have done so, on this very blog, over the years). Here are ten special ones that help me help myself.

(Let me know which ones you would pick!)

1. Ornette Coleman, “Congeniality” (more on Coleman HERE):

2. Bob Marley, “Coming In From The Cold” (more on Marley HERE):

3. The Allman Brothers Band, “Jessica” (could have easily gone with “Revival” here, as well):

4. Black Sabbath, “A Hard Road”:

(Here is what I had to say about this song, in 2011: how can anyone be unmoved by the crowded pub singalong of “Hard Road”? This last song, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice, is a tour de force of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code to Sabbath’s last great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past/And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.” More on that album HERE and a lot more on Sabbath HERE and HERE.)

5. Beethoven (Yes, I just went from Black Sabbath to Beethoven; that’s how I roll!), “Les Adieux Sonata, 3rd Movement”:

6. Mozart, “Piano Concerto No. 27, 3rd Movement”:

7. John Coltrane, “Cousin Mary” (A lot more on Coltrane HERE):

8. The Mighty Diamonds, “Pass The Kouchie” (more on the Might Diamonds HERE):

9. The Pretenders, “Stop Your Sobbing” (a lot more on Chrissie Hynde and crew, HERE):

10. Yes, “Awaken”:

(Here is what I had to say in 2011 when I declared this the #11 prog song of all time –the entire list can be found HERE:

1977 was not only about clothespins and green-toothed sneers: just as punk was gaining steam, Yes, the band that represented everything everyone hated about “dinosaur rock”, returned with their best album in ages, Going For The One. “Awaken” is, along with the aforementioned “Dogs” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres”, one of the last (near) side-long epics of the era. It would be difficult to deny that this track features the most compelling (and convincing) work both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman ever did. Many people did—and do—instinctively retch at the idea of Wakeman playing a pipe organ (recorded in a cathedral) and Anderson’s sweet schizophrenia of multi-tracked exultations. Their loss; this is prog-rock as opera, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it. There is something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.)

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12/12/12: 12 Songs for the Apocalypse

It’s not the end of the world, and I feel fine.

But if it was, I would want all these songs to accompany me as we spiraled down the metaphysical drain.

I’d go into battle, or into oblivion, with these soldiers by my side.

Let’s begin, appropriately, at the end, with the boys from Birmingham: if we can’t sustain life here, let’s blast off and “Find another world where freedom waits (yeah)!”

Once the wind begins to howl, as long as I’m riding shotgun with Hendrix, I’m good:

Ian Anderson, of course, called this way back in ’79:

If you’re getting snuffed out anyway, you may as well make sure you say I LOVE YOU to whoever needs to hear it:

If the shit is going down, I’m bringing both barrels, which means I’m blasting The Melvins.

Starless and Bible Black. Any other questions?

And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?

Bauhaus. Because.

Before I sink into the big sleep I want to hear the scream of the butterfly!

Nothing, even the end of the world, can be as deep or dark as the hard time killing floor blues:

If it gets beyond World War III, I know Mikey Dread is waiting patiently on the other side:

All kidding aside, if it’s scorched earth time, let me hide in the peaceful shadow of the Gentle Giant:

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo

Over at Esquire the always reliable Charlie Pierce (some previous blog love for him HERE) opened up a discussion on the best guitar solos.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

I jumped into the fray, genuinely dashing ten suggestions of the top of me head. Wherever necessary I plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.)

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.)

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too,  irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero.  His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, coming soon…)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums (Revisited)

(August, 2010)

Okay.

Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15″ (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better –and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

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Got Mars?

So this is pretty neat, huh?

Look at us Earthlings, getting our Mars on. It’s too bad Ray Bradbury did not live long enough to see this, as he surely would have gotten a kick out of it.

To honor the occasion, and being the kind of person I am, it seems appropriate to consider the musicians who have paid musical tribute to the planet that has played such an inspired role in our literature (and imaginations).

First, props to the great George Russell for “going there” before we ever really went there. (And props to G.R. for being a genius and an American musician of the first order who does not get nearly as much love and attention as he warrants.)

How about the best way to travel? I’ll take the Coltrane. From a piece I wrote a few years back:

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

A lot more on Coltrane, HERE.

And huge props for the huge balls it took Nels Cline (another scarcely well-enough discussed iconoclast) to do an almost painfully –in a good way– faithful interpretation of Trane’s monument to infinity.

How about the man who truly did it first? Can we get some love for Gustav up in this MF?

How freaky, super-scary and intense is that noise? Classical kicks ass, yo!

And look who may have been tapping into that vibe? None other than you-know-who, the band that was originally (and, for the purposes of this discussion, ironically) called Earth.

Certainly wizards, warnings and wickedness abound on their debut, but it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware they might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music. Blah blah blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song—and the band that made it—the better: it speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades has done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience nothing is ever the same.

A lot more about this band, here.

And tying many of the threads together: a band that was inspired by Holst; so much so that they changed the name of their note-by-note “tribute” in order to avoid the pesky payment of royalties. (Something, to his credit, Greg Lake would not duplicate with ELP when he/they gave full credit to both Bartok and Ginastera. Uber-irony, then, that the ever surly and penny-pinching Robert Fripp could so shamelessly steal from the masters.)

This tune, “The Devil’s Triangle”, is ideally named. Here is what I had to say about it back in 2010, on the occasion of it’s 40th anniversary.

Album centerpiece “The Devil’s Triangle (Parts 1-3)” is an unacknowledged riff on Holst’s classical piece “Mars” (from Planets), functioning as a descent even further into the abyss, following the title track that concludes the first album. Clearly this was the one Melody Maker had in mind when they suggested, in 1970, “If Wagner were alive, he’d work with King Crimson.” Nonsense like that makes it a little more understandable why this era was difficult for so many to stomach. Featuring more mellotron than most bands could conceivably cram into a double album, “The Devil’s Triangle” utilizes a drum and bass march, balancing dread and release with wind effects and jarring foghorn cries. Adore it or detest it, most honest listeners would concede that few bands did beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

More on that album, here.

And since we kicked it off with a nod to George Russell thinking about where we might be going, let’s close it out with Sun Ra, who knew where we’d already been.

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Black Magic: 15 Essential Black Sabbath Songs

Yes, they created the template for heavy metal and thrash, but even now it’s instructive to acknowledge just how unique Black Sabbath was; how different from anything else anyone was doing. It’s not just that Sabbath created and defined a whole new type of sound (which in turn splintered off into several sub-genres), it’s that they still make most of what came later so soulless and half-assed by comparison. This is not said to diminish the imitators; it’s meant to emphasize how unbelievably excellent and fresh their work still sounds today. Their first eight albums are not an embarrassment of riches; they are a debacle of riches, a travesty of riches.

And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from their follow-up Paranoid, this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until Ozzy, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From their eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”) to proto-thrash metal (“Hole in the Sky”) to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”), it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony.

You’ve heard “Iron Man” and you’ve heard “Paranoid”, of course. Understanding those are the two most popular, possibly the most important (if not best) songs, what does the newcomer need to know? What should those familiar with the catalog remember to rejoice? From 1970 through 1978 there was little fat and less filler on those eight albums, and it’s difficult to determine the truly representative (much less “the best”) tracks. Yet, as we witness the previously inconceivable and watch the original four members getting together after more than three decades for a reunion, it seems like as good a time as any to dive into the vault and celebrate some essential Black Sabbath.

15. “Wicked World”

Their first album, a live-in-the-studio affair, back when this notion was not throwback so much as necessity, bristles with their blues roots. But in between the soon-to-be-trademark sledgehammer riffs and pitch-black rhythmic foundations (courtesy of the ever-underrated bassist Geezer Butler), Tony Iommi was already steering the ship into deeper, indefinable waters. On a first album full of guitar virtuosity (on the band’s first three efforts it is still arresting to listen and hear history being made; at the time they were simply creating the future of a whole genre of music that the most ambitious musicians are attempting, without success, to tap into four decades later), Iommi gives a short but indelible clinic of dynamics and pace on “Wicked World”. First, the man who could make a five piece drum kit sound like an orchestra, Bill Ward kicks off the proceedings with machine-gun fills while Butler ably keeps pace with his understated flair. Then Iommi introduces one of his immaculate riffs before shifting tempos, stopping on a dime and settling into the groove. Enter Ozzy, who at this point was less a singer than a street preacher, telling the hard truths in unadorned, acerbic accusations: “They can put a man on the moon quite easy/While people here on earth are dying of old diseases.” Then, for the bridge, Iommi descends into territory that could almost be described as jazz-like. The other instruments fade out and it’s only Iommi: a solo that packs a lot of anger, truth and eloquence into a matter of seconds. Then the band comes back in and delivers an outro that is as much commentary as it is a reprise of the intro: the more things change the more they stay the same.

14. “It’s Alright”

Fact: Bill Ward is the great unappreciated drummer of the ‘70s. On every Sabbath session he is nothing less than professional and it’s difficult to imagine how different (and not for the better) any of the songs would sound with a different guy behind the skins. But…as a singer? I may be the only person on the planet who feels it would have been a ballsy and possibly brilliant gambit for Sabbath to continue as a trio—after Ozzy left/got the boot—and have Ward sing instead of recruiting outside services. Evidence? His robust and winning vocals on the last song on Sabbath’s last (Ozzy) album, “Swinging The Chain” is compelling, but his brilliant performance on “It’s Alright” (from Technical Ecstasy) manages the near-impossible: a genuine ballad that rocks and further embarrasses the already lame “Changes” (from Vol. 4) which proved Ozzy could not do ballads, at least in the good old days. This song is necessary, if for no other reason, as Exhibit A for any bozo who insists Black Sabbath was a one-trick pony that was not capable of variety and understatement.

13.” Children of the Grave”

From Master of Reality, which doubled down on the sludge and slowed down the sledgehammer riffs like a dinosaur sinking in a tar pit. For the origins of “doom metal” look no further; this album is the aesthetic equivalent of Nigel Tufnel’s earnest appraisal of Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove: none more black. The effect of this one is intentionally disjointing: it’s heavy and cumbersome, but it also churns along, thanks to Geezer and Ward stoking the fire in the furnace. Lyrically, the song picks up where the better songs on Paranoid left off, with warnings about the inevitability of endless conflict and possible extinction at the hands of the “war pigs”. But instead of wallowing in Orwellian territory, the youth are encouraged to seize control of their own destiny and rebel against a dystopian future that is not necessarily written in stone. The reverb-heavy ending and whispered chant “Children of the Grave” may or may not have been appropriated a decade later as Jason’s signature theme in the Friday the 13th franchise, proving that Sabbath’s influence extended beyond even music.

12. “Cornucopia”

From Vol. 4: it only takes the band four minutes to distill the entire message that much heralded fin de siècle flick The Matrix tried to impart. Bonus, it’s actually enjoyable, and it does not feature Keanu Reeves. But seriously, check out those 20 seconds that begin at the 1:44 mark: the sludgy static of guitars, bass, cymbals and gong smashes simulate the surreal and unsettling frenzy of postmodern life as well as any movie or book; indeed this song anticipates the information overload chaos connecting computers and our minds by about three decades.

11. “A Hard Road”

From the criminally overlooked swan song (with Ozzy as vocalist) Never Say Die!, this is one of several numbers that illustrates the ways the band was branching out and incorporating new sounds and styles. It is still difficult to understand how anyone can be unmoved by this crowded pub sing-along, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice. It is a declaration of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code of Sabbath’s last, great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past/And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.”

10. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”

The title track from the band’s fifth album does not sound like too much of a departure, at first: the muddy riffing and martial beat…same—and great—as it ever was. And then the chorus hits: a sprinkle of acoustic guitars and multi-tracked electric punctuations. Sabbath had already shown they were masters of tempo shifting and inimitable segues, but this is an obvious and arresting step in the band’s ongoing evolution. Although he had already established himself as the preeminent metal singer (and/or screamer), the dramatic clarity and nuance (yes, nuance!) of Ozzy’s vocals signified another weapon in the band’s arsenal. This is the ideal opening statement for an album that found the band incorporating synthesizers (Rick Wakeman from Yes), strings (!) and a generally more ambitious compositional approach that never crosses over into pretension.

9. “Hole in the Sky”

It was on Sabotage that Tony Iommi looked backward and (once again) invented the future. After the successful experimentations of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath it was obvious that the band was ready to once again turn things up to eleven. It would seem improbable for Iommi—or anyone—to expand or improve upon the once-in-a-career sonic assault of Vol. 4 but Sabotage features some of the cleanest, hugest, most immortal riffs in Iommi’s unparalleled repertoire. Take “Hole in the Sky”; now this is how you begin an album! Ward and Butler are in typically fine form, while Ozzy’s vocal range continues to mature: his words are easy to understand—and a joy to listen to. But this is Iommi’s show and he is less interested than ever in taking prisoners. While his obvious perfectionist streak (the one that would eventually drive Ozzy to distraction, facilitating his ouster from the band) is intensifying—much to our delight—above and behind the wall of sonic embellishments is the central guitar track: it cuts through the song like a dark laser, sparks and notes falling like stars crashing into the sea.

8. “Supernaut”

Fueled by booze and Bolivian marching powder (not for nothing was the album almost called “Snowblind” after the track of the same name), there is an aggressively defiant air that permeates every second of Vol. 4. On an album chock-full of indelible riffs, “Supernaut” warrants special mention. Not one to hand out praise lightly, Frank Zappa himself allegedly declared this one of his favorite songs, and it remains one of the ultimate adrenaline rushes in rock. The entire band is locked and loaded, Ward and Butler playing as though the world might end any moment (and who knows, it may have seemed that way in the studio), Ozzy turning in one of his most ferocious vocal turns (the near-mocking boasts he spits out might make this the first, or at least whitest, gangster rap song of all time) and Iommi’s solo is the soundtrack for the coolest action movie never made. It ends with one of the most delicious verses of the decade, a middle finger to fashion and conformity:

Got no religion, don’t need no friends,
Got all I want and I don’t need to pretend.
Don’t try to reach me, ‘cause I’d tear up your mind,
I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind…

7. “Spiral Architect”

To be certain, Sabbath is never going to be for everyone. Still, there are certain tracks, like the already-discussed “It’s Alright”, as well as “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise” and “Air Dance” to put on for the uninitiated listener and give them five guesses to name that band. “Spiral Architect”, the pinnacle—and finale—of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath showcases multi-tracked vocals from Ozzy, acoustic guitars galore and…strings? Simply put, as brilliant (and in some ways innovative) as Sabbath’s blues-drenched debut was, the growth and expansion demonstrated between 1970 and 1978 is as impressive and ambitious as that of just about any other band. “Spiral Architect” is a high water mark at a crucial juncture of Sabbath’s evolution: after they pulled this off, they could—and did—begin to further experiment in the studio (resulting in longer, more complex compositions like “Megalomania” and “The Writ”), and as they incorporated strings and brass into the mix, they eventually made work that even die-hard fans have a hard time getting their heads around (see: Never Say Die!).

6. “Black Sabbath”

This is it: the song that launched the debut, and a billion puny imitators, clinging like insects to the monolith they could never become. It’s hard to argue with the uncomplicated symmetry of this opening statement. Band: Black Sabbath. Album: Black Sabbath. Song: Black Sabbath. And yet…the all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath.

Certainly wizards, warnings and wickedness abound on their debut, but it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware they might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music. Blah blah blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song—and the band that made it—the better: it speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades has done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience nothing is ever the same.

5. “Fairies Wear Boots”

In addition to “merely” defining (and/or refining if you really want to argue that certain bands who played hard and heavy got there first) metal, Sabbath’s second album Paranoid is an inextricable part of rock history: the DNA of this music pulls the best of what came before and pumps life into so much that came after. While it is impossible, if entertaining, to try and pick the ultimate Iommi riff (or even the ten best…) there are a handful of tracks that are so unadulterated they resist explanation. As much a celebration as a song, “Fairies Wear Boots” seldom stays in the same place for too long, dodging and weaving into a weird and wonderful web of its own making. Where some tracks from the first album and (arguably) throughout the band’s career might be a tad too harsh or abrasive for certain ears, it is difficult to imagine any half open-minded listener not getting swept up in the exhilaration of this tour de force.

We have all the crucial elements of a classic track: a young band, hungry and confident, yet still unsure of its future and swinging for the fences. It’s a rock and roll home run in all regards: Bill Ward’s dexterous drumming and Butler’s ever-supple bass stylings, all in blistering pursuit of Iommi’s ubiquitous lead runs. Add to this the Butler’s assertion that the lyrics are allegedly taking the piss out of skinheads (bringing the boot-wearing bullies down a notch or three by calling them “fairies”). The last song on their second and most revered album: this is the moment there was still a tiny air of innocence and adventure. After this the band had little choice but to take on—and conquer—the world; there was nothing left to do.

4. “Symptom of the Universe”

Give this one a whirl and see if it doesn’t make almost everything you hear today and a great deal of the good stuff from back in the day, sound safe, generic and half-ass: behold, the birth of thrash metal. The band would make still make unbelievable music after Sabotage (including, of course the album that supposedly sucks but most definitely does not: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/144890-ten-albums-that-supposedly-suck-but-do-not/P4), but they never sounded quite this deliberate or undaunted again. Any long-haired singer or guitarist from the ‘80s who claims they were not influenced by this song is in denial; anyone today who would like to think they are not walking in its shadow simply don’t realize the bands they do worship have already tried to appropriate this unsurpassable exaltation. Bonus: one of Ozzy’s all-time great vocal performances.

3. “Into The Void”

The Alpha and Omega of the metal riff. Buzz Osborne of The Melvins has made a career out of this sound, proving that you can still find inspiration in a black hole. It never got darker, or bleaker than “Into the Void”, and yet it somehow still gets the blood pumping. It is the beginning of so-called Doom Metal, but there is nothing terribly gloomy or negative about this song. In fact, like much of Sabbath’s material, it’s neither resigned nor nihilistic—despite what the uninformed haters might claim—but instead is a no bullshit call to arms. In an era (then, now) of plugging in and dropping out, Sabbath’s message is like a blast of fresh air, albeit from a smoky furnace, reminding anyone still listening to take whatever control they can and make a better future than the one society already has written. Meanings and messages aside, the riffs throughout this song are so sick, so scintillating, so redemptory that any young person’s musical experience is lacking without them. Older and wiser, the ones who figured it out early return to it often so they might remember what it’s like to be innocent, unsatisfied and yearning for a different reality to master.

2. “War Pigs”

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? Nothing. Listen: the lyrics may be somewhat unsophisticated, but then again we don’t need flowery language or overly refined sentiment to discuss young soldiers being sent to die in pointless wars. Take Dylan’s “Masters of War” (from 1963)? Okay, fine; how about War Pigs? Any questions about where we stand here, circa 1970? In the fields the bodies burning/As the war machine keeps turning. Forty years and more than a few quagmires later, this is still arguably the most prescient and devastatingly succinct lyrical couplet in rock. And the forceful words are matched by the fury of the music: from the air-raid siren to Ozzy’s unrivaled snarl to the rat-a-tat fills from Bill Ward, approximating the figurative cannon fodder of soldiers from so many wars, this is angry music, but there is a method to this madness. Idiots hear the word “Satan” and stupidly associate this song with the facile depiction of this band as devil worshippers. Of course, as the song concludes we get the image of the war pigs, on their knees as Satan licks his chops to welcome them to a world they no longer control. From Ozzy’s lips to God’s ears. Above all other concerns, this is a song that refuses to age softly or lose its edge: it is yet another historic occasion where we are treated to Tony Iommi inventing heavy metal in real time.

1. “Wheels of Confusion”

Not one of Sabbath’s most cherished songs (though it should be); not from their most beloved album (though it could be), why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Ozzy’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns: his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded this accomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment:

So I found that life is just a game
But you know there’s never been a winner;
Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser
The world will still be turning when you’ve gone…

It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!” it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of Black Magic.

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