30 Years Ago Tonight

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Seriously, it wasn’t until we actually got into the Philadelphia Spectrum and passed a merch booth – eyeballing Robert Smith’s pouting, powdered face glowing from an enormous black t-shirt that I realized I was attending my first rock show. Mind you, this was after we parked in one of the vast, darkened lots and passed endless groups of sullen young adults tailgating on our way in. This was even after we had handed over our tickets at entry. I was still flummoxed as to why we were going to a sporting event for my birthday. Ice hockey was pretty cool, but not cool enough to go to on a school night.    

30 years ago tonight, my mom surprised me with a birthday gift I’ll never forget: she took my sister and me to see The Cure, my favorite band at the time, perform live. It was the tail-end of the Prayer Tour, the band supporting the now-classic and personal-favorite, Disintegration. You won’t find September 21 on the back of the tour t-shirt – only the first Philly date, August 23 is listed – but I have the ticket stub to prove it happened. The date appeared to be tacked on towards the tour’s end, presumably “by popular demand”.

Everything about the show blew my soon-to-be-12-year-old mind: they played Disintegration in its entirety (though not in running order), they played scores of old favorites, it was loud, there was a stage set-up and lights, and the kids in the crowd wore such cool clothes. I discovered a newfound appreciation for deep cuts that still, to this day, remind me of that night: “Last Dance”, “Prayers for Rain”, and “The Same Deep Water as You” among them. The epic, reverberating bassline of “Closedown” was a highlight that’s still etched into my brain. Another favorite was a 20-minute version of “A Forest” that ebbed and flowed on Smith’s endless guitar solo, morphing from blistering noise to delicate strumming for, like, 15 whole minutes (see a shorter version from 1992 here).

According to setlist.fm, the band played “The Perfect Girl”, a rather poppy deep cut from the Kiss Me album. I don’t remember that at all. I also recall that they played “Kyoto Song”, but it’s not listed as such. I’m probably wrong on both counts. Funny how some memories can be clear as day and other details just drift away.

Love and Rockets opened the tour, but not on this night. A few dates even included third act Pixies as additional support – deep in their Doolittle prime (all three bands toured the States at that time, joining up for major outdoor shows at venues like Giants Stadium in New Jersey). No matter, I was just happy to be there.

Mom let us sleep in the next day and play hooky from school. She even took us to Repo Records, our favorite record store – then still in Wayne, by the R5 station – so we could load up on even more Cure records. She was now all-in.

My concert-going career could’ve started and ended that night. It was that good.

If you’re at all as nostalgic as I am, you can relive the magic here. Happy Birthday to me!

Summer Tunes: Ride, “Charm Assault”

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Ride: Then and Now

It’s summer. Time to switch over to some indie, dream pop, shoegaze and/or britpop. Time for some sun, fun, road trips and popsicle sticks (and/or other summertime clichés). Seriously, though, we’re ready for some easy, breezy tunes. Right now I’m thinking Ride – specifically the tune “Charm Assault” – from their 2017 comeback album, Weather Diaries. The whole record is fantastic – and true to their 1990s form – but for me, right now, this tune is all I need. It’s cathartic, atmospheric retro pop. Supposedly, the lyrics have something to do with Brexit, but I hardly ever pay attention to the words. Well, sometimes. Occasionally. Elizabeth does, but I tend to focus more on melody and mood and less on message. But we can discuss that later.

So while we wait for their upcoming LP, This Is Not a Safe Place, fire up “Charm Assault”, the sunny and melancholy “Cali” or the cooler, overcast “Lannoy Point” to brighten your summer day.

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Things We Like: Lead Into Gold, “The Sun Behind the Sun”

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In late 2015, Lead Into Gold appeared for a one-off performance at Cold Waves in Chicago, arriving some 25 years after the last known chapter of this much-loved yet seldom-seen project had been sent out into the world. Lead Into Gold – the solo project of Paul Barker – was active for roughly three years around 1988, quietly delivering a string of releases while Ministry – his main project at the time – was hitting its creative peak. 

This was the heyday of Chicago Industrial, a moment when Wax Trax! Records unwittingly manufactured a scene by unleashing instant classics from Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Front Line Assembly and KMFDM. Yet the perceived figureheads of the scene were Ministry main-man Al Jourgensen and co-conspirator Barker, partners whose creative output at the time was mind bogglingly vast and consistently good.

While Ministry was delivering pivotal albums over on a major label – genre-defining bombshells like The Land of Rape and Honey and Psalm 69 – the duo was delivering a nonstop barrage of singles, EPs and full-length LPs user guises like Pailhead, Lard and Revolting Cocks. One after another after another the hits just kept coming. And then even more by Acid Horse, PTP, and 1000 Homo DJs. Mostly released on Wax Trax! and mostly collaborations with like-minded – and now-legendary – scene figures like Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, Ogre, Trent Reznor, Richard 23, Luc Van Acker and Cabaret Voltaire. Seemingly every season a new release was dispatched to ravage the dancefloor.     

Yet lost in the maelstrom of pummeling bpms and dancefloor destruction was Lead Into Gold. Here, Barker carved out a place all to himself, one free of the chaos of collaboration; a place where a more introspective and even-tempered voice could emerge. Barker seemed interested in the slow burn; delivering a languid, cinematic take on music. Deeper lyrical themes emerged, supported by an unusual set of samples that seemed to favor ancient films and brass. “Faster Than Light” even became a minor hit.

So here it was, late 2015 with one brief performance of some cult favorites by a scene legend. Beyond the fun of a one-night nostalgia trip, what was the point? Did it still matter? The songs still seemed to have legs. The ones chosen for that night, at least. So what to make of it? Was there a future? Did there need to be?

In 2017, a new two-song 12” arrived. And in 2018 we were rewarded with a proper full-length album of all-new material, The Sun Behind the Sun. 

Judging by the results on these two releases, we would have to say emphatically say, “Yes. Yes, there needs to be.”

Sometimes the scene needs to be shaken up and who better to do the shaking than a scene veteran with just enough distance to offer some much-needed perspective. Songwriting chops, superb musicianship and years of production expertise don’t hurt either. It’s worth noting that Barker’s bass was a crucial component to so many Ministry et. al. classics. His parts on “So What”, “Golden Dawn” and Pailhead’s “Anthem” – a few personal favorites – held things down with a dark, menacing groove worthy of that press-concocted cliché: “industrial disco”.

But we digress.

The Sun Behind the Sun manages to do the impossible. It defies the comeback album trap by simultaneously recapturing the essence of a classic sound while bringing new ideas to the table. No easy feat. So often the comeback album panders to only one of these two traits – sounding exactly like the old stuff or nothing like the old stuff – with a result that reeks of desperation and basically bums everyone out. But The Sun Behind the Sun balances both old and new perfectly.

Barker hits all the familiar sweet spots: the tension; the creeping pace; the samples and brass; the warbling, wheezing, weirdo vocals. But rather than just replay the highlight reel, he digs deep to mine new sounds and improve on the production – which on those late 20th century releases tended to sound a little claustrophobic.

It’s familiar yet refreshing. It welcomes us in, makes us feel at home but still nudges us off our seats and out of our comfort zone. 

Here are a few of our favorite moments:

“To the Throat”
Ominous. Throbbing. Heavy. Dense. There’s so much going on that the song gets perilously close to buckling under the weight of its own creation. It averts disaster by mustering just enough momentum to push itself up and out, clawing it’s way forward on a bed of throbbing electronics and the purposeful drumming of fellow Blackouts/Ministry alum Bill Rieflin (check out his drumming on the aforementioned “Anthem”). It’s a treat to hear Rieflin join Barker on this epic track. An apt soundtrack to Sisyphus rolling that boulder up that hill.

“X0000”
This is the sound of a machine destroying itself. The song disintegrates into a crumble of musique concrète tinkering and white space, only to gather just enough oxygen to reignite the ember and press on with a tiny, smoldering glimmer of light.

“We’ll Take Tomorrow” 
The album’s would-be hit single. Here’s Barker rallying the troops and storming the gates.

“Sweet Caress”
Those drums! 

“The Sun Behind the Sun”
All the best elements of the previous seven tracks converge in a fitting conclusion: drama, grit, dread, catharsis and hope all set to a stunning soundtrack built from the classic Lead Into Gold sounds: complex percussion, steady bass and bizarre sampling. It’s a seemingly impenetrable wall of stormy gray that suddenly breaks to reveal a bright, glimmering sunset. A fitting end to thoroughly exhausting journey.

So, sure, The Sun Behind the Sun is a tough slog and we’re totally spent. But, yeah, it was totally worth it. And worth the wait.

Things We Like: Drab Majesty, “The Demonstration”

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Dreamy and introspective. That’s the easy answer. Some might say “dark”. Perhaps a bit. But that’s an overly simplistic and, frankly, cynical take. It could be said Drab Majesty conjures up a 4AD aura about things with hints of vintage Clan of Xymox or Cocteau Twins in both sound and style. Really, though, there are many influences – dream pop, shoegaze and classic goth among them – that tease their way into the songs. But Deb DeMure, the androgynous alter-ego of L.A.-based musician Andrew Clinco, comes calling with more than just a checklist of references.

On their second proper album, The Demonstration, Drab Majesty transcends the confines of strict style and the niche tastes of a precious few and push out into the realm of 80’s new wave and pop. The songs are catchy and irresistible and satisfyingly accessible while managing to still shimmer and haunt and hover in the corner – a perfect mix of light and dark that invites obsessive listening. Many of these songs wouldn’t seem out of place on mainstream radio of the era. The grand, euphoric “Cold Souls” comes to mind as does “39 By Design”, their languid meditation on the Heaven’s Gate cult – both tracks aptly released in advance of the album like incantations masking as pop singles.

And while there’s a lot to love about The Demonstration, DeMure’s guitar playing could be the true star. Her chiming guitar lines are captivating as they meander around and hang in the air. They lure you in, slow things down and let the white space between notes wrap you in a woozy, warm embrace. “Not Just a Name” and “Forget Tomorrow” conjure up this atmosphere perfectly, the latter playing up the 80’s-era drum machines to near-absurd levels of intensity.

But grandiose gestures are what Drab Majesty is all about. Their image and influences spill out super-saturated, dime-store drama in a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and references. They present an exquisite corpse tangled with so many conflicting cultural touch points – religious pageantry, the occult, KISS Army, Warhol wigs, science fiction, Geisha girl, Members Only – that it’s hard not to fall under their spell (or perhaps surrender to the sheer weight of their presentation) and just follow along. But it all works. Style and sound are a perfect match – light and dark, sweet and sour, high and low – that keeps you off balance and craving more.

After letting this one brood on the turntable for the better part of a month (on glorious marbled blue vinyl and on constant repeat), The Demonstration presents a complete, confident and fully realized vision. Also, the album’s production – care of Telaphon Tel Aviv’s Joshua Eustis – is cleaner and less claustrophobic than its predecessor, Careless (itself a clear statement of purpose with its fair share of great songs).

But The Demonstration is the complete package. It’s that same complex and compelling vision but pushed through with focus and clarity, delivering great songs with production to match.

Things We Like: “Wait in the Car”

Colors! Layers! Bricks!

The Breeders are back with a new 7″ single and a super-saturated new video by former Vaughn Oliver associate Chris Bigg. Oliver and Bigg are, of course, praised for their cover art and design expertise on so many 4AD projects including every single Pixies release. This video is right up there with the best of them.

You’re going to need to watch this one full-screen.

SUMMER TUNES: Ocean Blue, “Between Something and Nothing”

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Picture, if you will, a bunch of college kids rolling down a rural road in a beat-up set of wheels, windows down, tunes blaring, bright blue skies and not a care in the world. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s a pretty exasperatingly tired indie-rock cliche. Yet this song from Hershey, Pennsylvania’s dream-pop poster boys seems worthy of the picture.

Sort of. Just replace the farms with colorful flower gardens and the late-summer heat with a refreshing late-spring breeze and you’re just about there. That, and they’re probably a little better dressed than those other kids.

Here, big, bright, shimmering atmospherics and sweet, somewhat straightforward (but no less sublime) imagery collide, expand out, and go on for miles. It’s the perfect soundtrack for catching the rays as you cruise to the beach to catch some waves.

Further Listening: “Drifting, Falling”, “Give it a Try”