Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rainbow - Rising (1976)

Rising, released in 1976, was the second album released by the hard rock band Rainbow. While the album is not very well known outside of hard-core fans today, it was an extremely important album for the history and development of the hard rock and heavy metal genres. The album played a key role in launching the careers of certain band members, and even served as one of the primary inspirations for an entire sub-genre of music.

Rising was release approximately one year after Rainbow's debut album. The band was originally billed as "Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow" ostensibly due to the fact that guitarist Ritchie Blackmore (formerly of Deep Purple) was by far the most famous member of the group. Some would argue that Rainbow really began as Ritchie Blackmore's solo project that took on a life of it's own. By the time they released Rising, Blackmore's name was dropped from the title, and the band was officially billed as "Rainbow".

Their 1975 debut was a result of a personal rift between Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Gillan within Deep Purple. Ritchie struck out on his own, and recruited most of the members from the band Elf, who frequently played as Deep Purple's opening act- including Elf's dynamic (and soon to be well known) singer, Ronnie James Dio. After their initial album, Blackmore replaced the entire band, except for Dio with new members who would record their follow-up album, Rising, in 1976.

The Rising linup consisted of Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple) on guitar, Ronnie James Dio (Elf, Ronnie Dio and the Prophets), Cozy Powell (Jeff Beck Group, Bedlam) on drums, Tony Carey on keyboards, and Jimmy Bain on Bass. Blackmore and Dio were the songwriting team- they wrote only six songs for the album, however, two of them, "Stargazer" and "A Light in the Black" were epic-length pieces in excess of eight minutes apiece. "Stargazer" also included orchestral parts provided by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.

Blackmore's guitar style represents a fusion of the blues and classical music. The story goes that his father agreed to buy him his first guitar under the condition that he take classical guitar lessons. An interest in rock music naturally brings in a blues influence- which permeated, and even defined most early rock music. In his tenure with Deep Purple, the blues influence was far more prevalent, however, with Rainbow, Blackmore chose to bring his early classical training more to the forefront.

Ronnie James Dio, now a heavy metal legend, had experience as a doo-wop singer, and later, with Elf, blues based rock. Dio claimed to have never had formal vocal training, and credited his powerful, almost operatic, voice to good breathing technique learned while playing the French Horn as a schoolkid. Similar to Blackmore, his musical background spanned both traditional blues-rock, and more classical influences.

The first side of this album (yes, back in 1976 they were still actual vinyl albums that you had to flip over halfway through!) features four (relatively) shorter songs that are more straightforward hard rock. Two of these tracks "Tarot Woman" and "Run With the Wolf" feature somewhat fantasy-oriented lyrics, while "Starstruck" and "Do You Close Your Eyes" are more traditional hard rock songs with more mainstream lyrics.

The second side is where things really get interesting. The two tracks that make up the second side- "Stargazer" and "A Light in the Black" are really a two-movement epic story that boldly fuses hard rock with classical music, and even incorporates middle eastern style passages in their characteristic harmonic minor key signatures. The overall structure, flow and thematic elements are a blend of equal parts "sword and sorcery" fantasy literature, and progressive rock. This unusual blend of ideas makes Rainbow's early work difficult to classify - in terms of style, they seem to be most easily defined as a hard rock band, but they also bring in elements associated with the early heavy metal movement, and the progressive rock movement.

"Stargazer" and "A Light in the Black" follow a story that seems to be loosely based on the mythical "Flight of Icarus" story combined with ideas taken from biblical "Tower of Babel." In the Dio/Blackmore piece, the story is largely told from the point of view of people enslaved by a "wizard" who has an insane dream of flying to the stars. This "wizard" already built a wing that can allow him to fly, but to reach the stars he will need a very high place to take off from. To do this, he has his slaves build a tower tall enough to reach the stars in the middle of the desert. In the end, the tower is built, and the "wizard" attempts his flight, only to meet dismal failure when he falls to the ground- revealing himself to be not some magical, powerful figure, but simply a regular man with a crazy idea. "Stargazer" also seems to imply that the "slaves" are actually willing participants with the lyric /We built a tower of stone/With our flesh and bone/Just to see him fly/. The song ends with the "slaves" wondering what to do next - implying that the "wizard's" failure leaves them without purpose with the lyric /Now where do we go./

"A Light in the Black" continues the story, and appears to focus on how the "slaves" deal with this sudden loss of purpose- /All my life it seems/Just a crazy dream/Reaching for somebody's star/. The song features a fast tempo, and long keyboard and guitar solos that trade off- and seem to represent this conflicted attitude. In the end, the "slaves" journey back to their homes to pick up where they left their lives off before becoming involved in the "wizard's" mad plan- /Something's calling me back/Like a light in the black/Yes I'm ready to go/I'm coming home, home/.

Rising, more so than any other album, typifies the style that Ronnie James Dio would go on to explore for the rest of his long and storied career. In 1978, creative differences between Blackmore, who wanted to move in a more commercial, mainstream direction, and Dio, who wanted to explore the fantasy themes and heavier music, parted ways. Ritchie Blackmore continued his long career after successfully transforming Rainbow into a commercial, album-oriented-rock act. Dio followed his own path, bringing his fantasy inspired imagery to the heavy metal world, first with Black Sabbath, then with his own, self titled band. He is often considered one of the most dynamic and influential vocalist in heavy metal and hard rock history, and is frequently cited as the inspiration for the "power metal" movement. Tony Carey went on to perform as a highly sought after session musician involved with numerous projects. Bassist Jimmy Bain went on to a long career performing briefly in several bands before reuniting with Dio's own band in the mid 80s. Cozy Powell also enjoyed a long and storied history after leaving Rainbow with bands such as Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, and E.L.P.

Rainbow was a band known for changing members frequently, but the lineup from the Rising album is the most recognizable one from the band's early years. An attempt, lead by Cozy Powell, to reunite the Rising-era lineup of Rainbow for a reunion tour and possible album was made in the late 90s. The attempt was very close to becoming a reality, as all the key players agreed to the project- most importantly Blackmore and Dio set aside their old differences for a trip back to the old days. Unfortunately, the project was canceled in 1998 after Cozy Powell's unfortunate death in a high-speed car accident.

Rainbow left a lasting legacy on the world of hard rock and heavy metal. It introduced the world to a few amazing talents, and explored a wide variety of styles through it's long history. For me, Rising is still the emblematic Rainbow album- representing the band at it's peak, and with the most long-reaching influences. It established the style elements that would characterize the rest of Ronnie James Dio's career for the next 32 years- until his tragic death from stomach cancer in 2010. It was an important stop in Cozy Powell's career, and through him, spread the band's influence far and wide. With Ritchie Blackmore essentially leaving the world of hard rock to pursue a medieval-folk-rock fusion project called "Blackmore's Night," Rainbow is mostly consigned to a fond memory.

Despite the band fading into the past- in 2009 several former Rainbow members spanning the entire history of the band came together to form an all star tribute band under the name "Over the Rainbow" - this project was the brainchild of singer Joe Lynn Turner- who was with the band during their more mainstream phase in the 80s. Turner enlisted the aid of a guitarist little known outside of Europe named Jurgen Blackmore- Ritchie Blackmore's son from a former marriage. With a Blackmore on-board, other former Rainbow members followed suit- including Rising-era keyboardist Tony Carey. Carey later left the band due to health issues- but managed to survive a particularly bad brush with cancer. "Over the Rainbow" has successfully toured in Europe, performing covers from every phase of the band's history, and may or may not decide to produce new material in the future.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Them Crooked Vultures (2009)

How do you define music that, by it's very nature, defies classification? Many bands easily fall into the well-defined categories that record company executives, and marketing people love- this makes it easier for their marketing efforts- does a band track well with 18-24 year old males who eat fast food at least three times a week?

Every now and then, you'll find a band that makes music that completely turns this simple, clean, classification system on it's ear. They don't necessarily defy the system in purposeful ways- they just simply ignore the labels and let the music they create define itself without regard to existing, planned, marketing-friendly boundaries. They just make music, and let others worry about classification. Coincidentally (or not) many of those who ignore the defined boundaries, make some of the most memorable music.

Them Crooked Vultures is one such band. Their self-titled 2009 album draws on a few strong, obvious influences, and a bewildering array of minor, subtle influences, and synthesizes them into something not entirely new- but not entirely a rehash of old ideas either. This fusion of old and new makes them one of the most unique bands of the past two decades, in my opinion at least. When you combine the talents of Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters),and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal), with John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), you should expect to hear a wide range of influences come together.

Many online reviews accuse the band of being derivative- many dismiss them as just another iteration of Queens of the Stone Age. That is an easy accusation to make, as Josh Homme's distinctive vocal style and quirky guitar sounds are the most easily recognizable elements. Personally, I feel those detractors are missing the point- and really only giving the band a casual listen before passing judgment.

Obviously, the album has many elements in common with the Queens of the Stone Age- with Josh Homme providing vocals and guitar work, I would be surprised if they sounded nothing like Queens. Dave Grohl's drumming brings in a grunge-age sensibility. John Paul Jones, who alternates between bass, mandolin, keyboards, and custom made oddball instruments such as the lap steel slide bass (featured on "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I"), you have a strong influence from the height of the classic rock era.

Josh Homme may have the most up-front and obvious to the listener role of the three, but the incredibly talented rhythm section of Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones is the engine that really drives the album. Every track is intensely rhythmic in nature- relying on relentless and quirky rhythms that seamlessly shift time signatures and moods. The structure of the rhythmic elements seems simple at first- driving, repeated licks that, again, are actually fairly complex in clever, tricky ways. The influence of John Paul Jones is very apparent in "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I" - the album's opening track. The first half of the song has more of a blues feel, but switches gears about halfway through into a throbbing, metalcore-like breakdown based on a simple repeated riff. Once the riff is established as the ongoing pattern, something very interesting happens- the riff alternately adds and drops beats to shift it's alignment with the drums in and out of phase. This is very reminiscent of the unforgettable riff that John Paul Jones wrote for the Led Zeppelin classic "Black Dog".

Dave Grohl's influence appears to be strongest in "Mind Eraser, No Chaser" - one of the more straightforward alt-rock songs on the album. The song is structured, and has a feel that would be right at home on a Foo Fighters album- a thought that is reinforced by Grohl's prominent backing vocals in the call-and response section of the chorus.

"New Fang" and "Scumbag Blues" have a strong blues influence and have a sound and meter much like you'd hear on a Cream album. "Scumbag Blues" in particular has Josh Homme singing in a falsetto that sounds similar to Jack Bruce. This "heavy blues" influence rears it's head often throughout the album both in the rhythm/style, and in the guitar sound. Josh's guitar sounds often have hints of early, blues oriented classic rock- the heavy detuned crunch of Tony Iommi's early work with Black Sabbath, shades of Jimmy Page's odd combination of blues, folk, and rock, and a spectrum of effects found in post-punk bands. He ties these sound influences together into a raw and edgy mix that has a distinctive garage-band quality to it.

Several songs throw out the typical "A-A-B-A" or "verse-chorus-bridge" pattern that most songs follow, and adopt more free-form, complex song structures that most people typically associate with progressive rock. The longer songs "Warsaw or the First Breath You Take Before You Give Up," and "Spinning in Daffodils" are probably the best examples of this.

"Interlude With Ludes" is an oddity- it breaks the rules of what we expect to hear from Them Crooked Vultures about halfway through the album. It is an atmospheric piece that was the result of Josh Homme and John Paul Jones experimenting with odd sounds behind Dave Grohl's back. The track has some similarities to Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" in terms of mood and feel. It also brings to mind similar experiments by the Stone Temple Pilots.

"Reptiles" is the song that sounds the most outwardly like a Led Zeppelin song. It's based on a driving repeated riff that has some similarities to snippets of the intro to "The Song Remains the Same" or "The Immigrant Song." The similarities to Led Zeppelin that appear in spots throughout the album are almost inevitable when you have Led Zeppelin's bass player on-board. Them Crooked Vultures is considered by many to be a "supergroup" grown out of people mainly associated with the Queens of the Stone Age. Coincidentally, Led Zeppelin was briefly considered to be a "supergroup" grown out of former members of the Yardbirds when they first came together.

Josh Homme exhibits a wide rang of vocal styles. His voice typically brings to mind bands from the post-punk and post-grunge movements, and is one of the things that causes so many comparisons to Queens of the Stone Age. He does bring in many ideas taken from classic rock as well- his falsetto sounds stylistically similar to Jack Bruce from Cream. There are also many moments on the album where he uses a style, sound, and cadence that reminds me strongly of David Bowie. At times he adopts a more lazy, almost drunken cadence that also reminds me strongly of Jim Morrison- especially during parts of the song "Elephants."

The band records as a trio, but it takes four people to turn them into a live act. It would be virtually impossible for Josh Homme to play all the layered lead and rhythm guitar parts and sing at the same time, and it would be impossible to have someone cover the bass parts when John Paul Jones switches to mandolin, keyboards, or whatever crazy invention he needs to play- and there are dozens of keyboard fills, backing vocals, and overdubbed guitar parts that three people simply cannot cover live without resorting to sequencers or taped segments. That's where Alain Johannes comes in- he's the "Fourth Vulture" - he largely goes uncredited aside from his contribution as part of the band's production team. He does, however, play a key role in making the band a viable live act- switching instruments and roles frequently, even mid-song- he's the lynch-pin that allows the other three to be a live act who can capture all the layered part in the recording on the stage without sacrificing the energy and spontaneity that drives their live act.

To answer those that accuse Them Crooked Vultures of being just another derivation of Queens of the Stone Age, or accuse them of being completely derivative- I think they are discounting the full range of influences the trio brings together, and the skill with with they merge all the different styles and elements together. That, I feel, is the very thing that makes them one of the most interesting bands in recent history- the mixture of the innovative with the familiar. Some would argue that there is no true originality, that all "new" ideas are really old ideas combined together in new ways. Even if that is the case, this band has clearly mastered the art of combining a wealth of influences and ideas into something new. I, for one, can't wait to hear what they put together on their next album.

Track List:
No One Loves Me & Neither Do I
Mind Eraser, No Chaser
New Fang
Dead End Friends
Scumbag Blues
Interlude with Ludes
Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up
Spinning in Daffodils