April 2: Blue Cheer, Kiss, Metallica, Motorhead, Rush, Van Halen, Venom

After last week’s folk outings, this week will be another look at some of the metal and hard rock on the list. Our previous visit to these quarters brought in such unlikely characters as Napalm Death and Slayer. What’s in store this week?

Blue Cheer, ‘Vincebus Eruptum’

Blue Cheer were a psychedelic proto-metal band from the 60s who fused thunderous bass and drums with loads of distortion and wild guitar soloing. The album starts with their annihilation of ‘Summertime Blues’, the old Eddie Cochrane song, before taking the same approach to their own material. Guitarist Leigh Stephens’ solos are collisions of noise, blues scales and pick-up switch hammering. It’s all pretty great. Sadly their follow-up ‘Outsideinside’ is neither on the list nor on Spotify.

Kiss, ‘Destroyer’

The second album on the list with this title (Judas Priest used it four years later). I listened to ‘Greatest Kiss’ as a teenager but never explored any of their albums; Last.fm users seem to listen to Kiss kompilations a lot more than any of the actual records, too. Here, Bob Ezrin has the thankless task of getting the band – to his dismay, all untrained musicians – into chartbusting shape. He uses his normal tricks: children yelling (see ‘Berlin‘), orchestras (see ‘The Wall’), and whatever he does to justify writing credits on almost every song. He adds some colour, from the boys’ choir on ‘Great Expectations’ to the tubular bells on ‘Do You Love Me’ to the tyres squealing on ‘Detroit Rock City’ but, well, it’s not that good. The band are responsible, with pedestrian lyrics, hooks and performances making the album feel flat.

Metallica, ‘…And Justice For All’

After breaking through with ‘Master of Puppets’, Metallica were forced to regroup when bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus crash. With Jason Newsted replacing him, the band returned to the studio and came up with this. While I’ve enjoyed several Metallica albums, this one contains a lot of my usual reservations about the band – the albums are too long, the songs drag on – and add some wrinkles unique to this album, such as inaudible bass, weird, awkward transitions between parts and lots of riffs without many hooks. ‘One’ is an acknowledged classic but otherwise this isn’t desperately exciting.

Motörhead, ‘Ace of Spades’

Of course, everyone loves the title track, which opens the album: it is the song on which Motörhead’s legacy rests, and rightly so. The rest of their output, however, is less well-known. You probably know how this album sounds without having to listen to it: fast thrash with Lemmy’s uniquely hoarse voice over the top. This didn’t do a whole lot for me, alas. It’s a shame because ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, Philthy Animal Taylor and Lemmy looked so badass on the cover that I wanted to like it.

Rush, ‘Moving Pictures’

I enjoyed ‘2112‘, Rush’s other entry in the list, and this one follows a similar template: synthy, progressive hard rock with Geddy Lee’s helium vocals over the top (what’s the deal with Geddy Lee, how’d he get his voice so high?). It’s not quite as good as the highlights of ‘2112’: the opener cuts to the solos almost straight away, ‘YYZ’ is a dull, fussy instrumental and the closer is unremarkable. There is some pretty good stuff here though: ‘Red Barchetta’ is a standard on US rock radio and is there on merit, while ‘The Camera Eye’ held my attention despite its 11-minute running time.

Van Halen, ‘Van Halen’

The opening four tracks on this album are surprisingly excellent, with a ridiculous cover of ‘You Really Got Me’, an instrumental called ‘Eruption’ and two great riff-heavy tracks. Then the fifth has a barbershop quartet! It sags in the middle with a couple of drab 80s Sabbath takes, but finishes strongly with two more metal thrashes and an absurd acoustic blues cover. I guess this threw me as I wasn’t expecting it to be so much fun, or for Eddie’s oft-copied guitar virtuosity to still sound so good. It doesn’t outstay its welcome either: it lasts just 35 minutes. I liked this.

Venom, ‘Black Metal’

Despite its name, this is most musically compatible with thrash, but the lyrical focus on being buried alive, Elizabeth Bathory and so on is also a staple of tr00 kvlt black metulz. ‘Black Metal’ sounds pretty corny now: the shock darkside lyrics are dated, the sound has aged badly and there’s a “get your tits out for the lads” interlude on ‘Teacher’s Pet’. I guess it must have seemed a big deal at the time. It ends with a preview of their next album, ‘At War With Satan’, but fans were kept waiting two years for that.

Next week: when someone leaves a highly-regarded band, what happens next? We’ll explore some follow-on projects.

Status update: 464 albums listened to (46%), 537 to go.

November 20: Leonard Cohen, Cowboy Junkies, kd lang, Joni Mitchell, Rush, Rufus Wainwright, Neil Young

This week, I’ll be looking at some of the Canadian albums on the list. There aren’t an awful lot of Canadian artists on the 1001, but those that are represented generally have multiple albums, almost as if the quality is concentrated in a small group.

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs From a Room’

The second Cohen album, and the second of his on the list, sees his backing stripped back to predominantly acoustic guitar and, of all things, jew’s harp. There are no hits, or at least no songs I’d heard of before, but highlights include ‘The Butcher’, a Lou Reed-ish tale of a butcher father and a heroin experiment, and ‘Story of Isaac’. The album abruptly ends ever 35 minutes: always leave them wanting more eh Len? Incredible, listening to this minimalist record, to think that he would later make synthpop records and work with Phil Spector, but Cohen was an artist who did what he wanted.

Cowboy Junkies, ‘The Trinity Session’

The second album (and only appearance on the list) for a band whose debut had the fantastic name ‘Whites Off Earth Now!!’. The album was mostly recorded in one day around a single microphone in a church, which results in the sort of wintry reverb you hear on Low or Fleet Foxes albums, albeit without the multi-layered harmonies of those acts. The music is minimalist country, blues and folk, with the most distinctive features being Margot Timmins’ vocals and her brother Michael’s guitar. I prefer the tremelous country to the blues. This is a record suited for 2am.

k.d. lang, ‘Shadowland’

The nicotine and caffeine aficionado and capital letter eschewing lang is best known for ‘Constant Craving’, an adult-rock staple from the album ‘Ingenue’ (which also features on the list). There are no original compositions on this, her solo debut, however, which combines crooning country, smoky blues and Orbison-ish pop. The album is kind of like a 60s Patsy Cline album recorded on modern technology (Patsy Cline’s producer is even onboard). Lang’s voice is fine, as is the playing, but the album never veers into particularly interesting territory.

Joni Mitchell, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’

Joni alienated a lot of her listeners with this abrupt shift into jazz-based territory and it’d certainly be fair to say that the album is not what they – or I – were expecting from a Joni Mitchell record. The peak weirdness is as early as the second track, ‘The Jungle Line’: based around a sample of Burundi drummers and a Moog bassline, it sounds like a prototype of Bjork or Portishead. ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ is an orchestral song that avoids Carpenters-style gloop by its rambling digressions and oddity, the title track obliquely covers life as a trophy wife and, while some of this fades into the background, it has touches that force it back into your attention (the splanky piano in ‘Harry’s House Centerpiece’. The last track is arranged for gospel choir and ARP synth. Who knows what made Mitchell decide an album should sound like this but bless her for doing so: it’s excellent.

Rush, ‘2112’

This is the first time I’ve knowingly heard Rush and it seems that they’re a helium-voiced rock band doing a space opera: hey, I didn’t know Coheed and Cambria were on the list! Rush appear to be straddling the fence between super-serious prog of the Floyd type and stadium hard rock of the AC/DC and Kiss variety. Surprisingly, it works pretty well on the 20-minute title track (sadly it does not last 21:12, surely an oversight), as the rawk elements steer it away from po-faced pretension despite the preposterous Ayn Rand-influenced concept about finding a mystical banned instrument called the “guitar”. The second side’s non-concept tracks fare less well: a corny lyric about ‘The Twilight Zone’; an attempt to emulate ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’ called ‘Tears’. Worth it for the title track mind.

Rufus Wainwright, ‘Want One’.

The last time we’ll visit Rufus (we looked at ‘Want Two‘ just a month ago), this is the first part of the ‘Want’ double-header. As with its Siamese twin, ‘Want One’ has eclectic instrumentation, celeb mates including his mum and a kind of arch feyness, voluptuously top-heavy by front-loading its best tracks with okay/bland stuff towards the end. Rufus’s lyrics are prominent – not always a good thing in the case of ‘Vibrate’ or ’11:11′ – and when he croons “I just want to be my dad with a slight sprinkling of my mother”, you can’t help but wonder what he means given Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle never did louche theatrical quirk-pop like this. It’s okay but perhaps a few songs too long and there’s nothing fabulously captivating here.

Neil Young, ‘Tonight’s The Night’.

Recorded in the wake of the heroin overdose deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ sounds like a group of shitfaced people shellshocked, but too wasted to realise how the deaths might be a wake-up call to them. The recording process probably contributes: the band got wasted before they started recording, and most of the tracks were recorded in one take in one session. It takes a while to get going; ‘Borrowed Tune’ is the point where it feels like it’s taken flight. One song, recorded years earlier, features Whitten: it is called ‘Come on Baby, Let’s Go Downtown’. Unfortunately for everyone, we know what happened when they did go downtown (and Young himself foreshadowed it on ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’).

Next week I’ll be looking at some, but not all, of the 17 country albums on the list.

Progress report: 345 of 1001 listened to (34%), 656 remain.