The Best Albums of 2019

The fact that more than half of these selections are from female artists isn’t significant for any other reason than the fact that they’re brilliant records. I’m not interested in quotas or pity votes. The women on this list are here, because they deserve to be.

Enjoy.

Tool

Tool – “Fear Inoculum”


They made us wait 13 years, but we should all be grateful that we’re alive at a time when Tool is still making new music.

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Brittany Howard – “Jaime”

Her solo debut is as fearless and impassioned as anything I’ve heard this decade, let alone this year.

Highwomen

The Highwomen – “The Highwomen”

Country as it was meant to be sung, played, and written, as opposed to the pablum that has dominated the airwaves this decade.

Western

Bruce Springsteen – “Western Stars”

The Boss harnesses the intimacy he found on Broadway and directs it toward a mythical exploration of the American West.

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Miranda Lambert – “Wildcard”

The finest release of her career thus far and further proof that Blake Shelton was only dragging her down.

Del Rey

Lana Del Rey – “Norman Fucking Rockwell”

A lot has been said about the level of authenticity (or lack thereof) that Del Rey brings to her work, but, when the work is this good, does it really matter?

Eilish

Billie Eilish – “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go”

Her lyrical obsession with death rivals Lydia Deetz and the simplicity of the production is something too often missing from modern pop music.

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Lizzo – “Cuz I Love You”

A vibrant, millennial update of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 staple “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.”

Glorious Sons

The Glorious Sons – “A War on Everything”

I wrote at-length about this record earlier in the fall and its disheveled rock aesthetic still resonates.

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The Who – “WHO”

I might be the only writer in America to put this on a year-end list, but that’s just fine with me. It was a late addition and a reminder that the bloody Who can still make a bloody good album.

 

 

 

The Best and Worst Films of 2019

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2019 will be remembered as the year in which Martin Scorsese told fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to go home and get their fucking shinebox. Fair or not, that’s how his comments were perceived and that perception is why I’ve lost even more respect for a Twitter hive that reacted without really digging into the marrow of what he said. We’re living in an era where 50 Million people can’t wait to bury the next person who dares to diverge from the new groupthink, so an unintended consequence of the Information/Oversharing Age appears to be that we’re all better off keeping our opinions to ourselves.

Whether or not comic book movies are cinema is a debate that can rage on all day and all night, but Scorsese’s point about studios churning out low-risk product with an emphasis on profit over individual artistry is something that can’t be denied. They want cash and they want it now.

For example, let’s say that an executive is presented with two scripts. One is the tale of a marginalized Vietnam veteran whose disgust with society ultimately ends in a bloody mess and the other is “Iron Man 4.” Which project is more likely to get the green light in the modern marketplace?

The latter, of course, because we’re talking about a proven commodity with a fanbase that will keep coming back regardless of how saturated the market becomes. What started out as a fresh, unexpected turn for Robert Downey, Jr. back in 2008 has defined the last decade of films he’s made, because, when Disney is making the schedule, the opportunity to veer into a “Zodiac” or a “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” along the way becomes a near-impossibility.

I’m not saying that these films can’t be entertaining or that the people who love them are abnormal. I just don’t find my life as changed by The Avengers battling Ultron as it was when I saw that bravura extended tracking shot of Henry Hill and Karen Friedman entering the Copacabana in “GoodFellas” for the first time.

Call me old-school, but that sequence IS what cinema is all about.

That said, what follows is a list of the best and worst films I experienced in 2019. You’ll probably disagree with one or all of them, but that’s your right. I just hope that I can incite a more intelligent, well-rounded discussion moving forward.

1. “Parasite” – Bong Joon-Ho slices through the upstairs-downstairs class structure of South Korea with surgical precision.

2. “Marriage Story” – Not since “Kramer vs. Kramer” has the dissolution of an onscreen relationship landed such an emotional haymaker. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson leave it all on the table.

3. “Pain and Glory” –  Pedro Almodovar’s tale of a director reflecting back on his legacy while in the midst of a physical decline lays the groundwork for the finest performance of Antonio Banderas’s career.

4. “The Irishman” – Those looking for another “GoodFellas” or “Casino” may be disappointed in Martin Scorsese’s late-career masterpiece, because that’s just not what he was going for here. Frank Sheeran lived long enough to contemplate both the emptiness of the organized crime lifestyle and how his allegiance to it alienated him from the family he kept in the dark.

5. “Amazing Grace” – Magic was made when Aretha Franklin stepped into LA’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972 and thankfully Warner Bros. kept the footage around long enough for us to see it.

6. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Tarantino may have done the best work of his career with this poignant ode to the old school, but I’ll have to see it a few more times before making that call.

7. “Us” –  Jordan Peele dives deeper into the well of socio-political horror and Lupita Nyong’o delivers one of the performances of the year.

8. “Dolemite is My Name” – Eddie Murphy hasn’t been this invested in a live action film in years, which means that he gets to remind the world of his genius again.

9. “Knives Out” – Oh, what a tangled web Rian Johnson weaves in this masterful mystery about an eccentric writer and the family that may have killed him.

10. “Blinded By the Light” – The universality of Bruce Springsteen’s music comes alive in this true story about a disaffected Indian teenager and his father struggling to understand each other.

Honorable Mentions – “Joker,” “Ad Astra,” “Hustlers,” “Booksmart,” “Rocketman,” “Atlantics,” and “Jojo Rabbit”

The Worst – “Yesterday,” “The Dirt,” and “3 From Hell”

 

 

 

 

The Best WNY Concerts of the Decade

A lot has changed in 10 years.

In 2010, I had a bachelor’s degree, an uncertain career path, aspirations to become a music journalist at a national publication, and zero relationship prospects of any kind.

As 2020 approaches, I have a master’s degree, a great job, a reputation among readers and industry professionals as a serious writer, and a wife and son whose collective impact on everything I do can’t be overstated.

Yes, things changed for me, but they changed for the outside world, as well.

What should be a conscientious, über-literate society that uses social media as a catalyst for good is actually a vitriolic cesspool that allows the uninformed to spew digital dysentery on Twitter without consequence. What should be a culture predicated on intellectual disagreement is actually a breeding ground for ad hominem attacks that contribute absolutely nothing to the elevation of public discourse.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t ruin us. He simply provided an avenue for us to ruin ourselves, and, if we don’t stop and smell the avocado toast, the damage could be irreparable.

That said, I’m going to do my part by continuing to bring depth to the work and not shaming people for having an opinion that isn’t in sync with the hive. We all like different things and respectfully debating the merits of what we love with others is what makes being a consumer of pop culture so much fun in the first place.

What follows is a list of the finest local shows that I experienced during the past decade, and, while there was a point early on where I attended three shows a week, keep in mind that I couldn’t see everything.

Public Enemy – Aug. 11, 2010 at Town Ballroom 

The Black Keys – Sept. 2, 2010 at Town Ballroom

Megadeth, Testament, and Exodus – March 13, 2010 at Town Ballroom

Pearl Jam and Band of Horses – May 10, 2010 at HSBC Arena 

Stone Temple Pilots – May 7, 2011 at Main Street Armory 

Sully Erna – June 14, 2011 at The Riviera Theatre

The Tragically Hip and Arkells – July 30, 2011 at Canalside

Ice Cube – March 11, 2011 at Town Ballroom

Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman – Oct. 26, 2011 at Kleinhans Music Hall 

Marcus Miller – June 7, 2013 at The Bear’s Den

Steven Wilson – April 21, 2013 at Town Ballroom

Jewel – March 16, 2013 at Seneca Niagara Events Center

Puscifer – June 20, 2012 at The Riviera Theatre

Joan Osborne – June 1, 2012 at The Bear’s Den

Bad Company – July 16, 2013 at Artpark

The Flaming Lips – July 17, 2013 at Artpark

Aretha Franklin – March 2, 2013 at Seneca Niagara Events Center

Our Lady Peace – April 6, 2012 at Club Infinity

Goo Goo Dolls – April 29, 2014 at North Park Theatre

Justin Hayward – May 15, 2014 at The Bear’s Den

Jackson Browne – Aug. 11, 2014 at Artpark 

My Morning Jacket – July 22, 2015 at Artpark

Pixies – May 19, 2015 at The Rapids Theatre

U2 and Beck – Sept. 5, 2017 at New Era Field

Dave Davies – Nov. 16, 2013 at The Bear’s Den

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Feb. 25, 2016 at First Niagara Center

Lindsey Buckingham and J.S. Ondara – Nov. 27, 2018 at The Riviera Theatre

Smashing Pumpkins, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, and AFI – Aug. 10, 2019 at Darien Lake Amphitheatre

Ted Nugent – Aug. 16, 2011 at Artpark 

The Who – May 9, 2019 at KeyBank Center

Scott Stapp – June 27, 2014 at The Bear’s Den

Deep Purple, Judas Priest, and The Temperance Movement – Sept. 5, 2018 at Darien Lake Amphitheatre

The Tea Party  – July 22, 2011 at  Ulrich City Centre

Johnny Marr – Oct. 20, 2018 at Town Ballroom

Anthrax, Testament, and Death Angel – Nov. 15, 2011 at Town Ballroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amy Helm set to soothe your holiday blues at The Tralf

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Despite efforts from the industry at-large to eviscerate the sacred art of making records, there’s still plenty of great music out in the wild. You may have to stop Instagramming your breakfast long enough to find it, but it’s there and it’s spectacular.

Amy Helm’s 2018 release, “This Too Shall Light,” is one such example, a vibrant, spacious sermon from an artist whose lineage is deeply rooted in a swell of American musical traditions. In other words, she draws inspiration from genres that the mainstream no longer deems worthy of attention, which allows her the freedom to release the kind of material worth investing in. Just as life finds a way in “Jurassic Park,” Helm finds a way to rise above the inconsequentiality of the modern age to create something beautiful.

I spoke with her recently to preview her upcoming show in Buffalo on Dec. 8, so, if you’re still searching for a way to spend all that Black Friday money, may I suggest going to http://www.tralfmusichall.com to snag a few seats before it’s too late.

Your friends and family will thank you.

MNOD: Last year’s “This Too Shall Light” was just the second album you’ve released under your own name. How do you feel as if you’ve evolved as a solo artist from 2015’s “Didn’t It Rain” to now?

Helm: Hopefully, I’ve gotten better. I think every artist wants put out the best record possible and I’m no different. I’m really proud of the collaborative effort of everyone involved in making this album, because I had terrific musicians backing me up.

MNOD: I read that you recorded these songs in very few takes. What role did that rawness play in the finished product?

Helm: It really contributed the overall sound and vibe of the record. Producer Joe Henry didn’t want me to sing them too much before cutting the record, because he wanted to capture our initial instinct. The beauty of the four-part harmonies is that we were all together in the same room making it happen.

MNOD: What drew you to these particular songs?

Helm: Some of them were suggestions and others were songs that I felt could live within the context of the album. They have a very free and loose feeling, which was enhanced by the presence of the choir. ‘Long Daddy Green’ is a song by Blossom Dearie that I especially love. I remember sneaking out to a jazz club in New York City when I was 13 to see her and that really influence me. I also wanted to include some challenging songs and some standards that I could really get into. A lot of them I was able to find a way into as I went along, because the songs continue to grow the more you sing them.

MNOD: You’ve described the sound of the album as ‘circular’ in the past. What did you mean by that?

Helm: The record is really about the harmonies and the joyful noise of a bunch of voices in the same room. The harmonies are constant throughout the record and really become its defining sound. I think what I meant by that is just the repetition of that formula and how it contributes to the fullness of each song. Joe and I patterned this album off a 1971 release from Delaney and Bonnie called ‘Motel Shot,’ which had a strong Southern gospel vibe to it.

MNOD: At what point did you begin to realize how influential your dad was on the industry?

Helm: When I was younger, I didn’t really know. He was already into a phase of obscurity by that point, so it wasn’t until we started doing ‘Dirt Farmer’ and ‘The Midnight Ramble Music Sessions’ that I understood the level of influence and reach he had. I would always meet drummers who would tell me how highly regarded he was among the drumming community. He was 1000% supportive of me getting into music and pulled me back into it when I was waiting tables, working at a flower shop, or just being lazy. He always encouraged me to get back into the fray.

MNOD: Who were some of your early influences besides your family?

Helm: Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash among others. There were so many.

MNOD: I played ‘This Too Shall Light’ for my wife and she said that you reminded her of Stevie Nicks. Is that something you’ve ever heard before?

Helm: No one has ever told me that before, but I’ll take it. She’s one of the greats. If there is any influence there, it definitely came out subconsciously.

MNOD: What can fans expect during the upcoming live show in Buffalo?

Helm: One of the best things about being on the road is that the songs evolve as the tour goes on, so there’s always room to change things up. I love artists who reinvent songs and keep the audience surprised as to what comes next. I’ll have a great band with me at this show and it’s going to be very energetic. I think it’ll be more rock ‘n’ roll and probably louder than people expect.

MNOD: When can we expect new music to emerge?

Helm: I’m actually working on new material now. I’ve been home a lot and working weekends, so I have time to spend with my boys.

Amy Helm will be at the Tralf Music Hall on Dec. 8 as part of The Rockin’ Twangy Blue Holiday Bash with special guests Tripi and Jony James.

See http://www.tralfmusichall.com or http://www.amyhelm.com for details.

“This Too Shall Light” is available now wherever music is disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.

 

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band brings its blues revolution to Buffalo

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“Controlling the narrative” is a phrase we’ve heard a lot in 2019. Whether it’s Trump decrying the lack of journalistic objectivity in America or an A-List celebrity struggling to rationalize a 4:00 a.m. Tweet, everyone wants to tell their own story. Everyone appears eager to frame themselves as something other than what they really are, because, deep down, they know that Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective on human behavior has never gone out of style.

In the music world, the artists who present the most minuscule difference between their front stage and back stage personalities tend to be the most compelling, because what you see is what you get. There’s no question as to their true motivations. They’re confident enough in their art to let it stand on its own terms without shrouding everything in braggadocio.

Before he even picked up the phone, I knew that The Reverend Peyton was such an artist, because his songs control the narrative. He writes, sings, and plays from a deeply human place, which is something we’re not getting that often from the mainstream in the 21st century. Every note counts and every word goes a long way towards expressing something worth saying to an audience in search of authenticity.

The older I get, the less enamored I become with the style over substance mentality of the modern pop scene, so the fact that Buffalo still has a venue daring enough to book a three-piece band featuring a guitar, a washboard, and a minimalist drum kit that is the David to Neil Peart’s Goliath is enough to keep me going for years to come.

After hearing from The Reverend himself, I hope you’ll feel the same.

MNOD: You’ll be sharing the upcoming Buffalo bill with Colonel JD Wilkes and Dom Flemons. How did this tour initially come together?

Rev. Peyton: We’ve been talking about doing it for a few years now. We’re calling it the Blues Revolution Tour, because we don’t necessarily fit into one tiny box. I’ve been obsessed with the blues my entire life. I’ve loved it and studied it, so I know that a lot of people don’t consider Dom and JD to be traditional. We’re all a little underground or outside of the mainstream, which is good. For me, I’m fired up about this tour, because I’m able to bring along two people who are the best in the world at what they do. The Colonel JD Wilkes is arguably the best harmonica player on the planet and his knowledge of American music runs as deep as anyone you’ll ever meet. We’re not just fellow musicians, we’re friends. Kindred spirits, in a sense. Both JD and Dom are the real deal and legit artists. JD even petitioned the governor of Kentucky to make me an official colonel. Sometimes, the music industry can be overly competitive, but we all have a mutual respect for one another. I feel like a kid gearing up for summer vacation, because this is tour is going to be a unique showcase/blues revue that audiences haven’t really seen before.

MNOD: You mentioned that you’ve been doing this since you were a kid. Who were some of your early influences as a guitar player?

Rev. Peyton: Charley Patton was one of the first blues guys who fired me up and got me going. David Honeyboy Edwards, T-Model Ford, and Robert Belfour were guys that I really got into as I got older and I was fortunate to spend time with them. Also, guys like Son House and Robert Johnson. I wish that one day the whole world would understand just how great Honeyboy Edwards really was. We’re all a product of everything around us, so my influences have always been varied.

MNOD: How would you describe your band’s sound for those who have never heard you before?

Rev. Peyton: I call it ‘Front Porch Blues’ or ‘Rural Blues.’ I’m playing the bass and the lead at the same time on the guitar while my wife Breezy is on the washboard. She’s an amazing player and one of the most charismatic people you’ll ever see on stage. Our drummer, Max Senteney, is one of the best in the game and he’ll even play the cymbals with his feet.

MNOD: Your latest album, “Poor Until Payday,” is one of the most authentic releases I’ve heard in quite some time. Where did the idea behind the title track originate from?  

Rev. Peyton: That was just something that my mom said to me and it stuck. Thematically, I had been working on it for a while, but it just wasn’t there yet. For me, the idea of ‘Poor Until Payday’ isn’t as much about waiting on a check as it is about finally getting the bigger payday where you don’t have to worry so much anymore. It’s ultimately a more hopeful record than our past material.

MNOD: You’re currently running your own record label, which must be nice given the level of freedom you have regarding your musical direction. How has that been going so far?

Rev. Peyton: We’ve had a lot of help from Thirty Tigers. They’re the natural engine that has enabled us to keep going. We make the music that is inside of us and we can control how the message gets out there. PR decides what people think and we want to put the right stuff out there. Each record tells people who we are and we want people to know that we live, love, and breathe this music.

MNOD: The mainstream media always wants to paint Americans as being irreparably divided across just about every line you can think of. Do you notice that your shows are able to bring people from various backgrounds together for the cause?

Rev. Peyton: I’m proud to say that we have a really diverse following. I think our crowds have gotten more diverse as we’ve gone along. The media likes to label everything, but I love looking out into the crowd to guys who collect 78s next to kids with blue hair. We’ve gone from Mississippi to Canada and it’s never the same thing. We’ve been on the Vans Warped Tour and we’ve played the Sturgis Bike Rally, so we’re always up for anything. So much of the world comes down to what people believe or what they think the world is supposed to be, but we love our audiences everywhere we play.

MNOD: You’re known for maintaining a rigorous touring schedule, so I was curious as to how you find time to write while on the road.

Rev. Peyton: When I’m home, I tend to get preoccupied with other things, so I’m always working on songs on the road. I’ll start a song on the road, but I don’t usually finish it until I get home. I don’t get into new material until I start to get sick of other songs, because a lot of it just being open to things you can’t control. Writing is like a lightning bolt that hits you.

MNOD: Given the variety of venues you’ve played throughout your career, do you find yourself tailoring your set to the setting or do you approach every show the same way? 

Rev. Peyton: I have to completely feel a song or I can’t sing it, so I often tailor a set to the feeling I’m getting from the crowd at that moment. Putting the necessary feeling into these songs is an emotional drain, because this is what we live for. Sometimes, we’ll be playing a particular venue and I’ll think that a certain song would sound great in that room, but mostly it’s based on the vibe of the audience.

MNOD: When you do find time away from music, is there anything that you like to do to decompress from life on the road? 

Rev. Peyton: Fishing is what I do to decompress. I love it.

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band Blues Revolution Tour stops at Buffalo’s Tralf Music Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 20.

See http://www.tralfmusichall.com or http://www.bigdamnband.com for details.

“Poor Until Payday” is available now wherever music is disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.

 

No one knows what it’s like to be the sad man: Thoughts on “Joker”

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When you’ve spent as many hours studying the effect of violent media on human behavior as I have, you cringe a little whenever people in power advocate for the censorship of popular entertainment. You cringe, because you understand that what’s on TV is but a cog in the overall wheel of socialization that determines how we process the world around us. You cringe, because you’ve witnessed the unintended consequences of public policy birthed from emotion rather than statistically significant evidence. And, finally, you cringe, because you can’t consciously support a philosophy that takes aim at an easy target while the real issues continue to simmer below the surface.

The reality is that we’re exposed to way too many words and images on a daily basis to lay all the blame on an industry whose intentions have more to do with financial gain than moral corruption. It’s a classic American tactic to either ban or declare war on something that is considered the next great crisis, but seldom is the ensuing plan executed in a way that suggests any thinking was done beyond the initial identification of the problem.

Which brings me to “Joker,” the film that has held the Internet hostage for a week and angered the hive mind more than any other film I’ve seen this year. Much has been written about its depiction of mental illness and how director Todd Phillips offers little insight into Arthur’s deteriorating condition, but I don’t feel as if Phillips has taken the mental health aspect any more or less seriously than the country at-large has in the past 50 years. The stigma is real and pretending that we’ve always been committed to treatment is a by-product of everything being viewed through a 2019 lens.

In fact, a massive wave of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s and 1980s actually led to mentally ill citizens being out on the streets without any community services to help them assimilate back into society. Jimmy Carter facilitated the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, but, by 1981, the year in which “Joker” is set, Reagan repealed the act, thus de-emphasizing the federal government’s role in formulating mental health policy. I’m not saying that help from the feds would have been up to par, but the move does say something about where the Reagan Administration’s priorities lied at that moment.

If we consider that context, watching Arthur wander aimlessly in search of a purpose appears to fit with how a lot of mentally ill Americans were treated during that time. He has no communal ties, no relationships beyond the gravitational pull of his mother, and no reason to believe that the system is built to include people like him in its success. His actions aren’t excused or condoned, but they aren’t all that far removed from what we’ve come to learn about certain mass shooters.

Whether you agree with the film’s vision or not, it’s hard to argue that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t embody all of the anger, resentment, and frightening physicality of Arthur’s descent into madness brilliantly. He’s unhinged in a way that has led to numerous “Taxi Driver” comparisons, but, to me, he feels much more like DeNiro’s take on Max Cady in “Cape Fear” than Travis Bickle. Everything from his sinewy torso to the way he transitions from 0 to 100 with minimal provocation is mesmerizing and adds up to one of the finest performances of the year.

Some critics have accused Phillips of implying that all mentally ill people are violent or that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Arthur’s outbursts, but I don’t see it that way. The violence itself is jarring and Peckinpah-esque, which stands in direct contrast to how a lot of think pieces are making it sound. He’s telling an isolated story of a man whose illness left him susceptible to violent thoughts, so perhaps leaving the audience with a cold, unforgiving feeling upon exiting the theatre was the point all along.

Had this material been in the hands of a Scorsese or a Coppola, the expectation for a more penetrating macro-level examination would be appropriate, but that’s just not Phillips’ bag. He does what he does effectively and without a need to pander to the trolls who wish he would have never made the film in the first place. Phoenix himself has said that he wishes the film would have been titled “Arthur” instead of “Joker” and it’s easy to see why. The DC Universe brings with it a lot of fanboy bullshit that is vitriolic, destructive, and not worth the aggravation.

But that’s the reality of filmmaking in 2019. Social media has emboldened those with no tangible power to destroy anything that doesn’t jell with the hive’s idea of what acceptable entertainment should be. Sometimes, it feels like an awful lot of cultural criticism nowadays boils down to a bunch of writers trying to out-woke one another with their incessant hot takes, but I’m not interested in that. I encourage intellectual disagreement and don’t feel compelled to make others feel subhuman if they don’t share my worldview.

Jewish professor George Gerbner posited a theory called “Mean World Syndrome” in 1968 to describe how exposure to violent media didn’t necessarily make people more violent, but it did make them more fearful of being victimized due to seeing the world as a dangerous and frightening place. After seeing theatres beef up security and audiences initiate their own evacuations during weekend screenings of “Joker,” I can only imagine what the now-deceased Gerbner would have to say about where we’re at as a society.

 

 

 

 

 

Long Island-based journalist Greg Prato chronicles Soundgarden in latest book ‘Dark Black and Blue’

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May 18, 2017 is a day that I will never forget. I awoke around 7:00 a.m. after working a 10-hour shift at a juvenile detention center and all I could think about was driving to Columbus, OH to see Soundgarden headline the first night of Rock on the Range. My bags were packed the day before, my ticket was purchased months in advance, and the only thing standing between me and seeing Seattle’s Son live for the first time was a six-hour haul down the interstate.

Alas, the moment wasn’t meant to be, as word of Chris Cornell’s untimely death permeated my consciousness before I even made it out of bed. He had taken his own life shortly after performing a show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre in which the band concluded with a mashup of “Slaves & Bulldozers” and Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” that many considered to be an eerie slice of foreshadowing. Regardless of how or why he did it, the fact that he was gone cast a dark cloud over the festival and left everyone to speculate as to what the promoters could do to fill a seemingly unfillable void.

Three days of hard rock under the Midwest sun had become an extended vigil for an artist whose cultural footprint spanned multiple genres and generations. Live took on “I Am the Highway,” The Pretty Reckless, who opened for Soundgarden that night in Detroit, weeped through “Like a Stone,” and Corey Taylor churned out a stirring rendition of “Hunger Strike” as 40,000 strong sang Chris’s parts back to him. It was the most emotional concert moment I’ve ever experienced and even writing about it two years later fills my soul with sorrow.

I shared it with you, because Greg Prato’s new book, ‘Dark Black and Blue: The Soundgarden Story,’ echoes a lot of the feelings I had while trying to make sense of the loss. Prato talks about how he had difficulty listening to the band’s catalog in the immediate aftermath and why telling their story now serves as a way to finally come to grips with losing one of the greatest voices in the history of recorded music.

He’s first and foremost a fan, but don’t walk away thinking this is yet another exercise in modern day hagiography. The seasoned music journalist dissects the band’s history in riveting detail without glossing over any of the complicated elements that made their chemistry what it was. Cornell admitting that “From eleven to fourteen, I did drugs every single day,” guitarist Kim Thayil saying that “I was bummed, but I didn’t shed a tear” following the group’s 1997 split, and an ugly incident in which bassist Ben Shepherd was reportedly spitting in the direction of his bandmates during a show in Hawaii are all here to provide the reader with the full-scale examination Soundgarden has always deserved.

By structuring the narrative in a straightforward fashion, Prato touches on each phase of the band’s ascent with a healthy balance of oral history and author insight. He dives into the early days of the Seattle scene when Chris wanted to be a drummer, he shares his personal reactions to hearing masterpieces like “Badmotorfinger” and “Superunknown” for the very first time, and, most significantly, he further dispels the myth that the so-called grunge movement boiled down to Nirvana vs. the Field. “Nevermind” may have captivated the globe, but Soundgarden was tirelessly chipping away at success for seven years before Kurt Cobain became a household name.

They earned it the old-fashioned way and held it together for 12 years until the tension could no longer be contained. Cornell, Thayil, Shepherd, and drummer Matt Cameron went their separate ways in 1997, a sad yet not entirely shocking dissolution of the brand that would last until a 2010 reunion tour got the creative juices flowing again. I still consider 2012’s “King Animal” to be an underrated addition to the oeuvre, so the fact that we’ll never get the chance to hear a follow-up adds another layer to the mystique.

Even the moderate fans should find plenty to chew on here, because Prato includes a lot of insider tidbits that weren’t previously compiled in the same space. We learn more about why founding bassist Hiro Yamamoto left the band just as they started to break through, we discover that Kirk Hammett’s riff for “Enter Sandman” was inspired by “Louder Than Love,” and we’re treated to such classic band lingo as “soft-on” and “Meat Puppets fuck up.”

He concludes with a chapter dedicated to everything that happened in the wake of Chris’s death as well as interviews with other industry figures discussing the breadth of Soundgarden’s influence on the music world. What I took away from reading this will be different from what others do, but, in the end, the one thing we can all agree on is that the cultural landscape in 2019 is richer because of their existence.

‘Dark Black and Blue: The Soundgarden Story’ is available now on Amazon.

 

 

 

The Glorious Sons aren’t afraid to get messy on third LP “A War on Everything”

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The title track of The Glorious Sons’ latest LP “A War on Everything” is a “Born to Run”-style plea for escape from a guy who believes that life would be better if he and his girl skipped town immediately. Damn the phone, damn the weather, damn the lies. He’s not concerned with anything but himself, her happiness, and a possessionless future that promises to be brighter simply because they’re together.

While the “me and you against the world” yarn has been spun countless times before, vocalist Brett Emmons makes it stick with a die-tomorrow delivery that can’t be contained. We’re hooked from the start and can easily envision a scenario in which he’s singing about a real person as opposed to just channeling a character. It’s also not a stretch to picture these star-crossed lovers craving a fresh start after losing their car, their jobs, or anything other item trotted out by the band on 2017’s zeitgeist-capturing “S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun),” so, if innocuous nostalgia is what you seek, I believe that there’s a new Maroon 5 single dropping this week that might be more your speed.

Leave it to some guys from Canada to capture the rage and disillusionment so many Americans have been experiencing since the economy took a gargantuan, Lehman Brothers-induced shit back in 2008. People deserve rock music that is capable of addressing the sociological elephants in the room without coming off as patronizing, and, in Emmons, they’ve found a voice whose force is surpassed only by its innate relatability. He might as well be speaking for all of us when he wails “I’m tired, I’m sick, I’m waging war on everything” during “Panic Attack,” the album’s lead-off shot that sets the tone for what the remaining 13 tracks will bring to the table.

“Spirit to Break” and “Closer to the Sky” delve further into the muck, as the rest of the band strikes just the right balance between tender melody and the scrappy, live-off-the-floor surge they’re known for. The looseness with which guitarists Jay Emmons and Chris Koster attack their instruments reflects the reality of the lyrics perfectly, because this material wouldn’t resonate the same way with a slick 1980s production value. Life is messy, and, to be honest, I think we’ve reached a point in 2019 where escapism just doesn’t cut it anymore, so the door is ajar for the Sons to tackle modern generational angst with an honesty seldom appreciated by the mainstream rock scene this millennium.

Other highlights include “Wild Eyes,” “The Ongoing Speculation Into the Death of Rock and Roll,” and “Pink Motel,” the last of which finds Emmons lamenting a failed relationship with a Zevon-esque causticity that puts the finishing touch on what is one of the finest albums I’ve heard this year.

Chris Cornell once said that music driven by money deserves to fail, so it’s a good thing, then, that The Glorious Sons appear motivated by the desire to make sense of this fucked up world through art that is raw, open, and uncompromising. A lot has been written about how Greta Van Fleet is bringing rock back from extinction, but the contributions from Kingston, Ontario’s latest powerhouse can’t be denied.

“A War on Everything” is available now wherever music in disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.

 

 

 

 

 

It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive: Springsteen at 70

Greetings

There’s a scene from Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film “Blinded by the Light” in which the Pakistani protagonist has an epiphany upon ingesting the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 smash “Dancing in the Dark” for the first time. It’s as if an atomic bomb has been dropped on his consciousness and life as he knows it will never be the same again. From that moment on, everything he does is filtered through The Boss’ affinity for yearning and unbridled curiosity for what lies beyond the confines of one’s insular existence.

I experienced a similar moment of clarity on Nov. 22, 2009 when I caught Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Buffalo for what would later become their final show with Clarence Clemons manning the saxophone. The defiance of “The Promised Land,” Bruce’s snarling solo on “Lost in the Flood,” Steven Van Zandt’s 59th birthday present in the form of “Restless Nights,” an overlooked power-pop ditty that suggested even Springsteen’s “B” material could be stronger than anything that passed for top-40 gold during the aughts. It all sent a wrecking ball (pun intended) straight through my soul and left me feeling as if the three-and-a-half hours I spent inside HSBC Arena was a catalyst for deeper self-discovery.

As a 21-year-old intellectual introvert who spent more time studying human interaction than engaging in any, the confidence with which Springsteen presented himself lyrically spoke to me, because he validated a lot of the feelings I had but never externalized until I started living and writing on my own terms. I wanted to find a girl who would meet me in the fields out behind the dynamo. I was ready to keep pushing until it was understood that I deserved to be taken seriously as a writer. And, most importantly, I respected my roots yet recognized that the desire for something greater didn’t make me a bad person, just somebody whose ambition was beginning to outgrow his surroundings.

Whether it was the life-affirming jolt of “Born to Run” or the sparse, DIY demons of “Nebraska,” Bruce had an album for every situation. His catalog fueled me through multiple college degrees and provided the soundtrack to my life at a time when I desperately needed something other than myself to believe in.

It’s both the universality and immediacy of his message that enables him to surge into his seventies, a reality that even the detractors can acknowledge as impressive. He’s still out there proving it all night, still out on that hill giving it everything he’s got in pursuit of keeping the American Dream alive. He’s always understood that the dream is only as strong as those willing to fight for its survival, so, as we barrel towards what promises to be one of the defining election cycles of our time, consider that none of us should be persecuted for how we choose to live in our American skin.

Bruce brought us together with the post-9/11 lament, “The Rising,” and, given how deep our divide continues to get, it may be time for him to do it again.

Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper returns with blistering fifth album “At the Gates”

At the Gates

What the establishment has never understood about heavy metal is that it’s not about promoting the death, demise, and degradation of the human race. In fact, I can think of a few cultural institutions that are far more in tune with that agenda than metal ever could be, but listening to reason has never been the political machine’s forte.

Those who listen and attend shows regularly do so, because it’s reassuring to discover that there are others out there feeling the same way that they’re feeling. At a time when society is trending in an increasingly impersonal direction, there are few things more personal than sharing a space with an army of fans whose love for the movement runs as deeply as your own.

When Steve Grimmett lost his leg due to an infection in 2017, members of the heavy metal community came together to raise $16,000 to help mitigate medical costs. If such a selfless gesture is truly the mark of deplorables, consider me just that.

Grimmett and his band Grim Reaper are set to release their fifth full-length studio album, “At the Gates,” on Oct. 11, but, first, he was kind enough to grant me some time to discuss how the music motivated him throughout his recovery. If you lost touch with the band following the NWOBHM’s late ’80s heyday, here’s your chance to get re-acquainted.

MNOD: How did it feel to be back in the studio once again after everything you went through health-wise?

Grimmett: It felt pretty good. This is our second release under the name Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper and I still get so much enjoyment out of the process. We’re playing and sounding as good as ever, because we’re still able to do what we love for the fans. I still love being in the studio, because I love the challenge of capturing being able to capture what we do live on record.

MNOD: How did the creative process for “At the Gates” compare to your past work?

Grimmett: It was very similar, but I wasn’t as involved in the writing as much as I normally am due to some mental health issues I was dealing with. My anxiety attacks put a freeze on the writing for a bit, but, thankfully, the rest of the guys came together to make up for that.

MNOD: When your leg was amputated in 2017, what role did music play in your recovery?

Grimmett: When I was lying in bed in Ecuador, all I thought about was how I would get back up to what I love again. The hospital allowed me 30 minutes of Internet each day, so half of that time would be devoted to corresponding with family and the other half was dedicated to figuring out how I was going to walk again. I was determined to not let the situation beat me. I didn’t want to let the fans down, because we wouldn’t be still doing this if it weren’t for them. Six months after I lost my leg, we were playing a festival in Germany and the crowd was very supportive.

MNOD: What was the support of the heavy metal community like once you returned to the stage?

Grimmett: We were playing a show in which the stage had two levels and I wanted to get out to the crowd during “See You in Hell.” My wife helped me down the stairs and everyone was shouting and screaming. The crowd was deafening. It was really cool. I had fans come up to me and ask how I was doing as well as the former members of Grim Reaper reaching out, so the support was widespread. I went through some really tough times, but that was what I needed.

MNOD: What are your feelings about the current lineup compared to the one that old-school fans remember?

Grimmett: I think it’s as strong as it’s ever been. We all get on really well with each other and have no falling out moments. Sure, we get into heated arguments from time to time, but they’re over and done with quickly. Being out on the road with each other isn’t an easy task, but I believe we’ll still be together years down the line.

MNOD: How do you feel about the presence of social media in today’s musical climate?

Grimmett: It’s the only way, really. Magazines don’t play a significant role anymore, so social media is the best way to relay what we’re doing to our fans. Bands would be mad not to do it. Of course, there are some negatives, because we’ll post our tour dates and then have people commenting about how we’re not coming to their town. They don’t understand that booking a tour is more in the hands of local promoters than us, so that part can be frustrating. I log in every day to keep the fans updated on what’s going on and we’ll also do it once we finish a show.

MNOD: What is touring like for you nowadays?

Grimmett: Wherever we’re playing, I still love it. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing to 600 or 6000, because the passion is the same. I remember we played a show in Brazil for about 60 people and it was great, because the people who were there wanted to be there. The audiences are pretty similar to what they’ve always been, because it’s still mostly made up of teenagers or younger people.

MNOD: 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of Onslaught’s “In Search of Sanity,” which you recorded vocals for. Does that album still hold up for you?

Grimmett: It’s still really good. It’s the best album they ever did from both a creative and commercial perspective. It represented a departure from what they were doing, but it was what the record company wanted. I’d say it definitely holds up to anything.

MNOD: Is there anything that you enjoy doing when you’re not on stage?

Grimmett: I build radio-controlled model aircraft. I’ve been doing that for years, but there’s not really much besides that.

Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper has no Buffalo date on the horizon, but Aug. 29 at The Rockpile in Toronto would make a hell of an end-of-summer road trip.

“At the Gates” will be released on Oct. 11

See https://www.facebook.com/grimreaperofficial/ for details.