2018 So Far: Getting Stoned with Sleep – “The Sciences” and Earthless – “Black Heaven”

 

About a half century ago a partnership was formed that changed the way people interacted with music forever onward. This was the moment when drugs met rock ‘n’ roll. Long haired dudes armed with electric guitars, effects pedal, and tube amplification have spent the intervening years attempting to sonically replicate the psychedelic experience. In the 21st century this bong sucking tradition continues in the two worlds of stoner metal and stoner rock. The differences between these two hallucinatory rock subgenres are subtle. In the world of stoner metal, rock ‘n’ roll begins and ends with Black Sabbath’s third album, “Master of Reality,” which features Tony Iommi literally coughing the world into existence with “Sweet Leaf” and destroying it all “Into the Void” by record’s end. Stoner metal guitars are down tuned to the point where every doom laden chord sounds as if it’s coming from the deepest depths of hell. The songs are usually long, repetitive, crushingly heavy and magma slow. Examples of  stoner metal bands include; Sleep, Fu Manchu, the Sword and Electric Wizard. Stoner rock is less Black Sabbath and more influenced by the usually live performed jams of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Stoner rock tends to be less heavy, more blues based and more uptempo then it’s metallic counterpart; but like stoner metal, the songs are long and loud. The wah pedal and whammy bar are the essential tools of the stoner rock guitarist. Modern examples of stoner rock include; Earthless, Radio Moscow, the Samsara Blues Experiment and Endless Boogie. Now that you’re sufficiently prepared (re: stoned) lets talk about two 2018 albums from the stoner nebula of the rock ‘n’ roll galaxy.

Sleep crawled onto the stoner metal scene in 1991 with their first album entitled, “Volume One.” They released their much improved second album, “Sleep’s Holy Mountain” the following year. With that record’s minor but significant success they were offered a spot on a newer and bigger record label. By most standards Sleep appeared to have promising career ahead of them. For their third album, they decided to record a single hour long track called, “Dopesmoker.” “Dopesmoker,” told the ridiculous story of “weedian priests” traveling across the desert of the “riff filled land,” to fulfill some quest or something, it doesn’t matter. The point is, Sleep’s record label refused to release their monolithic weed tome. Sleep refused to change, edit or divide up the track; which prompted their being dropping from the record label and their subsequent break up as a band. Various labels did release edited  and bootlegged versions of the album throughout the 90s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the track was legitimately released in its full hour long, long glory. Personally, I’ve never been able to sit through the entire thing. I’ve made several attempts but have never gotten past the thirty minute mark. The vocals are little more then an atonal chant. The music is plodding and monochromatic with precious few guitar solos to break up the monotony. My personal preferences aside, the album is actually considered a classic among critics and the group’s fans. The eventual release and acclaim of “Dopesmoker” led to the band’s eventual reunion in 2009 and the eventual release of their fourth album “The Sciences” on April 20 (of course) 2018 (everything these guys do is stoner slow). Although “The Sciences” has many of the same characteristics that bothered me about “Dopesmoker,” the record actually benefits from having six individual, shorter but still long tracks. By having a more conventional track list the listener is able to take shorter tokes from the Sleep bong without being overwhelmed by the smoke. The album’s title track opens the record with three minutes of guitar feedback. It isn’t really a song but it sets the stage for the album’s next track, “Marijuanaut’s Theme” which opens with the sound of a bong being hit and a quintessential Sleep guitar riff. Fan or not you have to appreciate the utter ridiculousness of Sleep’s stoner humor. The lyrics are full of excellent reefer puns and allusions to Black Sabbath. My favorite bit is about following our marijuanaut on his intergalactic journey through “hashteroid” fields to his final destination on the planet “Iommia,” named of course after Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. “Sonic Titan” is exactly what it’s title implies, full of heavy downtuned guitar riffs and a cool wah wah bass solo half way through. In “Antarcticans Thawed,” we get a song that I can only imagine is about the awakening of “the elder things” from H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” about a doomed scientific expedition to the great frozen continent. That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange eons even death may die. Praise Cthulhu. Sorry, I needed to get that out, now back to “Antarcticans Thawed.” The track pummels the listener with the force of Lovecraft’s monsters for fourteen and a half minutes. Bassist Al Cisneros gives one his most powerful vocal performances throughout “Antarticans.” “The Botanist” closes the record with another solid dose of Sleep’s low and slow formula. It contains some of Sleep’s most and best ever psychedelic moments. Matt Pike’s burning (pun intended) guitar solo leads the way to an almost funk jam with Pike’s guitar acting as a bed for the sluggish rhythmic groove of Cisneros and drummer Jason Roeder. “The Sciences” with it’s self aware silliness, B movie vibe and Lovecraft references are able to overcome my initial skepticism, coming off my attempts at trying and failing to get into “Dopesmoker.” The album meets the potential promised on “Sleep’s Holy Mountain” twenty six years ago. As a result I give Sleep “The Sciences” a rating of 4/5 brimstones. Essential tracks: “Marijuanaut’s Theme,” “Antarcticans Thawed,” “The Botanist”

Guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, bassist Mike Eginton, and drummer Mario Rubalcaba spend the majority of their time moonlighting in various other groups and side projects, assembling as the stoner rock monster that is Earthless every five years or so. Up until now Earthless’s songs, for lack of a better word, were entirely instrumental heavy psych jams that rode Mitchell’s wah pedal into the mulitverse. The only exception to their instrumental only policy was their cover of the obscure Groundhogs classic “Cherry Red,” from 2007’s album “Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky.” “Black Heaven,” the group’s latest record changes Earthless’s approach in two major ways. First off, four of the six tracks feature vocals. Secondly the songs are shorter. On previous albums Earthless took their jams to well over the ten minute mark. I’m sure these moves will reek of sellout to some Earthless fans, but considering this is a band who never has and likely never will break into the mainstream, accusations of sellout don’t really make sense. Earthless is playing what they want, which at this point in their history is a collection of concise heavy psych rock songs. (I use the term “concise” loosely as five of the six songs exceed the five minute mark). “Gifted by the Wind” opens with cymbals and a Hendrix inspired wah wah riff, that carries the song through it’s vocal parts to the back to back wall tearing guitar solos and back again. The song also closes with another excellent face melter from Mitchell.  “Electric Flame,” begins with a catchy and surprisingly laid back riff before taking a superb left turn into a more driving but equally catchy riff. Mitchell’s vocals again lead us to some more fret board mastery over the constant groove of Eginton and Rubalcaba. So far the more conventional approach to songwriting works reasonably well, although the lyrics don’t yet feel as if they are needed. That is not to imply that the words are bad in anyway, they just don’t have enough presence or melody to enhance the music… yet. The next two tracks, the crazed boogie of “Volt Rush,” and the Zeppelin indebted riffery of the title track are back to more traditional Earthless territory, each being a high energy instrumental. “Sudden End” is the moment where it all comes together, both lyrically and musically. “Sudden End” closes the record with what sounds like a lost classic of two a.m. 1970s rock radio. The Skynyrdesque guitar intro is at once mournful and triumphant becoming the album’s most melodic moment. Lyrically the song is heavy; addressing the tragedy of suicide. Musically it sounds like the soundtrack to a film about an anonymous motorcycle rider rambling through abandoned cities hunting cannibalistic mutants in the aftermath of global nuclear holocaust. “Sudden End” is the most classic rock sounding song Earthless has ever recorded. It’s also the best song they’ve ever done. The record as a whole falls short of classic but still warrants a solid rating of 4/5 brimstones. Essential Tracks: “Gifted by the Wind,” “Electric Flame,” “Black Heaven,” “Sudden End”

13th Floor of Hell Jukebox: “Machine Gun” – Jimi Hendrix

Between 1967 and 1969, Jimi Hendrix and his band, then called the Jimi Hendrix Experience, were one of, if not the biggest rock groups on the planet. Jimi’s mastery of the blues along with his revolutionary use of guitar distortion and effects, such as the wah pedal, had expanded the sonic possibilities of the guitar more then any other musician had ever dared . Hendrix was also known for his stage performances, which usually included him playing his guitar behind his head or with his teeth, humping his amps while producing massive walls of feedback, and even sacrificing his guitar to the gods of rock by setting it ablaze both figuratively and literally.

By the end of 1969, Jimi had grown weary of his image as a guitar wielding psychedelic madman. He felt imprisoned by his image and by audience expectations. Crowds were so entranced by what he might do on stage, that they begin to lose focus on Jimi’s true passion, his remarkable music. Hendrix decided it was time to break up the Experience. He wanted to put the focus back on the music by taking it in a less psychedelic, more earthbound direction. It was the blues and r & b that first inspired Jimi to pick up the guitar, and it was to those forms he wanted to return.

Around this time Jimi owed an album to Capitol Records, which was not his current record label. Years before while still struggling to make it, Jimi haphazardly signed a contract and then forgot about it. To fulfill his obligation, he decided to record a live album at New York’s Fillmore East with a new band. The new group dubbed A Band of Gypsys, consisted of Hendrix on lead guitar and vocals; his old army buddy Billy Cox on bass; and former member of the Electric Flag, Buddy Miles on drums.

Recorded during four shows on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970, the music performed was more grounded and funky then anything Hendrix had previously recorded. The setlists were similar for each show, with one song being the undisputed highlight of each setlist. The song, called “Machine Gun,” was a new song that Jimi had been tinkering with, but had never gotten around to making a final recording of.

Several live versions of “Machine Gun” exist, but it is the performance from the third Band of Gypsys show on New Years Day 1970, that is widely regarded, not only as the best version of “Machine Gun,” but as one of Jimi’s best all around performances period.

After introducing the song, dedicating it to all of chaos happening on American streets in the late 60s, as well as to the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, Jimi starts into the riff. The riff isn’t anything incendiary but it sets an ominous mood that is nicely complimented by Buddy Miles’s machine gun beats. The darkness deepens, as Jimi begins singing, “Machine Gun tearing my body all apart,” and later “Evil man make me kill you, evil man make you kill me, evil man make me kill you even though we’re only families apart.” The lyrics are meant to communicate the insanity of war; the insanity of going and killing fellow human beings over some ideology or land dispute; the insanity of politicians and rulers unwilling to fight but prepared to send young people to kill and die for their own ends. The lyrics are serviceable but they lack the impact that Jimi has mind. It is in his guitar solo that the true weight and import of his message is felt. The solo begins around the four minute mark of the song with a single howling note that Jimi holds for a few seconds before repeating it and then launching into a barrage of beautiful harrowing sound. Jimi’s solo lasts for approximately four minutes. In it’s notes we hear the chaos of the battlefield; the sounds of guns firing and bombs exploding, the cries of parents whose children aren’t coming home, and of the howls of death from young soldiers forever gone. It is a powerful musical statement, and one I never grow tired of.

The lyrics pick back up after the solo, with Jimi singing and Billy and Buddy adding a mournful backing of “ooohs.” The song ends a few minutes later with Jimi experimenting with some dive bomb sounds and feedback all with his guitar. At the song’s conclusion he tells the audience, “That’s what we don’t want to hear no more,” meaning the sounds of war. Buddy Miles chimes in by saying, “no guns, no bombs.”

According to the 1999 documentary, this performance was so impressive to legendary musical genius and jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis, that Davis wanted to collaborate with Hendrix on some future musical project. Sadly that collaboration never came to be. Jimi died a mere eight and a half months later. Jimi’s career was short, but his legend is immortal, because of the passion he poured into songs like “Machine Gun.”

2018 So Far: Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin

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Few post-millennial musicians, let alone post-millennial rock musicians, have been as prolific as California garage rock hero, Ty Segall. After releasing his self titled debut as a solo artist in 2008, Segall has released an album (or two or three albums) nearly every single year; which is to say nothing of the numerous collaborations and side projects that he has also been involved with over the same time period. With such a voluminous output in so short a time, it would be easy to assume that Ty Segall is delivering quantity as opposed to quality. The truth, however, is that, Segall’s material has been consistently good and even on occasion pretty fucking great. But with “Freedom’s Goblin,” released back in January of this year, Ty Segall has moved from “pretty fucking great” into the realm of “damn fucking classic.” Over at NPR, author Jason Heller declared Segall “a scholar of rock” and “Freedom’s Goblin” as “his PhD thesis.” The analogy is spot on. Over the course of nineteen genre spanning tracks, Segall backed by his Freedom Band takes the listener on a tour of nearly seven decades of rock music’s many faces.

When the needle drops on side 1 a burst of guitars and horns pay tribute to Segall’s pet “Fanny Dog,” who “knows what her name is,” and “just how to come…” While singing about one’s dog could come off as a little cutesy for amp shredding garage rock, the music has enough vigor to keep the song light years away from cheesy.

“Rain” which starts as a piano led moper, with Segall singing, “I’m sick of the sunshine,” turns into what vaguely sounds like a Sicilian funeral march. The addition of horns to many of these songs gives Segall’s music an extra layer that we didn’t even know was missing. The horns play a prominent role on several of the album’s songs, giving a “Fun House” era Stooges chaos to “Talkin 3” or the sax blowing funk of “The Main Pretender.”

The band creates punk funk fusion with a cover of Hot Chocolate’s 1978 disco hit “Every 1’s A Winner.” Funk is found elsewhere on the LP in the liquid bass bump of “Despoiler of Cadaver,” which sounds like something that would emerge in the middle of a twenty minute live Phish jam. (A comparison that is meant as a compliment to illustrate the tune’s dark but weirdly infectious groove.)

“Shoot You Up’s,” fuzz guitar riff sounds simultaneously stoned and invigorated as it lazily leads the way to a falsetto sang conclusion and ripping guitar solo. “Shoot You Up,” is great hard rock but it is blown away by what emerges a few tracks later in the form of “She.” “She” is a lyrically slight, six and half minute exhilarating heavy metal guitar monster of a jam. It begins with a one guitar chug, before being joined by the bass and drums. A second guitar enters, and then the whole band is playing a riff that comes straight out of the playbook of Black Sabbath’s “Riff Lord,” Tony Iommi. After a short verse shouting, “Sheee! Sheee! She said, ‘I was a bad boy,” a sword fight of electric guitar and piano solos rip a hole in the space-time continuum. On the other side we can peer an alternate reality where Ritchie Blackmore and John Lord formed a less technically inclined garage punk version of Deep Purple. When the solos abate and hole closes, the song continues to grow in intensity as Segall shreds his vocal chords in a repeated shout of “Sheee!” It is a moment of pure rock animal-ism and it is goddamned beautiful.

The hold nothing back fury displayed on “She” combined with the musical eclecticism of the album as a whole makes “Freedom’s Goblin” a modern classic. Whether it’s summoning the spirit of George Harrison on the country rock of “Cry, Cry, Cry,” the riot grrl shout of “Meaning” (featuring vocals from Ty’s wife Denèe), the garage pop of “5 Ft. Tall,” or the Neil Young & Crazy Horse inspired guitar jam of “And, Goodnight;” Segall and company make genre bending sound astonishingly effortless.

“Freedom’s Goblin” shows that those who declare that rock music is dead, aren’t looking and more importantly, aren’t listening. Ty Segall and the Freedom band have created an album of music that could reanimate the corpses of thousand dead rock stars and still have swagger to spare. Essential tracks: “Fanny Dog,” “Rain,” “Every 1’s A Winner,” “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “The Main Pretender,” “Shoot You Up”, “5 Ft. Tall,” and fucking “She.”

CLASSIC ALBUMS: The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East

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In 1970 The Allman Brothers Band were struggling. The sextet consisting of vocalist and organist Gregg Allman, slide guitar virtuoso Duane Allman, second lead guitarist Richard “Dickey” Betts, bassist Berry Oakley, and dual drummers Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson and Butch Trucks had been playing a unique mix of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, soul and jazz that later became known as “southern rock.” Using this formula the Allman Brothers recorded and released two albums that despite receiving good reviews from rock critics, weren’t selling. Although the band had begun to gain a reputation as a formidable live act, without a hit record, their future as a band was in doubt.

Much like kindred spirits, the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers shows centered on long improvisational jams. Like the Dead, the Brothers found the studio confining. And just as the Dead did in 1969 with “Live Dead,” the Allmans believed the solution would be to record live in front of an audience. A live album from a band with no hit songs and a habit of stretching tunes well beyond the ten minute mark in concert, may not have seemed like the safest path to success, but the Brothers were confident.

Recording took place at New York’s Fillmore East on March 12th and 13th, 1971. The album was released the following July.

Opening simply with the announcement, “Ok, the Allman Brothers Band,” the band takes off into the Blind Willie McTell classic, “Statesboro Blues.” The song is a showcase for Duane’s explosive slide guitar riffs and solos over the Allman’s trademark southern boogie. The band further displays their classic blues credentials with with a funky cover of Elmore James’s “Done Somebody Wrong” and an extended take on T-Bone Walker’s oft covered slow blues, “Stormy Monday.”

Side 2 of the double album is another blues cover, “You Don’t Love Me.” The Allman’s version is a sped up foot stomping, ass moving nineteen minute boogie, full of extended guitar excursions from both Duane and Dickey.

The final three cuts filling sides 3 and 4 of the double album, are original Allman Brothers compositions. “Hot L’anta” is a short funky instrumental illustrating the band’s unparalleled ensemble playing.

“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” named after a random gravestone in a Georgia cemetary, is an instrumental piece that finds the Allmans venturing into jazz fusion territory. The song opens with Dickey performing slow moody volume swells before going into the song’s central dual lead guitar driven melody. The guitars harmonize beautifully over Gregg’s hammond B3, Berry’s dancing bass and the constant propulsive drumming of Butch and Jaimoe. Dickey takes the first solo followed by a brief organ solo from Gregg. Duane takes the next solo, an absolute face melter. Duane uses his solo spot to jam on the ‘Liz Reed melody while ramping up the instensity for nearly five minutes. Like a climber ascending Everest, his guitar ascends to a spectacular peak before slowing down and then again ascends beyond the mountain’s peak high into the atmosphere. After a short drum break, the band concludes the song with a brief repeat of the tune’s main melody. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed ” is a masterpiece, but it is only an appetizer for what is to come.

Occupying the entirety of the album’s fourth side, “Whipping Post” is a fucking guitar apocalypse. Duane humbly announces the tune to the audience as “a tune from our first album, Berry starts her off…” An excited fan calls out “Whipping Post,” to which Duane simply responds, “you guessed it.” From there, a potentially world destroying performance begins with Berry’s rumbling bass riff. The guitars both enter, one coming in with a slight grumbling tone, the other sounding like a jazzier counterpoint. Gregg sings the first verse leading into a four minute guitar solo from Duane, which seems to prove that his energy supply reaches into the infinite. Gregg sings another verse before Dickey leads the listener into the wormhole with his emotive guitar building, destroying and rebuilding everything in its path. As his first solo ends around the ten minute mark instead of returning back to the song’s verses, the bottom drops out and the band begins exploring the possibilities of the jam, with Dickey’s guitar leading the way through space. Another four minutes glide by before Dickey begins a slowly building blues influenced solo. As his solo reaches climax the entire band joins together to bring the song into several whiplash like crescendos, before returning to the main body of the song alternating between more of Gregg’s soulful singing and the bands exploratory passages. The entire epic closes twenty two minutes after it began. Listening to the album from the safety of your home stereo one can’t help but imagine the live audience standing there, stunned into silence, mouths agape, unable to process the force that had just melted their faces and liquified their brains. Then, incomprehensibly we at home hear the first few notes of “Mountian Jam,” before the grooves on the record run out. The record buying public would have to wait until the Brothers’ next album, “Eat A Peach,” to hear that thirty three minute epic in it’s full glory. Sadly, by the time of that album’s 1972 release, Duane Allman would be dead, killed after wrecking his motorcycle.

Slightly over a year after Duane, Berry Oakley would die in an eerily similar way after wrecking his motorcycle not far from where Duane had his crash.

The Allman Brothers Band endured and released their most commercially successful album, “Brothers and Sisters,” in 1973. Their success had been hard won, but it wouldn’t have come to pass without the Fillmore East album, which was the Brothers first hit record, selling 500,000 copies three months after its release.

“The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East,” has gone on to be revered as one of history’s greatest live records. The Fillmore recordings are a testament to the power of electric guitar solos, the blues and a really great live rock and roll band.

WELCOME TO THE 13TH FLOOR OF HELL

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Welcome to one of the trillions of amateur music blogs available on the internet. Congratulations on finding me! That ugly bastard in the above picture is me, the creator and currently only blogger here on the 13th Floor of Hell. I’d like to state up front that I am not a musician, nor am I a professional writer. I’m just another asshole going to concerts, collecting records and obsessing over this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. I need a place where I can freely write about the music that has led me to my life as a slave to the sound of guitar, bass and drums.

Rock n roll, or if you prefer, rock music, is no longer the cultural force it once was. Our current musical climate is now dominated by hip hop, pop and EDM. I’m not against this. This blog is not going to be a home of rockist screeds bemoaning the current state of music. I’m aware that rock n roll, like jazz before it, had it’s time. Now it’s time for new innovators to express themselves through the music that speaks to them. While I respect and applaud those who are currently making waves in the music world; it would be disingenuous of me to post a review of the latest Kanye West or Drake album. Maybe someday, this page will become widely read and I’ll have the resources to pay some young whipper snapper to write about all of the great stuff happening in the world of hip hop and electronic music, but for now you’re stuck with me and my musical obsessions. Here, for now at least, on the 13th Floor of Hell, my focus will be on rock, blues, soul and a touch of country (not pop country).

The glory days of rock, blues, and soul music may be past, but that doesn’t mean that this blog will only focus on past glories. While rock is no longer at the forefront of the culture, there is still a vibrant scene of young rock musicians around the world who both respect the past and want to bring the sounds of rock n roll into the future. My posts will include thoughts and reviews of classic albums, songs and artists, as well as those who are currently creating this music that I love.

For many of you, the word “rock ‘n’ roll” likely conjures up images of 1950’s era greasers with pompadour hair styles and leather jackets. You probably imagine piano pounding singers belting out the wonderful nonsense of “bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo.” You aren’t wrong. People like Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly were the inventors of rock ‘n’ roll. Their contributions can’t be ignored. However the music they invented spawned dozens of sub genres. Psychedelic rock, heavy metal, punk rock, progressive rock, new wave, surf rock, grunge, garage rock, shoegaze, goth rock, and indie rock, just to name a few. It’s my hope that I can touch on the many faces of rock ‘n’ roll. Of course I have my favorites. This blog will be heavily weighted toward the classic rock sounds of the 1960s and 70s, the peak era of rock ‘n’ roll innovation. However, I am dedicated to giving a complete picture of rock music’s rich history and variety, so I will also spend time talking about my favorite artists from before and after that exciting time period.

Lastly, I’d also like to mention, that no true lover of rock ‘n’ roll can fully appreciate rock music without also understanding the roots of it; the music that inspired the earliest rockers to pick up their guitars and fucking play. This is a website that will also talk about the blues, soul, r & b, and country music that were all ingredients in the stew that became rock ‘n’ roll. I hope you enjoy what you find here on the 13th Floor of Hell. Read it, share it, discuss it, and most importantly fucking rock it!