Billy Breathes by Phish

Billy Breathes by Phish

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Billy Breathes by PhishAs their sixth official studio album, Billy Breathes is an early indication of Phish moving towards more mainstream rock music. Here, the four-piece group combined folk, rock and psychedelic into standard-length, accessible numbers with a good sense of melody and song craft. As a result, this 1996 release remains one of the most popular albums by a band better known for its jam-band fused live performances and moderately sized by avidly dedicated fan base.

After the release of their first two official studio album, Junta in 1989 and Lawn Boy in 1990, Phish began to design intricate and highly interactive concerts. Guitarist and front man Trey Anastasio led the band in giving musical cues for the audience to react in certain ways and band members would often switch instruments to make their live shows truly original. As a result of the band’s growing popularity,they were signed to Elektra Records with 1992’s A Picture of Nectar being Phish’s first release on that label. This was followed by the studio albums Rift and Hoist in 1993 and 1994 respectively and the live album, A Live One, which became the group’s first gold-selling album in 1995.

After rehearsing at their independent recording studio in Vermont, the group migrated to Bearsville Studios in the Catskill mountains of nearby New York state to record in early 1996. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the album features an almost equal split of compositions co-written by Anastasio and lyricist Tom Marshall and songs credited to all members of the band.

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Billy Breathes by Phish
Released: October 15, 1996 (Elektra)
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite
Recorded: Bearsville Studios, Bearsville, NY, February–June 1996
Track Listing Group Musicians
Free
Character Zero
Waste
Taste
Cars Trucks Buses
Talk
Theme from the Bottom
Train Song
Bliss
Billy Breathes
Swept Away
Steep
Prince Caspian
Trey Anastasio – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Page McConnell – Keyboards, Vocals
Mike Gordon – Bass, Vocals
Jon Fishman – Drums, Vocals
Billy Breathes by Phish

The only song that can be considered a “hit’ from Billy Breathes is the opening track “Free”, which reached #11 on the Mainstream Rock charts. Starting with a straight and direct droning rock background, this inventive song crams a lot of differing musical phrases into its less-than-four-minute duration. The start of “Character Zero” is a sparse blues arrangement before breaking in with heavy rock elements, including a driving drum beat by Jon Fishman and a bouncy bass by Mike Gordan. “Waste” is mainly quiet acoustic ballad, with a kind of “slacker love story” theme. As the song progresses, there is a subtle building in arrangement and a good sense of melody by Anastasio. The bridge is the first real place where the song fully realizes its dynamics and is followed by an exquisite piano lead by Page McConnell.

Almost like a musical exercise in maintaining odd timing and rudiments, “Taste” gives the impression that all band members seem to be playing contrasting parts but somehow this all works at a certain tension-filled level. In contrast, McConnell’s short instrumental, “Cars Trucks Buses”, falls into a nice groove throughout and gives much space for his organ and piano leads. The same dreaming, descending acoustic riff is repeated through the entirety of “Talk”, with differing musical accompaniment along with a sing-songy vocal melody. At just under six and a half minutes, “Theme from the Bottom” is the longest track on the album. It starts with a simple, dark and dissonant piano which is soon joined by upbeat rhythmic groove for a nice counter-effect. The second half of the song comes a mainly instrumental blistering rock section. The urban-folk sounding “Train Song” was co-written by guest Joe Linitz and Gordon, who provides whimsical lead vocals for the track.

Phish

The latter part of the album features the products of many improvisations during the album’s pre-production. “Bliss” features slow acoustic textures which gradually fade into an atmospheric instrumental. The title track, “Billy Breathes” hearkens back to seventies soft folk with modest, understated vocals along with rich harmonies in the chorus. Then comes the excellent and unique bridge section with banjo joined by slight and sharp brass songs before Anatasio’s top level guitar lead ushers the song with interesting chord pattern behind to make it a high point on the album. The final three tsongs complement each other and sound like they could’ve been a single, cohesive suite. “Swept Away” is quiet and reserved acoustic folk in a very short moment of mood, like it could have been an intro to some television or theatrical performance. “Steep” is pure psychedelic driven by keyboard and pedal effects before a rich vocal section dominates the second half of short track. “Prince Caspian” meanders in before an electric riff acts as bedding for the song’s main hook. The song proper of this closer is quite repetitive to get its lyrical point across before it again slowly dissolves into a fade with one final “shock” rock riff reprise to end the song and album.

When recording was wrapping for Billy Breathes, the band made a snap decision to use a a closeup shot of Mike Gordon’s face as the album’s cover, something Anastasio later said he regretted. Nonetheless, the album sold very well and remains, along with 2000’s Farmhouse, as one of the commercial peaks of Phish’s long career.

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1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1996 albums.

Badmotofinger by Soundgarden

Badmotofinger by Soundgarden

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Badmotofinger by SoundgardenLaying the sonic foundation for their most successful run as a band, Soundgarden delivered their first of a trio of critically acclaimed albums with 1991’s Badmotofinger. The third studio release by this Seattle-based hard rock band, the album features a variety of guitar textures, rhythms with unique time signature combinations and soaring vocal patterns above droning tonalities, making it an art rock centerpiece and a mainstream metal work.

Deriving from a band called The Shemps in Seattle in the early 1980s, the group’s original member was vocalist and (former) drummer Chris Cornell. Guitarist Kim Thayil was originally enlisted as a bassist but moved to guitar when the original Soundgarden took form as a trio in 1984. The band released a pair of EPs in 1987, followed by their independent debut album, Ultramega OK, the following year. After a successful tour supporting that album, Soundgarden signed with A&M Records and released the 1989 mainstream metal album, Louder Than Love.

After working with several bassists, the group hired Ben Shepherd in 1990, just prior to the Badmotorfinger recording sessions. The album was recorded at several west coast studios in the spring of 1991 with producer Terry Date, with who they had previously works. In between the album’s recording and October 1991 release, Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron recorded the album Temple of the Dog by the supergroup of the same name.

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Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden
Released: October 8, 1991 (A&M)
Produced by: Terry Date & Soundgarden
Recorded: A&M Studios, Los Angeles; Studio D, Sausalito, CA; Bear Creek Studios, Woodinville, WA; March-April 1991
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Rusty Cage
Outshined
Slaves & Bulldozers
Jesus Christ Pose
Face Pollution
Somewhere
Searching with My Good Eye Closed
Room a Thousand Years Wide
Mind Riot
Drawing Flies
Holy Water
New Damage
Chris Cornell – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Kim Thayil – Guitars
Ben Shepherd – Bass
Matt Cameron – Drums

Badmotofinger by Soundgarden

The album commences with “Rusty Cage” and the intro call and response guitar licks which precede the thumping drive of the song proper. The core of this tune features a mesmerizing, de-tuned guitar riff by Thayil which used a wah wah in the low position used as a filter for added effect. This song was later recorded by Johnny Cash for his 1996 album Unchained. “Outshined” features Cornell’s animated vocals over a quasi-doomy riff and rhythms through the verses. In an interesting juxtaposition, the song’s choruses are more melodic and accessible with some fine harmonies. Co-written by Shepherd, “Slaves and Bulldozers” is built on a strong bass riff through the nearly seven-minute drill-em-to-death approach, which is fine for a certain kind of listener mood.

The most controversial song on Badmotofinger was the lead single “Jesus Christ Pose”, a group composition with wild rhythms and screeching guitar chords which seem to be ready-made for an action sequence in a movie. Cornell’s vocals are at the top of his register, adding to the overall feeling of nervousness with the oft-misunderstood lyrics speaking of the exploitation of religion for personal benefit. “Face Pollution” is the first of two solo compositions by Shepherd, with this one being a heavily punk influenced track with a punk-like length of just over two minutes. “Somewhere” follows as a more of a standard rock song with heavy use of rhyming and emphasis on melody. “Searching with My Good Eye Closed” features Cameron playing interesting beats and just enough fills during the droning song proper, with Thayil playing well-effected long-noted guitar patterns to give it all a late sixties psychedelic effect.

Soundgarden in1991

While having some sonic highlights, the latter half of the album loses a bit of steam. Besides having a really cool name, there is really nothing special about “Room a Thousand Years Wide” as an audio song. “Drawing Flies” is another fast, drilling song by Cameron but fades out too fast making it sound like filler, while “Holy Water” is a sloshy, grunge rocker and the closer “New Damage” is one final, dramatic guitar and vocal-centered screed which leaves the album with an ominous message for the listener. The best of this set of songs is “Mind Riot”, which combines a good bass riff intro with guitars entering in turn with a fine effect, and when drums finally enter with an odd tempo, it all resolves with a really cool vibe going that is kind of bluesy and somewhat Eastern influenced.

Badmotorfinger was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1992 and the album has been certified two times platinum, selling over a million and a half copies in the United States. The album’s success led to an extended North American tour and built the foundation for much greater success later in the decade.

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1991 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1991 albums.

Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox Twenty

Yourself or Someone Like You
by Matchbox 20

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Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox TwentyA blockbuster debut for Florida-based rock band Matchbox 20, the 1996 album Yourself or Someone Like You hit the post-grunge sweet spot with popular music fans as it became a big hit worldwide. This success was especially true in the group’s native United States, where the album reached Diamond status by selling in excess of 12 million copies. Further, the formula employed on this record was strongly influential in the wake of its release.

Originally called “Tabitha’s Secret”, the band was formed in Orlando, Florida by composer and vocalist Rob Thomas, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette. Eventually, session man Adam Gaynor and classically trained Kyle Cook were recruited as the band’s guitarists to complete the quintet as Matchbox 20 earned a recording contract with Atlantic Records.

Yourself or Someone Like You was recorded in Atlanta in Spring 1996 with producer Matt Serletic, a former member of Collective Soul. Nearly a decade after its release, the subject on the front cover sued the band, claiming the photo was taken as he was walking down the street after being asked to pose.

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Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox 20
Released: October 1, 1996 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Matt Serletic
Recorded: Atlanta, GA, June 1996
Track Listing Group Musicians
Real World
Long Day
3 A.M.
Push
Girl Like That
Back 2 Good
Damn
Argue
Kody
Busted
Shame
Hang
Rob Thomas – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Kyle Cook – Guitars, Vocals
Adam Gaynor – Guitars, Vocals
Brian Yale – Bass
Paul Doucette – Drums

 
1996_matchboxtwenty-yourselforsomeonelikeyou_150

All the songs on Yourself or Someone Like You were written by or co-written by Thomas and the album is quite top-heavy in the sense that the first six tracks were all released as singles. The opener “Real World” starts with strong, twangy guitars in the intro, setting an upbeat pace for the album with choppy, vocal-driven, theatrical verses and a chiming guitar lead before third verse. “Long Day” makes a sudden, acoustic entry before suddenly smashing into a strong electric rock arrangement after two lines. This song builds much tension until it is dispelled by a twangy guitar lead before the acoustic bridge, which in turn leads to a strong song outro. “Long Day” was the first single from the album, released in late 1996, but was not as successful as future singles through 1997 and 1998. One of those successful songs, “3 A.M.”, was composed by several group members along with John Joseph Stanley back in the days of Tabitha’s Secret. This features a patient, in turn acoustic and electric intro, with a catchy leading riff preceding each line of the verses. Bittersweet to the core, the true genius of this song is that it can be interpreted in many different ways, making it the best overall song on the album.

“Push” is another one of of the band’s successful singles as a melodic ballad with enjoyably strummed electric guitar and ironic lyrics which are delivered through the ever-intensifying chorus sections. “Girl Like That” seems to hearken back to the pop music of the early eighties, with a new-wave fused pop/rock and plenty of accessible décor, including sharply stopped riffs and a slight backing vocal chorus. The longest track on this album full of succinct songs, “Back 2 Good” includes a rich arrangement of orchestral instruments to add to the overall melancholy mood. Technically, this 1998 single release would prove to be the biggest hit song from Yourself or Someone Like You, due to discrepancies in charts.

Matchbox 20

The album’s second half is much less effective as several tracks seem to cover well-tredded ground. “Damn” is a methodical rocker with a steady rock drum beat which persists throughout and “Argue” is another pleasant rocker musically. “Kody” is a moderate acoustic track with twangy electric overtones and somber lead vocals, while “Busted” and “Shame” feature differing levels of pop accessibility. The closing, somber acoustic ballad, “Hang”, features inverted roles as Thomas plays some acoustic guitar and Cook shares lead vocal duties.

Yourself or Someone Like You charted in countries around the world, reaching the top in Australia. It would be nearly a half decade before Matchbox 20 would release their second album, Mad Season, in 2000. Through the decade of the 2000s, the group would have steady but declining success, solidifying this debut album the commercial peak of their career.

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1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1996 albums.

No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne

No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne

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No More Tears by Ozzy OsbourneOzzy Osbourne entered the second act of his successful solo career with 1991’s No More Tears. This sixth studio album would go on to become his second best-selling in North America, behind 1980’s Blizzard of Ozz and has gone on to be certified quadruple platinum. This is quite an accomplishment considering so many acts that found success in the 1980s were greeted less enthusiastically during the heart of the 1990s grunge and alternative wave.

Prior to this album, Osbourne had struggled to find his musical footing following the untimely death of guitarist Randy Rhoads in 1982. Osbourne first invited blues guitarist Gary Moore but to no avail and several temporary guitarists were used during early eighties tours. Jake E. Lee joined Osbourne’s band to record Bark at the Moon and The Ultimate Sin, but he departed the group by 1987. In 1986 drummer Randy Castillo joined Osbourne’s group with guitarist Zakk Wylde coming on board the following year to form a new quartet along with long time bassist Bob Daisey.

For No More Tears, Osbourne initiated the practice of bringing in outside composers to co-write songs. Motorhead bassist and front man Lemmy Kilmister co-wrote four tracks on the album, with producer John Purdell co-composing another track.

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No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne
Released: September 17, 1991 (Epic)
Produced by: Duane Baron & John Purdell
Recorded: A&M Studios and Devonshire Studios, Los Angeles, 1991
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Mr. Tinkertrain
I Don’t Want to Change the World
Mama, I’m Coming Home
Desire
No More Tears
S.I.N.
Hellraiser
Time After Time
Zombie Stomp
A.V.H.
Road to Nowhere
Ozzy Osbourne – Lead Vocals
Zakk Wylde – Guitars
Bob Daisley – Bass
Randy Castillo – Drums
No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne

The album starts with sounds of children playing with accompanying xylophone effects before inevitably “Mr. Tinkertrain” kicks in fully with a hard rock arrangement in this odd anthem about a a pedophile. “I Don’t Want to Change the World” is the first song co-written by Kilmister and has a fire-one type approach with heavy guitar riffs taking turns with the verse vocals. Lemmy also co-rote the hit “Mama, I’m Coming Home”, which starts with finely picked acoustic folk guitar by Wylde and a great sense of melody by Osbourne. The song craftily makes its way through several sections before getting to the main hook and inventive lead section, never lingering unnecessarily and making it a rare Top 40 hit for Osbourne.

After the driving rock track “Desire”, the album reaches its climatic title track. “No More Tears” is built on a cool bass line composed by future bassist Mike Inez, although Daisley actually plays the bass on the song). Adding to the rich arrangement is keyboardist John Sinclair, who provides deep-string synths at the top and builds to an orchestral crescendo and piano pattern in the bridge. Osbourne later stated that the song’s lyrics are about a serial killer.

Ozzy Osbourne band-1991

While not as popular as the earlier tracks, the second half of the album contains a set of interesting rockers. “S.I.N.” features flange-drenched guitars and a surreal vibe, as “Hellraiser” provides the final entry by Kilmister and would also be recorded by Motörhead for their 1992 March ör Die album. The chiming guitar and bass intro of “Time After Time” sets the mood for this moderate pop/rocker with radio-friendly dynamics in a track where Wylde is set free and given enough room to soar free with his ethereal guitar chops. “Zombie Stomp” is built on thumping bass, scratched guitar and some percussive effects by Castillo in a rhythmic intro that builds much tension for over two minutes before the song proper kicks in. “A.V.H.” (“Aston Villa Highway”) has a cool acoustic blues intro before exploding into a metal-fused rocker with high-pitched wails by Osbourne alternating with the melodic chanting of the fine choruses. Wylde finishes this tour de force of an album with the multi-textured guitar ballad “Road to Nowhere”, where Osbourne examines mistakes from his past. It was meant to be a final farewell as he seriously contemplated retirement following this record.

In fact, following the release of No More Tears Osbourne proclaimed the subsequent concerts the “No More Tours” show as he publicly proclaimed his retirement from music. This was to be a short-lived vow as Osbourne returned with Ozzmosis in 1995, another very successful album.

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1991 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1991 albums.

Test For Echo by Rush

Test for Echo by Rush

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Test For Echo by RushRush evolved from the synth-drenched style of previous albums with the 1996 release, Test for Echo. The musical style delivered by the Canadian trio hearkens back to the hard rock sound of the group’s earliest years but with a definite diffusion of lyrical themes. At first listen, the songs may be a bit thick, but once you get through this opaque outer atmosphere you can hear the real underlying genius of this record.

Rush started to move away from its 1980s style with Presto and, to a lesser extent, on their early nineties albums Roll the Bones and Counterparts, both of which were produced by Rupert Hine. In each of these cases, it was evident that the band was attempting to forge a distinct and relevant sound.

Their sixteenth studio album and first one beyond the trio’s twentieth anniversary, Test for Echo was produced in collaboration with Peter Collins. Released three years after its predecessor, this album marked the first time that such a lengthy gap happened between studio albums as each of the band members embarked on outside projects. During this time, drummer Neal Peart studied with jazz great Freddie Gruber, which led to his radical decision to change to a more traditional grip from that point forward in his career.


Test for Echo by Rush
Released: September 10, 1996 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Peter Collins & Rush
Recorded: Bearsville Studios, New York & Reaction Studios, Toronto, January–March 1996
Album Tracks Group Musicians
Test for Echo
Driven
Half the World
The Color of Right
Time and Motion
Totem
Dog Years
Virtuality
Resist
Limbo
Carve Away the Stone
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Keyboards
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Mandola
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion, Dulcimer

Test for Echo by Rush

Test for Echo starts suddenly and dramatically with a strong but measured chord pattern that builds ever so subtly before erupting into a classic-Rush style rudimentary riff. Stylistically, this song seamlessly passes through multiple repeating sections, while thematically it is a somewhat poetic commentary on life. The song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and nearly topped the Canadian Singles Chart, making “Test For Echo” Rush’s most successful single in about a decade. The equally intense “Driven” starts with a hyper-tense riff in an odd-timing with a strategic verse break of Alex Lifeson‘s acoustic guitar to temporarily break the tension. Lyrically, this song explores the dangers of over ambition.

“Half the World” is another philosophical rocker with animated and entertaining music throughout. Here, Geddy Lee provides some of his finest bass work on the album, with Lifeson layering some great electric and acoustic guitar textures. “The Color of Right” has a heavy blues rock feel in the vein of AC/DC through the intro, while the rest of the song drives through with nice, upbeat textures, making it a fine listen, but just short of its full potential as it doesn’t unravel like it could. While including some of the regrettable eighties-style synths, “Time and Motion” does thankfully settle into a guitar-centric riff jam for the verses and choruses, while “Totem” features another musical jam, albeit a mocking tone lyrically against people of faith.

Rush, 1990s

While still an entertaining listen, the album becomes a bit disjointed and uneven from this point forward. “Dog Years” may be the nadir of the album lyrically, while “Virtuality” is the most grunge-centric musically with some very dated lyrics;

Net boy, net girl send your signals around the world…put your message in a modem and throw it in a cyber sea…”

Yikes!

The highlight of the later part of the album is “Resist”, which starts with moderate a piano and acoustic verses, accented with fine bass and lead vocals. This is a true change of pace for the heavy rock album and gives it some real depth overall. Following the bass-driven near-instrumental of “Limbo” with slightly comical elements, “Carve Away the Stone” closes things out with Lifeson’s majestic electric guitar and Peart’s lyrical theme about removing obstacles in life.

Test for Echo reached the Top 5 on the album charts and was followed by an extensive North American tour by Rush into 1997. However, personal tragedy in Peart’s life lead to a five-year hiatus by the group into the next century.

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1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1996 albums.

 

Sunshine Superman by Donovan

Sunshine Superman by Donovan

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Sunshine Superman by DonovanEnglish folk singer Donovan found a new voice with his eclectic and slightly psychedelic third album, Sunshine Superman. Originally released in the US in September 1966, the album would not be released in Donovan’s native country until much later due to a professional contractual dispute. This record is notable as one of the first pop albums to extensively use the sitar and other Eastern musical instrumentation while maintaining an overall radio-friendly sound.

Born Donovan Philips Leitch and of Scottish descent, Donovan’s initial breakthrough came in London in early 1965 with the folk-inspired single “Catch the Wind” and the subsequent acoustic folk albums What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid and Fairytale. However, Bob Dylan’s famed trip to the UK that spring pigeonholed Donovan as a British “Dylan clone” in the press, a label he desperately wanted to shake and establish his own distinct musical identity.

In late 1965, Donovan was introduced to producer Mickie Most who, in turn, collaborated Donovan with top-notch London session players such as future Cream bassist Jack Bruce and future Led Zeppelin members John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page. Further, the early 1966 sessions for Sunshine Superman branched Donovan’s music out into the realms of jazz, blues, Eastern music, and psychedelic pop. These sessions proved to be very prolific and included early recordings of several tracks which were omitted from this album but appeared on later studio albums and collections.

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Sunshine Superman by Donovan
Released: August 26, 1966 (Epic)
Produced by: Mickie Most
Recorded: Columbia Studios, Hollywood & EMI Studios, London, January-May 1966
Side One Side Two
Sunshine Superman
Legend of a Girl Child Linda
Three King Fishers
Ferris Wheel
Bert’s Blues
Season of the Witch
The Trip
Guinevere
The Fat Angel
Celeste
Primary Musicians
Donovan – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Donovan – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jimmy Page – Guitars
Eric Ford – Guitars
Spike Healy – Bass
Bobby Orr – Drums

Released a few months before the album of the same name, “Sunshine Superman” made an immediate impact which launched it to the top of the charts as Donovan’s sole number one hit in the USA. The song is rhythm built with stand-up bass by Spike Healy along with a slight sitar by Shawn Phillips in a simple but clever arrangement with subtle psychedelic elements and a cool rock guitar lead. This first product of the artist’s collaboration with Most is a vanguard of the fusion of psychedelia in pop music.

“Legend of a Girl Child Linda” is a finger picked, traditional folk track with elongated vocals and fairy-tale like images painted by the thick lyrics. “Three King Fishers” is pure, Eastern-flavored folk with heavy reverb on the vocals and a delivery which foreshadows Syd Barrett on Pink Floyd’s debut a year later, while “Ferris Wheel” makes a slowly progressive entrance before (as its name suggests) it gives a sense of childhood adventure. “Bert’s Blues” closes the first side as a smokey yet truly sixties flavored jazz track with a fine arrangement including harpsichord and string quartet.

Donovan in 1966

“Season of the Witch” features a funky electric arrangement with a unique and weird vibe that was entertaining enough to make the song a minor hit in November 1966. “The Trip” features a bluesy acoustic rhythm in the intro which is soon joined by the deeper rhythms of bass and drums and a slight stream-of-consciousness lyrical delivery by Donovan. This forthright, acid-themed song gradually builds into a nice groove through its four minute duration with the inquisitive hook “What goes on?” being repeated throughout. After the subtle, finger-picked English style ancient folk of “Guinevere” comes an overtly psychedelic and strongly Eastern-influenced gem called “The Fat Angel”. The album closes strongly with “Celeste”, featuring somber but melodic vocals which perfectly accent the gentle strumming and somewhat spastic overlays of tones, making it spacey and Earthy all at once.

After its release in September 1966, Sunshine Superman was a huge success in America. Due to contractual disputes between Pye Records and Epic Records, it wouldn’t be released in the UK until mid 1967, after Donovan had already released a successful follow-up album, Mellow Yellow in the US.

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1966 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1966 albums.

Beautiful Freak by Eels

Beautiful Freak by Eels

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Beautiful Freak by EelsAlthough it is officially the debut of the rock trio Eels, the 1996 album Beautiful Freak is in reality the third album by composer and performer Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by stage the name “E”. The collaboration of four studio producers (including Everett), this album is filled with simple tracks of moderate tempo which employ exquisite arrangements and production methods to deliver a unique listening experience.

A native of Virginia, Everett migrated to Southern California in pursuit of a music career. In the early 1990s, he released two solo albums (under the name ‘E’) on Polydor Records, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop. Released in 1993, this latter solo album included drummer Jonathan “Butch” Norton. However, with limited commercial success, E was in search of a new record deal and identity. Along with Norton and bassist Tommy Walter, the group “Eels” was formed, with the name chosen in part so group records would be placed next to E solo albums in record stores.

Eels were one of the first groups to sign with the new DreamWorks Records and they spent the early part of 1996 in the studio recording Beautiful Freak with producers Jon Brion, Mark Goldenberg and Michael Simpson.


Beautiful Freak by Eels
Released: August 13, 1996 (DreamWorks)
Produced by: Jon Brion, Mark Goldenberg, Michael Simpson & E
Recorded: 1996
Album Tracks Group Musicians
Novocaine for the Soul
Susan’s House
Rags to Rags
Beautiful Freak
Not Ready Yet
My Beloved Monster
Flower
Guest List
Mental
Spunky
Your Lucky Day in Hell
Manchild
E – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Tommy Walter – Bass, Vocals
Jonathan “Butch” Norton – Drums, Vocals
 
Beautiful Freak by Eels

Throughout the duration of Beautiful Freak, there are original and eccentric pop-oriented tunes with contrasting lyrical themes of melancholy and despair. “Susan’s House” features spoken vocals and Everett’s observations of human misery as he walks towards the home of an ex-girlfriend and musically features a sampled piano from an older recording by Gladys Knight & the Pips. The song is followed by grunge-oriented “Rags to Rags”, which features an interesting drum pattern by Norton as well as a strong overall rock arrangement during the choruses. The album opener was also the first single released by Eels, “Novocaine for the Soul”. Co-written by Everett and producer Mark Goldenberg, this track features a pleasant and steady rock arrangement with good melody which helped make it a minor international hit.

“Beautiful Freak”, the album’s title song, features electric piano and very somber vocals by Everett, While the lyrics are a little weak on this track, the surreal and sad mood makes up for this deficiency. Co-written by guest guitarist Jon Brion, “Not Ready Yet” is a sad tune about recovering from disaster and feeling the isolation of that situation. The longest track on the album, this song leaves plenty of room for musical grooves as it is bass and rhythm-driven with several guitar overdubs. “My Beloved Monster” with a very slight banjo before the electric guitar-driven song proper begins and, during the second verse and beyond a bouncy bass and feedback effects add a real edge to the sonic qualities of this song. Co-written by Keyboardist Jim Jacobsen who provides a cool  synthesized choir, “Flower” may be the highlight of the entire album. Melodically and lyrically this track works very well as a sad slacker creed with the clever refrain; “everyone is trying to bum me out…”

Eels in 1996

The later part of the album has more solid tracks which remain within the spirit of the overall album while also introducing some nice new methods. “Guest List” is built on funky, descending bass while “Mental” features an upbeat bass/key riff by Walter and some hard rock chording in the choruses. “Spunky” has a lyrical sense of reserved enthusiasm which matches the song’s title as “Your Lucky Day in Hell” is soulful with cool rhythms, effects and high-registered vocals. The album wraps “Manchild”, the most traditional, “lover’s lament” ballad on the album, co-written by Jill Sobule, with a long, surreal fade-out with sound effects to usher out the album.

Following the release of Beautiful Freak, Eels toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Although Walter departed from the band in September 1997, Eels would go on to release ten further studio albums (to date) and have had a long and distinguished career.

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1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1996 albums.

 

Master of Reality by Black Sabbath

Master of Reality
by Black Sabbath

Buy Master of Reality

Master of Reality by Black SabbathBlack Sabbath‘s third album, Master of Reality, sees the quartet building on the foundations of their two 1970 albums and exploring new fusions of heavy rock n roll. Some of this was by design and some by a spontaneous happy accident resulting from the frenzied recording sessions in between a relentless touring schedule. The result was a highly influential album which was also the group’s most commercially successful record of their classic era.

Recorded in late 1969, the group’s self-tiled debut album contained a heavy dose of dark themes but was a surprise hit on both sides of the Atlantic. To build on this momentum, Black Sabbath returned to the studio just four months after the debut’s release to record Paranoid, which migrated lyrical focus more towards real world themes. Combined, these first two albums altered the rock landscape by solidifying “heavy metal” as a sub-genre. Following Paranoid‘s release, Black Sabbath launched their their first tour of the USA.

Master of Reality was recorded during the Spring of 1971 with producer Rodger Bain, the group’s third and final collaboration with this producer. Leading the group’s sound was guitarist Tony Iommi, who expanded his instrumentation to include keyboards and flute and tuned his guitar down a few semi-tones to produce a darker sound. The material on this eight-song album is also very diverse in themes, styles and rhythms.


Master of Reality by Black Sabbath
Released: July 21, 1971 (Vertigo)
Produced by: Rodger Bain
Recorded: Island Studios, London, February–April 1971
Side One Side Two
Sweet Leaf
After Forever
Embryo
Children of the Grave
Orchid
Lord of This World
Solitude
Into the Void
Group Musicians
Ozzy Osbourne – Lead Vocals
Tony Iommi – Guitars, Keyboards, Flute
Geezer Butler – Bass
Bill Ward – Drums, Percussion

The album begins with its most indelible tune, “Sweet Leaf”, with an odd but memorable beginning which is actually Iommi choking on a joint between recording takes. The song then instantly launches into a slow, simple but powerful distortion-drenched riff and, after two verses, Sabbath breaks into a rapid jam with bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward following Iommi in playing rapidly before returning to the main theme, which feels even more potent at this point. The lyrics are an unabashed love song to a piece of choice vegetation and is credited and is cited as the birth of stoner rock. “After Forever” has a less doomy, more upbeat rock feel with some synthesizer by Iommi who also provides a twangy but heavy opening guitar riff. The lyrics were written by Butler and mainly focus on Christian themes, which contradicted the views that many held of Black Sabbath as Satanic;

“Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say if they knew you believe in God above? They should realize before they criticize that God is the only way to love…”

The half minute long “Embryo” is an odd interlude, which sounds like it has Scottish origins and acts as an intro to the dramatic side one closer, “Children of the Grave”. This mostly straight-forward, heavy jam contains some anti-war themes and has been cited by vocalist Ozzy Osbourne as the group’s most “kick ass song”.

Black Sabbath, early 1970s

The album’s second side features some lesser known tracks, starting with “Orchid”, a finger picked, folk acoustic instrumental which at once adds some real character to the album and is slightly surreal in its hypnotic repetition of patterns. “Lord of this World” returns to the doomy metal but with very animated drums by Ward in the beginning and later sloshes through some bluesy rock riffing and slight jamming. “Solitude” starts with some picked guitar and a unique bass pattern by Butler, while Osbourne’s somber vocals are almost English folk in verses as a very laid back, dark and moody track. “Into the Void” features the crisp, strong riffing during the extended intro before the song eventually migrates to the classic-style song proper as an interest jam to complete the album.

Certified double platinum after selling 2 million copies, Master of Reality was Black Sabbath’s only Top 10 album in the US until the year 2013. The group built on this success with a world tour through 1972, before finally taking a break to work more methodically on their follow-up album.

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1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1971 albums.

Foreigner 4

Foreigner 4

Buy Foreigner 4

Foreigner 4Foreigner 4 was a platinum-selling commercial blockbuster for the group Foreigner in 1981. It spawned several highly successful singles and began the group’s transition from a hard rock band to a more mainstream, pop outfit. Aside form being the group’s fourth studio album, ‘4’ symbolizes Foreigner’s downsizing from six-members (as they had been since their inception in 1976) to a four member band.

Released in 1977, 1978, and 1979 respectively, the group’s fist three albums – Foreigner, Double Vision and Head Games – were each more successful than the last. However, co-founders Al Greenwood and Ian McDonald were fired from the band by guitarist and primary composer Mick Jones who wanted more creative control in the band’s direction.

Jones collaborated with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, who had recently had huge success with AC/DC’s Back In BlackForeigner 4 was recorded at Electric Lady Studios and featured several songwriting collaborations between Jones and lead vocalist Lou Gramm, who had especially strong performances throughout this album.

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4 by Foreigner
Released: July 2, 1981 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Mick Jones and Mutt Lange
Recorded: Electric Lady Studios, New York, 1981
Side One Side Two
Night Life
Juke Box Hero
Break It Up
Waiting for a Girl Like You
Luanne
Urgent
I’m Gonna Win
Woman In Black
Girl On the Moon
Don’t Let Go
Band Musicians
Lou Gramm – Lead Vocals, Percussion
Mick Jones – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Rick Wills – Bass, Vocals
Dennis Elliott – Drums, Vocals

 

The opening track “Night Life” is a natural extension of tracks from Head Games as a riff and beat driven rocker with a catchy hook which capitalizes on the post-disco party themes of the day. “Juke Box Hero” is a much more original track, starting with a deep synth bass and a heartbeat-like kick drum by Dennis Elliott during initial verse. Led by Gramm’s dynamic vocals, the song builds to a crescendo leading up to the chorus hook, with storytelling lyrics about a wanna be rock star. “Break It Up” is the ultimate example of Jones’s rock style as a rudiment filled guitar/riff and choppy piano tune which may be the best overall track on the album. The song’s spectacular arrangement also features great bass throughout by Rick Wills and finishes with a slight but effective guitar lead during the outro.

Foreigner in 1981

Foreigner the rock band of the 1970s met Foreigner the ballad churners of the 1980s at the junction of “Waiting for a Girl Like You”. Dominated by keyboards throughout, from the ethereal synth with descending riff in the opening, to the slow and measured electric piano which guides the verses and choruses, the song became a Platinum-selling power ballad with the unique distinction of spending a record-setting 10 weeks at number 2 on the American pop charts without ever reaching the top. “Luanne” finishes the album’s first side as a pure rocker with some 50s, 70s and 80s elements mixed together for an overall pleasant and entertaining tune. The smash #1 hit “Urgent” starts with a unique, sharp synth riff and popping bass that makes for a pure rock dance track. Gramm’s vocals place it solidly on the rock side more than the dance side, but the song has a uniform vibe which makes it infectiously catchy. The song also features a signature saxophone lead by guest Junior Walker.

Through the rest of the second side of the album, Foreigner 4 has tracks of more standard rock fare, not terrible but not enough to make this album a classic. “I’m Gonna Win” is a hard rocker with good, accessible and dynamic vocals as it builds throughout in intensity and energy. “Woman in Black” is a song where Jones really shines on guitar on many levels, providing a chorus of entertaining rock riffs and licks throughout with the many different textures throughout this composition. “Girl On the Moon” has a haunting quality with pedal-drenched guitars interacting with suddenly appearing synth motifs. On this track, a short but interesting bridge and lead section follows the first chorus. The album wraps with “Don’t Let Go”, an incomplete song which seems to have the makings of a really solid track but falls just a bit short.

Foreigner 4 was an immediate hit in its day, hitting #1 position on the Billboard album chart for 10 weeks. Through the years, the album reached platinum level 6 times over and, despite latter pop success, would be Foreigner’s commercial peak.

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1981 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1981 albums.

 

Fire of Unknown Origin by Blue Oyster Cult

Fire of Unknown Origin
by Blue Öyster Cult

Buy Fire of Unknown Origin

Fire of Unknown Origin by Blue Oyster CultFire of Unknown Origin was released during an era when Blue Öyster Cult fully embraced their mythical “cult” status amoung hard rock fans, a feature of early eighties coolness which propelled them higher than they probably deserved. Still, this album is a quality jam of non-pretentious rock which still sounds pretty potent three and a half decades later. The songs on Fire of Unknown Origin are clearly theatrical, which may suggest an intended concept work. However, a closer listen proves that this is not the case, it is simply a collection of rock songs.

The New York based quintet was prolific in recording and touring through the early 1970s before their breakthrough fourth album, Agents of Fortune in 1976, which featured the group’s trademark hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. The group followed with the studio albums Spectres in 1977, Mirrors in 1977, and Cultösaurus Erectus in 1980, as well as the multi-platinum selling live album, Some Enchanted Evening in 1978. These albums all received a fair amount of critical acclaim but differing levels of commercial success.

The group’s eighth studio album, Fire of Unknown Origin was produced by Martin Birch and took a noted pivot towards the use of more synthesizers and other New Wave elements. Concurrently, the band’s sound also become even more theatrical with the lyrics more mysterious and cunning.

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Fire of Unknown Origin by Blue Oyster Cult
Released: July, 1981 (Columbia)
Produced by: Martin Birch
Recorded: Kingdom Sound Studios, New York & The Automatt, San Francisco, 1981
Side One Side Two
Fire of Unknown Origin
Burnin’ for You
Veteran of the Psychic Wars
Sole Survivor
Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver
Vengeance (The Pact)
After Dark
Joan Crawford
Don’t Turn Your Back
Band Musicians
Eric Bloom – Guitars, Vocals
Donald Roeser – Guitars, Bass, Vocals
Allen Lanier – Keyboards
Joe Bouchard – Bass, Vocals
Albert Bouchard – Drums, Keyboards, Vocals

 

The album’s title song was co-written by longtime collaborator, Patti Smith. “Fire of Unknown Origin” is a pure eighties funk/pop song, complete with the keyboards of Allen Lanier as co-lead instrument. The track features an interesting groove with a good level of intensity and motion, highlighted by the excellent dual guitar lead above the animated, hi-hat infused drums of Albert Bouchard. “Burnin’ for You” is THE Blue Oyster Cult classic from their later era. Everything comes together on this composition by Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, from the layered flanged-out intro guitars to the rich intro vocal chorus to classic bass riff by Joe Bouchard in the verses under smooth vocals by Roeser. An early MTV video favorite, this song spent three weeks in the Top 40 and topped the Billboard Top Tracks chart.

The intense and dramatic “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” was co-written by vocalist and guitarist Eric Bloom with British author Michael Moorcock. This intense and dramatic mini-suite is ushered in by a theatrical drum beat with Bloom’s vocals working well with the descending synth patterns. “Sole Survivor” kicks off with a cool bass and slightly treated vocals by Bloom during the highly melodic verses. The choruses have a strong hook, giving the song an overall sense of variety and style in spite of some cheesy but fun electronic effects during the final verse. “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver” matches its title as a heavier track than anything on the first side, probably pretty potent for its day but, in retrospect, about at the same level as your garden variety hair band anthem.

Blue Oyster Cult

The album’s second side “Vengeance (The Pact)” was written by the Bouchard brothers and features a smooth intro with choppy rock verses. This track has interesting music and melodic passages throughout its multiple distinct parts. “After Dark” starts with a punk-flavored drum shuffle with New Wave-like bass, guitars, and keyboards on top, making this the most “modern” sounding track on the album. Starting with an extended solo concert piano section, “Joan Crawford” is the controversial track on the album as it unabashedly tries to cash in on the “Mommie Dearest” phenomena of the day. This track does break into a decent rock groove with rapid piano accompanied by choppy guitar riffs and really does fit in with the other theatrical themes on the album. “Don’t Turn Your Back” comes in directly from “Joan Crawford” and settles into a unique vibe built by beats in odd measures, a jazzy bass line and smooth vocal melodies and harmonies. This closer still has strong rock elements, especially through the drums and guitar lead, but is ultimately in a sub-genre that is hard to identify, which makes it truly original.

Fire of Unknown Origin reached the Top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be the final studio album with the band’s original lineup for seven years, a duration in which Blue Öyster Cult lost much of its commercial momentum, making this 1981 album their high water mark.

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1981 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1981 albums.