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

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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

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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

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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.

 

Blue by Joni Mitchell

Blue by Joni Mitchell

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Blue by Joni MitchellThe fourth album by Joni Mitchell, the 1971 release Blue, saw the folk singer reach her highest critical acclaim. The album employs sparse musical arrangements leaning heavily towards the folk genre, with Mitchell playing acoustic guitar, piano, or dulcimer as the primary instrument to accompany her vocals. Lyrically, each of the songs on Blue hone in on a specific feeling, situation or, in many cases, a specific person.

A Canadian native, Mitchell first sang publicly at bonfires before finally pursuing a paid gig at a folk and jazz club in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1962. She intended to pursue a career in art rather than music, but grew disillusioned by the priority given to technical skill over creativity in art school, so she migrated several times (to Toronto, Detroit, New York, and finally Los Angeles) in pursuit of a career as a folk singer. Before receiving widespread notoriety as a performer, Mitchell had success as a composer by writing several songs made popular by other artists, most notably Judy Collin’s Top 10 hit “Both Sides Now” in 1967. The following year, Mitchell released her debut album, Song to a Seagull, followed by Clouds in 1969 and Ladies of the Canyon in 1970, with each release being more popular and critically acclaimed than its predecessor.

Mitchell decided to stop touring for a year and focus solely on writing and painting. During this time she also took an extended tour of Europe, which was fertile ground for some of the “travelogue” songs that would appear on Blue. After recording in early 1971, an original version of the album was set for release in March but Mitchell decided to replace two of the songs with last minute compositions, delaying the album’s release until June.


Blue by Joni Mitchell
Released: June 22, 1971 (Reprise)
Produced by: Joni Mitchell
Recorded: A&M Studios, Los Angeles, 1971
Side One Side Two
All I Want
My Old Man
Little Green
Carey
Blue
California
This Flight Tonight
River
A Case of You
The Last Time I Saw Richard
Primary Musicians
Joni Mitchell – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Dulcimer
James Taylor – Guitars
Russ Kunkel – Drums, Percussion

On of the last minute additions to the album, “All I Want” starts this off with a bright and heavy use of an Appalachian dulcimer and is presented as a pop/folk song with great melody. “My Old Man” follows as the first of several solo piano tune which was presumably written about Mitchell’s former love interest Graham Nash. The sad but beautiful “Little Green” is the first true folk tune on the album, utilizing an Open G tuning to give each note a clean, ringing sound. The song was originally written in 1967 and cryptically spoke of Mitchell’s daughter who she gave up for adoption in 1965 and did not reveal to the world until decades later.

“Carey” is an upbeat tune with a much richer arrangement than most of the tracks on the album. Mitchell’s vocals and dulcimer are backed by bass from Stephen Stills and slight percussion by Russ Kunkel. In a way, the music on this track previews some of Mitchell’s more complex material later in the seventies, while the lyrics straddle the line between idealism and material comfort. The slow and melancholy, piano-fused title track finishes the first side as a slightly anti-drug, “the party’s over” type of lament.

Joni Mitchell in 1971

“California” features a cool acoustic by Mitchell and James Taylor, on top of which the singer employs plenty of lyrical and dynamic improvising. The song’s lyrical theme is based on her longing for home while traveling in France. “This Flight Tonight” has a darker acoustic feel with a descending chord structure in the pre-chorus. The lyric tell of the singer’s regrets as she departs on a flight and the song was later rearranged into a hard rock classic by the band Nazareth.

“River” is a Mitchell solo piano ballad, which borders on being a Christmas song. It is told from the perspective of a person in a warm climate, longing for the cold and frozen ‘river” through poetic and inventive lyrics, with Mitchell slightly incorporating “Jingle Bells” on the ending piano. “A Case of You” is a methodical solo acoustic track with a subtle, second guitar by Taylor and features joyous, love-themed lyrics synonymous of “drinking in” a person like beer or whisky. The album concludes with “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, a piano ballad with ethereal vocals and lyrics which document Joni’s brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell while struggling to be a folk singer in the mid 1960s.

Beyond its many subsequent accolades, Blue was also a commercial success in its time, reaching #15 in the US and #3 in the UK. With the album’s success, Mitchell decided to return to live touring and continued on to develop some of the most interesting music of her career.

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1971 Images

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

Odelay by Beck

Odelay by Beck

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Odelay by BeckOdelay is a rich sonic tapestry which incorporates elements of grunge, punk, folk, country, blues, rap and other elements, including a heavy use of sampling from established songs. The album was the fifth overall and second major label release for Beck and became his breakthrough effort into mainstream critical and commercial success. Overall, this record is an eclectic, zig-zagging experience which seems to employ an effort to include something for various groups of musical fans.

A pre-high school drop out from Los Angeles, Beck Hanson worked a stream of menial jobs while trying to establish a career as a folk and blues performer in the late 1980s. After migrating to New York, Beck became involved in the East Village’s anti-folk scene and began to write free-associative songs. In 1992, he recorded the experimental, hip-hop infused anthem, “Loser”, which was released as a limited, 500-copy single in early 1993 but received heavy radio play and topped the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Between 1993 and 1994, Beck released three independent albums; Golden Feelings, Stereopathetic Soulmanure, and One Foot In the Grave; as well as the major-label debut Mellow Gold in 1994. Beck also began performing on major tours and festivals, a workload which made it quite ironic that he was deemed king of “the slacker generation”.

In its original sessions, Odelay was slated to be an acoustic-driven album. Eventually, Beck abandoned this approach and enlisted the Dust Brothers (E.Z. Mike Simpson and “King Gizmo”) as co-producers, who infused their heavily-treated, layered percussive back-beats to many of the tracks. Odelay was also the first full-fledged production where Beck had the time and budget to indulge in compositional creativity.


Odelay by Beck
Released: June 18, 1996 (DGC)
Produced by: Beck Hansen & The Dust Brothers
Recorded: various studios, 1994-1996
Album Tracks Primary Musicians
Devils Haircut
Hotwax
Lord Only Knows
The New Pollution
Derelict
Novacane
Jack-Ass
Where It’s At
Minu
Sissyneck
Readymade
High 5 (Rock the Catskills)
Ramshackle
Beck Hanson – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Harmonica, Percussion
Mike Boito – Keyboards, Trumpet
Joey Waronker – Drums, Percussion

Odelay by Beck

Most of the songs on Odelay were co-written by Beck, John King and Michael Simpson, starting with “Devils Haircut”. This opener features a heavy rock riff with the first of many sampled electronic rhythms, complete with well-placed sound effects between the verses and choruses. “Hotwax” changes direction with a bluesy acoustic intro, soon joined by electric elements in an enjoyable groove through the heart of the song as well as a slightly hip-hop vocal approach by Beck. “Lord Only Knows” replicates the Rolling Stones’ many renditions of country/rock, especially in the vocal delivery and upbeat acoustic rhythms with slide electric overtones. “The New Pollution” is a basic, repetitive sample song with a decent vocal melody until the mid-section, which includes a distant saxophone and some good keyboard effects, while “Derelict” features a longer and more complex repeating percussive pattern in trying to accomplish a certain dark vibe. “Novacane” is the first track on the album which goes full hip-hop, excessive scratching et all.

The album regains focus with the sixties flavored folk/pop, “Jack-Ass”. Featuring a good mixture of acoustic and electric guitars and a sharp xylophone pattern. This song samples a cover of the classic “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, originally by Bob Dylan on the album Bringing It All Back Home. The even more popular,
“Where It’s At”, features a great, laid back electric piano during intro and verse before launching into full robotic hip-hop chorus chant as a nice fusing of genres. The song was written and first performed in 1995, and features some of the better lyrics and rhyming on the album;

Pick yourself up, off the side of the road, with your elevator bones and your whip-flash tones / Members only, hypnotizers, move through the room like ambulance drivers…”

“Minus” is a track that is a bit different, production wise, as it gets into a decent but thick rock groove before unfortunately breaking apart near the end. The whistling intro of “Sissyneck” soon breaks into a quasi-country/rap, which is at once stylistic but also partially farcical. Ultimately, the fine slide steel guitar by guest Gregory Liesz makes this song worthwhile as a fine listen.

Beck

The album wraps up unevenly with its three final disparate tracks. “Readymade” delves back into the avante garde, driven by Beck’s bass and guitar rhythms and vocal melody along with short flourishes of interesting lead instruments. “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” is the dreadful nadir of the album as a kitsch hip-hop rendition which detracts from the finer elements of the album. The album concludes with the excellent dark ballad “Ramshackle”, with a laid back acoustic arrangement and slightly harmonized vocals during the choruses that sweeten it up just enough to make it all soar.

Odelay was a Top 20, platinum selling album on both sides of the Atlantic and received several Grammy nominations in years subsequent to its release. In the wake of its release, the album at once propelled Beck’s career and opened up scrutiny on the legalities of album sampling use in new albums, which pretty much assured that this exact approach would not be replicated again.

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1996 music celebration image

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

 

Fly Like an Eagle by Steve Miller Band

Fly Like An Eagle by
Steve Miller Band

Buy Fly Like An Eagle

Fly Like an Eagle by Steve Miller BandWith his ninth studio release, Steve Miller struck commercial gold in the quadruple platinum selling 1976 album, Fly Like An Eagle. The music on the album moves through phases of psychedelic-folk, acid-blues, soul, blue grass and other types of roots genres, while the lyrical melodies and hooks help to maintain a pop-centric sensibility which results in a very accessible, catchy and easy listen throughout.

Miller formed the Steve Miller Band in San Francisco in the late 1960s as a psychedelic/blues group and soon negotiated a fairly lucrative five album deal with Capitol/EMI in 1967. Those five albums were recorded and released within a relatively short period of time (1968-1971) to mixed commercial success. The better tracks from these five were rolled into the 1972 double album compilation, Anthology. The following year, the group went through a major change in personnel as well as musical approach for the chart-topping album The Joker.

As producer of Fly Like An Eagle, Miller entered the studio in 1975 with bassist Lonnie Turner and drummer Gary Mallaber and ultimately recorded enough material for a double length LP. Miller instead opted to release two single albums concurrently, with Book of Dreams following a year later in May 1977.


Fly Like An Eagle by Steve Miller Band
Released: May 20, 1976 (Capital)
Produced by: Steve Miller
Recorded: CBS Studios, San Francisco, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Space Intro
Fly Like an Eagle
Wild Mountain Honey
Serenade
Dance, Dance, Dance
Mercury Blues
Take the Money and Run
Rock n’ Me
You Send Me
Blue Odyssey
Sweet Maree
The Window
Primary Musicians
Steve Miller – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Lonnie Turner – Bass
Gary Mallaber – Drums, Percussion

Miller’s synth arpeggios using an ARP Odyssey machine set the mood for the title track, “Fly Like an Eagle”. Slow and soulful, the track musically features Miller’s slightly funky intro guitar riff and the choppy Hammond B3 organ by Joachim Young. Miller’s lead vocals and hook carry this Top 5 song best with a soaring sensation to match the song’s title and the slightest recurring synths for effect. Written by Steve McCarty, “Wild Mountain Honey” enters from the dissolve of a previous track as a psychedelic folk song with Eastern influence. A synth lead over subtle percussion, with the slightest flavoring of sitar. this song is a bit elongated to absorb the full vibe and complete this smooth but psychedelic opening sequence.

“Serenade” is a transition tune, as an adventurous, driving strummed folk/rock song with harmonized vocals throughout, which works to ease the album’s sound down towards the roots music to follow. On “Dance, Dance, Dance”, the album takes a radical turn away from the mid-seventies space/pop towards a pure blue grass diddy with multiple acoustic instrument textures. This track was co-written by Joseph and Brenda Cooper and features an authentic lead dobro by John McFee as the musical highlight of this hoe-down. The cover of the 1940s song “Mercury Blues” follows and is delivered in an effective way which maintains its original R&B feel while subtly adding mid-seventies rock elements. The popular “Take the Money and Run” commences side two by continuing the “down home” sequence. An anthem for the slacker outlaw, this catchy and upbeat tune features slight chanting lyrics and excellent drumming by Mallaber throughout, with Miller delivering a thick and chorded guitar which works with the sharp and dynamic beats.

Steve Miller Band in 1970s

The aptly titled pure pop/rocker “Rock n’ Me” flew to the top of the charts as an inversion of Free’s earlier hit “All Right Now”. The rock guitar riff sets the edge before the song proper utilizes deadened classic rock chord patterns all under the exceptional vocal melodies and a traditional tourist effect lyric, which names several American cities along the way. After a forgettable rendition of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”, the album recovers with a couple of interesting tracks. “Sweet Maree” is an authentic acoustic blues with a wild harmonica by James Cotton. This song keeps a very basic arrangement through several distinct sections with only some fine electric blues guitar and slight tambourine percussion joining the ever-present acoustic and harmonica. The closing track, “The Window”, slowly swells into a soulful organ/acoustic groove with sonic textures similar to the title song, book-ending the album in a fine, consistent way.

Fly Like An Eagle was a hit worldwide, peaking at #3 in Miller’s native USA. The following year’s Book of Dreams was a similar success, making the mid-to-late seventies the most successful phase of Miller’s long career.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

Invisible Touch by Genesis

Invisible Touch by Genesis

Buy Invisible Touch

Invisible Touch by GenesisGenesis completed their full metamorphosis into a pure pop/rock outfit with 1986’s Invisible Touch, the top selling album of the group’s long career. The group’s thirteenth overall studio album, it is also notable for spawning five singles which reached in the Top 5 on the pop charts in the United States, making Genesis the only non-American act to accomplish that feat on a single album.

Prior to Invisible Touch, the trio had much success with the 1983 album, Genesis which topped the charts in the UK and went on to sell over four million copies. Following a tour to support that album, the group took a break while each member worked on solo projects. Keyboardist Tony Banks worked on the film Lorca and the Outlaws in 1984, while lead vocalist / drummer Phil Collins released his third successful solo album, No Jacket Required in 1985. Guitarist and bassist Mike Rutherford formed Mike + The Mechanics, who released their commercially successful debut album in 1985.

In late 1985, the group began work on Invisible Touch with producer Hugh Padgham, who had worked on the group’s two previous albums. The album’s tracks were all written entirely through group improvisations with no material pre-developed prior to the studio sessions.

CRR logo
Invisible Touch by Genesis
Released: June 9, 1986 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Hugh Padgham & Genesis
Recorded: The Farm, Surrey, England, October 1985–March 1986
Side One Side Two
Invisible Touch
Tonight, Tonight, Tonight
Land of Confusion
In Too Deep
Anything She Does
Domino
Throwing It All Away
The Brazilian
Musicians
Phil Collins – Lead Vocals, Drums, Percussion
Mike Rutherford – Guitars, Bass
Tony Banks – Keyboards, Bass

The album explodes into full eighties synth glory with the opening title track. “Invisible Touch” features electronic drums and synths which complement the fretless bass and vocals. The popular song went on to be Genesis’s only #1 single in the United States. “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” is another electronic song but with a slightly cool mechanical vibe due to Banks’s synth work. This track should have and could have been a much more effective opener and, even though the lyrics are nearly nonsensical, the musical effects carry this song through its eight and a half minute duration.

Genesis in 1986

“Land of Confusion” is the most rock oriented song on the first side built with Rutherford’s guitar riff and a synth bass arpeggio by Banks. The fine bridge section also brings this song closest to the classic Genesis of years earlier. The fourth hit from side one, “In Too Deep” is a pure adult contemporary love ballad, featuring Banks on electric piano and Collins hitting some impressive high notes vocally. There is only the slightest guitar presence by Rutherford, who reserves his playing to a very laid back and standard bass throughout the track.

The second size starts with the frenzied and upbeat “Anything She Does”, with lyrics about the porn business. The sound complete with synth horns and ska-like rhythms, making this an overall fun song which sounds less dated than most of the rest of the material on Invisible Touch. The ten minute, two part suite “Domino” is a bit uneasy and uneven. The first part, “In the Glow of the Night”, is really just another synth-driven, cheesy tune with slightly dramatic, almost paranoid lyrics. The second part, “The Last Domino”, is a little more interesting with a driving rhythm and subtle, distant organ setting the soundscape.

A refreshing return to pop excellence and the highlight of the album, The Top 5 hit “Throwing It All Away” features Rutherford’s soul-influenced guitar and Collins’s sweet but desperate vocal melody. Banks adds just the right amount of synths to make this a classic ballad for the decade and, ironically, the title works to do the exact opposite as far as this album is concerned – it salvages it. The album concludes with the instrumental, “The Brazilian”, an electro, synth piece which is a big let down after the fine ballad preceding it. The best part of the piece is Rutherford’s slight guitar lead near the end, but unfortunately the song is already fading out by the time this solo really starts to heat up.

Invisible Touch became the band’s fourth consecutive album to top the UK charts and peaked at #3 in the US. The group soon embarked on their largest world tour to support the album, Playing over a hundred dates through 1986 and 1987.

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1986 albums.