The Ultimate A To Z Of Album Reviews By Gary Steel – A

Gary Steel is slowly compiling all his album reviews in one place. This is a work in progress, or what we call a “live document”. Today is the letter ‘A’.

 

A

 

AC/DC – Highway To Hell (Atlantic)

1979/Evening Post

An uninspired but workman-like album by the Australian high energy heavy rock group. 6/10

 

A Certain Ratio – To Each… (Factory)

May 1982/In Touch

A Certain Ratio harness and discipline the ethereal. The ‘Flight’ 12-inch was astounding in its surreal, Joy Derivative trippiness. ACR’s first LP, To Each… is a series of evocative sounds tied to a curiously inhibited funk. Criticisms: Martin Hannett’s stiff production, the music’s occasional indulgences. Praise: Buy it and feel your aura dancing. Warning: Sensitive stereo systems avoid ‘Winter Hill’. 7/10

ACR – Force (Factory)

1986/Evening Post

Who knows the real meaning of the word ‘funk’? My good friend the crusty, dusty old Oxford Dictionary, defines funk as relating to strong smells or stinks, or alternatively, cowering fear or a state of panic.

I’m sure that whoever came up with the term in relation to a form of 20th-century music had an entirely different meaning in mind; its derivation has to be profane.

Who knows whether Major Tom’s a junky. I’d rather discuss the difference between funk and funky. A certain Ratio plays funk music, but it’s not funky. Jill Jones doesn’t, but is.

A Certain Ratio got their unfortunate name from a lyric on a Brian Eno song, blissfully unaware of the term’s Nazi connotations. Dumb move Number One. A band should know what its moniker means.

That aside, ACR (as we shall call them) were one of the most consistently interesting groups to emerge from post-punk Britain in the late ‘70s.

Factory Records label-mates Joy Division created a legend for themselves overnight when singer Ian Curtis topped himself. From that moment on, all other Factory bands were tarnished with the same image, and many of them did their best to comply. Few of them, however, have succeeded in throwing off the dominant shadow of the band “with the singer who hanged himself” (as one record sticker boasted at the time). And with ex-Joy Divisioners residing in the ranks of the decidedly second division New Order, a good 90 per cent of the label’s earnings come from just that one group.

Poor ACR. Didn’t stand a chance. Forget the fact that their music represented the first serious attempt by a seriously English band to adapt the American funk genre into a clipped superficially unemotional amalgam. That their dabbling with tapes and sound effects added a truly unsettling element to an already unusual blend. ACRs exploitation of the funk element wasn’t an abnegation of Britishness, which is the common affliction and a blight on old Blighty. ACR took funk and tuned its aesthetic into the structure of their music, adhering to the age-old British custom of stealing anything and everything from other cultures.

This music had composition, structure, rhythm, and weirdness besides, but it was unjustly ignored, possibly because the songs never took precedence over the musical entirety.

ACR went through a fallow period from 1983 to 1985. Deciding to become funk perfectionists, they temporarily lost most of what made them compulsive listening.

Surprisingly, they’re back in top form on Force. All the ACR trademarks are there, and it’s a perfect combination of their former approach and their newfound tightness. And they’re proper pop songs! ‘Fever 103 Degrees’ may begin with the sounds of the nightmare the lyricist experienced, but its chorus is pure pop. Likewise on ‘And Then She Smiles’, a commercial but lovely, life-affirming love song (even if it does end with the line “I can’t get through to you”!)

There’s literally a bit of everything here. Smooth soul on ‘Bootsy’, a humorous knees-up fandango on ‘Mickey Way’, depression on ‘Take Me Down’ (“I left my soul behind me, Oh God, I need it now”). Actually, to be totally honest, this guy’s got a penchant for pessimism in the lyric department. As early as the first song – ‘Only Together’ – he’s expressing a desire to “discover a reason for living”.

But before you begin telling your favourite hanging jokes, it’s worth stating that Force comes in two different formats: compact disc, which includes three bonus songs, and cassette tape which includes one whole side of material called The Old And The New. This invaluable collection includes the first ACR Eps in their entirety, along with a drummerless early dirge called ‘Sounds Like Something Dirty’, and samples of their more urbane recent outpourings. 9/10

Adam & The Ants – Kings Of The Wild Frontier (CBS)

1981/Evening Post

“Antmusic for sexpeople/Sexmusic for antpeople/You may not like it now but you will/(The future will not stand still).” – ‘Don’t Be Square Be There.’

The future will certainly not stand still for Adam and his Ants who are very much this month’s thing. They are so very gimmick-laden that although it is simple to deduce their appeal, they will surely be left high and dry as the world moves on to the next fad.

Adam was formerly a fashion punk who favoured bondage clothing and Nazi regalia. His early Ants were not successful, and when Sex Pistols entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren stole the group from under his feet, Adam set about forming a new Ants lineup and devising a new strategy.

Adam has it all worked out. He has taken a token tribalism (in particular that of the American Indian) and brought it home to the people, who of course, desire to belong to something.

Better Adam’s brave new order – sexpeople, true warriors, kings of the wild frontier (“A new royal family, a wild nobility”) – than the drudgery of everyday life and dreary fatalism of realistic modern music. Or is it?

His songs are juvenile in essence and utterly simplistic. The high points are ‘Don’t Be Square Be There’, ‘Ants Invasion’, and hit single ‘Dog Eat Dog’, a track with double-drum attack and production effort that obviously has not gone into the rest of the album.

And as for their use of old Shadows-type outtakes for guitar backing… 6/10

Herb Alpert – Keep Your Eye On Me (A&M)

1987/Evening Post

Uninspired, featherweight jazz is still uninspired, featherweight jazz, however dressed up it is in modern technology and Janet Jackson cameo appearances. But then, Herb can do what he wants. He runs A&M. 5/10

The Alpaca Brothers – Legless (Flying Nun)

1986/Wellington City

Rumour has it that the Alpaca Bros have less than a maestro’s grip on the fundamentals of fine musicianship. Their debut EP, Legless, is said to be a flying Fluke. Well… if this is what happens when, for one reason or another, and however it is achieved, you get legless, then it’s obviously a pastime worth pursuing.

Occasionally a bunch of bozos record their first fumbled musical flourish and come up trumps. That first inarticulate RUSH, if caught on a day when things are gelling, can be an inspiring experience. The Alpaca Bros have captured something of that on this loud, propulsive, largely tuneless but redeemingly humorous bash. 7/10

Laurie Anderson – Home Of The Brave (WEA)

1986/Wellington City

The world is awfully soft on Anderson. The much-heralded artiste has an astonishing reputation resting on the supposed strength of a singular album, her debut of some six years past, Big Science. Her third album-proper is a film soundtrack, and it simply puts another nail in the coffin. She meddles with ambiguous, cute, simpleminded experimentalism once again, but here she’s surrounded by newfound (or won) peers like guitarist Adrian Belew and media junkie William S. Burroughs; all of them adding nothing but pretence. The only memorable song is ‘Language Is A Virus’, and that’s nonsense; so is ‘Late Show’, which, hysterically, does a cut-up job on a spoken line from the master of cut-up, Burroughs. The only interesting piece of music is an instrumental, ‘Credit Racket’. So how has Anderson become so incredibly overrated? I couldn’t comment on the ‘performance art’ aspect of her presentation, but as music alone, her ouput barely cuts it. Perhaps Anderson just came along at a time when our young, upwardly mobile sophisticates were itching to get into some politically correct muzak? The fact that here was an obviously intelligent WOMAN who controlled her own art and sang about aspects of the modern world. WOW! It must be profound, y’know? No, I don’t. And it isn’t. 3/10

The Angels – No Exit (Albert)

1979/Evening Post

Another Aussie outfit, Sydney-based The Angels display much potential on No Exit. Catch them at their best on ‘I Can’t Shake It’ and ‘Mr Damage’ on which they fall somewhere between the hard rock of The Doors, the twin-guitar heroics of Thin Lizzy, and the intelligently neurotic angst of Lou Reed. It’s a calculated exercise, but their popularity in Australia shows they’re going about it in the right way. 7/10

Anthrax – Among The Living (Island)

1987/Evening Post

Have you ever tried moshing to a malignant boil? Thousands of American kids know what it’s like, and they know they like it! For the uninitiated, to “mosh” is to dance in a specifically deranged manner. A distant cousin to the punk slam dance, moshing is defined as the act “of hurling one’s body through a crowded concert hall with arms, legs and head flailing, preferably smashing into as many human and inanimate objects as possible.”

Moshing is what fans of Anthrax do. Anthrax is a malignant boil, manifesting itself as “Splenic fever” in sheep or cattle. It is caused by tiny organisms that, when introduced to the beast’s blood, multiply rapidly.

As you have guessed by now, Anthrax is also a rock group. And they may just be the most subversive, extreme thing to hit the scene in, well.. months!

Now, you must promise not to stop reading when you read the following two words. HEAVY METAL. Okay, anybody still out there? This time, the joke is on those who are too hip to listen, because Anthrax prove that it is possible to have brains on Planet Metal. If you want proof, listen to their debut New Zealand release, Among The Living on Island, a label famous for championing reggae and Marianne Faithful.

Some of you may still be chortling at the charming profile of the group’s mums and dads in a recent edition of Spin magazine. Others may have noticed with amusement the reports of their recent UK tour, where the longhairs rejoiced in their own ridiculous rendition of the Sex Pistols’ anthem, ‘No Future’.

None of this could have prepared us for the sensory assault delivered by the record. It presents itself as a bewildering and almost inhuman attack from beginning to end, a furious electric wall of layered punctuation and dynamics.

Noise-wise, I believe it can beat all-comers. There will always be an even louder record to beat me senseless, and I’m sure Flesh D-Vice person Gerald Dwyer would laugh at my assumption that this is the biggest and the bestest.

However, what we’re talking about here isn’t all dominance and submission. Musically – IF you can call this extreme statement “music” in the conventional sense – there’s much going on. And attitude-wise, there’s a deliberate shift away from the offensiveness of other metal merchants.

Anthrax have incorporated the power and dynamics of early ‘70s heavy rock, mixed it up with the speed and delivery of early ‘80s speed punk, and thrown in Beastie Boy-stye chants just to cap it all off. This music is tightly structured, disciplined and lethal.

Lyrically, instead of the standard metal misogyny, we get an ode to the terminally trendy 2000 AD comic character Judge Dredd (‘I Am The Law’), and a song inspired by a Stephen King thriller (‘Among The Living’). In ‘Caught In A Mosh’, they attack their very own audience.

But there’s more! Not only aren’t Anthrax woman-haters, but they’re anti-war and anti-nuke too! On ‘One World’ they chant “Ignorance is no excuse/For violence.” They’re also anti-drug (‘NFL’), anti-plastic people (‘Imitation Of Life’), pro-Red Indian (‘Indians’) and anti-Nazi (‘A Skeleton In The Closet’).

It’s a strange twist of fate. Mutant metal showing a streak of moral mettle that impotent alloys like Stryper (the inevitable clash between Christ and Metal) couldn’t hope to muster or master.

What I’m trying to say is this: Anthrax may be too loud and unsavoury and generally extreme for the average wallpaper fanatic, but they have made a record that, while it displays some of the usual HM juvenilia, has found the right balance between the various strands of absurdity that sometimes make “rock” music make perfect sense in a senseless society.

Your cat won’t like it. 7/10

Aotearoa – Tihei Mauriora (Jayrem)

1986/Evening Post

Contemporary reggae-rock for the modern Maori in which the message is the medium. This ignorant mono-cultural Pakeha desires a painless translation, but then the record’s not created with me in mind. So to the music, a mini-album’s worth of tepid strums and lazy saxophones. Only ‘Haruru Mai’ cuts through with conviction. The other six songs bob along pleasantly without successfully destroying the pub band tradition in favour of indigenous flavour. 5/10

(Jayrem) 12” single

1986/Evening Post

The pressing question is “why?” Why waste precious 12-inch vinyl slabs on two songs that neither particularly suit the format or hold their weight up as singles releases? ‘E Hine’ goes for relaxed balladeering, public bar guitar chording and cocktail cabinet ivory tinkling, whereas ‘Positive’ babbles cosmic cliches to a humdrum tune. Maybe their forthcoming second album will be the breakthrough, but for now, Aotearoa remain a good idea only. 4/10

Aotearoa – Revolution (Jayrem)

1987/Evening Post

On Revolution, Aotearoa have progressed from weedy quasi-reggae to big production, session muzak. Singing for ‘Our People’ benefits from a more joyful performance. Similarly, ‘Sweet Child’ is at least danceable, but it sounds cabaret to me. The best thing about it is the fake xylophone (ie, keyboard) sound on these two tracks. Otherwise, very ordinary. Cassette only. 5/10

Aqualung

Memory Man (Sony/BMG)

2007/Tone

It’s not easy to pin Aqualung, and that’s got to be a good thing. Sure, Matt Hales’ project could be compared in part to Radiohead and Coldplay and other recent British bands of a slightly old-fashioned (and perhaps overly morbid) disposition like Elbow, and there’s a little bit of blue-eyed soul which connects them, perhaps, to fellow technologically enabled Scottish group the Blue Nile. But I wouldn’t have thought of that had Memory Man not included a guest vocal by the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan.

But just as the Blue Nile did in the ‘80s with their Linn-associated debut, A Walk Across The Rooftops, Aqualung have made an album for their own era that disposes of conventional instrumentation in favour of synthetic equivalents, while talking to its listeners from an adult perspective rather than the usual terminal adolescence that blights rock’n’roll.

Aqualung does play ‘real’ instruments; it’s just that here they’ve gone crazy with a variety of instruments and simulations thereof, and then thrown every special effect that computer programmes and contemporary recording studio technology can come up with. Don’t get me wrong, this is not wild or radical music, and the group use their effects with economy and restraint. It’s just that they’ve come up with a different spin from an audio point of view.

Hales’ songs are partly negative state-of-the-world diatribes and partly more hopeful personal songs (the album was inspired by the recent birth of his son), but what really separates them from the pack is the dynamic way the songs are recorded. While most current pop music is compressed sonically so that a song will sound pretty much as loud all the way through, Aqualung songs have really quiet bits that suddenly explode in huge guitar riffs or crashing crescendos. So quite apart from whether the songs are any good or not, this makes for an aurally exciting listen. But the songs are good, and those who enjoy a well-crafted adult-oriented pop song with a dose of drama and passion will enjoy this rather good record. 7/10

Ardijah – Ardijah (WEA)

1987/Evening Post

Ardijah’s self-titled debut album was financed through the band’s victory at a breweries-sponsored competition. It sounds expensive, leaving no one in any doubt about Ardijah’s potential on the international market.

Ardijah’s soul/funk/disco blend reputedly cooks much harder onstage, but the album, despite a certain detached coolness, will wind up a requested dancefloor favourite. The average lounge-lizard won’t find much to titillate the intellect, but there is some sweet satisfaction to be found in Betty-Anne’s trilling vocalese, the sophisticated arrangements and the grooving rhythms.

Too often though, the songs are slight and they trot out worn-out soul lyric clichés too readily. Of course, many of their famous American counterparts do no better, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t write more imaginatively if they tried.

On ‘Like Me’, they flex their synthetic soul a little, hinting at a few future possibilities. I just hope mainman Ryan Monga doesn’t succumb to pressing ‘smoothist’ temptations. 6/10

Joan Armatrading – Steppin’ Out (A&M)

1979/Evening Post

Three words fairly sum up Joan Armatrading and her music: quality, style and sensuality.

Steppin’ Out, recorded during a recent North American tour, provides ample evidence of the lady’s “live” magic – a magic which Wellingtonians can witness in person this month.

British (formerly West Indian) singer/songwriter Armatrading’s live album is a worthy sample of her material, and an invaluable document/souvenir of the artist in concert.

Taking songs from her five studio albums, she ranges from the jazz-flavoured ‘Cool Blue Stole My Heart’ and the powerful ‘Tall In The Saddle’ to the sensual hit ‘Love And Affection’ and a spirited version of ‘Mama Mercy’.

Her band add tastefully rock-based backing, which unfortunately but only occasionally submerges subtleties in Armatrading’s distinctive voice – a voice which is at once delicately supple, raunchy and strident.

The Armatrading persona is one of warmth and humility, the talent unassumingly original. 7/10

 

Joan Armatrading – Walk Under Ladders (A&M)

Joan Armatrading’s earthy sensuality – that deep, strong yet vulnerable voice – made the trip worth our while. We could only ever take her in small doses, the strangeness of the song constructions and general wordiness created in us but a token demand.

Armatrading is no longer an acquired taste. It’s all milk and honey these days. Easy to swallow. Smooth and easy is the password and to be honest, much of Walk Under Ladders passes by again and again without making much of an impression.

Where before one wondered whether the idiosyncrasies were surmountable, now it appears that the easily assimilated new JA approach may have little worth beneath the groove. Her current thing is exquisitely crafted MOR pop songs, with that ideal blend of textured acoustic/electric counterpoint she’s given us all along.

My main quibble is that the songs are lyrically inane, all trivial sex matters that no-one bar JA and boyfriends will want to know about. She’s a long way behind the enlightened feminism of The Slits or The Raincoats.

Most catchy tune is ‘Romancers’. Ignore the criticisms and get into the late-nite mellow groove of it all. Delusions never hurt anyone, did they? 6/10

 

Peter Arnold – Rarer Than Radium (Flying Nun)

1986/Wellington City

Rustic flavourings with an uncanny psychedelic seepage, Rarer Than Radium is an EP recorded in a refreshingly simple style in a largely acoustic context. Arnold, with accompanist Claire Timings, has produced a record which, while short on song memorability, has a deft, insidious charm entirely attributable to the layered atmospheres. Listen to ‘Vision’ with its pleasant backwards guitar, and the resolutely nasty sentiments of ‘Anna Who Hates Me’. 6/10

 

Ashford & Simpson – Stay Free (Warner)

1979/Evening Post

An old-fashioned soul record with disco inflexions. Beautifully produced, and great sound quality. 6/10

 

Aspic – Absconded Damply (no label)

1981/In Touch

This record makes for interesting listening on those rare occasions in which find it possible to take a nosedive over musical preconceptions. Other times it merely seems incomprehensible. Absconded Damply is an amateurish home recording originating from the Auckland duo (?) who when we last heard them went by the name A Second Nose. (I could stand corrected on this rumoured information). The LP sounds as if it was recorded on a cheap cassette deck in the lounge of a flat with budgie chirping in the background and cooking smells wafting through. Taken in parts (there are five tracks in all) the disc is very interesting, especially the bits where you can’t tell if the static is dust on the needle or intended music. It’s the one with the plain brown sandpaper cover going cheap in your local record palace. 7/10

 

The Associates – The Affectionate Punch (Stunn)

1981/Evening Post

The Associates share with label-mates The Cure a line in clean, spare guitar melodies and an indescribably memorable rhythmic song construction. When their debut album The Affectionate Punch was recorded in mid-1980 the group consisted of vocalist/songwriter Billy Mackenzie and guitarist/composer Alan Rankine. The album, recently released here, is a minor masterpiece.

Mackenzie’s voice swoops with ease and peels off high, clear notes with the melodrama of light opera, the passion of soul and the style of Bowie. This voice, combined with the linear sound and insidious hooks of The Associates’ music, makes for much pleasurable listening.

There is a clear standout track in ‘Amused As Always’, with its rollicking rhythm and vocal pyrotechnics. The lyrics, too, are impressively intelligent. In ‘Dogs In The Wild’, which could be a western movie theme tune, Mackenzie tackles the human race for its inhumanity to its own kind: “Even dogs in the wild/Will protect and will care for/Whatever means most to them.”

The Associates need perseverance, but they are worth the effort. 8/10

 

Axemen – Three Virgins (Flying Nun)

1986/Evening Post

Hellbent on the self-inflicted mission to murder music, Christchurch aggregation the Axemen come off the streets, out of the garage, and into your living rooms.

Three Virgins is four sides of aural aggravation, crazed abandon, obscure eclecticism and meaningless meandering. Blues, country, gospel and rock and roll go into their grinder, are deranged and spew out in slithers with enthusiastic relish that resembles, if not a sound, something distinctly Axemen.

The Axemen are artless, but that’s not the central dilemma. Where The Fall – for instance – utilise their artlessness and prove their brilliance in so showing up art pretence, the Axemen’s implied caricaturing neither works as satire nor the real thing. Where The Residents – for instance – plunder the arcane delights and deep mysteries of our mouldering culture to an end that’s illuminative, the Axemen’s amateur enthusiasm never translates into anything but inept irritation.

Three Virgins operates mostly in two modes: semi-acoustic sing-a-long country blues, and a ‘60s psychedelia that was parked in the garage too long.

Given the chance to create daring, innovative music, the Axemen have instead opted for massive self-indulgence. I suppose Three Virgins is good value for money, as it seems to last forever. An extra rating for enterprise. 5/10  

 

Azymuth

Azymuth (Far Out/Southbound)

1975/2007/Tone

There’s a peculiar type of music fan who spends his time scavenging grotty old slabs of vinyl for that special groove or riff or antiquated sound. Invariably, he’s a would-be DJ who harbours a desire to sample said musical nugget and extract it to a contemporary club context. The first album by Brazilian group Azymuth – languishing unreleased in the West from its first appearance in 1975 until this Far Out label remaster – is a perfect example of vinyl scavenger nirvana.

In no way is it anything particularly special, despite liner notes that claim its ‘legendary’ status. By and large, these are low-key, relaxed slices of Latin jazz-fusion ordinariness. Its compositions are forgettable, and outside of a certain slinkiness, it lacks character. But it’s a goldmine because its arrangements and performances are superb; crucially, it comes from a time when analogue synthesisers sounded really fruity, and the technology, combined with fluid Latin rhythms, makes for moments of DJ bliss.

Hence the second CD of remixes by contemporary DJ/producers, including NZ-based American Recloose, As One (aka Kirk De Giorgio), Marc Mac (4 Hero) and others famous in their own tiny orbit. In some instances, the raw track is simply subjected to a sprinkling of fairy dust, but more commonly, these tracks contain mere fragments of the original pieces. The contrast between the two discs provides an interesting comparison between the analogue world of ‘70s real-room multi-track recording and the digital environment of the present.

By and large, these are excellent slices of current dance-floor-oriented music with just enough of a Latin vibe to create the right atmosphere for some private dancing; and audio buffs who turn their noses up at ‘electronic’ music might be surprised at just how mouth-watering these synthetic derivatives are, with real depth and heft to the bass and outstanding imaging. It’s rare for remix projects to have any merit, but this one, which stylistically veers from techno to house to jazzy electronica, is a delight pretty much over its entire 58 minutes. 7/10

 

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