Tag Archives: Black Sabbath

Lady Margaret – Trees

The observant will note that we’ve slipped into our annual series of posts on folk-rock. Every autumn, folk gets me. It’s the most autumn-appropriate music I know.

“This station is King’s Cross-St Pancras. Change here for Circle & Hammersmith, Metropolitan, Piccadilly and Victoria lines, and mainline, intercity, suburban and international rail services. This train terminates at High Barnet.”

Aficionados of the London Underground will be able to tell you that the voice of the Northern line – the woman whose voice has been used to create station announcements like the above – is Celia Drummond. Aficonados of British folk-rock, meanwhile, will be able to tell you that the lead singer of Trees, a band that welded post-Grateful Dead psychedelic guitar to post-Fairport Convention electric folk over two albums made in 1970, was Celia Humphris.

Both Celias are the same Celia. Acid-folk singer Celia Humphris of the obviously stoned-out-of-their-minds Trees can be heard giving station announcements all over the country. She also, her online advert says, provides a convincing Marge or Lisa Simpson.

All this was several decades in the future when Trees main man Bias Boshell hit upon an idea. It was a strong one. Fairport Convention’s A Sailor’s Life (from Unhalfbricking, released in 1969) had set a template for how long, strophic folk ballads could be played by rock bands: begin gently, then slowly raise the tension until at some point the thing explodes – this being the moment the drummer stops playing patterns on the tom-toms and gives the snare drum what for instead.

With that formula established, the next step was simply to turn up the volume of the guitars. After all, rock was getting louder by the minute (Led Zeppelin’s first two albums were released in 1969, Black Sabbath’s debut in early 1970), so why not crank the guitars up? Why not use them to dramatise and comment upon the tale being told? Why not let them be as violent as songs being sung?

On Lady Margaret, from The Garden of Jane Delawney, Trees adhered to the Sailor’s Life formula, up to a point. There’s a stoned looseness to the opening few minutes, drummer Unwin Brown seeming a bit unsure whether to take the song in Levon Helm-esque half time or match the busy tempo of the guitars (mixed hard left and right). Celia Humprhis is no Sandy Denny, but she does her job well enough as the calm eye of the gathering storm, her voice cut-glass and her diction precise.

The way Trees approach the song’s heavy section is the chief difference between their style and the Sailor’s Life model.

Even as personnel changed, Fairport in their early years consistently had one of the finest rhythm sections in the land. Rock music is ultimately about drums (which is why Zeppelin rocked harder than Sabbath – sorry, they just did), and Martin Lamble was a very fine drummer indeed, managing a rare combination of power, authority and swing. Fairport in their Unhalfbricking era, before Lamble died in a terrible accident on the M1, are vastly underrated as a rock band. (Go listen to Lamble on A Sailor’s Life and Genesis Hall, then come back here. I’ll wait.)

Unwin Brown doesn’t come to Lady Margaret with the intention of playing two and four hard, throwing in some fills and letting the lead players do their thing, as Lamble does on A Sailor’s Life. Brown’s feel is looser, Moon-like; the cymbals are prominent, the snare is a more quicksilver presence, and Barry Clarke’s thickly distorted guitar gets the spotlight. Listen to A Sailor’s Life when walking, running, driving, or doing anything at all, and your pace will increase. Listen to Trees doing Lady Margaret and you’ll slow down, stop even, and nod your head. It’s head music.

Trees only made the two records, The Garden of Jane Delawney (the title track – written by Bias Boshell – is stunning) and On the Shore (check out Murdoch for a representative track), but became a cool reference point during the mid-noughties among freak-folk acts. Betwen 2008 and 2011, I played guitar in folk-rock band called Carterhaugh that was consciously looking to blend folk song with heavy and psychedelic rock, and we adopted Lady Margaret to that end. It never stopped being fun or challenging; what do you play when a song is seven minutes long with no chord changes, just a droney modal melody? Fortunately I had Trees’ example to follow – step on the wah pedal and wail.

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Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing wide-open fifths (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.

Will You Love Me Tomorrow – Ronnie & the Prophets (Gerry Goffin, 1939-2014)

Gerry Goffin, lyricist, died on Thursday. He was 75. With his first wife, Carole King, Goffin co-wrote some of the finest popular songs of all time: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Natural Woman, Up on the Roof, Wasn’t Born to Follow, and many more. As such, he was one of the key architects of pre-Beatles pop.

Plenty of people have sung Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and the song has proven adaptable to any number of treatments: the Shirelles’ original paired Shirley Owens’s vulnerable vocal with a perky backing track; Carole King’s own version pared it down to piano and vocal; Dave Mason from Traffic layered phased acoustic guitars and organ over a half-time feel; the Four Seasons’ take on the song is quite, quite mad (diminished chords, incredibly ornate harmonies, electric sitar, verses consisting of single bass notes/bass drum, with a cavernous echo); Laura Branigan’s went for melodrama, taking it even more slowly than King did on Tapestry and underpinning her skyscraping vocal with 1980s synth pad and slightly ersatz gospel piano. I could go on

All of these recordings have their merits. The song is damn near indestructible, after all, and contains maybe the best lyric Gerry Goffin ever wrote. But none of them have what I think of as the song’s ideal arrangement. Shirley Owens’s vocal is certainly one of the best, but the emotion of her performance is undercut by the sha-la-las and the bouncy piano and drums. King sang her own song already knowing it was a classic, and it shows; the tempo is on the draggy side of stately and, being blunt, her voice was never up to the task. Mason is somewhat oleaginous, although his arrangement (half-time verse, double-time bridge) was definitely on to something.

So whose version to listen to, if you only have room in your life for one?

Maybe Ronnie James Dio’s?

Don’t laugh.

Ronnie James Dio, heavy-metal vocalist known for popularising the devil-horns hand gesture, lead singer of Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio, began his career in music in the 1950s as a trumpeter, then a doo-wop singer with a buttery tenor. One of the best-known yarlers in the business, Dio was capable of singing beautifully if the mood took him, and when he sang Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1962 with his band Ronnie & the Prophets, he sang it about it as well as anyone ever has. It’s a simple recording, not much more than a demo, but stripping down the arrangement of the Shirelles’ original gave the vocal more space (without having to slow the tempo) and allowed the words to resonate. In response, Dio delivered a quite lovely performance. I would really love to have a high-quality version of it, as the one I have sounds like it’s been taken straight from an acetate, or at best a much-played 7-inch. Just don’t think of the Holy Diver video while listening to it, or it’ll spoil the effect somewhat.

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Ronnie James Dio and his Prophets

Mexicola – Queens of the Stone Age

Anyone who went to a Queens of the Stone Age show on their breakthrough UK tour in November 2000 will remember the eardrum-threatening volume. I went to one of their two shows at the London Astoria with my friend Yo and I certainly remember it. I suspect he does, too. I particularly remember the bass guitar signal forming a monstrous standing wave at the back of the hall during the last song that scattered the crowd very quickly, and did funny things to the stomachs of those who tried standing their ground. I’ve never seen My Bloody Valentine or Dinosaur Jr, but Queens were so loud I can’t really imagine anything louder.

Extreme volume is a funny thing, particularly when dealing with the zero-sum world of digital audio. Faced with an absolute ceiling of 0dB, how can a band like Queens – who made the pursuit of volume their rasion d’être – make a truly loud record? One that sounds loud compared to everyone else’s on an iPod, not just when you turn it up on a good stereo? How can you be louder than everyone else when the volume knob doesn’t work any more?

Well, one way would be to call Joe Barresi. And so they did. Barresi, at least back in the nineties, had a way of making very loud records that didn’t seem squashed lifeless, that retained the punch in the drums that is absolutely crucial to good-feeling rock records. Presumably he did this through compressing in stages all the way along, rather than by allowing them to be brickwalled during mastering. Eventually even his work came to seem static and over-compressed, but he was so skilled at the loud game that his work stood up better far longer to the age of shock-and-awe mastering jobs that was in full swing by the time the Queens made Songs for the Deaf in 2002. That record, produced by Josh Homme, Adam Kaspar and Eric Valentine (mixed by Kaspar) is a sonic atrocity, a crying shame given the quality of some of the songs on it.

Mexicola, though, is from Queens’ eponymous debut. This version of QotSA was essentially a two-man crew: Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, both former members of cult stoner/desert rock band Kyuss. From the sludgy bass riff (played by Homme, under the pseudonym Carlo Von Sexron) that opens it and the tiny SM58 vocal sound, to the guitar solo mixed hard right, it’s an immediately identifiable, bone-dry sound with few precedents in mainstream rock (Kyuss producer Chris Goss’s Masters of Reality are the most obvious forebear – Goss and Homme share distinct vocal similarities – but then, MoR were not a mainstream band. Perhaps the acid-drenched psych-grunge of Screaming Trees, with whom Homme toured as a guitarist, were the closest this kind of sound got to a wider audience).

But the social and geographical context of Queens of the Stone Age (the Palm Desert scene) is not to be overlooked here. Their sound had some key components in common with other desert rock mainstays such Fu Manchu. The use of downtuned guitars, shifting the instruments’ centre of tonal gravity downwards, created sonorities that are rarely heard in mainstream rock, where standard tuning makes everything sound, well, rather standard. Heavy use of the crash and ride cymbals in place of the hi-hat, creates a ‘washing’, hazy kind of sound to the drums (often emphasised by the trick of recording the cymbals after the rest of the drums, allowing both elements to be processed separately). The use of (formerly) unfashionable amplifiers and pedals resulted in a distinctive, unscooped heavy guitar sound, that got away from the scooped guitar sounds of metal and the thin gnarly sound of some of the grunge bands. The guitarists in desert rock bands have tended to eschew the Marshalls that are the sine qua non of commercial hard rock and metal, instead using amps by H/H, Hiwatt, Orange, Matamp and the ubiquitous Sunn, plus vintage fuzz pedals. Stuff found in pawn shops. Treble is dispensable and clarity is over-rated; thumping low end and boxy mids are much more deserty. Hi-fidelity guitar sounds are avoided in favour of huge slabs of hyper-distorty gunk-o-fuzz.

So in lots of ways, early Queens were the archetypal desert rock band. But Homme found his way out of this commercial backwater pretty quickly. The basic unit of rock songwriting is the riff, which tends to describe only very simple chord changes, or no chord changes at all, and this can lead to melodic stasis. Homme worked harder than most as a tunesmith, and once Queens began attracting attention in the early noughties critics fell over themselves to claim they’d known about Yawning Man, Fu Manchu and the rest all along. A likely story. When this scene was finding its feet, all eyes were on Seattle. Those that had noticed them dismissed them as purveyors of mere retro skater-rock, as if grunge was Vorticism or something.

Queens of the Stone Age would soon abandon this sound for a poppier and more conventional take on hard rock on their second album, Rated R. But for fans of Josh Homme’s original ‘robot rock’ concept (simple riffs played over and over again; Black Sabbath covering Kraftwerk, if you will) – and for a hardcore minority, it’s the only version of Queens worth bothering with – this is the place to come.

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Josh Homme

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 4

8) A National Acrobat – Black Sabbath

Bill Ward played heavy. That much I think we can all agree on. But Ward, like all the architects of heavy metal drumming (Bonham, Paice, Baker, Appice, et al.) grew up hearing and emulating big band and dance band drummers (Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Butch Miles, Jo Jones etc.), as well as rock and R&B drummers from the era when drummers tended to play swing patterns on hi-hat and ride rather than straight eights.

It should hardly need saying that while there are a lot of qualities that are universal in playing the drums (any instrument, for that matter), the emphasis in heavy rock and metal on power and aggression is not present in dance-band styles. But Ward and Bonham and co. were still products of their era, and they retained a swinginess that their later followers have mostly lost. On A National Acrobat from Sabbath’s fifth album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath Ward responds to the inherent groove of Tony Iommi’s riff with one of the must supple performances in all of heavy rock, with snatched 4-stroke rolls (in 16th notes) and 8th-note triplets fills at the end of the vocal phrases. He sticks to this formula for all of the first section, but it never gets boring; it’s too well played and the groove is addictive. It just carries you with it.

The same feel is maintained through the next section (starting about 2.15 when Ozzy sings ‘You gotta believe me’), but with variations now. Ward displaces the first backbeat in each bar to the ‘and’ (one-and-two-AND-three-and-FOUR-and). It’s a well-timed switch, just changing one little element to keep listeners hooked.

There’s one more verse after Iommi’s solo then the basic groove changes significantly at about 4.50 to a prototype of the ‘galloping’ Iron Maiden rhythm. It’s loose compared to how Maiden or later thrash bands would have played it, but it sounds cool: Sabbath were never about how tight the band played. They were about the feeling between Iommi (far more than Jimmy Page, the inventor of heavy metal guitar) and the rhythm section of Bill Ward and Geezer Butler, schooled in jazz, swing and R&B but still the definition of what ‘heavy’ is in rock music.

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