Category Archives: 1990s

Vol.31: Does “Good” Music Matter? (Better Than Ezra – “Good”)

better than ezra grunge alternative rock '90s good

Wait, Better Than Ezra had a black guy?

Better Than Ezra were a stunningly bad band. When you think of the most witless, gormless, reheated alternative rock of the mid-‘90s, Better Than Ezra elbow their way to the head of the queue with aplomb. Their playing is edgeless, featureless. Their lyrics are fresh from a high school creative writing workshop. The way they namedrop R.E.M. in the chorus of this dreadful song makes me understand why so many people started to hate that band. But I’ve reached a point in my thinking about music where I wonder if I don’t have to burn away the last of my taste prejudices. For people who think thinking seriously about music is a relatively serious matter, the current critical milieu is one in which we begin to deny the fantasy of objective judgement of popular art. It gets somewhat less pretentious from here!



Filed under 1990s, alternative, grunge, hard rock

Vol.23: Mirror, Mirror

This cover art is like black metal, but less violent and even whiter.

Blind Guardian – Mirror Mirror (1998, Virgin/Century Media)


Oh, uh, hey there. I was just, uh, listening to, umm… the Velvet Underground? Err, Pere Ubu? Fennesz? No? Nothing? Well alright, don’t believe me. But couldn’t you have at least knocked? I mean, I could’ve been masturbating. These things have been known to happen, and I am terribly alone. Still, you and I both know, dear reader, that I was simply screaming my head off in glorious geeky unison with Mirror, Mirror, almost certainly the Crown Silmaril in the treasure-stuffed hoard of Teutonic Tolkien-metallers Blind Guardian.

Given Blind Guardian’s status as perhaps the preeminent power metal band of their time (only Helloween and Iced Earth really rate comparison in terms of longevity and popularity), I’d surmise that most fans of the genre have already heard Mirror, Mirror enough times to have it properly settled in their musical DNA. But I can imagine the power metal neophyte hearing this and wondering, “Is it all like this? Is it all this good?” The answer of course, is no, and there’s a very good reason why. Blind Guardian are not the fastest, nor the most technically adept, nor the oldest, newest or last. But they are the only band with guitarist Andre Olbrich and vocalist Hansi Kursch.

Both men are masters of showmanship, gamely garbing themselves in fantastic costumes, but doing so with a sense of play. Olbrich frosts these fairly standard baroque metal riffs with a tasty pop glaze, accompanying Kursch’s showy multi-tracked chorus by simply wringing out rubbery squeals, before whipping through tricky power metal riffs and pubby Celtic jigging with equal aplomb. He also loves setting up what I call “dialogic” solos; rather than simply soloing over a set number of bars, he prefers to play short phrases interspersed with keyboard or rhythm responses. The result feels like it’s actually adding to the melodic and rhythmic complexity of the track, rather than taking away from it, as is too often the case with metal soloing. There’s a collaborative and unpredictable quality to it, the back-and-forth interplay really emphasizing this feeling of headlong motion. Combine it with his funny Brian May-ish tone and you get a sound unlike any other in the genre.

Hansi Kursch too is obviously a distinct talent, one of the few big power metal singers able to balance between furry-chested, testicular manliness and camp theatricality. He is absolutely in love with multitracking, occasionally to a fault, but Mirror, Mirror finds him at his virtuosic best. One moment Hansi will be screaming his head off at you and the next an angelic choir of Hansi’s descends to provide sweet harmonies, while a gang of boozy Hansi’s put you in a chummy headlock and declare noogie time. He throws himself into every verse like he’s playing a different role, and by the end you might wonder if everyone you know is actually just a different Hansi Kursch vocal track. But then Mirror, Mirror says, “No JM, you are the Hansi’s.”

Defining Moment: If there were a “greatest metal moment ever” contest, I would think hard about voting for Mirror, Mirror’s Celtic breakdown (around 3:55 in). You’ve just blazed through a cauldron-bubbling solo and you’re back to the expected verse riffs, and then suddenly Hansi’s gone crazy and this guitar/keyboard/fiddle/fife (?) riff comes in and you feel like you should be jigging on a feast table, swinging a giant frothy mug of beer and generally partying like it’s 1399. It’s a magical moment.

Other Great Songs by Blind Guardian: There are bushels of great Blind Guardian songs, from their early speed metal days through to the prog-power-rock-opera business they operate today. Their best albums, by acclamation are Imaginations from the Other Side and Nightfall in Middle-Earth, two recommendations I’d support. Great songs include Bright Eyes, Somewhere Far Beyond, A Past and Future Secret, Lost in the Twilight Hall, Majesty and Punishment Divine (BAAAAAAAAANISSSHHHHHHHED TOOOOO THE POOOOOOOOOOOIIIIINNNNT OF NOOOOOO REEEEETUUUUUURRRRRRN). Believe me kids, if you’re going to cut loose and get medieval, you can do better than Dragonforce.

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Filed under 1990s, heavy metal, written by or for elves

Vol.18: Glory Box


Portishead – Glory Box (1994, Go! Discs)

Why It’s Perfect: Most female songs about desire tend to be about the fun side, the playful blushing got-you-in-my-sights-ness of crushing; they don’t speak to reality so much as the basic pleasure of wanting or being wanted. Portishead’s Glory Box is about the weariness of love as much as anything, the painful honesty and intensity emotions take on well after the pubs have closed for the evening. It yearns. It’s kinda like Etta James’ At Last turned in on itself, dilated with the same all-consuming emotion but more cautious, fearful of being hurt, willing to give in to love again, but conscious of the consequences. The lyrics, which tell of a (supposedly) former wild woman looking to settle into a life of monogamy, sketch out some of the emotional space I’ve been describing here, but much of the nuance and characterization stems from singer Beth Gibbons’ performance. Her voice is beautiful and clear, but it has a touch of the cigarette smoke she constantly puffs, a slightly imperfect rasp that lends credibility to her story. On the verses she embodies the teasing self-confidence of a girl who knows what she’s got and how it effects a man; listen to the way she coos “Move over, and give us some room.” But each time the chorus hits she lets her guard slip, and the result is almost uncomfortably naked, this sense of an aging woman belatedly trying to settle into a more permanent love; “give me a reason to love you. / Give me a reason to be a woman.” It’s a pitch to a man certainly, but also to herself; she’s wants this man to be the right one so badly that he need only give commitment and she’ll do the rest.

Aside from Gibbons, the other star of the track is guitarist Adrian Utley. While Gibbons is more than capable of conveying complex emotion on her own, it’s Utley’s clanging, overdriven guitar that gives the Glory Box its captivating intensity. That melody he plays during the chorus is quite conventional save for the way he phrases it, just wrenching the notes out of the guitar somehow, creating this angular howl that contracts itself into a series of escalating climaxes. His solo is a gorgeous piece of work too, taking his time and letting you taste the metallic richness of the sound. It tears through the crackling vintage 45 production of the track, making very clear that for all it’s beautiful vocalization and haunting string arrangements, this isn’t some distant old soul record; Portishead have seen and felt too much since that simpler pop era to create such a comforting novelty.

Defining Moment: Towards the end of the song Gibbons cries “This is the beginning of forever… and ever…” It’s a strange, obsessive conclusion that doesn’t seem to be borne out by the rest of the lyrics, one of those decisions where someone wants something so bad they force it. As if responding to this, Gibbons’ voice becomes unexpectedly processed and distorted, as the soundtrack collapses into a huge, hollow trip-hop beat. It’s a twist you don’t see coming so late in a track, and effect is disorienting yet exhilarating for that very reason.

Other Great Songs by Portishead: While Glory Box is not especially indicative of the inventive programming and experimental nature of Portishead’s work, its cinematic (sorry to use that word again, but it fits) scope, bittersweet emotional tone and hypnotic sound are hallmarks of the band. All three of Portishead’s studio records, as well as their 1998 Roseland NYC Live document (which features a superb version of Glory Box), are classics in their genre and come highly recommended. For those seeking a wider sampling of their songs before diving in, Mysterons, Sour Times, All Mine, Over and Machine Gun are all magnetic wonders.

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Filed under 1990s, soul, trip-hop

Vol. 13: Earth People

Now there's a face that inspires trust.

Dr. Octagon – Earth People (1995, Bulk Records)

Why It’s Perfect: Because prolonged exposure to hip-hop this unearthly has been known to cause mutated cattle, crop circles, near-fatal inhalation of psychoactive drugs and an indecent amount of ass-shaking. Well before the one-two punch of Deltron 3030 and the Gorillaz made whacko future rap quasi-mainstream, former mental patient and ex-Ultramagnetic MC “Kool” Keith Thornton dreamed up Dr. Octagon, a time-traveling alien masquerading as a gynaecologist (!) out to save/destroy the earth through questionable elective surgery and unorthodox rhymes. Such inexplicable extraterrestrial devilishness is certainly deserving of a calling card like Earth People, an introduction beamed directly from Octagon’s orbiting Jupiterian saucer to the underground electro clubs of NY, Cali and other environs. The backing track alone is a veritable smorgasbord of geek-funk musical delight, served up special by Keith and ace producer Dan the Automator, highlighted by its gloriously tacky pomp rock synth riff. It’s an arena-sized hook, but the production is lovingly detailed, from the oddly sinister plinking piano melody (of the type sometimes referred to at the Metal Archives as “horror movie clown masturbating”) to scene-setting quirks like the cheery-sounding girl who pipes in from time to time to contribute interstellar weather reports and personnel updates.

Yet for all the strange blinking lights on the exterior, the chassis of the U.S.S. Earth People is pure old school hip-hop not terribly unlike what Kool Keith had been up during the past decade with the Ultramagnetic MCs. The track has a certain physicality to it absent from most commercial rap, largely because it is constructed with a live DJ in mind. The marvellous DJ Qbert contributes some truly blistering manual scratching, while the underlying beat has the charming clackiness of pre-DAT tape turntablism. As for Keith as a rapper, well, the man is still batshit nuts and if you try to follow his flow logically you’ll probably end up crazier than he is. All of the strangeness which percolated under the surface of the old Ultramags records was allowed to surface in the Dr. Octagon project; how else to explain lines like “My nucleus friend, prepare, I return again / My 7XL is not yet invented” or “Astronauts get played / Tough, like a ukulele”? But, as with everything else on Earth People, it works. The bizarre litany of images and descriptions blend and complement the general alien vibe of the tune, and are in themselves often highly entertaining. Certain verses sound like nothing so much as an imaginative kid inventing the rules of a game as he goes along: “I got cosmophonic, pressed a button, changed my face. / You recognized, so what? I turned invisible.” Much of Octagon’s appeal is in his synthesis of naivety and grotesquery; strain that mix out through the lips of a gifted MC, and set it to a production as good as Earth People and, without fail, I am there at aluminum-intoxicant hyperspeed.

Defining Moment: Top three lines, in descending order…

3) “More ways to blow blood cells in your face / React with four bombs and six fire missiles / Armed with seven rounds of space doo-doo pistols”

2) “Now my helmet’s on, you can’t tell me I’m not in space / With the National Guard United States Enterprise / Diplomat of swing, with aliens at my feet”

1) “Face the fact: I fly on planets every day.”

Other Great Songs by Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon: Keith’s put out two records as Dr. Octagon, the first of which is the highly recommended Dr. Octagonecologyst (warning: Earth People might be the least strange thing on it). His catalogue is spotty to say the least, but those craving more of his bent outlook will probably appreciate the incredibly obscene First Come, First Served (released as Dr. Dooom) and Black Elvis (under his own name). Also, those into Run-D.M.C./EPMD-era rap are strongly urged to check out the Ultramagnetic MC’s Critical Beatdown, which is one of the finest records of its kind of the ‘80s.

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Filed under 1990s, hip-hop, what the fuck?

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.1: I Want it That Way

Anyone else always find AJ a little creepy?

Backstreet Boys – I Want it That Way (1999, Jive Records)

Why It’s Perfect: Although in my teen years I couldn’t abide this type of unabashed pop trifle, as I get older it seems increasingly absurd to hate something merely for being sweet. It’d be like running down the freezer aisle at the grocery store screaming “FUCK YOU, ICE CREAM!” Fact of the matter is, the Backstreet Boys’ unquestioned highwater mark I Want It That Way is one of the most sublime slabs of teen pop ever crafted. Produced by the controversial Max Martin, I Want It That Way is like some Swedish pop-bot’s idea of what sad music sounds like, replete as it is with pensive acoustic guitar picking and melodramatic synth accents, but it fails gloriously to inspire any emotion save for idiot grin sugar rush play-that-thirteen-times-in-a-row glee. The track’s great secret is the way everything subtly bounces; the percolating “drums” are a jaunty juxtaposition to the melodrama of the vocals, and the pizzicato strings both accent and sweeten the yearning chorus (an effect Martin would exploit to similar success on a number of early Britney Spears singles). But hey, don’t give Martin all the credit. Although the Backstreet Boys failed to produce a solo artist with the cleverness of Justin Timberlake, they were a hell of a group of pure singers and the harmonies in this song are simply exquisite. They have a natural interplay comparable to the best vocal groups, and it results in a much greater dynamic range than we hear from competitors like *NSync. The melodies and phrasings subtly shift over the course of the song, and it contributes not only to the sense of palpable lifting one feels when they hit the chorus, but to their ability to make that already heaven-high moment rise still further with each successive iteration.

Defining Moment: Brian Littrell’s showstopping “Teeeeeeeeeeeeeelll me whyyyyyyyy” in the last chorus. As far as teenpop nirvana goes, it’s a moment worthy of gospel. So worthy I had to resort to mixing the concept of nirvana and gospel to describe it.

Other Great BSB Singles: Though the Backstreet Boys never cut anything else at quite this level, As Long as You Love Me is another superb ballad let down only slightly by a limp bridge. I would argue that their second greatest effort, however, was actually the arena-sized sci-fi schlock Larger Than Life, which is, incidentally, arguably the least convincing “fame is hard” song ever written.

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Filed under 1990s, bubblegum pop, max martin