<![CDATA[Ginger Nuts of Horror - PLAYING IT BACKWARDS]]>Thu, 19 Apr 2018 10:55:40 +0100Weebly<![CDATA[PLAYING IT BACKWARDS: LEVELLING THE LAND ]]>Thu, 29 Dec 2016 08:22:37 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/playing-it-backwards/playing-it-backwards-levelling-the-landBY KIT POWER 
Okay, so as has previously been well documented, I’m a GnR child - ‘Lies’ and ‘Appetite… being my personal ground zeroes. That’s a matter of both public record and historical fact. No way to change it and no sense in denying it.
I was not a Levellers kid....
But I knew Levellers kids. I went to school with them. In the fullness of time, I even dated one. I can recall, seemingly overnight, how one particular subset of the rocker tribe went from leather or jean jackets and long hair to flannel or hoodies and dreadlocks. Suddenly, instead of my beloved Guns N’ Roses crest, there were those damn stupid x eye’d yellow smileys everywhere, and everywhere they weren't were even more outlandish logos featuring words like ‘The Wonder Stuff’ and ‘Carter USM’ (Unstoppable Sex Machine - clearly taking the piss). All at once, if you wanted to pick a fight at the AC/DC fan club meeting at school you’d have to punch yourself in the face. Kids, man. No loyalty at all. Freaks.
Is there a more culturally reactionary creature in the world than the secondary school music nerd, I find myself wondering now?
Anyway. In amongst all the cardigans, and noserings, and muddy boots (but never Dr. Martins, unless they were, like, purple and painted with glittery swirls, FFS), the other logo I saw with increasing regularity was the one that read
And even back then, there was an ill-defined impression that they were is some sense the old guard, or the vanguard, of all those other bands. I don’t know how much they were cited as an influence, or if they appeared in the same magazines, because I was subscribed to Raw, not NME, so it was all a shitty indie mystery to me, but they were definitely part of that subculture - a big part.
Which is odd, because when I finally did get around to listening to them, they really didn’t sound anything like any of that other stuff. They sounded, in point of fact, like a punk band with a sense of musicianship. And a fiddle. And decent singing voices.
So, not very punk at all.
Except, no, it fucking was. There was an anger, a vital motivating fury, that drove everything, suffusing the songs with vitality, energy, urgency. Their music was fusing folk traditionalism with punk spirit (and in a final analysis, what is more punk than saying ‘fuck you’ to trends and playing what you feel? I mean, when has folk ever been cool?).
And ground zero is Levelling The Land.
(Sidenote - purists, including my sister, would say their debut ‘Weapon Called The Word’ is their definitive album. The case is a compelling one in a lot of ways - there's a rawness to it, for sure, a fury, more swearing, and it’s utterly uncompromised in terms of production values and songwriting - totally folk and totally punk, in other words. And it’s probably true that the songwriting highs are higher than they managed since. However, it comes down to this: Levelling the Land is just better. The songs are better, the lyrics are better, the production is WAY better, and unlike WCTW, there isn’t anything resembling a weak song - one of my requirements for an utterly classic album. So, I mean, they’re both good. But Levelling The Land is the kind of masterpiece most bands will never manage, and almost none manage more than once in a career).
We open with ‘One Way’, the chorus beginning as a lone vocal before the acoustic comes in underneath, the drums bringing the rest of the band under the final line. It’s a superb opening - an anthemic hymn to non-conformity, a statement of intent. The playing is superb, too, with the band dropping down to bass guitar after the first verse/chorus pattern, guitar joining in, then dropping back once more for the second verse - The Levellers have an instinctive grasp of dynamics, and the song is perfect marrying of form and function, the dropouts matching the wistful lyrics, then the increased energy and desperation reflected in more energetic drums and guitars. It’s probably the song most associated with the band, and deservedly so.
‘The Game’ opens with an urgent fiddle, before a driving drum and guitar kicks in. It’s a classic ‘global politics as game’ story song, a folk staple particularly apt for the cold war period, but a) some themes are classics for a reason and b) when it’s done this well, there’s always room for one more. The chorus is another Levellers stroke of brilliance, too - plaintive, heartfelt, and always angry. The song also contains that classic Levellers approach of simple songwriting elevated by playing with both deep competence and occasional flashes of brilliance, especially in the fiddle playing.
‘Fifteen Years’ is another folk staple - The Man Who Drank Too Much - but again, the playing and writing lifts it. There’s an urgency to the playing, the bass rhythm that underpins the verses, and the chorus just soars, the fiddle lifting the vocal, before the last line dropout allows the lyric to punch through full force. Sure, there’s about a million songs out there about addiction, but there’s few that marry the specificity with the general as well as this one does - so cleverly and brilliantly that you don’t even notice. 
We go full folk next, with ‘The Boatman’. There are songs that exist that I have to remind myself weren't, in fact, handed down on stone tablets from a mountain, but were actually written by flesh and blood human beings. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is one of those songs. ‘Paint It Black’ is another.
So is ‘The Boatman’.
It’s elemental, that’s all - as pure an expression of desire for a freedom and way of life under threat, vanishing, perhaps already gone, perhaps never really in existence beyond our own fond imaginations. There’s melancholy, as you’d expect, but also a bruised optimism, even defiance, especially in that last verse - ‘others rule my destiny, but my will’s never broken’. The final lines roll out like an atheist's prayer, a statement of faith in a future as yet unseen. Romantic, yearning, yet grounded. A perfect song.
‘Liberty Song’ is the most punk outing yet - the vocal is sung with a sneer, and the guitar snarls out of the amp. The military snare roll through the intro, as the fiddle swirls, before breaking out into the stomping verse pattern, it’s all in service of the mood of anger, alienation. The chorus is an absolute belter too - the sentiment might seem naive, if not, frankly, counter historical, but this is a classic example of an emotional truth - a sentiment that cuts through intellectual construction and speaks to the yearning heart of A Better Way. And the whole tune is a stonker, bouncing along with gleeful rage.
‘Far From Home’ closes out Side One. Another slice of near-pure folk, in a lot of ways it’s a flipside to ‘Liberty Song’ - a love song to a way of life lived, a romantic embracing of the nomad musician life, with all it’s twists and turns. There’s still a fire under the surface (‘burning the bridges’) and a wistfulness too (‘you said you wouldn’t leave, not ever’) but it’s ultimately a celebration - a rare happy Levellers tune - complete with the classic folk tempo increase throughout the closing round, and much whooping and laughter. Joyous.
‘Sell Out’ kicks off Side 2, a song I’ve covered with my own band. Again, the band give good intro, with bass and drums setting the tone, before the guitar adds meat and the fiddle soars over the top, nailing the melody to your skull, before dropping back down for the vocal. It’s a fucking brilliant lyric too, an object lesson in how to write a protest ballad. Songwriting forces you to boil down ideas to their single simplest form in order to get your point across - you have somewhere between 80 - 120  words to get it done, basically - and Sell Out is an exemplar of form, including another anthemic soaring chorus.
‘Another Man’s Cause’ is The War Ballad, and it pretty much devastates me every time. Again, it’s just The Story - this is how it happens, how the military career can be handed down from parent to child, the sense of loss. Sung with empathy for the soldier, it doesn’t preach, and it’s all the more powerful for that - in a final analysis, it’s an angry lementation of the sheer bloody waste and loss. I cry when I hear it live. It’s unanswerable. The playing is also magnificent, a simple tune explored with brilliant dynamics, the fiddle fully weeping by the end of the tune.
‘The Road’ is almost ‘Far From Home’ redux, slightly bluesier in the verses, but still ultimately an uplifting hymn to the life of the road tripping musician, to the power of music to sustain life and feed the soul. The exile buskers are happy with their choice. Beautiful.
We’re rounding the final turn now, and we’re doing it with ‘The Riverflow’ which is a fucking barnstormer. This tune just blasts along with a double kick drum beat, driving fiddle, and machine gun vocal line. A love song to someone who chose the path more well trodden, it manages to speak to both bitterness and loss but also celebration and affection. It’s in many ways the distilled essence of the whole album in one glorious explosion of sound, and it’s played hell for leather, especially the fiddle in the extended musical section before the final verse is yelled out over the double kick drums. The love and the fury in perfect alignment. On any normal record, this would be a the perfect closer.
But this isn’t a normal record. This is a stone classic.
So we get ‘Battle Of The Beanfield’.
Telling the true story of a brutal police action against travelers who had gone to Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice, ‘Beanfield’ is an anthem every bit as furious and heartfelt as ‘Killing In The Name’. Again, the dynamics are superb, the band knowing when to take it down, let the vocals speak out on their own, before building magnificently to another definitive shout along chorus.
There’s nothing here that you can call free. They’re getting their kicks, they’re laughing at you and me.
The bass drums and sirens close out. The final double beat echoes into silence, and you’re left with yourself.
It’s a fucking spectacular record. It did that thing that a true classic can do during those formative years - it opened a whole genre of music to me that I wasn’t previously aware of, deepened my political understanding (I put ‘Levelling The Land’ alongside ‘Rage Against The Machine’ as the two most influential records of that kind for teenage me, and it’s interesting to note they came out in the same year, given how politically sympathetic and musically disparate they are), and created a tribal loyalty that exists to this day - this December, I made the trip to Brixton Academy to hear The Levellers play the album in it’s entirety. And it, and they, were glorious.
I wasn’t a Levellers kid. ‘Levelling The Land’ was not my road-to-Damascus record, and I can’t pretend it was. But I know for a mortal certainty that is was for many people.
And honestly? There’s a part of me that wishes it had been. I think it speaks to a lot of the same rage and alienation that I was feeling back then, but without a lot of the ugly misogyny and nihilism that made those other records feel so dangerous and transgressive at the time, and so troubling (if still brilliant) now.
Well, maybe I’ve asked and answered my own question, there. Maybe that darkness was a key component of what spoke to me then, for good and ill. And maybe, for all it’s brilliance, Levelling The Land wouldn’t quite have spoken to that part of me in the same way.
Whatever. You can never go back. And fuck knows, I wouldn’t want to even if I could. I may not have gotten in on the ground floor, but Levelling The Land became a treasured and beloved part of my life, and this month at Brixton I got to the barrier and sang my heart out with the rest of the faithful. It was a magic show from a brilliant band.
They’ve still got it. And 25 years on, so does Levelling The Land.
<![CDATA[Grave Dancers Union by Soul Asylum]]>Mon, 18 Jul 2016 09:39:12 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/playing-it-backwards/grave-dancers-union-by-soul-asylum
Probably two of the toughest questions you can be asked…. ‘What’s your favourite song? What’s your favourite album?’ Ask me tomorrow and I’ll give you a different answer to the one I give you today. But, ‘What’s the Album that made you?’ Wow, when I heard ‘Hysteria’ by Def Leppard it was the most incredible assault of melody on my ears, something even to this day I consider recorded perfection. Or maybe Poison’s ‘Flesh & Blood’, which wore through several walkmans? An album that, whilst surprising to most, is probably the album that made me want to be in a band in the first place. These, along with an endless list of others, could suitably answer that question, but I’ve chosen a record that even upon hearing today, over twenty years later, still fills me with joy, angst, nostalgia but most of all, gets me inspired and excited by rock and roll.

I first heard the entire ‘Grave Dancers Union’ album after making a cassette copy of my sister’s album. Two things attracted me – the incredible artwork, by Czech erotic art photographer Jan Saudek, which was totally different to anything that the Sunset Strip had unleashed upon me. Then of course you couldn’t escape ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum in the summer of 1993 if you watched MTV so by the time it’s follow up single, ‘Black Gold’, showcased on Raw Power late on a Thursday evening here in the UK, I was on board. Sure, Soul Asylum already had a huge history (this was their sixth album) but now was their time to shine, mainstream beckoned, and I’ve always felt they were a band that was not going to compromise – here’s our sound, if it’s a hit then great, jump on board and come along for the ride. Where could I buy my ticket to join the ‘Grave Dancers Union’? An impressionable, nineteen year old Laney wanted in!

‘Nothing attracts a crowd, like a crowd!’ Black Gold

Now don’t get me wrong, most of you know me for being a huge Hard Rock / Hair Metal Fan. That will never change, that’s the music which is tattooed on my heart, but I was a guy treading water in the mid 90s who never fit the mould of spandex, hair spray and lipstick and to be honest I never really wanted to. Even my heroes had dropped the glam in favor of a flannel alternative and I was no different, plus I was never gonna be able to play anything resembling a guitar solo like most of the bands I was listening to. That sound was larger than life, unachievable in my eyes and ears. When I heard Soul Asylum, I heard a band playing rock and roll – whether it be in a garage, a club or a stadium. I could do that, or at least I could try! I could hear what they were doing and it sounded incredible. I had to give that a shot.

We covered ‘Runaway Train’ at one of my first live gigs. I fucked up the solo bass lick which probably comes as no surprise to some of you. Probably even would today, too much pressure, but after almost two decades, I’m listening to this, alongside the likes of ‘Get On Out’ and ‘Without A Trace’, and realizing how much their songwriting has become a part of how my ears work. I’ve never been a songwriter but give me a song to arrange and I’ll tear that sucker apart and chances are I’ll use some Dave Pirner style arrangement - simple, effective and straight to the point.

‘Night driving without headlights - wearing sunglasses too. Anything to be cool!’ April Fool

Without even knowing it, I seem to have adopted Soul Asylum throughout the years as my ‘Go To Band’. Styles change, trends come and go but every year or so, Soul Asylum jump out and give me a healthy, musical slap around the face, just like those opening bars of ‘Somebody To Shove’! Becoming a big fan of Kevin Smith movies some time ago, there I’d find Soul Asylum popping up as one of his bands of choice to fuel the soundtrack to his genre defining films. This in turn led me to record a version of ‘Misery’ from the follow-up album to ‘Grave Dancers Union’ for my Straight To Video project. Don’t even get me started on how great ‘Let Your Dim Light Shine’ is! I finally got to go to New York a couple of years ago, which in turn coincided with my chance to see the band perform live for the very first time. Here was Pirner looking every bit the rock star I hoped and hearing their song ‘Take Manhattan’ will always remind me of an amazing overseas trip.

’Seems like I should be getting somewhere. Somehow I'm neither here nor there’ Runaway Train
Thank you Soul Asylum for being the band you are, giving an impressionable teenager in the early nineties an album that he will forever return to, one that even my wife can agree is great. Every bit of energy, melody, and sometimes weirdness held within the twelve songs on ‘Grave Dancers Union’ will make it the album that made me.
Rob Lane will probably forever hail from the small village of Loscoe in Derbyshire, UK. In the past his random lack of musical boundaries has seen him play bass guitar for the likes of LA hard rockers BulletBoys right through to mid nineties power pop makers Let Loose and Texas based People on Vacation. Right now he can be found performing with long standing Nottingham band TCC and handling bass duties with Ryan Hamilton & The Traitors. Elsewhere he can be found knee deep in a dusty VHS collection and working on his Straight To Video Movie Soundtrack Project.
www.laney74.co.uk  www.straighttovideo.co.uk

<![CDATA[ Live Like A Suicide - Guns N Roses]]>Wed, 18 May 2016 09:22:34 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/playing-it-backwards/-live-like-a-suicide-guns-n-roses‘I bet your mama said, Nice Boys! Don’t play Rock N ROOOOOOOLL!’ you can hear the

knicker elastic snapping at 6000 miles and 30 years remove.
So there’s a couple of ways in which this is a swizz - like, for example, I can’t claim to have been there when this really happened. I was 7 years old in 1986. I didn’t hear this record until the early summer of 1989, and when I did, it wasn’t this record - it was the A-Side of the ‘Lies’ album. For that matter, I’ve never even seen a copy of the original vinyl/cassette release of this. One of the ways you’ll know I’ve made it as a writer - should ever such an unlikely event ever come to pass -  is that I will buy this sucker on vinyl and play it loud enough to break windows.

So there’s a couple of ways in which this is a swizz - like, for example, I can’t claim to have been there when this really happened. I was 7 years old in 1986. I didn’t hear this record until the early summer of 1989, and when I did, it wasn’t this record - it was the A-Side of the ‘Lies’ album. For that matter, I’ve never even seen a copy of the original vinyl/cassette release of this. One of the ways you’ll know I’ve made it as a writer - should ever such an unlikely event ever come to pass -  is that I will buy this sucker on vinyl and play it loud enough to break windows.
So, on the one hand, there’s a way in which I can’t talk about what this was like when it came out. On the other hand, only about ten thousand people plausibly can, given it was a limited edition pressing. Considering the seismic effect the band were about to have though, and further given that the recording, if not the format, was given a general release, it feels worth talking about. And also, in fairness to me, when I did hear this record, it changed my life forever.
And you know what? It’s still completely fucking awesome. In fact, as much as Appetite For Destruction is in my all-time top 5, I think there’s a serious-as-a-heart-attack case to be made that GnR never sounded better than they do on Live Like A Suicide.
In fact, fuck it, I’ve had a drink. Let’s make that case.
A good EP will always beat a good album, let’s start there. The reason is obvious; it’s a numbers game. Writing a genuinely classic album - 8, 10, even 12 tracks, all killer no filler, as the kids say, is a tough assignment. It’s normally just about possible for a debut - because most debut albums represent anywhere from 5 to 10 years of work, with only the very best making it to the top - but even then, it’s almost impossible to maintain a level of absolute top drawer quality. I mean, I love ‘Anything Goes’, but I can’t argue that it’s as essential a song as ‘Welcome To The Jungle’.
A four track EP, on the other hand, is a totally different proposition. You don’t have to worry so much about ebb and flow, track sequencing, where to put the ballad. Instead, you can simply open the can of whoop-ass and sploge it all out onto the plate on one go. Do it right, and you’ll produce a 15 minute espresso shot of sound so raw and exciting that the immediate response of your listener will simply be to flip that sucker back over and drop the needle down again.
Live Like A Suicide serves as an exemplar of this form.
After the raw statement of intent that is Slash yelling ‘Hey! Fuckers! Fucking Guns and fucking  Roses!’ over a howling stadium crowd, ‘Reckless Life’ just explodes into life, a machine gun snare roll leading into a dirty, furious guitar riff. It simply begs to be played loud, to be let off the leash and shown what it can do, and if you acquiesce, it will reward your ringing eardrums with a ferocity and rage that burns in your brain. The drumming is relentless, the guitars in perfect sync, and oh my lord that vocal. Axl may be one of the most unpleasant ego trippers in a field with some very stiff competition, but my that boy has some pipes. And here, with those vocals matched perfectly to the melody and lyric, it’s nothing short of intoxicating. They may have looked like just another hair metal band, but there’s at least as much punk here as there is classic rock. It’s dirty, exhilarating, aggressive, and raw.
It’s also three minutes long. Wham bam.
‘Nice Boys’, the first of two covers, takes a Rose Tattoo classic, and has The Dammed play it at 1000 miles an hour, with a vocal better than the Angry Anderson original (sorry, but it’s true). Again, the rhythm section is tremendous, the drumming off the hook, the bass runs in the drop out chorus perfect, and those guitars! I know everyone goes on about Slash, and I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve it, but for my money Izzy Stradlin may be the most underrated rhythm guitarist of his generation. Sure, there’s a lot of open chord work in the verses, but listen close to the little flourishes he puts into those choruses, or his note perfect support in the intro of the following track, and fucking marvel, kids. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.  Also, it’s a perfect choice of cover for this group - when Axl sneers ‘I bet your mama said, Nice Boys! Don’t play Rock N ROOOOOOOLL!’ you can hear the knicker elastic snapping at 6000 miles and 30 years remove.
After a quick fade out/in, next up is ‘Move To The City’ - twin guitar intro, snare roll, into a swaggering, horn inflected groove. This one comes on like Pump era Aerosmith in a lot of ways, but again, there’s that punk edge to the guitars and vocals that give it just a few more teeth in the grin. The run up at the end of the guitar solo, back into the bridge, is a thing of beauty. Axl’s ‘small town white boy’ roots are on proud display in the lyric (a tendency that would reach it’s ugly peak in the still-shocking ‘One In A Million’), that snarling misogyny that fuels so much of the fury of ‘Appetite..’ already making itself known, not-quite-hidden behind a wry grin.
Speaking of casual misogyny, ‘This is a song about your fucking mother’ introduces the final cover, a blistering run through Aerosmith's ‘73 classic Mama Kin. Again, GnR add grit and spit to a classic rock anthem, giving it a raw vitality that belies the age of the song. The guitars take it in turns to play this single verse lick under the vocal, and again, I couldn’t tell you which was Izzy and which Slash (well, okay, I could, but I’ve listened to it, like, a million times). It’s faultless execution, displaying just how tight a unit this band were. Punk energy allied to classic rock skills. It was a soon-to-be-world-conquering combination.
And by the way, it’s a cheat. I mean, I realise I’m probably the last person in the world to learn this, but it’s not actually a live recording at all. I remember when I sat down to research this article thinking that the recordings must have been done as part of the stadium tour they did with Aerosmith. I couldn’t figure out where else they’d have that kind of a crowd noise behind them. But of course, in 1986, GnR were still two years out from hitting the road as the opening act for the ‘Permanent Vacation’ tour. In ‘86, they were lucky to fill a bar.
So they did the only honorable thing to do - they cheated. They recorded the four tracks live in the studio, then piped in the crowd noise from some texas stadium rock show.
So it turns out one of my favourite live recording of all times… isn’t.
But you know what? I couldn’t care less. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to this EP on repeat while I’ve been writing this, and I’m hear to tell you, friend and neighbours, it holds up just fine. There really was something special about GnR, something that elevated them above the LA Glam/Hair metal circus they came screaming out of. Sure, some of those other bands had that punk/New York Dolls influence, and sure, some of them had that Aerosmith/classic rock thing going on. But nobody melded those two traditions as perfectly as GnR managed. They took the raw classic rock elements of melody, songwriting and technical ability, and welded them to the ferocity, pace, and DIY fuck-you of punk. In so doing, they created a machine that, while not suited to long term stability, would nonetheless make a noise loud enough to, briefly, conquer the world.
And it’s never sounded clearer, dirtier, rawer, or more urgent than it does on Live Like ASsuicide. All the pieces are here - the musicianship, the aggression, the hunger.
Most of all, the hunger.
In fact, yeah, it’s true. They never sounded better.

<![CDATA[Dreams & Shadows: A Look Back On Dio’s Angry Machines” by CT McNeely]]>Wed, 27 Apr 2016 05:16:04 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/playing-it-backwards/dreams-shadows-a-look-back-on-dios-angry-machines-by-ct-mcneelyHeavy metal, popular culture said, was dead and gone -- replaced by grunge and Prozac and Starbucks coffee

In his seminal biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter begins by noting the particulars of Tolkien’s personal and professional life -- he married, took on his career as a professor of linguistics -- and then “nothing else really happened.” Of course, quite a lot happened. Tolkien published two bestsellers which quite literally birthed the fantasy fiction genre as we know it. In terms of controversy and the sort of exciting and sexy things that biographers like to exploit, however, “nothing else really happened.” He lived and loved well and he died peacefully. Boring. 

The same might be said of Ronald James Padavona.
His was a life lived simply and lived well. Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to a traditional Italian-American family, the Padavonas settled in New York where, at a very young age, Ronald Padavona became interested in music. In high school, he formed his first rock-and-roll band, The Vegas Kings, playing the sort of songs that attracted so many kids in the 1950’s. After high school, he pursued a degree in Pharmacology at the University of Buffalo. And then nothing much else really happened. That is to say, he would marry, remarry, and have children, all the while continuing to pursue his lifelong love of music. In the year 2010, he would pass away after a short and tragic battle with stomach cancer. He was not a man given to controversy or deception. He was uncharacteristically sincere and virtuous in an industry not known for such qualities. There is, altogether, not very much to report on. 

However, between his attending the University of Buffalo in 1960 and his death in 2010, the man known as Ronald James Padavona would adopt the name Dio (which is Italian for “God”), discover heavy metal music, and blow a hole in that particular musical galaxy with his powerful vocals, lyrics of rainbows and magic and death and heaven and hell, and his commanding stage performance. He would be the little man with the big voice and rock and roll would never be the same. 

My own life would lead me to Dio at the age of eleven. The year is 1996 and I have discovered heavy metal music thanks to a Black Sabbath compilation called We Sold Our Souls For Rock & Roll. Alongside this, I would be undergoing surgery to have metal rods placed in my back due to Scoliosis. I would spend that summer in a full-body cast, experiencing the sort of pain -- no, not just “pain” but anguish, torment, agony -- that redefines how you consider pain for the rest of your life afterwards. The years around this procedure would see me undergoing surgery every single summer for a few years. This period of my life is so muddled, so simultaneously filled with life-altering agony and mind-numbing monotony, that I’m a little hazy on the specific sequence of events. One thing is clear, however; one of the prominent voices leading me through this dark and dangerous time of uncertainty and sorrow belonged to Ronnie James Dio. 

In that same year of 1996, the heavy metal scene was going through a dark and dangerous time of its own. Heavy metal, popular culture said, was dead and gone -- replaced by grunge and Prozac and Starbucks coffee. Metal bands from Metallica to Slayer to the Metal God himself, Rob Halford, were turning their backs on the genre in the pursuit of social relevancy. Even Bruce Dickinson had left Iron Maiden and hired Nirvana producer Jack Endino, and released the unfortunate Skunkworks album. 

And then there was Dio. 

Dio was the name of Ronnie’s solo band. They’d enjoyed a measure of success with releases such as Holy Diver and The Last In Line, but time took its toll. Musicians came and went. In 1996, Dio released an album appropriately called Angry Machines. It would be the last album to feature veteran Dio drummer Vinny Appice and there would be nothing else like it in Ronnie James Dio’s career. For Dio and for myself, this was a year where very much happened indeed.


 If you listen to Dio’s 1993 release Strange Highways, you can see the beginnings of what would later happen in Angry Machines and fans often regard them together. But that’s not really how it happened. You might say Strange Highways is the fourth Dio-fronted Black Sabbath album without any of the members of Black Sabbath. Angry Machines, however, is like nothing else. It is the distorted, pissed-off, bizarro love child of a man on the edge, questioning man’s inhumanity to man, questioning even the musical genre he had devoted his career to. 

Dio was never one of us. He was too good for that. No, Dio was like a mentor, a wise Obi-Wan figure dishing out wisdom to all us young metalhead padawans. What happens, though, when the master is uncertain? What happens when Dio, when “God”, doesn’t have the answers? When he’s just as messed up and angry as you are?

What then?

“Don't tell the kids
They'll never understand it
Don't tell the kids
Don't waste your time, yeah

Don't tell the kids
They'll never get the picture
Don't tell the kids
You waste your time, yeah

Don't tell the kids
They just don't understand it
Don't tell the kids
Don't waste your time, time”
 -- “Don’t Tell the Kids”, Dio

On the surface, sure, Dio is experimenting with more popular forms and producing a very ’90’s sounding record. If you listen closely, you might catch a glimpse of Soundgarden here or there. It doesn’t sound like Dio Does Grunge though. Not the way those abominable “experiments” like Rob Halford’s 2wo project or Metallica’s Load/Reload do. You can hear the strain in Dio’s voice and you can hear that sometimes the band sounds awkward or out of place but what it FEELS like is Ronnie and the musicians collectively crying out and railing against this existential crisis that no one rightly understands. Gone is the laser precision of the early Dio albums with Ronnie James Dio acting as your Merlin-like leader, willing everything into harmony. Instead, songs like “Institutionalized Man” and “Don’t Tell the Kids” never rise above the chaos. Dio becomes the prophet Isaiah, admonishing the people and calling for a repentance that he knows will never come. 

I know this chaos. I know the pain of a world where an innocent boy spends an entire summer encased in agony, in the dark, with the beep-beep-beep of the machine forming the rhythm of life, forming the nightmares that would haunt me for twenty-nine years. When I hear songs like “Don’t Tell the Kids”, I know that no one ever told this kid, no one bothered to explain why he’d be shut away, why he would have to come to understand the fun of summertime academically and not experientially. Angry Machines is an album that almost entirely eschews the typical sword-and-sorcery imagery that Dio has been known for ever since Ritchie Blackmore hand-picked him as the perfect voice of Rainbow. However, it doesn’t feel like Dio is doing this for commercial reasons. Rather, it seems to be not unlike the words of Pablo Neruda when he says: 

“You will ask why his poetry 
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves, 
of the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets...”

 -- “I Explain Some Things”, Pablo Neruda
“Here’s what lies do: all things turn to
black! Black!...

Here’s what love does: dies and fades to
black! Black!” 

 -- “Black”, Dio

The guitar on “Black” wails while Dio barks and whines. It is probably the most un-Dio song ever. If you had any hope that this album would give you the sort of familiar heavy metal experience you wanted when you purchased it, that hope has been killed. Even Vinny Appice’s drums sort of dance around in the background, detached from the rest of the band. As ever, Dio surrounds himself with only the most exemplary musicians. Tracy G is a great guitarist. There are plenty of riffs and solos on this album to tell you that. This isn’t a fun record, though. No one is here to show off. The few times that Tracy or Vinny are allowed a moment to themselves, they are ultimately swallowed up again by the maelstrom that Dio has wrought. And so I remember...

The road between Children’s Hospital in New Orleans and my home was long and winding. If you’ve never been, the roads in New Orleans are called such because it’s the closest word that applies. They probably were roads at one time but now there’s a little bit of road around the potholes. The streets have cracked and busted as though the Earth itself is calling the ground back in, eating the city alive.

And so it was that after a long, grueling trip home, every bump in the road rattling my bones, shaking me to the core, it was discovered that I had to be sent all the way back, ushered away in the middle of the night. More procedures, more tests, more pain. Beep-beep-beep. Why? Don’t tell the kids, they’ll never understand it. 

“In places where aces outnumber the queens
Jack is afraid of tomorrow
Colors are changing to red, white and green
As we all fall down 

Once upon a hate, they told us they could fix it
If we’d wait for a while, killing you with smiles
Maybe you can still dream, sleep through screams
While we’re dying in America” 

 -- “Dying in America”, Dio
All these years later, I’ve learned to live with the pain as normal. I’ve learned how to experience normal, basic human touch without tensing in fear. I’ve learned how to face down true, unquestionable evil -- indeed, I’ve learned that absolute evil is a thing and that it often wears human skin -- without breaking. I’ve got children now, two beautiful and incredible living beings who don’t feel queasy and whose hearts don’t race every time they go near the hospital. My eldest daughter looks at the world with such wide-eyed optimism, such purity and singleness of heart that she hears the lyrics to Dio’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and can only find humor, never conceiving of the sort of dark and real human experiences that could lead to the song’s lyrics being written. 

I don’t often pick up Angry Machines anymore, though I listen to one album or another with Ronnie James Dio on lead vocals practically daily. Instead, I opt for his work in Rainbow or maybe one of the early Dio records before the band split apart and things got dark and strange. I also have a deep fondness for the later masterpieces in Dio’s career, the albums like Magica and Killing the Dragon, that are just as good or better than any of his classic material. 

There is one song from Angry Machines that I still think about, though. It might be the only ballad he ever did and it closes out the record. I’m not a ballad kinda guy and I suspect Ronnie wasn’t either. Probably why he didn’t do many. Ronnie Dio was about as rock n roll as they come. There is one line, however, that sticks out to me still. I think about it often. I think about it when the demons of the past are whispering in my ear, when I feel the weight of them on my shoulders, when I close my eyes and listen and I can still hear that “beep...beep...beep”:

“Right now it seems you’re only dreams and shadows
If wishes could be eagles, how you’d fly!”

 - “This Is Your Life”, Dio
Yeah, Ronnie, I would. If you could see me through all these dreams and shadows, if the smoke ever cleared from my mind, if the red-hot fire ever left my body when I moved, how I’d fly.

Ronnie James Dio was a man for whom nothing much happened, much like me. We lived and we loved, doing both fully and with equal vigor. The rest of the world tells you to not think too hard, not love too much, don’t feel. This is a world that shackles your God and sells him back to you in bits and pieces, promising you that you can have your Best Life Now if only you walk right, sit straight, and leave a big check. Dio was not a part of that world but in the year 1996, he sent out a message to it, and I did listen, I am still listening: 
“This is your life, this is your time
What if the flame won’t last forever?
This is your here, this is your now

Let it be magical...” ​
CT McNeely is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in such places as Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, Monster! and Fist of B List. He lives in the greatest city on Earth -- New Orleans, LA -- with his perfect wife and their mighty children.

<![CDATA[METALLICA – Master of Puppets]]>Thu, 24 Mar 2016 08:54:33 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/playing-it-backwards/metallica-master-of-puppetsthis was the sound that could stretch beyond the hard core and sweep up the stragglers. This was the sound that could and did conquer football stadiums.
            30 years. 30 years since ‘Master of Puppets’ was released. 30 years since I last saw them live. 30 years since Cliff Burton died. Where the hell does the time go?

​One of the peculiarities of getting older is that you see bands evolve from fetus-like flavor of the month to aging dinosaurs. It seems only yesterday that these young guns were fourth on the bill, wedged uncomfortably between Bon Jovi and Ratt, and now they’re headlining Glastonbury. Of course it happens much more organically than that, but perspective can be an odd thing. 30 years? 30 years before ‘Master of Puppets’ hit the streets, The Beatles were still at school and Elvis was a relatively fresh sensation. Time can make your head spin…
So Metallica… ah, Metallica. It’s hard to imagine a time before orchestral foolishness, embarrassing movies and poorly considered lawsuits. It’s difficult to imagine a catalog without misfires, a time when Lars still had hair and Cliff stood stage right, playing the hell out of that bass. Yeah, it’s easy to get wrapped up in nostalgia but some things are actually deserving of fond memories. Those early UK festival appearances, out in the blink inducing light of mid-afternoon, were a breath of fresh air.

That ‘Kill ‘em All’ and ‘Ride the Lightning’ were groundbreaking albums is beyond question. The former was a brutal introduction to the band; their second outing added a layer of violent sophistication to their sound. Both were packed with classic songs that are still amongst their most beloved, and continue to form the backbone of their set today. If they fell down anywhere it was in the production. They were recorded quickly and cheaply and as a result it, could be argued that they didn’t entirely live up to their full sonic potential. When they reunited with Lightning’s producer Flemming Rasmussen to record ‘Master of Puppets’ they had considerably more time and, when it came to mixing, another expert ear in veteran Michael Wagner. Such were the advantages of scoring a major label deal. Of course they had also matured as a unit and there’s no doubt that the songs they entered the studio to record were a more considered collection than anything that they had written before.

So… It’s 1986. Nervously you hit go on your CD player, (hey, this wasn’t the stone ages, we’d had them for a whole three years!), and wait

                          ‘Smashing through the boundaries…’

‘Battery’ starts tentatively. A lone acoustic guitar plays… multi-tracked, almost pompous, melody lines are introduced… what the hell? Then after about a minute the whole thing drops, a simple but reassuring riff kicks in, and we’re off. By the time they reintroduce that melodic line again everything is exactly as you would want it to be and ‘Battery’ is more than living up to its name.

                  ‘Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams…’

There’s no hesitation where the title track is concerned. ‘Master of Puppets’ is sublime from the first bar; guitar heaven. ‘Master of puppets, I’m pulling your strings. Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams…’ Lyrically Hetfield nailed it, combining worthy themes with phrases that caught your imagination. Around the middle of the track we get a major tonal and time change that reminds us that this is progressive and dynamic stuff, with softer sections only serving to reinforce the energy of the whole.

                              ‘Out from ruins once possessed…’

‘The Thing that Should not Be’ judders into life like Frankenstein’s monster receiving 100,000 volts.  Lovecraftian lyrics perfectly counteract the brooding music that accompanies them. Three winners so far…

                              ‘Sanitarium, just leave me alone…’

‘Sanitarium’s gentler verse leads into a massive chorus. This is what passes for a ballad when you’re Metallica. Of course this is no soft centered cop out. Yes, you can sing along, you will sing along, but don’t expect a rest… Thirty years later this earworm is still resident.
                            ‘You will do what I say, when I say…’

​  Just in case you were getting concerned, ‘Disposable Heroes’ wastes no time in cranking up the pace. This is fast, another reminder that you were listening to the leaders of the ‘thrash’ revolution and no major record deal was going to change that. Not for the last time Metallica rail against the war machine with its ‘back to the front’ chant burning itself onto your mind.

                                        ‘Time to kiss your life goodbye…’

For me ‘Leper Messiah’ is one of the weaker and less inventive tracks on the album but in this context that doesn’t mean its bad, just not quite up to the quality of what precedes it.
With ‘Orion’, a slower eight minute instrumental epic, Metallica give the nod to those who like to label their sound progressive. After a chugging start at four minutes it all fades away, leaving Cliff Burton playing a mellow and melodic bass line before a succession of harmonic guitar lines kick in. It’s an accomplished but divisive number that plods rather than races, but remains heavy as hell as it does so.

                                  ‘Dealing out the agony within…’

            For their album finale the pace is cranked back up and, once the reversed chords of the intro end, ‘Damage Inc’ takes us out thrashing in glorious style.

Finally you collapse in your 1986 style chair, breath deeply, and relax, contented from your first listen to what is still one of the finest metal albums of all time. In a few months Megadeth and Slayer will release what are arguably their career bests too, but Metallica got there first. Commercial seems an odd word to use in this context, but everything is relative and this was the sound that could stretch beyond the hard core and sweep up the stragglers. This was the sound that could and did conquer football stadiums.

So was it their best album to date? For me, and many others at the time, it felt like a step up for the band. To some though, I think it may have felt like a move away from their raw beginnings. In retrospect I think it sits perfectly alongside Kill and Lightning as another bona fide classic in their catalog. All of the first three albums are essential listening and without doubt have never been bettered by them in the following 30 years.

Picking favourites from such a strong track listing is nigh on impossible and will always be contentious. At a push I’d have to choose ‘Sanitarium’, ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Disposable Heroes’. Suffice to say it’s a close call.

On September the 10th 1986 I found myself in Cardiff, ready for the first date of their Damage Inc tour. Outside the St David’s Hall the Welsh crowd were clearly ready to rock out.  Cheap beers were disappearing fast and a party atmosphere prevailed. Anthrax warmed the crowd up with a storming set and then it was time for the headliners.

Despite a roadie filling in for Hetfield, who had broken his arm skateboarding, they were magnificent. Coming off the back of an enormous American tour they were super tight and eager to make their mark. Newer songs mingled with the old to form a faultless set. This was a band at the height of their proverbial powers, in the right place at the right time, and seemingly unstoppable. It was a glorious show.

​A couple of weeks later Cliff Burton lay dead at the side of a Swedish country road at the age of 24. The band recovered from what could have been a fatal blow but it was the end of a much too short era. As an international concert draw they went on to greater and greater heights but the paltry half a dozen albums that followed over the three decades would never match the glory of those initial three releases. Sadly we can never know what that perfect chemistry of the original line up might have produced given time. Happily, we’ll always have ‘Master…’


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