Stoner Rock

Runnin’ Down a Dream

When Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers first burst on the scene in the mid-70s, I was…ah… suspicious — it seemed to me, inexperienced music fan that I was at the time, there was a possibility the band was aiming for pop stardom or LA pretty boy fame that could be leveraged into… I dunno…a career as game show hosts? Stars of the next Cameron Crowe movie? Well, it quickly became apparent that my radar had been faulty as Damn the Torpedoes, their big breakout album, proved to be a smart, rockin’ affair, chock-full of great tunes and great playing. Even at this point in his career there was an edge to Petty that, although he was laconic and laid back about it, basically announced to the world and any and all potential business associates, that he was always gonna do it his way. Call me crazy, but I can’t help but admire a person with those kinds of instincts and sensibilities. Though he never sounded or acted much like a Southern Rocker, for all intents and purposes Petty was; one just had to peel back the layers a bit to see it. And then, there was The Heartbreakers, his backing band. And what a band! Guitarist Mike Campbell quickly established himself as a “tastemaster”; a well-grounded player versed in all of the essential elements of great rock and roll styles, but disciplined enough to always support the singer and the song. Likewise for the keyboards of Benmont Tench. Neither guy ever overplayed his hand. The great rhythm section of Stan Lynch/Ron Blair gave Petty the ability to write songs as tight as The Beatles/Byrds or as loose and funky as Stax/Booker T and the MGs, which is exactly what he did and they always pulled it off awesomely. As the 70s rolled on into the 80s, Petty’s star kept rising and though some of the albums were not fully realized and some of the critics chided him for being shallow or not fully committed to I don’t know what, there was always that Tom Petty song on the radio that I didn’t change the dial on…and so the moorings of a 40+ year career were established.

By the mid 80s he was headlining a whole new genre — HEARTLAND ROCK; a “movement” that only lasted about 10 minutes in 1985, but is still a thing in programming jargon. How Petty and his band went from LA New Wave to heroes in Iowa in the space of 10 years is still a mystery. Perhaps LIVE AID had something to do with it. Or FARM AID. I dunno…the 80s were a little confusing. I was certainly confused sometimes…Talk about connecting with your (or somebody else’s) roots! U2 was probably more than a little jealous. After all they TRIED to do the same thing with Rattle and Hum and all they got was well-deserved derision. (Maybe it’s just me, but the guy who wears the sock hat constantly never sounded particularly “rootsy”). The truth is TP and the Heartbreakers kept building their nationwide audience by subterfuge; they had played Heartland-sounding music from the beginning, wrote great songs, and avoided all of the bombast and most of the overexposure that plagued other 80s stars (Phil Collins, Sting, Huey Lewis). Sure, Stevie Nicks sang with the band on a big hit song, but not liking Stevie Nicks is downright UnAmerican. The band was able to score hit song after hit song because that is the medium to which Petty excelled as a writer and probably how he related to rock and roll in the first place. So, as a band they were always around, no matter the “era”.

The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!

Then there was what I like to call the LIKE-ABILITY FACTOR. A lot of rock stars aren’t really very likeable, some are even complete a-holes. Yet, one always got the sense that Tom Petty was a pretty cool, down-to-earth, affable guy, even if he was ornery sometimes. You understood the orneriness and accepted it though because he was in a tough business and no matter who you are, everybody’s had to fight to be free. He didn’t take himself too, too seriously and was always honest about his feelings and intentions and that counted for a lot. You never felt like he was putting you on or telling you stories about people he read about in the newspaper. I hate that crap. With Tom it was always personal, but never overblown. He knew how to write and sing to people so they didn’t feel put upon. Did you know that the song I Won’t Back Down was inspired by an arsonist burning down Tom’s house? While he and his family were in it? Most of the house did burn down and the person was never caught and that’s pretty messed up, yet a very succinct and brilliant song came out of the ordeal. A song you could sing after 9/11 or in the cancer ward…or after someone tries to burn down your beautiful house. There was always that to-the-point authenticity to Petty’s single-based songcraft and the fact that he didn’t give you a 9 minute story like Dylan, turn it into a hopeless dirge like Springsteen or pile 34 different instruments onto the track like Mellencamp made you like him even more. He wasn’t ever gonna be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but, thousands and thousands of people were capable of singing along because they KNEW his songs. That’s a pretty impressive achievement, especially in today’s 8 second attention span world.

By the end of the 80s Tom completely looked the part of a wizened California mega-stoner with his acoustic guitar, his traveling top hat, and the friends in super high places: Harrison, Dylan, Lynn, Orbison, Garcia and Ringo. (You have to be cool if you have Ringo as a friend). He was in a very successful project with some of these “friends”, recorded a career-defining solo album, Full Moon Fever, and a suddenly a whole new era of Pettiness began. Just in time too because there was a whole new generation of angst-ridden Generation X youths who, in time, would come to appreciate Tom and the Heartbreakers just as the previous generation had…and for the same reasons. Unlike the loudmouth/controversial-type rock stars that prowl the horizon and the pages of tabloids, I don’t think there was an I Hate Tom Petty Fan Club out there in the universe. Even hipsters grudgingly respected him in that ironic kind of way. How could you hate a guy who wrote…

Take Back Joe Piscopo!

…into one of his chart-topping songs? Petty’s inherent goofiness and rock and roll sincerity made everybody sit up and RESPECT because he had that real deal gift for the art of communication. Even the songs that don’t sound like much will fool you. Listen again and you will find they usually contain a line or couplet that just defines life or a person’s place therein, and you’ll realize (after your 50th listen) that maybe it’s this small comment on emotions, the unfair nature of life, or unbridled human determination to go on that was the basis for the whole song in the first place. Tom did that a whole lot because these moments are scattered throughout his catalog. He would continue writing and recording songs for another two decades with the same sense of assurance and modeled on the same sounds and influences that always worked. In time, the band became an institution and I do believe that Tom knew that his time was coming to an end, at least as a rock star, so he loaded up the tour wagon one more time and went out like a boss, doing what he loved, taking it to the people like he and the Heartbreakers had been doing since the 1970s.

And so… I was shopping for Christmas dinner a few months after Tom Petty passed over and his voice suddenly filled the store, singing that silly Christmas song he released back in the early 90s and there I was, staring into a cheese display for three minutes. I saw Tom in many mediums, but going back to when I was still a teen, through all of the jobs I had, including many driving hours, when rock and roll radio was always on, I LOVED to hear his songs on the radio because they fit so perfectly. And now to realize that this voice, this guy, who has been singing and talking through this medium for more than forty years will only exist that way from now on — forty years of radio, concerts, MTV, and playing his music…forty years worth of LIFE blast through my head in the space of a few seconds. While it’s hard not to get sad and emotional, there comes the realization of not only the inevitability of life and death, but also, though I could’ve lived at any time, I lived in this time and heard all of this music and so much more… and my life was made so much richer by it.

Recently I was able to attend the Loser’s Lounge Tribute to Tom Petty and it was pretty fun. This long-running music cabaret has thrilled and chilled audiences for a quarter century at this point. WOW! This is the first time I’ve seen them though and this isn’t something I would normally do, but I’m glad I went. The basic band is HOT! They are led by Joe McGinty and they are seriously crazy good…probably the BEST drummer I’ve seen in a long time only because he was so solid and crushing and you need that if you are going to put on a show like this. But everybody else: bass, guitars, percussion and backup/lead vocals by the core band was just brilliant. They had my attention all night. They had guest singers come up for the long two sets of songs they did and while some of it didn’t work, the stuff that did more than made up. The evening made me realize even more how great Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers were, because even the stupendous versions by these great musicians still came up short and so would anyone’s attempt to try to copy one of rock’s truest originals. Fare thee well Tom…Thank you! May you run down that dream forever!

Another Cool CD — Acid King – Free

AK2_free

last month I wrote A post on some cool CDs. GuitarCave post #104 is all about Acid King — Free, which is actually a split of Acid King and The Mystic Krewe of Clearlight from way back in the year 2000. It’s some of the best Acid King there is and I dig it! Back in 2011 or so I wrote about Acid King’s Busse Woods disc in the Lovin’ It Loud post. This disc is more stoner rock than doom, at least when compared to Busse Woods. That doesn’t mean any heaviness or guitar wallop is sacrificed, no, no, no. The mix is a bit more spacious and the songs chug along at a nice brisk tempo. The pics of the bike and the helmet on the cover reflect the music — great driving and riding jams! And the disc art is pretty AWESOME! I started looking at it one day and when I stopped I realized it was another day. Amazing!

AK_Free3

I just listened to this CD the other day and realized that the 1st song on the split, Blaze In, (which is the same “theme” as the last song on the Acid King side, Blaze Out) is my favorite Acid King jam. Although it’s instrumental, the snaky, fluid guitar riffing is absolutely superb and the rhythm section of Guy Pinhas and Joey Osbourne just chug along like a pair of crash monsters should. I really love the RIFF and always have. When it kicks in Acid King sounds like a Metal Symphony. A close second favorite jam is the other brilliant song on the disc, the title cut, Free, a total ROCK ANTHEM, and if you’ve never heard it, you should just go listen to it on YouTube. It embodies everything I like about the band — great music and the guitar and vocals of Lori S. are really magnificent! I don’t want to say she is underrated as a guitarist, but she certainly deserves more attention for her skills that’s for sure. The third song 4 Minutes is the dark and DOOMY number of the disc. Great detuned guitar tone on this number whoa! HeAvY!! Great drumming too…this song really reminds me of High On Fire. Then, as I said the initial “theme” [Blaze Out] is repeated to close out a very fine and tight rockin’ disc ladies and gentlemen. If you are like me, you’ll find that this is exactly the right amount of time — not too much or too little — so that when the last song ends, your finger will already be hovering over the repeat button. I played it about 4 times in a row…I was rockin’!

AK1_free

The other half of the disc that features The Mystick Krewe of Clearlight is ok, but nothing special. I’ve given it a few chances over the years and it never really grabbed me. I bought this disc from Man’s Ruin back in the day with a bunch of other stuff; some of it great, some not. By 2002 the label had imploded and many of the bands from back then have long since faded away. Acid King is one of the few (along with High on Fire) who went on to bigger and better things. I guess that is two (??) reasons this disc is another in-demand item on discogs.com but I’m glad to have it and will keep it. If this is up your listening alley and you ever have the opportunity, definitely pick it up!

High on Fire

High on Fire - The Art of Self-DefenseHigh On Fire! The kind of band you go see or put on when you feel like running headfirst into a brick wall! The first time I saw them was in the fall of 2000 at CBGBs, the notorious Bowery club in NYC that no longer exists. It was a metal show, and I knew some of the bands on the (really packed) bill and it ended up being a fantastic time. One of the bands Boulder, had the total Judas Priest thing going on with the Flying V’s and enough Marshall stacks onstage to sink it. I think it took them longer to set up than it did for them to do their set, but they had a real interesting metal/hardcore thing going on complete with the twin leads and twisted vocals and it was pretty good. Acid King played next and were played great and totally impressed me. I bought Busse Woods right after their set. Then High on Fire came on. It was great, I mean like GRRRRRREAT! They played their Man’s Ruin release, The Art of Self-Defense,  and the song Eyes and Teeth, which would be on their 2nd release, Surrounded by Thieves, as well as a Steel Shoe.

I really dug this version of the band. It never really got any better for me after this, but I know I’m in the minority. HOF started out as Stoner Rock, really groovin’ sludgy riffs and interesting song structures and then by the time their first bass player left and they released their 3rd album, Blessed Black Wings, they turned into a full-on metal band. It was a good move for them I think, as they have been very successful; they’ve made 2 more records and have opened for Metallica in Europe, and that’s pretty friggin’ good. These guys have worked hard and toured a lot and deserve every reward that comes their way.

High on Fire - Surrounded by Thieves coverBut the stoner-rock/doom idiom is more interesting to me to listen to, and as a guitar player. I like instrumental approach and the really LONG songs that go through many complex parts and changes. This first time I saw HOF I thought they were Sabbath meets Zeppelin mixed with prog-rock and lo-fi free jazz kind of stuff. Very physical and pummeling for sure, but not the straight-ahead doom or metal played by other bands, even some of the other bands that were on the bill. There was a lot of atmosphere and dynamics and CBGBs was a great place to see a band where the guitarist and bass player were each using 3-4 cabinets. It was LOUD and standing close as I was…RIGHT IN MY FACE. AWESOME! Definitely ranks as one of the best shows ever, and I saw tons of shows at CBGBs over the years. To this day HOF have retained quite a bit of that early diversity and have never sacrificed their pummeling brutal intensity, sound and approach, so I don’t want to give the impression that I think they sold out and would understand if the band would say “hey, we’ve been doing basically the same thing all along,” because in a way, that’s true.

High on Fire-Sleeve image from 1st releaseMatt Pike is a guitar monster and has been ever since he was a youngster in the band Sleep. High on Fire, even in the beginning, with drummer Des Kensel and bass player George Rice, had a very pummeling sound. I’ve read in interviews that Matt took a jazz guitar course or two and I think I hear some John McLaughlin in his playing—definitely some Tony Iommi, Dave Murray from Iron Maiden, and Motorhead. There is this space in time where prog-rock, jazz, fusion, stoner rock and metal meet and I think in the early days, and maybe a little bit still, Matt Pike was trying to make ALL of it work for him. Like the main riff from Baghdad is just sick! and the end jam on Master of Fists and parts of  Thraft of Canaan (WTF is a “THRAFT”) sound really jazzy to me, especially the circular style drumming and the guitar soloing. When multiple styles overlap the music becomes very interesting, not only because there is so much ROCK and complex musical inspiration to draw from, but, also, the potential to create completely new hybrids of ideas and combinations is almost limitless.

High on Fire-Blessed Black WingsI learned the riffs to the Art of Self-Defense and a band I was in at the time even covered Master of Fists live. Had to drop the guitar tuning down to C for that heavy-riffing sound and just bang along. Lots of clever parts and fun riffs to do—Last, Fireface, 10,000 Years, Baghdad, Master of Fists and Blood From Zion are all total headbangers.  Surrounded by Thieves also had a lot of great stuff on it; Eyes and Teeth, Nemesis and Thraft of Canaan are all brutally beautiful. I did like Blessed Black Wings and the hooks, riffs and execution just kept getting better and better—The Face of Oblivion and Cometh Down the Hessian, Sons of Thunder (which sounds like heavy prog-rock to me) and To Cross the Bridge are just amazing. The recording sounded great, Matt’s lyrics are always totally metal and the album artwork is always really awesome too. I think he’s a guy who wants his music to take the listener somewhere, it’s not all about slaying and pummeling and throwing the horns.

These days Matt plays a custom-made 9 string guitar! How cool is that? With the 3 high strings doubled (like on a 12-string) he can get more “body” and a chorus type of effect without switching on a pedal. Since he does a lot of his riffing Iommi-style, which translates to doing most everything heavy on the 2 low strings, he can crush heavy and also have this very beautiful chorus-type of ring going on simultaneously. Brilliant!