Queensrÿche – Empire

Empires can be built in many different ways. Dedication and drive. Crime and Corruption. Narcissism. Greed.

They can also have many different consequences for the builder. Satisfaction. Loneliness and abandonment. A desire for more.

Those topics and more pretty much sum up the theme of Queensrÿche’s fourth album, aptly titled “Empire”.

Queensrÿche had paid their dues as a band throughout the eighties. After years of rejection from every record label they courted, the band finally signed a deal with EMI, and released their first album in 1984. “The Warning” earned them a moderate but solid fan base which stayed with them for their subsequent albums. Their third album, “Operation Mind Crime” should have been the album that broke them, but EMI did little in promotion and it never did as well as it had potential. When Queensrÿche released “Empire” as the follow-up, it absolutely exploded. There was no holding it back. It hit near the top of the charts in almost every country it was released in, including number 7 in the U.S. It sold over 3 million copies worldwide.

The song “Silent Lucidity” was nominated for two Grammy Awards – Best Rock Song and Best Rock Vocal. Unfortunately, it didn’t win either. I honestly forget what songs it was up against at the time, but I remember thinking at the time that “Silent Lucidity” was the hands down winner. It is one of the most beautifully and emotionally gripping rock songs ever performed. A masterpiece of a song on an album that is the same.

REO Speedwagon – Hi Infidelity

Sellout.

That was a word a lot of people used to describe “Hi Infidelity”, the 9th studio album by REO Speedwagon. And in many ways it was. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Towards the end of the 70s, REO Speedwagon’s albums began to take on more of a pop sound then their earlier, harder rocking albums. A trend that was brought to fruition on “Hi Infidelity”. The thing is though, when you really listen to it, this record rocks just as hard and any of its predecessors. Sometimes more so. It just did it with a bit more polish.

In their early incarnation, REO Speedwagon was anything but a pop band. They were a hard rocking Midwestern American band with highly talented musicians. Gary Richrath was a phenomenal guitarist and Neil Doughty was absolutely one of the most underrated keyboardists ever, as was Alan Gratzer on drums. Despite their talent and some great songs, true success seemed to elude REO Speedwagon, album after album, in their early days.

So they spruced up their sound a bit, to make it more accessible, and started throwing a slow ballad or two on each new album. And voila! Hit records. The great thing was, they still wrote songs that allowed Gary Richrath and Neil Doughty to really cut loose. Hidden under the hood of the pop gloss on “Hi Infidelity” are some of the best riffs and solos in the REO Speedwagon canon.

The formula on “Hi Infidelity” absolutely worked worked for REO. Even though it was absolutely a pop album, especially when compared to their early material, “Hi Infidelity” never alienated REO’s early fan base because it’s still rocked hard. Yet the album gained them a new pop fan base. The album ended up becoming their most successful album ever, selling over 10 million copies and topping the Billboard charts in 1981. It also earned them their first number one single, the obligatory slow ballad “Keep on Loving You”.

“Hi Infidelity” was the record that finally, after eight previous albums, earned REO Speedwagon the success they had so long deserved but had constantly been denied, while still letting them keep their musical integrity. Call it a sellout if you want. I call it REO Speedwagon at their finest.

Joe Walsh – So What

Blues chords, great guitar riffs, and solid guitar solos. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. And it’s nothing Joe Walsh hasn’t put on an album before or after. But so what, his third solo album is essential to any rock lover’s collection.

Joe Walsh was pretty basic and straightforward with his albums. He never really did anything fancy… Except his solos. His solos kicked ass. Every time. He was a master on slide guitar that few could equal. He also played more than just guitar. He was very accomplished on keyboards and quite often would put a song that featured him playing synthesizer on his albums. “So What” was no exception.

Joe Walsh’s formula for making an album was simple – write good songs, play them well, and have excellent musicians back him up. On “So What”, those backup musicians were quite often members of The Eagles. A little over a year and a half later Joe Walsh would actually join the Eagles, bringing a little more edginess to their sound and helping them have their most successful studio album ever, Hotel California. But so what. His solo material was just as good.

Rush – All The World’s A Stage

Oh won’t you please welcome all, RUSH! And so begins one of my all-time favorite live albums.

I’m not going to say it’s the best live album ever, because that’s subjective. And, quite honestly this is a live album that’s not for the faint of heart. Geddy Lee’s vocals, especially in Rush’s early music, could be an acquired taste. His voice was perhaps my only reservation when I first heard “All the World’s a Stage”, which was my introduction to Rush. But after a while I began to really like it.

It was in the locker room after gym class in 8th or 9th grade when one of my classmates noticed that I had an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer tape with me. He asked if I like Carl Palmer’s drumming. Well, of course I did. He said he had something he wanted me to listen to. At the next gym class, he brought me in a copy of “All the World’s a Stage”. Without a doubt, Neil Peart’s drum solo on “Working Man / Finding My Way” is, and forever will be, the biggest highlight on this album for me. And for good reason – there are few who will argue against it being the best rock drum solo ever recorded. … EVER!

But a drum solo does not a record make. Nay, it was the rest of the musicianship and the arrangements on that make this recording iconic. Peart’s drum solo was just the icing on the cake.

Rush was one of the few bands that can claim to have introduced a whole new genre of music – at least until you get into the 90s in the new millennia. Progressive metal did not exist before Rush. Maybe it would have been introduced by some other band, had Rush not taken the bull by the horns. But no other band did. At least not in this universe. I am forever grateful to my friend in junior high school who introduced me to Rush; a band that has become one of my favorite bands of all time. A band that opened my ears to realms of new musical possibilities.

The Cult – Electric Peace

The Cult had just had their first major breakthrough with the album, “Love”, and the single from it, “She Sells Sanctuary”, when they went into the studio to record the follow-up to it. For that album, which they had already decided to title “Peace”, they again chose Steve Brown to produce it. Although they were happy with the work he did on “Love”, they were not at all pleased with Brown’s treatment on the new album.

They sought out a new producer for the record and found Rick Rubin. After hearing what they had done so far, Rubin had them go back into the studio and re-record every song and also record a couple different ones. Because the record produced by Rubin sounded so strikingly different from “Peace”, The Cult decided to rename the new record “Electric”. It may have been a pain for them to go back and redo everything, but it was definitely a good call. “Electric” became The Cult’s most successful album ever.

Although “Peace” is a good record, and would have probably done alright for them, it really didn’t capture what The Cult were truly capable of. On “Electric”, Rick Rubin was able to capture one of the best bands from the ’80s at their very best.

The songs on “Peace” were never released in their entirety until 2010 when all of songs from it were included with a 2010 limited edition CD. It was finally released in its entirety on vinyl with the originally intended artwork in 2013, included with the album “Electric”. The two album package was called “Electric Peace”.

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

Contrary to some accusations that have been made, Black Sabbath is not a devil worship band (I wouldn’t listen to them if they were). They originally called themselves “Earth”, but had to change their name after they discovered there was another band already using it. They chose to name themselves after the marquis on nearby movie theater, which was playing a Boris Karloff horror movie titled “Black Sabbath”.

Because they didn’t want to be associated with the occult and devil worship, when it came time to re-release the album “Paranoid”, on vinyl in 2012, the band chose to press it on light blue vinyl instead of black vinyl to avoid any negatively dark connotations.

Actually, I’m making that last part up. I have no idea why it was pressed on light blue vinyl. But it does look pretty cool.

I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

Aerosmith – Toys In The Attic

Aerosmith’s third album, “Toys in the Attic” was a huge success for them. It was also the album where the band had to really prove its songwriting ability – and they did.

Aerosmith’s two previous albums, “Get Your Wings” and their eponymous debut, both consisted almost exclusively of songs the band had written and performed live before going into the studio. For “Toys in the Attic” they had nothing except a few bits and pieces of songs that they had come up with during sound checks while touring. They basically had had to do everything from scratch on this album and were under pressure from the record company to release a new record.

Almost all the songs on “Toys In The Attic” were either written by, or fleshed out by Aerosmith while in the studio. The two exceptions being “You See Me Crying” which was co-written by Steven Tyler and Don Solomon and “Big Ten Inch Record” which was a cover version of a song originally performed by blues and R&B saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson.

Big ten inch record is a song about an old blues record that a girl is very enthralled a girl, but the phrasing of the lyrics also gave the innuendo of it being about the singers private parts. This led lot of people to think that in the song, Steven Tyler sings  “sucked on my big ten inch”, but according to Tyler, he’s actually singing “‘cept on my big ten inch”. Which is it really? I have my opinion, but you’ll have to listen to the song and decide for yourself.

Grand Funk – We’re An American Band

In many ways, Grand Funk was the Rodney Dangerfield of rock and roll – they got no respect.

Starting out as a power Trio from Flint, Michigan in 1969, Grand Funk Railroad, as they were known before they shortened their name on their seventh album, topped the charts album after album into the mid ’70s. Yet still they were panned by the critics and got no respect.

In 1971, Grand Funk equaled the Beatles’ record setting concert venue attendance at Shea Stadium – but Grand Funk sold it out in 3 days whereas the Beatles took 3 weeks. Yet they were still panned by the critics and got no respect.

In 1972, Grand Funk became a quartet, filling out their music by adding organ and keyboards. They became the sound of the working class in the United States – loud and proud and ready to take on the world. They defined arena rock and changed the music scene in ways they are rarely given credit for. They were the sound of Grit, Noise, and Revolution in the face of adversity. And still, they were panned by the critics and got no respect.

But their fans knew them, and they respected Grand Funk for what they were. 

They were an American Band.

Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band” was released on yellow colored vinyl for its first pressings only. I admit, I was too young to know what Grand Funk was all about when this album was originally released. However, when I ran across this copy a few years back, I knew exactly what it was – a necessary addition to my record collection.

Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon

After some long negotiations, I finally convinced my wife to let me not only have a turntable in the man cave, but also upstairs in the living room. As I was getting out of bed, eager to start hooking up the new system, she added one more point to the deal: no playing any Jethro Tull upstairs (for whatever reason, she hates Jethro Tull). I told her that “Aqualung” was the first thing I wanted to play on the new setup. This earned me a bit of an expected scowl in return. 

“I’m joking” I replied, adding “You know what the first thing I always play on any new sound system is.” 

She just said “You’re such a nerd”, rolled over and went back to sleep.

King Crimson – Larks Tongues In Aspic

I think “Larks Tongues In Aspic” is one of my favorite King Crimson albums because this, the fifth incarnation of the band, featured violin as one of the main instruments. It truly gave this album a distinctly unique character. Not that King Crimson’s music ever needed any help with being distinct or unique.

This was an album you had to be sure to take proper care of. It has many quiet passages, and if not treated properly the scratches could easily overwhelm the music. The album opens with one of those quiet passages, some soft percussion work by Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir, which leads into the an elegant violin intro played by David Cross, which is then torn out of existence by Robert Fripp’s frantic guitar work. This kind of slow then fast, quiet then loud roller coaster ride is a kind of theme throughout the entirety of “Larks Tongues In Aspic”. The glue holding all these diverse parts together is the solid bass playing by John wetton, who also does all the singing.

I suppose Larks tongue could be a difficult album for some to listen to, but it’s one well worth putting the effort into. Like a good brandy or a fine wine, “Larks Tongue In Aspic” is an acquired taste. It’s an album that intrigues your ears and mind. This is music that is intended to be interpreted, not merely listen to. Then again, that could be said of all King Crimson’s work.