Oriental Spas – “Street Lines”

That clipped corner of an album, or the hole punched in the cover, often serves as a warning sign.  Obviously this was returned by the store that originally carried it and deleted from the record company’s catalog – hence the cutout.  Mind you, I’ve found cutouts for some decent bands, most recently the U.K. Subs.  But there’s also a lot of long-forgotten wax out there that never caught on, or at least not enough to avoid the loss of dignity that comes from having your own company deface the cover of your art and sell it super cheap out of the back of a van.

That being said, cutouts can be fun.  They’re usually pretty cheap, and hey – these bands were decent enough that someone invested in putting out their record, so they might not be half bad.  So when I came across Oriental Spas in the Miscellaneous O section (an awfully small section… not a lot of “O” bands) at Hi-Voltage Records and took a look at the fashions this trio was sporting, I was intrigued.  The chicks nail that sort of quasi-punk-80s-rocker-chick look – lots of big hair, black clothes with metal accessories, and tights.  And the dude looks like one of the guys from Great White dressed up like a stylish revolutionary.  Discogs lists the band’s genre as darkwave/industrial, so what the hell right?  Let’s see what this is all about.

Well, it took about 10 seconds into the first track on Street Lines (“Tattoo”) to figure out that this was not darkwave, nor was it industrial.  It’s straight up 80s hair rock.  It’s what Ratt would sound like if Pat Benatar was their lead singer; it’s an ever so slightly more rock version of Scandal; it’s hairspray, ankle boots, and big ostentatious crucifix necklaces.  It has keyboards, and someone stole the sound effect pedal Peter Frampton used on “Do You Feel Like We Do”.  It’s not trying to be dated, but if you can’t place this smack-dab into the middle of the 1980s (released in 1988), you simply weren’t a teenager then and never had a crush on a girl wearing a sweater that went down to her knees, stirrup pants, and neon colors.  Or Lita Ford.

If there was any doubt where Oriental Spas belong in the pantheon of 80s big-hair rock, I offer the following poetic musings for your consideration.

I’ve got a motor bike,
I’ve got chains of steel,
I’ve got a banana seat,
That’ll make you squeal.
I’ve got everything
That you heart desires,
I’m your daddy’s torment
And your momma’s fire.
— “Rattlesnake Charm”

And that’s only one of two songs that include the word “daddy”… and the other is actually called “Daddy”.

Massage massage boy pound on me,
Massage massage I’ll rub you down,
Massage massage boy oil me up,
Massage massage… massage!
— “Massage”

No, seriously.  That just happened.

Look man, I may be having some fun at the expense of the Oriental Spas, but bottom line is this is truly representative of what was a popular genre at the time.  It’s easy to act like hair metal is funny… but let’s not forget that if you were in high school circa 1983-88 you probably thought it was totally hard, drew Motley Crue and Def Leppard logos in your notebooks, and debated with your friends about whether or not Ozzy really did bite the head off that bat (or dove, or a chocolate bunny, or whatever).  And what the Oriental Spas put out on Street Lines is the more radio-friendly poppy version of this same guitar and keyboard sound that sold millions of records for Scandal and Winger… what a lots of us started with when we were 10 or 11 and not quite ready for the “really” hard bands like the Scorpions and Judas Priest.  It’s got the obligatory guitar riffs and ballads and bad harmonizing, but despite all that it’s actually not half bad… if you don’t pay attention to the words, which are generally laugh-out-loud absurd and cliched.

Our top five guesses for what Pandora would “suggest” if you like Oriental Spas:  REO Speedwagon, Scandal, Whitesnake, Heart, and Survivor.  Of course, we checked – Oriental Spas are not recognized by Pandora, which is a loss to music fans everywhere.

Look, don’t go out and buy this unless you can find it cheap.  But if you stumble across a cutout copy in the Miscellaneous O section and have an extra $3 burning a hole in your pocket, take it home, get out the Aquanet, and and make it happen.

Ragnar Kvaran – “Wrecked on Love”

While I’ve lamented about the closing of the Queen Anne location of Seattle’s Easy Street Records, fortunately its sister shop remains open in funky West Seattle, so Holly and I stopped by there the other day so I could view the vinyl while she hit some of the neighborhood boutiques.  I ran across this record by Ragnar Kvaran in the New Arrivals bin and didn’t know what to make of it…. but that’s what smart phones are for, and while I found very little about the band one word stuck out:  Iceland.

Now, any regular reader of this blog as well as anyone who has talked to me about music for more than five minutes knows I have a fondness (some might say obsession, others might say irrational fixation, though music retailers in Reykjavik would surely say deep appreciation…) for Icelandic bands, almost regardless of the genre.  So this was an automatic purchase for me, especially since the photos seemed to indicate Ragnar and the boys played rock.

Wrecked on Love is described as an album on various websites and databases, but it’s more like an EP – there are only six songs on this 12″ (though it does play at 33 rpm).  Released in 1981, the music is basically similar to the regular run of the mill pop rock of the early 1980s – a hint of new wave, songs about chicks, and the occasional saxophone.

 

Betty Ann let me get this straight,
Did you mean what that look just said?
‘Cause if I move and you refuse,
I’m sure that it would kill me dead.
— “Betty Ann” 

Ragnar Kvaran reminds me of a slightly more rock version of Huey Lewis and the News from roughly the same time period.  It’s not bad, and these would probably make for some enjoyable songs if played by a bar band, but there isn’t anything here that’s going to make you sit up and take notice.

Wrecked on Love is decent, workmanlike rock ‘n’ roll.  And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

The Varukers – “One Struggle, One Fight”

English D-beat hardcore band The Varukers formed in 1979, and holy hell do they get after it. I spotted this 2010 re-release of their 1985 LP One Struggle, One Fight the other day at Hi-Voltage and knew I had to give this one a listen.

The Varukers as known for putting forth an anarcho-punk message, and their lyrics make it very clear where they stand on a lot of issues (thankfully there is a lyric sheet included, because these hardcore guys can be challenging to decipher sometimes).  For your consideration:

We must continue our struggle for freedom,
We must defend the things we believe in.

Protest against animal abuse,
Protest against the laws,
Protest against South Africa
(remember – this came out in 1985 when Aparteid ruled)
Protest against war.
— “Persistent Resistance” 

The 13 tracks on One Struggle, One Fight touch specifically on the three issues outlined in their manifesto “Persistent Resistance” – animal abuse, South Africa, and war.  The Varukers stay on topic throughout the album, including the two live tracks included – “Will They Never Learn” and “Enter a New Phase,” both of which sound good for live recordings. The music is tight and the vocals, while fast, aren’t completely obliterated by speed and volume which is a big plus, and certainly an important part of the band’s effort to communicate their message to the audience.

The songs are short machine-gun bursts of chords and words, a complete assault on your ears, but the overall sound is clean and the band sounds like they know what they’re doing – this isn’t the sloppy “I don’t even know how to play my instrument” style of punk that was so prevalent when The Varukers first hit the scene.  And while I’m no anarchist, I can get behind anyone who comes out against animal abuse, racism, and war, a much more positive stance than that of some other hardcore sub-genres.  If you like you some hardcore, check it out.

 

Cabaret Voltaire – “Code”

I’m not sure how I missed Cabaret Voltaire back in the day.

OK, the above was my original opening to this post, but I quickly realized it was a completely ridiculous thing to say.  I’d never heard Cabaret Voltaire because I lived inside a musical box for a good two decades, one that was limited almost exclusively to rock and heavy metal, and Cabaret Voltaire certainly wouldn’t have fit with what I was into.  A good friend of mine in high school was way into industrial, dance, and goth, so it’s quite possible I did actually hear the band over at his house, but I’m sure I would have instantly dismissed it.  So why the original opening?  Probably because I can’t believe it took me this long to “discover” a band that is so damn good.

Holly originally turned me on to these guys, and I think our friend Matt actually got her interested in them.  She found one of their records while I was stocking up on Swedish punk discs in Stockholm and put it into my pile.  Since then we’ve added a few more here and there (used, reasonably priced Cabaret Voltaire records seem pretty widely available), so when I found Code marked at $3 the other day, it was a no-brainer to add to my stack.  And then I put it on the turntable yesterday.  And it blew my freaking mind.

I don’t know the Cabaret Voltaire catalog, so I have no pre-conceived notions as to how 1987’s Code is viewed by the band’s fans.  And I don’t care.  It’s an awesome electronic/techno/dance record.  I was completely hooked by the second song, “Sex, Money, Freaks,” and from there it proved hard to not completely focus on it the rest of the way through.  The sound, of course, is heavily electronic, with lots of sampling, which is my preference when it comes to this type of music.  The band does a great job of ensuring that the songs have their own unique identities while still fitting together within the overall sound of the album as a whole, something that particularly appeals to me as a casual fan of the genre since I sometimes have trouble comprehending where one track ends and the next starts in a lot of the techno I’ve heard (which is almost entirely due to my general lack of experience and familiarity with the genre, I’m sure).

This is one of those albums that struck me as being great the first time I listened to it… and as it plays in the background while I’m writing this, the second time through is every bit as good as the first.  I’m definitely going to have to revisit the other Cabaret Voltaire records we have (The Drain Train and Groovy, Laidback and Nasty) – this is a band worth learning more about.

Instigators – “Live in Berlin”

Live albums always come with a certain amount of risk because you never know what you’re going to get in terms of sound quality.  If the show was recorded through the sound board, or using professional equipment, the raw energy of live performance can be captured in a way that generally isn’t possible on studio releases.  Perhaps it’s truer to say studio recordings lose some of their energy because people won’t let it out of the studio sounding raw, instead splicing, dicing, and otherwise “cleaning up” the sound, a trend that has only gotten worse as more powerful editing tools have become more widely available.  Regardless, live albums are a dicey proposition, and live punk albums even more so since the quality tends to be even lower on average.

With that in mind, I passed by Live in Berlin as I flipped through the Miscellaneous I section at Hi-Voltage Records a few weeks ago, but I came back to it a few minutes later because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  I’m not entirely sure why, as I knew nothing about the Instigators and I have no particularly affinity to Berlin (I’ve never been to the city, but I am a big fan of the song “The Metro”…).  The cover may have trigged some type of subliminal flashback, since it reminds me a little of the cover of Black Sabbath Volume 4 (work with me here, people) and I used to listen to a fair amount of Sabbath back in the day.  Whatever the reason, the price was right, and it was on cool purple marbled vinyl, so into my stack it went.

The recording mix on Live in Berlin is low and the vocals sound tinny to me, and without an equalizer I pretty much have to take what comes out of the speakers.  That being said, it’s far from terrible quality and the vocals are clean and clear, so as long as I can cut through Andrew Turner’s English accent I can follow along.  One of the things I really like is that the album sounds like it is a linear recording of this show – it includes a bit of Turner talking to the audience between songs, and there aren’t any obvious cuts (other than at the very end of side B), so this really feels a lot more like a continuous live experience to me.

I found myself getting more and more into Live in Berlin as the album went on.  I don’t think this was as much due to the songs on the second half of side A being better than the first, but more that I felt like I was part of an actual show (during some of the quiet moments, you can even here people talking in the crowd).  It’s solid punk and worth a listen.