Black Sabbath – “Paranoid” (1970)

As the compact disc rose to ascendancy in the second half of the 1980s it appeared that vinyl was headed to the dustbin of history to hang out with Betamax tapes, rotary telephones, and disco.  Cassettes hung on for a bit, but it wasn’t long before the Walkman was replaced by the Discman and the CD completed its domination, having crushed all before it.  There were things we lost as part of this transition.  Music recorded specifically for digital fell victim to its own hubris, the loudness wars reducing sonic range.  Album art became less important with the smaller format. And, most importantly in my opinion, we lost the concept of the “album side”.

Having distinct album sides gave artists options in laying out their albums, providing a natural break between two groups of songs (or four if it was a double album).  Often this held little if any significance other than the leading singles generally occupying side A.  But occasionally the separation was like a line in the sand.  Side B of Black Flag’s My War was a complete departure from the band’s sound, a move that pissed off their fan base something fierce.  In 1968 Iron Butterfly gave over the B side of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to a 17-minute version of the title track, one that took the entire side and became the litmus test of both heavy psych and, to some extent, self-indulgence.  Of course Blue Öyster Cult threw a curve ball at the whole thing with Imaginos, a concept album with a linear storyline but with the songs appearing in non-linear order, which is bizarre on a lot of levels.  But I digress.  The other thing albums sides do is give us the ability to break down an album into smaller parts.  Sure, we can talk about the greatest albums of all time.  But we can also talk about the greatest album sides of all time, the best four for five (or three… or six…) songs in a row, sides that force you to listen to them all the way through because they’re so perfect.  The kinds of sides that you play from start to finish, meaning you had maybe 15-20 minutes before you’d have to get up and put something else on the turntable.

Which brings me to Paranoid.  Side A of Paranoid is one of the all-time great album sides.  And I do mean all-time greats.

  • War Pigs
  • Paranoid
  • Planet Caravan
  • Iron Man

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Black Sabbath are one of the originators of truly heavy metal, revered by just about everyone and producing a list of hits as long as your arm.  And yet arguably three of their biggest all-time most popular songs appear on the four-song side A of their second album, Paranoid.  The anti-war “War Pigs” combines weight, shredding guitars, and completely music free stretches in which Ozzy basically sings a cappella.  Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight / They leave that role for the poor.  “Paranoid” was written as a last-minute filler, a throw-away song that immediately caught on with it’s matter-of-fact depiction of mental health struggles.  I tell you to enjoy life / I wish I could but it’s too late.  And that brings us to the criminally underrated “Planet Caravan”, a psych trip of spacey grooviness, an acid-soaked journey through the inner space of the mind, the guitar work sounding more like something by Santana than by Sabbath.  Which brings us to “Iron Man”, a truly strange song both in structure and story.  The opening metronome-like kick drum followed by the tuned down distorted guitar, then launching into the heaviest and most plodding jam ever. The entire time you’re waiting for the pace to increase and it doesn’t; it stays relentlessly heavy and in time, never breaking free, like nails being pounded into your head.  He was turned to steel / In the great magnetic field.  A song about alienation and revenge.  Nobody wants him / They just turned their heads / Nobody helps him / Now he has his revenge.  It’s a comic book story come to life, only without a hero to come and save the day in the last 10 pages.  No.  This time there are no heroes.  Only revenge.

Four songs.  The powerful.  The fast.  The slow.  The heavy.  All excellent in their own rights, and fitting perfectly together across 21 minutes of grooved vinyl.

The B side of Paranoid is no slouch in its own right.  “Electric Funeral” is the love-child of “Planet Caravan” and “Iron Man”, all dense psych and great riffs, and all four of the flip side tracks are solid.  But that A side, that sweet, sweet A side, is a masterpiece and definitely one of the all-time greats.

Dark Ages – “Medieval Sorcery” (1987)

darkagesmedievalI like the obscure stuff, especially when I can track down someone who was part of it and ask them some questions for the blog.  So when I found this late-1980s private press metal album from Seattle band Dark Ages I figured I had some good blog fodder.  But I was stymied by the use of pseudonyms, lack of memory, and likely one death.  At some point too-common names led me to either dead ends or so many possible hits that I all I’m left with is four songs on black wax.  I hope no one asks me to turn in my copy of The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook.

Medieval Sorcery isn’t typical metal.  The female-fronted Dark Ages do something a bit rawer and a bit less refined than often found in uber-intricate and/or uber-fast late 80s metal, bringing a touch of riot-grrrl-like sensibility paired with some sort of Dark-Ages-esque heavy folk influences.  “Auric Slumbers / Ophelia” opens grunge-like before bursting into a thrash pace overlaid with vocals of fluctuating speed, the whole thing a disorienting array of sonic elements and shredding riffs.  It may be the song that best defines the four-track record.

It’s too bad this is all we got from Dark ages, and that I couldn’t track down vocalist Erin Jean.  If I ever do find her though, you’ll hear about it right here on Life in the Vinyl Lane.

Boss – “Step On It” (1984)

Hard rock from Down Under, it’s kind of surprising that Boss only managed one album because their sound fit perfectly with what was happening in 1984.  Some poking around on the internet indicates they did OK in Germany and Japan and were certainly a live attraction in their native Australia, but Step On It remains their only full-length.  That plus three 7″ singles (two of which were comprised exclusively of material from Step On It) were all the band left behind.

All the classic rock tropes are here.  Songs about rock ‘n’ roll (“Kick Ass (Rock N’ Roll)”), songs about women (“That Woman”), and lots of apostrophes in the titles are to be found on Step On It‘s 10 tracks.  But you know, like so much rock from the era it’s still pretty decent.  This probably says as much about when I grew up as it does about the actual quality of the band, but I like what I’m hearing from Boss.  It’s entertaining and easy to get into.  There are unconfirmed reports that the band actually used a drum machine on the album, and if that’s true it kind of makes it a bit more interesting because no self-respecting rock band of that era would admit to such a thing.  And there is something kind of mechanical about the drumming… though who knows if I’d think the same thing if I hadn’t read that tidbit before listening to Step On It for the first time.

Utzalu – “The Loins of Repentance” (2017)

utzaluloinsMost of the black metal I’ve heard over the last few years has been from Europe, but Utzalu are just a three hour drive down I-5 from me, based out of Portland, Oregon.  Their sound is more traditionally metal than that of many of their contemporaries – the pace never stops, the double-bass drumming incessant, the songs taking on an almost thrash velocity.  There’s nothing gloomy or atmospheric here, just straight in-your-face blackness.

Give these guys a listen at Bandcamp HERE.  Looks like the vinyl is limited to 300 copies, with another 200 on cassette.  I recommend checking out the title track, “The Loins of Repentance”, a slower, stomping piece that will crush your soul just a little more with each plodding step, grinding it into dust to be blown away by the hot winds of hell.

“Heavy Metal – Music From The Motion Picture” (1981)

Print may not be dead, but at the very least it’s been in a bad accident and is trying to drag itself away from the wreck before something explodes.  Will it rebound the way vinyl did?  Only time will tell.  But back in the 1980s print was what we had.  If you wanted to learn about something you had to pick up a book, magazine, or newspaper.  There were lots of speciality publications, and as a teen I gravitated towards some of the slick sci-fi rags like Omni and, of course, Heavy Metal.  The latter spun off an animated, rock-soundtracked film that was a frequent rental by people of a certain age, mostly young men, who were attracted to both the imagery and music.  Back then anime wasn’t readily available other than maybe some Sunday morning episodes of Star Blazers (if you were lucky), so this was a whole other world.

A few weeks back I got three big boxes of records from someone at work who was cleaning house.  Most of it was 1960s to 1980s rock, some titles in my wheelhouse, others not.  But one thing I knew I was going to keep as soon as I saw it was the soundtrack to Heavy Metal.

heavymetalsoundtrack

Now you’d think that the soundtrack to a movie called Heavy Metal would be chock full of bands that play, well, heavy metal.  But that’s not really the case.  Yes, there is a Black Sabbath track on here (“The Mob Rules”), but the rest is decidedly un-metal, though Sammy Hagar contributes a song called “Heavy Metal”.  Devo and Cheap Trick, however, are not heavy metal, and Journey is neither heavy nor metal.  That being said, this is a solid record full of artists you know playing songs you don’t.  My favorite hands down is Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars”, a song Metallica recently covered on Helping Hands… Live & Acoustic At The Masonic.

I was going to watch the movie as part of this post, but when I found it on Amazon Prime it was a rental… and somehow it just didn’t seem worth four bucks when I could just play the record.