Soundgarden – “Live From the Artists Den” (2019)

I pre-ordered the colored vinyl version of this release, and unfortunately production delays meant that while the black edition was in the stores earlier in the summer mine just arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.  This was kind of a bummer, but it is what it is, and now that it’s here and I can see the attention to detail and quality of the overall package, I have to say it was worth the wait.

Somehow despite living in the greater Seattle area (though never actually in Seattle) since 1984, I never saw Soundgarden live.  Clearly I have no excuse for this.  I was buying their records before anyone outside of Seattle even knew who they were and there were plenty of opportunities to catch them.  But such is life.  Fortunately there are some great live recordings out there, like Live From the Artists Den.

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I love that they opened with a sludgy classic from their debut, the weighty “Incessant Mace”. Those first three Soundgarden LPs (and the assorted EPs and Sub Pop singles) are my favorite parts of their catalog.  One of the great things about Soundgarden live is that they don’t make an effort to sound polished – of course the songs are recognizable, but there’s a rawness as well, a sense that anything could happen at any time.  Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the vocals, with Cornell’s voice lacking the prettiness that came to define it on the band’s later albums.  This is aggressive Chris, singing like a caged animal.  This might be the one bummer I had on the collection as well, though, as he can’t (or maybe won’t) hit the high notes on one of my all-time-favorites “Jesus Christ Pose”.   Other than that, though, this one is solid from start to finish.

Mudhoney – “Morning In America” (2019)

This one came as a surprise – announced out of the blue in early August and on my front porch by September 14, like some kind of musical ninja.  Pretty much all of the info I can find online about Morning In America is what Sub Pop communicated when announcing it.  The seven songs were recorded during the Digital Garbage sessions.  One is an alternate version, three are outtakes, and the other three are songs that have appeared on various singles and/or limited edition releases (one of these, “Ensam I Natt” is a Leather Nun cover).

America hates itself.
America hates itself.
America would rather be someplace else.

— “Morning In America”

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Morning In America is definitely in the same vein as Digital Garbage, a disappointment-laden description of today’s America.  Now, certainly not everyone in America is disappointed by how things have gone over the last few years.  The racists seem to revel in being able to be out in the open with their views.  Personally I was surprised to see so many of them crawl out of the woodwork, and while it’s disappointing, at least now we know who they are since they don’t seem to feel the need to hide anymore.  Mark Arm casts his venomous net wide, covering the racists and ignorant, the liars and the corporate thieves, the zealots and the image-obsessed, while the sludgy and fuzz-drenched music carries the emotional content in viscous waves.

My heart is breaking,
My mind is racing,
And now I’m bracing
For the terrible things to come.
— “Vortex of Lies”

Sonically Morning In America is at times oppressive (“Morning In America”), but at others triumphant (“Let’s Kill Yourself Live Again”, a different version of “Kill Yourself Live”), though I suspect the latter is more ironic than literal.  After all, the song is about the perceived importance of portraying the perfect digital image, regardless of what your real life is like.  The only time the music doesn’t feel like an integral component of the overall message is on the cover, “Ensam I Natt” (“So Lonely Tonight”), a refreshingly straight-forward punk song reminiscent of Mudhoney’s early career (Mudhoney, like Green River before them, always pick great songs to cover and do them justice).

The Loser edition comes on white marbled vinyl and includes a download card.  If you want a sample, you can stream “One Bad Actor” for free over at the Sub Pop website.

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.

Who Killed Society – “Before Everything Got Broken” (1981 / 2018) and Circle Seven – “Suburban Hope” (1983)

I don’t go to record shows often.  I spent a lot of time “on the other side of the table” at sports memorabilia shows over the years selling stuff, and that gives you a certain insulation from the crowds and the inevitable frustration of waiting around to try to get into the box that someone else is flipping through.  But a few weeks back, against my better judgement, I went to one in Seattle.  While waiting around for yet another person to finish flipping through a bin I decided to kill time looking at stuff in a box on the floor next to the table, and that’s where I came across Circle Seven’s Suburban Hope.  I’d never heard of them before, but it turns out they were from Seattle (in fact two of the three members are from Montana but had recently moved to Seattle…) so for a fiver I figured why not.

I was pleasantly surprised when I put Suburban Hope on the turntable, so much so that I wanted to find out more about the band.  Fortunately guitarist/singer Randy Pepprock has a pretty unique (and rock related) name that made him fairly easy to track down, and he graciously agreed to do an email interview.  He also sent along an article about his punk band Who Killed Society (WKS) and the early scene in, of all places, Missoula, Montana.  I encourage you to check it out HERE, as I can’t add anything to this well-researched piece.  It was Jeff Ament’s connection with Missoula that eventually allowed for the release of WKS’ Before Everything Got Broken 37 years after it was recorded (by none other than a young Steve Albini), an album that contributed songs to Circle Seven’s first (and only) record.

Randy, WKS broke up in 1981.  What prompted you to move to Seattle after that happened?

We used to drive over to Seattle from Montana for punk shows, so when it was time to leave Montana it was a natural choice. I had a friend (Lya) that lived there that got me a job at a restaurant & put me up for a week or so to get me started. Later on I extended the same favor to Jeff Ament & Sergio Avenia from Deranged Diction, who were also from Missoula.

How did you connect with Sabina Miller and Danielle Elliott to form Circle Seven?

Sabina was the bass player for WKS, and my girlfriend at the time. I think we meet Danielle through an ad in The Rocket.  (♠)

Four of the six tracks on “Suburban Hope” also appeared on the at-that-time un-released 1981 WKS album.  They definitely changed character – not only are they longer, but sonically there’s an overall post-punk feel to all the Circle Seven songs and the vocals are very prominently featured.  You indicated in a previous interview that you weren’t thrilled with the sound of Suburban Hope.  What are your recollections of the recording sessions, and what do you think you should have done differently?

I take full responsibility for how the Circle Seven EP ended up sounding I should have been more assertive & spoken up at the time. WKS was an abrasive, post-punkish band with short, minimalist songs & I think Circle Seven was an extension of that. Very spartan. A friend of Danielle’s, Mark from 3 Swimmers, helped us engineer the EP & he was just coming from an entirely different space. I had this guitar that sounded like a dump truck crashing & when we first started recording he’s like, “Oh my god, that guitar sounds like shit.” So we cleaned everything up and took all of the rust & piss out of it. Prettier, but not nearly as authentic IMO. You know, we were a young band in a nice studio for the first time & perhaps intimidated by the whole process. Whatever, that’s on no one but me.

What was your perception of the Seattle music scene during that period? How did Circle Seven fit (or not fit) into it?

Loved it. I saw so many great bands then. I think at that time everyone just did whatever the hell they wanted because NO ONE thought that it mattered or thought it would ever lead to anything. Later, when I moved to Hollywood, I became aware that everyone was thinking, in the back of their minds, that “Hey, we could get a record deal & become rock stars.” No one thought that in Seattle in the early 80’s. We left right before that happened. Bad timing I guess. 🙂 Not sure we really fit in. I think we kind of fell in-between the cracks and were kind of hard to classify. Not a hardcore or punk band. Not too arty or intellectual (too many rough edges). It was OK, we did our thing anyway.

What are you listening to these days?

I don’t follow most new bands, there’s too much out there. I was listening to Patti Smith the other day, Motorhead, the Velvet Underground. Lucinda Williams. I like Elle King. Always a Stooges fan. In fact, a year or so ago I was playing “Funhouse” in the car & giving my 17 year old daughter a music history lesson about the band & why they were so important. A few months later we were at the theater watching the most recent King Kong & “Down in the street” comes on and I leaned over to tell her, “Hey, it’s the Stooges!” & she looks at me like, “Shut up dad, I know.”

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Once I learned that many of Suburban Hope‘s songs were originally recorded by WKS, I decided to pick up a copy of Before Everything Got Broken to do a little side-by-side comparison and see how they changed over the course of just a few years.  It turns out the answer is quite a bit, actually.

Who Killed Society – Before Everything Got Broken (1981 / 2018)

Originally recorded in 1981 with none other than a young Steve Albini at the studio controls Before Everything Got Broken didn’t see the light of day until 2018 when it came into the orbit of former Montana punk scene musician and current Pearl Jam member Jeff Ament, who helped get it dusted off and released, including selling it via the PJ website.  At seven songs and 13 minutes, it’s very punk rock.

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After opening with the instrumental “Distant” we’re introduced to “Cover Up”, a decidedly post-punk jam full of raw gloominess and alienation, the guitars coming at you like rusty razorblades and the vocals speaking to the kind of societal rejection that only the young can truly express unironically.  “Say One Thing” is more of a standard rock song, though one with some definite new wave elements.  The A side closes out with “Don’t You Dare”, it’s rapid-fire drumming giving the tune a jungle beat, the guitars again slicing through the low end with complete and utter disregard.

The flip side opens with “Suburban Hope”, what would later become the title track of Circle Seven’s album of the same name a few years later.  This version is stripped down and back to that post-punk vibe, the military-march-like snare rolls at odds with the anti-society message of the vocals.  “Just Turned 20” is the first 100% punk song on Before Everything Got Broken, a blistering fast proto-hardcore number that’s over almost before it starts.  “Brave New World” takes us back in a post-punk direction and is my favorite track on the album, the incessant beat creating a sense of angst and pressure that mirrors the stress of day-to-day life.

The sound quality of Before Everything Got Broken is excellent.  There were a few spots where it felt like the master might have had a blemish, but it doesn’t detract from the overall feel of the album.  If you’re interested, it’s available on the Pearl Jam website HERE.

Circle Seven – Suburban Hope (2013)

Four of Suburban Hope‘s six songs originally appeared on Before Everything Got Broken, rounded out with two new tracks.  It opens with the title track, one of the four Before Everything Got Broken tunes on the record.  This new incarnation brings a much more new wave sound to the music while also moving the vocals to the forefront, placing the lyrics and message into the prominent position.

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Down to the office,
Smile at the boss,
Never realizing just how much you have lost.

It’s a longer and more fully realized song than the original, though at the expense of a certain honest rawness.  It’s a style that carries through all of Suburban Hope‘s compositions – pre-synthesizer new wave, sonically well-balanced and with emphasis on the vocals.  Something in it speaks to me in a way that resonates, perhaps because it forces me to look at my own middle class suburban life.  I know Randy isn’t a huge fan of how it sounds… but I really enjoy it.

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Big thanks to Randy for answering some questions and a shout-out to Jeff Ament (as if he needs one from me…) for contributing to Before Everything Got Broken‘s release.  I wonder how many other solid albums are out there on tape just waiting for someone to dust them off and put them out.  I prefer not to think about how many were destroyed or simply thrown away.

(♠)  The Rocket was THE Seattle alternative music scene bible back in the 1980s and into the 90s.  Originally monthly, later biweekly, the free paper eventually grew its circulation to 50,000 copies per issue.  I used to pick it up a whatever record store I happened to be in at the time.

Green River – “Live At The Tropicana” (2019)

Lots of people hate on Record Store Day.  I sort of get it given all the re-releases of stuff that frankly didn’t need a 57th version entry into Discogs.  Many see it purely as a money grab.  To be fair, record labels and stores aren’t non-profits, and I for one like having some local record stores, so if this gets some extra people through the doors and helps them keep the lights on, great.  RSD also has had the positive effect of shaking loose some recordings that otherwise might not have seen the light of day.  A case in point is Seattle’s ground-zero-grunge-rockers Green River, the band that spawned Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam.  For RSD in 2016 we were treated to 1984 Demos and this year a recently unearthed live show from 1984, Live At The Tropicana.  I doubt anyone would have bothered with these if it wasn’t for RSD.

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Live At The Tropicana was one of my top two or three “wants” for RSD 2019, but unfortunately I struck out locally.  This isn’t a surprise since I live in Seattle and, well, it’s Green River.  I waited a few weeks for the post-RSD nonsense to die down (copies were selling for $60-65 on eBay on RSD) and scored myself an unopened copy for $30, just a bit more than the retail price.  And you know, it’s a damn good record.  The sound quality is surprisingly good for what was basically a punk show in 1984.  The only downside is that it’s so early that it lacks some of the band’s best material, which hadn’t been written yet.  I’m a bit surprised some of the stage banter was left in, like probably two minutes of Mark Arm asking if anyone had any duct tap (though I enjoyed the part where he said their next number was a dance song, so put on your leg warmers), but whatever – it’s still a fun listening experience and a chance to hear a young band coming into its own.