O.C. Pop Beat has accumulated an alarmingly thick pile of recent releases from performers on the local scene. We guiltily make an Old Year's resolution to review the lot of them before the New Year arrives.
The task begins with an assortment ranging from an hour-long, high-tech, major-label CD extravaganza (Altered State) to do-it-yourself releases from Asight Unseen, NC-17 and the Violet Burning. The ratings scale ranges from * (miserable) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.
** 1/2 Altered State "dos" Warner Bros. Floyd meets Freud on this uneven follow-up to Altered State's consistently strong 1991 debut album.
At a time when grungy brutality is in, Altered State strives in the shadow of Pink Floyd to prove that progressive-rock elegance isn't dead after all. Against a soundscape employing all manner of studio bells and whistles (and much striking musicianship), singer Gregory Markel plays out breathless psychodramas in which characters probe inwardly to find the truth about themselves--not knowing whether the truth will set them free or drive them mad.
Over the first half of the album, Altered State maintains the combination of trippy, varied playing and pop-rock catchiness that made its first album a pleasure. But as the material weakens over the second half, the spell breaks and the elaborate studio technique turns into tiresome overkill.
Songwriting is the key problem. Markel (who, according to the liner notes, is henceforth to be known as Ever Cleer) doesn't take the time to flesh out his characters by grounding them in vivid settings and giving their lives a plot. He comes off like a dithering Hamlet, repeatedly trying to psyche himself up for the great leap into the abyss of his own mind.
The album's nadir comes at the end in a shapeless opus called "Thinkin' About Movin' to a Catatonic State." In it, Altered State attempts its own rehash of Floyd's album-length psychological dystopia, "The Wall," with 11 minutes of disjointed, overblown babble. Ever Muddled is more like it.
Also ill-advised is "The Waking Dream," a leaden attempt at a sequel to "Ghost Beside My Bed," a luminous track from the debut album.
On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad. The album's first five tracks are all winners that showcase a band of great range and savvy.
"This Just Might Take Me Down" is a wild opening ride that expresses a manic mixture of glee and fear. The state-of-mind alters toward the depressive on "I Wish It Would Rain," an epic-scale cry of despair in which Markel's voice takes on a Bono-ish cast while guitarist Curtis Mathewson trots out an array of David Gilmour-influenced licks.
The lilting "Life on a Skateboard" is the album's most pithy and best-written song; along with "Angst," which echoes music by Pink Floyd and E.L.O., it shows the band's knack for lush, dreamy moods.
Altered State can pound it out with today's aggro bands when it wants to. "Where Is Harrison Ford?" has punk-funk underpinnings and features some sharp, farcical play-acting by Markel that owes a debt to Mike Muir's memorable rant on Suicidal Tendencies' hard-core punk classic, "Institutionalized."
For once, Markel gets out of the cloistered precincts of his own head as he checks out a scary Hollywood nightscape. It leaves him dazedly intoning, "Where is Harrison Ford, 'cause this must be 'Blade Runner' "--but the fresh air does him, and his band, some good.
** 1/2 Asight Unseen "Hollywood Proverbs"
Metro One It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Christian rock band to crack a joke--or at least it seems that way on local albums that use the Big Beat to convey reverence for the Big Guy.
Asight Unseen raises a grin, though, at the very start of this self-financed album. While the rest of the band burrows into a raunchy, funky-blues groove, singer Jason Lohrke grabs a voice-distorting bullhorn and starts howling over and over: "Big, stinkin' big, way big whamboowee."
"The Big Whamboowee" is it as far as humor goes, but there are other attractions here--such as the very next cut, "Keepin' Time," in which Lohrke's raw, gravelly, high-impact voice rides a chunky, loose-limbed, Rolling Stones beat.
The rest of "Hollywood Proverbs" doesn't deliver on the opening tracks' promise of juicy, blues-steeped rock. Instead, it branches off into a wide sampling of styles--which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a young band trying to find its voice.
"Crowns" sounds like one of those sincere, vaguely bluesy Red Hot Chili Peppers ballads. Before the album is over, Asight Unseen has tried on styles akin to Pearl Jam and assayed a ballad about the young Biblical David in which Lohrke shows he can attain a Bono-like sweetness to go with the rough stuff.
The band's main lyrical purpose is to put the whamboowee on a culture too caught up in the pursuit of filthy lucre and not sufficiently alert to humankind's spiritual needs.
Casting indictments earthward does tend to make for more interesting songwriting than lifting sights perpetually heavenward--a failing of some of Asight Unseen's peers on the active local Christian-rock scene.
While convinced of the rightness of its beliefs, Asight Unseen avoids self-righteousness by confessing doubts as to whether it has the mettle to live up to them.
For a band that despises the music business enough to set out, in "Hollywood Proverbs," a sardonic litany of its purported commandments ("self-denial is the greatest sin," "blessed are you whose wallets are fat"), a career in rock could lead down a path of sore temptation.
Asight's songwriting can be pithy and effective in lines such as "Don't want to be another shakin' fist in a congregation of pessimists."
It also can be ridden with verbal clinkers, self-consciously strident and inflated, or merely vague. "Thirsty Again," for example, fails to muster telling details or a coherent point of view as it expresses foreboding about the reunification of Germany--or is it something to do with Poland? Still, the song barrels ahead with admirable intensity and gets across the basic drift.
This band has obvious strengths, even if it is still erratic and searching for a style that suits it best. We suggest it meditate upon the verse that goes, "Blessed are the blues players."
(Available from Asight Unseen, 13751 Bowen St., Garden Grove, Calif., 92643)
*** NC-17 "Hellhead"
Rah! Rah! (cassette only)
Without benefit of any substantial record deal, the core members of NC-17 have been an admirably persistent and resourceful presence on the Orange County scene since the mid-1980s.
Formerly a synth-rock band called Exude, they have dropped their old no-strings rule and added acoustic guitars and a sizzling violin while branching into heavier sounds.
This latest well-crafted missive from the band's back-yard studio is a six-song cassette that introduces Robert Aviles, an electric-violin wiz who also leads a Satriani-meets-Stradivarius instrumental trio called Insight.
With a voice that is scratchy and narrow, NC-17's singer, Frank Rogala, isn't going to win any awards for crooning. But the band always comes up with vehicles that work.
Find the right atmospherics and a sharp enough melodic hook for a song, and even a less-than-pure voice will do nicely. Here, NC-17 casts its hooks on songs concerned mainly with romantic and sexual obsessions.
Rogala ostensibly addresses the lingering shadow of a lost love as he sings the title track's refrain, "get the hell out of my head." But he might also be slyly sizing up a listener's chances of expunging said refrain once it has sunk in. The hook is unshakable.
"Shoot the Bull" finds him playing a lounge sleaze who comes on to emotionally vulnerable prey with lines worthy of a self-help guru. Singing in a hissing near-whisper, he makes a good, snake-like villain.
The command of craft isn't perfect. At one point, Rogala repeatedly yelps a chorus that goes, "I got your inside all over my outside," a line that calls to mind not the rebuffed suitor apparently intended, but a splatter-flick ghoul who has just disemboweled somebody. Catchy, though.
Aviles, who is used with restraint elsewhere, turns a cover of "Purple Haze" into an orgy of flashy, electronically distorted bowing. Impressive, but the song choice and follow-the-dots arrangement are much too pat.
The violinist's finest contribution is the instrumental, "Anxious Echos," a tensely undulating piece that would have sounded at home on Brian Eno's 1975 progressive-rock gem, "Another Green World."
(Available from Integrated Entertainment Management, 2166 W. Broadway, Suite 268, Anaheim, Calif., 92804)
** The Violet Burning "You Wouldn't Understand Anyway . . ."
Whooping Llamma You know a band is serious when it calls a song "Dance of the Whooping Llammas," then sings it with a straight face. Make that a clenched face.
Over-the-top emoting is the rule on this five-song cassette. What's surprising is that the band, led by singer Michael Pritzl, carries it off without sounding contrived or overblown.
There is no grace in the songwriting, however. It consists of the simple declarations of feeling that pass for song craft in alternative hard-rock nowadays (example: "I feel afraid 'cause this life is hard and I am very lonely").
Forget narrative or characterization, or any imagery more down-to-earth than "sun," "sky," "stars," "river," or some other magnificent force of nature.
But if grandeur is all, Pritzl musters plenty of it. The songs are urgent, roared against a stormy, vivid soundscape that occasionally subsides into a quieter, portent-laden dynamic rife with quotation from Led Zeppelin's book of mysteries.
The arrangements are thick, but the playing well-honed, erupting with guitars that hit hard while maintaining a good, clean edge. Love and loss are the issues (it doesn't get any more defined than that), but Pritzl works himself into a convincing lather over them, so one can be impressed, even if one can't quite be made to care. We won't understand, Michael, until you give us more to go on.
(Available from The Violet Burning, P.O. Box 3367, Costa Mesa, Calif., 92628)