The Black Angels – Death Song (Partisan Records)


It only takes the first minute of “Currency”, the opening track of the fifth Black Angels album, for the now-familiar Black Angels sound to rear its head. Various permutations of the song’s pounding mid-tempo groove and tom-heavy drums have been part of pretty much every Black Angels release going back to their 2005 debut EP. While that formula has created a strong “brand identity” for the band (Death Song is their third straight album to debut in the Billboard Top 100, assuming that still means something in 2017), it’s somewhat frustrating that they aren’t progressing from release to release, or delivering any surprises. As much as I like Death Song (the album – not the cheap Velvet Underground pun of the title) I’m at the point where I want The Black Angels to give me something more to consider than the same ol’ Velvets/Stooges/Spacemen 3/BJM/13th Floor Elevators-inspired sound I’ve come to know all too well from them. “I’d Kill For Her” and “Comanche Moon” put the formula to good use, with an inspired mix of Nuggets’y garage-pop song structures and narco-psychedelic noise-mongering. “Grab As Much (as You Can)” is great too, as long as you don’t pay too close attention to the lyrics (never the band’s strength) and are OK with them stealing the guitar riff from Johnny Kidd and The Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”. “Estimate” and “Half Believing” are weaker, with the band attempting a po-faced seriousness they don’t pull off convincingly. “Medicine” sounds a lot like Clinic, another VU-inspired band that spent part of the 2000s stubbornly putting out songs that sounded like minor variations of other songs they’d already released, before shaking things up with Bubblegum in 2010. Were Death Song the first Black Angels album I’d probably be a lot more excited by it, but, to quote a Black Flag song title, “I’ve Heard It Before”.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Pol Pot’s Pleasure Penthouse (A Records)


Five years after its first official release (assuming you consider a run of 500 cassettes an official release) this relic from The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s earliest days is getting another limited release, this time as a 2LP blue vinyl Record Store Day 2017 exclusive. The album is only getting modest exposure because, as Anton Newcombe’s liner notes explain, it was never meant to be heard by a lot of people. These are cassette recordings he made back in 1990-’91 to teach himself how to write and record songs. So, don’t come to it expecting cohesive flow, pristine fidelity, stunning performances or highly developed songs. That said, as a document of a process, it’s pretty good. As far I know, “Evergreen” and “Fingertips” are the only songs to survive this era and find their way onto an official release (on 1995’s Methodrone and a b-side for a 2015 single, respectively) but I’m actually surprised Anton hasn’t revisited a song like “Rotary Eight” or the Bunnymen-esque “Pictures of Us” yet. It’s hard to discern the finer details in the lo-fi murk, but there’s definitely good melodies in there begging for a better recording. “Psychedelic Sunday” is another keeper, and I’ll be damned if its combination of hard-driving beat, noisy guitars and whispery vocals don’t sound like the blueprint for everything A Place To Bury Strangers did over a decade later. While four sides of homemade cassette recordings from over a quarter of a century ago aren’t the building blocks of an album I’m going to frequently reach for when I want to hear The Brian Jonestown Massacre, it’s still a fascinating snapshot of a work in progress that hardcore fans of the band (myself included) will enjoy. 

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Don’t Get Lost (A Records)


Don’t Get Lost is The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s sixteenth official full-length album, depending on what you do or don’t count as official or full-length. Within that vast discography it falls somewhere alongside Who Killed Sgt. Pepper and Musique de Film Imagine – albums where BJM leader Anton Newcombe and whoever he’s recording with follow their muse down a rabbit hole that puts them a little too far outside their wheelhouse for the good of the listener. They’re artistically interesting records, and exploring the musical areas they cover may be necessary for Anton to keep things interesting after several decades of writing, but they’re also the Jonestown records I reach for the least. On Don’t Get Lost Anton and co. ignore their own advice and do get lost in the groove-heavy experimentation of krautrock and post-punk. Now, you may be thinking the same thing I was when I first read that: “I like The Brian Jonestown Massacre, I like krautrock and I like post-punk. Game on!” Well OK, it makes sense to think that, but Don’t Get Lost is a lengthy mess of aimless experimentation and bad ideas. Or, in krautrock terms, it’s more Popol Huh? than Popul Vuh.

Before I get too deep into my critical drubbing, let me first single out the album’s praise-worthy moments. Don’t Get Lost’s pinnacle is “Resist Much Obey Little”, which, in addition to being a great message for these politically challenging times, is a crisp and concise tune with a strong melody and Joy Division-esque mood. It’s probably not a coincidence that it’s also the song that sounds the most like the Brian Jonestown Massacre of old. “Charmed I’m Sure” is a spooky instrumental with squiggly synth textures that actually sounds like it could have come from an early-’70s krautrock record. Lastly, “Groove Is In The Heart” may not be the Deee-Lite cover I hoped for when I saw the song title – and it’s actually a little too close to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sidewalking” for comfort – but the way Anton and frequent collaborator Tess Parks trade vocal lines works really well with the song’s carefree swagger.

OK, now let’s touch on the basket of deplorable music that makes up the rest of the album. There’s ill-advised excursions into trip-hop like “One Slow Breath”, which sounds like a non-Maxinquaye Tricky demo, and “Melody’s Actual Echo Chamber” where Anton (at least I think it’s him) just lists colors over a bland Massive Attack-lite instrumental. Both are completely useless. “Fact 67” is an attempt to sound like New Order, but the mix of cheap drum machines, dull groove, and vocals by Charlatans front-man (and frequent New Order plagiarist) Tim Burgess is a non-starter, and, like most of the songs on Don’t Get Lost, it’s way longer than it should be, at over six minutes. While neither are terrible, sequencing two unexciting instrumentals back-to-back is never a good idea, yet there before my eyes and ears are “UFO Paycheck” and “Geldenes Herz Menz” clogging up the album’s back-half. Even with so many bad songs, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of “Acid 2 Me Is No Worse Than War” – a lame throwback to the hedonistic sound of early-’90s acid house that nobody wanted. While it might be the worst song in the entire Brian Jonestown Massacre discography, it does allows you to finally understand Anton’s intentions on this album: He wanted to make his version of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, where electronica, dance and dub “come together” in a rock-based context. Unfortunately his ham-fisted attempt at it, comes as close to Screamadelica as Primal Scream’s own ham-fisted attempt at Exile On Main Street-era Stones, Give Out But Don’t Give Up.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request (A Records)


Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request was the first of three Brian Jonestown Massacre records released in 1996, and like the other two (Take It From The Man and Thank God For Mental Illness) it wasn’t heard by a ton of people at the time, but those who heard it couldn’t really ignore what they were doing. Even before Jack White or The Strokes were making music, bands inspired by the 1960s were nothing new. However, The Brian Jonestown Massacre weren’t just copyists. Even when they were actually using someone else’s old ideas, they filtered it through their own chaotic lives, adding a sense of humor and willingness to experiment other bowl-haircutted bands lacked. Plus, they knew how to write interesting songs, which is why their albums from this era have held up a lot better than most of what was popular in alternative rock at that time.

As the title indicates, this album was inspired by The Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request, which is oft-maligned (though pretty great in my opinion) because it had the band shedding most of their blues and r&b roots and exploring the outer realms of psychedelic experimentation. The spirit of that album, and Brian Jones’ overall contributions to the Stones are all over these songs, with Jonestown members playing over 40 instruments, from the normal guitars and drums, to exotic instruments like the tablas, cabasa, and what the liner notes describe as “weird fucking Chinese shit”.

Sequencing is a real strength here, with the songs and brief musical interludes bookended by a pair of tracks called “All Around You” where Jonestown mastermind Anton Newcombe plays the album’s “host”, welcoming listeners to the journey it’s meant to take you on. Song-wise 2nd Request has a lot going on, with eighteen tacks and seventy-four minutes of music to dive through. My favorite songs are the ones where the band ventures into Eastern-inspired motifs, like “Feelers”, “In India You”, and “Cause, I Lover”, all of which sound like The Beatles might have sounded in 1967 with more Lennon/Harrison than Lennon/McCartney. On the folk-rock side, guitarist Matt Hollywood – often the band’s secret weapon during their wild 1990s peak – contributes classic “No Come Down” and “Jesus”, while Mara Keagle sings “Anemone”, one of the band’s signature tunes. As great as individual songs are, the album is most effective taken in as a whole.

So why am I reviewing a twenty-year-old album that hasn’t been reissued? Well this is a new 2016 2xLP repress on 180-gram yellow vinyl that looks cool and sounds better than my old CD. So if you already own it, there’s a good reason to upgrade, and if you don’t own it, there’s never been a better time to pick it up.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Third World Pyramid (A Records)


Third World Pyramid is the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 15th full-length album, and while they’re still putting out music that’s 10x better than most of their peers, they’ve started to hit some of the stumbling blocks that come with longevity (they recently celebrated a 25th anniversary). At their peak the only thing holding them back was themselves, but with band members approaching 50 they’re battling against diminishing range, maturity, and reliance on old ideas. Take the songs “Don’t Get Lost” and “Like Describing Colour To A Blind Man On Acid” for example: If these were the only Brian Jonestown Massacre songs you’d ever heard, you’d probably like them. But, if you’ve followed the band for any significant stretch of time, you’d know there’s at least three songs in their catalogue that sound just like them. That’s the problem; Third World Pyramid sounds just fine, but doesn’t add much to what you already know about the band. There’s also issues with the sequencing, with only nine songs running just under 40 minutes making it hard to find cohesion among all the loose threads, and there definitely wasn’t enough space to warrant including two instrumentals (“Oh Bother” and “Lunar Surf Graveyard”, both of which sound exactly like what you expect Brian Jonestown Massacre songs without lyrics to sound like). The album’s best moments actually come from sources outside the band. Album opener “Good Mourning” features Anton’s wife Katy Lane doing a Hope Sandoval type of vocal, frequent collaborator Tess Parks sings the title song, which sounds cool even if it reminds you of old Jonestown track “This Is The One Thing We Did Not Want To Have Happen” right down to the terrible drum fills, and “The Assignment Song”, is a surprising Nina Simone cover that clocks in over nine minutes thanks to a long flute-driven instrumental section. The final track, “The Sun Ship”, works much better here as a culmination of the album’s psychedelic journey than it did as a stand-alone pre-album single, though it’s pretty impossible to hear it and not be reminded of “I Am The Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields”.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – The Sun Ship (A Recordings)


This brief two-song 10″ is a teaser for the BJM’s 15th full-length album Third World Pyramid, due out later this October. The title-track A-side, taken from the album, finds the band in Beatles circa-Magical Mystery Tour mode. It’s not immediately attention grabbing, but it drifts along nicely, propelled on by a psychedelic “I Am The Walrus”-styled groove and some synth/mellotron flourishes. The B-side, “Playtime”, is exclusive to this release. It’s a little under-developed, but just about gets by on a strong melody that fits snugly with the 1967 U.K. psych-pop vibe of the A-side. With a little over seven minutes of good-not-great music, and a current Amazon sale price of $15.19, The Sun Ship isn’t a very good value – especially when you expect to find the “exclusive” B-side on a future compilation of some sort. However, if you’re someone who geeks out over the intricacies of vinyl packaging, it’s got interesting artwork, cool-looking translucent orange vinyl, and comes in a hand-numbered limited edition of 2,000 copies, so the cost can be somewhat justified.

The Scientists – A Place Called Bad (Numero Group)


While the American and U.K. punk underground spent the late-’70s and early-’80s going nuts over hyper-speed hardcore and Oi, Australian bands never really got over the sound of proto-punk, from The Velvet Underground up through The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. The Scientists were one of the bigger Australian bands of that era, and A Place Called Bad is their first comprehensive career retrospective: a four-disc set covering everything from their 1979 debut single, until their demise in 1987 (though they’ve played the odd reunion concert since).

It’s chronologically ordered, with Disc 1 rehashing the band’s earliest years, when they played ragged-but-right pop-punk inspired by The Rolling Stones and The New York Dolls. A few songs from this era hit the mark dead on – “It’s For Real”, “Last Night” and “Frantic Romantic” are the best of the bunch – but singer Kim Salmon’s lightweight lyrics defang an otherwise potent attack, putting the band in league with soft-punching (if still fun) pop-punk like The Undertones and Generation X. Not bad, but not something you’d want 80 songs of.

Well, things changed drastically in 1981, with the band moving from Perth to Sydney, picking up a new guitarist (Tony Thewlis) and drummer (Brett Rixon) on the way, and taking on a new and improved sound, influenced by The Stooges, Suicide and Captain Beefheart. Those fluffy songs about girls were replaced with noisy, psychotic swamp-punk that welcomed comparisons with contemporaries The Birthday Party, The Gun Club and The Cramps. You could even make a strong argument that The Scientists’ dirty guitar sound from this era – best heard on tracks like “We Had Love” and “Rev Head” – was an influence on the early Seattle grunge sound, with The Melvins and Mudhoney both huge fans. Perhaps their rhythm section was a little too unrelenting in their pounding to make the band as great as their peers or influences, but when they’re on they’re fantastic. “Swampland” is the best example of their output from this chaotic era, but “Solid Gold Hell” is worth mentioning too, with one of Kim Salmon’s creepiest vocal performances. Plus, it somehow sounds exactly like its nonsensical title. This was peak-era Scientists.

A Place Called Bad’s back-half is less successful. Disc 3 covers the band’s final years, with several line-up changes, and poor production weakening their core sound. Kim Salmon, the band’s only constant member at this point, tries to salvage the situation with some of his darkest lyrics and most intense performances yet, but he’s actually throwing too much of himself into these songs, sometimes abandoning melody in an attempt to create almost murderous moods (a complaint I’ve also had about The Birthday Party, so if you like them, this may not be an issue). Even on the way out they still occasionally found the right alchemy on a few classics like “Atom Bomb Baby” (though “She looks real pretty/I’m her Hiroshima City” isn’t exactly great poetry).

The final disc compiles twenty-two live recordings, including twelve from a single show at the Adelaide UniBar. The performances are as intense as expected, but the lo-fi sound makes it challenging to listen to. It does contain a few songs that were never recorded in the studio, though, making it a nice bonus for fans.

If you want a bang-bang Scientists album, where every song is a killer, you’d probably be better served by a one-disc best-of. But if you love the band and want more, A Place Called Bad is a great opportunity to get it all at once.