Blackstar: A David Bowie Tribute and Review

Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

— David Bowie, “Lazarus,” Blackstar (2016)

I’ve been putting this off for a bit — That’s if, of course, you consider a month under the definition of, “a bit.” I honestly felt that David Bowie’s swansong, and final effort, Blackstar, deserved some time to grow, to escape the swelling press and nonsense attributed to a famed celebrity’s passing.  The Blackstar review needed to be objective.  The review needed to feel sincere.  My love for Bowie’s music and his various personas would’ve clouded the discussion and led to a completely biased post.  What else could you expect when one of your personal artistic influences dies the day after you purchase his last album?

Initial Reaction

After listening to Blackstar multiple times, and watching the “spectacle” of Lady Gaga’s Grammy tribute, I can safely say this is one of the Thin White Duke’s finest achievements, a record pulling from the melancholy of the Berlin trilogy and jazzing it up.  Yeah, yeah, bias be damned.

For projecting such a flamboyant stage presence, Bowie seemed to operate behind the camera’s eye.  Nobody, not even hailed producer and Berlin trilogy creative consultant, Brian Eno — whom Ziggy was scheduled to work with on a future project — knew how short the artist’s time was. Yet, Blackstar was recorded.  Blackstar dropped.

d4e98803-d643-4892-923b-24e898b83e47_blackstar

Credit:  globo.com

The record delves deep in symbolism, from the star pieces in the cover spelling out Bowie, to the cryptic lyrics throughout its seven tracks.  This highlights the artistic realization of the musician, the finality of the moment.  So, does it all mean something?  Or, am I just bullshitting away for the sake of word count?  You tell me:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/Your eyes

— David Bowie, “Blackstar,” Blackstar

Immediately, Bowie adds an occult, dark tone to a career smothered in glamour, drugs, sex, and good ol’ rock n’ roll.  The twelve personas stare into the flame and capture that feeling of hopeful isolation.  As the record rolls on to, “Lazarus,” and then closes with, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the message is simple and powerful, punctuated by the hopeless notes of a saxophone.  Bowie has said his goodbye to the the music world in the only suitable way.

An Influence

Bowie was a legend on the sheets of stardom.  He didn’t give a damn whether the mainstream market approved of his disco number or his funk experiment.  He certainly didn’t care if the masses disapproved of his support for minority musician airplay on national media. How many guys can enter the film world as Crotch and Big Hair — I mean, Labyrinth’s, the Goblin King, of course — and then, a few years later, jump on stage with Trent Reznor and seep venom into the crowd with Nine Inch Nails’ industrial rattle, “Reptile.”

Yet, through all of the collaborations, all of the media appearances, Bowie seemed to desire privacy in his personal life.  That’s why, on January 10, 2016, the music industry faced shock and reflection on just how much The Man Who Fell Down to Earth influenced the way music was composed, performed, recorded, and understood.

Bowie singlehandedly pioneered glam rock with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.  He brought experimentation to the mainstream, starting with the blues/soul/pop sensibilities of Station to Station and ending with the listener friendly, but serene, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).   Bowie continued this musical freedom into the eighties, where Let’s Dance and other do-whatever-the-fuck-Bowie-wants records came to fruition.  Let’s not even mention the amount of singles and classic tracks he pumped out;  “Under Pressure,” anyone? He was a fan of music as much as he was a creator, a trait evident in his — deceivingly random — performances with other musicians.

Basically, if Kanye West cites you as an influence, you know you broke some ground.

*Mic drop.

Pshhhh, I’m not going to end Bowie’s influence on a Kanye tweet.  That’s the last thing I want to do.  Either way, David Bowie’s stage presence itself brought theatrics into rock n’ roll, a flamboyant expression inspiring thousands to pick up the guitar, throw on — to mom and dad’s disappointment — a kimono and belt out some, “Wam, bam, thank you, ma’am!”

Bowie was a rock star who, quite simply, did not give a single fuck what the industry pushed or pulled. He performed and inspired artists to pursue what they wanted, rather than cater to the needs of a third party.  Of course, this led to fandom chaos, but, fortunately, each Bowie persona was met with embrace rather than alienation.  By the peak of his career, the Bowie brand was defined by the eccentricities and flamboyance of Ziggy Stardust.

Bringing it Down

So, it is no surprise that, in this perspective, Blackstar brings a different light to Bowie’s discography, one of sincere sadness, reflection, and longing.  Please forgive the pretentious pun. Anyways, take the pairing of the haunting, marching rhythm of, “Girl Loves Me,” and the somber, “Dollar Days.” Both tracks highlight this dark atmosphere, as well as push the boundaries of the musician’s instrumental focus.

As I previously said, Bowie was no enemy of collaboration.  However, instead of bringing in A-list or aged names, the album welcomes the talent of prominent jazz musicians.  This is not a typical solo artist, half assed vocal performance, where session musicians take a back seat to the ego of their employer.  Blackstar often leans on its studio musicians, especially in the umph of the title track and, “Girl Loves Me.”  The LP’s rhythm section, courtesy of drummer, Mark Guiliana, and Tim Lefebvre, balance complexity with rhythmic freedom; noticeable, but not distracting.  Their chemistry and poise develop Blackstar into a lesson on tasteful, musical freedom.  That’s hard to find in a record emphasizing a jazzy style.  The record also features a career performance by saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, whose horns bring out, “Lazarus’,” heavy subject matter, making tears nearly inevitable.

Vocally, Bowie doesn’t even sound like he’s aged.  There are moments where his voice adopts a rasp, but that only heightens the overall feel; that of a tired man facing the reality of his situation.  Sure, his voice is not quite at the quality level of, “Under Pressure,” or, “Heroes,” but there is no denying the emotion transmitted through tracks like the title piece and, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

A Final Look

Overall, Blackstar brings the audience to the darker, experimental side of David Bowie.  In his final record, he pulls ears in with explorations in jazz form, dark atmosphere, and cryptic lyrics, often alluding to past treasures in the likes of the Berlin Trilogy and his quintessential 70’s classics.  A beautiful transition from the idol to the human, Blackstar serves as both a celebration and ode to the life of a musician, that of excess, fear, longing, and fulfillment.  Whichever Bowie felt in his final moment, we’ll never know.

We love you, David Bowie.  You will be missed.  Rest in peace.

ALBUM RATING:  5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and property of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/entertainment/david-bowie-death/.   All rights, content, and property of the body image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://g1.globo.com/musica/blog/antonio-carlos-miguel/post/blackstar-de-david-bowie-geraldo-vandre.html.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit or personal gain.

 

Live Review: Earth, Wind and Fire/Chicago Heart and Soul Tour 2015

St. Louis got plenty of soul, heart, and shattered ear drums from Earth, Wind & Fire/Chicago’s August 31 performance at the Maryland Heights Hollywood Casino Amphitheater.

There’s a feeling, a goal, all music listeners, or might I say appreciators, reach for when listening to a musical performance.  Some go for a good time of easy listening, others to get drunk and lose themselves to whatever debauchery that might unfold. I go to concerts — and listen to music in general — for the off chance that the performer will either:

1.  Give me goosebumps.

2.  Force me to jump up and actually participate.  *Those that know me know this is more important.

Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago’s Heart and Soul Tour stop in St. Louis achieved both of these goals. EWF, in particular, brought the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater to its feet.  And, when your audience’s bed time average is 9:00, that’s saying something.  Jokes aside, since this was a co-headliner tour, I’m going to split this review into two sections.  Like hell if I’m going to bring them out together; that was a disaster in itself.

Yikes, spoiler alert!

Earth, Wind & Fire

From the get go, Ralph Johnson, Verdine White, Phillip Bailey and company brought out everything Earth, Wind & Fire were — and are currently — known for.  People came to dance.  And dance they did, grooving to hits and so on and so forth.  I could go on and on with a track by track review, but why do that when I can analyze the technical nonsense? You know, the performance itself!

Stage wise, there was a lot going on: stage screens, psychedelic/Egyptian graphics, horns, multiple drum kits.  When overused, such an abundance of showmanship threatens disenchantment; however, the flash never took away from the tracks, only heightened them.  For instance, “Reasons” commanded full attention to Bailey’s soul crushing falsetto.  With just the right touch of atmospheric stars on the jumbotrons, his high reaches — because, let’s face it, that’s what we were all waiting for — burst through with maximum impact.  Beautiful, simply beautiful.  Remember what I said about goosebumps?

Each member brought energy to the table, contrary to the following act, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  As soon as “In The Stone[‘s]” horns throttled the venue’s speakers, a spotlight shone on the silver tree that is Verdine White.  Nothing, not Chicago, not even Earth and Wind could bring attention away from Earth’s rumble.  Did I just make that up?  Either way, Verdine is one of the more underrated bassists out there.  Sure, he’s not the most versatile or virtuostic soloist, but hits “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and most definitely, “Fantasy” would sound like Eagle’s outtakes without White’s defining groove.  There was enough synchronized spinning, dancing, horn blares, harmonies, and sequins to please even the dullest eye.  Shit, that was probably me.

Fun.  That’s how I will define Earth, Wind & Fire’s set.  By the time “Let’s Groove” thumped along, the whole amphitheater was on its feet.  I haven’t seen that much excitement at that venue since…well, Iron Maiden.  Okay, gotta move on!

Chicago

And then…there was Chicago. I enjoy the occasional “25 or 6 to 4,” whatever the hell that means, and “Saturday In the Park” every once in a while.  However, I can only get enough of the horn gimmick before I start to roll my eyes.  And Lord, did Chicago jam their horns down the audience’s throat. Damn, and they played their “inspiration” love songs? Double damn!  Trombonist, James Pankow was pretty freakin’ awesome, though.  I mean, who doesn’t want to see a trombonist center stage, ripping away like a lead guitarist? If any of EWF’s energy translated into Chicago’s set, Pankow delivered through his sways, fist pumps, and general fun loving stage presence. Chicago sat comfortably in their hit catalog, performing a wide array of balladry and face slapping rock anthems, while firmly holding a more intimate, less showy atmosphere.  In this regard, the band brought full attention to their music, creating room for improvisation and complexity to their already complex repertoire.  They even displayed a heavier sound, courtesy of guitarist Keith Howland.

Yet, it is in this heavier sound that I was left wondering if Chicago’s creative drive reached a crossroads.  I hate to single out anyone, but Keith Howland’s shreddery and abrasiveness made absolutely no musical sense whatsoever.  Why? Why noodle away to “You’re the Inspiration” like it’s — expletive coming! — a Van Halen fuck track? “Inspiration” is for lovemaking, not beer, cigarettes, and hotels.  Is that a song? Not to mention Howland’s sound level ascended with each track.  By the time Chicago monster, “25 or 6 to 4” started, the guitar sound reached painful levels, ultimately detracting from the overall sound because, instead of dancing, the audience members were holding their ears.  Let me put it this way.  Chicago and EWF both appeared on stage to close out the night with their most famous hits.  I could hear two things:

1. Horns

2. Howland’s Goddamn guitar

This is inexcusable when there’s 20+ performers on stage. Overall, Chicago’s strategy originally adopted a “calm before the storm” approach.  Yet, guitar led Chicago — yeah, kind of an oxymoron — brought too much storm on an already flooded audience.

Verdict

It’s pretty crazy that I can say the loudest concert I’ve been to is Chicago.  Either way, solid performances from all involved.  Although Earth, Wind & Fire commanded the evening, Chicago provided enough musical exploration — kudos, drum and percussion soloists! — to keep the audience’s interest peeked for the encore.  Hell, I’ll admit it.  The horns were pretty cool afterall.

Okay, I can’t help asking again.  Who shreds to Chicago songs? I’m making this a written rule.  Unless it’s “25 or 6 to 4” you just don’t shred to Chicago songs.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE RATING: 5/5

CHICAGO RATING: 2.5/5

OVERALL:  3.5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://banksartscentre.com/event/chicago-the-band-earth-wind-fire/.  All rights, content, and properties of body image 1 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/whats-on/music-nightlife-news/earth-wind-fire-liverpool-arena-7214417.  All rights, content, and properties of body image 2 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://music.newcity.com/2011/08/23/old-days-the-band-chicago-returns-to-ravinia-properly-matured/. I have, in no way, used said images for profit.

Not So Conventional Top 10 Favorite Guitarists

Now, before you read the list below, consider the following title. “Favorite Guitarists,” not some Rolling Stone-style worshiping of Rock’s greats (I’m looking at you, Jimmy Page), but a group of people I feel connected to.  This is a personal favorite list, something fun to kick off Reviews From the Other Side and to create some discussion between hipsters and metalheads like myself.  Funny thought, imagine a room full of those assholes. Don McLean would have to write a new verse to “American Pie.” I can hear everyone groaning just thinking about it.

1. Chuck Schuldiner

I remember first hearing this guy. I was driving — dozing — through Southern Missouri, and if you’d ever driven through that part of hell, you’d understand why I was starting to say “fuck it.”  Sick of Ludovico Einaudi’s haunting piano, I decided to spin a new record I recently received, Symbolic, by Death.  When I reached the solo of “Empty Words” I had my one and only, out-loud, “God Damn” moment — the only artist to ever make me say that out loud — where every hair on my arms stood up. My eyes widened with sudden catharsis, ignoring the fact that I just ran over a coyote.  The blood was a nice touch, I guess.  Known for complex song writing, brutal riffs, and basically the creation of Death Metal itself, Schuldiner’s influence reaches into every juncture of progressive heights, sans-wankery. R.I.P. Chuck.

2. David Gilmour

There is a certain emotional pull to Gilmour’s playing style, a grace that both flabbergasts and amazes.  Perhaps it’s his minimalistic approach. Perhaps he just plays what the music calls for:  a lack of indulgence, something to work towards rather than something to work for. For instance, put on them ear phones and listen to “Echoes,” the epic, highlight track of Meddle.  During an instrumental break, Gilmour explores his Strat’s fret board, throwing blues chords, harmonics, and licks towards the listener.  The sounds he creates are unique and never detract from the actual piece – which, on another note, displays some of Water’s best work, but that’s beside the point – and shows not only his talent, but his musical awareness.  Other Gilmour highlights include: “Comfortably Numb” (obviously), “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” “Dogs,” “Astronomy Domine,” “Money,” and “High Hopes.”

3. Tony Iommi

Try listening to “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath and not bang your head. It’s amazing to think that metal started by accident, an ironic set of circumstances revolving around the infamous tritone.  Iommi’s blues-heavy riffs are iconic and time tested, reaching levels stoner and doom outfits only dream of in their bongs.  That’s not to detract either subgenre, of course, but the power of “Sign of the Southern Cross[‘]” main riff alone matches the heaviness of Dopethrone or the plodding of Dopesmoker. After struggling through “Smoke on the Water,” what does every beginner guitar player resort to? That’s right. “Iron man.” Surviving multiple lineups, drug inhibitions, and cancer, Iommi continues to tour with Black Sabbath, shaking the world with licks pulled straight from the pits of hell.  Highlights:  “Black Sabbath,” “War Pigs,” “Children of the Sea,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Into the Void.”

4. Jimi Hendrix

Okay, so I didn’t keep my word regarding “not so conventional.”  This is now the third well-known, well-documented guitarists spammed across every best-of guitar list on the internet.  But, as you’ll witness on future RFTOS posts, I don’t actually give a shit about obscurity, popularity, or any of that Hollywood nonsense.  Jimi Hendrix was and is, hands down, the classic definition of the rock n’ roll axeman: master of weird, innovative, powerful guitar licks, unabashed sex appeal, substance aficionado. His fret board sings on “Little Wing,” while “Purple Haze” pulls smoke from young and old lungs with its punchy lead, all the while holding onto that sixties vibe we all know and love.  Hell, Jimi produced enough Wah Wah to make Hammett blush.  Other lists, however, seem to forget that Hendrix was also an extremely talented songwriter, composing short, but sweet tunes like “Bold As Love” and bombastic blues monsters like “Voodoo Chile” — no, not the one on the radio — with precision and feeling.  There wasn’t a lot of wankery from this guy, but when he let loose — wink wink, “National Anthem” — jaws crushed the floor.  Highlights:  Are You Experienced (whole album), “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “All Along the Watchtower.”

5.  Dave Mustaine

Guitar, yes! Voice, hell no. Heed these words, ye faithful headbanger, because that’s the case with 80% of heavy music (I’m even looking at you, Power Metal). One more useless opinion before the comments light up, neither Metallica or Megadeth outdo each other musically, and thrash metal is not the pinnacle of heavy music. That aside, Mustaine has one of the fastest hands in metaldom, playing off perfectly with Marty Friedman’s more calculated approach.  “Holy Wars,” with its frantic intro, blistering solos, and galloping speed stands as one of the greatest thrashers ever composed.  Those first notes are enough to drive the most casual of listeners into a brutal, headbanging, bloodlusting frenzy.  Oh wait, that’s a Slayer song, sorry.  Also, the main riff of “Tornado of Souls.”  Need I say more? Through his first 5 LP’s Killing, Peace Sells, So Far, Rust in Peace,  and Countdown to Extinction, Mustaine successfully blended talent, composition, and politics to push the metallic boundaries into thinking territory without abandoning his edge.  He’s the biggest, baddest “Fuck You” in show biz.  Take that however you want.  Highlights: guitar track to every Megadeth song.

6.  Jonny Greenwood

Rock fans, are you still with me? I’ll try to write this one without saying ‘metal,’ ‘headbang,’ or ‘metalhead.’

But then Paranoid Android happened, and the coffee shops around the world headbanged like metalheads listening to glorious metal.  Sorry, couldn’t help myself.  Johnny Greenwood is the mastermind composer behind Radiohead classics such as “Street Spirit (fade out),” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Karma Police,” “Idioteque,” all tracks driven by emotional guitar chords and climaxing solos.  Nineties guitar never witnessed a more chaotic sound. With hints of the Kevin Shields drone and angst surpassing the grunge movement, Greenwood’s command of the fretboard and use of atmosphere placed his name at 48 on Rolling Stone’s  100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.  I didn’t want to go there, but Johnny is, by all regards, an underrated artist.  Guitar aside, his talents, as exemplified through the 2000’s record, Kid A, revolutionized electronica and rock, and solidified himself as one of the most ambitious musicians to come out of England.  Spin The Bends or OK Computer and you’ll, as the hipsters say, “get it.”  Highlights:  “Let Down,” “The Tourist,” “The Bends,” “Black Star,” “Kid A,” “National Anthem.”

7.  Robert Fripp

Progressive rock, what a fickle beast thou are.  On one hand, there’s the wankers, which can be separated into two sub genres, so to speak: tasteful and tasteless.  Yes, Genesis, Dream Theater, Jethro Tull, Focus, Pain of Salvation, Animals As Leaders. I’ll let you pick and choose which group these bands fall into.  Gotta love ambiguity. Back on topic, then there’s just epic prog rock, revolutionary prog rock.  And that, my friends, is where Robert Fripp’s King Crimson rests.  Like every other prog fan, I remember spinning “20th Century Schizoid Man” for the first time.  So much weirdness and unforgettable fretting . I couldn’t stop hitting repeat, never mind moving to the rest of the fantastic Court of the Crimson King.  The guitar work alone was euphoric and, accompanied with an atmosphere which — you guessed it — induced paranoia, I was finally attached to progressive music.  Then, “Epitaph[‘s]” mellotron struck my soul and I was hitched. Sometimes heavy, other times beautiful, and often sad as hell, Fripp, through the 70’s, assaulted and still assaults listeners with jazz infused glory, adopting substance over abundance.  That is rare in prog. Highlights:  “Larks” 1 and 2, “Red”, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” “Starless,” any live recording.

8.  Michael Akerfeldt

Dynamic playing is a fading art.  These days, guitar players are either heavy as hell or, well, not.  Michael Akerfeldt — I’ll say took instead of takes because the dynamic side of Opeth changed with the Heritage shift — took the angel/demon approach to Opeth’s compositions.  Acoustic passages frequented his barrage of brutal riffage, providing a breath of fresh air when needed most.  Take Black Water Park’s title track, for instance.  The song perfectly adopts the rage and calm binary and ends with one of the most cathartic climaxes in metaldom.  That’s graduate level metal, ladies and gentlemen.  Although not virtuostic, as is most progressive metal guitarists claim to fame, Michael Akerfeldt’s axe pummels listeners with creative riffs taken directly from the school of Iommi and Schuldiner, with allusions to Robert Fripp.  See what I did there?  Highlights:  “Bleak,” “The Moor,” “Godhead’s Lament,” “Burden,” “Ghost of Perdition.”

9.  Frank Zappa

Perhaps the most under appreciated artist on this list, Zappa added a humorous twist to jazz fused progressive rock during the heyday of the 70’s.  Sound wise, think Steely Dan on cocaine.  Now, I’m going to go ahead and admit than I’m pretty new to Zappa’s extensive discography, but it only takes a couple listens to acknowledge his command over guitar and genre bending.  Jazz heavy…hell, I can’t exactly describe the style of his guitar because it stretches across so many genres: somewhat bluesy, especially weird, spacey licks that make you question the universe.  Okay, maybe that was a stretch, but it is an understatement to say he dominated the golden age of progressive rock. Not only a guitar aficionado, Zappa influenced hundreds of artists, from The Beatles (holy shit) to Black Sabbath (unholy shit).  Make sure you avoid that yellow snow, folks. Highlights: too many to single out.

10.  Devin Townsend

Another comedian/musical genius hybrid.  Hailing from the school of Zappa, Devin Townsend is the polar creation of the muse, making listeners scream with the heaviest of heavy in Strapping Young Lad, weep to the epic soundscapes of Devin Townsend, and smile foolishly with the pop metal explorations of The Devin Townsend Band and Devin Townsend Project.  The production of 25 albums earned him the title, “metal’s hardest working man.”  Townsend’s guitar, although simple, explodes with walls of sound, and I’ve never heard such duality in style.  So, call him a great producer — which, he undoubtedly is — but I hold him as one of my favorite guitarists, just for his sound alone. For Technicality, pop in City; for atmosphere, Terria.  Either way, you’re in for a treat. Highlights:  “All Hail The New Flesh,” “Earth Day,” “Deadhead,” “Deep Peace.”

Websites:

http://www.emptywords.org/

http://www.davidgilmour.com/

http://www.iommi.com/

http://www.jimihendrix.com/us/home

http://www.megadeth.com/content/dave-mustaine

http://www.radiohead.com/

http://www.dgmlive.com/rf/

http://www.opeth.com/home/

http://www.zappa.com/

http://www.hevydevy.com/