The New Heavy Steamrock Style, Quite Different and Strange

A movie, a book, AND music – I’m just a goddamned Renaissance man!

The Babadook (2014) – Amelia, a widowed single mother who struggles to raise her energetic (manic? ADHD? spazzy?) son Samuel, really begins to struggle after he discovers a sinister pop-up book called The Babadook. At first, Samuel acts as though he can see the titular monster, whom he also blames for his essentially nonstop mischief. But then Amelia starts sensing and seeing the Babadook herself, which, of course, is when things truly get hectic. I was intrigued by this film’s potential from the first time I saw the trailer, and I’m happy to say it more than lived up to the hype for me. It can’t be easy to make a believable/effective movie centered on a paper storybook monster who comes to life, but thankfully writer-director Jennifer Kent gets a lot of mileage out of shadowy camera angles and the ol’ scarier-unseen-than-seen motif, so you usually just catch very, very creepy glimpses of the Babadook (or, even better, you just hear his creakiness). This film’s main strength, though, is its indie/art-house nature: Causeway Films/IFC Films, $2 million budget, set and filmed in Australia, largely unknown actors, etc. Were this a bigger-budget flick – or, heaven forbid, if it ever becomes one as a remake – it would bludgeon you to death rather than crawl inside your orifices and give you an exhilarating, short-lived virus. And this is not about mere aesthetics, because at the core of The Babadook is a poignant, apt metaphor for loss, grief, and the always-tenuous relationship survivors have with both: Amelia, you see, became a widow when her husband died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital for Samuel’s birth, a horrific event with which both mother and son constantly struggle. In a movie where a piece of paper comes to life and terrorizes a family, this metaphor’s effectiveness depends on subtlety and suggestion (e.g., the film’s final five minutes), and those are traits for which bigger-budget projects are not generally known. Highly, highly recommended.

Banquet for the Damned (2004) – One of the recurring problems I have with horror fiction is its chronic inability to conclude satisfactorily. It’s possible this is my own problem as a reader: I read slowly and meticulously, which can be good, of course, but it can also lead to overthinking and overanalysis. Anyway, it’s not as if this problem is a dealbreaker – I like most of the books that fall into this category. It’s just that the endings too often don’t live up to the quality of what came before. This is true even of authors whose books I adore, like Adam Nevill. In fact, it’s probably because of him that I’m griping like this, for his two masterpieces, The Ritual and Last Days each among the best books I’ve ever read, period manage to accomplish that rare feat of a satisfying ending. Blog-brother Zwolf has written pitch-perfect reviews of these books (linked above) as well as Nevill’s more recent House of Small Shadows, a book that fits my grouchy profile here: excellent, intriguing story overall; scares and suffocating creepiness in a generous number of scenes; unfulfilling conclusion. Whereas I reread Ritual and Last Days because I had to dive in again (I’ve read each three times now), I reread House of Small Shadows because I thought I missed something crucial that left the end wanting. Alas, I didn’t.

I had a similar experience with Nevill’s Banquet for the Damned, which I also recently reread. In it, Dante and Tom, veterans of the Birmingham (UK) music scene and members of the unfortunately-if-authentically-named Sister Morphine, move to St. Andrews in Scotland so Dante can work under the tutelage of Professor Eliot Coldwell and compose a concept album based on Coldwell’s infamous book Banquet for the Damned (they’re also leaving B’ham for personal and music-scene-related reasons, but these are largely backburner context). Coldwell turns out to be a cryptic, musty, hunched-over shell of his former self instead of the more-approachable Crowley-Leary-LaVey for whom Dante seems to pine, so it’s hardly surprising when Coldwell’s actual motives turn out to be far more sinister than first appearances indicated. Dante is introduced to a fellow Coldwell acolyte named Beth whose frigid sexiness and penchant for literally biting Dante’s lips bloody both entrance and frighten him; he and Tom hear not-all-that-distant screams at night and discover a freshly ripped-off arm while walking the beach; and the local university’s administrators keep giving Dante ambiguous but obviously dire advice about dealing with Coldwell and/or getting the fuck out of Scotland entirely. The other plotline involves an American anthropologist named Hart Miller who’s in St. Andrews to investigate a string of night-terror-related deaths that may involve Coldwell’s book and his semi-secret rituals with students. Hart’s an obvious archetype – unruly red beard, perpetually unkempt appearance, 24/7 drinking, mellow-dude catchphrase (he answers the phone, “Hey now, this is Hart Miller”), Deadhead flashbacks – but he’s drawn lovingly and well, and his internal reminiscences about night-terror research in Africa and the South Pacific are among the book’s most fascinating passages. These reminiscences also set us up for the two main characters' eventual meeting after Dante’s pal Tom evidently becomes a blood sacrifice, and their meeting naturally brings about the novel’s climax.

Now, Nevill is a master at creating scenes/chapters so vivid and scary they haunt you long after the book is over: from Ritual, the unbearable early dream foreshadowing the characters’ fate and the horrifying moment later on when Luke realizes who the old woman is and what her “singing” is for; from Last Days, the filmmakers’ visit to the cult’s French compound and the absolute-genius hotel-room scene Zwolf mentions in his review; from Small Shadows, the waving beekeeper and the truly nightmarish pageant to which Catherine is subjected late in the book; and so on. Banquet has more than its share of riveting scenes like this. The first tangible appearance of the ancient evil Coldwell has summoned involves the final moments of one of the night-terror-afflicted students in his apartment, and it is terrifying. Dante’s initial interaction with Beth, which also indicates early on that all is not right with this Coldwell collaboration, skillfully balances dialogue, exposition, spooky atmospherics, and nearly-visible horror in a way many other writers can only feign. A university administrator’s welcome address for students becomes a black, disorienting fever dream when Beth and her minions begin to impinge on his consciousness as he speaks (this one is a real keeper – whew). Interestingly, paintings that graphically depict unspeakable acts figure in this book as they do in Nevill’s Last Days and Apartment 16 (also soon to be reviewed here), so I think it’s safe to say scary, thematically-involved art is one of his significant and well-deployed motifs.

But then Dante and Hart, having endured an unimaginable amount of pursuit and terror, come together in the end to dispatch the forces of darkness with mettle and petrol bombs, and it’s just…I don’t know. Probably fine, maybe? Despite the action and gore, it just feels flat and too quick/convenient on the heels of the previous 350 pages’ undeniable, well-wrought quality. If I’m going to find fault this way, then I should also have a remedy, yeah? How should it have ended? No idea. Perhaps I just don’t want it to end, which is why I keep rereading his work? Regardless, I only hope he continues to write at this lofty level. Highly recommended despite my picky misgivings (and it’s his debut novel, for Clive’s sake, so I really should cut him more slack).

The First Five Scorpions Albums (1972-1977)

In “God Part II,” U2’s Bono sings, “I don’t believe in the 60s, the Golden Age of pop/You glorify the past when the future dries up.” This lyric, significantly, appears on a 1988 album that also has covers of 1960s Beatles and Bob Dylan songs, an audio snippet of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and a sho-nuff duet with Dylan himself, so Bono, confirming the suspicions of millions, was completely full of shit even back then. I bring this up to point out obliquely that I’ve often prided myself on not glorifying the past, especially with regard to music. I always hated those crusty old fucks who grumbled about how music was so much better when they were teenagers and how awful “this shit they’re callin’ ‘music’ nowadays” is. I still hate those guys (they always seem to be male, and by “better music” they usually just mean either the Rolling Stones or Lynyrd Skynyrd). And even though I haven’t bought music by a truly new artist in……hell, I don’t know HOW long, and even though the very concept of “radio” has about as much meaning nowadays as a Sarah Palin blog post, I don’t hector young people on Pavement’s and Billy Bragg’s obvious superiority to Arcade Fire and Ed Sheeran. Most of the music I listen to and even buy is years or decades old, but I just keep quiet about it. “Live in the moment and look forward,” I sometimes say (e.g., just now, when I thought it up).

So imagine what a shock it was two years ago for me to idly revisit one of my oldest favorite bands, The Scorpions, and discover that their earliest output is what feels best to my ears now. I discovered them the same time many Americans did: in February 1984, when MTV aired the debut of their new single and video, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” I was doing homework at the kitchen table when that video came on, and it knocked my goddamn head off. I had never heard anything even remotely that awesome. Within months, I’d bought not only their recent albums (all 80s releases except Lovedrive, which came out in 1979) but also, completionist nerd that I am, ALL of their albums, even the import-only vinyls that cost way too much for a teenager with no job. Back then, these early albums made no sense to me; they mainly didn’t sound metal enough because my ears were too attuned to the ultra-wet guitar sounds and paint-by-numbers song structures of the 80s. But I listened to them all the time anyway because I was a Scorpions fan, Gott in Himmel, and I had to take it all in.

Then I went to college, and my daily exposure to music I’d never heard of helped me set the Scorpions aside, a process that really shifted into overdrive when Soundgarden and Nirvana came along to show how indefensibly silly the Scorpions and other hair-/Sunset-Strip-style metal had always been. After this period of molting, I’d only occasionally check out the Scorpions songs of my youth – “…Hurricane,” “No One Like You,” “The Zoo,” “Arizona,” the instrumental “Coast to Coast” – and grin fondly. But, several years ago, I helped put together a metal cover band called The Tuffskinz, and our searching for material caused me to revisit music I hadn’t checked out in over 20 years: Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Van Halen, the good Metallica. And MAN was this a fun process. In addition to the joy of personally rediscovering some killer music, enough time has elapsed that the people who comprise our crowd treat these songs like classic rock (radio does too, actually), so when we play this stuff live, it gets very, very exciting. However, it didn’t occur to me until recently that I’d never gone back and listened to the early Scorpions stuff I had treated like a middling stepchild in the 80s. So I got on YouTube and started listening.

And holy shit. It was the best kind of rediscovery imaginable because the neural memory still existed, like entering a brand-new world that’s also intimately familiar. I recognized notes, rhythms, riffs, solos, drum fills, sound effects, lyrics, phrasings, and entire songs from nearly 30 years before, but this time, I understood them. Whereas, for instance, the tribal-hippie drumming that starts Lonesome Crow’s “I’m Going Mad” made me think I’d inadvertently bought an album by another, not-at-all-metal Scorpions the first time I heard it, that same drumming now brought to mind “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Moby Dick,” and Santana, and it made me go “Shit yeah.” I must have spent the next six months listening to pretty much nothing but the first five Scorpions albums, and every time I’d try to mix it up with some Animal Magnetism (1981) or Blackout (1982), my ears would yawn. Why the difference? Well, besides general growth, maturity, and evolution, I’ll tell you below.

Lonesome Crow (1972)

Early Scorpions music is weird – Hell, to be honest, ALL Scorpions music is kinda weird mainly because of Klaus Meine’s pinched Teutonic phrasing and nasally delivery: listen, for instance, to the Lovedrive ballad “Holiday,” which Klaus pronounces “HAWL-ee-DAYEEE,” or his chorus exclamations on Love at First Sting’s (1984) “Big City Nights,” which sound for all the world like he’s saying “JEW KEEP ME BURNING!!” (Aha! Revenge on the Germans at last! Kristallnacht this, materfokker!) But the early stuff is weird to the core. Badass album cover notwithstanding, what the hell’s a “lonesome crow”? Look at the sleeve art for Fly to the Rainbow (1974): 
Fly to the Rainbow (1974)

What in THE FUCK is that? Even Uli Jon Roth, their lead guitarist at the time, said of the cover in a 2007 interview, “"Don’t ask me what that cover means…I disliked it from the beginning. It looked ludicrous to me back then and looks just as bad today…As for the meaning, I can only guess, but I’d rather not…’” After Rainbow, the Scorps began their tradition of controversial album covers that sophomorically fetishize the female anatomy, particularly the original artwork for Virgin Killer (1976), which was a naked photo of a prepubescent girl that’s so inappropriate I won’t show it here (the replacement cover appears below). The band, by the way, attempted to dispel criticism of this album’s original artwork by putting a metaphoric spin on the title (“Time is the virgin killer,” etc.). It worked about as well as you’d imagine.

In Trance (1975)

Virgin Killer (1976)

Getting to the music itself, the lyrics of “I’m Going Mad” are all spoken word, and they transcribe phonetically like this:

Walking sroo the desert
Hearin’ all da bells ringin’ from da church da-far-in
That was never there!
Imagine I’m in heffen
But it is a hell
Sun is drying out my brain
And smile-less collections are-uh my pain
I’m goin’ mad…

(Some websites claim to have the actual lyrics, but they look even more spurious to me than this does.)

Several of the songs on Lonesome Crow don’t so much change time signatures as stop completely and start as what sound like wholly different songs. This is especially true of the title track, over 13 minutes of sound effects, Hendrixy noodling, psychedelic grooves, and numerous stops/starts. True to its neon-welder-skateboarder-banner-unroller sleeve art, Fly to the Rainbow is weirder still. The opening track, “Speedy’s Coming,” is faster, more compact, and more typically metallic than anything on Lonesome Crow, but the lyrics are totally bizarre:

Jew look at da postah
Jew look at da wah
Da wah in da room where you live
Where you live with your staaahs

Just listen his records
Now hear what he saize
For he saize "I love you, little girl
Come to see me today"

Speedy's coming
You live in his haaaht…

Jew like Alice Coopuh
Jew like Ringo Staaaah
You like David Bowie and friends
And the Royal Albert Haaaall

And that’s positively normal compared with the next song, “They Need a Million,” which begins with fingerpicked acoustic guitar and hippie-dippie rainbow lyrics but transforms into a frantic Mexican metal-folk song…and then rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker starts “singing”:

I feel fine
‘Cos I realize
That I don’t need
The millions they all long for
I feel fine
‘Cos I have eyes
To see my verld
And all its skits on ice

And THAT’S positively normal compared with the next song, “Drifting Sun.” Actually, this song is 100% badass and rocks like a mofo and IS quite normal…until the multitracked guitars float away for a wacky lil’ bridge highlighted once again by Rudy Schenker’s vocals, whose sound you can emulate right now by clenching your jaw shut, constricting your throat muscles, and then attempting to sing nonetheless through a megaphone – that’s EXACTLY what he sounds like, and it’s not even bad or atonal, it’s just so fucking strange that Zappa and Beefheart probably got jealous if they ever heard it. How anyone in any frame of mind could decide to sing like that and then distribute the recording of it will always be a mystery to me. Lastly, the title track is another bizarrum opus, nine-plus minutes of more fingerpicking, awesome riffs, twinned leads, and kooky time shifts. And after the final shift, when things slow down and mellow out, Uli Jon Roth holds forth in a monologue worthy of Nigel Tufnel in full “Stone’enge” mode:

Well, I lived in magic solitude,
Of cloudy looking mountains,
And a lake made out of crystal raindrops.
Roaming through space, ten thousand years ago,
I've seen the giant city of Atlantis,
Sinking into eternal wave of darkness.
Somewhere in the blue distance
Are those long forgotten trees of yore
A broken violin floating alone in December
Darkness everywhere, and nothing more
Symbol, strange symbol, melancholy
Painting torrid colors on a sky of green
Candle breathing one night only
Far away, in chillness, bleak, unseen
Drifting galley, ghostlike shadow
Sails rigged to catch and kill the time
Echoes wandering down an endless meadow
I feel ... sublime

See that “Shhh” in line 7? That’s right – motherfucker shushes us! During the song! Keep in mind this is technically the same band responsible for “He’s a Woman, She’s a Man,” “Another Piece of Meat,” “Don't Make No Promises (Your Body Can't Keep),” and “Tease Me, Please Me” over the next several years. Like I said: weird.

Early Scorpions bassists and drummers ruled – The most well-known Scorpions rhythm section, Francis Buchholz and Herman Rarebell, often exemplified the inanity of 80s-metal rhythm: simple 4/4 beats and riding that root note. Not so of their 70s predecessors. In general, the early bassists and drummers were all over the place in a very good way, playing melodic bass lines and tom-heavy drum fills that simply make for more enjoyable listening. Lothar Heimberg’s jumpy bass on Lonesome Crow’s “In Search of the Peace of Mind” provides a perfect counterpoint to the fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and I’ve already mentioned Wolfgang Dziony’s drum-circlish start to this same album. Fly to the Rainbow features some seriously great drumming from J├╝rgen Rosenthal; his work on “They Need a Million,” “Drifting Sun,” and especially “This Is My Song” remind me of a weirder, coked-up Mitch Mitchell (in fact, I’m positive Rosenthal was overly familiar with Hendrix's “Fire”). In Trance has at least one stunning moment for each rhythm-section member: Rudy Lenners’s preposterous descending tom fill that opens “Life’s Like a River” and Francis Buchholz’s bass line in “Longing for Fire,” which is so deliciously melodic it could have been written by someone who might be one of three or four readers of this post. Alas, after this album, the bass and drums largely flattened out into templates for Bobby Blotzer and Rudy Sarzo to follow, though Buchholz did manage to churn out a fine, rippling bass line on the dead-serious reggae-metal of Lovedrive’s “Is There Anybody There?” (“reggae-metal.” Let that phrase sink in. See? WEIRD.)

Taken by Force (1977)

Early Scorpions lead guitarists were/are geniuses – Their longtime lead guitarist, Matthias Jabs, first appeared on Lovedrive and is one of the most inventive players I’ve ever heard. I regularly cannot figure out what his lead parts are doing. Even seemingly correct tablature is no help sometimes because he has such singular phrasing. It’s not just that he can play really fast (he can) – it’s that he does so inventively. Check out, e.g., the end of the solo in Blackout’s “Arizona” or the solo and outro in Love at First Sting’s “Coming Home” – I have no idea what he does in these instances to produce the sounds he produces, and I’ve been trying to work them out for 30 years.

Yet Jabs followed in the footsteps of two geniuses – Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth – who now sound like his superiors to me. Schenker (Rudy’s brother) played on Lonesome Crow at the age of 16 and drew comparisons to Hendrix, which is surely ridiculous but also a testament to the brilliance of his playing on this album. His (usually extended) solos are empirically the best thing about each song. After Crow, he left to join UFO, form the Michael Schenker Group, and develop severe addiction problems – severe enough, in fact, that his return to the band for Lovedrive ended abruptly after its release when his erratic behavior pushed Jabs into the role full time (Schenker did contribute several amazing solos to Lovedrive, though, especially the first one on “Coast to Coast”).

      Which brings us to Uli Jon Roth. Along with Richie Blackmore, Roth was one of the earliest “neoclassical” rock/metal guitarists, and while he’s fairly unfamiliar to lay audiences, guitarists speak of him with reverence and awe. And boy does he deserve it. Because, unlike peacocky and assholish Yngwie Malmsteen – arguably the most famous neoclassicist – Roth is diverse. Much of his work on Fly to the Rainbow (his Scorps debut) is a stellar psychedelic blues-metal hybrid with nary a Phrygian mode in earshot. With the following year’s In Trance, he began flirting with classical riffs on “Life’s Like a River” and “Sun in My Hand,” though the latter song has plenty of bluesy grime as well. But on Virgin Killer, Roth started bringing the Paganini in earnest, particularly on album-opener “Pictured Life” (which starts really abruptly, all instruments together, with Roth at the bent apex of a high G), “Catch Your Train,” and sad-sack last track “Yellow Raven,” featuring gorgeously slow and dramatic arpeggios. His classicism peaked on Taken by Force’s “The Sails of Charon,” a song so good it deserves an enumerated list:

1. It’s a reminder that, on their last sort-of weird album before they started copying Van Halen more closely, they could still be weird: Greek mythology, goofy mystical lyrics about “the realm of the black magic man,” a snappy little drum intro that’s almost disco-ish, and one of the silliest music videos ever

2. Its main riff – the one that starts the song – is just fucking awesome.

3. Roth’s solos on this track are legendary in guitar circles, particularly the first one, which is easily the greatest lead break I’ve ever heard. It’s fast, complex (the dreaded whole tone scale), and perfectly placed…and then he plays arguably harder (and doubled!) leads later in the song!

And if his guitar wizardry weren’t enough, Roth also stands out because he’s a damn good songwriter, contributing (or co-contributing) some of the best songs of the early-Scorpions era: “Drifting Sun,” “Life’s Like a River,” “Sun in My Hand,” “Longing for Fire,” “Night Lights” (a lovely instrumental), “Pictured Life,” “Polar Nights,” “The Sails of Charon,” and “Your Light.” If I made a Scorpions playlist for someone, all these songs would be on it.

Man, if you read this far, good on you! Thanks for tolerating all my adverbs!