Music Meets Gaming – Revolution X

I’ve got that bug back.  The video game bug.  In addition to the Super Nintendo Classic Edition I threw some Christmas money at, a recent Kickstarter campaign is bringing back the old cartridge format that I grew up loving, with a new Genesis/Megadrive game titled Xeno Crisis.  Does this have any relevance to a music blog?  You’re damn right, it does!  Savaged Regime is handling the score to this shootem-up, and the guy knows his way around a sound chip, let me tell you.

Music soundtracks are one of the key factors in setting the atmosphere of a game.  Without any background music in a game, it seems incomplete, at least with games in the past thirty-odd years anyway.  The musical accompaniment to games can come in the form of original scores (such as Nobuo Uematsu’s majestic Final Fantasy themes), a collection of existing songs, and several games in the X-Box era of consoles introduced the idea of customizable soundtracks that allowed gamers to put their favourite songs into select games.  No matter how you slice it, music and games are intertwined, and in my opinion, they should always be.  So it should be no surprise that some musicians would eventually go on to become the stars of video games themselves.

Many musicians spend time developing either a sound or a look that give them an almost other-worldly vibe that could naturally lend itself to the world of gaming.  I could see shock-rockers such as Alice Cooper or King Diamond thrusted into the digitized gothic worlds portrayed in the Castlevania series, or even (to go less mainstream) Chakan: The Forever Man.  How about the lads in Devo whipping their way through a River City Ransom style beat’em up?  A B-52s-themed flight simulator?  My computer programming skills are far too primitive to create such games for my own enjoyment, so I have to make due with what is already in existence.  I’ve had exposure to a number of games that feature musicians prominently in them, so I’d like to talk about some of these games, and give my personal insights and experiences surrounding them.  Let’s start with Revolution X.

I originally heard of this game through a friend in high school. It was one of the first times I had ever heard of a musician or band starring in their own video game, though I had probably been aware of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style around that same time.  This was in the early 2000s, when video game emulation of console games was becoming highly popular on computers, so this made for a rapid discovery of games we overlooked or couldn’t afford as kids.  My friend told me not so much about how the game plays, but more on how the band worked their way into the plot.  In particular, he mentioned one cut scene in which singer Steven Tyler tosses you the keys to Aerosmith’s car (which I guess the band all shared for penny-pinching reasons).

I wasn’t a big Aerosmith fan around that time because I mostly knew of them from their pop ballad phase in the 90s, learning to slow dance to the likes of ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ as an awkward eighth grader.  It was until around my senior year in high school that I got a beat-up vinyl copy of Toys In The Attic, and discovered these Boston boys could legitimately rock hard.  Still, the idea of this game piqued my interest.  I’m not quite sure why, but I wouldn’t put secretly pining for an Alicia Silverstone / Liv Tyler appearance past me at the time.

I never got in the habit of using emulators regularly, so I waited a bit on grabbing this game, and eventually acquired the PC port in a bundle of games my dad picked up at either an auction or flea market.  I thought it was a novel concept, but I doubt I played it any more than five times.  However, I did grab the Sega Genesis port within the last year.

I could tell right away that this version was, in a way, inferior to the PC disc I possessed a decade earlier.  In both versions, you get Aerosmith’s music playing along with you.  This is where the most obvious differences can be found, along with the darker colour palette.  On the PC, I can distinctly remember the song ‘Eat The Rich’ playing through the opening level when you are in the nightclub.  The Genesis version makes deciphering their songs into more of a guessing game.  You get the songs to the best of the programmer’s ability to translate it.  While my ears can identify ‘Rag Doll’, the ability to mimic the electric guitar still comes across sounding like a warm fart.

The plot is both simple and convoluted all at once.  You basically have an organization, the New Order Nation (N.O.N.), that wants to pick on the youth by getting rid of all the fun things that they hold near and dear.  The first thing on their evil deeds checklist is abducting Aerosmith, a band that (ironically) the typical arcade goer’s parents would have held in higher esteem than the gamers themselves.  Anyhow, you travel across the world to thwart this organization and their leader, Head Mistress Helga (portrayed by the same woman that modelled as Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat 3, Kerri Hoskins), and help put an end to the various prison camps and mind-control tactics that N.O.N. have introduced on a world-wide scale.

Not much is mentioned about how N.O.N. arose to their intimidating and oppressive stature, other than it being an alliance between government and big business, the two of which of course are never bedfellows in the real world. But really, the plot of this game isn’t too important because it’s not as if it is needed to critically think your way through the levels.  Basically, you are shooting at building exteriors and vehicles for most of the game.  Oh, and at bikini-clad hostages, who are also played by Kerri Hoskins.

One of the most enduring references to this game comes in the form of the slogan “Music Is The Weapon!”.  That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a band, is it?  If you want baddies to cower in fear over a barrage of tunes, there would be more effective ways of doing so.  Aerosmith’s grooves are infectious!!  I’d think something along the lines of ‘Buried Secrets’ by Painkiller is more likely to clear out a room than ‘Love In An Elevator’, but that’s just the average music connoisseur talking.

Keeping that slogan in mind, yes, music is the weapon!  Amongst your arsenal are compact discs that you can launch towards enemies.  If we’re to assume that these CDs are Aerosmith albums, encouraging their use as projectile objects is an innovative way to help boost their album sales.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen beat-up copies of Get A Grip that look like they’ve been used as drink coasters or scratching posts, but now I know that they could potentially be relics of the epic Revolutionary X War of 19XX.

I remember the Middle East stage of the game always game me difficulty.  I’m not sure I ever advanced past it because I don’t remember playing the final stage of the game, which takes place in Wembley Stadium.  The object of this level is to stop a bus from taking people to a re-orientation camp.  Thankfully, you can select between the Amazon Jungle, Middle East, and Pacific Rim levels in any order you choose, allowing you to save this hair-pulling passage to the end.  It didn’t help me much because if I was their last hope, those kids would be licking Helga’s street-walking boots as we speak.

Speaking of Helga, I never did had the pleasure of fighting her in the game since she is the final boss. As much as some misogynists out there would have delighted in bloodying up this strong, powerful female (granted, I’m pretty sure she’d deserve it), they wouldn’t quite get the chance to do so. As much as I don’t like referencing movies I haven’t seen, a The Crying Game-like twist would lead to an unexpected showdown.

Dude looked like a lady

An interesting rumour regarding Revolution X was that Public Enemy were either the original planned stars of the game or considered for a sequel (internet articles on the subject are lacking in detail), which relieves me to hear that it was yet another band with a steady career under their belts that was considered.  It’s not like they’d give Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch a video game, right?

Speaking specifically for the Sega Genesis port, this would have been an ideal game to play with the Menacer accessory.  There were only two games released in North America that made use of this light gun (T2: The Arcade Game and the 6-in-1 game cartridge that was bundled with it), so the public were surely hungry for another one.  The arcade version had the guns, but did any of the home editions think of including it?  Not from what I’ve seen.  Without it, Revolution X feels somewhat broken.

While arguably not even in the league of the 8-bit console first-person shooters like Duck Hunt or Hogan’s Alley, any Aerosmith fan could find a small place in their heart for Revolution X.  It can join your collection for the cost of a few cups of coffee, so not a bad price for a good laugh.  You could do worse for a video game, but you can do much better.


Dream Notes – Don’t Touch My Vinyl!!!

This was one of those dreams that took place within ten minutes of my alarm clock sounding, just after peeking at my cell phone for the time, and attempting to cram in one last adventure before resuming my normal life activities.  The events of this dream took place in an environment in which I shared a house with a bunch of other guys, not too different from in my university days.  I cannot remember who my housemates were aside from my brother, but I think I had probably pulled a few faces from some random places in my life.  What would possess us to invest in real estate with some dude I was stuck behind in line at a Canadian Tire and a background character from Old School, I have no idea.  Dreams work in mysterious ways!

It all began with a knock at our door.  We must have known who was on the other side because it put us into a panic.  I wouldn’t say that the person banged on our door particularly aggressively, but it was no “Shave and a Haircut”, that much I remember.  We saw the stack of mail next to the coat rack, and instinctively knew that’s what all the commotion would be over.  You see, the mail was not addressed to us.  It was seemingly a random collection of packages for a variety of people with a variety of addresses on them, yet we somehow possessed them.  Someone grabbed a medium-sized cardboard box, and buried the mail within the it, using an assortment of DVDs to further cover them up.  With everything set, I opened the door, and was lightly shoved aside.

Ice-T was among the group of men who came in to search the house, and there may have been a few actors from The Wire as well, which would make sense considering one of the hidden packages was addressed to Avon Barksdale.  I didn’t dream up the entire backstory of why these men arrived.  Did one of us take the mail from their doorstep, and was spotted?  That would make the most sense.  Anyway, as they were searching the place, they’d make light verbal jabs at the furnishing and décor. They’d get dangerously close to locating their mail, but would delay their search whenever an interesting DVD made its way into their hands.  Who could blame them?  Everyone likes Goodfellas!

After a few minutes, the place was literally packed with people, most of which had nothing to do with the original search of the premises. Hell, I don’t even know if the first wave of men located their mail because I would soon become side-tracked. It was now developing into a party-like atmosphere, which may have to do with the fact I watched Office Christmas Party the night before.  It’s a shame there were no women at this party.  Even in my dreams, to paraphrase David Brent, I’m so unlucky I could fall into a barrel full of tits and come out sucking my own thumb.

Naturally, some of the uninvited guests were eyeing my vinyl collection, and one of them made himself right at home.  He looked rather familiar. He was, in fact, one of the cast of the sketch comedy show The Birthday Boys, Matt Kowalick.  Like Ice-T, I’d normally be thrilled to meet him, but he was meddling with my stacks.  He had pulled out one of my records (the comedy album Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow Right!), and took a pair of sewing scissors to trim off the original, partially intact shrink wrap that remained on the album.  I wasn’t having any of it that day.  I told him to to put the scissors down.

“I was just tidying it up!” he protested.

I took it as an insult in my ability to upkeep my media collection.

“Well, then get out of my house.” I utter calmly.

After giving me a puzzled look, I repeat.

“Get out of my house.”

I rapidly close the distance between us and proceed to strong-arm him towards the front door.

“Get out of my house. Get out of my house! GET THE F*** OUT OF MY HOUSE!!!”  I conclude with a volume I’ve never approached in my life, and with a rage I’ve never even seen Susie Greene unleash on Larry David.  All eyes are on me, and my cell phone alarm finally sounds to end the scene.

For those who are more picture-oriented, here’s an illustrated version of a quality one might expect to find on a third-grader’s book report.  I’m the only person with eyebrows given that I was the only one acting overly emotional.  The house was also more crowded and furnished, but my Cleric t-shirt is about as good as it’s gonna get for detail.

It got me thinking what would get me to fly off the handle in terms of someone tampering or mishandling my records, CDs, or other items I collect.  I wouldn’t miss my Bill Cosby records of all things were it to get damaged or lost.  I’d still find many of the bits funny, but the recent headlines he has made haven’t given me that urge to spin them. Even if Cosby retained his family-friendly image, many of his albums could be found for a buck at thrift stores.

I’m usually careful with my collection.  In general, I try not to lend out albums or movies to people because I’ve been burned in the past.  Some people don’t return them, don’t treat them as if they were their own, and I’ve also come to realize that the convenience of internet resources makes physical lending no longer a necessity.  I still make exceptions if I really want to introduce something to somebody, and I find it hard to say no if I get asked directly.

In this particular case, I would probably still have a significant amount of anger.  Not enough to peel the paint off the walls, but anger nonetheless.  It would have more to do with the situation (my house being invaded by strange men) than what he did to the record, which I could shrug off in most cases.  If it was a favourite album of mine that was hard to come by, I’d definitely be more upset, but the brunt of the damage would have to be on the record as opposed to just the packaging.  I collect, but with the intent of listening 99.9 percent of the time.

It was a rather odd dream, but I only woke up with one regret.  Why didn’t I think of showing Ice my vinyl collection?  I’m such a rude host!!

Mega Metal Trading Cards

Most people grow out of it, but I still collect sports cards.  It did make a bit more sense to do so as a kid or a young teenager, giving me another outlet with which I could gaze upon some of my heroes.  I have long gave up aspirations of playing professional sports in any capacity, plus I can’t be the next Mario Lemieux if I’m approaching my mid-thirties, nearly a foot shorter than him, and can hardly skate.  However, I can still relate to the musicians I grew up listening to whenever I pick up a guitar or bass.  The first musicians that I really began to obsess over as a teenager were in heavy metal bands, and thankfully, there was a trading card set out there to satisfy all the little headbangers out there.

Mega Metal trading cards are so metal that they needed a bad-ass logo to match.

Well, at least they tried. Is that a skull with a spike impaling it, or is that a mohawk?  Alas, poor Yorich.  I knew him HELL!

Unlike the Brockum Rock Cards set I covered previously, I didn’t know this set existed until this past year.  The set was produced by the company Impel in 1991, the year where pretty much everything under the sun had a trading card set made.  I don’t know much about the manufacturer, but I also own a card set they made of the World Championship Wrestling league (WCW).  That set had no musical affiliation, but did feature a Sting and Sid Vicious of a different breed.  It had plenty of sweaty mullets too, but I cower in fear over the thought of encountering ‘Dirty’ Dutch Mantell in a moshpit.

I’ll start by showing you what first attracted me to these cards.  Feast your eyes on these babies!

Did I purchase a whole set of cards just for five of King Diamond?  Maybe I did, maybe it didn’t.  What’s it to you?

All the Diamondbangers out there should recognize his makeup design from the Conspiracy / The Eye era of his career.  It may be disappointing to some that the set doesn’t feature the rest of the band, though the state of the lineup at the time may explain the company’s decision.  These cards is that it commemorate a non-album lineup of the band that many may have been unaware of if they never saw him on tour for The Eye.  Following the album’s recording, guitarist Pete Blakk and bassist Hal Patino (who re-joined the band with Abigail II: The Revenge and be on the outs again following Give Me Your Soul Please) were replaced with Mike Wead and Sharlee D’Angelo respectively.  Both would go on to join King on future Mercyful Fate albums, and Wead has played in King Diamond’s solo band since Abigail II.  I don’t think this lineup ever had any proper promo photos taken because King would soon shift his focus back towards Mercyful Fate.

Let’s move beyond the King, and give you a taste of what to expect on both sides of the cards.

If you’re a Led Zeppelin / Robert Plan kind of guy, count yourself lucky with this set as you get eight cards featuring the legendary vocalist.  As a person not too familiar with Plant’s solo material, I appreciate the insight provided on his cards, ranging from discussion of his lyrics, the Zeppelin days, and the creation of what was his latest album at the time, Manic Nirvana.

This is an aptly titled set of cards. When they say Mega Metal, they generally mean Mega Metal.  Outside of Billy Squier, the artists within are universally considered to be metal in some form or another, whether it be hair metal, thrash metal, or straight-up ‘classic’ metal.

If you’re a fan of Iron Maiden, you won’t be disappointed flipping through their sixteen cards in this collection.  Each band member gets a card, as does each of their albums, all of which feature Derek Riggs’ memorable designs of his beloved creation, Eddie.

Can you truly call a set Mega Metal without including one of the undisputed godfathers of the genre, Ronnie James Dio? “No, you can’t!” is the answer to that rhetorical question.

You get exactly one card of him, as well as one for each of his band mates (minus the bassist, who must have recently left the band), and a band pic.  I’m a little surprised that they didn’t throw in a couple more of Ronnie himself seeing as he is Dio.

The main set also contains fourteen cards each for Judas Priest and Bon Jovi, nine for L.A. Guns and Vixen, but a whopping seventeen for Skid Row Cards, I’ll share a few. There were also seventeen Slaughter cards produced, but the only thing of theirs that ever grabbed my attention was their cover of Stick It To Ya (of which there is a card in this set).

Here’s a nifty factoid found on one of the Scotti Hill cards: he is listed at 5’ 11” and 135 pounds, which puts his body mass index very close to the underweight categorization.  Yes, I know that BMI doesn’t tell us an entire picture of a person’s fitness, but I just find it amusing they even needed to list this information on a card.  Why not list this info for everybody in the set like you would on a sports card?

In addition to the base set, each pack originally included a hologram card highlighting a metal band logo.  Here’s the L.A. Guns card, which shows a band photo on the back with the band roster listed beneath.

For some reason, the Judas Priest one only shows Rob Halford, KK Downing, and Glenn Tipton as members.  I know the rhythm section don’t get involved in their songwriting with few exceptions, but that’s no excuse for their being excluded.  They even decided to make a hologram with the Mega Metal logo on it, which they were so proud of that they list ordering information on the card’s back to sell t-shirts featuring the design.

The ‘Mega’ potion of the Mega Metal title is where this set falls short.  Mega, to me, should imply a significant size.  This is a set of only 150 cards.  I’m not saying they need as inclusive as those 792-cards Topps baseball sets I’m accustomed to, but nearing the 250 to 300 range doesn’t seem like an unreasonable task.  There were several hard rock and metal bands flirting with a bit of mainstream success who would have loved to be featured in a trading card set.

On that note, there are a few unlikely bands that managed to squeeze themselves into the stack. For example, I’ve never heard of The Front, who get a pair of cards in the set.

The back of one of The Front cards (that sound a bit like the Who’s On First sketch, doesn’t it?) describes a collection of their songs as “Alice Cooper meeting the Doors with CNN on the tube and little sister ducking out the back with Eddie Haskell”.  I didn’t even need to listen to the songs in question (‘Sweet Addiction’, ‘Ritual‘, and ‘Sin‘) to know that whoever crafted that description needs to go read the book A Beginner’s Guide To Writing Similes, but I did listen anyway.

Of all the bands in the set, things gets the most obscure when it comes to the thrash metal bands.  You may just get a single card of Dark Angel (the first to feature the drumming talents of Gene Hoglan), but you get a number of cards featuring two New York-area thrash acts, Nuclear Assault and Method of Destruction (M.O.D.), both of which can be tied to the Anthrax side-project Stormtroopers of Death (S.O.D.).

Neither band comes close to fitting into the Big Four of thrash (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax), nor would they fit into the next tier of major thrash bands of the 80s (which would include the likes of Exodus, Testament, Overkill, and possibly German-based bands like Kreator or Sodom).  You’re getting fairly deep into an already fairly underground genre for a modestly-sized set, so that is rather surprising to me.  Each Nuclear Assault member gets an individual photo on a card front, yet the only member of M.O.D. getting one is bassist John Monte, when most would expect that if anyone would get one it would be vocalist Billy Milano.  Perhaps this thrusting of a bassist into the limelight is to make up for Dio’s band lacking of one, but this seems like an odd choice in hindsight.

Here’s a few more shots of some card backs to round out this post.

It’s interesting to note that some of these cards have signatures at the bottom of their cards, and others do not.  Perhaps there’s a valid reason for this.  Is Michael Schenker less likely to sign an autograph for a fan than David Bryan?  Maybe an autograph collector out there could confirm or deny my theory.

It doesn’t feel right to end it like that.  I’ve got to close this out on a more decidedly metallic note.  Here’s my favorite Priest card in the lot, and with possibly the best action shot in the set.  It’s not even a scratch-and-sniff, but I swear I can smell that leather…

Alternate Album Cover Art

While I consider myself an album collector, it’s a rare case that I purchase multiple copies of the same album. I’ll usually grab the first copy of the album I can get my hands on, but this doesn’t always go so well. When an album has been out for several years, it will often get reissued if there is still a demand for it. This could be for a plethora of additional reasons, such as another record label acquiring the distribution rights, the launch of the album was done so on a small print run, an expanded version of an album is released to commemorate some sort of anniversary, or it underwent either a remastering or full-blown re-mix. On many occasions, this results in the album cover undergoing a transformation.

Changing an album’s artwork is somewhat controversial. Sometimes there is a valid reason for doing so, and other times it is more questionable. There are several examples of this that I can point to within my collection alone, so I’ll focus on five of these at a time, and discuss other covers in future posts. Additionally, since this is a music blog, I’ll include some links in the title of each section where you can sample a song off each album even though I won’t dwell much on the music itself.

Bill Evans and Jim Hall – Undercurrent

This cover leaves quite an impression on me. It’s very fitting of the title, though it seems a bit unsettling for what I’d associate with a jazz record. It wouldn’t look out of place as an image that a gothic rock or depressive shoegaze band could use. There’s no certainty that the woman in the photo is dead with her face being above the surface, but this still image comes off as strikingly dark. It really makes the user question how the woman got to the state she is in.

The photo was taken by photographer Toni Frissell in 1947 and is titled “Weeki Wackee, Florida”. The image has been licensed for use on not just Undercurrent, but other album covers as well. That’s the only troubling thing I’d have if I were to ever release an album of my own. I’d probably prefer to use a piece of art that is exclusive to my album sleeve, but still, if you find the right image, why not use it regardless? As Undercurrent is usually considered a highly-regarded recording by jazz aficionados, this has likely stood as the most famous appearance of the photo.

The album has been re-released with slights variants to the above. Sometimes the image is a brighter shade of blue or green, sometimes there is text on the front, etc. Here’s an edition of the album that I own.

No, I wasn’t testing out my Crayolas. Those scribbles are a legit design choice. Is there any significance to it? The use of an artist photo is not at all surprising to use on a rerelease. It’s just unfortunate that they couldn’t find a suitable photo of Bill Evans and Jim Hall together, with a smaller pic of Hall being relegated to the back.

It’s labelled as being part of The Douglas Collection, who released a bunch of these in 1972. It appears that there were many big jazz names (with Kenny Dorham, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday among them) who couldn’t escape the stroke of Harold and his purple crayon. Or his red, his yellow, his green…


Korn – Issues

I have owned Issues twice. The first time, I received it as a Christmas present, which was the original album cover.

As far as I know, this is the version you can still find readily available in your local music store. I even had a shirt with this cover art on it when I was in high school, which had the text “I have Issues” printed on it, allowing me to perpetuate an image of being a disturbed adolescence to a group of peers who were (hopefully) not buying it. Anyway, this image was the grand prize winner from a contest run through MTV. That sounds like a very corporate-sounding endeavor for a band to partake in, but the platform does allow for them to cast a wider net in hopes of finding a great artist.

Here’s a scan I took from the liner notes of Issues, which shows three other finalists for the contest.

When I was in high school (my peak Korn listening days), I preferred the cover with the cartoon depictions of each member of the band. Like each of the other finalists, I think the image was a bit too busy. The contest winner, while still a great painting, allows for some space in the top-left corner to stick the name an album title. According to Wikipedia, they ranked in the contest from 1st to 4th going clockwise starting from the top-left.

Here’s a closer look at the cover from my second (and current) copy of Issues.

It’s difficult to make out what is going on here. I see a photograph with two people on it, with a few candles surrounding the frame. I assume it is representing a memorial for two people that died, with the chalk drawings possibly acting like chalk outlines in a crime scene. It doesn’t pop off the shelf like the doll cover does, and I can see why it didn’t rank higher than the other three.

I’m curious as to whether or not the entrants to the contest were told in advanced the title of the album, or if it was a matter of submitting art with no descriptive attached. Also, are any cover versions more scarce than the others? I’m sure there’s a re-seller or two that may charge a premium price for the less common images, but considering how popular Korn were in the late-90s to early-2000s, each version probably had at least 100,000 printed.


Deftones – White Pony

Just a year after Korn threw a multitude of album covers into the marketplace, Deftones, another band the press frequently dubbed as “nu-metal”, did something similar. This time, in my opinion, the variations are nothing to write home about. First, we have the original cover.

This is the version I used to own. It’s a simple design, but effective, with the grey colour serving as a good contrast to the white pony. I’ll have to describe this as another one of those covers that gives no hint as to what style of music you are dealing with. The minimalism and diagonal lettering in a sans serif font makes me think more of an electronic or dance album. As this is the first album featuring turntables / synthesizer player Frank Delgado on board as a permanent band member, it seems like a suitable time to make this shift in art direction, but it’s likely just a coincidence. They’ve done a decent job over the years since then of varying their cover designs, which seem to have all been handled by Frank Maddocks.

When comparing each White Pony cover side-by-side, there really isn’t much to complain about. They all have the pony, so your preference can pretty much come down to what your favourite dominant colour is or the placement and size of said pony. The copy you are likely to find in stores today is the white cover.

The pony now takes centre stage, with a black border now necessary to distinguish this from that other white cover by that obscure band whose name escapes me. I’m not sure why this cover became the version that most editions are now printed on. Did the band prefer this version? Was is record label meddling? It turns out other versions exist with a few tweaks. Here’s a red version, which came out as a limited edition around the same time as the original grey cover.

The limited edition also came in black, but as it featured the same layout as the red (which shows the track numbers and run times), I won’t waste the page space showing it. The thing that bothers me with these variants of the White Pony releases is the actual music content. The initial gray cover version had eleven tracks. The red cover version had a twelfth bonus song “The Boy’s Republic” tagged onto the end. The white version also has twelve tracks, but added the extra song “Back to School (Mini Maggit)” at the beginning of the album.

My impression of this type of thing is that it’s more of a cash grab than anything else. At the time, you didn’t really have the option of jumping on iTunes to buy these extra songs. At least it was around the time that Napster emerged, so I wouldn’t fault someone owning the grey cover at the time for stealing the other two songs. The label should know better than force the public to buy two extra albums to get the two bonus tracks. Singer Chino Moreno was allegedly displeased with this tactic, and I’m sure his band mates would back him up on that. I know I was certainly unhappy when I got my grey version when I was a teenager with little money to speak of.


Mahavishnu Orchestra – Between Nothingness & Eternity

Let’s start off with the original cover. Yes, I know compact discs didn’t exist in 1973, but it’s practically identical to the vinyl cover of the time.

The image may seem a bit generic in retrospect. The similarly-minded progressive rock band King Crimson had an album (Islands) with a comparable cover. However, the vastness of space is a concept with very wide appeal. From the fifties through to present day, show me one genre of music that hasn’t had a single artist getting caught up in the space race, Martian madness, or expressing similar interplanetary interests. Even Santa Claus got in on the action! The guy had enough trouble making sure I got the right Ghostbusters action figure, yet he expands his operation to Mars…

I’m guilty of getting lost in images like this every now and then. Even when looking at images of earth, be it maps or aerial photos, the thought of how small humanity is in the grand scheme of things always made my head spin. Galaxy-spanning shots like the above sets a good tone for a jazz fusion band who themselves try to stretch out as musicians to create other worldly sounds, so I definitely buy into their cover concept.

Between Nothingness & Eternity has been released with variants on the above image such as colour changes, but also with few other radical transformations. Here’s what my copy of the album looks like.

Leave it to my home and native land of Canada to try to be different. It appears that this version was oddly exclusive to Canada. What? Was Buffy Sainte-Marie thinking of using the image for her own album, and they wanted to avoid confusion? Vinyl enthusiasts will delight in the fact hat this version has gatefold packaging. Puzzling enough, the original album art can be found on the inside along with a poem excerpt from guru Sri Chinmoy’s “The Flute”. Couldn’t they have placed this art on the inside instead?

It makes sense to show the band on stage for a live album cover, but I don’t think it should be mandatory. As long as ‘live’ is listed in the title, you don’t need the picture to drive the point home. Besides, there are plenty of live albums that feature a picture of the artist(s) on stage whose legitimacy has been put into question (cough Unleashed In The East cough). I’d like to know if the photo is taken from the shows from which this live album was captured (August 17-18, 1973 at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, New York). The skyline shown above the band looks like it could be New York, which would certainly be appropriate.

I’m not deeply against the cover I have, but I’d rather be among the stars.


Megadeth – Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!

I’ll shake this one up by showing the reissued cover first. If you’ve recently ate, try not to scroll too far down past this one.

By all accounts, this represents what was the artwork was originally intended to look like. Somewhere along the line, let’s just say that the wires got crossed to put it lightly.

It’s sad to think that this was most of the world’s introduction to Megadeth’s iconic Vic Rattlehead mascot. Heck, even Ronald McDonald got messed up royally the first time out. Coincidentally, Dave Mustaine has described this eyesore along the lines of being a skull with ketchup for blood and pickles on it.

The record label didn’t follow Mustaine’s original sketch concept very well. They got the skull, covered the eyes, and surrounded it with whatever could be found in the discount bin of the local hardware store. It’s also bizarre seeing Megadeth written in that lettering, as well as seeing the album title not being listed with each word starting with capitals.

The album design is credited to Donald J. Munz, with a photography credit to Dan Rizzi. Are they to share the blame? I can’t find much information about Rizzi, but Munz seemed to be one of the go-to art guys of independent label Combat Records. The label’s stable of artists evidently had a bit of a skull obsession, seeing as they were depicted on Combat-branded recordings by the likes of Savatage, Devastation, Forbidden, D.B.C., The Exploited, Death, Nuclear Assault, Possessed, Trouble, and Oz, to give you a good enough sampling of the 80s underground.  Sure, some say the skulls are just a metal thing, but it’s not as if every disco album cover had a mirrored ball, every rap album had a mugshot, or every modern country album has a “Best Listened to at Barely Audible Volumes” sticker (my humble suggestion). Think outside the box!

How they butchered this cover the way they did is baffling. Mustaine even gave them his own drawings to work off of, and from the look of it, they could have simply taken a picture of that and walked away victorious. While he didn’t do the painting, Munz was responsible for the art direction of Exodus’ legendary Bonded By Blood, so you would have thought he would have shown more enthusiasm over tackling such an interesting concept.

The reissued version is truly a cover being remade properly. It’s a shame they had to censor their colourful rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots” to somewhat tarnish the repackaging.

Vai – Light Without Heat??

I’ve recently purchased The Ultimate Fortress box set by hard rock band Alcatrazz, a band most famous for having two legendary, virtuoso-level guitar players, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, in their lineup during early phases of their respective careers. It’s been fun exploring the audio and visual content of this package, and the Steve Vai presence reminded me of another topic I wanted to discuss.

This entry starts with yet another gem of an ad that I found in an old music magazine.

This was pulled from the July 1993 issue of Musician. It took up around half of a page, wedged to the left of the magazine’s production credits. It’s very non-descriptive and rather bland visually considering the space it took up. Aside from the word Vai and the fact it’s being released through Relativity (the label that also helped launch his sophmore album, Passion and Warfare), you may even doubt this was an ad for a Steve Vai-led project. VAI could very well have been an acronym of some kind (Virile Austrian Imports? Vampire Assassins Incorporated? Virtuous Artistic Inbreeding?)

This album would be released as Sex & Religion when all was said and done. It’s unusual that the incorrect name went to print so close to when the album was released, which was in late-July. If ads like this appeared in other publications, did listing the Light Without Heat title impact on the album’s commercial success? Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if Sex Without Lights was used an intermediate name.

When compared to other so-called guitar “shredders”, I always felt that Steve Vai’s work stood out due to his interesting rhythm tracks that form the foundation of many of his songs. Some of the less memorable guitarists of the era essentially sounded as if they were jamming over a drum machine, making their songs seem more like practices in dexterity instead of compositions. I’d liken his writing approach to another guitar-playing Steve, Steve Morse, though the execution differs. They both keep the melodies strong without sacrificing the rhythm’s intricacy or ability to drive the composition forward.

While some tracks of his feature more of a sparse backdrop over which he lays down his leads, such as perhaps his most famous solo album piece “For The Love Of God”, he has established significantly varied approaches to songwriting. He’s also penned tracks like “The Attitude Song” that demonstrates as much skillful playing from the bass and drums as it does the guitar, “Bad Horsie”, which is more groove-based and showcases an imitative (of a horse, of course!), playful side, and “The Fire Garden Suite”, which pretty much goes all over the map. It’s hard to pin down what a typical Vai composition is gonna sound like.

His Sex & Religion album could be argued to be his most straight-forward release, but I appreciate it as it seemed to be going against expectations. While many likely wanted to see how much further he could push instrumental rock music, he opted to simplify his approach to music in a way. For his third solo album, he actually assembled a band, a rather solid one at that. You get fellow School of Frank Zappa graduate Terry Bozzio behind the drum kit, with the slap-happy T.M. Stevens on bass to complete the rhythm section. Possibly most noteworthy, this project introduced vocalist Devin Townsend’s to a wide audience. Filling the background vocal roles includes (among many) Ahmet Zappa (Frank’s son) and everyone’s favourite Rambo impersonator, Kane Roberts.

Being a fan of much of Devin Townsend’s output throughout his career, learning that he had sung on a Steve Vai album as a twenty year old surprised me. The only sampling of Devin I had heard prior to hearing Sex & Religion was a few of his albums with Strapping Young Lad. I had yet to listen to much of his solo material, the exceptions being “Vampira” and a few other songs that were still practically straight-up hard rock and metal songs. I did not quite know exactly how powerful he was as a vocalist. Here, he not only demonstrated power, but a unique combination of tenderness and rage one might not expect to find in a kid from New Westminster, British Columbia. And if you listen to Sex & Religion in it’s entirety and still don’t think Devin Townsend has enough character, this Headbanger’s Ball appearance will put that doubt aside, and then some!

Stylistically, this album brought the focus back towards the rock band dynamic that began in Alcatrazz and gained him wider fame with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. I have to say, I really enjoy the results. This album could have easily been accomplished with an excess of guitars taking on the role of vocalist in handling melody over top of the rhythm tracks, but I think taking a chance on an unknown vocalist was a worthwhile experiment. While there are still several solos to be found and colorful guitar flourishes aplenty, the middle of the album’s “Touching Tongues” and “State of Grace” seem to be what you’d most expect for a guitarist’s instrumental album, but they serve to break up the more conventional hard rock songs.

Using vocals had the potential to reach a wider audience, which surely must have played into some of Vai’s decision making. You usually don’t get Desmond Child to help co-write a song (“In My Dreams With You”) without aspirations for at least a minor hit. As far as what I believe to be the highlights, I’ll direct you to check out “Here & Now”“Still My Bleeding Heart”, and “Survive”.

So why did the ad print with Light Without Heat as the album title? I still haven’t figured it out. I thought it may have been pulled from a lyric on the album, but I don’t see it listed. Could it have to do with the Russian play of the same name? The album is full of religious references, so is it in reference to the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses? It could simply have been a working title Steve Vai would slap onto something until a better idea formed. After all, he must have had at least a minor obsession with the phrase, using it as a label to release a significant portion of his discography.

As if to make up for the error (or last-minute change in title), guess what the cover story in Musician was the following month.

Not only that, the issue featured a full-page advertisement (now in colour!) to give the music a proper introduction.

It’s a slightly modified version of the album cover. That being the case, I never noticed until seeing this image that the border around the nearly-nude man with the arrows in him (Devin Townsend) subtlely contains the word “Vai” repeated in a loop. Between the feature article and stunning ad, there’s so much detail this time around.

What a difference a month can make!

Tales of the Unauthorized – Metallica: Bay Area Thrashers (The Early Years)

Metallica is a band that pushes my nostalgia meter into the red like few others.  Naturally, the relatively recent news of a deluxe box set reissue of their essential Master of Puppets album made me as giddy as a schoolboy.  As I already have a copy of the album, my brother (who needs it) rushed out to pre-order it, and has promised to grant me full access to all that sweet bonus content.  It made me ponder my own Metallica collection, which was lacking a copy of Kill ‘em All.  A large chunk of money later, and I decided to invest in the deluxe box set of that album, which was released a year ago.

While I’m very pleased with this bundle and it’s exploration of Metallica in their rawest incarnation, the most glaring omission from this box set is the complete absence of demo material.  It’s not as if there wasn’t enough of it available, such as their Power Metal demo, and most famously, No Life Till Leather.  This all reminded me of the placeholder CD in my collection that filled the void of teen-aged Metallica.

I was unsure what this was when I purchased this.  Was it a live album?  Was it a demo?  I couldn’t tell from the packaging, but it didn’t look like an official release.  I know that in the early 2000s, I’d see this release floating around in the CD racks at my frequent stomping grounds of HMV and CD Plus.  I got my copy (guessing) around 2010.  I was always dying to know what it was, though if you judge the album by its cover, you can tell it will be a bit of a Frankenstein job.

Why not use a band promo pic of their early days?  The only person that I’m certain is of the proper era is bassist Ron Mcgovney.  Dave Mustaine’s photo may also be faithful to the time frame (within a couple years at least), but James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich are far from it.  I’d date them around 1988 or 1989, possibly slightly later.  When you’re trying to make a quick buck, why bother striving for accuracy?

The back of the sleeve gets a little better.

It’s hard to screw up one photo, yet I’d still argue that they did.  Could they have found a photo where Hetfield’s face isn’t obscured by the microphone?  Again, it’s not the whole band, but the Ron Mcgovney sighting to his left at least guarantees that it’s authentic to the earliest days of Metallica.  Surely the inside of the booklet will give us a better taste of the beginnings of the band, right?

There’s the whole band!  James?  Check.  Lars (with age-appropriate lip fuzz)?  Check.  Two guys that had nothing to do with this recording?  Double check.  It’s clearly a Ride The Lightning promotional photo, as one could guess from the bolts of lightning in the backdrop.  We are treated to two additional Dave Mustaine photos, one of younger Dave, and another from what looks like the Rust In Peace era for no explicable reason.   If we’re going to jump nearly ten years into the future with these pictures, why not include one showing what Ron did in his post-Metallica days while we’re at it?

Photos aside, at least we finally get some technical info on the recording, though I have never heard of anybody listed as part of the production team.  In addition, you get a few sentences to finally give the listener some context about this CD.  We learn “These are the earliest known recordings by Metallica”, but I’ll explain why this is false later.   You would think at this point they would actually use this opportunity to list the musicians that were in the lineup at the time.  If you were to count up all the different people shown in the packaging, you may be lead to believe Metallica was once a six-piece.

Thankfully, any lineup questions are answered when listening to the recording, which begins with the following spoken-word intro:

The tape you are about to hear was recorded by Jimmy Rich Hardell, the CBS producer, in 1981. It was for a new series of heavy rock bands in the West Coast area, and features a little known band called Metallica. This early lineup comprised James Hetfield on rhythm guitar and vocals, Lars Ulrich on drums, Ron Mcgovney on bass, and Dave Mustaine on lead guitar and vocals. These songs later made it onto the now legendary No Life Til Leather demo, and some say precipitated the birth of thrash metal”

Of any bootleg material I’ve got my hands on, it’s this type that I truly see as a massive rip off to the fans.  The fans are being lied to straight-up in this case without having heard a single note.  Once you do get to the songs, it doesn’t take a keen ear to notice something is fishy.  I’ll attempt to fact-check the recording as well as the introduction.

First of all, I’ve never heard of Jimmy Rich Hardell, or Ardell, depending on your interpretation of the speaker’s accent.  The few references I have found to the man on the internet are in connection to this album.  The narrator announces him as if his name should resonate with us, as if he’s a man of gravitas. If this was the raw Metallica live album it claims to be, his contribution to this would likely be the pressing of the “Record” button on the tape recorder as he held it over his head Cusack-style in the back of the club.  What ever happened to the rest of those West Coast band recordings, and furthermore, shouldn’t his name have been listed among the credits in the booklet?

Also, the material was not recorded in 1981.  If anything, their recording of “Hit The Lights” for the Metal Massacre compilation may have taken place that year, but that’s likely all. The band was formed that year, but they didn’t even play their first show until the following year. Metallica’s first gig was on March 14, 1982, if we are to believe the clipping from Lars Ulrich’s personal notes shown in the Garage Inc. booklet.

After the introduction closes with a rather pointless echo effect (perhaps as a reason to further justify Richard Driscoll’s producer title), we can now put aside all hope of this living up to the hype.  You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.  This recording is certainly not as advertised.

This album is essentially the No Life Till Leather demo, but the track order is re-arranged, which helps to explain why there are hard edits between the songs rather than a continuous flow.  Who in their right mind would make hard cuts in between songs in a legitimate live recording?  That would be the best opportunity to capture the rabid nature of the Metallica fanbase.  I’d expect to hear a mess of guitar feedback, the bass being re-tuned to prep for the next song, some drunk guy yelling “Metal Up Your Ass!!!”, a scuffle in the crowd erupting over a patch torn off a denim vest, anything really.

I’m glad to have a copy of these demo songs (it’s the main reason I still own this CD), but unfortunately, the audio quality is rather faded.  I wonder how many generations of tape copying that this had been through to factor into this deteriorated sound. Thankfully, there are sharper versions of the demo on Youtube, and they even re-released it on cassette tape for Record Store Day a few years ago.  You can clearly hear the same vocal inflections and reverb of this unauthorized release when comparing it to the proper demo.

Speaking of reverb, that’s how I got a hint that this CD was not actually a live recording.  I’ve seen enough footage of Metallica to know that they rarely (if ever) used that much processing on Hetfield’s vocals in concert. The fake cheering they use to sell this as live is quite grating to the ears.  Any attempt to integrate it into the mix appropriately is seemingly nonexistent.  The recording captures some great crowd work by James Hetfield, with a hoarsely screamed “Seek… And… Destroy!!” prior to said song, a playful “What’s the matter with you people? You’re not makin’ enough fuckin’ noise!” before “Phantom Lord”, while “We fuckin’ love it!” precedes “Metal Militia”.

That’s all fine and dandy, that is, if you’re willing to overlook that these were sampled from concert footage released on their Cliff ‘Em All videotape.  Just in case you thought that Hetfield sounded like a confident front-man for such a young guy, think again. Dave Mustaine was often the one acting as front-man for much of their earliest gigs as he had more performing experience than anybody, and dealt with less stage-fright.  For a bit more accuracy, they should have considered using some Mustaine lines ripped from early Megadeth shows, though maybe a string of rants about how much Metallica sucks would only confuse fans further.

If I could do it over again, would I have purchased this album?  Probably not, at least not for what I paid (around $10 CAD).  If you have to ask yourself if an album has more or less credibility than Milli Vanilli, that’s not a good sign.  If you see this album somewhere, unless it only costs a buck or two, put it down and walk away.

Rock Star Concert Cards

How can an adult still obsess over 2 ½ by 3 ½ inch pieces of paper?  I can’t quite nail it down.  I view it partially as a link back to my childhood, and partially as a way to learn a thing or two about something.  When it comes to sports cards, collecting them can give you a deeper appreciation about the history of a sports league or sometimes forgotten facts about a favorite team (such as learning that Hockey Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Bernie Parent briefly shared goalie duties for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 70s), and can serve as an amusing reminder of players who may not have lived up to their massive hype (sticking to hockey, I’ll namedrop Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan).

I’m not as interested in non-sports trading cards for the most part, but having a pulse that aligns to the beats of the Bonhams and Blakeys of the world, a set featuring music in some form will often get my attention.  I’m not the sports statistics buff that I used to be, but I seldom turn down the opportunity to learn about musicians, even some I don’t listen to if their story seems interesting enough.  Music cards can occasionally serve as that jumping off point in expanding my knowledge.

I’ve deliberately searched for music-themed trading cards in the past, but my discovery of this set came completely out of the blue. I went to a local sports card store that I only recently learned existed, and had hopes of finding some interesting rookie cards or ones of players from my favourite teams.  After sifting through stacks of cards about to give up hope in finding much worthwhile, this ridiculously retro-looking box caught my eye as I was about to leave.

Twenty dollars may not sound like a honey of a deal, but if you give any consideration to eBay pricing, I could easily have spent at least three times the price had I gone that route.  Would I recommend paying those kind of prices?  Not really, but it’s a neat little purchase if you shrewdly bargain hunt.

It’s nice for the prospective buyer that you at least get to see the top card of the pack, which can assure you that if buying one individually, you will take at least one non-duplicate card home with you.  The design wouldn’t exactly a subject worthy of an arts degree thesis paper.  The cards edges are rounded like those in a deck of playing cards, which I think is their best quality.  While this makes for more difficulty in dinging the corners when shuffling through them, the poorly cut edges take away from the smooth appearance.  But dwelling on such concerns any longer falls under nerdy collector-speak, and that ain’t rock n roll.

For such a small set of 108 cards (minus two set checklist cards), variety is easily one of it’s strengths.  While pretty much everybody included in this set was a household name when it was released (1985), you get a good mix of pop and rock icons who were dominating the MTV screen time.  Want something with a heavier edge?  Get your hands on the Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC cards.  Do you have pop sensibilities?  You’ve got the Thompson Twins and Wham for that.  Something your parents could enjoy? Save them the Huey Lewis and The News and Hall & Oates cards.  And where are the ladies?  Patty Smyth and Pat Benetar await your selection.

The way my luck is, I could not complete an entire set of these cards.  Not only that, I’m missing two of the cards that would arguably be the most popular in the set: Mick Jagger and George Michael.  If you have purchased virtually any box of trading cards that is at least 20 years old, you’ll find that as little surprise at how poorly the cards are randomized in each pack.  Most cards come in the same sequence pack after pack, so you’d likely need to buy two boxes worth to get the whole set, and even that isn’t guaranteed.  This left me with a stack of duplicates that outnumbered the ones I held onto to compile a set.  That tends to be why I often avoid packs and boxes and just target cards I want.

The backs of the cards tell a good story about each musician and band. Learn of the extensive music background of Police guitarist Andy Summers, Loverboy vocalist Mike Reno’s love of cooking and Monty Python, or Steve Pearcy of Ratt’s dashed racing aspirations.  You also get the all the vital information of their birthdate and birthplace, hometown, and their musical instrument.  Pre-Wikipedia, these cards would have made for a great starting point for some kid’s research.  My best discovery on the back of one of these cards?  A reference to Ozzy bassist Bob Daisley’s old band, Chicken Shack, some great heavy British blues I’d like to get my hands on one day.

The backs of band cards differ slightly from those of the individual members.  They include a checklist for all band member cards at the top, and a brief write-up, followed by a discography featuring official albums and singles.  Some cards of more established artists, such as The Rolling Stones, do not list their singles alongside their albums due to a lack of space.  However, a band like Quiet Riot’s card lists all Slade’s their most-popular singles.

Each pack also contains a sticker with some sort of music-themed expression emblazoned across it.  I’m only one sticker shy of having all twelve.  Without digging for the answer, I can only hazard a guess that sticker #12 would read something as banal as “If it’s too loud, you’re too old!”, “Rock ‘till you drop!” or “I survived a Kenny Rogers concert, and all I got was this lousy sticker”.  Since they are much smaller than the main cards, I’ve crammed them all onto the scanner at once for your viewing pleasure.

To finish things off, here are a few of my favourite images in the set.

I went to the store to get hockey cards, and gosh darn-it, this is close enough! A great looking St. Louis Blues shirt on Triumph’s Mike Levine.

I’m glad they chose a border color to match Bill Wyman’s suit. Who said Mick and Keith are the coolest Stones? Looking sharp, Bill!

I bet he’s an absolute riot at parties.

Classic Rudolf guitar face! If I posed for a photo with him, I’d demand he make this face so there’s no mistaking him for someone else.

The prerequisite for Loverboy membership: regrettable neck ornamentation.

The only way to get more American than this photo give him a baseball bat, an apple pie, and some silicone implants.

Huey looks as if he has something else on his mind that’s distracting him.  Sports, perhaps.

Rock Star Concert Cards: Generically named, somewhat generically designed, yet I still kind of like them.  How about you?