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Record Reviews (with Pen!) this week

Welcome, comrades, to another edition of Record Reviews (with Pen!), a semi-regular column in which I review whatever the hell I’ve been listening to semi-recently.

Fly on the Wall, or: (indiscernible Brian Johnson squealing)

“Flyyyyyuggggggggggghhhh… ” – Brian Johnson

The year is 1985, AC/DC is between worlds, the Young brothers having excised most of their inner circle after 1983’s Flick of the Switch, a record ostensibly a return to the ‘stripped-down’, dry (literally, production-wise) sound they wielded in the band’s early days, a record which didn’t live up to the public’s expectations. A good record, but not, sans Mutt Lange, what they’d achieved on the three prior, the band’s three best. Enter Fly on the Wall. We all lean anticipatorily in over the spinning black circle, ready, so ready, and are immediately greeted by buzzing riff and Brian Johnson, sounding utterly wrecked, squeal-grunting, “Flyyyyuugghhhhgghhhhh… ” This is Fly on the Wall.

I love this record. It’s not AC/DC’s best; it might in terms lyrical be one of their most offensive, some of the riffs and songs are uninspired, and Brian Johnson is so incomprehensible that, when I looked up ‘Fly on the Wall lyrics’ through Google, I found a Miley Cyrus song of the same name and for a moment thought it was AC/DC song’s lyrics I was looking at, because he may as well be speaking Swedish on the title track, something I find unbelievably funny.

The title track continues Brian Johnson’s lyrical exploration of some sort of character he began cobbling together during For Those About to Rock, a rock ‘n’ roll delinquent superhero grunt, a ‘badboy’ champion whose entire life is working, drinking, fighting, lusting, and getting played by an endless number of ‘evil women’. This song’s lyrics are inconsequential; what’s funny is how Brian Johnson shrieks them incomprehensibly out. It legitimately sounds like another language, and the man is struggling, his voice is way out past the edge of disaster, like he’s horking up esophagus, somehow more esophagus, every line, but it’s somehow, somehow hanging on, and drenched in reverb. It’s almost better this way, a purer distillation of AC/DC’s sound. Just a guy shrieking and a bunch of cutting open-chord riffs over a steady beat.

Shake Your Foundations covers, more or less, the same lyrical ground minus the fighting. Big riff you can’t help but love, Brian Johnson marginally, marginally more comprehensible in this one. The song is ostensibly about getting it on – shaking one’s foundations as it were – but it’s so vaguely treated it might as well be a snowglobe. Notably, the drumming on Fly on the Wall was performed by Simon Wright, replacing AC/DC longtimer Phil Rudd, and it possesses a looser and cocurrently more technical feel; I love that chunky high-string riff opening the song up over the wandering snare hits which slowly shift into the beat. Sounds great. The band try a similar thing on First Blood, a song presumably about getting in on while one’s lover is having her period. ‘I want first blood,’ Brian Johnson shrieks, ‘thirst blood. Bad dog. First blood.’ A profound chorus if there ever was one. First Blood also contains Brian Johnson’s greatest lyrical contribution to the world of music, namely the second verse: ‘Some like it hot,’ Brian shrieks, ‘some like it quite not so hot’, after which he, uttering this ridiculous line, audibly giggles.

Johnson’s exquisitely taxed voice fares better on Danger, where he can consistenly sing in his excellent, bluesy lower register. If you’ve listened to any of the proceeding songs, you’re primed for this one’s content, likewise for single ‘Sink the Pink’, which is about sinking the pink, iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiif you know what I mean. 😉

Lyrically, the album is dumb, but it doesn’t really run into Uh-Oh territory until we hit Playing With Girls (introduced by Johnson’s absurd ‘OooOOoOooOOoOOOOO’), which is a song best left forgotten. Brian Johnson-helmed AC/DC perpetrated several very questionable songs, lyrically-speaking, this one a chief example. Brian expresses, ‘Highball women that are hot to touch/Legs do the talking, spelling out, “lust”/See the sugar daddies with a sweet tooth and a smile/See what’s hanging off him like an orphaned child/That’s where you’ll find me, standing proud’ – not a great start, but it gets worse: ‘Bring on the tall girls, but I’ll take ’em small/I want ’em all up front, I like ’em all/I want to see you strut your stuff/Lose your social grace/You play your cards right and you’ll deal yourself an ace/That’s where you’ll find me standing proud’. ‘Over the barrel/bottoms up’ is how Brian desires them. ‘Playin’ with girls/Playin’ with girls/Playin’ with girls/Playin’ with girls/Like a long girl, short girl/Nothin’ like a bad girl/Lover girl/Just playin’ with a girl/I want all the women in the world’.

I’m perfectly willing to accept this is just a song from some character Brian has invented’s perspective, and, of course, girl often = woman, and, yes, sometimes a person just gets mad horny and want all the women in the world, but the song is so objectifying, so demeaning. Most women, in Brian’s world, are women who possess autonomy enough to challenge his protagonist to make a move, but in this song even that mere allowance isn’t the case, and it ends up a disgusting mess.

If you’re an AC/DC fan and haven’t listened to this one yet, you’ll it. It’s exquisitely dumb, the listener can barely understand Brian Johnson – but this is also the last record where he possessed what sounds like an ounce of actual power in his rapidly-shredding high-register – Angus’ solos sound tossed off, but riffs are surprisingly good, and the comforting no-think atmosphere is there, the antithesis of the cerebral. This is the music of the body, of being present, being in the body. This is rock’n’roll. I actually think Fly on the Wall is better than predecessor Flick of the Switch; it’s dumber, the production is funnier, the band sort of sounds half off the rails; it’s just more entertaining an album. I can’t remember the three tracks preceeding awesome closer Send for the Man, one of AC/DC’s best deep cuts, opening yet again with Brian Johnson grunting like an elderly goblin under powerchords, his ripping voice utterly beyond understanding throughout, that powerful riff and steady beat combo yet again winning the game, and inclusive of a rare arpeggiated verse. ‘Need a shot of rhythm and lovin’/You make a black sheep a ram/This ain’t no gun in my pocket/I got the goods in my hand’. At this point we’re all too worn down by the repetition of lyrical themes; we throw our hands up and laugh.

Blaqk Audio: The Only Things We Love

I’ve been listening to Blaqk Audio since around the time I rediscovered, in my late 20s, AFI, who became the soundtrack to my desperate, fraught relationship throughout 2018 and 2019, hours and hours of time, late nights and mid-afternoons spent painting to The Blood Album and Material, ripping my feelings in red and black across white canvas under Davey Havok’s bombastic, earnest lamenting.

The Only Things We Love is Blaqk Audio, Davey Havok and Jade Puget of AFI’s second most-recent release, a 2019 baby, a product of a world before all that stuff happened. Opener Infinite Skin’s shimmering, slicing riff and descending chord structure under Havok’s greatly-improved-in-recent-years vocals, the man clearly having done work to improve his range and technique, changing how he sings, to allow himself to keep singing after years of extremely untrained screaming foisted upon him several years of tenuous live performances, all screaming heavily compromised until just the last few years where he seems to’ve happily regained his capacity – gives us a lurid, bouncing, catchy nighttime tour alongside a love-murderer before second-up, single The Viles, invites listeners into an ironically drawn portrait of goth love shouted over squared-shape synth sounds.

Anyone who isn’t Havok himself couldn’t presume to tell you what strutting, a good look for the band, Unstained is about, nor Muscle and Matter; the former is catchy, unrushed, the latter gets by on production value and songcraft before spilling into Caroline in the Clip, one of the record’s best songs and the advent of the album’s strong middle, its wandering, murky, nighttime verse is one of the Only Things We Love’s best moments, and always reminds Pen! of the woman of the same name he once made out with in a Berlin park in Summer 2019. What happened to you, Caroline? You took me to a really good artisanal porridge place. Subsequent Maker, a fairly safe, if catchy melody recalling complications when a lover desires his or her beloved to give up what attracted he or she in the first place, moves us to Summer’s Out of Sight, reflections about a Summertime one-night affair, before nervy, sexy Ok, Alex, one the record’s best, Davey Havok employing to endless success a variety of voices over Puget’s pounding drums and persistent – they’re after something – synths kicks us into the album’s endgame four.

Only Things We Love isn’t necessarily a darker record than its predecessor, though all the reviews seem to say so. Only Things doesn’t have anything joyous like Ceremonial (Burst into Stars) going on, but Material was a dark, lonely record; Only Things feels more congruent tonally and structurally, and that allows Havok and Puget to explore within the realm they’ve described; all the songs sound, more or less, like they belong together, and I like that. Songs like melancholy Dark Arcades, driven by that sad, innocent synth melody, demonstrate real songwriting growth, and the subtley catchy melodies included in Dark Times at the Berlin Wall and Matrimony and Dust indicate craft and confidence. This is a good synthpop record. Don’t miss it.

AFI’s Bodies, or: a little levity, chaps.

Pen! discovered AFI fairly late on, relatively-speaking, at twenty-eight ripe years. Rediscovered, rather. I’d recalled the Girl’s Not Grey music video, seeing it fifteen years prior (all the members in the band are now close to fifty; you’d be forgiven for not noticing) on Much Music, and thanks to the internet’s magic was able to track down the song and band, and took fandom from there, AFI for a time becoming an integral part of 2019s angst-ridden soundtrack, heartbreak and Havok-crooning, the combo.

2017s ‘AFI’ aka The Blood Album, is undeniably, and maybe surprisingly for a group nearly thirty years in the game, one of the band’s best, guitar-heavy, variegated-yet-cohesive, Havok relatable in his angst, his sadness – how many times I’ve drowned in Feed From the Floor’s stunning, climbing bridge, or shed a tear, thinking about my ex, to She Speaks the Language? Oh, Pen!, you lovesick fool – the production stellar, a big step up from transitional Burials. Subsequent EP The Missing Man indicated as much about upcoming LP direction as any EP can. Bodies arrives, delayed due to the pandemic, in 2021.

Bodies is not my favourite AFI record, but it isn’t their worst; it’s a grower, so give it time, give it time, give it a few listens. Twisted Tongues’ furious drumwork – Adam Carrol and bassist Hunter Burgan are largely in the spotlight throughout; Puget’s guitar playing is very present, but greatly de-emphasized relative The Blood Album – and expansive, cinematic, nighttime ocean character will eventually lodge in your brain, and you’ll like it. Just give it a few spins. Same goes for Billy Corgan co-penned Dulceria, which sounds nothing like AFI, but the band own it, and Havok’s soaring chorus drives plunges that emotional stake home every time, a lovelorn stake to our aching hearts.
More conventionally AFI tracks like nervy Far Too Near, my personal favourite off the record, scratch that dramatically emotional itch we all want AFI to scratch, Puget contributing a great little lick, Burgan a driving bassline.

Where Bodies, in my opinion, stumbles is the several short, more majorish-key tunes included; On Your Back, Begging For Trouble, No Eyes; I can’t properly recall the latter two except that they remind me so, so much of On Your Back. All three are reminiscent of some of the material included on The Missing Man EP, which I was willing to accept then, but included on this album, surrounded as they are by material I think is better, I can’t help skipping them. Maybe you’ll disagree. I don’t think the songs are bad, necessarily, they just don’t stand out to me.

Ranting Escape From Los Angeles and Looking Tragic, Havok’s social commentary set to goofy synths and cutting guitars respectfully, are much, much better; I love it when the man gets strutty as on the latter track, when he’s having fun. It’s a good look, Davey. Indeed, everyone is looking tragic, everyone is looking for a new panic. Proffered such vague sentiments whom among us could disagree? Just teasing.

Every AFI record is different, an expression, cliche as it is to say, of where the band is presently at, and I don’t dislike this current look, there’s a lot of good music here, some of which I think is among the band’s best, but I do think some of these songs undeniably sound a little tossed-off, but, then, maybe that’s what the band was going for? I couldn’t say. Regardless, if you like AFI, you’ll like this record. I do; I listen to it regularly, and much as I’ve ragged on parts of it, I like those parts I’ve ragged on. It’s still dramatic, still emotional, but not as suffocatingly sad and angsty as the band’s previous LP, which, great as it is, and probably my favourite of theirs, it’s just too much, too sad, and I have too many emotional associations with it to listen regularly to it, where Bodies is a little lighter, it’s cheekier. It’s not quite so heavy, and that’s a good look.