Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What Uli Jon Roth Means To Me

When I was 12, a friend of mine from school let me borrow Scorpions' Tokyo Tapes on cassette. It was my first time having heard anything by or about the band, and I was blown away by it. It amazed me that songs like Pictured Life, Backstage Queen, and We'll Burn the Sky weren't played on the radio; they sounded to me easily better than the Zeppelin and Boston being forcefed to the music listeners of that time. I grudgingly gave the tape back, then had to look hard to find the album here in the States, finally settling on a cut out vinyl at a second hand shop.

As impressed as I was by Klaus Meine's voice, it was the lead guitar playing of Ulrich Roth that especially captivated me. The song We'll Burn the Sky became an anthem to me, to this day I rank it with Stargazer, Eyes of the World, Child in Time, and War Pigs as one of the best tracks in Rock/Metal history. Uli's solo is absolutely enthralling: in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, weeping and strident. Over the years I've owned all of the Scorpions' 70's albums, and a few of the early 80's. The albums Virgin Killer and Tokyo Tapes have remained my favorites; I have actually worn out vinyls and cassettes of those albums, I loved them so much. Taken By Force's best tracks have remained on my short list of favorites as well.

I recall buying Scorpions' Lovedrive album and being shocked when I didn't see Ulrich Roth in the credits. I mean it was nice to see Michael Schenker back in Scorpions, but I had to investigate at length (keep in mind, no Internet back then) to discover that Uli had left Scorpions to form his own band, Electric Sun. I couldn't believe it. It would be an understatement for me to say that I was disappointed with the output of  Electric Sun. Though the guitar playing was spectacular, and the songs often quite good, Uli's singing was tolerable at best and the Jimi Hendrix influence seemed at times excessive. It further disillusioned me when a young upstart named Yngwie Malmsteen took what Uli was doing lead guitar wise and made it more popular by doing what I felt Uli should have done; that is, paying talented singers to handle the vocal lines and transferring the Hendrix influence from the music to where it belonged: performance. Uli's music faded into the backround for me from 1980 on.

In 2007 I was immersed in the writing and recording for Lyraka Volume 1 when Uli's latter era albums, "Transcendental Sky Guitar "and "Metamorphosis", were reccomended to me by Joe Stump. I was delighted to hear how the neo-Baroque rush of the '80's had influenced Uli's technique. I also noted that although Uli was now fully able to shred with the best, he stood apart from the average Shrapnel robot by making his solos memorable and always fitting within the context of the song. That is, in addition to Uli's enhanced technical ability, Uli's solos were just as effecting, apt, and tuneful as ever. I bought his album "Under a Dark Sky" shortly after its release, and was completely awed. Here was Uli doing something that wasn't particularly far from my own work. Only he did it first. Even more pertinent: Uli had become something that I was aiming for from the beginning: an authentic Composer-Guitarist. I saw that I had not only a precedent, but someone who was spanking me from many musical perspectives (not "just" guitar playing).

Before my rediscovery of Uli Jon Roth, I was a Richard Wagner fanatic, completely immersed in his last four operas and their scores. With Uli's music I learned just how far a major heavy rock guitarist had gone in terms of composition and orchestration in the genre. I could see, through his music, that heavy rock had truly made significant inroads into erudition; this shattered my previously held impression that the genre had musically gone the way of the long-cliched, compositionally deficient, ultimately unmusical "neo-classical" shred trend. That there was great music still being made, the kind that actually transcended the genre in terms of musicality, vision, and scope.

During the ensuing months I became obsessed with learning more about music and orchestration, studying harder and giving everything I could to the composition of Lyraka Volume 1. This was in profound part because of the delimiting influence Uli's work had inspired within. I had my first listen to Prologue to the Symphonic Legends, and once again felt Uli beat me to the punch, as the album had elements of what I was aiming for in Lyraka. I even obsessed over the singer, Tommy Heart, so much that I asked him to sing my music. The influence of Uli's work was once again a great motivator for me. After the release of Lyraka Volume 1,  I went and relistened to Earthquake and the rest of the Electric Sun material and was floored. I saw how I had let the poor vocals influence my original listening to these brilliant, landmark albums. I was massively inspired by Uli again.

I then realized one more thing.

Uli left Scorpions because he had a vision. He left behind a mountain of cash in doing so, and was reviled over and over for that decision. Yet, he harbored no ill will toward anyone, in fact he was always a class act in the face of negative criticism. He did his own thing, and he has kept on doing his own thing for over 32 years now. That is the revelation which affected me most deeply. Here was a man that I could truly admire, a man who didn't listen to anyone, he only listened to his heart; he knew that his happiness lie in his heart music. And the message he's been giving all these years has been a profoundly positive one, full of respect for human life and a message of universal brotherhood. His magnum opus, Under a Dark Sky, is all about the sanctity of life, looking inside yourself and clearing out the charred flowers of despair and bitterness. "Stop killing" is the powerful mantra encapsulating the album; he forthrightly denounces the entire culture of death trend in favor of making better what we have for future generations. This message of positivity is a refreshing blast of sunshine, especially when viewed in light of the seemingly constant dismality and comic book morbidity of most modern heavy rock/metal bands.

Uli Jon Roth means, for me, independence, astounding dedication to personal vision, innovation, guitar mastery and most importantly, perseverance in the message to Love.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Under A Dark Sky: An Appreciation

Uli Jon Roth is, along with Ritchie Blackmore, the progenitor and pioneer of the movement to fuse Art Music with Heavy Metal/Hard Rock. Though Blackmore was first in incorporating exotic scales and arpeggios in heavy rock in the 70s, Uli took it further than anyone else in the genre: witness the early Scorpions and Electric Sun albums for evidence. The impact of his music is monumental, the post-Randy Rhoads "neo-classical" scene is inconceivable without him. One of the biggest differences between Uli and the neo-classical movement that proceded from his influence is the fact that he has been more serious in integrating the distorted electric guitar into an orchestral context, as opposed to writing lead guitar fixated "concertos" with silly, unnecessary orchestration. Uli took upon himself the role of both composer and guitarist, with no apparent self-consciousness. With "Under a Dark Sky", Roth has reached a peak in his compositional powers; no other artist or release in the genre of heavy rock guitar music has so effectively incorporated distorted lead guitar into an art music context, specifically in terms of compositional intricacy, dynamic range, and thematic depth.

On a more personal note: when I first bought this cd I was forewarned to prepare myself for a listen that would be almost entirely non-Metallic. Once I got past that I was floored by how advanced that Uli's writing has become. He really is a composer that happens to play guitar instead of, say, a lead guitar player struggling to blow up a basic heavy metal structure for an orchestra. He has perfected the place of the guitar among the other orchestral instruments, unlike others who just rewrote the cello cadenza parts for electric guitar. I should also mention that from a purely lead guitar playing perspective, Uli's personal tone, attack, and sense of dynamics has become at least equal to the best living Rock players, such as Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore. Under a Dark Sky takes as its base the pioneering progressive rock of the 70s and, particularly with the lead guitar in Uli's hands, ups the expressive content of the compositions to a heretofore unrealized degree. The guitar becomes like a separate voice, a prime protagonist in an apocalyptic opera.

I must champion also the lyrical content of "Under a Dark Sky". The cd's Weltanschauung operates under a similar air as Beethoven's 9th Symphony, i.e. matters are becoming urgent, hate is killing the world, only love can save humanity. The heavy metal kids might reject such a message in that amusing, willfully cantankerous way of theirs; but, the reality is that humanity remains just as primitive as it ever was, if not moreso with the onset of both the information superhighway and weapons of mass destruction. People cheer murder, worship money, and continue to waste their imaginations on ways to look down on and/or kill each other. Only a devastatingly powerful movement to love can save the world, the answer is inside. Such a sentiment is easy to sympathize with by the mature minded.

It's impossible to overstate the painstaking attention to detail evident throughout this album. In interviews preceeding the release of "Under a Dark Sky", Uli had mentioned how hard it was for him to mix down all the different layers he'd recorded into a single stereo track, and there's no question that this album will be more effectively represented with a 5.1 remix. On the other hand, the limited stereo mix makes the album especially compelling, as it takes many listens to fully absorb the proceedings. The more one listens, the more gets one out of the CD, which to me one of the definitions of great art.

I realize that a lot of people won't like the arty nature of this cd: the choirs, the length, the idiosyncratic song structures. But that's nothing new, as  the great majority of folks don't like to have to focus when they listen to a Rock/Metal cd, preferring to listen to the same song structures ad infinitum. For them, music is mostly entertainment, which of course is fine, it's there for everyone to suit to their own needs. But, as both a musician and composer, I can't help but declare my profound admiration for what Uli has accomplished here. I think this is by far the most musically interesting Rock guitar release so far in the 21st century, with a direly important message.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pete Townshend is Endlessly Wired...Into Great Songwriting

There's a lot on this album that could barely even be construed as Rock, much less hard rock. And the first couple of listens turned me off, as both Daltrey and Townshend are very much showing their age vocally. On the third listen, some of it started clicking in a big way, and on the fifth I "got" it, and found myself inspired.

This album isn't meant to be stacked next to the monster classics like Who's Next or Tommy, though there are elements of those albums on here. Taken on its own terms, Endless Wire is easily the best Who album since Who Are You, and there are actually songs that stand up with their best: "Trilby's Piano", "Tea and Theater", and the Tom Waits influenced "Into the Ether" being the most obvious. They're the kind of songs that help one understand exactly why Pete Townshend is widely considered one of the top five songwriters in Rock history.

The mini-opera "Wire and Glass" is often interesting, and makes the album even more dynamically engaging. But it's the first, Who By Numbers-esque half I most admire, and that half has quite a dynamic range on its own. Compositional subtleties abound on this album, and as usual the lyrics range from clever to spectacularly insightful and expressive. As a Rock/Metal composer myself, I learned a few important things from both the arrangements and instrumentation. There was so much care taken with this, and yet songs like "Mike Post Theme" and the (unfortunately short) "We've Got a Hit" showcase that the band can belt it with plenty of sincerity and relative simplicity when it's called for.

My original, four out of five star rating reflects the past to an extent, and I regret it already. In light of the mostly reheated garbage that passes for "Rock music" today, this is a 5 star release.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Your Music Sucks Until You're Dead

The attitude that "the last important music was written by dead people", or past a certain time limit, should have been obsolete decades ago. It astounds me when I hear that assessment today, it's musical bigotry of the most ignorant kind. Hopefully the day is coming when non-musicians will come out of the Dark Ages and accept Rock/Metal music as they would any other genre. A dead giveaway of the musically uneducated person is his or her derogatization of the term "popular music", especially when used as an umbrella to lump in Lady Ga Ga with Uli Jon Roth. Though there are many Rock/Metal songs that stay within the timeless I-IV-V, "popular" framework, there are nearly as many exceptions to this adherence as there are examples.

It's humorous to witness how the snobbily-inclined fasten on the more popular side of music genres, as though any individual bids to popularity prove the invalidity of that whole genre. I've had to deal with people, including some "classically trained" professionals, who had an inordinately hard time listening to Rock/Metal music, saying things like "why does the guitar have to sound like that" and "what's that obnoxious sound?". If they'd let themselves have any perspective, they'd realize that people were saying the similar things about Beethoven's Eroica (too noisy, too epic), and later whining to the high heavens about the introduction of the Wagner tuba (such an unpleasant roar! oh dear!).
After having pored over biographies and music of the great composers, I learned something that completely affirmed my regard toward Rock/Metal music. Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart...they all wrote with money and popularity on their mind, most of the time. The masses, whom go out of their way not to think too much, try to pretend a movie like "Amadeus" or "Immortal Beloved" is fact and not fiction. Take for instance the Hollywood faerie tale that Mozart suffered from poverty because his music was "too advanced", or "revolutionary". What a joke. Mozart lived it up; his letters and myriad testimonies from contemporaries bear that out. He had a very bad habit of getting a big commission, blowing it on high living, then borrowing and blowing it all over again. There's also the myth that he was "woefully underrated in his time". Mozart was recognized as a spectacular composer all across Europe, the only amount of "obscurity" he might have experienced was because Joseph Haydn came before him, and invented the templates that Mozart wrote from.

And Mozart, just like the rest of the greats, mostly wrote music because he was either getting or expecting to be paid. True, there are many compositions that he and the other "classic composers" wrote just out of love for the art; but it's notable that most of the stuff he is remembered for, (not just the catchy stuff), music like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the Requiem were paid for in advance. The big knock against popular music, the idea that money and fashion rule over substance, looks pretty silly when viewed in this light. Not to pick on Mozart, a terrific composer of course, but he wrote within the Sonata framework, which is a very set style that was all the rage in that century, (and still knocking them dead well into the 19th century). It was the style that paid.

Tell me the Allegros of the Sonata Facile, Rondo Alla Turca, Eine Kleine, etc. aren't Poppy. There are dozens of other examples.

To quote Jon Lord, as fine a musician as I can think of, "our (Deep Purple's) music is just as legitimate as Beethoven's". And for its place and time, it most certainly is.