Kommissarie Roy – “Kommissarie Roy” (1981)

Well, this is it, the last of the records I bought on our recent trip to Sweden. I still have a handful left from the Iceland portion of the trip, but this is it from Stockholm. Overall the Swedish stuff has been a solid mix of punk, new wave, and experimental; there must be something to all that clean air and the cold winters that forms great musicians.

Kommissaire Roy is pretty straight forward lo-fi rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a bit of punk attitude in the vocals, with the singer not trying too hard, almost in a George Thorogood kind of way. There’s some rockabilly, a helping of Chuck Berry, and a hint of surf rock in some of the riffs. “En Annan Dag” is particularly catchy and gets a little charm from the 1960s style “do-do” female harmonies that pop up from time to time.

Overall a fun record, one you can’t help but tap your fingers and toes to.

Sator Codex – “Wanna Start a Fire?” (1986)

Sator Codex (later just Sator) was formed in Sweden back in 1981, and 1986s Wanna Start a Fire? was their first LP. The Swedish pressing was around 1,500 copies, with a separate UK version released as well. I found this little gem at Stockholm’s Trash Palace last month, and while I wasn’t familiar with Sator Codex I was looking for 1980s Swedish bands, so I took a chance, and it turned out to be a pretty good one.

I’ve seen Sator Codex, and Wanna Start a Fire? in particular, described as goth rock, and I suppose that’s a decent description. The vocal delivery is somewhere between post-punk and goth, though more on the post-punkish side to my ears. Musically, however, it’s definitely more on the goth rock side – it’s got that general post-punk moodiness, but the pace is brisker, particularly the drumming. There’s an overall dark vibe, but it still rocks and the singing doesn’t plumb the depths of despair. If it reminds me of anything musically it might be Death Cult.

Side A ends with “Howling,” an intriguing number that presages the EBM of Legend, and not just because of the song title. While not as electronics-heavy as later EBM bands, Sator Codex’s synths created a layered mood that allow the vocals to get a bit crazy. It’s like being lost in the woods at dusk and hearing the pack of wolves that you know are tracking you, just wanting for you to grow tired… Then you’ve got songs like “You Need Me” that sound like something off Big Country’s The Crossing if you played that record at a slower speed. Though then again, the guitar riff could be Louder Than Love era Soundgarden. It’s all a bit confusing.

Wanna Start a Fire? is perhaps a bit inconsistent at times, but if you’re into the not-quite-so-dark versions of post-punk and goth there’s a lot here to like, and a certain freshness in Sator Codex’s eclectic approach.

Lord Huron – “Lonesome Dreams” (2012)

The other day my buddy Kris, a.k.a. Mr. Jam, sent me a copy of Lord Huron’s debut Lonesome Dreams. Kris and I connected over music in Los Angeles when our employer was bringing us into town for weeks at a time to work on a project. I turned him on to some of my favorites like Gusgus, John Grant, and Ghostigital, while he pointed me towards SOJA and now Lord Huron. My two favorite ways to learn about new bands are live shows and from friends.

While I wasn’t familiar with Lord Huron prior to listening to Lonesome Dreams, their style is one that feels immediately familiar and relatable – to my ears a blend of Paul Simon’s music (just listen to “Time To Run” and tell me I’m wrong…) and vocally like a more romantic version of Bruce Sprintsteen… or maybe Jimmy Buffett in some of his deeper and more reflective moments. (♠) Sonically the palette is full, with the some coming at you like a lazy undulating wave, slowly taking you from peak to trough as its warmth surrounds you. It has a sort of color in my mind, lots of earth browns and deep, ocean-y blues.

Lord Huron is hardly a secret – Lonesome Dream‘s opening track “Ends Of The Earth” has been part of multiple television shows and the band’s sophomore album, Strange Trails, made it to #23 on the Billboard chart (as well as #2 and #1 in the Rock and Folk sub-charts, respectively). The band is a must for those into indie and folk, and frankly for all music fans due to it’s sheer beauty.

(♠) To a lot of people Jimmy Buffett has this sort of goofy reputation, known for party songs like “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger In Paradise,” but he has some incredibly deep and sometimes painfully sad songs. I’m thinking of stuff like “Pirate Looks At 40,” “He Went To Paris,” and “Death Of An Unpopular Poet,” which all reek of brilliance. Even “Margaritaville” is a pretty deep song if you step back and truly pay attention to the lyrics.

Rädsla – “Sanningen För Pojkar” (1981)

I don’t know much about Sweden’s Rädsla. I came across this copy of their 1981 mini-album Sanningen För Pojkar at Stockholm’s Pet Sounds Records. The cover looked kind of punk and it was from the early 1980s so I figured I’d given it a shot. Sometimes that’s just how I roll when I’m overseas and don’t have access to the internet to look stuff up.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Rädsla punk. Their style is more early new wave, before the genre had gone all Flock of Seagulls on us, when it was still a sort of darker pop music that was evolving out of the post-punk gloom. The riffs are catchy and pretty tight, with vocals that range from Clash-esque reggae-punk to contemporary shoegaze. There are early rock influences throughout the band’s sound, from the dub inspired “Dödens Pub” to the surf-ish title track. The bass guitar is prominent, providing a lot of the song structure and giving the tracks a more organic feel than you get from the more drum-heavy rhythm sections I’m used to hearing. The mix is clean and balanced, giving plenty of space to all the individual instruments. I’ve been trying to place the familiar feeling I get when listening to Sanningen För Pojkar, and it finally hit me during the last song – Rädsla reminds me a lot of early Radio Birdman.

There was a lot of great music being played in Sweden during the 1980s, most of it little known outside of Scandinavia. This stuff is worth exploring – it’s a bit of work, but often rewards the effort.

“Masters of Metal” Compilation (1984)

If you’re a burgeoning codger like me, you remember this decade we had back in the day referred to as “The Eighties”. Women wore lots of make-up and used lots of hairspray, and they wore outfits that involved massive shoulder pads and often ankle boots with heels. Dudes used colorful bandanas as fashion accessories, doing so unironically, and the one-earring look seemed highly rebellious and edgy. (♥) MTV was changing the game, and in the early part of the decade we were still buying our music on vinyl and cassette because CDs were still trying to get a piece of the market and Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet. If you wanted music you could either hear it on the radio, see it on MTV, or had to go down to the store and actually buy it.

Of course, buying music was also a challenge when you were a young teen living out in the sticks a 20 minute drive from anything in a place that didn’t even have a bus stop you could reasonably walk to. You had to wait for those opportunities when you could tag along with your mom or dad when they went into town or, very rarely, to the mall. Those were not to be passed up, especially if you wanted to buy something on your own, and music wasn’t one of those things you could trust your parents to get for you. Given the cover art, I don’t think my mom would have bought me a Dio or Mötley Crüe album even if I’d begged; shoot, I was lucky I once convinced her to pick me up a copy of Judas Priest’s Defenders of the Faith – “Judas Priest? What the hell kind of name is that?” At that point there were still albums I had to sort of hide to make sure they didn’t meet an untimely demise at the hands of a room-cleaning mom.

Which leads me to how I came to own a copy of Masters of Metal when it came out in 1984. It was one of those tag-along trips with one or both of my parents and I’m pretty sure we ended up at a Pay ‘n’ Save store. If you grew up in the Seattle area, you know what I’m talking about. If not, think of a huge drugstore version of K-Mart. They carried a bit of everything, so at the very least you had stuff to look at while your parents shopped. And what they also had in a locked rotating case up by the cash register were cassettes. Cassettes! This was an unexpected opportunity! Unfortunately they were all locked away behind pexiglass, so while I could read the artist and album names there was no way to check out the cover art or see the names of the songs. And since you had to have a manager come over and unlock it for you, it’s not like you could just stand around and look at one after another while he stood around and waited, especially if you were just some punk kid. So I convinced my parents to let me by Masters of Metal based entirely on the title. It was probably the first time I did a musical roll of the dice.

Masters of Metal was put out by K-Tel, a brand that, if you’re of a certain age, you remember for putting out all kinds of music compilations, as well as all kinds of other “As Seen on TV” type products back before “As Seen on TV” was an actual thing and brand of it’s own. You can check out some of their old commercials on YouTube, including for some of their later metal comps – and they’re absolutely stunning, so perfectly 80s that it hurts. But anyway… Masters of Metal‘s 13 tracks were a combination of bands I knew (Van Halen, KISS, Twisted Sister) plus a bunch more I hadn’t heard of (Y&T, Zebra, Krokus), and it became sort of my primer into the world of heavy metal, expanding my horizons with classic bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. (♠) Of course, it lead me down a couple of dead ends too, for example making me think that the post-Ozzy / post-Ronnie James Dio “Trashed” was in some way representative of Black Sabbath’s style. But hey, I still like “Trashed” even if Born Again is a pretty widely despised album. Regardless, this was the closest thing to a heavy metal encyclopedia that I could put my hands on.

I’ve been looking for a copy of this for the last two or three years, always checking the rock and metal compilations sections no matter where I find myself. And every time I got shut out. So the other night after a couple of cocktails I said “screw it”, found a nice copy on Discogs and ordered it. Turns out it came to me from some guy just down the highway in Federal Way, Washington. I wonder if he bought this copy at a Pay ‘n’ Save too…

Master of Metal has an interesting roster of bands, and possibly an even more interesting selection of songs. The tracks were all contemporary, with 10 dating from 1983 and the others (♣) from either 1981 or 1982. Black Sabbath was hardly relevant at the time but their inclusion can be excused as giving the comp some sort of old-school cred, even though it did come off a much-maligned album. KISS had arguably been in decline during the period until they took off the make-up and scored a big hit with “Lick It Up,” so that one makes some sense. Twisted Sister was still on the verge of their mega-breakout album Stay Hungry, so I can’t fault the selection of “You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Y&T, Zebra, and Rainbow were bands I’d never even heard of up to that point, which may say more about my tenuous connection to the early 80s metal scene as it does about those individual bands. Which brings us to the last song on side B, Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Streets.” First of all, I never understood how anyone ever thought, even for one second, that Van Halen was metal. I get it – lots of people did. But outside of the intricate technical guitar work of Eddie Van Halen there is nothing even remotely metal about the band, and that goes double for their sound on “Dancing in the Street,” a cover of the 1964 Martha and the Vandellas hit that had already been covered previous by the The Mammas & The Pappas, The Kinks, the Grateful Dead, and Black Oak Arkansas (and was covered again in 1985 by David Bowie & Mick Jagger). Sorry kids, but there’s nothing metal about any of that.

Did I mention, however, how absolutely awesome this comp is? It was so pivotal in my life that I quite literally wore out my copy I played it so many times. To this day I can’t hear “Run to the Hills” or “Who’s Behind the Door?” during an all-80s weekend on the radio without belting out my best falsetto. I love this record. I used to trace the cover art into my school notebooks. Lasers. Bad-ass font (before I even knew what a font was). Killer metal. Songs about drunk driving, women who treat you like crap, the massacre of Native Americans at the hands of the US cavalry… uh… huh… not sure I actually recognized those themes at the time… a bit darker lyrically than I remember… But that’s metal, baby. Throw the horns!

There are so many high points on Masters of Metal. The guitar riffs on “Mean Streak” and “Breaking the Chains”; the vocal power of “Rainbow in the Dark”; the folk-ish “Who’s Behind the Door?”; the synths on “Street of Dreams”. Look, I get it, this isn’t what metal sounds like today. But it IS what metal sounded like in 1984 or so. The first wave of thrash was only just starting to bubble under the surface, but that was considered extreme at the time and not getting any mainstream attention. And I could buy it at the local Pay ‘n’ Save, which was about the best I could do in 1984, until I finally got to high school and there was a shopping mall across the street that had not one but two actual music stores in it.

Thank you, whoever at K-Tel who put this thing together. It meant something to a lot of us.

(♥) The decade came to an end with both genders primarily wearing flannel shirts and hiking boots.

(♠) K-Tel put out a Canadian version of Masters of Metal the same year and with the same cover, though with a few changes to the roster. Triumph and Van Halen were replaced by Mötley Crüe and the Canadian metal band Helix, while Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” was ditched in favor of “The Trooper”. They released similar metal comps in the UK and New Zealand in 1986.

(♣) The other three were Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (1981), Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” (1982), and Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Street” (1982).