Mighty Sphincter – “The New Manson Family” (1986)

Mighty Sphincter may rank as the only band that can honestly point to the old Dark Shadows TV series as a major influence. Their album, The New Manson Family, wallows chest deep in an ecstasy of bile, sputum, severed penises, skulls with glowing eyes, hideous mutants under the bed, and way-gone nightmares that make a bad PCP trip look like a walk on the beach.
Spin, May 1987

Now, if that doesn’t make you turn away in horror, it’ll make you raise one eyebrow like The Rock. Do you smell what Mighty Sphincter are cooking? I’m not sure what it would smell like, but I’m about to find out.

It should come as no surprise that The New Manson Family was produced by fellow Arizona native and shock rocker Alice Cooper. Mighty Sphincter’s imagery, while distinct from Cooper’s, carries with it a similar gothic edge, and with song titles like “Drop Dead”, “Blood Banquet”, and “Centerfold Murders”, well, I think you get the picture.

I really wish that you would slip into your grave,
Drop dead.
— “Drop Dead”

Straddling the line between goth and deathrock, the Sphincter keeps it a bit gloomy but in a very electric way – there’s an edge to what they’re doing. “Rich and Dead” holds down an insistent, throbbing rhythm to set a mood, then adding frenetic guitar when the vocals kick in to make the entire thing unsettling. “Genuine Argyle” feels doom-isn until you listen closely to the lyrics and realize they’re about the raw power of “genuine argyle socks”, which might be the least doomy thing someone could sing about. They also perform a suitably edgy cover of “Helter Skelter” (♠), which makes sense given the album’s title. Sonically enjoyable, but I simply can’t look past the fact that lyrically it more or less mocks the listener. Of course, this isn’t anything unique to Mighty Sphincter, but it’s so over the top you can’t ignore it.

Actually Mighty Sphincter was started to make fun of the entire punk scene in general, I mean if you look at the lyrics of every song on the first two albums, it’s just that apparent.
— Might Sphincter guitarist Doug Clark

Mighty Sphincter has a very unfortunate tie to Seattle. The band’s bassist on The New Manson Family, Joe Albanese, was one of the five people murdered in the infamous Café Racer shooting back in 2012. It’s still surreal to me to know that a place I’d been to before, a cool cafe/bar/creative space, became the scene of such a tragic event, even more so now that I’m holding this record and looking at Joe lifting himself out of a coffin on the back cover. RIP Joe and to all the other victims, their families, and friends.

(♠) For whatever reason I always prefer covers of “Helter Skelter” to the original. Every single one I’ve ever heard.

“Death Mix (The Best of Paul Winley Records)” Compilation (2001)

The 2XLP, 11-song collection of early hip hop follows nicely on the heels of my first listens to Kurtis Blow recently. The package itself doesn’t provide much info, but the tracks all appear to date from the late 1970s to early 1980s, with emphasis on Africa Bambaata, Ann Winley, and Tanya “Sweet Tee” Winley. These jams from the embryonic days of the genre are infused with healthy doses of disco and funk, the MCs flowing with deliberate cadences.

The sound quality on the two live Bambaata tracks is, frankly, marginal at best. The remaining nine tracks hold up pretty well, cleaned up though still a bit rough in spots. But that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of Death Mix one bit – if this doesn’t get your body moving, nothing will.

Kurtis Blow – “Kurtis Blow” (1980) and “Tough” (1982)

I was fortunate enough to be of the right age to have been able to appreciate hip hop when hip hop first went mainstream, not too set in my rock ways to simply dismiss it out of hand like so many did. In my mind, at least, that mainstream moment was when Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” video blew up on MTV in 1986. That’s not to imply there was no hip hop before that; but that feels like the moment it burst into popular consciousness. And to be fair, I was only a casual hip hop fan. I know if I tried to overstate my hip hop bona fides my friends (and blog readers) Brent and Norberto would be quick to call me out in a series of ridiculing (and well-deserved) texts.

The rap that I was into was created from that point forward – I never went back in time, and that’s the reason I’d never heard Kurtis Blow. Thankfully someone got rid of some of Kurtis’ records over at Easy Street and they ended up in my pile, because this is fantastic stuff. I first got a taste of this earliest hip hop from some mix tapes Calvin Johnson (of K Records fame) re-released recently. I was ignorant to the disco-funk fusion that comprised the backing tracks of the early scene, adding a dose of soul to the oft-maligned as soulless disco beats. And now that I have a taste, I know I need more.

Kurtis Blow (1980)

Kurtis Blow is credited with having the first-ever hip hop gold single, “The Breaks”, which appears on his self-titled debut. And what a debut. The A side is arguably one of the best sides of music every committed to wax, three tracks that flow seamlessly as if they were being played as part of a DJ set. The jams are jamming, and Kurtis’ flow is impeccable. There’s a lot of the self-hype that came to define so much of the genre, but done in a way that’s witty and clever instead of the in-your-face and threatening style that later became the norm.

Got the knack of Kojak, better than Baretta,
Casanova Brown cuz I’m down,
A get down, stop messin’ around,
When Kurtis Blow is in your town.

On the B side, “Hard Times” brings some deliberate funk bass, making it heavier than the more dancy A side. The interlude with its bongos and cowbell and steel drums give it even more unique character – it has more in common with reggae than it does the disco-infusion from the other side. The slow jam “All I Want In This World (Is To Find That Girl)” is, well, not a high point, which may very well be more a function of the style being dated than anything else, and the cover of BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business” is OK but feels a bit unnecessary.

Tough (1982)

This was the record that first caught my eye when I came across it in the New Arrivals bin. Because, well, look at it. If you don’t stop to consider it, it’s almost like Kurtis is going to reach right off the jacket and slap your face. There’s a lot of attitude there. And a lot of white clothing.

Tough has a lot less disco feel than did Kurtis Blow, keeping it funky but with more consistent beats. This is particularly noticeable on “Juice”, which has a little flavor in the bass but beats designed to act as a framework – the emphasis has shifted more towards Blow and his rap and away from pure danceability.

The A side with “Tough” and “Juice” is pure hip hop. The B side opens with the more melodic and softer “Daydreamin’” that, like “All I Want In This World” on Kurtis Blow, hasn’t held up all that well (if Blow had a deeper singing voice, perhaps…). That’s followed by “The Boogie Blues”, which is more reminiscent of Blow’s disco-infused debut, and “Baby, You’ve Got To Go” is funky as funk funks.

Cosey Fanni Tutti – “Tutti” (2019)

I’ve been on a Cosey Fanni Tutti kick since reading her autobiography Art Sex Music back in 2017. I’m primarily interested in her post-Throbbing Gristle material, which is more structured and less industrial in character, so I was quite excited to hear she planned a new release in 2019. And now that I’ve listened to it at least a half dozen times I know one thing for sure – I have my first early contender for Top 5 Albums of 2019.

The brief liner notes on the jacket reverse tell us that Tutti was initially conceived as the soundtrack to an autobiographical film about the artist, later updated and enhanced for release as an album. Clearly that’s not a lot to go on without seeing the film, but it does offer some insight as to why the style morphs over the course of eight songs. There’s a darker, more IDM feel to earlier tracks like “Drone” and “Moe”. Do these correspond with the periods in Cosey’s life when she was involved with Throbbing Gristle and her time working in pornography (which, it should be noted, was also part of her art)? I don’t know. But I do get the sense of a story being told, something not easy to accomplish on a primarily instrumental/electronic album with minimal lyrics to point the way – it isn’t until the sixth track, “Heliy”, that we get some vocals, though these feel like they were added as much for their sonic qualities as for any kind of overt storytelling.

Reviewer Ben Beaumont-Thomas of The Guardian wasn’t a big fan, giving Tutti only two starts (out of five), noting it’s “moments of drudgery”. Which just goes to show that different reviewers can come away with completely different perspectives. As for me, Tutti has earned a spot on regular rotation at my house and I’ll definitely be putting it on my list of albums to come back to at the end of 2019.

Extrabreit – “Welch Ein Land ! – Was Für Männer” (1981)

Until I sat down to do a little research for this post I’d never heard of the German Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) movement. Welch Ein Land ! – Was Für Männer was released right at the time NDW was breaking out of the underground and becoming mainstream. The feeling I get from it is fairly typical new wave with elements of The Beat and Berlin, though there are some darker tracks like “Polizisten” that bring a post-punk aesthetic (and feels a little like something off of The Wall). The whole thing is surprisingly good, particularly the dark B side opener “Der Präsident Ist Tot” with its relentless beat pounding you into submission like a military march.

The cover has that old school 1980s style of 3-D printing (and the album’s opening track is titled “3-D”), and sure enough the album includes a pair of those 3-D specs you used to get at the movies – the cardboard frames with one red and one green lens, only without the arms to hold them behind your ears. These work about as well as you remember, but if you get the angle and lighting right the effect can actually be momentarily startling. So if you come across a copy of Welch Ein Land ! – Was Für Männer make sure to see if the specs are there. And speaking of 1981, compliments to the far right rocking the sweet calculator watch.