Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Sound Familiar?
“Sober,” “Prison Sex,” “Stinkfist”

Who Are They?
Progressive metal titans widely considered to be the “thinking person’s metal band.”

In the ‘80s, the members of what would later become Tool were on very different paths. Guitarist Adam Jones and original bassist Paul D’Amour were looking to enter the film industry while Maynard James Keenan was remodeling pet stores in Michigan. Maynard and Adam met through a mutual friend in 1989, and after being thoroughly impressed by Maynard’s singing voice, Adam proposed they start a band together.

(Fun fact: According to Maynard, the name Tool means this: “Tool is exactly what is sounds like: It’s a big dick. It’s a wrench. We are […] your tool; use us as a catalyst in your process of finding out whatever it is you need to find out, or whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.”)

After playing a few shows in Los Angeles and being signed to label Zoo Entertainment, Tool released its first EP, Opiate, in 1992. The band has since claimed that Opiate included the six “hardest sounding” songs they had written up to that point.

The video for single "Hush" was actually a statement against the PMRC and its advocacy of music censorship. It was basically a big “fuck you” to Tipper Gore and friends in the form of Tool performing naked with Parental Advisory signs over their naughty bits.

(Fun fact: The band only appears in two videos: “Hush” and “Sober.” Though “Sober” is largely a stop motion animation video, you can see brief flashes of the band at the very beginning.)

The band’s first full-length album, Undertow, was released in 1993 to critical acclaim. Appearances at Lollapalooza boosted Tool’s success, and “Sober” became a hit single (due in part to the incredible stop motion music video).

Undertow’s second single, “Prison Sex,” ran into a bit of trouble. The song’s lyrics and video (also stop motion) dealt with the tough subject of child abuse, which sparked a healthy amount of controversy. MTV deemed the video too graphic (which is silly since it’s largely metaphoric) and pulled it from rotation.

The band’s second album, Ænima, dropped in 1996 and propelled Tool to the head of the alternative metal scene in the ‘90s.

(Fun fact: Ænima was dedicated to comedian Bill Hicks because Maynard and company felt that Tool and Hicks were “resonating similar concepts.” The song “Third Eye” includes a clip of one of Bill’s performances.)

Where Are They Now?
On the verge of releasing a new album, even though Maynard helms two other side projects.

At the tail end of promotion and touring for Ænima, Maynard joined the band A Perfect Circle, which was founded by Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel. A Perfect Circle was more of an alternative rock venture than a progressive metal one, and found mainstream success with 2000’s Mer de Noms.

Meanwhile, Tool began recording Lateralus, which was released in 2001. Despite its complexity and art rock vibe, the album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. "Schism," which has since become Tool’s signature song (along with “Sober”), won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2002.

At the end of the Lateralus tour, Maynard went back to A Perfect Circle to release Thirteenth Step. This prompted fans to believe that Tool was on hiatus.

(Fun fact: On April 1, 2005, the offical Tool site announced that “Maynard has found Jesus” and would no longer be recording with Tool. MTV’s Kurt Loder contacted Maynard for confirmation, but only received a response simply stating, “Heh heh.” It was, in fact, an April Fool’s joke.)

Tool’s fourth studio album, 10,000 Days, was released in 2006 to mixed reviews. After extensive touring, the band took a break and Maynard started yet another side project called Puscifer, which he considers his “creative subconscious.” Puscifer released two studio albums (2007’s “V” Is for Vagina and 2011’s Conditions of My Parole) and toured a large part of the US.

But Why Tool?
Drummer Danny Carey just confirmed that the new album is over halfway finished and may possibly be released this year!

What Does Sam Think?
Tool isn’t your average metal band. Actually, Tool isn’t your average prog metal band either. When I hear “progressive metal,” I think of Dream Theater or Isis. Tool doesn’t sound anything like either of those bands. (But if you seriously want to know more about metal as a whole, check out Justin Silk’s blog. He’s more of an expert than I am.)

This band sounds like one big experiment, except the solution is always the same—no matter what dangerous chemical you throw into the mix, the result will always be perfectly stable.

Once Maynard and friends released two prog metal albums, they decided to change things up with Lateralus. That album has a lot of art rock influence, especially on “Schism.” But does it sound chaotic? No. Does it sound boring? Not a chance. It’s still a metal album, but it’s only heavy in the right places.

Take “Parabol” and “Parabola” for example (these two songs are meant to be heard in immediate succession). “Parabol” is a really delicate track. It sets the scene for “Parabola,” which is much heavier. But “Parabola” actually ends with a droning guitar riff that almost echoes the tranquility of “Parabol.” They kind of answer each other. I know that sounds way too complicated for a metal song, but that’s what Tool is all about.

And you can’t talk about Tool without mentioning the music videos. If you’ve never seen a Tool video before, stop what you’re doing and watch one. I’ve got links to them all over this post, so there’s no excuse not to check one out (and don’t let the lengths scare you away). Yeah, they’re pretty surreal and at times a little frightening, but they’re some of the coolest videos I’ve ever seen. And I always find some meaning in them (but perhaps not the band’s intended meaning).

My favorite video is probably "Parabola," followed closely by “Prison Sex.” The imagery in “Prison Sex” is a bit easier to grasp since we already know it’s about child abuse. “Parabola” is a little tougher to explain, so I’ll just let you explore that yourself.

But if Tool isn’t your cup of tea, you have two other Maynard Keenan side projects to choose from. If you like modern rock with an art rock edge, give A Perfect Circle a try—it’s the more accessible project, in my opinion.

If you want to get weird, try Puscifer. That project is a nice mix of ambient, post-industrial, trip-hop and comedy rock. Not as chaotic as you’d think, though. (Also, I just really want to share this cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with you.)

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Prodigy

Sound Familiar?
“Voodoo People,” “Firestarter,” “Smack My Bitch Up”

Who Are They?
One of the most popular electronic acts of the ‘90s (and one of the most controversial). Also, this is Smells Like the ‘90s’ first electronic music entry—so get your rave on, folks.

In the beginning, The Prodigy was just another UK rave band. Liam Howlett recruited Keith Flint and Leeroy Thornhill to perform with him at clubs. After hearing Liam’s demo mix, Keith and Leeroy were in for the long haul.

The band’s first single, 1991’s “Charly,” became a huge hit in the UK rave scene, and even climbed to number 3 on the UK Singles Chart. Critics didn’t really get it, but do critics really ever get rave music?

(Fun fact: “Charly” is actually a reference to cocaine. The song samples a public information film called “Charly Says,” which resulted in critics identifying The Prodigy as “kiddie rave” or “Toytown Techno.”)

The Prodigy’s first full-length album, 1992’s Experience, made critics do a double take. With this release, the band was already beginning to distance itself from the “kiddie rave” label and move on to more seriously electronic territory. This new territory was later dubbed big beat, which is a style of electronic music characterized by heavy breakbeats and synthesizer-generated loops.

The band’s first foray into big beat was 1994’s Music for the Jilted Generation. The album was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, but Liam didn’t let that get to his head. He refused to let his band appear on Top of the Pops in the UK, but as the videos for “Voodoo People” and “No Good (Start the Dance)” began receiving heavy airplay on MTV Europe, our heroes softened up to the idea of mainstream success.

“Firestarter,” the first single from 1997’s The Fat of the Land, helped The Prodigy break into the US and other overseas markets, and even earned the band a headlining spot at Lollapalooza. The Fat of the Land cemented The Prodigy as one of the most internationally successful electronic music acts, but also came with its share of controversy.

The album’s third single, “Smack My Bitch Up,” became the target of women’s rights groups due its lyrical content (the only lyrics in the song are “Change my pitch up, smack my bitch up”). The National Organization for Women claimed the song was a “dangerous and offensive message advocating violence against women” (from the 1997 LA Times article "Time Warner Again Faces the Music Over Song Lyrics"). The band, on the other hand, maintained that the repeated phrase in the track simply meant “doing anything intensely, like being on stage.”

If you thought the song was offensive, then boy, are you in for a treat when you watch the music video. Widely considered to be the most controversial video in MTV history, “Smack My Bitch Up” was a first-person chronicle of an intense night out at the clubs, complete with explicit drug use, graphic nudity and abuse of both men and women. Despite the twist ending (which I will not reveal here for those who haven’t seen the video), feminist groups blasted the video for its fierce misogyny and “Smack My Bitch Up” was eventually banned from television.

After massive demand, MTV finally began airing the video again, but only showed it after midnight. You can view the full, unedited version here, but you’ll have to verify your age since it’s age-restricted. (Side note: I don’t find it that offensive, but I definitely wouldn’t let your grandma watch it.)

(Fun fact: During a performance at the 1998 Reading Festival, the Beastie Boys requested that The Prodigy not play “Smack My Bitch Up,” to which vocalist/beatboxer Maxim replied, “They didn’t want us to play this fucking tune. But the way things go, I do what the fuck I want.” The song went on to win Best Dance Video and Best Breakthrough Video at the MTV VMAs the same year.)

Leeroy left the band at its commercial peak in 1999, and The Prodigy went on a brief hiatus.

Where Are They Now?
Still playing huge festivals and recording new material.

The Prodigy reunited in 2002 and released the single “Baby’s Got a Temper” to critical disappointment. Once again, the single was accompanied by a controversial video. This one featured topless women suggestively milking cows. No, I’m not kidding (this video is also age-restricted, by the way). The lyrics also included references to the date rape drug Rohypnol, so The Prodigy was just asking for this to get banned.

The band released two more albums (2004’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned and 2008’s Invaders Must Die) and embarked on a whirlwind tour, which included stops at festivals like Przystanek Woodstock and Download Festival.

(Fun fact: Dave Grohl played drums on the Invaders Must Die track “Run with the Wolves.”)

In May 2012, The Prodigy announced the working title of its next album: How to Steal a Jet Fighter. As of 2013, the album has yet to be released.

But Why The Prodigy?
The band debuted a few new tracks at various festivals last year, so How to Steal a Jet Fighter is a real thing. No idea when it will be released, but it should be soon.

What Does Sam Think?
I don’t mean to sound like a music elitist or anything, but I started listening to The Prodigy at a young age (probably too young, now that I think about it). The Fat of the Land was one of the CDs my mom would play in her car all the time, along with The Crystal Method’s Vegas and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. My mom is apparently a raver in disguise (proved by her trip to a Crystal Method show that turned out to be a rave).

Anyway, I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music, so when I got older, I never really understood why a lot of my friends had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned The Prodigy. I just assumed everyone listened to them. I mean, didn’t every kid grow up hearing “Smack My Bitch Up” on the way to the pool in the summer? No? Perhaps this explains a lot.

I can’t say that I’m an expert on electronic music—I just know what I like. After researching the bands I heard in my mom’s car, I realized most of them had one thing in common: they were all big beat electronic bands. So if you like The Prodigy, you will most likely also dig The Crystal Method, Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers (I know I mentioned Massive Attack earlier, but that’s considered trip-hop).

The Prodigy just has great beats. If you ignore the controversy for a second, you can definitely see the appeal here. The Fat of the Land in particular is some heavy stuff. It’s not like the electronic music you hear today. Yeah, this band started out as a rave band, but these guys weren’t afraid to experiment later on. Of course electronic music gets a little repetitive, but I could listen to The Prodigy forever.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Stone Temple Pilots

Sound Familiar?
“Plush,” “Interstate Love Song,” “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart”

Who Are They?
Alternative radio mainstays and supposed grunge imposters.

As with most of the history of Stone Temple Pilots, there are two sides to the story of how Scott Weiland and bassist Robert DeLeo met: the band’s side and Scott’s side. The band said that Scott and Robert met at a Black Flag concert in 1986. The two began discussing their girlfriends, only to find out that they were dating the same woman. Instead of beating the shit out of each other in a jealous rage, the two developed a bond and decided to start a rock band (they broke it off with the girl shortly after).

Scott’s side of the story (as detailed in his autobiography, Not Dead and Not For Sale) was that he and his high school friend, Corey Hicock, pursued Robert after seeing him play live.

Personally, I prefer the band’s story (but I still love you, Mr. Weiland).

Scott, Robert, Corey and a drummer named David Allin formed a band called Swing, but after Corey and David ditched them, they grabbed drummer Eric Kretz and guitarist Dean DeLeo (Robert’s older brother). Dean flat out refused to be in a band called Swing, so the name changed to Mighty Joe Young.

The band recorded a demo tape in 1990 and played its first show supporting Henry Rollins. During the recording of the debut album, Scott and company got a call from a bluesman who claimed the name Mighty Joe Young.

In a scramble to find a new name, the band threw around various spins on the initials STP (inspired by the STP Motor Oil stickers). After briefly considering the name Shirley Temple’s Pussy, they settled on Stone Temple Pilots (thank God for that).

Stone Temple Pilots signed to Atlantic Records in 1992 and released their debut album, Core, the same year. Core was a huge success, but most critics accused the band of being “grunge imitators.”

Critics may have hated them, but STP still gained a loyal fan base. The band toured extensively with Rage Against the Machine and Megadeth and filmed an episode of MTV Unplugged.

(Fun fact: In a January 1994 Rolling Stone poll, STP was voted Best New Band by readers and Worst New Band by the magazine’s critics. Talk about discrepancy.)

Despite the critical backlash, STP won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for “Plush” and released the hugely popular Purple in 1994.

“Interstate Love Song” became the album’s biggest hit, topping the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for 15 weeks.

Meanwhile, Scott was developing a serious heroin addiction. By the time STP’s third album, 1996’s Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, dropped, most of the tour had to be canceled due to Scott’s drug abuse. As a result, Tiny Music fell off the charts and STP’s popularity began to wane.

The band went on hiatus soon after the album’s release. During this time, Scott released a solo album (12 Bar Blues) and the rest of the band teamed up with Ten Inch Men front man Dave Coutts to perform as Talk Show.

STP regrouped in 1998 to record No. 4, released a year later.

Where Are They Now?
Still technically together, sans Scott Weiland (maybe?). We’ll get into that later.

STP’s success came roaring back with a little help from No. 4’s biggest single (and my favorite song), “Sour Girl.” (I highly recommend watching the super strange and oddly sexy music video.)

In 2001, the band released Shangri-La Dee Da, which ended up being a commercial disappointment. After an altercation between Scott and Dean on the final show of the Shangri-La Dee Da tour, Stone Temple Pilots officially disbanded.

Scott joined the ultra-cool supergroup Velvet Revolver in 2003, which consisted of former Guns N’ Roses members Slash, Matt Sorum and Duff McKagan, along with former Wasted Youth guitarist Dave Kushner. Velvet Revolver released two albums, 2004’s Contraband and 2007’s Libertad, before Scott officially left the band in 2008.

Stone Temple Pilots eventually reunited in 2008 after Scott and the DeLeo brothers settled their differences. The reunion tour officially kicked off at Rock on the Range in Columbus, Ohio the same year (I unfortunately didn’t get to witness that miracle firsthand).

After the release of a self-titled sixth studio album, things began to go sour again. Hopes for a 20th anniversary celebration for Core were dashed in 2012, and Scott was already looking to reunite with Velvet Revolver (which Slash immediately declined).

But Why Stone Temple Pilots?
As of February 27, 2013, Scott Weiland is no longer part of the band. Or maybe he is. I’m not quite sure at this point. Scott recently told TMZ, “STP is not broken up. It’s a whole thing to try to boost ticket sales.” And apparently he learned of his termination through the band’s official website, not directly from any other members. So is this for real, or is it really just a marketing ploy? It may be one of the great mysteries of the world.

What Does Sam Think?
Story time! Back in middle school, I was obsessed with Velvet Revolver (and I also had an embarrassingly huge crush on Scott Weiland, but that’s beside the point). Through Velvet Revolver, I became interested in Stone Temple Pilots. I had heard “Interstate Love Song” and “Plush” before, but I didn’t think of delving into the band’s discography until the formation of VR.

I know some people dislike this band for a variety of reasons. Some say these guys are “grunge wannabes” since their debut came out a year after Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam’s breakthrough albums. And although Core does have a grungy feel to it, STP evolved past it. There’s a vast difference between Core and Purple, and an even bigger difference between Purple and No. 4. The band kind of adapted a more psychedelic sound in later albums, with a pinch of Southern rock influence (especially on “Interstate Love Song”).

But most people I know who dislike STP cite Scott Weiland as the weak link. I know I’m biased when I say this, but Scott is incredibly talented, and I think people look past that talent and concentrate on Scott’s drug abuse. His drug and legal escapades should not define him as a musician. I’ve read his autobiography (and you should, too) and I’ve come to realize that he’s a pretty troubled guy. You really can’t hold that against him.

So if you don’t like STP (which is perfectly okay), I hope it’s because of the music and not the man behind it.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s