Friday, January 29, 2010

Flash Metal Suicide: Urge Overkill's "Exit The Dragon"

As Pepsi Sheen had already paid an excellent tribute to Urge Overkill's "Saturation" some time ago at Sleazegrinder's regular website, I figured that it was about time to wax nostalgic about the followup record, "Exit The Dragon".

Most Urge Overkill fans--even casual ones--will tell you that "Saturation" is their favorite Urge record. I agree, it's an excellent album and I often toggle in between whether that's my favorite album of theirs, or "Exit The Dragon". But they are two very different records. The immediacy of "Saturation" is unbeatable and undeniable; however, the 3 dimensionalism, risks, honesty and organicness of "Exit The Dragon" is tough to beat. It's in my top 50 rock albums of all time, maybe top 30. It's a fantastic album. But it definetely apes the Stones' greatest period of "Sticky Fingers"/ "Exile On Main Street" in that the drug busts, infighting and general chaos around the band is inimitable, at least in bands that survive intact to weather the storm to see the next day through. And it does it all too well, much to the detriment of the band's fate.

"Exit..." is a much darker and more difficult album, to be sure. No one's kidding themselves about that. When it came out in 1995, I, like most people, were taken aback a bit by it. At the time, I couldn't really put it into words other than I didn't like it as much as "Saturation", which drew me in immediately. My metaphor for "Exit..." is almost like a swim in water--at first it seems cold, but it's surprisingly inviting once you truly take the plunge.

The most major transition of this record is reverting back to Ed "King" Roeser being the leader, and Nash Kato once again playing sideman and the George Harrison role--as it was in the early days, and even through "The Supersonic Storybook" days, as well as through the initial polish of the Butch Vig produced "Americruiser". Commercially, this was a dubious idea as Nash-- on Urge's big songs on "Saturation" in "Sister Havana", "Positive Bleeding" and "Bottle Of Fur" and non single favorites like "Woman 2 Woman"--was the sound of Urge Overkill, at least at their most commercial and accessible, and as far as Geffen was concerned, I imagine their consternation of Nash being put in the background on this album was well talked about in the big offices there at the time. I imagine that alot of fans gained with the "Saturation" album had been scratching their heads as to why this "other guy" was singing for Urge. But Ed had picked up the guitar for this record (and though he wasn't credited on "Saturation", had apparently played some guitar parts on that record too), as Urge had long been a four piece live, with Ed doing additional guitar duties.

That's not a slight against Ed, as I love his more regular rock guy thing to Kato's Christopher Walken gone rock god (they could be from the same family) unabashed swagger. As a matter of fact, Ed has a Neil Young thing going at times, and a pretty damned good Dickie Peterson (Blue Cheer) vibe to his singing. Even going back to the "Stull" EP and "The Supersonic Storybook", Ed's songs were a bit slower and darker--"Stull", "The Candidate", "What Is Artane?", etc. I say this to prove the point that "Saturation" was an anomaly; something that was the exception, not the rule. Certainly, the band's roots as a noise rock band would prove how dark and sludgy and inaccessible they once were. In a way, that early incarnation of the band seems to finally have colored their mainstream success by this time on this particular record. I don't know if it's necessarily even darker than "Stull"--because "Stull" has some dark or moodier tracks in "Goodbye To Guyville" and even the Neil Diamond cover has a minor key sense of introspection to it, too. In all actuality, "Exit..." could be called "Stull Part 2"--a bit raw and unpolished at times, but polished enough with a wink of the eye towards true commercialism. At least in theory, the intention.

"Saturation" owed more to "Americruiser" in spirit--near flawless studio performances and a sheen that the band didn't have, naturally. Let's face the actual truth here of what drove away Urge fans-- what put off the average Urge fan in the 90's was that the band proved to be a bunch of fuck ups. Drunken/ high performances. The sense that the band would fall apart at any given time, even though the suits and the visage and legend would have you thinking otherwise. I can only imagine how many copies of "Jesus Urge Superstar" were met with "?????" from newly acquired Urge fans looking for more of the same from the band's catalogue, and i'm guessing that "The Supersonic Storybook" barely fared any better. That's because that's what the band sounded like, live, with no corrections or the aid of multiple takes or splicing takes together. "Exit....", from many people i've talked to, sounds like it's gonna fall apart at any given Big Star's "Radio City" (or moreso "Third/ Sister Lovers"), or even Alex Chilton''s solo career, at least compared to the studio sheen of "#1 Record".

My gripes with "Saturation"--as absolutely brilliant an album that it is--is that it, to me, never properly represented the band. If you listen to live recordings of the band during that time (ESPECIALLY the "Urge Over Canada" CBC bootleg at which point in the band's career, they should have been slamming that one out of the park), their roots as a punk/ noise/ indie band leak through......coming across more like a cousin of the Replacements with rough rock n' roll charm, rather than the polished studio performances that the album might suggest.

It's my speculation that the studio direction was the final nail in the coffin of the souring of the long time relationship between Steve Albini and the band; somehow the flirtation with being rock stars was alright when it was "ironic" in the Touch and Go days, but the line of decency was when they signed to a major or whatever and made a real legitimate attempt at cashing in on that cache and becoming a studio band. And at that, i'm not really sure if there's anything that's "ironic" about any band, anywhere--critics and fans might think that things are a tongue in cheek stab at reality, but the bands would tell you that they're trying to be authentic and serious. Maybe there's something perceived as ironic about nostalgic value or nostalgia itself, but I don't see why it has to be.

But with that admission, what they lacked in being able to re-duplicate the studio albums, I have to say that they were one hell of a rock n' roll band. Few other bands of that time had the ability to plug in and rock the hell out and rock that hard, but with style and class. Through all the smartly written songs and the wit of the pop culture lyrics, at their heart, Urge were just a great old rock n' roll band. "Ticket To LA", "The Kids Are Insane", "Today Is Blackie's Birthday", "Viceroyce" all were earlier rock gems. And i'm not sure that the rawness of how hard they rocked really transferred to alot of people; especially not with those that only went as deep as the aforementioned Neil Diamond cover. The problem may have been that they did "mature" so damn well, that the sheer rock power that they had took a backseat to the more pop side of the band. I guess ballads always typically sell the best in bands' careers (or most of the time, think of Kiss' "Beth"...completely unrepresentative of the band and hey, Peter Criss couldn't do that either when he was half wasted half the time. Just look up "Peter Criss drunk" on YouTube, for a lark).

Another thing about the band at this point in time, is that they were starting to tone down the outlandish style sense of the band's earlier days--the medallions were starting to be dispensed with, the over the top dress sense was taking a back seat to respectably fancy velvet suits; the suits with every member wearing a different letter on 'em were going by the wayside. This is maybe perhaps in part to the band's desires to not rely on the fashion sense as much, to be taken more seriously for the music. Ed or someone like that mentioned something like that somewhere about the reunion tour being comparatively drab (and Nash seemingly having an endless supply of white mesh shirts) because they wanted to be more about the music. Which is cool and all, but somehow, I wanted the band to be as completely absurd about things--and I mean that in a good way, it's something that separated them from the droves of moping rockers of that era, you know, style, rock music being made by someone that's doing something that you couldn't. I guess every scribe was focussing on the same thing, "martini swilling medallion wearing playboys" thing....I guess as a band after years of that, maybe you want to do something different. But the liner notes of "Exit...." confirm the situation--no medallions in sight, and an overall toned down image.

With "Exit....", it was a mostly one takes album--raw, unpolished and real. Their live performances of the album sounded realistic--mistakes on guitars (none could sum up this album better than Nash's "oops....sorry" gaff at the start of "Need Some Air"), flat/ sharp vocal notes, looser drumming. And the real difficulty of this album, I think, is in how absolutely fucking dry sounding this record is. By that, I mean, that there's little room ambience or big slick reverbs on anything, it sounds like the band is right in front of you, but speaking as an engineer, there's an extra studio "matte finish" in that it sounds like they were going for an insanely dry sound, like an old ZZ Top album or something. A drum sound even in an open air space with no room around it still sounds more live sounding than the drums on here. But it works; the studio facsimile seems to have been dialed in to be "1975" and I love it.....not on every record of course, but on this one, it's a great choice. I now can't see the drums or sounds being any bigger than they sound here, and the band had alot of balls to do that, because obviously on a major and with big producers, they want you to go bigger and larger sounding. And you can't blame the choice of producer; The Butcher Bros (known more for hip hop albums) had produced both "Saturation" and "Exit The Dragon". I'm not sure who's choice it was, but ultimately, I think it was Urge' sounds like they had more of their way. Maybe Geffen had put the bug in their ear about how if they'd done that and this and that and this on "Saturation" it would sell that many more records. Or maybe it was Ed's decision--you never know if it was Nash that proposed that "Saturation" be slicker, as I speculate it was--listening to Ed's post Urge material, it was rawer, whereas Nash's "Debutante" was shamelessly slick and radio ready.

At the time, it was a curious choice to have "The Break" as a lead off single, for a few reasons. One was that the aforementioned re-establishment of Ed being in the lead, that it automatically had perplexed more than it's fair share of newer Urge fans who only knew Nash as the "voice" of the band. Secondly, it's not really your typical lead off single--usually something with more energy or immediacy ends up being the leadoff single. I like it, but I still say that at the time and in hindsight, that it wasn't the greatest choice of lead off single. My vote for leadoff single would have been "Need Some Air", namely because it's the highest energy song on the record, and it's also Nash's, to ease people into the change in sounds on this album. Ironically, this seems to be a moot point--Geffen didn't put the album on the biggest priority (which they even admitted at the time), and promised to re-launch it, to which they never did. I'm guessing that after Cobain, the labels were wary to really get too behind any band that was too much into the self imploding mercurial drug/ rocker thing. To this day, drummer Blackie Onassis is drifting aimlessly, seemingly getting thrown in jail endlessly for drugs. I wish him the best in cleaning up, but he wasn't in the Urge reunion because of that, and really, that's a shame. If you're reading this Blackie--or if you're a friend of his--ask him why he's wasted half his life to that shit, because it ain't worth it.

Anyways, I should get down to describing the songs. Opener "Jaywalkin" sets the tone pretty well, as it has a somewhat morose but effective rocker thing going with lines like "...i'm the evil in this world, there's too much evil it's true", and what a difference in comparing this album to "Saturation"! "Sister Havana" versus "Jaywalkin", it's 180 degrees of difference. It's also--as previously noted--an Ed song. The riff is great, it's kind of choppy and funky, which is accented by the clavinet playing in the chorus part. Eventually there's small accents like claves and cowbell, which this album is underrated for--Blackie's usually doing some cool percussion and bongos or whatever. "The Break" comes next--all loose bluesy Stones-y riffs and kinda slow and plodding and a bit concerned sounding, kind of like "The Candidate" a bit. Everything seems to be more in mono, or panned closer up the center until the chorus when the acoustic guitar embellishments and shakers kick in, which moves the song along well. Key line: "...don't get wasted every day alone". Come to think of it, the lyrics on this album are interesting in historical perspective. "Everything ends in a heartache, can't get a break". Sure critics love to mine that shit, but it's true.

"Need Some Air" follows and is the first Nash sung track on the album, and is one of my favorite songs on the album, because it's one of the few that seem to carry "Saturation"'s rock n' roll optimism into this record--short, to the point, with a killer riff. "Somebody Else's Body" follows and is an excellent song, but instead of maintaining the rock momentum from "Need Some Air", I remember thinking at the time when I first heard the album, thinking after "Need Some Air" had played, something to the effect of "yes, the old Urge is back, Nash is gonna save the album!", and then being a little perplexed as to why a bouncy acoustic song like "Somebody Else's Body" would follow. Now I think it's a great idea, but certainly not then. That being said, the T-Rex vibe in the song is excellent and Nash's feeling and delivery are top notch. The horn parts are cool, too. Nash's singing and feeling in this song is great.

The next part is where the album originally lost me, two Ed songs--"Honesty Files" and "This Is No Place". I think that I probably wanted Nash to do most of the remainder of the album at that time. But what I think makes this album brilliant now, is that parts of the album like this one take the album back down a bit and change gears. "Honesty Files" seems to be another reflective rocker, with a line like "hey hey i'm dead on arrival, yes i'm crawling right back" seemingly prefacing the album's fate, but like a good boxer, not without a fight. "This Is No Place" REALLY lost me at the time. At the start, there's a wash of loud synth noise--not unlike the noise at the end of "Positive Bleeding"--but "This Is No Place" is really one of the heaviest, darkest songs on an already dark album, with some weird phasing effects, some tribal tom breakdowns in the verses from Blackie and whatnot. Oddly enough, the bridge part is one of the most optimistic parts on the record, a beautiful chiming/ ringing guitar break. But this song succeeds on so many levels, just take the lyrics for example: "....can't remember coming home, she don't know my name, she woke up early now she's gone, here we go again" seems like another lyrical reference in that the high of "Saturation"'s last night party vibe has turned into "Exit The Dragon's" reality in that they have to deal with the morning after. By that, I mean fame. The spotlight. Lots of women seeing them as rockstars, when the band knew that when they were in their earlier noise rock phase, that the prospect of easy women and easy money weren't exactly in high demand. And then maybe the band didn't know what to do the morning after and wondered whether to get drunk or high and repeat the process the next morning or whether to deal with what you did last night. Reality ain't always pretty.

The album's pinnacle is next, and cue all "the drummer should never sing" jokes you want, but it's an apex in not only the band's career, but in music in general. By that, I mean that when you want to talk about reflection on the morning after, and fame and fortune and popularity and all the baggage that it brings, rarely will you find something in musical history that nails it more than this. Much like "The Dropout" in that it's based around loops, very quickly it evolves in the mix to put 12 string, piano, weird synth sounds and some excellent slide guitar in there. Lines like "....just be certain not to fall with the wrong kind of crowd, be extra careful when you cross", "....mistake, be careful what you take, we've got alot at stake, more than you'll ever know, beware the overdose" is extra warning when you consider that Blackie became the exact character that he's singing about here. The overall song chord choices are perfect--it's not too dark, but it has a feeling of introspection that comes only with experience. By now, the band had plenty of experience--they'd been around pretty much since 1985--but now, they were facing a whole lot of things that plague bands when they succeed. The theory is that the difficult part of success isn't necessarily getting there--I mean, that's certainly a struggle--but the most difficult part is maintaining that success. Do you give them more of the same? Change it up? Drop out of sight? Go the way of Cat Stevens and renounce the whole thing and claim it was a mistake?

"Take Me" could have--scrap that--should have been a single. It's the most pop song on the album, with absolutely beautiful ringing chord accents. It's another reason why this album perplexed me--something that sounds Cheap Trick-esque that Ed wrote (at least i'm assuming he did, my take on the writing of the songs was whoever sung 'em), and that both Blackie and Ed are harmonizing (I think it's Blackie, anyways, it sounds like he sings the second half of the verse lyrics). If "This Is No Place" and "The Mistake" painted a fairly bleak picture, "Take Me" seems to find solace in the negativity. The coolest part of this song is that the pre-chorus changes every second time to an equally brilliant ringing part! Structurally, it's one of the best and most interesting songs on the album in that they seemingly put more effort into some sort of single that never was.

"View Of The Rain" is another introspective song, this time with Nash singing over a predominantly acoustic song. By now, the duality of the leadership is astonishing--both guys can lead and provide an equally interesting vision, and regardless of whether you like one guy's lead better or not, the fact that they can trade off and provide two slightly different takes on the band is great. Nash is the quintessential rock god; part crooner, part arena rock Cheap Trickster via Motown soul. Ed is more of your basic rocker; someone that's a little less rock god, easier to relate to because he's the guy that just fucked things up. Lyrically, on this album, Ed seems to lean that way, whereas Nash still seems to be singing about the whole romanticism of things and life in general. Anyways, "View Of The Rain" is actually from the "Saturation" sessions, as it was included on the "No Alternative" comp as "Take A Walk". So you do have some remnants from that album. Why exactly it was left off "Saturation", I don't know. Maybe too light or something. But it would have been a great way to finish off the album after "Heaven 90210", I think. The electric keyboard playing is great, Nash was an excellent keys player, too--nothing too technical, but it has alot of feeling. "Take a walk beside yourself, get to know the person behind the face, is it someone you really love?" is a pretty cool question to ask at this point, especially at this point in the album.

"Last Night/ Tomorrow" follows, and "Last Night" has probably my favorite Urge riff. Now that's a real true classic riff, i'm surprised that it's not more well known than it is. When I took guitar lessons, what I learned is that there's a "question/ answer" technique, and this intro/ central riff sounds like it's asking the question in the first part, and then answering it in the second part, like the "?" is on the first part and the "!!!" is on the second part. "I won't find a soulmate again, i'm lost", Ed laments, and it suits the song and album well. Apparently Ed did most of the lead parts on this album, and the leads are fuzzed out and really laid back--nothing too technical, but with feel, and at points, you barely realize that they're there. The second half of the song kicks in, "Tomorrow", and I think it's a Nash song. Maybe not. But it's great, it's high energy and kicks ass. There's some vocal harmonizing between the members, sort of that "Tequila Sundae" thing again. There's clavi accents beneath the song, giving it a funky vibe, but still rocking. The song closes out on handclaps and one of the deadliest riffs into it's outro--a heavy dirge like thing that's slightly reminiscent of "Theme From Navajo". On another surface parallel, "Last Night/ Tomorrow" seems to fit into that "last night's party of Saturation versus tomorrow's hangover of Exit The Dragon".

"Tin Foil" is next and it's the most sunny, optimistic major key song on the record. In some ways, I kind of wish that they'd traded this in the tracklisting with "This Is No Place", to provide a little earlier relief to the onslaught of dirge. It's sort of like "Back On Me". It's mellow in the verses and kicks in with the chorus. "Monopoly" is an excellent track, sounding kind of like a cross between powerpop and country twang, with an excellent hook that sounds like it was some sort of electric piano part. At this point, I think that most Nash fans were as confused as me, expecting him to turn up the amps on every song....but the acoustic rocker thing is excellent and proves that you don't have to max out the distortion on every song. Lyrically, it's a parallel of the board game to life in general, but moreso to love. ".....Survival of the riches, moving our simple pieces round and round, it's you and me on the Monopoly board, you land on the block where i've got three hotels, it's not like you want me to win....shame on you, you're your own Monopoly", Kato scolds. I mean, Nash isn't a Baltic Avenue type of guy, he's going for Boardwalk styled stakes in the gamble.

"And You'll Say" is another heavy rocker from Roeser, sporting a cool riff and a minor key chorus. If there was one track that could have been omitted from the album, i'd say that it may be this one--it's good and all, but by now, the album is feeling a bit long in it's running time, and for rock album standards, it's 61 minutes long in total, double album territory. But that's also a part of the album's charm, in that it's probably too long, probably too unwanted in general by anyone that wanted to expand beyond the singles and the overall singles feel of "Saturation".

The finale is spectacular, going out with both a whimper AND a bang--"Digital Black Epilogue". The flanged guitar parts are very reminiscent of the Stones' "Let It Loose", yet another parallel to the heyday of the Stones, and also proving that Urge had done their homework in terms of listening to the history of rock music. There's an uncredited soul singer doing a duet with Nash and the vocals are great, I think her name is Tamika Vines. I guess that the song kind of has a "Stairway To Heaven" vibe to it too, with Nash really putting alot of feeling into the vocals despite it being a more reflective and morose song. No bustles in hedgerows, but you get the idea. The ending part is really where your average newer Urge fan must have been confused--fuzz guitars, military style march drumming, weird synth blasts, string sections and general noise freakout, as it builds upon one progression into oblivion.

Considering that even in the reunion days since 2003 that they still haven't put out a recording, "Digital Black Epilogue" still stands as the last track on the last studio album of theirs; a perfect summation of the confusion and chaos that ended the band amidst Roeser quitting his own band and Kato and Onassis holding onto the last vestiges of a once mighty band that was no longer functional, before they officially packed the Urge name in around 1996/ 1997. Somehow, this album seems to be an appropriate end to Urge's career, as well as to the hopes and glories of alternative rock, before the genre got milked for everything that it had by various bands and the industry, before it fell apart and made way for the next trend. The reunion that transpired around the end of 2003 has since led to some confusing moments for fans: no new album, a couple of new songs, reports of --literally--a handful of people at some poorly attended shows, etc.

"Exit The Dragon", indeed.

--Ryan Settee


Sleazegrinder said...

Awesome piece, sir.

If Nash had written the songs for this record, they'd still be around. But we wouldn't have this brooding masterpiece.

It might be worth the break-up. It's an incredible record.

kell said...

New Urge song "Effigy":

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