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Alive on Impact
By Bill Ketzer

Tempo of the Damned (Nuclear Blast)

Exodus, who preceded even Metallica as the Bay Area’s first true metal juggernaut, really have been through the ringer. They were signed to Capitol after a successful string of LPs on Combat Records in the late ’80s, but the bigwigs sunk them like a rickety merchant marine boat in the murky English Channel after the Big One was already over. In 1997, original singer Paul Baloff rejoined the group for a successful anniversary show that promised the return of the behemoth, only to succumb to a stroke in 2002. Yet his death, rank poverty and their years spent on said obfuscating label ultimately failed to kill the band’s penchant for warp-speed riffage, and it is their responsibility, damn it, to uphold the wicked, compulsory and coke-stained virtues (for lack of a better word) of that era.

Tempo of the Damned is a welcome return to their Fabulous Disaster years, that frothing era of wrath with Steve Sousa at the vocal helm. The searing attack of guitarists Gary Holt and Rick Hunolt is as vicious as ever, a fiery sphere of discontent similar in tone to a chorus of shrieking pterodactyls. Drummer Tom Hunting returns to the throne once again, but has streamlined his approach from his days of bustling tom-triplet fills and now is all hammer and anvil. Sousa’s approach has seasoned a bit as well, his grimy sneer escalating at times into deep, coarse screams, hovering over the town and vanishing to the northwest like a UFO. You can almost taste the radiation oozing from this old, new thing.

Of course, Exodus were never intended to be thinking-man’s metal, nor are they much in the way of articulate social commentators, try as they may with songs like “Forward March” or the leviathan “War Is My Shepherd.” You won’t find fresh, provocative, timely messages here, the lyrics being more Play-Doh than Plato (example: “What you see, he don’t care/Now you bleed, start to stare/Cut you down, rip you up/Watching warm blood run.”) Rather, I think that their appeal lies in the fact that all you need to contemplate while listening to this CD are things like, “I’ll bet I could cut that guy’s car in two with my Sawzall,” or “When the revolution comes, we should kill the financial advisors first.” This is the point. This kind of metal, who cares what it means or what it says? It was born of a celebration, the end of synthpop’s flimsy clasp on America’s youth, and its ability to subsist on crumbs until it can rise again and again into your working weeks like some kind of demonic, festering family affliction handed down through the decades.

Itzhak Perlman

Perlman reDiscovered (RCA Red Seal)

After the 20-year-old violinist Itzhak Perlman finished recording a debut album of short, difficult works guaranteed to show off his instrumental prowess, the powers-that-were at RCA decided it was too slight, and scrapped it in favor of some concerto recordings.

Forty years later, the album has gotten its first release, and it’s a delight to have this available. More than ever, it’s a reminder of just how well and distinctively Perlman plays. The intervening two-score years have brought us a deluge of sound-alike fiddlers, routed through Curtis or Juilliard, their precision honed even as their personalities were sheared away.

Perlman always has been his own player, with a fat, chummy, Oistrakh-like sound and technical mastery that bursts through with brilliance when necessary. You’ll hear it here in the “Round of the Goblins,” a fiendishly difficult piece by Bazzini that contorts the violinist into whatever positions necessary to play double trills, glissandi in tenths, left-hand pizzicato and the like.

The program is the kind you wish more concerts would comprise, kicked off by three familiar Paganini caprices and then introducing pianist David Garvey as accompanist on the little-heard but lovely Berceuse Sfaradite by Paul Ben-Haim.

Short sonatas by Handel, Hindemith and Leclair are the meat of the program, and these are pieces Perlman never again recorded. The only piece you’re not likely to witness, in this form, on the concert platform is Sarasate’s Navarra for two violins (also the only recording here previously released), because Perlman overdubbed the second part and plays along with himself nicely—not an easy thing to do, as evidenced by violinist Aaron Rosand’s recording in which Rosand, also one of the best, gets out of sync with himself.

Moving from piece to piece on this recording is a pleasant journey. The Handel sonata shines with baroque luster and sets up the ear for the more difficult sonority of the Hindemith work; but Hindemith was a classicist at heart, and this context further underscores that by taking us back to the baroque with the Leclair piece that follows.

Short works by Bloch and de Falla complete the hourlong disc.

Since his recording debut, Perlman has gypsied among the major labels. RCA caught him in the early part of his career, but has done little service in keeping those recordings in the catalogue. This unexpected reissue more than makes up for that lack, and it’s been remastered to display a splendid sound not always found in contemporaneous recordings.

—B.A. Nilsson

Elliott Smith

From a Basement on the Hill (Anti)

From a Basement on the Hill, the first posthumous release from singer- songwriter Elliott Smith, is a motherfucking downer, man. There’s no doubt he was not well when he made many of these recordings—besides being regarded as one of our generation’s finest songwriters, he was also a depressive drug addict and alcoholic—but despite his supposed cleanup in the 12 months or so prior to his death, these 15 songs offer little evidence that Smith ever saw a bright side. There’s so much darkness here that the walls all but collapse around any shred of optimism (“Twilight,” “Pretty (Ugly Before)”—songs that actually rank among Smith’s most indelible).

Basement is equal parts The Beatles (1968), All Things Must Pass, and Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers in that four different Smiths are battling for attention—the earnest folkie, the retro-pop nut, the art-damaged punk, and the chemically damaged noise-junkie—and none of them really wants to be in the same room with the others. You can hear the infighting on the opening “Coast to Coast,” which sets the album’s schizophrenic tone with dueling drum tracks, tack piano, and drop-tuned guitar, while “two unknown poetic men” (his first use of field recordings?) prattle on in the background like so many voices in his head. The voices return for the painfully confessional “King’s Crossing,” and later, the dueling drums pop up again on “Shooting Star,” which is so rhythmically mushy that Smith couldn’t have possibly been finished with the recording.

On “Strung Out Again,” Smith’s fragile tenor guides a tenuous verse before plummeting into the sonic oblivion of the chorus, where a hail of fuzzed-out guitars rains down behind the telling lyric, “I know my place, hate my face, I know how I begin, and how I’ll end.” He further articulates the depths of depression and the momentary plateaus that one comes to savor in “A Passing Feeling”: “I’m beyond belief in the help I require just to exist at all, took a long time to stand, just an hour to fall.” “Fond Farewell” is the album’s best track in that it pairs some of the album’s darkest lyrical moments (“a little less than a human being, a little less than a happy high, a little less than a suicide”) with an upbeat, Harrison-esque acoustic strum, very much along the lines of “Bottle Up and Explode” (from 1998’s XO).

For listeners unfamiliar with Smith’s work, this is not the best place to start—better to begin with XO and either/or and work forward and backward from there—but it might be the best cross-pollination of his various personalities. And while this may not (and hopefully will not) be the last new material we hear from Elliott Smith—Basement was pared down from a double-album—it’s heartbreaking in its implied finality.

—John Brodeur

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