Flash Gordon’s Alive!

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Origins Of Swashbuckling In Outer Space

Before I delve into the legacy of Flash Gordon…

Buck Rogers is a fictional space opera character created by Philip Francis Nowlan in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D., subsequently appearing in multiple media.

Without Buck Rogers there would be no Flash Gordon. First appearing in 1928, the character of Anthony “Buck” Rogers was the first to feature space exploration! As it paralleled the latest advances in technology of the early twentieth century, the space hero would take to alien worlds to defend Earth from certain peril.

The strip made its first newspaper appearance on January 7, 1929. 

Later adaptations included radio in 1932, a film seriala television series (in which his first name was changed from “Anthony” to “William”), and other formats.

Buck Rogers was the inspiration for other comic strips:

 Tom Swift (1930-1937), Brick Bradford (Central Press Association, 1933-1987), Don Dixon and the Hidden Empire (Watkins Syndicate, 1935-1941),  Speed Spaulding (John F. Dille Co., 1940-1941),  and  John Carter of Mars (United Feature Syndicate, 1941-1943).

The adventures of Buck Rogers in comic strips, movies, radio and television became an important part of American popular culture. It was on January 22, 1930, that Buck Rogers first ventured into space aboard a rocket ship in his fifth newspaper comic story Tiger Men From Mars.

The Buck Rogers strip was popular enough to inspire other newspaper syndicates to launch their own science fiction strips.  The most famous of these imitators was Flash Gordon (King Features Syndicate, 1934-2003).

I did not discover this about these 2 serials until I created this entry for Evan’s Gate!

In the 1980’s NBC-TV premiered “Buck Rogers In The 25th Century” based upon the feature film of the same name that appeared in theaters. Starring Gil Gerard as Buck and Co-starring in the series were Erin Gray as crack Starfighter pilot Colonel Wilma Deering, and Tim O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer, head of Earth Defense Directorate, and a former starpilot himself.

Buck Rogers will get its own entry in this blog at a future date. You just cannot celebrate a Flash Gordon Anniversary without providing this necessary background.

The Buck Rogers movie served as a pilot for a potential TV show. Released a year before Flash Gordon in 1979, the box office was good enough for NBC to hire creator Glen A. Larson (Battlestar GalacticaBuck Rogers in the 25th CenturyQuincy, M.E.The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew MysteriesB. J. and the BearThe Fall GuyMagnum, P.I. and Knight Rider.)

The television series lasted two seasons. The actors strike of 1980 disrupted production. When it returned the show was revamped with new characters and format. The 1980-81 Season was to be its last.

Fun fact: Larry “Buster” Crabbe” made a cameo appearance on the Buck Rogers TV series!

Serial Start For Flash Gordon

Serial adventures were a staple of the American cinema from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Each week a chapter would appear in theaters. The ending was usually a cliffhanger. Our hero would be caught in some sort of death spiral that left viewers wondering how they would manage their escape.

These serialized adventures were provided as an added attraction at theaters. They did a lot with small budgets.

Based upon various comic strip characters of the day, those serials produced one character in particular that has stayed around for over 70 years—Flash Gordon. A comic strip created by Alex Raymond in the 1930’s influenced the adventures of Batman, Superman, Captain Kirk, and Luke Skywalker.

I saw the original movie serials on Channel Thirteen, a Public Television station here in New York during the 1970’s. The re-runs coincided with the release of Star Wars in 1977.

Later on I discovered that Star Wars creator George Lucas was a fan of Flash Gordon. He inquired about the rights with King Features but found out the expense was beyond his means. Movie fans got a space fantasy filled with characters inspired by Flash Gordon.

I had been enthralled by science fiction and fantasy since the re-runs of Star Trek. Then Flash Gordon appeared and then Star Wars. I could not see the direct lineage of these series until much later.

Summer of 1977 marked movie history being made. George Lucas’ Star Wars changed the popular culture. Becoming at the time the highest grossing movie of all time, its success would lead to the first Star Trek movie in 1979 and Alien in that same year! In fact Alien won the Visual Effects Oscar over Star Trek. And of course launched another franchise.

Then came a big budget European feature film of Flash Gordon announced in the pages of American fan magazine, Starlog. Italian Producer Dino DeLaurentis with Director Mike Hodges created a unique vision of the comic book hero.

The Italian film legend Federico Fellini turned down an offer to direct Flash Gordon.

Putting together an all-star European cast with two unknown Americans as Flash and Dale was an unusual contrast not unlike Star Wars. There were many European stars wearing masks in both pictures.

For example British TV/Film actor and Bodybuilder David Prowse wore the Darth Vader costume for Star Wars; British TV star Peter Wyngarde (Department S, Jason King) wore a mask as General Klytus in Flash Gordon. Mr. Wyngarde’s voice is heard while Mr. Prowse gets dubbed by James Earl Jones.

But I digress. Back to our main focus. The cast of Flash Gordon—

Max Von Sydow (“The Seventh Seal”, “The Exorcist”) was Emperor Ming The Merciless; Timothy Dalton (James bond) was Prince Barin; Brian Blessed (Black Adder) was Vultan; Ornella Muti was Aura; Mariangela Melato was Kala; Peter Wyngarde (Jason King) was Klytus; Richard O’ Brien (Rocky Horror) was Fico; Topol was Dr. Hans Zarkov; Melody Anderson was Dale Arden; Sam J. Jones (“10”) was Flash Gordon.

Coming Of Age

As a gay kid in the 1980’s there were a lot of stimulating images in film. What I mean is that there were lots of films featuring shirtless guys on their posters. “Beastmaster” is a good example.

“Flash Gordon” was a singular phenomena. There are no sequels. At the time it cost $70 million which would probably be over $200 million today.

At the time of release the picture had a PG rating. There are scenes with graphic violence and sexual connotations but nonetheless there was no PG–13 back then in 1980. The blood shown on screen was blue and green.

I loved this film for its tremendous effort to capture the spirit of the original serial. Now seen in rich color of every shade and hue. The skies of Mongo were a awash in red, blue and orange.

It was important for the film to keep to the universe Alex Raymond created in the 1930s. The only update was making Flash a football player for the NY Jets, Dr. Zarkov was a NASA scientist, and Dale is now a travel agent.

On the left is Charles Middleton as Ming in the 1930’s; On the right is Max Von Sydow as Ming in 1980. From B&W to Color Ming remains the same.

As a kid I was ignorant of this paradigm. It’s important to note the exoticism worked both ways in the film. Princess Aura seduces the blonde/ blue-eyed Flash Gordon as her object of exotic desire.

This was strong stuff for a pre-teen gay kid! Then you had Sam J. Jones shirtless in the execution and resurrection scenes, wearing nothing but a pair of PVC briefs!

On the left is Buster Crabbe; On the right Sam J. Jones. Both versions have Flash Gordon bare chested while facing punishment.

A ton of art was created for the film and some of it just for promotional purposes. Unknown to me at the time how many posters exist is incredible. Released globally there were images used in various countries to target specific audiences based on region.

Lobby Poster Art

All I knew then was the poster for American release was brilliant. Then I found a small copy of the art in a full page ad in Playbill magazine. I cut it out and put it on my wall. The name AMSEL was signed on Ming’s cloak.

The film’s Tagline, all in caps, PATHETIC EARTHLINGS…WHO CAN SAVE YOU NOW?

Who was underlined to stress that Flash is the hero.

The lightning bolt logo with planet Mongo at its center was an American market image. The font with its Red/Yellow/Orange coloring was brilliant. In Europe as well as in the opening titles the name is stylized in the mode Alex Raymond had used. You see it in the Italian promo posters we saw earlier in this entry.

Also note how Ming is so large like Darth Vader was for the Star Wars posters with Flash and Dale in a similar pose like Luke and Leia!

Instead of a fleet of X-Wing fighters you get a fleet of Hawkmen swooping down in an almost 3-D effect with Vultan’s cloud kingdom seen in the background on the right side of the frame.

All of his works are signed AMSEL with floating periods on either side of his name.

Richard Amsel was a prolific artist who attended the oldest school of Art in Philadelphia. After graduating he went on to create the poster art for films like “The Sting” and “Chinatown”. Following “Flash Gordon” he designed the art for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”!

He also designed album covers including Bette Midler’s Divine Ms. M.

For full bio of his life and works plus an animated slideshow of his iconic poster art click here: https://www.richardamselmovie.com/

He had an association with TV Guide for 13 years producing over 40 covers. A portrait he did of Lily Tomlin hangs in The Smithsonian. His final movie poster was for “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”.

The collage seen below is just a small sample of Amsel’s TV Guide covers. His first was an image of Lucille Ball upon her retirement from TV and show business.

I put up two of my favourites: All In The Family, Alice, and Richard Chamberlain in Shogun, a mini-series that aired for a week on NBC.

Notice the placement of the cast of Alice and All In The Family is similar to his placement of characters in his film poster work for Flash Gordon.

Richard Amsel died of AIDS in 1985 at the age of 37. I mourn him today. I had no idea he was one of the many awful casualties of that pandemic. His work is amazing.

Critical Reaction To Flash Gordon

The film found appreciation with some film critics, such as The New Yorker ‘s Pauline Kael. Kael described Flash Gordon as having “some of the knowing, pleasurable giddiness of the fast-moving Bonds…The director, Mike Hodges, gets right into comic-strip sensibility and pacing“.

She also stated the movie was “Like a fairy tale set in a discotheque in the clouds.” 

On their syndicated TV program Siskel and Ebert were giving films a Yes or No at that time before their now iconic thumbs up or down.

Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune did not care for it. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it a borderline Yes vote citing the fun comic book nature of the movie.

Visual Effects

In homage to the serial chapters of the 1930’s the film version was produced in strong primary colors and utilized Chroma Key effects.

Chroma key compositing, or chroma keying, is a visual-effects and post-production technique for compositing (layering) two images or video streams together based on colour hues (chroma range). The technique has been used in many fields to remove a background from the subject of a photo or video – particularly the newscasting, motion picture, and video game industries.

All of the space craft were done this way. Flash Gordon riding a Hawkman rocket cycle was also accomplished with this method as seen below. War Rocket Ajax, Vultan’s Cloud City and Flash with the Hawkmen approaching Mingo City are all Chroma Key images.

Favourite Scenes

The lavishly produced feature included giant set pieces adapted directly from the pages of Alex Raymond’s work partly as homage and because the formula worked!

I love the film as much as Rocky Horror loyalists. I can quote dialogue from any scene. This section brings us to my favourite parts of the film. A bit tricky because I really do enjoy all of it. Here goes…

In The Court Of Ming The Merciless at the point in which are trio from Earth first encounter all the ‘breeds’ of Mongo. This set is enormous. Ming’s throne looks like the inspiration for the Iron Throne on a certain HBO series.

Each ‘breed’ of Mongo gets introduced. Gathering in Court to present their tributes to the Emperor we see rivalries between Hawkmen and Treemen as the two groups argue over who stole their tribute!

Awaiting Ming’s first appearance in the film are assembled Hawkmen, Arborian Tree Men, and assorted races.

The image seen above is a fish-eye view of the court. Unknown to me as a kid but later appreciated as a film student that Flash Gordon utilized the Todd–AO camera system. At the time of filming in 1979 this was the state of the art widescreen format. Everything about the film is grand scale for a timeless adventure.

The Palace of Prince Vultan and his Hawkmen.

Initiation on Arboria where Prince Barin rules his treemen there is a rite of passage that all youth must experience. Within a warren of hollow tree stumps lives a beast in which the initiate must reach all the way in full arms length. If you choose the wrong path the beast will bite injecting the victim with deadly venom. The result is pain so awful the victim begs for death. Barin forces Flash to take this test in order to live.

Above in this gallery a view of Arboria against the colorful skies of Mongo, at the left bottom a birds eye view of Flash and Barin as they begin their duel, and on the right the beast that resides within the stump.

The Screenplay

Lorenzo Semple Jr.

The dialogue in Flash Gordon was purposefully done in a tone of high corn. Movie fans always call it camp.

Having written King Kong for Dino DeLaurentiis, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was then asked to write the Flash Gordon script.

The Batman TV series of 1966 was also written by him. The camp humour of that show was revived in Flash Gordon.

To this day every fan of this movie can quote dialogue. The language is comic book affectation in my opinion.

Ming The Merciless scolds those pathetic earthlings, Flash, Dale and Zarkov: “….If you had any inkling of who or what is out here you would have shuttered from it in utter terror!”

Ming The Merciless

Lines like, “We only have 14 hours to save the Earth” could only make sense in an over the top fantasy.

“What do you mean Flash Gordon approaching?”
“You’re a hero. Can’t you see that? Are you sure you don’t want a kingdom of your own?”
“Klytus, are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute that traitor?”

Original Soundtrack Music By QUEEN

Flash Gordon is the ninth studio album and first soundtrack album by the British rock band Queen, released on 8 December 1980 by EMI Records in the UK and in February 1981 by Elektra Records in the US. It was one of two film soundtracks that they produced along with Highlander. It is the soundtrack to the science fiction film Flash Gordon and features lyrics on only two tracks. 

Following the success Queen had with Flash Gordon two other notable rock groups contributed to movie soundtrack albums: Toto’s music was featured in “Dune” and AC/DC’s music was heard in “Maximum Overdrive”.

This was unusual at the time. Rock groups were not generally commissioned to score films.

I walked out of the cinema with the Queen music in my head. Following a trip to a furniture store I went to a local record shop to pick up the album. Dropping the needle onto this record was such a joyful moment for me.

Then to find they had included the dialogue from the film throughout the record was such a bonus. And the package for this record was so different from all of Queen’s previous efforts. It included an insert with a full colour image of Ming on one side and the lyrics for Flash and The Hero plus album credits on the other in red and yellow.

Seen above are the inner sleeve of the soundtrack featuring images of Queen on on side and the international cast on the other with a die cut in the center that lines up with the custom label featuring the logo.

For whatever reason the American version of this record did not have the die cut hole. The center was left intact so you lost the custom label peaking out effect.

Years later DJ Vanguard released a special re-mix of the single Flash.

On what turned out to be Queen’s final American Tour with Freddie & John in the Summer of 1982 Flash opened their shows followed by a performance of The Hero at the top of their setlist.

Flash Gordon Memorabilia

From the original 1930’s film serials to the 1980 feature to today the Flash Gordon franchise has produced a large array of collectibles.

In the 1930’s there were tin wind–up toys of spaceships from Flash Gordon and miniature figures in tins.

In the decades that followed numerous Sunday comic strips were published weekly. Comic Books, Toys, Figures, Posters, Trading Cards, Candy, Mugs, T-Shirts, Keychains, Magnets, and on and on and on.

Above are images of collectibles relating to the Flash Gordon franchise. On the Top Left are Flash and Ming figures with fold out Vultan’s Cloud Palace backdrop from Biff!Bang!Pow!

On the Top Right an early Pop-Up Book.

On the bottom Left a Lionman figure from Mattel based upon the Filmation animated series in 1979 on NBC.

Middle Right is a Viewmaster pack with 21 stereoscopic images also from the cartoon. And the bottom Right is a volume collecting Sunday comic strips of Flash Gordon now published by Titan books. There are 4 volumes in this series.

Flash Gordon books and magazines have been published over the past 70 years. In this gallery seen above notice the Mad Magazine clone Crazy with its parody of the movie!

The 1980 movie spawned several comic book adaptations, a novelization, poster books, and recently a graphic novel from Dynamite press called Zeitgeist.

Both DC & Marvel have published Flash Gordon comics at some point.

Archie Meets Flash Gordon in New Crossover One-Shot. Archie Comics has announced a new crossover one-shot with Flash Gordon, that was to hit comic shops back in June of this year.

The selection of pins seen here have been licensed by Vice in the United Kingdom.

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a term used to describe a huge amount of creative writing available to the American public in the early nineteen-hundreds. Termed “pulp magazines” because of the low quality paper used between the covers, these publications proliferated in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties and beyond.

Flash Gordon was the subject of several pulp series sold in drugstores and book shops. The gallery seen below features some of the covers published. There were even Flash Gordon Flip-books! There the small sized books that you flipped pages fast to create the illusion of motion! Checker books’ collections of Alex Raymond strips in full color featured The Ice Worlds of Mongo.

Toys + More Collectibles above and below

A pinball machine showed up in game arcades which I got to play several times. It had Queen’s music! The Atari Game Cartridge was less exciting somehow, Mattel sold a toy rocket ship for kids.

Titan Books published a 4 volume set collecting Flash Gordon comics from Alex Raymond to the present day.

There was even a Flash Gordon Colorforms Set! Along with Silly Putty and Yo-Yos Colorforms were a 1970s staple kids toy.

The 1979 NBC Saturday morning series was licensed to comics, figures, and lunchbox/thermos sets.

A comic book adaptation of Flash Gordon was published by Golden. The price was $1.95

There was also a program sold at select theaters for the film. I found it years later at a Horror/SciFi Convention.

40th Anniversary of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon Movie featuring the music of QUEEN

STUDIOCANAL is excited to announce the new 4k, Ultra High Definition restoration of Mike Hodge’s cult classic FLASH GORDON (1980), in honour of the film’s 40th anniversary.

 Flash Gordon was scanned from the original 35mm negative to produce 4K files. Over 500 hours of manual restoration repaired serious damage that included image instability, scratches, and intermittent flicker.

The sound was scanned from the original track negative and underwent restoration to improve issues ranging from audio drop-outs throughout the feature and during reel changes, digital clicks and optical distortion.

The film was colour graded for theatrical, home entertainment and 4K HDR release, using previous digital releases and 35mm prints as a reference. In line with the Director’s vision and the original 35mm cinema release, VFX work was applied to remove the strings in all scenes where visible. This restoration was approved by Director Mike Hodges in May 2020 and will include the first 4K HDR Dolby Vision master of Flash Gordon.

This Fall a new coffee table book will be published called Flash Gordon The Official Story by John Walsh.

Click here for Pre-Order information: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/667683/flash-gordon-the-official-story-of-the-film-by-john-walsh/

The End?

Originally there were to be 3 Flash Gordon movies to form a trilogy. Sam J. Jones had a falling out with the movie’s producers. The box office in North America was disappointing. At a cost of $70 million (a huge amount in 1979/80) and a paltry $20 million take in America no sequels were made.

While the irony is not lost on me that Flash Gordon up until this movie had multiple chapters including the short lived NBC cartoon, I think the movie is even more appealing because it is the only one of its kind.

A short-lived live action series appeared on the SyFy Channel. Dispensing with the former image of Ming as a caricature of Asian villainy he appeared as a bland modern CEO in an alternate dimension.

Another animated series also appeared on Cable television with less than encouraging results. Flash Gordon went into dormancy again.

The chroma key special effects. The model space ships. The glitzy costume design. Queen’s trademark sense of corn/camp are all part of the 1980 film’s lasting appeal.

This movie has become a true cult classic. Appealing to sci-fi/ fantasy geeks around the globe many of whom dress up as their favourite characters for ComicCon and Halloween.

I have seen the film at least 100 times. It’s my favourite cult film.

Seth Macfarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy is a fan. His comedies, Ted & Ted2 featured Sam J. Jones and Flash Gordon. Comic book artist Alex Ross loves the movie and also proclaims Queen as a favourite band.

Family Guy episode with the Hawkmen. The Ted movies were packaged with Flash Gordon.

Alex Ross art above for the Blu-Ray of Flash Gordon; The Ming Wants You art came with the disc.

There is talk in recent years of a Flash Gordon reboot with CGI effects but time will tell if this becomes reality.

All I know is that this work combined two of my favourite things: Flash Gordon and QUEEN.

This Fall boss Fight Studio is releasing figures of Flash and Ming to celebrate the 40th Anniversary; Movie posters for the 40th Anniversary Edition.

There is a new documentary called Life After Flash now streaming on Amazon Prime. It tells the story of actor Sam J. Jones’ sudden stardom followed by years outside show business. It will be one of the many extras on the upcoming blu-ray sets.

This was the theatrical movie poster for the documentary, Life After Flash.

Thank You Dear Readers! And Thanks Flash!

The multi-hued skies of Mongo.

“Keep your feet on the ground, put your hand on your heart, lift your head to the skies, and the world’s for your taking. Yes, you’re a Hero!”

“My life is not for any Earthling to tinker or take…”

2019 Music And Books

This has been a strong year for metal.

Tool and Rammstein both returned after prolonged absences to deliver some of their original metal.

Reading is a commercial free pleasure that always offers too many worthy titles.

The long-awaited follow up to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Testaments ” by Margaret Atwood brought an end to the dystopian saga.

Stephen King’s “The Institute” provided plenty suspense while Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” examined the disparities of our penal system.

Here I briefly remind my kind readers to pick up a good read for a sharp mind.

Music first. In no particular order these are my favorites for 2019.

Top L-R: Tool and Opeth.
Bottom L-R: Candlemass, Rammstein, and Dragonforce

Rammstein/ Untitled the German steel unleashed their seventh studio effort this year. A minimal art image on the cover of an unstruck match allows for infinite interpretation.

Like previous records in the band’s arsenal they convey their messages in masterfully crafted bursts of metal blended with synth and industrial sounds.

I had to listen more than once to appreciate the sonic aptitude of the music involved here.

Despite the fact that all their songs are in German as a metalhead you come to realize it’s the most amazing synergy with this genre.

Tool/ Fear Inoculum had a lot riding on it’s success or failure. After 13 years the band delivered their most assured set.

Complete with epic length songs, interludes, and fantastic artwork it brought fans new and old into their fold.

Opeth/ In Cauda Venenum is an earthly delight from the doom metal stalwarts.

A funeral trip that engages a sense of hope beyond the grave. This is a band that remains focused from first riff to last outro growl. A true opus.

Dragonforce/ Extreme Power Metal I feel energized when I listen to the galeforce delivery here. Infused with great keyboards and tasty metal licks with thick choruses you too will hail our bright future.

Bright and colorful with brilliant musicianship, this album testifies to the kinetic energy inherent in power metal. It’s like Styx on steroids!

Candlemass/ The Door To Doom Death metal has had a strong year. This veteran group released quite a slab.

A tight set that runs 48 minutes. ‘Splendor Demon Majesty’ opens with a grand salute to the dark lord.

The record builds on all the classic instrumentation of Black Sabbath. A 1970s groove permeates. And this is a great result.

In fact, Sabbath founder Tony Iommi is featured on track 3—‘Astorolus-The Great,Octopus ‘. Sludgy and deep riffs abound.

Doomy choral backing vocals add to the impact. You will want to open this door many, many times!

Notable authors provided a feast for readers in 2019. Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, Delia Owens, Dean Kuipers, and Elizabeth Gilbert made my cut.

Where The Crawdads Sing/Delia Owens has now been near or at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for over 60 weeks!

It deserves this honor. A great story of survival against all odds. A young girl’s family abandons her in the marsh.

She will grow up alone in their beach shack. And along the way she gets accused of murder.

Teaching herself to become self sufficient she teaches her would be enemies in the art of love and forgiveness.

City of Girls/ Elizabeth Gilbert is a story set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City. A young woman drops out of an elite college.

Sent to live with her eccentric aunt in the city who runs a playhouse.

A friend recommended this novel. If you love theater you must check it out!

The Nickel Boys/ Colson Whitehead a story of two boys incarceration in a reform school in Florida. Unknown to out of state authorities the systemic horrors of Jim Crow are alive and well.

The Deer Camp/Dean Kuipers a memoir of growing up in rural Michigan.

How a boy grows up to become an activist in New York only to discover that his estranged father needs him for his own life. His family’s survival depends on it.

A great exploration of healthy masculine ideals.

The Institute/Stephen King Young Luke Ellis is abducted, his parents are killed, and that is just the start of his new life as a subject of the mysterious lab he is now a part.

King keeps the suspense gripping and the facts that cometo light illuminate our current horrifying climate of espionage and black site operations.

The Testaments/ Margaret Atwood the conclusion of the dystopian tale of women’s demotion back into handmaids.

Gilead’s secrets are about to be leaked globally. A runaway becomes the symbol of a final reckoning that will reduce this cruel social to rubble.

Wilco’s Ode To Joy/Review

Wilco was formed in Chicago in 1994. After a year off including a 2 1/2 year hiatus from touring they are back!

Jeff Tweedy is a songwriter who can create limitless visions with few words. “You never change, I never change. Somehow we’re still bright leaves.”

Setting a somber yet glorious tone that never leaves you, Wilco’s 11th studio album is filled with magic and poetry.

Yearning to change in a reality that despite its limitations still provides life’s greatest joys.

Simple. Pure. Listen closely to this record. You may just feel better that there are more questions than answers.

The single, “Everyone Hides” is the closest thing to a pop hit in the Wilco soundscape. A reaffirming song about our all too human ability to sell ourselves short.

Fear of vulnerability stops us from becoming our most fully realized selves.

Mr. Tweedy continues to dig deep into the enigmatic nature of life; discovering a form of joy that is protective armour around that soft shell.

The set list:

  • “Bright Leaves” – 4:10
  • “Before Us” – 3:22
  • “One and a Half Stars” – 3:43
  • “Quiet Amplifier” – 5:50
  • “Everyone Hides” – 3:00
  • “White Wooden Cross” – 3:12
  • “Citizens” – 3:03
  • “We Were Lucky” – 4:57
  • “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” – 3:34
  • “Hold Me Anyway” – 4:00
  • “An Empty Corner” – 3:46

“Before Us” is a song that reminds you that we live in a continuum. Even at life’s turning point we are in the middle of something. Achingly beautiful with words that ring true:

“Alone with the people who came before us…I’m high for the people who came before us.”

I remember when wars would end”. Do you remember when wars would end? Now, when something’s already dead we try to kill it again.”

Depression is explored in “One and a Half Stars”. A strong desire to change is thwarted by the inability to get out of a bed two stories high; a prisoner of a domain either imagined or realized.

An internal engine at low hum is running throughout the songs. “Quiet Amplifier” resounds with longing.

Honey, no train’s gonna come. I’ve waited my whole life. I’ve tried, in my own way, to love everyone.”

Eternal questions of existence are internalized on “White Wooded Cross”. How would you cope with a serious loss?

Is it stranger to live?”

“Is it stranger to die?”

“Citizens” lifts the veil of civic pride to reveal we are the very personification of ‘white lies’ of our own making. “High times. High crimes. Medals for you to salute.”

“We were Lucky” has layers of guitar that tingle and reflect upon a life filled with beautiful moments. The sounds build to a humble flourish. Love is complex.

“Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”, “Hold Me Anyway”, and “An Empty Corner” are beautifully reflective works on par with their early releases.

Despite the foreboding nature of love we are consistently reminded that the gains outweigh the risks of exposure.

Wilco: John Stirratt – bass guitar, backing vocals (1994–present)
Jeff Tweedy – lead vocals, rhythm, acoustic and lead guitars, bass guitar, harmonica (1994–present)
Glenn Kotche – drums, percussion (2001–present)
Mikael Jorgensen – samples and sound manipulation, keyboards, synthesizers, effects, piano, organ (2002–present)
Nels Cline – lead guitar, loops, lap steel (2004–present)
Pat Sansone – keyboards, rhythm and lead guitars, backing vocals, synthesizers, maracas, tambourine (2004–present)

Wilco in concert December 15, 16, 18, 19 at The Chicago Theater .

Western Stars/Bruce Springsteen

Western Stars is the 19th solo album by Bruce Springsteen.
Produced by Ron Aniello on Columbia Records.
13 Songs; 50 minutes

A wayfarin’ hitch-hiker takes a journey back out to big sky country to reflect on a life gone past. Along the way we learn he was a B-movie Stuntman whose proudest moment was a scene with screen icon John Wayne.

Painting a deceptively simple picture of creeping isolation, lost love, and futile attempts to outrun a road that has to end, Mr. Springsteen has composed a romantic yet melancholy tribute to the American ideals of the West.

Remembering good times at a local cafe where the work is left behind; ‘Monday is a million miles away’. Forgetting the mounting sadness of lost opportunity because the western stars are out tonight.

The thematic thread woven through are light and dark; sunrise and sundown; the sun and the moon.

Evoking this vision are understated orchestrations that support the vocals in even tempo. At times the sweeping beauty of the notes will fill you with longing.

This is because our western star is waiting for his lost love to return. He knows this is a fool’s errand. “Tuscon Train”, “Stones”, and “There Goes My Miracle” are songs of tortured romance literally gone south.

The album’s centerpiece track, “Drive Fast” (The Stuntman), shows a physically broken man whose wounds are his only companion. The steel rod in his leg walks him home each night.

The last song on the album is “Moonlight Motel”. A memory of lost lovers enjoying an afternoon delight in a derelict place. The physical structures have gone to seed while their love blossoms. A place once made for nighttime pleasures becomes the sight of a self-made Eden.

Quite a beautiful album that is able to relate this tale of loss and loneliness without making its listener feel too sad. The melodies are uplifting; the vocals are empathetic.

In the daylight chasing wild horses, running for countless miles is enough to outrun the impending gloom. There is a deep abiding respect for this rugged place by the man at the center of it all—The Boss.

In lieu of a tour for this record, Bruce Springsteen makes his directorial debut on October 25, 2019 with “Western Stars”.

The film is a performance of the album with orchestra before an audience. An album, “Western Stars” Film Version will be released. It’s the same track list as the studio LP except for the addition of “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell.

“Sundown” is the first single released from the film version album. The new versions seem to have even more developed orchestration.

Western Stars opens in theaters on October 25, 2019. The concert film premiered last month at the Toronto Film Festival.

E Street Stardom/Solo Magic

For decades now Bruce Springsteen has piece by piece constructed a music career that continues to inspire longtime listeners and attract newcomers.

He has enjoyed commercial success but did not count only on selling his music but by creating a persona that was larger than his self but true to who he is offstage.

After listening to “Western Stars” over and over digitally I found my own take. His E Street albums are the rockstar track built with hits like “The River”, “Born To Run”, and “Born In The USA”.

The solo albums have been allowed by an audience that deeply appreciates his hard work in not just entertaining them but making them think too. This is the internal track of non rock Lp’s that delve into Americana, Folk, and Protest music.

His catalog is like a puzzle with thousands of pieces. For years I was distracted enough not to see what he was doing. Building his following slowly in bars/clubs on the Jersey Shore then reaching a zenith with sold out stadiums. He never relies on just hit singles. He becomes by word of mouth a legendary presence. His audience bestows the nickname, The Boss, to signify to them what he represents in the music world.

The solo work allows Bruce to work on music that he knows will not sell stadiums nor spend weeks at the top of the chart. It’s material he hopes will alternately take listeners down musical byways that cannot fit into the mainstream rock frame of the E Street Band.

I feel there are few solo artists doing such consistently fine work as Mr. Springsteen. Bob Dylan comes to mind. The Boss seeks long term attachment with his audience. He gets it because of the trust built upon decades of great work both rocking and reflective.

I hope the puzzle is not near completion.

Bruce Springsteen is performing at The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 5th. A benefit for Stand-Up For Heroes.

TOOL’s Fear Inoculum

Each new decade begins with a clearing out of the sounds that animated it. Following the 1980’s metal stampede record labels embraced Grunge. This was the early 1990’s.

Then bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains were on top. Following their short-lived reign came a sight & sound nobody saw coming.

Industrial. Heavy. Nuanced. Not really traditional metal nor hard rock—alternative metal?

TOOL. The name was mono-syllabic. The logo was cool. The sound was enigmatic to its core. Songs were long. The vocals did not come in for two minutes! Their videos used animation of the stop-motion kind; thematically dark.

The first four albums have amassed three Grammy awards; sold millions of copies; topped the US chart twice. Then for unknown reasons the band disappeared from the music scene entirely.

13 Years later since their last record something truly amazing happened—TOOL’s social media page lit up with a post announcing a new record. The music listening public did not forget this band. The response has been quite large.

Legal problems and label disputes aside, the band’s music appeared on digital streaming services for the first time.

“Fear Inoculum” carries the band forward nicely. The running time on the digital format is 1 hour, 26 minutes.

The 10 tracks are formatted with 6 epic songs and 4 instrumental passages that form a type of connective tissue that support the lengthier songs.

This is an expertly crafted record. The band’s consistent sound serves the listener well.

Going underneath the surface of human physiology to dig deep into unanswerable questions of spirit and mind are TOOL’s strength as musicians.

I have the digital album on Amazon Music Unlimited. The vinyl version of this record is to be released this Fall. The CD had innovative packaging.

A 4X4 screen built into the three panel cardboard sleeve contains exclusive video images. It comes with a speaker and a cord for recharging the screen. The price for the CD was $30. Amazon sold out in minutes.

This is a review of all the tracks on the digital streaming format.

On the day of its release the band uploaded all eight of their music videos to YouTube for the first time! Click here for their channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1wUo-29zS7m_Jp-U_xYcFQ/videos

inoculum – a substance (a virus or toxin or immune serum) that is introduced into the body to produce or increase immunity to a particular disease.

“Fear Inoculum” opens with Buddhist chimes. Opening with this title track is an explicit mission statement. Fear is a disease/malady that will be reduced.

Maynard James Keenan’s laconic style of vocals have lost nothing to the years. His delivery makes you listen closely. The lyrics are among the best this band has ever delivered.

The music throughout is hypnotic. The length of each track will not matter if you allow yourself to tune into the depth of meaning here.

“Pneuma” literally means breath. In theology, the soul or vital spirit. The lyrics exemplify what it means to live. We must become our best selves over a lifetime.

At 11:53, it’s one of the longest tracks here.

At the 7:30 mark comes a theramin driven instrumental passage that is quite beautiful.

“Litanie contre la Peur” is the first of the four short instrumentals that act as connective tissue/support for the six epic tracks contained on the album.

It translates “Litany of Fear”. A relaxing depth takes hold by this point that will not let go until the end.

“Invincible” (12:44) opens with the sounds of tapping on an empty water jug. The guitars have a nice timber here. Evoking the mythical search for everlasting youth with the “chasing of Ponce De Leon’s phantom”.

A warrior’s lament. Reflecting on the epic of battles fought. Trying in vain to remain relevant as a soldier in our new age. “Tales told of battles won, things we’ve done, Caligula would grin.” Now time is bearing down on the pawns (tools?) of war.

“Legion Inoculant” (3:06) is a phase shifting instrumental that drifts into and out of distant sounding voices that struggle to be heard.

“Descending” (13:30). Opens the second half of the record with sounds of waves crashing on a beach. This invocation that we can rouse ourselves from a self inflicted sleep before it’s too late.

The lyric repeats”Falling is not flying”. Each of these six epic tracks have instrumental passages that are sweeping and understated.

The drone of guitars snarl into spiral patterns of harmonic riffs. A wake-up to our “wanton slumber” to “mitigate our ruin”.

“Culling Voices” (10:05). This track describes being in a state of psychopathy— a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.

A melancholic track with great pathos into the psyche of “imaginal interplay”. The voices in our head are misleading. The repeated refrain of “don’t you dare point that thing at me” allows its listener to fill in their own blanks.

“Chocolate Chip Trip” (4:48). A connective instrumental. Out of left field is TOOL’s default position. A quirky buzz of beats and repetitive keys.

Those culled voices are being scrambled up into something else. The percussion and keys are quite hypnotic.

Realigning the synapses perhaps in its dive towards the final epic contained here.

“7Empest” (15:43). The band is obsessed with the number 7. It appears in some way on each of their 5 albums. The music reflects the lyrical meaning. Starting off slow with those Buddhist chimes mixed into the riffing it builds into the promised fury.

An examination of the mind gone off its hinges. A tempest in a teapot. TOOL takes the most cliche of metal ideas bending it toward the meaning needed to fit this inoculation of fear. “We know your nature…Calm before the torrent comes.” The ‘We’ is authoratative.

At 4:30 we get the most furious sounding riffs on the album. This rage up is the most straight-forward of all the tracks. It harkens back to “Sober” on their debut record, “Undertow”.

After eight minutes it churns and wends around you with guitars blazing. Like the abstract serpent on the cover art it twists and turns beautifully. You never see it’s eye. But the musical storm is omnipresent. It cannot be controlled.

The album closer is the final instrumental. A gentle outro to the proceedings of the past 90 minutes! “Mockingbeat” (2:05).

The final pitch from left field. Artifice or real bird sounds, voices, constant chirps all culminate in a soundscape you are not prepared for based on the previous 9 tracks. But this is what TOOL are all about. After the final chirp it’s over.

TOOL fans will love this record. For the new listener it may take awhile to get into this epic. After 4 listens, I love it.

The group’s line-up includes drummer Danny Carey, guitarist Adam Jones, and vocalist Maynard James KeenanJustin Chancellor has been the band’s bassist since 1995, replacing their original bassist Paul D’Amour.

Top L-R: “Undertow” (1993); “AEnima” (1996) on Zoo records.
Middle: “Lateralus” (2001) on Volcano records.
Bottom L-R: “10,000 Days” (2006); “Fear Inoculum” (2019).
Both also on Volcano records.

TOOL is on tour this October & November in the US with Killing Joke opening. For all dates and ticket info go to http://www.ticketmaster.com

Tue • Nov 19 • 7:30 PM Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY

Twenty One Pilots Reinvent Rock

Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” is a critically acclaimed play that keeps getting revived on Broadway. I saw the most recent production Starring Annette Bening and Tracey Letts.

It tells the story of an American defense contractor who knowingly sold defective plane parts that led to the deaths of 21 pilots during the war.

Vocalist Tyler Joseph took the name for his band from this play. He is the principal songwriter for the duo. His childhood friend Josh Dun is the drummer.

I loved the play. Arthur Miller became one of my favorite playwrights. Consequently, Twenty One Pilots are now one of my favorite artists in music.

The duo from Akron, Ohio did not try to sell themselves. Playing low key gigs in their home state until one fateful show with 1,200 local fans and 12 record label reps in the crowd took them by surprise.

They have recorded 4 studio albums. The third album”Blurryface” was their breakthrough to the commercial mainstream. The song “Stressed Out” went triple platinum.

I found them on SNL. Then I went to hear all of their music online. I could not stop listening. Their sound was unique. How could a rock duo seemingly reinvent the genre?

Tyler Joseph discovered for himself how to express personal struggles with depression, doubt, and survival using his voice. He plays keyboards/synth. The music has no guitar. This became revelatory to their success.

I felt strongly that no other artist reflected these times better. Exploring themes of faith, mental illness, death, insecurity and suicide on their eponymous debut, “Vessels”, and “Blurryface”, the duo took a year off to write a story focusing on the painful end of an order based on faith.

Their recent offering, “Trench”, was a concept record well received by fans and critics alike. Set in the fictional city of Dema, in a world known as Trench. Clancy, the main protagonist, takes a personal journey into this decaying culture to discover Nine Bishops control this crumbling society.

Trench Album & Josh Dun with Tyler Joseph seen above.

Dema means Towers of Silence. In Zoroastrianism the dead are placed inside of towers made of stone. Black Vultures feed on them. Ecology falters leading to the disappearance of these sentries to the eternal.

The songs tell the story well. Tyler Joseph and Paul Meaney of indie band Mutemath wrote all 14 tracks and produced the album.

‘Jumpsuit’ opens the record. A protective article of clothing needed to survive in Trench. ‘Levitate’ & ‘Morph’ describe the actions required to move around dangerous sections of the city.

The vocals vary from soft to outcries; falsetto to baritone; sometimes in the span of a single song.

‘My Blood’, ‘Chlorine’, ‘Smithereens’, and ‘Neon Gravestones’ cover more ground. The joining together to fend off enemies, cleansing away dark thoughts, and sacrificing for your community are expressed in these tracks. The music insists on our resisting old thoughts to operate in a discovery of improved life.

‘The Hype’, ‘Nico and the Niners’, ‘Cut My Lip’, ‘Bandito’ and ‘Pet Cheetah’ follow in quick order. The action moves fast; the thoughts need time to be absorbed.

This album takes more than a few spins but rewards its listener with catchy beats and introspective lyrics. The pop elements repeat a lot. I found it more soothing than irritant.

‘Legend’ and ‘Leave The City’ are about survival. Coping with new circumstances becomes the salve.

If you have not listened to this music yet start with Blurryface or Vessels. While Trench is satisfying to the duo’s now established following, it may not grab a novice.