When I say "I live in Seattle" I actually mean it (unlike some folks)...my home is about 3.6 miles south of the northern city limits. Seattle is a big town (or small city, depending on your POV) and trying to get scheduled for a Covid vaccine in town is tough to say the least. So it was that Saturday morning found me driving north on Interstate-5 to the Skagit County Fairgrounds vaccination site for an 11am appointment...about an hour's drive...to get my first Pfeizer shot.
One of the things I enjoy about the new car the family purchased 2-3 years ago, is the "satellite radio" subscription we got with it: instant access to good music based on genre depending on whatever mood you're in, and even if there's a lousy/annoying song on your favorite genre station, chances are you can find something good on one of your other favorites, without commercials. It's not PERFECT, but for road trips it beats the hell out of the old alternative of slugging away a ton of CDs or mix tapes that you've already listened to a gazillion times. Saturday was a loooong drive (as noted) and rather than listen to the usual hair metal stations I gravitate towards, I listened instead to a rebroadcast for Casey Kasem's American Top 40 from the week of April 21st, 1973. Like, the whole thing (minus commercial interruption).
It was a good time, and one thing I noticed about the top pop hits from that week in history (the year I was born) was the songs tended to fall into three general categories: 1) songs that I'd never heard before that seemed to be "gimmicky" (like Funky Worm by the Ohio Players), 2) workman-like songs from established artists (both Neither One of Us from Gladys Knight and Call Me by Al Green were completely forgettable pieces), or 3) true classics that I have heard countless times over the last 47+ years including Killing Me Softly (Roberta Flack), Danny's Song (Anne Murray), Stir It Up (Johnny Nash), Love Train (O'Jays), Space Oddity (Bowie), and Drift Away (Dobie Gray).
And the thing that classics like Stevie Wonder's Sunshine of my Life or Steely Dan's Reeling in the Years have over songs like Skylark's Wildflower or the Stylistics' Break Up to Make Up isn't necessarily head-and-shoulders better musicianship or better production values. It's a combination of songwriting (lyrics and instruments) with interesting, memorable touches that makes a song stand out from what has come before. Some cats just have that "it factor" and you can hear it in the way the song has been put together and recorded...even if you don't like a particular song (I'm not a huge Stevie Wonder fan), you can appreciate why he's one of the all-time greats.
I say this by way of introduction to the band Loot the Body, who just sent me a preview copy of the new album Hex for review. Spoiler alert: probably not destined to be a classic.
Hex is a six song EP with each track taking its name and theme from a classic D&D adventure module: White Plume Mountain, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Castle Amber, Tomb of Horrors, Ravenloft, and The Keep on the Borderlands. I've had some previous exposure to Loot the Body through The Barrier Peaks Songbook, which to me seemed more like a fun little project/experiment than a serious attempt at...well, a serious attempt. The new EP shows, no, Nunez IS actually serious about this wedding of D&D and music...there's a lot of obvious effort here...and whether he's trying to carve out a niche for himself or this is "just what he does," it's certainly doesn't appear to be throwaway trash.
That being said, the first word that came to mind as I listened to to Hex was "sophomoric," despite this being his third effort (I only just discovered he has an earlier album, Random Encounters, which I haven't had a chance to hear). I actually dig on the concept of the album (the idea he was going for) but my overall impression is one of flawed execution, and the thought that the music could have benefitted from some collaboration, or a strong hand in the production/editing with regard to the songwriting itself.
Musically, Hex reminds me quite a bit of Blue Oyster Cult, and shares some of the issues I have with BOC, especially the vocals. I'm okay with BOC (I've seen them live in concert) but they only have three songs I care to listen to, and despite their talent, I find most of their music to be disappointing and forgettable. I'm just not a fan of wispy, gutless singing that takes few chances vocally or lyrically. That's probably too harsh, but (for me) I like my singing to stand out and apart from the other instruments, not just become a drone in the background. I have this problem with more recent bands like Muse and Radiohead, too, although the latter band makes up for it with layering and originality. Perhaps it's music that's designed to act as a soundtrack to the group gathering around the bong, without "harshing the buzz" or acting as a distraction...and, sure, that's "okay." Elevator music is okay, too...in an elevator. But, man, it gets old after a (very short) while.
Nunez does have musical chops, but his singing talent doesn't stand out, and his instruments...at times creative, at times highly derivative...suffer on most tracks from composition. See, this is the part where me NOT being a music critic fails me: I don't have the words to describe it. Often, he fills up the song sheet with lyrics withOUT musical breaks, rushing to get the words in, rather than letting the ear rest from the drone and just groove into the hooks and melodies. There are parts in every song where the ear wants a break from the singing...and gets none (or not enough). The bridges are too short. Another verse is needed instead of another repetition of an overlong chorus. Things like that.
Lyrically the songs are hit-and-miss. To ME...an old school D&D guy...some of the songs are especially grating when they lift whole swaths of background text from the adventure modules from which they are derived. The album is at its best when Nunez goes "off script" with his lyrics...writing about the feelings and actions of adventurers in the dungeon, rather than the dungeon itself.
I've listened to every song on the album multiple times. For me, the best of the bunch are Dwellers in the Forbidden City, Castle Amber, and Tomb of Horrors with Dwellers being my favorite track on the album. Castle Amber has some of the best lyrics on the album, but is scattered in its musical themes, and needs tightening. Tomb would be pretty good (despite some fairly derivative musical hooks) but suffers from the aforementioned issue of arrangement/composition...too bad, because it has one of the best bridges/choruses on the album.
White Plume Mountain, and Keep on the Borderlands are just heartbreaking (or embarrassing, depending on your point of view). When you have one of the worst villain names in the history of D&D ("Keraptis" sounds a bit too much like "crap") you don't spend the entirety of the lyrics on the dude and his history in the module's "background" section, and nothing about the adventure itself (what? no mention of Blackrazor, Wave, and Whelm? Come on). Definitely NOT the song to lead off the EP. TKotB isn't quite as bad, and is fine sitting at the end of the album as coda...just wish it was more than adventure background.
Ravenloft, like the adventure it's based on, is just gimmicky in tone. It feels like the worst of BOC and irritates me every time I've tried listening to it (it's a struggle to listen to the track for more than two minutes,)...and yet it's the ONLY track that has a decent musical interlude (sans vocals) in the middle. Unfortunately, while it may be the best composed track on the EP it has an incredibly annoying chorus. Ugh.
Should you buy this album? Mmm. There's definitely worse musical projects to throw money at. Like anything produced by Pitbull. AND if you're a fan of droning, stoner rock...especially if you're tickled by themes inspired by classic D&D adventures...then, sure, yes. Because chances are, that's the only way you'll be getting a chance to hear these tracks. I don't think you'll be hearing these songs on the radio any time in the near future.
And as I come to the end of this review (marveling at how any sane person would ask me to express my honest opinion of their work knowing how caustic and negative I can be..."gutless?" really?) and I finish listening to Hex for what must be the 10th time, I find myself coming to the conclusion that the best track on the album, despite its flaws, is Tomb of Horrors and not Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Even though I prefer the rock hook and lyrics of Dwellers, Tomb is the better song...Dwellers is just too short, needing more time to unwind, gel, and melt into your mind. Plus, Tomb's got the better, hookier chorus; I'll probably be humming it the rest of the day.
All right. That's enough of that.
Loot the Body's new EP Hex is scheduled for release June 4th and can be found on Bootcamp and elsewhere.