Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Let me tell you about my favorite band

It was summer 1982 when I picked up my first album.  I was a dumb kid and I didn't know what hard rock or heavy metal were, I just knew I liked the cover art.  Back to Basics, the fourth album from Wisconsin band Dungeons & Dragons, totally blew my mind.  It was like the Death Star exploding, but in music form.  At the time I didn't realize that Tom "the Bomb" Moldvay was new to the band, replacing original guitarist Dave Arneson.  I just knew I liked the sound.  Probably my favorite tracks are the opener, "The Life and Times of Morgan Ironwolf" and track eight, "Blood-Thirsty Thoul".

As soon as I could I tracked down the only other record by D&D available in local stores, their masterpiece Diabolical Advances.  This album was heavier, more complex and darker than Back to Basics.  You wouldn't believe the hours I wasted trying to figure out the lyrics.  "Segment by Segment" and "Battle of the Psi Lords" still baffle me to this day.  I've looked the lyrics up online but I'm just not convinced that Gygax is speaking English in these songs.

 My buddy Dave was one of the first people I turned on to the Dungeons & Dragons sound.  He somehow managed to track down a copy of 1983's Towards Immortality before I did.  The sound was a lot like Back to Basics, but clearly it was lightened up for radio play.  Even so, track three, "The Death of Aleena" anchored this album to the stuff we already knew.  Dark, heady stuff for a kid.  It was about this time that the first greatest hits album for the group appeared, Unearthed, which featured stuff from albums we hadn't even heard of and a great cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "Career of Evil".


The 1989 release Second Chances was the first time as a kid that I realized a band could change in ways that you didn't want them to.  Me and my friends still bought and listened to this album, but we could hear the corporate-rock glitz screwing up the heavy sound we used to love.  So we turned to other bands, mostly Van Halen and BattleTech, as I recall.  The EP With Skill and Power only cemented my opinion that D&D was going in the wrong direction musically.

By 1999 I was old enough to feel nostalgia for the good ol' days, so the release of Third Time's the Charm was welcome.  It wasn't the smack in the face of Diabolical Advances or Back to Basics, but it had an interesting sound of its own.  The punkish "Behold the Icons" and the utterly inexplicable "Attack of Opportunity" were pretty grating, but I really enjoyed most of the rest of the songs on this one.  I played this and the follow-up live album, Half A Loaf of Rock You more than any record I had bought in years.  The new greatest hits album, the unimaginatively-titled Unearthed II, was also pretty great.

It was about this time that I decided to track down the one that started it all, the original 1974 album, Medieval Fantastic.  I couldn't believe how raw this sound was!   It was almost like an American version of Motorhead, fast and crazy and not giving a damn what you think.  I was a new rock and roll fan all over again.  The last track on this one, "Eldritch Wizardry" remains one of my all-time favorite songs.  It was around this time that I also started hunting down the bands that followed in the wake of D&D's initial success, particularly The Judges and The Dave Hargrave Project.  A couple of D&D cover bands, particularly the Labyrinth Lords and Raggi & The Flame Princesses, also found a spot in my collection.

What's funny about the '77 D&D release, Surgeon of the Underworld, is that I owned it for years, as I bought it during the gap between the With Skill and Power EP and Third Time's A Charm.  But it wasn't until a couple years ago that I actually bothered to give it a listen.  What a fool I was.  Here in one disc was everything I loved about the entire D&D corpus.  To this day I can't believe that both "The Wonderful Scrolls of Doctor Holmes" and "Melee Resolution" were omitted from both Unearthed volumes.  They had room in Unearthed II for a cover of "Sunshine Superman" but for nothing from this album?  WTF?
Which brings us to Fourgone Conclusions.  I know a lot of people like this one, but it just doesn't do anything for me.  The new sound is too J-poppy for me or something.  And firing original bassist Mike "the Maniac" Mornard and replacing him with the drummer's son was a terrible idea.  Who the hell does that?  I'm glad the band is back in the studio working on a new album.  If The Essentials live album is any indication, they seem to be leaning a little bit towards that original sound.  I guess we'll see.

55 comments:

  1. Move over Robert Christgau...

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  2. Fucking amazing!

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  3. Aw man, "Lawful Werebear" (not to be confused with "Blink Dogs of Law and Good")on Surgeon of the Underworld does it for me everytime.

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  4. Around the time of Diabolical Advances you could tell that they thought of themselves as rock Deities & Demigods - so cocky, but it totally worked for them.

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  5. nice, i particularly love the cover band The Dave Hargrave Project- i never personally attended one of their concerts, alas.

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  6. That was awesome. A million times this.

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  7. Anonymous4:47 PM

    Funny, clever, and no profanity. Well done.

    If this had been posted yesterday, I could have called it Post of the Month. As it stands, I'm still calling it Post of the Month, 'cause I'd love to be proved wrong by something better ;)
    ~V~

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  8. You are my hero, Jeff.

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  9. Well done, sir!

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  10. Does that make the retroclones cover bands?

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    1. "We're not a cover band! We're a TRIBUTE band!"

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  11. You forgot Cyclopedia Compendium, which was essentially the band going back into the studio and re-recording the hits that made them such powerhouses of the arena circuit. This album further served to alienate some of the hardcore fans by slightly tinkering with the recognizable sound (it is especially derided for the boxy bass on some of the tracks that make it sound like Doug Niles was playing while immersed in a pool of green Jell-o). By this time Frank "The Man" Mentzer had left the band due to "creative differences" and the rest of the guys turned to former roadie-turned-backup guitarist Aaron Allston to fill Menzter's spot on the roster. This particular compilation was released shortly before Third Time's the Charm, wasn't heavily promoted by the label, and was ultimately overlooked by most fans who were dying to hear the new new stuff, not the new old stuff. Sadly, the album is now a bit hard to find—especially the versions that were packaged with the super-rare promo EP Immortal Wrath featuring the lone single issued by the band in the 1990s, "Lords of Creation." I hear that copies of this album can fetch beaucoup bucks on the fan circuit.

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  12. Anonymous5:28 PM

    When a band sucks out loud for 10 years straight, I've started started calling that "pulling a D&D"! Smashing Pumpkins, NIN, Manson...they were all great in the 90s, it's like they gave up when the millennium dropped. All really phoning in the last FOUR ALBUMS or so.

    I'd be more optimistic about D&D's new album if they had ANYONE from the original line up left. At this point, they're just a cover band of themselves and I might as well listen to Runequest or something! The influences are clear, but I'm not sure how I feel about prog rock...

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  13. @ Jeff:

    Awesome.

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  14. I've got old friends whose favorite work is the With Skill and Power EP. In fact, they've convinced me to give it a listen again after many years. I remain skeptical, but it just goes to show there's no accounting for musical taste.

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  15. Look, I loved this band as much as the next guy when I was a kid, and I'm glad they're putting out new albums with a more contemporary sound for today's disaffected teenagers to fall in love with, but are they really relevant any more?

    Hell, I was just seventeen when I heard the track "Sanity Loss" from Sandy Petersen's album from '81 and realized that having heard that, I'd never be satisfied with just the old power chords. (And while I don't deny that D&D was a more influential band, if "influential" is measured in great cover versions, Call is the all-time champion.)

    In middle age my tastes have gotten weird and rarified and my playlist is fully of weird indy stuff that my teenaged self would never understand. Have you heard the stuff that Vin Baker is recording on his Lumpley label? Every album is completely different: elegiac country-western, goofball Satanic death metal, apocalyptic industrial thrash, and on and on ....

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  16. They went all over the place after "Second Chances", with seemingly no direction, but there was much inventiveness. The space-rock sounds of "Spelljammer", the psychedelia of "Planescape", the death-metal vibe of "Dark Sun", and the gothic "Ravenloft" - all have their hardcore fans.

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  17. I kind of like Skill and Power,
    "skill and power...DIE DIE!"

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  18. Well done sir. Awesome.

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  19. I never realizes it until now, but the cover to 3rd Edition does look like the album cover to Music from The Elder

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  20. *golf clap

    Well played, sir.

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  21. I'm glad to hear the record label is digitally remastering Diabolical Advances and putting it out in specialty shops soon - but they really need to get that thing converted to MP3 and uploaded to iTunes; that's where the kids are these days.

    Heck, we still listen to Songs of Tsojcanth. After all this reminiscing, I'm off to put on some Underworld Dreams just to hear Vault of the Drow again. 1970's D&D really wailed.

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  22. There was a D&D band?

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  23. Fantastic!

    Just missing a few umlauts.

    Sürgeon of the Underwörld

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  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  25. Look, I know the haters are going hate, and Lord knows many people think Dungeons & Dragons deserves some hate, especially given the K-Tel years when it seemed they were pumping out album after album of out-takes and retakes and practice sessions. For cripes's sakes, I know some completists out there who not only bought that one K-Tel package with every take of "Barbarian" but also got suckered into buying the "Dwarf Power" and "Ultimate Clergyman" alt-take albums, too.

    Does anyone else remember seeing commercials late at night on Channel 11 in St. Louis (that's KPLR to you locals in the know) during the late, late shows? Hell, I remember seeing one right in the middle of a broadcast of Deathrace 2000 (uncut with all the nudity & profanity, god bless you Channel 11!) and then running out the next morning to the Dragon's Lair in downtown Webster Groves to be the first guy in the record store to grab a copy off the shelf. And man, was I disappointed when I got home and plopped that sucker on the record table (my Dad hadn't been convinced to make the switch to Compact Discs--he thought it was a passing fad).

    I know we were all looking forward to the original lineup reunion tour that looked like it was finally going to happen before everything fell to bit—it's a shame that the touring schedule of Gygax's Mythus Project conflicted with the recording sessions for Arneson's new band, The Blackmoor Episodes. Yet I think that since the unearthing of all those legal papers, we all now realize that any reunion plans were going to meet a legal brickwall—band had unintentionally signed away control of the publishing & peforming rights of their entire back catalog to the label.

    So, yeah—that big "SPLAT . . . KA-CHING!" sound in the 90s was the label milking the fans for every penny they could squeeze. Is anyone else besides me peeved that he shell out good, hard-earned cash to get a copy of the "Finding Víkingr" rehearsal sessions only to realize it was just a compilation of cover songs (good cover songs, but at least they could of told us that up front!). Am I angry? No. Am I bitter? Yeah. Just a bit.

    Sigh . . . thank God for the tribute bands . . . Wizards with Swords really do manage to capture the spirit of the early years, but I really like Critical Encounter and their prog-rock take on the whole oeuvre.

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  26. You, sir, are a magnificent mad genius!

    Bravo!

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  27. They totally went through a Toad the Wet Sprocket phase in the mid 80s and to my mind have never climbed back out of it.

    Great work.

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  28. Thing of beauty. Bravo, sir.

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  29. You made me wish this was actually a band i could listen to. What would you recommend must reads from old editions as a DM

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  30. Anonymous2:28 AM

    That was awesome!

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  31. That's easily one of the best blogposts of the last months, thanks Jeff!

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  32. Posts like this (along with some great comments) make me happy there's an Internet.

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  33. Anonymous4:49 AM

    Haha... How long have you been planning that one?

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  34. Instant classic post, Jeff! This will be linked to across the gaming net for a long time to come.

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  35. Anonymous7:34 AM

    Someone had to say this:

    Mine goes up to eleven!

    -yellow_lantern

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  36. GREAT STUFF! Thanks for this imaginative flight!

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  37. This makes me happy. I wish I had thought of it.

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  38. strangebrew9:54 AM

    @ Anon/yellow_lantern

    That kind of reminds me of the problems I see with the new gamer generation mentality.

    "The ability scores all go up to 20. Look, right across the character sheet. 20. 20. 20."
    "Oh, and most ability scores go up to 18?"
    "Exactly"
    "So does that mean your character is stronger?"
    "Well its two stronger, isn't it?"
    "Why don't you make 18 stronger and have 18 be the top number and have 18 be a little stronger?"
    "...but this ability score is 20."

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  39. I love this! Well played, Jeff.

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  40. I am just in awe, what a fantastic post! I started with the same album so I (and many, many others) can relate.

    Nice Post.

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  41. Abso-fricking-ly priceless! I have a smile from ear to ear, mostly because I have most of the same albums, although I admit to having skipped Fourgone Conclusions.

    You did, however, neglect to mention (perhaps intentionally) the "Half A Loaf of Rock You" tribute album, "Pathway to Heaven: Finders, Keepers." While it repeates some of the same irritating technical issues that plagued "Half a Loaf," "Pathway to Heaven" it's improved somewhat on the sound from the previous release. If you can overlook those, or heck, even re-dub it on your home system, "Pathway" still has a pretty good beat...one you can dance to....

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  42. Jeff, that was your best post in months...maybe years. Without a doubt it deserves a spot in your "best of the gameblog" sidebar

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  43. Remember when you were in the Beatles? That was awesome.

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  44. Noah D6:45 AM

    D&D (as us fans called them) had, and are still having, a great run, but I have to confess my love for another band that eclipses D&D, at least for me.

    It was the late '70s. From the aptly named town of Normal, Illinois came something that was very much NOT Normal. The first album, eponymous, of a new, fantastic prog-rock band called Traveller. Incredibly ambitious for a first release, it was three LPs, all in a simple black album with what would become their iconic design; plain white lettering and a color stripe to distinguish one release from another. It wasn't flashy art (that would come and go later) but it would come to promise great things inside those dark folds.

    The history of Traveller's prodigious output deserves its own book, but it must suffice here to say that their output become more complex, more colorful, incredibly broad - culminating in the fan-loved & -hated release, Fire, Fusion & Steel (which had at least one track with the vocalists reciting complex mathematical formulae as lyrics). Soon after, the original members parted company amicably. The studio label, GDW, managed and run by some members of Traveller, was enormously prolific, and a clear case of burnout had set in.

    Audience love for 'the Traveller sound' led to many experimental tribute bands producing albums under the aegis of 'Traveller'. They met with limited success, even one bearing the name of the band's founder. Hungry newcomer studio Mongoose saw potential, however, and turned its recent, intense experience into a revitalization of the name. Going back to the classic look of the original albums, the new Traveller was welcomed by most fans. It allowed in new sounds (The Babylon 5, Slamming Hammers, Dread Judgement) to play in the studio with Traveller. New albums are being released each year, and the future looks bright.

    'Hang in there, Beowulf/Help is on the way'

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  45. Hey, speaking of old bands, whatever happened to that glam rock band Sÿnnÿbär?

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  46. This was your best post since the Wraeththu Report. Well done, J. Rients!

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  47. @Noah D, check this out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiHpfugCboI

    The album is even called "Traveller".

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    1. Yeah, that album kicks serious amounts of ass.

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