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Friday, February 13, 2009

Attila reconsidered

RAWR! We are ***ATTILA***!!!

Monday marked my latest (and first for 2009) music acquisition, the suppressed, self-titled and only album by the band Attila from 1970. Most people have no idea what makes the lone Attila album so interesting, so I will clue you in: the notorious personnel. On drums: Jon Small, formerly of the Hassles. On everything else: William Martin Joel, also of the Hassles and prefers to be called "Billy". Yep, Attila was Billy Joel's "heavy metal" band.

First, some perspective: by "heavy metal" I don't mean the opening act for Metallica, Slayer or Napalm Death. In 1970, the heaviest sounds around (that most people were aware of anyway) were coming from Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix. Attila was the natural progression from the garage and psychedelic output of the Hassles and many bands were moving into a much heavier direction. Joel pretty much does the work of three musicians with the kind of distorted Hammond sound he developed for the album. The discordant grinding sound at the beginning of "California Flash" is particularly good and the wash of static that slams into "Rollin' Home" is pretty cool, too. Small pulls off a few nice tempo switch-ups throughout the album, so his contributions should not be overlooked. The lyrics are pretty silly throughout, but I don't care; they are on par with a lot of other stuff being released at the time. Vocal delivery varies throughout, but I have to admit to this sick thrill I get hearing Billy Joel scream out "Jesus Christ!" (the exclamation, not the prayer) in "Wonder Woman". Really, though, look at the cover of this album and tell me that Joel and Small were out to a create a deadly serious piece of work. The whole thing is meant to be fun and relatively mindless, a point some people completely miss.

Critics hate this album. They hate it passionately and with a vengeance. Get a load of this review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine. I think much of this has to do with some kind of embarrassment that the "Piano Man" not behaving like the sensitive singer-songwriter we've come to know and love. Critics seem to be allergic to the different and uncharacteristic of the artist. Diehard Billy Joel fans probably don't care for this kind of music, but for somebody who is indifferent to most of his output since 1971, listening to Attila gives me a new and more open-minded perspective of the man. (Oddly enough, allmusic.com stamped the album an "AMG Pick".)

Billy Joel HATES this album. He calls it "psychedelic bullshit" and has suppressed every track save an edit of "Amplifier Fire" that appears on the Billy Joel box set. Trying to dismiss the album, to me, feels like denying you pegged your pants in the 1980's and burning any pictures of yourself wearing eighties clothes, or refusing to admit that you said some dumb things to strangers when you were a little kid. Like physical growth, musical development is a series of phases and not all of them give us warm, fuzzy memories.

My take? If you want to find this album guilty of something, then press inconsistency charges. When I see a title like "Amplifier Fire Pt. 1: Godzilla" I expect a heavy slab of monster-grade hard rock, not a Jimmy Smith inspired instrumental. And yet "Amplifier Fire Pt. 2: March of the Huns" is exactly what "Godzilla" was not. It's either Jimmy Smith style music ("Brain Invasion") or hard-hitting drums and keys ("Rollin' Home", "Wonder Woman") and the two styles lead a somewhat uncomfortable coexistence.

I classify Attila with three other unusual listening experiences: (1) the self-titled album by Armageddon, which was ex-Yardbird Keith Relf's final and heaviest hurrah, (2) Sam Gopal's Dream, featuring Lemmy Kilmister, later just "Lemmy" of Motorhead, and any of the singles by Ronnie and the Prophets, the band fronted by Ronald Padovana, aka Ronnie James Dio, of Rainbow-Sabbath-Dio fame. I guess I'm a sucker for those "before/after they were famous" moments that put the entire musical output of an artist in a whole new light.


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