From Aural Innovations #6 (April 1999)
Brainstorm "Tales of the Future"
(Self-Released 1998, CD)
With a serious dearth of local Spacerock acts in Melbourne (Australia), I was quite pleased a few months back to discover a copy of the debut CD by Brainstorm in the mail. Performing on the local scene since 1989, with two cassette releases under their belt (Brainstorm from 1993 and Brainstorm Two - Earth Zero from 1995), the band have spent the last eighteen months recording and producing a collection of original tracks penned between '94 and '97. Being "Teens of the 70's", the band's CD naturally comes with a lyric booklet complemented with visions of space and fantasy, interspersed with "quotations" from a future time á la the Hawkind Log.
Brainstorm, despite the name and its obvious associations with SpaceRock founders Hawkwind, do not present as with typical SpaceRock in the sense most of us are familiar. Rather, they blend sci-fi lyrics with music which ranges from rock, to jazz, to folk, to blues, to 70's style progressive - never quite straying completely into any of these genre's but somehow merging the best of what made the 70's what they were without ever sounding retrospective. Brainstorm consists of Steve Bechervaise (keyboards), Craig Carter (Lead, Steel and Wooden Guitars, Vocals), Vittorio Di Lorio (Drums, Keyboards), Paul Foley (Vocals, Acoustic and Visibel Guitars) and Jeff Powerlett (Bass and Air Guitars, Vocals).
The album begins with the 8:44 Cyborg, a track which gives you a good idea of what Brainstorm are all about, both musically and lyrically. The parts are relatively simple, nice pieces of lead guitar over a gentle backing bass, rhythm guitar and bass line, catchy melodies, and occasional segue's into softly spoken electric piano and organ riffs. The variations in all these parts combined as a whole make for a great piece of music. Evolution, in true science-fiction fashion, conveys a political statement about a future world gone wrong. Maintaining a mournful attitude throughout, it slowly builds from a slow head-sway inciting melody as the song progresses. In contrast, Not Saying Anything is a faster piece with more dominant keyboard backing than in earlier tracks and just a touch of fuzz guitar. Brideshead (based on the Poul Anderson novel) is the first 'classic' on the recording. Great lyrics, "blanga" guitar, and a rising crescendo through each verse. A wonderful bass riff midway through is soon joined by passionate lead and organ sounds, fading off after the chorus to drop back to a slower pace which proceeds the closing 3 minute improvised jam. Wonderful stuff indeed!
In Violent Hours is a darker track (as one would expect), opening with eerie sounding keyboard and the occasional percussion over spacey background noises. This is suddenly replaced by mournful lyrics over equally mournful guitar, chimes and other sounds. The mood brightens slightly with Spaceport, almost Celtic in style initially, this tale of a human race scattered through the stars trying to make a new beginning is musically very atypical for spacerock ("folky" would be the best description), and is perhaps all the more interesting for that very reason. Still I See, the third 8 minute plus track on the album, is initially another slow one, this time with softly sung vocals over a gently-plucked guitar string and softly whining keyboards. The tempo builds into the chorus, after which the drums and bass become more dominant, and the second half is full of changing melodies and solo pieces which seem to be a hallmark of Brainstorm's music. This is great with the eyes closed and up loud.
With the shortest track on the album - Sow the Wind, the pace picks up, and this time we find ourselves musically somewhere in an undefined alternate universe mutation of a Pirate Ballad and Country and Western rock'n'roll song - I really don't know how else to describe it! The pace is maintained with Conception, a fairly mainstream but catchy tune with a nice full sound. Light hearted and fun. With a much slower pace, Walks in Anonymity has practically no sci-fi content but is rather focused on the emptiness in our lives which we all ignore. Interesting musical variations in here, but in need of some relief from it's sobering affect, the final track shines. As standout as Brideshead, Egress reminds us that Brainstorm know how to engage the audience. The background keyboards are very middle-eastern feeling, and provided great accompaniment to the drums, bass and guitar driving the lead vocal. But what makes this song is the rousing chorus.
And live I was not disappointed. Brainstorm performed in front of a fairly small but appreciative crowd one Wednesday night in February, and I was lucky enough to attend. The gig was intended as a "CD Launch", but given that it was held previous to promotional efforts for the CD and the mid-week slot it was disappointing that there were so few in attendance. Not to be swayed by this, the boys put on a fine show. Naturally many of the tracks were lifted from the new CD, along with some older tracks which have proved popular over their career, and one or two covers (which I will get to shortly). Brainstorm have been together for 10 years now and practice on a weekly basis - and it shows. Their performance was quite tight and true to the recordings, although some of the songs were performed a little faster and "louder" than on the CD. Their representation of tracks such as Egress were definitely rousing, and I was quite impressed by some of their older tracks, many of which I had not heard before. A number of these older tracks were much more progressive than the more recent material, and at times I was reminded of numerous Krautrock bands from the 70's.
The highlight of the evening (for me at least) was the three fine renditions of Hawkwind tracks. A wonderful D-Rider was later followed by a powerful Master of the Universe. This rocked HARD and I have no doubt in my mind that the band have earned the use of the title of a Hawkwind track as the name of the band. It was one thing to hear Hawkwind songs being played live in Australia, but to see people dancing to (and obviously enjoying) them was so good it was almost frightening! The encore for the evening was a wonderfully faithful Lord of Light.
A few weeks after the gig I had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Foley of Brainstorm for a few hours, during which we spun a few discs (Paul being quite interested in what US bands such as Alien Planetscapes and the like are doing), discussed science-fiction and, of course, the band:
PW: The obvious first question I'd like to ask is about the name of the band. There's an obvious link to Hawkwind there - how did that come about?
PF: It was a 3-part preferential voting system (laughs). Actually, choosing a name for a band is a lot harder than people would imagine - it's almost impossible to choose. I mean it took over two months to decide on a title for the CD, and that was after nearly two years of recording and post production. It's very hard to be evocative. The title had to reflect a theme, summarize the songs and not sound corny. We basically went through about 50 titles before that one came up, but even then desperation was the deciding factor because we were running out of time. All the band had to agree.
It was the same thing in '89 with the name of the band. We originally played a lot of Hawkwind covers, but the band has evolved a lot over the years. We are better at making 'space' inside the music without cluttering. It's easy to all play at once - it's very difficult to leave space (in both senses of the word). It took ages to get it right early on. About four years ago we finally got to the point where we were more comfortable with originals - we would much rather play a bad original than a good cover, so we don't play as many covers these days.
PW: So, besides Hawkwind, who were the band's influences early on?
PF: Rule #1 has always been "Never EVER do a love song". Ok, so we have played "Don't Fear The Reaper", but it's ok if it's about the dead. This has been the golden rule since day 1. I guess if you look at what we covered in the first few years - Hawkwind, Radio Birdman, the Stones, Sabbath, Angels, (looking at set list Paul points out that it's the Zoot's version of Eleanor Rigby they played), Pink Floyd - I said we couldn't do it but we gave Echos a try once.
PW: What about bands such as Rush and Yes?
PF: We wouldn't presume!! We aren't good enough to do Rush or Yes. Or Jethro Tull. I'd like to do Grendel (early Marillion from their live set). We might do that for the next CD. Lately we've been playing Psychedelic Warlord's, but only occasionally in the live set only for variation. I thought after the gig you saw us at that we should have done Assault & Battery.
PW: Oh yeah!
PW: So what other influences do you have?
PF: Do you mean me personally or the band?
PW: Well, starting with you.
PF: Growing up in the 60's. Early 70's music. Being 15 in 1970 was a very good thing to do. Every album had twenty minute songs and musicians did whatever they felt they needed to do - the good ones were spot on and that affected me.
PW: So what bands would you compare yourselves to?
PF: No one. We aren't as good, but if I had to compare I would say Nektar, Krautrock in general, Hawkwind, Yes. They are my favorite band. Especially the album Close to the Edge. I'm going to be buried with a copy of it. I consider myself very lucky to have been a teenager when these types of albums came out, rather than being influenced by Elvis as a sixties teenager or Pat Benetar as an 80's teenager.
PW: I know what you mean - I've often thought the same thing. What about the other member's of the band?
PF: I hope I don't get in trouble for saying something they don't want me to say! Craig is one of the other original member's, and he's a late 70's man. AC/DC, all the post-punk stuff - he was 18 years old in 1980. Craig is our electronics person, he's involved with all the production and technology. Craig and I wrote most of the band's songs. Steve is the other original member, he's the same as age as I am. Steve's mainly into Eno and all that Ambient music which influenced our earlier recordings. Technology (sequencers and all that) has changed the focus of that influence over the years. He also likes Yes. It's all basically about "what you do with your head".
PW: And the others?
PF: Well Jeff is the only band member in the "Australian Encyclopedia of Rock" - that's his claim to fame. He was in "The Swing Club" which appeared in that book - they played sort of rocky/blues stuff. Jeff's the Valiant nut. That's his car on the back of the CD
PW: The song "Freeway" on the second tape was about driving down the road in the Chrysler, but that's dedicated to Gary?
PF: Gary was a former band member. He was originally our vocalist. He left the band when he got married because he didn't think that he could maintain it all - it was then that I decided I had better learn to sing because someone had to! (laughs). There's also been three drummers and three Bass players in the band
PW: Sounds typical of a "SpaceRock" band! And Vittorio?
PF: Vittorio is the Jazz lunatic. He's the only one of us who can really read music properly. As well as the drums he can also play guitar and keyboards. He comes from a musical family. A lot of the new things we are doing, instrumentals and so on are being driven by him. There are more chords in our new material than in all our past songs put together - he has really tightened the band up.
PW: So he's providing a lot of drive at the moment?
PF: There's always been a band member or some other factor challenging the band. Right now that's Vit. He's adding a lot of rigor and tightness, adding dimensions to our songs that we hadn't even thought about before, and they are now the most important factor. I'll put something together and then play it for the others and Vit will pull it apart - he'll add a variation here, a melody change there and make it more complete.
PW: One question I've been wanting to ask is what is more important - the music or the lyrical content?
PF: I'm glad that you asked that question. I don't really know if the others are Brainstorm lyric fans or not - the rest of the band pay a lot more attention to the music. I write most of the lyrics, but the music is usually an integral part of the messages. The track "Walks in Anonymity" is pedestrian music but the lyrics are "it" - the music is peripheral. Craig and Vit (and Jeff) say whether musically a song will work. I make sure that the lyrics work.
PW: So, what comes first? Is it the music or the lyrics? Or is it a combined thing where you create a concept for both? How do Brainstorm go about writing a song?
PF: It's the music first. I'll write some music, then we'll get together and do the "hard bits - the key changes, middle 8's. etc. The music "needs something" to work. I'll put down a chord pattern for the vocals and the band do the tight arranging. The lyrics are last because they come easily. "Brideshead" is a good example of this. Most of the songs are written this way, Craig wrote two songs on the CD ("Space Port" and "Not Saying Anything"), I wrote the others but the unexpected bits on them all are from Vit and Craig.
PW: That's interesting, for some reason I would have though that the lyrics would come first in some form or other.
PF: The music is the hardest so it comes first. The songs don't necessarily have concepts at this stage. Take "Brideshead" - that's based on the Poul Anderson book, but the theme was plugged in later!
(At this stage we spent some time discussing science-fiction authors and the like before returning to the band)
PF: Science Fiction is a medium for expressing a political view. There's usually (in good science fiction at least) a Humanistic view right through. Don't start me on too much politics!! Basically what science-fiction tells us is that we can make this a much better world. "Walks in Anonymity" and "Evolution" are political, not science-fiction, as opposed to songs like "Violent Hours" and "Cyborg", which reminds me very much of Arthur C Clarke's "Meeting with Mabusa".
PW: And what about the concepts on earlier recordings? The second side of your second tape is undoubtably sci-fi!
PF: Some good stuff on that isn't there? We may be re-releasing that on CD at some stage - we still have the master tapes. I like "Afterglow" from that release - standing on Mt Dandenong watching Melbourne burn and realizing that it will be up to me to stop the world from sinking into barbarism, but then discovering that I've received too much radiation ...
PW: How important is performing live?
PF: It's vital! Performing live forces the band to become good due the fear factor!! And you have to get face to face with people. All our songs are about "people". Phenomena of mind is the most amazing thing in the world, you can take a couple of kilograms of protoplasm and make it conscious! It's what you do with it that counts! All that "Utopia" based science fiction from the 20's - wonderful stuff, that's what they were about.
PW: Now, I have a fair idea of how you'll respond to this question, but how would you describe the Australian music scene?
PF: In 1989 when we started there were something like 50-80 pubs in Melbourne where you could get a gig. These days there are only about 15. All the venues are putting in Poker Machines rather than booking bands, and with the drink driving laws people are just not going out anymore. The music scene has changed - you don't get a crowd coming in just to see what a band's like. You have to push to get people, especially mid-week. As far as Space/Prog music there's not that many bands around. There was 'Late November' (named after a Pavlov's Dog song) and then there were they Hawklord's.
PW: Yeah - they did about six shows a few years ago, I think they had about 800 people at their first gig. I was talking to the guy who got that together and it was just basically him that was the Hawkwind fan - they were all from other bands and he suggested doing the Hawklord's thing, so they got a set together and did the shows.
PF: They were great musicians - learning a whole set of songs in a few weeks like that. As far as our crowds go there's the people on our mailing list or whoever just happens to be at the pub when we play. Some people just can't believe that we are playing space/prog/symphonic rock - they are always happily surprised. We occasionally do covers to see what reaction we get from the audience - Hawkwind, Blue Oyster Cult, stuff like that. The young people think that we are terribly original for thinking of playing music to a science-fiction theme.
PW: There seems to have been a fair bit of activity and interest in 70's music lately, with all the re-issuing and remastering going on by the record companies and of course the Internet making these forms of music more accessible - can you see a resurgence happening?
PF: Perhaps, but it will never again be like it was. And on the live scene - no hope really.
PW: So, now that you have your CD out, what's the band's strategy?
PFWe plan to do at least one gig a month. Support gigs to steal other audiences and expose them to "new" music and hopefully some weekend work. Now that we have a 'product' it will help with getting gigs but it's also great just to have done it.
PW: And there will be a new CD some time in the future?
PF: We already have about 7 or 8 songs for the next CD. The current CD was a real passion play, taking 18 months in our spare time. This time we'll go into a studio. Last time we put the drums on DAT in the studio, the rest on 8-track analog - the Bass, rhythm. This time we'll pay a studio, go in there for a few days at 12 hours a day with a proper engineer and come out with perhaps 75% of it done. A couple of months polishing it and it will be ready.
PW: So, will you wait to see how the current CD goes before starting on the next one?
PF: No, we'll just do it. A complete and utter lack of success has never stopped us before!
PW: Well, thanks for taking the time to do this. Is there anything you'd like to say in parting?
PF: Yeah. The idea is the same as what LSD did - to take people's brains and shake them up! Life should be fun. The only barriers are the ones programmed into your head!
For more information you can visit Brainstorm at their web site.
Tales Of The Future is available at the Sonic Bilby web site.