Music

The Mercury Program: Chez Viking

Zachary Corsa

A solid release that makes you fervently hope that Gainesville’s finest won’t take another six or seven years to grace us with their presence.


The Mercury Program

Chez Viking

Label: Lovitt
US Release Date: 2009-11-24
UK Release Date: 2009-11-30
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Anyone who’s ever been in a band knows the frustration of Complications (yes, with a capital C). You can spend hours debating what night to practice that fits in with everyone’s work schedules, school schedules, kid’s daycare schedules, etc., only for someone to cancel a couple of hours prior at the last minute because “something came up”, and you’re left with the unsavory prospect of a practice without a crucial member of your team. Worse yet is when someone relocates; do you continue trying to work around the distance, or do you replace them and have to start all over again with a new member, taking time off from gigging to do so?

The Mercury Program have stayed together despite the woes of relocated band members, maintaining their home base in Gainesville and occasionally reassembling to work on a new album or play a show or two. Essentially though, they’ve fallen victim to one of the most feared phrases in any music fan’s heart: the extended hiatus.

Well no worries, because in the reunion-happy 2000s, the Mercury Program have seen fit to reassemble and finish off that long-in-the-works follow up to their excellent 2003 split EP with Maserati, The Confines of Heat. Chez Viking is evidence of a group that has seen many changes over its lengthy career, subtly innovating and improving on their aesthetic while never straying too far from their unique individual sound.

One thing listeners familiar with TMP will notice right off is that the intensity they’re known for hasn’t gone anywhere. The same restless kinetic energy that makes the band such a thrilling live act is again conveyed to tape here. Pulsing, delayed guitars echo and shatter over clattering percussion and spidery keys. The Tortoise and Maserati comparisons that have always followed the band are still applicable, but with Chez Viking they step a little further away from such shadows and into a more unique spectrum of their own.

The disc’s self-titled opener is a suitably upbeat call to arms, a reassertion of form and of direction, while “Arrived/Departed” is a bit darker in tone, a sense of foreboding creeping into the framework of things with each echo of guitar, each delicate piano note. When the song open’s up, it’s with a quiet majesty rather than a brutal crushing force. “Backseat Blackout” strikes me as a bit more Tortoise-like than much of Chez Viking, but unexpected touches like a burst of furious Sonic Youth feedback keep the song from being rote.

Not all of the album keeps up such a frenetic pace, however. “Katos” is the kind of laidback chillout lounge-jazz that will make you further regret Stereolab’s own extended hiatus, while "Stand & Sing" is almost Album Leaf-like with its pastoral keys and stuttering percussion. And for its first two-thirds, “The Church of Cause & Effect” plays out like the best Bono-free U2 song ever written (if only we were so lucky).

I’ve always been of a mind that an album’s closing track should sum up what came before in a nice, conclusive package. Here, closer “Fluorescent Laces” encapsulates best the Mercury Program template. It’s a fitting way to end an album that is both a reassertion of group purpose and a gleeful, celebratory welcome-back party. Chez Viking, all in all is a solid release, and one that makes you fervently hope that Gainesville’s finest won’t take another six or seven years to grace us with their presence. In a past year when we lost great old-school post-rock traditionalists like The Six Parts Seven to their own extended hiatus, it’s important for those remaining to keep the vibraphone flag flying. Mercury Program, please stick around for a bit, okay?

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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