Music

Tobacco: Maniac Meat

While the album does a lot to establish Tobacco (Tom Fec) as a solo artist in his own right, it does so through calling attention (to a greater degree than any of his past work) to the artists that might have influenced him during his formative music-listening years.


Tobacco

Maniac Meat

Label: Anticon
UK Relese Date: 2010-06-28
US Release Date: 2010-05-25
Amazon
iTunes

Before MP3s and album leaks diminished the "event" status of musical releases, one of the many charms in anticipating new albums was the sense of expectation created by their titles. There was satisfaction in both the speculation about what a title meant or foretold and the fulfillment of that conjecture, whether the relationship between title and content was revealed to be literal (The Downward Spiral), ironic (OK Computer), reflexive (Prick), or incomprehensible (When the Pawn…). On the cusp of the proper arrival of the MP3 era, one album that exemplified this process was Deep Down & Dirty by Stereo MC's. Nearly ten years had passed since the release of breakthrough album Connected, but the wait did not appear to have been in vain if the band was going to deliver something worthy of that title. Listeners braced themselves. Then, in 2001, the album was released, and although it was plenty funky and left no groove unturned, the songs did not quite live up to the promise of the title.

Now, almost another decade later, the high aim of Stereo MC's comes to mind while listening to Tobacco's also evocatively titled Maniac Meat, the sound of which could credibly be described as both deep down and dirty. Tobacco is Tom Fec, the force behind Black Moth Super Rainbow. Maniac Meat, his second solo LP, continues his push towards queasy-sounding, industrial-tinged hip-hop, which forms a strong contrast with Eating Us, the most recent output from his psychedelic pop outfit "day job". Last year's Eating Us was treated with Black Moth Super Rainbow's most sophisticated production to date (courtesy of Dave Fridmann), yet perhaps as an unintended result, the songs lost much of the unique character and texture from the band's earlier lo-fi releases. When compared with the pleasant but innocuous Eating Us, Maniac Meat plays like an aural assault that demands the listener's attention.

Long regarded for his use of analog synthesizers and vocal manipulations, Tobacco joins those with bass and drums to create a sound that is also beefier than that of his 2008 solo debut, which included songs that seemed at times like sketches that needed additional editing or augmentation. The sharper focus of Maniac Meat suggests that Fec has arrived at a new destination in his artistic identity, having passed through some transitional material both with his band and as a solo artist. Maniac Meat could be called fully formed not only in sound but overall design. The cover art, which depicts an androgynous body-builder hovering over some future KFC abomination, casts a stomach-churning tone for songs that pick up the motif with names like "Lick the Witch", "Sweatmother", "Motorlicker", "New Juices from the Hot Tub Freaks", and "TV All Greasy."

Interestingly, while the album does a lot to establish Tobacco as a solo artist in his own right, it does so through calling attention (to a greater degree than any of Fec's past work) to the artists that might have influenced him during his formative music-listening years. For instance, Richard D. James/Aphex Twin looms large. His Windowlicker alone could be viewed as a possible influence for the design of Maniac Meat, from the shocking figure on the cover art to the song titles ("Motorlicker") to the buzzsawing, nearly nauseating use of bass and analog synthesizers. While nothing here is as deeply creepy as the audio-visual experience of Windowlicker, Tobacco is operating in similar territory.

Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine comes to mind on "Sweatmother" and "Grape Aerosmith", and there's a touch of Rahzel in "Unholy Demon Rhythms", but it would be not be fair to receive this album as only being the sum of its precedents. By and large, this collection of songs is an outgrowth of the unique sound Fec has honed over the years in numerous recordings under different project names. In point of fact, the album's clearest link to Black Moth Super Rainbow is the frequent use of Fec's vocodered lead vocals, an element that further distinguishes this release from his largely instrumental solo debut. While "Constellation Dirtbike Head" begins in media res and provides a recognizable gateway from the sonic world of Black Moth Super Rainbow, Fec's vocals here, like his instruments, turn darker, more sinister, and less human. This is a positive change of direction that works much better than the prettifying techniques of Eating Us. The intensity of effect is sometimes overwhelming, but for the most part Fec knows when to change course or exit a song after he has made a point. Very few of these songs reach three minutes in length, and although the album's final third grows wearying, this attests to the exhausting force of the preceding material rather than a lack of energy or ideas to conclude the album.

Of course, the marquee participation of Beck Hansen on two songs ("Fresh Hex" and "Grape Aerosmith") elevated the profile of Maniac Meat long before the album's release. Although the proliferation of full album leaks means many listeners do not speculate over the mysteries of album art or titles much anymore, a big name is one surefire way to build big buzz, and news of a Beck/Fec collaboration served that function. However, in execution, this is clearly not a case of inflating record sales via a superstar gracing the little guy with his presence and receiving featured credit. Instead, the songs (especially "Fresh Hex") play out like Tobacco is providing Beck with a great opportunity, which is unexpected when one considers the artists' respective amount of power and visibility within the music industry. The chopped-vocal delight of "Fresh Hex" rejuvenates Beck and reconnects him to his mid-to-late 1990s releases -- albums defined by an intelligent and ironic stance towards hip-hop. Though Beck seemed to lose his groove after Sea Change and remained in the creative wilderness for a few years, "Fresh Hex" follows the energizing Record Club and "Harry Partch", the hilariously awesome diss track deployed in good fun against the Fiery Furnaces, as a third piece of evidence that Beck has returned to the spirit that brought him all that attention in the first place.

By remaining mysterious and enigmatic thus far in his career, Tom Fec has created and preserved a sense of mystery about himself that leaves his personal identity largely unfixed and his artistic identity wide open for invention. Maniac Meat comes on so strongly that he might soon face the kind of inquiry that surrounds artists like Aphex Twin and Burial, both of whom are known and unknown, covered by miles of press yet ultimately indescribable except through sound. Fec's music and career have not yet reached those heights, but Tobacco's Maniac Meat proves that he is one to watch, even as he often chooses to remain unseen.

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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