Music

3:33: Bicameral Brain

No amount of mystery can mask poorly executed ideas.


3:33

Bicameral Brain

Label: Parallel Thought
US Release Date: 2013-10-29
UK Release Date: 2013-10-29
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Hip-hop is no stranger to mystery. Quite a few artists have learned that being enigmatic can generate some very positive hype. MF DOOM’s ever present mask, Death Grips' unpredictable shenanigans, or Flying Lotus’ cult leader alter ego Captain Murphy are just the most obvious examples. But what about an artist that has completely immersed itself in darkness? 3:33 fits that bill perfectly and also proves that a thin layer of mystery can’t cure a sickly album.

In the Twitter era it's astonishing how little we know about 3:33. They’re a group on Parallel Thought that make music somewhere between drone and instrumental hip-hop and that’s about all we know. Ages, locations, even the number of members in 3:33 are all gaping holes. Bicameral Brain’s track list and liner notes are just as baffling. Each track is labeled as “BB-(tracknumber)” or “BB2-(tracknumber)” and the notes read like the diary of a sleep deprived mad man, rambling on about dark visions and the two halves of the album representing the two halves of the brain. 3:33 certainly seems determined to work behind a veil of darkness as to create curiosity. Are these studio veterans testing out more experimental alleyways or is this the work of a lone bedroom producer, fiddling around with horror film scores on his or her laptop? Of course, these questions only remain interesting if the music can match the mystery, and throughout Bicameral Brain the sounds fail to speak for themselves.

The album starts out promisingly; the lead track allows itself to be swallowed in murk before the second track unleashes a drum beat that rolls out of the musical fog. It’s a shocking moment, like the first jump scare that makes horror movie audiences leap out of their seats. But much like a sub-par indie horror film, the jump scares are repeated until the adrenaline rush is replaced with apathy. The trick of a beat suddenly bursting to the front shows up much more than necessary.

Bicameral Brain does have the ability to create heart pounding tension on the first side of the album. Despite the overuse of lo-fi drumming in songs like “6” and “7”, 3:33 manage to produce chilling backgrounds that make you wonder who, or what, could have created the tracks. 3:33 unfortunately play this into Scooby-Doo levels of camp with the 10th track, which opens with a cheesy voice-over reciting the dangers of “a race of warriors who used neither weapons or shields.” It’s a facepalm inducing decision that drastically undercuts the seriousness of the music, making the entire album feel inconsistent in tone.

Though 3:33 prefer to stay in a boring haze on Bicameral Brain, there are two moments that reveal ambition beyond dark ambient slog. “BB2-13” and “BB2-12” come just before the album’s closing and both play with more varied noises. Light piano and shimmering guitar scratches float around in curious ways on “12”. "13” actually manages to be gorgeous, with humming synths that unfortunately build up to the disappointing final track, whic devolves into static, sounding like the group was attacked by the Slender Man while in the studio.

Bicameral Brain is fascinating in concept but is delivered so poorly that the uninteresting beats cloak the few excellent points. Perhaps those moments of aspiring genre mixing will be the basis for their next album. Here’s hoping, or the next 3:33 release will be as monotonous as the droning backgrounds they produce.

3

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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