Music

Bloody Panda: Pheromone

Don't let the name fool you; this is some of the most riveting doom metal you'll hear all year.


Bloody Panda

Pheromone

Label: Level Plane
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: Available as import
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The tale of how Bloody Panda came to be is the kind of background story that intrigues indie scenesters, and compels metal devotees to roll their eyes. Yoshiko Ohara, an established visual artist based in Osaka, Japan, decided to spend her savings on a trip to New York City, brand new recording equipment in tow, with the idea that she'd move to America to make music, this despite the unfortunate fact that she didn't know how to play an instrument of any kind. She posted advertisements for band members, and one such ad caught the attention of trio Josh Rothenberger (guitar), Bryan Camphire (bass), and Blake McDowell (organ), who responded and subsequently joined Ohara's bold project, ultimately rounded out by drummer Dan Weiss.

Over the course of 2005 and 2006, the quintet started to generate buzz around the city, especially among the indie set, who began to stumble across Bloody Panda opening for such diverse acts as Akron/Family, Genghis Tron, and Mouth of the Architect, expressing awe at the sight and sound of a diminutive, pretty Japanese woman chanting and screaming in front of four imposing dudes sporting executioner's masks. Effusive praise on music blogs soon followed, word of mouth building steadily. The band shared a split CD with experimental band Kayo Dot in early 2007, they provided a brilliant cover of Eyehategod's "Anxiety Hangover" for the recent Eyehategod tribute album For the Sick, and before you knew it, the debut album by the enigmatic metal band with the indie rock name had become one of the most eagerly anticipated extreme records of the first half of 2007.

Before you devout headbangers in the crowd start up with your, "Death to false metal!" war cry, though, you might want to hold off on the derision until after you've heard Pheromone. The band might seem to exude artsy pretentiousness, right down to the funeral doom arrangements, which couldn't be any more trendy right now (thanks to such indie cred-bearing bands as Sunn O))), Boris, and Earth), but the way Bloody Panda combines visceral power with aching beauty and devastating emotion is a marvel. Produced by Jason Marcucci, who has previously worked with the Flaming Lips and the White Stripes, Pheromone is imposing, but like Battle of Mice and Made Out of Babies, both of which boast the extraordinary vocal talent of Julie Christmas, Ohara lends Bloody Panda an air of accessibility most male doom growlers are completely incapable of.

Consisting of just four songs, the fact that the tracks are lengthy is par for the course, but what is surprising is Pheromone's sense of economy, its 39-minute running time a far cry from most doom records, which tend to meander well past the hour mark. The band makes full use of the time, too, each track continuing to haunt us well after we've stopped listening. Singing in both English and Japanese, Ohara could be singing in Esperanto for all we care, as her melodic chants are often difficult to discern, but despite the fact that her lyrics to possess a poetic quality, Pheromone is more about mood than message, her vocals every bit as entrancing as the arrangement behind her.

Opening track "Untitled" skillfully combines the brutal with the entrancing, Ohara sounding elegiac as the rest of the band launches into a crushing array of distorted riffs, droning organ, and cacophonous cymbal crashes, but the bottom quickly falls out midway through, the tender bridge segueing into something slightly more urgent (almost tetchy), highlighted by Weiss's masterful drum fills. "Coma", like Boris, is heavily influenced by the mighty riffs of the Melvins and St. Vitus, slow yet insistent, visceral crunch giving way to pensive spaciousness, ungodly drones entering the fray six minutes in, sounding like the roar of an unknown beast inside a dark cavern, as Ohara repeats the highly enigmatic refrain like a mantra: "You are like a wet newspaper." "Fever" shifts from the evil tones of Khanate to the more mystical strains of Dead Can Dance before coming closest to anything resembling a rousing conclusion on the entire album.

Ohara channels the haunting, detached tone of Nico on the 12-plus-minute "Ice", gradually building to a multi-tracked, hair-raising scream three and a half minutes in, resembling Julie Christmas at her most feral, capping off a startling debut full-length full of so many harrowing twists and turns, we're left both unsettled and awestruck. Metal fans, you're looking at one of the finest doom albums to come out in recent memory. Indie fans, if you dig this, welcome, you've officially crossed over to the dark side for good.

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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