Music

Mats Morgan Band: Heat Beats Live

Drummer Morgen Agren and keyboardist Mats Oberg may be best known because they once played for Zappa, but this career-summing pair of discs makes a case for their fusion-y, proggy virtuosity, all on its own.


Mats Morgan Band

Heat Beats Live

Subtitle: Tourbook 1991-2007
Label: Cuneiform
US Release Date: 2008-02-12
UK Release Date: Available as import
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The live DVD Tourbooks, included in Mats/Morgan's career-spanning compilation Heat Beats Live, opens with a tight shot of drummer Morgan Agren's hands, still for the moment, but poised over a vast drum kit with perhaps a dozen cymbals, a snare, and four main toms, and four to five tiny timbales. When he starts, his hands fly over the set, impossibly fast but light-tempered and playful. His expression is a strange combination of grimace and grin, the grimace, one imagines, for the difficulty, the grin for the sheer joy of drumming. His long-time musical partner Mats Oberg takes up just a corner of the screen, hunched over a double keyboard. The records, both the live one and the reissued debut Trends and Other Diseases, may feature the two of them equally, but on screen it is clear that Agren is the extraordinary one in the duo, a drummer's drummer who can flit from cool trad jazz to proggy rock to howling Swedish metal, without dropping a stick, without batting an eye.

Oberg and Agren have been playing together for decades, starting as kids in Sweden. A brief stint with Zappa in 1988 -- Zappa's last rock tour -- brought the two of them wider recognition. (According to their website, Zappa himself enthused, "They played unbelievable, just unbelievable.") Since then, though, the two have recorded seven albums, initially only available in Sweden, and played with dozens of jazz, rock, and experimental ensembles.

The American experimental label Cuneiform Records reissued Mats/Morgan's most recent studio album, Thanks for Flying with Us, in 2005, making the duo's music readily available outside Sweden for the first time. Now, this same label has put out Trends and Other Diseases, Mats/Morgan's first full-length, recorded from 1993 to 1995, and Heat Beats Live, a collection of live performances from 1991 to 2007.

Of the two, Heat Beats Live is, perhaps, a better distillation of the pair's technical proficiency and playful musicality, augmented on about half the tracks by a full band. The disc starts with "The Return of Advokaten", a prolonged, fast-paced three-way between Agren's pulsing, storming rhythms, Oberg's cool Return to Forever-ish keys, and Tommy Tordsson's frantic bass. The keyboard takes all kinds of roles here, sounding like an electric piano, an organ and, briefly, a flute. Yet it's the duel in the rhythm section that gives the cut oomph. You quite simply can't believe that both of them can keep up with the pace and complexity of the piece, yet they do so without visible strain.

Elsewhere, Mats/Morgan adds a guitar player (Jimmy Agren, perhaps a brother?), additional keyboards, and, on one occasion, saxophones. Still, the most powerful cuts seem to be the least ornamented, the ones where Mats and Morgan go at it, just the two of them, their difficultly paced rhythms matching sometimes and intersecting at odd angles at others. You are struck first by the skill at work in cuts like "Mats Jingle" and "Truvas Rumble" (Tordsson plays on this one, too), but then by the sense of play. There is a lightness, a giddiness, a trick-rider bravado to the stunts they pull, as if they themselves cannot stop grinning at what they have gotten away with.

Your appreciation for Heat Beats will depend, to a large extent, on how well you tolerate fusion. It's not everyone's favorite genre -- it's certainly not mine -- but Mats and Morgan do it so skillfully that you have to set personal preferences aside. That's far more difficult on Trends and Other Diseases, where the addition of vocals takes the focus off their really excellent playing and puts it on the melodies. It's much more of a pop take on what they do, a fusion not just of rock and jazz, but of R&B, funk, and diva crooning.

Mats himself sings on a handful of the tracks, his reedy voice evoking a very white Stevie Wonder and just not on a level with the instrumentals. Guest vocalists help a little. The second track, "Trottsov", which features the singer Dilba, has an engaging oddness, the keyboards morphing into a skewed oompah band, the vocals twining and weaving along non-linear, non-poppish paths. Dilba returns for the metal-crunching, tempestuous "Russian Läsk", her cool modulating tones providing some relief from the heat of the instrumentals.

In addition to vocals, there are just far more instruments on Trends than in the live show, and some of them work better than others within the jazz-into-rock framework. The upright bass in "Fire and Audio" is a fine, nerve-wracking element in a jittery, intense composition. The oboe in "Fialka's House" pushes an already borderline synth line firmly into new age territory.

Still, the skill level is undeniably high, particularly in the drums, but also in the keyboards and bass. And that, finally, brings us to the question of who might best enjoy these records. The answer's on the DVD, in the front row of the audience, where a man stands entranced, his arms raised, his hands clenched, pounding out invisible fills on his imaginary drum set. The people who will like this record are the ones who can appreciate, not just intellectually, but with their fingers and toes, exactly how hard it is to play these songs. If you've got a drummer in your family, pick these records up for him. He'll either thank you or give up his instrument forever.

7

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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