Music

Rah Bras: WHOHM

Mike Schiller

Rah Bras will eat you alive, digest you, regurgitate you, and then maybe eat you again, like cows, except greener and with alien antennae.


Rah Bras

WHOHM

Label: Lovitt
US Release Date: 2005-11-08
UK Release Date: Available as import
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The ability to inspire dumbfounded looks of confusion doesn't tend to be one of the more common features that people look for in their favorite bands, but Rah Bras have a devoted following regardless. Rah Bras push everything to overdrive, pumping distortion through synths, percussion, and vocals, all while pushing the tempos of metric tons of non-traditional time signatures way past anything that any sober-slash-sane person could possibly dance to. And with WHOHM, Rah Bras do all of that right. That is, they put the kind of energy into this album that such spastic songwriting absolutely requires, while giving the whole thing a consistent enough sound to actually sound like an album, rather than a small pile of two-minute synapse busters.

The album is divided into fairly distinct halves, with a first half dedicated to high-energy, high-BPM fractured disco anthems, all of them voiced by the pitch-perfect stylings of Isabellah Rubella, known simply as Bellarah for the sake of WHOHM. You see, the band has evidently attempted to one-up the Ramones' trademark identical surnames via the bestowing of a single name upon each member, where each name has an identical final syllable. Jeanrah and Boorah dominate the latter half of the album, more measured but no less strange, placing either faux-vocoded robotic distortion on the voices or allowing for a drunk David Byrne to come waltzing through the studio, while slightly less distortion and slightly more off-kilter rhythmic work comes to the fore. All of it culminates in a rather pretty near-instrumental, followed by a lovely little hidden track that dares to peer through the bombast and irony of the rest of the album.

All this in just over a half an hour.

Highlights of the Bellarah side include opener "As She Rah", which manages to (sort of) invoke the name of He-Man's twin sister while sounding like a Rush song where all of the instruments have been replaced by heavily distorted synthesizer noises. "No Furture" pushes things into the 180BPM range while upping the urgency by cutting measures in half here and there and putting in some seriously cheesy pre-programmed drum fills that somehow, miraculously, add to the ambience. Oh, and there's a "Me and Julio"-style whistling solo, for you Paul Simon fans out there. And then there's the song with the wonderful hybrid title of "Venis", which would probably be a tremendous pop single accused of advancing the sound of the top 40 if it were sung by Gwen Stefani. It's got an easy-to-follow bass synth line, and Ms. Bellarah is singing some unabashedly pretty melodies about "all her flaws wrapped in gauze" or some such nonsense. Trust me, you don't listen to Rah Bras for the words, mostly because you can't hear most of them for the distortion.

Of course, that's not always the case on WHOHM's second half, particularly the supremely bizarre "Monde Sewer Cholera Net" (yummy!), which chronicles the march of the oompa-loompas in 7/8 (and occasionally, randomly 9/8) time while somebody rants about an impossible love whose dilemma is revealed in choice lyrics like "Would you tell her for me...that I love her, I fucking love her, but I can't!" It's tragic, I know, particularly after he compared her to the sound of a clarinet. Robots take over for two consecutive tracks ("No Wonder (Bread for the People)" and "War Ribbing Ode"). And yet, there is exquisite beauty to be found, particularly on the final track "Mother Put the Wheel Away I Cannot Spin Tonight". You see, alone, it would be a pretty, if icy piece of synthwork that wouldn't put you to sleep, but in the context of WHOHM, after reality has been altered and everything looks just a bit more Technicolor, it's different and wonderful.

WHOHM's secret track is most likely secret because it marks perhaps the first time that Rah Bras' music has been delivered without their signature smirk and melodrama. Bellarah plays the older, more jaded Dorothy Gale, flying over the rainbow and finding nothing spectacular at all. Intentionally or not, it's a track that humanizes this trio through the hard-earned betrayal of genuine emotion. As such, the half hour that precedes it is accentuated, the absurd flavor heightened, the mystique of Rah Bras' spazz-synth superhero personas cemented. Rah Bras do bizarre, and they do it well -- if the joyously, unabashedly strange is what tickles you, WHOHM is your ticket to happiness.

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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