Monday, February 01, 2010

In Praise Of Recent Motorhead

Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister notes occasionally in White Line Fever, his autobiography, a puzzling attitude that certain Motorhead fans have towards that band's work. While asserting how great Motorhead are, there are lots of fans whose awareness of the band's recordings ends around Iron Fist (1982), some fourteen studio albums ago. That was the year that Fast Eddie Clarke left the band, and the year (by coincidence) that I first discovered Motorhead. For a long time, I was myself one of those troublesome fans who didn't venture much past Iron Fist; my explorations of the band's remaining catalogue went mostly backwards from that point, not forwards - though I did follow their next couple of releases. I liked, but didn't love, Another Perfect Day, at the time, liked Orgasmatron less, and didn't much care for the few new studio tracks on No Remorse, the compilation. When Rock'n'Roll came out, I didn't even bother to pick it up, assuming the album would be a further dimishment of the vital energy I perceived in those first few Motorhead albums; for years, when I spun Motorhead, it was Iron Fist or No Remorse, the only two albums I had of theirs. (I also owned at different times Ace Of Spades, Bomber, Overkill, or No Sleep Til Hammersmith - but nothing, until 2009, of their post-Orgasmatron catalogue, despite considering myself a fan of the band to some extentthroughout the period from 1982 to 2009).

It is somewhat reasonable, if wrong, to assume later Motorhead might not be as good as early, in fact. A simple survey of other noted bands in the history of rock music would set one up to expect as much, because there aren't many rock bands who have kept a 30+ year career alive and continued to produce important, energetic, enjoyable albums. Consider the later recordings of the Blue Oyster Cult, say, in this regard - they still play their old material well, and their last studio album (Curse Of The Hidden Mirror) was, at the very least, much better than anything they'd released since the 1980's - but for the most part, owning or listening to their later catalogue (Imaginos, Club Ninja, Heaven Forbid... there are others, so widely ignored and shitcanned by even fans of the band that it seems to do them little cruelty to name them) could do nothing but tarnish the glory of their first few recordings. It's the phenomenon chronicled so well by Randy Newman in his very funny "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It):" "each record I'm making is like a record that I've made/ just not as good" (I would love to hear some 30+ year rock band cover that song, though it would take some bravery). There are countless other examples of rock bands that put out great albums in their peak and then continued for years thereafter to pump out mediocrity. We all know more than a few bands like that. Why should Motorhead be any different?
Here's the news, then, for those of you who have not been paying attention: Motorhead are at some sort of weird creative peak at the moment, and if you haven't noticed it, for fuck's sake, if you like heavy rock music - punk, metal, or ANY genre, as long as you really like rock - you owe it to yourself to pick up their last three studio albums - and likely their next, slated for release later this year. Inferno, Kiss Of Death, and Motorizer are all terrific albums - all produced by Cameron Webb, on board for the next disc, and all featuring the excellent musicianship of guitarist Phil Campbell (who has been with the band since the mid-1980's and has become a far better player than I remember Fast Eddie being) and Mikkey Dee - one of the great rock drummers currently working and a really fun showman to boot (I'm so glad he made the Vancouver gig...). I've spun these discs countless times and have not worn them out; their songcraft, musicianship, lyrical content, production, and overall energy levels are astonishing, and make Ace Of Spades seem (to me, anyway) a humble early effort by a band who had lots of growing yet to do. I almost never listen to Ace Of Spades, but barely a week goes by that I don't spin one of my recent Motorhead mixes (made, note, off the original CDs - I don't just download this stuff; that's how I introduced myself to their recent catalogue, but once I discovered how good it was, I went out and bought the actual discs, which you should do too). I've also developed a great fondness for their 1993 German release Bastards, and really like several songs off Sacrifice (1995) and Hammered (2002), though there are songs on all three that aren't quite as amazing as the material since Inferno...

Don't just take my word for it, though - check out John Chedsey on Kiss Of Death and Motorizer. Or try Mark Prindle on Inferno, Kiss Of Death, and Motorizer (which he's a bit harsh to... I don't agree with quite a lot of Prindle's reviews, but by God, can he turn a sentence! "Lemmy still sounds like an evil drunken pirate ahoying your mateys" - exactly!). Everyone I've shared this later Motorhead stuff with - including people who got stuck in their first lineup like I had - has agreed with me; these are great albums, waiting for a much wider audience to discover them (which, with the upcoming Lemmy documentary, might just happen sooner than later).

The band has had a few so-so albums in the last twenty years or so, mind you - albums where more songs don't work than do. Overnight Sensation (1996) and especially Snake Bite Love (1998) I regard as lesser efforts. We Are Motorhead (2000) is better, but bogged down by what seems an unnecessary, slightly plodding cover of "God Save The Queen" and the decent but rather solemn and downbeat ballad (?), "One More Fucking Time." It was really with Inferno (2004) that the band really entered their golden age, every song on that seeming some sort of classic - from the extremely fast, testosterone-rich "Fight" to the lyrically fascinating (if rather gleefully evil) "In The Year Of The Wolf" or "Smiling Like A Killer." (Or check out the acoustic blues number, "Whorehouse Blues," which the band played for their October encore in Vancouver). Kiss Of Death shows the band reaching a new level of musical complexity on the song about death, "Kingdom Of The Worm," and has Lemmy's most successful rock ballad ever, "God Was Never On Your Side," which easily beats "Don't Let Daddy Kiss Me," "Lost In The Ozone," and the aforementioned "One More Fucking Time" as a slow, reflective, emotionally-charged piece of highly traditional songwriting - you know exactly where each rise and fall should be, but find the journey no less satisfying. And if Motorizer is perhaps not quite as ambitious as Kiss Of Death or Inferno, it's still a great album, relying a bit more on blues-rock conventions, but still crafting some very heavy, morally complex songs (like "Heroes," one of Lemmy's many fascinating recent songs about war). I am very eager to hear what the band come up with on their next album; based on the recordings, they've never been better than they are right now. There are exactly four rock records I am looking forward to in 2010: the new Subhumans Canada album (which sees them revisiting some certain old favourites); Mike Watt's long-awaited new record with the Black Gang (yay Nels!), which I hope will get released this fall; what I hope will be a new Rocket From The Tombs release (since they've been in the studio and completed a single); and this new Motorhead disc. I cannot wait. I am most eager. I love this band.
In summa: if you like Motorhead and haven't heard their last three albums, I strongly recommend checking them out. This is a band that has gotten better with age (maybe it has something to do with the whiskey in Lemmy's bloodstream). Trust me: you will not find yourself saddened by how a once-great band became a bunch of boring old farts repeating themselves, but something quite the opposite - a band that took thirty years to blossom fully and are now in full flower.

I guess it's kind of strange to liken Motorhead to a flower, but you know what I mean.

Motorhead in Vancouver, by Femke Van Delft. Not to be reused without permission.


Chris W said...

I was equally surprised that Motorhead was still making such great albums--further proof that Lemmy has indeed sold his soul to the Devil.

Bent said...

I got into Motorhead with Orgasmatron. I loved all their albums, but found Rock and Roll uneven and and didn't really get into 1913. I wrote them off after March or Die, which I considered a terrible album - a Nugent cover, guest appearances by Slash and Ozzy - what a sellout! As a result, I skipped Bastards - the first album of theirs that I hadn't bought. When I decided to see them on the Sacrifice tour I decided to go out and get the two albums that I had missed. They were awesome!
I was unsure about Overnight Sensation, though there were a couple of tracks that redeemed the album and I always felt that Snake Bite Love was disappointing. Although I didn't mind We Are Motorhead I never got into Hammered and haven't listened to one of their albums since. I definitely have to give them a listen.