Children of the
Sliding hard and fast down a snow-covered slope in a Syracuse cemetery. 2am and the harsh laughter of Tim Harrington - lead guitarist with Masters of Reality - adds a colder touch to the already rapidly increasing chill eating through my bones. I'm on my ass in a foot of snow and he's laughing. Steve Latham, the band's manager, is laughing too. I get up, brush the sleet and ice from my body and trudge off with Harrington, Latham and lensman Mark Leialoha to inspect a small Gothic cathedral by torchlight.
"Chris won't be too keen on doing stuff here," announces Latham referring to this being a possible location for a photo shoot tomorrow, "he isn't into being tied with the Gothic thing anymore."
Thing is, it would be hard to tie Masters of Reality to any of hard rock's stock images. Yet hard to deny them the right, all the same. Y'see, Chris Goss (vocals and guitar), Tim Harrington, Googe (bass) and Vinnie Ludovico (drums) are responsible for one of the year's most interesting and soul stirring records, a debut that's sure to raise eyebrows and kick up a fuss. Which is why I'm in Syracuse dancing around tombstones as we try just one more time to find one more location for one more shoot.
To tell the truth, never has a new tape, a new album, a new band got my interest in the way that Masters of Reality's Blue Garden has. They didn't do it with an amphetamine burst of speed, with a glut of slick pop metal, or rambunctious rebellion. No, Blue Garden did it with class; thick, slow, easy class quality shooting off it's wad over every groove. It is a real rock album, a true collection of songs. A strong sense of mystique but with a sense of reality that just doesn't grow on those damn trees any longer.
There is an intriguing lack of rock star bullshit in Masters of Reality, but an encouraging abundance of real personality and real character that makes a mockery even more of the Tinseltown high-swagger shit-stick approach that so many new bands feel duty bound to throw at you in gleeful globs.
Chris Goss: a quiet, gentle sort. He has a depth of personality that is rare, hard to find, and an intelligence that is a pleasure to get to grips with. He is a satirist and a man obviously intrigued only by the realities of life and not the egotistical dreams that so often overtake real consciousness.
Tim Harrington: a guy with a definite sense of purpose and a strong love of good music. Been doing it now for most of his life (as have all the Masters), exceedingly disinterested in bullshit, a family man with a wonderful young child and very nice wife, a man not afraid to show his domestic side. Tim has a strong sense of reality and is thus a very level-headed and honest person. Left me thinking he resembled a Dustin Hoffman type.
Googe: a high-spirited sort who's obviously just happy to be able to get on with what he does best. His eyes always sparkle with mischief - but not of the puerile kind, more of the experienced fun-lover. As co-operative and conscientious a guy as you could find, Googe is ready to help out and hang out with anyone.
Vinnie: they used to make parties like Vinnie but they stopped because the neighbours complained about the volume. If you could package Vinnie into a bottle and let him loose at a dinner function, you'd probably get as near to anarchy as you'd ever achieve in your lifetime. Everyone's favourite loud Italian New Yorker, Vinnie exudes a constant warm love of life that had me laughing almost continuously for the two days I was around him. A great spirit lifter.
Masters of Reality's musical abilities are unquestionable, as Blue Garden will prove to you. And these four people form what is maybe the tightest and best band combination I've seen in a while. They complement each other as people and players. Together they have the strength and the determination.
They also have a deal with Def American Records, and it is down to Latham sending Rick Rubin a tape that this album is now on the US shelves. It is also down to Rubin signing a band who, quite frankly, probably confused most of the A&R peabrains. See, these folk like to manufacture an image, a title, a slogan and, oh yeah, some music too. But Masters of Reality's total concept is their music... and maybe Rick Rubin is one of the handful of people today who can truly spot that and help manifest it into the greatness it should be.
Now, finding greatness in Syracuse is a rather hefty problem. It's a small city which has no great industrial might and precious little in the way of vibe and buzz. And it takes special application and a shitload of graft to make the dream happen.
Masters of Reality formed in 1981, their title attracting them not too much of a following. It wasn't the age to have a name that splattered one with Sabbath and Zeppelin imagery. Survival was only for the fittest, and the Masters kept themselves in the race with the help of various outside jobs such as club DJ, hotel cook, Chinese food delivery man and working for the city sanitation department.
Gigs were rare, but when they happened the hole opened up in everyone's sky and the ride to various strange stratospheres was as intense as it was engaging. Interest built up, and long time friend Steve Latham, who had moved to New York a few years before and managed a restaurant called Exterminator Chili, booked them a few shows in New York City. He then got a tape along to Rick Rubin, who in turn saw the band at popular Lower East Side pit the Pyramid.
I remember Rubin's first words on the signing, telling me that he felt MOR were slow and weird but very stylish. Not off the mark one jot, Masters are also highly mesmerising, a swirling hypnotic plethora of moves and shakes that will have the head spinning in much the same way as, say, Hawkwind can do it, yet leave the guts churning as hard and fast as that first time you heard Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
And in the same way Hawkwind weren't really hippy-dippy sag-shit and Sabbath weren't simply plunder Gods, MOR have the subliminal desire to stretch your senses in every last direction, to the blues, to heavy metal, to hard rock, to rag-time even. And then to the sky, space, heaven, hell...
It is a bright morning that streams through the windows of Harrington's recently purchased house, and he, myself and Chris are seated in a bare bedroom on the second floor. It contains but a few pieces of my luggage, plus blankets and pillows from the crash-down of last night, as well as a small stereo box.
"I just like to have some sort of music in the background, anything but that silence," states Chris quietly as Black Sabbath's Sabotage is slipped on and the sound flows out. In many ways, Sabbath and Masters have much in common; the simplicity of both bands' music being the key to it's brilliance. Is this the product of age - the Masters all being in their 30s - or talent, I wonder?
"I guess it's a combination of both," sighs Tim. "The kids, their Chuck Berry was AC/DC and they missed out on a lot of the formative stuff that guys like me grew up with. Some bands I hear are trying to dig up the influential, like the old blues stuff and old rock n roll, which has a lot to do with where everything came from. There's a lot of metal bands out there who don't have any blues base whatsoever, and I really don't enjoy that stuff too much 'cause it's not built on the old influential roots that are responsible for it's existence."
The fact remains that there are people who really don't care too much to dig for the past to find their future, so is Tim worried that those people might not find access to the Masters too easy?
"Oh sure," he assures, "I think kids will get it because it's out there. Anyway, it's more some of the bands that I'm talkin' about as opposed to the fans. The fans mostly seem to have a pretty good idea but some bands choose to be unfamiliar with the roots of music.
"I think that it'll get to the stage where it's some ungrounded force that's flying through the air and there'll have to be a foundation for it. And for that to be found, people will end up digging deep into musical history."
Not that Masters music languishes with the old times. Uh-uh, it is a synthesis of the brash and the calm, the new and the old, a series of intriguing style combinations. One of which is the particularly ear-catching Doors-style vocals of Goss - over the crunchy, hard guitars.
"That's what rock n roll has always been about, those fat guitars on the record," states Tim. "Chuck Berry had 'em and so have many others."
"The singing style on the album," explains Goss, "is something that developed in the studio. It's like making a very conscious effort not to strain, there's a lot of screaming and shouting going down out there these days. Live... I'll let loose a lot more because live breeds that energy."
"Rick (Rubin) helped me by telling me not to push, just to relax and sing the lines, to lay back. And I think the juxtaposition of the real raucous noise, out-front guitar against a voice that's almost humming at times, in the end, came out very well and is real interesting to the ear."
Which reminds me, exactly what did Rubin's involvement entail? After all, Masters are unlike any band Rubin has worked with before.
"He has a lot of good ideas," says Goss, "and I personally gave a lot of thought to what he said because most of them were good suggestions. Of course we had our disagreements... but they were nothing major, nothing that wasn't worked out, you'd just end up talking them out and finding the best solution for the record."
"What we were really good at before meeting Rick Rubin," laughs Goss, "what we did on all our demos was put a lot of reverb and subtle placement on things. Like the raw atmosphere and spiritual thing, that was our creation. We used this drum machine all the time, and Tim and I write with one, so when we write with it we disguise and create with it. Hence the whole spiritual thing; we'd use all sorts of tricks to get that down."
"Any cheap sounding stuff (we were using a four-track) we would muck up so as it didn't sound like it was little and cheap. We did the muck up so well that our music came across as being very mysterious and weird sounding."
"Rick saw that and said, 'No, why not lift it up and take it out of all that stuff, allow people to hear what's going on clearly.' Taking an essence and removing it from the muck, which gives a clearer view of us basically."
Masters of Reality tend to use the term 'spiritual' when their sound comes under analysis. Indeed, spiritual is a damn fine term when used with others, but if taken as a separate thing could confound a lot of people and set up the wrong image.
"Possibly correct," muses Tim, "but spiritual is actually a part of the American, and human, culture. Problem is that a lot of people seem to spend an awful amount of time denying that man's been around for God knows how long."
"It's all-encompassing, it takes in the roots of music thing too; people are too busy basing their assumptions, ideas and values on the last 10 minutes. They forget the fact that music is so old it was actually one of the first forms of communication. I guess I'm tied into trying to bring positive elements of the past into the present."
"We're in some very sarcastic times too," sighs Chris. "You're talking about spiritual in the way maybe old hippies were viewed and so on. Once that was the cool thing, it was very hip to approve of that attitude, to respect it's qualities. Now it seems to be a tongue in cheek thing, where spiritual is one of those things you smirk at and don't admit you like."
One gets the feeling that Masters of Reality may have a slight disregard for the times and attitudes, and have little in common with the age. Chris Goss shakes his head in a gesture of sadness and sighs very loudly, before quietly announcing:
"No, no, not at all and I'm really disappointed in that question actually. I think there's a lot of new sensibility on this record and in this band..."
Absolutely, the album stands shoulder to shoulder with any of today's whippersnapper releases, but with the reference to sarcasm and images being taken the wrong way, maybe the Masters feel pressure?
"Not at all, we are made up of elements - not any single idea. We are not some retro band. If people listen they'll immediately hear there's too much on this album that isn't only reaching back but reaching out."
"If anyone does make that mistake," furthers Tim, "it's gonna come from the form more than the content..."
And if the band are credited with helping bring forward old time music? Tim and Chris answer together:
"Won't bother us! Ha ha ha."
"I guess it will be assumed though, all this retro stuff, and it's just as good to hear it now so as we can stop it dead. I think we have the chance," explains Chris quietly, "more of a chance actually, to do something that's groundbreaking than someone who's just a Slayer clone. You can see that we have the ability to maybe make a record in the future that's light years ahead of anyone else."
"But back to the influences and illustrating certain aspects of them, an old fashioned honky-tonk, bluesy song like 'Magical Spell', you cannot forget the beauty of those blues changes. Those piano parts filling as breaks, there's a lot of evil and beauty in those notes and it's good for kids to get familiar with it."
"And you know what?" laughs Chris, "if there's any doubts still about fans getting this, the facts are that Rick Rubin produced us and Kerrang!'s sitting talking to us, so that must mean something."
"And just think if not only kids but their parents like it, then we can just go ahead and take over the whole world!" giggles Tim.
The stage is maybe where the Masters are at their sharpest and most dangerous, waiting to swing you around like you were an old stuffed animal - before punching your stuffing out. Or is that gently pushing? It could be anything with the Masters. On the evidence of a video that I saw, they certainly are quite something on the boards. Thick shafts of light constantly silhouette the criminals of power, and their deft, wicked switches from acoustic to death are mind blenders.
"Live it's a good dose of theatre as much as anything," says Chris, "there's a way to pull it off where a band might cross over into theatre, and another which isn't being too obvious but is still very, very theatrical: which sort of explains us."
"Led Zeppelin were very theatrical, four men on stage yet performers in that sense of theatre moves and approach. Black Sabbath were too, Ozzy most definitely. And then you have the Mötley Crües, definite subjects, as were Poison in that loud, New York Dolls way. But now, in this 'Every Rose Has It's Thorn' thing, their singer has this scruffy beard and cowboy hat. It seems that people are trying to get back to this street look, this rootsy appearance. We like to stretch out a lot live..."
"The band onstage is, indeed, awesome," says Tim with that tone that leaves his face straight and his soul splitting spleen laughing. "No, really, it's a very bony, spiney thing. It's kind of funny that the record doesn't really give a true representation of what we actually sound like live."
Well, an explanation...
"Come and see it, it's like a trip to the fair. It's like a trip through caves and tunnels, ha ha ha, a trip to the stars..."
"The thing is," straightens Tim, "it seems that so many metal bands out there play these riffs that are 16 notes a bar but that's simply stuff they learnt. There's not a lot of improvisation going on really. And this band has pretty much founded itself on live performance. When we hit the stage it's like a tornado and we don't know which way we'll go."
This collection of fine bastards are intent on side-stepping clichés, corporate and categorisations. Like 'Gothic', a rather ugly little gnome that I presume describes doom music and was once a Masters tag.
"Gothic?" laughs Tim. "Yeah, that's uh, very churchy, ethereal ringing, just like the sound of instruments and voices in a big, dark cavernous space. And, of course, the lyrical imagery. I guess we were once an avant garde Gothic band, yes! But we will fight all forms of categorisation and classification."
"Now, if individuals see us in certain ways then fine, we're like water, we take the shape of our container. And what if they did manage to jam us into a classification? Our next LP might be totally different, so how can we be called anything much?"
What if it becomes this situation where you're being labelled by powers, and are forced into a corner where you have to maybe label yourselves just to save the fuss?
"Neil Young managed to avoid that whole corporate rock trip," says Chris. "He did it and showed that you can still make lots of money throwing curves. But if we should get forced to label ourselves..." he engages in thought, grin emerging, "we'll make the best thrash album ever."
A slight on thrash I presume.
"Not at all," retorts Chris. "I think South of Heaven is a superb piece of music. No, there's actually a quality to thrash that is kinda Biblical, Old Testament and classical. Like some Pagannini speeded up, which isn't a bad start."
Tim: "Sounds like Black Sabbath all the way fast. Speed metal's actually getting healthier, kids seem to getting more mentally fit listening to it!"
Maybe Masters of Reality are (ugh! stupid term coming up) a 'crossover' band in many ways? Maybe not.
Chris: "Crossover is a very convenient term for rock writers to use. Five years ago, Prince comes out with something and the critics call it brilliant. 'Wow! He's crossing funk and psychedelia' and it's like 'crossover' is cool. Now it's just used as a crusade, it's something to do. Believe me, it is just another convenient term."
"That whole term 'crossover'," furthers Tim, "derives from the assumed fact that people only like a certain type of music. I don't think that should be, or always is, the case. Some kids wear a band's name everywhere like a flag, only that band, and I don't think it has to be like that. Nothin' wrong with stickin' up for what you're into, but not if it means you shut things out."
When it comes to explaining the songs, the meanings and the concepts, Chris Goss is a touch reluctant. Not out of indignancy, nor elitism, merely out of slight confusion and a touch of embarrassment. He doesn't see that people should want to know a concrete idea, feeling more that the individual should decipher what they want from the lyrics and titles. He tries valiantly to do his duty.
"Blue Garden kinda deals with the martyr complex, but the songs mean what you want. I don't think it's asking too much to present something that's a bit more wondrous than usual, for seven or so minutes to reach people on another plane. I didn't wanna come from any one direction at all."
"It's funny, we set people up with images of dungeons and dragons for one song and then we totally blow that away with another vastly different song. But we have that Masters of Reality sound whatever we do."
Whilst the photos get taken in the blue wash that is still Harrington's hallway, Chris looks up whilst a new film is loaded and stares me sharp in the eye. "Put something really slow and chunky on," he asks gesturing at the stereo, "yeah, maybe some Black Sabbath to help us with the attitude."
I go off to find the only album you could play when you're dealing with Masters of Reality - Sabs' third LP, Master of Reality - and watch as Goss' face toughens up to Iommi's riffs. They all stare at the lens, and with the blue/green light shrouding their faces, I'm telling you, this band are actually quite frightening.
Oh, before it slips my mind, Vinnie wanted me to set the record straight with the visual descriptions. Having read one of mine in a Rick Rubin profile last year regarding the Masters, he burst out with the fact that they were not 'fat, balding or ugly'. So glad to be of service on that one Vinnie!
And more than glad to be of service in reporting to you the facts behind this fine and intriguing twist of knots and wires that is Masters of Reality. You know you'll dig this one. It's too much not to. And as much as it pains my little journalistic heart, the last words must this time go elsewhere.
Chris Goss: "Experimentation is one thing and good songs are another... if you can combine the two then it's very cool. And I feel that our album has both, I think it speaks for itself. If you spin this record from side to side, by the end you'll know that you're not dealing with something you can keep in the corner."