In Their Madness
Mean-riffing mystics Masters of Reality are born of a frozen hell - Syracuse, New York State.
Loosened by the winter sunshine, icicles drop with loud cracks from the eaves of bass player Googe's anonymous suburban house.
A neighbourhood postman scrambles over snow towards Googe and drummer Vinnie Ludovico as they climb out of a clapped-out, salt-sore pick up.
"If it's junk mail, we don't want it," grumbles Googe.
But Vinnie remains optimistic. "If it's junk in mail, we want it!"
There could be a tune in it, after all.
Masters of Reality's slow, deep, eponymous first album is a mind-altering experience. It trips through the past darkly but settles on nothing. The blues, Cream and ZZ Top are roots but not anchors. Masters of Reality's rock is liquid and free-spirited, like the Hendrix and Zeppelin records they cherish.
Although you'd never guess it from the dreamy, Creamy spiral of 'The Blue Garden' or the ZZ-gone-homicidal wipe-out of 'Kill The King', the Masters originated in 1981 as a duo - Chris Goss on vocals and Tim Harrington (now guitar) on keyboards. Cloaked in bizarre, tacky horror FX, the Masters were Syracuse's answer to New York electro-terrorists Suicide!
"We were, like, the strangest band in the world. When it was a duo it was ridiculous," chuckles Tim in the backroom at Syracuse's fabulous Flamingo Carwash.
"What we were doing was real similar to Acid House," explains Chris. "Kinda fucked-up drum machine stuff! We sounded like a DJ putting mixes together, only a lot more violent."
"We got out our anger in the '70s, and then we looked at people who were a little more laid back and a little cooler, and we thought, Yeah, let the music do the talking. That's a good philosophy - praying instead of screaming."
Tim exchanged keyboards for guitar as he and Chris hooked up with Googe and gigged for some time as a trio plus beatbox. But when they came to record a demo tape for producer Rick Rubin, the need for a flesh and blood drummer became apparent; as, subsequently, did Vinnie. As a quartet, the Masters were soon signed to Rubin's embryonic Def American label.
"Rubin had been doing a lot of rap-metal stuff," recalls Chris. "And he could sense a lot of depth and background to the way we conceived hard rock. AC/DC wasn't the first hard rock group we got into, y'know? And both Rick and the band wanted to get rootsier at the same time. If we'd produced the album ourselves, though, it would've been a lot more blurry. Rubin wanted the riffs to stand out."
From it's elemental heavy rock riffs ('Domino') to creaky, shuffling boogie ('Gettin' High') and the tinkling swing of 'Magical Spell', Masters of Reality seems less like a new album and more like an old album newly discovered.
"Timeless," pouts Tim. "Not hi-tech."
"The pacing is like that of an old album," adds Chris. "Different things would be juxtaposed; a heavy song next to something folky and traditional. We're not worried about consistency. It's not like a Bon Jovi record, it's a hotchpotch."
Throughout the record, Chris' vocal is cool and melodic. It's this that has invited comparisons with The Doors.
"Live, I scream my throat out. Rick had a lot to do with my vocal style on the album. He told me to sing the songs like I was in a room humming to myself, and I kinda like that. It adds something to the record. If the lyrics were attacked more aggressively, a lot of the strangeness would be taken away."
How did that strangeness come about?
"I'm a moody guy, and I didn't want to shoot from one place all the time. Most of the songs went through a lot if different lyrics. Originally, 'The Candy Song' was supposed to have, like, a gospel feel to it, but it wasn't working, so we said, Fuck it, write something real simple, a working man's sex drive kinda song. And it turns out that that song's been quoted the most."
"Also, there are things on the album that can't be pinned down. There's a spiritual element to the lyrics, something that confronts people on different levels."
Masters of Reality swear they have the vision to make a ground-breaker album in the future. Yet at 30-plus each, they're past the age at which most innovative rock musicians peak.
"There is no innovation in rock," says Vinnie. "Hasn't been for the last 15, 20 years."
So where is this revolutionary Masters of Reality album going to come from?
"You refine something," says Chris. "Take what's been done and drain it's essence. It keeps boiling down, it's a cyclical thing. As for creativity, a lotta bands by the time they're 40 have made millions and are junkies. They're kinda rotting away by then."
"A lotta bands don't keep learning," adds Vinnie. "As far as I can see, this is a real straight-ahead record, but the band can and will do a lotta different things later on down the road. With a first record, you want something for people to hook on to. You fuck with their heads later."
"We were still young when disco came out - I mean, we're not that old, y'know?" laughs Chris. "Led Zeppelin and Cream didn't listen to Kraftwerk and Eurodisco stuff, whereas we have a lot of sensibility that comes from a post-Cream era. PiL, the Furs..."
"And," concludes Vinnie, "there's a lotta drugs out there that we haven't tried too!"
Masters of Reality aim to recreate the spirit of great rock in their own idiosyncratic ragbag music, by rediscovering the original mysteries of traditional forms which ages of clumsiness have made prosaic. And, whatever their pompous name suggests, they're not grousy Black Sabbath copyists.
"But we're just as stupid as they were!" insists Tim.
"Basically, Masters of Reality is just a good name," says Chris. "It used to throw people off and it still does. And like Sabbath, we're idiot savants, y'know? Geniuses who don't know what they're doing!"
Long may confusion reign.