Comin' Up Roses
Article by Howard Johnson
Photos by Ross Halfin
Originally appeared in Kerrang! (1989)

Generic. It's a word which should strike the fear of God into any self-respecting music afficionado.

It's a word which to my mind springs into the rock vocabulary with an ever increasing, ever depressing regularity these days. There are so many bands touting their wares in the rock ballpark who couldn't create an original feel in their group if their lives depended on it. Livelihoods do depend on it, yet for some reason there seems to be a huge, amorphous mass of the populace that is prepared to settle for any generic sound you care to mention.

I ain't talking about influences here. Hell no, influences are a thing to be proud of. They give a band their roots, and that's a cool as hell thing to have. But for every Cult, every Badlands, every Blue Murder that's out there, there are a hundred bands who can't mould where they're coming from into a signpost that points somewhere different from where they're going to!

Don't you dare, however, point that accusatory finger at Masters of Reality, the Syracuse, New York-based four-piece whose potential was spotted by that most astute of record company dudes, one Rick Rubin. Sure, they may have pilfered their monicker from an album title by those gorgons of grind Black Sabbath, but if you think they're just one more in a line of would-be Thrash demi-gods pissing in the wind as they shoot for the top, then you'd be so wide of the mark it would be almost laughable!

Just take a listen to the Masters' debut album, The Blue Garden, released way back in January in their native States, but only now granted UK release, and I guarantee you'll never make another dubious, generic comparison ever again. You might be freaked out by the wide berth that the band gives to it's music. You might find it hard to get a grasp on where they're coming from if you've only ever had ears for high-octane '80s rifferama, and never had the pleasures of the '60s bestowed upon you. Yet I've got a sneaking suspicion that you're gonna like Masters of Reality a whole lot. I don't have to bullshit you when I say that this is the finest record of it's kind that I have heard since... ooh, since the Doors!

And that's exactly the point, you see. Not since the turn of the '60s have I heard a band trying to operate this way. You might call that regressive. I'd dub it progressive, because it's been so long since people stretched their music and their minds, that it will be a whole new experience to many. And believe me, wherever they come from, the songs contained on the album are good. No, make that great. Actually, make that SPECIAL!

Although the band, consisting of vocalist/guitarist Chris Goss, lead guitarist Tim Harrington, bassist Googe and drummer Vinnie Ludovico, have been together since as long ago as 1981, it didn't surprise Chris when Rick Rubin finally brought the band out of the cold and into the major recording world.

"The demo that brought us to Rick's attention was recorded at the start of '87, and crazy as it sounds, I really didn't think we'd have any trouble getting signed off it."

It sure does sound crazy. After all, if you'd been doing this shit since '81, then there must have been a hell of a lot of people who believed the cards were too heavily stacked against 'em!

"Nah!" dismisses Chris. "We just knew with that tape of four or five songs, things had finally clicked. It was like a freight train that was finally rolling. The band was done with experimenting, because we dabbled with all kinds of stuff for quite a while, but we had finally gotten back to where our hearts were. It finally sounded as if we had something solid. That's why I wasn't surprised that Rick liked our music. He's one of the few people in the business who's not looking for that whole generic thing. He's looking for rock that's real."

And wherever Rubin finds it, he finds it. He ain't fussy about finding the prettiest, the youngest, the coolest on the block. Nope, he's interested in finding the best, and God knows that's what it should be all about. And Chris reckons the way the business is geared over in the States is highly dangerous when it comes to nurturing the talent of the new acts.

"I have a girlfriend who lives out here in LA so I get to see a lot of what goes on, and it's ridiculous. There's too much pressure on new acts today. We've been playing together for eight or nine years and it's only now that we're beginning to become known, but I like the route that we took, because it gave us time to breathe and to grow."

"I got into playing in bands for the fun of it, and to get some free drinks from the bars we were playing in. Now bands are always looking over their shoulders, worrying about who likes 'em and who doesn't. Bands get signed after their second show out here and they're missing out, because they have no time to work on the finesse of what they do and to build on the flow of the show. They get so much advice that it's ridiculous. Someone from the record company saying, 'Change your bass player, you should move more, you should change your clothes'. The fact that we were isolated in Syracuse for so long really helped us because we developed our own thing."

"Now we look too old for people to tell us what to do. I mean, hey, we know how to hold our picks!"

I have a theory on this one. I reckon the reason why bands are forced into one, preconceived box of ideas marked 'metal' in the States is because of the nature of American society. It's fast, it's throwaway and it's consumer-orientated; a chew 'em up and spit 'em out mentality. Admittedly, this is still a far better situation than exists here in Britain, because the American companies at least do have some interest in rock, but there should be more importance attached to depth, longevity and hell, a little bit of real creativity wouldn't go amiss either.

"It might sound bland to say this in the days of highly visualised rock, but all that I place an influence on in Masters of Reality is the music. I don't look like the average guy playing rock music these days. I'm not 110 pounds with long blond hair, but why should that stop us being valid and relevant? We have had definite resistance from MTV and also the radio, because they find it hard to bracket what we are and what we do. They find it hard to accept that our record doesn't contain 10 songs all with an identical sound. The problem is that it's hard to take one of our tracks and decide from it what the whole album sounds like. Yet that's why I think the album is vibrant and exciting. It might make it a harder route for us, but there's no other route that I know."

"I know why I got into music in the first place, and I know why I enjoyed the music that I listened to. It was because of the longevity contained within those grooves - it wasn't just one shot and then over with. I would listen to my favourite albums for weeks, months and years! Over and over again, every day!"

"I'm still like that now. When did the Jimmy Page album, Outrider, come out? About a year ago? Well I still listen to that constantly. People today seem to give an album 15 seconds. They bounce the needle around a little bit and if they don't hear the hit single then they don't want to know. Page deals in subtleties and layering, and to get the most out of his music you have to listen really hard to hear that finesse. Nobody's willing to take that amount of time any more, because we live in a fast, scandal-dominated society. People are more into TV these days than a good record. TV gives you something that's quick and shocking, like a terrorist bombing or a politician involved in a sex and drugs scandal. Our music isn't like that."

But maybe people need to be educated to know exactly what Masters of Reality are about. I know what I think they're about. It's about not being afraid to take risks, to let the music flow where it desires. The very beauty of Masters of Reality is that their music is hard to qualify or categorise. But if you're pushing me into a corner, then I guess if you cross the early eccentricities of ZZ Top with the atmospheric splendour of the Doors, then you'll be getting somewhere close. 'Kill The King' would point to the former and the splendid restraint of 'Magical Spell' would indicate the latter influence.

"I can see what you mean," concurs Chris, "and I'm not at all ashamed by those comparisons. But I'm also not ashamed if people think that the band can't be categorised. I do worry about what a 15 year-old kid who doesn't have the musical roots that we do will make of it. Where kids used to wear Zeppelin and AC/DC shirts, they now wear Metallica and Megadeth ones. I wonder if maybe I've been left behind, especially when it's my opinion that most of the bands featured in magazines like Kerrang! stink. How many of those bands really thrill you? In how many of them is there genuine art at work?"

"I have to admit that there is a little insecurity in me about all this, but at the end of the day, we do what we do and I firmly believe the bottom line is that good songs are all that matter. The world is a much more abrasive and straight-ahead kinda place than it was when I started making music 15 years ago. The atmosphere all over the world is like so many shards of glass and the bands that are around tend to reflect that. I guess we're going against the grain because we're the kind of band that wants to take you on a magic carpet ride."

"We can, and do, play hard and aggressive, but we also have a more contemplative, ethereal side to us that I think is very important. We will keep developing and changing. Hey, we don't simply want to get filed under 'Old American Blues Rockers'!"

But do you think that your variety is a strength or weakness in the present climate?

"That's a good question. In the short term I think it might be a weakness, but in the long term it's definitely going to be a strength, especially in the live show. I don't think it's beneficial to see a band who have the same, unchanging impact for the whole duration of a show. Our performance flows more in the manner of a story; we bring things up and take them down, we have peaks and valleys. It's like a rollercoaster ride. I love going from blasting out a powerchord to the really soft brushing of an acoustic, yet holding the attention all the time.

"People are finding it hard to market us correctly at the moment, but I think that once we've done the rounds then we're really going to stand out from the crowd. People are going to see craftsmen at work, which will hopefully be as much of a pleasure to watch as it is to do."

"I think people will learn a lot, in the same way they did when they went to watch Zeppelin. That was like watching thousands of years of musical development in one show, from the primitive, folky feel, right through to the free, electric style. I think that gave a certain fluidness that is lacking today. Both Tim and I are melody freaks and we both like to play with a certain flow. There's a playfulness and a mischief in the music that hopefully can take people to a new dimension."

"One of the things that has been most gratifying about the reaction to the album has been that the most positive response has come from people who aren't too close to the machinations of the business. I don't get recognised in LA, but if I travel 20 or 30 miles out of town then I always get people coming up to me. People who aren't all glitzed out are getting into it, it's a real grass-roots thing. I guess you could say that I have faith in the people!"

And at least 50,000 people have faith in the Masters too. That's the figure the record sales are standing at right now, which while hardly breaking any records is more than respectable for a band trying to do something within the rock sphere which is truly different.

Chris is pleased with the progress because it's really what he wants to do.

"Yeah, I'm very one-track minded about the band," he insists. "I've gone through life with blinkers on as regards this. The music has always overshadowed all the other problems that I might have had, be it trouble with a girl or with the rent being late. All that's been secondary to what the band sounded like. I was always of the opinion that if you really wanted to make it, whatever that means, then you just carried on with your beliefs."

And just in case you're interested, I had to ask whether pinching the title of a Sabbath album indicated that Chris had been heavily influenced by Iommi et al.

"Sure. We took the name in '81 before the resurgence of metal had taken place and I really enjoyed doing it. It was a snotty thing to do. It was a brilliant album too, so why not? Sabbath were great, like a giant machine that went along chewing cars up, spitting them out and then going on to the next one!"

Yet it has to be said that there's a whole lot more to Masters of Reality than merely chewing 'em up and spitting 'em out, 'though they can do that any time they want to. Masters of Reality are masters of their own destiny, going where they want to go, and doing it with a style and class that's going to win them a lot of friends when they finally make it to the UK. Dates are proposed for August and I think that will be one right royal treat for all fans of great, non-generic rock 'n' roll.

This is an extraordinary band with an extraordinary album under it's belt.

If people are prepared to relax their minds and attitudes, then a ride with the Masters of Reality could be a very interesting trip indeed.