Thursday, September 25, 2008

Leaderdogs For the Blind - Lemonade (1995)

1995 was an important year for music, and for me personally as well. My personal musical growth had been on a steady rise ever since I branched out from the country music, gospel, and oldies I grew up listening to (because that's all I was allowed). Indeed, ever since I ventured into pop, hip-hop (early 90's) and rock, the sky became the limit. I had already developed a sensibility where I didn't care about what others thought of what I listened to, which helped me greatly in my own path to musical fulfillment - I would not be bound by some rule or guideline that said I had to listen to what was popular. By the same token, if I did listen to what was popular, I wasn't going to let those who considered themselves "cool" and "underground" dissuade me from listening to what I liked. So, as someone who had plunged himself full-on into both the hard rock & heavy metal landscape, as well as the grunge & ever-growing alternative rock scene (as well as dipping my toe in the proverbial hip-hop water), I felt no pressure to succumb to the whims of anyone's musical tastes but my own.

Enter 1995. In the wake of grunge's demise, the aftermath of the Kurt Cobain suicide, and the continually growing popularity of industrial music, more and more groups began incorporating electronic influences into their music. 3 of my favorite albums from my youth are from 1995, and also include varying degrees of electronics and industrial influence/sound. Those being Leaderdogs For the Blind, God Lives Underwater, and Circle of Dust. GLU had been together for a short while, releasing a competent self-titled EP, then the same year releasing their full-length debut "Empty". Having first heard the single "No More Love" on an up-coming alt-rock radio station in my area, I initially thought, "This is like Alice in Chains with electronics." I was captivated by the sound. Similarly, Circle of Dust captivated me. I had purchased the 1995 re-recording of the 1992 debut album while on a date with my girlfriend, and it became one of my favorite albums very quickly.

The Leaderdogs album caught me by surprise as well. Where "Empty" had ultra-catchy melodies and catchy riffs, "Lemonade" preferred to pummel the listener with bottom-heavy, bombastic guitar & bass attack, a precise drum machine, and a decidedly goth-tinged vocal approach. That's not to say it's not a catchy record - far from it. It's just not a pop record disguised as a heavy rock record. This IS a heavy rock record, one that belies an underlying metal influence that is felt in the riffs. Of course, the scoffers dismiss this as simply a precursor to "nu-metal" or just an offshoot of the industrial music wave, just another rock band trying to get into the market. While it's true that many a techno-influenced rock band flooded the market at that time (The Almighty Ultrasound, Stabbing Westward, and Gravity Kills were only a few of the more notable acts in this vein), Leaderdogs were arguably the heaviest of the bunch, which was unique for a Christian band. Also unique is that Leaderdogs were a bit more "industrial" than many of their contemporaries, incorporating many of the samples, "found sounds", and aural experiments that other bands in the sme vein have shyed away from, or used more sparsely. As a result, Leaderdogs become a kind of group that sounds as though they're trying to bridge the gap between genres, even if it's totally unintentional, but I digress...

The album starts off in fine form with a sample, a John Cusak quote from Fat Man and Little Boy, "You oughta stop play God, 'cause you are not good at it, and the position is taken!" though the quote is heavily "effected" and the voice manipulated so it sounds lower. Immediately, the song blows into a heavy riff, solid drum rhythm (albeit on a drum machine), and a few other low-key samples. The bass rumbles along nicely underneath everything. The keyboard here is just a single note, provided mostly for effect, but in spots where the guitar is absent, it works well in keeping the tension up. I'm not sure what the significance of the song title "Yellow and Black Attack" is concerning the lyrics (perhaps just a send-up to Stryper?), but the song seems to address the plank in the eye vs. the speck in the eye kind of thing, or at least the subject that we've all fallen short of God's glory. "Ripple" fades in with a somewhat circular riff that fits the song nicely. The effected vocals & layering sounds good here as well, with the only possible weak point being the plain, clean vocals that sound a little low in the mix. The lyrics use a bit of hyperbole to counter the old adage of "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me." It's effective in communicating the "blow" one takes when being hit with a particularly negative stream of words or someone is just communicating to them very negatively. "Better Ways" starts with radio static, then a quietly distorted riff and some indistinguishable voices mixed in w/ the radio static. The quiet, lightly distorted vocal comes in, and sings the first part, then a slightly heavier riff transitions into the full-on song. There are some nuances that are hard to hear unless you're wearing headphones, such as some yells/screams going on in the staticy background during the transition riff. The bridge portion has a nice "tunnel" layered vocal sound in it that complements the riff. The lyrics speak of our relationship to God and how despite growing old & weary, God is still there with us, and will be there for us at our end to welcome us into His presence.

"Fighting Gravity" is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It starts w/ an interesting sound effect, then right into a nice riff and good cymbal/drum rhythm. The layered vocal in the song is great - a nice low-end vocal layered w/ a "tunnel" sounding vocal. This is one of the heavier songs on the album in that it keeps the guitar pretty heavy throughout most of the song, and has driving riffs. The harmonized vocal layering in the chorus is great as well. I'm not entirely sure what the lyrics are conveying - it could be any number of things that go against the nature of God, such as abortion. This is one of those songs that could be applied to a number of topics & interpreted thus. The title track slows things down a bit for a fun little tune about Perry's favorite beverage. It recalls a story like childhood, going to a neighborhood hot dog stand and purchasing lemonade. The riff is distorted, but subdued, and the drums keep a nice steady rhythm with lots of lingering high hat while the lightly slurred vocal lumbers along along with the low rumble. The lyrics are a bit humorous, which was undoubtedly the intent. The layering of acoustic & electric guitar sounds great here, and is a nice welcome addition to the electronic sounds that accompany the guitar, bass, and drum machine. The group vocals are kind of cool in the chorus, and the quote at the end of the song "I have just been singing that all day" is poignant, because it's a very catchy song. "Radiant Abyss" isn't so much a proper song, as a segue piece into "Supersaturated". The spoken words here are from C.S. Lewis, and is very effective against the interesting guitar & sound effects going on in the background. "Supersaturated" (another favorite) kicks in with a snare beat, and another heavy driving riff. The song isn't overly complex, but the riff is effective & has a nice rhythmic structure. The lyrics speak of being in situations where we feel overwhelmed and are perhaps trying to fulfill ourselves with things of the world, and instead realizing that only God can bring that fulfillment. The chorus speaks of feeling the presence of God, lending to the song's title. "Martin's Dream" is likely about Martin Luther King, and his dream of a racism free counry and world, where the color of a person's skin is not the measuring stick by which people are judged. The intro is the sound of a playground, with children playing and singing. The music starts in with a spare guitar line, solid drumming, and an eerie choir vocal that very slowly grows in volume. The riff during the verse sections is fast, but not overbearing to the rest of the song. The layered vocals sound great here & add to the effect. The chorus is anthemic, and has one of my favorite lines in "We did not end division, we only moved the line. It's still a dream to live in a place for every kind." The bridge section has sound effects and noise underneath that complements the sound. There are various distorted quotes throughout the song that can be hard to make out, but add to the atmosphere. "The Weather" is similar to Precious Death's song "Talk About the Weather" but from a different angle. The lyrics speak of Christians shutting out the world, or in some ways ignoring it rather than dealing with it, sort of the proverbial "bury your head in the sand" scenario. The lyrics are simple, but communicate this point effectively. The delivery is very rhythmic, though not quite hip-hop in nature. The verse vocals are quite distorted here, and are yelled, making them possibly the harshest vocals on the CD. The chorus is more of a whisper, contrasting nicely. The riffing in this song is also effective, keeping step with the rhythmic nature of the vocals. "Sprout" is a major departure. The intro is a winding sound, followed by the tinny music of a children's toy (like the stuffed animals many in my generation had growing up). The song is mostly acoustic guitar, and Lyndon
Perry (rather than Derek Cilibraise) on vocals. The song is about Perry's then unborn child, as exemplified by the ultrasound picture included in the sleeve, and as the portion under the CD tray in the tray card. It's a neat song about how he's anticipating the arrival of his child, and how he can't wait to teach his new child a myriad of things. As the song progresses, more effects & noise in the background swells (which is actually recorded sound from "Sprout's" Ultrasound), and the guitar moves from strictly acoustic to very lightly distorted. Perry's voice isn't great, but appropriate in context, and it is quite effective here because of it. The song ends w/ more of the music from the children's toy as it fades out. I liken "Sprout" with "Scared" from God Lives Underwater's "Empty" album from the same time - it was probably just an accident that the "ballad" songs were both at the end of the album, but it makes for a nice parallel between these to techno-rock bands.

So how does the album stack up against "Empty"? Pretty well, I'd say. I think it holds up today as well as it did then, so both albums are equally as captivating as I write this as they were when I first heard them in 1995. The biggest differences here are that "Lemonade" is a heavier, more driving record, and that the album as a whole is much, much more hopeful than "Empty". That's one of the things that always struck me. The catchier, poppier record was darker and cynical, while the heavier record is the one with hope. Either way, it stands the test of time & still sounds great today. If you're a fan of guitar-based industrial, electronic rock music, or just hard rock in general, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the tracks on this album. It was unfairly ignored in the market primarly because R.E.X. Records was in an "inactive" state during the time of this album's release, and very nearly on the verge of folding (which did happen shortly thereafter). Despite some "guerilla" marketing (notated in the Guerilla Music Marketing Handbook), this CD never truly got its due, and as a result, faded mostly into obscurity. Word on the internet is that Perry reformed the band around 2002 and was set to record another album. A "tribute" Myspace has tracks from Lemonade, as well as 3 tracks from an album called "The Resurrected Me" which I've never seen nor heard of until recently. Is this the lost Leaderdogs release? I'm unsure, as I've not been able to uncover any more info about it. The tracks present show a much more "organic" sound than is displayed on "Lemonade" which seem to work well, but it doesn't have the atmosphere that made "Lemonade" such a great record. In any event, this is an overlooked gem.