on 31 August 2003
As someone once said, the blues isn't about feeling better. It's about making everyone else feel worse.
Horror stories are still told about how, during the course of making this record, Bob Mould, Sugar's legendary front-man, incapacitated himself, actually not being able to speak. As Bob writes in the album's sleeve-notes, "I thought that this material was going to be a bit difficult for some people to comprehend ... now I'm not sure what to think, so it's time to let go of it".
So this record represents a release, a getting-it-out-there, such that everyone else can sort it out. For one thing, I'm glad I'm not Bob Mould. It really does sound like sheer hell in there. The Lord only knows which demons Bob was wrestling with, but it sounds like an act of demonic genocide more than a clean fight.
Take the smooth, shiny bits away from "Copper Blue" and you've got "Beaster". It is not, however, as frighteningly grotesque as the band prepared everyone for before its release, what with their references to an album so impossibly dark and frighteningly heavy that they couldn't bring themselves to listen to it.
The album takes off every so gently, with a wash of synth and acoustic guitar that brings to mind an air-balloon gently rising up into a clear blue sky, on the ethereal, cathedral choir-boy mantra of "Come Around" - only to knock your front teeth clean out with "Tilted". If you've ever seen the film of "Lawnmower Man", the Steven King novel, listening to "Tilted" on full volume is like having layers of your brain shaved off with that same lawnmower. "I only do these things to freak you out", screams Bob as he fires-up his lawnmower guitar for the most technically competent and ear-meltingly brilliant rock guitar solo ever to be committed to tape. Question: can someone kindly explain to me how the guitar can be played this well? Trust me; Sir Bob of Mould has absolutely no competition in the air-guitar-God stakes. I don't much care for Satriani, Vai, Van Halen or Malmsteen or any other of that breed of guitar-god, but you can bet your every last dollar that they sure as Hell know who Bob Mould is. (Incidentally, I am alone in being reminded by this track of "Fortune Teller" on "Copper Blue"...?)
We cruise into the ragged, apocalyptic ending ruins of "Tilted" - replete with preacher-man ending, reminiscent of Ministry's "Psalm 69" - and we're watching Bob rolling around, up-close in a padded-cell of religious torment, only to roll straight on into "Judas Cradle". This is the sound of a man who has cried himself raw down in the dungeons of his soul, pleading for some kind of deliverance on a Biblical scale as he begs "throw me back into the fire, peel the skin away from bones, as the smoke keeps rising higher as the Judas cradle moans". This is Bob's darkest point and every carefully-honed second of it is the sound of a man teetering on the edge, a man screaming at reality itself, a man who's perhaps gone beyond the edge but somehow got it back together enough to unleash this pivotally demented piece of music on the world. This is the savage scream of birth of his worst schizoid nightmare, the moment when he has is coughing up bile, such is the intensity of his despair - but pain has never felt this good before.
Perhaps the Messiah heeds his call, because next up is "J C Auto", which provides deliverance on a grand scale. By the time we hit track four, we are really motoring. We're not scared of anything - we're taking on the world and we're zooming off into power-chord heaven. Exactly a decade after its release, this is the track that stands out above all others. All the clichés about hairs standing on end were invented for this song, and just one moment in particular; yes, the silvery, joyous, climactic guitar solo, just before Bob launches into the gibbering, ranting, screamed, despairing chorus where he screams "Jesus Christ" in various ways over and over again. It's the moment of religious ecstasy, the moment at which Bob's despair crystallises action and makes him looking inside himself for his last reserves of inner strength. You might even argue that the whole album is just a scaffolding for these six glorious minutes of the most intensely, euphorically delirious heavy guitar tune-smithery that have ever been penned. Every glorious moment of this song screams passion, devotion and authenticity and, despite the most utter, dreadful, gut-wrenching despair, Bob's working it all out ("I need some time to reconcile / I need some time to heal a while"). Musically, we're rooting around in the same territory as The Pixies and AC/DC but any comparison is almost as much of an affront as it is irrelevant - because none of those other bands needs to exist once you've squeezed "J C Auto" in through your ears. It's just utterly, totally wonderful and makes me weep and smile all at once.
Even Bob knows that "J C Auto" is pure purgative magic, because the next song is titled "Feeling Better". We're back in conventional "Copper Blue"-era territory here - and the raucous synth line that could almost have been pilfered straight from The Cure's "Hot Hot Hot!!!" is a clue that we're powering away from the desolate trilogy of "Tilted", "Judas Cradle" and "J C Auto", but it's not quite over for Bob as he taunts "hope you're feeling better / I'm not better yet" ... "I gave you everything I had / there's nothing left for me to say / I guess it's time to walk away". Musically this is the weakest point on the album, but we can smilingly forgive Sugar that as the three tracks that have gone before will never be bettered by any other rock band, ever; period. Honourable mentions go to Sugar themselves for "Gift" and "Your Favourite Thing" on the follow-up album, "File Under Easy Listening" (ha! the irony!), but we're talking an altogether different experience by then.
The finale, "Walking Away" picks up where "Come Around" left off and feels like the Commendation from the end of a funeral service. Slightly wonky-sounding strings and organs provide a washed backdrop as Bob sings "walking away back to you I do", as if he's given up on his angst and is reduced to embracing the person who caused it all, but the hope is that poor old Bob has sorted it all out and has genuinely figured out how to leave all the pain and angst behind.
This is big, serious, epic stuff. Please leave in hushed, stunned silence.
Recorded at the same time as "Copper Blue", "Beaster" is a short collection of six songs, sometimes described as an EP, and I've even heard it described as a mini-musical. Apparently Bob Mould had looked at the songs he had written for the debut Sugar album and realised that these six shared some common themes and didn't really fit alongside the others, so he recorded this as an angry counterpart to the more chart-friendly "Copper Blue" with the intention of releasing it soon after the main album.
It's an incredible collection of songs, from the loud yet beautiful almost-instrumental of "Come Around", through the thrash of "Tilted", the roar of "Judas Cradle" and the phenomenal "JC Auto", to the jauniter "Feeling Better" and the elegiac "Walking Away". Rockier than "Copper Blue" the quality never dips, and it is one of those rare albums that you feel the need to play again as soon as it finishes.
For the remaster the package is a little more slight than the "Copper Blue" set. Once again there are multiple disks, but this time you have the remastered album which sounds perfect, and a short second DVD featuring a few tracks from a live set at Finsbury Park. It isn't great and it is very short, so you can stick with the main album and not really miss out. As with "Copper Blue" there is an excellent booklet, once again featuring interviews with the members of the band and others, and it is a fascinating read.
All in all this is a fine companion to the "Copper Blue" remaster, and for me represents Sugar's finest hour.
on 25 November 2003
Phew. Sugar's first album Copper Blue took some beating in the guitar-frenzy stakes (particularly the rockier stuff on what us quaint old-fashioned types used to call Side 2 - The Slim, Fortune Teller, Slick, etc.), but this EP-length follow-up cranks the guilt and rage (oh yes, and the guitars as well) up to 11.
Bookended by two shorter, quieter numbers (Come Around and Walking Away) are a quartet of songs of which three (Tilted, Judas Cradle, Feeling Better) are merely excellent, and one (JC Auto) is one of the most thrilling slabs of turbocharged power-chord rifferama ever committed to tape. Imagine The Act We Act from Copper Blue (which this resembles musically, to my untrained ear at least) injected with a dangerous overdose of industrial-strength horse steroids and then plugged into the mains. Bob Mould appears to be claiming to be Jesus at various points as well, though it's hard to tell over the noise. Awesome stuff.
on 22 January 2004
I've just bought this on CD having originally owned it ten years ago in the days when I was still buying cassettes, so to hear it again for the first time in ages was fantastic - in fact it was even better that I remember.
I've always been a fan of Bob's work, through Husker Du, solo stuff and Sugar, though I'll be the first to admit that not everything he's put his name to is a masterpiece. He's an artist who sometimes misses the target, sure; but when he hits it jeez he really, really hits it.
"Beaster" is an atomic bomb of a record, a sonic assault of the senses and emotions that transcends it's hissy production to become one of the most powerful and cathartic rock albums of the 90's. Only Nirvana could equal this kind of elemental soul purging in 1993.
Kicking off with the almost shoegazey "Come Around" the listener is lulled into a fuzzy wall of warm, acoustic/ electric melody, all scuffed, shimmering chords and spiralling vocals. It builds to a gentle climax before ending on a sustained note of feedback.
Then nothing can quite prepare you for the way "Tilted" rips suddenly, violently and unexpectently, out of the speakers and roars into your brain, splitting your skull into a thousand pieces like a catastrophic earthquake tearing apart the landscape. Trust me this is more fun than it sounds. Here Sugar create an impossibly layered wall of pure rage that rocks harder than...well pretty much anything, ever. Catharsism more pure than almost anything you will have heard, "Tilted" hits so impossibly hard you feel like you've had a religious experience all of your own.
From the off, Bob is clearly not a happy chappy. And we're all the better for that.
"Judas Cradle" wrenches itself from a mire of wailing feedback at "Tilted"s close and stomps furiously into view, a howling plea for redemption screamed into the abyss. "JC Auto" cranks things up even further, if that's possible, culminating in a avalanche of yelps of "I'm not your Jesus Christ". This is real rock music; primal, intense and utterly compelling.
"Feeling Better" lightens the tone only slightly, and whilst it initially feels slight after the previous three tracks it's joys are revealed upon repeated plays. Then the haunting, cheap-synth elegy "Walking Away", plainitive and naive, soothes us out of the dungeon.
"Beaster" is not merely an EP, it's a mini album; and I consider it superior to all of Sugar's other records. This is Bob Mould culminating all the intense melodic fury he'd fashioned over the years into one mini concept album of breathtaking genius.
Not one for the faint hearted, mind.