His credentials are as deep as his records are extraordinary: Adrian Belew, after all, has had stints with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, the Talking Heads, King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails. But, try as he might with pop outfits like the Bears, Belew — bless him — has never swerved out into the mainstream.
His impulses are too idiosyncratic, his guitar experiments too eccentric, his voice sometimes unearthly peculiar. There have been, no surprise, a series of missteps, false starts, things that don’t work. But when it does, and your pals at SomethingElseReviews.com have listed a few times here, Belew is one of the most compelling figures in rock. Necessarily, this is subjective. You’re never going to have a best-of Belew. He’s too damn weird for that.
“FISH HEAD” (TWANG BAR KING, 1983): A garage sale of an album, Twang Bar King blends every important element of Belew’s radiantly disheveled amalgam of a career — and its standard-bearer mashup remains “Fish Head.”
Belew starts out with a cute little pop thing, then moves into a reckless, almost out-of-control vocal. Next, he tears that framework to bits, begins sawing on his guitar and talking back to a growing chorus of voices. Belew’s tough backing group (featuring members of his early band Gaga, as well as former Elvis Presley drummer Larry Londin) just keeps banging away. There’s a bawdy sax, then a soaring finale. It’s relentlessly creative, a little strange, and completely transfixing.
Elsewhere on Twang Bar King, Belew howls his way through the Beatles‘ “I’m Down,” tries out a nasty dance groove on “Sexy Rhino,” and dabbles with power pop on “Another Time.” There is anthem rock with “The Rail Song,” and a trance drone (with a backing track that runs “Hot Sun” from his 1981 solo debut in reverse) on “She’s Not Dead.” Almost every one of those things happens, too, inside of “Fish Head.” Just a glorious mess.
“SHELTERING SKY” (DISCIPLINE with King Crimson, 1981): A retooled King Crimson returns, following a seven-year hiatus, to produce arguably their most complete recording since 1974’s Red. Founder Robert Fripp added Belew and bassist Tony Levin to the lineup, shedding everyone else but drummer Bill Bruford.
The resulting album is challenging and fizzy, infused of course with every progger pretension but now boasting the snappy new-wave vibe of the day. That starts with a conversational Belew taking over vocals. (He sounds an awful lot like his old tour boss, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, on tracks like “Thela Hun Ginjeet.”) Levin’s canny work on the Chapman Stick, notably on the opening “Elephant Talk,” also connected the band with art-rockers of the moment. (Particularly Peter Gabriel, whose post-Genesis sound was shaped in part by Levin.)
Yet for everything different, Discipline doesn’t move completely outside the ever-shifting King Crimson’s age-old vernacular — notably on this trippy instrumental, titled after the 1949 novel of the same name by Paul Bowles. Belew’s jabbing style, we learned from the beginning, makes for an intriguing passenger during Fripp’s bold explorations into texture.
“ACHES AND PAINS” (RISE AND SHINE by the Bears, 1988) Belew has shown, time and again, that he can be pretty quirky. Who knew he could be so consistently tuneful, so brilliantly poppy? That was the Bears, in particular on their self-titled 1987 debut. This follow up was a bit more adventurous, as the band gained self assurance, and better for it.
Take “Aches and Pains,” with vocals and additional guitar by Rob Fetters. It starts out as determinedly normal as anything Belew has been involved with, until its whack-job instrumental passage — something that somehow includes, and I’m not making this up, flutes, keyboards, what sounds like triangles, a harmonica, maybe backwards piano?, and a train whistle.
It was like Cheap Trick, with an acid trip in the middle. Of course, this being the record business, the Bears disappeared. They wouldn’t come out of hibernation again until 2001’s Car Caught Fire.
“NEW ADVENTURE” (THE RED AND THE BLACK with Jerry Harrison, 1981): Belew appears on six of the nine tracks found on the underrated, if occasionally cluttered, solo debut by Jerry Harrison, keyboardist with the Talking Heads and an original member of the Modern Lovers.
After years of working together, there’s both symbiosis and a little rivalry in their performance. Belew’s particularly memorable on “The New Adventure,” a swirling polyrhythmic fever-dream, where he answers Harrison scronk for scronk. (Elsewhere, as on the P-Funk-worthy groove of “Slink,” they just tear it up.)
Some tracks descend into a sweaty jumble, and Harrison’s Belew-style recitations occasionally risk sounding like schtick, but The Red and the Black is no less memorable for the effort. Together, Harrison and Belew end up making a record that transports the minimalist post-punk template of contemporary Heads recordings (some of the fidgety groove of Remain in Light, a dash of the arena funk of Stop Making Sense) into denser, more challenging places.
“BEAT BOX GUITAR” (SIDE ONE, 2005): A solo album eight years in the making, much of Side One could still be confused with Belew-era King Crimson — in particular, “Writing On The Wall,” “Matchless Man” and “Walk Around the World.” (Primus’ Les Claypool and Tool’s Danny Carey join in on bass and drums, respectively, for three tracks, notably on the fierce and soulful “Wall.”) But this one, it’s all Belew.
Everything starts out backwards — brilliantly, blissfully backwards — on “Beat Box Guitar,” which somehow earned a Grammy nomination for best rock instrumental performance, anyway. Belew then goes on to out-Tom Morello Tom Morello, throwing out effects, taps, screeches and heavy riffing. As the song culminates, an easy expectation is that Belew will uncork another classic bent-screw solo. Instead, playing off that, he constructs one of his most melodic turns on Side One.
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