Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review of Steve Lieberman's "Bad'lania Is Still Rising"

Although I first posted this yesterday, I've just spent another re-editing it. It's still long, but hopefully now, it's a little less chaotic. I know that some of you who read this blog are at least a little familiar with Gangsta Rabbi, but virtually none of the readers on Sputnik Music are (which is where it was originally posted). Consequently, I really felt the need to try to explain a little of Steve's history to give them the flavor of someone I've always considered both a nice man and a fascinating artist.

Review Summary: "I've been doing this so long/But still they tell me I'm doing it all wrong/I'll do it forever till I'm gone/Then I'm going to write just one more song." -- Steve Lieberman, from "Skinheads in My Yard -- Oy Vey!"

Who is Steve Lieberman? He's the King of Jewish Punk, and the Last of the Jewish Pirates. He's the poor man's Ian Anderson; he's Don Quixote with a flute and a distorted bass. He's Bop Bop Bigger Bab'el, the Bastard Son of Woodstock. He's the founder of the Hebrew sect of Bad'lanim, and the former comptroller of the Long Island village of Freeport. He's a madman. He's a genius. But when he leaves us for good, as sadly one day he must, there's one title in particular he'll best be remembered by: He's The Gangsta Rabbi.

I'm not going to even try to explain all of these titles to you. Many of them come from the names of Lieberman songs, and most of the rest are readily explained by looking him up online. But there are a few things I need to tell you about him before I can tell you about this album. Steve Lieberman has often been classified as an "outsider musician," which Wikipedia defines as one who "ignores standard musical or lyrical conventions" and whose music "often lacks typical structure and may incorporate ... bizarre lyrics and/or melodies." He may be a prophet. He may be a lunatic. He's quite possibly both.

Lieberman is the founder of his own sect of Judaism, and so some of his lyrics incorporate Jewish spiritual themes. He has also fought a lifelong battle with bipolar disorder, and in the past, has produced whole albums on the subject of institutionalization and suicidal ideation. His music is very experimental. In the previous decade, he was known as a kind of one-man band who played a distorted bass as a lead instrument, accompanied by a flute and a drum machine. In more recent years, however, he's begun to experiment with incorporating brass and marching band instruments into punk rock music. So that gives you a little flavor of who he is.

The last thing you need to know is that Lieberman was diagnosed seven years ago with leukemia, which was ultimately appraised as being terminal. As the disease has worn him down, he's had to alter his choice of instruments and method of playing due to the deterioration of his own body. Another man would stop making music. After all, he's had a good run: CD Baby counts this as his 32nd album of CD/digital music, and his 70th recording overall. But Lieberman won't give up, and I suspect he can't. Music is what he does. Consequently, while his previous projects were known for their noise and frequent dissonance, this new album was recorded and produced after he lost 80% of his hearing. So you'd better believe he won't be quieting down here.

Bad'lania Is Still Rising is a double compilation album released in digital format only. It commemorates the 15th anniversary of his first CD, Bad'lania Rising (Bad'lania being the spiritual homeland of his Bad'lanim sect). Part 1, called Third King of Jewish Punk, is the third in a of series of albums wherein Lieberman reworks and rerecords various songs from his back catalog. Part 2, A Protest Against My Own Rebellion, contains a series of remixed, and often instrumental, versions of many of those same songs, but these were initially intended to be a little more mainstream. Somehow, though, in Lieberman's own words, instead they "just got stranger". The album is structured in such a way that Third King of Jewish Punk and A Protest Against My Own Rebellionare imperfect mirror images of one another. Almost every song on Third King has a (usually instrumental) doppelganger on Protest.

In whole, the entirety of the album runs a little more than two-and-a-half hours. The combination of the album length and the discord between many of the instruments throughout makes it a challenging listen, to say the least. But if you're open to hearing music in a different way, it can be a worthwhile one.

I'll give you the negatives of this album and of Lieberman's music in general, as many would perceive them. For bonus points, I'll do it in his own words. These are some of the lyrics of one of the only two new songs on BISR, "I'm Not Good Enough": "I can't play/I can't sing/Production so bad your ears start to ring"; "Don't use .aif/or .wav/I use a cassette and an mp3"; "I got my message/It's in my song/But you can't understand me/I do it all wrong/I'm not good enough". 

These are the criticisms Lieberman has heard over the years. Actually, he can play and sing, although his style might not be to everyone's taste. As for the part about the production, there's some validity to it. I've often wondered how much more popular his music might be with more commercial production values (like pushing the vocals further upfront in the mix), and with a full band behind him (or at least a drummer replacing the beat machines). 

But that would be my vision, not The Gangsta Rabbi's. He's more interested in mixing different instruments together that wouldn't normally go, and in fusing different genres. The Soundcloud files for just this one album use the tags "#Progressive Metal", "#Metalcore", "#Prog", "#Punk Rock" and "#Experimental". The list of instruments used includes guitars, basses, hybrid guitar/bass, flutes, trombones, melodica, pocket synth, talabard, mangal vadya, beat machines and a pocket theremin. The truth is, a more commercial sound would be better for Lieberman's wallet, but it would also lessen his charm and his uniqueness. One of our esteemed Sputnik contributors who first heard Lieberman's music about a month ago commented that he found it "grotesque, but strangely appealing". I'd have to agree.

So let's talk about the actual sounds on this double-comp. Lieberman's style of singing falls somewhere between Ozzy and John Lydon, and his vocal tone is reminiscent of that of Dave Cousins of Strawbs. He often punctuates the ends of his verses with grunts, and/or short laughs, adding to the madman mystique of the music. 

As for the instrumentation on this album, for the first time ever, Lieberman actually uses his electric guitar as the lead instrument, and his bass simply as a bass. And while there's some flute present here, there's not nearly as much as there had been in the past. It's mostly been replaced by other reed instruments (melodica, talabard, etc.). Overall, the album is noisy and sometimes discordant.

The disharmony that so often rears its head on BISR comes from the competition between the stringed instruments (guitars and basses) and the woodwinds and trombones. Some of the reed instruments come across to my non-musician ears as sounding like a sort of electronic kazoo. The effect they have on the guitars is sonically similar to the effect that the drone has on the rest of a bagpipe. Sometimes they're working together. Other times, they're fighting it out like a pair of MMA warriors. And when Lieberman's voice gets thrown into the mix, it becomes a friggin' Battle Royale in which your brain gets thrown down upon the canvass while all of the various musical elements kick and stomp it into submission.

On the whole, I found the Protest half of the album to be the more accessible of the two parts. Some tracks are weird and wonderful, like "Better Than All the Yankees and All the Mets", which sounds like it could be part of the soundtrack for a new Japanese monster movie. I also enjoyed "Staged an Offensive to Save Our Land". This song lets that electric kazoo thingy dominate during the choruses. Then it unleashes the electric guitar to run wild in the verses. At times, the track threatens to tear itself apart and fly in all different directions, only to catch itself at the last minute and regroup back into a cohesive whole. (And by the way, the only reason I'm even sure which part is the chorus and which is the verse is that it's clearer on "For the Children of the Gaza", the vocal version of the same song on the Third King of Jewish Punk half of the album.)

As for the lyrical subject matter of the songs on this magnum opus, they range from topics of grave socio-political importance to those of a more personal (and sometimes frivolous) nature. There are songs about cars, songs about musical instruments, tracks about the troubles on the Gaza strip, and odes to Lieberman's late, beloved dog, Buttons. There are ballads about unjust taxes, songs about so-called music industry professionals, and even one ditty about a Jorge Posada bobblehead doll. No topic is too large or small for the Rabbi's consideration.

As disorienting as BISL can sometimes be, there's definitely some good stuff here. For starters, there are two different variations of perhaps my all-time favorite Gangsta Rabbi song, "Skinheads in My Yard -- Oy Vey!". The first is a re-imagined version of the original on Part 1, and the second is its Bizarro World cousin, "Skinhead With a Stickball Bat" (where the vocals are pushed even further into the background and half-hummed), on Part 2. 

The one other completely new song on the album, "I Am the Arbeiter", is totally different from every other track. Lieberman describes it as his attempt at "elevator jazz". It reminds me more of a Gangsta Rabbi interpretation of Jethro Tull's "Bouree". Other worthy numbers include "MCMT"/"MCMT 25", "Astroland Spring Green 415"/"The Prime Minister of Astroland", and "Israel and Judah United".

At first, I wanted to tell you that it might be worth it to digest the album in small chunks. But then I noticed that when I just put my head down and plowed right into it, I started to hear the music in a different way, and it made more and more sense to me. In the end, it's listener's choice. I'd hate for the sheer length of the album, and the sometimes cacophonous nature of the music, to drive people away from BISR before they give it a chance. But as I said earlier, my experience with the album was that I found it to be like diving into a freezing pool of water -- it was jarring at first, but the more I stayed with it instead of jumping right back out, the more comfortable I got with it. It's the paradox of a Gangsta Rabbi album -- you have to listen in depth to appreciate its value, but the general sense of discord can initially make you want to run the other way.

Steve Lieberman's music is never going to be everyone's favorite flavor. He's so busy creating and exploring his own world, he forgets to meet you halfway. Is he insane? Is he a visionary? Maybe they're the same thing. He would tell you, "I got marbles in my mouth/I got something to say/He's not good enough/But he won't go away/He's not good enough/I'm not good enough." Mr. Lieberman, I respectfully disagree.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars