Jerry Cantrell – Brighten

It’d been nineteen years since Jerry Cantrell, the fucking Riff God himself, release a solo record, 2002’s Degradation Trip. And a lot has happened since that time, in particular the completely unexpected REBIRTH of Alice In Chains with their 2009 comeback MASTERPIECE, Black Gives Way To Blue. From that point on, minus a song that was recorded for the John Wick: Chapter 2 soundtrack, it was largely assumed that Cantrell would never release a full-fledged solo record again. In fact, when asked about a future solo record by Guitar World in 2018, he told them that the only reason he even recorded two solo records was because he didn’t have a band, and now he does again, thus Alice being his ultimate priority.

He wasn’t wrong ladies, there was a shit ton of unfinished business with Alice In Chains.

So, if you weren’t surprised when it was announced that he was performing a few solo shows just months before the greatest year and a half of my life took place, you were a dumb motherfucker. I was even more stunned when, not too long after those shows took place, it was announced that he WAS, in fact, going to record a new solo album. I sure didn’t know what to expect. You didn’t either, especially once the video for “Atone” was released on Rolling Stone’s website a few months ago.

I knew what NOT to expect. But I certainly didn’t imagine that “Atone” would come out sounding like something out of any Western style movie with a soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone. As fate would have it, it’s what Jerry was looking for. As fate would also have it, holy fuck does it sound fucking great! It may sound like a modernized “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”, but it also has Jerry’s signature songwriting style all over it, along with the Open D Major tuning he’s used on and off since Alice’s 1995 self-titled album. And, for as much as I will never forgive Duff McKagan for being the bassist for Guns ‘N’ Roses, I really does like some of the fills he plays here.

The next single to drop, as well as the second track on the record is “Brighten”, the title track. Very different sounding from “Atone”. I can’t begin to tell you how pleasantly surprised I was to see Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums for this video and song. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, Abe, who I’d first read about in Modern Drummer Magazine in the late 90’s, is a very talented drummer who’s been in Paul McCartney’s touring band since 2001. This is more of a Rock tune in every way.

The next track is “Prism of Doubt”. A mid-tempo track of sorts, it sounds unusually happy, or at least introspective. The pedal steel guitars, fit right in. The aura created by the track makes me think of driving aimlessly on a desert road while your girl has her head out the window, or if your friends in the backseat have their hands out.

Spoiler alert: there’s more pedal steel guitars where those came from.

“Black Hearts and Evil Done” is a largely acoustic guitar-only track…with more Pedal Steel Guitars. If I thought that the previous track was lyrically introspective, I hear more of that on this number. The opening lines, “Too many heads broke too many times/Tired of the same joke, tired of the grind/Coming down’s a bit low, harder to stay/Same punk in the mirror, different the day” hits a little too close to home as I’m trying desperately to change my own life around. I feel the aches of living a mundane life oozing out of this track, as I work two jobs daily with no true break, all so I can transition smoothly out of one of them.

I’m just curious about the second verse. I’m not the biggest fan of musicians getting political. While Jerry never named names here, or particular events, I wonder what he’s referring to when he sings “Tired of the lies spun in the land of the free/Sеlling out’s a mission, kneel, settle, assume/Samе crook in the White House prospecting me and you”.

“Siren Song” can almost be “Breaks My Back” Pt. 2. If you’ve never heard “Breaks My Back”, here’s your chance now. It just has that aura about it. It’s actually one of my favorite tracks on the record because it sounds so sensual at points. Jerry ALWAYS knows what to play and when to play it.

“Had To Know” is just fun. And no pedal steel guitars here! Holy shit! But it does contain an organ. I really love the organ solo followed by Jerry’s solo. It’s on this track that backing vocalist Greg Puciato can actually be heard outside of the title track. He’s not mixed too loud on most of this album, which is a relief because I hate him thanks to his previous band.

Dillinger Escape Plan sucks. Fuck them and him.

“Nobody Breaks You” is a lyrically powerful song. If “Black Hearts” tackles life as an existential nightmare, this targets the idea of at least trying to “get out”. “Nobody breaks you like you in your heart”, Jerry sings. Almost sounds like life advice, no? It’s as if he’s telling us all to believe in ourselves…or at least to not take on a victim mentality and take action to change our lives for the better, as only we can do so in the end.

I fucking loved “Dismembered”. Don’t let the Alice sounding title fool you; “Dismembered” is nothing like that and a hell of a lot more of an idea of the type of song the late Glenn Frey and Keith Richards would’ve written if they ever collaborated together in 1972. It’s the perfect mix of the Country Rock style that put the Eagles on the map pre-Hotel California and the Boogie Woogie style the Stones would’ve performed during that time. It’s another song that conjures up images of driving on an open road or getting hammered even in a nasty ass roadhouse somewhere in the mid-west.

Jerry chose to close this incredible record with a cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye” off his landmark 1971 album Madman Across the Water. It’s a cover so faithful to the original that it even received approval from the old Queen himself! This isn’t to say that Cantrell can suddenly sing like Elton John in his prime because Elton hasn’t sounded like Elton since the 70’s came to a close. However, for those of you not in the know regarding Jerry’s relationship with Elton: Jerry asked him to play piano on the closing title track to Black Gives Way to Blue. Elton was so moved by the lyrical content that he immediately agreed to do so. Jerry grew up listening to Elton John long before he was introduced to Black Sabbath, thus making a song like “Goodbye” childhood verse, more or less.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Brighten is not what you expected, or perhaps even hoped for from Jerry Cantrell. After nineteen long years, what were you really expecting again? He’s no longer in the headspace needed to record Boggy Depot or Degradation Trip. He’s actually happy and he’s only out solo because for once, he just wants to, not through necessity. That being said, it’s rather fitting that the songs sound happier in a musical context, more outgoing in lyrical stature. Brighten, when compared to its predecessors, is very much a 70’s era Country Rock album with multiple guest musicians, incredible song writing and something for every fan of Jerry’s to latch on to and enjoy.

Brighten gets 4 out of five middle fingers!

The Songwriting Genius Of A Guitar God: In Memory Of Eddie Van Halen

I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said about Eddie Van Halen since the word got out that we lost him just a little over two months ago. I refuse to discuss his popularizing the two handed tapping technique that everyone and their mother learns eventually. I won’t discuss his invention of the super strat via his Frankenstein guitar, or his “brown” sound. So what can I discuss that most people probably won’t discuss?

Let’s talk about Ed’s creativity as a songwriter. Why? Listen to his riffs alone on those first six records. He’s not just banging out power chords like most guitarists do. He never relied on a co-guitarist. In fact he was never formally trained on his instrument. Yet he was still an even better songwriter than he was a guitarist.

Read that last line again.

Ed said in the past that if he ever took lessons he didn’t think he’d be able to play like he did. I can relate to that. I did take lessons for four years. But both of my teachers, the first teacher being the uncomfortably talented Ron Thal and the next teacher being Christian Corrao, one of the most incredible jazz guitarists I’ve ever heard, taught me both directly and indirectly to think outside the box. Nothing has to be played the way you’re told to play it. Just play what you hear in your head and how you feel and you’ll be surprised with what comes out. I attribute that to why some of my future bandmates either couldn’t understand what I was playing or they just didn’t have the mental capacity to try and learn what I was doing.

There’s no doubt that Ed wasn’t the music world’s first ever self taught guitarist. But as with every other aspect of his career, there was something different about the way he played. Thanks largely to his musical upbringing and his later experiences in cover bands, there’s no question that there was plenty of music in his head. But how the fuck do you convey such concepts when you’re self taught?

That’s why he used all six strings on the guitar, as opposed to just hitting three note power chords, as mentioned before. He needed a way to sound as big as he could without relying on a second guitarist. That’s why he wasn’t afraid to use alternate tunings. He was inventive enough that he even incorporated his popularized tapping technique into his songs. I’m not just referring to his solos, I’m referring to the way he’d TAP OUT the fucking harmonics of chords, which took an already pretty chord pattern and made it breath taking. Speaking of tapping for effect, according to Ed himself, the harmonic tapping section of “Dance The Night Away” was designed to emulate a horn section in a pop song, the inspiration being his days playing Top 40 covers.

Fair Warning, my undisputed favorite of the first six Van Halen records, is considered their darkest album. Ed himself had stated that some of his angriest playing is on that record – which is probably why I love it! Tracks like “Unchained” and especially “Mean Street” are probably the most Metal sounding songs the band ever records. Then there were tracks such as “Push Comes To Shove”. The track itself wasn’t angry, but Ed’s solo certainly was. Close your eyes and you could actually FEEL the emotion.

There can be a lot of benefits of being self taught depending on the musician in question. Some people are geniuses and others should just cave in and take lessons. Or give up. For Ed, it allowed for a creativity not seen in Rock guitarists before. Why? Because he didn’t uphold to any written barriers. He didn’t follow structures that were repeated over and over again. He made his own. “Hot For Teacher” is the best example of this. The whole band changes time signatures midway through Ed’s solo for 4/4 to 5/4 and then back again. Not only was it an ingenius way for Ed to have the song fit his solo as opposed to having the solo fit the song, but that little nuance alone displayed his incredible sense of dynamics.

There was no way I wasn’t going have you watch the video!

This to me is the true legacy of Eddie Van Halen. His legacy to me is more than just “Eruption”, or a homemade freakshow guitar and bastardized backline or the showmanship of David Lee Roth. His legacy is that he didn’t follow musical constructs. He bent them to his will and made them his own. He’s probably one of the most copied guitarist ever to the point that I don’t blame him for turning his back to the crowd while he was soloing during the band’s early days. He didn’t want anyone to copy his technique – imagine that!

There was no one like Eddie Van Halen before he came along and there will never be anyone like him again. Let’s not misunderstand, there are so amazing guitarists out there right now, but they’ll NEVER have the appeal that Ed or his band had to the public at large. Primarily in that unlike Ed, none of his worshippers ever got girls because they were too busy jerking off to guitar lessons.

Read that again.

Let the article and Ed’s songwriting be a lesson to all you bedroom guitarists out there. I’m glad you know every mode and scale there is to know. But if any of you ever want to be remembered for anything, learn how to write a song.

Rest In Peace To The Undisputed KING Of Guitar

Eddie Van Halen

January 26th, 1955 – October 6th, 2020