Perfect Sound Forever

BRAIN SURGEONS


by Jason Hillenburg
(February 2015)


Sometimes great things happen musically when you are not sure who will be listening. Nothing is off-limits or unreachable. Longtime music journalist and musician Deborah Frost and former Blue Oyster Cult drummer Albert Bouchard released the first Brain Surgeons album Eponymous in 1994. Few debuts boast such an eclectic reach unified by a genre-busting aesthetic. The astonishing coherence of this wide-ranging collection is highlighted in songs like the edgy space-funk workout "Brain From Terra Incognita," the jangling sweep of "Language of Love" and Frost's gorgeous acapella take on the classic "Love Potion #9."

One factor driving the quality is an exuberant indifference to any potential audience. This is an album practically panting with creative freedom and its willingness to explore every avenue. Brass is just as likely to appear in one of the album's R&B influenced numbers as it is in a rock stomper. The Brain Surgeons drew no distinction between multi-part harmonies in rockers or ballads and, with no song running over four minutes, there isn't a whiff of self-indulgence in the air. Eponymous holds together thanks to bravery, intelligence, humor, and a sturdy sense of craft. While Bouchard could still expect substantial support from longtime Blue Oyster Cult fans and Frost's talents had long deserved a forum like this, no one could anticipate the reaction to such an idiosyncratic outfit. Eponymous is clearly the work of artists creating, primarily, for themselves.

The songwriting struck a balance that future releases would share. The bulk of the material came from Bouchard and Frost, but others offered significant contributions. Rock writer/novelist Richard Meltzer, co-writer behind many Blue Oyster Cult songs including their hit "Burnin' For You," is credited with three songs including the aforementioned "Brain From Terra Incognita." Patti Smith's "Soul Jive" and David Roter's delightfully off-kilter "(666) Devil Got Your Mother." Each of these writers, particularly Meltzer and Smith, figure prominently in the history of Bouchard's former outfit, Blue Oyster Cult, and their contributions here date to his time with that band. Nostalgia, however, never factors in their inclusion. Despite whatever a listener might make of their ultimate value, it is difficult to argue that they are far more daring than Blue Oyster Cult's largely mainstream fare. It is simplistic, as well, to view these tracks as another band's throwaways. Instead, their presence strengthened a sense of continuity with Bouchard's past, provided the album with a potential selling point, and accented the band's musical vision in an unique way.

Including Blue Oyster Cult songs in the band's live set might also seem, at first impression, a concession to nostalgia. A closer look at the band's live sets reveals the band never relied on the older material at the expense of the new and the selections are largely idiosyncratic rather than commercially motivated. The old BOC warhorse "Cities On Flame With Rock and Roll" is, arguably, the clearest example of The Brain Surgeons revisiting a popularized BOC classic. The band usually busied itself with offering up inventive re-interpretations of lesser known tracks from BOC's prime like "Tattoo Vampire" or "Baby Ice Dog" that the then-current incarnation of Blue Oyster Cult either long ago exiled from their set or else neglected altogether. These performances, never beholden to their originals, are clearly attempts to reclaim great songs and filter them through a new sensibility.

1995's Trepanation signaled that the public responded to the quality of the debut and subsequent live shows. Frost and Bouchard added Peter Bohovesky and Billy Hilfiger on guitars and vocals while multi-instrumentalist David Hirschberg rounded out the new four-piece incarnation. However, locking down lineups never happened for this band. They aimed for creative flexibility from the beginning in the studio and, especially, on stage. While the players often distinguished themselves on one instrument, the band's talent for credibly switching instrumental roles further broadened their musical voice.

Bouchard, Frost, and frequent Blue Oyster Cult lyricist Richard Meltzer are the album's primary songwriters, but the record's two covers rank among Trepanation's finest moments. The first, a romping and thoughtful cover of Robert Johnson's grim "Stones In My Passway," is a Frost vocal tour de force backed by a fiery band performance. Frost also tackles a cover of the oldie "Ramblin' Rose" and tosses out the original lyrics with mad, improvisational glee. Other peaks include the well-written "Medusa," Meltzer's "Hansel and Gretel" and the seething, hard-boiled "Sisters of the Precious Blood."

Box of Hammers marked the band's third full-length release in as many years and retains the same lineup heard on Trepanation. The collection pivots some, in spirit, back to the debut for its inspiration. Tracks like "Earthquake Boogie" and "Donkey Show" recall the adventurousness of Eponymous while never lapsing into dispensability. Other gems include a smooth cover of Dwight Tilley's country classic "I'm On Fire," the Leonard Cohen-esque "Locked Up" and the torch song stylings of "End In Tears."

Strong, accessible rockers, however, balance the album. Helen Wheels and Joe Bouchard sharing songwriting credits on "Saint Vitus Dance" and "Gun" while "'Lil Egypt," "Date With A Guitar," and "Operation Luv" thunder with inventiveness and power. Box of Hammers, arguably, represents the band's first zenith. This album is a vibrant synthesis of Eponymous and Trepanation that expands upon and realizes their promise without ever betraying their guiding creative impulse.

The band expanded its touring activities following the album's release and released Malpractice in 1997. Malpractice is a collection of covers and re-recordings of songs from the band's first three albums intended for the band's fan club, but a pair of blistering Hawkwind covers and an assortment of Blue Oyster Cult workouts show the band in a relaxed, loose mode that makes for compelling listening.

Three years passed before the Brain Surgeons reconvened for their fourth major collection. Piece of Work is a sprawling double album split into two discs titled, unsurprisingly, "Piece" and "Work." Initial impressions might lead a listener to believe this is an ambitious attempt at some "big" musical statement, closer listening reveals nothing grander than prodigious creative outburst. Confronting a twenty-two song collection immediately beggars questions about the artists' intentions and the likelihood of dross weighing down the work. The common complaint that filler invariably waters down double albums has merit here. Some of the songwriting, particularly Richard Meltzer's contributions to the album, feels less inspired than earlier efforts and a handful of tracks veer too close to rehashing ideas from the preceding albums. There are a number of memorable tracks, however, including the urgent "Practice Makes Perfect," Frost's impressive lyric and the vocal arrangement for "Lady of the Harbor," and a spectacular rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" driven by the vocal interplay between Frost and Bouchard.

While the band continued appearing live, another album of originals was not immediately forthcoming. The Brain Surgeons re-emerged in 2001 with To Helen With Love, an all-star tribute to the recently deceased Helen Wheels, collaborator, songwriter, and longtime stalwart of the New York rock scene. The band's contributions are highlighted by the stellar "Niagara Falls" and Frost's emotive vocal.

Beach Party appeared in 2003 and opens memorably with an accapella rendition of Moby Grape's "Naked, If I Want To." The rest of the album spends more time rifling through the band's past than looking towards the future, but when they turn their attention to new material, like the surf guitar laced "Gas Hog" or the simmering "Stealin' Thing," the results are as satisfying as ever.

2004's album of re-recorded tracks, Black Hearts of Soul, is a retrospective piece, looking back on the band's first ten years. Though there are no new originals, the album is notable for the first teaming between the band and Dictators and Manowar guitar legend Ross "The Boss" Friedman. Voices around the band pushing for a harder, more traditional rock sound inspired Frost to suggest him as a possible collaborator and his playing on Black Hearts of Soul pushed the band into a different musical arena.

However, trimming their adventurousness spirit down to a streamlined, guitar-heavy sound never limited the band's work. Their final studio teaming with Friedman resulted in a new album of originals, 2006's Denial of Death, and in another nod to their new direction, they rechristened themselves as Brain Surgeons NYC. Friedman's role wasn't to contribute to the writing process; instead, he is the proverbial hired gun. If the aim, even in part, was to merge Bouchard and Frost's songwriting with Friedman's guitar to form a greater whole, they hit their mark and delivered the band's best album. The album is a quasi-conceptual piece inspired by Ernest Becker's famous psychological and philosophical work of the same name and jettisons all of the band's previous collaborators. The lone exceptions, "Dark Secrets" and "Jimmy Boots Fetish," are collaborations between Bouchard, Frost, and Helen Wheels.

One of the album's greatest strengths is the lyrical content and intimacy. The production is brash, claustrophobic - this is an album announcing itself from the first note and rarely letting up. Despite the volleys of bruising guitar firing off in every song, "Strange Like Me," "Plague of Lies," and "1864" and "Constantine's Sword" are impressive achievements. "Plague of Lies," in particular, bristles with white-knuckled contempt. Bouchard handles more of the vocals than earlier albums, regulating Frost to a secondary vocal role, but her turns on "Rocket Science" and the aforementioned "Plague of Lies" are dramatic and important to the album's artistic success.

The collapse of Bouchard and Frost's personal relationship ended this new incarnation of the band and eight years have elapsed since their final moment in the spotlight. Many serious music listeners are accustomed to judging merit by a limited range of paradigms, but like many other deeply talented collaborations, The Brain Surgeons' discography challenges those paradigms. Are record sales ever a reliable gauge of merit? Does it really make or break a band's legacy if they fail to spawn a school of imitators? The breathless risk, fidgeting curiosity, and transformative skill that fills each Brain Surgeons album is a rebuke to the idea that dollars or descendants are the final word.

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