Thursday, November 11, 2010

Late to the Party: Vulcan's "Meet Your Ghost" (1981)

Vulcan's self-released 1981 album Meet Your Ghost is another one of those legendary vanity recordings that has long been sought after by hardcore vinylhounds. What makes this particularly hard-to-find LP so intriguing is how out of time it sounds. Though it is generally considered to be an example of psychedelic rock, this description is inadequate and really only pertains to the "E.X.P."-like "Prelude" which opens the record (as well as its dedication, in the liner notes, to Jimi Hendrix). While its influences clearly draw from 1960s psychedelic rock, it is, at heart, a bar-rock album, the kind of music one could enjoy on a Saturday night, drinking one cheap domestic beer after another, at practically any roadhouse in America. In and of itself, this doesn't strike one as particularly interesting, because there are thousands of capable, hard-working, but mediocre bands that play every night throughout the country. What makes this record so different is its extremely lo-fi production quality.

Well before "lo-fi" was a calculated aesthetic, Vulcan, fronted by Spencer, Iowa musician Lyle Steece, seemingly patched together this album from cassette tapes recorded in cramped garages and local clubs because, presumably, this is all they could afford. As a result, Steece's guitar, the central musical focus of these recordings, is wildly distorted, his power chords and solos rendered almost-inaudibly fuzzy or highly compressed. The combined effect of these rudimentary recording conditions is a sound that at times foreshadows the fuzz-drenched, catchy riffs of late 1980s/early 1990s grunge music as well as the type of heavy metal pioneered by groups like Kyuss and Boris. The chronology of the album's release attests to Lyle Steece's limited budget. Approximately 500 copies were pressed in 1981, many without cover art (according to the liner notes to the 2010 reissue, it was originally titled Hard As Rock [Volume 1]), and credited to "Lyle Steece: of Vulcan." Interestingly, the record has since been bootlegged numerous times on vinyl.

So what's all the fuss about? Well, for many listeners, Meet Your Ghost will hardly pass the smell test. As I have already noted, the sound-quality is amateurish at best, its source-tapes likely normal bias TDK C-90 cassettes. Numerous times throughout the record, the instruments are slightly out of tune, tape cut-outs are clearly audible, bum notes are hit, notes are missed, and the rhythm section falls out of sync with Steece. Steece is at best an average vocalist. All of these things alone might turn off listeners. Despite these rough edges, what makes this record so fun is, along with the (probably unintentional) aforementioned dirty distortion of the guitar throughout the LP, Lyle Steece's guitar workouts. Nearly all of the tracks on the album are anchored by Steece's lead guitar playing, which is sturdy and searing, though far from being virtuosic. His commitment to the material is unquestionable, especially as he plays through some of his backing group's mistakes. At its best, Meet Your Ghost is like much of the mainstream guitar-oriented rock of the time, except Steece's exuberance far outdistances his bloated corporate-rock peers. Several of the tracks are hypnotically groovy, especially the proto-grunge pulse of "Lightning," the horn-throwin' majesty of "Untitled Instrumental" (which opens a rumble that drone-masters like Earth and Sunn O))) hadn't come close to dreaming about yet), or the album's sizzling eight-minute highlight, "One Nighter." This is the kind of rock music you can listen to at a party, talking to friends and barely paying any mind to, or the kind you can bang your head to alone in nothing but your underwear on some un-social weeknight. Meet Your Ghost is like that tape of the band your cousin's in that she recorded on her $20 boombox, but way better. Clearly, there are limitations to the quality of a release like this, but for those willing to give it a try, it makes for a very refreshing listening experience.

Meet Your Ghost has been re-issued by Lysergic Sound Distributors in a limited, numbered edition of 600 on 12" vinyl. This re-issue contains an entire second disc of previously unreleased material. Though none of this material is as strong as nine tracks that make up the original release, it is nearly as entertaining. The boasted psychedelic qualities of Vulcan's music are on far greater display on the bonus tracks, especially on "Nightmare," "Raven," the instrumental track "The Devil's Birthday Party," and (yet another pseudo-"E.X.P."eriment) on "Interlude/Drugs Can Kill" (whose latter half shows the folkier side of Lyle Steece).

Below is a YouTube clip of "Untitled Instrumental":

Copies can be purchased at the online store Forced Exposure.

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