Reviews 2013

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stash daubber

Deniz Tek, Donovan's Brain

Deniz Tek made his mark in rock 'n' roll history by founding Radio Birdman in 1974, while attending medical school in Australia, and helping launch punk-rock -- a label he disavows -- in the Antipodes. Birdman drew on the high-energy heritage of Tek's native Michigan (MC5, Stooges, Sonic's Rendezvous Band -- Stooge Ron Asheton co-wrote a song on their debut album, and Tek guested with SRB on visits home), the dark mystery of Blue Oyster Cult and the Doors, and the party spirit of soul and surf music. They built a fanatical following in Oz without music biz support, based around a residency at an inner city tavern they dubbed the Oxford Funhouse, released one album that was released internationally and another that only appeared in Australia after they'd disintegrated while touring Europe in '78.

For the past 35 years, Tek's alternated musical activities with a medical career that included service as a U.S. Navy flight surgeon and pilot, and an emergency surgeon in Montana. For my money, his best music appears on two albums that appeared in the late '90s and are now out of catalog. On 1996's Le Bonne Route and 1998's Equinox, recorded with producer/former Hendrix/Neil Young amp tech Dave Weyer, Tek blended hard rock with studio experiment in a manner that recalled the Hendrix of Electric Ladyland.

His fan base's rejection of Equinox -- whether been based on hostility to innovation or indifference to the featured contributions of Les Claypoolish bassist Todd Eagle -- caused Tek to abandon experimentalism. Since reacquiring the rights to these albums, he's toyed with the idea of re-releasing them in new versions, using alternate mixes, outtakes, and demo recordings. There's precedent for this in Birdman's Radios Appear, which was revamped for international release, utilizing remixed and re-recorded versions of some of the songs. Myself, I'd like to see the new material released in addition to, rather than instead of, the original albums; we'll see what eventuates.

In 2002, Tek founded Career Records in partnership with a fellow Montana resident, Bay Area expat/DJ Ron Sanchez, and also began to collaborate musically with Sanchez as a member of the psychedelic collective Donovan's Brain. In the last decade, he's played on the last three Brain albums, as well as touring and recording with a reformed Birdman (in what sounds like the last chapter in that band's saga, due to irreconcilable differences between other band members), collaborating with the Haltom City born/West Coast-based skating/tattooing/punk rocking Godoy twins (in the Golden Breed and Last of the Bad Men), and continuing to carry the Detroit flag, joining forces on different occasions with the surviving MC5 members, Rationals/Sonic's Rendezvous Band blue-eyed soul brother supreme Scott Morgan, and even the Stooges (the latter at a tribute concert to Ron Asheton which is soon to be DVD available).

On Income Tax Day, Career releases a new Tek solo album, Detroit, as well as the seventh Donovan's Brain opus, Turned Up Later, which features Tek alongside Brain principals Sanchez and Bobby Sutliff.

Detroit, inspired by the Motor City's sad decline, shows a previously unseen side of Tek -- one seemingly preoccupied by a vision of a world devoid of hope (although he's always been a wordsmith of somber mien). A quick glance at the songs' titles gives you a clue, which is borne out by their lyrics. "Empty factories / Taken over by the trees / A broken window's cool breeze / Death has the city on its knees," Tek sings in "Pine Box," over music that's Stones-like in the same way as Equinox's "Shellback." On "Fate, Not Amenable To Change," he paints a somber picture: "Tears and grief we try to mend / Knowing we're going that way again."

"Twilight of the Modern Age" provides momentary relief in the form of a balls-out rocker reminiscent of the title track from Outside (the benchmark by which all other Tek albums are judged), before "Can of Soup" lands in your lap with its depiction of life on society's margins. In "Growing Dim," the narrator imagines his own demise ("The light inside of me is fading...Keep me warm a little longer"), while in "Falling," he reaches across the Great Divide to a departed friend ("It's looking dark on the other side / Before you take off on your last ride / Just talk to me one more time"). Even the upbeat closer "I'm All Right" includes the line "Don't look at the cough 'cause you're going to find the cancer" and the caveat "...for now" appended to the title.

Tek isn't always so deep and dark. "Let Him Pay For That" recalls the Aftermath Stones in its unflattering portrait of an old flame that has a "new old man." "Perfect World" roars out of the gate, its Who-like dynamic buildup ringing with promise, ex-Atomic Rooster/Spinal Tap thumper Ric Parnell fairly exploding all over the traps. But the big lyrical payoff to "In a perfect world" turns out to be "'d be my girl" -- fairly anticlimactic in light of all that's come before.

The musical settings here create a unity of mood that harks back to Radio Birdman's underrated swan song Living Eyes and the aforementioned Outside, with a difference. Sonically speaking, Detroit has an intimate feel that's new to the Tek canon, and its creator revels in the pure sounds of guitars, both electric and acoustic, in a way he hasn't since his debut solo outing Take It To the Vertical. There are solid riffs, richly rumbling chords, and double-stop leads that reverberate with the heritage of Berry-to-Richards-to-High Time MC5. Backing is solid and supportive, with Daddy Long Legs' blues harp being a particularly fine addition. Sure, Tek's a limited singer, and more like a modern bluesman than a tunesmith -- in that regard, he's not unlike Iggy. But until he retools Le Bonne Route and Equinox, Detroit can serve as a fine port of entry to his work for the uninitiated, and old fans will find much to like here, as well.

In this age where no genre ever dies, the longevity of psychedelia as a musical style is only slightly less surprising than the durability of punk and metal; witness the recent emergence of Tame Impala. Psych tends to come in one of two flavors: the kind that's produced by people who are "experienced," emphasizing chaos and dementia (think The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, or In A Priest Driven Ambulance), or the kind that's designed to sound good to people who are "experienced," and is often elegantly crafted (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, or The Soft Bulletin). On early releases like Carelessly Restored Art and Tiny Crustacean Light Show, Donovan's Brain started out on the Piper/Ambulance side of the equation, but with the advent of Career, they've both increased their output and gravitated toward the Dark Side/Soft Bulletin zone.

This trend continues with Turned Up Later, recorded during the same 2010-2012 time period as Detroit with many of the same musicians. Many of the tracks unfold with stately majestic leisure, and Sanchez's keyboards and mellotron are key to the sound of this record -- something different for the usually guitar-oriented Brain. Sanchez also has the perfect voice for this kind of material; he sounds like he's coming out of a lysergic haze, in the manner of Syd Barrett or Wayne Coyne, and Donovan's Brain sounds most like itself when he's behind the mic. (For a good example of this, get lost in "As the Crows Fly"'s languid spacey dreamscape.) There was some turbulence during the sessions, when Sanchez's main foil, guitarist-singer Sutliff, was severely injured in a car crash and spent six weeks in a coma. (Thankfully, he's since recovered and even returned to the stage.) Vocalist-mellotronist Tony Miller stepped in to fill the gap, bringing some Forever Changes-style orchestral pop touches to the proceedings.

Sutliff contributes several of the record's highlights, starting with the opening "Take Me With You When You Go," which  combines a garage rock edge (think Electric Prunes) with vocal harmonies and guitar obbligatos that recall Blue Oyster Cult during their money-making period. "My Own Skin" is a commentary on the difficulties in communicating human experience ("I can't tell you where I've been / But I'm not at home in my own skin") that had me mentally picturing Mad Men's Don Draper telling Roger Sterling, "Oh, come on, Roger -- lots of people know that who have never taken LSD!" "Restless Nights, Many Dreams," with its electric 12-string jangle, sounds (of all things) like Brendan Benson channeling the Byrds via Tom Petty -- a stunning surprise. "Morning Side Dream" almost veers into prog territory.

In many ways, the hero of the piece is drummer Ric Parnell, the Atomic Rooster veteran who portrayed the spontaneously combusting Mick Shrimpton in This Is Spinal Tap. Parnell also drummed on TAMI Show choreographer Toni Basil's '80s dance hit "Mickey," turned down an offer to replace Aynsley Dunbar in Journey, and logged time with Wayne Kramer and the Deviants in the '90s. Here, he plays almost orchestrally, lending the slow pieces the requisite grandeur, and providing crisp, snappy punctuation on the uptempo numbers. All of the participants in Turned Up Later are clearly saturated with knowledge and love for this style of music, and it emanates from the sounds they make together.

posted by The Stash Dauber at 3:41 PM

TEK showed how strongly the flame still burned in Radio Birdman's 2006
return with Zeno Beach, and this first solo set in a decade is tough
and flinty. The message in this music is that life is hard but the
power of rock 'n' roll can help you through. The seething Twilight of
the Modern Age rocks as hard as anything in the Birdman canon, Tek's
furious guitar assault is like sparks from the wheel. Pine Box
examines the decline and fall of Tek's one-time home town (he came
from Detroit satellite Ann Arbor) against chunky, shuddering riffs;
Ghost Town addresses the same topic and features stinging Tek guitar
lines; Perfect World is a Who-like explosion. If you ever cared about
Tek's influential music, or bands he's inspired like The Screaming
Tribesmen and Died Pretty, this is for you. He plays Beetle Bar,
Brisbane, March 9.

Noel Mengel  |   Chief Music Writer
The Courier-Mail, Brisbane

logoDescent Into The Maelstrom

Deniz Tek has just released an album largely dealing with the gradual atrophy of his childhood hangout Detroit, and the legendary guitarist takes Steve Bell on a walk down memory lane to the Michigan of his youth.

The city of Detroit has played a massive role in the life of Deniz Tek. Born and raised in nearby Ann Arbor, Michigan, it was the city’s vibrant late-‘60s rock scene which spawned a lifelong love of music for Tek, a passion which stayed with him and heavily influenced the music he made when he moved to Sydney as a young man in the early-‘70s to study medicine (he’s also a practicing emergency doctor as well as a trained navy fighter pilot, but those are tales for another time).

Once ensconced in Sydney, Tek – after playing in a slew of similar bands mining the rich Detroit sound characterised by acts such as The Stooges and the MC5 – ended up slinging guitar and writing for the irrepressible Radio Birdman, in the process making an indelible mark on the Australian rock scene and heavily influencing generations of bands to come.

In breaks between Radio Birdman’s operational stints, Tek has also accrued a solid catalogue of solo material – both under his own name and that of The Deniz Tek Group – and he’s just released a brand new album, Detroit, a moving paean to the crumbling city which has been so influential on so much of his existence.

“I didn’t know that so much of the album was going to be about Detroit when I starred recording it and started writing it, but after it was finished that was how it had turned out,” the affable musician recalls. “After looking at several name options for the album, that’s the only one I could have called it really, because it relates to the city lyrically quite a bit – not a hundred per cent, but quite a bit – but then even more so sound-wise. It’s pretty processed – most of the guitars are straight into an amp, then into a microphone and onto tape – there’s not a lot of stuff getting in the way. That’s the way music was recorded when I was a kid, and the music that I love listening to was recorded that way, so I think sonically it goes back to those old days, too.”

Detroit is also notable for Tek’s assured vocal effort – the guitarist so long seen onstage in the shadow of Birdman vocalist Rob Younger – but he believes that this is merely him returning to his rock’n’roll roots.

“I’m enjoying [singing] more these days than I used to,” he smiles. “Maybe it’s just the practice hours that I’ve put into it, or just doing it more, but I seem to be able to do it better. Back before Birdman I was a singer – I was the lead singer in a band before then called TV Jones – but since then I haven’t really sung that much, but I’m becoming more interested in it again now. Again, I’ve had so many problems with people’s availability and what they want to do – and people having their own vision, and you having your own vision, and you end up going down a middle road that isn’t really satisfying for anybody with that compromise – so I just decided to go my own way for a while. If I’m able to sing those songs and it sounds okay to my ears then that’s going to be good enough.

“I’m not a great singer – I sing like a guitar player sings, which is okay. I really like the singing on Johnny Winter’s records and Jimi Hendrix’s records, and I think that Pete Townsend is an exceptionally great singer. I think you sing differently if you sing from a guitar player’s perspective, than if you’re just a lead singer, period. Having said that, if I ever get the chance to work with Rob Younger again I will – he’s amazing, and I’m not saying that I wouldn’t go back to that if I had the chance.”

The songs Tek voices on Detroit are quite bleak, especially those relating to the titular city, which is now apparently a mere shadow of its former grand self.

“It’s beyond anything you can imagine, as far as being desolate and devastated,” Tek marvels. “It’s as though it got nuked back in 1967 and never got built back up. In the ’67 riots, close to five-hundred businesses burned down, and a lot of neighbourhoods, and those areas were never built back up – they were never able to restore it. So you’ve got large areas in the central part of the city of Detroit that are just going back to wilderness – trees growing up through old shells of buildings, areas of woods with deer and beavers, there’s packs of feral dogs which roam around and attack people – it’s quite incredible. There’s a website you can go to which compares Hiroshima with Detroit, and it shows Detroit in 1945 and Hiroshima in late-’45, and then it shows Hiroshima now and Detroit now, and Detroit now looks like Hiroshima in 1945 and Hiroshima now looks like Detroit did when it was at its peak, when it was a beautiful shining city with huge theatres and beautiful deco art on all the buildings. It’s quite amazing, and I think my songs haven’t exaggerated it at all.

“The other theme on the album is death, so you have the death of a city, but you also have the death of individuals. When I was writing that album it was in a time when a lot of people around me were dying – people who were very close to me – so there’s that reflection of the individual loss and the loss of the city.”

If the death of a city like Detroit seems sad to an outsider, it’s immeasurably poignant for someone who lived there and experienced its time as a vibrant musical mecca.

“Being there and living there we probably didn’t appreciate it fully, but when you get away from it you can look back and see how great it really was,” Tek reminisces. “But it was just amazing. There was really great local bands, playing all over the place – and there were a lot of great places to play, it wasn’t just pubs and clubs, there was a lot of all ages shows and ballrooms that would allow anyone to come in regardless of age, alcohol wasn’t a big part of it. And in the summertime there were great outdoor concerts every Sunday afternoon, and you could see local bands – The Stooges, Bob Seger’s bands, the SRC, and The MC5 would play regularly at those – and then you’d have two or three really good bands from out of time that would come, it wasn’t uncommon to see Johnny Winter or Janis Joplin and people like that coming through. And if overseas bands were coming through they would play – Cream, The Yardbirds, that kind of thing. It was just amazing. There was music all over the place and it wasn’t crap music – it was really good music.”

- Steve Bell

100% Rock

Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar

Ten years since his last solo album, Deniz Tek delivers not so much a love song to the city close to his Ann Arbor, Michigan birthplace, as a lament to its faded glory.

You might know Tek more for his time as author of the Australian sonic underground blueprint through seminal garage punks Radio Birdman, or through his affiliations with both The MC5 and The Stooges.  You may not also know that he is an ex-Navy surgeon and ER Doctor who splits his time between Australia, Hawaii and Detroit.

Detroit the album has a sparser sound than the aforementioned garage punk heroes – older and wiser perhaps, though no less raw and unique.  Stabs of keyboard and harmonica punctuate what is basically amped up blues played by seasoned veterans, and the restraint of the playing, especially Tek’s guitar, is louchely in sync with the lyrical subject matter reflecting a dilapidated metropolis.

Don’t let the casual sounds fool you though: Tek and his band know exactly what they’re doing and the album is full of masterful melodies which will reveal themselves on repeated listens.

Through the stark but engaging Pine Box and Can Of Soup, Ghost Town and Let Him Pay For That, the feeling is not so much of depression and misery, but of missing the joys of a more positive time, and perhaps hoping for a return to the “good ol’ days”, a sentiment underlined by fast paced and harmonica-heavy album closer I’m All Right.



Friday, March 1 2013 | by stu warren
Deniz Tek - Detroit


If anyone was going to make a blistering guitar album called Detroit, it makes sense it would be veteran rocker Deniz Tek.

While Australian listeners may know the name best in association with ground-breaking punk outfit Radio Birdman, Michigan native Tek has spent his fair share of time touring and recording as part of iconic Detroit bands The Stooges and MC5.

Recorded during a two year period from 2010-12, Detroit is another chapter in a storied career, and tracks from the album will be lighting up live venues around the country during March as Tek hits the road again.

Detroit features Tek’s gravelly vocals and acerbic guitar work, over flashes of keys and harmonica and a rock-solid rock ‘n’ roll core.

‘Pine Box’ opens proceedings in a burst of classic blues rock, and given its punchy, sub-three minute duration, the apparent reference to a coffin speaks more to the decay of Motor City than the musician.

It’s been a decade since his previous solo effort, and while the second track, ‘Fate, Not Amenable To Change’, continues the reference to mortality (and plays like ‘Pine Box Part II’), it’s a chugging, compelling beast that really confirms the underlying theme.

‘Ghost Town’ is more stripped back and acoustic, Tek’s haunting voice playing off bursts of harmonica and with a real sense of foreboding looming large.

The gloominess seems to clear for album closer, ‘I’m Alright’ – the title referencing the opening track’s chorus – and while the song tamely fades out to complete the Detroit experience, it would seem premature to think it’s the last you’ll hear of Deniz Tek.