After the resounding success of the last Black Ribbon Record Reviewing Panel (five letters to the editor, 80 percent of which were from bands reviewed by the Panel), it was determined that the Black Panel would have to be reconvened to continue its revolutionary mission: turn ordinary St. Louisans into hard-drinking, record-reviewing hacks. The Black Panel had captured the zeitgeist of these strange times, what with the president going on summer vacation again and people injecting biological weapons into their faces and the possibility that somebody, not necessarily you but maybe someone just like you, will become a pop star if they're hotty-hot-hot enough for prime time. And the pile of locally born and bred CDs waiting to be reviewed had surpassed four feet in height, which meant the time was right for another foray into non-Nelly-related music.
This second Black Panel followed the same rules as the first, with a few tweaks here and there to correct errors discovered in the Mark I version -- namely, that everyone had to vote for one band or the other, no abstaining allowed. Panelists listened to a randomly chosen track from a local band's CD, discussed its merits and then listened to a randomly chosen track from the latest Gravity Kills album, Superstarved, and discussed its merits (if any). Panelists then voted on whether they preferred the musical efforts of the struggling local band or the product of the semisuccessful and semilocal Gravity Kills. Why Gravity Kills? Well, they think they're hot shit, and they're on a major label, so maybe they are. But one third of the panel didn't know who they were, which seemed to even the odds. All panelists were cautioned to vote honestly and to keep an open mind. They then drank adult beverages; observed a moment of silence for absent panelist Jim Utz, who was at the Rush show (keep on rockin', Workin' Man); and proceeded to get tore up and rock out.
Song: "Mood Ring"
Shine's approach to modern or "alternative" rock strikes the panel as a lukewarm compromise between "rock" and "adult rock." They may be walking the middle of the road a bit too resolutely, is the general consensus. There is nothing particularly offensive or appealing about them, and because they are neither hot nor cold, they are spit out. Still, they defeat Gravity Kills five votes to one because GK's "Forget Your Name" sounds too much like Rob Zombie's kid brother (Todd Zombie?).
Positive comments: "That whooosh sound, whatever that sound is, that's the most intriguing part of it," asserts audio engineer Chris Deckard.
Negative comments: "I think arpeggios are stupid," René Saller states in a moment of uncharacteristic candor.
Band: El Mail Boxo
Album: either sleet or snow
"They've got this garage South City Uncle Tupelo-derivative thing going on," veteran panelist Andrew Pryor notes -- but not in a "good for them" tone of voice. A long, intelligent discussion breaks out on the necessity of bands' copying their favorite artists in order to find their own voice and the problems that arise when a band never evolves past the imitative stage of development. Ultimately, most of the panel concurs that El Mail Boxo will get the nod because they show the potential to grow musically. GK's "One Thing" is felt to be an evolutionary dead end by comparison. El Mail Boxo garners a respectable four-to-two victory.
Positive comments: "El Mail Boxo may actually go somewhere interesting," Amber Shellac says, offering encouragement to all local bands who sound like some other, better known band.
Negative comments: "Why do we need to hear it again?" Desmond Davis spits, lashing out at the No Depression crowd.
Musician: S. Eric Ketzer
Song: "Modern Cowboy"
Album: Lost Angel
Clearly of the singer/songwriter mold, Mr. Ketzer offers a six-minute guitar-and-harmonica opus about a cowboy who "rides the range of insecurity." "All of a sudden, I have this feeling where I just wanna finish my coffee and leave as soon as possible," exclaims a coffeeless Deckard. The panel is strongly divided on this one. Some feel that Ketzer's more-earnest-than-thou delivery smacks of pretension and false emotion, whereas others claim this transcends the parameters of good or bad. "It's great and terrible," Davis whispers. Like the Angel of Death, prods the moderator? "Better," Davis replies. In the end, Gravity Kills takes its first victory of the evening with a desperate cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" that sounds, according to Shellac, "a little like the Dr. Who theme."
Positive comments: "There is not a trace of irony or sarcasm in him," Pryor argues for the defense.
Negative comments: "He sounds like someone with a beard," Shellac declaims like a female Haley Joel Osment.
Band: Billy Coma
Song: "Cock City"
Album: Loud Pipes Lust Speed Leather
Billy Coma play old-fashioned punk rock -- or, more accurately, "They're more protopunk. I think they listen to a lot of MC5," Saller opines. She also decides, "This song would be better with handclaps," and in a spontaneous display of half-crocked enthusiasm, five-sixths of the panel break out the Cheap Trick two-beat handclap. She's right. Amid the snarling guitars and rapid backbeat, Saller shouts, "'Cock City' all the way!" and four panelists hop on the Billy Coma bandwagon with her. Only the moderator, who firmly believes Billy Coma is trapped in the past, belaboring a point made a dozen times over by a dozen better bands, casts his ballot for Gravity Kills' "Love, Sex & Money." Billy Coma is tied for the lead with Shine.
Positive comments: "They bought their ticket years ago, and they're still ridin' the ride," Deckard enthuses somewhat cryptically.
Negative comments: "They're no One Man Army," the moderator grumbles.
Maybe it's the late hour, maybe it's the river of alcohol that flowed unchecked through the proceedings, maybe it's Bound's borderline-effusive liner note thank-you's to "God, Jesus & the H.G.," but Bound's Puddle of Mudd/Staind-type moderate rock wins no converts and in fact causes everyone but the moderator to leave the testing grounds. Still, despite the panel's obvious disdain for their flavor-of-the-month-style corporate rock, Bound wins two votes to GK's four for their song "Breakdown." Gravity claims only its second victory, but it's a hollow one. No panelist wants the Gravity Kills CD, even for free.
Positive comments: "I genuinely like that guitar riff," Pryor tells the rapidly emptying room.
Negative comments: "Can I gong this now? 'Cause it's not going anywhere," declares Davis on his way to the fridge.
So with modern rockers Shine tied with '70s-style punkers Billy Coma, the panel decides to pit the bands against each other in a winner-take-all brawl. Shine's song "Stains" receives a tepid response, whereas Billy Coma's "Fuck 'Em Back" causes the panel to erupt in cheers. "That's some of the sloppiest guitar work ever," Pryor states with obvious admiration. "Yeah, the guitarist can't believe he's playing this," Deckard agrees, playing air guitar right along with Coma guitarist Furious George. Panelists sing along with the "Fuck 'Em Back" machine-gun chorus, and Billy Coma sweeps the voting six-nil. Punk rock, it seems, defies all the odds and still beats better-produced, better-played and better-designed albums -- which proves that in the end, it is the heart and soul of the music that matters, and the Black Panel salutes all those bands who put some in their songs.