Another largely overlooked album here. This one being Masters Of Reality’s self-titled debut. Often referred to as The Blue Garden on account of John Leamy’s painting, it’s an alternative rock masterpiece and one of my absolute favourites (so much so that I paid £36 for a CD copy once upon a time!). Like Burning Tree’s sole album, Masters Of Reality is an outstanding showcase of creativity and pshychedelic tinged blues rock revisionism. Unfortunately, just like Burning Tree it’s criminally overlooked; suffering from arriving at a time when rock was represented largely by hair metal bands who were pedalling drivel while fighting it out with soulless pop music and the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Just before ‘grunge’ hit.
Although the band had taken their name from a Black Sabbath album (legend has it from a Warner Bros. pressing of Master Of Reality with misprinted labels that read Masters Of Reality instead), there’s only traces of shrapnel from the heavy slabs of concrete those chaps threw around. Instead, the music is laced with late-1960s and early-1970s riffage as well as insatiable grooves. A modern take of The Doors if you will, with a splash of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Queen, ZZ Top and pinch of those psychedelic noodlings that Cream had going on with their awesome Disraeli Gears (Ginger Baker was even a member of the band for a brief period). Under it all, there’s the melodic influence of the Beatles and some blues.
Rick Rubin signed them to Def Jam in 1986 and, after splitting with partner Russell Simmons, released the debut on his Def American label. Rumour has it that it all fell apart during a cold and wet chicago evening in 1989 when the jazz meandering of guitarist Tim Harrington and stick man Vinnie Ludovico got in the way of the songs. A phone call was made and Delicious Vinyl got involved – buying the contract, album, publishing rights, etc – and set about re-mastering the album and releasing it with an alternative track-listing (also cutting Magical Spell by 2 minutes and adding the amazing Doraldina’s Prophecies) and horrible, horrible cover.
However, they were clearly excited about having this one:
“An amazing, mystical, rocking experience, the album delivers with a crunching authenticity rarely heard in today’s rock arena. It is, in our not so humble opinion, one of the best albums of the last ten years”.
I discovered Masters Of Reality in 1998. The name appearing in an article about Stone Temple Pilots’ frontman Scott Weiland. See, Weiland had appeared with them at a gig at The Viper Room, guesting on a track called Jindilee Jindalie. As luck would have it, that gig was recorded and released as part of the live album, How High the Moon. I then discovered that Masters of Reality is a project led by Chris Goss. The same Chris Goss who acted as a vocal engineer on Stone Temple Pilots’ marvellous Tiny Music … Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop (I dare say if you pick up any proper good alternative rock album made over the last 20 years or so you’ll see Goss in the credits. Be it Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age, Lanegan and The Duke Spirit, Stone Temple Pilots or The Cult). So, I kept an eye out for some Masters of Reality goods – without much success – until I finally got my hands on a copy of How High the Moon at a record fair in 1999. Cost me £7, but it was the best £7 I’d spent that day. I remember pressing play on the stereo and thinking “what’s this?” Goss’ vocal was smooth, there was an insatiable groove … some blues riffery, but a pummelling rhythm.
That album happens to be my favourite live album. It’s tremendous – from the energy of the band and the love the crowd has for them. I soon picked up a CD copy of the Delicious Vinyl reissue of their first album. Now, as I said, the artwork on that CD was really, really horrible and the tracks are in a different order, but I really love Doraldina’s Prophecies (it’s one of my all-time favourite songs). However, I was keen to get a copy of the original Def American release. So keen, in fact, that when I saw a copy I honestly paid £36. Yes. £36. For a CD. Off eBay. But man, did I play that album over and over. Despite missing Doraldina’s Prophecies, the album went from ‘awesome’ to ‘OMG awesome’ thanks to the additional solo shenanigans in the extended Magical Spell and the sequencing. Man, that running order is just perfect.
The line up for Masters Of Reality differed from How High the Moon, too. Here Goss was joined by Tim Harrington (guitar), Googe (bass) and Vinnie Ludovico (drums). Goss’ voice has always been one of my favourite elements of the band – a mellow but rich tenor delivering lines that could have been:
- ripped from the pages of Billy Gibbons’ songbook (“go down and see the sugar girl, she’ll know just what to do” (The Candy Song))
- sinister hocus pocus spell conjuring shenanigans (“Then when the circle spoke. The light fell. The spell broke…” (The Blue Garden) or “Eraticus, Kill the King. Magentus, Kill the King” (Kill The King)); or
- just some plain ol’ alchemist riddling (“Call the fire in winter when it snows and it won’t be cold. Call the wind in summer if the salt should reign as gold” (Kill The King)).
As one of my all time favourites, I was seeking a copy for my modest record collection. However, finding an album like that in the racks of my local haunts was proving difficult. That was until my wife and I attended a record fair a few years ago. While I browsed through the many records of various sellers, she caught my attention and said, all casual like, “James – is this one you’re looking for?” I look over and she’s holding the record! Zoiks! I reckon she never seen me move so fast. £8, too. My word!
Side A starts with Theme For The Scientist of the Invisible, which, despite sounding like the title of a Flaming Lips track, is actually a short instrumental intro before the driving fuzz of Domino. Goss sings “Paint me a picture. Make it the devil. Then run down the hole if the roof ain’t level”. There’s elements of Sabbath here, but the big fuzzed blues licks suggest there’s certainly something more. “Dominos fallin’, black spiders spinning”. Welcome to stoner rock, baby! It also happens to appear in Steven Seagal’s outrageously awesome Marked for Death. Just before the big shoot-out in the bar. So that’s double points there.
As well as Domino, The Blue Garden and Candy Song are highlights of Side 1. The former being a nice slice of prog-psychedelia, with some wah drenched soloing complimented by a wordless mantra. The drumming is brilliant, and Harrington and Goss’ guitars really get to sparring. Goss drags out the hook “lightning came downward and I fell as a tear”. Oooft! So good. There’s a bit of ZZ Top sizzle during Candy Song. Seriously, this could have been a cut from Tres Hombres, Tejas or Deguello. Goss explains that he’s “been working so hard, baby, working all night and day. Sometimes I feel like getting blind and jumping in the bay. If you feel like I do too, you know what you gotta do? Go down and see the sugar girl and she’ll take care of you” before proclaiming that he wants a “piece of that stuff”, that he’s “crawling outta my skin and I’m down on my luck”, that the sugar girl “knocks me off my feet”, and that the “price is high but the candy’s sweet”. The marvellous drunken tinkering of Magical Spell wraps the side up perfectly. There’s some really outlandish guitar shenanigans happening on there also. Top marks!
Side 2 is one of the best sides of recorded music ever. Fact. It kicks off with the dusty and spiralling blues of The Eyes of Texas before the Led Zeppelinisms of Sleep Walkin’ and Lookin’ to Get Rite. Goss’ vocal is particularly brilliant during Sleep Walkin’. The delivery staggered and deliberate when he says “I got nothing in my eyes and an aching in my bones” and particularly unsettling when he explains that he “got taken away when the sun went down. I stood there in my own mind, the way a stranger prowls around”. It’s a highlight. A swirling dusted blues pie drenched with psychedelic gravy. The blues driver John Brown is an anthem for that town called Red. Bells chime as Goss shouts “Holiday, holiday, I declare a holiday. Holiday, holiday, no matter what the doctors say” before closing “we pull John down at noon today”.
Kill The King is all sorts of crackin’ and is an epic closer. A 7 and a bit minute big bowl of awesome – complete with whammy-bar noodling, slide guitar, a sweet stop-start thunder drum, tempo change, and some surreal Ren & Stimpy type imagery (“and in many degrees of heat, the fire looked at the meat, and said ‘if I cook you the least you could do is lay there and be sweet'”).
And then it’s over. The record spins. The needle picks up static. Then I flip it over. Here we go again.
Trust me, Masters Of Reality is a masterpiece. A stellar album and one that I’ll never tire of. Ever.
This is the original Def American pressing of this one. John Leamy’s painting splashed across the gatefold sleeve, some bits and bobs of lyrics, band images, and symbols on a scrawling and intriguing inside spread, and a nice Def American inner sleeve.
It’s worth looking out for the most recent Delicious Vinyl double LP reissue. The second LP is that How High the Moon live album, which really is tremendous. The set includes the track order of that 90s CD reissue I mentioned, meaning that Doraldina’s Prophecies is included (the live version from How High the Moon is the essential one, though). Thankfully, the 5 minute Magical Spell is restored and John Leamy’s splendid painting adorns the cover of that reissue, replacing that alternative (Microsoft Paint rendered) cover.
For further reading, check out the Delicious Vinyl site and this piece from a fellow enthusiast.