8 Sep 2015
Paul Roland "Bitter And Twisted"
Reviewed and interviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
It is always a cause for celebration when psych master Paul Roland unleashes a new album and 'Bitter And Twisted' is no exception. Roland (the 'male Kate Bush' according to fellow psych statesman Robyn Hitchcock) in his oeuvre can expertly flit between albums of dark, baroque chamber folk or full on garage stompers and this new release thrillingly combines both elements. Criminally underrated (given the number of mind blowing albums he has produced), Roland should really be spoken of along with such luminary as Cope, Barrett and Rapp. With shades of the old 'Weird Tales' magazines and the creepiest of uncanny B-Movies, Roland expertly weaves a cobwebbed series of eerie tales that recalls some of his best earlier work such as the 'Cabinet Of Curiosities' or 'Masque' albums. With Deep Freeze Mice's Alan Jenkins (last heard of on the bizarrely superb Kettering Vampires surf guitar take on the Velvet’s first album) and son Joshua on board Roland takes us down a very dark rabbit hole indeed; one from which you will not want to leave.
Opening track 'I'm The Result Of An Experiment (Which Went Hideously Wrong)' is classic Roland; thunderous drums and full on psych guitars create a highly individual and very English take on garage rock. It is hugely thrilling and filled with sinister whimsy, as all great Paul Roland songs are. Touching upon the Fortean subjects that are a favourite of his, Roland produces an audio 'Tales Of The Unexpected' of sorts with this album. 'Dali's Dream' follows in this vein, reverberated guitars criss-crossing strident acoustics in a twisted tale of a dream Dali encounters in his childhood that leads him down his particular, surrealistic path. 'Hugo' is chamber folk Roland at his best; tentative strings and cascades of piano add a sophisticated and haunting air to the darkest and most macabre of tales. 'Devil's Jukebox' meanwhile is a slide guitar filled stomp that careers the same moonlit path as The Cramps and Rowland S Howard, like a disturbed Dick Dale. Roland is on fine voice vocal wise too and sounds invigorated and truly in his element; a storyteller in his music, he spins his midnight yarns as if he is sitting, candlelit, in front of you throughout. 'I've Been Hearing Voices' is a disturbed and disturbing harpsichord and organ drenched psych monster that adds a hint of Victorian dread (and is a candidate for stand out track on what is a consistently superb album) whilst 'Zanti Misfits' is a carnivalesque Freakshow, call and response vocals and bursts of lethal psych guitar taking this track into truly creeped out territory. Next, 'Bitter And Twisted' is a demented, driven blues; a true murder ballad. 'Another Me' is by turn a delicate, ghostly sitar flecked slice of solid atmospherics, recalling Roland's earlier classics 'In The Opium Den' and 'Cairo', eastern sounding guitar echoing throughout. I cannot emphasise enough just how crucial Paul Roland is to the psych scene; for the past thirty years he has been releasing consistently high quality albums of truly inventive and original material, dip in anywhere in his back catalogue and you will not be disappointed.
'Catatonic' swirls into life amongst a thunderstorm of drums and blisteringly intense guitar, Roland's vocals sprinting alongside with equal fervour. This is hairs on the back of the neck material. 'William Bonny's Trigger Finger' meanwhile takes the pace down slightly in a country tinged tale of the unusual about Billy The Kid's disembodied, preserved finger in a jar. 'Professor Feather' is a reflective and sinister slice of string soaked acoustic psychedelia that is reminiscent of Roland's superb 'Cabinet Of Curiosities' opus (this listener's Roland album of choice). 'Born In The 60's' is a piece of garage perfection that name checks '96 Tears', Timothy Leary and Stockhausen; it is both subtly and darkly hilarious and pleasingly. musically explosive. The album closer, 'Insulted' leaves us on a perfectly eccentric example of English whimsy, flanged organ and chiming guitars framing Roland's distinctive and hypnotic vocals.
What can this listener add except to say that this album needs to be in your collection (as do all of Roland's other releases). Throughout a significant amount of releases over the years Roland has developed his own, instantly recognisable and unique style but he never repeats himself; each of these songs are as strong and as much a classic part of his discography as those on any of his earlier albums. Don't take the risk of being bitter and missing out, enter the twisted world of Paul Roland.
Available here on CD with several superb bonus alternate versions and demo versions.
Paul was also kind enough to answer some questions for us.
'Bitter and Twisted' has some tracks that have a 60's garage rock feel to them. You have recorded garage or 'Nuggets' style tracks previously such as 'I Was A Teenage Zombie' from 'Bates Motel' as well as covering songs by The Electric Prunes and The Sonics; is this a genre that you are drawn to?
Paul: Yes definitely. I think it probably originates with my first musical hero Marc Bolan from whom I learned the art of the 3 minute pop single as well as the value of snappy, melodic hooks and simple chord sequences. Bolan’s off-the-wall lyrics and the quasi-mystical Tolkeinesque themes of his late 60s and early 70s songs also predisposed me toward the garage/psychpop bands (? And the Mysterians, The Left Banke, The Sonics) as opposed to the meandering psychedelic groups like Floyd, although I have a soft spot for classic Hawkwind. Although there was a punk element to them as well and Bolan came through the mod/powerpop era with John’s Children when one chord could carry a whole song, two was seen as arty and sophisticated and three was positively ambitious! That’s why Siousxie, Billy Idol and The Ramones loved Marc. So, it was natural for me to look back to the roots of punk and glam and that music lends itself to typical 60s subjects such as bizarre B-movies, SF, comic book characters like Dr Strange and the occult and horror themes that I love. Goths have to be serious but garage frees you up to combine horror and humour which I find irresistible.
'Bitter and Twisted' has some deeply eerie and uncanny lyrics that reminded me of films such as Tod Browning's 'Freaks' and the B-Movie style magazines like 'Weird Tales'. What inspired you when writing these songs?
Paul: My main influences were the American horror comics that I read as a kid such as ‘Ghosts’, ‘House of Mystery’, ‘The Witching Hour’ etc. I was too nervous to risk reading the really graphic stuff like EC! I preferred to be creeped-out than grossed-out. Then there were the shows I remember seeing as a boy – The Addams Family, The Munsters and the shows I couldn’t see until I was older – The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (which gave me the idea for ‘Zanti Misfits’ on the new album and helped me finally exorcise that lingering image from my subconscious!)
But movies have always been a recurring source of material – ‘Hugo’, the story of a ventriloquist possessed by his homicidal dummy came straight from ‘Dead of Night’ (1945), one of the great portmanteau horror movies. ‘Professor Feather’, about a middle aged academic who snaps under pressure and plans to bomb London, was based on a little known British thriller I’ve always loved called ‘Seven Days To Noon’. Those movies have such a rich cast of character actors and such ripe dialogue that they practically write themselves. Other tracks just bubbled up when I found myself in one of my ‘funny’ moods.
‘Freaks’ and the b/w Universal horrors of the 1930s and 40s were an earlier influence and had more of an impact on my first few albums.
This album presents a mix of the baroque, acoustic Paul Roland and the full on psych rock Paul. Was it a conscious choice to combine both styles or did the songs themselves suggest which approach to take? What tends to come first the music or the lyrics?
Paul: All the lyrics on ‘Bitter and Twisted’ were written for their own sake –for the fun of it – and the music came later. I wouldn’t normally work that way because the assumption is that the music will be forced to fit the words and won’t come naturally. But this time the music just melted around the words so there was no compromise in quality. And because I’d written the lyrics first, they are – in my opinion anyway- some of the strongest I’ve ever written. I must be a late developer because I now see my earlier songs are considerably weaker in that regard and this album as the culmination of all those years of blood, sweat and banging my head on the padded cell wall.
Your band now includes your son on bass, how does it influence your music, having two Rolands in the studio?
Paul: He plays a rock steady basic bass part which is exactly what is needed for garage rock/post-punk psych so I’m well satisfied. But he is a typical teenager so I never get more than a few words from him. He turns up and he plays, then he goes back to watching ‘Breaking Bad’ for the third or fourth time. I still have no idea what he thinks of me or my music!
Alan Jenkins was also on board for this recording. I greatly enjoyed his surf guitar take on the 'Velvet Underground and Nico' album that was released early this year. What do you feel he brought to the album?
Paul: We met after the album had been completed so I could only add him to a couple of bonus tracks and one of the extended tracks that I was remixing at the time. I tried to persuade him to sing on it as I wanted his unique and idiosyncratic voice, but he couldn’t be tempted. We were planning to play a gig together in Greece in November – and actually rehearsed for it- but then the political situation there made it difficult so I reluctantly had to decline the offer.
What is the process for you when you come to write an album? Is this begun long before the songs reach the studio for recording or do they take shape as the tape is running, so to speak?
Paul: I always encourage spontaneity in the studio and contributions from everyone involved, but no, all the songs are written, structured and planned when we begin recording. Often only a couple of lyrics are finished and most of the other tracks don’t even have a title or theme because that will come as the track is built up/coloured in. The choice of instrumentation and the parts they play determines the theme. A supernatural theme with a historic setting will suggest a classical chamber ensemble with perhaps a harpsichord, whereas an exotic eastern or Indian subject (such as ‘Kali’ on the ‘Bates Motel’ album) will require sitar, tablas and flutes and a comic horror song (‘Catatonic’ on ‘B&T’ for example), demands being gripped tightly by the throat and throttled by a band.
I rarely write an album as a project unless there is a theme as there was on ‘Grimm’. I simply write a batch of songs for their own sake and see where they take me and which ones work best with their companions after that particular period of writing (usually about 6 weeks) is over and I need to go back to writing books. At any one time I probably have up to 40 songs backed up with no title, lyrics or theme, but these are invariably the rejects (which I consider not up to standard but too good to throw away so maybe to be finished one day and used as bonus tracks then no one can complain!)
Are there any tracks on 'Bitter And Twisted; that you are especially proud of? My feeling is that they all fit perfectly into the lineage of your back catalogue, but do you have any personal favourites?
Paul: I think this is the first time that I can honestly say I feel they all lived up to my expectations. If I was pressed I would have to say the opening track ‘I’m The Result of An Experiment (Which Went Hideously Wrong)’ works particularly well as does ‘Hugo’ but they all make me smile and the title track still surprises me in that I don’t know how I managed to express my perverse antisocial attitude and philosophy of life in less than 2 minutes!
What is next for Paul Roland?
Paul: I’ve already written and recorded the next album but I don’t have any idea for the lyrics yet and I am currently completing a project of original voodoo chants and songs called ‘White Zombie’ inspired by the Bela Lugosi movie of the same name. So no rest for the wicked.