West of Eight by Tod Howarth – CD Review

West of EightIt turns out that Tod Howarth’s previous two solo releases, Silhouette and Cobalt Parlor, while both very impressive and enjoyable, were only the tip of the musical iceberg Tod had in store for us all. With his newest release, West of Eight, Tod serves up a sonic assault of an iceberg big enough to sink the Titanic!

Clocking in at slightly over an hour, the fifteen music tracks (plus a spoken “liner note” track called “Thanks,” which is exactly that) assembled here represent some of the most complete, satisfying musicianship that I’ve had the pleasure to experience in recent memory. Well written and well presented, every track has a clear theme, purpose, evolution and satisfying conclusion – no endlessly looped fade outs here.

Tod, an extremely accomplished musician, handles all lead and backing vocals, lead and rhythm guitars, keyboards (used sparingly and to great effect – don’t get scared!), acoustic, baritone and bass guitars. Whew! He does leave the drumming in the hands (and feet) of the very able Dave Aaron, and the lightening fingered Jamie Eden steps up to the plate for both lead and rhythm guitar work on eight of the album’s tracks.

Put all that together, simmer for two to three years to make sure all components are aged to perfection, serve LOUD, and you have the musical masterpiece otherwise known as West of Eight. I am not exaggerating when I say West of Eight has not left my cd changer since I received it. Read on for my review of some of the album highlights (I have to leave you some surprises).

West of Eight: “I’m finally home/I’ve traveled far but here I am/West of eight,” sings Tod on this kick ass album opener in which he extols the virtues of his home, San Diego. However, the song avoids being a maudlin “tribute” to home sweet home by allowing for the listener to come away with their own impression of whether or not the song is actually signing the praises of the familiar – home is where the heart is? – or referencing home as a sanctuary (retreat?) from the brutal surroundings of the “outside” world. Either way, there’s definitely a “secret” revealed. The secret? Well, “Dorothy had the secret all along/seldom should you venture from your home.” This track rocks along relentlessly, instilling a feel of urgency in the need to return “home”, with Jamie Eden weighing in with the first of several extremely impressive guitar performances, whetting your appetite for what’s to come.

Tod With Red BaritoneValley of Artifice: What an absolutely awesome showcasing of Tod’s vocal abilities! From the velvety purr of the verses to the desperate wail of the choruses Tod gives the pipes a true workout on this saga, which recounts the experience (hopefully fiction!) of being broken down in the hot desert of the “valley of artifice.” The crunching rhythm guitar chords that drive this tune give way only long enough for the plaintive, wailing guitar solo to capture the feeling of wandering lost “miles from anywhere/the sun is everywhere/and I don’t want to fry, so start hiking high/but which way to go, is beyond me…” Definitely a song that beautifully uses the shifts in both the vocal delivery and music to capture the mood of the story being told by the lyrics – you can almost feel the frustration and the sweat beading up between your shoulder blades as the song (and storyteller?) slowly grinds to a halt.

Day Down: The teasing, spiraling, playful guitar hook which runs through this song makes for an interesting counterpoint to the rather harsh lyrics – “cause one more day down/on the eve of my parade/is harsh but profound/when revenge is finally made.” This may well be the most complex song on the album musically, featuring a deep, rich texture and a very nice non-traditional “solo” in which the guitars engage in a “call and response” exchange, the angry chords of one barking at the playful, teasing notes of the other. The chorus features a very nice layering effect whereby each line is echoed, and Dave Aaron’s drumming – at first patient and steady, then ballistic and rapid-fire – steps to the fore on this “every dog has his day” track.

Painting Spiders: This song is second only to “Evil Clown Song” for my favorite on the disc. Musically the bass is the star of this track, lurching and lumbering along toward the inevitable conclusion of the track like the doomed painter/spider duo reflected in the lyrics. The arrangement of the vocals on this track is again first rate, with the verses building to the incredibly textured, layered choruses. There is something extremely, morbidly fascinating about the lyrics of this track – “Reaching for the ceiling/should be reaching for the sky/last thing on my mind is easy prey/venting my frustrations/as I illustrate the end/painting little spiders in my way/paint in my eyes/naturally my temper will arise/painted alive/struggle like the fly for his life.” And though the lyrics are seemingly straight forward (“death by pigmentation/let me mummify”), at the end of the song you could actually be left to wonder exactly who it is that has been “painted alive” and left to “struggle like the fly for his life” – the spider or the painter?

Evil Clown Song:What a treat! One of my favorite musicians singing about one of my favorite authors. Being a long time fan of both Tod’s and Stephen King’s makes this song, which quite independently kicks ass, even sweeter. Not many people are creative enough to be able to artfully capture their nightmares in a way that retains the terror enough to effect those to whom they are relayed. Stephen King has done that with his novels, and now Tod has captured his reaction to King’s writing in the awesome “Evil Clown Song.” The acapella track “Mr. King,” in which Tod questions why he continues to read something that puts him so on edge, sets the stage for the sonic assault that is “Evil Clown Song.” Written about the clown from the King novel “It”, this song is just down right, balls out, ass kicking NASTY! You know something intense is about to happen as soon as the first eerie strains of the child’s toy box tune that lead into this track escape your speakers. Then come the hyper drums, followed by the barking guitars and growling bass, each added one at a time before all decide to gang up and drag you down into their nightmare. The guitars rip through the verses of the track at a frenetic pace, while the drums crash and thrash along like the evil clown of the title, “stalking children in the guise of fun.” And please, be sure all loose objects are securely stowed beneath your seat or in the overhead bin prior to entering the choruses, because your ass (as well as any small objects, children and pets) will be vibrated across the room by the booming baritone bass that kicks in each time. This is by far my favorite track on the album, and both the music and Tod’s vocal delivery (“BLOOD – RED – FEET – ARE CHASING ME!!”) will haunt and hound you as effectively as any good scary story ever could!

Tod drummingSevered Ties: This acoustic based tune is from the other side of the musical spectrum, illustrating Tod’s ability to effortlessly switch from a balls out rocker like “Evil Clown Song” to something lighter, and yet make it all flow as smooth as silk and sound as if it’s second nature. This bittersweet ballad is a reflection on the emotional and psychological aftermath of ended relationships and the scars they can leave – “But I would let go/truer words were never spoken/and I wish you well/wherever you may be/but here in Hell the spell was finally broken/severed ties.” This is a profoundly grown up look at how we behave toward our memory of someone once we have gone our separate ways from them, wanting both to move on and think good thoughts, while at the same time reeling from the void that remains once they no longer do. Tod handles the (electric) guitar solo on this track himself, and there aren’t many songs leaping to my mind that feature a solo more fitting of the song in which they are featured than what Tod has captured here; a solo that somehow manages to be majestic and mourning at the same time.

They Blow: Ok, this is a rock album. And every great rock album has got to have a middle finger flying, fuck you, attitude song. Well, Tod’s got it more than covered here with They Blow. “Every rumor’s a deadly weapon/in the hands of a shit/so proud of the carnage/when they started it… you are a tale, born by the wind of a lie/and breath of the frail they blow, and hard.” So goes this chronicle of the pathetic and hypocritical nature of those who feel the need to elevate themselves by tearing others down with criticism and rumors, all the while knowing those same “high and mighty” are secretly dying on the inside to be like and live the lives of those they pick apart out of envy and spite. The music is as driving and merciless as the lyrics, which skewer hypocrites with surgical precision. Not for the faint of heart – or those with a guilty conscience!

In addition to those I’ve highlighted above, West of Eight also features tracks as varied as “Carl and Edna” (a very personal tribute to Tod’s grandparents), “Rough and Tumble” (extolling the virtues of “spirited” sexual romping – still waiting for that video Tod!), and “Egyptian” (highlighting the sacrilege of robbing and “displaying” those so long ago entombed for the afterlife). The excellent song “Misgivings” from Cobalt Parlor is also treated to a rerecording here, Tod managing to polish to a brighter luster what was already quite the gem of a song. Some musicians, while talented, seem to get stuck in whatever groove they first find success, at the expense of expanding their musical horizons.

West of Eight is another step forward in Tod’s journey as a musician, and I hope he has packed a very large bundle of supplies to carry him through because his journey seems nowhere near reaching the incredible horizon of his talent. With each new release he kicks it into another gear, blazing forward like his beloved’69 Corvette. The 15 tracks represented on this album effortlessly span the entire emotional spectrum: from introspective to provoking, playful to combative. West of Eight reflects someone who is clearly hitting full stride and confidently moving forward, both as a musician and a man. I for one am incredibly thankful Tod has chosen to share himself with us through his music, and will eagerly await his next offering. Until then, I will gladly continue to lose myself somewhere West of Eight.

To learn more about Tod be sure to visit his website.

Note: This review was originally posted on the website KISS ASYLUM, which I was co-owner/content manager of from 1997-2004.

May 1, 2010 Update: Tod’s newest CD, Opposite Gods, was completed in April of 2010 and is available for ordering on his website.

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