Rocket Engine - What is This That Stands Before Me?
Loyal Label
Free jazz cover versions of Black Sabbath songs
7 songs (42'33")
Release year: 2007
Reviewed by Alex

To learn that Rocket Engine are some of the New York City most adventurous free jazz musicians covering Black Sabbath – I had to hear What is This That Stands Before Me? I wasn’t expecting an easy listen and this is exactly what I got. This CD is definitely underground, but not in a sense of someone putting a corpsepainted mask on and concealing identity. No, all eight individuals contributing to Rocket Engine are photographed smiling in broad daylight. Instead, What is This That Stands Before Me? is underground, because the band has this CD released during the gig at the Cake Shop, the name of the Lower East Side bar or maybe even the real bakery, because all rules and regulations of how the songs should sound are abandoned and because improvisation completely rules the roost. Also, and rather truthfully, this CD is very elite. If I represent an “average” fan, a lot of how Rocket Engine interprets Black Sabbath may fly right over many folks’ heads.

For Geezer Butler the name Rocket Engine chose for this album represented him waking out of an acid induced nightmare, the dreadful dream he immortalized with the first lyrics sentence on the opening eponymous song of the first breakthrough eponymous album. For Rocket Engine themselves, the title can be used as a question to pose to those unsuspecting listeners about to be exposed to their first free jazz/improv experience.

It would be interesting to know what Black Sabbath themselves thought of their tunes reshaped this way, but I’d venture to say that some of the heavy blues/metal originators’ songs were really conducive to jazz, while others weren’t so much so. In a way Rocket Engine chose the right epoch to cover, the songs all culled from Ozzy era, and very much leaning on the first three opuses Black Sabbath, Master of Reality and Paranoid, with only Never Say Die representing anything from the latter Ozzy era. The more metal straightforward Dio and Tony Martin days were better left untouched, and rightfully so, as early Black Sabbath were big experimentators themselves, creating new genre as they went along, merging the equal parts of blues, rock, doom and gloom.

On the better side I found songs that A – connected more with me, and B – took the important point of the Sabbath spirit with them. Paranoid does not dare to be messing with the main iconic riff, the jazzy free fall coming in the form of the middle insert and the end reminding of the orchestral pit just before the performance starts, musicians all playing their own lines in complete disconcert with each other. The use of Hammond organ is very interesting, providing a glimpse of how Sabbath would sound circa 1971 if they managed to recruit Jon Lord (Deep Purple) away from the Fireball performance. Sweet Leaf is also an excellent take, with brass instrument (trombone or trumpet) replacing Iommi’s guitar loops. But the fuzz has to be turned up, this is the song about marijuana use after all, and the absence of opening cough, also iconic, is criminal. The best cover is, perhaps, the least played Sabbath song off Paranoid, the dreamy Planet Caravan, where Rocket Engine is hitting on all cylinders, creating a perfectly murky wafting atmosphere.

Other songs were less of a hit with me. Into the Void begins in a rather strapped on manner, pretty metal actually, but slides into a totally chaotic directionless end. Despite strong bass lines, Never Say Die is a bit neutered, maybe due to Eric Biondo’s boyish voice, which is not so much of a problem on other songs where he is the main singer. The other vocalist, Mike Pride, everybody on Rocket Engine is interchanging, some people playing several instruments, including both vocalists, is a little too hysterical for me, his rougher voice fitting better on Lord of This World, but a total mismatch on Black Sabbath, the song, itself. Admittedly, Black Sabbath is a chore to cover, and chronologically it had to be the first song on the album, but instead of Ozzy’s dementia Mike sounds a lot more like Murray Head’s frantic Judas on Jesus Christ Superstar.

Rocket Engine probably realize that they are for the limited audience only, for those prepared to hear them, and for their colleagues, musicians, who can appreciate the complex music palette. If I stumbled into my favorite no-name Midwestern coffee shop and Rocket Engine were playing these Black Sabbath covers, I would remain there, fascinated, glued to musicians lips and fingers, giving birth to the familiar, yet newly interpreted, sounds. However, I do not see my favorite metal club booking Rocket Engine as an opening act for just about anybody – the audience may not have enough in them to stick around until the headlining act comes out. Rocket Engine is a gourmet product which can be appreciated by the selected few, and I am certainly not going to demean the album by assigning it a numerical quote, not to mention that someone else originally wrote the songs here.

Killing Songs :
Paranoid, Planet Caravan, Sweet Leaf
Alex quoted no quote
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