Tuesday, January 18, 2011

One Way... Or Another by Cactus - Why this cactus stayed out in the desert

The Band: Cactus
  • Rusty Day (Vocals, Harmonica)
  • Jim McCarty (Guitar)
  • Tim Bogert (Bass)
  • Carmine Appice (Drums)

The Album: One Way... Or Another (1971)

Key Tracks: Song For Aries, Hometown Bust, One Way... Or Another

Score: 3.5 / 5

Sounds like:

Distorted and fuzzed up blues boogie with drum and bass virtuosity, soaring lead work, power-soul vocals, and a more modern take on Delta-style harp. Some subtle elements of early heavy metal, but with a consistent Southern vibe full of funky grooves.


Cactus were a supergroup from the 1970s, both in the sense that their members were the alumni of incredible bands, and in the sense that they've got super powers . . . Like Superman.

Rusty Day used to sing for Amboy Dukes, the band that made Ted Nugent famous; Jim McCarty (not to be confused with The Yardbirds’ drummer) played guitar in Buddy Miles Express, one of the remnant bands of Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies; while Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice were the rhythm section of Vanilla Fudge, a great 60’s psychedelic band that set the foundation for hard rock in the 70’s. Appice is the guy that influenced every drummer from John Bonham and Ian Paice to Nicko McBrain and Dave Lombardo. So putting all of these guys together in one band should give us nothing short of a classic album. Unfortunately, “short” is the only word that holds relevance when you’re talking about this album as a whole.

The most serious and persistent problem they seemed to have was channeling the energy of their super powers to give us a full-fledged, legendary album. You know what I'm talking about, right? The kind of album where you can't seem to pick which song's better than which; or the kind where you've memorized the chronological sequence of the songs, 'cause you've heard it so damn much. In a nutshell, I mean the kind of album where every song deserves a solid 5 out of 5 stars without even thinking about it twice. When I think of albums like that, I imagine Deep Purple's "Machine Head," or something like Iggy and The Stooges’ “Raw Power,” or Led Zeppelin IV. However, what I don't imagine, is Cactus' "One Way... Or Another." Again, that’s because Cactus kept falling short of their full potential on this album.

The album kicks off with such a strong, commanding, in-your-face note. It screams out of Jim McCarty's amplifier all fuzzed up and dirty, then it falls into a 50's influenced boogie rhythm. It's a groovy rhythm, no doubt, - it's full of swagger and attitude - but we're missing that intense musicianship we're used to from Cactus' former Vanilla Fudge rhythm section. They seem to be taking it easy here, and they keep on taking it easy throughout "Long Tall Sally," a cover of a Little Richard song; "Rockout, Whatever You Feel Like;" and the first part of "Rock 'N' Roll Children.” So basically, we're waiting through three songs for Appice and Bogert to hit us with the powerful, driving rhythms you'd expect them to pull off. Sure, they kind of tease you here and there, but that's all they do.

The third track, "Rock 'N' Roll Children," opens with another boogie rhythm under the late Rusty Day’s vocals with the rest of the group singing back-up. The bass line is mean and growling, often distracting from the guitar work. And that’s definitely a good thing in this case. But the band don't hit you hard until Appice starts galloping into the solo like a fucking stampede. McCarty and Bogert start a dueling bass and guitar solo like gunfire hitting you from either side. And now, finally, we're listening to Cactus. You only wish this track would go on longer. Sadly, the stampede hit the edge of the cliff too soon, at a little under six minutes.

"Big Mama Boogie, Parts I & II" builds up slowly from an acoustic Delta-style guitar and harp dance. It's like the morning songs I put on while I'm flipping pancakes and grilling sausages. But then the stove catches fire and the kitchen fills with smoke when Appice comes out of no where like a fucking machine gun, Bogert's fingers slipping all over the fingerboard of his overdriven bass, and McCarty tearing it all up, this time battling with Day's harp, and the beautiful madness that is Cactus comes out again. Their brilliant, organized chaos punches you right in the gut. And then again, they end it in under six minutes. Why the fuck do they always do this? All of these songs are the perfect foundation for 9-minute epics like Grand Funk Railroad's "Inside Looking Out" or Humble Pie's "Live With Me," but it's like they're worried about their tape budget or something.

The next song, a cover of "Feel So Bad," is only slightly better than Chuck Willis' original. It's forgettable, and sounds like Cactus are trying to be psychedelic. There's really nothing interesting to say about this song, except for the fact that it precedes one of the greatest instrumentals I've ever heard, "Song For Aries."

"Song For Aries" is so fucking eerie. It kicks off with an acoustic chord progression that sounds very similar to The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," emphasizing the similarities even more with McCarty's wah-guitar lead work. I imagine a campfire where a group of soldiers are gathered before a battle they know they can't win. The acoustic guitar comes in like it's David’s theme song as he prepares himself to face Goliath. It brings the soldiers' spirits up slowly. Then Appice goes mad with his drum work, like he's the commanding officer, ordering the soldiers to get up and face the enemy. And then McCarty's guitar screams: "Get up! It's time for war!" Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cactus.

"Song For Aries" is like a spell cast on the remainder of the album, making sure the rest of it is all perfect. And without a fucking doubt, the next two songs are milestones of rock 'n' roll history.

"Hometown Bust" is a story of a man whose "friends are getting locked up." It's a blues standard that's been served so well. McCarty shows us a deep understanding of double-tracked guitar harmonies that wouldn't catch on in popularity until Judas Priest and Iron Maiden almost a decade later. Day's voice is unbelievably passionate, full of the blues, visceral and soaring like he had the soul of a tired old black man. The song swings back and forth between McCarty's beautiful acoustic guitar and Day's harp that sounds like a jailbird on death row. Then out of the blue, McCarty tears it up, and Bogert and Appice join in to give us Cactus' chaos once more. McCarty and Day steal the spotlight from each other over Appice's foreshadowing "tap, tap, tap" of the hi-hat. Then it's chaos all over again, bringing your emotions up and down like the sickest roller-coaster you could ever imagine. Bogert keeps the mood dark throughout, to the point that you can't help but feel the blues in the song. The Vanilla Fudge alumni hold the rhythm so well while embellishing and filling it all up in a way that makes it seem effortless.

The album leads us to its closing title-track, a song that really is rock 'n' roll at its best, “One Way... Or Another.” If this song was five seconds long, I'd still give it a solid five stars . . . One for each second. The song is built on an incredible guitar riff that's loud, heavy, full of power and soul, and just the right amount of speed. Appice, like the insane architect of rock 'n' roll drumming he is, pushes us deeper into the song while Bogert carries the chord progression forward with the kind of expertise that would make Jack Bruce shiver. Day's commanding vocals make sure the lyrics get to you: "One way or another you go through life / You live alone, you keep a wife / You beat the law, you leave your hometown / Finding out it's hard when you're all alone and brought down." Cactus demand your full attention like a good rock 'n' roll band should, and you give it to them willingly. Then the song travels into the coolest fucking breakdown I've ever heard. Cactus use their boogie roots here the way they should have throughout the entire album. This part introduces a shift in rhythm where Bogert and Appice cool it down, while making damn sure you know that Cactus' chaos is coming. Then out of nowhere: "BAM BAM!" - the band in perfect sync, with two explosions like a shotgun to the brain, they take us over to the solo. Appice and Bogert bring McCarty's 10 out of 10 performance on the solo up, and make it a beyond-perfect 12 out of 10. Then Day comes back in to sing, but the solo doesn't stop; McCarty just rolls his volume down for a more subtle vibe. Bogert drives us crazy with his bass work, hitting every note the right way while making sure he's everywhere at the same time. There is no criticism for this song. It's perfect. This song has all the reasons why I love rock 'n' roll rooted in the fingertips, hands and throats of these amazing musicians.

It's just sad that the album doesn't have much more to offer than those last three songs. Cactus remind us with "Hometown Bust" and "One Way... Or Another" why they've been called the American Led Zeppelin. If the rest of the album was as solid as those two songs, I’d have given it a much higher score, and we'd all probably be calling Led Zeppelin the British Cactus.