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Holy Hell! Live’s Secret Samadhi Turns 20

Holy Hell! Live’s Secret Samadhi Turns 20

The type of album that walks the tightrope between taking itself too seriously and not taking itself seriously at all.

In case you’re curious, here is the answer to an important question—that chugging, distended guitar riff that runs throughout the entirety of “Lakini’s Juice”? Yeah, that thing still slays.

Arriving three years after their commercial breakthrough Throwing Copper, Live’s third album (third to be released under the band name Live), Secret Samadhi, shifts the musical focus onto what the band had only hinted at slightly on its sophomore album during its heavier moments, like the refrain of “I Alone” and the frenetic angst of “White, Discussion.”

By the beginning of 1997, when Samadhi was released, long gone was the affable post-grunge, “alternative rock” affect the band sported in the video for “Selling The Drama,” as well as the textbook mid-’90s rock band sonics the band committed to tape at the legendary Pachyderm Studios, located in rural Cannon Falls, Minnesota.

When recording Throwing Copper, the band may have had a cult following thanks to its debut release and “live” presence, but with their relatively quick rise to fame courtesy of MTV airplay, Samadhi was recorded in big budget studios like The Hit Factory and The Record Plant. Those opportunities gave this material an additional layer of depth and robust quality that Throwing Copper, in retrospect, lacked.

So while the band’s sound may have become more polished and expensive sounding in the interim, one thing that did not change was singer and songwriter Ed Kowalczyk’s penchant for a) usually being shirtless and b) injecting spiritual and religious imagery and ideas into his lyrics.

But, don’t go calling Live a “Christian” band—even though Secret Samadhi, much like the rest of the Live canon, is rife with Christian iconography and allusions; no, they are merely a spiritually influenced band. “Samadhi” is a Hindu state of mediation, for example.

It’s doubtful if anyone has referred to Kowalczyk as a great lyricist, because that’s simply just not true. There were parts of Secret Samadhi that were cringe-worthy, or at the very least, bizarre, in 1997, and so it should not be a surprise to someone revisiting this album 20 years later to learn that some of it has not aged very well.

Everybody’s here/ This puke stinks like beer,” he muses in the opening, head scratching line of the album’s fourth track, “Century.” Then, later, “Everybody’s anxious for the coming of the crisis/ The collapse of the justice/ I can smell your armpits.”

Then there is, like, just about every word uttered in the album’s second single, the ode to ’90s incestuous talk show fodder, “Freaks,” as well as the unsettling shouts of “They called you queer,” in the brash, punky and somewhat confrontational “Heropsychodreamer.”

But when Live, and Kowalczyk, work, they really work. Take the aforementioned “Lakini’s Juice.” Released as the first single from the album, it is exponentially more aggressive and darker sounding than anything the band had released up until that point (and probably since). That guitar riff snarls through the song’s five minute running time, with crisp and sharp sounding drums powering the rhythm. The song also includes a menacing and swirling string arrangement, giving an additional layer of theatricality.

Lyrically, “Lakini’s Juice” is an example of when Kowalczyk’s religious imagery isn’t as bothersome or out of place. “I rushed the ladies room/ Took the water from the toilet/ Washed her feet and blessed her name,” he deadpans in a multi-tracked vocal delivery, a device that splits the difference between his near-otherworldly howl and a low, ominous grumble.

It is here as well that Kowalczyk is less direct and far less silly, weird or humorous with his lyrics. “Lakini’s Juice” uses brief, evocative and haunting fragments to not so much tell a story, or a narrative, but to place you within the context of a song cloaked in mystery.

Arguably, Live’s most successful song was the slow burning “Lightening Crashes,” a dramatic, sweeping ballad juxtaposing life and death and the spaces in between. Certainly, one would think that the band’s label was hoping for a few more of those on Secret Samadhi; “Turn My Head” is by no means a sequel or even as stirring and theatrical of a song, though it does its best to create something grandiose and swelling, making it the other moment on this album that, for the most part, works and has aged marginally well.

One could hesitate to call Live a “deep cuts” kind of band, however, there were certainly memorable songs off of both Throwing Copper and the band’s 1999 effort The Distance to Here that were not released as singles. Secret Samadhi is not a misfire, but from start to finish, it does have the capability to test the patience of a listener, thus limiting its enjoyability to that of its singles.

In the end, Secret Samadhi is the type of album that walks the tightrope between taking itself too seriously and not taking itself seriously at all. It’s a strange album, lacking anything resembling cohesion, but despite all that, it boasts a few standout moments that are worth revisiting 20 years later, whether you are still a longtime fan of the band (and pleased at their recent reunion announcement) or just a casual listener that still enjoys hearing “Lakini’s Juice” on a hard rock radio station.

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