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Rediscover: Attila: Attila

Rediscover: Attila: Attila

Virtually disowned by Joel, Attila remains largely relegated to the dustbin of history, having seen no proper reissue since its original 1970 release.

Had Billy Joel not gone onto such great success later in his career, there’s a good chance Attila would’ve remained nothing more than a period curio, perhaps managing something of a cult following for nothing other than its over-the-top, iconic cover image. Attila is granted but a few short paragraphs in Fred Schruers’ Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, the bulk of those being as dismissive as Joel has been in subsequent interviews regarding his pre-solo ventures. Speaking with Alec Baldwin for “Here’s the Thing,” Joel referred to Attila as being “just horrible.”

But back to that bizzaro cover image, easily Attila’s greatest initial selling point: Standing in a sort of makeshift, medieval meat locker, the poodle-haired Joel stares out with piercingly dark eyes, his short stature exaggerated by both his hair and adornment in barbarian-esque metal and furs. It’s a decidedly silly pose made all the more so by the setting and the self-serious affectation adopted by the future Piano Man and his shell-shocked looking bandmate, drummer Jonathan Small.

Of the two, Small looks more naturalistic within the set piece, slightly hidden behind a massive, hanging beef carcass and lacking the fur shawl draped over Joel’s left shoulder. There’s also something more accessible about Small’s visage in contrast with Joel’s, a knowingness in the eyes that lets the listener know he’s in on the joke and simply humoring his friend and band mate with this bit of medieval cosplay silliness. Or it could simply be the casual way in which he holds his chainmail helmet, like a practical prop rather than Joel’s more regal cradling.

Regardless, the pair together visually represent the corresponding aural contrast contained within the grooves. Throughout, Joel is the tortured artist screaming bad poetry (and doing his damnedest to replicate much more capable vocalists a la Robert Plant) and creating all manner of heavy, heavy sounds on his organ (run through a massive chain of some 10 guitar amps for maximum heaviness), while Small adopts his best sub-Bonham/Baker bit of nonstop bashing and brawling across the kit.

It’s quite the pairing and definitely worth exploring beyond the ham-fisted visual. But it also shows the lengths major labels (Attila came out on Epic) were willing to go to tap into the youth market as popular music continued to expand into new and (more often than not) interesting directions. From the image alone, it becomes clear that Attila is going to be a heavy – if perhaps campy – listen.

Before there was Attila, however, and the over-the-top imagery and sonic vibrations, there was the Hassles, an R&B/pop group not too dissimilar from the Rascals. It was here that Joel and Small came together for the first time, the group putting out a pair of albums before calling it quits. Following the dissolution of the Hassles, Joel and Small, falling under the influence of the heavier sounds (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, et. al.) starting to come to prominence as the Age of Aquarius came to its bleak and brutal end, entered the fray as a duo.

Musically, it’s far from the worst album ever recorded (per the infamous Allmusic review [see also their unjust and overly-sensationalistic maligning of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music for another example of the site’s gross exercises in hyperbole]), often offering up an interesting use of electric organ shoved through all manner of effects and amplification in order to come as close as possible to replicating the sound of an electric guitar. Opening track “Wonder Woman” finds Joel utilizing a wah pedal to great, almost pulverizing effect, making up for the decidedly subpar lyrics (“Wonder Woman with your skin so fair / Wonder Woman with your long red hair / You have the velvet touch / You have what I want so much”), something that plagues the bulk of the album (particularly the “California Flash” and his “20-foot mustache”).

Joel’s gonzo organ shredding makes for a more often than not thrilling listen as he attempts to cram as many notes as humanly possible into a four-count bar, doing his best to ape Hendrix, et. al. “Rollin’ Home” is a blistering bit of rollicking rock ‘n’ roll of the punishingly loud variety, Joel shrieking his way across the whole of the track while simultaneously tearing up the keys. Small, meanwhile, furiously keeps time while utilizing the whole of his kit to maximum effect (at least from a sheer volume standpoint). The appropriately-metal titled “Tear This Castle Down” finds Joel and Small going full Cream with an almost balladic middle section that allows Joel to do his best Jack Bruce impression before diving headlong back into the heavy stuff.

Many of the ideas are admittedly half-baked (much like the performers and producers themselves, one would suspect, given some of the choice couplets) and fall flat on their faces, but they nonetheless make for an interesting listen. Sounding very much of its era, Attila has the advantage of taking an overplayed sound and filtering it through a unique lens in terms of instrumentation. The sheer volume of the recording and heaviness of the arrangements belies the group’s two-man makeup, with Joel’s unorthodox approach to organ (playing searing leads and thundering bass simultaneously) gives the boys in Deep Purple a run for their money, particularly on the borderline virtuosic “Revenge Is Sweet.”

“Amplifier Fire (Part I: Godzilla/Part II: March of the Huns)” is a typically heavy blues workout that finds Small playing his kit as though it were falling down the stairs while Joel attempts to shred in a Jimmy Smith-esque style that stands in sharp contrast to Small’s more outré playing style. That the drums continuously pan from left to right doesn’t help matters, making for a massively disorienting listen. It’s far from the best the album has to offer, yet it’s strangely the only track present on Joel’s “comprehensive” My Lives 2005 box set. (The Hassles are given little more love, appearing in the form of only two tracks, the remainder of the five-disc set devoted solely to his solo career, clearly the only “lives” that seem to matter much to Joel). It’s as though Joel himself wishes to perpetuate the rumor that Attila is in fact the “worst album of all time” by including this bit of self-indulgent, instrumental nonsense as indicative of what the album has to offer (though the second part, “March of the Huns,” gets about as heavy as anything else Attila has to offer).

Virtually disowned by Joel, Attila remains largely relegated to the dustbin of history, having seen no proper reissue since its original 1970 release. Far from perfect and, given his later, more commercially successful output, it’s easy to see why Attila still prompts eye rolls from the artist himself, it’s nonetheless a fascinating listen and one worthy of a reassessment at the hands of more sympathetic and adventurous listeners. Attila is far from perfect and, yes, has more than a few cringe-worthy moments when viewed within the context of Joel’s later career, but to call it the worst album ever is just lazy and ignorant. Give it a shot and see how different the history of pop music could’ve been had Attila been granted the same adoration as the myriad equally heavy, equally mediocre albums released around the same time.

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