Each week, The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they’ve faded from memory. This week’s glimpse into the crates:
Hardware – Third Eye Open
By the time the very first of Bill Laswell’s Black Arc album series (see TPC: Slavemaster) hit U.S. stores in late November 1992, it already had a bit of a backstory. Laswell initially released the album in Japan with the title Hardware under the band name Third Eye, but encountered slight difficulties when it was discovered an American band, The Third Eye, held the official rights to the name. Rather than, say, pay the band to change their name, Laswell simply retitled the album Third Eye Open and used the Japanese album title as the American band name. It was a convoluted beginning for a project with such an impressive pedigree. Third Eye/Hardware’s rhythm section consisted of two of the most acclaimed musicians in funk and rock: Buddy Miles, legendary Electric Flag drummer whose own impressive solo career stood right alongside stints with the Delfonics, Wilson Pickett, and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, and P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins, who was at the time in the midst of a lengthy, productive partnership with Laswell.
Slightly lesser-known (at least, in the U.S.) was the band’s guitarist, Native American phenom Stevie “No Wonder” Salas. Originally from San Diego, Salas broke into the music industry in 1985 when, while working as a custodian in a small recording studio in Hollywood, he was woken up by George Clinton, who was looking for a session guitarist. Salas offered his own services, which quickly turned into a job playing on Clinton’s amazing (and now very out-of-print) R&B Skeletons In the Closet album. For-hire guitar work on Rod Stewart’s world tour, various session gigs (including an appearance on Collins’ 1988 album What’s Bootsy Doin’?) and the score to the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure followed, and Salas, who moved to Europe to build up his production résumé, gradually made a name for himself. By 1989, he had signed what was, at the time, the largest solo recording contract in Island Records history. The resulting debut album, the very Hendrix-sounding Stevie Salas Colorcode, didn’t sell very well in the U.S., but picked up enough critical acclaim and overseas sales (particularly in Japan) to establish him as a bankable star worldwide; furthermore, it established a close working relationship between him and its co-producer–Laswell.
Before hearing a note, Third Eye Open seems simultaneously enticing and risky. While the certifiable super-group’s three personalities very distinct and established, two of the three (Miles and Collins) were notorious for their ability to hog the spotlight, spawning a series of questions: could the soulful Miles effectively co-exist with space-case Collins? Could Collins rein in his non-sequitur verbal ramblings? For that matter, for a band featuring three musicians whose past catalog covered everything from R&B to soul to funk to hip hop to rock to metal, what exactly would the album sound like?
Opening track “Got A Feelin’” answers the last question in a splendid way, beginning with a Collins bass slide, Miles hitting the kick and crash cymbals, and Salas laying down a powerful guitar rhythm. The band settles into a tight, mid-tempo hard rock number before Salas begins singing in his usual, bluesy Hendrix impression. Miles sings the second half of the verse in his customary soulful, summon-the-angels-from-the-clouds tenor, and backing vocalists handle the chorus, with Collins sparsely interjecting. Salas and Miles continue to trade off on the verses, while Laswell’s production deftly accentuates the heaviness of Miles’ drums and the precision of Collins’ bass-playing. The song changes key on the bridge, when Miles unleashes the full power of his voice to beautiful effect; the pure emotional heft of his soaring vocals settles the listener wholly into the song, locking them in, before stepping back to allow Salas to shred his way through a blistering guitar solo. The song pauses briefly—as if to reload—then roars its way to a false ending; after Salas lets a diminished chord ring, he begins a slower, minor-key progression that Collins doubles on bass. The band jams on the blues-y progression for two-and-a-half minutes, with Collins ad-libbing vocals while Salas improvises on guitar. While such an indulgent ending would normally be somewhat unnecessary on an album’s first track, all three musicians show surprising restraint, allowing the tension of what they’re all capable of push the jam to a delightful conclusion.
In fact, the only slightly disappointing thing about the rest of the album is that it, for the most part, doesn’t match up to its brilliant opening cut. Subsequent songs “Waitin’ On You” and “What’s Going Down” continue along the funkified-hard rock vein (the former including another false ending, this time finding the band vamping on a funk jam). Four songs in, the band changes direction with “Love Obsession (When The Eagle Flies),” a ballad featuring a rare Miles solo vocal performance. Indeed, despite being the group’s indisputably strongest vocalist, Miles spends much of Third Eye Open deferring the spotlight to Salas—the weakest singer of the three. This actually improves the album’s sound, with Miles mostly exercising uncharacteristic restraint vocally, and Salas clearly trying hard to step up his singing game to keep pace with his colleagues.
Which is, in truth, a great deal of what makes Third Eye Open so effective: rather than simply being a collection of virtuosos messing around in the studio doing what they do best, Hardware actually sounds like the work of a group of musicians testing their ability to work within limitations. Collins’ bass work sounds more focused than in decades, largely because the songs are more structured and require a heavier undercurrent than most of his P-Funk output; his licks on “Hard Look” and solo on “What’s Goin’ Down” are some of his best work since his early days with James Brown. Likewise with Miles; sharing the vocal spotlight means his drums are tighter and more intense (partly due to Laswell’s production). Salas, in turn, keeps his songs moving to accommodate the funkiness of his rhythm section instead of simply turning everything into a guitar freakout. The songs penned by the guitarist—even subdued ballads like “The Walls Came Down”—are the particularly successful ones, due to the band’s collective humility, never once reverting to by-the-numbers performances or lazy lyricism. “500 Years” comes closest to replicating the success of the album opener, with Salas and Miles playing call-and-response with their vocals; the song’s lyrics, abstractly referencing the treatment of Africans and Native Americans at the hands of Europeans and white Americans, are clear without being trite, and emotional without being inflammatory.
Preceded by the emotional rollercoaster of “500 Years” and the mournful, Salas-written lost-love song “Tell Me,” the band wisely elects to end the album on a lighthearted note. “Leakin,’” the only song to spotlight Collins’ vocals, actually appeared in a very different form on What’s Bootsy Doin’?; this version does away with the synthesized beats and samples of the original and replaces them with a far more potent weapon: Salas. From his wall-of-sound layered chords over the beginning to his subtle references to his own original solo to the final muscular burst at the end, “Leakin’” finds Salas and the rest of the band at their loosest and most whimsical. It’s the perfect palate-cleansing song for a surprisingly-intense, focused effort.
While Hardware never reconvened for another studio album, its creators never abandoned the songs they’d written; Salas kept “Got A Feelin’” as part of his live set well into the 1990’s, and Miles would periodically sing “Love Obsession” with later iterations of his band the Buddy Miles Express. Fortunately—and, perhaps, surprisingly—its members are still relevant today musically. Following Third Eye Open, Salas continued production and session work with an incredibly diverse group of musicians (some of whom appear on his excellent collaborative covers collection The Electric Pow-Wow), and maintained a solid presence in Japan and Europe as a solo artist before diving wholeheartedly behind-the-scenes. He currently organizes studio bands for American Idol and has served as musical director for several tours featuring singers from the show. Collins largely went back to being his inimitable self, a cultural icon as much as a musician (although his output in the latter arena hasn’t slowed much, either); he also founded the online-only Funk University bass guitar school. Sadly, after continuing a celebrated career as a singer, songwriter, drummer, and guitarist well into the 2000’s, Miles died in 2008 of congestive heart failure; UK-based newspaper The Independent ran a full-page obituary, and Eric Clapton added Miles’ signature song “Them Changes” to his live set list in tribute. Third Eye Open is an often-overlooked gem in these three illustrious careers, but certainly one worth picking up.
A. Darryl Moton drives a bus and listens to far too much metal. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.