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Track Premiere: Mars Red Sky – “Comfortably Numb”

The Wall is not my favorite Pink Floyd album. That distinction would actually go to its immediate predecessor Animals – which, for those not well-versed in the Pink Floyd’s history, actually plays a major part in the lore of The Wall. Propelled by strong reviews an even stronger sales, the ensuing tour in support of Animals, dubbed the In the Flesh tour, saw the band playing in the largest venues of their careers. However, the size and unruly nature of the crowds on the North American leg of the tour in particular drove bassist/vocalist Roger Waters to have something of a breakdown, growing progressively more aggressive and hostile towards their audiences until he actually spat in a fan’s face on the tour’s final date in Montreal.

So Waters went home and distilled all of the frustration with and alienation from the audience that he felt on the In the Flesh tour into The Wall, a sprawling, double-LP rock opera that’s one of the best-selling albums of all time. However, it’s arguably one of the most self-indulgent albums by a major artist of all time as well. In many ways, both the album and (especially) the ensuing film are exercises in self-mythologization, testaments to Waters’s ego writ large, and the fact that they’re somehow also brilliant in a way that no other band has come close to matching in the nearly 40 years since its release is damn near enough to justify that ego.

However, the other members of Pink Floyd didn’t exactly agree, since The Wall is essentially the last ‘real’ Pink Floyd album. Aside from a couple of guitar solos and a co-lead vocal on “Not Now John,” David Gilmour was largely absent from The Final Cut, and keyboardist Roger Mason doesn’t appear on it at all, leading many to consider it more of a Waters solo album. And frankly, the less said about the albums the Gilmour-led version of Pink Floyd released after Waters’s departure from the band, the better. Just one asshole’s opinion – don’t @ me.

As much as it may sound like I’m slagging on it, though, there’s no denying that The Wall is still very much a rite of passage for younger people as their musical tastes are starting to form. I’m old enough to remember seeing the posters for the 1982 film The Wall hanging in the movie theater lobby when my not-quite nine-year-old self was going to see something like E.T. or The Secret of NIMH, and it scared the shit out of me. When I finally saw it at 17, it made a massive impression on me, both musically (“Mother,” “Goodbye Blue Sky,” “One of My Turns,” “Nobody Home”), and visually (the scene where Pink shaves off his eyebrows, that bizarre animated scene where the flowers start fucking, the close-up shot of the cigarette-length ash that I tried to replicate more times than I can count when I still smoked). A few years back, I even ponied up the insane amount of money they were charging for concourse seats to see Waters do The Wall at Wrigley Field. So even though it’s not my favorite Pink Floyd album–hell, I’m not sure The Wall is anyone’s favorite Pink Floyd album–it’s still a very important piece of my development as a music fan and (ultimately) music blogger with literally tens of devoted readers.

More than anything, The Wall occupies something of a strange space in the annals of music: massively significant both culturally and musically, but inexorably tied to its creator due to its highly autobiographical (and self-indulgent) nature. As such, it seems like an equally obvious and odd choice to get the [Redux] treatment from Magnetic Eye Records. Regardless of the angle from which you approach it, though, there’s no getting around the fact that The Wall is much more than simply a collection of songs. For that reason, I have no problem admitting that I approached The Wall [Redux] with more than a bit of skepticism. For the most part, though, it’s a resounding success.

For the sake of any of our loyal Vault Hunters who aren’t aware of MER’s [Redux] series, they choose an album and give it a full-length tribute, with a different band covering each song. Thus far, they’ve given the [Redux] treatment to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, along with a companion Best of James Marshall Hendrix collection, and Helmet’s Meantime, and they recently completed a crowdfunding campaign to do one for Alice in Chains’s Dirt. On November 9, they’ll release both The Wall [Redux] and Best of Pink Floyd [Redux], (you can find preorders for both here) and after spending the last 30 years of my life (give-or-take) with Pink Floyd’s catalogue, there’s something refreshing about hearing these songs in a different context. And honestly, it’s pretty fucking nice to be able to think of The Wall on a song-by-song basis for a change.

The first thing that struck me when listening to The Wall [Redux] is the different feel that many of the vocalists bring to the material. I have no clue how much truth there is to this, but I’ve read in more than one place that Roger Waters is at least partially tone deaf. Even if that’s not entirely accurate, most would probably agree that he’s not one of the great vocalists in the history of rock. His range is severely limited, and he generally expresses emotion by shout-singing rather than change keys or employ any of the myriad other techniques a more versatile vocalist might use. Therefore, hearing some of these songs in a different voice adds gives them an entirely new sort of emotional resonance.

The first example that comes to mind is Year of the Cobra’s take on “When the Tigers Broke Free,” a song that was in the film version of The Wall but didn’t appear on a Pink Floyd album until the 2004 remaster of The Final Cut. There’s a vulnerability in Amy Tung Barrysmith’s voice that gives the song a kind of pathos that the original never had. The same can be said for how the lived-in quality of Mark Lanegan’s voice turns the already incredibly fucking depressing “Nobody Home” into a total ‘hide-the-knives’ song, and Domkraft burying the vocals under a heavy layer of fuzzy bass on their version of “Empty Spaces” adds a layer of paranoia that the original doesn’t come close to matching.  On the other end of the spectrum, the delightfully weird Church of the Cosmic Skull’s delightfully weird take on “The Trial” completely redeems a song that I never really much cared for.

Honestly, the only songs on the album that miss the mark for me are the ones that bookend it. Instead of playing it straight, The Melvins do an unfortunately (but predictably) Melvins-esque piss take on ‘In The Flesh?” wherein they substitute the lyrics from a Blondie song also called “In the Flesh” for the actual lyrics, and Yawning Man stretch “Outside the Wall” to twice its original length and ignore the lyrics entirely, opting instead for a feedback-drenched, ambient approach that makes for an exhausting conclusion to the previous 95 minutes of music. Even so, if I can only find fault with two of the twenty-six songs here, it’s probably safe to consider this a ringing endorsement of The Wall [Redux].

When considering the reasons for the enduring popularity of The Wall, at least some of it stems from the fact that the album contains two of the band’s best known songs: “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” and “Comfortably Numb,” which are tackled by Sasquatch and Mars Red Sky respectively. If I’m being completely honest here, I’ve heard “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” so many times that I don’t care if I ever hear it again. It’s also been covered so many times that there’s absolutely no novelty whatsoever in hearing another version of that song. Ergo, the fact that I don’t reflexively skip Sasquatch’s version here is probably the highest possible compliment I can pay it. They’re relatively faithful to the original, but there’s something grungy about their approach that makes it sound fucking massive.

I’m far more attached to “Comfortably Numb,” and even though I’m a pretty big fan of French stoner/psychedelic doom trio Mars Red Sky–as far as I’m concerned, “Under the Hood” from their last full-length Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul) is one of the most perfect songs ever written–their overall sound is pretty exuberant, and “Comfortably Numb” isn’t exactly an exuberant sort of song. Full disclosure: the first time I listened to their version, I was literally moved to tears. They bring out the contrast between the moodier, Waters-sung verses and the druggy highs of Gilmour’s choruses perfectly, and we are beyond thrilled to be premiering their take on “Comfortably Numb” here today at the Vault. I was also fortunate enough to obtain a couple of comments from the band’s guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras about the way they approached the song. Check it out, along with “Comfortably Numb,” below.

Indy Metal Vault: I’ve always thought of Mars Red Sky as a fairly upbeat-sounding band, so a darker, moody song like “Comfortably Numb” didn’t seem like an obvious choice for you to cover. However, you really found the emotional center of the song and made it your own. How did you end up deciding on that song?

Julien Pras: I think the label sent Jimmy (bass/keyboards/vocals) from our band a message with the songs that were already picked, and Jimmy told us he had put an option in on one that was still available, asking us to guess and check if we were on the same page. I immediately asked about “Comfortably Numb,” and sure enough that’s the one he’d picked! I’ve always loved that song. The chord progression is pretty simpl,e but there’s a stark contrast between the verses, that are indeed a\quite dark and ominous, and the parts sung by Gilmour are more ethereal, uplifting… With the band we particularly enjoy exploring various avenues, soundscapes and emotions, slow, muddy and dark atmospheres as well as more upbeat stuff sometimes, and we thought we could come up with a nice rendering of this song.

IMV: How much did you end up changing the arrangement to give it the Mars Red Sky sound?

JP: One of the reasons it wasn’t too hard to toy with is it starts with a B minor, and we’re tuned down in B. So we kept the original scale, the tempo is close to the original, and we went with the original structure as well. We just made the intro and the end a few bars shorter. As for the arrangement, we tried to get a nice groove and just play this song the way we usually play: slow, heavy and doomy, with clear vocals. We used our usual instruments and effects, with the addition of a couple of Electro Harmonix pedals I now use with the guitar to add a kind of keyboard layer in the background because we wanted to have that texture but not necessarily play an actual keyboard. We had one day to record the song so we had to be quick! It was tracked and mixed by our friend Benjamin Mandeau, and I think he did a great job.

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