Hatfield, Winger and a Three-Hour Heavy Metal Opera
The 2019 WTF Awards

It’s getting close to the end of the year, which means it’s time to start thinking about the best of 2019. But it’s also time to think about the weirdest of 2019, the albums that just by their very existence would make any reasonable person say “WTF?”

That’s right, it’s time for the annual WTF Awards here at Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. This is our yearly celebration of the records that I just cannot believe are real things, but which, against all laws of God and man, actually were made and released. To be clear, receiving a WTF Award doesn’t mean that an album is bad, or that it shouldn’t exist. It’s just an acknowledgement of the utter improbability of its existence. In fact, the more improbable an album is, the harder the artist probably had to fight to bring it into being, so respect is due.

Anyway, we have three such awards to give out this time, and I’ll go in ascending order of improbability. The first one may not even seem that improbable, considering it’s the second in a series: it’s Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police. Hatfield is, of course, one of our least appreciated songwriters – her catalog, beginning in the ‘90s with the Juliana Hatfield Three and continuing through a prolific solo career, is full of gems, and her voice is instantly recognizable to ‘90s kids like me. She’s generally been pretty serious, so when she issued an album of Olivia Newton-John covers last year, it was a pleasant surprise.

With Sings the Police, she makes these covers records a going concern. (Much like The Bird and the Bee did with their Van Halen tribute this year.) I did not know to expect a second volume, but had I known, I would have guessed probably 30 or 40 other artists for her to honor before Sting and his law-enforcing compatriots. (Much like the Bird and the Bee, actually, and the more I think about it, that record also deserves a WTF Award.) I love the Police, though, and was very much looking forward to hearing this.

I only wish I loved it. Hatfield’s Newton-John record was a loving pastiche, perfectly calibrated to straddle the line between tribute and send-up. Sings the Police, in contrast, sounds like something she did in a week in her basement. She’s the only musician on most of these tracks, and she’s contented herself with demo-quality production. The Police had Stewart Copeland, one of the best drummers of his era, so I was surprised to hear that Hatfield had elected to go with extremely basic bongos-in-a-box drum patterns for most of this thing. There’s a cheap and dirty sloppiness to this effort that I can’t get past, sadly.

Some of this is fun. I do enjoy hearing Hatfield sing these songs, harmonizing with herself and easily hitting notes Sting hasn’t been able to for a while. I like what she did with “Canary in a Coalmine,” and I appreciate her selection of “Landlord,” a pretty well forgotten b-side. But she takes an axe to some of my favorites here, and it makes me sad. “Next to You” is one of the best early Police numbers, and here it’s slowed down to match a $5 drum pattern, all the energy sucked out of it. “Roxanne” is worse, those same drums propping up a bass-less electric guitar smear, and that’s followed by a depressingly basic take on “Every Breath You Take.”

Things pick up near the end when Hatfield welcomes Boston-area drummer Chris Anzalone to the mix – “Hole in My Life” actually sounds like something she put effort into – but it feels a bit late by then. I wanted to love this, since I adore both Hatfield and the Police, but only found a few tracks worth revisiting. If she’d put as much into this as she did her Newton-John album, I would have been much happier with it.

But it’s barely worthy of a raised eyebrow in comparison to my next WTF Award. For this one we need to pull in Kip Winger. You remember Kip – he was the leader of ‘80s hair-proggers Winger, immortalized forever on Beavis and Butthead. They were always better than their reputation, and Kip’s solo career has been one to watch for me – he’s revealed a true talent for composition and arrangement, producing a small yet superb catalog of progressive pop-rock that can stand with anything in the genre.

Lately, though, Kip’s been trying to branch out. He now goes by C.F. Kip Winger, the C.F. standing for Charles Frederick. In 2016 he gave us an orchestral album called Conversations with Nijinsky that was nominated for a Grammy and reached the top of the classical charts. Having basically conquered that realm, he’s now turned his eye toward Broadway. His new project is Get Jack, a legit two-hour musical, and he’s produced a full-cast concept album of the whole thing.

Yes, you read that right: Get Jack is a two-hour musical written by Kip Winger. It gets weirder. The play is about Jack the Ripper, or more accurately, about the ghosts of Jack the Ripper’s victims, who come back to life to exact revenge on him. Listening to this was such a weird experience. You cannot claim that Winger and his lyricist, Damien Gray, haven’t fully committed to this thing. Get Jack is a restless, constantly moving slab of orchestral rock, marrying Kip’s big guitars with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s big, it’s confident, it’s complex. I’d like to see it on stage.

As a musical, this is more like Les Miserables than Dear Evan Hansen, which is to its credit. I don’t hear any pop hits here, nor do I spot anything that would betray this as the work of the guy who wrote “Seventeen.” The orchestrations are subtle, leaving much of the theatricality to Levi Kreis, who plays the Player (basically the narrator). The canonical five victims – Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols and Elizabeth Stride – are all well cast. Winger spends the first act introducing the victims one by one in the afterlife, and the second dramatizing their vengeance, and as a structure it works really well.

I didn’t expect to like this as much as I do. The cover is cheap-looking, and the very idea of a two-hour Jack the Ripper musical written by Kip Winger seems to promise more wrong-footedness than this delivers. This is actually quite good – dark, vicious, full of twists and turns. As a former theater kid I know the rhythms of Broadway shows, and Winger has captured them. I admit I shook my head at first, not quite able to believe that Winger had devoted years to this idea, but he’s really pulled it off.

I feel the same way about our infinitely stranger final entry, Therion’s Beloved Antichrist. Therion is one of those bands I have a tough time accepting as real anyway. They’re an operatic metal band, and I don’t just mean operatic in the Judas Priest sense. I mean all of their vocalists (and there are many) are actual opera singers, and for decades they have been mining the Venn diagram overlap between Dream Theater and Wagner. I’m consistently surprised by the way mastermind Christofer Johnsson mixes those genres, showing no clear preference for either one.

Therion’s catalog is vast, so I wouldn’t suggest starting with Beloved Antichrist. But in a lot of ways, this is the record they’ve been building toward their entire career. Even more than their usual material, this is a rock opera. It’s an astonishing three hours long, divided into three acts, and it incorporates more than 20 lead singers and a full choir. It’s based on Vladimir Soloviev’s A Short Tale of the Antichrist, and over an incredible 46 songs, it creates its own universe. There is literally nothing else that sounds like this, for better or for worse. (This only works if you don’t giggle – it’s very serious, despite how monolithically silly the sound can be.)

What’s the story? Well, in a nutshell, there’s this guy who tries to kill himself because the world is terrible, and the devil appears to him, offering to make him the antichrist. He accepts and uses his powers to make the world a better place – he eliminates all suffering and brings peace to the world. But then it’s revealed that he’s the antichrist, a truth that separates the world into factions – one side wants to depose him because he’s a demon, and the other side is willing to accept a demon if their lives improve. (Sound familiar?) In the end there’s a big war and everyone dies.

Holy hell, right? This is all dramatized with operatic voices over big guitars and synth orchestrations – if you can imagine Pavarotti fronting Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you’re part of the way there. It also takes forever to get through, and you’ll feel exhausted on the other end of it. Is it worth it? I think Therion’s style is unique for a reason, but if you can buy into what they’re doing, there’s a lot to admire here. There are no throwaway songs here – everything was slaved over. There were no moments here where I felt like the band were not absolutely committed to this bizarre thing they had created.

It must be interesting to have accomplished a major achievement like this in a field of one, though. Johnsson’s only competition is himself. I have no idea who, besides me, might have even bought this thing. I can imagine working for years on this and releasing it to the vast indifference of the world must be disheartening. But then, I would think Johnsson is used to that by now, and if he were going to give up, he would have long before taking on a three-hour opera. This is what he does, and here he does it over a wider canvas than he ever has.

I don’t know whether to recommend this. If you think you would enjoy three hours of heavy metal opera (and to be clear, it is opera, not operatic metal), then you probably already have this. I can’t imagine I am increasing Therion’s audience by mentioning them here. But if three hours of this doesn’t deserve a WTF Award, I don’t know what does. It’s the kind of record these awards were made for.

Next week, the last big new music Friday of the year. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

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