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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
The Demos are a New York indie pop/power pop duo whose work, in principle, should be very appealing. They often know their way around a three minute song and have some great 70s/80s power pop influences, but from early listens, it’s obvious where their work is deficient: in keeping with their name, the songs here have a slightly DIY feel as opposed to a finished, lavish work. We’re not talking the Robert Pollard/Guided By Voices “amps and a tape-deck” approach here, obviously, but for a power pop band, The Demos lack the necessary professional shine. This has a great deal to do with the presence of elements which sound pre-programmed (particularly on lots of drum parts), which, in the long run, tends to make everything feel a bit flat.
Audio issues aside, there are a few songs featured on ‘Lovely’ which really stand out. ‘Can’t Win Me Over’ has a strong Ben Kweller influence and simple chiming guitar chords, but within its power pop grooves there’s something a little more indie rock at play. Similarly, ‘Tell Me How It Feels’ is potentially great, with its melodic guitar lines, kitschy keyboards and a tune which, in places, is reminiscent of Boston band The Russians. It provides a great insight into what The Demos can do when completely focused; it’s just a shame about the biscuit tin drum sound, which naturally provides a weak element. It’s a number begging to be spruced up by the superb Justin Kline.
‘My City’ features some solid harmonies and a mid-paced arrangement, which overall provides another example of The Demos at their best. While the rhythm guitars are simple, beneath the jangle, there are occasional hints of a ringing lead and twin vocals which are given an extra boost by a female backing. The track barely breaks from its original riff, but doesn’t need any embellishment or anything complex added; at just over two-and-a-half minutes, it’s holds the attention well enough. Another mid-paced number, ‘I Need It’, has a strong 70s vibe which, with a tweak here and there, could be really great. As it stands, it already has a strong vocal line and the tinkling bell keyboard moments are a nice touch. Like other good moments on this album, though, the song is well written but let down by the small budget at The Demos’ disposal.
As mentioned, most of the songs featured on ‘Lovely’ have the necessary hooks needed to make them stand up. There’s little here that sounds like essential listening, but repeated listens show a couple of songs to be great. With regards to the best material here, it’s a shame The Demos didn’t have the huge budget to give those tunes the kind of send off they deserved.
Friday, 10 June 2011
Syd Arthur are a Canterbury based four piece prog/folk four piece band, whose sound pays a great homage to the progressive rock scene of the 1970s. On their debut EP’s four featured cuts, the musical structures are tight, and the level of musicianship is often stunning. Liam Magill’s lead vocals have a distinctive, fairly high timbre which on record doesn’t always sit as comfortably on these studio recordings as they do in the live set, but that’s not a bad thing, as his voice is one which - once heard - could be recognised in an instant.
Things start out gently with ‘Morning’s Calling’, a bluesy number which on occasion is reminiscent Crosby Stills & Nash’s ‘Wooden Ships’, driven by rhythmic guitars. Those guitars have a great tone throughout and still leave enough space for occasional mandolin fills. For first time listeners, this seems to be an ideal opener, more of a mood piece than some of the more complex numbers which follow. The groove-led elements give way in the mid section for a brief atmospheric interlude, where acoustic guitars lay a foundation for gentle keyboard work and harmony vocals.
The shortest piece, ‘Exit Domino’ at first features Syd Arthur at their most laid back. Working from a circular guitar riff, subtle mandolin sounds and basslines add plenty of texture. Things build gradually until the band reach a rather uncharacteristic, full on rock freakout with crashing drums and a hard electric guitar riff, over which Raven Bush delivers a screeching electric violin solo. ‘Pulse’ is a much more interesting number, based around a fairly quirky mandolin riff and Fred Rother’s busy hi-hat. With a relative quiet on the verses and a pleasing staccato approach to the chorus sections, Liam Magill’s vocals seem far more at ease. While the guitars and mandolins provide the heart of the piece and the solos which dominate the second half are enjoyable, it’s Joel Magill’s busy basslines which provides the best feature. For a fairly accessible example of Syd Arthur’s prog-jazz fusion, this is the EP’s stand out number.
‘Planet of Love’ is a jaunty workout which has a sound which hints at early Jethro Tull and Caravan, eventually pulled together with a few jazzier vibes. Fred Rother’s drums lay down a great rhythm, from which the rest of the band grows. Once again, Joel Magill’s bass work is exemplary, but here, he is outshone by the mandolin riffs and flute lines, each adding to the Tull vibe. This leads into ‘Hermethio’, an instrumental coda which has a strong root in the acid jazz field. The flutes are still present, but take a back seat for an excellent array of guitar noodlings, congas and the occasional violin. It’s with these pieces which close the EP that the musical talents of Syd Arthur really bloom, with each musican finding his own space within the musical landscape, blending progressive rock, folk and jazz to superb effect.
If you’re not into prog, jazz-fusion or any of the old seventies Canterbury bands, Syd Arthur probably won’t appeal at all. While their core sound borrows quite heavily from a couple of Canterbury bands before them, Syd Arthur bring their own sense of style, and with that comes a fine balance between song structure and improvisation. While the EP doesn’t quite capture the power of their live set, it makes for great listening.
Stream or purchase ‘Moving World’ by clicking on the widget below. Syd Arthur’s bandcamp page also offers a free download of ‘Willow Tree’, a track not featured on the debut EP.
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
It was surprising that Black Country Communion’s second album should be unleashed on the world so quickly. Released just nine months after their debut, you have to marvel at the speed these four musicians wrote and recorded their second batch of songs. It’s highly likely, of course, that this second album features material they were working on during the sessions for the first album. Whatever, this second album captures the band (once again featuring Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian) in fine form indeed.
A few early reports claimed this doesn’t quite have the impact of the debut album and in some ways that’s true as on this follow up, Black Country Communion offer far less bombast. This is helped by a slicker studio production and by Glenn Hughes reigning in his vocals a little. [Kevin Shirley’s production is much better on this album compared to that of BCC’s slightly more live-sounding debut; and thankfully it’s streets ahead of the nasty sound he gave Bonamassa’s own ‘Black Rock’ from the same year, which had all the sonic range and finesse of listening to something with your fingers in your ears]. Also, the songwriting is much stronger than before, perhaps more melodic in places, which is also very welcome.
The opening track, ‘The Outsider’ comes equipped with a huge pounding riff, which includes some great bass fills from Hughes underpinned by Jason Bonham’s “family inheritance” drumming style. While it’s certainly one of the album’s most full-on tracks (presumably positioned at the front to grab attention and provide continuity from the first album), it’s nowhere near as grating as the debut’s bombastic rockers, since Glenn Hughes’s vocals are nowhere near as squawky. Also, a far more sympathetic mix means that this time out, Derek Sherinian’s keyboard work isn’t buried and here, his featured keyboard solo is top-notch, carrying the spirit of Jon Lord and Don Airey. Although Bonamassa’s solos aren’t quite as striking as Sherinian’s keyboard work, it’s impossible not to smile when he breaks into some very Ritchie Blackmore-esque leads nearing the track’s end. ‘Man In The Middle’s dirty, swaggering old-school riff should be enough to persuade most of you that BCC mean business this time around, especially once that huge riff is intercut with eastern keyboard washes on the chorus. It’s like a perfect fusion of Glenn Hughes’s ‘Addiction’ and Dio-era Rainbow (you’ll probably spot a cheeky Zeppelin-ism thrown in at the end too!).
‘Faithless’ endulges Joe Bonamassa’s Free fixation, featuring a riff which is very Paul Kossoff influenced in places. The eastern keyboards from ‘Man In The Middle’ make a welcome return and Sherinian’s understated work adds a nice touch.
Surprisingly (considering his over-the-top performances on BCC’s debut), this track gives Hughes plenty of opportunity to shine. His voice is spot on throughout – his rock chops retaining just enough soul to take the edge off – and his bass work is superb too; at times rock-solid, at other times offering small bendy flourishes which have a great impact – this is so, so much better than most of the Black Country Communion debut. Similarly, the eight minute epic ‘No Ordinary Son’ is absolutely first-rate. Bonamassa offers a superb, blues tinged lead vocal with hints of Paul Rodgers and Danny Bowes, while his softer guitar lines are very classy with a clean tone. Building from soft beginnings, it’s a very impassioned number and by the time the hard rock elements take their place for more even more Free influenced grooves, Black Country Communion hit all their marks with absolute ease. Even Glenn Hughes’s slightly warbly vocal section doesn’t spoil the overall mood, and even if it did, this time he could be forgiven, since his bass lines underpinning all the more obvious elements have a brilliant fluidity.
The softer side of BCC comes to the fore for ‘Battle of Hadrian’s Wall’ where the acoustic guitar work provides a great backdrop for Sherinan’s organ swirls and some great vocal harmonies between Hughes and Bonamassa. It’s not all pastel shades, though. A sharp rock riff cuts through once in a while, although it doesn’t always feel necessary. Jason Bonham takes this opportunity to play something a little softer too – his shuffling drum lines are very sympathetic to Bonamassa’s electric leads during the number’s closing moments. It’s great to hear a little mandolin in there; maybe it would have been even better if that had been given a more prominent role.
‘I Can See Your Spirit’ is a hard rock workout which features a great Led Zeppelin inspired riff and naturally, Bonham Jr is well-equipped to give that riff a suitably powerful backbone. Glenn Hughes’s vocal, meanwhile, has an air of Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ – an atmosphere driven to more obvious extremes by Sherinian’s Hammond organ work. For fans of Black Country Communion’s bluesier tones, ‘Little Secret’ is a slow burning number in the ‘Since I’m Gonna Leave You’ mould, which Hughes absolutely nails vocally, while Jason Bonham’s drumming has so much of his father’s spirit, you can almost hear the squeaky drum pedal. It’s probably a highlight with regard to guitar playing, since Bonamassa’s solos are mostly about feel rather than flash; his long, vibrating notes are just lovely.
Hughes, Bonham, Sherinian and Bonamassa sound more comfortable playing together than they did first time around and make recording that “difficult second album” seem so easy. Thankfully, they also avoid the pitfalls of the supergroup, and don’t feel the need for any kind of musical one-upmanship. With a better sound, better songs and proof that sometimes holding back a little can give the listener a greater listening experience, this is the album Black Country Communion could – and should – have made first time around.
Monday, 6 June 2011
Saxon has always been one of Britain’s hardest working rock bands. They’ve had shifting line-ups over the years, band members have come and gone (and in the case of drummer Nigel Glockler, come back again...twice!), but at the heart of it all frontman Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn have strived to push the band ever onward, never giving up. Although still best known to many for their early 80s work, the band worked on tirelessly, releasing albums at regular intervals and playing live shows. After 1990’s ‘Solid Ball of Rock’, Saxon’s popularity waned in the UK, though they retained a strong following in Europe. Their 90s album’s aren’t always essential listening, but in the 21st century, the band eventually got somewhat of a second wind.
2004’s ‘Lionheart’ presented the band in an incredibly good light, while 2007’s ‘The Inner Sanctum’ and 2009’s ‘Into The Labyrinth’ featured similarly decent songs and strong musicianship. The line up of Byford (vocals), Quinn (guitar), Glockler (drums), Nibbs Carter (bass) and Doug Scarratt (guitar) which drove the latter two albums (and also Saxon’s 1997 release ‘Unleash The Beast’) is arguably the strongest line-up the band has ever had – and their work on 2011’s ‘Call To Arms’ goes a long way to cementing that opinion.
The choppy riffs which power ‘Hammer of The Gods’ resemble Saxon’s early 80s work (although slightly meatier) and as such have a classic 80s metal sound, but beneath those riffs, Nibbs Carter’s pounding bass sound gives everything a great boost (that bass in turn given a boost by a particularly loud production job, courtesy of Biff Byford and ex-Little Angels/Gun man Toby Jepson). While it doesn’t bring anything especially new or surprising to the Saxon catalogue, it makes a strong opening number. The title cut finds Biff’s songwriting in good shape as he tells of a soldier going off to serve in the First World War. The emotional lyrical content is given a suitably epic musical arrangement, with plenty of clean guitar work and a very melodic vocal on its verses, before a chugging riff appears on its chorus sections. Even though it doesn’t quite tug the heart-strings in the same way as Lemmy’s similar tale on Motörhead’s ‘1916’, lyrically, this is superb – one of the album’s best songs. Also taking on a fairly epic stance, ‘When Doomsday Comes’ offers chunky riffs served up with a slightly eastern vibe. The band sound tight here and the balance between hard edges and melody is pitched just right. The faster sections bring with them a couple of great solos, while the slower moments provide a base for Biff’s very confident vocal. The staccato keyboard and strings which bring the eastern elements are bound to conjure thoughts of Led Zeppelin’s brilliantly monolithic ‘Kashmir’, but it’s not plagiaristic by any means.
Like ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘And The Bands Played On’ before it, ‘Back In 79’ is a song which celebrates the union of band and fans (and the fans are something Saxon have never taken for granted); and in this case, Biff’s storytelling centres on the early touring experiences and how those audiences were really supportive. The riff is meaty, but it’s a simple chorus of “show me your hands” which is designed to stick in your head long after listening. Another recurring theme in Saxon’s work – standing your ground and taking on the world – reappears here in a storming 80s-style metal workout ‘Surviving The Odds’, which in addition to a really bracing hard rock riff and good vocal, features a rattling bassline from Carter. Occasionally lapsing into a riff which sounds a lot like ‘Western Eyes’ by Jan Cyrka, ‘Afterburner’ celebrates the power of the jet-fighter, which is given a suitably rousing arrangement, possibly the album’s heaviest (certainly it’s fastest). The riffs are intense enough, but after a few plays, it doesn’t offer too much beyond those. While Biff puts in a fine performance and Glockler’s drumming is powerful, in terms of songwriting, it’s not as good as some of the material here.
‘Mists of Avalon’ is a fantastic number which carries more of the spirit of Saxon’s mid-80s melodic experimentation. As the track fades in, Quinn can be heard using a smooth, clean tone. His work here, which recurs throughout the track between the bigger riffs, is evocative of his work on ‘Nightmare’ from Saxon’s ‘Power and the Glory’ album. It’s a style which is very welcome indeed. Most of the track is based around a very solid riff, but it’s the featured solos which provide the best moments, with both Quinn and Scarratt on top form. In addition to this, Biff is in great voice (one of his best performances on this album) and – guesting on keyboards - ex-Rainbow/Deep Purple man Don Airey adds plenty of extra texture. Also edging towards the more melodic, ‘Ballad of a Working Man’ features swaggering riffs, which occasionally tip the hat to Thin Lizzy with their twin lead sound. For those looking for “classic” Saxon, this track more than delivers, sounding very much like the best moments of their ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘Strong Arm of The Law’ albums.
Biff Byford believes ‘Call To Arms’ to be one of Saxon’s best albums – and he may be right; it’s certainly very consistent, with nothing which could be regarded as filler. It’s an album rooted in the old-school – at times more celebratory of Saxon’s past than some of its immediate predecessors – but that’s where most of its charm lies. And although its eleven numbers represent a band sticking to what they know best, Saxon still sound extremely vibrant some thirty-two years and nineteen studio albums into their professional career. There aren’t too many bands who can claim that after so long.
Sunday, 5 June 2011
As part of the funk metal boom of the very early 90s, Sweden’s Electric Boys were briefly MTV stars, thanks to their singles ‘All Lips ‘n’ Hips’ and ‘Electrified’ and Bob Rock produced debut album ‘Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride’. These things never last though, and by the time of their second album, 1992’s ‘Groovus Maximus’, the band had modified their sound. They eschewed some of their earlier funk-metal tendencies and in places – on tracks like ‘Mary In The Mystery World’ especially – indulged in a few Beatles style influences. This was probably encouraged by the fact that the album was recorded in London at the now legendary Abbey Road Studios. Some fans wanting ‘Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride’ volume two were disappointed, and by the time the third Electric Boys album ‘Freewheelin’ was released in 1994, the band’s popularity had decreased even farther (especially in the UK).
The band broke up soon afterwards, with permanent fixture Conny Bloom moving on to other projects. During this time, he spent four years as a member of Hanoi Rocks as well as performing alongside The Wildhearts’ frontman Ginger in his side-band Silver Ginger 5. Following the release of a ‘best of’ album in 2009, Bloom reformed Electric Boys – with the original ‘Funk-O-Metal’ line-up (featuring bassist Andy Christell, guitarist Franco Santunione and drummer Niclas Sigevall). Live shows were played and eventually the four musicians returned to the studio.
The resulting album, ‘And Them Boys Done Swang’ is not a completely shameless return to the funk-metal grooves of 1990, though it’s probably the closest in spirit the band have ever come to recreating the magic of ‘Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride’. Across twelve cuts, they blend hard rock, blues rock and occasional Hendrix-isms with a slabs funk, creating something which sounds like a heady mix of all of their previous musical dabblings on one release.
‘Reeferlord’ combines a heavy, fast guitar riff with a blues-rock aggression on its choruses and bridges, while on the verses the band give a nod to the past with funky verses, driven by rattling bass strings. Via a shameless rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo and shouty gang vocals, there’s a feeling that Bloom and co could be over-compensating, but their brashness allows them to get away with it. The groove laden rock feel carries on through ‘My Heart is Not For Sale’, a track that owes a great debt to Aerosmith with a swaggering riff. There’s a bigger focus on rhythmic qualities than big hooks, but even so, it comes with a great riff and solo – and here, that’s all you need. The bizarrely named ‘Father Popcorn’s Magic Oysters’ (“popcorn” surely a tribute to James Brown?) pays homage to two elements of Electric Boys’ musical past. The guitar riffs are funky with a tough end sound, proving that although the funk metal concept is somewhat dated, it sounds much better without the trebly, late 80s production most of it came with at the time. Vocally though, the harmony filled chorus is far more in line with the Beatles obsessed material from ‘Groovus Maximus’. Also, if you’re looking for riffs, ‘Angel in an Armoured Suit’ has plenty of swagger (once again), alongside another solid chorus.
‘The Day The Gypsies Came to Town’ indulges the band’s blues-rock side, with a number which may suit Stevie Salas. It’s core sound comes from a circular Hendrix style riff, overlaid with a great drum shuffle which occasionally resembles Hendrix’s own ‘Manic Depression’. Despite some great, busy playing on the verses, there’s not much of a hook to be heard here, since the chorus just decends into some multi-layered voices. With a few great multi-tracked guitars and solos, it still has enough decent elements to pull it through, though. ‘Welcome To The High Times’ is a stand out, especially if the funky sounds of Electric Boys are your thing. The guitar riffs are fairly monstrous, but it’s during the verses where the magic occurs, with those big riffs giving way to staccato choppiness, gang vocals and a rattling bassline. The end result is more than reminiscent of fellow Swedes Its Alive in an aggressive mood. The solid bottom end returns for ‘Sometimes U Gotta Go Look For The Car’, a funk-jam laden with wah-wah guitars. Since it’s largely instrumental, it gives the band plenty of room to stretch out; and while the grooves are the best feature, Bloom’s blues rock soloing creeping in here and there should not be overlooked.
#‘Ten Thousand Times Goodbye’ is the closest the album gets to a ballad; it’s harmonious chorus recalls those more psychedelic parts of ‘Groovus Maximus (never the Electric Boys’ strongest work), while musically it’s fairly workmanlike, occasionally sounding like an Enuff Z’nuff cast-off – it’s the kind of stuff which filled MTV rock ballads in those days of yore... Without question, the biggest nod to the Electric Boys’ past comes from ‘Rollin Down The Road’ which, in part, turns those funk-metal grooves up to 11, brings in a horn section and delivers a decent sized punch. While the instrumental breaks are slightly reminiscent of Extreme circa 1991, the chorus takes a u-turn and is of the rather more standard rock variety, with no trace of funk whatsoever.
‘And Them Boys Done Swang’ is well produced and well played throughout, easily Electric Boys’ best offering since ‘Funk-O-Metal Capet Ride’ (although, to be fair, there’s not much competition). Absolutely drenched in attitude and retro-cool vibes, it’s the closest you’re likely to get to a follow up to Its Alive’s ‘Earthquake Visions’. A surprisingly consistent and highly recommended disc.
Saturday, 4 June 2011
According to their press release, Swiss hard rockers Skansis “caused a stir in the rock world” and gathered “rave reviews” with their first album, ‘Taking Your Chance’. In reality the “rock world” to which this band’s press release refers, is merely a relatively small neighbourhood’s worth of specialist melodic rock websites. And of course, those sites are well within their rights to get excited about whatever melodic rock comes their way, but from the outside looking in, the melodic rock community is incredibly insular - with many fans choosing not to listen to music from other genres. Even allowing for such musical narrow-mindedness, why those sites would get excited about Skansis remains a mystery.
98% of melodic rock is old school and retro, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. However, even though some rock acts can still sound great despite having no interest in keeping up with 21st Century trends (Coldspell, Terry Brock, Whitesnake etc), some just don’t hit the mark at all. Sadly, Skansis are one of those bands. Their second album, ‘Leaving You’ features a couple of solid riffs, such as the chug which drives ‘I Want You’, or the fast paced romp through the title cut. There are even a few noteworthy solos (the twin lead from ‘Carry On Better’ being a particular high point), but an album cannot hold listener interest on a handful of decent-ish guitar based moments. Naturally, there needs to be strong, memorable songs and a classy vocalist too - and Skansis boasts neither of these essential melodic rock qualities.
The songwriting just isn’t very good, even verging on clichéd desperation in places (“We will rock all night / not call it a day / and we won’t fade away” and “Next to mine / I want your body now / ‘Cause I don’t wanna be alone” being particularly noteworthy) and vocalist Reto Reist has a scratchy voice which makes Skansis hard to listen to for any great length of time. Raspy can be cool – look at John Fogerty, Jimmy Barnes, or even Spike from The Quireboys on his better days – but Reist just can’t muster that level of bluesy hard rock edginess. Harsh, maybe, but he sounds like someone with an absolute lack of training; a gravelly throated pub “singer” who can barely hit any good notes. There are times when that is softened by a few backing harmonies, but it makes little difference to the end badness; on the ballady numbers, the vocal style seems so misjudged it beggars belief.
The bulk of Skansis’s music takes the form of a very second division sounding Euro hard rock. There are some solid old school guitar riffs here, it’s true – but on the whole, ‘Leaving You’ is average to poor. It certainly doesn’t offer anything your more demanding melodic hard rock fan would listen to more than a couple of times, let alone spend good money on.