Saturday, 27 February 2010

GLENN HUGHES - Addiction

When ‘Addiction’ was originally released in 1996, I wasn’t in much of a position to call myself a Glenn Hughes fan. As far as I was concerned, the Phenomena project felt like an all-chums-in-the-studio-waste of plastic and at that point his solo albums passed me by completely. However, I loved the Hughes/Thrall album and still do. Also, I’d always loved his work with Deep Purple between 1974-1976, so there was always hope for me liking more of his solo output.

Having heard his previous solo works, ‘From Now On...’ and ‘Feel’, I had a pre-conceived idea of what to expect when I first put ‘Addiction’ into the CD player. Those pre-conceptions were quickly blown away. The funky influence present throughout ‘Feel’ had gone and the melodic rock edges of ‘From Then On...’ had been toughened up considerably.

‘Addiction’ is heavy at the outset, with classic rock riffs. Some tracks are downtuned in a mid-nineties fashion; this partly helped Glenn’s sound to become slightly more contemporary, which, at the time, wasn’t to everyone’s liking. Personally, I loved these moments. They went a long way towards my finding ‘Addiction’ to be Glenn’s best work in a long while. Other more traditional melodic rock listeners said the heavier tracks were too downtuned, too grunge. I could never see the problem and was always confused as to why some of those people hated grunge so much, especially since about half of ’em loved early Black Sabbath.


Fast forward to many years later, ‘Addiction’ still sounds punchy and it’s far less grunge than some of those people claimed. ‘The Death of Me’ is solid 90s hard rock, starting things off in high-gear, with “The Voice” in good form; later in the album, ‘Madelaine’ also demonstrates some top-notch punchiness.

Slower tracks ‘Cover Me’ (almost like a really heavy Whitesnake number, but far enough removed from the bluesy edges of Hughes’s Purple work to avoid obvious comparison) and ‘Blue Jade’ allow Hughes to stretch out a little further. Every one of his vocal performances here are winners, even if the material doesn’t always work perfectly. The hard rock, blues edged ‘Justified Man’ and the soulful ‘Talk About It’ are both classic Hughes and likely to be tracks that his more unadventurous fans enjoy the most.

It’s with the title track and ‘Down’ though, things get rather heavier. Both feature solid riffs that lean toward the then-alternative rock sound. ‘Down’ in particular, sounds like some of the stuff from the Temple of The Dog album. In fact, there’s a few tracks here I’d like to hear Chris Cornell have a stab at.
‘Not Your Slave’ is a little lighter. With its solid slightly funky bassline, it could’ve easily been on Glenn’s previous albums. Closing the album, ‘I Don’t Want To Live That Way Again’ is a haunting, slow piece dealing with Glenn’s past and subsequent rehab. While a fitting end here, it’s never matched the hard rock moments for me.

Glenn deserves praise for releasing such a tough sounding album; it sounds as sharp as it did when it first came out. It was never going to win him any new fans though, despite the heavier approach. A great pity, since this and Dio’s similarly heavy ‘Angry Machines’ album (released at a similar time) could have been a surprise to those who’d assumed that such artistes had become an irrelevance in the 90s.

January 2010 (Some material originally written for Fastlane Magazine, late 1996)

Friday, 26 February 2010

MARK E. SMITH - The Post Nearly Man

Modern Energy…and what it means to you and I” spouts Mark E Smith at the beginning of one of the tracks on this CD. A man with a skewed take on life, you may be forgiven for thinking a spoken word release from The Fall’s front man (and only constant member) could be an interesting prospect indeed. He goes from mentioning energy – something this collection of ramblings severely lacks – to mentioning Richard and Judy and then "Fred West’s sweaty family" in the space of less than a minute. As he does so, it becomes obvious that rather than being an outing of interesting beat or slam poetry as championed by Tom Waits, Henry Rollins or that under-rated wordsmith Mike Doughty, this is little more than a vanity project from a man who’d rather confuse and frustrate than entertain.

Most of the pieces on this CD feature just Smith’s drawling voice (which at times sounds like a self-parody, complete with ‘…ah’ uttered at the end of his lines at semi-regular intervals).
Sometimes, though, there’s musical accompaniment, but it’s hard to say whether this was designed for this on purpose, or whether it was leftover music just thrown in to relieve the boredom. You’d think that any kind of musical accompaniment would add colour, but it’s largely ugly, Casiotone nonsense.

‘The Horror In Clay’ touches on the workings of the human mind at the outset, but that’s only because Smith quotes from HP Lovecraft. After a clanking noise, the listener is thrown into a montage of tapes containing bits of random speech recorded on a tape deck, complete with hiss. At times, the speech is drowned out by aeroplanes overhead.

‘Visit Of An American Poet’ (split into two parts) may sound like an anecdote about meeting a mentor, but instead, it’s a collection of seemingly unrelated words which barely make sentences. Throwing in an echo fails to make this any more interesting; it just masks the delivery. This is punctuated by a jarring keyboard noise, over which a woman asks ‘why is there so much shit music?’ There are sounds of conversation, but aside from a couple of uses of the f-word, "…American poet…plagiarism…", it’s near impossible to make out any intelligible words. Smith then comes back with some specially written prose: here he talks about Hitler and a dolphin restaurant but follows it with some other mostly incoherent stuff. The music stops and Mark begins to shout. It’s still gibberish, of course. Move along, there’s nothing for you here.
When his voice returns for the second half, there’s a mention of a radiator, three people, a girlfriend and a can of fifty-nine pence beer. I suspect it makes no sense to anyone but Smith.
‘Typewriter’ as the title suggests, features a dominant typewriter noise with some speech thrown in, as if someone is doing dictation. It’s rather pointless again, although it has a pleasing bass riff in the middle...but it’s fleeting.

There’s about another half an hour or so of bits and pieces on this CD which I just can’t begin to get my head around, let alone pretend to be entertained by. As a fan of The Fall, you’d think I’d have found something of interest on this CD. Sadly not.

Even the most patient among you will struggle to find any real coherence in anything Smith has written; at some points he’s even reading out the punctuation, as if it helps give this any real structure. Smith seems to delight in being difficult and I suspect he loves the deliberately impenetrable qualities ‘The Post Nearly Man’ offers.

Currently, it’s one of the only Fall related items which is out of print and I suspect it’s staying that way. For Fall completists only…and even they should approach with caution.

November 2007

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

THUNDER - Behind Closed Doors

Back in 1990, I knew people who were really excited by Thunder’s debut album, ‘Backstreet Symphony’. While it sounded like a decent British rock album, aside from a couple of standout tracks, it didn’t do much for me. Their sophomore album ‘Laughing On Judgement Day’ was a great improvement over the debut (if a little long), I thought, but there was still a niggle: while Danny Bowes’s voice was amazing, it owed a great debt to Paul Rodgers – and as such, as much as I liked Thunder by that point, I always ended up feeling that time spent listening to them could be time better spent listening to Free’s ‘Highway’ LP.

When I first heard ‘Behind Closed Doors’ upon its release in 1995, it literally blew me away and it still remains my favourite Thunder disc. Of course, the end result is still heavily influenced by 70s rock bands, but the songwriting is largely stronger than before - and there are a few new tricks to be heard.

The album’s opening number is one of the heaviest tracks in the Thunder catalogue. It has a strong Zeppelin influence, both in the pounding drum style and the way keyboards are used to give things a slightly Eastern flavour. Danny’s voice still holds strong, even with the slightly harder approach and Luke Morley’s guitar riffs are simple but effective. ‘Fly On The Wall’ and ‘Too Scared To Live’ have strong funk/blues influences: the former makes excellent use of a horn section and soulful backing vocals while the latter has a slightly bluesy vibe during its brief chorus sections, but the verses show a far funkier style than Thunder have previously attempted. Mikael Höglund’s bass work is the main driving force and, again, Bowes is in decent voice. The track’s bluesiest vibes come courtesy of a couple of really smart guitar solos.

There’s plenty of other stuff from ‘Behind Closed Doors’ that’s instantly familiar. It’s lighters in the air time for ‘Castles In The Sand’, a big stadium number, very similar to ‘Love Walked In’ (from ‘Backstreet Symphony’). While very much a tried-and-tested formula, it represents one of the things Thunder were always best at. The slower blues-rock of ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ and ‘Preaching From a Chair’ feature Bowes’s strongest vocal performances (again tapping into his inner Paul Rodgers); ‘Preaching...’ is a particular stand-out thanks to some great reflective lyrics, where Danny sings about his “flannel shirt and an old tattoo”, before claiming that “clothes don’t make the man”, and asking “maybe [he] should grow a beard”. Great stuff...

‘Ball and Chain’, ‘River of Pain’ and ‘Stand Up’ are full-on punchy rockers, while ‘Till The Rivers Run Dry’ features a more acoustic, laid back band. ‘Future Train’ begins with a slightly Zeppelin-y acoustic flourish, before developing into one of the album’s best hard rock workouts. It makes use of a swaggering guitar riff, which works excellently when coupled with fantastic harmony vocals on the chorus. Danny Bowes’s vocal, with its blues-rock feel is superb throughout.

In February 2010, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was reissued as a deluxe 2CD set. If you like ‘Behind Closed Doors’, the bonus material (sixteen tracks in all) is worthy of investigation. If you’re a Thunder fan, you’ll already have lots of these extras on your dusty old CD singles, but it’s always good to get things rounded up and released in one package. The best of the bonus materials, live acoustic renditions of ‘River of Pain’, ‘Stand Up’ and ‘Castles In The Sand’ really highlight the strength in Thunder’s songwriting when they’re on form, not to mention the effortlessness behind Danny Bowes’ vocal delivery.

With or without the bonus material, this album is first rate, even though it’s still often derivative of many of Thunder’s influences. For me, it represents a band which has honed all their previous styles to perfection and has then become confident enough to expand their sounds. The record buying public at large obviously wasn’t as enthusiastic; ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was the first Thunder album not to achieve gold-selling status, marking the beginning of a downturn in the band’s album sales. It really needs to be as fondly remembered as Thunder’s two preceding albums. 'Behind Closed Doors' may not have yielded the hits, but it represents a band at their absolute strongest.

February 2010

Friday, 19 February 2010

AC/DC - Live From The Atlantic Studios

As I write this, it’s been thirty years to the day since Bon Scott died. If people ask me, I’ll always tell them the Bon Scott era is my preferred era of AC/DC. The material feels a little looser and the rock ‘n’ roll ethic hasn’t yet given way to the band’s slightly more metallic tendencies explored throughout Brian Johnson’s tenure fronting the band. I like all the AC/DC albums on their own merits and Brian’s first outing with the band - ‘Back In Black’ - is arguably one of their finest, but generally, it’s those early ones with Bon which have kept me coming back for more.

The studio albums are great, but it’s on the live albums where the early AC/DC really hit home. It’s often said that ‘If You Want Blood’ is one of the great live albums of the 70s - that’s something I’m not going to argue with and the 2CD soundtrack to the ‘Let There Be Rock: Live In Paris’ film has some cracking performances. However, it’s ‘Live From The Atlantic Studios’ which captures the band on best form. The intimate setting really gives the performance spark.

Bon’s voice is strong throughout the 40-odd minutes; he’s in good spirit, chatting with the small audience between numbers. ‘Live Wire’,‘Problem Child’ and ‘High Voltage’ set the stage and Bon sounds really focused; Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams are as strong as ever as a rhythm section. What really works here, though, is the volume of the guitars; ‘Live At The Atlantic Studios’ has a feeling throughout of a studio run-through and as a result, the eight numbers don’t offer much difference to the band’s recordings in terms of performance, but that bit of extra volume means these tracks stomp over their studio equivalents. Solid renditions of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and ‘Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be’ have similar feel, but it’s during the second half of the set that AC/DC relax a little and the fun really begins.

An extended version of the bluesy rocker ‘The Jack’ appears here in its best live version, largely due to having retained the original album lyrics - much preferred over the sexually themed ones, full of schoolboy humour (pun intended) used on ‘If You Want Blood’ and other live performances. It has a looser feel than the recorded version, partly due to its extended arrangement; the band really fall into their solid blues groove, with Angus turning in a fine solo. The band close their set with the double rock ‘n’ roll whammy of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and ‘Rocker’. During ‘Rocker’ especially, you can feel the sweaty atmosphere, as Angus and co tear it up. It would have been fantastic to have been there, I’m sure. It’s such a great shame this wasn’t filmed.

For those of you who have the studio albums and have loved them for many years, there’s little else I can say here, as you know exactly what you’re in for. So, I’ll just say this: AC/DC at their most powerful, in front of a tiny audience? If you want a snapshot of a hugely influential band at their most vital, ‘Live From The Atlantic Studios’ gives you what you need.

Bon Scott (09.07.46 - 19.02.80)

February 2010

*'Live At The Atlantic Studios' is available as part of the AC/DC 'Bonfire' 5CD box set.

VANILLA ICE - Hard To Swallow

Yes, Vanilla Ice. You know him. In 1990, ‘Ice Ice Baby’ was huge and people loved him. He sold millions of records - though it’s unusual to meet anyone who’ll openly admit to having owned either ‘Ice Ice Baby’, or its parent album ‘To The Extreme’. He faded from the public eye some time after and a follow up album, 1994’s ‘Mind Blowin’, went largely un-noticed.

In 1998, Ice returned with ‘Hard To Swallow’, a rap-metal album produced by Ross Robinson, a producer then very much in vogue due to his work with KoЯn, Sepultura and Limp Bizkit. It’s likely you’ll meet more people who’ve heard about ‘Hard To Swallow’ rather than actually heard it. Of those people, most of them will probably tell you they’d like to hear it, y’know...just out of curiosity. After all, Vanilla Ice has been treated as a bit of a joke for so long, could he actually pull off a decent rap-metal/nu-metal album?

Well, curious folks, let Real Gone help you out: ‘Hard To Swallow’ is nowhere near as bad as anything you’re expecting from Vanilla Ice. Nor is it as good as you’re hoping for, from something which fits neatly into its particular niche...and let’s be honest, the metal aspect is why most of you curious folk have remained curious over the years. Being one of the curious myself, part of me hoped this album would be great; thus giving the finger to all those who’d written off the project before it’d even begun.

Ross Robinson’s input as producer is blindingly obvious. The album sounds like you’re expecting, although possibly with a stronger bias toward nu-metal. There’s stuff here which could be compared to early Limp Bizkit on their ‘Three Dollar Bill, Y’all’ album (although about three times heavier); in part that’d be thanks to Robinson, but there’s another connection here in the shape of keyboardist and bassist Scott Borland, whose brother Wes is best known as Limp Bizkit’s sometime guitarist. There’s also a fair amount of KoЯn influence in the downtuned guitars. Again, this is likely the influence of Robinson and the other band members, since Ice claimed he never listened to any nu-metal bands prior to making the record. The drum stool is filled by Shannon Larkin of Godsmack and the heavy guitar work is provided by Snot/Amen man Sonny Mayo. Looking at those musicians’ previous works, the Limp Bizkit debut was enjoyable, if a little disposable, Godsmack have released some decent albums (although their best work was released after this) and the Snot album is an absolute classic of the nu-metal genre, so ‘Hard To Swallow’ is fairly solid from that point of view. It clearly sounds like the product of all the musicians involved – more than just a bunch of guys hired to back Vanilla Ice. Add to that some guest spots from Casey Chaos (Amen), Cyco (Insane Poetry) and Jimmy Pop Ali (Bloodhound Gang), the album has potentially got a lot in its favour.

Ice’s performances here are loaded with arrogance, as he shouts down his detractors and reminds everyone he’s sold millions of albums (hey, Ice, so has David Hasselhoff) but ultimately, this album feels like dozens of albums of a similar ilk, especially during the moments when the raps give way to nu-metal shouting. I still enjoy a lot of late 90s nu-metal stuff and have nothing against shouting, but for approximately half of this album, something doesn’t quite click. Ross Robinson carries a lot of clout as a producer, so why then, does ‘Hard To Swallow’ sound so laboured and generic? There’s plenty of heaviness for sure (maybe a little too much) and Ice does what’s required from him about as well as he can manage - but still, it’s lacking something.

Sadly, there’s very little variation in the material and by about halfway through, the sludgy sound and heavy handed approach starts to become wearing and doesn’t really let up. This isn’t a fun record and I feel it really suffers for taking itself too seriously. Maybe combining heavy riffage with a more light-hearted approach (like ‘Injected’ by Phunk Junkeez, for example) could’ve been a better route for Ice.

That said, there are a few clear standout tracks: ‘A.D.D.’ finds Ice accompanied by a sheet of downtuned sludge where the verses feel like Snot (quite understandably) and there’s more than a sliver of KoЯn thrown into the mix; ‘Stompin’ Through The Bayou’ is the bastard child of KoЯn and Disturbed and ‘Too Cold’ (a metal version of ‘Ice Ice Baby’) proves that Ice isn’t embarrassed by his past, even though many people think he ought to be (he really ought to be embarrassed by this album’s poorest effort though: ‘The Horny Song’ is tacky and frankly provides no entertainment).

All the guys involved with making this album supposedly had a fantastic time in the studio, but that doesn't really come across when listening to the end product. If you’re still curious, you really ought to hear this album, just to say you have. The best advice I can give you is to not shell out any money in doing so.

February 2010

Monday, 15 February 2010

SAMMY HAGAR - Street Machine

Between leaving Montrose in 1975 and joining Van Halen a decade later, Sammy Hagar was a busy man. During that decade he embarked upon a solo career whereby he released eight studio albums and two live albums, as well as a collaboration with Neal Schon, Kenny Aaronson and Mike Shreive (released as HSAS: ‘Through The Fire’).

A great deal of this work represents quantity over quality as far as I’m concerned. Most of those studio albums contain three or four really great numbers, bolstered by approx half a dozen dispensable ones to bring things up to album length. 1977’s ‘Musical Chairs’ doesn't even stretch that far. After the opening good times of ‘Turn Up The Music’, most of what follows is lacklustre; even a deliberate attempt to rock during ‘Reckless’ feels a little flat, due to an over-reliance of Alan Fitzgerald’s organ, played like a limp Jon Lord. (It's also worth mentioning that any decent material from fan favourite 'Danger Zone' [1980] is killed by a really flat production job from Geoff Workman).

Among Sammy’s pre-VH solo work though, you’ll find one genuine gem. 1979’s ‘Street Machine’ is a solid offering which no fan of late 70s hard rock should be without. The Red Rocker and his band are firing on all six here right from the opening number, the simple boogie-rocker ‘Growing Pains’. The no-nonsense rock vibe carries through ‘Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)’, where the rhythm section of Chuck Ruff (drums) and bassist Bill Church (who’d previously worked with Hagar in Montrose) are the real stars. Chuck’s drumming style is very natural; he knows how to rock out, but never in a way which upstages Hagar. Bill Church’s bass style here – and throughout ‘Street Machine’ generally – is solid. He could be compared to a hard rock John McVie: you know the style, a firm anchor – plodding but never dull.

‘This Planet’s on Fire’ (one of the album’s better known numbers) is a full-on rocker, driven by Gary Pihl’s circular riff on lead guitar. He also gets to turn in a fairly hard edged solo – this will undoubtedly be one of the standout tracks for those wanting Sammy and co to rock in the way that Montrose’s ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ and ‘Space Station #5’ had previously. The ballad ‘Child to Man’ offers one of Hagar’s strongest performances, but it’s Gary Pihl’s guitar touches which makes it so memorable. Its subtle bluesy notes compliment Hagar’s voice perfectly. Also more reflective, ‘Never Say Die’ provides another standout. Here, Hagar and the whole band are at their absolute strongest: Sammy’s voice retains its hard rock qualities but he sings like a man who’s been let down, his voice showing a passionate side not quite so evident elsewhere.

Musically, ‘Plain Jane’ is a decent slice of 70s power pop, matching handclaps and a singalong element with hard rock guitars, reminiscent of work by Rick Derringer on his ‘Face To Face’ LP (recorded at a similar time). Hagar’s voice though remains hard and a little husky, so it’s likely this’ll always be far more associated with the hard rock tag.

The rest of the album’s material also passes muster. ‘Wounded In Love’ and ‘Feels Like Love’ both offer decent mid-paced rock stompers; ‘Falling In Love’, driven by ringing guitars features backing vocals by Boston members Brad Delp, Barry Goudreau and Sib Hashain giving it a slightly overblown late 70s vibe and ‘Straight To The Top’ is a fun workout with more than a nod to fifties style rock ‘n’ roll.

The difference in quality between ‘Street Machine’ and any of Sammy’s previous solo albums is astounding. Although Hagar’s best solo albums wouldn’t appear until sometime later (1987’s self-titled album, aka ‘I Never Said Goodbye’ and 1997’s ‘Marching To Mars’), ‘Street Machine’ – like the Montrose debut - does a decent job in highlighting why Hagar was a hero to US rock fans a long time before his alliance with Van Halen.

['Street Machine' is available from Rock Candy Records in a 24 bit remastered version, including extended sleeve notes and 2 bonus tracks].

February 2010

Sunday, 14 February 2010

SAXON - Rock The Nations

The release of Saxon’s live LP ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ in 1982 effectively closed the door on the first part of their career. It was the first year in which the band hadn’t been extremely busy: they’d already released four studio albums in three years, backed by constant touring. The release of the live album afforded them some breathing space.

By the release of 1983’s ‘Power and the Glory’, changes were in evidence. Nigel Glockler was settled in the drum stool, having replaced Pete Gill for the ‘Denim and Leather’ tour; the band’s sound began to move away from its NWOBHM roots, becoming slightly Americanized (partly due to being recorded in Atlanta with producer Jeff Glixman, I suspect). This slightly more commercial approach was evident again on 1984’s ‘Crusader’, but was less effective due to a lot of weak material. 1985’s ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’ showed a most dramatic shift, presenting Saxon in the mould of an American sounding radio-friendly hard rock outfit. One of the album’s singles, ‘Back On The Streets’, should be regarded as a classic piece of British AOR. It certainly would be, had it been recorded by a band with stronger connections to melodic rock.

Although harder in places, 1986’s ‘Rock The Nations’ embraces the commercial side Saxon explored on ‘Innocence...’ The opening number - and title track - has an anthemic quality (as you’d expect) driven by Glockler’s drumming and a solid guitar riff courtesy of Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn. One of the album’s more ‘classic rock’ efforts, this could sit happily alongside the band’s pre-’83 works. ‘Battle Cry’ takes the power and pushes it up a notch, offering another of the album's more traditionally Saxon sounding numbers.

The lead single ‘Waiting For The Night’ revisits the pop-metal style of the previous album’s ‘Back on the Streets’. It’s obvious, looking back, Saxon fancied sharing a bit of the MTV limelight with Whitesnake. Although musically this is pure mid 80s, it’s lost none of its sparkle. It’s likely that if they’d sold the song on to a more “traditional” big-hair band, it would have been a big hit. [Saxon would get their time in the MTV spotlight a couple of years later with an unlikely cover of Christopher Cross’s ‘Ride Like The Wind’.]

‘We Came Here To Rock’ recalls the anthemic style of the opening number, this time around, with an American hard rock style similar to Keel. Another mid-paced rocker ‘You Ain’t No Angel’ represents a similar styled stomp to Motley Crue’s slower, heavier numbers from ‘Theater of Pain’. Musically, it’s okay, but a female voice-over midway lowers the tone and is slightly cringeworthy.

Even when there are songs on offer which are top notch, Saxon were always prone to delivering an absolute clunker. On ‘Rock The Nations’, it’s a mystery how a band capable of turning in something as classy as ‘Waiting For The Night’ or as enjoyably clichéd as ‘We Came Here To Rock’ would consider ‘Party Til You Puke’ worthy of inclusion. Not even Elton John guesting on rinky-dinky pub-rock piano saves this track from embarrassment.

The album closes with the softer ‘Northern Lady’ (again featuring Elton at the piano). Biff is in slightly better voice than usual here and the band is more generally more restrained. I’d be hard pushed to call it a ballad, since Glockler’s drum sound is so loud – possibly the loudest studio drum sound I’ve heard since the Reggie Knighton Band LP. Gary Lyons’s production work throughout this album is superb, but on this track, the sound he was aiming to achieve is obvious...and it sounds brilliant.

‘Rock The Nations’ was reissued in January 2010 with eight bonus tracks, all of which have been previously available elsewhere: The 7” edits of ‘Waiting For The Night’ and ‘Northern Lady’ are easily obtainable on the ‘Very Best of: 1979-88’ 3CD anthology, as is the instrumental b-side ‘Chase The Fade’ and the live performance ‘Everybody Up’. The three tracks culled from the band’s Reading ’86 performance were originally issued as part of the ‘BBC Sessions’ CD. The storming live performance of ‘Dallas 1 PM’ (originally on the b-side of the ‘Northern Lady’ 12” single) was previously the hardest to find of the bonus tracks – it’s great to have that on CD. Although the bonus tracks aren't essential and we've not been treated to any unreleased nuggets, you may want to upgrade your CD anyway as the remaster sounds great.

Like ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’ previously, ‘Rock The Nations’ represents an album with an undeniably eighties approach. It’s still very enjoyable, despite its faults.

February 2010

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

MIND FUNK - Mind Funk

Mink Funk were initially a supergroup, of sorts. Except none of the band members were particularly famous. Vocalist Pat Dubar had previously been a member of Uniform Choice; Reed St Mark had drummed with Celtic Frost; Louis Svitek and John Monte had both previously been with thrash/punk outfit M.O.D. and Jason Coppola had previously worked with Chemical Waste.

The music on ‘Mind Funk’ doesn’t really fit in with the musicians’ previous careers. It’s largely made up of punchy hard rock with occasional funk metal influences. The album was released with a lot of hype. The band graced the pages of all the metal magazines and even gave an interview on British television (as part of the classic Raw Power programme). However, none of the press hype translated into album sales.

John Monte’s bass playing is the main driving force behind Mind Funk. His style is energetic and often takes the lead, but never at the expense of what are generally melodic metal songs. For ‘Big House Burning’, Mind Funk demonstrate what they’re best at, as Monte’s funky bass collides with a relentless guitar riff, with a slightly old school style edge. The sheer energy here should have made this track an MTV rock favourite. ‘Ride & Drive’ (incidentally the first Mind Funk track I heard, as it was featured on a free cassette with Metal Hammer in May 1991), sounds like a cross between a sleazy 80s band and something a bit funky, though never in a Chili Peppers sense. Dubar’s vocal isn’t great and musically it feels a little muddled. The only redeeming feature is a scorching guitar solo.

‘Sweet Sister Blue’ provides the album with something gentler. It’s essentially acoustic based rock, but with a quirky time signature. Although Mind Funk have moments where they sound great playing their hybrid of metal, funk and 80s style hard rock, here they sound far more at ease. Pat Dubar is in fine voice - occasionally reminiscent of Mike Patton - and the fusion of acoustic and electric guitars provide an excellent backdrop. The bluesy electric guitar leads are great, but it’s the Spanish guitar solo which provides the real element of surprise and shows imagination.

The rest of the album has its moments: ‘Sugar Ain’t So Sweet’ packs a hard punch with Reed St Mark’s drumming driving the band forward; ‘Blood Runs Red’ and ‘Touch You’ turn up the funky elements and although Monte’s bass is still upfront, ‘Innocent’ has a no-nonsense hard rock approach. In fact, the only time the album really misfires is on the slower, slightly dirgy ‘Fire’, where the band sound fine but there’s no real energy.

Following the release of the album, Mind Funk were dropped by Epic Records. Reed St Mark and Jason Coppola left the band. Ex-Nirvana and Soundgarden man Jason Everman became their full-time guitarist. They released a second album (‘Dropped’) which eschewed the main elements which made the debut enjoyable and, as such, was little more than a grungy piece of boredom. A third release, ‘The People Who Fell From The Sky’, was different again: With only Dubar and Svitek remaining from the original line-up (Everman too had since upped and gone), they became a Kyuss style stoner rock band. While more enjoyable than ‘Dropped’, the album had little in common with the original Mind Funk. After their split, Pat Dubar became a core member of Corporate Avenger and Louis Svitek worked on and off as Minstry’s live guitarist (as he had previously, between Mind Funk projects).

Since Mind Funk’s first album had received such great press, I’m still not sure why their future wasn’t wide open. Their relative failure was possibly due to their brand of funk-tinged hard rock coming along a little too late, hence their desperately changing styles to fit in with more popular sub-genres over their next two releases. It doesn’t really matter though: just listen to ‘Big House Burning’ and take yourselves back in time.

[Mind Funk’s debut album was reissued in January 2010 by Cherry Red Records with three bonus tracks.]

February 2010

Sunday, 7 February 2010


Ringo Starr needs no introduction. He’s one of the most famous rock drummers on the planet, if not the most famous. Many of his post-Beatles solo records have been criminally overlooked. This offering from 2010 is surprisingly good - as good as 2008’s ‘Liverpool 8’ - and it’s another album featuring a roll-call of famous chums.

The album begins with a bluesy rocker, ‘Fill In The Blanks’, driven by guitar work courtesy of the Eagles’ Joe Walsh. Nostalgia is often a strong feature of Starr’s solo work and it’s a recurring theme throughout this album. ‘Peace Dream’ is a gentle tale of hippie ideals. It also recalls Ringo's association with Lennon and John and Yoko’s Bed For Peace stunt. So much time can pass, but it seems that once you’ve been a Beatle, you’ll always be a Beatle. ‘The Other Side of Liverpool’(co-written by Dave Stewart) concerns Ringo’s childhood, his father leaving and his formative years in the north of England. Like the title track of ‘Liverpool 8’ before it, this gives another simply written insight into Ringo’s life and has plenty of charm.

The bluesy ‘Can’t Do It Wrong’ (co-written with long-time collaborator Gary Burr) suits Ringo’s style perfectly and features some decent slide guitar and an appearance from Edgar Winter on saxophone. ‘Everybody Wins’ is a definite stand out. A re-recording of an old b-side, this new arrangement makes good use of organ played by Benmont Tench. ‘Time’ features some smart bass playing and fiddle – these flourishes make a striking change from the simplicity of Starr’s usual approach.

The title cut is quirky and initial listens make me wonder what Ringo was thinking. The drum sounds and female backing vocals on this make it sound like a cast off from 1992. Repeated listens allow its better qualities to shine through: it features tabla and Asian vocals (an Asian slant is always fine on a Beatle-related release - I'm sure George would've approved) and another welcome upping in tempo. The soulful ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ features all of Ringo’s All-Starr Band in top form. Guesting on lead vocals, Joss Stone does a top much so, in fact that when Ringo’s vocal’s creep in (limited mostly to asking ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’) they sound funny – both in the peculiar and the ha-ha sense. I have a feeling that Mr Starkey is expecting us to treat this as good-natured fun.

‘Walk With You’, the album’s lead single is, rather surprisingly, the album’s dullest track. It reaches little more than a plod and lyrically it’s a little trite (not an especially good effort from the oft-praised Van Dyke Parks, who gets a co-write here). You’d hope that Paul McCartney’s presence on bass and vocals would lift it little, but even Macca sounds slightly uncomfortable, his vocal in a key which is slightly too high. Other reviews of this album have suggested this track is the best thing on ‘Y Not’; I’d suggest that since this represents the first time Paul and Ringo have harmonized in such a way, those who think it’s the best track only think so because, in their hearts, they desperately wanted it to be so.

Granted, Ringo is not the greatest vocalist or songwriter and a couple of the songs here can feel a little one-paced, but he has enough optimism to make this a wholly charming and truly worthwhile experience.

February 2010

Saturday, 6 February 2010

30 SECONDS TO MARS - This Is War

I heard the second album by these guys back when it came out; despite lots of decent press, it didn’t impress me. Their sound was solid enough, but none of the songs made any lasting impression. I was told to forget about that, since this third outing for Jared Leto’s band was a vast improvement.

I wanted to like it, honestly. To be truthful, it’s so formulaic that it hurts. 30 Seconds to Mars are more than musically accomplished, this is true, but ‘This Is War’ offers very little in the way of variety, with one song blending into the next, almost indistinguishable from each other. The album features 12 songs (okay, 11 songs and an intro) which, at best, are pleasant, but nothing more. At worst, this album is the musical equivalent of queuing at the post office – nothing much exciting happens and by the end, you feel like it’s gone on forever.

Most of the songs follow a set pattern: quiet-ish verse building to louder chorus, where Leto changes his vocal pitch (or listening to this, a studio engineer helps change his pitch). If you weren’t sure whether the band were trying to make their formulaic, safe, emo-influenced tunes sound like anthems, they force the issue by adding backing vocals of live audiences going ‘whoah’ on nearly every track. ‘Hurricane’ is slightly different, in that they inflict their irritating qualities over the duration of six minutes instead of four - and yes, they use the crowd noise yet again.

Since I’m feeling kind, I’ll concede that the single ‘Kings & Queens’ is fine for what it does. It’s certainly the best thing on the album, but that’s not saying much.

I wish 30 Seconds To Mars all the best, but ‘This Is War’ leaves me cold. Sorry.

January 2010

ARENA - Songs From The Lions Cage

This debut album by Arena feels like an important progressive rock release. Arena's keyboard player Clive Nolan is probably best known as being a longtime member of Pendragon and the drummer, Mick Pointer was part of the original Marillion line-up.

The lengthy album opener, ‘Out of the Wilderness’ is a good indication of Arena’s musical ability. At over ten minutes, ‘Valley of the Kings’ follows a similar neo-progressive musical path and has a mid-section which sounds like Marillion’s ‘Forgotten Sons’. As a consequence, vocalist John Carson tries his best to sound like Fish. Sadly, this is the album’s main deficiency: Mick Pointer seems intent on capturing his former glories and as a result, all of the best bits sound like they’ve been all but plagiarized from ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’.

The conceptual ‘Crying For Help’ could’ve provided the band with an interesting centrepiece. Unfortunately, it’s nearly all instrumental keyboard work and when added together, its four parts total nearly fifteen minutes and very little of it holds the attention. The only part of ‘Crying For Help’ which shows any real promise is the final part which features a guest solo from Marillion’s Steve Rothery. But, again, on the down side, the track closes with a ringing telephone and a message saying “...this is the problem line.” Sound familiar?

On the whole, ‘Songs From The Lions Cage’ lacks originality and is only worth a listen if you’re a diehard Marillion fan. Otherwise...

Originally written for Fastlane magazine, 1994