Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Sometimes when a label which chiefly deals with AOR and melodic acts releases something they term “progressive metal”, it’s not usually progressive metal as such.  It’s more likely to be a bunch of Yngwie Malmsteen enthusiasts/ex-collaboators churning out similar neo-classical work, but delivered with a slightly bigger punch (see Artension and Ring of Fire for starters).  With Silent Call, this is not the case. ‘Greed’ is their second release and frankly, it’s a monster.  Throughout the album, each member of the band gives their all, but the real stars are Andi Kravljaca (ex-Seventh Wonder) on vocals and guitarist Daniel Ekholm.

‘Every Day’ opens with a slow keyboard intro, before staccato guitar riffs and heavy bass drumming takes lead.  During this number, though, the keyboards remain high in the mix and while the guitars bring a great deal of heaviness, those keys add a layer of atmosphere.  ‘I Am My Nation’ cements Silent Call’s power, by offering another top notch guitar riff, which although not as heavy as the opener, packs a punch not to be argued with.  During the heaviest parts of this song, the band’s uncompromising approach could be compared to Symphony X.  Although buried a little in the resulting huge arrangement, Patrik Törnblom’s keys create a slab of sound, giving the track extra power. 

‘Dream Tomorrow’ begins with an old-fashioned seventies rock riff, intercut with a very nineties prog-metal pneumatic edge; once Andi K’s vocals make an appearance, thing settle down a little.  There’s a little more obvious melody here than some of the other numbers; the track features a memorable chorus which leans towards the bigger and slightly pompier end of the AOR scale. ‘Falling From Grace’ Daniel Ekholm delivers another very chunky riff, not unlike Dream Theater at their best; not to be outdone, Andi K turns in one of his best vocal performances, his voice having a similar range to James LaBrie, yet with a more melodic quality.  During the mid-section of this number, the band takes a musical u-turn where they drop the heavy riffs in favour of a funky interlude.

For those of you who enjoy something a little gentler, ‘Through The Endless Night’ comes recommended, as it veers away from the prog-metal style and moves toward something more in the classic rock mould.  It begins with a soft piano intro and vocal; once the guitars kick in, it becomes a very strong power ballad.  Again, Andi K’s vocals are incredibly strong, but also of note is Mikael Kvist’s slow, stomping drum rhythm.  The production on ‘Greed’ is superb and that’s really highlighted by slower numbers such as this and ‘Turn The Tide’ – a track which, like ‘Falling From Grace’, has a bigger focus on the chorus.  Also here, there are a few moments where Tobbe Moen’s bass work is a little more at the forefront.  His style is punchy without sounding flashy.  If anything, it’s a shame his work doesn’t have a greater presence, but then again, with Ekholm’s guitar work being as aggressive as it is and Törnblom’s keys maintaining a high profile throughout the album, I suppose someone has to take a back seat.

The intensity of this album is such that I found it hard to listen to more than once in one sitting; however, that shouldn’t detract from its excellent qualities.  In short, ‘Greed’ is an album that’s fabulously played and produced and features no filler material. Silent Call should be very proud.

March 2010

Monday, 29 March 2010

HARD - Time Is Waiting For No One

‘Time Is Waiting For No One’ is the second international release (but fourth release overall) by the part Swedish, part Hungarian melodic metal outfit Hard - a band fronted by Björn Lodin of Baltimore. It’s one of those albums where once you’ve taken note of their rather unsubtle moniker and band logo, you’ve got a fair idea of what it sounds like before hearing any of the songs.

Kicking things off, the title cut is a fast-paced riffer, showcasing Hard’s brand of melodic metal. The rhythm section is punchy and the guitar riffs are edgy, but any good qualities are killed by Lodin’s vocal performance, which is all squeal and no real passion – he’s been likened elsewhere to Marc Storace of Krokus and I can see why...and, no, I never liked Storace either. ‘Lonesome Loneliness’ (hey, what other kind is there?) has a swaggering approach and overall holds up as a solid piece of hard rock, although not groundbreaking. ‘Into the Fire’ features some fantastic metal guitar work and cracking rhythms, but generally, there’s little here to make a lasting impression.

‘The Pace and The Flow’ is a rock ballad with a bluesy edge. Surprisingly Björn Lodin’s vocals are far better here; he’s not forcing his voice so much and the end result feels more natural. Similarly with ‘Nona’ everything flows nicely and the vocals are both tuneful and well-suited to the material. ‘My Kind of Woman’ pulls out of the starting grid at full throttle, like a twisted cousin of early Deep Purple. It’s a track that shows initial promise: Zsolt Csillik and Zsolt Vamos’s guitar parts are superb once again, especially if this kind of melodic metal is your bag, but it’s let down by poor songwriting. ‘Shine On Me’ combines a driving hard rock riff and funky edges to fantastic effect. The vocals have an edge, but remain tuneful, if still an acquired taste. There’s a strong Bang Tango influence here and this track should appeal to fans of that very under-rated band.

Overall, although this album has a few good qualities, most of it does little for me. If Hard could’ve concentrated on the softer or funkier elements of their sound, it could’ve been very different indeed. Some bands in the world have a lot going for them. Judging by this album by Hard, it would seem their greatness hasn’t yet arrived.

March 2010

Friday, 26 March 2010

STATUS QUO - Picturesque Matchstickable Messages

In 1967, Britain was in the midst of a psychedelic musical revolution: The Beatles released an undeniable classic in ‘Sgt Pepper’, Steve Winwood’s Traffic released the rather more cult ‘Mr Fantasy’, while The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream fused a psychedelic spirit with blues influences on their respective albums, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ and ‘Disreali Gears’. By 1968, the psychedelic vibe had started to fade slightly, although it was the year in which The Zombies released ‘Odessey and Oracle’, which despite poor sales at the time, is possibly the greatest piece of British psych-pop. In that same year, Status Quo released their debut, ‘Picturesque Matchstickable Messages’.

'Pictures of Matchstick Men' may feel like a well worn classic now and familiar to everyone, but what of the rest of that debut album? The opening track ‘Veils of Melancholy’ sounds rather like ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ with the notes played in wrong order, which probably says a lot about why it bombed when released as a single. But, while ‘Matchstick Men’ feels like a piece of late-sixties happiness, ‘Veils’ has an effect that's slightly sinister. ‘When My Mind Is Not Live’ typifies the psych-pop movement, feeling like a Traffic and Tomorrow hybrid. ‘Gentleman Joe’s Sidewalk Cafe’ is rather more whimsical. Written by songwriter-for-hire Kenny Young (erroneously credited on occasion to Bob Young, who’d later be a regular Quo collaborator), this Kinks-esque number was originally scheduled to be the single. Although a decent album track, I’m not so sure about its single potential - they made the right choice releasing it on the flip-side of ‘Matchstick Men’. ‘Paradise Flat’, takes the psych elements slightly farther, complete with deep voice-over on the mid section. It’s hard to tell whether the voice over always sounded bad, or whether time has been unkind.

It’s interesting to note that Francis Rossi doesn’t play such a pivotal role on a lot of these songs, as he would in later years. Although the heavily phased guitars are important to the end product, it’s the electric organ which seems to dominate the early Quo’s multi-layered sound (courtesy of Roy Lynes, who remained with the band until 1970). Surprising as it may seem, the well-loved title cut isn’t the best track, nor is it the most psychedelic. That honour falls to Alan Lancaster’s ‘Sunny Cellophane Skies’. Rossi’s heavily treated guitar is the track’s driving force, coupled by multi-layered vocals, which evoke the period.

The album is padded out with cover material, all of which is more in keeping with 60s beat pop than psychedelia. In the 21st Century, that makes for okay listening for anyone with a liking for stuff of that retro style, but I suspect that in 1968, some of it felt a little ordinary. ‘Ice In The Sun’ and ‘Elizabeth Dreams’ (both written by Marty Wilde) are probably the best of the bunch with regard to the said cover material, while the Quo’s treatment of The Lemon Pipers’‘Green Tambourine’ isn’t too bad either. The cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘Spicks and Specks’ is horribly misjudged – while Gibb, Gibb and Gibb would prove themselves to be at the forefront of the songwriting masterclass, this isn’t one of their better late 60s tunes as it is, and it definitely doesn’t suit Status Quo.

‘Picturesque Matchstickable Messages’ contains some enjoyable music during its 34 minutes, even if it isn’t quite as inventive as some other albums of the period. The following year’s ‘Spare Parts’ followed a similar musical path, but had little commercial success. By the end of the decade, the psychedelic times were over. If Status Quo had thrown in the towel, they’d likely be remembered as one of Britain’s greatest cult bands.

[In 2009, ‘Picturesque’ was re-issued as a 2CD Deluxe Edition, featuring both mono and stereo mixes of the album as well as non-album singles and BBC Sessions. Also included are rare recordings by the pre-Quo band, in both their Spectres and Traffic Jam guises].

January 2010

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


In 1993, as Grunge was beginning to fade a little, Green Apple Quick Step (presumably named after The Byrds song of the same name) released their debut album ‘Wonderful Virus’. It achieved moderate success, but musically its post-grunge approach was a little dull aside from a couple of tracks.

In 1995, they released their second album, ‘Reloaded’, produced by Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard. Somewhere between the two albums, the bands songwriting moved away from their grungy earlier style and introduced a few more power pop influences. The variety of styles on this second album came as a huge surprise after ‘Wonderful Virus’ and as a result, ‘Reloaded’ became an album which was rarely far from my CD player for the next couple of years. The album finds GAQS stretching out and experimenting; a handful of tracks are fantastic and some of the musical ideas are interesting. Naturally, a couple of tracks miss the mark, but generally speaking, the fact that ‘Reloaded’ is a world away from the safe and formulaic nature of their debut should be applauded.

Things begin slowly with ‘Hotel Wisconsin’, a largely instrumental track. There’s plenty of atmosphere here with the organ sounds and reverbed guitars. It’s a far cry from the GAQS you knew from previously. The rhythmic pattern of the song never shifts far from Ty Willman’s organ, to the point where most of the lead guitar work is very low in the mix. It’s an interesting start to the album, incorporating a lot of moods you’d be unlikely to associate with a Seattle based band (except for maybe Screaming Trees). They change musical stance for the next couple of tracks: ‘Ed #5’ is a slab of fuzzy retro rock, heavy on the pedals and phasers and during the punky-edged ‘No Favors’, bassist Mari Ann Braden takes lead vocals for a track which has more in common with early L7 and Hole than GAQS’s more usual post-grunge and power pop. As a stand-alone track, its attitude and energy work very well, but as part of ‘Reloaded’ it feels very misplaced.

At three songs in, you may be forgiven for thinking this is a little directionless. After all, at this point, you’d be right...but you’ve got to give them credit for trying new things. ‘T.V. Girl’ offers the first truly great moment from ‘Reloaded’, with its mid-paced, guitar driven pop-rock. Ty Willman’s voice is at its strongest and has a passionate quality and once Mari Ann joins the chorus for harmony vocals, you get to hear the real potential behind GAQS, not heard much before now. ‘Alligator’ features another of Willman’s best vocal performances, with its mid-paced broodiness; it’s one of the key tracks for spotting how much the band has matured since their formulaic debut. The percussion-less ‘Underwater’ returns to a more atmospheric style with acoustic guitars accompanied by organ sounds; the song itself tinged with sadness and Willman’s voice being well suited to the more wistful nature of the material. The soft ‘Lazy’ works excellently, once again the call-and-response style vocals between Ty Willman and Mari Ann Braden providing its best feature.

The album’s best known cut ‘Dizzy’ (as featured in the movie The Basketball Diaries) is one of the album’s more positive moments. As far as this style of nineties power pop is concerned, this is a near-perfect example, with its great rhythm guitars and infectious chorus. Mari Ann’s backing vocals add something here – the combination of male and female voices matched with the feel-good nature of the song should have made this a sure fire hit. ‘Tangled’ has an interesting slightly retro edge - the ringing guitars occasionally have an Allman Brothers tone, even if the musical style doesn’t have anything else in common with Southern Rock. Despite the good arrangement, the song isn’t as memorable as it should be.

This album may arrive with a bunch of ideas and influences and seemingly no idea of which direction to go, but it certainly provides more than enough entertainment once it finds its feet. However, the momentum doesn’t last, as it ends in a rather disinterested fashion: ‘Space Cocksucker’ is a woozy funk based instrumental with the focus on rhythm guitar, punctuated by keyboard sounds; this is definitely filler material and ‘Halloween’ is an okay piece of jangle pop (largely based around a simple arrangement played by guitarists Steve Ross and Danny K) which features a good vocal but not much else.

It may feel rather hit and miss, but I love this album. Its relative lack of success - given its more commercial moments - is surprising and, as such, it’s unlikely to ever be thought of as more than a footnote in the Seattle family tree. The band recorded a follow-up three years later entitled ‘New Disaster’, which remains unreleased on a physical format apart from one track, ‘Kid’, appearing on the I Know What You Did Last Summer soundtrack. (However, part of the album can be heard courtesy of a legal stream via MySpace)

After the break-up of GAQS, Ty Willman went on to work with Devilhead (a band featuring Brian Wood of Hater and John McBain of Monster Magnet, Hater and Wellwater Conspiracy). He would also work with MariAnn Braden and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready in a short-lived project, $10,000 Gold Chain. Steve Ross, meanwhile, joined punk band The Briefs, under the pseudonym Steve E Nix.

As of March 2010, Ty Willman made a return playing Green Apple Quick Step songs. He hopes that one day the much sought-after third GAQS album will get a proper release.

Read the interview with Willman here.
Listen to the online stream of ‘New Disaster’ here.

March 2010

Monday, 22 March 2010

N.O.W. - Force of Nature

‘Force of Nature’ is the debut release by N.O.W., a Brazilian based melodic rock outfit formed by bassist Alec Mendonça. The music was recorded in Rio de Janeiro (aside from a few drum parts recorded in Sweden) and the tapes were then sent to Los Angeles, where ex-Unruly Child vocalist Philip Bardowell laid down his vocal tracks. The resulting album offers thirteen hook-laden songs which push all the right buttons – especially for Philip Bardowell fans.

‘Can’t Make It (Can I)’ opens the album with the band in full-on rock mode, focusing largely on Caio de Carvalho’s guitar riff, although there are moments where some classic sounding AOR keyboard work breaks through. Although this is great, it’s on the slower numbers where the band sounds more comfortable, particularly those with a traditional mid-paced arrangement.

‘Listen To Your Heart’ is the album’s masterpiece. It’s a classic example of AOR – the keyboards take a stabbing approach and the bassline is uncomplicated, but it’s the vocal arrangement which is key: Bardowell sounds absolutely at ease and his lead vocal is fabulous; on the chorus, it has a well-placed backing vocal as a counter-balance. ‘Once That Feeling Comes Again’ is a standard mid-paced rocker, but stands out due to another use of stabbing keyboards, as well as featuring a couple of pleasing keyboard flourishes. ‘You’ begins as a grandiose piano-led piece, where Bardowell could be accused of over-singing. Things settle down with the addition of drums and guitars, at which point the track becomes another in a long line of songs which sound like they’ve come off the AOR factory’s production line. There’s nothing wrong with it, but ‘Force of Nature’ offers better moments.

‘Lonely Soul’ is an excellent soft rocker, which should please fans of Jeff Scott Soto and ‘Long Way From Home’ features some well played pompy keyboards, before settling into a techy 80s groove on its verse; this track sticks out a little, as its stylistically quite different to the other songs. ‘Hail Mary’ opens with some terrific soaring guitar lines, before the main riff kicks in. As with most of N.O.W.’s material, it has a mid-paced approach. The pre-chorus feels a little out of place but a couple of effective guitar fills help to make it work; when the chorus eventually arrives, it resembles melodic rock at its best, with another big hook. ‘I’m Free (But Not Ready To Go)’ is slow-burner of a song which seems to take a long time to get to the chorus. While the chorus is memorable, I would have shoehorned an extra one in, before the two minute mark, especially since verses are in a key not best suited to Bardowell’s voice. Once it hits its stride and he gets to hit the higher notes, though, it becomes another standout track. The closing number comes with a great lead guitar part, full of vibrato. With regard to the lead guitar in the end section, Caio almost steals the show here with some smart fretboard work. It never upstages the song, though, as once again the chorus here is incredibly strong.

Although there are no bad songs here, the (polished) demo quality of the recordings stops the album being truly great (it’s also worth mentioning that for some reason ‘Long Way From Home’ has also been mastered at about a third of the volume of the rest of the disc). However, fans of melodic rock – and particularly fans of the mid-nineties releases via labels like MTM - should find plenty of enjoyment here, even if ‘Force of Nature’ sounds like something you’ve heard a thousand times before.

March 2010

Friday, 19 March 2010

JAYCE LANDBERG - Good Sleepless Night

Erik Jayce Landberg is a Swedish guitarist and composer, specialising in chorus driven hard rock. His 2008 album ‘Break The Spell’ was praised in melodic rock circles due to its solid musicianship. It’s also impressive that ex-Yngwie Malmsteen and Vindictiv vocalist Göran Edman was also on board for that release, given that Landberg was relatively unknown at that time.

Landberg’s second offering ‘Good Sleepless Night’ is a more than worthy follow up, featuring its share of enjoyable tracks. The album opens with a heavier number, ‘My Valentine’, which comes with a chuggy riff and slightly treated vocals. During the mid-section, Jayce launches into a superb guitar solo, which features some decent metal shredding; what’s most amusing here is that the band speed up just to accommodate the solo (a technique used to great effect on the self-titled album by Swedish cult band Pole Position). Luckily, Landberg shows some restraint and this is one of the only times he takes this approach. ‘The Devil’s Wine’ and ‘Skyscraper’ are more mid-paced, providing classy examples of melodic hard rock. On the latter, Göran Edman is in great shape vocally. There’s something unmistakably Swedish about the style of hard rock here and I’m pretty sure it’s not just Edman’s accent.

‘Invasion’, another track with a mid-paced fists-in-the-air approach, features vocals by another ex-Malmsteen man - Mark Boals. For those of you familiar with the styles of Edman and Boals, you’ll know they take a similar vocal approach. Personally, I’ve always favoured Edman, given the choice. This album is no exception, since although ‘Invasion’ features some decent musical moments, Boals’s vocal is a little too squealy for my tastes. Once again though, Landberg is on form and the guitar solo here is a belter, despite wandering into neo-classical territory on occasion.

‘Sun Dance’ is a driving instrumental, highly reminiscent of Joe Satriani, maybe with a little Gary Hoey thrown in; overall, it has a very natural flow. Interestingly, for someone who’s been compared to Yngwie Malmsteen, the main focus here is on groove and melody, rather than shredding and virtuosity for the sake of it. For ‘The Thorns’ Jayce trades in his guitar and plays the Steinway piano. During this somewhat melodramatic ballad, Göran Edman is in fine voice and, once again, harmony vocals are used to great effect. ‘Abduction’ is a piece of guitar virtuosity that feels like Lanberg’s answer to Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’. Naturally, it’s not as good as that Van Halen landmark and I’d say it felt like filler, but it redeems itself at the last moment by featuring a flashy bass solo, played by Europe’s John Leven.

With so much solid material on offer, it seems unfortunate to mention the album’s bad moments, but I feel it’s only fair I should do so for a balanced review... ‘Bitch Is Back’ provides stompy hard rock enjoyment on the surface and makes excellent use of harmony and multi-tracked vocals, but is let down by poor songwriting and an unnecessary phased vocal effect on the verses, but thankfully, its punchiness means it’s short. Also letting the side down lyrically is ‘All I Wanna Do’, which wanders past the point of tacky and becomes slightly embarrassing. It’s nowhere near as bad as Chad Kroeger’s smutty meanderings on Nickelback’s ‘Dark Horse’, but it’s still one of those moments where you’ll find yourself wishing that musicians would leave keep their sexual ardour to themselves.

Although it features those couple of dodgy tracks, ‘Good Sleepless Night’ is a strong album. It’s been said that it comes recommended for Yngwie Malmsteen fans – probably due to its connections with both Göran Edman and Mark Boals. While on that basis Malmsteen’s followers are likely to give this a listen, I feel this is an album an appeal beyond that, as it offers far fewer neo-classical influences than most of Malmsteen’s work and, as consequence, feels less self-indulgent. Most melodic rock fans should find something to enjoy here as, like Landberg’s debut, ‘Good Sleepless Night’ offers accessible songs and musical prowess.

March 2010

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

RABBIT IN THE BLOOD - Little Ray of Sunshine EP

Rabbit in the Blood is an acoustic based duo featuring Neil Luckett - a singer-songwriter best known for his work with alternative rock band tvfordogs – and composer, songwriter and producer Mark Lord. It pushes asides the hard rock and power pop edges of Neil’s band in favour of gentleness, of warmth and acoustic finger-picking. Musically, it may appear light upon the surface, but there’s something sinister lurking beneath.

The title cut has a very European feel, thanks to some keyboard work evoking an accordion sound, while the addition of strings (arranged by Mark Lord) is a nice touch. It’s a positive and upbeat musical arrangement, but looking closer, the lyrics are a cry of desperation, especially as the protagonist’s happiness seems to depend entirely upon the one closest to him. ‘Do You Feel the Sun’ makes great use of harmony vocals against the finger-picked guitar. Musically, it has a much deeper feel than the opener; the arrangement has a haunting ‘Scarboro Fair’ quality and Luckett’s guitar work is brilliant but not too showy. It’s song which looks for the positive, but again there’s a melancholy air.

‘A Day at the Beach’ has a musical and vocal fragility. On the surface, the lyrics deal with unhappiness; the narrative would suggest that it’s no ordinary seaside trip – if we go, we may never come back. If the kite doesn’t lift our troubles away, if we can’t dig deep enough to find the answers, we’re headed for a new life on the sea bed... Looking deeper, I think the seaside is just a metaphor for a “happy place”; that place of carefree innocence; a place where we feel safe and without responsibility...if we could throw the shackles of the real world away, forget everything and go back to a happy place, would it change things for the better? If we stayed somewhere without responsibilities, would it be possible to reconnect with the happy feelings buried inside us, or are they buried so deeply, there’s no chance of escape?

‘The House of The Dead Stereo’ has a similar reflective quality, telling a tale of somewhere once full of music, happiness and laughter; a place fondly remembered, but a place now soundless and empty. It captures a feeling of going back somewhere and it having somehow changed, even though you desperately want that place to feel the way it always did. ‘The House of the Dead Stereo’ is a piece I believe could resonate with those who often see things through rose-tinted glasses. Musically, it starts gently but builds to a climax with an upbeat drum shuffle, while an out of tune trumpet creeps in and helps to keep things off-kilter. There’s a sadness surrounding the sounds of happiness and the laughter from ghosts of the past here – and it’s that unsettling quality which makes this EP alluring.

Despite sounding musically light, ‘Little Ray of Sunshine’ is a downbeat journey which takes the listener through moods of with unhappiness, depression and disappointment. For those of you who like acoustic work and songwriting to think about, this EP should be on your list of things to check out.

Visit Rabbit in the blood here.

March 2010

Sunday, 14 March 2010

STEVE LUKATHER - Ever Changing Times

I've been a melodic rock fan for a long time. However, as much as I love the classic mid-eighties stuff, a lot of the later releases don't always do much for me. Back in 2005, I got bored with the genre’s predictable nature. Every week, there seemed to be small armies of bands signed to small labels who seemed to think that just because they’d heard some of the genre’s classic albums from the 80s and could reproduce that style, it’d make for a great album. Many fans seemed to lap it up, but for me, it often felt a little forced and lacking in real heart. Couple that with the average fan’s attitude of ‘our music is better than yours’ (even when most of the music churned out between 1994 and beyond is distinctly production-line stuff...), and you might understand why I distanced myself from AOR for a time.

However, even when things aren't as rosy as they used to be, there's always the odd decent album coming through. Most of the old guard can be relied upon to make an enjoyable album and Steve Lukather is no exception. There’s already a comfort barrier, as you know whenever he releases an album he’ll rarely let you down. On ‘Ever Changing Times’, he’s surrounded himself with some of the best session guys – John Pierce, Abe Laboriel Jr, Leland Sklar, Randy Goodrum… If you've ever been a fan of Westcoast style AOR, these guys will require no introduction.

The title track opens up proceedings with a riff that’s slightly heavier than the norm, but not altogether out of character for Luke. By the time the chorus comes, you know what you’re in for. It’s pretty much by-numbers melodic rock, which coming from one of the best, is precisely what you’d want from this album. Fans of Toto’s slightly edgier ‘Kingdom Of Desire’ tracks will enjoy this a great deal, as well as a couple of tracks further on. It’s topped off with a faultless guitar solo. ‘Without Letting Go’ is softer; Luke is at the top of his game on a song which for all the world sounds like it was written with Toto in mind - a soft ballad, soulful but not quite syrupy. ‘Never Ending Night’ falls into the same category and highlights Lukather’s great vocal style. ‘Jammin’ With Jesus’ leans towards the harder, slightly bluesier sound explored on Lukather’s ‘Candyman’ album, but here, it’s probably the closest the album gets to filler. Some of the guitar work is notable as usual, but the (I assume) tongue-in-cheek lyrics are a little grating.

‘I Am’, again is soft, but nowhere near as effective as ‘Without Letting Go’. There’s a part of me which feels Lukather is on auto-pilot here. There’s something about this track which sounds like Toto’s ‘I’ll Be Over You’, but with the notes played in the wrong order. An absolutely beautiful, soaring guitar solo hits the mark though. At first, the jazzy intro of ‘How Many Zeros’ lead the listener into thinking it may be another ‘Dave’s Gone Skiing’ workout (still one of my favourite moments from Toto’s ‘Tambu’), but it soon settles into another piece of guitar-led AOR, complete with well placed, big backing vocals. It’s definitely another stand-out. ‘New World’ is at once both tough edged and melodic. There’s not the usual smoothness here, but there’s something unmistakably Toto about it, until the chorus when things speed up just a touch, but just enough to make the song not quite work – it’s probably the only skipper here; from eleven songs, that’s not so bad.

At the time of making this album, Lukather says his son has helped him stay youthful and up to date musically, but unsurprisingly, most of this album sounds exactly how you’re expecting. One track may surprise, though: ‘Tell Me What You Want From Me’ comes with a few sharper edges. Luke claims that “if you blindfolded rock critics, they wouldn’t tell who the artist was”. This is a bit of an exaggeration, as Luke has a very distinctive sound and most of the track sounds like Steve Lukather of old. The only difference is a really heavy and – dare I say – unnecessary guitar riff which kicks in occasionally. It spoils the track for me and sounds like a man trying to prove a point which doesn’t need proving. Most people know Luke can play in pretty much every style. Sadly, as is often the case with old-school musicians, their fan base will enjoy new material but it’s a struggle to win new fans – and even if he is trying to win new fans, I’m not convinced that trying something uncharacteristic is the way to go…Definitely one of the weaker tracks, alongside ‘New World’. ‘Stab In The Back’ has a jazzy groove which is an obvious tribute to Steely Dan, whom Lukather played alongside when he was young. Great stuff.

‘Ever Changing Times’ is a decent enough album. It showcases most of the different styles Luke is capable of. Even if not as good as his ‘Candyman’ masterpiece from the mid-90s, it’s a welcome addition to his back catalogue - an album from a man whom in ever changing times (mostly) knows what works for him and has pretty much stayed the same.

January 2008

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

VIRGINIA WOLF - Virginia Wolf

Originally released in 1986, Virginia Wolf’s self-titled album is the album which first introduced rock audiences to the vocal talents of British AOR legend Chris Ousey. Its place in rock history is assured, since it features a young Jason Bonham (the son of Led Zeppelin legend John Bonham) on drums. Interestingly though, given the absolute power behind his father’s style of drumming - a style in which Jason is also capable of playing - you’d hardly recognise the drum work on this album as being that of anyone with the Bonham name. Under the album’s 80s sheen, the drum sound is thin and has no real oomph behind it and (as with a lot of other rock albums from the period) the bass drum is non-existent; in fact, for the majority of the album, the drums are such a non-event, they may as well have been programmed). The finger of blame there should be pointed at producer Roger Taylor (yes, the Queen guy); although the slightly synthetic approach was very in keeping with the times.

Those complaints aside, some songs hold up fairly well. The opening number, ‘Are We Playing With Fire?’ offers a hard rhythmic workout. Nick Bold’s spiky guitar chops are well suited to Ousey’s vocal style. ‘Livin’ on a Knife Edge’ again finds Ousey in good form and aside from a pompy bridge section leading into the guitar solo, it’d be the track most comparable to his later musical direction. The punchy ‘Take a Chance’ offers a strong chorus and some great vocal harmonies as well as a great guitar solo from Nick Bold. Okay, some of the more heavy-handed keyboard sounds let the side down a little, but that’s a minor point. ‘Only Love’ utilises classic stabbing keyboards during the intro and chorus, balanced by quiet verses featuring subtle, ringing guitar work. Even by 1986 this approach was unoriginal in the world of melodic rock, but there’s a reason it’s considered classic.

The album’s strongest offering ‘Goodbye Don’t Mean Forever’ features Ousey’s greatest vocal performance; musically it hints at other melodic rock of the times. Elsewhere, the rock balladry of ‘It’s In Your Eyes’ provides a decent listen. Again, it’s melodic rock by numbers and I’ll even forgive the saxophone creeping in at the end. With 80s melodic rock, it’s the mid-paced tracks which hold up best and this is no exception. During the feel-good ‘Waiting For Your Love’, Ousey has moments where he sounds like Eric Martin (not as good though, obviously); it would also be up there with the album’s best moments, since it’s musical arrangement is strong, but some overblown female backing vocals let the side down.

The band followed this with a second album ‘Push’ in 1987, which offered more of the same (although with a slightly warmer feel, thanks to a better production). To be honest, even though both the Virginia Wolf albums have enjoyable moments, they’re not the greatest examples of British AOR. They sound a little weak when held up against the albums Magnum released during a similar period and they’re certainly nowhere near as great as Dare’s ‘Out of The Silence’ (rightly regarded as one of the best British examples of the genre).

After the band’s demise, Jason Bonham moved towards a harder musical direction with his own eponymously named band. As well documented, Chris Ousey became the vocalist with Heartland, whose musical journey continued on a similar path as Virginia Wolf.

As a footnote, some CD reissues of the Virginia Wolf albums proudly state "featuring Jason Bonham" on the sleeves. It seems for some people, Jason is the band's main attraction: frankly, if that’s your only reason for investigating them, you’re likely to be disappointed. For Chris Ousey and Heartland fans, though, the Virginia Wolf albums are well worth checking out, even though they’re both hit ‘n’ miss.

[Both Virginia Wolf albums are available from Rock Candy Records in remastered format. ‘Push’ contains 2 bonus tracks]

February 2010

Monday, 8 March 2010

BRAINDANCE - Fear Itself

When I first heard this band back in the mid-nineties, they sounded like the most intense, frenzied and adventurous band to be associated with the progressive metal scene. Back then, aside from a handful of American bands breaking through (spearheaded as always by the mighty Dream Theater), it was still a very much niche subgenre.

Obviously, since that time, the prog-metal scene has become huge, with lots of bands springing up; mostly from mainland Europe and mostly with female singers fusing progessive metal roots with gothic metal and neo-operatic influences. In 1995, one of the first bands I heard doing anything similar were Braindance and over a decade later, they still remain somehow more inventive than any of their contemporaries.

Hailing from NYC, Braindance aren't your typical prog-metal band. Progressive metal it may be, but the band bill themselves as 'cinematic new romantic progressive new age gothic metal fusion'. Intrigued? Slightly confused? (Anyone who says 'no' is a liar).

Aside from their refusal to be musically pigeon-holed, they also create a mystique around themselves. According to an early press release from the mid-nineties, their then bassist, Eiki Matsumoko, claimed to be 'a multi-disciplined warrior transplanted from Japan, who proceeds with a focused attack unparalleled in the realm of electric energy'. It would appear that everyday sanity is all but a past luxury for this man. Based upon his work on the earlier Braindance releases, he is, however, an excellent bassist; as you'd imagine, his complicated bass parts compliment the work of Braindance's drumming bod, Notorious (who remained with the band until 1998), perfectly. Notorious (I'll bet his real name is Lionel), plays a combination of acoustic and electronic drums and by the time I discovered Braindance, he'd been playing in bands on the NY club scene for over a decade. His style of playing is strong, but occasionally erratic, as you'd expect from someone specializing in this style of progressive metal.

Sebastian Elliot (vocals), is a singer with a fantastic range. Sounding like a cross between Queensryche's Geoff Tate and the late Geoff Mann of UK cult prog-pop heroes Twelfth Night, would ensure that he would be a great front man for many prog outfits; for Braindance, however, this is not enough. For maximum effect, he also sings in a very deep baritone, bringing in a strong goth-metal influence (Type O Negative spring to mind regularly).

Vora Vor is the band's guitarist and by 1995 was a veteran of the NY rock club scene and classical concert stage. Her playing can only be described as amazing. Playing heavy, crunching riffs interspersed with fast, widdly (technical term) solos, she gives the band a serious cutting edge. Left with the difficult task of holding the band together is Robynne Naylor (the last to join the band in 1996), who creates a blanket of swirly keyboards for Vora to play over.

The first commercial release for Braindance was the cassette only EP, 'Shadows', in 1994. Boasting five tracks in over 40 minutes, the band
takes the listener through a variety of moods, each one as intense as the one before. The opening number, 'Awareness', kicks in with a woman screaming followed by a chunky Dream Theater style riff, followed by trippy keyboard work. This mixture of light and heavy is typical of the band's work on this early release (which finally became available as mp3s in 2008).

Of the other songs featured on the EP, 'To Live In Shadow' carries on from where 'Awareness' finished; 'All Fall Down' has to be Braindance's answer to Queensyche's 'Silent Lucidity' (so that'll appeal to the soppies among you) and 'Tears' is a six minute soundscape of keyboards, which is preferable to it being a cover of that crappy song from Rush's '2112'.

That brings us up to speed and Braindance's debut full length CD, 'Fear Itself'. While there are lots of elements here which are similar to the 'Shadows' EP, for this album the band have opted for a far more goth-metal approach, with the Type O Negative influences more upfront.
The album begins with a man giving a huge speech regarding aliens landing on Earth and throughout the album, samples are used to great effect. There are samples here of Darth Vader (yay!) and Richard Briers. How did a goth-prog-metal fusion band from New York end up with a Richard Briers sample?!

'Crime & Punishment' focuses on the bands electronica influnces. A keyboard led piece, it manages to feel both cinematic and ambient.
With only a keyboard, a pulse beat and samples to carry it, you'd think it'd drag and feel like filler, but somehow it holds the listener's attention and provides respite from the more intense moments of 'Fear Itself'. This leads into 'One', a brooding ballad which sounds like Pete Steele fronting Dream Theater. The mid section, featuring chorus vocals works excellently with both male and female voices. The only downside is that is rather brief. The title track is mostly instrumental and has a pulsing nature on the slower sections. While essentially a showcase for Vor’s guitar, it features brief, Yes-inspired vocals.
'Compound Fracture' is a very much a centrepiece for 'Fear Itself'. This thirteen minute epic features some fantastic guitar work. Rhythmically, it’s one of the album’s most complex pieces.

For me, the true standout moments include the slightly arabic feel on the vocal melodies of 'Only A Moment' and the goth-pop of ‘Voices Are Calling’, which turns all neo-progressive rock at the end, like a hybrid of Shadow Gallery and classic Yes (reprising the vocal section from the title track). In reality, though, 'Fear Itself' is a disc with something to offer most fans of progressive metal.

If you'd like to know more about Braindance, visit their website.

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

Friday, 5 March 2010


Although he’d been previously known for his work with Joshua and Shout in the late 80s, I was a little late in discovering Ken Tamplin, first hearing a track by him on a record company CD sampler in the early part of 1994. After hearing that track (‘Dancing on a Volcano’, from the ‘Tamplin’ LP), I knew I had to hear more of his stuff. Later that same year, a friend lent me a copy of this Magdallan album. He originally lent it to me thinking I’d like it, since he thought the first track was a bit prog-metal influenced. He hadn’t remembered Ken Tamplin was the band’s vocalist!

Of course I liked it - but not for the “prog metal” reasons my friend thought I would [aside from its general speed and a slightly edgy, metallic guitar riff, I’m not even sure why he thought it was prog metal. It's likely he confused them with Magellan]. In fact, my liking of this album had nothing to do with that first track; I found its full-on bombast a bit of a turn off. I was, however, more than impressed by the band for various other reasons. Firstly there was that Ken Tamplin connection (this album gave me a proper introduction to his work and I continued to buy his albums for a good few years afterwards), but also I liked the other band members: I’d been familiar with Lanny Cordola and Ken Mary previously, as they’d been members of House of Lords, a band whose first couple of albums I’d rather liked. So, since Magdallan featured a few musicians I was potentially interested in, I’m not sure how this album had managed to slip under my radar for a couple of years...

If I’m honest, I still don’t like that opening track, ‘End of the Ages’, much at all. While Ken Tamplin’s voice is strong, the band spends the best part of the track trying to outplay each other at full pelt. While the level of musicianship should be respected, the approach taken seems to be at the expense of the song. While some of Lanny Cordola’s guitar solos here are very good, when they’re combined with the fast rhythm section, it becomes very tiring. As a track, it’s far too demanding on the listener. Hats off to Brian Bromberg, though, for a jaw-dropping bassline.

With that out the way, the rest of ‘Big Bang’ is fantastic. If you’re looking for huge melodic rock: look no further! ‘Radio Bikini’ (not sure why they chose that name) is the stuff that late 80s rock radio was made of. It couples a huge chorus with a mid-paced rock riff, topped off with the kind of huge harmony vocals which would make Mutt Lange proud. ‘Shake’ opts for a funkier edge, led by bass player Brian Bromberg, whose work here is inspired, since it has a huge presence and manages to firmly stay within the hard rock parameters despite showing a strong funk influence, rather like the work of Marcel Jacob (sadly missed).

‘Wounded Hearts’, a big Whitesnake style ballad, feels much simpler again. It features another top vocal performance from Tamplin. Also less demanding is ‘Love To The Rescue’, a pumping hard rock workout; once again, Cordola grabs an opportunity to really show some chops in the guitar solo department, although unlike most of ‘The End of the Ages’, he’s a bit more restrained. The title cut has a confident swagger and, once again, the multi layered vocals are used to fantastic effect. Bromberg’s bass work goes for a funky edge again here and Lanny turns in an off-kilter guitar solo which raises a smile. This would have been the ultimate attention grabber before the horns were laid on!

The Led Zeppelin inspired, acoustic blues stomp of ‘Old Hard Line’ captures the whole band on top form. Tamplin’s blues rock vocal style is faultless, Ken Mary settles into an understated drum groove, Brian Bromberg’s bass playing has warmth, but it’s Lanny who stands out the most: his acoustic work is second to none – really stylish. A few bluesy vibes carry over to ‘Dome of the Rock’, but, this time, the band return to full-on rock mode. Bromberg’s contribution is superb, his busy bass runs lying behind a decent riff laid down by Lanny. Multi-layer vocals are the icing on the cake – somewhere between Queen circa 1974 and early Journey, they turn a decent rock tune into a pomp fan’s dream. Choirs of vocals swamp ‘House of Dreams’, the album’s ultimate lighters-in-the-air big hair rock moment. As with ‘Wounded Hearts’, the slower pace allows Ken Tamplin’s vocal to really shine.

Dozens of sampled voices played through a keyboard (a la ‘Leave It’ by Yes) kick off ‘Cry Just a Little’ before things settle into a standard rock groove. Again, the backing vocals are huge and is in good company with the rest of the album. Lanny throws in a really metallic guitar solo – and not to be outdone, Bromberg’s bass playing is really complex throught. Musically, this is quite demanding on the listener, but by this point of the album it shouldn’t be a mystery why these musicians are so well respected by melodic rock fans.

If you’ve never heard ‘Big Bang’ you’ll probably have half an idea what an album featuring Ken Tamplin backed by most of House of Lords could sound like. If you like your melodic rock to be larger than life and well produced (allegedly this cost about a quarter of a million dollars to make), then you’ll love this.

March 2010

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

KISS - Music From The Elder

Throughout the late 70s, it seemed KISS could do little wrong. In the US, their albums sold by the truckload and fans filled large stadiums to witness their face-painted theatrics. In 1979, nodding towards then current musical trends, KISS added disco elements to their brand of hard rock. This seemed to be a good move, as ‘Dynasty’ became another top seller and its single ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ became one of KISS’s best selling singles outside the US. Attempts at re-creating a similar formula for 1980’s ‘Unmasked’ were less successful, despite a couple of stand-out tracks. Drummer Peter Criss quit the band mid way through the albums sessions and things were generally not as rosy.

It was time for a re-think. Very much in favour after his work on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, producer Bob Ezrin (who’d previously worked as producer on KISS’s 1976 fan favourite ‘Destroyer’) was bought on board to produce the next album – the overblown concept piece ‘Music From The Elder’.

‘Music From The Elder’ follows a half-baked story about a futuristic world and a battle between good and evil. It’s best to not concentrate too much on that and just take the songs at face value, I find.
The songs themselves, don’t always feel like traditional Kiss songs – Ezrin’s orchestral arrangements and slick production swamps the album, as if he is the fifth band member here; this is obvious right from the introductory fanfare. His influence becomes absolutely unavoidable as Paul Stanley croons his way through ‘Odyssey’, which is pure musical theatre and not in the usual fun KISS style. Ace Frehley is said to have become rather unhappy with the musical direction ‘The Elder’ was taking but despite that, his contribution ‘Dark Light’ is quite strong, while Paul’s ‘The Oath’ demonstrates a hard rock style KISS would further explore on their 80s albums. The only track here which comes anywhere near the band’s previous anthem style is closing number ‘I’.
Gene’s lament ‘A World Without Heroes’ (co-written with Paul Stanley and Bob Ezrin, with a contribution from Lou Reed) and the more aggressive ‘Mr Blackwell’ are the essential tracks (it’s not very often you’ll find me picking Gene’s songs as KISS album highlights).

Upon release, many fans felt indifferent towards the album; sales were down and it marked the first time KISS did not tour. Some reviews were positive, though: Rolling Stone called the album ‘better than anything the band has recorded in years’.

Time has been kind to ‘Music From The Elder’. Ezrin’s production still sounds superb and musically, KISS are in good shape. Eric Carr makes his debut and turns in a good performance, despite supposedly sharing Frehley’s uncertainties about the concept album. Granted, some of the songs aren’t as catchy as previous outings – the concept approach means that sing-along anthems aren’t so evident. That aside, it’s a decent album none the less and I’m never sure why it tops fans’ ‘worst album’ lists. Bloated and pompous it may be, but there’s nothing here anywhere near as embarrassing as ‘Burn Bitch Burn’ (Animalize, 1984), ‘Bang Bang You’ (Crazy Nights, 1988) or ‘Domino’ (Revenge, 1991), so surely it deserves to be treated just a little better?

January 2010