Tuesday, 27 April 2010

FIRECRACKER - Born of Fire

Firecracker is a project featuring Stefan Lindholm and Pontus Larsson of Vindictive and Tommy Korevik of Seventh Wonder.  Before looking at the songs, it needs to be noted that this CD comprises work recorded prior to Lindholm, Larsson and Korevik forming or joining their respective bands.  It’s even been rumoured in places on the net that some of this was previously circulating as a demo under the Vindictiv moniker and that the re-branding of it under the Firecracker name is merely a cash-in.  Regardless of that, though, ‘Born of Fire’ with its hybrid of Swedish style hard rock and progressive metal influences contains some stand out moments.

The opening of ‘Blind Date’ offers one of my favourite intros on the album, with Lindholm announcing his presence by offering a flurry of notes.  In contrast to the shreddy bits, his more melodic, vibrato-led work has a great tone (although sadly, throughout a proportion of this disc, it’s the faster and edgier styles he favours).  Tommy Korevik’s vocals are very confident, a hybrid of Dream Theater’s James LaBrie at his most tuneful (on the softer parts) and any number of prog-metal vocalists on the louder parts.  Despite not having a particularly original vocal approach, Korevik has a decent set of lungs and his style is perfectly suited to most of the material here.  Not to be outdone by Lindholm, the mid-section of this track features a blistering keyboard solo by Pontus Larsson, who in turn, almost gets upstaged by Lindholm once again, upon making return for another fretboard hammering.

‘Second Self’ begins with a melodic metal intro with a classic sound, reminiscent of mid-eighties Iron Maiden, before leaning farther towards progressive metal once Korevik begins singing.  There are some off-kilter rhythms during this number and Hasse Wuzzel’s drum work is the key here with its double bass parts.  During ‘Gamekeeper’s Song’, though, some of the drums are so aggressively pneumatic, I’m not entirely convinced they haven’t been subject to some pre-programmed assistance or some post-production studio trickery.  A pity, since some of the more aggressive drum parts of this song seem to detract from one of Korevik’s best performances – especially from a melodic viewpoint.

The first of two instrumental numbers, ‘Instru(metal)’, gives each of the musicians time to stretch out.  If you’re looking for metal guitar work, Lindholm’s performance throughout this number is first rate (if a little wearing in places); Wuzzel’s drums take the pneumatic approach once again, but here they’re far less intrusive.  Larsson’s keyboard work is an equal match for Lindholm’s fretboard theatrics and those who enjoy prog-metal keyboard solos should enjoy this, especially those who enjoy keyboard word at the more squealy, extreme end of the spectrum.  The only downside is that bassist Frederik Forlkare sounds like he’s contributed some really decent work here; but sadly, his bass is so low in the mix it’s hard to pick out the intricacies of his playing, especially once Lindholm and Larsson get going.

‘Back Broken’ begins slowly with a chugging rhythm, before Linholm starts soloing frantically. This track seems to lose its way fairly quickly due to an odd time signature and a vocal melody which Korevik struggles to make scan properly. Despite this, his performance still remains decent. The interplay between Lindholm and Larsson is tight (as Vindictiv fans should expect), but it’s not quite enough to maintain interest over the song’s near six-minute playing time.  ‘The Refrain’ begins with a strong melodic bent, as Korevik delivers an effortless performance.  Unusually, Lindholm’s guitar work is far more restrained, complimenting Wazzel’s sporadic drum rhythms very well.  Korevik’s voice occasionally lapses into theatrical grandeur, but even so, it’s a track which best demonstrates his range.  By the time it comes to the guitar solo, Lindholm steps things up a gear (as expected), contributing edgy playing which is tempered nicely with more melodic moments.

Closing the album, ‘Speed Devil’ does exactly what is says on the tin.  In a textbook example of Swedish metal (a la Yngwie Malmsteen), Lindholm and Larsson trade off guitar and keyboard solos respectively, seemingly as fast as they can manage while retaining a tune.  Not being a musician myself, I find it harder to appreciate this on a technical level even though there’s clearly a truck-load of skill involved.  If I’m going to listen to virtuoso instrumental rock stuff, I’d much rather spend time listening to Gary Hoey, Jan Cyrka or Eric Johnson – y’know, the chaps who approach things from a song-based angle, even if they’re playing instrumentally.

Despite most of the musicianship being top notch, I’ve always found similar levels of shredding hard to cope with in long doses (especially true when it comes to stuff like ‘Speed Devil’) and a few more obvious vocal hooks and choruses would have made this all the more appealing.  That said (personal preferences aside), as an album, ‘Born of Fire’ achieves its goals.  Forget the chaps from Vindictiv, though: it’s Tommy Korevik who is the big draw here (for me, at least) and fans of Seventh Wonder should give this a listen – especially if they’ve not heard any of this material previously.

April 2010

Friday, 23 April 2010

THE BIRD AND THE BEE - Interpreting The Masters Volume 1

Signed to the Metro Blue imprint of the legendary Blue Note label, The Bird And The Bee is a electronic pop duo comprising of Greg Kurstin and Inara George (daughter of Little Feat legend Lowell George).

The first couple of albums by the duo passed me by, as generally I’m not a great fan of much electronica. However, every once in a while, something comes along which you’re not expecting. Such is the case with The Bird And The Bee’s third release, ‘Interpreting The Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates’. Being the fan of Daryl and John that I am, I knew this would be interesting listening. It doesn’t really need to be said, but for years now Hall and Oates have been considered very uncool and I suspect that had any other electronic duo tackled this, it’d be with “ironic” smiles on their faces. However, given Inara’s parentage, I’d suggest there’s a fair chance this is done with a love of the original tunes – it’s even likely her father knew the velvety voiced one and his moustachioed companion. The end result is a mixed bag – there are a few excellent covers here, alongside some okay ones and, thankfully, nothing comes out terribly.

Firstly, I’m not sure why they bothered covering ‘Maneater’ and ‘I Can’t Go For That’. ‘Maneater’ sounds like it’s been created from the same drum loop; Inara’s voice is fine, but aside from a couple of interesting keyboard sounds, compared to some of the other stuff featured on this release, this is very workmanlike, despite a cameo vocal from Garbage’s Shirley Manson. Similarly, ‘I Can’t Go For That’ utilises a few unnecessarily harsh keyboard sounds as well as a few fills borrowed from 80s soul-pop. While Inara’s voice here is enjoyable, there’s something uninventive about the end result. ‘Kiss On My List’ is a little better – that’s mainly due, once again, to Inara George’s performance. This is a decent cover, even though the stabbing keyboards which drive the original are completely absent and the closing guitar part has been replaced with a really nasty keyboard solo.

The best of the bunch here are the takes on the 70s Hall and Oates material. The electronic nature of The Bird And The Bee’s music means that a couple of these have been given a proper re-imagining. ‘Sara Smile’ features Inara at her vocal best, a smooth voice which really pulls in the listener. Musically, the drum beat gives the song a good amount of depth, but never quite drops into full trip-hop mode. The classic ‘Rich Girl’ begins with noises which sound like they’re created for a children’s song, while the main thrust comes from a pre-programmed loop which is pure Casiotone. The hand-claps are a little unnecessary and some of the arrangement could’ve been a little more subtle, but somehow it has more than enough charm to make you forgive any shortcomings. Their version of ‘She’s Gone’ could well be one of the most perfect examples of electronic pop ever. Fantastic multilayered vocals are used against a well-crafted loop (I can even ignore the Casio samba elements); the bass sounds add a decent amount of bottom end despite not being very natural sounding. Granted, they had a belter of a song to work with, but this, alongside ‘Sara Smile’ could be reason enough to give this a listen.

The version of ‘One On One’ improves upon the original (if you’re a Hall and Oates fan yourself, you’ll understand this isn’t a claim I make lightly). The version here is still a slow-burning, soulful affair, but this arrangement actually beats the drum programming from the original. It’s still all programmed, but most importantly, they’ve done away with that horrible Casio samba (they obviously realised having used one for ‘She’s Gone’, using another would have been extravagantly bad taste). The music concentrates on sporadically used chords against a heavily reverbed drum sound. During the instrumental breaks, the lead also employs some harder electronic treatments. Also, Inara’s voice is well suited to the song (far be it for me to suggest Daryl and John weren’t, there’s just something about ‘One On One’ which sounds like a weak link compared to most of their ‘H2O’ album).

This release also features one original composition: a single release, ‘Heard It On The Radio’ is supposedly designed to fit the mood of the rest of the disc and conjure an AM radio mood. It’s fairly successful in its attempt. While the verses have a slightly funky dance/pop vibe, slightly Moloko-esque, the guitars during the chorus are reminiscent of Rick Springfield and that style of feel-good 80s pop/rock - and this track more than makes up for a couple of the Hall and Oates numbers not quite hitting the spot.

If you liked The Bird and The Bee previously, their take on a selection of Hall and Oates’s tunes should leave you smiling. There’s something about this release which feels as if it were made for iPods and summer days; and for the rest of the year, file it under “quirky and fun”. However, I have a feeling that most Hall and Oates fans are not going to be very tolerant of this kind of meddling.

April 2010

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

URIAH HEEP - Very 'Eavy, Very 'Umble

As the optimism of the late 60s crumbled, music became darker. In 1970, Deep Purple (Mark II) recorded their genre-shaping masterpiece ‘In Rock’ and, Black Sabbath, in their debut, gave the world something which would be seen as of the first truly heavy metal albums. That same year, Uriah Heep released their debut, ‘Very ‘Eavy...Very ‘Umble’, an album which often gets overlooked.

Heep fans hate that the band often gets referred to negatively as a poor man’s Deep Purple (especially given that Uriah Heep’s music drew from a broader palette than Purple’s as their respective careers wore on). Fact is though, Uriah Heep are always likely to be mentioned in the same breath as the Purps, purely based on the music contained within the grooves of ‘Very ‘Eavy...’ – some of the songs tread a similar path of blues and hard rock (with a smidgeon of prog) as the Deep Purple output from ‘In Rock’.

Before delving into the tracks on the record, it should be noted that ‘Very ‘Eavy...’ is a little bit of a mess, band line-up wise. The album features David Byron (vocals), Mick Box (guitar) and Paul Newton (bass) on all tracks. Keyboard player Ken Hensley lends his chops to most of the album, but a couple of songs were recorded prior to his appointment. Likewise, although Nigel Olsson is the best known drummer from the sessions, he only appears on two tracks – the majority of the drum work having been performed by Alex Napier. Put simply, Uriah Heep weren’t exactly a cohesive unit in 1970. Luckily, though, ‘Very ‘Eavy...’ contains some cracking tracks.

Opening the album is one of the band’s best known songs, ‘Gypsy’. This is one of the tracks which is largely responsible for the Purple comparison - combining, as it does, slabs of Hammond organ work with a monolithic guitar riff. ‘Dreammare’ takes a similar hard rock approach, but tempers it with psychedelic blues elements. Mick Box’s aggressive guitar work throughout is the tracks main focus, but lots of pompy harmony vocals (something of an early Heep trademark) help give the band an individual quality. A melodramatic cover of ‘Come Away Melinda’ (previously recorded by Judy Collins, Harry Belafonte and others) highlights a softer side to the band. David Byron’s aching (dare I say crooned?) vocal is complimented by sounds from a mellotron and a fantastic bass line.

‘Real Turned On’ remains an unremarkable rock number despite a decent riff and is probably the album’s weakest track. It achieves its goal, but up against the rest of the material there’s not much to make it stand out. The epic ‘Wake Up (Set Your Sights)’ is another moment where Deep Purple comparisons are almost unavoidable. The Hammond organ comes in waves and Mick Box’s guitar work occasionally slips into Ritchie Blackmore territory, while Byron’s powerful voice more than occasionally wanders into similar territory as classic Ian Gillan. There’s an element weaving in and out which is reminiscent of Deep Purple’s under-rated Mark I line-up too (actually, there are elements of ‘Come Away Melinda which share similar traits to Deep Purple’s fledgling pre-1970 line-up; interesting how people only lazily compare this album to Deep Purple Mark II’s work... It shares just as much in common with the Mark I stuff). It should never be considered second-rate compared to Purple though, no matter what line-up it most resembles. This album represents a band who bring enough of their own talents and flourishes to make it hold up beyond all the easy comparisons. The unmistakable Heep harmonies make well-timed appearances during ‘Wake Up (Set Your Sights)’, but it’s the track’s more subtle elements which make it a winner. Alex Napier’s hard rock drumming is full of jazz flourishes (his work here is excellent and you have to wonder why he did not want to stick with the band) and Paul Newton’s bass runs are not only complex, but beautifully played. Forget ‘Gypsy’ – it’s this track which really should be the album’s most treasured song.

Rolling Stone famously slated ‘Very 'Eavy...Very ‘Umble’ upon release and they weren’t alone in their dislike of Uriah Heep. Granted, the album is unlikely to be part of the public consciousness in quite the same way as the early Zeppelin, Purple and Sabbath classics, but it’s a solid debut. Uriah Heep would go on to record more adventurous albums than some of the music found on ‘Very ‘Eavy...Very ‘Umble’ would suggest, but despite its stupid Dickens-referencing title, this first outing from Uriah Heep is a fine start to a long career.

February 2010 (Some tweaking in April 2010)

Saturday, 17 April 2010

JEFF BECK - Emotion & Commotion

I first became aware of Jeff Beck in the mid-80s. My first proper exposure to his work was via his short set on the ‘ARMS’ charity concert video, where he – alongside Fernando Saunders, Simon Phillips and regular collaborator Tony Hymas – played superb versions of a handful of his better known instrumental tunes, complete with a rare outing of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ to finish (but we’ll gloss over that). A few years later, the BBC used tracks from his then current album ‘Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop’ as the soundtrack to the Comic Strip TV film ‘South Atlantic Raiders’. After hearing some of that, I knew I had to get one.

Over the following years, I caught up with the rest of Jeff’s back catalogue, in addition to hearing each of his new releases as they came out. 1999’s ‘Who Else?’ and 2000’s ‘You Had It Coming’ featured some very vibrant work, as you’d expect from a man who has always been keen on pushing musical boundaries and taking his guitar playing to new levels.

On paper, ‘Emotion and Commotion’, Beck’s 2010 release could have been great. Jeff Beck, accompanied in places by a 64 piece orchestra, produced by Trevor Horn? What could go wrong? But surprisingly, this (an album marking Jeff Beck’s return to the studio after a seven year break), is mostly lacklustre. Trading in a lot of his distinctive guitar styles for a more relaxed, atmospheric approach may have been Beck’s choice, but I’m unsure as to whether that choice was a good one. It’s also disappointing to note that of the ten pieces of music on this album, only two feature a Jeff Beck writing credit. That said, Beck contibuted nothing to the writing of 'Wired' (his jazz-rock masterpiece with Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden) and that turned out great.  The big problem with 'Commotion & Emotion' is an over-reliance on cover tunes (and not always inspiring ones at that), as opposed to great new material written by Beck or his bandmates, though keyboard player Jason Rebello contributes a couple of decent numbers.

Opening with Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’(previously covered by Jeff Buckley), the soft and atmospheric guitar part is so distinctly Beck, yet it sounds like he’s just wandering effortlessly through the piece; if you want this kind of atmosphere, you’ve heard him do it time and again but better (see ‘Where Were You’ from ‘Guitar Shop’ for a start). This leads into ‘Hammerhead’ – the first of a couple of high spots and the first of the two Beck compositions.  It doesn't set the world on fire in the way you know it could've, but it's decent enough. Beck makes good use of wah-wah pedal during the intro, before the rest of the band join with something best described as a bluesy swagger. The Latin shuffle based ‘Never Alone’ (written by Rebello) could’ve been promising. I could tell you Jeff’s guitar tone is beautiful, but the end result is uninspiring.

From here, things go from okay to fairly pointless. It may be well orchestrated, but why should Jeff Beck want to cover ‘Over The Rainbow’? More importantly, why should you want to listen to it? Unless you’re very patient (or about to go into a retirement home) chances are you don’t. His guitar playing is subtle and the song is treated respectfully with the right amount of wistfulness, but ultimately this is filler material. A similarly uninspiring and predictable cover of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ follows. This could have been great, since it features Joss Stone on guest vocal and she’s in particularly good voice, but the resulting arrangement sounds like any decent-ish band churning out an oft covered song, exactly the way you’d expect. Is this the same Jeff Beck who recorded an edgy rendition of the blues standard ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ at the beginning of the 21st century with Imogen Heap?? If so, where’s the fire gone? Let’s have some passion!

Imelda May steps in on vocals for a cover of ‘Lilac Wine’ (best known to most people via a version recorded by the hideously over-rated Jeff Buckley). Her voice suits the song very well, but Jeff’s contribution seems to be limited to the occasional jazzy noodle or bit of vibrato at least until near the end when he gets to perform a solo, but again, it’s nothing to write home about. ‘Serene’ (the album’s other co-write) starts gently, building to a funky shuffle which promises a great deal. Jeff’s lead playing here sounds like the lyrical playing from the past, but there’s a feeling he’s done this all a hundred times before – often better. The high point during this track is the lead bass work by Tal Wilkenfeld. Despite feeling a little obvious, it manages to be one of the two or three numbers here which show any real promise. ‘Nessan Dorma’ gets a work-through with strings (again beautifully arranged) and with Jeff’s guitar replacing the vocal, but it doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to listen to more than a couple of times.

‘No Other Me’ is the only time this album tackles anything with an edge. Written by Joss Stone and Jason Rebello, this is worth checking this album out for. Joss Stone’s voice tackles to the song at full volume, while the musicians give her suitably hard backing; that’s not to say it’s presented without any subtlety though: Well-reknowned drummer Vinnie Colaiuta’s hi-hat and drum work is fantastic and Tal Wilkenfield’s slightly disjointed bass work is striking. During the chorus sections, Stone’s distinctive wail could strip paint from walls and Colaiuta’s drum work is very aggressive. Throughout the song, Beck almost takes a back seat chipping in with ringing guitar chords. Everything here really works. At the song’s end, Beck just starts to play what sounds like what could be a really great solo – and frustratingly the song fades; it seems Beck’s decision to sideline any major fretboard work has been taken to the absolute limit.

The album closes with ‘Elegy For Dunkirk’, composed by Dario Marianelli. As expected, the orchestration is great, but beyond that, there’s nothing much happening. Jeff Beck plays vibrato-filled guitar notes sparingly as Olivia Safe adds light operatic vocals. It provides a gentle ending to a mostly gentle album.

Emotion and commotion? Only fleeting moments of either, I’m afraid. If you’re looking for the Jeff Beck who recorded some fantastic guitar instrumental works throughout the years, there’s little for you here. Aside from a couple of tracks (that storming Joss Stone effort, especially), this sounds mostly like easy listening music played by a sexagenarian for other sexagenarians to enjoy. I have a great deal of respect for Jeff Beck and never thought I’d be reviewing one of his albums so negatively, but ‘Emotion & Commotion’ is unlikely to be filling a lot of my listening time.

For those who wish to hear a genuine legend at his best, I suggest checking out the following: ‘Wired’ (Jeff’s 1976 jazz-rock masterpiece); ‘Guitar Shop’ (one of the best guitar rock instrumental albums ever) and ‘You Had It Coming’ (an experimental mix of rock guitar and electronic drum loops and stuff). Those are the ones to get if you want to hear Jeff not only at his best, but to get a feel for the range of his playing. If you enjoy those and check out others later, it’s highly likely you’ll hear ‘Emotion & Commotion’ eventually...just don’t expect much from it.

April 2010

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

TALLY HALL - Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum

Welcome, ladies and gents, to ‘Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum’, bought to you by a bunch guys better known for the colours of their skinny ties than their names. Collectively, the guys in ties are Tally Hall – a power pop/college rock ensemble from Michigan.

The opening number ‘Good Day’ (winner of the 2004 John Lennon Scholarship Competition) brings many classic power pop influences to the fore: take Ben Folds’s piano, Jellyfish’s knack for a catchy melody and Sugarbomb’s instant pop-friendliness, add a twisted barber-shop choir of multi-tracked vocals, and essentially, you’ve got what makes up the heart of this opening track and the main thrust what drives the handful of good tracks on the album. ‘Taken for a Ride’ recalls the stompy elements of ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ (as well as utilising the Sparky’s Magic Piano vocal noises) and despite my abject hatred of most of ELO’s work, have to concede that this works well. The slow section near the end of the song reminds me of The Polyphonic Spree, which is especially pleasing.

‘Greener’ makes excellent use of spiky rhythm guitars and occasional Cars-style keyboards; the chorus isn’t quite as hooky as some of the other material, but once again for power pop connoisseurs, it ticks enough of the boxes. The slower ‘Just Apathy’ is the album’s most mature piece of songwriting; its style of adult pop is far more in the Ben Folds camp, but even so, is still very much welcomed among the power pop elements here. Another great number, ‘Two Wuv’, features a riff that sounds like ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ coupled with an arrangement which sounds like a Weezer cast-off. Bass-led verses with obsessive lyrics eventually give way to a chorus with multi tracked vocals. A sugary hook completes the picture during this slightly wrong ode to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. This tale of unrequited love with a major quirk brings me nicely onto the rest of the album’s tunes.

In addition to the bits of power pop goodness, the band have recorded another half a dozen songs which are so annoying I’m almost at a loss for words. It’s hard to know with the album’s quirkier stuff whether Tally Hall are playing things for laughs or not – and I really hope they are. ‘Welcome To Tally Hall’, mixes bad rap elements with a casio keyboard – think Barenaked Ladies meets Hot Action Cop and you might have some idea where we are. The multi tracked vocals on the chorus sections are quite pleasing, but it’s not enough to stop me reaching for the skip button most of the time. ‘Banana Man’ is a Harry Belafonte inspired calypso, complete with funny vocal (look, if it’s not Harry Shearer doing this on the soundtrack for A Mighty Wind, it’s not happening, okay? And you can keep your banana). The mid section goes a little Barenaked Ladies again, but if you haven’t tried to claw your ears off by that point I’d be surprised. ‘The Bidding’ offers one of the worst misfires, matching an R‘n’B style vocal (that’s the 21st century soul/dance rubbish ‘n’ bollocks, as opposed to rhythm and blues) with occasional bursts of rock guitar. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to hear ‘Haiku’ ever again, either – Hawaiian inspired calypso music which sounds like a blatent Barenaked Ladies rip off was one of the last things this experience needed.

For those looking for excellent examples of power pop, ‘Marvin’ offers a handful of really great songs; likewise for those who like albums with surprises (I’m trying not to use the word novelty here) then it’s a museum of musical curios. This album has been likened to Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ elsewhere on the net. That’s a little bit of a lazy comparison; where ‘Smile’ acted as a musical soundtrack to one man’s well-documented breakdown, ‘Marvin’s’ is has far fewer sinister undertones. ...But that’s not to say it’s necessarily fun.

A frustrating album, indeed: it’s novelty elements are sure to frustrate all but the most tolerant of power pop fans, and yet those who appreaciate Tally Hall purely on a quirky, superficial level probably won’t appreciate the quality of songcraft featured during the album’s two or three great tunes. What were they thinking? More importantly, what were Atlantic Records thinking when they picked this up three years after it was first released and then added new bits and smoothed out the edges? Surely a waste of time and resources...

I would have much preferred it if they’d concentrated on making more music in the vein of ‘Good Day’ and ‘Two Wuv’. If they had, this album could have been a power-pop classic.

April 2010

Monday, 12 April 2010


In the early 90’s I was a big Guns n’ Roses fan.  I mean, who wasn’t?  They were the biggest rock band on the planet back then.  However, a fifteen year gap between the release of ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’ (a poor covers album) and ‘Chinese Democracy’ damaged their public profile, not to mention the record company’s wallet.  (‘Chinese Democracy’ was interesting in itself: the resulting album was essentially Axl Rose and some blokes, since nearly the whole of the classic line-up had walked by then.   Surprisingly, the end result was decent; although whether it was worth waiting fifteen years for is open to debate; as is whether or not Axl plus blokes actually equals G n’ R, for that matter.  Maybe we’ll talk about that some other time).

Anyway, I digress... During that wilderness period, the classic G n’ R band members released a multitude of discs, most with something to recommend them.  It became clear with each of these side projects and solo releases that Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Gilby Clarke and Duff McKagan all possessed a decent amount of talent. 

‘Sick’ is the second studio album by Duff McKagan’s Loaded (the first being 2002’s ‘Dark Days’).  As you’re possibly expecting, the album offers a hard rock ride with a slightly retro sneer (on the surface that suits me fine, since both Velvet Revolver albums were dishwater dull. For a project featuring three ex-members of G n’ R and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots fame, the outcome could have been so much better).   It’ll come as no surprise that the best tracks are the upbeat ones with a trashy spirit.  If that’s what you’re after, then ‘Sick’ will provide entertainment.  Opening with the title track: one part Stooges, three parts glam metal; this really is where Duff excels.  Mike Squires kicks things off with a punchy guitar riff (and later throws in an edgy solo) and Duff’s husky voice lends attitude. In addition to the main riff, guitarist Mike Squires throws in an edgy guitar solo.  The stomping rock of ‘Sleaze Factory’ and ‘Flatline’ keep up momentum with plenty of sass and decent choruses.  It’s only by track four (‘IOU’) Duff’s bass work comes to the fore.  While not flashy, the more upfront bass sound is very welcome here.  It could’ve worked well on the previous tracks, but I think this album is more about attention grabbing attitude than musical prowess.

‘The Slide’ offers another slab of rock ‘n’ roll guitars with a punky edge and ‘Blind Date Girl’ is a superb five minutes of trashy rock (reminding me more of a few past efforts by ex-G n’ R chums Gilby Clarke and Izzy Stradlin); the addition of a horn section make this a standout – and as such, it’s the only slower track which really works (although ‘No Shame’ – another track highlighting Duff’s punchy bass work - fares quite well for a mid-pacer, thanks to a decent chorus).   
Even more obviously, the woozy ‘Wasted’ and ‘Mother’s Day’ really let the side down.  The musical arrangements are rather empty and McKagan’s vocal limitations do nothing to give things a lift.  Face it, while Duff does a fine job on the punchy stuff, he just doesn’t have enough vocal chops to tackle the more emotional stuff.   ‘Translucent’ also misses the mark a little, sounding a little like a Tommy Stinson/Bash & Pop cast off (and hey, while we’re back here again, exactly why has Stinson been in G n’ R for years?  His input into his previous bands would suggest he’s got far more talent than he’s ever likely to have needed playing bass as part of Axl’s pick-up band.  I suppose the retainer must be good).   

Essentially, this album by Duff McKagan’s Loaded is kind of like a doughnut.  In the main, it’ll make you feel good and give you a quick fix.  If you were looking for something with a longer lasting hit, it’s possible this could leave you unsatisfied.

February 2010    

Friday, 9 April 2010

IRON MAIDEN - Number Of The Beast

By the time Iron Maiden entered the studio to record their third album, they had no previously unused material in their archive. Bruce Dickinson (aka ex-Samson vocalist Bruce Bruce) had also become the band’s frontman, replacing Paul Di’Anno, who’d provided vocals on Maiden’s first two full-length releases. The band and producer Martin Birch (who’d produced their previous album, ‘Killers’) were effectively starting from scratch.

What resulted is probably one of the finest heavy metal albums of all time. It’s certainly the album where Iron Maiden’s “classic” sound found its feet.

Telling a tale of Viking hordes, of plundering, rape and pillage, ‘Invaders’ opens the album with a real statement of intent. The band approach the number at full pace; Steve Harris employs an unmistakably aggressive bass style, while Clive Burr turns in one of his most powerful drum performances. Dickinson’s wailing vocal shows itself to be almost the polar opposite to Paul Di’Anno’s raw, punk-influenced vocal style - and he announces his presence rather unsubtly. A strong opening, certainly, but there’s far better to come...

‘Children of the Damned’ (inspired by the movie of the same name) is the album’s gentlest track. In some ways it feels like it appears slightly too early on the LP, but provides a brilliant contrast to the opening number. It highlights the softer end of Bruce’s vocal range, as well as proving how effortlessly he hits the long vibrato-edged notes. Adrian Smith guitar work appears in both its extremes, offering some gorgeous soaring guitar work during the song’s intro and a blistering guitar solo towards the end. A couple of other songs from the album have outshone this one in terms of longevity, but musically, ‘Children of the Damned’ shows a great maturity and is one of the album’s standouts.

Inspired by the cult 60s series starring Patrick McGoohan, ‘The Prisoner’ returns things to a fast pace. The track begins with the famous sample of McGoohan’s “I am not a number...I am a free man” and Burr’s pounding drums, before kicking into high gear. Steve Harris’s bass playing here is upfront and high in the mix, but surprisingly he never opts for his favourite galloping approach. The track also features fantastic guitar work from both Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. A co-write between Steve Harris and Adrian Smith, ‘The Prisoner’ has a more melodic chorus than a lot of other songs here. I presume that was Smith’s big contribution, as his writing has sometimes shown a slight AOR/melodic rock influence.

A sequel to ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ from Iron Maiden’s self titled debut appears in the form of ’22 Acacia Avenue’. Supposedly based on someone the band knew, lyrically it provides a low point for ‘Number of the Beast’ with its tales of red-light wrong-doing. Musically, though, the band is in fine form, yet again. A slow lead guitar break midway acts as the song’s climax.

The two single releases culled from ‘The Number of the Beast’ (‘Run To The Hills’ and the title song) have remained solid fan favourites. While neither of the songs are as complicated as some of the material Maiden would go on to record, both tracks typify the band’s classic sound. The ‘Number of the Beast’ song is interesting, if only for the fact that it’s lyrically better than most things from this album (supposedly inspired by a nightmare Harris had), yet musically isn’t quite as good as some of the album’s other tracks. However, that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable and it remains one of Maiden’s best known songs. The anthemic nature of ‘Run To The Hills’ has allowed it to become one of the tracks most associated with the NWOBHM and become a staple for rock compilations. Musically, this employs a galloping bassline; something which recurs throughout various other Maiden tracks and a sound very easily identifiable with Harris. Both ‘Run To The Hills’ and ‘The Number of the Beast’ have been almost permanent fixtures in the band’s live set since 1982.

‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is more grandiose, hinting at a more complex musical approach. Lyrically, it tells the tale of a man waiting to die. He waits in his cell for someone to take him to his execution. Dickinson’s vocals are soft and slightly reflective at first, identifying with the dying man’s plight, before building to his trademark wail. The music builds in tandem, soft to begin with, then adding some excellent twin guitar leads. Most of the track focuses on a mid paced, classic heavy metal sound; it builds gradually, always making fantastic use of those twin harmonies on the guitars, until it reaches its peak, as the whole band play their hearts out – parts of the end section are as fast as anything ‘Number of the Beast’ has to offer. Clive Burr hammers out a relentless drum rhythm as Smith and Murray offer up a couple of top guitar solos; all the while, the whole thing is being anchored by Harris’s bass work, always solid and never showy.

‘The Number of the Beast’ offers only one obviously weak track: ‘Gangland’ (written by Smith and Burr) sounds throwaway compared to the rest of the album. Clive Burr’s drumming is solid and, as always, Bruce’s vocal is great, but the opening guitar riff sounds slightly jarring. That’s enough for the track to never really recover, but it’s also a bit weak lyrically.

‘Number of the Beast’ became a platinum seller, reaching number one on the UK album chart. It’s now rightly regarded as one of the great musical milestones of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

[The remastered CD features ‘Total Eclipse’ as a bonus track.]

February 2010

Sunday, 4 April 2010

KLARK KENT - Kollected Works

Between 1978 and 1980, using the pseudonym Klark Kent, the world-famous drummer Stewart Copeland (hi-hat god) released a 10” EP and a handful of singles. On these tracks, he performed everything, allegedly with no outside help. These releases sold moderately in the UK. Klark Kent’s career made little impact, barring his best-known release, ‘Don’t Care’, which charted briefly. Each of these singles is now hard to find, especially in decent condition.

In the mid 90s, the (almost) complete recorded works of Copeland masquerading as Klark Kent were given a CD reissue as the ‘Kollected Works’. It featured all the tracks from the 10" and 7"s, as well as a few unreleased tracks (including 'Strange Things Happen' and 'Love Lessons', recorded a few years later, in the mid-eighties).

The CD appeared and then disappeared seemingly as quickly and now fetches stupid amounts of money whenever it changes hands, but is it worth it? Are Copeland’s extra-curricular offerings - part vanity, part novelty - actually worth listening to?
I’d say they were. I may be a little biased when it comes to Stewart Copeland, but I feel these recordings still have plenty of spark and make for decent listening, especially if you’re a Police fan.

In the past, rumours have circulated that some of these tracks were scheduled for inclusion on The Police’s debut LP ‘Outlandos D’Amour’ - but such rumours have never been confirmed, as far as I know. It’s worth keeping that in mind when listening, especially considering some of these songs are more than reminiscent of the Copeland penned ‘On Any Other Day’ (as featured on the second Police LP, ‘Regatta De Blanc’).

The best known track, ‘Don’t Care’ still has a sneer. Maybe it’s been softened a little over the years, but alongside ‘Where’s Captain Kirk’ by Athletico Spizz 80, remains one of the essential post-punk singles. ‘Rich in a Ditch’ is okay as far as it goes; an obvious chorus is saved from being ordinary, by Copeland’s unmistakable rhythms working between snare and hi-hat effortlessly. ‘Grandelinquent’ is classic Copeland. An instrumental piece, naturally heavy on the percussion, it falls somewhere between The Police instrumentals ‘The Other Way Of Stopping’ (although a fair bit slower in places) with atmospherics, similar to ‘Behind My Camel’ (from 1980’s ‘Zenyatta Mondatta’). There’s an interesting jazzy piano break and great percussion at the end which sounds like bottles…

‘Too Kool To Kalypso’ features a similar vocal delivery to the aforementioned Police song ‘On Any Other Day’ and is often thought to be a high point of this collection. While the percussion is good, I find the kazoo interludes (yes, kazoo) push this too far towards novelty. However, it’s not as much like that ‘On Any Other Day’ as ‘My Old School’, which almost feels like an earlier attempt at writing something in that vein. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me this was written with inclusion on that second Police album in mind. Another instrumental cut, ‘Theme For Kenetic Ritual’, differs from other tracks in that it’s not quite as percussion based, centring instead around a guitar riff. As such, while pleasant, it’ll never quite hit the spot in the same way as ‘Grandelinquent’, especially with the kazoo making a return appearance at the end. ‘Strange Things Happen’ has a reggae vibe and is one of the tracks most reminiscent of The Police, although it’s nowhere near as polished.

At the time of writing, you’ll never find this on CD without having to sell your internal organs to raise the asking price and it’s a bit much to hope for another reissue. It should be heard though, especially if you like The Police. Unless you’re a Copeland obsessive though, it’s unlikely you’d choose to listen to it instead of those early Police LPs, no matter how good some of the material genuinely is.

See Klark perform 'Don't Care' on Top of the Pops here.
See the video for 'Away From Home' here.

October 2007