Monday, 30 August 2010

JUSTIN KLINE - Six Songs EP

six songs

Hailing from Nashville, Justin Kline is a singer-songwriter whose work fits neatly into the power pop niche. The world has seen many similar musicians; however, Kline is a gifted multi-instrumentalist, providing this self-released EP with its vocals, guitars, bass and keyboards. As for his overall musical style, he takes the bounciness of mid-60s Brian Wilson (though hopefully without the cupboard full of skeletons), the brilliance of Brendan Benson and the all-round professionalism of pop revivalists Jellyfish, proving fully understands the best ingredients required to make a great power pop record.

While each of the EP’s songs has something of note, that spark of greatness is at its most obvious during ‘How I Became The Wind’ – a track resplendent in sunshine grooves, stabbing keys, sleigh bells and a knowing smile. The drum pattern which drives the piece evokes the marching vibe from Jellyfish’s ‘Ghost at Number One’ – always welcome – while his distinctive vocal strives for pop perfection. The lead voice is counterbalanced by rather effective whoahs on the chorus section and harmony vocals are well placed during the verses. Aside from a spacious, organ driven break midway, ‘How I Became The Wind’ is a tight, near perfect, slice of power pop. ‘Heart Attack’ works its magic via a semi-acoustic shuffle before a stomping chorus takes hold. Kline’s high vocal pitch gives this sixties-inspired number a striking, if occasionally sinister edge. Although the approach is a standard jangle-pop one, the punch of the chorus gives the arrangement an extra sharp quality. The closing section has a slightly claustrophobic quality, leading to Kline’s vocal cracking under the delivery of the last line. ‘All I Need’ features one of Kline’s best vocals. Here, his higher registers are saved for a multi-vocalled chorus; musically, it’s another fabulous number – one which wouldn’t be out of place on Mark Bacino’s ‘Pop Job’ long-player (which, you all really should check out if you haven’t already). While the verses have a light airiness, it’s the sharpness of the chorus, followed by a multi-layered vocal and Brian Wilson-esque theramin sound which provide the track’s most memorable elements.

‘Singing In The Air’ opts for a rumpty-tumpty rhythm which hints at country-pop, especially with the subtle use of steel guitar and twangy guitar lead midway. You’d be hard pushed to mistake it for a country tune beyond that though, as Kline’s vocal retains the pop shine it delivers on the rest of the EP. ‘Kaleidoscope’ offers something a little more complex with its fuzzed up vocals, guitars and harder edges. The punch on the chorus once again recalls Jellyfish, Jason Falkner and Brendan Benson, while a trippy instrumental break utilises understated oohs and ahs against a gentle mellotron-esque sound, making it another hugely enjoyable listen.

The closing number, ‘Sunshine’ sounds, at first, like it’s going to be a slightly lower-key acoustic song; the acoustic elements here are more pronounced, that’s true, but once everything finds its groove, it becomes a solid piece of bubblegum pop. For the first couple of spins it was as good as most of the EP’s material, then after a few more listens the cracks began to appear: the overly optimistic lyrics are a little cloying, but the musical arrangement helps carry it off...almost. That optimism (which might be a religious thing, I’m undecided) gives the EP a positive ending, but its over-enthusiasm, for me, makes it the most skippable track.

Although a little flawed in places, ‘Six Songs’ is highly recommended for power pop connoisseurs; a release which ought to place Justin Kline alongside Mike Viola and Mark Bacino as one of the great champions of timeless pop.

Get mp3s here.


<a href="http://justinkline.bandcamp.com/album/six-songs">All I Need by Justin Kline</a>


August 2010

Thursday, 26 August 2010

IGGY POP - Préliminaires

iggy

In 2009, Iggy’s musical direction took a U-Turn. After a couple of really great hard rock releases (2003’s ‘Skull Ring’ and 2007’s ‘The Weirdness’ - recorded with The Stooges, marking their first studio album in 34 years), comes ‘Préliminaires’, a largely soft, introspective record. Interestingly, this career shift mirrors Iggy’s change in direction at the end of the previous decade, when he followed the hard rock ‘American Caesar’ and ‘Naughty Little Doggie’ with the reflective crooning of ‘Avenue B’ – an album which gathered mixed reactions.

‘Préliminaires’ is heavily influenced by European easy listening material. Its softer nature means that it’s a record which has various things in common with ‘Avenue B’. He’s called upon the crooning style he employed for some of that album; and for those who can remain open-minded, pretty much everything about ‘Préliminaires’ works – even though on paper, the idea of Iggy returning to crooning (and sometimes in French) doesn’t sound like the best career move.

The album is bookended by two renditions of ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’, a song associated with Yves Montand and Edith Piaf, so that should give you a fair idea of how most of ‘Préliminaires’ sounds (or more importantly, feels, as it’s an album about atmosphere and tone rather than attention grabbing songs). A gentle drum loop lies beneath Ig’s deep vocal, accompanied by gentle organ work by Jon Cowherd. ‘I Want To go The Beach’ (an album high point) again features Iggy’s deepest Leonard Cohen-esque croon. This track has a really tasteful musical arrangement, with beautifully played bass work, courtesy of Hal Cragin (co-writer of most of the album’s original compositions). The New Orleans jazz styled ‘King of the Dogs’ (a track based around music written by Lil Hardin Armstrong, second wife of Louis Armstrong) provides the album with its first upbeat moment. The brass work here, played by Tim Ouimette, gives this number a really classic feel.

A duet with Françoise Hardy, ‘Je Sais que tu Sais’, has a slightly stompy quality, like an odd French cousin to ‘Nightclubbing’ (from Iggy’s 1977 album ‘The Idiot’). It’s not aggressive by any means, but retains an edginess compared to a lot of the album. If it’s edginess you want, ‘Préliminaires’, offers a couple more upbeat moments: ‘She’s a Business’ offers a similar stompy style to ‘Je Sais que tu Sais’ but fares badly due to a treated vocal. ‘Nice To Be Dead’ is the album’s only ‘traditionally Iggy’ sounding song. I’m sure on any other Iggy Pop album it’d sound great, but once you become accustomed to the softer qualities of ‘Préliminaires’, it just feels wrong somehow.

‘Machine For Loving’ highlights how great Iggy’s voice still sounds during spoken word moments. Here, he’s accompanied by effective reverbed, twangy guitar and bass, while drums are used sparingly. It sounds like a narrative from a movie scene in a desert and fits the mood of the album excellently. There are a couple of other excursions away from the album’s warm, lush sounding safety net. ‘He’s Dead, She’s Alive’ is a simple acoustic blues number finding Iggy in an unmistakable, slighty rough around the edges vocal form. The bad language here jars a little, but doesn’t really stop the flow; the electronica based ‘Party Time’ is less welcome – it really screws up the otherwise very natural approach of most of the album.

It’s similarities to ‘Avenue B’ means ‘Préliminaires’ isn’t an album everyone in Iggy’s listening audience will like. If you’re a new fan, then your money is probably best spent on a few other Iggy classics. Likewise, if you claim to be a fan, but only own ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust For Life’, then maybe this isn’t for you either. In fact, I’m not sure who Iggy has made this album for...if indeed it was made for anyone other than Iggy, just because he wanted to make it. It feels like an important album in the man’s large catalogue of releases and keeps ‘Avenue B’ in decent company.


February 2010

Monday, 23 August 2010

THE COMPUTERS - You Can't Hide From The Computers

computers

This four-piece outfit from Exeter are going to beat you into submission. No kidding – The Computers are going to grab you by the knackers from the minute you hit the play button and not let go. Even on the couple of occasions where they manage to slow things down, there’s an intensity which borders on threatening.

From the opening kick of ‘Teenage Tourettes Camp’, The Computers pound their three chords into your skull with unrelenting attitude. On their fast numbers, they sound like New Bomb Turks jamming with Supersuckers (with extra metal guitars thrown in) and then fronted by The Suicide Machines’ Jason Navarro at his most screamy. ‘Love The Music, Hate The Kids’ shows no sign of letting up and by the tracks end, you’ll either be reaching for the stop button, or convinced The Computers have been sent like aggro-filled messiahs to bring no-nonsense thrashy rock ‘n’ roll/punk to those audiences in need of a shake up. ‘S.O.S’ slows things down to a 4/4 mid-paced stomp. While the musical approach might provide a much needed change in pace, the track itself is weak as it offers little lyrically and feels a little repetitive by the end. ‘Please Drink Responsibly’ marks a return to the three-chord sweatiness of the opening numbers. I assume the group backing vocals represent some kind of chorus, but as with most of the songs here, vocalist Alex’s delivery is so intense, it’s pretty hard to make out any important messages.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s probably something along the lines of “if only someone had the foresight to create something which sounds like a high speed romp through a Motörhead classic with added Rocket From The Crypt-ness, coupled with the vocal melody from ‘Lipstick Vogue’ by Elvis Costello”. Well, you’re in luck! ‘Hell Yeah’, does exactly that - and in doing so creates the EP’s absolutely essential moment. At just over two minutes, it doesn’t mess about.

‘City Ghosts’ – which ends this 20 minute statement of intent – feels somewhat out of place. It’s got a slow, grinding approach, somewhat like ‘Dirt’ by The Stooges, but where some people have the charm to pull off this kind of material, it doesn’t work here. While Alex’s screechy vocal style seems to work fine with the material played at breakneck speed, it becomes difficult listening without that speed to back it up. Still, it’s the only negative point from an otherwise potentially great EP. Please don’t think I’m getting at Alex...his vocal style can be difficult, but it’s well suited to most of the band’s material. Its unrestrained approach shares a lot in common Jason Navarro (check out The Suicide Machines’ swansong ‘War Profiteering Is Killing Us All’) or Frank Carter from Gallows...and sometimes that’s a good thing.

‘You Can’t Hide From The Computers’ is fun, (mostly) fast and uncompromising. If this doesn’t make you want to jump up and down and hit things, then there’s something wrong with you.


March 2010

Friday, 20 August 2010

WILD SIDE - Speed Devil

wild side

Back in the early 90s, a second divison Mötley Crüe obsessed outfit named Wildside released their only album ‘Under The Influence’. Aside from the rather crass ‘Hang On Lucy’, the album featured material that was largely forgettable. Somehow, despite that, CD pressings of the album became sought after by fans of late 80s/early 90s glam and sleaze rock. Many years later, their guitarist Brent Woods would become sideman to Mötley’s Vince Neil in one of his solo bands, but like so many others, Wildside ended up being no more than a footnote to that scene.

When this album first appeared in the forthcoming releases schedule at Escape Music early in 2010, part of me hoped that Brent Woods had resurrected the name and was coming back to have another go. However, this particular Wild Side (note the two word band name as opposed to the singular one of the early 90s) aren’t the US glam band who never made it; this Wild Side hail from Norway – and on the basis of this debut album aren’t likely to make it either.

After an intro, ‘Live Forever’ thunders with a riff that musically fits snugly somewhere between forgotten 90s band Heaven’s Edge, Mötley Crüe's ‘Shout at the Devil’ album (though lacking even the small amount of finesse the Crüe had back then) and German stalwarts Scorpions at their heaviest, circa their ‘Blackout’ album. Tackled at full bore, the speed is largely a tool to show off Tom Grena and Jon Aarseth’s prowess in the guitar solo department. Joachim Berntsen’s vocals also have a very European feel about them; his strong accent and higher pitch more than reminiscent of Scorpions man Klaus Meine (or if you’re lucky, Klaus doing a half-arsed impersonation of Vince Neil, as evidenced on the album’s second proper track, ‘Mine Tonight’). Generally speaking, most of Wild Side’s key traits can be found in this rather unsubtle opener and if you don’t like it, it’s unlikely that much of the album is going to win you over.

That afore-mentioned second track, ‘Mine Tonight’ has a slower tempo which works in its favour as well as a solid bass intro. However, once Joachim starts wailing his way through a bunch of questionable lyrics, any promise gets sucked out of the song’s solid foundations. Likewise, the mid-paced riffer ‘Play With Me’ loses any credibility by including lyrics like “I wanna rock you baby, come and play with me / We can have a good time / I just wanna feel your love / Hear you scream all night”. I wish they were including these with a tongue placed firmly in-cheek, but I fear that it’s all being delivered decades late and with no sense of irony.

Halfway into the album and taking a tempo similar to the opening number, Wild Side hammer their way through ‘Wild One’ with gusto, but by this point, unless you want to stick around to smirk at lyrics like “she’s a wild one / Wild one from the street”, the show’s over. By track 5 (barring the sappy ballad ‘Love For You’ near the album’s end) you’ve heard both of Wild Side’s typical default styles. On a positive note, Wild Side show that they are more than musically competent, but it takes more than that to make an album worthy of long-term enjoyment; the fact that Wild Side are almost incapable of stepping outside their rigid forms of either fast paced rock with big solos or mid-paced riffage really works against them. With only the two styles predominantly on show, the ballad feels like a token gesture, since all rock albums have one.

‘Speed Devil’ is completely unoriginal album. That alone wouldn’t necessarily make it bad of course, but once you combine that with the poor song writing and slightly painful vocal delivery, it doesn’t bode well all at all. It’s beyond salvation (a few guitar dramatics here and there don’t come anywhere close to making this album hold it’s own) and as such, it is unlikely that anyone but the most undemanding of 80s metal fans will find anything to get excited about here.


August 2010

Monday, 16 August 2010

THE LASHES - Get It

get it

The Lashes’ debut EP, ‘The Stupid Stupid’, was issued on the almost legendary Lookout! Records label, once home to many top-notch punk bands. By The time of their full length release ‘Get It’, two years later, the band had been snapped up by Sony, obviously spotting potential in the Seattle sextet’s fusion of power pop, hard rock and emo.

Opening this album, the intro keyboard wash of ‘New Best Friend’ reinforces the power pop elements of The Lashes’ sound. Nearly all of the band’s traits are here in this opening track: punchy guitars, solid rhythms and keyboard filler (and do I hear handclaps?); and from that perspective ‘Get It’ is an album with very few surprises. ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody’ takes The Lashes’ love of classic new wave-ish rock/pop further, without compromising any of the guitar punch...and in just over three minutes - and via a big debt to Weezer - they have you reeled in. If you’re a sucker for guitar driven melodies coupled with decent hook, then you’ll probably love this.

The spiky ‘Safe To Say’ carries elements which call to mind the 00’s garage revival of bands like The Strokes, but more tuneful. While one of the weaker numbers from ‘Get It’, it showcases the bands slightly more aggressive side and also highlights how it doesn’t always work when they try something outside their comfort zone. This is counterbalanced some way by ‘Dear Hollywood’, a rumpty-tumpty piece of rock/pop with a greater focus on the piano than most of The Lashes’ other material. Again, this only strengthens any claim that power pop is at the heart of The Lashes’ craft, as opposed to anything punkier...

‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ has the makings of a classic. Via its great hooks and decent tune, I’m reminded a great deal of the criminally ignored mid-90s glam-pop band Beat Angels, thanks to slight Cheap Trick-isms and handclaps. In terms of stuck-in-your-head-goodness, ‘The World Needs More Love Letters’ is an equal match with its pop-driven chorus and Greg Hawkes inspired keyboards. ‘Dear Hollywood’, the album’s lightest offering, is piano-driven pop with hints of Ben Folds and Jason Falkner at their most bouncy. Also worthy of a mention is ‘Sometimes The Sun’, which is poppier than a lot of the material here, slightly jaunty, but not too obviously quirky. It’s another track which shows The Lashes playing to their strengths. Musically, it hangs off a simple guitar twang which doesn’t really carry a tune in itself; the melodies are crafted via a particularly overstretched vocal approach, which eventually arrives at a simple but pleasing hook.

Given The Lashes’ influences and knack for a decent chorus, on the surface ‘Get It’ should be an enjoyable ride, due to its disposable qualities. Sadly, there’s a weak link throughout - and that weak link is Ben Clark’s vocal. It sounds like a strong voice, but he’s chosen to sing with an irritating emo like affectation. It’s trashy enough to suit most of the songs on offer; however, when pushed to the levels a lot of these songs require, it can become an annoyance. ...And for me, that’s enough to stop ‘Get It’ ever obtaining that cult classic status it could’ve been capable of achieving.


January 2010/July 2010

Friday, 13 August 2010

JUDAS PRIEST - Rocka Rolla

rockarolla

It’d be hard to argue with Judas Priest’s place in the world as heavy metal legends. A band synonymous with motorcycles, studs and leather, twin guitars and more than their share of classic anthems, alongside Iron Maiden, Priest are the band most easily associated with the genre. Their albums ‘Killing Machine’ and ‘British Steel’ (released in 1978 and 1980, respectively) provide near perfect examples of the “classic” heavy metal sound.

It hadn’t always been that way, however. Priest spent the latter half of the 1970s perfecting their brand of twin lead harmonies, screaming solos and god-like metal vocals, but looking back at their 1974 debut ‘Rocka Rolla’ (the first of two albums recorded for independent label Gull Records), an almost completely different Judas Priest can be heard.

Before looking at the album’s songs, it’s only fair to look at the album’s production values. ‘Rocka Rolla’ was produced by one-time Black Sabbath producer Rodger Bain. Bain’s technique of having the band play live in the studio and then using the best takes as the masters made the first three Sabbath albums the sludgy classics they are – a technique so, so right for Sabbath’s monolithic riffs – but generally it doesn’t work here for Priest, whose heavy, bluesy riffs really could have done with a producer with more finesse at the helm. There are moments where Bain’s style of working brings out good qualities in Priest, but for most of this album, it’s obvious that Rodger Bain just wasn’t the man for the job; his world of minimalist knob-twiddling suffocating most of Priest’s subtler elements.

This is obvious from the opening of the album. ‘One For The Road’ is a track which stomps across four and a half minutes with Glenn Tipton and KK Downing’s leaden blues-rock riffing made even more leaden by Bain’s technique. While the production doesn’t bring out the best in the song and even KK Downing’s guitar solo sounds a little echoed and lost among the swampiness, Rob Halford’s vocal performance is decent. It’s clear that even at this early stage, he has the makings of a great vocalist. All the while, that riff hammers away, sounding even more leaden by the song’s end; you can almost imagine Glenn and KK sagging under its weight. ‘Never Satisfied’ also has a heavy riff, although this time rather more hard rock based, making it a track which has much in common with Priest’s sound a couple of years later. Halford’s vocal for this song is strong, but it’s its closing moment which is the clincher. Rob squeals at a pitch which is very out of step with this album as a rule, but is very typical of later Priest: a squeal which would almost become his trademark. (Interestingly, while Judas Priest dropped all of ‘Rocka Rolla’s songs from their live set as early as 1975, Rob Halford included ‘Never Satisfied’ in his solo band’s live set in 2003).

The title track would become one of the album’s best known numbers, thanks to a performance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. Taking things at a faster pace, Glenn and KK offer a riff that’s just this side of jaunty – more of a cockney knees-up than traditional heavy metal. Halford, meanwhile churns out some near laughable lyrics, not befitting of a man who would earn the title Metal God. It features a use of multi tracked vocals on the chorus (these represent something which should have sounded better, and with a more suitable producer on board, who knows what could have happened?) Between the upbeat vibes, Glenn and KK contribute some half-decent Thin Lizzy inspired twin lead work and Halford even tinkers with a harmonica. Generally, while it feels like the album’s most disposable number, rather perversely, it’s also one of its most enjoyable.

The album’s most adventurous undertaking is a four song suite, often referred to as the ‘Winter Suite’ after its first – and best – part. On most pressings of ‘Rocka Rolla’, the suite is broken down into four separate songs, with CD track markers at the relevant points. Its opening part, the aforementioned ‘Winter’, offers the album’s best look at the would-be heavy metal band. A grinding, heavy riff dominates here – one best likened to a classic Tony Iommi riff. A slow and heavy approach is partly responsible for any Sabbath comparisons, but this is further cemented by Rodger Bain’s production sound (and here, thankfully, it really works). The heavy riffing is followed by ‘Deep Freeze’ – where KK makes some guitar noises with the aid of an effects pedal and a tremolo bar for two minutes (about a minute too long) - before the soft edges of ‘Winter Retreat’ appear somewhere on the horizon. For this all too brief interlude, the guitars have a clean tone and Halford showcases the softer side of his vocal. It feels like a really positive moment; one which really suggests there’s far more to this band than is represented on this LP. The suite closes with ‘Cheater’, propelled by a proto-heavy metal riff, which, like ‘Never Satisfied’ looks forward to a more “classic” Priest sound (in fact, the riff has a very similar quality to the one Glenn and KK would use four years later as the core of ‘Saints In Hell’, from the ‘Stained Class’ album’). Lyrically, ‘Cheater’ doesn’t fit with the winter theme, as Halford sings of a woman who wronged him while the rest of the band rock out. As a standalone number, this would work well as part of the album, but there’s no reason why it should be this musical suite’s closing statement.

‘Dying To Meet You’ represents the most un-Priest-like track on what’s already an un-Priest-like album. A slow blues with gentle pacing, the band back Halford telling tales of battle and carnage; the battle scenario already feels a little misplaced in the understated musical setting, but factor in Halford’s decision to deliver the song in a full-on croon and it’s just baffling. At what seems like the song’s end, there’s a coda attached (sometimes thought of as a separate track, referred to as ‘Hero Hero’) where Priest bring things up a gear. Galloping along at a pace much faster than most of this album’s material, like ‘Cheater’, this provides a decent glimpse of the kind of hard rock/metal Priest would make their forte over the following years. It’s an all too brief ray of light among cloudiness though – and the fact it stops dead in its tracks at just over two and a half minutes leaves the listener (or at least this listener) feeling a little short-changed. Also much shorter than planned, an instrumental number, ‘Caviar and Meths’ (represented here by KK and Glenn attempting two minutes of atmospherics) began life as a fourteen minute epic (written by the band’s original frontman Alan Atkins). The ‘Caviar and Meths’ of ‘Rocka Rolla’ was the intended intro to that epic – stripped of whatever followed, it feels somewhat pointless here.

At nearly nine minutes long, ‘Run of the Mill’ showcases the band’s early pomp and progressive rock tendencies. Against a gentle vocal, Ian Hill’s bass rumbles and Glenn and KK contribute occasional disjointed twangs. Where there should be a chorus, the band break into a heavy riff which doesn’t actually go anywhere...before returning to the main musical theme. At the four minute mark, the band takes on a rambling, almost jam-like state. Hill’s simple bass riff provides the muscle, while (again, low in the mix) Glenn and KK trade off solos; not in the blistering style they’d soon develop, here they have more of a kind of psyche-blues vibrato element. All in all, it makes what should have been a four minute song far too long. The closing section brings Halford back to the mic, where he indulges in some full-on metal screaming. It’s typical of later Priest and a style of music ‘Rocka Rolla’ would have explored father, had Priest got their way.

The band claims there were too many outside influences during the making of ‘Rocka Rolla’. Supposedly, according to one rumour, Gull insisted that Priest shouldn’t be quite so full-on metal and along the way their sound got watered down. Gull’s plan was that by releasing something a little softer, Priest stood a better chance of gaining a bigger following. It didn’t work – but at least Priest didn’t bow to the record company suggestion that the album should feature horns.

Gull Records have long since folded, but ‘Rocka Rolla’ has been licensed out to different reissue companies, who’ve seemingly re-issued it as many times as possible. Some issues feature the original bottle-cap sleeve (which, incidentally, the band also hated) while some feature new “more suitable” artwork, featuring a painting originally commissioned for a Michael Moorcock novel (first used as sleeve art in 1984); some CD reissues have been remastered, some not; some feature the original version of ‘Diamonds and Rust’ (actually recorded during the sessions for their second album) as a bonus track, some don’t. ‘Rocka Rolla’ is a reissue nightmare – and considering it’s almost permanently been available in some form or other since its first licensed reissue in 1984, it’s never found its way into the collections of anyone but the most die-hard Priest fans...and that says a lot.

Marred by often sub-standard material and then having the wrong man produce (a man who decided shelving the band’s best early songs - ‘Genocide’, ‘Tyrant’ and ‘Victim of Changes’ - was a good idea), it’s a wonder ‘Rocka Rolla’ has anything listenable on it at all. Rather understandably, it’s a mere curio in the Priest back catalogue – an album owned by only the hardcore fan base and one only really appreciated fully by few. Luckily, the band’s second album, ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, would capture the band’s truer sound. It would be the first of many classic Priest albums, and one which would bring major record labels knocking...


July 2010

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

TERRORVISION - How To Make Friends and Influence People

terrorvision

Watching Terrorvision playing in a small tent at the 2010 Sonisphere Festival feels a bit like having your mates come and play at a particularly rowdy summer party. By the time Terrorvision take the stage, sometime after 11pm, that evening’s main attraction, Alice Cooper, has finished performing his morality play - soundtracked by so many of his classics - and left the stage. Normally, after the headliner has vacated there’s little more to see, but for this particular festival, the small Bohemia stage has been set to go on for a few hours longer.

As Tony Wright beams “We’re Terrorvision from Bradford”, I’m transported back in time, having last seen the band at the 1997 Reading Festival and fronted by a seemingly worse-for-wear frontman (four years before disbanding – eventually reforming to play sporadic live dates in 2005 and beyond); earlier memories of seeing them headline an NME sponsored night at the London Astoria also come flooding back – remembering the extremely pumped audience bouncing in unison to ‘Oblivion’ and the building (by then not the youngest, or indeed safest, of London’s venues) feeling like it’s floor could give way under the immense enthusiasm of a crowd caught in a moment of togetherness. I’d seen Terrorvision at other times too, but the details of where and when aren’t so clear now.

At the late night Sonisphere show, Terrorvision are surprisingly on the ball and as a result, I’m thinking about listening to them when I get back home (something which has happened to me previously while watching them playing). As always happens after seeing Terrorvision live, their second album, ‘How To Make Friends and Influence People’ makes it’s inevitable journey into the CD player and I come crashing back to Earth, since, although brilliant in its own way, the album never sounds quite urgent enough.

Recorded in New York with producer Gil Norton at the helm – then best known for producing albums by Pixies and Echo & The Bunnymen - Terrorvision’s second album, ‘How To Make Friends and Influence People’ features Terrorvision as a far more confident and musically varied unit compared to their debut. As the staccato chords build tension behind ‘Alice What’s The Matter’ and Wright begins his slightly shouty delivery, the opening of Terrorvision’s second outing promises we’re about to embark upon a fun journey – and despite that lack of immediate energy of their live set, the album’s not short on fun moments. It’s immediately obvious that ‘How To Make Friends...’ stretches beyond Terrorvision’s previous works and despite some rather silly lyrics which appear to have been thrown together for the sake of simple rhymes, ‘Alice...’ gives the album a confident opener and at under three minutes it’s brevity made it a deserved hit single for the band.

The ultimate party anthem, ‘Oblivion’ – scene of much live energy – lumbers out of the speakers like something that’s slightly low on batteries. The structure of the song is great and Wright delivers its fun lyrics with a suitable amount of enthusiasm and Mark Yates’s guitar work alternates between rhythmic choppiness and an almost old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll twang; however it struggles throughout, since the drum work just doesn’t cut it. You can almost imagine drummer Shutty sticking out his tongue as he plays, concentrating hard and trying to keep a steady pace. The mid-pace of ‘Middle Man’ makes the track one of the album’s highlights. Shutty doesn’t have to struggle here; the band’s love of seventies rock shines through – and combining a great guitar riff with a memorable chorus, Terrorvision hit their goal square on. The addition of some gentle orchestration adds a bit of sophistication (okay, sophistication Terrorvision style) and each of its winning elements ensures that ‘Middle Man’ holds its own. Rather interestingly, it’s not a case of Shutty not being able to hammer out a fast rhythm, since he drives ‘What The Doctor Ordered’ at full pelt, against something that occasionally resembles a Metallica riff. Rather heavy for Terrorvision - possibly even heavier than most of previous album ‘Formaldehyde’ - at just over two minutes, there’s no messing with its combination of punk speed and metal riffs.

‘Stop The Bus’, at first, isn’t as instant as some of the album’s tracks, but another simple, classic Terrorvision bouncing riff, slightly sneering lyrics and hard bass line from Leigh Marklew means it’s not without charm. It was never going to have the longevity or ‘Alice What’s The Matter’ or ‘Obliviion’, but what it lacks in good time spirits, it makes up for with musical ability. The slightly harder sound is far more in keeping with Terrorvision’s earlier work and the guitar solo shows more focus than some of the others on the album. ‘Discotheque Wreck’ has the amount of punch the studio recording of ‘Oblivion’ really should have had. Another tough, bouncing rhythm combined with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about a bloke in a nightclub who’s hopelessly out of place but still thinks he’s cool make it classic Terrorvision. A chugging guitar riff and a spirited vocal make it decent enough, but once they’ve thrown in a reference to ‘Do You Love Me’ by The Contours – while sporting huge grins, no doubt - and it’s a winner.

The middle of the album presents a huge curve-ball in that the fun rock elements of Terrorvision’s sound take a back seat, as the band tinker with a few more rather grown up styles: For ‘Still The Rhythm’ a sparse arrangement featuring twangy guitar gives Wright’s vocals plenty of room during the verses, while the band bring a rock element to an almost non-existent chorus. A bridge section is also uncharacteristically shouty. The verses work well, but combined with those other elements, ‘Still Is The Rhythm’ is the album’s weakest point. ‘Ten Shades of Grey’ combines an almost fifties doo-wop sensibility with a couple of bluesy edges – Yates’s guitar solo making good work of a wah-wah pedal at first, before descending into a handful of long, seemingly un-connected notes. His wah-wah steps to the fore of ‘Stab In The Back’ which has verses echoing the funk scene of the 90s, while the chorus – although not lyrically memorable – rocks in a simple but effective way that makes me think this could have roots dating back to the sessions for ‘Formaldehyde’.

Following that, it’s business as usual, as Terrorvision turn up the fun with ‘Pretend Best Friend’ (arguably the best of the albums five single releases). Tapping into a memorable riff, sounding not unlike a hard rock version of the theme tune to “The Munsters”, it respresents one of the few times that ‘How To Make Friends...’ captures the real essence of a Terrorvision live performance. Coupling this with a lounge jazz element – complete with flugelhorn - on the pre-choruses, the great contrast shows that someone in the band isn’t short of great ideas; it’s just a shame that in various places on this album they struggled to arrange the songs in a manner which brings out their best qualities. ‘Time O The Signs’ employs some decent funk chops but doesn’t end up being too memorable, despite one of Wright’s most urgent vocals and a great groove in places. It’s possibly a case of bad album sequencing – it’s hard to follow ‘Pretend Best Friend’.

The slow pace and orchestration of ‘Some People Say’ (the closest the album gets to an epic rock ballad) lends a sense of moodiness lacking elsewhere. Wright’s vocal is one of the album’s best, capturing the spirit of the arrangement very well, pushing his voice beyond it’s usual flippant rock shoutiness. Not sure what Mark Yates was thinking though: he’s chosen a completely inappropriate guitar solo, comprising of discordant notes – heavy on the whammy-bar. The pace and mood may be right, but the style is very misplaced. Since ‘Some People Say’ has a melancholy vibe – something generally not associated with Terrorvision – you’d hope he would have managed something a little classier.

Closing the album, ‘What Makes You Tick’ employs a huge guitar riff in a style which, again, displays an obvious love of seventies rock. Wright seems fairly at home vocally with the increased volume, although it sounds as if it was a slight strain on his limited vocal skills. A multi tracked vocal on the chorus is a nice touch (presumably used at the suggestion of producer Gil Norton) since it balances out the simplicity of the hard rock riffing. The track threatens to build to a climax but stops short of a big crescendo, resulting in only the multi-tracked vocal being left. This is, in fact, the same multi tracked vocal that appears briefly at the beginning of the album, before the proper opening of ‘Alice What’s The Matter’; I assume it was designed so they’d (almost) link up if the CD was left on repeat... Sadly, this idea (used to fantastic effect on Pink Floyd’s album ‘The Wall’), goes straight out of the window since someone in the band/at the record company decided to include a bonus track on the CD after several minutes of silence. As far as “hidden” bonus tracks are concerned, this one is a complete non-event, since it comprises six minutes of distorted voices (presumably over a telephone recorded on a Dictaphone). Supposedly, parts of it feature Wright and the chaps on the wind up with a few New Yorkers, but the sound is so poor most of the words are inaudible. Aside from a mention of Jimi Hendrix and a woman unhappy with her recent hair appointment, it’s near impossible to make out any of it.

‘How To Make Enemies...’ isn’t an especially coherent listen, but what it represents is an album brimming with decent ideas and brilliant choruses. The arrangements could sometimes do with a bit of work, but generally, it’s easy to see what the band were attempting to achieve musically with each of the album’s thirteen numbers, even if things don’t always work out perfectly. On record at least, Terrorvision never bettered it (the subsequent album, ‘Regular Urban Survivors’, contained brilliant singles coupled with instantly forgettable album tracks). Now, if only they could have captured the extra pace and spark of their live show on record, they really could have been on to something...


August 2010

Friday, 6 August 2010

SAVING ABEL - Miss America

savingabel

Formed in 2004, Saving Abel is a hard rock band which combines crunchy riffs with a slight Southern drawl. Supposedly their self-titled debut album was a big hit in the US, but we didn’t even get a sniff of it here in ol’ Blighty. ‘Miss America’ – their 2010 sophomore release – is one of those albums which sounded like it may be enjoyable to begin with, since it’s opening number is delivered with enough gusto to grab the attention and is co-produced by Marti Fredriksen (who may be familiar to some of you as being the man who provided Jason Lee’s vocals in the classic Cameron Crowe movie ‘Almost Famous’, among other things), but as it turns out, the presence of Fredriksen just gave me false hope.

That opening number – ‘Tap Out’ - combines slightly fuzzy hard rock guitars with a decent punch delivered by Blake Dixon’s drum kit. Vocalist Jared Weeks has a voice which has a presence in a 90s style (I’d hoped that with Fredriksen on board that there may be more of a classic rock feel, but you can’t have it all); as far as openers go, Saving Abel push all the right buttons here. However, by a couple of minutes into the album’s second track – ‘Stupid Girl (Only In Hollywood)’ - I’m feeling rather let down, as any promise the track may have had gets watered down into something which sounds like latter-day Nickelback. Released as a single, this plods a down well-worn path that holds no great interest. ‘Contagious’ sounds like it could push the album in a heavier direction, but after about thirty seconds of hard riffing, the band opts for a Nickleback-esque approach again and delivers something so predictable. There’s a half decent guitar lead break, but nothing else of any worth.

The acoustic touches and Southern twang permeating the verses of both the title cut and the second single ‘The Sex Is Good’ offer a welcome lighter musical standpoint – there’s often enjoyment to be had from multiple acoustic guitars – but bad song writing means I won’t be spending too much time listening... (I mean, ‘The Sex Is Good’? Oh dear lads...did you get song writing lessons from that Kroeger when you supported Nickelback in 2009?). The semi-acoustic ‘Angel Without Wings’ with its very 90s rock edge and hard drum sound provides some enjoyment, but you’ll find similar stuff done better elsewhere, particularly if you’re a Creed or Alter Bridge fan. Likewise, ‘Hell of a Ride’ shows glimspses of something half listenable with decent use of slide guitars, but a heavy handed leaning towards 90s rock masks the decent bluest elements, which is a great shame.

This second album features a slightly heavier approach in places than the band’s self-titled debut, but generally, there are no surprises. The safe brand of alt-rock displayed throughout Saving Abel’s second disc will make them a few doubloons – but for me, the album sounds like a three song CD single, stuck on repeat until it reaches album length. In all truth, Saving Abel aren’t that interesting a band. In addition to their limited musical palette wearing thin very quickly, their obvious Chad Kroeger influences are extremely off-putting. Is there any point in Nickleback Mk 2? Still, I suppose they make Josey Scott’s band Saliva sound like a ground-breaking phenomenon.


See the video for ‘Stupid Girl (Only In Hollywood)’ here.


August 2010

Monday, 2 August 2010

MADNESS - Keep Moving

keep moving

Although primarily thought of as a ska outfit (and often dismissed as a “bit of fun” and a novelty band), over the course of six album releases between 1979 and 1985, Madness showed their musical palette was far broader than that of their early ska revival peers. In fact, from their third album (‘7’) onward, Camden’s favourite sons all but ditched their ska roots and continually moved forward, crafting a unique brand of pop music along the way. With each passing album, it’s possible to hear the band becoming more comfortable in their shoes as pop’s master craftsmen, and parts of their fifth album, ‘Keep Moving’ (released in 1984), arguably captures the post-ska Madness at their finest.

The album opens with its title track, which demonstrates how far Madness had progressed musically, even since the release of their album ‘The Rise and Fall’ two years earlier. Everything during this opening track feels understated: Dan Woodgate’s drums provide a decent backbone; Chris Forman’s occasional guitar twangs are in a style that resembles the Stax record label’s soul releases of the sixties; a feeling strengthened by a superb use of brass - supplied by the TKO horns, who’d worked with Madness producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley on Elvis Costello’s ‘Punch The Clock’ the year before - and Suggs’s vocal has a smoothness not always heard previously. (Interestingly, this was the first album where Suggs was billed under his real name of Graham McPherson. This also seems significant in Madness’s move towards maturity). A similar soulful approach to the horn section can be heard on ‘March of the Gherkins’, which - although somewhat overshadowed by other tracks from the album – features a great arrangement. The horns play an important role, but the track is also notable for the use of subtle orchestration. Mark Bedford’s solid bass work holds everything together and Mike Barson’s piano adds an occasional flourish (far too low in the mix, mind you).

The album’s lead single ‘Michael Caine’ - much loved and best remembered for its Michael Caine cameo - is a great piece of pop. Co-written by Carl Smyth (aka Cathal Smyth, previously Chas Smash), the track utilises harmony vocals courtesy of Afrodiziak, whom, like the TKO horns, had previously worked with Langer and Winstanley on Costello’s ‘Punch The Clock’. As a Madness single release, it’s notable for featuring a different lead vocal – Smyth steps up to the task brilliantly. Like so much of ‘Keep Moving’, the song’s meaning isn’t such a happy one, for ‘Michael Caine’ isn’t about Michael Caine at all: it concerns an IRA informant forced to live under an assumed name; he eventually cracks under the pressure – his only connection with the past is “the photograph to keep”.

‘Turning Blue’, built around a bouncy drum part from Woodgate (complimented by Mark Bedford’s rock solid bass and and stabs of organ from Mike Barson) gently echoes some of Madness’s work from their 1981 album ‘7’ in its approach. In doing so, it’s probably the track which closest resembles the sound most casual listeners think of with regards to the band. The album’s second single ‘One Better Day’ (written by Mark Bedford) provides the most blatant example of Madness’s growing desire to be taken more seriously. It’s almost too perfect in its eighties sheen; Lee Thompson’s sax glides over a samba style rhythm in an almost wine bar smoothness, while Suggs’s vocal retains its distinctive and casual, almost spoken delivery. It’s a million miles away from the ‘Baggy Trousers’ of yesteryear, but it’s gentle orchestration and classy songwriting (in this instance, featuring a lyric concerning homelessness) make it one of the band’s most refined numbers.

Bringing the album’s first half to a jarring close, ‘Waltz Into Mischief’, at first, might sound like the album’s only concession to quirkiness. Imagine the circus elements of The Beatles’ ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!’ with all the happiness wrung from its grease painted face - and then highlighting shouting gang vocals, akin to Sham 69 or Tenpole Tudor, and that’d be a half-accurate picture of this misplaced musical non-event. Look again, though: there’s yet another serious message within its raucousness - and in this case, this ugly waltz carries a heavy-handed lyric regarding the Ku Klux Klan. Normally, a really fantastic arrangement – coupled with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley’s hard edged, shiny production values - can be relied upon to rescue Madness’s misfires, but the laboured feel of ‘Waltz Into Mischief’s three and a half minutes is just too much all round.

For fans of Barson’s tack piano work, ‘Brand New Beat’ is the album’s highlight. Although Barson’s work on most of the album is far more reserved, his hard struck keys here add a much needed punch – and help reinforce that this album is the work of the same seven men who’d recorded the classic ‘Absolutely’ and ‘7’ albums a few years before. Following the trend of earlier tracks, this combines a confident musical arrangement with lyrics of a darker nature: here, the heavy nature of Thatcher’s Britain appears in the form of teenage crime. ‘Samantha’ offers another of Bedford’s distinctive bass lines, but beyond that, Madness are on autopiliot here. Suggs’s vocal is ordinary, the songwriting lacks the sharpness and bite it carries elsewhere and the pedestrian feel is hammered home by Mike Barson, whose often matchless tack piano style is reduced to one chord which he then hammers out unsubtly over the chorus. His scaled down contributions possibly represent his desire to move on - he left the band following the release of this album. (He re-joined the band on their swansong single ‘Waiting For The Ghost Train’ in 1986, appeared with them for live performances in the 90s and eventually re-joined on a full time basis when Madness re-entered the studio in 1999 to record their first “proper” album after a thirteen year break from studio work.)

Although the album has no ska to speak of, there’s a nod to Madness’s past in the gentle reggae-pop of ‘Prospects’; the intro sounds like a cousin of ‘Close Escape’ from their ‘Absolutely’ album and then the band settle into a gentle groove which saunters along somewhat unhurriedly. The end result is okay – some of Chris Forman’s spiky guitar parts provide good contrast to the smoothness elsewhere – but aside from Mike Barson’s organ part (with a quality which sounds like it was inspired by the classic Trojan Records reggae releases of the late sixties and early seventies) the song doesn’t really make a lasting impact. Even the serious lyric, concerning a man away from his family (an immigrant coming to the UK due to a labour shortage), although well written, isn’t one of the album’s most instantly striking.

‘Victoria Gardens’ features one of the album’s most wonderful arrangements. Driven, once again, by Mark Bedford’s bass work, the music carries a happiness missing from huge parts of ‘Keep Moving’. However, the music is just a mask for another serious political message. Although to begin with, the message seems a little more cryptic than some of the album’s songs, the focus here is on the bad vibes that were escalating among the working classes by the mid eighties. Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger (former members of The (English) Beat and both members of the largely forgotten General Public at the time of this recording) deliver a fantastic and very distinctive vocal on the chorus, making it one of the album’s most enjoyable numbers. The line “She said it was for the good of us all”, points a finger squarely at Thatcher once more. Similarly upbeat on its surface thanks to some classy percussion, ‘Time For Tea’ tells a tale of a glue-sniffing boy who dies on a rubbish tip, after hiding in a refrigerator. The social commentary that often had a place within Madness’s work really came into its own on this album. As songwriters, it certainly presents them at their best, even if the music isn’t always quite as instant. Closing the album, ‘Give Me a Reason’ features bouncing rhythms, cinematic string stings, twanging guitars, harmonica and bursts of horns – a general kitchen sink approach – before the appearance of an all too brief piano lead from Barson. Lyrically, it’s another vehicle for a hard edged and thought provoking message (this time, spousal abuse) but musically, it finishes the album – and indeed the first phase of Madness’s career – on a high note.

Upon its original release, as a ten year old, I was unsure of the maturity of ‘Keep Moving’ and certainly unaware of the seriousness of its lyrics. Back then, parts of ‘Keep Moving’ seemed that little bit too mature, if anything – ‘One Better Day’ was proof enough of that. Decades later and with grown up ears, ‘Keep Moving’ almost seems like the (almost) perfect snapshot of Madness’s sophisticated pop - grabbing hold of everything that’s great about their unique approach, even though a couple of tracks don’t hit the mark. Repeated listens show the album to be one of the band’s best. If you’re one of those people who still think of Madness as a fun band after this, you’re just not listening properly - and it’s likely you’ve never really listened.

(A 2CD deluxe version of ‘Keep Moving’ adds both of the excellent singles ‘Wings of a Dove’ and ‘The Sun and The Rain’ as bonus tracks, alongside three 12” versions and eight b-sides)


July 2010