Friday, 29 October 2010

UB40 - Signing Off

signing off

In most people’s minds, UB40 represent the most easy listening aspect of reggae music. Often derided for being lightweight, they were once a band with a serious edge and strong political bias. It’s sometimes hard to believe they would have once been contemporaries of The Clash and Steel Pulse, but back in the early 80s, they were eight men from Birmingham delivering a serious message. In September 1980, UB40 released their debut album, ‘Signing Off’, a hard-hitting mix of politics and classic style reggae, faultlessly produced by Bob Lamb with Ray ‘Pablo’ Falconer.

Its intense political stance is present from the opening track, ‘Tyler’ (arguably one of the angriest songs the band has written), concerning the mistrial of Gary Tyler, a young black youth sentenced to life in prison – a sentence given after an appeal was made against his original death sentence. Most of UB40’s tougher elements are present in this song: Earl Falconer’s bass line is uncompromising and upfront, Brian Travers’ sax carries weight without losing any soulfulness, Ali Campbell’s vocal performance brings a great amount of passion and Robin Campbell’s rhythm guitar parts are suitably spiky. During the song’s mid section, Jim Brown lays down a marching drum rhythm, while Norman Hassan joins on percussion (in this case, I’m sure it involves milk bottles) while Earl and Robin’s bass and guitar parts incorporate dub reggae elements. If Astro, their second vocalist and sometime trumpet wielding Rastafarian, had a lead part here, all of UB40’s best strengths would have been on show. All in all, ‘Tyler’ is a very impressive opening number.

Also home to equally powerful political messages, ‘Burden of Shame’ is another bitterly angry piece concerning Britain being supportive of colonizing and ‘Little By Little’ carries a heavy handed message of rich versus poor - which was almost certainly a swipe at the then new Tory government helping fill the bellies and pockets of the rich. During this track, Jim Brown’s drum part provides a high point with excellent use of hi-hat and a groove which compliments Earl Falconer’s bass very well. (Interestingly, as the eighties wore on, Brown’s drum style became more and more unnatural sounding, to the point where I’m convinced that at least half the drum parts from 1986 onward - and all the drum parts of 1989’s ‘Labour of Love II’ - are pre-programmed and not played by a man behind a kit at all).

Perhaps the album’s best known track, ‘Food For Thought’ provides a good example of where UB40 stood musically in the early part of their career. Ali Campbell’s vocals are natural sounding and distinctive, but it’s the combination of solid bass playing from Earl Falconer and a memorable sax arrangement by Brian Travers which give it lasting appeal. Once again, it’s a piece with another hard-hitting message; in this case, concerning suffering caused by famine. ‘King’ (released as a double A-side with ‘Food For Thought’) features a heavyweight message about racial equality; musically the piece’s main musical refrain comes from Brian Travers on the sax, but most of its sharper-edged moments come from Mickey Virtue’s staccato keyboard work.

The album’s intense politics are balanced out by some lighter material. During a cover of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, UB40 reggae chops give the song a new bouce to which it is well suited and Ali’s vocal is one of his best here. ’12 Bar’ has a light and summery feel - influenced by the late sixties reggae and ska released on the Trojan record label - during which Astro lends some vocal assistance, though his delivery is almost incomprehensible.

There are also three instrumentals featured: ‘25%’ hits upon a slow groove by Jim Brown and Earl Falconer but it’s most memorable feature, once again, is the sax playing a simple but effective tune. Likewise, ‘Adella’ focuses on Travers’s sax, but it’s a little gentler than the other instrumentals. The sax has a bit more of an easy listening tone, but if you can listen beyond that, you’ll spot Virtue’s echoing keyboard rhythms adding depth and Falconer’s bass work has a great flow. Lastly, the title cut provides a decent mix of Norman Hassan’s percussion and an almost dub style bass line by Falconer. It’s a fantastic end piece for the album and once you’ve included a unobtrusive keyboard solo by Mickey Virtue, a sax solo by Travers and a guitar solo by Robin Campbell – with an unexpected jazz tone – it becomes a great showcase for each of the musicians.

Original pressings of the LP came with a bonus 12” single (the three songs from which are included on all CD pressings as bonus tracks). One of the tracks, ‘Reefer Madness’, is a fun but otherwise forgettable instrumental. However, the other two tracks are indispensable. A cover of Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is given a well-structured reggae makeover, while ‘Madam Medusa’ (another original UB40 composition) combines scathing anti-Thatcher lyrics with elements of dub music and features fantastic vocal performances from both Ali and Astro.

A 2010 re-issue of ‘Signing Off’ contains a bonus CD featuring the three tracks from the original bonus 12”, plus 12” versions of ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’, ‘My Way of Thinking’ and ‘Dream A Lie’, all of which were featured on the 1985 compilation ‘The UB40 File’. Also included are the 12” version of ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ plus previously unavailable BBC sessions recorded for John Peel and Kid Jensen. A bonus DVD features each of the 1980 promotional clips for the singles releases, plus a ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance and the complete ‘Rock Goes To College’ set (both recorded for the BBC and available for the first time as part of a sell-through release).

UB40 followed ‘Signing Off’ the following year with ‘Present Arms’, an album which gained them increased popularity through the angry hit ‘One In Ten’. In many ways, it’s a better album than ‘Signing Off’ since it has a tighter structure – the well-crafted songs aren’t padded out by instrumental numbers (a companion release ‘Present Arms In Dub’ was also issued in 1981, which featured excellent dub reconstructions of the album, which further highlighted UB40 as being a really tight musical unit). For those wishing to check out the band at their most edgy, ‘Present Arms’ is also an essential purchase.

It’s become easy to sneer at UB40. Four years into their career, they took the easy route and recorded an album featuring cover versions of (mostly) old reggae hits. This would make them even more popular, and from that point on, their albums became more commercial. While their albums released during the remainder of the 1980s would occasionally feature songs with social and political messages, there was an increasing focus on feel-good pop-reggae with hummable tunes. Despite the commercial edges, UB40 continued to produce enjoyable albums throughout the decade - up until the release of ‘Labour of Love II’ in 1989 - but for me, sadly, they produced little of worth after that.

Despite UB40’s later faults, it needs to be remembered that ‘Signing Off’ is a fantastic debut album, even though couple of the instrumental numbers feel rather like filler material. It is, perhaps, one of the most important debut releases by a British band.

[A 2008 release, ‘Live at The Venue’, recorded a few months before the release of ‘Signing Off’, is also essential listening for fans of UB40’s earliest work]


UPDATE: A message from UB40 drummer Jim Brown written in November 2010, explaining the change in drum sound and clearing up whether he had an electronic kit or whether the drums were programmed:

OK. Let’s put this one to rest. I know I get some stick for using machines, but it's a bit like shooting the messenger.

The reason I used machines in the second half of the eighties and onwards was simple. That's where the music went. Reggae didn't stop in the seventies. It continued to develop. As studio sequencing developed it was adopted very quickly by Jamaican producers. From the eighties onwards almost everything made in JA was made that way. Classic reggae tunes like John Holt's Roumers of war, most of the output of crooners like Berris Hammond and all of Stevie and Cleevey's output [which dominated reggae for years and gave birth to dancehall].

We didn't stop listening to reggae when we started the band. And we weren't a nostalgia band just sticking to one era. I was just doing what my heroes were doing. Never felt like cheating because I had to reproduce the sound live, and I'm not a machine. So, in a way, I was making my own life harder having to reproduce a machine style. Every other reggae record used machines, so why shouldn't we? We were following the development of the music, just like we did in the seventies.

March 2010/October 2010

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

STRANGEWAYS - Perfect World


When the news came in early 2010 that vocalist Terry Brock was to re-join Strangways, AOR fans were given a rather good reason to get excited. Brock’s previous releases with the band (1987’s ‘Native Sons’ and 1989’s ‘Walk In The Fire’) are considered cult classics and are maybe two of the finest examples of the genre (Kerrang! Magazine, in fact, voted the former the greatest AOR album of all time, back when they cared about such things). After Brock’s departure, Strangeways carried on, with guitarist Ian Stewart taking on the role of vocalist in addition to his usual guitar based duties.

The next Strangeways releases (1994’s ‘And The Horse’ and 1997’s ‘Any Day Now’) moved away from the classic sounding AOR of the Brock years, opting for a voyage further into pomp and prog, with Stewart’s wandering guitar work becoming far more of a feature. Although the change in direction alienated some of the previous Strangeways fans, I have a lot of time for both albums. Another album, ‘Gravitational Pull’ followed at the turn of the millennium, but still, most fans hankered after that “classic” approach to song writing and the stadium rock sound at which Strangeways had excelled in the late 80s.

In theory, Brock’s return should have brought with it a great album, especially considering the strength of his 2010 solo release ‘Diamond Blue’. Sadly, with ‘Perfect World’, this isn’t the case. Some of the songs may be well constructed, but the album is so poorly recorded it makes it really hard to tell. The vocals are okay, but the rest of the band sound like they’re in another room. The drums are so quiet they barely exist, while Ian Stewart’s guitar work sounds almost wooly. Imagine something which sounds like you’re listening to your stereo while wearing ear-plugs. I’ve even listened to it through great speakers...

From what I can make out (and believe me, it made me feel a bit queasy trying to pick out any separation between the instruments), the atmospheric ‘Crackin’ Up Baby’ finishes with a corker of a guitar solo (the kind Stewart filled the later Strangeways albums with), but it sounds like it was recorded underwater. ‘Liberty’ features a reasonably big chorus and a good performance from Brock, but the end result is compressed to absolute fuck. In ‘One More Day’ you have what should have been a classic mid-paced power ballad, but the (lack of) production values means it’s reduced to a plodding mess. As for the rockier numbers ‘Movin’ On’ and ‘Bushfire’, they’re no better. ‘Bushfire’ in particular is the audio equivalent of wading through treacle.

Faced with such an appalling audio experience, as a listener, you'll find any decent moments to be heard are almost completely lost in the swamp. As one of the cult classic melodic rock bands, Strangeways deserves much better treatment than this. And frankly, being one of the best known AOR/melodic rock labels, Frontiers Records really needs to stop releasing demo quality material and passing it off as a finished product.

If you wanted a return to ‘Native Sons’ and ‘Walk In The Fire’ territory, honestly, you won’t get that here. Pick up Terry Brock’s ‘Diamond Blue’ instead: not only does it feature great songs, but it features a production value approximating something this kind of rock music deserves. I can only assume that Frontiers’ entire budget for the year was spent on that.

October 2010

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

METHODS OF MAYHEM - A Public Disservice Announcement


In 1999, during his time away from the Mötley Crüe drum stool, Tommy Lee embarked upon a new project, Methods of Mayhem, with rapper TiLo. Their 1999 self-titled album combined dance, rap and a healthy dose of nu-metal and was a world away from any of Lee’s previous work. Featuring a host of guest performers, including Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, L’il Kim, Snoop Dog, The Crystal Method and George Clinton, the album’s fusion of styles could be best compared to Limp Bizkit, though the end result was far better than anything Fred Durst and his band of cronies had released by that point. Or, in fact, ever. Naturally, the reviews were mixed, as were the responses from Crüe fans.

A decade later (after various Crüe albums and tours, and a couple of solo releases)
Tommy Lee revived the Methods of Mayhem project. In place of TiLo and a long guest list of famous vocalists, Lee takes on most vocal duties himself. The album isn’t without outside contributions, though, since Tommy Lee had a rather resourceful idea: he asked unknown musicians to submit work to his website – from which he would choose the best bits as the basis for the album’s songs. In addition to the pieces of music selected from over 10,000 submissions, ex-Bone Machine guitarist John Allen III (aka J3) assumes the role as Tommy’s main collaborator. With J3’s 80s rock and glam metal roots, he provides more musical clout and melody than the original pairing of Lee and TiLo, which in turn makes ‘A Public Disservice Announcement’ a surprisingly varied outing – and one which, for the most part, doesn’t sound much like Methods as you remember them on their debut.

The opening track, ‘Drunk Uncle Pete’ would’ve been enough for me to stop listening almost straight away, had I not had faith that the album had to feature at least a few great tracks. Imagine something that sounds like ‘In Too Deep’ by Sum 41 with more electronic fuzziness and a choir of teenagers, and that’d be a close approximation of its evilness. How it made the final tracklisting is a mystery in itself, but to open the album with it is just insane. One of the only “typical” sounding Methods tracks, ‘Fight Song’ (released as the album’s first single) redresses the balance, with its sledgehammer guitar riffs and aggressive vocal (part shouting, part rap influenced – though no actual rap this time around). This has the trademark Methods sound which was slapped across the debut; elements of nu-metal band Snot, P.O.D. and early Powerman 5000 colliding with Tommy Lee’s unrelenting attitude make this impossible to ignore, whether you like it or not. ‘I Really Want You’ hits upon a similar groove, but it much lighter in tone, with Lee delivering a fairly melodic vocal. The electronic parts are among the albums best – each of the musical elements unfussy and suitably crunchy.

‘Time Bomb’ is a track which melds alt-rock and lightweight pop-punk, but does so with plenty of charm. J3’s guitars are fuzzy and the vocals are subject to studio trickery, but for those of you who like your hooks a little more traditional, this should be far more enjoyable than anything Methods have offered you previously. Between the pre-programmed elements and slight distortion, J3’s chorus is like a shining beacon (surely a hit in the hands of any number of made-for-music-television pop-punk outfits); some guitar playing here leans towards the more traditional too, with a (multi-tracked) twin lead solo.

The acoustic guitars overlaid with subtle electric parts as featured on ‘Blame’ provide a huge musical curve-ball for Methods. I expect J3 has had an influence, once again, and particularly so during the track’s slightly Beatle-y moments. Its “modern rock” sound – the kind which became unavoidable on US radio throughout the 00’s – is closer to Lifehouse or The Calling than anything you’d associate with Tommy Lee, but even so, his vocal is strong here and he sounds incredibly comfortable in this musically mature role. With a very gentle verse – a hushed vocal set against an almost mechanical arrangement, ‘Louder’ is another of the album’s stand out numbers. In terms of feeling, again, it shares more in common with the soft end of alternative rock than it does with the angry metal of old school Methods. According to Lee, the song is about those dreams you have where you try and scream but all you hear is silence. In an attempt to recreate the unnatural feeling of this, all the vocals have been put through various effects – not too far short of autotune abuse – but, rather surprisingly, this doesn’t detract from the end result.

Bordering on novelty, ‘Party Instructions’ lumbers around for nearly five minutes in the style of early Daft Punk, its electronic loops not really going anywhere. A heavily treated, spoken vocal delivers the instructions like some kind of motivational speaker. An occasional female vocal in an r ‘n’ b style doesn’t help matters. As such, this is a track you’ll probably skip after two or three plays – which, I suppose is good odds compared to ‘Drunk Uncle Pete’.

‘All I Wanna Do’ marries r ‘n’ b style beats with hard electronica and is certainly this album’s answer to ‘Get Naked’ (the debut’s duet with L’il Kim). None of Tommy’s sweatiness comes anywhere close to Kim’s vulgarity, but he does his best to push the buttons of the anti-misogynists. Also featuring a healthy dose of electronic styles, ‘Back To Before’ screams radio play. Having more in common with a band like The Killers or Head Automatica than Methods of Mayhem, it’s another of the album’s big surprises, matching a danceable electronic arrangement with treated vocals and an alt-pop chorus. ‘Only One’ is a bit of a mish-mash; it has a vocal which on the quiet moments occasionally slips into something resembling ‘So Fine’ by Guns N’ Roses (unintentionally, I’m sure) while its heavier moments feel rather laboured. The guitar style has presence, but aside from slabs of sound, doesn’t really achieve anything. A keyboard part occasionally provides interest among the sludge, but it’s very underused. If anything, most of this could have been tempered by a chorus of some sort.

Those approaching this album as a follow up to the 1999 disc may find themselves disappointed, at least at first. A couple of songs sound like the original Methods – which should please old fans – but in relation to the rest of this album, they certainly feel like lip-service to the past. With its aspects of light and shade, this album has far more in common, perhaps, with parts of Tommy Lee’s solo outing ‘Never a Dull Moment’ than previous Methods recordings. This may have a great deal to do with changing times – after all, if Tommy Lee were to release a carbon copy of the Methods debut, this disc would sound a decade out of date.

October 2010

Friday, 22 October 2010

THE WILDHEARTS - Earth Vs. The Wildhearts

eath vs

Back in 1993, I bought a copy of the debut EP ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ by The Wildhearts, a band which bought together the talents of vocalist/guitarist Ginger (previously a member of Newcastle’s premier retro band The Quireboys) , CJ (previously with The Tattooed Love Boys) and Dogs D’Amour drummer Bam Bam. While their EP wasn’t a great opening statement, it showed promise - namely in it’s opening number ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. That spark of gold was enough for the release of their forthcoming full-length album to be met with some excitement.

By the time The Wildhearts re-entered the studio, Bam Bam had returned to the (then recently reformed) Dogs D’Amour and had been replaced in the drum stool by Stidi (who’d played drums in a fledling lineup of The Wildhearts a few years previously), and the resulting demos are allegedly the same recordings released as the finished album.

From the outset, ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ suffers a similar problem to the EP, in that The Wildhearts seem to be unable to settle upon a core sound for their material. The resulting music hovers somewhere between punk, metal and power pop. While it could be argued that the fusion of these styles gave the band a unique sound of their own on the album, its eleven songs can be frustrating and brilliant in equal measure. Ginger is capable of writing a catchy chorus, but those moments of sing-along brilliance are often overshadowed by heavy handed sludginess.

This is something clearly obvious on the opening number ‘Greetings From Shitsville’. A hard rock guitar riff drives the verses in a direction in which the song never quite feels comfortable, until crashing headlong into a brilliant multi-vocalled chorus which could only be described as power pop (albeit an edgy example of that musical subgenre). It sounds for all the world like Ginger had two half finished ideas and then melded those together, hoping for the best. Once you’ve thrown in a heavy chugging guitar riff during the bridge, it means ‘Earth Vs...’ begins with an almost Frankenstein creation that’s lucky it works at all. ‘Everlone’ fares better all round...although the sledgehammer riff during the opening bars doesn’t instantly inspire confidence. When the vocals arrive, The Wildhearts settle for a groove that rests somewhere between hard rock and punk - a sound which dominates most of their best work. The chorus is fairly catchy and the use of backing vocals is great. On the negative side, clocking in at over six minutes, it’s far too long. After the track reaches its natural end, it features a coda containing almost two minutes of guitar-based meandering, followed by a crunchy guitar riff to close. There’s a definite feeling of this being bolted on after someone decided those bits of music were too good to waste.

Released as the first single from the album, ‘TV Tan’ features ringing guitars, a little bit of 80s glam and just enough bounce to keep it going. Like ‘Everlone’ and ‘Shitsville’, the chorus is a solid one, but without its even better pre-chorus, it would never have worked. The pre-chorus is essential in this instance, since the vocal doesn’t really scan on the song’s verses, despite trying its hardest... The pre-chorus is another moment which captures The Wildhearts’ distinctive punk-hard rock fusion perfectly; as with ‘Everlone’, Ginger’s voice sounds best when CJ is on hand to sing a counter harmony, no matter how ragged. When ‘TV Tan’s strongest elements come together in such a way, it becomes the natural single choice.

‘Shame On Me’ has a spiky riff coupled with a decent vocal performance. While the dual vocals highlight The Wildhearts’ sing-along qualities, the guitar work is from a rather more straight-up metal school of playing. Interestingly, between the metallic riffing, the guitar solo has a bluesy edge. It’s a great, but fleeting moment, which once again makes it hard to understand the creative process here: how did the band decide on that particular solo for this song? It almost stops ‘Shame On Me’ in its tracks.

‘Suckerpunch’ has all the subtlety of a juggernaut. Distorted vocals collide with a Motorhead style speed riff, as the band tear through an almost breathless three minutes. Its ferocity is given a little respite during the chorus, which makes good use of gang vocals, but its anger sounds mostly contrived - and the end result presents a not very natural sound for The Wildhearts. A similar argument could be made for ‘Drinking About Life’, which combines a late 80’s Metallica style riff and a bunch of shouting to create something which lacks longevity.

Taking something that sounds like a cross between New York Dolls and mid-70s Rolling Stones, mixing it up with a suitable sneer and a pinch of metal in the guitar solo, ‘Loveshit’ represents a track where the band sound their most at ease. A definite nod to Ginger’s past in the Faces-obsessed Quireboys, it’s a pity The Wildhearts never explored the bar-room rock avenue farther on this album. Unlike a couple of the other more feel-good tracks (‘Everlone’ especially), which were weakened slightly by incorporating too much of a kitchen sink mentality, it’s ‘Loveshit’s simplicity which makes it work. There’s definitely weight in the old argument that sometimes less really is more... A confident trashiness also sits at the heart of ‘Love U Till I Don’t’, with a chorus vocal of shameless ‘la la’s. The trashiness doesn’t last though, since eventually The Wildhearts’ metal tendencies get the better of them, leading to some incredibly unsubtle riffing. While the metal moments are never The Wildhearts’ strongest musical trait, it’s not terrible – and Stid turns in some decent drum fills.

A heartfelt and tuneful vocal lies at the heart of ‘News of the World’ and its chorus is one of the best on ‘Earth Vs...’ In this respect, it captures what was so good about ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. It brings nothing new to the album, but there’s a great deal of pleasure in hearing the vocal arrangement used so well. The chorus/gang vocals aren’t any different from the type previously heard on ‘Everlone’, but it is best remembered that the more time The Wildhearts spend concentrating on this poppier end of their music, it means more time they’re not muddying otherwise great songs by throwing in metal guitar riffs... This number isn’t guilt free in the padding out department though. It could could have been a brilliant (and very commercial) piece of chorus driven hard rock, but manages to completely fall apart near the end, when it decends into workmanlike chugging, followed by a call-and-response vocal section that feels like it has no place here at all.

‘The Miles Away Girl’ is the album’s greatest track, without question. There’s a power pop maturity at play throughout most of the song which could be compared to early 90s Cheap Trick. It really captures the (often lost) potential behind The Wildhearts’ craft. The gang/backing vocals are excellent during a really infectious chorus; all the instruments sound crisp and even the band’s tendency to use a musical motif where it’s unwarranted doesn’t spoil the end result. While a metal section during a bridge seems a little misplaced, this is balanced by a playfulness elsewhere, as The Wildhearts tease with a musical moment not too far removed from late sixties pop. A similar playfulness can also be found during ‘My Baby Is a Headfuck’; a track which incorporates bits of glam metal, pop punk, a reworking of The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’ and a raucous guitar solo played by Mick Ronson. Listening to these two songs, it’s easy to spot those moments when the band members really gelled.

With a fluctuating line up, The Wildhearts continued to tour and release albums; however, none gained the praise of their early works. ‘Earth Vs...’ in particular, has become somewhat of a cult album. Even though Kerrang! voted it their best album of 1993, as good as it may be, it’s unfocused at best. Over the years, it’s an album I’ve had a love-hate relationship with...and probably will always continue to do so.

[A 2010 2CD reissue of ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ contains a bonus disc featuring the ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ EP, the four bonus tracks from the ‘Don’t Be Happy...Just Worry’ compilation plus all the non-album b-sides from the ‘TV Tan’ and ‘Shitsville’ singles].

Watch clips from Donington '94 at the links below:
Greetings From Shitsville
Love U 'Til I Don’t

Watch the complete live at the 1994 Reading Festival, with Devin Townsend on guitar at the links below:
Caffeine Bomb
Greetings From Shitsville
Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes
Drinking About Life
Shut Your Fucking Mouth
Liberty Cap
My Baby Is A Headfuck
Love U 'Til I Don’t

July/October 2010

Thursday, 21 October 2010

DEVIN TOWNSEND - Ziltoid The Omniscient


Despite lacking warmth and almost any real human qualities, Devin Townsend’s ‘Ocean Machine: Biomech’ album is a wondrous piece of work. It has a cold, multi-layered stylishness which holds the listeners’ attention over multiple listens. In some ways, whether you like it or not is immaterial: nobody could deny its style came as a surprise after his previous work with the subtle-as-a-breezeblock Strapping Young Lad.

Over the next few years, Devin continued to release extremely heavy albums with SYL in tandem with a solo career, all with varying degrees of quality. Stylistically, ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ probably has most in common with his solo album ‘Physicist’, which although credited as a solo work, featured all the SYL members. It’s a step up from that, though, since ‘Physicist’ didn’t really highlight any of Devin’s progressive styles. Although mostly difficult listening, this album brings together both sides of Devin’s work properly for the first time.

A concept album, named after its central figure, ‘Ziltoid...’ concerns a rather malevolent being’s search for a perfect cup of coffee. If he doesn’t get one in five Earth minutes, everyone will die. Move over blind pinball kid! Move over Broadway spray-paint artist castrated by aliens! We have a new King of Ridiculous Concepts. There’s a huge difference between this and many other bloated concept albums though – Dev isn’t really expecting us to take it seriously.

The album has such density. The rhythm style throughout a bulk of the material makes it more comparable to SYL than anything else, but there’s still a wedge of sound which has much in common with Townsend’s lighter work, even though his progressive styles have been largely pushed aside.

The opening intro features Ziltoid making his request for coffee, coupled with death metal style grunting vocals; ‘By Your Command’ sets the pace for most of the album with heavy double bass drums (which are almost certainly programmed) underlying multi-tracked guitars and multi-tracked, sometimes angry vocals. ‘Ziltoidia Attaxx!!’ takes this approach and pushes it farther; its extra edge and Dev’s vocal style make this easily comparable to later Strapping Young Lad work (y’know, not quite the full on pneumatic road drill of ‘Heavy as a Very Heavy Thing’, but still bloody heavy by most sane people’s standards). On the chorus, the metal style vocals give way to comic falsetto. Within the mass of noise, some of the guitar work is amazing, although very little sounds natural due to Devin’s heavy use of pedals and phasers (I don’t really understand the technical side, so you’ll have to hear it yourselves). The programmed electronic drums towards the closing section are mastered loudly, replicating the sound of Ziltoid’s laser guns attacking Earth (it sounds really stupid when you write it all down, eh? Thanks Devin.)

‘Color Your World’ at first, sounds like SYL at their best, but with extra keyboards and Devin using the vocal style most associated with his ‘Terria’ album. There’s a good musical idea in here, but the pounding and density (there’s that word again, but no others fit the bill as effectively) masks any of the underlying subtleties. The mid section is pure, early SYL – I don’t think I need to elaborate! In a twist, the closing section features the gentlest music the album has to offer. While it has many elements in common with ‘Ocean Machine’, ‘Accelerated Evolution’ and ‘Synchestra’, it makes little impact after the noisy first half. ...And even if it did, it would likely be ruined by Ziltoid shouting his name mid way – just in case you’d forgotten what this was all about.

Most of ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ follows similar musical patterns to those featured the first couple of tracks. There are a couple of exceptions, however: ‘Solar Winds’, sounds like something from ‘Terria’. It’s not as classic as any of that though, since Dev pushes his voice into slightly theatrical territory, sounding like someone putting on an amusing ‘heavy rock’ voice, although I’m not sure this element is supposed to be comical. I’d like to tell you the slow, chugging riffs make up for that...but they don’t.

‘Hyperdrive’ is classic. It’s nowhere near as claustrophobic as most of ‘ZTO’. It sounds like an odd cousin to some of ‘Ocean Machine’ and naturally, that pleases me. Devin’s vocals – again multi-tracked and treated – are much gentler here than the rest of the album. ‘The Greys’ is the best song here, without question. It’s one of those moments (and most of Devin’s solo albums feature one), where he taps into his most melodic side: that shining moment that’s not prog metal as such; certainly not AOR and not quite pomp. It’s closest to ‘Life’ (from ‘Ocean Machine’) and ‘Slow Me Down’(from ‘Accelerated Evolution’). If you’re a fan, you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s still heavier than those songs I’ve compared it to – and its melodies are buried under a fair amount of sludge – so don’t get too excited. For those of you who came looking for ‘Ocean Machine’ and ‘Synchestra’ style material, this track will please you too. ‘N9’ is also lighter, but the amount of layers and overdubs used makes hard listening.

If you’re a fan of Devin’s ‘Ocean Machine’ or ‘Synchestra’ styles, then on the whole, ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ likely won’t do it for you. If you enjoy Devin’s angry, more extreme metal tendencies, strap yourselves in. It’s brash, it’s stupid...and most importantly, it’s unmistakably Devin. Pomposity and aggression coupled with a sense of humour sets this apart from anything Townsend has attempted previously - the only worry is that the silly concept gives it a shorter shelf life than some of his more serious works.

Watch Ziltoid's transmissions:
Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 3 here
Part 4 here

January 2010

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

THE QUIREBOYS - A Bit Of What You Fancy


Although the exact date has been forgotten, back in 1990, I heard a half-hour broadcast of a Quireboys live show on BBC Radio 1. It was recorded in November ’89, during the band’s stint supporting Aerosmith. For those thirty minutes, Spike and co pulled out all the stops. Remembering how great that live set had been, I checked out their debut album ‘A Bit of What You Fancy’, only to be very disappointed.

Time is a funny thing. ‘A Bit of What You Fancy’ still may not be completely representative of The Quireboys I remember from that live broadcast, but in reality, although hit ‘n’ miss, it’s not a bad record.

The opening number ‘7 O’clock’ represents the band’s manifesto in four minutes with its bar-room trashiness. Musically, it rests somewhere between a slightly heavy handed version of The Faces and mid-period Rolling Stones. Guy Bailey & Guy Griffin’s three chord R’n’R guitars provide the perfect accessory for Spike’s whiskey-soaked rasp and the piano and harmonica add a much needed flourish. The anthemic ‘Hey You’ follows suit and manages to stay memorable a long time after the album has finished. It’s hardly surprising that between these couple of singles and a lot of touring, The Quireboys managed to gain a substantial fan base of rock fans looking for something retro and familiar.

Surprisingly, those singles are nowhere near as good as a couple of other tracks on the album. ‘Man on the Loose’ takes the tried and tested bar room formula and turns it up a notch, adding gospel styled backing vocals and ‘Whipping Boy’ represents a slower, bluesier band. The latter, in particular, stands up well with its brooding style, making for something altogether less disposable, and again, the female backing vocals are put to good use. The swaggering ‘There She Goes Again’ is timeless with its cocky Faces influence. Good use of a horn section coupled with a memorable (if somewhat simplistic) chorus makes it a standout.

Their Rolling Stones fixation comes to the fore for ‘Misled’, which sounds like a poor imitation of something like ‘It’s Only Rock N Roll’, but sang badly, and the album sags drastically during ‘Sweet Mary Ann’ and ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’. On the latter, it becomes especially obvious that Spike’s vocal style is extremely limited and most of the time just not cut out for slower numbers. It occasionally works outside the Faces-style stompers though, since it sound fine on the country-tinged ‘Roses & Rings’; here Chris Johnstone provides good accompaniment on the piano (in fact, if I’m completely honest, it’s his bar room piano style which lends this album most of its charm).

Hit ‘n’ miss it may be, but ‘A Bit of What You Fancy’ is better than I ever gave it credit for back in 1990. However, it’s still not a patch on anything The Black Crowes have to offer.

...If anyone out there has a copy of that live radio broadcast from November ’89, please get in touch. I’d love to hear it again, if only to find out what made The Quireboys sound so vibrant.

February 2010

Monday, 18 October 2010



This album of soul covers, containing material originally associated with the classic Stax label, represents the first new recorded works by Huey Lewis and The News since 2001’s ‘Plan B’ album. Interestingly, its UK release came during the same month as the re-release of ‘Back To The Future’ at the cinema – part of me thinks this may not have been a coincidence.

If you take a closer look at Huey Lewis and The News’s back catalogue, amongst the good-time pop-rock belters, you’ll find plenty classic soul music influences – not least of all on tracks like ‘Doing It All For My Baby’, ‘Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do’ and the monster hit ‘Stuck With You’ – so the idea of a soul covers album from these guys feels very natural. With Lewis’s voice as great as it ever was (the dictionary definition of professional performer) there was no doubt as to whether they could pull this off. There aren’t any moments during ‘Soulville’s fourteen cuts where you’d question their choice of song, but naturally, some covers are better suited to The News than others.

The journey through the band’s soul influences begins with a run through of the Wilson Pickett classic ‘Don’t Fight It (Feel It)’. The sound is slightly smoother than that of Pickett’s 1965 single, but the horn section is spot on and Sean Hopper’s organ parts have the necessary amount of retro cool to make them have a classic feel. Lewis takes the song and delivers a very natural performance, resisting temptation to change the vocal in any way. Naturally, it doesn’t match Pickett’s spiky delivery, but it’s a more than worthy cover. During Solomon Burke’s ‘Got To Get You Off My Mind’, Lewis’s vocal is an easy one – a match for the deliveries on his self-written soulful material - but it’s the tight horn section and the laid back drums which recreate most of the old soul sound. The band sounds fantastic on their version of ‘Don’t The Green Grass Fool You’ (originally recorded by Wilson Pickett in 1970) with Stef Burns capturing the smooth jazz influences in the lead guitar parts perfectly and the horns provide a great accompaniment to Bill Gibson’s upfront drums. The sax break is superb and Lewis’s vocals are effortless. John Pierce is the real hero of this number though: listen carefully - amongst all those more obvious attention grabbing elements, his bass runs are incredibly busy.

The much covered ‘Respect Yourself’ appears here with plenty of confidence and a sharp line on the electric piano. While Huey’s delivery is perfect and the backing vocal harmonies add the necessary amount of depth, it feels a little slow. It’s certainly lacking the sassy qualities of The Staple Singers’ classic 1971 version, but thankfully, is it isn’t as heavy handed as Joe Cocker’s slightly shouty take on this classic from 2002. Against the odds, the title cut (originally recorded by Isaac Hayes on the ‘Shaft’ soundtrack) rather suits Huey’s slightly husky tones. The News replicate the laid back musical arrangement of the original the best they’re able, but understandably due to 21st Century recording techniques, the end result sounds shinier than Hayes’s Stax recording. Of particular note here is Bill Gibson’s understated drum work, which does very little until the pre-chorus, at which point, it has a great live sound.

The treatment of Eddie Floyd’s ‘Never Found a Girl’ is a stand out. The smoothness of Floyd’s original cut – heavy on the harmonies and strings – has been given a little extra punch by the News. While still very respectful to the original, the piano part here is presented far higher in the mix; Sean Hopper contributes brilliant stabbing keys here, very complimentary to Huey’s vocal delivery. While the band is in good shape and the arrangement is pretty much note-for-note, a take on Rufus Thomas’s ‘Little Sally Walker’ falls short of the mark. While it could be argued the band sound like they’re having fun (and Lewis himself is relishing every line), that’s part of the problem – this version of ‘Little Sally Walker’ sounds like something Lewis would have delivered as part of his starring role in ‘Duets’, karaoke style. It’s not bad by any means, but it could’ve turned out better, even though it stood little to no chance of being as energetic as Thomas’s original. A version of Joe Tex’s ‘I Want To Do Everything For You’ highlights exactly why a soul covers record is a great vehicle for Huey Lewis and The News. The lead vocal is spot on, made even better by a decent harmony vocal (which although not quite a complete reproduction of the the original, is still a really good stab) and the band are equally on form. Stef Burns gets a brief chance to step away from rhythm guitar work and turn in a couple of quick leads. Even Lewis himself grabs the opportunity to whip out his harmonica for a solo.

Lewis steps down at the album’s close, allowing The News chance to really shine on a rendition of the Mar-Keys number ‘Grab This Thing’. Obviously, being a Mar-Keys track, it’s up to the horns to take front and centre stage - and the guys here are more than up to the task. The sax leads are attention grabbing without becoming aggressive and the accompanying rhythms are hard hitting, befitting of the classic Stax approach. There are a couple of great opportunities missed here though, since Sean Hopper doesn’t get to recreate the organ solo and Stef Burns, likewise, is restricted to rhythm work, choosing not to re-interpret Steve Cropper’s guitar solo. It’s over a minute shorter than the Mar-Key’s version and a tiny bit slower, but these are very minor complaints.

After nearly a decade without new material from Lewis and his News, it would have been so good for them to deliver a disc brimming with new compositions, maybe with a couple of these covers thrown in. But since that wasn’t to be, looking at ‘Soulsville’ for what it offers, it’s a decent record - and one which makes a good companion piece to their 1994 rock ‘n’ roll covers album, ‘Four Chords and Several Years Ago’. Do yourselves a big favour though: if you enjoyed this record, check out the original artists’ recordings of these songs if you haven’t already done so.

October 2010

Friday, 15 October 2010

EDWARD O'CONNELL - Our Little Secret


Packaged in sleeve featuring a great homage to Nick Lowe’s solo debut ‘Jesus of Cool’, this release by Edward O’Connell has a sound which is almost timeless. Its songs could have been recorded at any point after the mid-eighties and performed by anyone aged between 25 and 60.

If you’re a fan of Tom Petty, it’s likely you’ll find an instant affinity with this album’s opening number ‘Acres of Diamonds’, since it could have been pulled straight off his ‘Full Moon Fever’ record. Granted, O’Connell may be wearing an influence on his sleeve here, but the end result is expertly delivered. With a crisp sound, all ringing guitars and retro-pop hooks, it’s unlikely that if this fell into the hands of Petty the end result would have sounded any better. ‘I Heard It Go’ features a similar sound, but is slightly more upbeat; it’s catchy chorus and slide guitar part evokes parts of George Harrison’s ‘Cloud 9’ album (again, it’s that Jeff Lynne produced Wilbury sound which begs the comparisons).

A laidback vocal gives ‘Partially Awesome’ an introspective feel and a similar heart-tugging quality to the under-rated Pete Droge. Although a little buried under the many guitar parts, there’s a piano at the core of this song, helping to give it an extra dimension. ‘Happy Black’ has a similar downbeat musical quality, anchored by a rock solid rhythm section. It manages not to be a straight-up repeat of ‘Partially Awesome’ thanks to some great harmony vocals and a great, yet simple, electric piano part. It’s a melancholy number which deserves a place as one of the album’s standouts. ‘Pretty Wasted’ is a key moment for fans of 12-string guitar, as during this track Karl Straub plays with a meticulous Byrds-esque greatness. The song itself is okay too, but isn’t as good as those earlier tracks.

A solid harmony vocal leads ‘Your Ride’s Here’, for a classic (if again, slightly downbeat) pop arrangement, containing elements of Elvis Costello and Enuff Z’Nuff (during their more reflective moments, as heard on material like ‘Time To Let You Go’ from the ‘Strength’ LP). While the lead vocal drifts a little too far into Costello territory and the hook isn’t as big as some of the others featured on the album, this really highlights O’Connell’s gift for penning an uncomplicated pop melody. ‘I Want To Kiss You’ aims for a similar feel, but misses the mark, partly due to a lightweight chorus, but mostly due to the presence of a rather unpleasant alto sax solo...It’s one of the only weaker track here, though – the other being the piano lullaby ‘All My Dreams’, which, although well played, is a little too saccharine for my tastes.

‘With This Ring’ is an upbeat stomper, which combines the energy of early Elvis Costello and a slight hint of John Hiatt. It’s almost certainly the album’s punchiest number, partly due to Jonathan Babu providing the song with a decent backbone behind the drum kit, but mostly because there are five guitarists featured; listen closely – there’s a piano fill thrown in at the end too. It’s amazing to think that an arrangement could feature so much without losing any of its natural feel, or appearing overdone in some way. O’Connell taps into his inner Costello further on ‘We Can Bury You’, a country-tinged number featuring heavily twanged guitar and, again, some rather solid piano hiding in the back. Here, the vocal is over-stretched in a way which would have suited the mighty bespectacled one in the early 80s. While I’m not always a fan of country influenced material, this has more than enough in the way of endearing qualities.

Edward O’Connell may sound like a composite of various other artists, but that doesn’t stop ‘Our Little Secret’ being a great album. Although it gets a little samey in places, its songs are really well crafted - and for an independently released disc, the production values are spot on. If you’re a fan of jangly guitar pop, then you shouldn’t miss this.

October 2010

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

STEVE HILLAGE - Motivation Radio

steve hillage

Probably best known for being the guitarist with Canterbury psych-prog legends Gong in the 1970s, Steve Hillage has had a long and successful career. It’s a great shame that while bands like Genesis and Yes have always been viewed as legends of 70s progressive music (though often derided by the press), Hillage has remained no more than a cult artist – his solo output criminally ignored in comparison.

While his first solo release ‘Fish Rising’ sold quite well due to its coinciding with his time in Gong, Hillage’s second release ‘L’ would be one of his most enduring, since it contains his cover (and arguable the definitive version) of Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’. It’s his third album, however, which I feel best represents Hillage as both a great musician and arranger. Recorded in the US, ‘Motivation Radio’ was produced by Malcolm Cecil – inventor of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), an electronic instrument, briefly popular in the mid 70s. As expected, he appears on the album with his beloved TONTO, but never in any great capacity. (TONTO was the first modular synthesizer, bought to prominence by Stevie Wonder. While it represented a great leap forward for electronic music, it wasn’t especially practical, since it was the size of a static caravan).

With far less of a reliance on the cover material that had been a huge focus on ‘L’, his 1977 release ‘Motivation Radio’ still features Hillage’s signature glissando guitar work at its core, but in terms of construction, it’s a much tighter collection of songs.

Heavily processed guitars open the album with the upbeat ‘Hello Dawn’. Electronic and acoustic drums back Hillage’s multi-tracked vocal as he greets a new day with optimism. A simple message of making the best of the new day - and the future – is coupled with a fantastic arrangement; Hillage’s multi-layered guitars have their signature sound. During the vocal sections they are used as striking punctuation; during the brief instrumental break at the songs close, their chorus of sound dominates. At just under three minutes, its brevity is a complete contrast to the extended jams of most of Hillage’s previous work. For ‘Motivation’, the band opts for a funk groove; with brimming confidence, the music is the perfect match for Hillage’s deliberately positive lyrics. Everything here is musically perfect, with absolutely no padding or improvisational qualities. While Hillage’s simple, driving riff is the dominant force, Miquette Giraudy’s keyboard fills are supportive, Joe Blocker’s drum patterns are superb and Reggie McBride’s bass work shows complexity without losing sight of his anchoring role.

With a tight drum intro which almost rivals Pierre Moerlen’s work on the Gong track ‘Oily Way’, ‘Light In The Sky’ is great from the off. Constructed around a classic 70s riff, Hillage’s band hit a really solid groove. Many years later it’s lyrics about aliens could be viewed with suspicion and Giraudy’s heavily French accented vocal interludes give an air of quirkiness which isn’t always quite so welcome, but musically, it’s absolutely top drawer stuff. (Those in the UK will recognise this as being the theme for the Channel 4 programme ‘The Friday/Sunday Night Project’ with Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr. I have my suspicions that Collins was responsible for this choice of theme tune).

‘Radio’ has a rather more spacious vibe. Hillage lays down a slightly jazzy guitar line in the intro, even reprising the closing moments of ‘Light In The Sky’ in the process (it would have been better had ‘Light In The Sky’ segued straight into this; it certainly sounds like it was designed that way, despite there being an obvious track break). The rest of the band joins gradually, with Reggie McBride’s bass high in the mix, Joe Blocker’s drums laid back but never losing focus and Giraudy’s blankets of keys hovering somewhere in the back. A brief solo played by Malcolm Cecil on TONTO is very “of the moment” (though far from jarring or awful by any means), before Hillage’s lead vocal drifts in. With a more relaxed pace than the preceding material, ‘Radio’ has an ethereal quality far more in keeping with some of his earlier work from ‘L’; though that’s not to say it’s out of place on this album by any means. For fans of Hillage’s sweeping guitar solos, it’s certainly a high point. Likewise, his playing is exemplary during the instrumental number, ‘Octave Doctors’. There’s a typical spaciousness here and while the rest of the band turn in decent performances, Hillage really shines with plenty of glissando and vibrato. Possessing a tone more beautiful and distinctive than so many guitarists, he deserves as much worldwide recognition as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck for his work.

The ballad ‘Wait One Moment’ isn’t as instant as some of the album’s material, but repeated listens show it to have some brilliant qualities. Hillage’s soft vocal is very natural sounding against McBride’s unassuming bass runs and Blocker’s drums, which here adopt a style comparable to those of Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason (whom would work with Hillage the following year on the album ‘Green’). As is often the case though, it’s Hillage’s masterful soloing which provides the tracks greatest moments, his soaring and other-worldly approach not falling far short of genius.

‘Saucer Surfing’ provides the album with its most spiky arrangement. Hillage delivers an overly wordy verse (it’s lines all too long on purpose – each one scanning a line and a half or thereabouts), but even so it works, giving the piece an edginess and sense of urgency. Hillage’s riff is a simple one, based completely in the straight-up rock mould and combined with the bass and drums, this could have been just as easily played in the power trio format. Granted, once again, the lyrics regarding space exploration and “reality gypsies, surfing the vibrations with our minds” are certainly a product of their time, but I’m certain Hillage meant no harm and it all seems very heartfelt, even if the intentions of these reality gypsies seem really far removed from reality as we know it.
‘Searching For The Spark’ features a (then) futuristic base laid down by Giraudy and Cecil’s synth work. While the guitar solos here are superb, there’s not much else here of note. With the synths and TONTO dominating, Blocker’s drum work is aggressive in an attempt to create a balance between progressive rock and electronica and Hillage’s vocal sections aren’t so tuneful.

A cover of ‘Not Fade Away’ closes the album. Here, the more traditional, punchy three chord arrangement is represented by a loose groove, driven by Blocker’s drums, overlaid with trippy keyboard sounds courtesy of Giraudy, coupled with some quirkier sounds by Cecil on TONTO. Hillage’s vocal sounds a little uneasy here, but he makes up for it with some stunning guitar playing during the intro, largely based around the riff he’d written for Gong’s ‘I Never Glid Before’. It’s one of the album’s weaker numbers, not quite living up to the promise of that opening riff, but regardless of this, it was chosen as the album’s single release.

Hillage’s next album ‘Green’ has a similar feel in places, though has a tendency to wander into the kind of meandering present on ‘L’. However, it would be his 1979 outing ‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ which would have the biggest impact on Hillage’s post-Gong career. Containing two twenty minute suites of electronic music performed by Hillage and Giraudy (one for each side of the original LP), the album was way ahead of its time. Although under-appreciated at the time of release, it gained a new audience years later. Legend has it that during his time out of the spotlight, Hillage wandered into the chill out room at London club Heaven to hear parts of the album being played by Alex Petterson of The Orb during his DJ set. This led to Hillage not only collaborating with The Orb, but also forming his own ambient electronic act, System 7 (which, like ‘Rainbow Dome Musick, was a duo with his wife and long-term musical collaborator, Miquette Giraudy). Hillage had gone from being a cult 70s artist to being one who had not only relevance, but also made a huge impact on the 90s chill out/ambient electronic scene.

If you’ve not checked out any of Hillage’s albums and have a liking for great guitar playing and hippie ideals, then the first four each have their strong moments. While ‘Fish Rising’, ‘L’ and ‘Green’ can feel a little demanding on the listener at times, ‘Motivation Radio’ rarely wanders into musical self-indulgence, making it an unheralded classic among Hillage’s recorded works.

October 2010

Friday, 8 October 2010

FIRE - Ignite


Not to be confused with the similarly named freakbeat band of the sixties (best known for their song ‘Father’s Name Is Dad’), Fire are five-piece melodic metal band from Malta. This debut album was originally issued independently in 2006 and available in Malta only. It was picked up four years later by the German label Avenue of Allies and given a proper international release.

The opening number ‘Get Out of My Way’ may have an intro with slabs of organ, giving the impression we’re heading into something retro in a 70s way, but once the main riff kicks in, there’s no doubt where Fire’s musical loyalties lie. For these Maltese hard rockers, there’s a clear love for classic sounding 80s melodic metal. The track packs a decent punch, with good performances from each of the band members (the organ very much a red herring, since no keyboard player is credited), but it’s the guitar solos which really grab the attention. Both Robert Longo and Joe Vella are accomplished players and here (as throughout the rest of this album) their old-school chops really give Fire an edge. Over a heavy bassline, coupled with great harmony vocals,‘Make Believe’ recounts those days of bedroom air guitar. Vocalist Kenneth Cajella sings “I’ve seen you on television / I heard you on your CDs / I tried all your guitar solos / It’s you I wanted to be”. Sure, it may be cheesy, but Fire delivers their brand of old-school hard rock with complete conviction.

‘Home and Dry’ has a groove which is slightly funky (though without stepping outside Fire’s old-school confines) and one of the album’s biggest choruses. Another solid performance from the rhythm section gives the song a strong base, but it’s the big hooky chorus (with plenty of harmonies) which makes it a track which deserves repeated listens. Cajella’s lead vocal is probably the album’s strongest, though interestingly, both guitarists are far more subdued here; they obviously recognised the hook was strong enough to stand on its own.

Normally, any soft rock or melodic metal songs with the word rock in the title would bring me out in a rash. Against the odds, Fire delivers something listenable with ‘Taste This (Rock ‘n’ Roll)’. Taking a step back from their more metallic tendencies for some old-style rock, the band adopts a more 70s rock aspect and tops a swaggering performance and half-memorable chorus with a slide guitar solo and organ work. ‘Keep On Moving’ is another chorus driven number which represents Fire playing to their strengths; Laurence Baldacchino’s drum work is heavy without becoming heavy-handed, Cajella’s vocals are confident and, although not the song’s main focus, Longo and Vella chip in with some twin lead harmonies. While ‘Goin’ Down’ has lyrics tackle that well-worn topic of drug addiction and its chorus isn’t as strong as it could have been, musically, it’s another of this album’s stronger numbers. There are some great harmonies throughout, which combined with Fire’s unshakable musicianship makes for a great listen. The bass and guitar parts both bring depth and warmth and Cajella’s lead vocal is self-assured.

You’ll get no such rock-solid simplicity from ‘Conspiracy Theory’ – an absolutely kitchen-sink affair with hugely pompous solos. A thunderous drum intro paves the way for a fast 80s metal riff (given extra oomph by the use of a really well placed twin lead). It sounds as if that’s going to be all that’s on offer until mid way, when fast 70s style keyboard work adds a fair amount of grandiosity which escalates further when Robert Longo and Joe Vella break into some neo-classical widdling backed by a keyboard sample of a choir. It may be overblown, but it’s fun.

The Avenue of Allies reissue contains two bonus tracks: ‘Miss You This Christmas’ (originally released as a single in 2007) and a cover of the Bryan Adams classic ‘Run To You’ (recorded specially for the 2010 re-release of ‘Ignite’).

While it may not be fashionable, I’ve always thought ‘Run To You’ was one of the great 80s rock singles (When on form, Bryan Adams could be great, y’’s only post ‘Robin Hood’ that his output became mostly rubbish). The idea of someone covering ‘Run To You’ didn’t sit well with me – and especially not a metal-edged band; oddly though, the end result is okay. The song gets treated respectfully. Naturally, Fire crank up the main riff in the process, but still manage to retain most of the song’s melody and radio-friendly spirit. As for the Christmas single, I’m less fond. It has a great twin lead and decent enough melody, but its throwaway festive nature means I’m not likely to listen to it that often (especially the case outside of the festive period).

Since the original release of ‘Ignite’, the band has released a second album and has enjoyed increasing popularity in Europe. While they bring nothing new to their chosen genre (and their style of melodic metal is likely only going to be of appeal to the melodic metal die-hards), given their level of musicianship, any success they may have is very much deserved.

September 2010

Wednesday, 6 October 2010



Quakers on Probation is band comprised of father-son duo Daniel A. Craig and Daniel F. Craig, with bassist Graig Markel. Their self-titled disc is a release is given some weight by a helping hand from Larry Knechtel – a keyboardist and bassist, best known for being a member of Bread, as well as his session work with The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel and The Beach Boys. In theory, having such a heavyweight session man on hand (and one who’d worked with some of Quakers on Probation’s influences) should have gone a fair way towards making this a decent record.

The opening number ‘Pay It Forward’ starts things on the right foot with a warmish sounding number which has an allusion to Buffalo Springfield and late period Byrds and maybe even a touch of The Hollies. Despite hinting at these classic influences, it’s a reasonable track rather than a great one, due to a rather flat arrangement (bar Knechtel’s keyboard work, providing the warmth) and an even flatter vocal delivery. Some of the lyrics are also quite spiteful: “all the zeroes who were buried alive / or burned at the stake / they rose reincarnate in your madness / and jumped from your cake / like ghosts singing ‘happy birthday fucker’ as you reached for your heart attack / you said if you pay it forward, I say pay it all back”. Those lines have such a vitriolic tone – the kind which may have amused John Lennon - but such anger seems very misplaced here. Also, it’s obvious that most of Quakers on Probation’s budget was spent on this number, since it’s one of only a couple of tracks to feature a real drummer.

‘Your Favourite Song’ continues in a similar style, but there’s something about the arrangement which has a more modern feel. The acoustic shuffle is reminiscent of the slightly more country influenced material from Evan Dando’s 2003 solo debut ‘Baby I’m Bored’, with an appealing use of steel guitar. Slightly more upbeat, but still optimising the country-pop twang, ‘Marysville’ has the kind of user-friendliness of Lowen & Navarro or The BoDeans (albeit their poorer songs) – and really ought to have been the kind of material Quakers on Probation concentrated on, since it’s so obviously what they’re best at. Although very basic, the purely acoustic ‘Yard Sale’ is okay too, despite sounding like a poor man’s Simon & Garfunkel...if they lacked their beautiful two part harmonies.

With the okay tracks out of the way, most of the rest of this album is filled by truly awful casiotone material which sounds like songs written by spoilt thirteen year olds. ‘I Know a Woman’ is a keyboard pop number which features really disgusting, lazy song writing, twisted from a rather drippy poem by Theodore Roethke. Sung rather flatly over some rudimentary keyboards, it’s then made even worse by the use of a trumpet (credited to Billy Joe Huels) which sounds over-processed and not unlike syntheisized brass. Frankly, it smacks of a bedroom recording that someone’s family thinks is great – although that’s honestly no reason to force it upon the rest of the world.

The title track lowers the bar even farther, being a samba, complete with actual synthesized brass. I hope Quakers on Probation are going for kitsch...but even so, this sounds like a poor approximation of a church duo, playing something with the charm of a Carpenters cast-off. No better, the drum machine two-step of ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ sounds like a karaoke demo. While some harmonies attempt to lift it from the depths of its emptiness, it’s really, really horrible.

‘Lament For the Aging Rocker’ fares slightly better at first, since it features a twin acoustic guitar approach that’s simple yet familiar. It then takes a turn for the worse... With a high, off key vocal, Daniel F makes what he thinks are amusing remarks about classic rock stars not having the edge they once did (Sammy Hagar’s cruise control set permanently on 55, are Def Leppard deaf etc). The line “Do you think Ozzy will outlive Dio” instantly reminds us all that Dio is gone, and despite the supposedly fun intentions, it’s a song now steeped in sadness. Honestly though, since Quakers on Probation have such a fondness for bad song writing wrapped up in casiotone filth, should they really be making fun of anyone? If I were them, I certainly wouldn’t be mocking Axl Rose or Tommy Lee...

Included as a bonus track, a cover of the 1974 Sammy Johns US hit ‘Chevy Van’ closes the album. It’s a fitting way to finish, since Sammy Johns’s original hit was produced by Larry Knechtel. The addition of guest vocalist Colin Spring improves things a great deal and the use of mandolin here, although predictable, has a great retro sound. Perhaps more importantly, by the song’s end, it’s immediately clear that ‘Chevy Van’ is much better than nearly all of Quakers on Probation’s self-written material...

Sadly, Larry Knechtel passed away during post production on this album. Since Larry played on The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’, Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, various albums by The Monkees and Duane Eddy, among other things, this is such an unfitting’s probably up there with Orson Welles and his final film being ‘Transformers: The Movie’.

A couple of okay numbers aside, this is an appalling album - not falling too far short of being a terrible waste of plastic. ...And to think, reading the band’s (self-written) press release, it actually sounds like something that you’d really want to listen to, with Quakers on Probation being likened to The Jayhawks and Wilco! I hope to Christ that Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy never find out their fantastic reputation has been sullied in this way.

October 2010

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Everybody Likes a Good Rusty Trombone


In 2009, the Florida ska-core band Out of Nothing broke up. Realising that over the course of five years they had played alongside lots of other great (mainly unsung) bands, their guitarist/vocalist Mark and drummer Ryan decided a release featuring some of these bands should be made available. The resulting self-financed disc ‘Everybody Likes a Good Rusty Trombone’ features 16 bands (many from Florida, but a few from farther afield) most of whom, as you’d expect, fit neatly into the ska/punk genre.

Baton Rouge outfit No Fuego are a punk band whom don’t quite fit into the skate or hardcore subgenres, but pack a bigger punch than many of the more commercial bands. What their song ‘The Struggle’ lacks in an instant hook, it makes up for with solid musicianship. The guitar work here is aggressive, though quite intricate. The hard edges are joined by bagpipes which add depth; though don’t be fooled into thinking that No Fuego are another band whose stock-in-trade consists of sub-par Pogues-for-punx type jigs in a Dropkick Murphys style. Judging by this track, they’re far more rooted in the punk field – and they’re all the better for it.

Billing themselves as “drunk rock”, the appropriately named A.A. Dropouts offer this compilation’s weakest track. ‘Drink Myself to Death’ is a sloppy acoustic demo recording which brings little in the way of anything memorable. While acoustic-based DIY bedroom punk isn’t exactly an unknown quantity (with bands such as The Ataris and Dashboard Confessional bringing it to larger audiences), this is quite hard to listen to. Still, amid the calypso style mid-section and maraca shaking, they sound like they’re having fun...I just wish it was just as much fun for those not involved.

The marvellously named Johnny Cakes & the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypso are on hand to bring you some top-quality ska-punk. In ‘Commando’ they offer a song with a simple chorus and enough chops to stand with the best bands of a similar nature. During the intro, a big horn riff stands alone, filling the empty spaces and during the pre-chorus they create a great build-up. For the main chunk of the verses though, it’s Mikey OD’s rhythm guitar which is the driving force. Being a fan of Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Mustard Plug, I hear so much of their sound in Johnny Cakes...if you’re a Bosstones fan, you’ll probably want to hear more by these guys. (Be warned though, they may have a lot in common with those aforementioned ska-punk bands, but their debut album ‘Rise of the Pink Flamingoes’ features the kind of childish smut and vulgarity you’d find on a Guttermouth disc, so it’s not for the easily offended).

Any song title which mentions unity undoubtedly carries a strong Operation Ivy/Common Rider influence. The slightly ragged production for H1N1’s ‘Wha’ppened To Unity’ reinforces the OpIv feel, while lyrics about unity (naturally) “left over right” and anti-facism provide a good contrast to some of the more ‘fun’ bands featured here. H1N1 have their ideas sorted, it’s a case of “close but...” for these guys, since on the negative side, the chorus isn’t that strong and a sax solo is completely out of tune. For their song ‘Blindfold’, StickCityMafia display a huge set of ska chops – dominated by some very upfront rhythm guitar work, while the vocals have a slurred approach (another nod to Rancid, no doubt). Things turn noisier towards the end with a step away from ska, going further into punk, but StickCityMafia seems equally adept at both styles. Sadly, the band broke up in April 2010. They such great potential; who knows what they could’ve done with a higher budget and proper record label support?

Listing Minor Threat and Rancid among their influences, Georgia band The Erratics specialise in a very old school style shouty hardcore. Interestingly for a band so close to that end of punk, this track features guitar playing which stretches beyond the usual rhythmic bursts and even includes a solo. The Erratics won’t broaden your listening palette, but to think they would is missing the point! Speaking of Rancid, there’s an unavoidable influence from Tim Armstrong and co at the heart of Sobriety Starts Tomorrow’s sound. The meter of the vocal is very similar to classic Rancid, even if the delivery doesn’t ever lapse into Armstrong’s unmistakable slur. Bass player Seth has a very upfront style, though he doesn’t use it at the track’s expense. Sobriety Starts Tomorrow may not be the best band name, but don’t be put off – if this track is representative of their typical approach, they’re great.

I’m not entirely sure what Cryptorchid Chipmunk were attempting to achieve with their song ‘Exgirlfriend x’. It features a casio-tone verse, with bursts of hardcore punk noise, further discordance is added something which sounds like a melodica and electronic (possibly programmed) drums - all of which are then backed by the sound of the girlfriend whittering. It doesn’t even have a chorus. Despite all this, they certainly create an impression, which I’m sure is what they wanted all along.

Opening with a great bassline and some really punchy brass, The Long Johns brand of ska is polished and professional with a strong influence from the greatly missed Save Ferris. Vocalist Stephanie Summerbell has a great, expressive voice (somewhere between Save Ferris’s Monique Powell and Gwen Stefani in sound) and once that’s combined with the really tight musicianship from the rest of the band, the end result is about as good as the poppier end of ska-punk gets.

New Jersey’s The Best of The Worst are one of the best and most interesting bands on this comp. Their sound features elements of metal and hardcore punk intercut with really slick ska breaks. For ‘Sgt Beatdown’, the drums here are really solid – and when combined with the guitar down strokes, this gives the track a chug which has a proper sledgehammer approach. Their horns are well arranged and the ska elements provide fantastic contrast to the hardcore and it’s rare to find a band that’s so accomplished in both these contrasting styles. The track’s closing section features a fantastic hardcore sound, full of double bass pedals and hostility – and having fit all of their best musical traits into just over three and a half minutes, The Best of The Worst are hard to ignore. Not bad for a band who by their own admission formed as a joke.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Diversity Is An Old Wooden Ship is they certainly aren’t aren’t sky about using a big ‘whoah’ for a hook, since they shoehorn one in between each of the vocal lines. It’s an approach which certainly isn’t unwelcome though, especially in lieu of a chorus. The horn section is prominent, though slightly flat (not unlike those early Less Than Jake releases) and the vocals are of the standard punk variety. It’s not one of the compilation’s stand out numbers, though not a skipper by any means.

The Carry-ons are an Atlanta based band, and their track ‘The War is Over’ has a hard punk edge, with a slight skate influence. A strong chorus collides with a great vocal, and the band’s brash confidence keeps their performance buoyant. This has an instantly familiar feel – one which should appeal to fans of Pennywise and War Called Peace. However, their other tracks (streaming from The Carry-ons’ MySpace page) present a band with a broader sound – containing elements of ska and some sharper edges, although always retaining a knack for delivering a decent shout-along chorus. You’ll also find plenty of ‘whoooahs’ from Kicking Pandora, a straight-ahead punk band from Alabama with a slightly lo-fi sound. In just under two minutes, they hit hard with a great guitar riff and their unrelenting attitude.

For good quality, no nonsense ska, another Alabama band, Shut Up Travis more than delivers. Their featured track, ‘Four Letter Word’ has a summery vibe with plenty of brass. If you’re a fan of Reel Big Fish or Less Than Jake (the undisputed kings of the Florida ska-punk scene), these guys will appeal to you instantly. With good production and tight musicianship, I doubt that even signing with one of the great punk labels would change these guys at all.

From Tallahassee, Florida, comes Chilled Monkey Brains. Their contribution, ‘VBJ’, features a wall of guitars in an angry but not-quite-hardcore-punk style, underpinned by trombone and an old school keyboard which would make Greg Hawkes from The Cars raise an eyebrow. Each of the bands seven members sounds very accomplished and the production on this track is great. By the time you get settled into the song’s sledgehammer approach, CMB drop their metallic edges and launch into a really sharp ska break which shows a real tightness. ‘VBJ’ is polished without losing any of the necessary bite and has enough quirkiness to keep you coming back for more. Another recommended track.

...And since this compilation was put together by a couple of their members, ‘Everyone Likes a Good Rusty Trombone’ wouldn’t have been complete without a track from Pensacola’s Out of Nothing. ‘Tonight...You’ features a great bass line and some hard-hitting horns, but sadly, it has vocal which is buried in the mix. It’s certainly worth checking out for the horn work, though.

Everybody knows that picking up reasonably priced samplers is the best way to discover new punk bands. If you’ve been a fan of punk and ska music for as long as I have, it’s likely your collection includes a good number of them too. ‘Everybody Likes a Good Rusty Trombone’ is certainly one you ought to check out; while it’s a little and miss, there are enough good bands here to make it worthwhile – and by picking it up you’d be supporting a proper DIY release.

September 2010

‘Everyone Likes a Good Rusty Trombone’ can be purchased from any of the following myspace band links:

Shut Up Travis
No Fuego
The Long Johns
Diversity Is An Old Wooden Ship
Johnny Cakes & The Four Horsemen of the Apocalyspo
Out of Nothing
Chilled Monkey Brains
The Best of the Worst
The Erratics
The Carry-Ons

Monday, 4 October 2010



It’s funny isn’t it? For an artist who has always strived to be so closely associated with the blues, Eric Clapton seems to have spent a large part of his solo career exploring non-blues music. In the mid 70s he showed a fondness for reggae, in the late 70s country, and during the second half of the 80’s he achieved huge success in the adult rock/pop field. Granted, there’s always been some blues along the way (in the case of 1994’s ‘From The Cradle’ and 2004’s ‘Me and Mr Johnson’, he even managed to deliver a couple of albums devoted completely to the genre), but with such a broad musical palette, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Clapton as a blues musician, even though that’s what he so desperately craves.
For this, his nineteenth solo studio release, Clapton offers a mix of covers and a couple of newly written numbers (Clapton himself only contributing one track – and even then, it’s a co-write with producer and general right hand man, Doyle Bramhall). As expected, ‘Clapton’ (the album) features a few decent blues numbers and a couple of okay other tracks. Probably what you’re not expecting, though, is for so much of the disc to feature versions of jazz standards from the 30s and 40s.

A rendition of Lil’ Son Jackson’s ‘Travelin’ Alone’ opens the album with a blues workout where Clapton’s guitar duels (but gently) with the dirtier tone of Doyle Bramhall. The grumbling blues is punctuated by bursts of yelping Hammond Organ, courtesy of Walt Richmond. Meanwhile, Clapton’s vocal is okay, but lacks the soufulness of some of his past performances. It provides some decent opening bait, but that promise is quickly ushered aside by the arrival of the first of ‘Clapton’s easy listening numbers. A laid-back rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’ is led by gently brushed drums (subtly played by Abe Laboriel Jr), a piano (courtesy of Richmond, once again) and some really tasteful blues guitar played by Derek Trucks. While the lovely guitar work and piano flourishes have their moments, this is unchallenging even by Clapton’s standards. I may have been more forgiving had it closed this album, but to wheel this out as the second track?

A JJ Cale original, ‘River Runs Deep’ fares much better. While still rather easy on the ear, Cale’s style of roots music has a timeless quality, and hearing the man himself back Clapton is something always welcomed. While this track never pushes itself beyond twangy meandering, its six minutes never drags. The introspective warmth of the performance is given extra depth by the presence of sparingly used organ and brass. This could have easily found a home on Cale and Clapton’s ‘Road To Escondido’ release from 2006 and is almost guaranteed to please fans of that disc. Cale’s other contribution ‘Everything Will Be Alright’ is also one of the album’s best numbers. Busier than ‘River Runs Deep’, here, Clapton fronts a soulful number which features a smooth jazzy solo, a string section and horns, topped with Hammond Organ work from Paul Carrick. While it may not have the introspective spookiness of some of Cale’s best work, its classy arrangement makes this an album standout.

Irving Berlin’s much covered ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’ allows Clapton to deliver an easy, relaxed vocal against gentle orchestration and his hard-plucked acoustic guitar. As good as Clapton’s performance on this track may be, it’s not as good as his similar performance on Ray Charles’s ‘Hard Times’ (as featured on Clapton’s 1989 LP, ‘Journeyman’). Like ‘Rockin’ Chair’, I wouldn’t necessarily choose to listen to this if it weren’t part of a bigger mix of music, and while Clapton, no doubt, is playing music he enjoys, it’s possibly not going to be completely embraced by his huge fanbase.

A cover of ‘My Very Good Friend The Milkman’ (a tune best associated with Fats Waller) may have been given an air of New Orleans authentication by the presence of the legendary Allen Toussaint, but that – along with jazz man Wynton Marsalis guesting on trumpet – isn’t enough to save it’s three minute shuffling from being more than a bit bland. In a similar vein, Clapton’s treatment of Waller’s ‘When Somebody Thinks Your Wonderful’ just doesn’t sit right. While the music is tight, with Allen Toussaint’s piano work shining and the brass section really evoking the New Orleans jazz sound of the 1930s, hearing a fairly smooth voiced man from Surrey deliver the vocal just doesn’t seem right. I can imagine Dr John having a decent stab at this, but it’s not right for Clapton.

A solid rendition of Little Walter’s ‘Can’t Hold Out Much Longer’ brings this album a decent blues performance. It’s a number which features one of Clapton’s more classic sounding vocals, intercut with tiny bursts of his great blues guitar work. For this standard blues workout, he’s backed sparingly by Jim Keltner on drums, Willie Weeks on upright bass and Kim Wilson playing some dirty sounding blues harp, held together by Walt Richmond on the piano. Equally enjoyable, a run through of
‘That’s No Way To Get Along’ (originally by Memphis bluesman Robert Wilkins) is given a shake-up via a New Orleans influenced boogie. While this tune will be familiar to most people in its re-titled, bare-bones arrangement ‘Prodigal Son’ (as covered by The Rolling Stones in 1968), this rendition, featuring Clapton and JJ Cale in a vocal duet, is one of the album’s best numbers (isn’t it interesting that all three of this album’s most interesting numbers all feature Cale rather heavily, either in performance or song writing?). While Walt Richmond and Jim Keltner do a top job on piano and drums respectively, this busy arrangement is given extra charm by bluesman Derek Trucks guesting on slide guitar.

A duet with Sheryl Crow, ‘Diamonds Made From Rain’ is very slick. Both vocalists sound good together, though Clapton’s vocal dominates, rather surprisingly. The song itself is well written, but it’s rather ordinary arrangement means it doesn’t quite have the chops to make it a classic in either artists back catalogue. Clapton’s featured guitar solo has his trademark sound and is an equal match for his best late 80s work; it’s a comfort to know he can still play in such a way... Listening to huge chunks of ‘Clapton’, you could be forgiven for thinking he’d given up, having handed so much responsibility to his guest players.

The gentle acoustic blues of ‘Hard Time Blues’ allows Clapton to exercise the softer edges of his vocal style, but since the best guitar playing on the track comes from Doyle Bramhall’s timeless slide work, this seems to be another track which Clapton glides through on autopilot. A treatment of Snooky Prior’s ‘Judgement Day’ is presented here in an effortless rendition. While Clapton’s vocal is pleasing, it’s the counter melody from the backing vocal which lifts the piece. Clapton’s musical input here is negligible too, since most of the lead work comes courtesy of Kim Wilson’s harmonica.

The Clapton-Bramhall composition ‘Run Back To Your Side’ features a slight JJ Cale-esque feel (likely to please fans of Clapton’s classic 1974 outing ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’) as well as hints of Robert Johnson’s ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day’. The whole band finds their groove - even Clapton himself sounds like he’s slipped on an old pair of shoes, musically speaking. A backing vocal from Nikka Costa, Lynn Mabry and Debra Parsons helps give this the kind of rousing send-off that Yvonne Elliman and Marcy Levy would have back in the old days.

Returning to similar territory as ‘Rockin’ Chair’, the jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’ closes the disc. While Clapton’s hushed baritone could be kindly described as pleasant, this song sounds like elevator music delivered by a tired old man. Granted, Clapton’s post-Derek and the Dominos career may not have always had much fire, but it has rarely sunk to this level of easy listening. He may be backed by a rather classy selection of hired hands, but that doesn’t make his renditions of the jazz standards any more interesting. Rather interestingly, the number of covers on this disc, coupled with a fondness for easy listening material calls to mind another 2010 release – a release from one of El Clappo’s closest peers – ‘Emotion and Commotion’ by Jeff Beck.

This album certainly brings plenty in the way of star performers, and ‘Clapton’ isn’t a really bad record by any means (and it’s certainly far better than the aforementioned Jeff Beck release); but its gentle approach means most of it drifts past without making too much impact. Repeated listens uncover a few hidden depths, but it’s still one of Clapton’s most lightweight offerings.

Many Clapton die-hards will undoubtedly sing his praises and he may even bring in a few new listeners (especially those who enjoy easy vocal jazz). For most of Clapton’s more casual listeners, though, there are a good few of the man’s albums they need to check out before even considering acquiring this one.

October 2010

Friday, 1 October 2010

SALUTE - Heart Of The Machine


In addition to his various solo releases, Mikael Erlandsson will be best known to melodic rock listeners for his involvement with Frontiers Records signings Last Autumn’s Dream. Not content with having those two prongs to his busy career, Erlandsson is also involved with a third project, Salute, where he performs alongside guitarist Martin Kronlund (who in 2010 played a big part in the fifth instalment of Tom Galley’s Phenomena project) and Gypsy Rose drummer Imre Daun.

‘Heart of the Machine’ is Salute’s second release and its eleven songs, as you’d expect, are heavily influenced by late eighties/early 90s melodic hard rock. While you’ll get no musical surprises, this album presents solid musicianship on a set of songs which were co-written by Bangalore Choir’s David Reece (although there are few songs here I wouldn’t have put my name to if I were him, since although the music is often decent enough, a good few of the lyrics are questionable).

‘Higher’ opens with a pounding riff undercut by a slab of keyboards, creating a sound that’s unmistakably European. Anchored by a rock solid bass line, it’s an opening number which instantly shows the power behind pairing of Erlandsson and Kronlund. Erlandsson’s vocals are assured and Kronlund’s solo work is equally confident. While the stomping approach of the opener shows power, it’s ‘Feed Your Hunger’ which really showcases Salute at their best. In a much lighter mood, (though remaining mid-paced) Kronlund’s rhythm guitar work presents itself in a classic staccato style which is coupled by a clean lead, creating something very effective. Erlandsson’s vocal is understated and melodic, beefed up by some great harmonies.

Also recommended listening is ‘I Will Be There’, a huge power ballad which really highlights Kronlund’s soaring guitar work. Erlandsson’s voice is very natural and very much suited to the soft keyboard accompaniment which opens the track. By the time the rest of the band joins the arrangement, Erlandsson steps things up a gear to deliver a performance both passionate and heartfelt. You can almost see him belting out his lines, with fist clenched and eyes closed!

The title cut features a few iffy lyrics and a horrible, unnecessarily gritty vocal performance. In terms of riffing, although Salute suits this slower, meatier style, you’ve already heard them doing something similar (and far better, too) during the opening number. An uptempo workout with a great hook, ‘A Falling Star’ helps make sense of why Erlandsson is well respected as a song writer in the melodic rock field (something I don’t always understand). The track has plenty of great vocal harmonies , which are put to especially good use on a bridge section, leading into a multi-layered solo from Kronlund.

‘In It For The Long Haul’ gives drummer Imre Daun a chance to play in a slightly more aggressive fashion – an opportunity not missed by Kronlund either, chiming in with both a decent riff and solo. However, this track has quite major faults: some of the lyrics about being “a warrior conquering fears” and a “soldier of fortune, always swinging a sword, never carrying a shield” echo the kind of clichéd, cringe worthy lyrics which grace Yngwie Malmsteen’s back catalogue. And surely someone should have told them that the chorus line isn’t pronounced ‘In it for the long howl’...? Just a thought. I’m really not sure how this happened either since Erlandsson’s English pronunciation is perfect throughout the rest of this album.

Also, while we’re on the subject of bad lyrics, ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Train’ is guaranteed to make you wince. Every line in this song is appalling. Clichés about a journey with no end in sight are bad enough, but it doesn’t stop there: it also includes references to hard drinking party animals and a woman with loose morals (including a thinly veiled reference to a vibrator). It’s all very poor...and then, use of the phrase “got me choo-choo-chooglin on down the line” makes it even worse. [Only John Fogerty gets away with the word chooglin’ in my book, I’m afraid...and only then because Creedence Clearwater Revival is a classic, classic band].

‘Tearing Me Down’ features Kronlund in a quasi-aggressive mode, utilising a dirtier tone with an occasional horsey-noise. While he and Daun are clearly the driving force here, Erlandsson’s vocal performance is one of the album’s best. His slightly raspy delivery is well suited to the old school classic rock sound of this track; a sound reinforced by slabs of old style organ on the pre-chorus (albeit quite low in the mix).

While Salute’s big draw for most people will undoubtedly be the presence of Mikael Erlandsson, by the album’s end, it becomes clear that it’s Martin Kronlund who’s the real star. His guitar work is top-notch throughout, putting in his best performances even when the songs aren’t always very good. If you’re a fan of Last Autumn’s Dream, you’ll certainly want to check it out, but despite best intentions, ‘Heart of the Machine’ is a very hit and miss affair.

September 2010