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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
The Demos are a New York indie pop/power pop duo whose work, in principle, should be very appealing. They often know their way around a three minute song and have some great 70s/80s power pop influences, but from early listens, it’s obvious where their work is deficient: in keeping with their name, the songs here have a slightly DIY feel as opposed to a finished, lavish work. We’re not talking the Robert Pollard/Guided By Voices “amps and a tape-deck” approach here, obviously, but for a power pop band, The Demos lack the necessary professional shine. This has a great deal to do with the presence of elements which sound pre-programmed (particularly on lots of drum parts), which, in the long run, tends to make everything feel a bit flat.
Audio issues aside, there are a few songs featured on ‘Lovely’ which really stand out. ‘Can’t Win Me Over’ has a strong Ben Kweller influence and simple chiming guitar chords, but within its power pop grooves there’s something a little more indie rock at play. Similarly, ‘Tell Me How It Feels’ is potentially great, with its melodic guitar lines, kitschy keyboards and a tune which, in places, is reminiscent of Boston band The Russians. It provides a great insight into what The Demos can do when completely focused; it’s just a shame about the biscuit tin drum sound, which naturally provides a weak element. It’s a number begging to be spruced up by the superb Justin Kline.
‘My City’ features some solid harmonies and a mid-paced arrangement, which overall provides another example of The Demos at their best. While the rhythm guitars are simple, beneath the jangle, there are occasional hints of a ringing lead and twin vocals which are given an extra boost by a female backing. The track barely breaks from its original riff, but doesn’t need any embellishment or anything complex added; at just over two-and-a-half minutes, it’s holds the attention well enough. Another mid-paced number, ‘I Need It’, has a strong 70s vibe which, with a tweak here and there, could be really great. As it stands, it already has a strong vocal line and the tinkling bell keyboard moments are a nice touch. Like other good moments on this album, though, the song is well written but let down by the small budget at The Demos’ disposal.
As mentioned, most of the songs featured on ‘Lovely’ have the necessary hooks needed to make them stand up. There’s little here that sounds like essential listening, but repeated listens show a couple of songs to be great. With regards to the best material here, it’s a shame The Demos didn’t have the huge budget to give those tunes the kind of send off they deserved.
Friday, 10 June 2011
Syd Arthur are a Canterbury based four piece prog/folk four piece band, whose sound pays a great homage to the progressive rock scene of the 1970s. On their debut EP’s four featured cuts, the musical structures are tight, and the level of musicianship is often stunning. Liam Magill’s lead vocals have a distinctive, fairly high timbre which on record doesn’t always sit as comfortably on these studio recordings as they do in the live set, but that’s not a bad thing, as his voice is one which - once heard - could be recognised in an instant.
Things start out gently with ‘Morning’s Calling’, a bluesy number which on occasion is reminiscent Crosby Stills & Nash’s ‘Wooden Ships’, driven by rhythmic guitars. Those guitars have a great tone throughout and still leave enough space for occasional mandolin fills. For first time listeners, this seems to be an ideal opener, more of a mood piece than some of the more complex numbers which follow. The groove-led elements give way in the mid section for a brief atmospheric interlude, where acoustic guitars lay a foundation for gentle keyboard work and harmony vocals.
The shortest piece, ‘Exit Domino’ at first features Syd Arthur at their most laid back. Working from a circular guitar riff, subtle mandolin sounds and basslines add plenty of texture. Things build gradually until the band reach a rather uncharacteristic, full on rock freakout with crashing drums and a hard electric guitar riff, over which Raven Bush delivers a screeching electric violin solo. ‘Pulse’ is a much more interesting number, based around a fairly quirky mandolin riff and Fred Rother’s busy hi-hat. With a relative quiet on the verses and a pleasing staccato approach to the chorus sections, Liam Magill’s vocals seem far more at ease. While the guitars and mandolins provide the heart of the piece and the solos which dominate the second half are enjoyable, it’s Joel Magill’s busy basslines which provides the best feature. For a fairly accessible example of Syd Arthur’s prog-jazz fusion, this is the EP’s stand out number.
‘Planet of Love’ is a jaunty workout which has a sound which hints at early Jethro Tull and Caravan, eventually pulled together with a few jazzier vibes. Fred Rother’s drums lay down a great rhythm, from which the rest of the band grows. Once again, Joel Magill’s bass work is exemplary, but here, he is outshone by the mandolin riffs and flute lines, each adding to the Tull vibe. This leads into ‘Hermethio’, an instrumental coda which has a strong root in the acid jazz field. The flutes are still present, but take a back seat for an excellent array of guitar noodlings, congas and the occasional violin. It’s with these pieces which close the EP that the musical talents of Syd Arthur really bloom, with each musican finding his own space within the musical landscape, blending progressive rock, folk and jazz to superb effect.
If you’re not into prog, jazz-fusion or any of the old seventies Canterbury bands, Syd Arthur probably won’t appeal at all. While their core sound borrows quite heavily from a couple of Canterbury bands before them, Syd Arthur bring their own sense of style, and with that comes a fine balance between song structure and improvisation. While the EP doesn’t quite capture the power of their live set, it makes for great listening.
Stream or purchase ‘Moving World’ by clicking on the widget below. Syd Arthur’s bandcamp page also offers a free download of ‘Willow Tree’, a track not featured on the debut EP.
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
It was surprising that Black Country Communion’s second album should be unleashed on the world so quickly. Released just nine months after their debut, you have to marvel at the speed these four musicians wrote and recorded their second batch of songs. It’s highly likely, of course, that this second album features material they were working on during the sessions for the first album. Whatever, this second album captures the band (once again featuring Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian) in fine form indeed.
A few early reports claimed this doesn’t quite have the impact of the debut album and in some ways that’s true as on this follow up, Black Country Communion offer far less bombast. This is helped by a slicker studio production and by Glenn Hughes reigning in his vocals a little. [Kevin Shirley’s production is much better on this album compared to that of BCC’s slightly more live-sounding debut; and thankfully it’s streets ahead of the nasty sound he gave Bonamassa’s own ‘Black Rock’ from the same year, which had all the sonic range and finesse of listening to something with your fingers in your ears]. Also, the songwriting is much stronger than before, perhaps more melodic in places, which is also very welcome.
The opening track, ‘The Outsider’ comes equipped with a huge pounding riff, which includes some great bass fills from Hughes underpinned by Jason Bonham’s “family inheritance” drumming style. While it’s certainly one of the album’s most full-on tracks (presumably positioned at the front to grab attention and provide continuity from the first album), it’s nowhere near as grating as the debut’s bombastic rockers, since Glenn Hughes’s vocals are nowhere near as squawky. Also, a far more sympathetic mix means that this time out, Derek Sherinian’s keyboard work isn’t buried and here, his featured keyboard solo is top-notch, carrying the spirit of Jon Lord and Don Airey. Although Bonamassa’s solos aren’t quite as striking as Sherinian’s keyboard work, it’s impossible not to smile when he breaks into some very Ritchie Blackmore-esque leads nearing the track’s end. ‘Man In The Middle’s dirty, swaggering old-school riff should be enough to persuade most of you that BCC mean business this time around, especially once that huge riff is intercut with eastern keyboard washes on the chorus. It’s like a perfect fusion of Glenn Hughes’s ‘Addiction’ and Dio-era Rainbow (you’ll probably spot a cheeky Zeppelin-ism thrown in at the end too!).
‘Faithless’ endulges Joe Bonamassa’s Free fixation, featuring a riff which is very Paul Kossoff influenced in places. The eastern keyboards from ‘Man In The Middle’ make a welcome return and Sherinian’s understated work adds a nice touch.
Surprisingly (considering his over-the-top performances on BCC’s debut), this track gives Hughes plenty of opportunity to shine. His voice is spot on throughout – his rock chops retaining just enough soul to take the edge off – and his bass work is superb too; at times rock-solid, at other times offering small bendy flourishes which have a great impact – this is so, so much better than most of the Black Country Communion debut. Similarly, the eight minute epic ‘No Ordinary Son’ is absolutely first-rate. Bonamassa offers a superb, blues tinged lead vocal with hints of Paul Rodgers and Danny Bowes, while his softer guitar lines are very classy with a clean tone. Building from soft beginnings, it’s a very impassioned number and by the time the hard rock elements take their place for more even more Free influenced grooves, Black Country Communion hit all their marks with absolute ease. Even Glenn Hughes’s slightly warbly vocal section doesn’t spoil the overall mood, and even if it did, this time he could be forgiven, since his bass lines underpinning all the more obvious elements have a brilliant fluidity.
The softer side of BCC comes to the fore for ‘Battle of Hadrian’s Wall’ where the acoustic guitar work provides a great backdrop for Sherinan’s organ swirls and some great vocal harmonies between Hughes and Bonamassa. It’s not all pastel shades, though. A sharp rock riff cuts through once in a while, although it doesn’t always feel necessary. Jason Bonham takes this opportunity to play something a little softer too – his shuffling drum lines are very sympathetic to Bonamassa’s electric leads during the number’s closing moments. It’s great to hear a little mandolin in there; maybe it would have been even better if that had been given a more prominent role.
‘I Can See Your Spirit’ is a hard rock workout which features a great Led Zeppelin inspired riff and naturally, Bonham Jr is well-equipped to give that riff a suitably powerful backbone. Glenn Hughes’s vocal, meanwhile, has an air of Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ – an atmosphere driven to more obvious extremes by Sherinian’s Hammond organ work. For fans of Black Country Communion’s bluesier tones, ‘Little Secret’ is a slow burning number in the ‘Since I’m Gonna Leave You’ mould, which Hughes absolutely nails vocally, while Jason Bonham’s drumming has so much of his father’s spirit, you can almost hear the squeaky drum pedal. It’s probably a highlight with regard to guitar playing, since Bonamassa’s solos are mostly about feel rather than flash; his long, vibrating notes are just lovely.
Hughes, Bonham, Sherinian and Bonamassa sound more comfortable playing together than they did first time around and make recording that “difficult second album” seem so easy. Thankfully, they also avoid the pitfalls of the supergroup, and don’t feel the need for any kind of musical one-upmanship. With a better sound, better songs and proof that sometimes holding back a little can give the listener a greater listening experience, this is the album Black Country Communion could – and should – have made first time around.
Monday, 6 June 2011
Saxon has always been one of Britain’s hardest working rock bands. They’ve had shifting line-ups over the years, band members have come and gone (and in the case of drummer Nigel Glockler, come back again...twice!), but at the heart of it all frontman Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn have strived to push the band ever onward, never giving up. Although still best known to many for their early 80s work, the band worked on tirelessly, releasing albums at regular intervals and playing live shows. After 1990’s ‘Solid Ball of Rock’, Saxon’s popularity waned in the UK, though they retained a strong following in Europe. Their 90s album’s aren’t always essential listening, but in the 21st century, the band eventually got somewhat of a second wind.
2004’s ‘Lionheart’ presented the band in an incredibly good light, while 2007’s ‘The Inner Sanctum’ and 2009’s ‘Into The Labyrinth’ featured similarly decent songs and strong musicianship. The line up of Byford (vocals), Quinn (guitar), Glockler (drums), Nibbs Carter (bass) and Doug Scarratt (guitar) which drove the latter two albums (and also Saxon’s 1997 release ‘Unleash The Beast’) is arguably the strongest line-up the band has ever had – and their work on 2011’s ‘Call To Arms’ goes a long way to cementing that opinion.
The choppy riffs which power ‘Hammer of The Gods’ resemble Saxon’s early 80s work (although slightly meatier) and as such have a classic 80s metal sound, but beneath those riffs, Nibbs Carter’s pounding bass sound gives everything a great boost (that bass in turn given a boost by a particularly loud production job, courtesy of Biff Byford and ex-Little Angels/Gun man Toby Jepson). While it doesn’t bring anything especially new or surprising to the Saxon catalogue, it makes a strong opening number. The title cut finds Biff’s songwriting in good shape as he tells of a soldier going off to serve in the First World War. The emotional lyrical content is given a suitably epic musical arrangement, with plenty of clean guitar work and a very melodic vocal on its verses, before a chugging riff appears on its chorus sections. Even though it doesn’t quite tug the heart-strings in the same way as Lemmy’s similar tale on Motörhead’s ‘1916’, lyrically, this is superb – one of the album’s best songs. Also taking on a fairly epic stance, ‘When Doomsday Comes’ offers chunky riffs served up with a slightly eastern vibe. The band sound tight here and the balance between hard edges and melody is pitched just right. The faster sections bring with them a couple of great solos, while the slower moments provide a base for Biff’s very confident vocal. The staccato keyboard and strings which bring the eastern elements are bound to conjure thoughts of Led Zeppelin’s brilliantly monolithic ‘Kashmir’, but it’s not plagiaristic by any means.
Like ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘And The Bands Played On’ before it, ‘Back In 79’ is a song which celebrates the union of band and fans (and the fans are something Saxon have never taken for granted); and in this case, Biff’s storytelling centres on the early touring experiences and how those audiences were really supportive. The riff is meaty, but it’s a simple chorus of “show me your hands” which is designed to stick in your head long after listening. Another recurring theme in Saxon’s work – standing your ground and taking on the world – reappears here in a storming 80s-style metal workout ‘Surviving The Odds’, which in addition to a really bracing hard rock riff and good vocal, features a rattling bassline from Carter. Occasionally lapsing into a riff which sounds a lot like ‘Western Eyes’ by Jan Cyrka, ‘Afterburner’ celebrates the power of the jet-fighter, which is given a suitably rousing arrangement, possibly the album’s heaviest (certainly it’s fastest). The riffs are intense enough, but after a few plays, it doesn’t offer too much beyond those. While Biff puts in a fine performance and Glockler’s drumming is powerful, in terms of songwriting, it’s not as good as some of the material here.
‘Mists of Avalon’ is a fantastic number which carries more of the spirit of Saxon’s mid-80s melodic experimentation. As the track fades in, Quinn can be heard using a smooth, clean tone. His work here, which recurs throughout the track between the bigger riffs, is evocative of his work on ‘Nightmare’ from Saxon’s ‘Power and the Glory’ album. It’s a style which is very welcome indeed. Most of the track is based around a very solid riff, but it’s the featured solos which provide the best moments, with both Quinn and Scarratt on top form. In addition to this, Biff is in great voice (one of his best performances on this album) and – guesting on keyboards - ex-Rainbow/Deep Purple man Don Airey adds plenty of extra texture. Also edging towards the more melodic, ‘Ballad of a Working Man’ features swaggering riffs, which occasionally tip the hat to Thin Lizzy with their twin lead sound. For those looking for “classic” Saxon, this track more than delivers, sounding very much like the best moments of their ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘Strong Arm of The Law’ albums.
Biff Byford believes ‘Call To Arms’ to be one of Saxon’s best albums – and he may be right; it’s certainly very consistent, with nothing which could be regarded as filler. It’s an album rooted in the old-school – at times more celebratory of Saxon’s past than some of its immediate predecessors – but that’s where most of its charm lies. And although its eleven numbers represent a band sticking to what they know best, Saxon still sound extremely vibrant some thirty-two years and nineteen studio albums into their professional career. There aren’t too many bands who can claim that after so long.
Sunday, 5 June 2011
As part of the funk metal boom of the very early 90s, Sweden’s Electric Boys were briefly MTV stars, thanks to their singles ‘All Lips ‘n’ Hips’ and ‘Electrified’ and Bob Rock produced debut album ‘Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride’. These things never last though, and by the time of their second album, 1992’s ‘Groovus Maximus’, the band had modified their sound. They eschewed some of their earlier funk-metal tendencies and in places – on tracks like ‘Mary In The Mystery World’ especially – indulged in a few Beatles style influences. This was probably encouraged by the fact that the album was recorded in London at the now legendary Abbey Road Studios. Some fans wanting ‘Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride’ volume two were disappointed, and by the time the third Electric Boys album ‘Freewheelin’ was released in 1994, the band’s popularity had decreased even farther (especially in the UK).
The band broke up soon afterwards, with permanent fixture Conny Bloom moving on to other projects. During this time, he spent four years as a member of Hanoi Rocks as well as performing alongside The Wildhearts’ frontman Ginger in his side-band Silver Ginger 5. Following the release of a ‘best of’ album in 2009, Bloom reformed Electric Boys – with the original ‘Funk-O-Metal’ line-up (featuring bassist Andy Christell, guitarist Franco Santunione and drummer Niclas Sigevall). Live shows were played and eventually the four musicians returned to the studio.
The resulting album, ‘And Them Boys Done Swang’ is not a completely shameless return to the funk-metal grooves of 1990, though it’s probably the closest in spirit the band have ever come to recreating the magic of ‘Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride’. Across twelve cuts, they blend hard rock, blues rock and occasional Hendrix-isms with a slabs funk, creating something which sounds like a heady mix of all of their previous musical dabblings on one release.
‘Reeferlord’ combines a heavy, fast guitar riff with a blues-rock aggression on its choruses and bridges, while on the verses the band give a nod to the past with funky verses, driven by rattling bass strings. Via a shameless rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo and shouty gang vocals, there’s a feeling that Bloom and co could be over-compensating, but their brashness allows them to get away with it. The groove laden rock feel carries on through ‘My Heart is Not For Sale’, a track that owes a great debt to Aerosmith with a swaggering riff. There’s a bigger focus on rhythmic qualities than big hooks, but even so, it comes with a great riff and solo – and here, that’s all you need. The bizarrely named ‘Father Popcorn’s Magic Oysters’ (“popcorn” surely a tribute to James Brown?) pays homage to two elements of Electric Boys’ musical past. The guitar riffs are funky with a tough end sound, proving that although the funk metal concept is somewhat dated, it sounds much better without the trebly, late 80s production most of it came with at the time. Vocally though, the harmony filled chorus is far more in line with the Beatles obsessed material from ‘Groovus Maximus’. Also, if you’re looking for riffs, ‘Angel in an Armoured Suit’ has plenty of swagger (once again), alongside another solid chorus.
‘The Day The Gypsies Came to Town’ indulges the band’s blues-rock side, with a number which may suit Stevie Salas. It’s core sound comes from a circular Hendrix style riff, overlaid with a great drum shuffle which occasionally resembles Hendrix’s own ‘Manic Depression’. Despite some great, busy playing on the verses, there’s not much of a hook to be heard here, since the chorus just decends into some multi-layered voices. With a few great multi-tracked guitars and solos, it still has enough decent elements to pull it through, though. ‘Welcome To The High Times’ is a stand out, especially if the funky sounds of Electric Boys are your thing. The guitar riffs are fairly monstrous, but it’s during the verses where the magic occurs, with those big riffs giving way to staccato choppiness, gang vocals and a rattling bassline. The end result is more than reminiscent of fellow Swedes Its Alive in an aggressive mood. The solid bottom end returns for ‘Sometimes U Gotta Go Look For The Car’, a funk-jam laden with wah-wah guitars. Since it’s largely instrumental, it gives the band plenty of room to stretch out; and while the grooves are the best feature, Bloom’s blues rock soloing creeping in here and there should not be overlooked.
#‘Ten Thousand Times Goodbye’ is the closest the album gets to a ballad; it’s harmonious chorus recalls those more psychedelic parts of ‘Groovus Maximus (never the Electric Boys’ strongest work), while musically it’s fairly workmanlike, occasionally sounding like an Enuff Z’nuff cast-off – it’s the kind of stuff which filled MTV rock ballads in those days of yore... Without question, the biggest nod to the Electric Boys’ past comes from ‘Rollin Down The Road’ which, in part, turns those funk-metal grooves up to 11, brings in a horn section and delivers a decent sized punch. While the instrumental breaks are slightly reminiscent of Extreme circa 1991, the chorus takes a u-turn and is of the rather more standard rock variety, with no trace of funk whatsoever.
‘And Them Boys Done Swang’ is well produced and well played throughout, easily Electric Boys’ best offering since ‘Funk-O-Metal Capet Ride’ (although, to be fair, there’s not much competition). Absolutely drenched in attitude and retro-cool vibes, it’s the closest you’re likely to get to a follow up to Its Alive’s ‘Earthquake Visions’. A surprisingly consistent and highly recommended disc.
Saturday, 4 June 2011
According to their press release, Swiss hard rockers Skansis “caused a stir in the rock world” and gathered “rave reviews” with their first album, ‘Taking Your Chance’. In reality the “rock world” to which this band’s press release refers, is merely a relatively small neighbourhood’s worth of specialist melodic rock websites. And of course, those sites are well within their rights to get excited about whatever melodic rock comes their way, but from the outside looking in, the melodic rock community is incredibly insular - with many fans choosing not to listen to music from other genres. Even allowing for such musical narrow-mindedness, why those sites would get excited about Skansis remains a mystery.
98% of melodic rock is old school and retro, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. However, even though some rock acts can still sound great despite having no interest in keeping up with 21st Century trends (Coldspell, Terry Brock, Whitesnake etc), some just don’t hit the mark at all. Sadly, Skansis are one of those bands. Their second album, ‘Leaving You’ features a couple of solid riffs, such as the chug which drives ‘I Want You’, or the fast paced romp through the title cut. There are even a few noteworthy solos (the twin lead from ‘Carry On Better’ being a particular high point), but an album cannot hold listener interest on a handful of decent-ish guitar based moments. Naturally, there needs to be strong, memorable songs and a classy vocalist too - and Skansis boasts neither of these essential melodic rock qualities.
The songwriting just isn’t very good, even verging on clichéd desperation in places (“We will rock all night / not call it a day / and we won’t fade away” and “Next to mine / I want your body now / ‘Cause I don’t wanna be alone” being particularly noteworthy) and vocalist Reto Reist has a scratchy voice which makes Skansis hard to listen to for any great length of time. Raspy can be cool – look at John Fogerty, Jimmy Barnes, or even Spike from The Quireboys on his better days – but Reist just can’t muster that level of bluesy hard rock edginess. Harsh, maybe, but he sounds like someone with an absolute lack of training; a gravelly throated pub “singer” who can barely hit any good notes. There are times when that is softened by a few backing harmonies, but it makes little difference to the end badness; on the ballady numbers, the vocal style seems so misjudged it beggars belief.
The bulk of Skansis’s music takes the form of a very second division sounding Euro hard rock. There are some solid old school guitar riffs here, it’s true – but on the whole, ‘Leaving You’ is average to poor. It certainly doesn’t offer anything your more demanding melodic hard rock fan would listen to more than a couple of times, let alone spend good money on.
Thursday, 2 June 2011
Within minutes of the opening number on Team Me’s debut EP, it’s obvious the release is something special. The Norwegian outfit’s brand of heavily orchestrated indie-pop may borrow influences from Arcade Fire and Mercury Rev, but they throw enough of their own style into the multi-layered arrangements to not sound like mere copyists.
‘Weathervanes and Chemicals’ opens the EP with one of Team Me’s strongest offerings. Beginning with a cymbal-less drum line and a barrage of strings, it has a pompy nature which is hard not to compare to Arcade Fire, especially so once a glockenspiel tops off the already busying arrangement. The track’s verses have a soft air, with touches of Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev before the chorus kicks in. While the chorus is wordless, it features a choir of voices which are very much reminiscent of those which dominate Red Box’s cult 80s album ‘The Circle and Square’. It is almost impossible not to get swept along with the hugeness and feel-good vibes Team Me put across here. By the song’s closing moments, the choir is overlaid by lots of electronic noise, drums and something which may well be a melodica. Sounds messy when described, but in reality, it’s a three minute burst of sunshine. Opening with a very 80s keyboard line, ‘Come Down’ has a slightly punchier atmosphere in places, it’s basic structure fitting neatly into the indie-rock pigeonhole; to keep things interesting, Team Me beef up the arrangement with almost as many layers as ‘Weathervanes’. The huge vocals and strings still provide the heart of Team Me’s sound, but it’s the addition of tinkling percussion (or keyboards approximating the sounds of bells) which provide one of the best elements on a number which was already fairly complex.
‘Dear Sister’ is quirky and full of gorgeous harmony vocals. Its main riff has a circular feel which barely stops throughout the track. Ringing string sounds lead into to something which sounds like it has about fifty layers, overlaid with a choir. While not as hugely appealing as ‘Weathervanes’, it’s still a number which captures Team Me’s multi-layered sound well. ‘Me and the Mountain’ begins with a stronger drum line, settling for a more basic pounding approach – which fills the instrumental breaks and chorus sections; for the verses, Team Me offer more of their heavily keyboard and string led atmospheres. The overall vibe has echoes of Mercury Rev once again, but the occasional harder edges make it sound like a Mercury Rev number that has been influenced by the grandiosity of Arcade Fire – which is not necessarily a bad thing. The closing number ‘Kennedy Street’ finds Team me in a far more laid back setting begins as an echoing guitar riff provides the basis of the number, over which the vocal finds a place for an equally unfussy melody. A harmony vocal joins for the chorus which rounds out the sound beautifully, lending everything an atmosphere which would make Mercury Rev proud they’d passed on so much influence. For the close of the track, a piano joins the arrangement and the drum which has been softly pulsing breaks into a rumble for the last few bars, overlaid by a different collection of vocal sounds – and just when you think we’re going in for a big climax, Team Me stop dead, naturally leaving you wanting so much more.
Team Me worked hard at making a name for themselves prior to this release, playing no fewer than eight Norwegian festivals in the summer of 2010, plus various other gigs along the way - including a couple of support slots with British Sea Power and The Wombats in London in February and March 2011. This EP sounds like the work of a band who’ve strived to get their sound – it’s seriously good, maybe even amazing. If you’ve ever had a passing fancy for The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev or Arcade Fire, you need this. It’s probably the most exciting record to come from the orchestrated indie-pop niche since ‘The Beginning Stages...’ by The Polyphonic Spree.
Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Although a relative late-comer to the fold, vocalist Steve Perry will always be synonymous with the classic Journey sound, having performed on all of the band’s hits and classic albums, from 1978 to 1996. After Perry’s departure, the band enlisted former Tall Stories/Tyketto frontman Steve Augeri to take over the role of vocalist. His work on 2001’s ‘Arrival’ was stellar but it did not last, with 2002’s ‘Red 13’ EP possibly being the worst thing in the Journey back catalogue to date. Augeri also appeared on the 2005 album ‘Generations’ but by then, in the UK at least, it seemed to be only the hardcore fans who were taking notice.
Augeri subsequently left Journey in 2006 and the legendary Jeff Scott Soto was hired to fill in the vacant position, a role he held until 2007 when Arnel Pineda took on the role of vocalist permanently. The resulting album (‘Revelation’, released in the same year; eventually becoming a platinum certified seller in the US) featured lots of the Journey magic which had been missing for the previous few years. However, Pineda has been accused of being a Perry clone and listening to ‘Revelation’, it’s easy to see why. The album even included a bonus disc of re-recorded classic Journey hits, with Pineda absolutely nailing the performances throughout.
Journey’s 2011 release (and second with Pineda upfront) is not ‘Revelation Part II’. For the most part, it represents Journey’s rockiest instincts; the side of Journey rarely heard on their more popular cuts. The opening number ‘City of Hope’ makes this abundantly clear as the band lay down a meaty arrangement over a brilliant ringing, circular guitar riff from guitarist Neal Schon. While heavy by Journey’s standards, it still has plenty of melody too, particularly on a harmony-fulled chorus, which despite the hard rock nature, sounds very much like a Journey chorus. Also, between the huge riffs, Deen Castronovo’s hard rock drumming and Ross Valory’s bottom end bass work, there’s still room in the mix for Jonathan Cain’s piano to cut through. At over six minutes, it’s a bit of an epic workout (as is a good proportion of this album), but nothing feels like padding. By the time Schon breaks into a guitar solo near the end, it’s a track which, frankly, rocks like a bastard. ‘Edge of the Moment’ is similarly hard edged, with some of Schon’s riffing holding a fair amount of power, but song-wise it’s not as appealing, since in places it feels a little chuggy for the sake of it. Despite this, Arnel Pineda is in particularly good voice, having found the confidence to sound like more his own man as opposed to a Steve Perry impersonator, and the chorus is another melodic high point.
‘Chain of Love’ hints at atmospherics with a piano intro, reverbed guitar sounds and a strong vocal performance, but then reverts to similar hard rock thrills as offered by the pair of opening cuts. This time though, Schon’s riff takes a slightly Eastern route with its approach, although probably more Lenny Wolf’s Kingdom Come than Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. Journey should be commended with their ability to meld this into a full scale, harmony-driven chorus though, which sounds a little unexpected after such a pompous verse.
‘Eclipse’ may be harder than most Journey releases, but it’s not all bluster. ‘Tantra’, one of a few softer numbers, is a great showcase for Jonathan Cain’s piano style. The number begins with just voice and piano augmented by soft string sounds (in a ‘Faithfully’ style), before the rest of the band join a couple of minutes in. Schon’s guitar lines are gorgeous and the vocal harmonies are lavish, as they should be. Although most of ‘Eclipse’ doesn’t set out to emulate the older Journey numbers, this is one of a couple of numbers where they absolutely play it safe. Its predictable nature isn’t disappointing though – and it wouldn’t be a Journey album without something written in the Steve Perry vein. Also more “traditionally Journey”, ‘Anything Is Possible’ also really hits the mark, and in terms of melodic rock in its purest form, it is certainly ‘Eclipse’s stand out track. A solid drum line from Castronovo and shining piano motifs from Cain are joined by a fantastic performance from Pineda over a very much tried-and-tested, mid paced riff (the kind which usually accompanies AOR tunes called ‘Don’t Walk Away’). Schon’s guitar leads are full of vibrato-filled magic – which, in short, makes this a classic Journey number.
The semi-acoustic base of ‘She’s a Mystery’ also provides a little respite from the huge riffs, and also allows Pineda another opportunity to exercise the softer end of his range. Here, he reverts back to the kind of Steve Perry influenced performances he gave on ‘Revelation’, but with a slightly husky edge, more in keeping with Steve Augeri. This number’s simplicity is great, not even tarnished by a pre-programmed drum part; Schon proves, once again, he’s a master at all guitar styles, while Cain’s keyboard parts add a lot of atmosphere. Even here, though, Journey can’t resist lapsing back to solid hard rock riffing... The second half of the number adopts a slightly Led Zeppelin influenced riff, over which Schon breaks into a screaming solo until the track fades. Another highlight, ‘Someone’ is a bouncy pop-rock number capturing lots of the old Journey spirit. With 80s style stabbed piano and synths used in a shameless manner and Pineda in top form vocally, it would be great enough; but once Schon steps in with a sweeping solo (the kind which filled their ‘Escape’ and ‘Frontiers’ discs), this number has a sound which could convince the listener it had been left on the shelf from the band’s glory days.
Afer over an hour of surprisingly hard rock cuts, Journey offer an even fiercer closing statement. The instrumental cut ‘Venus’ opens with a few majestic guitar chords, overlaid by Cain striking some bass chords on his piano. Schon wastes no time in breaking into an overly complex solo which appears to feature more notes than expected, or perhaps even necessary, while Castronovo provides a ridiculously heavy backbone with his drum line dominated by double bass pedals. Symbolic of so much of ‘Eclipse’, this is Journey without a safety net.
‘Eclipse’ is not a great Journey album in the traditional sense. However, it is an absolutely stunning rock album in its own right. If you came looking for radio friendly songs in the vein of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, ‘Who’s Crying Now’ and ‘Be Good To Yourself’, you won’t find too many of those here, so you’ll be much better of investigating ‘Revelation’ if you’ve not done so already. If, however, you’re a huge fan of Neal Schon’s distinctive guitar work, hard riffs and extended arrangements, ‘Eclipse’ delivers more of those elements than any Journey release for years, maybe even ever. For those still bemoaning the absence of Steve Perry, be thankful for what you’ve got here – at least musically – and if you still don’t like what Arnel Pineda represents, be thankful that Journey didn’t hire Hugo.
Monday, 30 May 2011
Following on from his first two self-released discs (‘Humans’ in 2007 and the acoustic ‘Frailty EP’ in 2008), Dom Liberati’s third release takes the sounds of his previous work and tightens them considerably, while bringing in some extra punch. Combining great hooks with a commercial alt-rock edge, ‘The Good Hurt’ is an album which captivates the listener from the first listen.
The lead track ‘We Own The Night’ begins with a jangly acoustic intro before kicking in to an alternative rock arrangement which has a bouncy air. The track has a very radio friendly quality and is a mix of influences – from new wave keyboard bleeps, to alternative rock moments in the vein of Goo Goo Dolls. Liberati’s vocal style has a tunefulness which often makes him sound at ease with this guitar driven alt-rock; however, for the chorus, Liberati’s vocals aren’t quite as restrained - their carefree manner tips the hat to Kings of Leon mouthpiece Caleb Followill [all the goodwill in the world still prevents me from calling that man a singer]. The simple hook and effective use of a ‘whooah’ make it a tune which sticks in the head. As such, it starts ‘The Good Hurt’ with a strong number.
‘Love Holds It Down’ has a bigger groove, due to a prominent bass line and a crunchy riff. Again, the hook is a very strong one, but it’s from this point on, it becomes clear that although Liberati is gifted as a songwriter, it’s his arrangements which really shine. The rhythm guitars are sharp – though never outdone by the fantastic bass work – and the drum parts are quirky, occasionally in a way which would make Stewart Copeland proud. ‘Burn’ takes those Police influences and makes them as obvious as a fist in the face. It’s a number full of hi-hats and tight drumming, which alone would be enough to warrant being likened to The Police in places, but once the track weaves its way around a fantastic bass line that’s more than reminiscent of ‘Driven To Tears’, those influences and comparisons become so, so unavoidable. Frankly, though, as far as influences go, Liberati could do far worse! The chorus brings an upbeat, jangly guitar riff, over which Liberati’s vocals are hard sounding without being aggressive.
‘Next To You’ offers something softer, with acoustic vibes overlaid with subtle electric leads. Liberati’s hushed tones have a slight Americana leaning against an atmospheric arrangement. The electric guitars and drums have a great amount of reverb and the electric piano compliments them well. The hushed vocal tones are at the other end of the scale to Dom’s louder performances on ‘We Own The Night’, but this change sits rather well among the rockier numbers. ‘Lookin’ Around’ comes with a similar laid-back quality, here capturing Liberati in a mood which would suit the under-rated Pete Droge. It’s a number which rarely breaks from an easy groove, with both Liberati’s under-stated vocal and a slide guitar solo providing the high points.
‘Won’t Let You Down’ is a mid-paced number full of staccato rhythms on the verses, which settle into fairly generic chiming guitars on the chorus. The musical approach lends itself to another Kings of Leon comparison. It’s safe, stadium rock approach makes it one of ‘The Good Hurt’s more predictable numbers, but even then, a ringing lead guitar part towards the track’s end and a rumbling bass provide some appeal on a number absolutely designed for radio. For ‘Meltdown’ a greater focus is put up on the drums with their pounding approach; over the drums, the guitars have a simple, yet fairly dominant twang. Vocally, Liberati keeps things restrained and manages not to slip into those Kings of Leon-isms on the louder moments, often being joined by a blanket of backing voices. The uber-dominant bass returns for ‘The Solution’, a number which features a great vocal, a better chorus and even better bassline, as Liberati offers something which mixes the sound of 21st century alt-rock with the quirks of late 80s hi-tech rock in the vein of Baxter Robertson (specifically the backing vocals) and ‘Power Windows’ era Rush (there’s more than a hint of Geddy Lee’s bass style throughout).
With no duff tracks and nothing which could especially be called filler material, ‘The Good Hurt’ is a very accomplished release; one which showcases a brave mix of styles without ever becoming overly flashy or outlandish. Although it plays host to plenty of top notch songs, it’s often the level of musicianship – particularly those busy basslines – which makes ‘The Good Hurt’ so good. A highly recommended listen.
Friday, 27 May 2011
Post ‘Yield’, Pearl Jam’s career seemed to go more than a bit wobbly. Their sixth and seventh albums (2000’s ‘Binaural’ and 2002’s ‘Riot Act’) were largely sub-standard. 2006’s self-titled offering offered some improvement, even scoring a US #1 single, but even so, Pearl Jam’s best days seemed long gone. 2009’s ‘Backspacer’ represented an unexpected return to form, quite possibly their most cohesive work since 1994’s ‘Vitalogy’.
It’s surprising that in all the years of being Pearl Jam’s frontman (and instantly recognisable voice) it took Eddie Vedder so long to record his first full solo album. That honour went to the soundtrack for the 2007 movie ‘Into The Wild’ (although Vedder was no stranger to soundtracks by that point, having already contributed recordings to the soundtracks for ‘I Am Sam’ (solo) and ‘Dead Man Walking’ (two recordings with Nasrat Fateh Ali Khan). This, Vedder’s first non-soundtrack work, still sounds like it ought to accompany a movie. ‘Ukulele Songs’ does exactly what it says on the tin: a bunch of recordings featuring Edward Louis Severson III and his uke. It offers sixteen pieces of music – some original compositions, some covers – with the Vedder-penned numbers, supposedly written between 2001 and 2011.
A re-recording of the 2002’s Pearl Jam track ‘Can’t Keep’ opens the disc, where after a muted strings intro Vedder busily hammers at his ukulele. His vocal has a strong delivery in places, but the stripped back nature of the arrangement painfully highlights his limitations as his vocal wobbles off-key in various places, particularly during the longer notes. It sort of works on the ukulele, but then it was supposedly on the uke that Vedder wrote his original demo of the number way back when. With the token gesture to Vedder’s rock career out of the way, ‘Sleeping By Myself’ brings a folk vibe, with a vocal much softer around its edges and the ukulele similarly toned down. Although the idea of Vedder + uke may seem like a mere quirk, this has a campfire charm and wonderfully intimate nature. Similarly, the gentle ‘Without You’ features Vedder’s best vocal, with more bass end than some of the other tracks, but essentially capturing the brilliant softer sounds of his range, in a recording which could stand alongside Pearl Jam’s ‘Better Man’ in terms of vocal greatness. Elsewhere, the ringing tones of ‘You’re True’ (a number which, although fine, would be even better with a mandolin included too) and relatively sparse ‘Light Today’ provide enjoyment, if not a lot of variety.
While some of Vedder’s self penned tunes have a one-take DIY charm, it’s a couple of cover tunes which perhaps leave the strongest impression. ‘Sleepless Nights’ (best known in versions by The Everly Brothers and Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris) finds Vedder joined by The Frames’ Glen Hansard. With that second harmony voice, Vedder sounds more natural, and although his voice is louder - more distinctive than Hansard’s - the two performers sound good together. Cat Power guests on a version of the 1920’s song ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ (possibly best loved in its 1979 rendition by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters from The Jerk), and as expected, with Vedder providing the lower registers and slightly mumbly delivery and Cat delivering a distinctive female counter melody (with their male/female parts in reverse of Martin & Peters), it’s schmaltzy simplicity is lovely. He really pushes his luck a little far on an empty rendition of The Mamas and Papas ‘Dream a Little Dream’, though, where the baritone vocal is almost inaudible.
‘Ukulele Songs’ certainly adheres to that old saying that a solo work should be markedly different from a performer’s “day job”. The album is enjoyable in places, though its sparse qualities understandably show up Vedder’s occasional vocal raggedness. Also, the fairly uniform nature of the material means ‘Ukulele Songs’ doesn’t always sound like it was designed to be heard in one sitting; even with the relatively short running time of 35 minutes it can feel a little one paced. Even so, there are a few great tracks to be cherry-picked.
Thursday, 26 May 2011
Bowery Beasts have been hyped as the best band to come out of Los Angeles for years. Former Sex Pistols man Steve Jones has been very vocal about them. Their ‘Heavy You’ EP is a fairly intense mix of alternative rock sounds, which initially isn’t so easy to grasp.
‘He Was Your First Tattoo’ works around a groove-led drum rhythm, which at first makes the listener think we’re headed for garage rock territory. However, those drums are a bit of red herring, as once the chorus rolls around, the band have settled into a mid-paced alt-rock groove. The drums retain a great live sound throughout. In places, the rhythm guitars jangle from the right speaker, at the bottom of the mix overlaid by a whole world of other guitar parts. Marion Belle’s vocals fuse elements of alternative 90s rock and 1970 rock star wailing in such a way that gives Bowery Beasts a proper edginess. It’s a number which requires a few spins for it to reveal all of its many layers, but after a while, Bowery Beasts’ style seems to work...even though at times you might try and convince yourself it shouldn’t.
After a brief intro of feedback, ‘White Diamond Babe’ provides jangly guitar rock in a fairly predictable fashion. The most striking feature is another rock solid drum part until the chorus where Belle pushes his vocal to extremes, at times hitting a piercing banshee wail. Among the more ordinary indie-rock elements, there’s a moment which appears a little darker with fuzzy sampled voices and reverb. Underneath the layers of guitar, there are hints of a great bass line. The upbeat ‘Young Rockers’ shows Bowery Beasts at their most accessible – at least in terms of radio friendliness – with a strong hook, more restrained vocal and multilayered guitars. It’s the EP’s most sing-along offering, certainly, but it’s relatively safe approach means it’s not always as distinctive as Bowery Beasts are capable of being.
‘Amulet’ provides a change in mood, with plenty of acoustics overlaid by ringing electric guitar, The vocals harmonise for a huge part of the number, which uses of lots of retro rock elements, both from the 90s and 70s, with a reverb filled guitar solo filling several bars towards the track’s end. Its familiarity is certainly comforting, though Belle’s shriek which cuts through a good proportion of the track will not be easy listening for everyone. The closing number, ‘Rock N Roll Queen’, continues in a mellow vibe, as acoustic guitar work is joined by sparing piano lines and the sound of flutes. Each of these elements combined create something magical. It provides a great contrast with the darker edges present on ‘White Diamond Blue’. Belle’s vocal style features moments where you’d think he was evoking the spirit of Mother Love Bone/Malfunkshun legend Andrew Wood; something which becomes really obvious when he delivers the word “honey” with almost exactly the same affectation.
‘Heavy You’ is unlikely to click with you on first hearing. It may not even click with you on the second. Some of you might not even get it at all. It may not always be easy listening (and most of it isn’t as dreamy and smooth as a few of the non-EP tracks floating around the net, ‘Jean’ in particular) but perseverance definitely pays off, since this release features some great moments.
Wednesday, 25 May 2011
For a lot of people, glam metal band Warrant peaked with their third album, the 1992 release ‘Dog Eat Dog’. It took Warrant’s trademark sound and toughened the edges resulting in a near perfect mix of glam and hard rock. Then frontman Jani Lane said at the time it was the first Warrant album he’d been completely happy with and as a result, he wanted “to burn their first album and re-record the second”. In many ways, those who hold up that album as the band’s peak are correct to do so, although it’s successor, 1994’s ‘Ultraphobic’ has some interesting moments - most notably the King’s X inspired ‘Followed’. From that point, Warrant’s career certainly came off the rails... ‘Belly To Belly Part 1’ attempted to recapture some of the magic delivered by ‘Ultaphobic’ but had none of the memorable hooks or charm and Warrant followed that with a re-recorded greatest hits package which is best avoided. Vocalist Jani Lane subsequently quit and Warrant were never really Warrant again.
Longtime members Jerry Dixon (bass), Steven Sweet (drums), Joey Allen (lead guitar) and Erik Turner later teamed up with Black ‘n’ Blue vocalist Jaime St James on the appropriately titled ‘Born Again’ in 2006. ‘Born Again’ was a workmanlike hard rock record, certainly not terrible, but not worthy of the Warrant name either. St James subsequently returned to Black ‘n’ Blue, while the core of Warrant enlisted the help of ex-Lynch Mob/Cry of Love vocalist Robert Mason.
The resulting album, 2011’s ‘Rockaholic’ (released in the same week as the 2011 release from Black ‘n’ Blue, possibly not coincidentally), is a decent hard rock record, much better than ‘Born Again’. The opening numbers offer solid hard rock thrills, with heavy slide guitar powering ‘Sex Ain’t Love’ and guitar tapping and classic 80s riffing making up the core of ‘Innocence Gone’, which also features a great, pumping bassline from Jerry Dixon. On the rousing ‘Show Must Go On’ and ‘Cocaine Freight Train’ Warrant get in touch with their heavier side and on the latter, particularly, they appear very spiky indeed. The riffs are big; but more impressively, on the verses, Steven Sweet’s drumming occasionally resembles something more than a little Motörhead inspired. By the time the chorus rolls around, though, things settle in to more traditional glam/hard rock, with plenty of gang vocals; on an instrumental break, a harmonica line gives things a much needed blues-rock touch.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of outstanding mid-paced rockers: ‘Life’s a Song’ showcases Robert Mason’s less squealy vocal talents (and here it becomes obvious why he’s clearly the right man for the job) and a really classy guitar solo from Joey Allen. Throw in a bunch of harmony vocals and the track is a definite winner - near classic Warrant. ‘What Love Can Do’ has a great rhythmic punch on its verses, but as always, it’s on another harmony filled chorus Warrant really shine.
No matter who’s in the line-up, a Warrant release wouldn’t be complete without a couple of huge ballads, and on ‘Rockaholic’s soft numbers, lots of Warrant’s old magic can still be heard. ‘Found Forever’ is the kind of rock ballad Warrant excelled at in the late 80s, and even in 2011 - sans Jani Lane - they prove rock balladry is possibly their greatest strength. Robert Mason’s softer vocal style appears sympathetic to the arrangement, which comes full of understated guitar chords (courstesy of Erik Turner and Joey Allen) and a nice bass line. The keyboard fleshes everything out and makes it sound bigger than it actually is, while Joey Allen’s lead solo is brief but well placed. Despite lots of decent elements, it’s the huge chorus vocals and harmonies which make it really stand out. Similarly, ‘Home’ is an archetypal Warrant ballad. With an upfront bass line and clean guitar work underpinned by a keyboard string section, this sounds like a distant cousin of the excellent ‘Heaven’ from the band’s 1989 debut ‘Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich’. This track has the spirit of Jani Lane all over it, but then, It’s written in such an old Warrant style, it’s almost impossible not to hark back when listening to it.
Throughout most of ‘Rockaholic’, the band really delivers the goods. Robert Mason fits in very well and Warrant sound like a cohesive unit once again. It may suffer from a couple of weaker tracks and a horrible album title (“-aholic” is NOT an acceptable English language suffix), but this is about as good as you’re going to get from a Lane-less Warrant.
Tuesday, 24 May 2011
Glen Drover will be best known as having been the guitarist with King Diamond and Megadeth, as well as having been a touring member of Testament. As its title suggests, Drover’s solo debut moves away from the purist metal stylings of his previous employment and into a world of metal guitar meets jazz-rock fusion. With a selection of guest performers, Drover offers five original cuts and also puts his mark on tunes by Al Di Meola, Jean-Luc Ponty and the legendary Frank Zappa, often with mixed results.
The rather aggressive ‘Ground Zero’ works its main riff around some decent staccato work with a tune which is closer to jazz fusion than metal. Things soon fall apart when the lead guitar section presents itself. The main bulk of the number features furious (and often ugly) three-way showboating between Drover and his featured guests - in this case, UFO’s Vinnie Moore and sometime Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland. While guitarists may marvel at the level of metallic fretboard wankery on show from the three performers, for anyone else, it’s not always so interesting. While some guitar instrumental stuff is great, for non-musicians the best stuff is often about tunes as opposed to flashiness – and if it’s a tune you want, you won’t find it here. The second half works slightly better once the guitars settle into chorus style harmonies (overlaid by a busy piano, courtesy of Saga’s Jim Gilmour), but overall, it’s hard work. ‘Egyptian Danza’ (originally by Al Di Meola) opens with a superb, eastern sounding riff, it’s off-kilter jazz rock qualities bring out the best in Drover’s guitar style. With a slightly edgy style, Drover weaves a riff that’s jazzy in a progressive metal way, his occasional use of whammy bar adding extra interest. This would have make for an okay track alone, but the middle section is rather more interesting. With a soft, clean guitar tone, Drover plays a busier eastern sounding motif, which gets faster as it goes building excitement and a little tension. Chris Sutherland’s complex drum part alternates rock and jazz, occasionally settling for a playful shuffle. While Drover’s playing is more aggressive in places than Di Meola’s original work, the end result is great, demonstrating a clear understanding of the piece’s intended mood.
That’s more than can be said for his take on a couple of Zappa tunes. While it could be argued that it takes a very brave rock musician to take on the works of Zappa, Drover’s often metallic approach to his instrument kills both the Zappa pieces almost instantly. A minute’s worth of ‘The Purple Lagoon’ (used as an intro) takes cheeky fusion style of the original, takes one of its riffs and then hammers it into a heavy metal stupor, before Drover launches into a particularly uninspired, heavy-handed take on ‘Filthy Habits’. The dual guitar parts are ugly and the widdly-widdly (technical term) parts are even worse. It’s only by the time we get a couple of minutes in things start improving, but even then, any improvement is slight. Obviously, Zappa had a very unique style which it would’ve been wrong for Drover to attempt to copy, but one would suspect that Zappa would not necessarily approve of this jazz-rock freakout being overlaid by very metallic soloing. The keyboard laden free-form section which closes the original is reproduced here in an uninteresting manner; while Jim Gilmour is a great musician, his keyboard skills are a world away from those of George Duke. Since much of Drover’s chosen guitar tone seems far better suited to metal as opposed to jazz fusion, Jean-Luc Ponty’s ‘Don’t Let The World Pass You By’ could have easily suffered the same ham-fisted approach. However, the piece is ultimately saved by a blanket of keyboards from Gilmour and a staggering bass part courtesy of Paul Yee. Throughout most of the number, the bass lays down interesting, busy funk lines which never fall short of amazing. Even the crystal clear rhythm guitars work well within the arrangement; however, once Drover and Opeth’s Fredrik Akesson exchange showy guitar leads, it suffers the same fate as ‘Ground Zero’ in that it’s often just too much to take in. A take on Ponty’s ‘Mirage’ is preferable thanks to an easier melody, but once again, the subtleties of Ponty’s 1977 original are often lost here.
The self-penned ‘Colors of Infinity’ presents the best side of Drover’s playing. A much cleaner tone and use of vibrato lends plenty of atmospherics on a number which, in places, hints at Gary Moore’s mid-eighties work. He still has a tendency to lean towards metallic playing in places (but then, that’s his forte), but in all, the softer side presented here makes far more interesting listening. Just as you think you know how the rest of the piece will sound, Drover throws in a jazz-funk-metal refrain over the mid-section which at first throws the listener off a little; he then returns to a more standard rock arrangement where multi-tracked guitars provide some great chorus sounding work. The layers of keyboards and off-kilter rhythms driving ‘Illusions of Starlight’ are a dead ringer for Dream Theater’s softer, more accessible works; Drover appears very comfortable playing in a progressive metal style and while the sweeping notes get overtaken by showmanship on occasion, the six minute piece makes fairly smooth listening. A special mention must go to Saga’s Jim Gilmour guesting on keyboards here; he provides some great atmospheric accompaniment throughout.
In general, Drover’s metal-fusion works well on most of his own compositions; these are tunes which, naturally, are very sympathetic to his playing style. Bringing the metal aspect of his playing to numbers by Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Zappa doesn’t always seem appropriate – the heavy guitar style smothers the quirkiness which should be found within the works of two highly original composers. With that in mind, it’s hugely surprising Drover managed to capture such a good performance of Al Di Meola’s ‘Egyptian Danza’, but even so, it’s certainly one of this album’s standouts. Despite help from the aforementioned guests (plus Nevermore’s Jeff Loomis and Forbidden’s Steve Smyth), ‘Metalusion’ is a hit and miss affair, and one which may have been stronger if more of Drover’s own compositions had been included.
Monday, 23 May 2011
Kate Bush is a brilliantly talented, unique individual who has provided inspiration to thousands of musicians and singer-songwriters. She’s recorded a handful of the best tracks of the 1980s, with her 1985 album ‘The Hounds of Love’ being not far short of a masterpiece. However, such talents bring with them an artistic temperament. Her first (and so far only) greatest hits package, 1986’s ‘The Whole Story’ features a re-working of her classic ‘Wuthering Heights’, since Kate was unhappy with the already brilliant original. The ’86 version, featuring a significantly lower and more limited vocal range – isn’t a patch on the original, despite what KB herself thinks. She’s also gone on record stating how much she dislikes her earlier work. Presumably, then, this is why we’ve been denied a fully comprehensive DVD of any kind, even though her promo videos and her only filmed live show from Hammersmith ’79 have been treasured by fans for years on old VHS releases. If we take into account the never-officially released stuff like the mimed performance at the Efterling theme park for Dutch TV or the 45 minute 1979 BBC Christmas special featuring Peter Gabriel – both of which have been widely circulated over the years - that’s a world of stuff which has never seen the light on day on DVD...
After the late 80s, she was rarely seen in public and appearances on television were just as scarce. We can guess that this is because she no longer looked like the 20 year old who pranced around in leotards, an argument given some weight by the ridiculously airbrushed promotional photograph accompanying this ‘Director’s Cut’ release. Has most of Kate Bush’s career hinged on how she feels she is perceived by the public? Possibly. What’s definite though, is that her striving for perfection – to obsessively airbrush the bits of the past which make her unhappy - leaps to new heights on ‘Director’s Cut’. It’s not a best of; nor it a remix project. ‘Director’s Cut’ features a selection of songs originally released on Kate’s 1991 and 1993 albums ‘The Sensual World’ and ‘The Red Shoes’; and for better or worse, they’re re-imagined here in a way which pleases Kate - though they’re unlikely to be favoured over the original cuts by anyone else.
At first, ‘The Song of Solomon’ doesn’t appear to veer too far from the original version. The bass has a bigger role, bringing a slightly dubby quality and Kate’s vocal doesn’t appear as prominent, and then we get to the end where a new vocal line is added. Did she say ‘Whap bam boom?’ Surely some mistake...? Seems she did – and then used it as a sample. That’s a bad idea, which spoils anything which has gone before. Certainly not the strongest of openings, but ‘Lily’ is a little better. Gone are the late 80s synthetic sounding drums, they’ve been sidelined for something more natural. The production sounds a little compressed, Kate’s voice is a little lower, but the performances themselves are commendable. ‘Never Be Mine’, ‘Top of The City’ and ‘And So Is Love’ each get a dusting down which doesn’t improve the original cuts in any obvious way and as before, Kate’s vocals aren’t as powerful; even so, they’re not objectionable, just a little pointless. Thankfully, Kate has opted to keep Eric Clapton’s guitar leads from the latter intact. Since those guitar lines provided one of the original version’s best features, to replace them with something different would have been madness.
‘Deeper Understanding’, meanwhile, has been completely butchered. What would improve the atmospheric, multilayered original with its fretless bass parts? Nothing. ...But clearly, Kate’s opinion differed. She’s wrong. Maybe she should have had someone to tell her that once in a while. The keyboards are the same as before, but the bass is buried in the new inferior mix and what’s more, the track features a truckload of auto-tuned elements. Granted, the song is – at least in part – about computers, but that’s no reason to think your audience would want to hear it sang by an emotionless robot. ‘The Red Shoes’, meanwhile retains a fair amount of its original bounce, but not all of its original spark, due to a smoothing out of the 80s edges and Kate’s re-recorded vocal not quite hitting the marks of the ’91 model.
Alongside these tweaked cuts, ‘Director’s Cut’ features three tracks which have been totally re-recorded. The steamy ‘Sensual World’ (now re-titled ‘Flower of the Mountain’) reinstates words from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ which Kate had been refused permission to use back in 1991. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but everything else about it really awful. The drums have been removed, the bass turned up and the production has a nasty, muddy sound. Kate’s vocal in a lower key really doesn’t match the dreamy performance on original cut of ‘The Sensual World’; in fact, it sounds like a warbling noise from an old lady. This is supposedly one of ‘Director’s Cut’s greatest achievements, but frankly, this has the sound of a middling demo take. If you hadn’t already lamented the fact that Kate’s voice isn’t a patch on its ‘Sensual World’ era equivalent you certainly will here. By the time she reaches the last verse, it feels like she’s barely trying to put in any effort at all. She’s absolutely deluded if she thinks this is an improvement.
The brilliantly played piano part of ‘Moments of Pleasure’ gets a slower arrangement here to the point where it’s almost unrecognisable. Again, this has a lot to do with the lower key. Kate’s vocal is okay but certainly not outstanding. The bouncy pop of ‘Rubberband Girl’ appears as an odd shuffling number combining a Rolling Stones inspired rhythmic twang with brushed drumming. A potentially good idea is made unlistenable by compressed production which makes everything sound underwater, while Kate’s vocal is understated and somewhat mumbly. It’s like listening with your fingers in your ears. A brief bass line which sounds like a stretching rubber band provides a great moment but it’s really fleeting.
We all change. Change is natural. We change as people – our personal views change, our tastes in music change. Slowly over time, everything about us changes. Kate Bush needs to accept that too and not indulge in exercises of warped revisionism. The overtly narcissistic ‘Director’s Cut’ only exists to massage Kate’s ego and to give her many sycophantic fans something to get excited about, since they don’t have anything wholly new. The past is the past, you can’t change it; you certainly shouldn’t attempt to rewrite it. The world doesn’t need the musical equivalent of plastic surgery, especially when such surgery brings little to no improvement.
‘Director’s Cut’ isn’t the work of the once brilliant and unique Kate Bush...it’s a totally misguided affair, presenting the ugliest face of vanity. If Kate wants to piss on her legacy that’s fine – after all, they’re her songs to mistreat as she wishes - but she shouldn’t expect everyone to still love her unconditionally afterwards.
Sunday, 22 May 2011
In 2000, Peter Parcek released his debut album ‘Evolution’, a collection of original material which interspersed with covers of tracks penned by Mose Allison and blues legend Freddie King. The album was available only at live shows and via Parcek’s website. A decade later, his follow-up album, ‘Mathematics of Love’ enjoyed proper distribution and earned him critical acclaim, including a nomination from the Blues Foundation for “best new artist debut” at the 2011 Blues Music Awards. A nomination which was well deserved, since the album was brimming with great moments - not least of all on the Parcek written ‘New Year’s Eve’ (a remixed version of a track which made its debut on ‘Evolution’) and an absolutely storming take of the Peter Green penned ‘Showbiz Blues’ (the original of which can be heard on Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 masterpiece ‘Then Play On’).
There may have been a decade between Peter Parcek’s previous two studio works, but he was quick to follow up ‘Mathematics of Love’, and given the buzz it generated in blues circles, was certainly right to do so. His 2011 EP release ‘Pledging My Time’ sees him re-imagine a few numbers penned by the legendary Bob Dylan. The spacious, emotional approach which Parcek brings to his four chosen covers sometimes changes the mood from that of Dylan’s original vision, but each one really benefits from the passion and musical skill on show here.
Opening with the mush covered ‘She Belongs To Me’, there’s a sense of something friendly and familiar. Parcek tackles the song at the same pace as the original and treats the lyric with a great respect, the words suiting his slightly husky delivery. Musically, it has a great organic, live in the studio feel. The dobro is as clear as a bell during a great solo and provides a few great slide-driven moments elsewhere, while the electric elements add a decent amount of depth. Of particular note is Nick Giammarino’s drum work, which has a simplicity which really fits the mood. ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’ gets a straight-up blues treatment, showcasing Parcek’s electric lead work – the sound of a man who’s at one with his instrument; his playing appears effortless as he straddles a fine-line between soulful and angry leads, as he is backed by fantastic live sounding drums and a B3 organ. The vocal may not retain the slightly sneering qualities of Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’ cut, but as far as blues influenced vocals are concerned, Parcek’s delivery is fine enough. For this take of ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’, it’s definitely the music which does the talking.
The lesser-known ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ (featured on Dylan’s 2009 album ‘Together Through Life’) presents a voyage deeper into the blues. Dylan’s version offered a solid blues vibe, but this reworking takes things up a notch. The root of the song is essentially the same; keeping the Peter Green inspired, ‘Black Magic Woman’ style framework. Beyond that, though, the arrangement featured here is superior, dispensing with the ugly accordion and flat brass work of Dylan’s original cut. Parcek’s guitar tone has a pleasing bite which works well against Larry Vann’s B3 organ swirls. The organ lines develop into a solo which has far more presence than the one featured on the original version. While the tight-but-loose blues vibes create a great atmosphere, it’s Parcek’s lead guitar work which steals the show.
Leaving the best for last, ‘It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ fades in with echoing guitar and a subtle drum track, giving an almost Daniel Lanois-eque spaciousness. Against a laid back drum-line, blanket of B3 and occasional reverbed guitar, Parcek’s vocal pulls the original lyric in a whole new direction; one which has a cool smoothness and an ache that’s lacking from Dylan’s straight (although still brilliant) bar-room blues approach on his original 1985 recording.
When Dylan’s songs are stripped of their unique vocal and left in the hands of lesser artists, they can sometimes feel a little ordinary, despite retaining their highly original lyrical content. Occasionally though, there are artists who’ve managed to remould Dylan’s works into something (almost) as brilliant in their own right. These versions of Dylan songs may not ever take on a life of their own in the same way as The Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ or Jimi Hendrix’s earth shattering reading of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (still the greatest Dylan cover ever); however, Parcek and his band must be applauded for twisting these four Dylan songs into brilliantly atmospheric, blues edged workouts which captivate the listener. Although a great singer and musician, it’s his gift for arrangements which really provides the true heart of this EP. For listeners with an interest in blues-based music, or anyone interested in Dylan covers – hopefully both – ‘Pledging My Time’ is an essential purchase.
Thursday, 19 May 2011
Although the garage-blues sub-genre maintained an underground presence throughout the late 80s and 90s thanks to Billy Childish and Jon Spencer’s mighty Blues Explosion, it really only reached a broader public consciousness once everyone’s favourite red and white candy striped duo, The White Stripes, broke into the mainstream.
Keeping with similar musical traditions, The Dead Ex’s debut ‘Resurrection’ pulls together the best elements of The Blues Explosion with a hint of Childish’s ramshackle attitude – and while it brings little that’s new to the musical style in question, it’s not without a few gems.
The Dead Exs’ vocalist and guitarist is David Pattillo, a New York producer of note, having worked with a number of bands including The Hold Steady, Beastie Boys, Jakob Dylan and Alanis Morissette. For his own project, however, the production values are less than shiny; this Dead Exs release was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs. The fuzz-driven vibes are similar to his project The Dirty Glamour (which has a similar feel to early Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Spanish duo Idealipsticks), but in direct comparison, The Dead Exs bring the listener fewer hooks and user-friendly qualities. However, what The Dead Exs lack in hooks, they make up for with power and grit.
The subtle ‘Shut Up and Love Me’ is based around a solid groove with dominant drums. Wylie Wirth’s style has presence, but maintains a very basic style. Patillo’s vocal is strong yet heavily filtered and a one-line chorus, intercut with rather uncharacteristic ‘whoo-hoos’, tops some great, yet fairly weighty slide guitar work. It’s with the boogie-blues of ‘Come Down Easy’ that The Dead Ex’s sound at their most assured, though. Wirth settles into a fabulous shuffle (which becomes heavily reliant on cymbals in places) over which, there’s a guitar groove recalling ‘Boom Boom’ by John Lee Hooker clashing with the youthfulness of the early white rhythm and blues of the 60s – albeit with a hugely increased volume.
It’s a recording which captures the bristling energy and sweat within the studio at the time of recording and in doing so, manages to encapsulate The Dead Exs’ pure musical style.
The slow, brooding ‘Gone’ offers the flip-side of the band’s sound and while it loses a sense of fun, in its place is a musical snapshot of a duo that have really hit their stride. While the lead guitar work rarely stretches beyond a bit of rudimentary string bending and a heavy reliance on distortion pedals, there’s something enjoyable about it’s almost primal qualities - in the same way there are thrills to be had by hearing The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion careening out of control, or experiencing J Mascis throwing in out of tune solos in unpredictable places during Dinosaur Jr numbers.
‘The Angel From New Orleans’ is driven by another great shuffle. It maintains listener interest for the duration and this in turn allows Pottillo to lay down a slide guitar line which – aside from a bluesy run in places - settles for being a sheet of unsubtle slide noise. It brings nothing you won’t have already heard from similar sounding garage blues, but even so, if you’re a fan of the genre, it’s got its share of hard-time, beer-soaked thrills. If you want to experience the band at full-pelt, then ‘Trouble In Kind’ more than delivers; throughout a heavily distorted blues workout, Patillio adopts a very thrashy, almost garage-punk approach to the slide guitar whilst Wirth smashes his kit in a relentless fashion. For what it offers, you’d be hard pushed to find better.
‘Whole Lotta Nothin’, however, couldn’t be more aptly named. Over rudimentary slide work, Pattillo wails and sobs like he’s being poked repeatedly with a stick for over two minutes. Naturally, it sounds like it’s building up to something, but by the time Wirth kicks in with a proper drum part, it’s a bit late in the day. This is a great shame, since his heavy drum sound has a great presence once again; and with that comes a change in tone from Pattillo’s guitar work, leaning farther towards a bottom end-fuzz. Bringing these elements in earlier really could have saved this number. Luckily, this is swiftly followed by one of the album’s best moments... ‘Nolita Strut’ is a cocky instrumental with Pattillo’s guitar taking on a heavily treated vibe – all pedals and overdrive, which combined with the swagger, creates an infectious ditty which sounds like a studio jam by The Dead Weather. Even when The Dead Exs briefly move away from the original riff, although Wirth’s drum fills seem a little disjointed from Pattillo’s heavy-handed approach to lead guitar, they manage to keep momentum. In all, although clocking in at a brief two and a half minutes, ‘Nolita Strut’ is superb; ‘Ressurection’ is worth seeking out just to hear this number.
While the limits of their chosen genre may mean there’s not much room for variation and David Pattillo does not always summon the energy bought by early Jon Spencer performances,‘Ressurection’ manages to be a fairly consistent release. There are more than enough garage rock thrills here for listeners who have a soft spot for the Blues Explosion’s pre-‘Extra Width’ grooves and other similar sounds to to get a fairly big kick out of The Dead Exs.
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Tuesday, 17 May 2011
With a solid fusion of alternative rock riffs and power pop harmonies, Readymade Breakup’s sound will undoubtedly bring to mind several bands you’ve heard before. Their first two albums (2007’s ‘Isn’t That What It’s For?’ and 2008’s ‘Alive On The Vine’) have their moments, but the third album by this New Jersey band – now down to a four piece following the departure of keyboardist Matt Jaworski - demonstrates a stronger gift for great songcraft and musicianship.
The album opens with a simple drum pattern and fairly angry rhythm guitar work. This kind of relative simplicity could have appeared lumpy, but bassist Gay Elvis plays a fairly busy bassline to flesh things out. When then the chorus kicks in. It’s not as hooky as you’d expect, but even so, Paul Rosevar’s lead vocal is very strong. By the time the harder alternative edges hit the chorus for the second time (via a bridge full of Beatle-esque harmonies), it’s obvious they may be on to something. A similar mid-pace drives ‘Just’, where the band embrace lots of great 90s sounds, but it’s the more aggressive styles of The Posies (circa ‘Amazing Disgrace’) and Ty Tabor’s short-lived Jughead project from 2002 which are among the most obvious, thanks to the collision of chunky riffs with a wall of power pop harmony vocals.
‘Waiting For You’ is the first of a few real standouts, dominated by a busy drum pattern intercut with huge guitar chords. It’s at this point Readymade Breakup really start to hit their stride; their brand of alt-rock showing hints of the lighter Foo Fighters material. ‘Unzip My Face (I Miss You)’ follows swiftly and its faster pace is very welcome. While a simple chorus brings with it a great hook, musically, it’s Gay Elvis’s rumbling bass and Spicy O’Neil’s crashy drumming style which provide the best moments. While some solid backing harmonies and an occasional piano hint at the noisy end of power pop, it’s another slice of 90s retro, alternative rock = the kind which Readymade Breakup seem to deliver so well.
After an acoustic opening, ‘Good Things’ is another upbeat number – and one which features all of Readymade Breakup’s best elements in just over three minutes. A solid electric riff compliments the acoustic rhythm, and although the full-on riffs all but dominate afterwards, the acoustic work can still be heard rounding out the sound of the quieter moments. As before, Gay Elvis’s bass playing is superbly busy throughout and O’Neil’s drumming features a couple of quirky moments. With a fantastic mix of riffs and harmonies (and a rather raucous guitar solo from Jim Fitzgerald), this is the sound of Readymade Breakup at their best. The more discerning listeners among you may hear something reminiscent of oft overlooked 90s alternative band Mother May I during the noisier sections. The album is worth checking out for this track alone.
The closing number finds Readymade Breakup leaving one of their best for last. ‘Erased’ is a mid-paced workout, full of lush harmony vocals, punctuated by occasional ringing guitar. There’s not so much of a chorus here as on some of the previous numbers, but those harmonies and a slightly more adventurous arrangement make up for that - particularly on a funky bridge section featuring Rosevar laying down some funky electric piano. The band eventually delivers some louder, more typical rock riffs before the fadeout.
After a slow start, ‘Readymade Breakup’ proves to be a very strong release indeed, tougher in places than some of Readymade Breakup’s previous outings. The fusion of alternative rock and power pop might not always be of interest to the more pop-oriented listeners among you...but for those who like alternative rock with a focus on strong song-writing and big harmonies, this is an album which could be a cult classic.
Monday, 16 May 2011
Being the daughter of English folk legends Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson (and the niece of Lal and Mike Waterson), you could say that music was very much in Eliza Carthy’s blood. It would also seem natural for her career to explore avenues of traditional (and traditional sounding) English folk music. She gained great praise for her double release ‘Red:Rice’ in 1998 – the first part fusing her folk songwriting with modern drum loops and the second being stripped back, venturing down a more traditional folk route.
Her fourth album (and US debut) ‘Angels & Cigarettes’ presents Carthy at her most commercial; the songs are more in the adult singer-songwriter pop mould than usual, although her folk influences are occasionally present.
The opening number ‘Whispers of Summer’ is largely representative of this album’s shift away from folk music. Eliza’s voice is still very much in the heavily accented folk vein and her gently played fiddle may put in an appearance, but this is tempered by an unobtrusive drum loop and backing vocals whose ‘oohs’ aren’t particulary folky. A far cry from the likes of ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’ or the jigs and reels present on ‘Rice’, it feels like one of the album’s folkiest numbers, but it’s barely folk. It’s one of the only times Eliza gets anywhere near her trademark fiddle style and then that’s only a flourish rather than its main feature.
‘Perfect’ is lightweight pop which manages to remain charming due to Eliza’s lilting folky vocal; ‘Fuse’ makes excellent use of strings and Eliza’s voice carries much sadness. ‘Breathe’ is fantastic with its use of piano and Massive Attack style drum loop. The real star here is Barnaby Stradling whose bass playing is superb and adds much needed warmth. ‘Train Song’ is dark and brooding, where the vocals are used to create beautiful harmonies over the strings, in turn used sparingly to create atmosphere. Similarly, the bass-led ‘Whole’ works well due to being very musically understated. The end result is brilliant, but (as with a lot of ‘Angels & Cigarettes’) it’s not necessarily what some Eliza Carthy fans are looking for; it could just as easily have been a Beth Orton number. A cover of Paul Weller’s ‘Wildwood’ suits Carthy’s vocal style very well and is further proof that ‘Angels & Cigarettes’ seemed largely pre-occupied with the idea of being a cross-over album, introducing Carthy to an adult pop audience and hopefully breaking the US in the process.
If you’re not much of a fan of English folk in its purest forms but don’t mind a little creeping in, ‘Angels & Cigarettes’ offers your best entry point into Carthy’s work - and especially so, if you have a passing fancy for Kirsty MacColl or Beth Orton, for example. Eliza’s rendition of ‘Wildwood’ is worth your time alone.
[Eliza Carthy's eighth album “Neptune” is out now.]