Thursday, 31 March 2011

CRYSIS - Insane EP

crysis

Crysis are a five piece metalcore band from Oxford and within seconds of hitting the play button on their debut EP ‘Insane’, they’re ready to hit you with their musical juggernaut. The three songs are loaded with plenty of heavy riffs, but looking at the harsh black and white artwork and band name, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone.

Kial Churcher’s hardcore/melodic death metal growling isn’t always especially to my taste, but his delivery – a mix of DevilDriver’s Dez Fafara and the more exteme end of Pantera’s Phil Anselmo - comes with a great intensity that’s so perfectly suited to the musical arrangements. Across the three featured tracks, the band proves themselves to be consistently tight musicians, particularly the work of drummer Matt Pledge.

‘Your Temptation’ opens with a thrust of drums and a huge growl from Churcher, against which the guitar riffs have an edge. The slow moments during the end of the chorus have some serious bottom-end; following which, guitarists Josh O’Brien and Shaun Linstead turn in some great solo work. In terms of shredding, this is certainly the EP’s best moment. ‘To The Gallows’ opens with a lighter groove, which once Pledge’s drums kick in, has an oddly bouncy quality. The main part of the track is driven by a hardcore metal riff, its sound like a cross between Lamb of God and ‘Far Beyond Driven’ era Pantera. Of the three numbers, this shows Crysis at their strongest, particularly during a mid section which briefly slows things down with a doom laden riff, which in turn becomes a full-on chug-fest. A second clean, almost spoken vocal makes a brief appearance, and in doing so provides a little variety. Pledge’s double bass work is hard and relentless, driving things forward before returning to the original riff.

‘Shoot The Glass’ naturally follows a similar pattern of chugging metal riffs, but here there are traces of Pantera at their absolute heaviest, circa ‘Great Southern Trendkill’. Churcher’s vocal rarely breaks beyond a full-on growl, but once again, it’s perfect for the job in hand. There are a few solid features within this number, but it’s the grinding, power-groove inspired guitar work around the three minute mark which really stands out. Behind the double bass drums which follow, there’s a return to the really old-school riff which opened the number. It sounds a little like Iron Maiden’s ‘Prowler’ – but while this is a very serious sounding track, I’d like to think the band threw this one in with a knowing wink.

‘Insane’ presents a trio of solid numbers which highlight Crysis’s ability as musicians. While this recording may not have as much bass as a full-scale expensive, professional recording, it sounds like they know their way around a recording studio. If you’re a fan of this style of metal, you could do far worse than check them out – though naturally, if metalcore isn’t your bag, Crysis are extremely unlikely to do anything for you.

Visit Crysis on Facebook here and on MySpace here.


March 2011

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART - The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is hardly a band name which trips off the tongue. It may not always be one you’ll remember; however, in the past they’ve received some decent press. I hadn’t known what to expect when approaching this album, but it turns out I got a pleasant surprise.

Beginning with the bass-less, drum-less fuzziness of ‘Contender’, initially I thought this band wouldn’t interest me at all. But...by the time track two arrives, I’m reminded of the more commercial elements of Lush and 90s shoegaze/alt-pop - and that pleases me. Female ooh’s, quirky lead vocals, a pace that’s too punchy for the some of the indie kids, yet not quite punk-pop – a sunny quality which comes as a pleasant surprise. Faster than Lush, more tuneful than the indie-pop chav gold from Kenickie, Pains of Being Pure at Heart have some great musical qualities. ‘Young Adult Friction’ is pure jangle pop - the kind that never really goes out of style; and the slightly kooky keyboard lodged under the mix of other stuff helps to add colour. The only criticism is that at just over four minutes, it feels a little long.

It may not have been the desired end result, but ‘Hey Paul’ sounds like The Wedding Present even if vocalist Kip Bermon doesn’t have the curmudgeonly demeanour of David Gedge. One of the standout tracks, ‘Stay Alive’, shows the lighter side of the band. This track stands out due to the chirpy nature of the music alone, as the vocals aren’t as clear as they could be. Some moments feel a little more traditionally shoegaze – ‘Gentle Sons’ has an echoing vocal matched against a mid paced drone of guitars. Some listeners are bound to love it, but ‘Teenager In Love’ is my contender for the track likely to be skipped every time – if something reminds me of the twee nastiness of Belle and Sebastian that much, you can keep it! Thanks.

This album may not be an all round classic, but its balance somewhere between sugary pop songs and fuzzy noise is so early 90s it feels good...and sometimes, that’s all you need.


January 2010

Monday, 28 March 2011

BRIAN ROBERTSON - Diamonds And Dirt

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For a man who contributed a vast amount of guitar work to most of Thin Lizzy’s classic 1970s releases – and provided half of their trademark, hugely influential twin-lead sound - Brian Robertson’s place as a legend in the annals of rock history is assured. His solo debut ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ comes some thirty-two years after his departure from Lizzy and almost three decades since his short tenure with Motörhead.

Given his previous record, amount of talent and the fact that he has had years out of the spotlight, Robertson’s ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ could have been a belter. Sadly, it’s an album which often appears rather one-paced and workmanlike. In addition, since most of the tracks have supposedly been kicking around in demo form for ages (in some cases dating back to his early 80s band Wild Horses and beyond), ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ sounds like an album which would have been a hit in 1992, back when Robbo’s old running mate Scott Gorham struck out with his band 21 Guns. In 2011, however, it’s a different story – most of the tracks now sound plain dated as opposed to retaining a timeless rock quality.

The title track weaves a mid-paced groove, with staccato rhythms and occasional big chords, but as opposed to a classic seventies sound, the over-riding mood is one of mid/late 80s AOR, delivered decades too late. This could still have passed muster with a better vocal, but ex-Michael Schenker Group vocalist Leif Sundin doesn’t have a great range or an especially powerful delivery. On the plus side, Robbo’s solo is great, though. The funk-rock groove of ‘Passion’ fares a little better, but musically it’s still nothing out of the ordinary – and as the early 90s style funk moments give way to a lightweight AOR chorus full of female backing harmonies, it all gets really fluffy.

A cover of Frankie Miller’s ‘Mail Box’ (from his 1973 album ‘Once In a Blue Moon’) begins with some chunky chords, which it then doesn’t really follow up. Sundin’s vocal comes with a slight huskier tone, but still none of the power needed; the female vocals flesh things out yet again and while Robbo’s chords do their best to maintain interest, it’s not quite enough. A cover of Miller’s ‘Do It Till We Drop’ is similarly uninspired. The wah-wah driven ‘Blues Boy’ is better than most of the album’s tracks, as Robbo gets the opportunity to stretch out a little. The solos are classy while the main riff – a standard blues-rock – has a great tone. Sundin’s lead vocal has nowhere near the kind of grit required for the performance in hand though, and the addition of the female backing vocals (yet again) seem rather out of step with the bluesy mood.

Most of the interest in ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ is likely to concern the re-recordings of a couple of old Thin Lizzy numbers. While, like most of the album, these are fine for what they are, it’s best not to get too excited. A reworking of ‘It’s Only Money’, naturally, still comes with a commanding riff; but while Robbo’s performance is okay, the rest of the band falls short of Lizzy’s greatness. Naturally, a run-of-the-mill vocalist like Sundin is no match for Phil Lynott – and without Lynott’s Irish charm and unique delivery, it just doesn’t feel right somehow. Robertson’s take on ‘Running Back’ (already the weakest number from Thin Lizzy’s classic ‘Jailbreak’ LP) settles into a pub-rock sound, like The Quireboys without any of the clout. Throughout the number, Robertson throws in a few decent slide guitar flourishes, but these are often sidelined in favour of boogie-rock piano moments. A second take on ‘Running Back’ is presented as a swaggering blues, where Robertson’s performances are top-notch. His guitar work speaks for itself here, so it’s easier to overlook Sundin’s middling lead vocal or the obligatory female oohs.

’10 Miles To Go On A 9 Mile Road’ (a number written and originally recorded by alt-rock/country musician Jim White) feels completely out of step with the safe rock heard on most of the other songs. While the use of eastern musical motifs provide some much needed variety and some of Robbo’s guitar playing more than passes muster, the American drawl on the partly spoken vocal sounds very unnatural. Once again, they’ve managed to shoe-horn in the 1980s style female backing too... While it’s great that Robertson was brave enough to include this tune among the more predictable rock styles featured on ‘Diamonds and Dirt’, it doesn’t entirely work out for the best.

For guitar chops ‘Texas Wind’ and ‘That’s All!’ are undoubtedly the album’s greatest achievements, with Robbo offering a couple of fairly fierce solos in the way he was once capable. With a harder vocalist on board, ‘That’s All!’ could have potentially been an absolute belter. As it stands, though, it’s decent enough, with the rhythm section (featuring Treat’s Nalle Pahlsson and Europe’s Ian Haughland, on bass and drums respectively) providing just enough clout.

A cover of Frankie Miller’s ‘Ain’t Got No Money’ finishes things off well, though this has nothing to do with the predictable blues-rock plodding throughout. The god-like Rob Lamothe (one-time Riverdogs frontman) steps up for a guest vocal and in doing so provides the number with something memorable. While it’s admirable that Robertson would choose to include three of his friend Miller’s songs in this collection, you have to wonder if the album would have been improved by the addition of more original material, written by Robbo himself. But then, Robertson was never really work-oriented. Why spend hours and hours writing songs and spending time in the studio when you can spend it doing “rock-star activities”?

...And that brings us back to ‘Diamonds and Dirt’s main weakness. These songs were not really designed as a complete selection for an album release. It’s a collection of ideas and songs which have been pulled together from different sources and recorded at a later date. Despite having years and years worth of unused songs and ideas to draw from (not to mention years to actually write some new ones), Robertson couldn’t even manage to put together twelve original compositions.

From a new or lesser artist, ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ would probably sound okay, though still not remarkable by any means. From an artist of Robbo’s calibre however, a few guitar leads aside, the album just doesn’t cut it in the way it should. It’s certainly not wrong to have expected more than what’s on offer here, maybe up to the standard of the short-lived Wild Horses with Jimmy Bain. The album is far from objectionable, but there’s nothing here to keep listeners coming back for more.

If you’re a Thin Lizzy completist, you’ll certainly be adding ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ to your collection, but be fully prepared to play it a couple of times and then leave it on the shelf.


March 2011

Saturday, 26 March 2011

AARON LEWIS - Town Line EP

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Although the third album by alternative rock/post-grunge band Staind had a very commercial edge in places, a commercial feel which the band retained over each subsequent release, few could have predicted that their frontman Aaron Lewis’s first solo release would be a country record. Despite making his name with hard rock music, Lewis was raised on country and has chosen to put his stamp on it with ‘Town Line’ - a five song EP featuring guest spots by Chris Young, fiddle player Charlie Daniels (best known for his 1979 hit ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’) and the legendary George Jones.

The single release ‘Country Boy’ has a strong acoustic base, coupled with an almost marching quality on the drums. Despite a great use of slide guitar and a definite rootsy feel, it’s clear why this was chosen as the lead track. The vocal is unmistakably that of Aaron Lewis, and here, his heartfelt delivery keeps in line with the sound of Staind’s power ballads. Despite occasional scraping fiddle from Daniels (who also delivers a slightly cringe-worthy monologue at the close), it’s the perfect vehicle for breaking listeners in gently.

At times elsewhere, things get a little more country. Obviously, Lewis’s style isn’t one of old-school country and western syrupiness, but it’s not always as influenced by country-rock as you’d expect either. The most country-rock number, ‘Vicious Circle’ sounds like a country re-working of a Hootie & The Blowfish ballad. Beneath atmospheric and twanging electric guitar work, it’s the acoustic guitars, lapsteels and dobros which provide the heart of the number. Naturally, these instruments are a world away from Staind’s world of hard rock. The spaciousness of the arrangement allows Lewis the room to deliver a very powerful performance. It’s definitely the stand-out track, with each of the elements sounding very strong indeed.

A re-recording of the Staind number ‘Tangled Up In You’ offers the most uninspired track. While Lewis’s performance is faultless and the harmonies on the chorus are pleasing, overall, it presents little difference to the original recording. The Staind original was an acoustic lament anyway – and the only concession to making the number fit the country mould is the addition of a soft lapsteel throughout. A harmony vocal from Alexa Carter, which becomes most obvious at the song’s close, adds a little extra something, but it’s hardly a groundbreaking performance. ‘The Story Never Ends’ is probably the most country influenced track. It’s music-television new-country by numbers as opposed to a old-school hoedown, but again, Lewis sounds comfortable in his country shoes. Chris Young’s harmony vocals provide some great backing on a well-constructed chorus.

Lewis takes his country influences fairly seriously throughout this release. While this change in direction may seem odd at first, nothing sounds unnatural – he has a definite feeling for this musical style. If country music is good enough for Hootie’s Darius Rucker then it’s good enough for others (though, make no mistake, Lewis’s solo debut doesn’t get quite that country) but even so, it’s hard to say whether many Staind fans will embrace Aaron Lewis’s change of direction here. This is a release that is undoubtedly going to be too country for most Staind fans, yet not country enough for country music fans...but even so, it presents a short, yet solid set of songs.

[The five new recordings are augmented with two bonus versions of ‘Country Boy’, in both acoustic form and a radio edit]


March 2011

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

WHITESNAKE - Forevermore

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David Coverdale may be the only original member of Whitesnake to appear on ‘Forevermore’, but even so, the band sounds unshakably confident throughout their eleventh studio release. The twin guitar attack of Reb Beach (ex-Winger/Dokken) and Doug Aldrich (ex-Dio/Bad Moon Rising) make a fairly uncompromising frontline and ex-Pride and Glory drummer Brian Tichy provides a hefty punch behind the drumkit. One of the other things which quickly becomes apparent about ‘Forevermore’, is that it captures Coverdale in (mostly) good form throughout – often sticking to his bluesier voice (as heard on the latter Deep Purple and earlier Whitesnake discs). Naturally, his rock voice also appears in places, but even then, only on numbers where it seems perfectly suited.

The opening number ‘Steal Your Heart Away’ sets the scene with a blues-tinged slice of hard rock topped with unsubtle slide guitars. Coverdale’s voice sounds suitably scratchy and sits well with the musical mood. A solo split between Doug Aldrich and Reb Beach promises more than it eventually delivers, but overall, this is a number based on groove factor as opposed to just notes and flash. ‘Love Will Set You Free’ is loaded with harmony vocals and is driven by a classic sounding riff. It’s a number which very much harkens back to their formative, pre-Mel Galley years, where blues-rock was the order of the day. While Tichy’s drumming style is much heavier than that of Ian Paice, there’s a vibe here which is reminiscent of their ‘Ready an’ Willing’ sound.

‘I Need You (Shine A Light)’ moves things into a more cod-rock direction and with it comes fronted with Coverdale’s rock voice. It doesn’t sound especially natural for him singing in this style and doesn’t greet the ears well as his bluesier tones, but even so, this still manages to be an okay track, thanks to a big sing-along chorus and backing harmonies. It’s not essential Whitesnake by any means, but quite fun all the same. For those who found Whitesnake during the late 80s, ‘Easier Said Than Done’ should appeal with its solid AOR sound; it has a mid-paced delivery and Coverdale is particularly fine voice. It’s Coverdale who steals the show on this track, but even so, Reb Beach’s clean-toned guitars and tasteful solo also provide some stand-out moments.

The acoustic guitars at the centre of ‘One of These Days’ showcase the soft side of the band, and unsurprisingly, Coverdale sounds superb delivering a softer vocal. The electric lead guitar work which creeps in is incredibly tasteful, particularly towards the end, where Beach and Aldrich are captured in a classic sounding twin harmony. It’s great to hear Coverdale getting properly sentimental, as opposed to his previous feelings of “lurve”, which often had all the class of a quick grope behind some bushes. Maybe writing with Doug Aldrich has bought a calming influence? Even ‘Love and Treat Me Right’, which normally would get the warning lights flashing, isn’t quite as sexually charged as Coverdale would have once made it. It’s potentially cringe-worthy aspects can be overlooked in favour of the pounding rock riff and Doug Aldrich’s showy solo. [The album isn't completely without the old Coverdale “charm” though, and it would have been churlish to expect otherwise. The sexual overtones are definitely played down compared to the earlier days, though].

For those looking for more great blues-rock, ‘Whipping Boy Blues’ delivers in spades. While David Coverdale’s squealy approach can grate on occasion, here, it’s the natural choice for such a Zeppelin-esque arrangement. Throw in some great soloing from both Aldrich and Beach, a rock solid bass line from Michael Devin, topped with crashy drums from Brian Tichy, and it presents the sound of an old-school band that isn’t to be messed with.

Things step up a gear for ‘My Evil Ways’ – a full-on boogie-rock number which showcases Brian Tichy’s powerhouse drumming style. Something this throwaway ought to feel like filler material, but the energy and tightness driving this incarnation of Whitesnake means they pull it off with aplomb...and just when things are in danger of slowing down, Aldrich and Beach step up to exchange high energy solos. This is certainly a number destined for great live performances.

The title cut is a seven minute epic, starting gently with acoustic guitars and keyboards. Coverdale adopts a very restrained vocal style, conjuring memories of the classic ‘Starkers In Tokyo’ acoustic live disc. As the music builds, Reb Beach and Michael Devin add harmony vocals, before the band crank things up with an Eastern sounding arrangement which (as is often the case with such things) tips the hat to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. It’s a well-thought out and brilliantly arranged closing number, capping off an already decent disc.

‘Forevermore’ is a surprisingly consistent album, with each of the thirteen Coverdale/Aldrich penned tracks offering the listener some top quality tunes. However, while the hard edges are somewhat refreshing in the same way as it’s predecessor (2008’s ‘Good To Be Bad’), like that album, it feels like a release chiefly for the Whitesnake die-hards. More casual listeners may be better of sticking with their copies of ‘1987’ and ‘Live In The Heart of The City’.


March 2011

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

BOWES & MORLEY - Moving Swiftly Along

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Over the course of the 1990s, Thunder had gained a solid fanbase, a lot of press goodwill in the UK and notched up a few million album sales. Despite their sales figures dropping toward the end, it had been a successful ten years for the band. Vocalist Danny Bowes, guitarist Luke Morley and drummer Gary ‘Harry’ James had been working together for far longer, though, having previously made up the core of British rock band Terraplane, whose career highpoint had been a slot at the Reading Festival in 1982.

Everybody needs a change, and so it was with Thunder. After playing a farewell show at Camden Dingwalls in May 2000, the band looked to new projects. Luke Morley released a solo album ‘El Gringo Retro’ in 2001, which he promoted with live shows. These live shows featured other Thunder members (though no appearance from Bowes), so in terms of moving on, the Thunder chaps hadn’t exactly moved very far!

In 2002 Morley teamed up with vocalist Danny Bowes once again, forming the imaginatively named Bowes & Morley. Despite the duo being the driving force behind Thunder and most of the songs being written by Luke Morley as usual, their debut album, ‘Moving Swiftly Along’ echews Thunder’s classic Free and Bad Company influenced hard rock sound and opts for softer soul filled grooves. Though a few numbers edge towards syrupy, it’s not often soul in a soft Motown-esque style... Here, for obvious reasons, the album’s soul vibe often manifests itself in a “white rock musician” way.

‘Freakshow’ opens proceedings with a bouncing piano and a slight Stax vibe. Vocally, Bowes sounds completely at ease; female backing vocals add weight to the soul elements here, but it would have been just as good without them. ‘Hypnotized’ has a well-structured funk groove and far less of a throwaway party atmosphere. The track opens with a guitar line with a gently Spanish flavour, before a tight horn arrangement provides a big musical hook. The drums lead a shuffling groove with plenty of organ and while Morley’s contribution is limited to choppy rhythm guitar for the most part, everything builds towards a great solo which fills plenty of space until the fade.

Things get turned down a notch for ‘Something About My Baby’. While the soul elements of this track lean towards a more syrupy easy listening style (something really not helped by the female backing), a warm bass set against sitar (played here by the song’s co-writer Garfield Myers) provides a nice backdrop for Bowes, who naturally turns in a great performance. Luckily, a spirited cover of The Power Station’s ‘Powertrippin’ provides contrast enough to balance things out. Here, Morely’s rhythmic guitar is spiky and aggressive, competing against equally sharp horns. Childs’s bass line is busy without being obtrusive and on the whole, it’s one of a few numbers which could’ve graced a Thunder album. Winterville’s Peter Shoulder guests on a featured guitar solo, which is aggressive while remaining tuneful. [In 2010, Morley formed blues-rock band with Shoulder called The Union, not to be confused with the similarly named band featuring KISS man Bruce Kulick and ex-Mötley Crüe/The Scream vocalist John Corabi].

‘Dancing The Night Away’ contains a similar energy, but despite another top-notch bass line from Childs and superb vocal from Bowes, this one is weaker than the previous uptempo numbers due to an uninspired chorus which is too heavily reliant on backing vocals. ‘Hesitate’ gets the balance of the album’s key musical ingredients just right. Bowes finds a decent blend of rock and soul in his vocal and Morley’s guitar has an edge, but not enough of one to make this a hard rock number. The horns recall classic Stax once again (particularly work by Sam and Dave) and an electric piano solo (courtesy of David “Muncher” Moore) adds an extra element of retro cool. Even the backing vocals are well arranged here, making this a definite stand out track.

‘Better Times’ moves away from soul influences and moves towards acoustic singer-songwriter territory. Bowes’s vocal is as at ease as it ever was, while a few twangy guitars give the song a slight country feel in places, but its best moments are provided by Morley overlaying some subtle bluesy electric guitar lines. ‘River of Time’ has an unashamedly funky guitar riff which sounds like a re-write of the riff from Thunder’s ‘Too Scared To Live’ (from their 1995 album ‘Behind Closed Doors’) and as such, is one of the times that Bowes and Morley’s more mature approach falls aside almost completely. It’s none the worse for its outright Thunder-ness, of course. Bowes’s vocal is strong and the arrangement gives Morley the opportunity to cut loose (just a little). As good as it is, it’s a shame they didn’t swap the organ part for a clavinet, to make it more in keeping with the more retro styled funk present elsewhere.

‘I’d Take the Stars Out of the Sky’ closes the disc in a mellow way, with a very smooth performance from Bowes. Moore’s 70s style organ work is understated and very sympathetic to the vocal performance. Thanks to a couple of impeccably played solos, Morley’s performance here is arguably his finest on this album; he shows a great restraint with his playing and judges the mood perfectly, never upstaging Bowes.

While musically some of the material may be a little bit too soul influenced and a little lightweight for the more unadventurous hard rock fan, ‘Moving Swiftly Along’ is an excellent showcase for Danny Bowes’s bluesy vocal style. Granted Luke may have written most of the songs and played guitar, but it’s Bowes who really grabs the attention on most of this disc. It’s certainly an album which deserves a wider audience and its mature sound is natural companion to some of Thunder’s softer outings. Unfortunately, ‘Moving Swiftly Along’ was not a commercial success; but despite its poor sales, Bowes & Morley released a second album in 2004. Entitled ‘Mo’s Barbeque’, that second album fared much better, although still only achieved modest sales and gained a cult following.

Looking at the bigger picture, Thunder’s retirement in 2000 was arguably one of the shortest retirements ever, since it only lasted two years. They were persuaded to reform for the 2002 Monsters of Rock festival, to the delight of fans. The new line up of Thunder included Chris Childs, who was drafted in as a result of his great work on ‘Moving Swiftly Along’. The reformation was not to be a one off, however; Thunder stayed together for the next seven years, disbanding for a second time in August 2009.


September 2010

Sunday, 20 March 2011

JUDAS PRIEST - Painkiller

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By the time 'Painkiller' hit the shelves in September 1990, I had been a Judas Priest fan for the best part of ten years.

The 1980's will often be remembered as Priest's most successful decade: the release of 'British Steel' in the height of the NWOBHM ensured decent sales and pushed the band farther into the public eye. There were also top performances throughout on 1982's 'Screaming for Vengeance' and 1984's 'Defenders of the Faith'. However, after 1986's 'Turgid' 'Turbo' and 1988's 'Ram It Down' saw a rather lack-lustre band treading water, many fans felt they needed a kick up the arse to get the fire back.

That kick came after long-time drummer Dave Holland was replaced with Racer X drummer Scott Travis. Their regular studio producer Colonel Tom Allom (producer of their six previous studio albums released between 1980-88) had also been sidelined, with the band choosing Chris Tsangrides (engineer on 1976's classic 'Sad Wings of Destiny') to produce.

I'll never forget hearing this album for the first time. After a quick burst of the opening number, complete with fast drumming and speed metal influences, Priest sounded more alive than they had in a long time. Two decades on and the power behind 'Painkiller' still holds true, thanks in no small part to Travis's arrival.

The title cut squeals and thunders and Rob is in top scream; Glenn and KK's twin guitar work still sounds unmatched. A similar approach is taken on 'All Guns Blazing', although its couple of slower moments have more in common with 'Freewheel Burning'. Some elements of 'Metal Meltdown' are full on speed metal, although the slower chorus (easily memorable and surely designed for shouting at gigs) helps make it stand out.

'Night Crawler', 'Leather Rebel', 'One Shot at Glory' and 'Between The Hammer & The Anvil' present a far more traditional sounding Priest. While the songs themselves could've been pulled from 'Defenders of the Faith' (the album 'Painkiller' resembles the most on its slower tracks), Scott Travis's bass drums are still hit harder than anything Dave Holland ever recorded. Even on the slower numbers, the band sound exciting and rejuvenated. The album's power ballad moment (if I may call it that), 'Touch of Evil', does exactly what you'd expect. With its fist-in-the-air MTV rock friendliness, its melodic nature makes it an excellent choice for a single release (though not overly successful in the UK, in the US it remains one of the band’s biggest hits). Musically, it sits in the back catalogue comfortably next to 'Night Comes Down'.

Reviews for 'Painkiller' at the time were generally positive. Although some fans found some of the material on offer heavier than they'd been used to, some new fans were pleased by the harder direction the band had taken. At the time, guitarist Glenn Tipton said 'Painkiller' "was about the heaviest album [the band] were likely to make". After touring the album, in a surprise move, Rob Halford quit the band after over seventeen years. He formed a new band, Fight, again with Scott Travis on drums. They would take the power of 'Painkiller' and fuse it with even more extreme metal influences. For those who'd baulked at 'Painkiller', it was time to say goodbye to Rob, at least for the time being.

Twenty years on, 'Painkiller' sounds absolutely classic: a fantastic achievement for a band so far into their career.


January 2010

Friday, 18 March 2011

FANTAZZMO - Fantazzmo 1: Enter The Fantazz

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Do you remember a time when music had the power to set your soul free?” asks the opening line of this album’s press release. With such a bold opening statement, I found myself thinking of those life-changing albums – whether they be ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles, ‘Ritual De Lo Habitual’ by Jane’s Addiction or the many other groundbreaking, genre-bending, brilliantly inventive pieces of plastic which have spent time on our collective stereos.

Fantazzmo is the brainchild of Sergio Bedolla (one time member of Anima) and this debut release ‘Enter The Fantazz’ pulls together nearly every musical influence he can muster. Rather than sounding like an eclectic mix of songs, it ends up being a journey into self-congratulatory pointlessness. I suppose, judging by the tone of the press release, that shouldn’t have been a great surprise.

I should have given this up as a bad job after the awful first track, but a morbid curiosity meant I had a duty to find out how else my soul was about to be set free... That rather hideous opening number contains various explicit remarks about Sergio Bedolla’s bedroom antics. It’s so vulgar and devoid of humour, listeners need to be warned that it may cause vomiting. Musically, it’s a dreadful waste of a crunchy guitar riff. ...And to make matters worse, it’s called ‘Superman’. If there were a prize for biggest ego, this guy would be in the running. Unbelievably, this blatantly offensive three-minuter was chosen for release as a single!

‘I Know You’re Mine’ - a rock number which also brings elements of power pop and funk - sounds much better (but then very little could have been worse). There’s no real hook here to speak of, but – glossing over a rather ugly guitar solo – it works quite well. ‘Souls On Ice’ is a mixed bag. This slice of early 90s funk metal takes its cue from the hugely underrated Mind Funk (at least musically, but compared to Mind Funk’s debut, this is a little ham-fisted). Here you’ll find a hard rock riff leaning towards an old-school groove topped off with wah-wah driven solos. Lyrically, though, it’s another very poor show, being another outlet for Bedolla’s unpleasant, misogynistic, violently aggressive sexual hang ups.

The core of ‘She Really Likes It’ (subtle, huh?) steals rather blatantly from The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, as a fuzzy guitar churns out notes against an almost singular pounding drum. The bridge sections are a bit fuller sounding with a seventies rock vibe. Another ugly guitar solo borders on self-indulgence. Factor in a half-arsed vocal where Bedello delivers lines about how great he is in bed and how his girlfriend likes it rough, and the experience goes from unoriginal to rather nasty. However, that’s not as bad as ‘We Are Waiting For You’ which taps into spooky psychedelia, utilising horribly out of tune vocals and painful levels of musical meandering. I’ve no idea what he was thinking...

‘Drown Your Lies’ combines summer grooves and pop reggae in a style which sounds a lot like 311. Bedolla even manages to turn in a vocal which doesn’t decent into shouting or go off-key – and without any self-aggrandizing lyrics, this is the album’s best number hands down. ‘Always Something’ offers something equally subtle by Fantazzmo’s standards. The vocals are multi-tracked and soft. Musically there’s a hint of latter day Red Hot Chili Peppers (ie: bland and radio friendly), a couple of reggae breaks and a tone which also reminds me of 311 playing a Santana tune. This track features some great ideas, but has no real coherency. Being another of the better numbers, though, I’m thinking Bedolla ought to have explored his 311 influences further.

‘Fear In Me’ at first sounds like it’s also going a for a summery, mellow vibe in places, but any hope of it being a chilled-out classic is spoilt by Bedolla’s out of tune vocal which drifts into pointless slurring. Also, the rockier sections of the song are full of lyrics about how hard he is, how he carries a knife and how we ought to fear him. Oh Christ – I hope he’s joking, otherwise this is rather sad. Actually, scratch that – even if he is joking, it’s still very, very unfortunate.
The Fantazzmo experience finishes with a short acoustic instrumental piece which contains some odd musical phrases and isn’t that tuneful. It sounds like it ought to be on a Buckethead record, but frankly, saying that just gives it far too much credit.

I’m not entirely sure whom Bedolla thinks this album is going to appeal to, other than himself. He’s clearly convinced of its brilliance, but generally, I’m left rather confused after listening to it. I’d love to think this was designed as a comedy record or somehow tongue-in-cheek, but I’m really not sure it is. There are a couple of okay moments, but on the whole, having music set your soul free rarely felt so torturous.


November 2010

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

PROSPEKT - Prospekt EP

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With the fast riffs which open ‘Dissident Priests’, combined with a time signature which can be found gracing many a Dream Theater cut, it’s quickly obvious from where this Oxford quartet pull their greatest influences. However, Prospekt aren’t a band short on talent. In Blake Richardson they have a power-house drummer; in Phil Wicker a rock-solid bassist; in Matt Winchester, a decent vocalist who, at times, could rival a few of the prog-metal greats. Top these factors with a superb guitarist, whose style fuses an uncompromising heaviness with occasional notes-per-second style flashiness, and that presents a band with a promising array of characteristics. Granted, you won’t always hear great hooks or sing-along material, but like many progressive metal outfits, Prospekt’s musical prowess does the talking for them. ‘Dissident Priests’ may have many of Dream Theater’s key aspects firmly on show, but it’s a number which is perfect for introducing the band. Behind the monster riffs, guitarist Lee Luland throws in the odd horse noise (technical term) and some occasional drifiting into Eastern sounding riffs (coupled with a more Edge Of Sanity inspired growling vocal creeping in) stops things from becoming too predictable. While a strong opening track, there are a couple of better numbers to come.

‘Eternal Memories’ is a short piece, constructed from atmospheric keyboard drones and radio news samples featuring George W Bush and a report concerning the Kennedy assassination. This leads quickly into ‘Shroud’, a heavy riff-based number capturing Prospect on top form. The main guitar riff adopts a heavy chug, again in the spirit of Dream Theater, but also leaning toward the more basic elements of Symphony X. While vocalist Matt Winchester is no Russell Allen (and let’s face it, few people are), his presence and range could be a match for James LaBrie and Shadow Gallery’s Mike Baker. While Winchester puts in his best work, it’s still Prospekt’s instrumental dexterity which steals the show. While still very much prog-metal by numbers, the pneumatic drum work and choppy riffs at the four minute mark provide a particular highlight. While it mostly has the air of a number driven by attitude and riffing as opposed to flash soloing, there is more than enough space for Luland to deliver a couple of top-notch solos toward the end of the seven minute duration.

The closing number ‘Shutter Asylum’ opens with some rather smart neo-classical thrashing where Luland gets to show off a little, but behind his best work, Blake Richardson’s drum style is absolutely relentless. While Prospekt aren’t too shy in showing their influences, the sheer force and speed propelling this number could be best compared to Symphony X at their most aggressive. Once again, the guitar work throughout is fabulous, with a few downtuned riffs giving a sinister edge. While the track already showed Prospekt at their absolute heaviest, the general tone here really hammers their point home.

It’s great to hear an English band taking on a very American style and sub-genre of metal – and potentially delivering the goods as well as the best bands out there. Generally, Prospekt’s debut EP is unlikely to give the prog-metal die-hards any new thrills, but it doesn’t matter. If you’re a fan of any of the bands mentioned here, it’s probable you’ll also enjoy what Prospect have to offer.

You can stream the EP from the widget below, or alternatively, it’s available as a FREE download here!





March 2011

Saturday, 12 March 2011

BLACK FLAG - My War

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Black Flag’s second full-length was released in 1984, after a long period of imposed inactivity following a long drawn out court case. In theory, their return to the studio should’ve heralded a fantastic release, since it’d been almost three years since any new recordings were made. In reality – maybe as a reaction to their legal struggles – ‘My War’ is, at least in part, a wilfully difficult and oppressive album. This is the only release recorded by the three-piece line-up of Rollins, Greg Ginn and Bill Stevenson (who became Black Flag’s full time drummer while his band Descendents were taking a sabbatical), and as such, presents the band at a transitional time (all bass parts are credited to Dale Nixon – a pseudonym for Ginn). Throughout this release, the band sounds unfocused, with more than half the album meandering into the realms of self-indulgence.

The album starts out well enough, as side one is upbeat as well as aggressive. There’s a noticeable shift away from the more basic hardcore punk elements of their previous sound; in places it’s still evident, but as the album progresses, there’s more focus on an intense brand of sludge-rock. This generally presents a more mature Black Flag, and the fusing of these two styles would become the band’s signature sound on their later releases.

Bill Stevenson drives the title cut with some great hi-hat work and angry drumming. Rollins makes his presence very much felt, his lyrics of delivered with pure anger. Ginn’s guitar work, meanwhile, hovers between edgy riffing and angular soloing. At the track’s close, Ginn bashes out two chords, creating tension as Rollins’s already frustrated delivery steps up a gear, spitting his last few lines as if he were trapped inside the music. ‘Can’t Decide’ follows a similar musical path, but is smoother around the edges, with an extended arrangement allowing Ginn to stretch out a little. Delivering a set of lyrics concerning anger and indecision, Rollins sounds like the ultimate hardcore frontman.

Featuring an arrangement which constantly shifts between the punkier sound of ‘Damaged’-era Black Flag and the sound of mid-paced frustration, ‘Beat My Head Against a Wall’ is one of the album’s truly great numbers. During the slow parts, Ginn and Stevenson deliver grinding rock riffs over which Rollins adds to the tension. It’s during the faster parts, though, where Black Flag show their true greatness. Bill Stevenson’s drumming is tight, over which Ginn churns out great riffs and pointed solos in a manner which would pave the way for the basic sound of his post Black Flag jazz-punk instrumental trio, Gone. ‘I Love You’ steps up the pace and is a throwback to the band’s more classic sound. While it never quite matches the punk throttle of the best moments from ‘Damaged’, it shows that despite a slightly maturer sound, Black Flag can still pack a punch. The straight-ahead driving force of ‘Forever Time’ also shows a no-nonsense Black Flag – the energy of some of ‘Damaged’ is very much present, yet the overall tone (particularly during Ginn’s solo) hints more at ugly guitar based rock. Rollins doesn’t always sound at his best here – his shouty vocal delivery giving way to screaming in places, but as with a couple of the earlier tracks, Stevenson is on fire – his hi-hat work and fills showing far more sophistication than most other hardcore/punk drummers of the era.

‘The Swinging Man’ brings the first half to a close with an off-kilter rhythm and some superb drumming from Stevenson (quite possibly the true musical hero with regards to the first half of ‘My War’. Rollins is at his most frenzied, and the end result is more than threatening. It’s a pity that any subtleties in the musical performance are drowned out by Ginn hammering his fretboard in a manner more jarring than ever before. While the track features some decent musical ideas, there’s no restraint in the arrangement, and as such, it’s very difficult listening – unless, of course, you’re able to focus on that brilliant drum part.

The album’s second side can best be described as intense, but not in an exhilarating sense. Taking the grinding approach explored on ‘Damaged I’ (the definitive version of which can be found on Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’ full-length), ‘Nothing Left Inside’ slows things to a crawl. The guitar riff cranks its way through nearly seven minutes, which shifts between Rollins howling in pain and Ginn’s atonal guitar work. ‘Three Nights’ is marginally better thanks to part of Rollins’s delivery carrying a spirit of an angry poetry reading as opposed to a hardcore punk/rock vocal. By the time he screams ‘I’m going to make you feel the way I feel’, he’s gonna make sure you absolutely empathise with his torment, it’s intensity grabbing you and ripping your senses apart. ‘Scream’ takes a similar approach again, but turns the intensity up as far as possible, with screaming moments taking place for a proportion of the vocal. During this number, Ginn’s jazz-punk noodlings become so grating, that by the end of the track you’ve not so much been beaten into submission, as much as left feeling rather queasy, then wondering what the point of it all was.

Individually, each of these last three tracks would have been tolerable on any Black Flag album (but still unlikely to be enjoyable), but here – sequenced next to each other, with a playing time of near twenty minutes – the intensity becomes almost too much for the listening audience. It’s as if after the long period of studio inactivity, Black Flag are so angry they’ve deliberately trying to provoke their audience into feeling the kind of claustrophobia they may have experienced, not being allowed an outlet for new recordings for so long.

If you want a snapshot of the second half of ‘My War’, the war is one of internal anguish; a sound which takes the slowest moments of Black Sabbath and twists them into almost impenetrable ugliness. This approach undoubtedly became influential to some bands which followed, though – most notably those much-loved sludge merchants (the) Melvins. Although this kind of intensity could be admired, it’s incredibly hard to take when delivered over such a long duration; there’s also a feeling that the pounding, slow delivery of these three songs is a waste of drummer Bill Stevenson’s talents.

The release of ‘My War’ marked the beginning of a rush of releases over the next two years. Over the course of another four studio discs, Black Flag honed their brand of distinctive, grinding hard rock and punk (and even offered some spoken word material on side one of ‘Family Man’). The music on those albums comes across much better than demonstrated here - and often far less sludgy (in part that’s due to the arrival of Kira Roessler on bass, whose playing would show far more style than Ginn’s heavy handed approach). While ‘My War’ features a handful of great moments, overall, it isn’t a great Black Flag release. It has plenty aggression, but even during the album’s best moments (except for perhaps ‘Beat My Head...’) it’s at the expense of that spark which makes their other work so captivating.


March 2010/January 2011

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

“Mike Starr: April 4, 1966 – March 8, 2011”

Mike Starr, last seen on the US MTV show ‘Celebrity Rehab’ in 2010, has died. At the time of writing, no details have been released regarding his cause of death, but police do not suspect foul play.

Starr will be best remembered as former bass player with Seattle legends Alice In Chains, playing bass on their first two (and arguably best) full length releases ‘Facelift’ and ‘Dirt’ (released in 1990 and 1992 respectively). Alongside Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’, ‘Dirt’ become one of the biggest selling and best loved albums associated with the 90’s grunge phenomenon, eventually shifting three over million units in the US. The album also spawned three US Top Ten hit singles.

After leaving Alice In Chains shortly after the release of ‘Dirt’, Starr became a member of Sun Red Sun, a supergroup which also featured Ray Gillen of Badlands/Black Sabbath, ex-Rainbow/Black Sabbath drummer Bobby Rondinelli and Al B Romano (formally a member of Anthrax vocalist Joey Belladonna’s eponymous band).

Starr can be seen in the video-clips from the Alice in Chains VHS release ‘Live Facelift’ below:









Tuesday, 8 March 2011

R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

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After R.E.M.’s golden run of albums between 1989’s ‘Green’ and 1994’s ‘Monster’, the band’s popularity hit stratospheric levels. They could seemingly do no wrong. Then came the marginal ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ – an album which polarises fans. While some praise it for its moodiness, others find it song-less and more than a bit dull. From that point on R.E.M. continued releasing million-selling albums, but there was a general feeling they were past their best - a feeling which culminated with the release of 2004’s often maligned ‘Around The Sun’.

Nearly seven years and a couple of albums later, the early buzz surrounding ‘Collapse Into Now’ suggested that R.E.M.’s 2011 release was something a bit special. While no ‘Automatic For The People’ or ‘Monster’, it certainly comes loaded with its share of winners. In fact, it plays like a voyage through each of the styles and whims of R.E.M.’s long career, as if they’ve made a conscious effort to try please all of their fans on one all-encompassing release.

With ‘Discoverer’ the album opens with a rather crashy number. Weaving its charm by way of chiming guitars, naturally, this evokes a ‘Monster’ style REM. There’s more than a hint of ‘Bang and Blame’ surrounding this number in places, and while musically it isn’t too complex, it has a couple of nice touches – most notably a great bass courtesy of Mike Mills, shining through the small wall of guitars. Stipe’s vocal isn’t always completely audible, though I suspect his lyrics are a collection of oblique words. While musically it holds its own, it’s let down a little by a chorus which fails to stretch much beyond Stipe repeatedly shouting ‘Discoverer’. ‘All The Best’ follows in a similar mood, with a focus on electric guitars and general rock posturing. It has the quality of a comfortable pair of shoes; the kind of number which feels like you’ve always known it.

‘It Happened Today’ explores the band’s Americana pop elements; while the best elements are drawn from Peter Buck’s mandolin work, it’s an album stand out with regard to harmony vocals. The melding of Stipe, Buck and Mills’s voices provide a great sunshine vibe. During the closing moments where those harmonies make up the bulk of the entertainment, they are joined by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, though his contribution is somewhat understated.

For those looking for more of R.E.M.’s pastel shades, ‘Collapse Into Now’ features a few more stand outs. ‘Oh My Heart’ is a brilliant acoustic based waltz with Peter Buck’s distinctive guitars and mandolins accompanied by very European sounding accordion and sousaphone work. In these relaxed atmospheres, Stipe sounds superb. This ought to be enough to make the track a fan favourite, despite a slightly wobbly chorus featuring some rather ugly backing vocals. ‘Walk It Back’ is a maudlin, piano-based number which provides a great showcase for Stipe as an understated vocalist. It’s a number which works by virtue of its relative simplicity. The sparse piano, occasional echoing guitar and warm bass work captures the reflective R.E.M. in fantastic form. Those who still find themselves hopelessly attracted by ‘Automatic For The People’ will certainly find plenty of enjoyment from the quirky, acoustic ‘Überlin’, which features great performances from all concerned. Behind great lead work, R.E.M.’s unofficial fifth member Scott McCaughey adds plenty of texture with simple organ lines. Once again, post-‘Monster’ R.E.M. have rarely sounded better than they do here.

‘Mine Smell Like Honey’ is another upbeat electric number, though not the kind of fuzz-driven rock which pumped ‘Monster’s blood. This number is bouncier, more naive – a deliberate attempt to capture some of the spirit which drove their earliest works. With a small amount of tweaking, it sounds like something which could slot into running order of ‘Reckoning’. Such a throwback to an older sounding R.E.M. certainly comes as a surprise. And it’s an even bigger surprise that it doesn’t sound forced or unnatural for them to play in such a style after so many years have passed. A similar musical spirit powers ‘That Someone Is You’, where Buck’s guitars jangle relentlessly. This doesn’t sound quite as natural, however, since moments of organ and a slight treatment on Stipe’s vocal are just enough to remind the listener this wasn’t recorded in 1984. The energy throughout the track cannot be faulted though and pulling in at under two minutes, it certainly clears the cobwebs!

One time Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye offers his chops to two numbers. He can be heard playing the featured solos on ‘Alligator Aviator Autopilot¬¬ Antimatter' and ‘Blue’. ‘Alligator’ is an upbeat offering, all rock swagger and pounding drums. Hardly essential R.E.M., but it’s definitely lots of fun, sounding like it was created with live performance in mind. A guest appearance by Peaches adds very little overall, her performance not much more than an echo of Stipe’s main voice. The angular soloing offered by Kaye brings the track a welcome, but brief moment of edginess. ‘Blue’, meanwhile, is a downbeat number which also features Patti Smith herself. Having first performed on the dreary ‘E-Bow The Letter’ from ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’, the idea of Patti Smith collaborating with Stipe and co isn’t a new phenomenon, but thankfully, ‘Blue’ isn’t as flat as that aforementioned track. Throughout, Stipe offers a overly wordy spoken performance, while Smith’s distinctive voice handles the other, more traditional vocal; her off-kilter style given a very haunting quality thanks to the use of atmospherically played reverbed guitars and piano. It’s not catchy by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly ends ‘Collapse Into Now’ on a reflective note. Before the track stops, there’s a brief reprise of ‘Discoverer’ bringing things full circle, but it feels a little bolted on after the drifting atmospherics of Stipe and Smith captured in duet.

In many ways, the early “return to form” hype regarding ‘Collapse Into Now’ can be seen as true. It’s certainly a well-rounded album evoking a lot of the band’s best pre-‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ works. It’s not as classic as that run of releases between 1989’s ‘Green’ and 1994’s ‘Monster’, but to expect that it could have been, is somewhat foolish. Thankfully, though, ‘Collapse Into Now’ is streets ahead of the drudgery of ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ and much better than the “R.E.M. on auto-pilot” approach of everything which followed.

Monday, 7 March 2011

SHARKS TOOK THE REST - Grounds For Hearts To Swell

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Taking music with strings and an almost spacious approach to the piano would undoubtedly create something atmospheric and possibly cinematic, but on this EP, British septet Sharks Took The Rest take such cinematic music a step farther by adding elements of easy jazz and electronica. This results in five varied numbers which, together, create an incredibly compelling debut release.

The string-led ‘Bring Her Back’ has a sound which is immediately familiar. Gentle drums and upright bass provide a warm loop over the viola and cello. The swirling vocal arrangement on the chorus gives a sense of building up, but largely the number maintains a mellow, flowing quality. The end sound offers something which sounds like Sarah McLachlan, although the use of upright bass lends itself to the work of Elizabeth and the Catapult. The McLachlan feeling runs through parts of ‘Ancestors’, but here, Beccy Owen’s vocal (which occasionally drifts into an uncomfortable pitch) plays second fiddle to the great work from the rhythm section. David Carnegie’s jazzy drumming is spot-on throughout the number, but Ian Paterson’s upright bass work outshines all other musical aspects.

‘Sleeping Conniptions’ showcases the busier side of the septets sound and the use of a frantic programmed drum loop here gives the number a real thrust. While aggressive drum loops don’t often have a place within such atmospheric surroundings, it works well against sounds of the strings – and especially what sounds like a heavily treated electric guitar, adding very eastern qualities. ‘Restaurant’ has a quirky air, as Louise Taylor and Becca Topping’s viola and cello are plucked, over which Nick Pride adds similarly hard-plucked acoustic guitar strings. This is overlaid by a multi-voiced, occasionally complex arrangement which really highlights the vocal talent within the band.

The closing number ‘Isobel’ has an unsettling quality. Adam Kent’s sparse piano work is overlaid by slowly building, cleanly plucked guitar. Owen’s vocal has presence, but her words aren’t always clear; when joined in harmony by a second vocal, it’s almost dreamlike. As the track progresses, the percussion builds to a climax, before falling into something gentler.

Each of the five numbers featured on ‘Ground For Hearts To Swell’ is meticulously crafted and full of warmth. Sharks Took The Rest have a rich sound which will undoubtedly capture the minds of listeners who have spent years enjoying other female-fronted acts. The chamber pop elements set the band apart from the rest of the crowd.


February/March 2011

Thursday, 3 March 2011

RADIOHEAD - The King Of Limbs

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I’d always felt indifferent to Radiohead’s debut ‘Pablo Honey’, but when their second album ‘The Bends’ was released in 1995, I thought it was a masterpiece. Every song featured was incredibly strong and Thom Yorke’s song writing showed an increasing maturity. Its 1997 follow-up ‘OK Computer’ was a brave release, which while resembling the band I loved, encompassed a far more cinematic style, bringing elements of progressive rock into the mix. This was most notable during the closing moments of ‘Exit Music For a Film’, which brazenly ripped off paid homage to Pink Floyd’s ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ (particularly the version from Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’ movie’). Here was a band three albums into their career, and they were musically already a world away from their debut. [At this point, while NME were still praising Radiohead for being the greatest alternative rock band in the world, I heard the work of a band who’d spent their teenage years with King Crimson and other 70s prog bands.]

They returned a couple of years later with ‘Kid A’, an album which seemed to polarise fans. Radiohead’s experimentation pushed itself to new levels and I could never get into it (even less so its successor ‘Amnesiac’). With each passing album, I found myself wishing more and more that Radiohead would return to basics and write more accessible songs. Many other fans really embraced the experimental turn their work had taken and, rather surprisingly, the band retained a huge fan base – and still appeared to be winning new converts.

Their eighth studio album arrived ahead of the planned release date as a downloadable release, on the 18th February 2011, to what appeared to be unanimous praise, though at times, it’s hard to work out why. For the first five of the eight featured numbers, Radiohead present a collection of soundscapes, beats and loops - and very little in the way of real songs.

A few bars into the opening number ‘Bloom’, it becomes obvious that ‘The King of Limbs’ can be another wilfully difficult release. Busy drum loops relentlessly drive what is essentially an electronic piece, almost lacking any tune. The drum loops are punctuated by an electronic parping noise until the arrival of Tom Yorke’s vocal line. He wails sporadically, his voice almost used as extra instrumentation, as opposed to singing in the conventional sense. The bass sound which creeps in now and again sounds rather good through a pair of 1970s speakers, but there’s not much to enjoy here. Imagine a beefed up electronica version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’ but without any of the talent and you’d have a fair idea of what to expect. Striking, it may be, but for most people looking for a tune, its abstract nature probably won’t inspire further listening.

‘Morning Mr Magpie’ is a little softer on the ears, with the drum loop reduced to a rather pleasing hi-hat sound, while the rhythm guitar part shows a minimalistic brilliance with its staccato patterns. Colin Greenwood’s bass pattern has a danceable quality in places, helping to give the mechanical feel of the number some warmth. Even Yorke’s performance hints at Radiohead of old – breathy and passionate (while still an acquired taste). If you’re still looking for an actual song with an actual hook though, you may as well forget it. ‘Little By Little’ continues in a softer mood, but here, Yorke’s voice moves from breathy and passionate, into realms of tuneless and whiny – almost breaking completely in places. The guitar work adopts an enjoyable soft twang, but that’s about the only enjoyable element here. After a few minutes, the sounds of the drum loop and Yorke’s vocal become nothing more than an irritation.

‘Feral’ takes the drum sounds into darker territory, as Phil Selway offers a pattern which resembles another dance loop, over which there’s an odd sounding keyboard punctuating the rhythms. During the second half of the track, there’s a bass sound with a real presence which occasionally hints at 90s ambient dance. But despite a couple of good elements, this number doesn’t particularly work as a whole. Selway’s busy drum rhythms are bothered throughout by keyboard sounds and Thom Yorke, whose vocal drifts in and out, eventually becoming an irksome noise. The bass sound makes a return for ‘Lotus Flower’, which in places, has a pleasing tune – again very much driven by the rhythm section. Greenwood’s playing is laid back – almost sounding like it could have been a bass sample – and even the electronic and keyboard parts of the number present themselves in an unthreatening manner. Such a pity that Yorke has chosen to sing in falsetto throughout – without that, it could have possibly been worth listening to.

The last three numbers present a surprising turnaround of fortunes. In a nod to the past, ‘Give Up The Ghost’ is a sparse haunting number led by acoustic guitar. With minimal percussion and a few electric guitars sounding a little like theramins, Yorke takes place front and centre, delivering a ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ style lament. As a Radiohead fan of old, I very much welcome the presence of such an accessible number (one which could have easily been an ‘OK Computer b-side). As the track pulls to a close, Colin Greenwood’s bass rumbles in a lead fashion and then everything fades out (no pun intended) leaving me wanting more. Similarly, the gentleness of ‘Codex’ has more in common with Radiohead’s history than most of ‘The King of Limbs’. A simple, yet cinematic piano line provides the basis for a heartfelt vocal; Yorke in strong voice (perhaps his strongest this time around). The voice and pinao are joined in places by a dark horn sound and a few strings, to create something almost beautiful. It’s almost as if ‘Codex’ and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ are a reward for old Radiohead fans who haven’t given up on the album by this point. [Naturally, I feel their inclusion improves ‘The King Of Limbs’ greatly.]

Closing the album, the Massive Attack/Zero 7 inspired ‘Separator’ utilises yet another great drum part from Selway, accompanied by one of Greenwood’s more interesting bass riffs. It’s busy, again with a slight hint of dance, this time with a little funk thrown in for good measure. Midway, a very clean-toned guitar adds an almost sunny accompaniment - and from that point, the track builds to it’s climax. Yorke’s vocals are reverbed and could, once again, be best described as additional music, since it’s very hard to pick out any of the lyrics (aside from a brief refrain of ‘wake me up’ which creeps in at the end). Arguably one of the best tunes ‘The King of Limbs’ has to offer, it makes me wish the disc hadn’t stopped there (despite disliking most of what came previously). How different the album may have been, if only Radiohead could have tapped into their trip-hop qualities earlier...

The first half of ‘The King of Limbs’ may be more experimental than anything Radiohead have attempted before, but it’s devoid of songs. A couple of numbers are even devoid of tunes. Thankfully, the second half is more accessible, but still doesn’t grab the listener in the same way the band’s best work is capable.
While I can appreciate bands move on and experiment (and in some cases change their sound almost completely), what I don’t understand is how Radiohead have managed to retain such a huge following by releasing such challenging music as they have from 1997 onward. Over the years, there have been other artists performing music with equally interesting results which have barely had a look in by comparison.


March 2011

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

BENEDICTUM - Dominion

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By the time Benedictum recorded their debut album in 2005, you could say their founding members were already veterans. Vocalist Veronica Freeman and guitarist Pete Wells had been members of a band named Malady for ten years previously. In addition, Veronica also performed as part of a Black Sabbath tribute band, Evilution, with Benedictum’s bassist Chris Shrum and ex-drummer Blackie Sanchez.

It’s unsurprising, then, that their debut album (‘Uncreation’, released on Locomotive Records) featured two Dio-era Black Sabbath songs and also featured guest appearances by ex Dio band members Craig Goldy and Jeff Pilson, as well as ex-Dio/Rainbow bassist and Thin Lizzy cohort Jimmy Bain.

Benedictum’s third album, ‘Dominion’, brings another huge slab of metal. Throughout the disc, the riffs are huge and the drummer attacks his kit as if he has a third leg. With the music being of such powerhouse qualities and the level of musicianship being of a mostly high standard, you’d think ‘Dominion’ would be an unmissable release. However, despite some great qualities, none of its songs manage to be especially memorable once the album has finished. Most of the tunes blend together after a while; there’s very little light and shade. Although it could be argued that Freeman has a metal voice that commands attention, it’s mostly commanded through volume and force – there’s no real charisma in her performances.

The title cut opens with a few quirky rhythms and keyboard parts but the tune quickly decends into manic, sledgehammer riffing. By the time Freeman’s vocals hit their stride, there’s little of interest melodically. However, those keeping a close ear on Mikey Pannone will hear the work of a great metal drummer – not only is his playing fast, but many of his fills are fairly complex. ‘At The Gates’ is equally as subtle... Although there is the occasional hint that Freeman could sing in a melodic style - as demonstrated on the chorus sections - the verses in turn display a voice that’s as aggressive as it had been on the title cut. The track’s best moment comes from Pete Wells, whose featured solo is reminiscent of old-school 80s thrash.

Occasionally, when things lighten up, Freeman’s vocals show signs of potential greatness. During the verses of ‘Loud Silence’, she retreats from her usual metal approach, attempting to bring emotions other than anger into her performance. There are fleeting moments here where she could pass as metal’s answer to Grace Slick, but her best efforts seem at odds with music that’s still really heavy. The epic ‘Epsilon’ moves further away from full-on power metal and brings in elements of progressive metal, allowing some interesting (if slightly pneumatic) interplay between guitarist Pete Wells and drummer Mikey Pannone. A few eastern musical motifs add a small amount of extra interest and there are fleeting moments where Freeman adopts a more tuneful style, but if it’s prog-metal you’re after, there are a thousand better examples of the sub-genre than this.

The best track is ‘Seer’, which features a melodic vocal, a heavy yet melodic riff (due to a slower pace) and a chorus which at least has an attempt at being memorable. Imagine something which combines the best elements of ‘Rage For Order’ era Queensryche, Dio and a pinch of power metal and you’ll have a fair idea where this number’s musical interests lie. Against the classic sounding riff, Well’s clean lead notes wail like it’s 1989 and, for once at least, Benedictum offer something that’s a little broader in appeal.

This release features two bonus tracks, one of which should be familiar to many. But trust me, you probably don’t want to hear Benedictum hammering their way through a version of Rush’s ‘Overture/Temple of Syrinx’. The layered guitar parts of the original version are reproduced here in a much heavier style - and without any of the finesse that was really required. Freeman’s take on Geddy Lee’s vocal is little more than a full-bore metal squeal. Oh dear.

While (from a metal perspective, at least) most of ‘Dominion’ could be described as musically sound, it’s certainly a release for power-metal die-hards only. There are a couple of moments which stand out – and individually, some of the players show a decent level of talent – but more focus on songs would have been useful.


March 2010