Saturday, 24 October 2020

Night Owl - Gerry Rafferty


Provenance: When I was in Year 4 I was selected to be one of three pupils in my school to appear on a breakfast request show at Hospital Radio Bedside in Bournemouth.

Selection was undertaken on the basis of letters we had written to the station manager, stating why we would make good radio presenters. I assume the other two wrote something funny or charming to secure their guest slots.

I, on the other hand, had written in saying that my favourite ever song was 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty. A pretty slick pick for a eight or nine year old in the mid-1990s. As it transpired, when I was asked to step up as selecta for the beleaguered and ailing patients of Royal Bournemouth Hospital, I opted for the pop-reggae of China Black's 'Searching'.

Nonetheless, my regard for 'Baker Street' never waned, and to this day I consider it to be almost perfect. It was, I think, for this reason that it took me a quarter of a century to follow up and investigate more of Rafferty's back catalogue. My fear was that 'Baker Street' was a wild one-off, and that everything else would either be bereft of any of the elements that made 'Baker Street' so special, or a pale imitation, albums clogged with desperate attempts to bottle that lightning once again.

However, I had read some heartening reviews of both City To City (parent album to 'Baker Street') and this, its follow up, 'Night Owl'. Lo and behold, both albums were available in a two CD set for some ridiculously low price, so I took the plunge. 

It doesn't end there! I played City To City and fell in love; I then faced the trepidation of spinning Night Owl (my fear of being disappointed is layered like an onion), especially given a casual remark by one of my five-a-side teammates - and local heavy rock legend - Kevin, that "nothing got close to City To City where Gerry Rafferty was concerned". Thus Night Owl sat on the shelf until a combination of lockdown and curiosity convinced me to bite the bullet. (NB - isn't that track by Temple absolutely ace?).

Review: To my mind, the best albums are those which, in addition to containing good music, impart a sense of feeling, mood, or place. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Night Owl, which is less rambunctious than its predecessor, doesn't cover as much ground stylistically but comes across as a more cohesive affair through consistently evoking a kind of autumnal twilight. Night Owl is an album to wrap yourself up in against the bite of the evening; it also feels like a consolation to the solitary listener, Rafferty's inimitable voice a sweet, shy presence rimed with a gentle melancholy.

The music itself is mostly mid-paced, classy soft rock, poised somewhere in the same soft rock wheelhouse as Steely Dan, inasmuch as the layers of instrumentation are meticulous and immaculate; and maybe someone like Richard Marx, insofar as there's an undisguised romanticism in Rafferty's writing. However, Night Owl is neither jazzy or tricksy, nor does it ever tip too far towards the saccharine end of the scale. Maybe add the - I can't put this any other way - 'grown-up' sensibilities of Bob Seger's best writing into the mix. I simply cannot imagine kids ever buying this stuff (notable exception: me aged eight). Night Owl sounds every bit the creation of a man who was, by then, in his thirties and had been around the block a bit.

When all elements come together, it's simply lovely. I've already mentioned Rafferty's seemingly low-key vocal delivery, but it's worth talking about again; mid-Atlantic with a Hibernian twist, warm, sad, confiding, and used with the deftness and artistry of a master calligrapher. 'Baker Street' is most notable for its huge saxophone riff played by Raphael Ravenscroft (though I think it also sports one of rock's greatest guitar solos), but Night Owl relies on the vocals for its hooks. Listen to the way Rafferty slides between the chorus lines in the title track, or the way he drags vowels around in 'Days Gone Down'. There's a beautiful push-pull quality to the singing, an instinctive kenning about where to stretch out over the beat or when to gild the melody with understated little variations.

Yet for all the acute intelligence and lush orchestration present, Night Owl is unmistakeably a collection shot through with notions of regret and resignation. Even the most forceful number here, the excellent 'Take The Money and Run', is more rueful than angry. Check out some of the other song titles: 'Why Won't You Talk To Me', 'Get It Right Next Time', 'Already Gone' and 'It's Gonna Be a Long Night'. The most upbeat track 'Days Gone Down' seems to suggest a double meaning, whilst 'Night Owl' is almost harrowing in its portrayal of loneliness in the midst of popular adoration. 'The Tourist' (a title in itself that hints at dilettantism) contains a repeated refrain, 'but it's alright', that sounds utterly unconvincing in the context of a lyric describing the grind of touring. To me it sounds like a coded plea for help.

Does it matter, when everything sounds so effortlessly smooth? The lack of rough edges means that all the musical surfaces of Night Owl slide around each other with the serenity of a mah-jong game, which should be boring. Maybe to contemporary tastes, it is. No matter - I'm the one listening, and writing this review, and when I tune in I'm left with the powerful impression of an artist who treats his music as a refuge from a world he can't quite get to grips with. Remarkable.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Odyssey: The Sound Of Ivor Raymonde Vol. II - Various Artists


Provenance: I bought this at Resident Music in Brighton (no trip to the city is complete without a visit) as a little birthday gift to myself this year.

Review: Stupendous.

I could leave it at that, if I'm honest, but that would be cheating. However, if you don't track a copy of this curate's egg down (it's even on Spotify) before reading on I'd seriously urge you to consider your life choices.

There are, really, three types of albums I end up reviewing on this blog. The easiest of the lot are those that are utterly rancid, because the job is to simply give 'em a shoeing. Then there's those that possess a hard carapace of inadmissibility, either because they are baffling or I'm delving into a genre that I'm not hugely conversant with. The challenge here is to try to get into a headspace to make some form of semi-comprehensible assessment, and to relax about my lack of omniscience (but I'm getting there, folks).

By far the most difficult are albums I like. I find I fall into a kind of set rhythm for these pieces, lavishing praise whilst desperately searching for some hook or wrinkle so that I may introduce some grit into the oyster. Worst of all are albums such as today's offering, Odyssey, which in my estimation is almost faultless. I feel a hesitancy to waste words, when a simple exhortation to listen to the bloody thing should suffice.

So: this is the second volume of songs arranged or produced by Ivor Raymonde (father of Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, who demands credit as the album's compiler), mostly culled from the 1960s. On the basis of these twenty-five tracks alone, one must conclude that Raymonde pere was one of those semi-mythical beasts within the music industry: the man with the golden ear. From cowlick rock 'n' roll through to Philly-style soul and all pop points inbetween, Odyssey is a kaleidoscope of sound and a sumptuous testament to Raymonde's genius as an arranger.

The one commonality that exists betwixt and between the selections on Odyssey is the absence of rough edges. Probably the closest we get to anything vaguely edgy is the strange, wonderful acid rock-lite of Twinkle's previously unreleased 'Michael Hannah'. However, if you feel that denotes a kind of staidness or politeness, think again; for bubbling under the surface of many of these cuts is a simmering, smouldering passion that every now and again threatens to boil over. Por ejemplo: the throb of the bass propelling Los Bravos' 'Brand New Baby', or the brass punching and pummelling its way to the front of the mix in the Alan Price Set's enjoyably gusty, knockabout take on Randy Newman's 'Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear'.

What does come through loud and clear, to me at least, was Raymonde's love of the human voice. It didn't hurt that he worked with some of the best - Roy Orbison, the Walker Brothers, Dusty Springfield - one feels you just had to give them a nudge and sit well back. Springfield's track, 'Little By Little', is a juggernaut, her ice-cool delivery rubbing up against incandescent horn charts to stunning effect. There's a sense that the impeccable framing that Raymonde helped to provide could be a space where an artist was allowed to subsequently cut loose, if they so desired; Susan Maughan conjuring up the mettle of a young Helen Shapiro on 'That Other Place'; the lisping sensuality that ignites The Cryin' Shames' 'Please Stay'; and the brawling, grunting run at 'Loo-Be-Loo' that makes the version by The Chucks so damn fun. 

The true highlight of the vocalists, however (and this isn't to dismiss Kathy Kirby's mountain-sized crescendo on 'The Way of Love') is the truly demented 'Tower of Strength' by Frankie 'Mr Moonlight' Vaughan, which I've mentioned before now (or rather, left the heavy lifting to the scribes of Freaky Trigger). It bears repeating, though, that this absolutely fucks anything Tom Jones did out of the water. One can picture Vaughan writhing around on the studio floor as he forces every iota of his being into powering this most electrifying slice of soul, albeit in an almost unrecognisable format. Recorded in 1961, it feels like a moment where a quirky British offshoot could have developed, before the genre was fully submerged, as per one commentator on Freaky Trigger, into the musical vocabulary of its American originators.

Friends, there are treats everywhere! Check out Marty Wilde hiccoughing his way through the rockabilly drama of 'Endless Sleep', the warm, buzzy psychedelia of Christopher Colt's 'Girl In The Mirror' or the Martell's 'Time To Say Goodnight', and get blown away by the barmstorming rhumba-on-steroids of Paul Slade's 'Odyssey', after which this album is named. The last cut is hot, hot, HOT! 

How to sum it up? Well, once I've finished tapping away at my keyboard, I shall go back to the beginning and listen again without the burden of trying to add words. The world of Odyssey is a fully realised dreamscape, a place where two-minute pop is elevated beyond its inherent strictures into a realm of sheer emotion. It's rich, too. Imagine getting smashed at a wedding on dessert wine and propping up the chocolate fountain all night, and you might be halfway towards experiencing the pure glut of confection Odyssey provides. 

Resident Music didn't have volume one, titled Paradise, in store when I visited. Guess what's on my Christmas list? Let's hope I've been a good boy!

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Fang Bang - Wednesday 13


Provenance: My time at the University of Exeter was largely pleasant, but being out in Devon meant for slim pickings on the rock front most of the time. The one oasis was the Cavern, a vaulted cellar in the centre of town where I saw acts like The Answer, My Ruin and today's subject, Wednesday 13.

In fact, I think I picked this album up after seeing the erstwhile Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13 and Murderdolls frontman (not to mention his stint as a Faster Pussycat tour guitarist!). Wednesday 13 wasn't really my cup of mud, but when you're drowning in a sea of Newton Faulkner and Mr Scruff, you seize anything resembling a life raft.

Later, this would also extend to frequent trips to a Monday night goth night run by a living skeleton named Francis...but I'll save the story for when I review Judas Priest's Turbo.

In any case, Wednesday 13 put on a raucous live show, and I spent the night quaffing cheap beer with good friends, so all in all a massive success. I bought this more as a keepsake from a cracking night out, rather than an album I knew I'd get a lot of replay value out of. Years have gone by since that gig and I haven't spun Fang Bang (great name) very much at all, so it's due a reappraisal.

Review: If the name Fang Bang wasn't enough of a giveaway. song titles such as 'Morgue Than Words', 'My Home Sweet Homicide' and 'Happily Ever Cadaver' should give you a clue that this release is kindred spirits with Rob Zombie and mid-era Alice Cooper; good, wholesome, comic-book and MGM monster movie fun. However, unlike the industrial-powered ramalama of Zombie or the spray-glam of Cooper, Fang Bang is anthemic pop-punk with a sleazy edge.

And so I ask you, faithful reader, have you oft seen me extolling the virtues of pop-punk on these pages? No, you haven't. The closest I've come would be my encomium to Sloppy Seconds and their mighty Destroyed album, with which it shares some of its ghoulish sci-fi sensibility. That said, Destroyed works as a clever-stupid, ramshackle, knockabout celebration of all life's most egregious sins, and remains very much an outlier in my collection. 

Fang Bang simply isn't as cute, clever or as charming as Destroyed (but what is?); but I'm surprising myself with how easy it's going down. Songs all blend into one, and as catchy as they can be - especially at the choruses - they're all just one hook short of being proper earworms. One feels that if Cheap Trick or the Wildhearts got to grips with these tracks they'd wind up with just the right amount of acid and saccharine. Still, 'Faith In The Devil' has got a nasty bite, and you'd have to be a fucking sadsack not to smile at the 'oi oi oi' section in 'Happily Ever Cadaver'. 

I don't really know what else to say - everything rushes along at a nice clip, as it should, and production bears all the hallmarks of the early 2000s, which has never been my favourite era for capturing noises. One plus is that Wednesday's raspy sneer fits in with the loud 'n' compressed flavour of the age - of all the other singers I'm familiar with, he most resembles his former employer in Faster Pussycat, Taime Downe. It lends a suitably cloacal aspect to mascara-and-glitter smeared proceedings, although it has to be said that his range stretches about as far as Russell Grant attempting to dunk a basketball.

But, look, if you can't raise a smirk to a song called 'Buried With Children' (which is really good, in fairness) and the lyric 'I've got blood in my alcohol system' doesn't make the corners of your mouth twitch, I can't help you. This is rambunctious Hot Topic splatter-punk with no little heart and a smudge of dark glamour besides. Fang Bang may not quite blast the rafters on a sedate Sunday afternoon, but crank this in a poorly-ventilated sweatbox with £2 Carlsbergs on offer and you've got the recipe for a helluva good, gruesome time.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

The Psychedelic Sounds Of... - The 13th Floor Elevators


Provenance: Along with every other right-minded person, I own a copy of the greatest compilation album ever put together, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68. On an album freighted with highlights, there are still some tracks that manage to break on thru' to the other side: the dark mood of the Electric Prunes 'I Had Too Much To Dream', 'Lies', a spot-on Beatles pastiche, by the Knickerbockers, and the swirling, propulsive 'Open My Eyes' by the Nazz, a group featuring the young Todd Rundgren, are all primo brainbenders. 

And then there's the bizarre 'You're Gonna Miss Me', almost in a category of its own, coming on like a diesel-propelled jug band piloted by a clutch of lunatics. Who wouldn't want a slice of that action? Anyway, I whacked a 13th Floor Elevators album on my Christmas list, and Santa was obviously feeling pretty hip that year because he brought me an Elevators box-set down the chimney!

Review: The Psychedelic Sounds... opens up with the inimitable 'You're Gonna Miss Me', and even though I've heard it countless times, it still elicits a small dopamine rush as the first four chords crash in, a tug on my cerebral cortex that here be something a bit special. What a tune! What a manifesto! Two and a half minutes of dementia filtered interpreted through the medium of white-knuckle rock 'n' roll. There are so many things to pick up on; the slashing guitars, Roky Erickson's snotty punk vocals, the perfect gem of a harmonica solo - but one other element both shines through and yet sits utterly apart, and that's Tommy Hall and his electric jug. 

This most untraditional of rawk instruments is all over Psychedelic Sounds; furthermore, it's not used to underscore the rhythm, as it is in folk, blues or skiffle setups (or, say, on Mungo Jerry's superb 'In The Summertime'). Instead, it clucks away like an insane chicken, providing at times an almost sawtooth effect, weaving in and out the churning beat of the bass and drums. So startling is this effect, one briefly wonders why jug wasn't more commonplace in rock 'n' roll, until you realise that the way it was deployed was unique to the 13th Floor Elevators' sound. They made this hyperactive jug-boogie entirely their own.

Of course, imitators are also hard to spawn when nobody listened to your the first time around.

Coming at the lysergic dawn of the psychedelic era, it has to be said that Psychedelic Sounds does not bear much resemblance to the stately patchouli 'n' paisley aural washes that would come to dominate the scene (albeit I think the ultimate psych track is the aforementioned 'Open My Eyes', which is drenched in phasing effects and features a cool 'wig out' section). Castin about for comparisons, I consider the first couple of Pretty Things - another band who would make a big psychedelic splash - discs to be kissing cousins to this bad boy. They are all rawer than steak tartare, all feature nasty sub-surf guitar tones that prefigure the Cramps, and in Phil May the PTs had a singer willing to sound every bit as malicious as Erickson. 

But! The Pretty Things didn't have no jug, and for the most part they played their blooz straight, whilst Psychedelic Sounds brings the weirdness. It's instructive that in an age of sampling, digital recording and guitar pedal setups that rival the bridge of the SS Enterprise for complexity, little recorded in recent years sounds quite as uncanny. The spirit of the age was to push the available tools to their limits (I think now, incidentally, of how nothing has ever since come close to the noises Joe Meek magicked into existence from the spare room in his flat). Perhaps, also, the murk of this album's production comes into play. The miasma oozing out of the speakers sounds, frankly, amazing, as every now and again some bass pulse, or shard of guitar, will unexpectedly push through the gloop of distortion, a random visitor from another frequency.

I haven't really named tracks, so if you're the sort who is partial to a spot of Spotify browsing here's a few artyfacts to get you going: 'You're Gonna Miss Me', naturally; the lurching, doomy bad trip nightmares of 'Reverberation' and 'Kingdom of Heaven'; and possibly my favourite track in their catalogue, the gleefully bonkers 'Fire Engine', a journey to the centre of the mind accompanied by the primal whoops and howls of home-made siren noises. Blast it at midnight and the neighbours will complain; keep blasting until sun-up and they will end up worshipping you. This is potent stuff!

Cool music(!) for cool people(?), dat's wot I say. This'll improve your health, wealth, wellbeing and eyesight.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Graham Central Station - Graham Central Station


Provenance: This one came from a discussion I had with my father-in-law about funk; we were chatting about Parliament, the Jimmy Castor Bunch, the Ohio Players (as you do) when almost as an aside he admonished me not to forget Graham Central Station.

Forget? I'd never heard of them. But I had heard of Larry Graham, the bassist for Sly and the Family Stone - so here it is, the band he formed after quitting the hugely influential psych-soul pioneers. Graham's lived a life - Sly, GCS, introduced Prince to the Jehovah's Witness faith, and it turns out he's the uncle of Drake. According to Wikipedia, Graham was also a pioneer of the slap bass technique, so we've got this dude to thank for Victor Wooten and Mark King.

A quick Google and it became apparent I could buy one of those bargain collections of five studio albums for about eight quid. It virtually purchased itself, right?

Incidentally - the name Graham Central Station is a pun. In American English, it sounds like 'Grand Central Station' as 'Graham' is often elided into one syllable. Despite being married to an American for eight and a half years (and counting), I still experience some discomfort with this fact. I have sincerely spent a whole vacation looking for 'Gram crackers', only to find consolation in what I took to be a knock-off brand called 'Graham crackers' (just like Dr Pepper had a rival, Mr Pibb, who was presumably a consultant surgeon). 

To my non-American friends, I'll leave you with this warning; however you imagine 'Louisville' to be pronounced, prepare to be surprised.

Review: What a charming way to begin the album! 'We've Been Waiting' is a group acapella number, where they basically say how much they're looking forward to entertaining you, the listener. I'm not opposed to this kind of gimmick, one that Graham Central Station (spoiler alert) repeat on their second album Release Yourself, a track that introduces each member of the band with their own little slogan. It also features the chewiest synth tone ever produced, so give it a whirl right now because I won't be reviewing that bad boy for a while.

Is this a 'thing' in funk music? There's a little bit of this carry-on at the beginning of Parliament's incredible Mothership Connection, and the aforementioned Jimmy Castor Bunch do a funny turn in the same vein on their quirky jam 'Potential'. 

So what's the deal with Graham Central Station? My first reaction is that it's good, solid funk. It doesn't contain the hyperactivity of James Brown, the sci-fi weirdness of Parliament or the lasciviousness of the Ohio Players, but it does encapsulate something I often say about Nils Lofgren, which is that good singin' and good playin' can get you a long way down the path. Also, at the beginning on 'judge not, that ye be not judged' sizzler 'Hair', there's a cool slap bass intro, so that box has been ticked with a big fat permanent marker. 

For the most part, Graham Central Station is mid-paced soul-funk buoyed by quavering string arrangements, fun horn parts and gang vocals. The slower moments can sound a little like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's Funk Beyond the Call of Duty (my favourite instalment in the Call of Duty franchise) without the humour (GCS are an earnest bunch), which is no bad thing. Singer Patrice 'Choc'Let' Banks gets featured solo spots on 'Why?' and 'We Be's Getting Down'; on the latter Banks does an especially scintillating job, her elastic vocals pushing against a grinding rhythm to fine effect.

What Graham Central Station lacks is a proper knockout punch. There is not a bad bit of music on the album, but neither is there anything that makes me immediately want to skip back and listen to something again. This needs a 'Summer Breeze' or 'That Lady' to properly elevate it into the top ranks; hell, even less successful acts like the Cate Brothers (identical twins, love it, love it) always had one ace up their sleeve per album, like the driving 'In One Eye and Out the Other'. GCS come close - 'Hair' is probably the best realised song - and indeed, it was a minor hit - but 'Can You Handle It' has a strident, imposing chorus that just needed to be wed to a more inventive verse, and 'People' has a guitar solo that's so fucking sick you wanna weep. Is that Freddie Stone playing?

As I said at the top, I got this alongside four other GCS albums for about the cost of a drinkable pint in London, so I can't complain. For me, this isn't heavy rotation material, and in truth it has dated somewhat. It suffers in comparison to more distinctive and high-energy contemporaries, and its serious-minded messaging of uplift and positivity is suffused with the spirit of an age that has passed by. Nonetheless, it's not bad - hell, it's good stuff - and Graham Central Station's albums would get better. It pays to tread carefully with recommendations from a guy who likes Bob Dylan's 1980s output, but here I have to hand it to my father-in-law for a very decent heads-up. 

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Good Bye - Flied Egg


Provenance: The ol' noggin ain't what it used to be, so no amount of staring into the black depths of this slightly forbidding album cover will lead to an eureka moment, I fear. However, it's certainly a pre-Spotify purchase, which leads me to two hypotheses:

1. Some random shit I heard on YouTube

2. (The most likely) I read about a band called Flied Egg and thought "I'd better get a piece of this".

It's a strange name for a band, right? Flied Egg. It turns out they were a Japanese outfit from the early 1970s, so it's either with a degree of irony or defiance that they took their language's difficulty with distinguishing between 'l' and 'r' and flipped it into a quirky handle. One feels that in our more enlightened (I say, the day after hordes of people marched in London against a make-believe Satanic cannibal paedophile (or should that be paedophile cannibal?) cabal) age such a name might be consigned to the 'bad idea' pile fairly swiftly, but who knows? If anybody has the right to lampoon Japanese speech patterns it's Japanese people themselves, and to me it feels like a nice mixture of absurdity, self-deprecation and spikiness. Is that reflected in the music, eh?

Review: Here's one of those curios that seem to have gone extinct, alongside 'hidden tracks' and CDs that you could turn over to the watch a music video - the half live, half studio effort. Good Bye starts with a bit of a bummer, as an MC announces that 'this show is going to be recorded, and will appear on the final LP this band will be released'. Yeah mate, not quite 'you wanted the best?! You got the best!' or 'on your feet - or on your knees!', but I should mark it up for being factually correct (this was Flied Egg's second - and final - album) and creating a sense of occasion.

Unfortunately, the first couple of tracks aren't anything special - aside from some peculiar wailing in the backing vocals department, it's fairly pedestrian 'eavy blooz rock in the same vein as Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Grand Funk Railroad. A fairly pointless cover of B.B. King's 'Rock Me Baby' follows - I already have superior versions by King, Robin Trower and myself playing into a dictaphone to fall back on. The soloing is energetic enough but quite generic; it has none of the identifiable quirkiness of King's restrained, vibrato-rich style or the artistry of Trower's mind-bending, feedback-soaked real-time deconstruction of the blues.

Another fairly muddy track closes out side A, but this time we're treated to a boring drum solo and some meandering nonsense on guitar. It's all very 1972 - an era where bands seemed to confuse lengthy jamming with fun, interesting music. Nothing to me sounds more brain-achingly langweilig than watching Jimmy Page stumble over his fretboard for half an hour in some godforsaken concert arena in the Midwest, but apparently people went nuts for this kind of bullshit. At least on studio albums, bands like Zep and the Allmans were largely constrained by the format, but you check out something like Deep Purple's Made In Japan and see twelve and a half minutes of 'Child In Time' or, heaven forbid, twenty minutes of 'Space Truckin'' and your fucking spider senses are tingling so hard that the structural integrity of your body is compromised and you become a puddle of goo. Which, I should add, is preferable to listening to Made In Japan.

Side B is the studio stuff! On Alive II, possibly the best album KISS ever put out, you've got a very solid studio side - 'All American Man' (despite being unintentionally funny, it's a corker), 'Rockin' in the USA' and the splendid Space Ace fronted number 'Rocket Ride'. Good Bye doesn't quite scrape the firmament in the same way, alas. More production line hard rock with 'Before You Descend', which then gives way to a genuinely nice moment called 'Out To The Sea', sporting a fairly grand arrangement underscored by swelling Hammond organ surges.

The next track is the one that set me off, though - Flied Egg totally bin off all the rawk for a bizarre interlude called 'Goodbye My Friends', which feels like nothing more than a prank. Played on what might be a clavinet or electric harpsichord, it's like someone decided that what Good Bye really needed was a tribute to Engelbert Humperdinck or Tony Orlando and Dawn. Chintzy, schmaltzy, out of tune, it comes across like a Sacha Baron Cohen bit being played out for some hicktown unsuspecting rubes, but I think it's entirely done in earnest. It's altogether quite charming as a consequence.

Of course, Good Bye doesn't actually sign off with the 'so long, adieu!' ditty, because this ain't the summer of love, pal, so instead we're left with the '521 Seconds Schizophrenic Symphony' to remember Flied Egg by. It's divided into four movements, just like the most tedious Kansas tracks (or entire Gryphon albums), which each have their own flavour, I suppose. There's a quiet bit (nice acoustic guitar work, I concede), the bit with some cod-Bach organ work and a predictably pompous, bathetic conclusion, fizzy with the crash of cymbals and, called the 'Finale'. If you've ever seen the likes of Mountain work themselves up into a froth, you know exactly what this sounds like.

What else can I say? Flied Egg sound like they're going to be fun, but they're not. There's one good track on Good Bye ('Out To The Sea') and one very, very bad track influenced equally by Eurovision and your local supermarket's cheese aisle ('Goodbye My Friends'), and that's it. Don't buy this album, I won't enrich your life in any way. There's nothing more that needs saying, really. Good bye.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Over The Top - White Wizzard


Provenance: Another one bought solely due to a rave review in Classic Rock magazine.

Review: I feel like you're off to a good start if the figure of a leather-'n'-studs clad goat/skeleton/demon hybrid adorns the front cover of your album. No matter how much the actual music stinks, that's a statement of intent I can get behind. Plus the dude looks like he's enjoying himself, and I want to enjoy the White Wizzard experience too.

I feel like calling your album Over The Top is a smart move too, not only invoking a quality Motorhead track but also promising an embarrassment of headbanging riches. When compared with most other genres, heavy metal stands out due to its excesses - the extremes of speed and volume, the flamboyance of costumery, guitar solos spilling over into the realms of the ridiculous - so it feels as if the Wizzard are consciously tapping into that tradition of 'more is more'. Well, I had my fill of intimate minimalism last week - time for some all-guns blazing metal mayhem! Or so I hope...

I don't know what I was worried - the singer's name is Wyatt 'Screaming Demon' Anderson, fercrissake. About four different people are credited with taking lead guitar spots at various times. The songs have names like 'Iron Goddess of Vengeance', 'Strike of the Viper' and 'Death Race'. All of which, really, is a lot of shilly-shallying about to say that Over The Top properly whips ass.

I didn't know that the world needed tributes to Grim Reaper or Malice, but thanks to White Wizzard we've got them anyway. This album is the sound of people locked in a prison cell for ten years with only those aforementioned bands, the first three Iron Maiden albums and a smattering of Angelwitch, Riot, Dio and Tygers of Pan Tang to keep them company as their minds slowly sloughed off any and all residual notions of the 21st century. On Over The Top it is permanently 1983, everyone lives at Castle Donnington and the only materials available to mankind are denim, leather and chrome.

Which, by the way, sounds fucking sweet.

But of what experience do these minstrels hymn? Well, there's your demons of course, plus paeans to heavy metal (after rap, possibly the most self-reflexive genre?), the devil himself, travelling at high speeds, lightning, iron and a whole mess of fire (mostly rhyming the latter with 'desire', natch). More than once, the names of iconic metal tracks are tossed in there, such as the reference to Black Sabbath's 'Neon Knights' in 'Live Free Or Die', and the winking nod to 'Ride the Lightning' in 'Iron Goddess of Vengeance'. I see nothing cynical in this, nor any other endeavour on Over The Top. Rather, these guys just love classic metal, and take every available moment to celebrate the fact.

When I was at school, my Latin teacher (yes, yes...) once remarked that the great poets would pepper their works with allusions to myth and history as a way of flattering their patrons. If you were refined enough to spot them, you were 'in with the in crowd' as Bryan Ferry once crooned. I am choosing to also acknowledge each and every glimpse of Rainbow and Judas Priest in Over The Top in much the same way, greeting each one with a crinkling of the eyes and a knowing, beneficent smile. No, I am not reclining in my triclinium eating sparrow hearts and guzzling down garum like nobody's business, but I do have a pack of Maltesers and a Diet Coke, so the resonances can be felt, for sure.

Finally, I know that production is something I harp on about, but my poor sensitive ears have been assailed by too much mush in their time. You know what I mean - "quiet" songs that are never quiet, zero dynamics, clipping (one of the reasons I haven't reviewed Rush's Vapor Trails yet is that I don't want a headache); happily, this bad boy doesn't suffer from any of that. Firstly, there are no quiet songs - White Wizzard come hot out of the traps and don't let up, which is a-okay in my book. Secondly, in keeping with their fealty to the era of NWOBHM, I can actually hear separation in the voices and instruments! Yeah, it's loud and there's a touch of modern compression applied to the sound, but otherwise it's a pleasingly comforting old school racket these lads brew up.

Conclusion - Over The Top smokes, pretty much every track is a winner and if you like any of the bands mentioned in this review you'd be a dummy not to part with your geld. It's tough to pick a highlight,  but pumping my fist (typing with one hand, of course) to the "Six! Six! Six!" chorus of 'Strike of the Viper' feels mighty fine. On this release, White Wizzard innovate precisely nothing, but when your homage to a particular moment is so spot on, so lovingly rendered, and with such expertise, who cares? Old school for life. Take it eass'.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake

Five Leaves Left album cover
Provenance: I remember receiving this, plus Bryter Layter and Pink Moon as a Christmas gift. How I had suddenly developed Drakemania is altogether murkier; I can't recall being conscious of hearing Nick Drake at university (I was too busy getting into Hanoi Rocks), nor had I been radicalised by Volkswagen.

Given that the number of albums I own is comfortably into four figures by now it's becoming increasingly tough to pinpoint each eureka moment. Here, though, the likeliest culprit is Dotun Adebayo's 'Virtual Jukebox' show held deep into the night on Radio Five Live. It's not the first time I've been stirred from a semi-somnolent state by an arresting piece of music - I vividly recall the instance I first heard Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring', which, even with my radio turned down low, sounded like the monstrous awakening of some pagan god. 

Incidentally, I don't know if I'll have another chance to state this, but a couple of years ago I met Dotun Adebayo backstage at a Taj Mahal & Keb Mo' show, and had the opportunity to thank him for keeping me accompany through countless late nights. We wound up having a fairly lengthy chat, and I can attest to the fact that he's one of the finest fellows around. Of course, the 'World Football Phone-In' is a wonderfully idiosyncratic and colourful take on the beautiful game as played around the globe.

Weren't we supposed to be talking about Nick Drake?

Review: Coming from the same Britfolk scene as other luminaries such as John Martyn, Sandy Denny, John Renbourn and the rest, Nick Drake now looms as a big beast but during his own lifetime sold a paltry number of records and, by all accounts, was a useless live performer. As a keen reader of books and articles about the British folk revival movement (for anyone interested, Rob Young's Electric Eden is a great primer; and JP Bean's Singing From the Floor is as entertaining an oral history of any moment that you're likely to encounter), there is a definite sense that Drake was of the scene but not exactly part of it. His diffident nature and standoffish attitude to people he didn't trust (i.e. almost everyone) created a kind of static with Britfolk's other performers, who seemed a gregarious bunch and were very promiscuous in terms of performing on each other's projects. In a world where openness, community and collaboration were the watchwords, one can almost picture Drake huddled in a corner.

And perhaps it is this very quality that means Drake endures as a folk icon where others have faded from consciousness; for Five Leaves Left burns with an intense introspection. If you've ever experienced the discomfiting intimacy of someone leaning in too close to talk, you have some idea of the effect that Drake's music can have. The spell is broken somewhat on tracks with a degree of orchestration to them - the swelling strings of 'Way To Blue' and 'Day Is Done' allow the listener to step back a pace or two - but those songs where it's just Drake and his guitar (and perhaps a smattering of bongos - it was 1969 after all) can feel harrowingly personal.

Isn't this what we want, though? Don't we hope that the very best music jolts us away from the workaday and prosaic reality that most of us inhabit most of the time? Just yesterday I was listening to Jorge Ben Jor and, at his best, the soft pulse of his tropicalia rhythms enable me to dream myself away from the flinty rain of East Sussex. And so it is with Five Leaves Left, but in this instance I feel like I'm not in any geographical location that exists in reality, but in the dark meadows of a strange and sad land of the imagination. When John Martyn recorded 'Solid Air', a song about Nick Drake, he created a thick and woozy sound, a soup of indistinct fuzz that moves beyond words to capture the essence of Drake's music. Martyn sang that song in an exaggerated slurring manner, which again feels nothing more than a magnification of Drake's hushed and humble delivery, the opposite of the kind of declamatory holler that many folkies of the period preferred.

This, then, wasn't the voice of the rowdy ale-sodden basement club, but of solitary twilights and lonely bedsits. However, I wouldn't call this confessional music; yes, it sounds like Drake is trying to impart some inward melancholy to you (and only you), but what emerges lyrically is so opaque and elliptical that one is left with impressions rather than exactitudes. I believe that this is a source of Drake's endurance as an artist; no matter how many times you listen to Five Leaves Left, there's a sense that, once final track 'Saturday Sun' has slipped away from view, you still haven't quite grasped the whole picture. The vague sense of dread, the amorphous thought-pictures, the indistinct edges to Drake's music sum up to a cloud of unknowing, a feeling that there are further layers and mysteries to be uncovered. And who am I to state otherwise?

It seems churlish to mention album highlights - 'River Man' and 'Fruit Tree' are oft cited in this regard - because this is truly a collection of music to sit with, to absorb and to contemplate in its totality. Five Leaves Left is not an album I would ever listen to whilst performing tasks or chores, nor would I ever consider it wallpaper music. Such quietly powerful music, with the potential to transport you temporarily from the humdrum clatter of life, deserves the attention it quietly - but insistently - demands. 

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Carpe Noctem - Carpe Noctem

Provenance: In 2009 I took the most heavy metal holiday imaginable by visiting Iceland in midwinter. At a Reykjavik music shop I took a "when in Rome" approach to a mystery purchase and asked the owner for the bleakest, dankest material he had.

I kid you not when I tell you that the dude actually led me down into a basement (nice touch) to view the more extreme material. As it so happens, Carpe Noctem, a group of suitably grim Icelanders, had just released their debut EP; to purchase it felt entirely appropriate under the circumstances. 'Seize the night' sounds a little bit go-getting for black metal, plus the band name is unfortunately too legible to be truly brutal; still, it's what's on the platter that ultimately counts, and that's some solid cover artwork regardless.

Review: Venom and Electric Wizard a few weeks ago, and now Carpe Noctem? It's all metal all the time, baby! Yes, I've taken detours to the pop-moppetry of Judas Priest recently, and I reviewed the mass-appeal dancehall of everybody's favourite Gulf War veteran along the way, but it does feel like I've taken a distinctly metallic turn of late. Does this signify anything to do with my mood during this pandemic? Perhaps, perhaps. The thought of reviewing Ghost's plague-themed Prequelle becomes more attractive with each passing day. The sun shines, the sea glistens, but my heart is as dark as the charnel house.

So - to Carpe Noctem. This is the first EP I've reviewed on this blog, for the simple reason that I only own the one. I didn't even buy many singles as a young'un (though I do remember my first CD single purchase - 'It's Like That' by Run DMC vs Jason Nevins), preferring the long-form album format almost from the get-go. EPs always struck me as a strange halfway house, and in any case the vintage of the acts I like usually meant that EPs were included as bonus tracks when albums were inevitably given the ol' remaster 'n' reissue treatment.

Twenty-seven minutes of music, then - a long EP, or a short Ramones album. I think the first track is called 'Vargsfaeding' and it's very cool - howling winds, see-sawing slabs of guitar providing the riff and guttural ululations in what I take to be Icelandic, but might as well be elvish. You know when you watch a horror movie, and some cowled and horribly disfigured wizard is reading a spell from a book bound in dragonhide? That's what this sounds like, it's exactly that language. I half expected an army of skeletons to emerge from the floorboards after given 'Vargsfaeding' a twirl.

'Jotunborinn' is more of the same, except underscored with buzzing sixteenth note guitars and a rather martial sounding breakdown in the middle. One of the big pluses about Carpe Noctem is that, at least to this black metal greenhorn, there's a genuine sense of groove, and an acute understanding of tempo, the push-pull dynamics of 'Metamorphoses Maleficarum' proving a fine example. From little touches such as half-time percussion to full on psych-metal breakdowns really ramp up the tension to skin-tightening levels, making the blasts back into full-tilt savagery even more cathartic. The passage in 'Metamorphoses Maleficarum', that builds on a ghostly, reverb-drenched two-note guitar figure into a full on frontal assault is the highlight of this collection.

Final track 'Skalholtsbrenna' features more fun and games, this time alternating quiet moments with blastbeats in the introduction, plus it features one of my favourite aspects of metal - egregious use of feedback, as obnoxious as it is marvellous. Featuring spectral doom and orchestral soundscapes, it's another testament to what can be achieved through a few instruments, sheer willpower and the hoary might of the Icelandic language.

It looks as if Carpe Noctem are still a going concern, and all four guys on this EP remain part of the crew. If well-arranged, spectral black metal is your bag then these boys deliver, with interest. I'm also about to buy one of the two t-shirts they have for sale, because I want to look hip when finally allowed to go listen to a bunch of garage fuzz-merchants in some toilet of a venue in Brighton.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

British Steel - Judas Priest

Provenance: Having been inducted into the cult of Judas Priest by way of Painkiller, this way my second album. I guess I got this because it's considered a landmark album, containing as it does the relative commercial successes of 'Breaking The Law' and 'Living After Midnight'.

Review: I've spent much of the past week reading Rob Young's excellent chronicle of British folk music (and its mutations) Electric Eden, for which an attendant compilation was put together. Through this, and the magick of Spotify, I've been conducting something of a listen-along, and frankly I need a palate cleanser. I never need much prodding to revisit Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief album, but my patience has been worn thin by the likes of Oberon, the Round Table, John Renbourn and Dr Strangely Strange.

It's all fun and games for a while, and it has certainly enhanced my experience of the book; but there's a point where the tablas and sitars start to grate, and you're listening to yet another lysergically-tinted version of 'Nottamun Town'. Once they fey warbling and brushed acoustic guitars begin to fug your mind like a cloud of dragon's blood incense, you know it's time for a palate cleanser.

Thus, British Steel, an album that couldn't be more diametrically opposed to The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (good album) if it tried. Instruments are wielded like power tools, and in place of lilting, amorphous minstrelsy is a clenched ripsnorter of an album, delivered by men with ice chips for eyes and molten iron for blood. Spawned from the dark heart of the industrial Midlands, this album spews smoke and diesel as guitars and drums pound away to the jackhammer of beat of heavy machinery. The imagery is right there in the heads-down charge of opener 'Rapid Fire', with talk of furnaces, anvils and corrosion; the iron giant of technology sung into being. Also, the first lines sung (spat?) on British Steel are the following - "Pounding the world / Like a battering ram", a statement of intent that I don't think has ever been bettered.

In fact, so much of this album has the timbre and texture of heavy metal and heavy industry, you wonder why it took so long for Judas Priest to put it all together - it's more or less the same bunch of guys responsible for the cookie-cutter psych-blooz of Rocka Rolla after all. Certainly, Priest would toughen up their sound almost immediately - within a few albums they'd be onto the razor-sharp brilliance of Stained Class and Killing Machine, but British Steel is a different proposition altogether. Here, the songs are shorn entirely of any filigree or flourish, stripped back to the essential constituent elements of heavy metal, bar the odd siren ('Breaking The Law') or clanking of cutlery (yep, that's what provides the robotic stomp late on in 'Metal Gods'). Perhaps it was the back-to-basics kick-up-the-arse courtesy of punk that inspired this approach. Whatever it was, it's one tuff sounding record - no romance, no wistfulness, no wizards or demons; just laser-cut stompers with names like 'Steeler', 'The Rage' and 'Grinder'.

There's one fly in the ointment - 'United'. A friend of mine was once serenaded with 'United' from a toilet cubicle by the Viking Skull drummer as an example of why Judas Priest suck. Well, you can't blame Priest for trying for a big anthemic hit, having managed a top twenty with 'Take On All The World', a recent track in a similar vein. But, my friends, it blows chunks. 'United' slows the pace, and its rather sunny message of togetherness is at odds with the four blasts of pure aggression that precede it. However, in 2004, seeing Judas Priest in the Netherlands (Rob Halford having just returned to the fold) I sang along to 'United' like every other heavy metal maniac in that crowd. Apparently 'United' had been a minor hit in some parts of mainland Europe, and that's mercifully the only time I've seen them perform it live.

One interesting choice is that the greatest metal frontman ever, Rob Halford, hardly deploys his trademark banshee scream. It's hinted at towards the end of 'Rapid Fire', and he bothers the dogs now and again during 'You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise', but that's it. I wonder whether this was a conscious choice to fit in with the mid-range punch of British Steel's overall dynamics? I'm sure I can find it out via a quick Google, but it's Sunday afternoon and I can't be arsed. Anyway, as a consequence most of the vocals are delivered in a kind of mad-eyed bark, which resonates perfectly with British Steel's testosterone-to-the-gills, pedal-to-the-metal, she-cannae-take-any-more-captain ambience.

British Steel is by no means my favourite Priest album. Over-familiarity with some tracks, the lack of sonic variety and fucking 'United' all add up to a collection that's a notch or two below perfection. But when it does land its haymakers, boy does it connect. A consequence of Priest's back-to-basics approach makes the whole album very easy to play on guitar, and that's precisely what I did before sitting down to crap up this review. There's an unfettered joy to be had hammering out the power chords (the dominant sound on British Steel) to the likes of 'Breaking The Law', 'YDHTBOTBW' and my personal favourite, 'Grinder' - three minutes of gritted teeth and straining sinew distilled into song form, each note of the riff feeling like the winding of a clockwork mechanism already vibrating with tension. What a track. What an experience. And the guy who played bass in my last band has the temerity to call it boring!

So - compared with the likes of Screaming For Vengeance, Killing Machine or even later efforts such as Firepower, British Steel may sound a little monochrome. On the other hand, it possesses a focus and purity that is hard to deny, plus a boatload of excellent songs. Sure, a couple have been on every dad rock drivin' compilation for two decades now; but can you truly resist when Halford is stood there, bedecked in chrome and leather, revving the crowd up, bellowing into the microphone - "it's time that we were breaking the - what?! BREAKING THE FUCKING WHAT?!" Magic!!