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!!

Sunday, 28 June 2020

In League With Satan - Venom

Provenance: A guy at university wouldn't shut up about how important Venom were, so I caved and bought this two disc compilation to see what the fuss is all about.

Review: I guess that listening to In League With Satan brought home to me that importance is a slippery old concept to get a handle on. Venom are, arguably, very important to the development of heavy metal. Musically they influenced the nascent thrash scene, but on a more wholesale level could be said to have birthed black metal. Venom synthesised a host of their own influences - punk, heavy metal, Satanism, Amicus horror movies - into the fundaments of black metal, aesthetically, stylistically and thematically.

Venom were also, on the basis of this compilation, spectacularly awful.

It begs the question - just because an artist heralds a new movement within a genre, do we still need to listen to them? This, after all, was my imperative to check out Venom in the first place. I have no real l33t or kvlt credentials to my name (if we exclude In League With Satan I own perhaps three black metal albums) so maybe I am entirely the wrong person to attempt to peer through the auditory fog to try and identify what the chin-strokers see in tracks such as 'One Thousand Days in Sodom', 'The Seven Gates of Hell' and, perhaps the best title in metal history, 'Aaaaarghhh'; but to those who do tread along the Shining Path set out by the Lord of Lies, surely this also sounds like dogshit?

Yet there are people out there who love Venom. I recall waiting in line to see My Ruin at the Cavern in Exeter (what memories!) and falling into conversation with a chap in the queue. What started off as a fairly genial chat about rollercoasters descended to the point where he threw a punch at me (which I dodged, utilising a 'Drunken Master' defence style (NB: I was drunk)) because I made fun of Venom. More specifically, I made fun of the shrine to Venom he had set up in his flat, but the point remains - I may see Venom as heavy metal clowns, but my erstwhile opponent saw them as important enough to, perhaps, offer sacrifices in their name.

Despite my personal opinion that In League With Satan is a buffoonish parade of the ripest incompetence, I'll at least try to pay dues where earned. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin flirted with Satanism, but Venom really go all out - they are the bogeymen that housewives clutching their pearls to Kiss worried about. That in itself is quite fun, though if I were Old Nick, and this was the music I was allotted in the late twentieth century, I would go back to tuning guitars at the crossroads. The music itself does push towards what were the extremes of speed and volume at the time, but without the whipcrack discipline of Motorhead it often descends into a churning heavy metal gazpacho, which has its own strange charm. Bassist and "singer" Cronos is either a bonehead or the most mordant wit in the game; either way, his dumbass lyrics, when discernible, are entertaining enough.

I don't really know what else to say. There's a link between the production values on the material from first album Welcome To Hell (music journalist Geoff Barton memorably said it possessed the "hi-fi dynamics of a fifty year-old pizza", but went on to give it five stars) and the lo-fi approach cultivated by many subsequent black metallers, for sure. It's as if studio polish and distinct separation of instruments are part of the realm of fakery, representing yet another branch of metal's oddly explicit obsession with authenticity (think Manowar's 'All Men Play On Ten' and 'Death To False Metal', or the graphics in Nitro's O.F.R. release that suggested that not only were keyboards not used but moreover were entirely banned from the recording process altogether). Abhorrence towards sounding good seems rather precious and faintly ridiculous (to this Steely Dan fan, hyuk hyuk), but here again, I am almost definitely missing the point. You want to sound ugly, brutal and antisocial.

But do you want to to sound stupid?

Nonetheless, In League With Satan represents a triumph, of sorts. Venom found a sound and a look that stood out; they found a sympathetic label in Neat Records, also from the north-east of England, who championed their local scene, putting out landmark releases by bands such as Raven, Jaguar and Blitzkrieg. They rode that horse all the way home, smoke-bombing stages around the world to the strains of 'Genocide', 'Satanarchist', and 'Blood Lust', and gave a lot of angry Norwegian kids a blueprint for their own creative efforts. Not all bad, then...?

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Hot Shot - Shaggy

Provenance: I have no idea why I own a copy of Hot Shot by Shaggy.

Review: In some ways the most mysterious album in the collection, appearing out of the mist one day like Brigadoon. I didn't buy this - not a chance - and my ownership of it pre-dates meeting my current partner. So what happened? An errant possession of a past love? The flotsam and jetsam of a long-forgotten student party? A magical object which I need to listen to in order to complete an as-yet undiscerned quest?

Whatever it is, this marks the first time I've actually put Hot Shot in my stereo and pressed play. I had some ideas as to what to expect, as Mr Lover-Lover was ubiquitous during his 'Oh Carolina' and 'Boombastic' era, and later on with a few cuts on this joint, most notably 'It Wasn't Me'. What I was greeted with was a blast of pure turn-of-the-millennium pop.

First, everything is too loud (yeah yeah, "old man yells at cloud") and we've got sixteen whole tracks. We're back in the era of the Great CD Bloat, where every bit of compact disc real estate was taken up with music, inexplicable bonus tracks, anti-piracy tech and, in this case, videos! Just imagine being an excited teen back in 2001, looking forward to getting home with Hot Shot so you can slam it into your CD-ROM. A thrill that, sadly, many kids of today will never experience. That, and leaving a Napster download (of a single song) running all night only to find it's failed come morning.

Secondly, the was a monster, a runaway number one album, multi-platinum in both the UK and USA plus a slew of other countries. It also spawned two huge hits, 'It Wasn't Me' and 'Angel', assisted by Rikrok and Rayvon respectively, so one suspects there's something in the sauce. Sure enough, the two singles that proved so sticky at the top of the charts are impressive - 'It Wasn't Me' is a rollicking tale of infidelity, Rikrok's plaintive interpolations contrasting sweetly with Shaggy's monotone machine-gun rasp, whilst 'Angel' fuses the chorus of 'Angel of the Morning' to the strut of Steve Miller's 'The Joker' to rich effect. They're fun and hooky, and one wishes the rest of this album could consistently hit these heights.

No such luck. Opener 'Hot Shot' is a superb showcase for Shaggy's rapid-fire growl, and his aggressive peacocking here is much more appealing than the lightweight, and even slightly hesitant Shaggy that appears on much of the diet hip-hop and dancehall that makes up the album. It gets worse - sometimes he tries switching up his toasting into a strange sprechgesang style; let's just say that he's no Fred Schneider. Shaggy's voice is a unique and instantly identifiable asset, just not one that cleaves naturally to notions of bel canto. Exhibit A of this can be found on the track 'Not Fair', and I personally felt that it was 'not fair' that I've had to pay it any attention.

I will concede that the oddly melancholic 'Hey Love' has a peculiar charm, and one of the few times where humble Shaggy works; a nagging single-note guitar riff and distorted bhangra sample complete the confection nicely. Also, there's not a better chorus on the album than the one Samantha Cole provides on 'Luv Me, Luv Me' - probably the best track on here and the greatest soundtrack to a gender reveal party ever (what a donkey-brain idea though). However, Hot Shot is front-loaded with the decent stuff, and so past about track eleven or so you might want to give up, even though you're only two-thirds of the way through. Trust me, 'Chica Bonita' is every bit as shit as the song you have in your head; I might even prefer Geri Halliwell's 'Mi Chico Latino'.

Look, I don't wanna be too harsh. If Hot Shot wasn't an album for me back when I was sixteen, time and distance hasn't done anything to bend my sentiments in a favourable direction. In its favour, I will say that it's superior to the clutch of popsters of today cooing out jaded minor-key 'sad bangers'. And, at least, I can say I've finally given Hot Shot a listen. Give me another decade or so and I might spin it again.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Dopethrone - Electric Wizard

Provenance: Local heroes, innit? I've seen Jus Oborn at a few gigs in the Bournemouth area. One of my best friends was the one to really turn me onto 'the Wizard' though. Incidentally, he's had Jus in his garden (at a barbecue) and I haven't, so that's 1-0 to him.

Review: When listening to music of this kind, I often think of Rob Halford's claim that Judas Priest were the first metallers: "We were the first heavy metal band. Black Sabbath were before us, but there was always something of a dilemma about whether or not Sabbath were a heavy metal band" - a sentiment that Sabs bassist Geezer Butler agrees with.

In my estimation, Black Sabbath were the first heavy metal band - or at least, were responsible for the first fully realised heavy metal album. But that's not to dismiss Halford's assertion entirely; there is an intelligent case to be made for Sabbath as a continuation of a ponderous, doomy sub-psychedelic rock that first slithered into public view via the likes of Iron Butterfly or Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum album. Meanwhile, Priest took the snap and aggression of Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song' and Deep Purple's 'Fireball' and toughened them up with steelier guitars and banshee screaming. Inevitably over time these approaches would interact and cross-pollinate; probably the most perfect synthesis of both approaches, oddly, is a Black Sabbath album - Heaven and Hell - which saw Ronnie Dio fronting the band, his baleful roar energising the music much in the same way as he did on some of Rainbow's proto-power metal cuts.

All of which brings us on to Electric Wizard. If you're looking for synthesis on Dopethrone, buddy, you're out of luck. These fools are unreconstructed Sabbathists, taking the template of that august band's first three albums as the basis for their entire approach. Of course, there's a few tweaks made here and there - most notably the excising of the jazz 'n' folk interludes that Sabbath would indulge in - plus the addition of the occasional interstitial from some ghastly Amicus horror flick, much like fellow Sabbathists Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats. It's all of a piece, all the same aesthetic.

Where Electric Wizard distinguish themselves, however, is sheer enormity. Dopethrone doesn't so much emanate from your speakers as it does crawls from them, moving with the same pace and indomitability as a lava flow edging slowly towards the village in its path. I listen to every one of my albums I review for this blog at the same (reasonable) volume, but the sound conjured up here by Oborn and company is so overpowering that my stereo struggles to cope. Dopethrone is an album of extremes, and all the better for it.

Some bands, when they slow it down, plod. It's a demerit - I often think of the likes of Uriah Heep or Cream lapsing every now and again into a ponderousness masquerading as heaviness. Electric Wizard never fall into that trap, simply because what they're selling is true heaviness; it's the real deal. Every riff is the size of a house, every vocal distorted to remove any sense of sweetness, every bass note flanges off into a seismic white noise. Another great quality that Dopethrone exhibits is that noise is wielded as a weapon. This is truly music one submits to, whether it's the pounding opening of 'Vinum Sabbath' or the agonising, endless feedback drone that acts as a coda to the fourteen minute-plus 'Weird Tales'.

This is doom par excellence. There are bands that are slower (the dull Sunn O))) for one) and countless acts in the margins of the umbrella genre of metal who claim to go blacker, bleaker, perhaps even louder. Yet none have quite met the quaalude-shuffle weight of Dopethrone, at least not yet. Plus, any album with a track listing containing ditties such as 'Funeralopolis', 'I, Witchfinder', 'We Hate You' and 'Mind Transferral'. If this is the soundtrack to the end of the world, I want to be there.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Montrose - Montrose

Provenance: This is considered in some quarters to be the ur-text behind the whole Van Halen school of rock (and this lineup even contains a future member of that mighty band).

Moreover, it's generally thought to be a pretty sweet classic rock album by its own merits. Julian Cope loves Montrose (he's also a better writer than I am), and who is going to dispute a druid who made up his own Blue Oyster Cult compilation called In My Dreams or In My Hole?

Review: You know that in some of my reviews I can get a bit huffy about boneheaded, hairy-chested affirmations of masculinity? How I can be a humourless prig when faced with the lazy objectification of women? Well, that's all true, mostly - but when faced with such a monumental feat as Montrose I pretty much say "fuck that", break out my biggest Maltese Cross medallion and bellow along. "YOU'RE ROCK CANDY BABE - HOT, SWEET AND STICKY!!!"

This is it, boys. Here's how to do it. Sure, by the Taylorist mechanics of Robert Christgau's reviewing system, this gets a half-grade off for clocking in at thirty-two minutes, but why hang around when you've made your point as beautifully as this? Simply, Montrose is the best thing Sammy Hagar ever did, the best thing the late Ronnie Montrose ever did, and I'm going to say that even with their storied respective resumes, Bill Church and Denny Carmassi never kicked out the jams like this, before or after. I know Church played on Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey - and so what? Fuck that, Tupelo Honey doesn't have a song on it called 'Space Station #5'.

Montrose is hard rock boiled down to its most necessary constituent elements - drums, bass, guitar and hollerin', with precious little more added into the mix. It's what happens when you take the boogie elements of Grand Funk Railroad and the heaviness of Led Zeppelin but reduced them to their hard, glistening essentials. Shorn of the dopey plodding that many bands confuse for profundity, and drained of the self-regarding substrate of pretentiousness that undermines so much of Zep's output, we're left with a balled-fist of solid rawk, a battering ram of steely riffage.

All this goes hand-in-gauntlet with some great playing and zipped-tight arrangements. Nothing here outstays its welcome; in fact, Montrose barely has its coat off before it's time to go. 'Rock The Nation' is pretty much the keystone on the towering ziggurat of songs about rockin' out and having a good time ('We Rock' - Dio, 'Rock You Like a Hurricane' - the Scorpions, etc. - you get the picture, Jack). Have you ever seen the wonderful short documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot? That's it, right there - it's the spirit of 'Rock The Nation' made flesh and Aquanet. I like to think that, any time someone cracks a long necked bottle of beer in a car park somewhere, in the name of loud guitar music, they're channelling 'Rock The Nation'.

Plus! Plus! Have you ever heard such a good song about space stations? Yes, 'Space Station #5' implies four other space stations, but this is the only one that comes with a juddery riff and some of Hagar's finest hollerin'. I didn't hear it played once during that recent SpaceX/NASA manned mission. It's official - Elon Musk is too much of a nerd to blast Montrose into space. Do you reckon Musk has ever listened to Montrose? My guess is, 'absolutely not'. Well done mate, you might have blasted a couple of fellow dorks to the ISS, but have you ever downed a Pripps Bla in a Malmo car park? Once again, 'absolutely not'.

I once snuck 'Bad Motor Scooter' onto my student radio station playlist and got it aired one lunchtime. I didn't know what I was trying to achieve at the time, as I could've tried it with any track; only now is the clarity of purpose manifest. I needed a bunch of millennials to hear just how freaking it cool it is to make moped noises with an electric guitar. It's one of the dumbest songs out there - imploring the subject of the lyric to take what seems to be a lengthy scooter ride for the purposes of a booty call - but by god it's majestic. The engine humming noises under the guitar solo are badass and should be done more (sparingly, but more).

The only charge I can lay against Montrose is that its crystalline simplicity - no fussy drums, laser-cut guitars, vocals that cleave strictly to melody - opened the door for many more bands who got the message about paring everything down but forgot to bring talent to the table. I'd compare (please stop me) Montrose with a good Cormac McCarthy book. McCarthy distils English to a kind of singing purity, a form with such a brutal inner musicality that digression, exposition and even punctuation become superfluous. Montrose is its hard rock equivalent, only with less violence and more scooters. An essential listen for any serious rock fan (and what other kind is there?).

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Gaucho - Steely Dan

Provenance: By the time I had purchased Gaucho I was deep into 'the Dan'. So, it was the purchase of a fan seeking to be a completist. About the only notable thing one could say is that I bought it in Kansas City. Fine BBQ out there, folks.

Review: The first time I slipped Gaucho into my stereo I frowned, wrinkled my nose and stashed it away for a few years. Something about it triggered an internal revolt. I struggled to square this with the questing solos of Countdown To Ecstasy or the deep jazz grooves of Aja.

I'd like to say that my innate natural curiosity and generous approach to reappraisal led me back, but the truth is I saw Steely Dan in concert and heard a few of the songs from Gaucho played live. They sounded great. I came home and put Gaucho on, and heard the same songs as I'd heard at Wembley Arena. They sounded great.

This would be the last album Steely Dan made before splitting in 1981 (they would reunite in 1993 and record two more platters) and it shows. Two years after Gaucho, Donald Fagen would unleash The Nightfly onto the world, and to say that these albums could be kissing cousins is an understatement. The production is similar, the arrangements have the same feel and even the synthesizer textures are alike. One crucial difference - I liked The Nightfly the instant I listened to it. I didn't need time to let it grow, or to witness the compositions in another context. So what's the difference?

For one, drugs. This is Steely Dan's drug album - or, more accurately, their cocaine album. It's not just the references in 'Hey Nineteen' and 'Time Out Of Mind', concealed with a gossamer-thin layer of metonym and allusion; it's also the backbone to the vignettes in 'Glamour Profession', which delineates a few of the characters involved in the coke trade game. Moreover, it's not only the subject matter at hand but even the very consistency of the sound you're hearing that screams Bolivian marching powder. Surfaces shine with a flat glossiness, rhythms snap with a jaw-grinding lockstep, synths gleam and shimmer with an antiseptic chemistry.

At first, this is what turned me off. Even when factoring in Becker and Fagen's notorious perfectionism, prior albums still had a human heartbeat and the odd ray of romanticism glinting through the carapace of cynicism, obscurantism and wisecracks. Gaucho, in comparison, felt tired, numbed, a kind of end-of-the-party sourness creeping in.

Well children, I started to buy the particular brand of weltschmerz the boys were selling. Leaning in, I found oodles to savour. The slickness combines nicely with the subjects - narcotics, ageing lotharios, Hollywood homosexuality scandals, possible PTSD - into a sickly brew of L.A.-flavoured sleaziness. As a downbeat chronicle of a gilded demimonde and the lowlifes slithering around in it, Gaucho remains unmatched.

So wallow in the reflective degeneracy of 'Babylon Sisters'; wince at rueful narrator of 'Hey Nineteen' determined not to act his age; and luxuriate in the frothing monument to perceived folly that is 'Gaucho' itself, a confection that starts off sounding like the theme to a low-budget breakfast chat show and builds to a mock-epic tower of grandeur, each jazzy augmentation of the usual rawk 'n' pop chord progression tugging you ever so slightly off centre. I've heard interpretations of the song talking about gauche (geddit?) roommates or friends, but to me I hear two film buffs ruminating upon the secret homosexual lives led by movie stars like Rock Hudson, or maybe some minor player like Perfecto Telles. The latter wouldn't surprise me.

There's great stuff all over - the bleak 'Third World Man', which hitches a mournful, swaying riff to harrowing tales of shellshock, is apparently one of Joni Mitchell's favourite Dan tracks; and 'My Rival' is possibly the most old skool track on this joint, which sounds like a larky, Sunshine Boys-inspired tale of two geezers with beef, but might also be about fatherhood. That their songs wind, twist, reflect and elide like MC Escher illustrations is just one of the buzzy little thrills afforded to the serious Dan fan.

Gaucho took its time to reveal its charms to me. At first, I didn't really understand it. Now, it's the Steely Dan album that most frequents my stereo. Funny how things shake out, isn't it?

Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Allman Brothers Band - The Allman Brothers Band

Provenance: I don't know when and where I got this. As with a few other bands I've reviewed on this blog, owning an Allmans platter or two feels a bit like the 'done thing' for anyone who wants to be considered a serious rock guy (which I assuredly do - almost as much as I'd like to one day be considered a 'football man').

A couple of clues though; thanks to an ex-girlfriend I have a Molly Hatchet 'best of', which contains the track 'Dreams'; plus somewhere in my dad's Zappa collection is a live rendition of 'Whipping Post'. My esteem for both of these recordings may very well have tipped the balance when it came to making a purchase.

Review: Approaching the Allman Brothers feels like more than just an appraisal of a single album. For many, they are totemic of a time and a place; a group whose craft and musicianship hauled southern rock - mixing together blues, boogie, soul and country - out of the juke joint and into the arena. The Allmans, more than anyone else, broke ground on a subgenre that would catapult the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Black Oak Arkansas, .38 Special, Blackfoot, the Marshall Tucker Band and the rest into the rock-buying public's consciousness. Despite those they dragged in their wake, the Allmans were also sumthin' else - nobody played a sweeter slide than Duane Allman, or jammed out harder (witness Eat a Peach); and, save for the notable exception of Skynyrd, nobody rivalled the Allmans for the twin tragedies of early deaths and substance abuse.

So, to their debut - and it's easy to hear why they cast such a long shadow. Almost every ingredient that would season the successes of other southern rock acts is present - some took one or two elements, others would port the template across wholesale. There's the gospel organ, swallow-dive guitar runs, white soul vocals and a bedrock of blooze upon which the confection sits. In fact, about the only influence that isn't discernible in these boys from Macon, Georgia, is an overt country influence; certainly not when stacked up against a barroom weepy like Skynyrd's 'Tuesday's Gone', or the backwoods zen of Black Oak Arkansas's 'High 'N' Dry'.

In fact, on opening instrumental 'Don't Want You No More', 'Every Hungry Woman' and 'Black Hearted Woman', there's another flavour that seems incongruous; perhaps my ears are playing up, but I hear a lot of early Santana in The Allman Brothers Band. These songs are essentially interchangeable with cuts from the first two Santana albums, their self-titled debut and Abraxas; both 'Evil Ways' and 'Hope You're Feelin' Better' could grace this album without seeming out of place. You wouldn't blink at a touch of Latin rock or a smattering of congas (indeed, the latter are present on 'Every Hungry Woman'). This certainly sounds more like Abraxas than, say, Strikes or High on the Hog.

Is it good though? Ain't that the point of a review? Yeah, it's good. But fifty years of chesty white guys pumping the blues at megawatt volumes and spooging all over their fretboards has, alas, diluted the impact a little. Greg Allman is a fine vocalist, and his organ work really does take some of these tracks to church in an appealing way. Rhythmically it's all pretty interesting too, a jazz influence discernible in the drumming (the finest example can be found on 'Dreams') and nimble interplay between percussionists Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks (which doesn't always pay off). Nonetheless, of everything on here, it's the approach taken on 'Trouble No More' which has proved the most enduring - a big ol' sledgehammer that works well enough here but has spawned a thousand more workmanlike, leaden imitators.

At  least the juddery rhythms and soaring glories of 'Whipping Post' are still worth the price of admission alone. Yes, yet another song of a woman who dun him wrong (like, half the tracks here, goddamn - you'd think that stadium rockers playing to full houses of adoring fans never had any luck!) but it's a good'un. Better - it's a reet belter. Overall, worth a look - especially if you like Santana.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Angry Machines - Dio

Provenance: This one's a bit weird.

A few of my colleagues at work know I'm a bit of a metalhead; nonetheless I was surprised when a pal in another department emailed me to ask if I wanted eight Dio albums for free. Of course I did.

According to the people in that office, a ratty old carrier bag had been left lying around containing eight Dio albums for about six months. Nobody knows from whence they came or who might have owned them. I'm thrilled that a Dio fanatic may have been moving quietly amongst their ranks this whole time.

Anyway, my theory is that the late Ronnie James Dio sent them through a timewarp from an alternate dimension to round out my Dio collection. These holes in the space-time continuum are a bit fuzzy and offworld-RJD probably didn't realise I had four of those albums already (since palmed off to my brother), leaving me to enjoy the span of Dream Evil to Angry Machines releases, generally considered a fallow period.

And so boys, girls and friends beyond the binary, here it is - 1996's Angry Machines.

Review: My word, those machines do look rather peeved!

The whole deal with robots turning on their creators is not only bound up with their conception - the word, of Czech origin, was introduced into English via a play by Karel Capek called Rossum's Universal Robots, which ends when the robots, er, turn on their creators. This is a very cool and heavy metal thing to do, as some rockin' tunes have come out from this ceaseless conflict - Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man', Judas Priest's 'Metal Gods', a bunch of Clutch stuff, UDO's 'Man and Machine':

Dio - the man - is not usually associated with this kind of jazz. Or, more accurately, he's very closely associated with a particular strain of lyricism - magic, wizards, dragons, rainbows and such. This is also pretty metal, but also absolute nerd shit, so Angry Machines is a welcome swerve into unfamiliar territory. He does this with a slightly rag-tag band, borrowing bits of Dokken and Love/Hate alongside hard rock's very own Zelig, Vinny Appice, the Man of a Thousand Projects.

All the stars are here...Jeff Pilson...Vinny Appice...Tracy G...
But enough crap about robots and personnel, what's the muzak actually like? Long-time readers might be surprised that I listen to my albums more than once (or even at all), and I had Twitter opinions on Angry Machines over a year ago:

Yeah, I quite liked it. And I quite like it now. Listen up Jack, it's no Holy Diver (what is?), and it's not even in the same tier as Dream Evil (because that's got 'Sunset Superman', which rules) but Angry Machines is a perfectly decent metal album, albeit replete with the pinched harmonic guitar sounds that seemed to riddle the genre at the end of the last millennium (NB: this tended to be something 'legacy' artists adopted to sound legit, when they weren't doing shamelessly chasing the nu-metal bandwagon).

As with most Dio cuts it starts off on a plodder, but 'Don't Tell the Kids' is the most bitchin' tune about divorce (lol) I've yet to hear; the next track after that, 'Black', is even better, with a nagging vocal hook and pounding lockstep riffing. Really - as per my tweet - this is all pretty solid, even if the lyrics reach a new zenith in gibberish. I have listened to 'Double Monday' (huh?) more than most humans and I still haven't the first idea what it's about. Meanwhile, 'Big Sister' is a slapdash appropriation of Orwell's Big Brother, except the gender has been changed from male to female and...that's it. It doesn't go anywhere or explore any interesting potentialities that could occur from framing this universal overseer into a maternal figure.

Besides, who's listening to Dio for lyrics? You're in the game for natural minor riffs and that gigantic, operatic, hammy bellow that was RJD's unique instrument. I can even look past the fact that there aren't that many angry machines actually depicted in the lyrics. What fucking sucks, though, is the last track, 'This Is Your Life'. Ronnie can really deliver on a rock ballad when the fancy takes him - 'As Long As It's Not About Love' from Magica is superlative, whilst one of his efforts in Rainbow, 'Rainbow Eyes', stands as one of the greatest examples of the form. 'This Is Your Life', on the other hand, is garbage.

The production on Angry Machines isn't too bad - a little dry, as was the fashion, but not anything radically different from any other Dio release until that point. Odd, then, that 'This Is Your Life', a piece for voice, piano and baby's first Casio keyboard, sets my teeth on edge. For obscure reasons it sounds really clangy and even out of tune - as if close-miking Mrs Mill's beer-slopped old upright was exactly what the closer to Angry Machines needed. To compound matters further, Dio - man capable of great subtlety when required (seriously, check out 'Rainbow Eyes') - positively moos all over this shit. He sounds like a bison with a headache, and drags the song into fresh realms of atrociousness.

Yes, there are missteps - two(!) songs introduced by nursery rhymes, a breakdown in 'Stay Out of My Mind' that sounds like a Looney Tunes cartoon - but these are venial sins in the grand scheme of it all. 'This Is Your Life', however, is a real dud, even more soporific and tiresome than Michael Aspel ambushing some c-list 'sleb with a poxy red book. Put it in the bin. Still, Angry Machines is worth a listen, though keep that finger at the ready to stop the show after track nine. Why ruin a good time?

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Eskimo - The Residents

Provenance: My first exposure to the Residents came through the written word. I did not hear anything of theirs - consciously at least - until I was pushing copies of Commercial Album, Third Reich and Roll and Eskimo into my CD player. It's all quite shocking, and I recommend it.

What drew me to the Residents was their impishness, their experimentation, their readiness to subvert accepted conventions of recorded music, and not least of all, their anonymity (I am a sucker for artists who conceal their real identities, even if in one or two cases they have a very good reason to do so).

Another experience, quite apart from music or even music journalism, drew me towards Eskimo. A few winters ago I had the privilege of spending some time in Chicago, and looking for indoor activities my partner and I went to the Field Museum, a mega-sized cross-pollination of London's very own Natural History Museum and British Museum. One of the more striking rooms was the Native North American Hall, which contained fascinating exhibits of, amongst other things, peoples living in the Arctic north of the continent. Of these artefacts, it was the ceremonial masks that stayed with me - haunting, terrible, funny, grotesque, conveying more even within the stasis of a glass box than words could. When used within the context of ritual - combined with music and movement - these masks must have projected a rare kind of power.

Review: This is almost impossible to review as music. In some ways, I long for the simple certainties of Status Quo or Riot, for as unadventurous as they are, they exist in a recognisable template of blues-based western rock music. I've mentioned before now my struggles with writing about jazz, despite listening to a fair amount (and having Professor of Jazz as an in-law - embarrassing!). This is an entirely different kettle of fish - or should I say, putrefied walrus? Eskimo is nothing less than an attempt to tell stories of these Indigenous Peoples via the medium of sound effects, music concrete and garbled speech. Imagine, if you will, an attempt to take you through the One Thousand and One  Nights stories solely using the soundboard from The Sims games, and...well, you're not close to getting it, but marginally closer to where you were.

Not only was I not prepared for all the above, I also found I was supposed to do some fucking reading in order to benefit fully from the Eskimo experience. The liner notes point towards the Residents website - what, I wonder, were audiences doing in 1979? - and suggest "for maximum enjoyment, this album should be listened to with headphones while reading the literal accounts of what you hear. Eskimo should be played in its entirety. A relaxed state of mind is essential. Warm clothing or a blanket should be within easy reach." Hard agreement with everything there, including the seemingly tongue-in-cheek throwaway last sentence.

There's nothing quite like Eskimo in my album collection. Even Gryphon's weird attempt to portray a chess match via instrumental prog doesn't come close to the immersion that Eskimo engenders. Through little more than textures, rhythmic drumming and treated chanting the listener is thrust into the icy polar midnight of the far north. Great swirls of white noise are used as a backdrop to the action, an unceasing howl at the core of the narrative. Not a single instrument possesses any notional quality of warmth. Some of the effects are harrowing - the whirring of the harpoon in 'The Walrus Hunt', and especially the cracking of the ice by the water spout, brought into existence through magic by a vengeful shaman on 'The Angry Angakok', are thrilling.

Most of the stories told through Eskimo are bleak, or contain threat. 'Birth' involves a perilous journey to an ice cave and an uncertain fate for the new-born; 'Arctic Hysteria' portrays the looming madness of lives lived within white-out bleakness; and 'A Spirit Steals a Child' is plainly terrifying, riven with the cries of infants and dogs barking into the night. My nodding acquaintance with the Residents had given me a false notion that there would be some levity in Eskimo, but this is as flat-out nightmarish as anything I've ever heard. It is only at the end of 'The Festival of Death' that anything like music breaks out - a last glimpse of something hopeful, bespeaking perhaps renewal or resurrection, to punctuate this astonishing litany of menace.

A curious thing, then. One could almost make a case for Eskimo's inclusion into the 'World Music' genre (the most idiotic and patronising genre yet conceived), although it stands for almost the opposite of the po-faced WOMAD-approved definition. Eskimo also makes a mockery of a raft of black metallers before that genre even came into being; their LARPing around in Scandinavian forests hissing about pagan deities comes across as cartoonish when met with the unyielding terror of the Residents' own images of the north.

Once, in Iceland, I ate hakarl, rotting shark essentially - not too dissimilar to some of the food that the Indigenous Peoples of the north would've eaten (and may still do). It was disgusting, easily the worst thing I've ever tried to eat. But it was fun, right? I was in the comfy confines of a Reykjavik cafe, and the next day I was heading to a thermal spring to wallow around in. It's fun to pretend you're doing something daring, when in reality you're as far away from grim reality as one could be. Remarkable, then, that a pranksterish surrealist art collective from Louisiana can take you, over the course of thirty-nine minutes, one or two steps closer.