Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Unbreakable - Scorpions

Provenance: I've had the singular pleasure of being rocked like a hurricane on numerous occasions. Numerous occasions.

Review: It must have been a strange moment to have been a Scorpion in 2004. Twenty years earlier you were rocking the world like a hurricane. A mere fifteen years ago you singlehandedly brought down the Berlin Wall with the whistled intro to 'Wind of Change'. Just over a decade ago you still manage a US top thirty album with the awful Face the Heat. What next? Create some of the worst album art in rock history? But you've already done that. Metal bands now wear tracksuits and feature DJs and something called a 'Fred Durst'. So what do you do?

Well, if you're the Scorpions, you sort-of join the nu-metal crowd for about half a song. Then you go back to being the Scorpions.

So we start proceedings with a faintly embarrassing song called 'New Generation', which has an introduction that sounds like it was devised by someone who has never actually listened to nu-metal but is going to have a go anyway. There's a bit of static, and some disjointed vocals echo about the place before a big, crunching, down-tuned riff bursts through. However, unlike Alice Cooper's Brutal Planet the commitment to trying to keep up with the backward-cap brigade begins and ends here. The rest of the song unfurls to reveal itself as a mid-placed plodder with a children's chorus singing the outro. Ho hum.

And that's it. Because next track, 'Love 'Em Or Leave 'Em' (a sentiment born of the finest of sensibilities) could've come straight from Breakout. Thusly the tone is set for the rest of the disc, whose tracks all sound like the Scorpions between Lovedrive and the moment they put paid to Communism in Eastern Europe. The only discernible difference between Unbreakable and the Scorps' eighties output is the punchy digital production, a sound that I tend to dislike.

However, in this instance it sounds perfectly good. Partly, I think, because the Scorpions never had a really 'organic' feel to much of their material anyway. So if you don't really trade off on 'feel' or the ability to swing a beat in the first place, one can almost see the precision engineering of a Pro Tools production as a virtue, or at least a cleaving of style and medium. There has always been something slightly cold and mechanistic in the Scorpions' most successful stadium rock offerings, and foregrounding this aspect does the music no harm. The freeze-dried slabs of guitar that dominate Unbreakable are impressively tough, standing out in bold contrast to the muddy and ill-defined sound that seemed to prevail at the time.

But is it any good? Well, if you like the Scorpions there's no reason dislike this offering. Having tinkered with the formula on the preceding two or three albums, this one sounds reassuringly old school, 'New Generation' excepted. Common to many albums produced at the turn of the 21st century it's too long (the imperative to fill every minute of a CD seemed endemic at the time) and inevitably some filler creeps in.

That said, Matthias Jabs and Rudolf Schenker are reliably good at writing fist-pumping rawk choruses, ably demonstrated on 'Blood Too Hot', 'Can You Feel It' and 'Someday Is Now', even if the latter features an annoyingly trebly guitar pattern in the verse. Another bonus is that, at this stage, the years of hollering 'better get out of their weeeeee' had done nothing to lessen the power or presence of Klaus Meine's idiosyncratic vocals. He never sounds anything less than committed to the song, no matter how empty-headed or throwaway it may be. Even so, nothing can salvage the turd that is 'She Said', not even a 'don't walk aweeee'.

Amusingly, my version of the CD contained some kind of 'anti-piracy' technology that made it hard to copy to a computer at the time. A relic of the Napster age, one imagines, though a rather quaint attempt to command the waves in retrospect. The sleeve is also shiny, like a rare Panini sticker, and the centrefold photo depicts the band in a variety of leatherwear. Top entertainment all round, then.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Funk Beyond The Call Of Duty - Johnny 'Guitar' Watson

Provenance: I'm fairly sure it would've come through hearing Watson on one of my Dad's Frank Zappa records. You can hear him on 'Andy' and 'In France' (most prominently in the latter). It's also possible I heard him on one of the many blues compilations I bought as a teenager; he's certainly on a couple I own. I can't even remember the impetus behind buying this particular album. There's a (very) good chance I just liked the cover.

Review: Here's a guy. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson started his career playing jump blues in the 1950s. Later in the decade he recorded a riot in reverb and feedback called 'Space Guitar', and a personal favourite, 'Three Hours Past Midnight', featuring Watson's curious clucking guitar riding atop a sophisticated urban blues backing.

But Watson was never one to stick with a tried and tested formula, and so by the mid 1970s he's traded in the pompadour for an Afro, paid a visit to Iceberg Slim's outfitter and switched up his R&B sound for a sleek soul-funk. Such a wholesale reboot can often seem like a desperate betrayal of artistic principals in order to maintain a foothold on the contemporary scene, and it's traditionally been tricky for blues musicians. Here I'm thinking of Muddy Waters' 'psychedelic' adventure with Electric Mud, or Albert King's marginally more listenable I Wanna Get Funky, neither of which will go down in the annals as classics (though I recall a documentary made by Chuck D of Public Enemy wherein he declared Electric Mud to be a favourite; and I've already fessed up to being a big fan of Neil Young's Trans, so I've got form in the contrarianism department too).

Happily, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and funk were made for each other. It probably helps that he was an active and willing agent in this change of direction. Watson's natural facility for the genre suggests he actually listened to and appreciated the music, as opposed to being shoehorned into performing it by record label suits. It's also unsurprising that a man who was so pioneering with guitar sounds twenty years before Funk Beyond The Call Of Duty would relish the chance to play around with the expanded palette of sounds that funk orchestration afforded.

In terms of the sound, FBTCOD is closer to the lighter, lush funk of the Cate Brothers than the wigged out bass-heavy Parliament P-Funk noise. Alongside guitar, Watson helms a variety of keyboards and synthesizers, and these tend to operate as a bed for his singing and the unobtrusive horn arrangements. But what Watson really brings to the table is a huge dollop of personality. Every track is imbued with the irresistible Watson chutzpah; sly, bantering and humorous, it's hard to reach any other conclusion that he's having a shit ton of fun making this record, and as a listener you really want to join in.

The other joy is that FBTCOD is shot through with Watson's trademark guitar sound. You could put him through a barrage of amplifiers and effects pedals and he'd still be identifiable. His attack gives the game away; wiry, itchy, staccato, bereft of sustain, never staying in one place. There's also a quirky lyricism about his solos, guitar acting as proxy to the human voice - and on 'It's A Damn Shame' as if to hammer it homes, Watson scats along with his own playing (it's glorious).

Watson is good as a soul troubadour on 'Give Me My Love', but even better as a rueful, witty street philosopher on 'It's A Damn Shame', 'Barn Door' and the superb 'It's About The Dollar Bill' ('If you wanna buy chinchilla / It's a pocket killer-diller' is advice I'll treasure for the rest of my days). Whilst FBTCOD isn't an album that will be top of anybody's list (aside from Chuck D's, perhaps), it's never failed to tug on the corners of my mouth whenever it gets an airing. Billion dollar idea: the next title in the Call of Duty video games series should be called Funk: (Beyond the) Call of Duty. That's as far as I've got in terms of detail, but it's surely got to be better than larking around in space like Roger Moore's stunt double in Moonraker, right? 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Cunt Machine - Yellow Discipline

Provenance: For many years a rather unsettling poster named Yellow Discipline lurked the Metal Sludge forums, emerging from the shadows to occasionally to communicate something weird or unsettling. The man obviously had some strange peccadilloes, notwithstanding his penchant for giving himself full-body paint makeovers.

Yet it took a Metal Sludge song competition to fully reveal the hidden talents of Dead Billy, Ohio's most infamous son. Poking out like a severed limb amidst the fluff rock and pop-country was 'Lollipop', which wormed its way into your ear with the repeated refrain 'Kissy shy, shy / Oooh, kissy kissy shy'. Sadly the YouTube video is no longer available but you can hear it using Last.fm and I recommend it thoroughly.

If that wasn't enough, shortly thereafter in 2011 Yellow Discipline announced he had finished his first album, Songs About Hatefucking, and that he'd distribute it to his fellow Sludgers upon request for free. The album was great, and three years later he repeated the gesture with his sophomore effort Cunt Machine. Yellow Discipline remains a murky and mysterious figure to many, and even though I think I may know his name, I am both grateful that he's maintained his creepy mystique and that there's an ocean and a great deal of land between us.

Review: One of the defining aspects of outsider music is that it tends to be created by loners, or at the very least, solo performers. Although the Shaggs are a wonderful exception to the rule, most outsider endeavours shine because of the singularity of vision and purpose, irrespective of how odd the execution may be. And here we have one that shines very darkly; one would be careful to throw around a word like 'execution' too carelessly. The liner notes say all songs were written, recorded and performed ("at night") by Yellow Discipline, and instruct us to admire at maximum volume. At least he's moved from Dead Billy (not a real place, by the way) but to Akron, Ohio, albeit the address given is 52 Bukakke Holocaust Drive.

Now, here's the damndest thing. If Yellow Discipline could somehow reign in his unruly id he could be the next Desmond Child. It isn't just hipster contrarianism when I say that Cunt Machine is one of the catchiest albums I've acquired in the last fifteen or so years. The wrinkle here is that instead of sappy love songs, Yellow Discipline writes death disco about setting a girl's face on fire. His songs are better than anything Child or Linda Perry and their ilk have ever been able to conjure up, but their success may partly due to the fact that they don't write songs called 'Rape Whistle' or 'I, Pervert'.

This is as good as it gets for someone toiling alone in their sex dungeon. Yellow Discipline doesn't have a great voice in the traditional sense but treats it with effects to make it sound weird and disembodied. The hooks are massive, courtesy of punchy guitar work and spooky keyboards playing repetitive but catchy riffs that bury themselves into your cerebral cortex like a splatter-movie hatchet. 'Little Girls', 'Cunt Machine' and the aforementioned 'I, Pervert' sound like White Zombie if they were recorded by the ghost of Joe Meek. There is one slow song, 'Naughty Girl', but the almost pastoral tambourine and acoustic guitar are offset by a keening, asphyxiated keyboard riff. Of course, the lyrics are also pretty grim, and just in case you thought you were listening to Caravan for a moment, as the music dies down you're met with a strangulated 'fuck you all', close to the microphone. Close to your ear.

But my goodness, you can even dance to this stuff. 'God's Gift' is the best song Billy Idol never recorded, and will never record, because the chorus is 'Yellow don't fuck me mellow / Yellow pretty please / Turn my pussy to jello'. Almost as brilliant is 'Love Letters In Blood' - a rollicking, slippery horrorcore toe-tapper (sample lyric: 'Every demon in this town / Screams without a sound / Just like our love'). Honestly, it's absolutely fantastic. The whole damn thing is a triumph, a sick, violent, messy triumph, and it's the real thing. We're not talking the sleazy demimonde of early Ultravox! or the writing of Hubert Selby Jr - this is the stuff the guy in the sex shop goes out the back to retrieve. This is the album that's most likely to be called 'exhibit A' in a court proceeding.

Who knows? Perhaps Yellow Discipline is like Alice Cooper, attending Bible study and playing golf on his days off. Very few musical bogeymen endure without the mask slipping - when I was growing up, Marilyn Manson was the ghoul parents were most afraid of, but the God of Fuck turned out to be a geek who couldn't wait to show up in Sons of Anarchy. The truly subversive, it could be argued, never make the mainstream in the first place - and that's why mention of GG Allin will draw blank expressions from most people. As Yellow Discipline chooses to be elusive it is no difficulty to maintain this persona of arch-pervert for his mostly online fanbase - if, indeed, Yellow Discipline is a work. I'm not so sure. If it is, I have to admire his conviction. When he's singing his sado-sexual gutter poetry, there's an evident intensity - almost an ecstasy - in the quavering voice, a palpable relish at enunciating every one of his fell desires.

At one point a fair bit of Yellow Discipline's work was on YouTube, but for one reason or another has been removed. You can, however, hear both Songs About Hatefucking and this one, Cunt Machine, on Spotify. Sweet dreams.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Black Tiger - Y&T

Provenance: It's May 2003, my brother and I are at the Monsters of Rock concert at the Bournemouth International Centre. Headlining is Whitesnake, Gary Moore is also there with his power trio but the first band on is a bit of a mystery to us. Who are Y&T? Neither of us were even alive the last time they had played in the UK.

Suffice to say that Y&T answered the 'who' question emphatically with a blistering set. During 'Open Fire' I recall turning to my brother and seeing him give a little nod and a smile. I nodded back. No words needed. We both knew it meant that these hombres were the real deal.

Thirteen years later I'm about to go and see Y&T play in London for what is maybe the tenth time, spread out over three countries, taking in festival shows and their now-frequent European tours. I go back (dragging along friends and family alike) because not once have they ever put on a bad show. The energy has never dipped. I've seen them play mid-afternoon in bucketing rain (Sweden Rock Festival) and deliver the same performance as they did at my favourite ever Y&T show (since you asked, 2009 at The Brook in Southampton; intimate venue, great sound, vocal crowd and we were right down the front). Go see them if you ever get the chance.

Review: More hard rock bands should do the whole 'bombastic instrumental intro' thing. It worked for Judas Priest on Screaming For Vengeance and it works here on Black Tiger. On record it's pretty cool, but live it's a cue for everyone to lose their shit because they know a) Y&T are about to hit the stage and b) you're about to hear 'Open Fire', one of the great full-tilt hard rockers. Everyone should hear it live at least once in their life.

Y&T began in the mid 1970s but by the time 1982's Black Tiger rolled around they had perfected the sleek, high-energy stadium rock sound that became their calling card. The ace in the hole was frontman Dave Meniketti, a true triple threat as singer, lead guitarist and latterly principal songwriter (all songs on Black Tiger are credited to the four band members). Although a fine vocalist with the ability to holler above the maelstrom of noise, Meniketti is one of the forgotten guitar heroes of the era. Pitched somewhere between the aggression of Riot's Mark Reale and the melodic approach of Journey's Neal Schon, Meniketti's soloing throughout the album is always a joy to behold, by turns lyrical and pyrotechnic.

And then you've got a clutch of songs that could define early 1980s hard rock. Alongside 'Open Fire' there's the grooving 'Don't Wanna Lose', live staple 'Forever', the crunching title track and the anthemic 'My Way Or The Highway'. The cumulative impression is of a band all pulling in the same direction, creating a remarkably balanced and consistent set of songs that could've easily been played front to back in a live setting. Oh yeah, they've also got a ballad called 'Winds Of Change' that's better than the one put out by the Scorpions.

In short, Black Tiger is a very good album. They also play half this stuff live and do it very, very well. As enjoyable as their material is when listened to in private, for me it really comes to life after a few beers in a room full of punters with the amps up high. Yes, another call to go see Y&T live - because if any band deserves your bunce, it's these chaps.

It is slightly sobering to look at the credits and realise that half of the lineup that recorded Black Tiger are no longer with us. Hearing of Phil Kennemore's passing in 2011 was a real shock to me. He had been, alongside Meniketti, an original member and looked every inch the rock star - legs akimbo, shirt unbuttoned to the navel, the man oozed charisma and looked strong as an ox.

Adding to an already crap 2016, last month original tub-thumper Leonard Haze died at the age of 61. I remember him swinging away at the Bournemouth show with fondness, and always appreciated his credits on the Black Tiger album: 'drums, percussion, mayhem'. The best way to remember the man, I should think.

(On a lighter note, I am a fan of non-musical credits. For a very brief moment during my university days I filled in with a black metal band. Their (unlistenable) EP contained the immortal credit of 'keyboards, synthesizers, stewardry of the forest'.)

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Nintendo: White Knuckle Scorin' - Various Artists

Provenance: Reading an article about Roy Orbison, I chanced across a peculiar little factoid: that the first time his version of 'I Drove All Night' appeared on compact disc it was as part of a concept album / compilation put out by Nintendo called Nintendo: White Knuckle Scorin'.

Having investigated further, I felt I had no other recourse than to get hold of a copy. After all, who could resist a 1991 album that strings a Mario 'n' Luigi story together with songs by such hip young gunslingers as Crosby Stills & Nash, Dire Straits, Jellyfish, Flesh For Lulu, Trixter and 'the Big O'?

Review: Before I get going on the music I feel some kind of exposition is necessary. For reasons perhaps known only to executive producers Ken Kushnick and David Passick it was felt necessary to try and mirror the experience of playing the Super NES title Super Mario World through the medium of concept album. And by concept album, I don't mean the stuffy obscurantism of the Alan Parsons Project or David Axelrod; what the kids want is an almost incomprehensible narrative (written in startlingly chauvinistic language) punctuated by ten songs by hair metal bands, a dead man, and your dad's favourite West Coast folk harmonisers, none of which bear any relation to the storyline.

Actually, I'm being slightly unfair as the first track, Jellyfish's 'Ignorance Is Bliss', was written specifically for this project. So that's only nine entirely random tracks. Perhaps the remainder are supposed speak to the rich inner life of the humble plumber Mario?

We live in an age where computer games are played by everyone, on multiple platforms. This being the case, perhaps it was inevitable that debates about portrayals of women within games (and sexism within the industry itself) would occur, and that they were long overdue. Case in point: judging by what was deemed releasable in 1991, I would suggest that the creators of this album guessed that the only people playing computer games at the time were creepy hormonal boys. Barely a reference to Princess Toadstool goes by without mention being made of how 'hot' she is, or how her 'dynamite bod' is being imperilled. Saying that, given the technological limitations of the age I can't decide whether this attitude is more more puzzling than problematic, given that this pre-Lara Croft pixellated lorelei appeared on most screens as an almost amorphous pink blob.

Screw it, let's get back to talking music.

I love Jellyfish but had to face down my own trepidation at how they would handle a commission to write a song about Super Mario World. After all, this kind of thing has hardly been the wellspring for great art. I shouldn't have worried - we're talking about bona fide power-pop genii here, and I can confirm that their madcap polka from the perspective of King Bowser, 'Ignorance Is Bliss', is utterly brilliant. Without resorting to the 8-bit bleep palette of noises it somehow manages to sound in places console music whilst retaining that technicolour baroque flavour unique to Jellyfish.

Subtract the Mario 'n' Luigi caper and the first half of the collection is, in fact, very fun and listenable. Crosby Stills & Nash's 'How Have You Been?' is gorgeous, 'I Drove All Night' is majestic to the point of bombast and features one of Orbison's great late-career vocal performances, and even Bombshell's 'Magic In The Night' holds up well as a relic from the hair metal era, a big ol' chugger that sounds suspiciously like Vixen recording under another name. One of the album's true highlights comes courtesy of Dire Straits with the pensive, minimalist 'Iron Hand'. It's also another head-scratcher as I'm pretty damn certain that it's about the Battle of Orgreave.

However, once we've bypassed the strange meshing of mining strikes and Super Mario the quality dips a little. Alias' 'Into The Fire' is a good take on the arena ballad style perfected by Tesla, whilst 'She Was' by Flesh For Lulu is goth filtered through a Madchester sensibility. However, 'Line Of Fire' by manque hair metallers Trixter could almost serve as a manifesto for why grunge had to come along and drive a stake through the scene's glittery, Aquanet-infected heart. Things pick up with Britny Fox's 'Turn On', a catchy cross between Brian Johnson AC/DC and Judas Priest's 'Wild Nights, Hot Crazy Days' but then take a nosedive into the charnel depths of the Mariana Trench with Sheena Easton's 'Forever Friends'. I can't be bothered to describe the track, save to say that it's shit. Evidence.

I like the fact that somewhere in time, somebody thought this album should exist. I like most of the music. By the same token, I can clearly see why this concept never took off. Who the hell did MCA and Nintendo think this would sell to, other than idiots such as myself? A clue about its conception lies in the sleeve notes, as the album is dedicated to musical agent Bobby Brooks, who died in the same helicopter crash that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan. Was this his last project? Are his idiosyncratic tastes reflected in the song selection? From the sleeve notes alone the answers remain tantalisingly out of reach.

It feels like the fallout from a period where record companies sensed that there was something to be monetised in the world of video games and were throwing mud to see if anything stuck. Still, like I said earlier, it's fun, and there's not enough of that in the world right now (NB: to aliens from the future or whatever who might be reading, and who may not have a sense of Earthling irony, I was joking earlier - 2016 wasn't that great).

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Destroyed - Sloppy Seconds

Provenance: I have wasted a lot of time on the Metal Sludge Gossip Board, a butt-rock forum that is nevertheless indirectly responsible for my marriage. It was also directly responsible for the purchase of this album, based solely upon the passionate advocacy of one board member (sorry, can't remember who) on a thread about greatest punk rock albums.

Review: Destroyed starts with a lengthy quote from a John Waters film which segues into a song called 'I Don't Wanna Be A Homosexual'. It sets the tone for an album whose main concerns are sex, junk food, B-movies, puking and under-age pornographic actresses. That is pulls it off with wit and panache is incredible, considering that almost every song has been fine-tooled into a laser-guided offence missile.

It's also my favourite punk rock album. Ever.

As a left-leaning liberal type (NB: for my American readership, I'm essentially a communist) I feel that I should find kinship with something more progressive, or conscious, or at the very least less puerile. I've tried, believe me. But my iPod, which doubles for my car stereo, tells me that Destroyed is one of my most frequented albums, second only to Accept's Balls To The Walls. I've tried the Clash, the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Dead Kennedys, Propagandhi and more - and enjoyed them - but nothing has come close to this puke-spattered masterpiece in terms of sheer unadulterated fun. If I'm on a long drive, Sloppy Seconds are my guys.

Why? Because it's great to be speeding along the motorway yelling to the gang vocals of 'So Fucked Up'. Or just waiting for the payoff line about masturbation in 'Runnin' From The CIA'. Even the two covers on my version - John Denver's 'Leavin' On A Jet Plane' and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's 'The Candy Man' are brilliant shout-alongs. As an added bonus, 'Janie Is A Nazi' is easily my favourite rock song that references National Socialism (it's a short list, but it managed to knock 'Chain Lightning' by Steely Dan off top spot (which is definitely about the Nuremburg rallies, screw any other interpretation)).

Sloppy Seconds do two very simple things very well on Destroyed - marry clever, funny lyrics to instantly hummable melodies. That they achieve the philosopher's stone of pop songwriting on practically every cut is remarkable. And it's not all nihilistic stoopidity; both 'Black Roses' (about abortion) and 'Veronica' (suicide) are surprisingly plaintive, and the latter reveals a degree of pathos and vulnerability not found elsewhere on the album.

The other songs that stem from a wellspring of spite are also interesting - 'Germany' is a bizarre, hilarious revenge fantasy, 'Blackmail' is a decidedly un-PC litany of misdeeds and 'If I Had A Woman' is the snotty cousin to Ian Dury and the Blockheads' splenetic 'If I Was With A Woman'. Incidentally, I don't think either song serves to do anything other than highlight the inadequacy and fragility of male identity, both being so nastily misogynistic in tone that only the most demented Men's Rights Activists could approve.

However, if forced to sum up Destroyed in one word, I'd have to return to a word used earlier on: fun. Every trick bubbles with a lusty vim and gusto, each new depravity or excess gleefully delineated by B.A. (vocalist, credited as 'yells' on the liner notes) over buzzsaw bubblegum guitar (played by the magnificently monikered Ace Hardwhere?). To give you an impression of how addictive and infectious it is, Destroyed is one of the very few albums I can hit replay from the beginning as soon as it's finished.

Probably the most perfect distillation of puerility I've heard on record, and all the better for it. If you agree with me life can all too often resemble a verse from Supertramp's 'The Logical Song', too po-faced and serious by half, then this is your doctor feelgood. You can't convince me that shouting along with 'to stop this pandemonium / We're gonna blow 'em up with sodium' (surf-punk ghoulfest 'The Horror Of Party Beach') while careering down the M27 isn't going to be the highlight of my day, or yours for that matter.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Recycler - ZZ Top

Provenance: When I was in my teens my mum worked in a local library. Every now and again she would bring home a cassette tape that had been removed from the collections because they had some minor damage (but were otherwise listenable). One such tape was ZZ Top's 1990 album Recycler, and if I recall correctly there was a second or two worth of 'Burger Man' that had been chewed up. I found this tolerable.

Review: This is a peculiar one, because I find Recycler - as a collection of music - to be a mildly entertaining rock album. However, in a wider context, this could be the madeleine cake of my mid-teen years - a time where I played football everyday, played computer games with friends whilst sat on inflatable chairs and dreamed of one day being able to play '20th Century Boy' on guitar. Recycler may be a strange avatar for a very happy time of my life, but it's impossible to divorce the music from the moment, so attempting anything like a fair-handed stab at a review is unlikely.

A constant and welcome part of my life at the time was my pal Chris, who lived down the road from me. We walked home from school together, played in the same Sunday league side, and would watch WWF wrestling - followed by VH1's rock show - round his place on a Friday night. I'm dragging Chris into discussion of this album, because at the time he was probably the world's biggest Metallica fan, a band I can't help but think of when considering where ZZ Top were in their career when Recycler was released.

Firstly, ZZ Top and Metallica both enjoyed early acclaim with distinctive genre albums - Tres Hombres and Deguello for the former, Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets for the latter. Both then made a big play for commercial success with idiosyncratic and innovative-sounding albums that alienated the hardcore but scored big on sales - Eliminator for the Top, Metallica for, well, take a guess. On that basis, in terms of popularity and career trajectory, Recycler is ZZ Top's Reload. Even the names are faint echoes of each other. But is that fair?

On the one hand, Reload doesn't contain anything like one of my top five Metallica songs, but I'm an absolute sucker for Recycler's lead-off, 'Concrete And Steel'. As a statement of intent, it's a doozy - slabs of guitar, throbbing bass and a fat, chunky sound, the aural equivalent of a coal-rolling monster truck. And it's not that 'Lovething', the next song, is too bad either, probably because its electro-chug hasn't quite worn out its welcome. Unfortunately, that can't be said for succeeding tracks, with ZZ Top wedded to the sequencer to such an extent that you're dying for some kind of rhythmic variation. It's a straight four to the floor, mostly mid-paced (yes, they speed it up! And slow it down!) and devoid of any frills or, indeed, fills. I'm not expecting a polka or what-have-you, but would it have killed them to have done something in shuffle time?

The overall effect is that Recycler becomes a bit of a trudge. With such little variation in either conception or execution, I find that an album central to my formative years is inescapably, and regrettably, a bit boring. Yet I played the shit out of this.

There are tantalising glimpses of an album that is much better than the Recycler that saw the light of day. 'My Head's In Mississippi' is a nasty boogie pitched somewhere between George Thorogood's 'Bad To The Bone' and ZZ Top's own 'Tush', but lacks both the dirt and vitality that drive those two - superior - precursors. 'Burger Man' bounces along nicely enough but is full of lazy, crap innuendoes neither inventive or weird enough by ZZ Top's standards to pass muster. '2000 Blues' sounds like another run at the formula that worked on Eliminator's 'I Need You Tonight'. Again, whereas the earlier track was a slow-burn, neon-flecked ode replete with sadness and regret, '2000 Blues' is just a slow song featuring some Miami Vice blues-bends.

At least the album finishes on a high - we're at 'Doubleback', and it sounds like the guys have snapped out of a collective bout of somnambulism. It's the cousin to 'Concrete And Steel', and has a real humdinger of a chorus, even if it doesn't quite carry the same heft. However, common with all the tracks on Recycler, is that there's not a single memorable Billy Gibbons guitar solo. Gibbons is one of my favourite stylists on the six-string and, especially during the 1970s, would squeeze out some of the smuttiest, sleaziest sounding lead breaks. He had the best guitar tone, too. The best. Here, it's dulled, processed, covered up with whizzbangs and altogether too mannered for it's own good. This element of the music alone stands as an avatar for my wider impressions, which is that Recycler represents both a missed opportunity and an inability to exploit what made ZZ Top so damn listenable in the first place.

Still a hundred times better than Reload though.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Christopher Cross - Christopher Cross

Provenance: The first time I knowingly encountered the work of Christopher Cross was through a Saxon album that was, somewhat incongruously, for sale at a university bookshop. The song in question was, of course, their cover of 'Ride Like The Wind', which I considered a highlight.

The next time I really zeroed in on a Cross composition was when I encountered 'Sailing' in this episode of the always-excellent Channel 101 series Yacht Rock. For those unaware of Yacht Rock, I urge you leave this blog immediately and do something truly worthwhile, ie, binge watch the series on YouTube from start to finish. Please come back though.

Review: For all my heavy metal posturing (yeah, I saw Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper this weekend), I really do love a bit of gleam and polish every now and again. I don't mean the flat, clippy, mechanically precise products of the Pro-Tools generation. However, give me a touch of pop sophistication, a dash of craftsmanship and perhaps Michael McDonald doing backing vocals and we're talking. Hall and Oates, Supertramp, Boz Scaggs (come on guy, 'Lido Shuffle' is just about perfect), Cate Brothers, Toto - these are my people. I prostrate myself at the altar of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and Steely Dan continuously vie with Blue Oyster Cult for the laurels of the coveted 'my favwite band evah' award.

Oddly, my enjoyment of the yacht rock genre (such as it has been called) means that I might actually be cool for once in my life, as this rather excitable and confused apologia argues. I don't buy it. Virtually every popular music genre undergoes a process of reappraisal at some point or another, with contemporary artists hip to the cause paying tribute in their work. All trends, including those that ride a wave of retro-nostalgia, eventually wane, leaving behind their artefacts for subsequent generations to (re)discover. Put more simply still, there's some enduringly great yacht rock out there. And I reckon that Christopher Cross is amongst the best.

You may have heard the story of how the formerly unheralded Fleetwood Mac roadie came from nowhere to sweep the 1980 Grammy Awards. Have you listened to the album recently? It's disgustingly good. Almost too pretty. There's not a hint of grit or a rough edge in sight. From start to finish it's like gorgeously delicious caramel is dripping from your speakers; you want to gorge on the almost too-rich sound. You've got Cross' soaring, strangely disembodied voice. You've got 'tasteful' brass parts. Lush arrangements. Congas. Hooks. Michael McDonald. Don Henley (the Eagles), J.D. Souther, Larry Carlton (Steely Dan), Victor Feldman (loads of people, plus Steely Dan) and Eric Johnson (Eric Johnson) all lend a hand too but the real mustard, as any fool knows (or believes), is a Michael McDonald backing vocal.

I don't think I'm being unfair when I say that Christopher Cross is a vacuous record. I'm not ascribing any negative connotations to that quality, as this is all surface; a pearlescent, refulgent surface, glowing pink and orange in a Malibu sunset. And that's not to say that Cross is a crap lyricist or anything. In fact, where Cross triumphs is the marriage of some fairly cute, albeit standard, sentiments about love (found, lost or unrequited) with the perfect musical accompaniment. Thus 'Poor Shirley' never sounds mawkish, and 'The Light Is On' is sketched with just enough mystery and apprehension, not to mention a superb chorus, to help it over the line that separates genius from stupidity.

As an aside, I should mention that my CD contains a quote from Mr Cross himself, recreated here in full because of its utter superfluity:
I'm a very nonpolitical and nonintellectual lyricist. But people have so many demands on them already in their lives. I'm just trying to give them a little enjoyment and relaxation.
Seriously Christopher, there is nothing - nothing - remotely controversial on the album. Nobody is confusing you with Billy Bragg or Skrewdriver. Nobody is going to start a white supremacist group after listening to 'Sailing'. The only time Cross sounds vaguely pugilistic is on 'Ride Like The Wind', a soft rock classic, featuring the wimpiest man in the world boasting about having a gun and never going to church. The final flourish is the soulful, doleful 'Minstrel Gigolo', sketching a seemingly enviable life of adulation but sung in the manner of a man down to his last pina colada, chalk-blue sports jacket slung over one shoulder. It is, as with everything else on the record, immaculate. Essential.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Way Out - The Books

Provenance: This isn't really my album, but my partner's. However, as with all CDs in our dwelling, it has been subsumed into the collection in much the same way as 'the Blob' enveloped a small town in Pennsylvania. That was a good film, wasn't it? Anyway, as such The Way Out has been deemed a legitimate candidate for review on this blog. By that, I mean in essence that I make the rules up as I go along.

Review: Well. I like it. I've never actually listened to this all the way through until I sat down to write this review, but the few preconceptions I had were based around 'A Cold Freezing Night', a track beloved by my partner, which uses snippets of speech between two young siblings, coupled with a weird, slapstick electronica, to create a heightening sense of anxiety and tension.

This approach, it turns out is pretty par for the course - instruments and samples burst from nowhere, odd but never dissonant, and often delightfully surprising. I imagine Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong have grown exceedingly bored of being called musical magpies, but it's entirely apt. This disparate grab bag of sound is often welded to guitar and drum machine, giving structure to what could be an unholy mess. In fact, through the uncanny mechanics of synthesis, much of The Way Out sounds like companion pieces to the output of other artists, as if their sweepings from the studio floor had been spliced together to make mutant music.

The most obvious comparison with The Books is the Ghost Box record label, whose stock in trade is 'hauntology', whereby a not wholly benign, atavistic past is summoned up through the sampling of documentary, movie and public information film, set to psychedelic electronica. The Ghost Box sound (what a wonderful name for a record label, by the way - don't you think it's brilliantly evocative?) comes very close to being replicated on 'Group Autogenics I', with its soothing, nonsensical self-hypnosis narrative, and 'Chain Of Missing Links'. Oddly, on 'IDKT' I got a strong whiff of Sex And Religion-era Steve Vai, whilst 'All You Need Is A Wall' could've come straight off Feist's Metals album.

Perhaps that's the point. Without speaking to either guy who constituted The Books (they disbanded in 2012), I would guess that there was a conscious effort to make, through a collage technique, something that sounded familiar without being entirely plausible as mere pastiche. At some point, the music becomes wrinkled, twisted; the sonic equivalent of a shirt that doesn't button up properly. All very clever.

But I like The Way Out without loving it. It's difficult to really explain why. Perhaps it's those rare moments where The Books are aiming for beautiful and instead hit pretty. Perhaps it's because it's just a smidge too self-consciously odd, a somewhat studied exercise in the bizarre. Contrast that with a Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis or even a Captain Beefheart, from whom weirdness gushes forth as naturally as water from a spigot. Maybe it's just that I get a sneaking sensation that The Way Out is little more than a hauntological re-remembering of White Noise's groundbreaking 1969 album An Electric Storm, which feels simultaneously like a monstrous slur yet not inaccurate.

I want to listen to it again, though. And possibly again after that. Dark room, lava lamp, headphones, The Way Out - an agreeable way to enrich an hour of my existence.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Heavy Traffic - Status Quo

Provenance: I like Status Quo. They were the first band I ever saw in a live setting, and it left a profound effect on me. The two most vivid things I remember about that gig was, firstly, the addictive quality of sheer volume; and secondly, my Dad singing along to 'In The Army Now'.

Review: Along with many, many other households in this sceptered isle, I also possess one of the legion Status Quo 'greatest hits' collections. (For my US-based readers, the Status Quo 'best of' is as ubiquitous as Frampton Comes Alive is in the Midwest). That's all the Quo most people require, but I saw them performing 'Jam Side Down' on Top of the Pops and thought it sounded decent enough to drop coin on the parent album.

And you know what? For the most part it is decent enough. Better than that, as it happens. Most of the songs sound a bit like other Status Quo songs, the good ones. We're mostly talking about the sledgehammer boogie sound Quo have almost trademarked since jettisoning their early psychedelic pretensions. In fact, 'All Stand Up', 'Creepin' Up On You', 'Solid Gold' and 'Money Don't Matter' could (and possibly do) sit comfortably with the rest of their material in a live set. The only curveball, sonically speaking, is 'Green', whose inheritance can be traced to 'Gerdundula'. The rest is a bit fillerish but not unpleasant. Except for one track - 'The Oriental'.

Status Quo don't generally deal in subtleties or finer feelings, so it's apt that they've actually included an elephant on the front cover to symbolise the one that 'The Oriental' introduces into the room. At some point in the writing process, Francis Rossi and John 'Rhino' Edwards (this paragraph is like a safari thus far) presumably thought it'd be a lark to write a tune about mail order Asian brides. Not in a sensitive manner, you understand. The more charitable listener might suggest that it's just a lark, and that half the lyrics are nonsensical. The latter is true - but the sticking point is the other half, replete with pidgin English (ha ha! Because East Asians all speak like that!), lazy cultural stereotyping and the apparent ease in which women can be traded or rented like commodities.

Making play with the perceived exoticism of the Far East has been the stock in trade for many Western musicians. Now, I don't want to be too harsh here because for boys and girls raised in suburban or working class Europe or America, playing somewhere like Japan must've seemed somewhat fantastical. So we get Deep Purple's 'Woman From Tokyo', Y&T's 'Midnight In Tokyo', Krokus' 'Tokyo Nights' and the weird Todd Rundgren song 'Eastern Intrigue' (and, I suppose, Aneka's 'Japanese Boy' or Carl Douglas' 'Kung Fu Fighting'). But that was way back when, and this is a bunch of late-middle aged men in 2002. I just can't find one redeemable or even venial element about 'The Oriental'. It is perhaps apposite that the lineup that recorded this crap actually looks like a bunch of guys who spend their evenings trawling mail order bride websites.

As well as being fairly racist, it's also a monumentally stupid song. There's some lyrics in the middle eight that, I guess, are supposed to convey the sense of a whistle-stop tour of the East. Except that 'and carry on to China / Asia Minor and some more' makes precious little sense, because Asia Minor is most accurately expressed today as the Asian territory of modern day Turkey. It serves to underline the rather parochial reputation that Status Quo have earned for their perceived lack of ambition in territories outside of the UK (whilst boogie contemporaries Foghat and AC/DC set about conquering the US and the world respectively). Perhaps I am expecting too much of poor old Rhino, a man of such delicate sentiment that in 2006 he was moved to write a song about his favourite Brentford FC striker.

Sorry if you expected a more forensic review of the album. Honestly, if you excised 'The Oriental' you have a really punchy, four-to-the-floor rock album. As it stands, its inclusion is as if somebody wiped their shitty ass over your nice new Belgian lace tablecloth. Use the skip function on your stereo, or download Heavy Traffic and delete track three. It's a reasonably lengthy album, you won't miss it. Nobody will miss it.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Strikes - Blackfoot

Provenance: This one's a bit murky, but I'm fairly certain I bought this due to Warrant's cover of 'Train, Train'. It wasn't for the awesome sleeve art.

Review: Here's a weird one; quite often, bands of a certain vintage go through many incarnations. Increasingly it seems that you only need one or two original members (Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Y&T, Guns N' Roses) to keep the flame held aloft, with the expectation that a decent number of fans will accept a degree of rock 'n' roll wastage as time ticks by.

So what to make of Blackfoot, who currently boast zero original members? And we're not even talking about a lineup that features any members from a 'classic' era - hell, current Blackfoot look a bit like they still jam Papa Roach covers in the drummer's garage. Here's the kicker - original guitarist and frontman Ricky Medlocke, who plies his trade these days in another substitute-heavy band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, still lurks in the background, acting as a Southern rock svengali to his be-goateed and be-mohawked charges. But can it still really be called Blackfoot?

Fortunately we're on more solid ground with Strikes, released in 1979. Blackfoot's third album, it still featured the 'classic' (that word again) lineup of Medlocke, Jackson Spires (drums), Charlie Hargrett (guitar) and Greg T Walker (bass). So named because Spires, Medlock and Walker all shared a First Nations heritage, Blackfoot took the blues-rock template of Free and Bad Company and imbued it with a degree of soul raunch, courtesy of Medlocke's soulful singing.

In fact, Medlocke's vocals are the standout event in Strikes - that, and the ability to craft punchy, catchy rock, the kind that's suited to a long drive with the windows down. Of the two covers on the album, Spirit's already excellent 'I Got A Line On You' is slowed down, toughened up and deep fried. The other one is a waste of time - Free's 'Wishing Well' is a perfectly good song, and Blackfoot demonstrate they can play it so competently that it's almost redundant. Yes, it plays to all collective strengths, but when the end result is virtually a xerox of the original, what's the point?

The originals are where the real mustard is on this album. 'Road Fever' is a decent mid-tempo opener, but it really catches light at 'Left Turn On A Red Light' - the subtler connotations of which were not revealed to me until I drove around the USA and got in a crash on the second day of my car rental. It feels like it's brooding, building, growing into a full-blown widescreen epic, so it's surprising to see it's a shade over four and a half minutes.

'Pay My Dues' is another solid fist-clencher, after which Blackfoot seem to have their head turned by the FM radio market with both 'Baby Blue' and 'Run And Hide' (which bookend the redundant 'Wishing Well'). I've got nothing against bands striving for a commercial sound - I like Foreigner, for goodness' sake - and although these are tight and hooky, they contain no surprises. Were it not for Medlocke's superlative singing, they'd be pleasantly anonymous. Fortunately, things get back on track (pun unintended) with 'Train, Train', which curiously has its harmonica intro listed separately on the running order. It's cool, though, as its played by the song's writer, Shorty Medlocke, granddad of Ricky (and later covered both by LA glamsters Warrant and Dolly Parton). It chugs along atop its crunchy gutbucket guitar riff and features the lyric 'Well, leavin' here, I'm just a raggedy hobo' so it was always going to score highly from me.

Last up is 'Highway Song'. Now, I don't know whether I should be laying the blame at the feet of the Allman Brothers for their interminable noodling on Eat A Peach, Lynyrd Skynyrd for pub bore favourite 'Free Bird', or whether I need to reach back further to the jam bands of the 1960s, but somewhere along the line it appears that Southern rock bands became infected with a notion that they all had to write a big, long song that starts quietly, picks up the pace and ends with a guitar wig-out. (However, in terms of Southern rock, 'Free Bird' almost seems like the ur-text for this nonsense.) 'Highway Song' is not a particularly bad song, and it contains the blueprints for something that could've been genuinely good - but to my 21st century ears it sounds stale. I imagine it probably stunk a bit even in 1979.

I sense I come across as a tad harsh about Strikes, an album I sincerely enjoy and listen to frequently. Ricky Medlocke is such a factor that he alone elevates much of the material. However, if you are a member of a Southern rock band, or are thinking of forming one, please heed this call from me; stop churning out these naked, unabashed attempts to write your own 'Free Bird'. I don't know, maybe it's part of the Faustian pact Southern rock bands make when they go eat some BBQ chicken wings at a crossroads or whatever, and in return for their smokin' guitar tones and hollerin' vocals, they agree to write at least one ultra-dull piece of shit 'Free Bird' tribute. Resist the urge. Play a cover song. Veer off into techno. Make a cup of tea. But I beseech you, no more 'Free Bird'.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Metals - Feist

Provenance: Isn't it nice when you get turned onto something completely out of the blue? In this instance, this album came as part of a wedding gift from Noam Weinstein and his father Larry, two of the nicest people I think I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Noam is a pretty fantastic musician himself, and I'm sure it won't be long before I review one of his albums on this blog.

Receiving albums as a wedding present isn't unprecedented in my family; when my parents got married one of their friends gave them a copy of Deep Purple's Stormbringer, Mk. III's inferior sequel to Burn.

Review: Feist is one of those artists I would never have discovered under my own steam. Too contemporary, too hip. I might hear the name in a conversation and I'll nod along affably before consoling myself that, really, I knew best and that it wouldn't be a patch on Jethro Tull. In short, I'm a total idiot under the sway of unshifting prejudices entirely of my own design. However, folk who don't know any better, such as the Weinstein family, chip away at my wall of ignorance and sometimes make small breakthroughs; I am now a confirmed Feist fan.

As for the music itself, I should probably start by saying that 'Graveyard' is one of my favourite songs - ever. Fragile, menacing, elegant and surreal, with an outro that boasts a brass arrangement that sounds as if it came off an early Alan Parsons Project long player. The quality doesn't dip on the next track either, 'Caught In A Long Wind', shimmering and poised, filigreed with oriental violin.

However, it would be wrong to characterise Metals as soporific (a term I don't use negatively, necessarily; I would happily describe John Martyn's Solid Air as soporific, inasmuch as half of the album conveys a sense of waking sleepiness). There are unabashedly quiet and delicate moments here, such as 'Bittersweet Melodies', 'Cicadas and Gulls' and 'Anti-Pioneer', but many of Feist's compositions are bursting with tension, threatening to unravel at the merest tug of the thread. At its most nervy, Metals inhabits that same weird nation of barely constrained emotion occupied by something like Stravinsky's Les noces. That's probably the most pretentious sentence I'm going to write this week.

Something else that stands out is the sound of the recordings themselves. In a world where clipping is a very real and stupid problem with recorded music, Feist and her producers have performed something of a minor miracle. The clarity given to each of the instruments used - and by the sounds of it, we're talking a whole heap of the damn things - gives an almost organic quality to the compositions. I'm especially taken with the percussion - in the best possible sense, the drums sound almost homemade, the bottom end rounded out with some really meaty rattles and clanks. My love for the Alan Parsons Project means that I would almost automatically be attracted by the brass arrangements, but it goes further than my prog predilections; one genuinely gets the impression of a colliery band, so full, so rich is the sound.

What else? One can't forget 'Comfort Me', by turns haunting and powerful, underscored by some swampy bayou guitar. It's such a good piece of music Feist could honestly sing me the words to the instruction manual of my vacuum cleaner and I'd be happy. Feist has a wonderful voice, incidentally - whispery and intimate without ever being truly warm. It sounds like the voice of someone alone, either living in their own head or cut adrift from the solid, mundane world. If, like me, you seek music to gift you that escapism from the quotidian and workaday, you may very well find it in Feist's strange, fractured universe.


Thursday, 4 August 2016

Brutal Planet - Alice Cooper

Provenance: Today is my Dad's birthday, so it's only right that I look at an artist I wouldn't have listened to were it not for him. From single albums to entire genres, my Dad has influenced my listening habits more than he probably realises, and for which I'm eternally grateful. That being said, I don't think I'll ever be receptive to the charms of Peter Skellern.

I first saw Alice Cooper on the Brutal Planet tour, headlining a show that featured Dio and Orange Goblin as support. I went with my brother and some friends, we all put the makeup on and had, oh, about the best time ever.

Review: We all know that Christian rock sucks, but what about when it doesn't? I'm not talking about pabulum like Stryper, who when a couple of friends saw them in London, threw yellow n' black bound versions of the New Testament into the audience for their encore. To Hell With The Devil? Give me a break.

For a rock fan whose teenage years fell around the turn of the millenium I was curiously averse to the charms of nu-metal (alongside those of Peter Skellern, of course). Some of it sounded raucous enough but the poses were a bit too studied, a bit too tired, and furthermore exponents like Limp Bizkit seemed simply idiotic. And yet here I am, thoroughly enjoying a Christian nu-metal album. Aha, I bet you didn't see that coming!

One has to respect Cooper for the way that this preacher's son has managed to maintain his rock credibility despite openly professing his rebirth as a Christian. He's never explicitly stated he avoids performing certain songs from his back catalogue, unlike W.A.S.P.'s Blackie Lawless (another born-again Christian) has done. He's still the guy who gets guillotined, electrocuted, tied up and beaten every night. And as a consequence he's managed to sneak out a couple of Christian rock albums without anybody really noticing.

Brutal Planet's first song (and title track) is pure 2000-era nu-metal, a thick, down-tuned chug; what distinguishes the track - as with much of Coop's output - are the hooks. For a fairly limited vocalist Cooper has a real facility with melody; and whilst his voice isn't the most gymnastic, he possesses one of the most characteristic sneers in rock music. It's loud, aggressive, bleak and has a big chorus - not a million miles away from what Rammstein were doing at the time. What makes it even more interesting is that "Brutal Planet", and many other tracks on the album, wink at his back catalogue.

Back in the latter days of grunge Cooper released The Last Temptation, a loose concept album that circles around a putative Faustian pact. It was replete with Biblical imagery around temptation and redemption, a strange and heady collection of somewhat disparate songs. Brutal Planet is the opposite - hard, unremitting, dark but identifiably a sequel to The Last Temptation. Both the title track and "Gimme" reprise the Faust theme (the latter even namechecking a ...Temptation track), but there are no saints being resurrected in this particular version of the world. Rackety pounder "Sanctuary" similarly follows on from Last Temptation's "Lost In America"; here, our anti-hero has grown up, got his house and wife, and has found his confusion supplanted by hatred.

However, as this is Alice Cooper, there are moments of levity. "Wicked Young Man" sounds more like a celebration than a condemnation, and it's tough to be too serious on a song that contains the lines "I've got every kind of chemical pumpin' through my head / I read Mein Kampf daily just to keep my hatred fed." Then there's "It's The Little Things", essentially heavy metal update of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" with added 'roid rage; fun all the way, with a couple of cute callbacks to "Welcome To My Nightmare" and "No More Mr Nice Guy" for the greybeards.

Yet in "Wicked Young Man" there's a chilling reference to school shootings, and the title track contains a jarring mention of the Holocaust. Perhaps Cooper grew a little tired of his reputation as a schlock merchant, because "Pick Up The Bones" is genuinely grim and disturbing trudge through the aftermath of a massacre. "Take It Like A Woman" is another one that looks backwards, this time to "Only Women Bleed". In concert, Cooper performed both songs together, segueing from the older song to its modern counterpart, and I think this is the best way to appreciate "Take It Like A Woman." "Only Women Bleed" was itself a bit of an outlier - in an era when rock artists were mainly writing about women as lyin', cheatin' objects of lust, Cooper crafted a rather quiet - and sad - paean to those in abusive relationships. "Take It Like A Woman" is more bombastic but continues to lament the enduring status quo of violent, insecure men and stoic women. It may not be the most sophisticated stripe of feminism but a bitter reminder that Cooper is one of the few mainstream men in rock with the ability to write sensitively about domestic abuse.

So then we reach the album's kiss-off, "Cold Machines" - and even for an artist who often makes hay with prevailing musical trends, this is a cheeky one. It's straight out of the Marilyn Manson playbook, recreating that odd mechanical piston-swing that was so identifiable in Manson's best work. It's probably the best thing on Brutal Planet too; huge guitars, chewy hooks and a chorus that simply soars. It's exhilarating, swaggering, and over all too soon. That Coop ripped off Manson so brazenly was, I suspect, a knowing little nudge aimed at the guy who took Cooper's schtick and repackaged it for angry kids who liked to stay in their bedroom.

There's the likelihood that my perception of this album is coloured by the fact that the Brutal Planet tour was the first of perhaps ten occasions I've seen Alice Cooper. He's never, ever disappointed, but the first time is something special, right? He knocked it out of the park that night in Bournemouth, and the Brutal Planet songs sounded monstrous. It's become impossible to rule on Brutal Planet without recalling the pleasure and excitement of that first gig, so why should I bother? Brutal Planet rules.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trans - Neil Young

Provenance: A recommendation from the Metal Sludge forums. Specifically, from the indomitable forum member 'deathcurse' (now posting under 'Chip Z'Ahoy'), who once stated "I'm suspicious of anybody who doesn't like [Neil Young's] Trans."

Review: Ha ha ha! I'm going to say straight away that this is my favourite Neil Young album, and I own a whole bunch. I'm not being purposefully obtuse; but unlike most people, I encountered Trans thanks to passionate advocacy. The way one is primed to experience an album is, I think, rather important. On a related note, I'm a big fan of ZZ Top's Recycler album because I had literally never heard any of their music before so didn't feel the impulse to stack it against some of their more well-regarded releases.

Yet Trans is not completely reviled, even if much recent writing is focused on reconsidering or rehabilitating it, which suggests critics got it wrong the first time around. But some liked it, and that bellwether of public opinion, the Amazon customer reviews section, currently grants it four and a half stars out of five.

I can only guess why the impulse to defend this album still exists. I was minus three years old when Trans hit the shelves so I didn't have the benefit of growing up with Shakey as he moved from Buffalo Springfield to solo acclaim and the folksy harmonising of CSNY. In essence, I didn't have an idea of what Neil Young 'should be', and haven't felt that any of his numerous experiments represent any massive sea change. In any case, Neil Young does Kraftwerk sounds pretty sweet, no?

Trans actually begins with a track, "Little Thing Called Love", that gives few clues about what's to come and is arguably the weakest thing on here. It smacks of the weird mid-stream crises of confidence that seemed to infect many of Young's peers in the Eighties; over-produced, tinny guitar sounds, crap lyrics, congas. It's jaunty I suppose. We get the good stuff on track two, "Computer Age", which is stacked with synths and features a kind of hyperreal Young vocal, rendered impossibly high and airless via the use of a vocoder.

One thing I shall concede is that some of this material seems quaint, given the age we live in now. "Computer Age", "We R In Control" (which makes creative use of touch-tone telephone sounds) and "Computer Cowboy" all sound weirdly innocent given the connectivity of our world. How it sounded in 1982 I couldn't guess - but this is an age where, my Dad attests, a floppy disk (genuinely floppy) containing payroll records of the company where he worked was wiped because someone smoked too close to it. We were still over a decade away from Billy Idol's wonderful disaster Cyberpunk (1993) and the movie Hackers (1995); computing was a fringe pursuit to many. Besides, I have a sneaking suspicion that Young's tongue was in his cheek when delivering the line 'Come a ky ky yippee yi yippee yi ay' on "Computer Cowboy", a mangled digitisation of Lead Belly's herding cry from "When I Was A Cowboy" (or perhaps the TV cowboy show Rawhide?).

Young's fascination with electronica reaches its zenith on "Sample And Hold"; a monochrome drum machine holds together a bizarre, robotic song seemingly about a cyborg dating agency. He then proceeds to annoy long-term fans with an updated version of the Buffalo Springfield song "Mr Soul" (guess which rendering I prefer?) once again utilising a drum machine and a rather attractive, pillowy-sounding synthesised bass. This album is lovely - it pulses with a warm neon moonglow, human and machine working symbiotically. Young's singing especially benefits from electronic treatment, pushing an already ethereal voice into strange, unearthly realms.

And now I'm going to troll myself entirely here by saying that the least electronic, most traditional 'Neil Young' song on here, "Like An Inca", is the best. Yeah, they bust out the congas again, but they actually add texture to nine sparse minutes of druggy meditation on nuclear apocalypse. So good is this song that, in my opinion, it eclipses everything else somewhat. Look at me, talking about how Neil Young is great at electronica, before picking "Like An Inca" as the highlight! At long last, have I no sense of decency?

Before I wrap this turkey, one outside influence is worth bearing in mind when considering the creative impetus behind Trans. Neil Young's son Ben was born with cerebral palsy and was unable to speak. Young had recently bought a vocoder and, whilst experimenting with it, noticed that Ben would react when he spoke through the gadget. Viewed through the lens of a father attempting to communicate with his child, Trans suddenly assumes an unexpected poignancy and, all in all, seems a noble endeavour indeed.




Sunday, 3 July 2016

Bluesin' With The B3 - Wayne Goins

Provenance: Wayne Goins is my father-in-law.

Review: Whilst listening to this album, a meditation on the limitations of popular music criticism by Simon Reynolds came to mind. In his excellent work on electronic dance music, Energy Flash, Reynolds writes of the completely different vocabulary needed to write about a form of music that defied the 'literary' readings that worked for the majority of rock music. He points out that it's pointless talking about melody, harmony and lyrical content when dance music is (largely) designed specifically to bypass these notions; how can one nod along at home next to the stereo to a music that demands is tailored for communal consumption, drug consumption and bodily expression?

Now, jazz and dance are not the same, but for me, someone who is used to thinking about music as something to be read, I do find a commonality inasmuch as I struggle to find the right language when talking about it. As someone who grew up mostly listening to rock, being confronted with an album of organ trio instrumental numbers is a daunting prospect. Oh, and the guitarist is my father-in-law, who I'll be staying with in November this year, so no pressure.

Some things I do know; I can recognise virtuosity when I hear it. Jazz has a rich tradition of improvisation and exploration, an approach which is mirrored in (some) rock music (think Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, Warren Haynes, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert - for example). Similarly, I muck around on guitar, so I can confirm that daddy-o is a crack musician (as would befit the Director of Jazz Studies at Kansas State University). I even know just enough to suggest that his style is not a million miles away from Wes Montgomery. There we go - slightly more than would fit on the back of a postage stamp, but amply accommodated by a standard C5 envelope.

The Hammond B3, on the other hand, is a universe of mystery to me. In the liner notes, Wayne mentions a bunch of players, of whom I've only heard of two (Lonnie Liston Smith, Jimmy McGriff) and consciously heard the music of one (McGriff). So, with apologies, as far as I can tell Ken Lovern is a fine player. Bear in mind that for me, organs pretty much come in two flavours - Keith Emerson and Korla Pandit. Ken doesn't sound like either, incidentally.

Recorded live, credit must also go to producer David Brown for capturing an instrument - the B3 - that can be notoriously tricksy due to the ultra-deep bass notes that can be produced by its Leslie cabinet. It can result in a blowy, fuzzy low-end mess, especially in a live situation - emphatically not the case here.

The best thing on this album is the wonderful, lilting Kenny Dorham track 'Blue Bossa', with its seductive rhythmic undertow and faint ghosts of Sidney Bechet's 'Egyptian Fantasy'. Another highlight is 'A Gogo', a moody, funky, almost gutbucket Jon Scofield composition. The first half 'A Gogo' also features Wayne's smokiest playing (Wayne, feel free to disagree with me on this one, but I'm right here, just as I'm right about Bob Dylan's output in the Eighties (a giant waste of time, incidentally)) on the night. I'm also a bit of a sucker for Duke Ellington so I'm happy to hear 'In A Sentimental Mood' sounding so lovelorn and bittersweet.

The album ends on Jimmy Smith's 'Back At The Chicken Shack', an opportunity to hear organ and guitar making the pentatonic scale sweat a bit. There's a moment at 3.15 when Ken just jabs his finger at a single note repeatedly, likes what he hears, and carries on jabbing - it's downright nasty. To me, that's what makes this album such a treat - the two principals know exactly when to push and pull, when to dial back and when to cut loose. This understanding is what elevates the music from technically brilliant renditions to a space where genuine mood and atmosphere is created.

If you like what I've written, why not buy the album, or indeed anything else by Wayne Goins and keep me in the good graces of my in-laws? Many thanks in advance.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Painkiller - Judas Priest

Provenance: My friend the musician Ollie Hannifan recommended this back when he was the schoolboy Ollie Hannifan. I clearly recall Ollie tempting me in to the purchase by suggesting that, on this album, "they just don't stop."

Review: The first thing that needs to be said is that Ollie was wrong, as Painkiller stops at around the 46 minute mark. I get what Ollie meant though. Before its even cued up on the stereo your eyes are bleeding because the cover art work is so elite. A muscle-bound silver Corinthian warrior is riding a half-motorbike half-dragon contraption (in the sky), whilst below tower blocks are being engulfed in lava. You're sweating before you've even hit the play button.

It gets better. New drummer Scott Travis is immediately showcased with a pummelling intro to the title track, which duly explodes into some of the most full-on metal madness ever captured on tape. Nothing is left on the table. Lead-wailer Rob Halford (probably my favourite vocalist of all time) often uses his piercing falsetto as embellishment, but here he kicks off somewhere just inside the hearing range of canines and never lets up. He relents only in the pre-solo(s) mid-section but that's only so us mere mortals can hear him intoning 'Faster than a laser bullet / Louder than an atom bomb / Chromium plated boiling metal / Brighter than a thousand suns.' Bob Dylan this ain't (though Judas Priest take their name from a Dylan lyric), but I can't recall His Bobness ever dealing with mankind's destruction by alien cyborg monsters.

First track down and you're crying out for relief. No mate, because up next is 'Hell Patrol', then 'All Guns Blazing', then 'Leather Rebel'. Every single one of these rattles your skull, snaps your neck and boils your blood until you're left a limp bag of bones and, uh, anhydrous plasma (I'd guess). Hearing this power-metal-on-steroids sound is even more remarkable given that when Priest began at the dawning of the 1970s they happily sat alongside bands like Spooky Tooth and Atomic Rooster. Guitarist Glenn Tipton, who began playing guitar when the Beatles were a going concern, pulls off swept arpeggios like a player twenty years his junior - the sheer amount of practice required to operate at this level, put in by guys who could've rested on their laurels by the time this was released, is astounding. So, time for a respite and, perhaps a blood transfusion?

No chance - next up is 'Metal Meltdown', Halford screaming like a stuck pig before the song crashes into a grinding, fist-clenching chorus (which I can assure you does feature the phrase 'metal meltdown'). Another absolute juggernaut up next with 'Nightcrawler', one of those songs about indomitable hellbeasts that litter the Judas Priest back catalogue. Here, a bunch of people hide in the cellar from some bloodsucking anthracite menace, but...ah, I won't spoil the ending (but it doesn't end well! Everyone dies!). Then it's 'Between the Hammer and the Anvil', which is a gently whispered acoustic number with a strong Joni Mitchell influence. Not really! It fucking slays too.

You're pretty much on the home stretch before the pace abates somewhat with 'A Touch of Evil', which would sound heavy on any other album, but serves as Painkiller's ballad. For some peculiar reason I always get this confused with Defender of the Faith song 'Love Bites' when it's played live. I first saw Priest in 2004 when they headlined Arrow Rock Festival in Lichtenvoorde in the Netherlands. This was their first tour reunited with Halford and I had shaved my head and grown a beard so I could look just like him. They were amazing, but when the first bass note of 'A Touch of Evil' rang out, I was a lone voice in the crowd yelling "Yeaaaahh! LOVE BITES!", a mistake I doubled down on three years later. Can't see me ever getting this right to be truthful.

After a short instrumental called 'Battle Hymn' we're onto the final track, the valedictory 'One Shot At Glory', a track that wouldn't be out of place on a top quality Hammerfall or Helloween release. By the way, you're dead at this point, or comatose, or your blood has just turned into mercury. Different from anything else in the Priest catalogue, Painkiller is gloriously over-the-top, fun, intense, stupid and brilliant. It marked a fine conclusion to the first Rob Halford era.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

We Are KING - KING

Provenance: You wouldn't guess it to look at me, but when my body isn't being held together by gaffer tape I sometimes go to the gym. Anyway, I heard 'The Greatest' whilst getting ripped and felt compelled to explore further.

Review: Were I to indulge in a conversation with the sixteen-year-old version of myself he'd be incredulous to hear that I consider We Are KING to be the album of the year (so far). Here are a few problems:

1. No guitars
2. No fast songs
3. Not heavy
4. It's R&B
5. No songs about Satan, Wotan, etc
6. No guitars (edited to add: there are some guitars, but we're not talking some sweet-as Steve Vai soloing here).

I was, of course, a rock obsessed idiot back then, but fifteen years later We Are KING is an anomaly in my music collection. It's fair to say that the music I own is overwhelmingly white, male and guitar oriented. My saving grace is that I've become a smidgen more catholic in my tastes and a bit less ideological, inasmuch as I used to write off entire genres due to a lack of 'authenticity' (a concept that mostly stemmed from a perceived ability to play traditional rock band instrumentation).

Thank fuck I grew up and opened my ears a little, as We Are KING is a dreamy joy from beginning to end. Let's start with the single from the album that sucked me in, 'The Greatest', which sounds like a glorious throwback, like TLC's best slow-jam with an 8-bit filigree. It's woozy, weird, affirming and, with its nods to the late Muhammad Ali, poignant.

It also sets the tone for the rest of the album. Very rarely does We Are KING stretch its legs beyond a languid amble; 'Supernatural' is the only track that threatens to break into a sweat but settles into a gentle shuffle. The production matches the pace; liquid, warm and ambient. Regarding the vocals, comparisons with 1990s R&B are inescapable, diva virtuosity largely eschewed in favour of hushed, sensual intimacy. When all the voices are combined and recombined, the effect is not unlike the multi-layered and heavily treated vocals on an Enya album.

Throughout the mood is kept sweet and dreamy - 'Red Eye' exists in the same zone of peculiar half-somnolence one might experience on an transatlantic flight; the outro to 'Hey' dims the instrumentation down to a kind of background radiation, allowing the listener to lie back on a cushion of noise created by the group's whispered singing.

KING are Paris Strother, sister Amber Strother and friend Anita Bias. Paris must be considered the leader here; as well as singing, she plays and produces almost every sound on the disc, collaborated on designing the artwork and also owns a share of the publishing through her own company. We Are KING is totally the baby of a distinctive genius; many of the keyboard and synthesizer sounds Strother employs would sound at home on a 702 or Jade release but the end result comes across more like a knowing wink to that era rather than straight imitation.

It's nice to be blindsided by something that I wouldn't normally give a second thought to. My semi-frequent visits to the gym have yet to yield another doozy (and I might do something I'll later regret if I have Fleur East one more time) but it has reminded me that I shouldn't cocoon myself away in my headphones listening to hoary old favourites like Led Zeppelin and Judas Priest. Next review on Swinetunes: Judas Priest.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Closing Time - Tom Waits

Provenance: For my 29th birthday my partner bought me ten Tom Waits albums because I'm a cool guy with a great taste in music. Incidentally, my partner is reasonably hip too - certainly a better writer than I could ever hope to be.

Review: I'm actually starting at the start for once - this is Tom Waits' first album. Believe me, this'll be one of the few times where I don't play compact disc Jenga with my structurally unsound stacks of plastic.

Ten albums by an artist I had rarely, if ever, mentioned was quite a gamble. Hitherto, my partner's engagement with my music collection consisted of parodying the singing styles of Neil Young, Bon Scott and Brian Johnson. Getting married to me, it could be argued, was also a rash and poorly-evidenced decision so perhaps it's congenital.

What I did know of Tom Waits was that he was responsible some fairly experimental music (and one or two notable press conferences) so I was fully prepared for a journey to these weird hinterlands occupied by Captain Beefheart and Scott Walker. What I didn't expect was a slice of shaggy-dog Americana that evoked shades of Jimmy Webb, Nils Lofgren, the Eagles, Randy Newman and the aforementioned Neil Young. Formally, there's little to hint that this artist will one day produce Mule Variations or Swordfishtrombones; and at times, the music ploughs a very comfortable furrow down the middle of the road. I am, however, only telling half the story.

As it so happens, the lead-off track 'Ol' 55' would go on to be covered by the Eagles. It sounds like a goddamn Eagles song, aside from Waits' heavy-lidded drawl. The hiccup-bellow of later releases fails to make an appearance, even in embryonic form. What buoys this album is the twin brilliance of songwriting and sequencing. In just twelve short tracks Waits creates an entire universe of melancholy and longing. Even when Waits puts the wistfulness aside for a (brief) moment his music never quite escapes being anything more than bittersweet. In a psalter of hymns for the losers optimism is something that can only be fleetingly glimpsed.

In that sense Waits occupies the same territory as Newman, most obviously on 'Lonely'. However, where Newman often creates moments of wry levity to make his sometimes desperately sad songs a little more digestible, the best that Waits manages is the tired half-smile of a man down to his last nickel. This is not to his detriment; a chuckle on this album would be as incongruous and unwelcome as a fish head sticking out of a birthday cake.

The best thing on here by a country mile is 'Virginia Avenue', the album's jazziest number, a slow-rolling piano sharing space with lugubrious string bass and muted trumpet. You're out of the coffee house and into the dive bar, your nostrils filled with stale cigar smoke, your stomach burning with gut-rot whiskey. Personally, the primo stuff that Closing Time has to offer occurs when Waits packs his acoustic guitar away and gets behind the piano - 'Midnight Lullaby', 'Grapefruit Moon' and the title track standing out in particular.

As I type these words the final chords of Closing Time are melting away. From my window I see a cuticle of moon hanging above a silent town and a sea dark as pitch. It is one of those moments where senses combine to create an atmosphere that is positively filmic, like it's spilled off the reel of a classic noir. A touch of fog and a glass of bourbon (as opposed to Diet Pepsi) and it'd be somewhere close to perfect.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Dream Police - Cheap Trick

Provenance: Already a big Cheap Trick fan when I got this for Christmas recently.

Review: So how was it that rock n' roll that was particularly catchy gain a whole new genre called 'power-pop'? And why, until recently, was it so maligned? Its recent rehabilitation runs counter to another baffling trend that has seen some hip young gunslingers namedrop Steely Dan as an influence. Steely Dan have never been shit (check out who's hosting that performance, by the way), and it's not like power-pop all of a sudden became listenable again. Ho hum.

There were, of course, some very catchy, very good artists who preceded Cheap Trick in wrapping their pop confections around a rock formula. They were overtly influenced by bands such as The Beatles, Badfinger, The Move and Electric Light Orchestra, all of which can be heard on Dream Police. Likewise, echoes of this album would go on to appear on releases by luminaries such as The Cars, Jellyfish and Material Issue. To me it all feels like a continuum of style, but what do I know? Besides, we all rely on shorthand to condense our field of reference to some degree.

Time to quit griping about the arbitrariness of the assignation of genre. Let's talk about Dream Police. I'm sure that one of these days I'll come across an album in my collection I don't care for but today is not that day. Dream Police is every bit as colourful, punchy and entertaining as a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt connecting with every haymaker he throws.

If we are to accept the existence of a power-pop template, then some of the tracks of this album fit like a pair of crushed-silk loon pants. Both the title track and 'Voices' are awash with keyboards and strings, thrusting towards widescreen climaxes in the choruses; the former a bouncy trip through insomnia-induced paranoia, the latter a gorgeous slow-burn ballad about insomnia-induced paranoia. Cheap Trick never play with a straight bat.

Elsewhere, things get a little more raucous - 'Way Of The World' is essentially a series of hooks that rush by one after the other, whilst 'The House Is Rockin'' is a bubblegum dust-up, one of Cheap Trick's most underrated tunes that seems to be over in a fraction of its billed five minutes. In typical CT fashion, infectious pop masks lyrics about domestic strife (and this is by no means the darkest subject they've sprinkled a bit of sugar over).

But that's Cheap Trick all over - crashing the seemingly irreconcilable together and making it feel entirely natural. Like the best bands, that concept extended further than just the music, and so you have a band with two pretty boys in vocalist Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson and a couple of unconventional looking fellows in drummer Bun E. Carlos and guitarist Rick Nielsen. The cadaverous Nielsen fully embraced his unusual appearance, doubling down by dressing in baseball cap, cardigan and bow tie whilst wielding comedy multi-necked guitars.

Cheap Trick would also break the unwritten rule "don't bore us, get to the chorus" with the inclusion of both 'Need Your Love' which extends beyond seven minutes and 'Gonna Raise Hell', which tops out at over nine. Neither features the lush orchestration or major-key thrum of most power-pop - 'Need Your Love' stands out as a nervy, ominous crawl, Zander's voice floating above the music that produces an effect that is more eery than angelic. It's an extraordinary performance on an album where Zander swoops, soars, caresses and stings - one he replicated flawlessly when I caught them in November 2010.

Gimmickry aside, Nielsen's a fine musician. His guitar solos are less a careful construct than a technicolour explosion of energy, stacking twisty half-bends and ticcy double-stops on top of each other. On the faster tracks Nielsen's guitar does nothing quite so dull as chugging away on power chords, choosing to dart in and out of Zander's vocals and Petersson's bright, melodic bass lines. Part of the fun is that Nielsen often sounds on the brink of spiralling out of control. Of course, he never does.

Dream Police ("police...police...") is a masterful album, bursting with spark and creativity. It's a consummate articulation of the power-pop genre without ever truly fitting the mould. Contrary? Sure, but so's a baseball cap matched with a bow tie.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Spectres - Blue Oyster Cult

Provenance: I'd heard '(Don't Fear) The Reaper' on a rock compilation my dad bought and instantly declared it to be the best song ever written. So when I came across this in a secondhand shop for a fiver I had to buy it.

Review: Between the ages of about 15 to somewhere in my mid-twenties, Blue Oyster Cult were my life. I've seen them more than any other act. I have all their albums. I even interviewed bassist Joe Bouchard for my school newspaper. Between BOC, Championship Manager and active membership of an eFed, that I even so much as kissed a member of the opposite sex during this period is incredible.

The catalyst of '...Reaper' aside, this is where it all began for me. I am a callow youth with ten whole pounds to spend when I spy this in the racks. By this point it is already established that these hombres are responsible for the greatest song of all time. The album cover confirms my initial suspicion that BOC are the baddest band on the planet. There they are, hanging out in some weird badly-lit occult library, dressed to the nines and looking nonchalant because they're always holding cool seances and pissing off the cat with manifestations of ectoplasm and the like. The sleeve artwork alone should've guaranteed platinum status.

Now, some critics think Spectres is where BOC started the nosedive into generic pop-rock pabulum, one that would only be arrested momentarily by Fire of Unknown Origin. Some locate the tipping point as side two of Agents of Fortune. As a fan I completely understand, and objectively I might consider the first four studio discs to be the band's best output. But Spectres was special - like a first beer, or the first time you win promotion to Division One with AFC Bournemouth on Championship Manager 2. How do you go about explaining that magic?

Fortunately, the album kicks off with a true Cult classic - 'Godzilla', a song so potent that I was once assaulted on stage for playing the solo like a complete badass. If you're looking for the skittery, twisted mysticism of earlier BOC then look elsewhere - this had a big, dumb riff, lyrics about the scaly rogue terrorising downtown Tokyo and a Japanese spoken word section that I always had to do because nobody else in my band could remember how it went. Racer X do a splendid cover. It's difficult to resist a chorus hook that goes 'Oh no! There goes Tokyo!'

Other highlights, in order(ish): BOC were never much of a 'ballad' kind of band (and often not great when they gave them a shot) but 'Death Valley Nights' is up there as one of my favourite tracks they ever did. 'Golden Age of Leather' features buzzsaw guitars and a male voice choir to kick off proceedings. Meanwhile, the lilting arpeggios of 'Fireworks' propel the song towards one of Buck Dharma's best solos; I believe Jason Newsted said Dharma's playing was "like hot needles in your ears", which is brilliant but doesn't quite capture the agility and fluency that made his playing so distinctive.

Side two contains 'Celestial The Queen', which sounds like a Blue Oyster Cult / Electric Light Orchestra mash-up, and yet another decent ballad(!!) in 'I Love The Night', a stately attempt at ethereality which mostly comes off. My favourite moment comes in the form of the schlocky vampire yarn 'Nosferatu'; I find it hard to dislike any song that begins with the line 'Deep in the heart of Germany, Lucy clutched her breast in fear'. Canny stuff.

If I allow myself some critical distance, this is the album where the filler creeps in. The cod funk of 'Searchin' For Celine' never gripped me despite its clever lyrical allusions whilst 'Goin' Through The Motions' is a good example of nominative determinism. I've heard other fans slating the Capek-inspired 'R U Ready 2 Rock' as a bit one-note and generic but it's really grown on me over the years. Plus the title is indisputable proof that Prince, like all good people, was a huge fan of 'the Cult'.

Compared to other analyses, I'm only landing glancing blows. There are fans out there who truly count Spectres as a disappointment, or even a betrayal to BOC's roots. I could never be so hard on an album I've listened to countless times, one that set me off on a journey to fandom (and beyond) and most importantly, one that unfailingly evokes the most pleasurable of memories.