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.