Thursday, 28 December 2017

Winter Songs - Halford

Provenance: It felt like everybody had some kind of yuletide album or another except for me. I tend to spend Christmas with my parents, who are well-stocked in this regard; this year the more shopworn 'classics' (I use the term advisedly) were sidelined in favour of festive traditional folk.

However, a few years back I was evidently feeling rather deficient in the seasonal spirit, resulting in me buying Halford's Winter Songs, thinking that some metallized Christmas carols would do the trick. I should state now that I normally find this kind of lark annoying; during a winter break in 2016 I was subjected to a Christmas tree in the town square of Manhattan, Kansas that pumped out seemingly unceasing shred-metal versions of 'O Little Town of Bethlehem', 'We Three Kings', et al. I would've happily slit the throat of any nearby reindeer by the time I was able to shuffle off for a well-earned Coors Light (the "World's Most Refreshing Beer").

That being said, my love of Judas Priest overrode my concerns and I made the purchase. I mean, how bad can a Halford album be? Crucible was fucking cool.

Review: I'm guessing that this is better than about 99% of Christmas albums, but that's because 99% of Christmas albums are unmitigated dross. You can't even get away with being hip and cool like Sia, because she did a Christmas album that's like an underdone goose stuffed with dried-up dog turds. In the service of equanimity I should also highlight that Winter Songs comes out of the traps like a three-legged greyhound with dysplasia. It's been a while since Rob's been able to hit those truly near-terrifying screams from his youth and yet he still seems obliged to give the ol' falsetto a bash on every release. Thusly 'Get Into The Spirit' features a vocal that, despite being triple-tracked to hide its deficiencies, still sounds like a poor parody of an actual Rob Halford performance.

But! Next we're onto a brace of traditional carols that have been given the metal treatment and - hallelujah! - these are cracking. 'We Three Kings' is much better than the version I heard in Kansas, and the relative rarity 'Oh Come O Come Emanuel' is an absolute rip-snorter. The carols on Winter Songs actually constitute, collectively, the best portion of the album. It's not as if Halford have done anything especially clever with the arrangements or twisted the lyrics around. Rather, they attack the songs with gusto, which is met with impassioned performances from Rob. Too often, Christmas albums sound like lazy cash-ins; to his credit, Rob Halford sounds like a man who genuinely enjoys the music. I would hazard a guess that he's a fine fellow to share a glass or two of eggnog with.

Now, I have long said that since Rob rejoined Judas Priest in 2003 they've had a knack for balladry. Whereas earlier Priest efforts were replete with vocal histrionics, the latter stuff has had to accommodate the timbre (and limitations) of a more mature voice. Happily, this still extraordinary voice has discovered a real feel for slower, stately material. In fact, I'd say that in this respect Rob has actually improved as a singer, imbuing such tracks as 'Angel' and 'Beginning Of The End' with palpable feeling. That magic is here again on the Sara Bareilles / Ingrid Michaelson track 'Winter Song'. Halford's version is a shivering, shimmering thing of understated beauty and genuinely capable of raising a few hairs.

Sure, there's the odd hokey track here and there - 'Christmas For Everyone', hello? - but overall Winter Songs is an admirable take on a deservedly maligned genre. Plus, it means that I don't feel compelled to buy any more Christmas albums. For goodness' sake, I've also got that one Jethro Tull album with 'Ring Out Solstice Bells', what more does one person need? 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Idol Songs - Billy Idol

Provenance: When I was in my mid-teens a girlfriend of mine asked me what I wanted for my birthday. "Oh, I don't know, maybe a Billy Idol 'best of' album?". Instead, she dumped me.

Fast forward to 2010 and I'm stood in a rain-lashed field in Sweden. Billy Idol is finishing up onstage with a version of The Doors' 'LA Woman'. He has replaced Los Angeles with Malmo, despite being 130km away from the latter location. Hitherto in the performance he has treated us to the following:

a) An acoustic version of 'White Wedding'
b) The Allen Toussaint song 'Working In A Coal Mine'
c) A shitty autobiographical song that references 'Hot In The City'; this is further compounded by the fact that he doesn't go on to actually play 'Hot In The City'

It was one of the most depressingly awful experiences of my festival-going life. Nonetheless, I finally got my hands on this doozy - subtitled 11 of the Best - for two quid at a car boot sale in Eastbourne.

Review: On the 29 May 2016 Twitter user @TadKosciuszko had this to say: 'Mt. Rushmore of "punk" - Idol, Ghetto Blaster Guy from Star Trek IV, Adam Ant, & the guy that led the mutant biker gang in Weird Science'. Funny and true. Just as it maddens me that The Tubes are often classified as punk because they used the word in one of their song titles, it boggles my mind that anything Idol did as a solo artist can be remotely considered as belonging to the genre. 

As it so happened, both Idol and Ant were at the vanguard of the original London punk scene - but neither would make their name playing that music (though I should point out that Simon Reynolds does an excellent job at delineating how punk midwifed Ant's particular style in the superb Rip It Up And Start Again).

Despite retaining the more overt visual trappings of punk, it was Idol that moved further than Ant away from punk's initial art-school leanings. Who knows? Maybe the spiked-peroxide quiff and leather jackets acted as an affirmation to Idol, an aide memoir to himself that, beneath the poppy hooks, the expensive videos and the even more expensive nose candy, he was still a scrappy rabble rouser who dropped out of a Sussex University English degree in 1976. Certainly, in that sodden field in Scandinavia, he made great play (not all of it coherent) about how we all need to return to the roots - and rootsiness - of rock 'n' roll. Curious sloganeering for a man who made his name with a very airbrushed flash-metal sound, and who would later pioneer mixed media releases (yes, really) with his 1993 Cyberpunk album which came packaged with a 3.5" floppy disk.

But let us not judge Idol the man, let us speak of Idol the musician. Here are eleven, count 'em. Of the best. By his, or the record label's estimation, one presumes. Now, as much as I've been down on Idol thus far in this article, let me say this - by my reckoning, there are three tracks on here that are brilliant, and possibly qualify as masterpieces within the realm of pop. This troika of triumph is 'Rebel Yell', 'White Wedding' and, greatest of all, 'Flesh For Fantasy'. The first two rock hard and feature tasty guitar work by the underrated Steve Stevens, but have the kind of precision-tooled studio polish that sounds great on a transistor radio and a melodic sensibility so strong that they grapple your cerebral cortex into submission.

Time for another reference to an ex-girlfriend of mine! This time it's to go on record with an apology to Bianca. Back in the day I'd listen to Spree FM in her kitchen in Berlin, which would play 'Flesh For Fantasy' virtually every day (or so it seemed). Bianca made it known she liked the song; I greeted this opinion with the mockery I believed it deserved, but today I am a changed man and I have this to say: Bianca, if you're reading this, I am sorry - 'Flesh For Fantasy' is incredible, even if lyrically it's mostly gobbledegook. On this issue - and this issue alone - you were right, and I was wrong.

What of the other eight songs that comprise his 'best'? Well, as you can probably guess from my annoyance that Idol forswore 'Hot In The City' back in 2010, I really like that one. Same goes for the mellow, dreamy 'Eyes Without a Face'. These are tier two Billy Idol songs. Then you have the curios like 'To Be A Lover', which contains all the trappings of church-inflected soul - bluesy piano, call-and-response female backing singers, tambourines - but winds up sounding like an ersatz mechanised gospel fever-dream. There's also 'Dancing With Myself' - which was recorded with his previous band, Generation X, and is by far the most 'punk' thing on this collection - and 'Sweet Sixteen', a weird, glabrous, spacey drowning pool of synths and angst.

Pretty much everything else on here is pony. At the very least, it's entertaining crap. I don't skip the clunkers like 'Catch My Fall' or 'Don't Need a Gun' when I give Idol Songs a spin as at the very least they stand as testament to Idol's 'swing-and-a-miss' approach, one that was evident even during his commercial peak. For all his faults, missteps and periods of inactivity I'm a sucker for the leathery old charmer. I'd even take another chance with the live experience on the basis that I'd be treated to (at least) eleven of the best.*

*(I was trying to find a place to include a "mo', mo', mo'" gag but decided it would only cheapen this august and serious blog.)

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Aquarium - Aqua

Provenance: I bought this off a kid in my class for fifty pence.

Review: At first glance seeing this nestled alongside genuine classics such as John Martyn's Solid Air, Carole King's Tapestry and Black Sabbath's eponymous debut might seem a bit rum but there you go. As much as I like to see a band like Faust assault my local social club with power tools I also enjoy a good melody, and it's tough to find an album more shamelessly pop than Aquarium.

I don't subscribe to the notion of a 'guilty pleasure' - it's either something you like or you don't. The idea that, within certain company, I'd have to accompany the revelation that I own an Aqua album with knowing winks and ironic snickers makes me want to throw up. In any case, I'd probably be happier spending an evening with a person who enthuses about ABBA or Frankie Goes To Hollywood than some mithering real-ale dimwit muttering into his (always his) beard about Bongo Fury.

Aquarium - twenty years old in 2017, uh huh - straddles a couple of eras. On the one hand, it's a product of snap-to-grid production techniques which means that happy accidents like the telephone ringing at the end of David Bowie's 'Life On Mars', the airplane that invades Led Zeppelin's 'Black Country Woman' or even the squeaking bass drum pedal at the beginning of Robin Trower's 'The Fool And Me' could never happen. On the other hand, the pre-shuffle Aquarium is sequenced like a proper album, eschewing the modern trend of front-loading with the singles. It also occupies a time just prior to the Great Compact Disc Bloat, meaning it clocks in at a brisk forty-one minutes. (Within two or three years it wasn't uncommon for bands to imagine that their fans wanted every half-thought studio jam or bit of inconsequential audio fluff, routinely pushing releases over the hour mark - and let's not even get started with 'hidden' tracks.)

Aqua were Lene Nystrom (vocals), Rene Dif ("vocals"), Soren Rasted (keyboards) and Claus Norreen (possibly the world's most under-employed guitarist) and during the late 1990s were undoubtedly the biggest thing to come out of Denmark since Lego thanks to the international hits 'Barbie Girl', 'Doctor Jones' and 'Turn Back Time', all present on this album. The odd acoustic flourish aside poor Claus seemed to do fuck all, whilst 'good time bald guy' Rene occupied a space somewhere in the realm of Flava Flav (which is a rung up from Bez (Happy Mondays) and Paul Rutherford (the aforementioned Frankie Goes To Hollywood), inasmuch as their contributions are sometimes audible). In fact, Rene does make telling interventions on a number of songs, but these rarely seem to fit in with the overall tone and often come across as peculiarly aggressive.

I really like Lene's singing. I think she's fantastic. And although she occupies a fairly high register on most of Aquarium she is able to demonstrate her depth and range on a couple of the slower numbers. Those aside, everything else is pure, Hi NRG-inspire bubblegum. If you're over the age of twenty-five and ventured into a sticky 'no jeans, no trainers' alcopop-pit you'll recognise the 130-135 bpm Eurobeat that seemed to infect every dance pop hit of the era. Am I getting a touch of the ol' nostalgias listening to this? Just a bloomin' bit!

What sets them apart from the pack is that Aqua had a keen sense of kook. An examination of the lyrical content of 'Barbie Girl' reveals an ambiguity that could be readily interpreted as either a satirical swipe or straight celebration of the values and aspirations represented by the world's most famous doll. 'My Oh My' begins with a whinnying horse and features the slightly odd Rene line "gotta steal from the rich when they don't know I'm coming" - a clear allusion to Robin Hood which has little to do with the rest of the song. It's as if Aqua took a wilfully stupid pick 'n' mix approach to a few tropes around Merrie Olde England and whacked them into a song, which works perfectly.

Not everything works - 'Heat Of The Night' is, alas, nothing to do with the racially-charged Sidney Poitier / Rod Steiger cop drama, instead having more in common thematically with Wham's 'Club Tropicana'; here, Rene does a 'Spanish' accent much like Barry Davies used to when commenting on the World Cup. The next song, 'Be A Man' is a milquetoast attempt at something like 'Eternal Flame', but it doesn't really matter because the next song is the utterly bonkers 'Lollipop (Candyman)' - featuring a great parenthetical subtitle, no? - which ups the tempo and showcases Rene's very best, worryingly intense, gibberish.

Alas, Aqua were so much of their time and it couldn't last. Their next album, Aquarius, did relatively well in Europe but pretty much sucked. By the time of Megalomania Aqua had tried to slough off their cartoonish image, with predictably risible results, and in the process ridding themselves of much of their hyperactive charm. Nevertheless, we'll always have this beautifully off-kilter testament to the joys of unabashed pop. Fifty pence well spent.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Bridge Of Sighs - Robin Trower

Provenance: Ah, the rowdy old days of the internet at the turn of the millennium. I was (just) getting into guitar, and my dad had come home from work with a suggestion from one of his colleagues; give a guy called Robin Trower a go.

Naturally I booted up the PC, opened Napster (the repository of all music back then, kids) and found a file called something like 'xXx2_Rolling_Stoned_0105xXx'. I knew that, unless it had been mislabelled or was just a bunch of white noise, if I left the download going overnight in a mere eight or nine hours I'd be listening to my first Robin Trower track.

To breakfast next morning, and I was in luck! Not only did the song match the title, but I had the whole thing bar the last twenty seconds. I could rule this a success. What a tune, too. Funky, soulful and spacey all at once; I spent no time delaying my trip to the local HMV.

Review: This is another collection I don't need to listen to in order to write about it, but will do so for the sheer pleasure of it.

Over the years, I've come to regard Bridge Of Sighs as a top ten all time album. There's simply nothing bad or even mediocre about it, at all. I've heard a lot of idiots talk shit about Trower being too derivative or a poor Hendrix imitation, and whilst the latter's influence is undoubtedly the most obvious in his playing, Trower is a sublime craftsman in his own right. You can call his style bluesy but he never seems to fall back on the hackey cliches of the more prosaic blooz-rockers. You could say he was stoner rock before the genre had been properly pinned down, but Bridge Of Sighs is neither lumpen nor plodding. The moods conjured up sometimes hint at space rock, but where Hawkwind clatter into deep space on the whoosh of their thrusters, Trower glides along on the Sea of Serenity.

If I could play guitar like one individual on this planet, it would be Robin Trower.

The difficulty I have with Robin Trower, and Bridge Of Sighs specifically, is that after I listen to it much else seems so prosaic, shackled to the earth, never able nor destined to take flight. The sheer ability to impose his will so fully upon his chosen instrument and coax all those weeping, howling, swirling sounds out of it is mystifying. Little tops the excitement I still feel when the first staccato notes of 'Day Of The Eagle' explode out of the speaker; to have that followed up by the stately, mournful title track is so indulgent as to be the aural equivalent of a lemon cheesecake, topped by a Black Forest gateau, topped with ice cream.

One aspect of his sound is that, although the guitars can seem thick or even sludgy, in fact what they play is almost always fragmentary, or at most arpeggiated. It's as if each song is a mosaic that Trower assembles from shards of electric guitar. Couple this approach to his signature style, namely masterful sustain and fluid legato picking, feed it all through some trippy effects and you have a the fundaments of a very singular sound that, when wrapped around the songs, can be a thing of wonder. I should also add that Trower's vocalist (and bassist) at the time, the late James Dewar, was one of rock's most underrated white soul voices. His performance on 'About To Begin' prickles the hairs on your skin.

I'm not going to talk about individual tracks too much here. Bridge Of Sighs is sensational and should be listened to front to back, but as that's less fashionable these days, here's one of the many, many highlights:

I count myself lucky to have seen Trower a few times live. The first of these was in Exeter with my then-girlfriend at the time, Sarah - or rather, then ex-girlfriend, as we had broken up not long beforehand due to my terrible behaviour. Nevertheless, I had tickets and for reasons that still remain a mystery, Sarah consented to go with me. Not only was Trower magical but Sarah also took me back that evening (which I absolutely didn't deserve), and we would spend the rest of university and some time beyond together.

We've since gone separate ways but I still remember Sarah with great fondness. She's a brilliant person, with a cool yoga business, and not only gives classes in the Bath area but also organises retreats in some fabulous locations. As someone who has never tried yoga I can't comment on Sarah as an instructor, but the tolerance and forbearance required to put up with me for such a long time bespeaks someone with the patience of a saint. In any case, it's something Sarah has an enduring passion for, so I am adamantine in my certainty that she's ace.

We all graft our own stories and meanings to the things in life that affect us in a profound way - be it music, literature, places or people - and so it goes with this. The wistful, foreboding, luminous, beautiful Bridge Of Sighs has for me become inextricably bound to my time with Sarah. I wouldn't wish it any other way.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

High On The Hog - Black Oak Arkansas

Provenance: I saw these chaps at Sweden Rock Festival one year and had a fine time. Online consensus seemed to suggest that this was a good album for the beginner, so here I am, listening to High On The Hog.

Review: God bless Black Oak Arkansas. They've been around since protozoa first slimed their way onto the primordial beaches of Pangaea, around fifty or so people have passed through their ranks, the rhythm guitarist has two, separate, unrelated nicknames and the lead singer doubles up on the washboard. On that basis alone I am a fan of Black Oak Arkansas. If only they did that cool double drumming thing that .38 Special had going on we might be talking about the world's greatest band.

Alas, they didn't, but a pre Ozzy Osbourne / Whitesnake / born-again Christianity Tommy Aldridge can be found thumping the tubs on this release, though it is unrecorded as to how many nicknames he earned whilst serving his time in 'the Oak'. All kidding aside, this is a really fun slice of southern rock; looser than Skynyrd, less virtuosic than the Allmans, rootsier than Molly Hatchet or Blackfoot, Black Oak Arkansas had a more overt country music influence than many in their genre. What sets them apart is frontman Jim 'Dandy' Mangrum, he of the washboard and a voice that wavers between hillbilly rasp and Beefheartian growl. A curious guy, he's part good ol' boy, part flower child, the self-proclaimed blueprint for David Lee Roth with a penchant for fast living that saw him suffer his first heart attack around age 30.

What I like about High On The Hog is that it's a bit of a grab-bag, with each song inhabiting its own little patch of dirt somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. So 'Swimmin' In Quicksand' has an infectious, funky Memphis groove, 'Happy Hooker' is a fairly straight blues (with a, shall we say, less than progressive lyric?), 'Moonshine Sonata' is a mellifluous instrumental in the vein of the aforementioned Allman Brothers Band and both 'Back To The Land' and 'High 'N' Dry' are down-home, deep-fried, back-porch country; the latter is especially, and unexpectedly, gorgeous.

Where High On The Hog really excels, however, is when it mines a seam of heavy redneck psych that is both slightly unsettling and quite unique. Thus 'Red Hot Lovin'' (these guys love a contraction) 'Why Shouldn't I Smile' and 'Mad Man' all have a faintly ominous atmosphere about them which really works to their advantage in the context of the rest of the album, which is all rather upbeat and rambunctious. Around the same time British bands like Atomic Rooster, Edgar Broughton Band and the Groundhogs were all recording albums swirling with unease and paranoia, so it's interesting to hear these moods given a southern rock twist.

Saying that, for me the masterpiece on the album is the rollicking boogie stomp of 'Jim Dandy', featuring guest vocals from the late, leather-lunged singer Ruby Starr. Doesn't it look like everyone's having the best time?

Given the prodigious turnover of personnel, just by being in the same field as the band there's a good chance that I'm actually a member of Black Oak Arkansas right now. Frankly, if I got to play 'Jim Dandy' and 'Uncle Lijah' (from their first album) and hang out with 'Risky' Rickie 'Ricochet' Reynolds every night, I wouldn't mind one bit. Great album cover, by the way. Top entertainment.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

St Elsewhere - Gnarls Barkley

Provenance: I was just finishing up my undergraduate degree when 'Crazy' came out and swept all before it. Even if 'Smily Faces' wasn't quite as infectious as its predecessor, the duo of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green appeared poised to go on to do big things.

Gnarls Barkley cultivated an image that was both playful and hip, with enough sonic invention to offset accusations of novelty invited by their penchant for fancy dress. It was also hard to categorise their sound - was it soul, funk, electronica or an unholy fusion of the lot? Whatever, I was suckered in. I remember my friend Darryl being quite tickled at my pride in buying music by a contemporary artist.

I haven't played this album for quite some time, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it.

Review: Well, that was underwhelming.

I'm a bit disappointed in myself, to be honest. Yes, I was young and dumb, I did stupid, crazy stuff at university like subediting the student newspaper and dressing up like Paul Stanley. I'm not proud. But for all my faults and foibles, I thought I had a good ear. Yes, I supposed, there are plenty of pop songs able to get the foot tapping, but I felt I was able to see through the cheap tricks of mere earworms. Well, damn me! Damn me to hell! Because I heard 'Crazy' and thought I was taking a peek behind the veil and observing the fucking future.

In mitigation, I wasn't the only one. Reviewers fell over themselves to acclaim St Elsewhere as a work of rare genius. And hey, maybe by the standards of 2006 it was pretty good. But it wasn't great.

Let's get one item out of the way - 'Crazy' is still a tune. Green's vocals glide over the track's queasy electro-thrum and the chorus has the cavernous majesty of full-bore Isaac Hayes. Sometimes there are albums where the lead single is clearly not the best of the bunch. St Elsewhere isn't one of those albums.

Which isn't to say there aren't glimpses of brilliance elsewhere. Kicking off, 'Go Go Gadget Gospel' takes the listener to church via Lost In Space and later on the Willie Dixon-quoting Violent Femmes alt-rocker 'Gone Daddy Gone' is transformed into a glitchy, shifty laser-zap of unrefined bliss. 'Smiley Faces' was, ah, the follow-up single to 'Crazy'.

Otherwise, everything else sounds flat and dated. I don't know if 'Who Cares?' sounded taut and cool back in the day but now it just feels sclerotic. Almost the entire second half of the album seems hastily conceived and sketched out without ever being finished. 'The Boogie Monster', 'Feng Shui', 'Transformer' and 'Necromancer' go through the motions. What could be - and possibly have been - described generously as 'flourishes' of Morricone, Wu-Tang Clan and the Isley Brothers now sound like the bored daubings of a distracted dilettante. Nothing in the lollop to the finish line leaps out of the speakers or surprises the listener. The little quavering Moog is exactly where you imagine a little quavering Moog would go. This seems to jar with Danger Mouse's reputation as a multiple Grammy-nominated superstar producer, but then you recall that he played midwife to both U2's Songs of Innocence and Red Hot Chili Peppers' The Getaway.

Also, Cee-Lo Green comes across as a particularly unlikeable individual, so I don't give a shit, St Elsewhere is mostly dross.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Boy From Tupelo - Elvis Presley

Provenance: I've been to Graceland, you know. It's the roughly seven-year anniversary of the road trip I took around the Deep South of the USA, during which I met the person who I would later go on to marry.

That journey proved to be the catalyst for me to fall in love with a whole bunch of things, aside from another human being. There's New Orleans, and fried catfish, zydeco and the Great Smoky Mountains, the Arkansas State Fair and Twelve Bones BBQ, small town hospitality and the alluvial expanse of Mississippi's Delta Region. I know, I've reeled off a bunch of cliches - and I stand by them all. For a dumb, wide-eyed young'un from Bournemouth, it was something the hell else.

Rather unexpectedly, I also found myself falling in love with a certain Elvis Aaron Presley. I'm driving down the highway in my rental, destination Memphis. I want to be the biggest tourist around, see Beale Street and the Stax Museum and, of course, take a pipe at Graceland. I've got a passenger with me, a large raw-boned chap called Tommy, a former Aussie Rules player I picked up in Nashville. He's here on business, but taking some time out to travel a bit. About twenty miles out of Memphis and fiddling with the satellite radio I get an Elvis station - live from Graceland - on Sirius XM. (Closer into town and I'm on the newly-christened Isaac Hayes Boulevard, which is nice because it wasn't named after a racist.) W head south toward the airport, hang a right and we're almost there.

Graceland isn't a place for the fainthearted. It's a monument to both a great artist and to folly. It is excessive, tacky, a glittery testimony of all that is crass. To stumble around this bejewelled carbuncle is almost nausea-inducing, and one has to consciously remind oneself that actual human beings dwelt in this funfair house of mirrors. And you think, yes, the star of such cinematic triumphs as Clambake and It Happened at the World's Fair would live in such a place. Yet on the ride in, you heard something pulsing on the radio, something vital...

We got into Graceland fairly late, and as Tommy and I were leaving we noticed trestle tables being set up and barbecues being lit. So we decided to do what any two folk in our position would do - don our suits (don't ask why I packed one, but a great call), hustled our way into the function and spent the evening partying on the verandah, food and drink courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Tourism. We even witnessed what must've been the most high-pressure gig for an Elvis impersonator to perform. Yet even in that pale imitation, there's a whisper of something great...

Review: This handsome three-CD (and book) box-set contains every recording of Elvis spanning the period 1953-55, including service acetates, radio performances, studio takes and singles. I'm only reviewing disc one, containing the acetates, the RCA masters and those immortal Sun masters that cemented Elvis' early reputation.

Nick Tosches is a man who can spin a yarn, the kind of guy whom I imagine considers the gospel truth to be a minor inconvenience when there's a good story to be told. His biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire, might be based in part on speculation and hearsay but it's also scintillating. Similarly, there's some tall tales told in Country: the Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll but amidst the mythologising there's some important history on the genealogy of American country music (spoiler: it's all British, and often very old). The book also takes a stand for white hillbilly music's influence in the formation of rock 'n' roll; if not a wholly equal partner with black rhythm 'n' blues, Tosches nevertheless states a strong case - citing plenty of evidence - to suggest that a) there's a clear and obvious country ancestry to rock 'n' roll that's deeper than white performers appropriating black musical forms and b) that blues and country music were cross-pollinating each other for decades anyway. All this is worth holding in mind with regards to A Boy From Tupelo.

From the collection of early acetates you can hear why Sam Phillips initially didn't think he had much on his hands. In a restrained, slightly quavery voice Elvis sings a few torch songs accompanied by his own rudimentary guitar playing. Nothing here for Tosches, or anybody else, to write home about. Even the first couple of Sun masters are on the soporific side. And then, all of a sudden - magic, pure magic, as rockabilly bursts forth from the speakers in full colour. Elvis, along with guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, tear into Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's 'That's All Right' with a wild assurance. Gone is the thin reticence that defines Elvis' sophomore efforts; instead, he meets the percussive thump of Black's bass with a swaggering, swooning brilliance. If ever a recording sounded white hot it's this bad boy, people, it's this one.

There's so, so much more to come; Bill Monroe's waltz 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' whipped up into a 4/4 country-blues; the supreme cover of Roy Brown's jump blues 'Good Rockin' Tonight'; a crackling 'I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine'; and possibly Elvis' most potent two and a half minutes ever committed to wax, his cover of Junior Parker's 'Mystery Train' (Scotty Moore is sublime on this cut). Even here, in this formative (and utterly electric) period, Tosches was able to muster up a moue of disappointment; he pinpoints the false start of 'Milkcow Blues Boogie' ("hold it fellas, that don't move me - let's get real, real gone for a change") as the moment Elvis first demonstrates his own awareness as a commercial performer, effecting a compromise that would forever taint the rest of his artistry. Well, it's an interpretation, and from a man who certainly knows his onions.

Given the technological and stylistic(?) advances(?) that have been made since Elvis started stirring things up in a small room in Memphis it can, at times, be hard to see past this compilation as a collection of historical curios. Certainly, for ears attuned to popular music created a bit later - say, from The Beatles onwards - it can sound a bit primitive. I recall a conversation with a friend where he spoke approvingly of rockabilly revivalist fashion but said he couldn't fully dig the whole package because of the limited sonic palette the music drew from. I grok. I'd flip that around and say that Elvis, and a whole bunch of contemporaries (and near contemporaries) coupled simple music to simple instrumentation and created some of the most exciting and life-affirming music of the last century. Sinuous, dangerous, slinky, sexy, sweaty, belligerent and beguiling - that first flush of rock 'n' roll was where it was at, folks. Let's get real, real gone, for a change.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Under The Savage Sky - Barrence Whitfield & The Savages

Provenance: I heard a track from this album, 'The Claw', on a sampler CD from Classic Rock magazine. It really stood out from the crowd, and I'd never heard of Barrence Whitfield nor his troupe of Savages, so decided to take a punt. I am well aware of the 'one good song on an otherwise shit album' issue, and indeed, have fallen victim to that particular pitfall myself before now.

Review: Wow, this is a lot of fun! A no-frills garage rock band fronted by a soulful blues shouter, packing twelve songs into 35 minutes, ensuring nothing outstays its welcome.

Bostonian Barrence Whitfield (real name: Barry White) is now in his 60s but you would've thought that a record this lusty and vital was made by someone half his age. Make no mistake though - this ain't snotty kid music, as is clear from 'I'm A Full Grown Man', which carries on the ripe tradition of grown-ass braggadocio pioneered by the likes of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. This is tough, muscular R&B with a punk edge, delivered with the same kind of assuredness and command exhibited by the great soul stirrers of yore.

And 'The Claw'? Check it out:

I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for that diamond-edged guitar sound and a skronkin' ol Bobby Keys saxophone. It's there on 'Rock 'N' Roll Baby' too, sounding every bit as joyful and demented as the sax on 'Blue Moon'. (The saxophone is the most maligned instrument in rock music - I think I've said it before, but I'll say it until I'm as blue in the face as the aforementioned titular astronomical body; used rightly, whether slinking away sinuously in Steely Dan's 'Doctor Wu' or covering the first row in spit, as in Frankie Lymon and the Teenager's 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love?', it's devastating.)

I'm going to make a criticism, and then proceed to dismiss my own qualm immediately. The criticism? Under The Savage Sky feels as familiar as Arsenal labouring against a team in the bottom three. The dismissal? Who gives a fuck when it's this fun? 'The Wolf Pack' is, as one can deduce before even hearing a solitary note, a tribute to Howlin' Wolf, which in theory could be terrible. However, when the rollicking Hubert Sumlin riff (doubled on saxophone) is met by Whitfield's dead ringer Chester Burnett yodel, it's impossible not to crack a grin.

That's the deal with this unholy collection; every time you detect a hint of The Hives, or a soupçon of Wilson Pickett - perhaps a seasoning of The Seeds, or a suggestion of Sam & Dave - it's like a reward for digging all this sweet ass music, mingled with the reassurance that someone else is still out there, sweating and hollering and keeping the flame alive. About the only time that this magpie attitude towards appropriation oversteps the mark, I think, is on 'Angry Hands', which has a guitar motif that is a near identical twin to that on Alice Cooper's 'I'm Eighteen'.

There's not much left to say. If you like catchy, rough-edged R&B, Under The Savage Sky is the bad boy for you. I haven't investigated any further back just yet (this album came out in 2015) but I get the impression that I won't be disappointed. By the same token, I bet these guys absolutely bring it in a live setting. You can almost see the steam coming off this platter and it's a studio cut, good grief. Just imagine. Just imagine.   

(Oh yeah, I've got one quibble with that Diffuser list I linked to in my first paragraph: Len's 'Steal My Sunshine' always was, and ever shall be, an unmitigated pile of crap.)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols - The Sex Pistols

Provenance: I'm no punk, believe you me, but this is as canonical as it gets. Got this in an independent record store in Bournemouth that was by the town centre bus stops. The guy who worked there absolutely loathed me for liking bands wot did guitar solos.

Review: You've got to be shitting me, right? This ain't punk.

To clarify - formally, Never Mind the Bollocks... is closer to some of the classic rock and power pop of the era than it is to its genre contemporaries. Trying to speak intelligently about punk as either an aesthetic or an attitude is difficult, because it often depends where and when you're talking about.

But if you associate punk with a lo-fi sound, an amateur ethos and a prickle of danger, you would not be thinking about the Sex Pistols. This album is every bit as big, bright and chunky as any of the classic rock bands supposedly so derided by the young pups of punk. Never Mind the Bollocks... is also a wonderful bit of grave-robbing, as practically every guitar lick is copped from the golden age of rock 'n' roll. That's not just me either - goddamn Chuck Berry could hear it too. Hell, for a gaggle of snotty upstarts they certainly do like their interpolating guitar breaks, as much as any blooz rock band. The one element that does stand out from the crowd is Johnny Rotten's sneering alveolar trill, but even then, is it any weirder than, say, Family's Roger Chapman?

And yeah, one other thing - the songs are fucking brilliant.

At the end of the day, who gives a monkeys if the Sex Pistols were ultimately resurrection boys who added a smear of mucus to their retrograde rockin'? There are still real, visceral thrills to be had; the blathering about going under the Berlin Wall on 'Holidays In The Sun', the sand-blast nastiness of 'Bodies' and that opening couplet of 'God Save The Queen' are all absolutely spot on. I should probably acknowledge that, writing in 2017, I've become somewhat inured to the 'Sex Pistols as shockmasters' narrative, especially as every blessed documentary about British pop music in the 1970s is obliged to include a transition depicting the dinosaurs of prog (scene: Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower) being swept away (music: opening bars of 'Pretty Vacant') by the rising tide of punk (scene: it's only the bloody Sex Pistols!). Yawn.

The truth is, Never Mind the Bollocks... is little more than an update of a structure and sound that was popular twenty years before its release (rock 'n' roll, baby), and one could make the argument that its simple chord progressions and cavernous drum sound are the legacy of a genre - glam rock - that had its heyday only a few years prior. If you sped up the stomp of, say, Slade, Gary Glitter or Mud, would it sound so different to what the Pistols were selling? To these jaded ol' ears, the most 'punk' song on the album is 'Sub-Mission', if only because it wouldn't be out of place on Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power. 

The Sex Pistols were a great band, who represented a mood, a time and a moment that was bigger than they were. Ultimately, the music didn't go anywhere daring, but nor did it have to. It was still recognisably loud, spirited and disruptive, and if not revolutionary then certainly revanchist when it came to rock 'n' roll reclaiming the mantle of rebellion. And besides, even if I were not privy to even a semi-quaver of their music, I would love them anyway purely on the basis of their interview with Bill Grundy. Also, there's a good chance that had the Sex Pistols not existed we wouldn't have been treated to Sloppy Seconds and that, frankly, is an intolerable state of affairs.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Damnation - Opeth

Provenance: I'm just back from a trip to Romania to attend the marriage of my old friend Joe to the lovely Elena. Joe's one of a group of guys who I've all known since the age of 11, and gradually became pals through a shared love of music. At one time or another we've all played with each other's bands and to this day remain tight as a group of people. It's really rather wonderful.

As is customary for any group that bond over music, recommendations fly back and forth, and one I was happy to catch was Opeth. So now, as I reflect upon the sumptuary and sublimity of the Carpathian landscape (Transylvania is a beautiful place), lately surroundings, it seems fitting that my first review upon returning home is one of Opeth's most dreamlike and ethereal collections to date.

Review: Well, I've already given the game away by labelling Damnation 'dreamlike' and 'ethereal'. Let me begin by saying that once upon a time, these would not be words readily associated with Opeth. The band - which continues to be led by the multi-talented Mikael Akerfeldt - began life as a progressive death metal outfit. However, since their 1995 debut Orchid, Akerfeldt has gradually allowed his love of classic prog rock to shine through, with 2003's Damnation representing a culmination of sorts; it was both the most nakedly prog album Opeth had put out to date, and also their most mellow.

Gone, then, are the death growls of pure death metal; in their stead is a stately, sorrowful singing akin to that John Wetton contributed to King Crimson's Red. The King Crimson comparisons don't end there, either; again, Red is invoked with some of the guitar tones and the liberal use of Mellotron to produce the very particular note of mournful foreboding that characterises the album. Which is not to say that Damnation is some kind of sequel to Red; it is perhaps unsurprising that Porcupine Tree also spring to mind, given that Steven Wilson co-produces this album.

However, if it never quite reaches the levels of tension or intensity of Red (and let's face it, what does?), Damnation is very much a collection of uneasy moods, thanks to tricksy minor-key arrangements coupled with drumming that is itchy and imaginative, pulling the seams out of the music, both establishing and deleting a groove at the same time. There are songs here too; by which I mean Opeth write strong melodies throughout, twining them sinuously around the skeletal instrumentation.

It's about this time I feel I should digress a little, and state for the record that I'm fucking sick of music publications that act in amazement when unabashedly progressive bands can write a goddamn tune. From Yes to Caravan, Jethro Tull to Genesis, Steve Hillage to Kevin Ayers, prog has been chokka with superlatively hummable music, some of which just happens to be in 13/8. Of course, there are artists in the genre who chose to create more impressionistic music, or to privilege virtuosity over what one might describe as a certain pop sensibility, but prog has earned an undeserved reputation for masturbatory excess and self-indulgence. If we're talking jam bands - well, now you're onto something, brother...

There's precious little fat on Damnation. At times it can feel like a very quiet album, with a spectral piano refrain picked out, or a shivering, chiming guitar figures ringing out over a sparse, empty landscape of sound. It's not a stretch to say that some of this is utterly spellbinding - and when the Mellotron kicks in, one of the few full-bodied instruments in the mix, the effect is at once both startling and thrilling. The guitar work is woozy and beguiling, natural and harmonic minor scales lulling the listener into that weird, heavy-lidded moment between wakefulness and sleep. The last track, 'Weakness', signs off on the most hesitant and tentative note struck on the entirety of Damnation, bringing to a close an album that feels like it was conjured entirely of gauze and ghosts and fog.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ha! Ha! Ha! - Ultravox!

Provenance: Like the dog who returns to his vomit, I once again decided to trust a review in Classic Rock magazine. However, this time - this time, guys - instead of just saying "these guys make a soulful rock racket, like Bad Company partying with the Doobie Brothers" or some other banal shit, they actually made the first three Ultravox! records (they came in a bundle) sound interesting.

When I read the description that they'd often been dismissed as a "punk Roxy Music", I was all in. This, I was told, was 'good Ultravox!', before they dropped the exclamation mark, gained a Midge Ure and became shite.

Review: If you only know Ultravox as the band behind 'Vienna' and 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes', Ha! Ha! Ha! will come as quite a shock. Far from the mannered, slickly delivered synth-pop that defined their most successful era, the Ultravox! on display here are a bunch of perverted sickos with out of tune guitars and a clutch of cracking songs. First track 'ROckWrok' is as fluid, messy and enjoyable as the sexual practices gleefully delineated and, masked by the frantic delivery, possibly the filthiest song to ever gain airplay on BBC Radio 1. Oh, and in case you didn't realise that you were dealing with capital-a Art, the name is a punning take on a Marcel Duchamp-produced magazine.

What I have come to sincerely love about Ha! Ha! Ha! is the energy that pulses throughout the album; an energy that threatens to teeter over into anarchy but reels back from the edge at just the right moment. It sounds like it was put down mostly live (I have no idea - but it doesn't sound like its replete with overdubs) and captures Ultravox! at their most freewheeling. If frontman John Foxx has a weakness (it's certainly not his name) it's that he's sometimes trying too hard to act cool, but that's largely offset by lyrics speaking of disaffection, fin-de-siecle nihilism and sex. Is it pretentious? Sure, but it's a lot of fun. It's a gas hearing Foxx mash-up Bryan Ferry's strange bleat with guttersnipe polemicising, and the squeaking, skronking instrumentation never seems less than demented.

Whilst one can certainly hear Roxy Music in the mix, as well as Joe Strummer and wisps of Kraftwerk, it's also nice to see where the legacy of Ha! Ha! Ha! lives on in popular music. Listening to the post-glitter stomp of 'While I'm Still Alive' (a favourite of mine) always brings to mind Franz Ferdinand, whilst (more obscurely) the off-kilter tunings could easily have influenced King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard's Flying Microtonal Banana album.

Also, I know I use the term 'glamorous demimonde' far too much (if I've used it once, it's too much) but - dear reader - it is entirely appropriate. For all the thrust of the music, the pose on display is a cross between a decadent ennui and Mitteleuropean (lol, me using words again) elegance. The two most obvious examples - and it's probably no coincidence that the Kraftwerk imprimatur is most evident on these tracks - are 'The Man Who Dies Every Day' and the mighty 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'. It's also curious that, Kraftwerk aside, the other big influence both share is cinema; it's hard to hear the opening lines of 'The Man...' and not think of a Harry Lime figure stood turned away, shrouded in mist; and 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' shares its name with the 1959 Alain Resnais film of the same name (of course - you knew that, right?).

It is perhaps perverse of me to rank 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' as a highlight, because formally speaking it is the one song that points towards Ultravox's revivification as purveyors of sleek, stilted melodrama. Why is it good then? Because whilst it starts out with a bipping drum-machine intro that threatens to turn into an OMD single, it soon morphs into something strangely affecting and beautiful. Each verse is a miniature painting, or perhaps a still from an arthouse movie, a moment of clarity not so much captured as poised. I've used the word 'elegant' before in this review, and it really does apply to 'Hiroshima Mon Amour', from the mournful saxophones to the swooning melody.

And in any case, if I am being perverse, that fits in nicely with a good portion of what Ha! Ha! Ha! serves up. What a wonderful chronicle of humanity's ability to sound sad, jaded and deliriously happy all at the same time.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Ace Of Spades - Motorhead

Provenance: Do I really have to say anything here? It's fucking Motorhead.

Review: The first Motorhead (not doing the umlaut, sorry) album I bought was a live bootleg with terrible sound quality. Every song sounded the same. Having said that, it was still one of the most exciting things I'd heard up until that point.

This was to be my second Motorhead purchase. Why Ace Of Spades? Because it was called 'Ace Of Spades' and had the song 'Ace Of Spades' on it. I really, really like the song 'Ace Of Spades'.

To these ears, 'Ace Of Spades' is the perfect distillation of everything that made Motorhead work. It rattles along at a breakneck pace, an aggressive rip-snorter of a beast unshackled from the bound of propriety and gentility. Like the best rock 'n' roll, it boils everything down to the most basic constituent parts - drums, bass, guitar, voice. There's no dicking about with flutes or mandolins, no vocal harmonies, nary an attempt at a diminished seventh chord. And the vocals? The purest, man-don't-give-a-fuck skull-grin stoicism gutter poetry. It's Rudyard Kipling's 'If-', were Kipling a Ladbroke Grove speed-freak with a pornographically loud bass guitar. 'Ace Of Spades' has the ability to beat the crap out of you within ten seconds if played at the correct volume. I shall never grow bored of it.

You know what's great about Motorhead? They really are, as Lemmy often claimed, a rock 'n' roll band. No doubt they're heavy as all hell, but that's not metal I'm hearing in their sound; it's the thrum of Eddie Cochran, shot through with amphetamines, smoke and rust. The difference is in the dynamic range of the instrumentation - first wave rock 'n' roll often featured thin-sounding guitars and drums that pattered away relatively unobtrusively (when used at all), with vocals and often saxophone to fatten out the sound. Here, drums and an outrageously overdriven bass perform fill out this part of the mix; nor do guitars no Lemmy's inimitable vocals stray too far from the middle, either.

The result? Not a huge amount of depth, which means the only truly trebly sound - the hi-hat - really jumps out at you. Drummer Phil 'Philthy Animal' Taylor rides that rather loose hi-hat relentlessly, which, coupled with the tempo, creates a clattery, splashy effect that is every bit as important as Lemmy's lawnmower-grind bass. Also, I should add that Lemmy's whiskey-and-razors vocals were absolutely essential, and that he was terribly underrated in that department. Try to imagine anybody else singing Motorhead songs - it feels ridiculous.

Look, here's the deal - if you like what the title track brought to the table, you'll like the rest of the album. Every single diesel-powered bastard of a tune on here exudes the same grimy scuzziness as the one that preceded it. Last time out I reviewed Dio's Holy Diver which for all its merits comes across as rather bloodless in comparison to Ace Of Spades. The Motorhead universe is not one where the pomp of vaguely silly Tolkeinesque fantasy gets a look in. Sentiment is eschewed entirely on Ace Of Spades - 'Bite The Bullet', 'The Chase Is Better Than The Catch' and 'Love Me Like A Reptile' all seem to revel in an almost animalistic view of sexual relations (articulated most clearly on the latter, even if only two of the three examples given in the lyrics are actually reptilians). One gets the impression, from a mere sound recording, that this is a band that could beat the shit out of you and your mates, and would certainly take a piss on you as you lay prone.

I normally don't talk about any bonus tracks on albums I own - they were often omitted from the original collections for a reason - but these are mint. 'Dirty Love' was the b-side to 'Ace Of Spades' and is every bit as good as anything else they recorded in the period. Meanwhile, 'Please Don't Touch' and 'Emergency' come from the St Valentine's Day Massacre EP recorded jointly with Girlschool. Hearing Lemmy and Kim McAuliffe duetting on the former, a cover of a Johnny Kid and the Pirates song, is an absolute, unadulterated joy and further underscores Motorhead's classic rock 'n' roll DNA.

I saw Motorhead live many, many times. Fortunately I got all my experiences in before Lemmy's very public demise, which resulted in truncated shows and confused performances. They were one of those bands who went for the throat every time; there are few finer things in life then witnessing Motorhead firing on all cylinders, tearing full-tilt through 'Overkill' or 'Bomber', pummelling you in the chest with the sonic earthquake they generated. What a band, what a singular band - and what an album.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Holy Diver - Dio

Provenance: Honestly? The first time I became aware of Dio (and, by extension, frontman Ronnie James Dio) it was due to South Park. Even then, in what was a scene played for laughs (Dio play the school prom), I distinctly recall me and my brother thinking the song being played - 'Holy Diver' - was pretty sweet.

Not too long after that, I attended a UK show on Alice Cooper's Brutal Planet tour. What a gig! Not only do I absolutely love the Brutal Planet album, but I was also treated to two stellar support acts - Orange Goblin and Dio. The Goblin rocked out, but things went up a notch when Dio hit the stage with 'Sunset Superman'. Ronnie James Dio was so, so good.

Now feels like a good time to revisit this platter as, in a rather ghoulish act of musical grave robbery, a band of former Dio musicians are about to embark on a tour fronted by a hologram of the late singer. I'm sure that'll go down well, lads, and won't look at all creepy.

Review: Here's the deal, mateys. Prior to forming his own band releasing the album under the microscope for today, Holy Diver, Ronnie James Dio had already fronted two legendary hard rock / metal bands in Rainbow and Black Sabbath, performing on landmark albums for both. When relationships went south with his fellow Sabs, he joined up with bassist Jimmy Bain (formerly Rainbow, would later die on a cruise), hotshot axeman Vivian Campbell (who'd go on to join Def Leppard, lol) and tub-thumper Vinny Appice (everyone - honestly, I may have even played in a band with him. You may have even played in a band with him) to form his own minstrel troupe. Fittingly for such a modest and humble individual, he named it Dio.

With their first album, it's fair to say, they knocked it out of the park. In fact, this release is so revered in some circles that even the seemingly minor offence of a lackadaisical performance of the title track is enough to earn you a severe beating. You don't fuck with Dio, and you certainly don't fuck with 'Holy Diver'.

Such is the magnificence of the title track that I always forget that it isn't the track the leads off the album. That honour goes to 'Stand Up And Shout', which I have to admit doesn't stir me in the same way as the rest of the material does. It whips along at a fair old clip and there's plenty of pinched harmonics in the soloing to keep me happy; ah, perhaps it suffers from its juxtaposition to the most ludicrous, imperious, mighty metal song of all...


Honest to God, you could stick this on in any metal oriented bar and cause a white-out from all the dandruff flying around due to the outbreak of spontaneous headbanging. It captures everything that is quintessential about the Dio experience; quasi-operatic vocals, nonsensical lyrics, strident guitars, RIDE THE TIGER, propulsive drumming, YOU CAN SEE HIS STRIPES BUT YOU KNOW HE'S CLEAN, serviceable bass playing and, as you can see from the embedded video above, a terrible music video. I'm not exaggerating when I say that if I were comatose or even dead, I'd start giving 'the horns' (which, incidentally, Dio claimed he popularised in metal) if 'Holy Diver' was being played to me.

(A note on the video - when it comes to terrible metal videos, a topic that is of enduring fascination to me and my pal James, 'Holy Diver' ranks right up there. Whether it's the lamest combat sequence committed to tape (1.05), the cardboard cut-out demon (1.37) or the incredibly nonchalant blacksmith (who's just forged a presumably magical sword - 2.30), it stands out in a very crowded field. It's probably not the worst, but earns its status by being associated with such an iconic track).

This isn't an album that revels in layers or textures; aside from the odd keyboard flourish here and there (but oh! What a flourish it turns out to be!), it's a fairly meat 'n' potatoes affair with regards to instrumentation. Unimaginative? Possibly, but like its near contemporary, Judas Priest's British Steel, Holy Diver's stripped-back approach works because it gives the band's most extraordinary elements - Dio's rich, stentorian, almost fruity voice and Campbell's hyperactive guitar - the space to stretch out. Such is the strength of 'Don't Talk To Strangers' and 'Straight Through The Heart' that they would still sound alright in the hands of lesser talents, but the contributions of Dio and Campbell elevate them to the status of minor classics. It's just the shame they ended up hating each other.

Two final things - first, that keyboard flourish I mentioned? It's the two-finger riff to 'Rainbow In The Dark', one of the most bad-ass tunes Dio ever did, the song 'The Final Countdown' wishes it was. The second point - and 'Rainbow In The Dark' is emblematic of this - is how RJD managed to conjure up an entire fantastical universe of wizards 'n' sorcery with a vocabulary of about thirty words. If I was being charitable I would say that Dio employed a Bolanesque, impressionistic approach to wordsmithery (that whole "hubcap diamond star halo" deal). However, so sparing is he with the actual verbiage he chooses to employ that one can genuinely play 'Dio bingo' with the band's discography.

That being said, Holy Diver deserves its place in the pantheon of metal albums. Its flash-guitar histrionics meant it fit right alongside, for example, Blizzard of Ozz (which was, of course, the solo debut by another Sabbath alumnus) but at times hearkened back to a classic 70s hard rock sound; 'Invisible' wouldn't have sounded out of place on Rainbow's Long Live Rock 'N' Roll at all. And that voice, in all its clarity and melodrama, was a wonder to behold. I was lucky enough to see Dio play Holy Diver in its entirety at my university, and later that night I got the man himself to sign my CD booklet. I put the booklet in my jeans pocket, and later in the week took those jeans to the launderette; net result, my treasured RJD autograph became a soggy, pulpy mess - an apt metaphor for some of the band's later releases. Nonetheless, Holy Diver remains a shiny diamond, like the eyes of a cat in the black and blue.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Fireball - Deep Purple

Provenance: Deep Purple feel like a rite of passage for anyone who professes to be a fan of heavy rock. There are certain bands - Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple off the top of my head - which one is expected to be able to speak about somewhat intelligently, at the least. Being utterly conformist in almost every regard, I have unquestioningly accepted this orthodoxy and have subsequently amassed a small collection of Deep Purple albums.

The problem is, I don't really like Deep Purple.

Their music, I admit, can be sensational. In discussions I've always advanced Ian Paice as one of rock's great drummers, and I love the way Ritchie Blackmore borrowed as much from the classical music palette (most obviously the harmonic minor scale) in his soloing as he did from more traditional blues-rock sources. That said, I don't think the individual elements of Deep Purple's sound always meshed together successfully.

However, away from the strictly musical side, in a business where arrested development is positively encouraged, Deep Purple have always seemed uniquely petty. Stupid squabbles, questionable decisions and unpalatable personalities litter their history. And although it shouldn't, I've allowed this side of Deep Purple to colour my thoughts on the music, making their pomposity and pretentiousness even more risible than it already is.

But here at Swinetunes we're (NB: I, there's only one person typing this dreck) all about giving bands a fair shake. Let's see if Fireball stands or falls on its own merits.

Review: The good news: Fireball kicks out the jams with a stone cold classic in its title track. A strange, whooshing intro (apparently an air conditioning unit), some badass drumming and then we're galloping away. It feels taut, muscular and focused - qualities that rarely, alas, resurface on the rest of the album.

If 'Fireball' exemplifies everything that works, track two, 'No No No', is paradigmatic as to what I find dissatisfying about the album. The latter is ponderous, meandering and downright boring - aiming for a kind of heavy funk-rock sound, it has about as much soul as me dancing to a Trojan box-set after sinking a few Tyskies. Everything all sounds a little phoned in - not just the lyrics, which have been uniformly awful throughout Purple's lifespan - especially the late Jon Lord's Hammond organ noodling. It goes nowhere and takes a long time getting there.

Okay, I like 'Demon's Eye'. It has a dark pulse to it and a swaggering guitar riff that repeats throughout. I'd probably like it even more if Uriah Heep did it. (Deep Purple are, of course, a poor man's Uriah Heep.) So maybe I'm being a bit too harsh, yeah? You're allowed one or two clunkers on an album. The problem is that after 'Demon's Eye' wraps, things get worse. Much, much worse.

I know I gave Europe a bit of a shoeing when I reviewed them but I would take anything off that album - even 'Cherokee' - over the abortive mess that is 'Anyone's Daughter'. It almost feels like a bespoke attempt to provide me with reasons to absolutely fucking hate everybody involved in creating it. Nothing says 'mid 70s rock excess' than a bunch of guys indulging themselves with the most half-arsed attempt at country music "hilarity" than 'Anyone's Daughter'. The intro is literally the band playing like shit. Once it gets into gear, little improves - horribly unfunny lyrics, hammily delivered (even by his standards) by Ian Gillan, terrible sub-Chet Atkins guitar from Blackmore and embarrassingly plinky-plunky cod-barrelhouse ivory-tickling from Lord. A sense of 'this'll do' pervades - it's flabby, half-baked and seemingly tossed-off as an afterthought.

From this point onwards, this is, for me, the overriding sensation I take away from Fireball. Once upon a time rock music was young, vital, dangerous and exciting. I'm not atavistic with rock music; I accept and embrace the flavours it took on as it grew up and grew outwards, but at some point one of its offshoots morphed into this lumpen, portentous, grim-faced, self-important masturbation. It's not as if the musicianship is even particularly breathtaking. Is anyone really impressed with that interminable volume-swell guitar solo in 'Fools'? It neither serves to demonstrate Blackmore's virtuosity nor does it create a mood. It's just an irritant.

So that's Fireball - two good songs and a heaping spoonful of pompous crap. Honestly, go and listen to Europe instead; at least those boys sound like they were having a modicum of fun.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Hot Buttered Soul - Isaac Hayes

Provenance: Like many people of my generation (the greatest generation, incidentally, even if previous cohorts have tried to assume that mantle) my first exposure to Isaac Hayes came about thanks to South Park. Even then, I didn't know that Chef was being voiced by a legitimate musician.

Unbeknownst to me, I had also been exposed to Hayes as a performer thanks to the short-lived Walkers branded 'Sundog Cheesy Popcorn' (what a name), or more accurately, its terrible TV advert.

I'm guessing that a combination of South Park and Shaft finally sparked a bulb to go off in my head, compelling me to acquire a double-disc 'best of' compilation. In turn, this led to me buying Hot Buttered Soul because who doesn't want a sprawling nineteen minute version of 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' in their music collection?

Review: I can tell you one guy who doesn't appreciate Isaac Hayes' trademark extended jams - my former housemate Ben. He went to Womad 2007 with his girlfriend and upon his return saw fit to complain that Isaac Hayes "didn't really sing much", instead that his band kept playing "really long instrumentals" whilst Hayes muttered "love, love" every now and again. Essentially, what Ben is describing is pretty much every classic Hayes release, but I think the poor lad was expecting a bit more 'oomph' from proceedings.

I, however, went into Hot Buttered Soul with open eyes and so it's no surprise that I love this album. It's certainly one that requires a specific mood to enjoy; I wouldn't wish to start my day to it, nor blast it whilst driving to my regular five-a-side game. This is evening music, late night music even, designed to lull and seduce, creating a mood slowly and deliberately. It builds, builds, gets hotter and hotter, then returns to the simmer just when you're expecting an explosion of release. The first track, twelve minutes of 'Walk On By' (a song I have unsuccessfully tried to introduce as a football chant - is there anything more pathetic than a lone drunk man, keeping time on an advertising hoarding, demonstrating that at least he knows all the words, if not how to carry a tune?), is archetypal. It starts quietly, unobtrusively even, but pulls you along with a languid groove punctuated by bravado horns. Whilst this is going on, lush orchestration is being dripped into proceedings, until before you know it eleven minutes have passed and you're lost in a maelstrom of music, thick, dense and delicious. It's quite amazing.

In terms of precedent, I had only heard one other guy who could perform this trick - the high-low slow burn - as effectively, the bluesman Freddie King. Much to my frustration I can't find the performance on CD or online, but damn it, I certainly heard it; the intro seemingly goes on and on, the band threatening (or teasing) a crescendo before slipping back down the gears. All the while, King's guitar is weaving in and out of Hammond organ lines. The payoff, when it finally comes, is immense - a stinging guitar lick and King virtually howling just two words - 'How long' - and I'm not kidding when it makes you want to punch the air.

The most obvious equivalent to 'Walk On By' on the album is the aforementioned 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', the evergreen Jimmy Webb number. If anything, it proceeds at pace even more considered than 'Walk On By', but does include one of Hayes' raps that, along with his masterful arrangements and lengthy jams, came to define his sound. (For my more youthful readers, by 'rap' I'm talking about a long spoken word introduction that is not necessarily performed rhythmically, nor does it have to rhyme. In Hayes' case, these were often meditations upon love, relationships and loss. He does them very well, too, imbuing his deep baritone with emotion and character as he narrates for almost seven minutes before easing into song.)

The two other tracks (yes, there are a grand total of four songs on Hot Buttered Soul) are almost blueprints of the Isaac Hayes technique in microcosm. 'Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic' (I'm only typing that once lads) is the hardest driving, funkiest cut with sassy female backing vocals but even then a good portion of its ten minute running time is given over to a choppy piano solo. 'One Woman', meanwhile, begins almost tentatively, like some kind of hip lullaby; by degrees it strengthens and flexes, concluding as a full-bore, string-drenched soul-stirrer.

In summation, there is one word I haven't yet used but has never been far from my mind as I listened, and that's 'hypnotic'. There are others that certainly apply, like 'languorous', 'sultry', 'sexy' or even 'peculiar', but the mesmeric quality of hearing songs crawling from a state of amorphous sparsity towards something that sounds, frankly, massive, is a hell of a trip. In its own way, despite possessing few of its overt trappings, Hot Buttered Soul is a slice of psychedelia, albeit one that exists within its own category. Certainly it would go on to influence other artists, most obviously Barry White, but few could replicate the aurally overwhelming sublimity of Isaac Hayes when he was cooking with gas.

By the way - Isaac Hayes always looked the part. Sunglasses, gold chains, a metal mesh shirt - this guy was the complete package. And he knew it. Just check this superb footage from Wattstax '73. Not bad, eh?

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Final Countdown - Europe

Provenance: I bought this off a bloke for 50p, twelve or so years ago.

Review: I would like a refund.

Whilst, proverbially, curiosity is a slayer of felines, it was also the motivation behind me forgoing a can of Diet Coke to instead purchase Europe's magnum opus. After all, it contains that one track that even the least rock-conversant could recognise. As I sat down to write this review it struck me that hitherto this very moment I have only given this album one or two spins.

Over a decade on, I realise why. Please, feel free to fill in this gap with your own Europe / Brexit joke, because even the startlingly real prospect that the UK is flushing its economy and international good will down the john is less horrific than The Final Countdown.

To be fair, there were a couple of tracks that didn't induce the kind of metaphysical despair that Kafka merely hinted at. 'Rock The Night' is approaching competent for a big production hair metal number and...uh, that's it. I'm revising 'couple' down to 'a single song'. And lest you think I'm taking a kick at an easy target, bear in mind that I gave Faster Pussycat a pretty positive review (notwithstanding their questionable stance towards sexual activity with minors), and will no doubt be swooning over Ratt, Warrant and Dokken in the near future. I tend to like this bollocks. But not Europe, or at the very least, not The Final Countdown.

How did 'Carrie' become a hit? It's overwrought and boring. How did 'Ninja' (the second-worst ninja-related music title I own) or 'Time Has Come' make it past even the most cursory quality control? Little wonder that guitarist John Norum, the only one who demonstrates any flair on this release, quit soon after, claiming that the guitars had been buried under banks of keyboards. It's just a shame that upon completion The Final Countdown wasn't immediately buried under twenty metres of concrete, thus neutralising the radioactivity of its shittiness.

If I had to pick a standout for the most ball-achingly terrible moment on the album I'm going to go for 'Cherokee'. May I digress a little? Back in 2012 my partner was able to join me in the UK just in time for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. I'd been living in this town for about two months, my partner for a week, and we were intrigued to see how the greybeards of the local council thought best to mark sixty years of Elizabeth Regina. I am sure Her Majesty would have been thrilled that it was basically a laser show set to 'The Final Countdown'.

In the same manner, Joey Tempest (lead vocals) thought a fitting way to commemorate the Trail of Tears was through the medium of butt rock. 'Cherokee' begins with what I can only assume is some kind of 'tribal' drumming, but done in so ham-fisted a manner that you wonder if the song is a piss-take. At which point you remember this is The Final Countdown, and it's no doubt meant in all earnestness. Generations of trauma, borne of a people torn from their birthright and rounded up like cattle, are perfectly realised and sensitively depicted through faux-orchestral synths and wailin' solos. I hope that the First Nations people of today are able to seek some comfort or solace in a song that sounded like it was rejected from Magnum's Vigilante album for being too limp.

And what of the title track, deemed by my town council to be fit for a queen? Well guys, I've got news for you; it's rump. If you like crappy, parping keyboard bombast married to some of the most idiotic lyrics ever penned by man or beast (there are, I suspect, apes that could do better) then 'The Final Countdown' is for you. If, however, the parts of your brain that process sensory information are halfway functional then you'll find a spot of waterboarding to be the more pleasurable alternative.

The Final Countdown is only forty minutes, but forty long minutes that transmogrifies your existence into a seemingly eternal waking nightmare. Which, fair play, is pretty strong stuff for a mere fifty pence. It's a pity that I'm allowing Europe to overshadow my almost completely positive impressions of Sweden (I've visited a number of times - let me tell you, the strawberries are a delight) so I'm going to go and cleanse my palate with a spot of Opeth and Vilhelm Moberg, lest I start ranting about blue passports, fishing quotas and the like. Adjö!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hot Shots: #11 - The Knickerbockers - Lies

I'm a huge fan of the Nuggets compilation, and you should be too. How about this hypercharged cut of ersatz Beatle-boogie? Just one of many, many treats to be found on the untouchable, original Nuggets anthology.

Not only is the song great, but this performance is superb. I know they're miming, but this video shows what can be done with a couple of cameras, a tiny stage and a clutch of hip-swinging teens in tight sweaters. It's just so kinetic, energetic and dare I say it, exciting. Has rock music seemed quite as fun since?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Handsworth Revolution - Steel Pulse

Provenance: Haven't a clue. I bought this from an HMV at some point within the last five years. It was probably on special offer and I thought it might be worth a punt. That's some cool album artwork, after all.

Review: I can't pretend to know what life could be like in late 1970s Handsworth, having grown up in 1990s Bournemouth. I originally come from a place in Greater London called Hayes, which many in my family still call home. My parents grew up in Hayes and, before I was born, lived for a while in nearby Southall. It shares something in common with Handsworth: during the 1981, both experienced riots sparked off by racial tensions. Those in Handsworth were set off by rumours of a march by the National Front, whilst Southall's disturbances were in response to a planned Oi! concert in the Hambrough Tavern pub.

Hit fast-forward to 2011 and parts of London are ablaze with rioting. I stand looking from the top floor of the hospital I work in as plumes of smoke ascend into the summer sky. I return home to see bars and supermarkets in genteel areas like Clapham boarded up in anticipation of violence. Rumour swirls that looters have left a treasure trove on Clapham Common as they seek to evade the police. A seldom-seen neighbour asks 'what shall we do?' and I shrug and produce a golf club. I take an evening walk down to Tooting and pass through the thoroughly middle-class preserve of Balham. I note that nothing is shuttered, although reports later emerge of smashed windows. It is 2011 and race is once again the tinder box, and the fatal shooting of a black man by armed police sparks unrest that will sweep across the country.

So it is now 2017 and things don't feel much better. The referendum on British membership of the EU saw one campaign group literally borrow from Third Reich propaganda to create a poster. Meanwhile, Donald Trump's ascent sees neo-Nazis rebranded as the 'alt-right' and their fashion choices are discussed by mainstream publications. So now I'm listening to the angry, defiant, questing Handsworth Revolution by the British reggae band Steel Pulse, and it's sounding fresher than ever. That's not to downplay the actual music itself, which is superb, but it would be silly to ignore the politics of Steel Pulse's debut, which are front and centre throughout. Putting it another way, the impact of the message has not diminished down the years.

So we have calls for social justice on the title track; 'Bad Man' begins sounding like a boast but mutates into a meditation on slavery; 'Soldiers' demands self-determination for Africans and the removal of the imperialist yoke; 'Prodigal Son' counsels a people to stay in touch with their culture and renew their knowledge; and it seems trite to hint at the gist of 'Ku Klux Klan'. Who could blame the guys in the band for rounding out the collection with the spacey 'Macka Splaff', which is unabashedly about the joys of smoking weed? Even Shakespeare leavened his tragedies with a few jokes.

The grooves are monstrous, the musicianship is top notch (I was especially taken by the delicate, Latin-tinged guitar on 'Prediction') and thus you could quite happily dig this album for all its surface qualities. It's a smashing reggae record. For my money though, Handsworth Revolution reveals its real charms when one tunes into the messages about unity, identity, history, race and spirituality. It's not altogether comfortable listening either, especially if you're a white guy from Bournemouth. Handsworth Revolution delivers a few home truths about my history that I may not want to hear, but certainly need to hear.

There's always hope - and so with 'Prediction', which envisages deliverance for the followers of Ras Tafari, so I'm going to allow myself to perceive a few green shoots. A man has led a General Election campaign on a solidly social-democratic manifesto and created the electoral upset of this century (domestically, at least). Those who sought to smear him as a terrorist sympathiser now find themselves propping up their rickety administration by cosying up to paleolithic bigots with much stronger links to terrorism. The hypocrisy stinks and it won't be tolerated as long as good people stay vigilant and press for a fairer, more tolerant society. To quote Steel Pulse, "Have some, have some faith! / The impossible have a habit of happening..."

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Black and White - Tony Joe White

Provenance: The origins of where and how I first encountered Tony Joe White are now obscured by the mists of time.

I can definitely state that I was aware of the man and his music before September 2010, which I spent in the USA. Here's why:

a) I vividly recall hearing a god-awful song chronicling the downfall of some poor southron maiden or other set to the music of 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' on the radio. I was near Nashville at the time.

b) I managed to finagle my way into a private function at Graceland, and the Elvis tribute band (no pressure there, lads) played 'Polk Salad Annie'.

c) I met a guy in Louisiana who claimed to have known Tony Joe White a little in his youth.

Don't get me wrong, my road trip around the Deep South wasn't some kind of extended Tony Joe White-themed promenade, he just happened to crop up a fair amount. I wish I hadn't encountered that re-write of 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' though, because it was like an ice-pick to the ears. I've tried to locate it for this review but no dice, so if anybody knows what I'm talking about, please get in touch.

Review: Mere words are inadequate to describe how much I fucking love this album. Yet I also find that words are hard to come by in articulating why Tony Joe White's debut had such a profound impact on me; a clear-eyed (or clear-eared?) reviewer would no doubt highlight the flaws and half-developed ideas littered throughout the album. I, however, don't fall into the clear-eyed category; in fact, I was not a little lachrymose when I finally saw 'the Swamp Fox' himself in London last year with my friend Rachael.

(Can I just add something about the TJW live experience? White played a guitar plugged directly into an onstage amp, with precisely two pedals at his disposal - a wah-wah and a deafeningly loud overdrive, which transformed his music into proto-metal garage rock every time it was activated. His only accompaniment was a drummer, which meant the sound could sometimes feel a bit empty when TJW played lead breaks. Yet he could be absolutely mesmerising, even when he talked to the audience in his indecipherable molasses-thick drawl).

Listening to it again now, I still feel both comforted and excited by the sounds coming from my speakers. Firstly, that voice. That drawling, cool, subterranean baritone is absolutely perfect. It's not particularly well-recorded, and sometimes distorts when he fails to moderate his volume. Yet this is precisely why I love it - unlike so many modern recordings where a vocal is tracked numerous times, levelled out and compressed, this is an unadorned and honest record of one man's utterly peculiar instrument. It also helps that White possess a collection of weird vocal tics, smattering his performances with lusty grunts and non-lexical vocables.

All this is performed over what can be described as country-funk, at least on the originals that make up just over half the album. When it hits its stride, Black and White really cooks. Aforementioned opener 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' is a fine example. Covered by Clarence Carter, Brook Benton and Dusty Springfield amongst others, it's a soulful and powerful little fable about race relations between poor blacks and whites. 'Aspen Colorado' is a quietly poignant story vignette about a young man trying to make his own way in the world, and the famous 'Polk Salad Annie' (a staple in Elvis Presley life performances) is belting rocker about an indigent girl and her 'no account' family. In all these instances, White proves to be a deft caricaturist, able to breathe life into his subjects with his wry, nuanced eye for detail.

There's a fair amount of sex on offer too. 'Whompt Out On You' portrays White as a callous lothario, and contains a drum break every bit as funky as 'Amen, My Brother' by the Winstons. 'Who's Making Love' is a soul-power cautionary tale to every dude stepping out with a side-slurp, and he even imbues the Bacharach standard 'Look of Love' with a breathy, languid eroticism. In fact, for such a good and prolific songwriter, White is a very able interpreter, showcasing his ability to inhabit a song on both 'Little Green Apples' and 'Wichita Lineman', the latter possibly just outflanking the Glen Campbell version (heresy!) in my estimation (burn him!).

Deep, seductive, slow and loose, Black and White is a quirky yet colourful slice of downhome escapism. White's idiosyncratic singing only serves to make this a more affecting collection, and Rachael can no doubt attest to my fondness for White's turn of phrase (we still text each other references to 'corn pone', mentioned in 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' every now and again). Essential listening, y'all.