Thursday, 23 March 2017

Hot Shots: #6 - Skip James - Crow Jane

If you've heard of Skip James it's probably down to you being a blues fan, or you were arrested by his haunting 'I'd Rather Be The Devil' in the movie Ghost World. 'Haunting' is an understatement - it's otherworldly, chilling and dark. That one man and a guitar could transmit create a world of anguish and isolation is astonishing. Go give it a listen if you haven't yet.

Here's some latter day Skip James, with an ostensibly more upbeat song - but that sepulchral falsetto remains, and the subject matter is horribly misogynistic. Check out James' wonderfully fluid fingerpicking in the Piedmont style as you enjoy this rather nasty murder ballad.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Surfing With The Alien - Joe Satriani

Provenance: When I was a kid I wanted to play guitar really fast.

Review: Ah, like one's first kiss or first pint of beer, one's first shred album tends to linger long in the memory. Some would say I played it safe with a rather canonical choice, the Pride and Prejudice of axe-strangling, if you will.

I'm not an expert in early music (though I know one, if that counts) but the route from Paleolithic civilisations finger-painting on cave walls to those very same digits sweeping some sweet arpeggios feels like a curious one. First came pre-verbal hollers and rudimentary percussion; next, blowing through tibia bones of animals; I guess it's then pipes and lyres; back to the human voice for a spot of plainsong; thanks to the advent of scoring, ever more elaborate instrumentation began to be employed up through the Baroque and into the Classical era; and then, if we skip a few steps, greasy loners playing the mixolydian scale very quickly in their bedroom. Someone commission me to write the history of western music, please.

It's weird, though isn't it? Take the choral tradition, which is bound inextricably with religion. Like the architecture of the great cathedrals, it seems specifically designed to impart the majesty and glory of the sacred mystery upon the individual in a way that bypasses our reasoning faculties. I distinctly recall being in Salisbury Cathedral around six years ago as Evensong commenced. I'm an irredeemably irreligious person but the sensation of hearing that music, in that environment, was awesome in every sense of the word. Similarly, the first time I heard an orchestra playing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring felt like another occasion where I was being shot through with the electricity of pure excitement and elation. Subsequent to both encounters I was compelled to take stock and try to rationalise what had just happened to me, because the sheer power of the sensation I had felt left me a little scared.

So, put those two moments at the top of the list. There have been other, lesser, communions with this otherworldly power before and since, and none of them have involved shred guitar.

Yet Surfing With The Alien is not a bad album at all. Above all the other wankfests that I own, it's the one album that bears repeat listening. As I have aged, the impulse to have my face melted has lessened with each passing year, but there's enough variety here to maintain interest. The melodies are solid, even hummable, and when Satriani lets rip it's never mindless. It may sound like asking for distinctive songs with half-decent melodies is a low bar, but within the shred genre this can't always be taken for granted (see: whenever I get around to reviewing my sole Yngwie Malmsteen album).

When I was younger I was massively impressed with the faster, heavier tunes like 'Ice 9', 'Satch Boogie', 'Crushing Day' and the title track. Now I am more than double the age I was when I first acquired Surfing With The Alien it is perhaps predictable that I like the slower, less speed-orientated stuff like 'Echo', 'Always With Me, Always With You' and 'Circles' (yeah, yeah, if it's too loud you're too old, gramps - whatever). I should point out that 'Circles' does have a really fucking badass solo, and I'm not entirely immune to the dubious charms of finger-tapping.

What does appeal, overall, is an element of the album that must have been a conscious decision by Satriani; to make the guitars sound as little like a traditional guitar as possible. Thus you don't hear anything like the sounds Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry or Cliff Gallup would've made; instead, the sound is heavily overdriven, squeezed, compressed, scooped, echoed, flanged, chorused and anything else that can be done to turn the guitar into extraterrestrial technology. On that basis alone, Surfing With The Alien is a triumph.

This album doesn't lack heart, either. In a genre where the music can sound formulaic or mechanical, Satriani's six-string futurism always sounds like there's an intelligent life form at the helm. I'm not going to say anything as screamingly stupid as "oh, it's the 'Cyborg Manifesto' for antisocial guys who wail on Ibanezes" but I do feel it served as an ur-text for albums like Steve Vai's Alien Love Secrets and Devin Townsend's Ziltoid the Omniscient. There is certainly a thread in the instrumental metal sub-genre that combines playfulness, sci-fi symbolism and technical brilliance. Within that context, Surfing With The Alien is a hugely significant landmark. 

I should also add: playing Satch solos in your bedroom until your fingers literally bleed totally gets the girls. Had to beat 'em off with a tremolo arm.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Hot Shots: #5 - Joe Dassin - Les Daltons

An absolute corker this time in my nascent Hot Shots series; Joe Dassin, the quintessential French pop star, best known for the wonderful 'Champs Elysee', born in New York to American parents of European-Jewish extraction.

I love everything about this song - the arrangement, the shit video which must've had a budget of 'un centime americain', that voice, that waistline, and the fact that Dassin still looks cool as all hell in this monumental goof-off.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Operation: Mindcrime - Queensryche

Provenance: A bit murky. There's a good chance that the consensus amongst my secondary school muso friends was that Operation: Mindcrime was a Very Good Album™, and purchasing this would make me a pretty hip dude indeed. Another possibility was that the uncle of my friend Chris recommended it to me. He knew his metal, and thus had Good Opinions™.

Either way, Operation: Mindcrime became a bit of a touchstone for the tight-knit group of friends I was part of that attended gigs and European music festivals together. We enjoyed referencing it with a certain ironic relish, especially the moment at the beginning of 'Anarchy-X' where a guy answers the phone and is met with a bitchin' guitar riff. The phrase 'mindcrime' became our shorthand for any unappealing or bad situation.

At our first Sweden Rock Festival we wandered around our designated campsite looking for a place to pitch our tents. We thought we'd found a decent spot next to the perimeter fence and were about to stake our claim when the riff from 'Anarchy-X' piped up from a nearby boombox. We took this to be a bad omen and moved on. It was the best decision we made all weekend too (aside from trying elk kebabs), as we finally broke ground near two Swedish girls who we became friendly with. To this day I am still in touch with the beautiful, charming and extremely funny Camilla. Mycket bra!

Turns out we dodged a bullet as spot near the perimeter fence was adjacent to the biker field. The bikers spent the entire time listening to the worst fucking Eurobeat whilst hopped up on speed.

Review: Operation: Mindcrime is a prog-metal concept album. I'm not really sure what it's about. There's a guy who seems pissed off with the world being all fake and shit, which is great for religious cult leader Dr. X as he recruits and brainwashes this guy into becoming an assassin (cool). There's also a nun in the employ of Dr. X (Sister Mary, who used to be a prostitute of course) and the story hinges on the brainwashed guy and the nun getting too close. Dr. X uses his mind magic and this chap kills Sister Mary...or does he? That's about where it stops making sense to me. He's in hospital at the start of the album and the best song is about how he can't remember anything, so I assume the action occurs in flashback.

I genuinely don't think I'm too far off with the jibber-jabber I wrote in the preceding paragraph, and based on that alone Mindcrime should be terrible. In the interests of fairness, perfectly serviceable thrillers have been written on flimsier premises, but concept albums do seem to have to live up to some never-articulated higher ideal. You can come up with any old bobbins for a cinematic presentation and the greybeards will still take it seriously (i.e. classic Alfred Hitchcock), but dare to set it to rock! music! and you run the risk of being called pretentious, ridiculous or worse.

Anyway, it's all academic because Mindcrime really is a very fine metal album. Without any kind of unifying narrative arc the songs all stand up to scrutiny. However, in this instance, the knotty and overwrought storyline does give the album a definite propulsive force, to the extent where I wouldn't want to listen to any of the songs in isolation.

Alongside the strong concept, two other things push Mindcrime into the upper echelons of progressive metal releases. The first is the fine-tooled songwriting, which never sacrifices a keen ear for a hook in the name of technical ecstasy. From front to back Mindcrime is sleek and accessible, replete with pomp and grandeur but retaining an almost pop sensibility. Thus the likes of 'Operation: Mindcrime', 'I Don't Believe In Love', 'Breaking The Silence' and 'Eyes Of A Stranger' have huge stadium-satisfying choruses.

The second quantity of Geoff Tate's preternatural vocal ability. His voice is simply perfect for the material, and in the metal genre perhaps bettered only by that of Rob Halford (and really, there's a cigarette paper between the two). And whilst I've praised the songwriting, the music is truly brought to life when coupled with Tate's vocals - his extraordinary pipes makes that chorus in 'Eyes Of A Stranger' soar. The only real blot on the copybook comes near the conclusion of 'Suite Sister Mary' at which point the band opt for the dusty ol' device of creepy Latin chanting to signify threat or menace of a religious nature. Sanctus! Dominus! 

It's a shame, then, that Tate turned out to be such a strange and unpalatable character. As with many bands of their era the passage of time saw Queensryche's fortunes steadily diminish, but thanks to Tate's antics there was - for a while - the assuredly unsustainable situation of not one but two Queensryches existing in this universe alone (and who can say how many in a multiverse?). Meanwhile, his questionable sartorial tastes led to the commentariat of Blabbermouth to dub him 'Uncle Vester'.

At least his winery seems to be doing well.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Ballbreaker - AC/DC

Provenance: In the sultry summer of 2004 I lit out with two other splendid fellows to the now-defunct Arrow Rock Festival held at Lichtenvoorde, in the Netherlands. I shaved my head clean and grew a goatee so I would resemble Rob Halford, who had very recently rejoined Judas Priest and were to headline the second night.

I had the time of my life at Arrow Rock, meeting some good folk, braving the weather to see some surprisingly good bands (Ten Years After and Golden Earring exceeded expectations), learning that mayonnaise is the only thing one should put on one's fries...

...and enduring the oddly dystopian setup whereby music was being played through scaffold-mounted speakers in the campsite all night and day. The one song I remember playing incessantly was 'Moondance' by Van Morrison. But that was nothing compared to our neighbouring camper. He roared in early on the second day with his motorcycle club and set up camp next door. We learnt from him that he was unable to buy an Iron Maiden album as he kept asking music store owners for 'ee-ron may-ee-den'. We learnt that he was in "one of the biggest" Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute acts in the Netherlands.

And we learnt that he really liked 'Cover You In Oil' from AC/DC's 1995 album Ballbreaker. Really, really liked it. To the exclusion, or so it seemed, to any other music. He would sit on his deckchair, can of Gouden Zegel in hand, CD player in his lap, listening to 'Cover You In Oil' over and over again. It would reach the end and he would skip back to the start. Sometimes, when he was drunk or slow we'd get a couple of seconds of the next track, but his fingers would find the skip backwards button and we'd be back on 'Cover You In Oil'. This went on for three days straight.

Later that summer, I imagine, I was going around my parents' place singing 'Cover You In Oil' as some kind of ironic joke to myself which backfired when they in turn bought me parent album Ballbreaker for Christmas.

Review: AC/DC are one of those acts that loom large over the rock landscape. They've got their superfans, they've got those who love their big albums (I fall into this category), and you've got those who may not even like Acca Dacca but feel obliged to profess a nodding acquaintance and approbation of their major works. It just doesn't do to profess to be a rock fan and be dismissive of AC/DC - like long-dead playwrights or ageing matinee stars, they are accorded an almost automatic respect for their achievements. Certainly, in this writer's opinion, at their best they were (are?) electric - but as with Iron Maiden (or Ee-ron May-ee-den), I'm minded to say that AC/DC have too much filler in their catalogue to be considered the creme de la creme.

So to Ballbreaker, which I haven't listened to in a long time. I admit that because of my prejudice about AC/DC's uneven output I was worried that this would be a grind. On that count, I have been pleasantly surprised. Producer Rick Rubin has the right idea at keeping arrangements sparse and stripped down - guitars sound like guitars, drums sound like drums and Brian Johnson's helium 'n' leather vocals sound ripe and lusty.

What about the songs? They're...not bad, in the main. Here's my main gripe with Johnson-era AC/DC - everything is done at a fairly stately processional. Many of these songs are fine in isolation, but nothing grabs you by the throat or induces a bout of self-administered whiplash as 'High Voltage' or 'Riff Raff', for example, do. As such, everything on Ballbreaker takes a little bit of huffing and puffing before it gets going. I don't mind it at all if it takes a while for a big old hunk of rock to get revved up, but this album screams out for song that socks you with a haymaker at the outset.

Happily, then, if you like mid-paced blues-rock, you'll be thrilled with Ballbreaker. 'Hard As A Rock' is catchy and fun, even if by this stage AC/DC were trading on single entendres for their yucks. My Dutch friend should've been a bit slower off the mark when skipping back to his favourite ditty because 'The Furor' has a tasty, minor-key descending chord progression that is possibly the most interesting thing on the album. 'Boogie Man' is 'Night Prowler' 2.0 but, again, taken on its own merits a decent tune. The quality dips a little on the second half of the album, and I find something vaguely annoying about 'Hail Caesar', but not enough that I would hit the shuffle button if it came on in the car.

Now for a minor gripe, one which I have alluded to already. AC/DC's lyrics have never aspired to poetry, but in the early days their sleazy doggerel held a similar appeal to the priapic doublespeak found in a Carry On... film. Alas, there is little here that Sid James would cackle over, so obvious are the sex metaphors. Obvious, and tired. Listening to 'Love Bomb' and 'Caught With Your Pants Down' actually shaved a few points off my IQ (and the latter isn't helped by straining to sound like 'Whole Lotta Rosie' without an ounce of the original's manic energy). But for all my complaints, the sound coming out of my speakers is tough and lean, and whilst unambitious, the songs are hooky enough to maintain interest for the most part. It's not brilliant, but Ballbreaker really isn't too bad at all.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention 'Cover You In Oil' again. It's an early track, so once I'd listened to the album all the way through, in homage to my Dutch biker acquaintance I skipped back and gave it another listen. It's punchy, possesses a swagger that's not so evident on the rest of Ballbreaker and has a chorus that is dopey enough to sing along to. I've now heard 'Cover You In Oil' more than almost any other person on the planet. Almost. I truly hope that somewhere in the Low Countries, a man with a greasy mullet and a luxurious moustache is sat in a Laz-E-Boy, supping on a Gouden Zegel and hitting the 'back' button at the first hint that 'The Furor' might start playing.