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?