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.