Sunday, 11 August 2019

A Capella - Todd Rundgren

Provenance: My brother bought this for me as part of a three-album set of Todd Rundgren's Warner Brothers releases.

Having dwelt a fair bit on some pretty straightforward classic rock releases, I asked my brother what I should review next. His suggestion was A Capella, which certainly fits the bill of being a wee bit left-field, because...

Review: ...every sound on this album was created using Todd Rundgren's own voice. It's not entirely free of instrumentation - the liner notes of this release note the use of the Emulator sampling keyboard, which was deployed to manipulate those sounds into chords or percussive noises. On the other hand, this was put together back in 1984 and used entirely analogue recording techniques.

Of course, a capella performances are nothing new. The phrase 'capella' derives from the Italian 'chapel', and so the root of unaccompanied singing in western tradition is linked to sacred choral performance. This gives me a good excuse to embed the following video, which I regard as rather remarkable:



In African-American traditions there is, of course, gospel; its own overt religiousness hardly proving a barrier to becoming popular, both in the past and epitomised by modern ensembles such as Sweet Honey in the Rock. (NB - for a provocative take on the origins of gospel, jazz musician and academic Willie Ruff has got you covered, claiming that its roots can be found in Hebridean line-singing.)

Cutting across ethnic lines, although again beginning in African-American communities, the doo-wop explosion of the middle of the 20th century began with corner singing, though instrumentation was often added in the studio. Typically, doo-wop groups would feature a lead tenor taking the melody, a bass voice to provide rhythmic underpinning, and a combination of high tenor leading down to baritone to fill out the backing sound, going 'top to bottom' in range. Hit up groups such as the Orioles, the Moonglows and early Drifters if you want a taste. I haven't even gotten onto barbershop quartets, floor singing in folk music, field hollers, or non-Anglo ensembles such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo - but the world of vocal performance is rich and varied.

However, what Todd Rundgren has done here feels almost ridiculous. My first reaction, when my brother told me about the concept behind A Capella, was "why go to all the bother?". Especially if you're going to mash and twist your vocals through a series of electronics just to produce the desired effect. On reflection, I have an inkling that it was precisely this ability to manipulate sound in such a way that appealed to Rundgren; that, and the sheer challenge of creating such a weird album. For someone who has genre-hopped his entire career, it does seem of a piece.

The best thing about A Capella is how damn fun it is. Opener 'Blue Orpheus' is absolutely stunning; the audacity to produce something that sounds so startlingly odd still has me laughing every time I hit play. I can't easily describe it; perhaps like a cut from Yes' 90125 album, if Trevor Horn made the band ditch their instruments. It's all the more remarkable that it has such a strong melodic sense, the lead vocal soaring over a backing more multi-layered than anything Queen or 10cc ever managed to conjure up.

Indeed, even after repeated listens, the sounds leaping from the speakers can still surprise; the chorus to anti-war paean 'Johnny Jingo', on its last pass, is overwhelming in its immensity. The effect is dimmed a little on the ballad 'Pretending to Care' and the only cover in the collection, if only because it's are the kind of song one can imagine performed on piano in a nightclub or cocktail lounge; low-key, and only a slight shuffle away from being sung unaccompanied. Nonetheless, the curtain of wordless 'oohs' and 'aahs' Rundgren stitches together to recreate what might've been a lush string arrangement is killer.

My personal favourite on A Capella is 'Hodja', a dizzying admixture of doo-wop and gospel, its meticulous creation shot through with a lively sense of spontaneity thanks to some delightful scat singing. Some of the joints on this piece are pretty tough to categorise - 'Lost Horizon' is Sensual World era Kate Bush meeting So's Peter Gabriel crossed with the shiny white soul romanticism of Hall & Oates. Meanwhile, 'Something To Fall Back On' sounds like one of Kenny Loggins' dancier numbers, if he had the Bee Gees backing him up. I'm at a complete loss as to how Rundgren was able to recreate the organ on this track, given the technical limitations he was dealing with at the time (though, of course, actually at the time, Rundgren probably found the Emulator to be an incredible, labour-saving piece of kit).

As each track unrolls, one can't help but be awed at Rundgren's facility and expertise, even if the song doesn't quite strike home. I'm not overly keen on either the Bloody Mary fable 'Lockjaw' or 'Miracle in the Bazaar' and its cod-Orientalism but these are rare moments of filler, and in fairness 'Lockjaw' did sound like fun to put together (but - if it was just a few notches less goofy it could easily have been a cut from a late-era Tom Waits cut). 'Honest Work' is a touching and poignant folk ballad, that's the 'straightest' thing on A Capella and I can't figure out whether it would benefit from a more maximalist approach or whether it would ruin the sentiment. The confection ends on a high, the bouncy, joyous 'Mighty Love' (originally by the Detroit Spinners, the only cover here) taking us home with gospel-inflected soul power.

What a peculiar artefact A Capella is. It certainly stands out as unique in my collection, if only because nobody else that I rate would be bonkers enough to put in the Stakhanovite effort. In any other hands this would be 'experimental' (=unlistenable) but Rundgren has too keen a pop ear to fall into that trap. A dazzling, baffling testament to a singular and restless genius, I can't recommend A Capella enough.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

(Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Provenance: As a young guitar player I wanted to play 'Free Bird'.

Review: I almost decided to go with something by Electric Wizard or Lee Dorsey this week, as I couldn't be arsed with this album title. Even the band's name gives me a minor headache. So, henceforth, (Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) will be Pronounced..., and I may well just stick to 'Skynyrd' for the band.

It's my belief that Lynyrd Skynyrd are one of the more unfairly maligned bands out there. Certainly, their current incarnation does them little favours, having seemingly succumbed to the temptations of the Nuge crowd a decade ago with a wretched platter called God & Guns. In all probability it was a savvy move; it resonates both with the classic rock crowd (a conservative old bunch) and the fans who didn't quite get them the first time around. A victim of their own success, one might say, as Skynyrd are often portrayed as the archetypal white trash favourite, semi-idiot fans drunkenly braying for 'Free Bird' a whole two songs into their sets.

At least in the early days, before little brother took over as the frontman, Skynyrd were a more nuanced operation. 'Saturday Night Special' was as anti-handgun as anything out there; 'Tuesday's Gone' and 'I Need You' are wonderful slices of balladry, teetering just about on this side of maudlin; 'Sweet Home Alabama' is much ambiguous than its title suggests; and of course, they beat the Sex Pistols to the punch by slagging off their own record label with the incredible riff-monster 'Workin' For MCA'.

So, here's where it all began - with some wonderfully greasy drumming that kicks off both Pronounced... and 'I Ain't The One', a tough blues-rocker that serves as the template for a raft of Skynyrd tunes. They would get a little more complex on subsequent releases, but it's really all here; swaggering riffs interpolated by wiry, slippery blues soloing and Billy Powell's honky-tonk piano. The cherry on top is Ronnie Van Zandt's vocal; he has no real range, aside from a country falsetto holler, and one imagines his speaking voice wasn't too far from his singing voice. But that's the charm! His voice is no more or less 'honest' or 'authentic' than Jobriath's, or Gladys Knight's or Ian Curtis', but here it feels entirely at a piece with the style, context and ideas behind the music.

It is this unpretentious and plaintive delivery that entirely elevates the otherwise slightly pedestrian 'Tuesday's Gone' - a big ol' ballad about leaving your woman in the 'By The Time I Get to Memphis' mould - into a real heartwrencher, and good enough for Metallica to cover. It's also an effective deadpan, as on the comic-buffo 'Gimme Three Steps' (about approaching the wrong guy's woman in a bar); you can almost picture the raised eyebrow as he intones "ah said, excuuuuse me" just before a lead break. If I am going to bring authenticity into play, it's that as a native son of Alabama Van Zandt totally gets away with the couplet "Hey there fella / With the hair coloured yella". And by 'gets away', I mean it's a real kicky little moment in an already knockabout number.

Now, I know that 'Free Bird' is part of the gilded iconography of southron rock, alongside 'Whippin' Post' by the Allman Brothers, the band's very own 'Sweet Home Alabama' and Charlie Daniels' deranged Twitter feed, but for my money the better song is 'Simple Man'. It's in the same vein of cornpone balladry as 'Tuesday's Gone', but features some satisfyingly crunchy choruses and a sentimental lyric that's atypical in classic rock by recounting the advice the singer received from their mama about living a good life. Nothing here to rival Montaigne you understand, but it's direct and sincere.

It's about this time that Pronounced... sags into a rhythm that approaches the formulaic, but there's nuggets of gold strewn throughout the back end, such as Powell's Dr John impression on 'Things Goin' On'. Of this little bunch of tracks that lead up to 'Free Bird', 'Poison Whiskey' is probably the most interesting for Skynyrd fans as it most obviously points towards the sound on their next album, Second Helping. There's a muscularity and aggression in the attack, and it introduces the knotty turnarounds that festoon Second Helping, incidentally making some of the best Skynyrd songs deceptively tricksy to play.

I feel like it's a hopeless task writing about 'Free Bird', thanks to its ubiquity and notoriety. I'll say this, then; the verses, underscored by Hammond organ, are Skynyrd doing their best Allmans impersonation, and I like 'em best when they're sounding like Skynyrd. It's not bad, but on an album with two slower-paced numbers already in the mix, it drags a little. The lengthy coda, however, consisting of a galloping guitar dual, remains a treat. What impresses are not the pyrotechnics on display - it's not actually a particularly difficult solo in technical terms - but how it's constructed. The different motifs locking together, weaving in and out of each other, building both momentum and tension - and then the final release (albeit slightly anticlimactic) are what makes 'Free Bird' a perennial. You want proof? Here's some proof.

Pronounced... is a minor classic, albeit one that exists in the shadow of the monster it spawned. In this scribe's humble opinion Skynyrd actually get better on Second Helping, but that's all for another time. Yeah, this is really first-rate deep-fried southern rock, and not half as boneheaded as you may have been led to expect.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

J Geils Band - J Geils Band

Provenance: During Sixth Form I formed a group, to play at our school band bash, called Centerfold. The ostensible reason for doing so was to play stuff that wasn't punk or metal (the two flavours of music available at the band bash), but really it was so I could play the J Geils Band song 'Centerfold' to a large-ish audience.

In that respect it was a success, but in most others the performance was not just an abject failure, but a litany of failures. Nevertheless, today I am able to battle through the still-present fug of embarrassment to get back on the J Geils Band horse. Here's their first album. Just look at those cool rockin' daddies - hotcha! Hotcha!

Review: Basically, I became mildly obsessed by the song 'Centerfold' after hearing it at a pub quiz. Not long after this revelation, I learned that the band once invited Lester Bangs onstage to play a typewriter solo. A band worth following up with, you'd think - and I duly did, a mere sixteen years later. Other stuff got in the way I guess. Anyway, I had come to be aware of the fact that early on, the J Geils Band were more a gritty R&B band than the slightly New Wavey 'Centerfold' would suggest. That's fine, as my tastes certainly skew towards gritty R&B, plus they had a harmonica player called Magic Dick, which frankly ticks a lot of boxes.

I'm partial to a spot of roughhouse blooz 'n' roll, and that's essentially what this is. Somewhere west of Dr Feelgood and north of Albert King circa his Born Under a Bad Sign Stax release, it's unpretentious, knockabout fun with not a little craft. I like the fact that vocalist Peter Wolf doesn't confuse histrionics with expression, and I'm delighted by Magic Dick's fluid, buzzy interpolations. He even gets his own showcase of his own called 'Ice Breaker', which has hints of Booker T & the MGs. It's a bit odd to sequence this in at track two, though. Was Magic Dick their big selling point? He certainly blows a good harp.

Despite J Geils Band scoring precisely nul points in the originality stakes, it's testament to the band's facility with a twelve-bar that their original compositions stack up well to their interpretations of others. The gear-jamming anthem 'Hard Drivin' Man' (gotta drop that 'g', baby) is the highlight of side one, and has a suitably top-down, open-highway feel to it. It is, however, run quite close by the crawlin' king snake strut of 'Serves You Right to Suffer', and it's nice to hear John Lee Hooker done well in a band setting. Part of JLH's charm was his looseness, which was often the first thing that bands covering his songs would discard. It's great to hear the J Geils Band have the confidence in the material to stretch out and keep proceedings simmering away at the right temperature.

However, having praised the songcraft evidently in existence within the J Geils Band, the true standout of the whole album is the cut that gets side two cooking. I already loved the Otis Rush original of 'Homework', but this hard-charging, snakey version is solid gold. To follow it up with a bippin' and boppin' version of 'First I Look at the Purse' (a hit in 1965 for The Contours) is pure filth. I'm thinking of great one-two punches that get an album galloping out of the stalls; the first two tracks on Love's Forever Changes or Steely Dan's Gaucho come to mind. The start of side two of J Geils Band can go toe-to-toe with anything. Likewise, when you decide to round off proceedings with the Albert Collins instrumental cut 'Sno-Cone' (according to the liner notes here, co-written with The Big Bopper - helloooooo baaaaaaby!) you could've packed the intervening ten minutes like a sock of shit and I'll still be giving this a rave. Okay, so 'On Borrowed Time' might not be the greatest blue-light ballad ever written, but it's a welcome change of pace. I love everything else.

As I mentioned before, there is nothing new under the sun here, but when it's this muscular, unpretentious and tightly arranged (all words that can describe me, incidentally) there's nothing to do other than sit back and admire a job well done. The J Geils Band might sound like a bar band, but it's the best damn bar band west of the Danube. Buy this album.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Liege And Lief - Fairport Convention

Provenance: My memory is fuzzy on this, though I recall buying Liege and Lief for my dad at some point. That's how I first heard it; and it obviously left an impression, because I bought it for myself many years later.

Certainly, if it wasn't for dad I wouldn't have an inkling about the folk rock scene. The first band of that ilk I remember hearing were Steeleye Span, probably their Below the Salt album. I was less familiar with Fairport Convention but distinctly recall Babbacombe Lee being in my parents' vinyl collection. In a slightly odd twist, during my MA I would live a few yards from the prison where they tried to hang John "Babbacombe" Lee - three times, if I recall correctly - before a halt was called to proceedings.

But enough rambling about Babbacombe Lee, it says at the top of this article that I'm reviewing Liege and Lief, so I'd better start paying some attention.

Review: Iconoclastic. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of Liege and Lief, it's worth noting a bit of context. I would direct any reader with the slightest interest in the British folk scene to pick up a copy of JP Bean's oral history called Singing From the Floor. This book both manages to dispel and enhance the perception that folk is an austere, scholarly pursuit riven by purists and gatekeepers of the worst kind. I say enhance, because a few major figures certainly fit the bill. Ewan MacColl in particular comes across as something of a martinet, obsessed by the technicalities of folksong and running the rule over which songs were 'acceptable' to be performed at his clubs. I should say that despite his stated orthodoxies and the faintly ridiculous 'finger-in-the-ear' style of singing that entered popular culture, MacColl and others like Bert Lloyd did much to preserve a dying tradition, and in MacColl's case to contribute some fine songs of his own.

Where Singing From the Floor dispels the notion of folk as altogether too stuffy is in its depiction of the Soho scene. Here, young British performers mingled with American counterparts such as Paul Simon and Jackson C Frank; ideas around tradition and authenticity were a little looser, and I don't think its surprising that the more innovative musicians in folk - Bert Jansch, John Martyn, John Renbourn, Roy Harper et al - emerged from this crowd. This is also the crowd that gave birth, in stuttering form, to Fairport Convention.

Liege and Lief is Fairport Convention's fourth album. Founding members Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson were here joined by fiddler Dave Swarbrick, singer Sandy Denny and drummer Dave Mattacks, the replacement for Martin Lamble after his death in a road accident in which every member of the band at the time except Denny were involved. Whilst coming to terms with loss and injury, bassist Hutchings buried himself in researching traditional music archives housed in Cecil Sharp House. Denny was already familiar with much traditional music, and Swarbrick had a knowledge of folk that Thompson would describe as 'encyclopaedic'. What they subsequently did - take music that stretched back centuries in origin and electrify it - would prove to be a game changer.

From the perspective of 2019, where it feels like every genre has been run through the electro-wringer (though electro-swing definitely shouldn't be a thing), Liege and Lief might be considered quaint. Certainly, some early rock 'n' roll sounds a bit tame to my ears, even as I strain to discern its importance in the development of popular music. Given that folk already has a somewhat unthreatening patina to it, I was worried that a reappraisal of Liege and Lief would be full of caveats. I'm happy to say that they're not necessary.

In some ways, this record is wilder than anything floating around at the moment, even in the edgier 'hard folk' circles. Firstly, the electric backing to songs that already sound unearthly transport Liege and Lief into the realms of psychedelia. This weirdness is heightened by the fantastical nature of some of the lyrics - 'Reynardine' and 'Tam Lin' being standout examples of songs that read like trippy, twisted fairy tales. The playing is exemplary - Mattacks' backing to 'Reynardine', for example, which consists of little else than slow swells on the cymbal, is breathtaking in its simplicity and ability to create a sense of otherworldliness. The truly mindbending element in the mix is Swarbrick's electric fiddle, which at times drones away like John Cale's viola in the Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs'; at other times, it simply kicks free from gravity and takes flight. The mid-album medley of 'The Lark in the Morning / Rakish Paddy / Foxhunter's Jig / Toss The Feathers' is a blistering showcase of Swarbrick's enormous talent, but the band behind him is no less facile with the shifting tempos and time signatures.

And yet, in my opinion Swarbrick's incandescent talent is eclipsed by that of Sandy Denny. Hands down, Denny is my favourite female vocalist. My dad might argue for Maddy Prior's powerhouse vocals, others might highlight Annie Briggs' almost bell-like purity. Both excellent singers, but neither could inhabit a song with the same expressiveness as Denny does on Liege and Lief. Tender, strident, doleful, commanding, playful - whatever the song - hell, whatever that particular lyric demands, Denny delivers. The most dazzling example is the murder ballad 'Matty Groves', which Denny tackles as if it's a play and she's somehow wound up acting as every character.

Furthermore, just in case you weren't convinced, she repeats the trick on 'Tam Lin', a 16th century ballad that's transformed here into a spiky, ominous, lysergic rocker. There comes, at around two minutes, the moment where Swarbrick's violin opens up in delicate counterpoint to Denny's vocal melody and the feeling it engenders can only be described as blissful. The constantly changing dynamics of 'Tam Lin' means that the song seems to morph around Denny's moods, making it the most sophisticated track on Liege and Lief and the one that, for my money, packs the most wallop. I don't think that I've ever heard anything quite like it anywhere else.

Have I convinced you? Do you still automatically associate folk with fustiness, beards and real ale? Or can you begin to imagine it - at least in the guise of Liege and Lief - as a gateway to that which is inherently and indigenously strange about British folk ways? Folk can sometimes seem hobbled by its homeliness and rather old-fashioned insistence on telling stories; Liege and Lief serves as a startling reminder as to the power, vitality, violence and peculiarity of British traditional song. Hell, it should be on the National Curriculum. A peerless, important work.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Long Live Rock 'N' Roll - Rainbow

Provenance: I had a 'best of...' compilation, purchased due to my enjoyment of 'Since You've Been Gone' and 'I Surrender'. However, I gravitated more towards the tracks sung by Ronnie Dio, and so in short order I picked Long Live Rock 'n' Roll up from my local HMV. Boring story, right?

Review: Ah, Rainbow. The band Deep Purple could have been. Seriously though, at least until Dio left / was sacked / just stopped turning up to the studio, by my reckoning Rainbow were one of the best hard rock acts of the mid-70s. Albums such as Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and the majestic Rising stood out for their fantastical lyrical themes, blazing virtuosity and a willingness to incorporate classical and Eastern scales into rock music. These releases were to prove hugely influential on heavy metal in general, pointing a direction away from the bluesy trudge of much that had come before.

Long Live Rock 'n' Roll was the third and final instalment in the Dio trilogy. Prior to recording the band had gone through one of its frequent convulsions, with David Stone replacing Tony Carey on keys and future Ozzy Osbourne / Gary Moore bassist Bob Daisley stepping into Jimmy Bain's shoes. (NB: the late Jimmy Bain must be one of the few rockers to have died aboard a ship, doing so on Def Leppard's 'Hyseria on the High Seas' cruise in 2016.) Nonetheless, the core songwriters of Dio and Blackmore remained in situ.

Another key ingredient to Rainbow's sound, in this listener's humble opinion, was the powerhouse drumming of Cozy Powell. There's few better ways to get the party started than hearing Powell slamming a tattoo out on his snare. He's one of a select few drummers whose might was captured in the studio. You can hear the muscle behind his thwacks and thwomps! Powell's skinsmanship is one of my favourite elements of LLR&R, especially his deceptively tricksy fills and the way he uses his crash cymbals almost as exclamation marks. He's all over the title track opener, providing the heft and swagger for a rumbustious celebration of rocking out. It's fucking spectacular.

It's also a real joy to hear Dio in his pomp. Even though he remained an imperious singer up until the end, back here in 1978 that plummy, operatic timbre was fused with a rare litheness. Any old jabroni can sing loud or quiet, but the trick is to imbue it all with character and emotion (as required) whatever the dynamic. So we have Dio going full-tilt on the title track and the prowling 'L.A. Connection', and practically roaring his way through 'Kill The King', but he virtually coos his way through closer 'Rainbow Eyes', demonstrating a hitherto undisclosed tenderness. Dio's overall performance on LLR&R was the best he ever sounded in his long and storied career.

Congratulations if you've come to the realisation that I really, really like LLR&R. In fact, I think I can go so far as to declare it my favourite of all the Rainbow releases. It's not perfect, but that's never stopped me falling in love with albums before. Nevertheless, I'm going to nitpick over a couple of aspects. 'Gates of Babylon' is set up as the big epic in LLR&R and it almost comes off. Despite its grand string arrangements and Middle Eastern flourishes, it collapses under the weight of its own pomposity and Orientalism, ultimately veering closer to 'Arabian Nights' from Disney's Aladdin than, say, Maurice Jarre's overture from Lawrence of Arabia

The one other moment that, without fail, comes across as faintly risible occurs in the otherwise invincible 'Kill The King'. It's brief - in fact, the singing of a single word - but it used to crack me and my friends up every time. There's a line that goes 'Power - power!' and the second 'power' is delivered in a way that makes it sound like Dio is both spitting and swallowing at the same time. It's over in a flash, but it's fucking hilarious.

Nonetheless, it can't be understated as to how important LLR&R was to the development of metal. Despite being a little less adventurous and colourful than its predecessors, it stands as a hard rock monolith. Every one of those shitty bands from Germany or Sweden that play power metal should bend the goddamn knee when they hear 'Kill The King', because it more or less invented the accursed sub-genre. I imagine Yngwie Malmsteen genuflects in front of a triptych containing the artwork for the first three Rainbow albums every day he draws breath, as without Blackmore it simply wouldn't be acceptable to wear crushed velvet and buzz away at the harmonic minor on a Strat. For all that he could be combustible or even downright ridiculous (unsurprising, given he was once a member of Man-Baby Group of the Decade - 1970s), when feeling inspired Blackmore was one of the greats.

The power chord feels like a fundament in the world of rock and heavy metal, but it's used sparingly on LLR&R. Instead, Blackmore uses his command of harmonic minor and phrygian dominant scales to coil his guitar lines into unusual and exciting soundforms that writhe and bend in and out of the bass and drums. His soloing is no less expressive, and one can only admire how he twins dexterity with tunefulness. Blackmore's nimble fingers and agile mind are such that the work on LLR&R made many of his contemporaries seem in comparison to be tethered to terra firma. A shame, then, that for subsequent releases, Blackmore's decision to pursue a more commercial approach (one that was successful, I should add) brought him back down to earth.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Opus Eponymous - Ghost

Provenance: For a band who I've followed avidly since they first burst onto the scene about ten years ago, my memories of how I became with Ghost acquainted are fuzzy.

I certainly recall my first live encounter with the band - March 2013, when they headlined that year's Jagermeister Tour; support acts were Gojira and The Defiled. Caught it down in Bournemouth with a few friends and family, tickets costing a princely five quid. Even back then, Ghost put on a hell of a show.

Anyway, last month I spent a week in North Macedonia and listened to fourth album Prequelle on the flights there and back. Having initially dismissed the latest as a bit ballad-heavy, I am now inclined to see it as their strongest album to date. So, having recently used this blog to pretend that I'm an adult with grown-up tastes, I now think it's time to check out a bunch of Scandinavians who wear masks and pretend to worship Satan.

Review: Prior to pressing 'play' on my stereo, I had a horrible impression that I was going to be less than fair with Opus Eponymous. What I saw in Bournemouth all those years ago was exciting and theatrical, but absolutely nothing like the slick outfit Ghost have subsequently become (I saw them in Brighton a couple of years ago for significantly more than a Lady Godiva). Likewise, the music on Prequelle is rich in texture and nuance, great swathes of orchestration wrapping around songs that have one eye on the charts (NB: this album didn't do any business in the US, whilst Prequelle peaked at number three on the Billboard Top 200).

Then again, at this point in time, there was still a lot of fun to be had around Ghost's identities. Taking a leaf out of the Kiss playbook, the songwriting on Opus Eponymous was credited to 'a Ghoul Writer'; the frontman was the mysterious Papa Emeritus, and the band referred to as 'a host of Nameless Ghouls'. Furthermore, the album sported cool artwork and reinvigorated a strain of metal that could be subtle yet heavy, sinister yet campy and unafraid to revel in showmanship. In short, they basically revived 1972-77 era Blue Oyster Cult, but this time, with added devilry.

(Even the symbol Ghost use has a touch of the Kronos motif Blue Oyster Cult deployed on all their albums. Catnip for BOC geeks such as myself.)

I don't think it comes as a surprise that a collection quite so schlocky as Opus Eponymous opens up with a church organ dirge. Pretty standard stuff, really, when it comes to albums that celebrate Old Nick. All well and good for setting the scene, but it's over quite quickly and we're into the galloping 'Con Clavi Con Dio', which is what all of us in the peanut gallery came for. It's fucking badass - and makes me realise that although Ghost were working with a much more basic palette than on subsequent releases, that ability to fuse tunefulness and heaviness was there from the word go. One suspects that were this to appear on Meliora or Prequelle, it would be washed with keyboards and other such orchestration. One thing that does stand out is that the music has more 'gaps' than the thick tapestry of sound that typifies later releases.

Still, this no-frills approach gives it a pleasingly retro feel. Vocals aside, much of Opus Eponymous sounds like it could've been disinterred from the mid-1970s, or maybe the first dark flowering of the NWOBHM. This ersatz dustiness - a false vintage - perhaps puts Ghost, at least here, in the bracket of some kind of eldritch Sha Na Na, inviting the listener on a journey to a time that never quite took place in the first place. I'm not suggesting for a moment that Ghost belong in any serious kind of discussion about hauntology but their Blue Oyster Cult cosplay act is damn convincing.

I keep mentioning BOC here, and at this juncture I should also throw in other obvious influences such as Mercyful Fate, Alice Cooper, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Slayer; they're all there. But - but - but - you can taste the fact that Tobias Forge (the leader and frontman of Ghost) is intimately familiar with Long Island's finest between, especially that golden stretch between Tyranny and Mutation and Spectres. Damn it all, the keys in 'Con Clavi Con Dio' sound like they've been ripped from 'Tattoo Vampire'. Elsewhere, there are echoes of 'Flaming Telepaths', 'Career of Evil', 'Quicklime Girl' - the good news is that Forge's borrowings are from the absolute prime cuts, so it's all good. Greta Van Fleet, take note; when you want to emulate your heroes, just try and do it well in the first instance, yeah?

In any case, none of this would add up to a hill of beans if the songs aren't there - and, praise Satan, they really are. Forge isn't a screamer; in fact, for a metal singer his voice is quite soft, made even more pliant by enunciation informed by his Swedish background. However, if anything this makes the music sound even more unworldly and uncanny; compare and contrast with Kiss, who for all their attempts to shock polite society, couldn't hide the fact that they were a bunch of Noo Yawk schlubs if their lives depended on it. Instead, Forge relies on a building a sense of drama and majesty to propel his infernal ditties and it works splendidly. Ghost celebrate the Father of Lies with all the pomp and ceremony of a High Mass, and choruses to tracks such as 'Elizabeth' (about Elizabeth Bathory), 'Stand By Him' and 'Death Knell' simultaneously soar to the heavens and plumb the fiery depths.

Having listened to Opus Eponymous again, so soon after spending a lot of time with Prequelle, has brought me not only a sense of relief (i.e. that it's a banger) but also reminded me why I was so revved up by Ghost almost a decade ago. It's yanked me back to a small concert room in Bournemouth, and to marvelling at the audacity of trying to conceal the band's identities in the online age. The latter couldn't last, of course, but I enjoyed the schtick at the time. With a whiff of brimstone and a smear of greasepaint, Ghost delved backwards to bring the joy of the old-timey rock 'n' roll spectacle to the twenty-first century, for which we should all be grateful.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Mingus Ah Um - Charles Mingus

Provenance: This is the first jazz album I ever bought and it's entirely thanks to a friend I met at university, Mike.

I was in his room during the first year and we were chatting away about music. Despite christening me 'Hair Metal', a nickname that would stick for a good three years, we found each other fairly simpatico in terms of likes and dislikes. That is, until the subject of jazz arose.

'I don't think I like jazz,' I said. 'It's too complex.' It speaks to Mike's good taste and geniality that, instead of berating my ignorance, he loaded Mingus Ah Um into his stereo and pressed play.

In only a few short moments I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And by Toutatis, it swung like nothing else I'd experienced before! After allowing me the time to listen to a few cuts, Mike turned to me and said 'so what is so difficult about this?'

Nothing. Like an idiot, I thought jazz was either some lame-ass big-band granddad music played by dorks in bow ties, or it was a cigarette paper away from the pretentious gubbins parodied on The Fast Show's 'Jazz Club' skits. (NB: jazz can also be both of these things, much like rock music can encapsulate something as wonderful as Terry Reid's River and Kiss' Hot in the Shade).

Review: The last time I reviewed a jazz album I spent an entire paragraph complaining about how difficult I find it to write about this particular genre. I'll spare you the plaint once more, but suffice to say, I feel lost at sea with anything that falls outside of the popular music paradigm. Feel free to go back and read about my utter lack of qualification to write about jazz right now; but if you're feeling particularly masochistic, my friend, read on!

I have a clutch of albums from bandleader (and double bass player) Charles Mingus but this was my first, and still my favourite. From the off, those very first few notes in 'Better Git It In Your Soul', one feels a sense of weight and pregnancy. It's as if the band are straining at their leashes, or waiting for the traps to open. Sure enough, after those first few establishing motifs on bass and piano, the band kicks in with a swagger that is unmatched in almost anything I've ever heard. It's post-bop but in a way that sounds directly plugged into gospel and the blues, riding a tricksy 6/8 time signature but shimmying and simmering along to something elemental and raw.

From that most ebullient number, Mingus Ah Um shifts down into something more mellow and elegiac, the beautiful 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', Mingus' tribute to saxophonist Lester Young. A composition that's been covered by a fair few artists, my exposure to 'Goodbye...' first came about thanks to Jeff Beck's Wired album. It was the standout cut on that LP, but here, with horns taking centre stage, it's a whole new universe. In a world where the tenor saxophone is (too) often deployed for its potential to bring a note of brashness to proceedings, it's a revelation to hear it moaning the melody with a rare solemnity.

I vividly recall what Mike said about the third track on Mingus Ah Um, 'Boogie Stop Shuffle'; every time he put it on, it brought to mind a car chase scene in some 1940s gangland caper. He's spot on. As with 'Better Git It In Your Soul', 'Boogie Stop Shuffle' really shifts, motoring along with the kind of propulsion I had hitherto believed didn't exist in jazz. It's pretty close to a headbanger. It's enough to make a guy want to invest in a zoot suit and Tommy gun combination.

Mingus also excels when stepping into the jazz tradition of paying respects to other composers. Both 'Open Letter to Duke' (Duke Ellington) and 'Jelly Roll' (Jelly Roll Morton) paraphrase elements of each musician's work. 'Open Letter to Duke' especially does a fine job, starting off at a clip before gearing down to an easeful stroll, nodding to Ellington's ability to introduce shades of nuance and mood to the swing palette. 'Jelly Roll' is a little stranger; it's like some kind of ragtime fever dream, both utterly familiar and non-traditional all at once. It's a hell of a lot of fun, I'll say that!

Perhaps the album's centrepiece, however, is the eight-minute 'Fables of Faubus'. I had initially believed that the title came from antiquity ('Faubus' looks plausibly Latin in origin) but curiosity led me to learning of a much more contemporary source of inspiration. It turns out Mingus was referencing an unpleasant little shit called Orval Faubus; no doubt familiar to Americans but a name that would elude the majority of Brits. What he is associated with, however, is relatively well-known; he was the Governor of Arkansas who called in the National Guard in 1957 to prevent African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High School after a federal order to desegregate schools.

Thus 'Fables of Faubus' introduces a comic-buffo theme from the start, which crops up every now and again almost as a refrain to Faubus himself. The changing moods and time signatures within 'Fables...', which nevertheless always return to its opening theme, means that it could be read as a tone poem of sorts. Despite the events that undoubtedly fired Mingus to write the piece (Mingus Ah Um was released in 1959), motifs that bespeak sadness or frustration never linger too long; instead, 'Fables...' is defiant and satirical. Even the mock-heroic title jabs at the pomposity of the objectionable Faubus.

In conclusion; an amazing album, that came hot on the heels of another landmark, Blues and Roots. Whilst that one was a celebration of blues and gospel music, Mingus Ah Um twists some of those influences into a thoroughly modern and adventurous sound. I'm no jazz expert (being the son-in-law of a professor of jazz music has proved humbling at times) but this was the gateway drug for me to go out and explore artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and more. With the live-action Aladdin just released into cinemas, I can't pass up the opportunity to suggest that this was a whole new world to me, and one that I don't intend to return from any time soon.

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Silent Majority - Life Sex & Death

Provenance: Yet another recommendation from the good people who post over at the Metal Sludge forums. I think I also bought the first Jellyfish album and Sloppy Seconds' Destroyed as a consequence of that one thread.

Review: Prior to the Metal Sludge thread about 'great lost records' or similar, I'd never heard of Life Sex & Death. Yet the few posters who spoke up for The Silent Majority were so convincing, bordering almost on reverence, that I simply couldn't resist taking the plunge. I snapped up a copy without listening to a single second of music.

Why? Well, one member of the forum recalled them delivering one of the most scintillating live performances he'd been privileged to witness - and had begun the evening watching frontman Stanley jerking off in the gutter outside the venue. Another testified that he saw Stanley emerging from a dumpster and eating a discarded, half-eaten burrito. And we're not talking about a band on their uppers - this was at the height of the hype.

LSD were and remain a strange proposition - three hair-metal dudes fronted by a homeless guy who smelled like shit and affected psychotic breakdowns in the midst of live shows and interviews. Even if Stanley, aka Chris Stann, wasn't a street guy to begin with (rumours abound that he came from a wealthy background), he took method acting to its furthest reaches. Contemporary accounts suggest he really did wear dirty, ripped clothes, ate food from bins and slept rough.

What a tragedy, then, if this turned out to be some collection of fin-de-siecle butt-rock, or a gloomy alternative metal album about doing heroin and feeling a bit upset. The reality is that The Silent Majority is both of these things, neither of these things, and a whole lot more. It's a daring move to open your album with a live rendition of a torch song called 'Blue Velvet Moon' played on an out-of-tune ukulele; positively stupid, maybe. This rather inauspicious start is brought to a sudden conclusion, a thunderous drum fill kicking off the second part of the track - 'We're Here Now' - a real heads-down, diesel-powered statement of intent.

This approach rather sets the mood for the rest of the album; every time you think you've got a hang of LSD, they undermine what has come before; sometimes with black humour, often with horror, but always with interesting ideas. Track two is the jackboot-stomp of 'Jawohl Asshole'; track three is single 'School's For Fools', with a pop-punk sensibility that apes Twisted Sister's bubblegum anti-authority capers. Then we have 'Telephone Call', probably the best song that Soundgarden never recorded. It's an uncanny, elliptical number that, once it stutters into life, could be about a few topics, child abuse being chief amongst the candidates in this writer's humble opinion - and it rocks hard. The first time I heard the peculiar way that Stanley enunciates the line "you've got - a gun - I can't - outrun - I'm still that little boy, haunted by thoughts in the middle of the night" made me skip back to the start of the song the instant it finished. Bewildering, but brilliant.

Over the course of the album LSD touch upon a huge range of genres - including psychedelic blues, heavy metal, country ('Farm Song' is yet another unexpected twist), glam metal, grunge - and don't really make a misstep. As an hour-long survey of a transitional time for rock music at the dawning of the 1990s it's pretty comprehensive and superbly well-executed. A chorus can be so sweet, and hooky, complete with soaring harmonies, that one could be forgiven for thinking they were listening to Bon Jovi were the song not called 'Fucking Shit Ass'. LSD had the chops to pull of the extraordinarily heavy ('Train', 'Tank'), rousing ('Raise a Little Hell') and stomach-churning ('Guatemala') within the span of about twenty minutes without sounding disjointed. Stanley's voice plays a big part; beseeching, growling, yelping, lascivious, bleating and ever so slightly lisping, always embodying whatever emotion or thought he's trying to convey.

So, you're into the home straight, you've just got through the pummelling 'Big Black Bush', which sounds like Slave to the Grind era Skid Row and features a fun gimmick where the studio recording gives way to live sound midway through, Stanley leading the crowd in chanting the title of the song back to him. Damn me, then, if the last song on The Silent Majority isn't one of the most beautiful and tender piano ballads ever written. 'Rise Above', a delicate discourse on heartbreak, could and would sound like unbearable schmaltz in the hands of another. Here, in context, it sounds like the becalmed centre of the storm raging in its creator's brain. In its own way its utterly shocking. What a neat way to wrap it all up, eh?

Do whatever you need to get hold of a copy - The Silent Majority is the real deal.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

New Orleans Heat - Albert King

Provenance: Yeah, I picked this up for a fiver somewhere. I'm a big blues fan, and I've a solid regard for New Orleans musicianship, so this one seemed like a slam dunk.

Review: When people talk about superstar producers, names like Mutt Lange, Joe Meek, George Martin, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones and Rick Rubin readily come to mind. Now, it's possible that he's over-represented in my music collection because of the direction in which my tastes skew, but I'd include Allen Toussaint in that crowd. In my mind, he is the central figure of 20th century New Orleans R&B, acting as a triple threat of songwriter, performer and producer. It's no surprise, then, that when Albert King pitched up in the Crescent City to try to inject a new lease of life into some of his classics that we find Toussaint producing, arranging and playing on New Orleans Heat.

As one of the 'Three Kings' of the blues, Albert can sometimes find himself lost in the shuffle. Way out in front is the late B.B. King, a man who came to signify the blues for many, even if his sleek, city-sophisticate take on the genre never quite jived with purists. Then you had the volcanic talent of Freddie King; a big man with a gritty soul voice and a flamboyance on stage that was only matched by his scintillating guitar playing. Then you had the six-and-a-half-feet of Albert King, pinging needly guitar bends around an upside-down Flying V, cooing his songs in a warm, keening moan. Maybe he didn't quite have B.B.'s versatility, nor Freddie's chops, but to me Albert thoroughly deserves his place in the pantheon if only for 1967's Born Under a Bad Sign, recorded with Booker T and the MGs and pound-for-pound one of the greatest rhythm and blues albums, period.

However - despite the marriage of two colossal talents in Albert King and Allen Toussaint, New Orleans Heat doesn't really click. Why so? Well, I think Allen Toussaint's work with soul, funk and even jazz musicians eclipses his production of blues artists; his tendency is to deliver something smooth and sly, whilst King thrives with a more knockabout backing. Perhaps it's King's mellow voice that gulls one into thinking that he can fit in with the Toussaint template, but opener 'Get Out Of My Life Woman' can't hold a candle to Lee Dorsey's version (which was, of course, both written and produced by Allen Toussaint). The next track fares no better - the immortal 'Born Under a Bad Sign' brought to heel by Toussaint's tendency to smooth out rough edges.

Sounds like I've got some real beef with Allen Toussaint, huh? Think again. His work with Lee Dorsey in the mid-1960s is sublime (he wrote 'Working in the Coal Mine', fercrissakes) and in Life, Love and Faith and especially Southern Nights he wrote and performed two of the most remarkable funky New Orleans soul albums of all time. At his best, Allen Toussaint could be untouchable; but New Orleans Heat isn't anywhere near his best. It's simply a bad pairing, with some unfortunate results such as the insipid 'The Very Thought of You' and the embarrassing funk of 'We All Wanna Boogie' (though artists who started off in the blues certainly could produce very credible funk records - King's near-contemporary Johnny 'Guitar' Watson springs to mind).

On a few occasions the King-Toussaint collaboration hits the mark. Despite sounding a little neutered, 'Born Under a Bad Sign' is too good a song to ruin; 'I Got the Blues' has a sinuous minor-key groove running through it and leaves enough room for King's guitar to stretch out; and Leo goddamn Nocentelli's chanky rhythm playing injects some spice into 'I Get Evil', in spite of its too-glossy horn arrangements.

One final thought - despite the lead guitar work all being very idiosyncratic to Albert King's wavy, elastic attack, his guitar tone is dogshit. Pure dogshit. In an ill-advised attempt to sound contemporary, I guess, it's got some kind of horrible phasing effect all over it. The one track where they seemed to have forgotten to plug the fucking pedal in, 'Angel of Mercy', coincidentally happens to be the most straightforward blues number of the bunch, and - lo and behold - the guitar playing absolutely cooks. Oh well, it was 1978; in any case, it's not the disaster that Electric Mud was (yeah, some disaster - it sold a quarter of a million copies, but it's a mess).

Sunday, 21 April 2019

The Lexicon of Love - ABC

Provenance: Not a clue. I had 'The Look of Love' on a compilation called Atomic 80s before I obtained this album; I think that it would've been a combination of hearing that and 'Poison Arrow' on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City that convinced me to lay my money down.

Incidentally, the radio station in the game that plays 'Poison Arrow' was called Wave 103, and a few years later I would end up writing advert copy for a station called Wave 105. Did it feel like being in a GTA game? Just a bloomin' bit!

Review: In the normal course of my reviews I fish out the CD, blow the dust off and await my auditory cortices to ping my consciousness a faint pulse of recognition. Not in this instance; Lexicon of Love is a staple part of my musical diet, one of the select few albums to make it onto my iPod. As such it's frequently in my headphones when I'm navigating the circuit of micro-humiliations otherwise known as going to the gym, or pumping out of my car's ridiculously overpowered sound system. It's a keeper.

Furthermore, earlier this week I saw ABC (well, Martin Fry 'n' friends) play the entirety of this album with the assistance of the South Bank Sinfonia. I guess that it's the only way to properly experience Lexicon of Love live - even the most sophisticated synthesisers would struggle to replicate this album's lush, widescreen approach to composition. Seeing original arranger Anne Dudley conducting the orchestra was merely the cherry on top.

Nonetheless, I'm going to play it through whilst typing, purely for the sheer enjoyment of it all. I don't have to; I know every horn flourish, every cluck of slapped bass, every lovelorn sigh. It's majestic, the pinnacle of New Romanticism; the Guardian review of a show on the same tour called Lexicon of Love Martin Fry's Citizen Kane, and it's hard to disagree. As interesting and ambitious as Beauty Stab or How to Be a...Zillionaire! are, it's Lexicon... that has ended up looming over ABC's discography, the yardstick by which everything else Fry produced would be measured against. It's no wonder that the latest ABC release is The Lexicon of Love II (a fine album).

The fact remains that the least of the tracks on Lexicon of Love would probably be the lead single off any other band's biggest seller. It's that good. Trevor Horn's trademark impeccable production means that every note shines with an iridescence; if you're familiar with either Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome or Yes' 90125 you'll know what I mean. If not, it's hard to explain in a pithy way exactly what it sounds like, but here goes; dry, chickenscratch guitar; prominent, rubbery mid-range bass; reverb-laden keys; and tightly wound percussion that eschewed the then-fashionable practice of noise-gating the snare (think Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' for an example of noise-gated reverb on the snare). It all adds up to a glossy, zesty mix that both dates Lexicon of Love very definitely to the early 1980s and makes it explode out of a good set of speakers.

None of this would add up to much more than an airily pleasing confection if it wasn't for the songs. And what songs! I don't know who my readers are, but if you're not familiar with 'Show Me', 'Poison Arrow', 'All of My Heart' and 'The Look of Love', get onto Spotify or YouTube toot sweet. Better yet, just buy this album because it's brilliant and I want to see ABC play with an orchestra again. In an era - and subgenre - that welcomed cerebral lyrics within a pop framework, Fry combined clever wordplay with an almost inestimable depth of sincerity on the topic of love. Love, that most hackneyed of pop subjects, is the unifying theme of all ten of the tracks. As Paul McCartney acknowledged, it's tricky enough to write a single non-silly love song. Check this out:

A pirate station or the late night show
A sunken ship with a rich cargo
Buried treasure that the four winds blow
Wind and rain it only goes to
Show me, show me, show me that you're mine

Or this:

When I'm shaking a hand I'm clenching a fist
If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed
And I got dancing lessons for all the lips I should have kissed
I'd be a millionaire
I'd be a Fred Astaire

The whole album is littered with these lovely little associative twists and turns which gather into impressionistic nuggets of imagery that always make me cock an eyebrow in appreciation, no matter how familiar I am with the song in question. Oh, and every song is shot through with irresistible hooks. Hooks on top of hooks. More hooks than Captain Hook's spare hook drawer.

The greatest performance on the album comes courtesy of frontman Martin Fry. In some ways it reminds me of Sandy Denny's work on Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief;  on that album, and often in the course of a single song, Denny's voice would swoop and soar, coo and caress. Fry does exactly the same thing, with an added dollop of melodrama. Even when it sounds like he's straining at the outer edges of emotion there's a catch, a sob in his voice that makes even the most over-the-top declaration of love's vices or virtues absolutely believable. Yet the sophistication with which this is all-delivered makes Fry sound tragic in only the most heroic sense, albeit a hero imbued with the lizard charm of Bryan Ferry. Fry never knowingly undersells a line, and that's part of the magic.

To sum up, The Lexicon of Love is not just a great album; it's possibly resident in my all time top ten, and considering the number of albums I own and have listened to down the years, that's no mean feat. I haven't even touched on the influence of cinema that is keenly sensed - just look at that album cover - but driving down the coast into a pink sunset with 'Poison Arrow' as the soundtrack certainly makes me feel like I've been transported momentarily onto the silver screen. Put that into the mix with Cole Porter, Roxy Music, David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder and you're somewhere in the ballpark of where this album ends up. Epic, panoramic, witty, debonair and unapologetically overblown, The Lexicon of Love is the stuff of dreams.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Hellbilly Deluxe - Rob Zombie

Provenance: This one was definitely bought for me by my parents, seeing as I would've been too spooked to have taken it off the shelves myself! Actually, it was a Christmas present.

Why Rob Zombie? Probably a combination of the cool White Zombie animation in Beavis and Butthead Do America and the fact that The Matrix (which featured a remix of 'Dragula' on the soundtrack) was literally the coolest film in the world when you're a boy in your early teens. I managed to download that Matrix remix via Napster, which probably took about four or five hours to do.

Before we get on to Hellbilly Deluxe, a word about The Matrix. I sure as shit didn't really understand it when I first encountered it back in 1999, but I thought those leather dusters looked sweet, an opinion that has since been validated in popular media. I recall that the film inspired a slew of doctoral theses, as it certainly tackled some rather chewy themes, but - good grief - it's dated badly. Looking back, it feels like Keanu Reeves got called up for any old cyberpunk caper. At one stage a character gets handed a MiniDisc. The kicker? A Joe Pantoliano starring role in a major motion picture (though I see he's on the slate for the next instalment of the Bad Boys franchise, which seems entirely apt). Anyway, long story short, a film that explored all kinds of stuff like postmodernism and nihilism became the lynchpin for a loose confederacy of women-hating internet racists whose emblem is a sad frog.

Review: Before getting into the meat of the review, may we please take a moment to admire this tweet?


I could genuinely stop now, as I don't think anybody will ever quite be as accurate and pithy as @MetalShayne was (he also posted a very good digest of Bruce Springsteen, sadly overlooked by most of Twitter). The Rob Zombie playbook for Hellbilly Deluxe is pretty much all there - pounding industro-metal, lyrics like a Tristan Tzara cut-up of Amicus and Universal monster movie scripts and his trademark elongated 'welllll' used almost like punctuation. The only aspect missing from the @MetalShayne pastiche are the sound clips ripped from B-movies that either introduce or feature within many of the tracks. Incidentally, these are fun when deployed sparingly, but Zomb slathers them on somewhat.

Sounds like a load of old pony, right? Well, that depends. Does the notion of Rammstein being produced by Quentin Tarantino appeal to you? Exactly, no, that also sounds terrible - so it's a pleasant surprise to plug this bad boy into my stereo and let it rip.

Firstly, despite my avowed preference for pre-1990s recording techniques, Hellbilly Deluxe is a big, chunky, scuzzy beast of a record. Production-wise, it actually sounds a little like Prodigy's Fat of the Land, albeit somewhat more maximalist. They're like two sides of the same coin - Fat of the Land was dance music acceptable to the heavy metal crowd, whilst Hellbilly Deluxe just switched that formula around. The Hot Rod Herman remix of 'Dragula' in The Matrix is a perfect illustration of how, with just a few bells and whistles, a Rob Zombie track could become a rocket-fuelled clubland shack-shaker.

Aside from the creeping tedium of hearing yet another track prefaced with a fuzzy movie snippet, I have only one real bugbear with Hellbilly Deluxe, which is that it becomes a little samey quite quickly. Zombie's distorted, growled vocals are appealing, and instantly recognisable, but tracks have to be built around his rather distinct delivery. Nonetheless, there are some real gems here, not least of all the mind-scrambling techno-grind of 'Living Dead Girl' and the pumping, vein-bursting intensity of 'What Lurks on Channel X?' Hellbilly Deluxe contains all the schlock and grue one would expect from a Vincent Price or Boris Karloff feature, conjured up into a wall of guitar, buzzing synthesisers and pounding electro beats.

Even at a rather lean 38 minutes the creepozoid interludes between tracks feel skipworthy, but I'd certainly whack Hellbilly Deluxe on shuffle down the gym, or perhaps if I just felt like scaring the kids living next door. Overall, the journey is one that is fun, loud, antisocial and a little bit daft - all things a good metal album should be.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Best Air Guitar Album In The World...Ever! - Various Artists

Provenance: This was a Christmas present from back in 2001. One might say it personifies the very essence of the phrase 'stocking filler'. Like the football blooper VHS / DVD, though it has no overt relationship to the festive season there is virtually zero chance you'd buy this at any time other than the three weeks leading up to Christmas.

Review: Whilst I'm admittedly a bit snobbish about 'best of' collections, I'm quite partial to a compilation, especially if there's precious little discernible link between any of the tracks. Having said that, the blue ribband examples - I'm talking the original Nuggets compilation, or the wonderful Close to the Noise Floor, chronicling the early days of the British electronica scene - are propped up by some kind of conceptual scaffolding.

Such is the case of the hubristically titled Best Air Guitar Album in the World...Ever!, created under the aegis of Queen axe-mangler Dr Brian May. The gag here, I guess, is that every cut on this double dose of rawk is going to get you Tom Cruising it on the sofa with your imaginary gitbox. Observe:



(Incidentally, the second instalment of the franchise, which, given the title of the first album is implicitly inferior, featured beloved amateur astronomer / full-time bigot Sir Patrick Moore in its TV advertising campaign.)

You know what? It's pretty damn good! But it's probably in spite of, rather than due to, its stated remit.

I like the way it starts, because disc one does something a bit weird; it launches you into the coda of Queen's 'We Will Rock You', the only bit with a guitar part worth talking about. Essentially, the first slice of action is one-fifth of a track from 1977, which then segues into 'Tie Your Mother Down', one of the few genuine headbangers from the Queen oeuvre, albeit from a completely different album. Eh? Is this going to be some kind of strange high-concept mishmash like Frank Zappa's Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar, which consisted entirely of his guitar solos? Sadly not.

Instead, we are treated to some of the hoary old classic rock dinosaurs one expects on such a project. Except that...w-w-what's this? I'm enjoying them?! To quote marble-mouthed former US Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, "you betcha!" For example, I could quite happily never listen to Deep Purple's Machine Head ever again, nor indeed endure yet enough saloon bar bore recount how 'Smoke On The Water' was inspired by a fire at a Frank Zappa show, but shorn of its leaden context it sounds pretty cool. I don't have to slog through seven-odd minutes of 'Lazy', because on this doozy I get the short, sharp gut-punch of Blur's 'Song 2'. It's fun, a musical pick 'n' mix that cocks a snook at the rules. Follow up Def Leppard with the Troggs? Sure! Amputate Duane Allman's gorgeous slide guitar solo from the end of 'Layla'? Why not!

Like a pick 'n' mix, there's also the odd crumb of shit in there (Black Jacks, in case you're interested; foul little rectangles of liqourice hatred that look like a chainsmoker's lung). Whoever thought that Paul McCartney's version of 'All Shook Up' merited inclusion needs a few words in the mirror, and the suspicion of log-rolling creeps in when Robbie Williams' 'Let Me Entertain You' makes an appearance (NB: did Williams ever make good on that offer?). Amidst the Planet Rock staples there's a smattering of left-field choices that do work, though; both Weezer's 'Hash Pipe' and Wheatus' 'Teenage Dirtbag' fit the vibe but give the proceedings a sheen of modernity. There's even space for the true shred believer to have their moment in the sun, with Joe Satriani's 'Surfing With the Alien' bringing about a startling change of pace. That no room could be found for Vinnie Moore, Rusty Cooley or Michael Angelo Batio was noted by this listener.

That the platters from Rainbow, Dire Straits, Free and Thin Lizzy are exactly what you expect them to be (need I even list them?) comes as little surprise, but there is one very bizarre inclusion; the Jeff Beck / Terry Bozzio / Tony Hymas instrumental 'Where Were You'. There is simply no place on this riff factory of an album for this celestial, floating dream of a soundscape. It sounds ephemeral and ghostly at the best of times, but here it righteously gets the stuffing knocked out of it by Joe Walsh's sturdy 'Rocky Mountain Way'. 'Where Were You' is the beautiful, frail goth child forced to play in nets during games lesson, flapping in futility as 'Monkey Wrench', 'Paranoid' and 'Free Bird' blooter volleys past it from six yards out.

One last thing: as much as I find the space-race twang of the Shadows appealing I would be hard-pressed to say they were air-guitar worthy. Has anyone ever been driven into a frenzy by Hank Marvin? I very much doubt it.

How wrong am I? This wrong, apparently:



In conclusion, The Best Air Guitar Album in the World...Ever! is not - and does not aspire to be - high art, and nor does it do much to distinguish itself from the slew of rawk compilations that infested the shelves of music stores throughout the early days of this millenium. It does scratch an itch, though. Put simply, listening to lots of loud, dumb rock can be a hell of a lot of fun. Think of this as the lamb doner with extra chili sauce one enjoys as a guilty pleasure after a gargle down the local, just before you top off the night by kicking the shit out of 'Where Were You' in a supermarket car park.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Hot Shots: #12 - Ever So Lonely - Monsoon

I found this cracker when I was reading about the Prodigy's Fat of the Land (RIP Keith Flint), as one of the vocal tracks on that album was based around a Sheila Chandra piece. I had no clue who she was, and the first thing I discovered was that due to a medical condition she is no longer able to sing.

The second thing I found out was that she was in Grange Hill, and the third thing was that she fronted a band called Monsoon, who played a fairly early Anglo-Indian fusion pop. Upon watching the video I vaguely recall hearing this song before now - but I certainly hadn't recognised the amazing voice that Chandra possessed. In any case, this is a catchy, ear-wormy crackerjack of a tune.

It's a crap video though, isn't it? Probably not the band's fault, as it's clearly a TV performance. Light digging seems to suggest it was a German pop show called Bananas, though that bloke dragging himself across the sand right at the end does look a little like Russ Abbot, doesn't it?

Sunday, 3 March 2019

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida - Iron Butterfly

Provenance: I bought this because it has 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' on it.

Review: Well, at least In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida has 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' on it.

Alright, it's not terrible. Most of IAGDV is listenable enough. Hell, I even saw a Butterfly lineup that featured classic-era members Ron Bushy and Lee Dorman play at Arrow Rock Festival, and I enjoyed it. I was especially taken by a track called 'Easy Rider', which isn't on this album.

What IAGDV does serve up is a trip through the various flavours of psychedelia popular in the late 1960s. You've got the peppermint 'n' patchouli of the insipid 'Flowers And Beads', coming on like a heavier, less artful Zombies throwaway. There's the slightly more ominous, bad trip psych of 'My Mirage' and 'Are You Happy' - these are fairly engaging, sounding a bit like The Nice or Atomic Rooster. Comparisons with Atomic Rooster are especially apposite as the member who takes the majority of lead vocals, Doug Ingle, has a touch of John Du Cann about his vocal delivery, brimming with portent yet slightly haunted.

But, just like the reviews on this blog, it's a touch ham-fisted. Perhaps its just a symptom of heavy psychedelia of a certain vintage that I'm not used to, but the sudden transitions into the 'wig out' portion of each track is irksome. 'Are You Happy', which has some of the strongest musical ideas on the whole album, is, alas, also the worst scene of the crime.

It should also be said that IAGDV has also dated quite badly. I was going to say 'inevitably', but so much pop music of that era still stands up to this day - Motown, Stax (hell, a lot of soul and R&B of the time), garage rock, even a fair bit of the blues rock laid down at the time (such as Taj Mahal's debut, or the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet) all sound fresh to me. Sadly, IAGDV is a museum piece, trapped in amber, deemed too hoary a dinosaur for Jurassic Park. To twenty-first century ears (even those as accustomed as mine are to listening to older stuff) the sentiments are twee to the point of cloying and the music lacks any kind of edge. But surely - surely - IAGDV is rescued by 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida', no?

Ah, a little. Rescued-ish, perhaps.

Yes, that riff is immortal. It's incredibly satisfying to crank up the amp, slam your guitar through a fuzz box and wail on that bad boy for a good five minutes. It's also been a mainstay in popular culture; you have probably encountered it, whether in The Simpsons, on a Nas album (he's used it twice so far by my reckoning) or in my favourite example, the climactic scene to Michael Mann's superb film Manhunter. That riff is totally one of the most metal things from the 1960s.

Yet 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' is also seventeen minutes long. To put that into perspective, the studio album version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' is only nine minutes. I've argued before that time is a quality of music that can be stretched or constricted for effect, just like any other, but it's a dicey one to fuck with. Much can be excused by playing loud 'n' fast, but to do the opposite - slow, soporific, measured - takes no little skill. Black Sabbath can do it. Electric Wizard can do it. Sunn ())))) can do it. Iron Butterfly can't do it.

The lion's share of the title track should be that devilish minor-key riff and Doug Ingle's slurring, zonked-out vocal. In reality, it's dedicated to Ingle's meandering organ (variously sounding, at points, like a drunk version of 'Tidings of Comfort and Joy' or the Tetris theme music on quaaludes) and a drum solo. Not a very good drum solo either (if, indeed, such a thing exists). I can't find the piece right now, but I'm sure I read about Led Zeppelin laughing at Ron Bushy's interminable solo at the heart of 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida', and that's a band who weren't averse to self-indulgent percussion centrepieces themselves. I guess - and I'm really guessing here - that if you've taken a few bong rips, or you're staring into the depths of your lava lamp after a tab, all of 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' could conceivably sound cool. I am sitting in my front room with nothing stronger than Dr Pepper (diet, I should add) to aid me. It just sounds boring.

In summary, IAGDV isn't bad, but it isn't good either. It entirely bespeaks of a very short time in popular music that has retained its traction within the wider consciousness for a number of reasons - the enduring quality of the music not necessarily one of them. On the other hand - DUM DUM, DA-DA-DA-DUM - DA DA DAA!!!!

Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Fat Of The Land - The Prodigy

Provenance: As was the case with ZZ Top's Recycler, my exposure to The Fat of the Land came about thanks to my mum's employment at a library. This time around it wasn't an old chewed-up tape but a CD that had to back, so I recorded it onto cassette along with Led Zeppelin IV.

Why did I request this album? Possibly because of all the brouhaha around third single 'Smack My Bitch Up'. The controversy surrounding the song made its way to Parliament, although the subject of early day motion 565, proposed by newly-minted Labour MP Barry Gardiner, was actually the billboard campaign for the singles. Signatories to this motion included Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.

The video, directed by a former drummer from the black metal band Bathory, got the curtain-twitchers of Middle England going too. You can see why. There's a good article on the Louder website about the infamous video's genesis; my favourite detail, given the signatories of the early day motion, is that the model playing the protagonist was called Teresa May. Then there was 'Firestarter', which also got talked about in Parliament on the basis that its video might incite arson, possibly in the same way that Link Wray's 1958 instrumental 'Rumble' was considered a likely tinderbox for street gang violence.

The fuss, especially around 'Firestarter', all seems impossibly tame now. Hell, even dad-rock idiot and cow tongue graftee Gene Simmons recorded a version of 'Firestarter', which you can see here if you truly hate yourself that much.

Review: I'll start by saying I had to listen to something other than the Prodigy to cleanse my palate after checking that Gene Simmons link worked. I just don't think I could've given 'Firestarter' a fair shake otherwise. Anyway, I'm not a massive dance fan, but that's okay, because the Prodigy were always the most 'rock' sounding of that tribe. Certainly, the songs on Fat of the Land follow something closely resembling the rock music I was almost exclusively listening to at the time. Hell, the band did an L7 cover and were even fronted by Keith Flint, a kind of John Carpenter re-imagining of Vyvyan from The Young Ones - that's cool, right? Right?

Yet despite the guitar hooks on 'Breathe' and the rapping on 'Diesel Power', it's unmistakably a confection put together through the tried and tested technique of melding a clutch of samples with some big beats and studio magic. So although 'Smack My Bitch Up' became notorious for its subject matter, its true charms are to be found in its barrelling percussion and Shahin Badar's beautiful, wordless vocal (apparently based off of a track by Sheila Chandra, a remarkable singer in her own right whose voice has sadly succumbed to Burning Mouth Syndrome).

Listening to this from the perspective of 2019, it's odd to hear just how much dynamic range exists in the music. Had I misremembered how loud Fat of the Land was? Or have contemporary studio practices in popular music rendered such notions as dynamics the preserve of nerds and wankers? Much pop music in the present day sounds like it packs out every inch of aural real estate with grey noise, giving the track enough heft that it, no doubt, 'slaps' in one's ear-pods. Friends, on a proper stereo system, it sounds shit. Not Fat of the Land - certainly, 'Serial Thrilla', 'Diesel Power' and 'Fuel My Fire' sound chunky, but there's good definition between all their elements, and a track like 'Funky Shit' really shifts around dynamically. Forgive me for pulling a Horatio Caine here, but you could say...that these songs really 'breathe'.

Oh, and my favourite track on Fat of the Land is the one most obviously wedded to hip-hop, 'Diesel Power'. Kool Keith, who was someone Liam Howlett sampled on a few occasions, spits a wonderfully aggressive lyric over a bombastic, relentless backing track that reeks of smoke and adrenaline. Bottle it up and sell it as psych-up juice - it's what I listen to in the gym if I want to try and lift something moderately heavy more than a few times.

Actually - the closer I listen, the more I'm tempted to say that it's a dance-metal album fused to the spirit of Afrika Bambaataa. Perhaps it's just the bowl of chili I had earlier (a dish which, it has been claimed in a court of law, can mess with your mind) but to me there's a direct thread between Fat of the Land and Bambaataa's seminal Afro-Teutono-futurist floor filler 'Planet Rock'? Fat of the Land might be its gobby, steroid-addled British nephew, but a blood relation nonetheless. Yet Howlett was determinedly pursuing a singular vision, and it's exciting to hear the symphony of cymbals he created in the coda to 'Narayan'; and its only on today's listen that I became fully conscious of the huge heartbeat bass drum at the core of 'Firestarter' (a favourite amongst my generation, not least because an instrumental version featured on the Playstation version of Wipeout 2097 - a kind of cyberpunk Mario Kart if that helps orientate younger readers).

Yeah, Fat of the Land was - and remains - the absolute business. I've got a couple of other Prodigy albums, and they're great; but this is the one where sonic invention is married to a pop sensibility, enabling even a denim 'n' leather bore like me to enjoy it from front to back. A triumph.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Double Live Assassins - W.A.S.P.

Provenance: I think my brother bought this for me, either for Christmas or my birthday a few years back. These events are mere days apart, so I trust he forgives me the inexactitude.

Review: Before I go in on the album, I want to share a W.A.S.P.-related anecdote with you. At Sweden Rock Festival one year I had gotten to chat with Zinny Zan of Zan Clan fame (I use the term advisedly). I was introduced to the band by the girlfriend of guitarist Rob Love, who I had stood next to during their set.

I talked with Zinny about his band's (excellent) album, the fortunes of QPR (about which he was surprisingly knowledgeable) and what-have-you. He then he asked if I wanted to meet Randy Piper, formerly of W.A.S.P.

Well.

Let's just say that Zinny's congeniality was only matched by Piper's intoxication, and the latter took an instant dislike to me despite the fact I'd not said anything beyond hello.

"You're a pretty small guy," he snarled, "I could fucking kill you." At which I guess he attempted to prove a point by strangling me in the manner redolent of Homer's frequent throttlings of Bart. It all got out of hand, and Zinny (also a pretty small guy) had to pull him off me, but not before someone took a photo on their phone. Of course, I tell my friends that Randy Piper tried to asphyxiate me - and of course they didn't believe me. But here's the kicker: after the festival's over we're relaxing in Malmo, eating pizza on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant, and I'm still getting ribbed about the alleged incident when the bloke who took the photo strolled past. After some initial confusion I got the guy to bring the photo up and - lo and behold - there's Piper with his shovel hands around my throat.

Anyway - Randy Piper left W.A.S.P. in 1986 and this live set is from 1997, so he doesn't feature at all. However, equally large guitarist and part-time sasquatch Chris Holmes does, along with frontman Blackie Lawless, current bassist Mike Duda and Metal Church drummer Stet Howland (whose Wikipedia page lists Gene Krupa, the Muppets and Hulk Hogan amongst his influences).

So - on to Double Live Assassins! Well, its one hour and forty minutes of W.A.S.P. doing their thing and features not one but two medleys. Like the wretched, wedding-plaguing 'Grease Megamix', the first one smashes together four - actually quite good - songs into one awkward, unsatisfactory whole. 'On Your Knees' is a genuine corker in the schlock-metal genre and deserves better treatment than this. W.A.S.P.'s take on Ray Charles' 'I Don't Need No Doctor' is hardly the definitive version but gets a the lion's share of play here. Again, 'Hellion' and 'Chainsaw Charlie' are solid but receive short shrift. The worst aspects of this unholy mishmash are the transitions between the songs, which are dreadful. The concluding riff of one section is crunched into the start of the next with seemingly no heed paid to either key or tempo. It honestly sounds like some poor schlub just cut bits of full performances together because I can't believe the band performed the medley live in the way its presented here.

At least the rest of disc one has enough to commend this. The sound is commendably raw and nasty, although the drums seem too loud and guitars are a tad muddy. However, neither of these quibbles are able to dent the power of both 'Wild Child' and the impressively-titled 'Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)', the latter of which Lawless has vowed never to perform again thanks to his Christian faith. It's a shame because it's an anthem; let it never be said that Lawless can't find his way around a chorus. Like an X-rated Paul Stanley, Lawless previews 'Animal' by asking the crowd if anybody "came here tonight looking for some...pussy? Does anyone here - fuck like a beast?!" I imagine it wasn't covered at Lilith Fair, let's put it that way.

And so it goes - there's enough meat on disc one to keep me happy. Continuing the theme of punchy, hooky metal stompers, we're treated to dirtbag classics such as 'L.O.V.E. Machine' (I l.o.v.e. this track), 'I Wanna Be Somebody', 'Kill Your Pretty Face' et al. Ya know, even with the medley, I would've been happy with this as a single-disc lie album. Even the tracks from the then-contemporaneous Kill.Fuck.Die, shorn of their industrial trappings, sound cool.

No, the problem for me is the inordinate amount of space given on disc two to The Crimson Idol, and album that steadfastly refuses to reveal its charms to me. It's hard to beat the jab-cross of 'Blind in Texas' and 'The Headless Children', but unfortunately we're then bogged down with both 'The Idol' and then a fucking Crimson Idol medley. I know of some people who consider Crimson Idol to be W.A.S.P.'s crowning achievement, and let me tell you folks, these people are plain wrong. The standout song from the album is 'Chainsaw Charlie', which has already featured in the first goddamn medley. To make matters worse, Crimson Idol is a concept album. I'll leave it at that.

Otherwise - look, it's a fine live heavy metal album. Some of the backing vocals sound like they received some, ahem, studio enhancement but that charge can be levied against Live and Dangerous, Unleashed in the East and KISS Alive!, all of which are widely acknowledged to be up there in the firmament of hard rock recordings. Double Live Assassins isn't quite on that level; W.A.S.P. are a little too quotidian an act to reach those dizzying heights, despite the ballwashing this album receives from some quarters. It's certainly no Live at Leeds, but hell, if you want to headbang along to a heavy metal cover of 'The Real Me', Double Live Assassins is the one for you.