Sunday, 23 June 2019
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
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.