Saturday, 24 October 2020

Night Owl - Gerry Rafferty

 

Provenance: When I was in Year 4 I was selected to be one of three pupils in my school to appear on a breakfast request show at Hospital Radio Bedside in Bournemouth.

Selection was undertaken on the basis of letters we had written to the station manager, stating why we would make good radio presenters. I assume the other two wrote something funny or charming to secure their guest slots.

I, on the other hand, had written in saying that my favourite ever song was 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty. A pretty slick pick for a eight or nine year old in the mid-1990s. As it transpired, when I was asked to step up as selecta for the beleaguered and ailing patients of Royal Bournemouth Hospital, I opted for the pop-reggae of China Black's 'Searching'.

Nonetheless, my regard for 'Baker Street' never waned, and to this day I consider it to be almost perfect. It was, I think, for this reason that it took me a quarter of a century to follow up and investigate more of Rafferty's back catalogue. My fear was that 'Baker Street' was a wild one-off, and that everything else would either be bereft of any of the elements that made 'Baker Street' so special, or a pale imitation, albums clogged with desperate attempts to bottle that lightning once again.

However, I had read some heartening reviews of both City To City (parent album to 'Baker Street') and this, its follow up, 'Night Owl'. Lo and behold, both albums were available in a two CD set for some ridiculously low price, so I took the plunge. 

It doesn't end there! I played City To City and fell in love; I then faced the trepidation of spinning Night Owl (my fear of being disappointed is layered like an onion), especially given a casual remark by one of my five-a-side teammates - and local heavy rock legend - Kevin, that "nothing got close to City To City where Gerry Rafferty was concerned". Thus Night Owl sat on the shelf until a combination of lockdown and curiosity convinced me to bite the bullet. (NB - isn't that track by Temple absolutely ace?).

Review: To my mind, the best albums are those which, in addition to containing good music, impart a sense of feeling, mood, or place. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Night Owl, which is less rambunctious than its predecessor, doesn't cover as much ground stylistically but comes across as a more cohesive affair through consistently evoking a kind of autumnal twilight. Night Owl is an album to wrap yourself up in against the bite of the evening; it also feels like a consolation to the solitary listener, Rafferty's inimitable voice a sweet, shy presence rimed with a gentle melancholy.

The music itself is mostly mid-paced, classy soft rock, poised somewhere in the same soft rock wheelhouse as Steely Dan, inasmuch as the layers of instrumentation are meticulous and immaculate; and maybe someone like Richard Marx, insofar as there's an undisguised romanticism in Rafferty's writing. However, Night Owl is neither jazzy or tricksy, nor does it ever tip too far towards the saccharine end of the scale. Maybe add the - I can't put this any other way - 'grown-up' sensibilities of Bob Seger's best writing into the mix. I simply cannot imagine kids ever buying this stuff (notable exception: me aged eight). Night Owl sounds every bit the creation of a man who was, by then, in his thirties and had been around the block a bit.

When all elements come together, it's simply lovely. I've already mentioned Rafferty's seemingly low-key vocal delivery, but it's worth talking about again; mid-Atlantic with a Hibernian twist, warm, sad, confiding, and used with the deftness and artistry of a master calligrapher. 'Baker Street' is most notable for its huge saxophone riff played by Raphael Ravenscroft (though I think it also sports one of rock's greatest guitar solos), but Night Owl relies on the vocals for its hooks. Listen to the way Rafferty slides between the chorus lines in the title track, or the way he drags vowels around in 'Days Gone Down'. There's a beautiful push-pull quality to the singing, an instinctive kenning about where to stretch out over the beat or when to gild the melody with understated little variations.

Yet for all the acute intelligence and lush orchestration present, Night Owl is unmistakeably a collection shot through with notions of regret and resignation. Even the most forceful number here, the excellent 'Take The Money and Run', is more rueful than angry. Check out some of the other song titles: 'Why Won't You Talk To Me', 'Get It Right Next Time', 'Already Gone' and 'It's Gonna Be a Long Night'. The most upbeat track 'Days Gone Down' seems to suggest a double meaning, whilst 'Night Owl' is almost harrowing in its portrayal of loneliness in the midst of popular adoration. 'The Tourist' (a title in itself that hints at dilettantism) contains a repeated refrain, 'but it's alright', that sounds utterly unconvincing in the context of a lyric describing the grind of touring. To me it sounds like a coded plea for help.

Does it matter, when everything sounds so effortlessly smooth? The lack of rough edges means that all the musical surfaces of Night Owl slide around each other with the serenity of a mah-jong game, which should be boring. Maybe to contemporary tastes, it is. No matter - I'm the one listening, and writing this review, and when I tune in I'm left with the powerful impression of an artist who treats his music as a refuge from a world he can't quite get to grips with. Remarkable.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Odyssey: The Sound Of Ivor Raymonde Vol. II - Various Artists

 

Provenance: I bought this at Resident Music in Brighton (no trip to the city is complete without a visit) as a little birthday gift to myself this year.

Review: Stupendous.

I could leave it at that, if I'm honest, but that would be cheating. However, if you don't track a copy of this curate's egg down (it's even on Spotify) before reading on I'd seriously urge you to consider your life choices.

There are, really, three types of albums I end up reviewing on this blog. The easiest of the lot are those that are utterly rancid, because the job is to simply give 'em a shoeing. Then there's those that possess a hard carapace of inadmissibility, either because they are baffling or I'm delving into a genre that I'm not hugely conversant with. The challenge here is to try to get into a headspace to make some form of semi-comprehensible assessment, and to relax about my lack of omniscience (but I'm getting there, folks).

By far the most difficult are albums I like. I find I fall into a kind of set rhythm for these pieces, lavishing praise whilst desperately searching for some hook or wrinkle so that I may introduce some grit into the oyster. Worst of all are albums such as today's offering, Odyssey, which in my estimation is almost faultless. I feel a hesitancy to waste words, when a simple exhortation to listen to the bloody thing should suffice.

So: this is the second volume of songs arranged or produced by Ivor Raymonde (father of Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, who demands credit as the album's compiler), mostly culled from the 1960s. On the basis of these twenty-five tracks alone, one must conclude that Raymonde pere was one of those semi-mythical beasts within the music industry: the man with the golden ear. From cowlick rock 'n' roll through to Philly-style soul and all pop points inbetween, Odyssey is a kaleidoscope of sound and a sumptuous testament to Raymonde's genius as an arranger.

The one commonality that exists betwixt and between the selections on Odyssey is the absence of rough edges. Probably the closest we get to anything vaguely edgy is the strange, wonderful acid rock-lite of Twinkle's previously unreleased 'Michael Hannah'. However, if you feel that denotes a kind of staidness or politeness, think again; for bubbling under the surface of many of these cuts is a simmering, smouldering passion that every now and again threatens to boil over. Por ejemplo: the throb of the bass propelling Los Bravos' 'Brand New Baby', or the brass punching and pummelling its way to the front of the mix in the Alan Price Set's enjoyably gusty, knockabout take on Randy Newman's 'Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear'.

What does come through loud and clear, to me at least, was Raymonde's love of the human voice. It didn't hurt that he worked with some of the best - Roy Orbison, the Walker Brothers, Dusty Springfield - one feels you just had to give them a nudge and sit well back. Springfield's track, 'Little By Little', is a juggernaut, her ice-cool delivery rubbing up against incandescent horn charts to stunning effect. There's a sense that the impeccable framing that Raymonde helped to provide could be a space where an artist was allowed to subsequently cut loose, if they so desired; Susan Maughan conjuring up the mettle of a young Helen Shapiro on 'That Other Place'; the lisping sensuality that ignites The Cryin' Shames' 'Please Stay'; and the brawling, grunting run at 'Loo-Be-Loo' that makes the version by The Chucks so damn fun. 

The true highlight of the vocalists, however (and this isn't to dismiss Kathy Kirby's mountain-sized crescendo on 'The Way of Love') is the truly demented 'Tower of Strength' by Frankie 'Mr Moonlight' Vaughan, which I've mentioned before now (or rather, left the heavy lifting to the scribes of Freaky Trigger). It bears repeating, though, that this absolutely fucks anything Tom Jones did out of the water. One can picture Vaughan writhing around on the studio floor as he forces every iota of his being into powering this most electrifying slice of soul, albeit in an almost unrecognisable format. Recorded in 1961, it feels like a moment where a quirky British offshoot could have developed, before the genre was fully submerged, as per one commentator on Freaky Trigger, into the musical vocabulary of its American originators.

Friends, there are treats everywhere! Check out Marty Wilde hiccoughing his way through the rockabilly drama of 'Endless Sleep', the warm, buzzy psychedelia of Christopher Colt's 'Girl In The Mirror' or the Martell's 'Time To Say Goodnight', and get blown away by the barmstorming rhumba-on-steroids of Paul Slade's 'Odyssey', after which this album is named. The last cut is hot, hot, HOT! 

How to sum it up? Well, once I've finished tapping away at my keyboard, I shall go back to the beginning and listen again without the burden of trying to add words. The world of Odyssey is a fully realised dreamscape, a place where two-minute pop is elevated beyond its inherent strictures into a realm of sheer emotion. It's rich, too. Imagine getting smashed at a wedding on dessert wine and propping up the chocolate fountain all night, and you might be halfway towards experiencing the pure glut of confection Odyssey provides. 

Resident Music didn't have volume one, titled Paradise, in store when I visited. Guess what's on my Christmas list? Let's hope I've been a good boy!

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Fang Bang - Wednesday 13

 

Provenance: My time at the University of Exeter was largely pleasant, but being out in Devon meant for slim pickings on the rock front most of the time. The one oasis was the Cavern, a vaulted cellar in the centre of town where I saw acts like The Answer, My Ruin and today's subject, Wednesday 13.

In fact, I think I picked this album up after seeing the erstwhile Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13 and Murderdolls frontman (not to mention his stint as a Faster Pussycat tour guitarist!). Wednesday 13 wasn't really my cup of mud, but when you're drowning in a sea of Newton Faulkner and Mr Scruff, you seize anything resembling a life raft.

Later, this would also extend to frequent trips to a Monday night goth night run by a living skeleton named Francis...but I'll save the story for when I review Judas Priest's Turbo.

In any case, Wednesday 13 put on a raucous live show, and I spent the night quaffing cheap beer with good friends, so all in all a massive success. I bought this more as a keepsake from a cracking night out, rather than an album I knew I'd get a lot of replay value out of. Years have gone by since that gig and I haven't spun Fang Bang (great name) very much at all, so it's due a reappraisal.

Review: If the name Fang Bang wasn't enough of a giveaway. song titles such as 'Morgue Than Words', 'My Home Sweet Homicide' and 'Happily Ever Cadaver' should give you a clue that this release is kindred spirits with Rob Zombie and mid-era Alice Cooper; good, wholesome, comic-book and MGM monster movie fun. However, unlike the industrial-powered ramalama of Zombie or the spray-glam of Cooper, Fang Bang is anthemic pop-punk with a sleazy edge.

And so I ask you, faithful reader, have you oft seen me extolling the virtues of pop-punk on these pages? No, you haven't. The closest I've come would be my encomium to Sloppy Seconds and their mighty Destroyed album, with which it shares some of its ghoulish sci-fi sensibility. That said, Destroyed works as a clever-stupid, ramshackle, knockabout celebration of all life's most egregious sins, and remains very much an outlier in my collection. 

Fang Bang simply isn't as cute, clever or as charming as Destroyed (but what is?); but I'm surprising myself with how easy it's going down. Songs all blend into one, and as catchy as they can be - especially at the choruses - they're all just one hook short of being proper earworms. One feels that if Cheap Trick or the Wildhearts got to grips with these tracks they'd wind up with just the right amount of acid and saccharine. Still, 'Faith In The Devil' has got a nasty bite, and you'd have to be a fucking sadsack not to smile at the 'oi oi oi' section in 'Happily Ever Cadaver'. 

I don't really know what else to say - everything rushes along at a nice clip, as it should, and production bears all the hallmarks of the early 2000s, which has never been my favourite era for capturing noises. One plus is that Wednesday's raspy sneer fits in with the loud 'n' compressed flavour of the age - of all the other singers I'm familiar with, he most resembles his former employer in Faster Pussycat, Taime Downe. It lends a suitably cloacal aspect to mascara-and-glitter smeared proceedings, although it has to be said that his range stretches about as far as Russell Grant attempting to dunk a basketball.

But, look, if you can't raise a smirk to a song called 'Buried With Children' (which is really good, in fairness) and the lyric 'I've got blood in my alcohol system' doesn't make the corners of your mouth twitch, I can't help you. This is rambunctious Hot Topic splatter-punk with no little heart and a smudge of dark glamour besides. Fang Bang may not quite blast the rafters on a sedate Sunday afternoon, but crank this in a poorly-ventilated sweatbox with £2 Carlsbergs on offer and you've got the recipe for a helluva good, gruesome time.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

The Psychedelic Sounds Of... - The 13th Floor Elevators

 

Provenance: Along with every other right-minded person, I own a copy of the greatest compilation album ever put together, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68. On an album freighted with highlights, there are still some tracks that manage to break on thru' to the other side: the dark mood of the Electric Prunes 'I Had Too Much To Dream', 'Lies', a spot-on Beatles pastiche, by the Knickerbockers, and the swirling, propulsive 'Open My Eyes' by the Nazz, a group featuring the young Todd Rundgren, are all primo brainbenders. 

And then there's the bizarre 'You're Gonna Miss Me', almost in a category of its own, coming on like a diesel-propelled jug band piloted by a clutch of lunatics. Who wouldn't want a slice of that action? Anyway, I whacked a 13th Floor Elevators album on my Christmas list, and Santa was obviously feeling pretty hip that year because he brought me an Elevators box-set down the chimney!

Review: The Psychedelic Sounds... opens up with the inimitable 'You're Gonna Miss Me', and even though I've heard it countless times, it still elicits a small dopamine rush as the first four chords crash in, a tug on my cerebral cortex that here be something a bit special. What a tune! What a manifesto! Two and a half minutes of dementia filtered interpreted through the medium of white-knuckle rock 'n' roll. There are so many things to pick up on; the slashing guitars, Roky Erickson's snotty punk vocals, the perfect gem of a harmonica solo - but one other element both shines through and yet sits utterly apart, and that's Tommy Hall and his electric jug. 

This most untraditional of rawk instruments is all over Psychedelic Sounds; furthermore, it's not used to underscore the rhythm, as it is in folk, blues or skiffle setups (or, say, on Mungo Jerry's superb 'In The Summertime'). Instead, it clucks away like an insane chicken, providing at times an almost sawtooth effect, weaving in and out the churning beat of the bass and drums. So startling is this effect, one briefly wonders why jug wasn't more commonplace in rock 'n' roll, until you realise that the way it was deployed was unique to the 13th Floor Elevators' sound. They made this hyperactive jug-boogie entirely their own.

Of course, imitators are also hard to spawn when nobody listened to your the first time around.

Coming at the lysergic dawn of the psychedelic era, it has to be said that Psychedelic Sounds does not bear much resemblance to the stately patchouli 'n' paisley aural washes that would come to dominate the scene (albeit I think the ultimate psych track is the aforementioned 'Open My Eyes', which is drenched in phasing effects and features a cool 'wig out' section). Castin about for comparisons, I consider the first couple of Pretty Things - another band who would make a big psychedelic splash - discs to be kissing cousins to this bad boy. They are all rawer than steak tartare, all feature nasty sub-surf guitar tones that prefigure the Cramps, and in Phil May the PTs had a singer willing to sound every bit as malicious as Erickson. 

But! The Pretty Things didn't have no jug, and for the most part they played their blooz straight, whilst Psychedelic Sounds brings the weirdness. It's instructive that in an age of sampling, digital recording and guitar pedal setups that rival the bridge of the SS Enterprise for complexity, little recorded in recent years sounds quite as uncanny. The spirit of the age was to push the available tools to their limits (I think now, incidentally, of how nothing has ever since come close to the noises Joe Meek magicked into existence from the spare room in his flat). Perhaps, also, the murk of this album's production comes into play. The miasma oozing out of the speakers sounds, frankly, amazing, as every now and again some bass pulse, or shard of guitar, will unexpectedly push through the gloop of distortion, a random visitor from another frequency.

I haven't really named tracks, so if you're the sort who is partial to a spot of Spotify browsing here's a few artyfacts to get you going: 'You're Gonna Miss Me', naturally; the lurching, doomy bad trip nightmares of 'Reverberation' and 'Kingdom of Heaven'; and possibly my favourite track in their catalogue, the gleefully bonkers 'Fire Engine', a journey to the centre of the mind accompanied by the primal whoops and howls of home-made siren noises. Blast it at midnight and the neighbours will complain; keep blasting until sun-up and they will end up worshipping you. This is potent stuff!

Cool music(!) for cool people(?), dat's wot I say. This'll improve your health, wealth, wellbeing and eyesight.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Graham Central Station - Graham Central Station

 

Provenance: This one came from a discussion I had with my father-in-law about funk; we were chatting about Parliament, the Jimmy Castor Bunch, the Ohio Players (as you do) when almost as an aside he admonished me not to forget Graham Central Station.

Forget? I'd never heard of them. But I had heard of Larry Graham, the bassist for Sly and the Family Stone - so here it is, the band he formed after quitting the hugely influential psych-soul pioneers. Graham's lived a life - Sly, GCS, introduced Prince to the Jehovah's Witness faith, and it turns out he's the uncle of Drake. According to Wikipedia, Graham was also a pioneer of the slap bass technique, so we've got this dude to thank for Victor Wooten and Mark King.

A quick Google and it became apparent I could buy one of those bargain collections of five studio albums for about eight quid. It virtually purchased itself, right?

Incidentally - the name Graham Central Station is a pun. In American English, it sounds like 'Grand Central Station' as 'Graham' is often elided into one syllable. Despite being married to an American for eight and a half years (and counting), I still experience some discomfort with this fact. I have sincerely spent a whole vacation looking for 'Gram crackers', only to find consolation in what I took to be a knock-off brand called 'Graham crackers' (just like Dr Pepper had a rival, Mr Pibb, who was presumably a consultant surgeon). 

To my non-American friends, I'll leave you with this warning; however you imagine 'Louisville' to be pronounced, prepare to be surprised.

Review: What a charming way to begin the album! 'We've Been Waiting' is a group acapella number, where they basically say how much they're looking forward to entertaining you, the listener. I'm not opposed to this kind of gimmick, one that Graham Central Station (spoiler alert) repeat on their second album Release Yourself, a track that introduces each member of the band with their own little slogan. It also features the chewiest synth tone ever produced, so give it a whirl right now because I won't be reviewing that bad boy for a while.

Is this a 'thing' in funk music? There's a little bit of this carry-on at the beginning of Parliament's incredible Mothership Connection, and the aforementioned Jimmy Castor Bunch do a funny turn in the same vein on their quirky jam 'Potential'. 

So what's the deal with Graham Central Station? My first reaction is that it's good, solid funk. It doesn't contain the hyperactivity of James Brown, the sci-fi weirdness of Parliament or the lasciviousness of the Ohio Players, but it does encapsulate something I often say about Nils Lofgren, which is that good singin' and good playin' can get you a long way down the path. Also, at the beginning on 'judge not, that ye be not judged' sizzler 'Hair', there's a cool slap bass intro, so that box has been ticked with a big fat permanent marker. 

For the most part, Graham Central Station is mid-paced soul-funk buoyed by quavering string arrangements, fun horn parts and gang vocals. The slower moments can sound a little like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's Funk Beyond the Call of Duty (my favourite instalment in the Call of Duty franchise) without the humour (GCS are an earnest bunch), which is no bad thing. Singer Patrice 'Choc'Let' Banks gets featured solo spots on 'Why?' and 'We Be's Getting Down'; on the latter Banks does an especially scintillating job, her elastic vocals pushing against a grinding rhythm to fine effect.

What Graham Central Station lacks is a proper knockout punch. There is not a bad bit of music on the album, but neither is there anything that makes me immediately want to skip back and listen to something again. This needs a 'Summer Breeze' or 'That Lady' to properly elevate it into the top ranks; hell, even less successful acts like the Cate Brothers (identical twins, love it, love it) always had one ace up their sleeve per album, like the driving 'In One Eye and Out the Other'. GCS come close - 'Hair' is probably the best realised song - and indeed, it was a minor hit - but 'Can You Handle It' has a strident, imposing chorus that just needed to be wed to a more inventive verse, and 'People' has a guitar solo that's so fucking sick you wanna weep. Is that Freddie Stone playing?

As I said at the top, I got this alongside four other GCS albums for about the cost of a drinkable pint in London, so I can't complain. For me, this isn't heavy rotation material, and in truth it has dated somewhat. It suffers in comparison to more distinctive and high-energy contemporaries, and its serious-minded messaging of uplift and positivity is suffused with the spirit of an age that has passed by. Nonetheless, it's not bad - hell, it's good stuff - and Graham Central Station's albums would get better. It pays to tread carefully with recommendations from a guy who likes Bob Dylan's 1980s output, but here I have to hand it to my father-in-law for a very decent heads-up. 

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Good Bye - Flied Egg

 

Provenance: The ol' noggin ain't what it used to be, so no amount of staring into the black depths of this slightly forbidding album cover will lead to an eureka moment, I fear. However, it's certainly a pre-Spotify purchase, which leads me to two hypotheses:

1. Some random shit I heard on YouTube

2. (The most likely) I read about a band called Flied Egg and thought "I'd better get a piece of this".

It's a strange name for a band, right? Flied Egg. It turns out they were a Japanese outfit from the early 1970s, so it's either with a degree of irony or defiance that they took their language's difficulty with distinguishing between 'l' and 'r' and flipped it into a quirky handle. One feels that in our more enlightened (I say, the day after hordes of people marched in London against a make-believe Satanic cannibal paedophile (or should that be paedophile cannibal?) cabal) age such a name might be consigned to the 'bad idea' pile fairly swiftly, but who knows? If anybody has the right to lampoon Japanese speech patterns it's Japanese people themselves, and to me it feels like a nice mixture of absurdity, self-deprecation and spikiness. Is that reflected in the music, eh?

Review: Here's one of those curios that seem to have gone extinct, alongside 'hidden tracks' and CDs that you could turn over to the watch a music video - the half live, half studio effort. Good Bye starts with a bit of a bummer, as an MC announces that 'this show is going to be recorded, and will appear on the final LP this band will be released'. Yeah mate, not quite 'you wanted the best?! You got the best!' or 'on your feet - or on your knees!', but I should mark it up for being factually correct (this was Flied Egg's second - and final - album) and creating a sense of occasion.

Unfortunately, the first couple of tracks aren't anything special - aside from some peculiar wailing in the backing vocals department, it's fairly pedestrian 'eavy blooz rock in the same vein as Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Grand Funk Railroad. A fairly pointless cover of B.B. King's 'Rock Me Baby' follows - I already have superior versions by King, Robin Trower and myself playing into a dictaphone to fall back on. The soloing is energetic enough but quite generic; it has none of the identifiable quirkiness of King's restrained, vibrato-rich style or the artistry of Trower's mind-bending, feedback-soaked real-time deconstruction of the blues.

Another fairly muddy track closes out side A, but this time we're treated to a boring drum solo and some meandering nonsense on guitar. It's all very 1972 - an era where bands seemed to confuse lengthy jamming with fun, interesting music. Nothing to me sounds more brain-achingly langweilig than watching Jimmy Page stumble over his fretboard for half an hour in some godforsaken concert arena in the Midwest, but apparently people went nuts for this kind of bullshit. At least on studio albums, bands like Zep and the Allmans were largely constrained by the format, but you check out something like Deep Purple's Made In Japan and see twelve and a half minutes of 'Child In Time' or, heaven forbid, twenty minutes of 'Space Truckin'' and your fucking spider senses are tingling so hard that the structural integrity of your body is compromised and you become a puddle of goo. Which, I should add, is preferable to listening to Made In Japan.

Side B is the studio stuff! On Alive II, possibly the best album KISS ever put out, you've got a very solid studio side - 'All American Man' (despite being unintentionally funny, it's a corker), 'Rockin' in the USA' and the splendid Space Ace fronted number 'Rocket Ride'. Good Bye doesn't quite scrape the firmament in the same way, alas. More production line hard rock with 'Before You Descend', which then gives way to a genuinely nice moment called 'Out To The Sea', sporting a fairly grand arrangement underscored by swelling Hammond organ surges.

The next track is the one that set me off, though - Flied Egg totally bin off all the rawk for a bizarre interlude called 'Goodbye My Friends', which feels like nothing more than a prank. Played on what might be a clavinet or electric harpsichord, it's like someone decided that what Good Bye really needed was a tribute to Engelbert Humperdinck or Tony Orlando and Dawn. Chintzy, schmaltzy, out of tune, it comes across like a Sacha Baron Cohen bit being played out for some hicktown unsuspecting rubes, but I think it's entirely done in earnest. It's altogether quite charming as a consequence.

Of course, Good Bye doesn't actually sign off with the 'so long, adieu!' ditty, because this ain't the summer of love, pal, so instead we're left with the '521 Seconds Schizophrenic Symphony' to remember Flied Egg by. It's divided into four movements, just like the most tedious Kansas tracks (or entire Gryphon albums), which each have their own flavour, I suppose. There's a quiet bit (nice acoustic guitar work, I concede), the bit with some cod-Bach organ work and a predictably pompous, bathetic conclusion, fizzy with the crash of cymbals and, called the 'Finale'. If you've ever seen the likes of Mountain work themselves up into a froth, you know exactly what this sounds like.

What else can I say? Flied Egg sound like they're going to be fun, but they're not. There's one good track on Good Bye ('Out To The Sea') and one very, very bad track influenced equally by Eurovision and your local supermarket's cheese aisle ('Goodbye My Friends'), and that's it. Don't buy this album, I won't enrich your life in any way. There's nothing more that needs saying, really. Good bye.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Over The Top - White Wizzard

 

Provenance: Another one bought solely due to a rave review in Classic Rock magazine.

Review: I feel like you're off to a good start if the figure of a leather-'n'-studs clad goat/skeleton/demon hybrid adorns the front cover of your album. No matter how much the actual music stinks, that's a statement of intent I can get behind. Plus the dude looks like he's enjoying himself, and I want to enjoy the White Wizzard experience too.

I feel like calling your album Over The Top is a smart move too, not only invoking a quality Motorhead track but also promising an embarrassment of headbanging riches. When compared with most other genres, heavy metal stands out due to its excesses - the extremes of speed and volume, the flamboyance of costumery, guitar solos spilling over into the realms of the ridiculous - so it feels as if the Wizzard are consciously tapping into that tradition of 'more is more'. Well, I had my fill of intimate minimalism last week - time for some all-guns blazing metal mayhem! Or so I hope...

I don't know what I was worried - the singer's name is Wyatt 'Screaming Demon' Anderson, fercrissake. About four different people are credited with taking lead guitar spots at various times. The songs have names like 'Iron Goddess of Vengeance', 'Strike of the Viper' and 'Death Race'. All of which, really, is a lot of shilly-shallying about to say that Over The Top properly whips ass.

I didn't know that the world needed tributes to Grim Reaper or Malice, but thanks to White Wizzard we've got them anyway. This album is the sound of people locked in a prison cell for ten years with only those aforementioned bands, the first three Iron Maiden albums and a smattering of Angelwitch, Riot, Dio and Tygers of Pan Tang to keep them company as their minds slowly sloughed off any and all residual notions of the 21st century. On Over The Top it is permanently 1983, everyone lives at Castle Donnington and the only materials available to mankind are denim, leather and chrome.

Which, by the way, sounds fucking sweet.

But of what experience do these minstrels hymn? Well, there's your demons of course, plus paeans to heavy metal (after rap, possibly the most self-reflexive genre?), the devil himself, travelling at high speeds, lightning, iron and a whole mess of fire (mostly rhyming the latter with 'desire', natch). More than once, the names of iconic metal tracks are tossed in there, such as the reference to Black Sabbath's 'Neon Knights' in 'Live Free Or Die', and the winking nod to 'Ride the Lightning' in 'Iron Goddess of Vengeance'. I see nothing cynical in this, nor any other endeavour on Over The Top. Rather, these guys just love classic metal, and take every available moment to celebrate the fact.

When I was at school, my Latin teacher (yes, yes...) once remarked that the great poets would pepper their works with allusions to myth and history as a way of flattering their patrons. If you were refined enough to spot them, you were 'in with the in crowd' as Bryan Ferry once crooned. I am choosing to also acknowledge each and every glimpse of Rainbow and Judas Priest in Over The Top in much the same way, greeting each one with a crinkling of the eyes and a knowing, beneficent smile. No, I am not reclining in my triclinium eating sparrow hearts and guzzling down garum like nobody's business, but I do have a pack of Maltesers and a Diet Coke, so the resonances can be felt, for sure.

Finally, I know that production is something I harp on about, but my poor sensitive ears have been assailed by too much mush in their time. You know what I mean - "quiet" songs that are never quiet, zero dynamics, clipping (one of the reasons I haven't reviewed Rush's Vapor Trails yet is that I don't want a headache); happily, this bad boy doesn't suffer from any of that. Firstly, there are no quiet songs - White Wizzard come hot out of the traps and don't let up, which is a-okay in my book. Secondly, in keeping with their fealty to the era of NWOBHM, I can actually hear separation in the voices and instruments! Yeah, it's loud and there's a touch of modern compression applied to the sound, but otherwise it's a pleasingly comforting old school racket these lads brew up.

Conclusion - Over The Top smokes, pretty much every track is a winner and if you like any of the bands mentioned in this review you'd be a dummy not to part with your geld. It's tough to pick a highlight,  but pumping my fist (typing with one hand, of course) to the "Six! Six! Six!" chorus of 'Strike of the Viper' feels mighty fine. On this release, White Wizzard innovate precisely nothing, but when your homage to a particular moment is so spot on, so lovingly rendered, and with such expertise, who cares? Old school for life. Take it eass'.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake

Five Leaves Left album cover
Provenance: I remember receiving this, plus Bryter Layter and Pink Moon as a Christmas gift. How I had suddenly developed Drakemania is altogether murkier; I can't recall being conscious of hearing Nick Drake at university (I was too busy getting into Hanoi Rocks), nor had I been radicalised by Volkswagen.

Given that the number of albums I own is comfortably into four figures by now it's becoming increasingly tough to pinpoint each eureka moment. Here, though, the likeliest culprit is Dotun Adebayo's 'Virtual Jukebox' show held deep into the night on Radio Five Live. It's not the first time I've been stirred from a semi-somnolent state by an arresting piece of music - I vividly recall the instance I first heard Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring', which, even with my radio turned down low, sounded like the monstrous awakening of some pagan god. 

Incidentally, I don't know if I'll have another chance to state this, but a couple of years ago I met Dotun Adebayo backstage at a Taj Mahal & Keb Mo' show, and had the opportunity to thank him for keeping me accompany through countless late nights. We wound up having a fairly lengthy chat, and I can attest to the fact that he's one of the finest fellows around. Of course, the 'World Football Phone-In' is a wonderfully idiosyncratic and colourful take on the beautiful game as played around the globe.

Weren't we supposed to be talking about Nick Drake?

Review: Coming from the same Britfolk scene as other luminaries such as John Martyn, Sandy Denny, John Renbourn and the rest, Nick Drake now looms as a big beast but during his own lifetime sold a paltry number of records and, by all accounts, was a useless live performer. As a keen reader of books and articles about the British folk revival movement (for anyone interested, Rob Young's Electric Eden is a great primer; and JP Bean's Singing From the Floor is as entertaining an oral history of any moment that you're likely to encounter), there is a definite sense that Drake was of the scene but not exactly part of it. His diffident nature and standoffish attitude to people he didn't trust (i.e. almost everyone) created a kind of static with Britfolk's other performers, who seemed a gregarious bunch and were very promiscuous in terms of performing on each other's projects. In a world where openness, community and collaboration were the watchwords, one can almost picture Drake huddled in a corner.

And perhaps it is this very quality that means Drake endures as a folk icon where others have faded from consciousness; for Five Leaves Left burns with an intense introspection. If you've ever experienced the discomfiting intimacy of someone leaning in too close to talk, you have some idea of the effect that Drake's music can have. The spell is broken somewhat on tracks with a degree of orchestration to them - the swelling strings of 'Way To Blue' and 'Day Is Done' allow the listener to step back a pace or two - but those songs where it's just Drake and his guitar (and perhaps a smattering of bongos - it was 1969 after all) can feel harrowingly personal.

Isn't this what we want, though? Don't we hope that the very best music jolts us away from the workaday and prosaic reality that most of us inhabit most of the time? Just yesterday I was listening to Jorge Ben Jor and, at his best, the soft pulse of his tropicalia rhythms enable me to dream myself away from the flinty rain of East Sussex. And so it is with Five Leaves Left, but in this instance I feel like I'm not in any geographical location that exists in reality, but in the dark meadows of a strange and sad land of the imagination. When John Martyn recorded 'Solid Air', a song about Nick Drake, he created a thick and woozy sound, a soup of indistinct fuzz that moves beyond words to capture the essence of Drake's music. Martyn sang that song in an exaggerated slurring manner, which again feels nothing more than a magnification of Drake's hushed and humble delivery, the opposite of the kind of declamatory holler that many folkies of the period preferred.

This, then, wasn't the voice of the rowdy ale-sodden basement club, but of solitary twilights and lonely bedsits. However, I wouldn't call this confessional music; yes, it sounds like Drake is trying to impart some inward melancholy to you (and only you), but what emerges lyrically is so opaque and elliptical that one is left with impressions rather than exactitudes. I believe that this is a source of Drake's endurance as an artist; no matter how many times you listen to Five Leaves Left, there's a sense that, once final track 'Saturday Sun' has slipped away from view, you still haven't quite grasped the whole picture. The vague sense of dread, the amorphous thought-pictures, the indistinct edges to Drake's music sum up to a cloud of unknowing, a feeling that there are further layers and mysteries to be uncovered. And who am I to state otherwise?

It seems churlish to mention album highlights - 'River Man' and 'Fruit Tree' are oft cited in this regard - because this is truly a collection of music to sit with, to absorb and to contemplate in its totality. Five Leaves Left is not an album I would ever listen to whilst performing tasks or chores, nor would I ever consider it wallpaper music. Such quietly powerful music, with the potential to transport you temporarily from the humdrum clatter of life, deserves the attention it quietly - but insistently - demands. 

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Carpe Noctem - Carpe Noctem

Provenance: In 2009 I took the most heavy metal holiday imaginable by visiting Iceland in midwinter. At a Reykjavik music shop I took a "when in Rome" approach to a mystery purchase and asked the owner for the bleakest, dankest material he had.

I kid you not when I tell you that the dude actually led me down into a basement (nice touch) to view the more extreme material. As it so happens, Carpe Noctem, a group of suitably grim Icelanders, had just released their debut EP; to purchase it felt entirely appropriate under the circumstances. 'Seize the night' sounds a little bit go-getting for black metal, plus the band name is unfortunately too legible to be truly brutal; still, it's what's on the platter that ultimately counts, and that's some solid cover artwork regardless.

Review: Venom and Electric Wizard a few weeks ago, and now Carpe Noctem? It's all metal all the time, baby! Yes, I've taken detours to the pop-moppetry of Judas Priest recently, and I reviewed the mass-appeal dancehall of everybody's favourite Gulf War veteran along the way, but it does feel like I've taken a distinctly metallic turn of late. Does this signify anything to do with my mood during this pandemic? Perhaps, perhaps. The thought of reviewing Ghost's plague-themed Prequelle becomes more attractive with each passing day. The sun shines, the sea glistens, but my heart is as dark as the charnel house.

So - to Carpe Noctem. This is the first EP I've reviewed on this blog, for the simple reason that I only own the one. I didn't even buy many singles as a young'un (though I do remember my first CD single purchase - 'It's Like That' by Run DMC vs Jason Nevins), preferring the long-form album format almost from the get-go. EPs always struck me as a strange halfway house, and in any case the vintage of the acts I like usually meant that EPs were included as bonus tracks when albums were inevitably given the ol' remaster 'n' reissue treatment.

Twenty-seven minutes of music, then - a long EP, or a short Ramones album. I think the first track is called 'Vargsfaeding' and it's very cool - howling winds, see-sawing slabs of guitar providing the riff and guttural ululations in what I take to be Icelandic, but might as well be elvish. You know when you watch a horror movie, and some cowled and horribly disfigured wizard is reading a spell from a book bound in dragonhide? That's what this sounds like, it's exactly that language. I half expected an army of skeletons to emerge from the floorboards after given 'Vargsfaeding' a twirl.

'Jotunborinn' is more of the same, except underscored with buzzing sixteenth note guitars and a rather martial sounding breakdown in the middle. One of the big pluses about Carpe Noctem is that, at least to this black metal greenhorn, there's a genuine sense of groove, and an acute understanding of tempo, the push-pull dynamics of 'Metamorphoses Maleficarum' proving a fine example. From little touches such as half-time percussion to full on psych-metal breakdowns really ramp up the tension to skin-tightening levels, making the blasts back into full-tilt savagery even more cathartic. The passage in 'Metamorphoses Maleficarum', that builds on a ghostly, reverb-drenched two-note guitar figure into a full on frontal assault is the highlight of this collection.

Final track 'Skalholtsbrenna' features more fun and games, this time alternating quiet moments with blastbeats in the introduction, plus it features one of my favourite aspects of metal - egregious use of feedback, as obnoxious as it is marvellous. Featuring spectral doom and orchestral soundscapes, it's another testament to what can be achieved through a few instruments, sheer willpower and the hoary might of the Icelandic language.

It looks as if Carpe Noctem are still a going concern, and all four guys on this EP remain part of the crew. If well-arranged, spectral black metal is your bag then these boys deliver, with interest. I'm also about to buy one of the two t-shirts they have for sale, because I want to look hip when finally allowed to go listen to a bunch of garage fuzz-merchants in some toilet of a venue in Brighton.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

British Steel - Judas Priest

Provenance: Having been inducted into the cult of Judas Priest by way of Painkiller, this way my second album. I guess I got this because it's considered a landmark album, containing as it does the relative commercial successes of 'Breaking The Law' and 'Living After Midnight'.

Review: I've spent much of the past week reading Rob Young's excellent chronicle of British folk music (and its mutations) Electric Eden, for which an attendant compilation was put together. Through this, and the magick of Spotify, I've been conducting something of a listen-along, and frankly I need a palate cleanser. I never need much prodding to revisit Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief album, but my patience has been worn thin by the likes of Oberon, the Round Table, John Renbourn and Dr Strangely Strange.

It's all fun and games for a while, and it has certainly enhanced my experience of the book; but there's a point where the tablas and sitars start to grate, and you're listening to yet another lysergically-tinted version of 'Nottamun Town'. Once they fey warbling and brushed acoustic guitars begin to fug your mind like a cloud of dragon's blood incense, you know it's time for a palate cleanser.

Thus, British Steel, an album that couldn't be more diametrically opposed to The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (good album) if it tried. Instruments are wielded like power tools, and in place of lilting, amorphous minstrelsy is a clenched ripsnorter of an album, delivered by men with ice chips for eyes and molten iron for blood. Spawned from the dark heart of the industrial Midlands, this album spews smoke and diesel as guitars and drums pound away to the jackhammer of beat of heavy machinery. The imagery is right there in the heads-down charge of opener 'Rapid Fire', with talk of furnaces, anvils and corrosion; the iron giant of technology sung into being. Also, the first lines sung (spat?) on British Steel are the following - "Pounding the world / Like a battering ram", a statement of intent that I don't think has ever been bettered.

In fact, so much of this album has the timbre and texture of heavy metal and heavy industry, you wonder why it took so long for Judas Priest to put it all together - it's more or less the same bunch of guys responsible for the cookie-cutter psych-blooz of Rocka Rolla after all. Certainly, Priest would toughen up their sound almost immediately - within a few albums they'd be onto the razor-sharp brilliance of Stained Class and Killing Machine, but British Steel is a different proposition altogether. Here, the songs are shorn entirely of any filigree or flourish, stripped back to the essential constituent elements of heavy metal, bar the odd siren ('Breaking The Law') or clanking of cutlery (yep, that's what provides the robotic stomp late on in 'Metal Gods'). Perhaps it was the back-to-basics kick-up-the-arse courtesy of punk that inspired this approach. Whatever it was, it's one tuff sounding record - no romance, no wistfulness, no wizards or demons; just laser-cut stompers with names like 'Steeler', 'The Rage' and 'Grinder'.

There's one fly in the ointment - 'United'. A friend of mine was once serenaded with 'United' from a toilet cubicle by the Viking Skull drummer as an example of why Judas Priest suck. Well, you can't blame Priest for trying for a big anthemic hit, having managed a top twenty with 'Take On All The World', a recent track in a similar vein. But, my friends, it blows chunks. 'United' slows the pace, and its rather sunny message of togetherness is at odds with the four blasts of pure aggression that precede it. However, in 2004, seeing Judas Priest in the Netherlands (Rob Halford having just returned to the fold) I sang along to 'United' like every other heavy metal maniac in that crowd. Apparently 'United' had been a minor hit in some parts of mainland Europe, and that's mercifully the only time I've seen them perform it live.

One interesting choice is that the greatest metal frontman ever, Rob Halford, hardly deploys his trademark banshee scream. It's hinted at towards the end of 'Rapid Fire', and he bothers the dogs now and again during 'You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise', but that's it. I wonder whether this was a conscious choice to fit in with the mid-range punch of British Steel's overall dynamics? I'm sure I can find it out via a quick Google, but it's Sunday afternoon and I can't be arsed. Anyway, as a consequence most of the vocals are delivered in a kind of mad-eyed bark, which resonates perfectly with British Steel's testosterone-to-the-gills, pedal-to-the-metal, she-cannae-take-any-more-captain ambience.

British Steel is by no means my favourite Priest album. Over-familiarity with some tracks, the lack of sonic variety and fucking 'United' all add up to a collection that's a notch or two below perfection. But when it does land its haymakers, boy does it connect. A consequence of Priest's back-to-basics approach makes the whole album very easy to play on guitar, and that's precisely what I did before sitting down to crap up this review. There's an unfettered joy to be had hammering out the power chords (the dominant sound on British Steel) to the likes of 'Breaking The Law', 'YDHTBOTBW' and my personal favourite, 'Grinder' - three minutes of gritted teeth and straining sinew distilled into song form, each note of the riff feeling like the winding of a clockwork mechanism already vibrating with tension. What a track. What an experience. And the guy who played bass in my last band has the temerity to call it boring!

So - compared with the likes of Screaming For Vengeance, Killing Machine or even later efforts such as Firepower, British Steel may sound a little monochrome. On the other hand, it possesses a focus and purity that is hard to deny, plus a boatload of excellent songs. Sure, a couple have been on every dad rock drivin' compilation for two decades now; but can you truly resist when Halford is stood there, bedecked in chrome and leather, revving the crowd up, bellowing into the microphone - "it's time that we were breaking the - what?! BREAKING THE FUCKING WHAT?!" Magic!!

Sunday, 28 June 2020

In League With Satan - Venom

Provenance: A guy at university wouldn't shut up about how important Venom were, so I caved and bought this two disc compilation to see what the fuss is all about.

Review: I guess that listening to In League With Satan brought home to me that importance is a slippery old concept to get a handle on. Venom are, arguably, very important to the development of heavy metal. Musically they influenced the nascent thrash scene, but on a more wholesale level could be said to have birthed black metal. Venom synthesised a host of their own influences - punk, heavy metal, Satanism, Amicus horror movies - into the fundaments of black metal, aesthetically, stylistically and thematically.

Venom were also, on the basis of this compilation, spectacularly awful.

It begs the question - just because an artist heralds a new movement within a genre, do we still need to listen to them? This, after all, was my imperative to check out Venom in the first place. I have no real l33t or kvlt credentials to my name (if we exclude In League With Satan I own perhaps three black metal albums) so maybe I am entirely the wrong person to attempt to peer through the auditory fog to try and identify what the chin-strokers see in tracks such as 'One Thousand Days in Sodom', 'The Seven Gates of Hell' and, perhaps the best title in metal history, 'Aaaaarghhh'; but to those who do tread along the Shining Path set out by the Lord of Lies, surely this also sounds like dogshit?

Yet there are people out there who love Venom. I recall waiting in line to see My Ruin at the Cavern in Exeter (what memories!) and falling into conversation with a chap in the queue. What started off as a fairly genial chat about rollercoasters descended to the point where he threw a punch at me (which I dodged, utilising a 'Drunken Master' defence style (NB: I was drunk)) because I made fun of Venom. More specifically, I made fun of the shrine to Venom he had set up in his flat, but the point remains - I may see Venom as heavy metal clowns, but my erstwhile opponent saw them as important enough to, perhaps, offer sacrifices in their name.

Despite my personal opinion that In League With Satan is a buffoonish parade of the ripest incompetence, I'll at least try to pay dues where earned. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin flirted with Satanism, but Venom really go all out - they are the bogeymen that housewives clutching their pearls to Kiss worried about. That in itself is quite fun, though if I were Old Nick, and this was the music I was allotted in the late twentieth century, I would go back to tuning guitars at the crossroads. The music itself does push towards what were the extremes of speed and volume at the time, but without the whipcrack discipline of Motorhead it often descends into a churning heavy metal gazpacho, which has its own strange charm. Bassist and "singer" Cronos is either a bonehead or the most mordant wit in the game; either way, his dumbass lyrics, when discernible, are entertaining enough.

I don't really know what else to say. There's a link between the production values on the material from first album Welcome To Hell (music journalist Geoff Barton memorably said it possessed the "hi-fi dynamics of a fifty year-old pizza", but went on to give it five stars) and the lo-fi approach cultivated by many subsequent black metallers, for sure. It's as if studio polish and distinct separation of instruments are part of the realm of fakery, representing yet another branch of metal's oddly explicit obsession with authenticity (think Manowar's 'All Men Play On Ten' and 'Death To False Metal', or the graphics in Nitro's O.F.R. release that suggested that not only were keyboards not used but moreover were entirely banned from the recording process altogether). Abhorrence towards sounding good seems rather precious and faintly ridiculous (to this Steely Dan fan, hyuk hyuk), but here again, I am almost definitely missing the point. You want to sound ugly, brutal and antisocial.

But do you want to to sound stupid?

Nonetheless, In League With Satan represents a triumph, of sorts. Venom found a sound and a look that stood out; they found a sympathetic label in Neat Records, also from the north-east of England, who championed their local scene, putting out landmark releases by bands such as Raven, Jaguar and Blitzkrieg. They rode that horse all the way home, smoke-bombing stages around the world to the strains of 'Genocide', 'Satanarchist', and 'Blood Lust', and gave a lot of angry Norwegian kids a blueprint for their own creative efforts. Not all bad, then...?

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Hot Shot - Shaggy

Provenance: I have no idea why I own a copy of Hot Shot by Shaggy.

Review: In some ways the most mysterious album in the collection, appearing out of the mist one day like Brigadoon. I didn't buy this - not a chance - and my ownership of it pre-dates meeting my current partner. So what happened? An errant possession of a past love? The flotsam and jetsam of a long-forgotten student party? A magical object which I need to listen to in order to complete an as-yet undiscerned quest?

Whatever it is, this marks the first time I've actually put Hot Shot in my stereo and pressed play. I had some ideas as to what to expect, as Mr Lover-Lover was ubiquitous during his 'Oh Carolina' and 'Boombastic' era, and later on with a few cuts on this joint, most notably 'It Wasn't Me'. What I was greeted with was a blast of pure turn-of-the-millennium pop.

First, everything is too loud (yeah yeah, "old man yells at cloud") and we've got sixteen whole tracks. We're back in the era of the Great CD Bloat, where every bit of compact disc real estate was taken up with music, inexplicable bonus tracks, anti-piracy tech and, in this case, videos! Just imagine being an excited teen back in 2001, looking forward to getting home with Hot Shot so you can slam it into your CD-ROM. A thrill that, sadly, many kids of today will never experience. That, and leaving a Napster download (of a single song) running all night only to find it's failed come morning.

Secondly, the was a monster, a runaway number one album, multi-platinum in both the UK and USA plus a slew of other countries. It also spawned two huge hits, 'It Wasn't Me' and 'Angel', assisted by Rikrok and Rayvon respectively, so one suspects there's something in the sauce. Sure enough, the two singles that proved so sticky at the top of the charts are impressive - 'It Wasn't Me' is a rollicking tale of infidelity, Rikrok's plaintive interpolations contrasting sweetly with Shaggy's monotone machine-gun rasp, whilst 'Angel' fuses the chorus of 'Angel of the Morning' to the strut of Steve Miller's 'The Joker' to rich effect. They're fun and hooky, and one wishes the rest of this album could consistently hit these heights.

No such luck. Opener 'Hot Shot' is a superb showcase for Shaggy's rapid-fire growl, and his aggressive peacocking here is much more appealing than the lightweight, and even slightly hesitant Shaggy that appears on much of the diet hip-hop and dancehall that makes up the album. It gets worse - sometimes he tries switching up his toasting into a strange sprechgesang style; let's just say that he's no Fred Schneider. Shaggy's voice is a unique and instantly identifiable asset, just not one that cleaves naturally to notions of bel canto. Exhibit A of this can be found on the track 'Not Fair', and I personally felt that it was 'not fair' that I've had to pay it any attention.

I will concede that the oddly melancholic 'Hey Love' has a peculiar charm, and one of the few times where humble Shaggy works; a nagging single-note guitar riff and distorted bhangra sample complete the confection nicely. Also, there's not a better chorus on the album than the one Samantha Cole provides on 'Luv Me, Luv Me' - probably the best track on here and the greatest soundtrack to a gender reveal party ever (what a donkey-brain idea though). However, Hot Shot is front-loaded with the decent stuff, and so past about track eleven or so you might want to give up, even though you're only two-thirds of the way through. Trust me, 'Chica Bonita' is every bit as shit as the song you have in your head; I might even prefer Geri Halliwell's 'Mi Chico Latino'.

Look, I don't wanna be too harsh. If Hot Shot wasn't an album for me back when I was sixteen, time and distance hasn't done anything to bend my sentiments in a favourable direction. In its favour, I will say that it's superior to the clutch of popsters of today cooing out jaded minor-key 'sad bangers'. And, at least, I can say I've finally given Hot Shot a listen. Give me another decade or so and I might spin it again.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Dopethrone - Electric Wizard

Provenance: Local heroes, innit? I've seen Jus Oborn at a few gigs in the Bournemouth area. One of my best friends was the one to really turn me onto 'the Wizard' though. Incidentally, he's had Jus in his garden (at a barbecue) and I haven't, so that's 1-0 to him.

Review: When listening to music of this kind, I often think of Rob Halford's claim that Judas Priest were the first metallers: "We were the first heavy metal band. Black Sabbath were before us, but there was always something of a dilemma about whether or not Sabbath were a heavy metal band" - a sentiment that Sabs bassist Geezer Butler agrees with.

In my estimation, Black Sabbath were the first heavy metal band - or at least, were responsible for the first fully realised heavy metal album. But that's not to dismiss Halford's assertion entirely; there is an intelligent case to be made for Sabbath as a continuation of a ponderous, doomy sub-psychedelic rock that first slithered into public view via the likes of Iron Butterfly or Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum album. Meanwhile, Priest took the snap and aggression of Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song' and Deep Purple's 'Fireball' and toughened them up with steelier guitars and banshee screaming. Inevitably over time these approaches would interact and cross-pollinate; probably the most perfect synthesis of both approaches, oddly, is a Black Sabbath album - Heaven and Hell - which saw Ronnie Dio fronting the band, his baleful roar energising the music much in the same way as he did on some of Rainbow's proto-power metal cuts.

All of which brings us on to Electric Wizard. If you're looking for synthesis on Dopethrone, buddy, you're out of luck. These fools are unreconstructed Sabbathists, taking the template of that august band's first three albums as the basis for their entire approach. Of course, there's a few tweaks made here and there - most notably the excising of the jazz 'n' folk interludes that Sabbath would indulge in - plus the addition of the occasional interstitial from some ghastly Amicus horror flick, much like fellow Sabbathists Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats. It's all of a piece, all the same aesthetic.

Where Electric Wizard distinguish themselves, however, is sheer enormity. Dopethrone doesn't so much emanate from your speakers as it does crawls from them, moving with the same pace and indomitability as a lava flow edging slowly towards the village in its path. I listen to every one of my albums I review for this blog at the same (reasonable) volume, but the sound conjured up here by Oborn and company is so overpowering that my stereo struggles to cope. Dopethrone is an album of extremes, and all the better for it.

Some bands, when they slow it down, plod. It's a demerit - I often think of the likes of Uriah Heep or Cream lapsing every now and again into a ponderousness masquerading as heaviness. Electric Wizard never fall into that trap, simply because what they're selling is true heaviness; it's the real deal. Every riff is the size of a house, every vocal distorted to remove any sense of sweetness, every bass note flanges off into a seismic white noise. Another great quality that Dopethrone exhibits is that noise is wielded as a weapon. This is truly music one submits to, whether it's the pounding opening of 'Vinum Sabbath' or the agonising, endless feedback drone that acts as a coda to the fourteen minute-plus 'Weird Tales'.

This is doom par excellence. There are bands that are slower (the dull Sunn O))) for one) and countless acts in the margins of the umbrella genre of metal who claim to go blacker, bleaker, perhaps even louder. Yet none have quite met the quaalude-shuffle weight of Dopethrone, at least not yet. Plus, any album with a track listing containing ditties such as 'Funeralopolis', 'I, Witchfinder', 'We Hate You' and 'Mind Transferral'. If this is the soundtrack to the end of the world, I want to be there.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Montrose - Montrose

Provenance: This is considered in some quarters to be the ur-text behind the whole Van Halen school of rock (and this lineup even contains a future member of that mighty band).

Moreover, it's generally thought to be a pretty sweet classic rock album by its own merits. Julian Cope loves Montrose (he's also a better writer than I am), and who is going to dispute a druid who made up his own Blue Oyster Cult compilation called In My Dreams or In My Hole?

Review: You know that in some of my reviews I can get a bit huffy about boneheaded, hairy-chested affirmations of masculinity? How I can be a humourless prig when faced with the lazy objectification of women? Well, that's all true, mostly - but when faced with such a monumental feat as Montrose I pretty much say "fuck that", break out my biggest Maltese Cross medallion and bellow along. "YOU'RE ROCK CANDY BABE - HOT, SWEET AND STICKY!!!"

This is it, boys. Here's how to do it. Sure, by the Taylorist mechanics of Robert Christgau's reviewing system, this gets a half-grade off for clocking in at thirty-two minutes, but why hang around when you've made your point as beautifully as this? Simply, Montrose is the best thing Sammy Hagar ever did, the best thing the late Ronnie Montrose ever did, and I'm going to say that even with their storied respective resumes, Bill Church and Denny Carmassi never kicked out the jams like this, before or after. I know Church played on Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey - and so what? Fuck that, Tupelo Honey doesn't have a song on it called 'Space Station #5'.

Montrose is hard rock boiled down to its most necessary constituent elements - drums, bass, guitar and hollerin', with precious little more added into the mix. It's what happens when you take the boogie elements of Grand Funk Railroad and the heaviness of Led Zeppelin but reduced them to their hard, glistening essentials. Shorn of the dopey plodding that many bands confuse for profundity, and drained of the self-regarding substrate of pretentiousness that undermines so much of Zep's output, we're left with a balled-fist of solid rawk, a battering ram of steely riffage.

All this goes hand-in-gauntlet with some great playing and zipped-tight arrangements. Nothing here outstays its welcome; in fact, Montrose barely has its coat off before it's time to go. 'Rock The Nation' is pretty much the keystone on the towering ziggurat of songs about rockin' out and having a good time ('We Rock' - Dio, 'Rock You Like a Hurricane' - the Scorpions, etc. - you get the picture, Jack). Have you ever seen the wonderful short documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot? That's it, right there - it's the spirit of 'Rock The Nation' made flesh and Aquanet. I like to think that, any time someone cracks a long necked bottle of beer in a car park somewhere, in the name of loud guitar music, they're channelling 'Rock The Nation'.

Plus! Plus! Have you ever heard such a good song about space stations? Yes, 'Space Station #5' implies four other space stations, but this is the only one that comes with a juddery riff and some of Hagar's finest hollerin'. I didn't hear it played once during that recent SpaceX/NASA manned mission. It's official - Elon Musk is too much of a nerd to blast Montrose into space. Do you reckon Musk has ever listened to Montrose? My guess is, 'absolutely not'. Well done mate, you might have blasted a couple of fellow dorks to the ISS, but have you ever downed a Pripps Bla in a Malmo car park? Once again, 'absolutely not'.

I once snuck 'Bad Motor Scooter' onto my student radio station playlist and got it aired one lunchtime. I didn't know what I was trying to achieve at the time, as I could've tried it with any track; only now is the clarity of purpose manifest. I needed a bunch of millennials to hear just how freaking it cool it is to make moped noises with an electric guitar. It's one of the dumbest songs out there - imploring the subject of the lyric to take what seems to be a lengthy scooter ride for the purposes of a booty call - but by god it's majestic. The engine humming noises under the guitar solo are badass and should be done more (sparingly, but more).

The only charge I can lay against Montrose is that its crystalline simplicity - no fussy drums, laser-cut guitars, vocals that cleave strictly to melody - opened the door for many more bands who got the message about paring everything down but forgot to bring talent to the table. I'd compare (please stop me) Montrose with a good Cormac McCarthy book. McCarthy distils English to a kind of singing purity, a form with such a brutal inner musicality that digression, exposition and even punctuation become superfluous. Montrose is its hard rock equivalent, only with less violence and more scooters. An essential listen for any serious rock fan (and what other kind is there?).

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Gaucho - Steely Dan

Provenance: By the time I had purchased Gaucho I was deep into 'the Dan'. So, it was the purchase of a fan seeking to be a completist. About the only notable thing one could say is that I bought it in Kansas City. Fine BBQ out there, folks.

Review: The first time I slipped Gaucho into my stereo I frowned, wrinkled my nose and stashed it away for a few years. Something about it triggered an internal revolt. I struggled to square this with the questing solos of Countdown To Ecstasy or the deep jazz grooves of Aja.

I'd like to say that my innate natural curiosity and generous approach to reappraisal led me back, but the truth is I saw Steely Dan in concert and heard a few of the songs from Gaucho played live. They sounded great. I came home and put Gaucho on, and heard the same songs as I'd heard at Wembley Arena. They sounded great.

This would be the last album Steely Dan made before splitting in 1981 (they would reunite in 1993 and record two more platters) and it shows. Two years after Gaucho, Donald Fagen would unleash The Nightfly onto the world, and to say that these albums could be kissing cousins is an understatement. The production is similar, the arrangements have the same feel and even the synthesizer textures are alike. One crucial difference - I liked The Nightfly the instant I listened to it. I didn't need time to let it grow, or to witness the compositions in another context. So what's the difference?

For one, drugs. This is Steely Dan's drug album - or, more accurately, their cocaine album. It's not just the references in 'Hey Nineteen' and 'Time Out Of Mind', concealed with a gossamer-thin layer of metonym and allusion; it's also the backbone to the vignettes in 'Glamour Profession', which delineates a few of the characters involved in the coke trade game. Moreover, it's not only the subject matter at hand but even the very consistency of the sound you're hearing that screams Bolivian marching powder. Surfaces shine with a flat glossiness, rhythms snap with a jaw-grinding lockstep, synths gleam and shimmer with an antiseptic chemistry.

At first, this is what turned me off. Even when factoring in Becker and Fagen's notorious perfectionism, prior albums still had a human heartbeat and the odd ray of romanticism glinting through the carapace of cynicism, obscurantism and wisecracks. Gaucho, in comparison, felt tired, numbed, a kind of end-of-the-party sourness creeping in.

Well children, I started to buy the particular brand of weltschmerz the boys were selling. Leaning in, I found oodles to savour. The slickness combines nicely with the subjects - narcotics, ageing lotharios, Hollywood homosexuality scandals, possible PTSD - into a sickly brew of L.A.-flavoured sleaziness. As a downbeat chronicle of a gilded demimonde and the lowlifes slithering around in it, Gaucho remains unmatched.

So wallow in the reflective degeneracy of 'Babylon Sisters'; wince at rueful narrator of 'Hey Nineteen' determined not to act his age; and luxuriate in the frothing monument to perceived folly that is 'Gaucho' itself, a confection that starts off sounding like the theme to a low-budget breakfast chat show and builds to a mock-epic tower of grandeur, each jazzy augmentation of the usual rawk 'n' pop chord progression tugging you ever so slightly off centre. I've heard interpretations of the song talking about gauche (geddit?) roommates or friends, but to me I hear two film buffs ruminating upon the secret homosexual lives led by movie stars like Rock Hudson, or maybe some minor player like Perfecto Telles. The latter wouldn't surprise me.

There's great stuff all over - the bleak 'Third World Man', which hitches a mournful, swaying riff to harrowing tales of shellshock, is apparently one of Joni Mitchell's favourite Dan tracks; and 'My Rival' is possibly the most old skool track on this joint, which sounds like a larky, Sunshine Boys-inspired tale of two geezers with beef, but might also be about fatherhood. That their songs wind, twist, reflect and elide like MC Escher illustrations is just one of the buzzy little thrills afforded to the serious Dan fan.

Gaucho took its time to reveal its charms to me. At first, I didn't really understand it. Now, it's the Steely Dan album that most frequents my stereo. Funny how things shake out, isn't it?

Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Allman Brothers Band - The Allman Brothers Band

Provenance: I don't know when and where I got this. As with a few other bands I've reviewed on this blog, owning an Allmans platter or two feels a bit like the 'done thing' for anyone who wants to be considered a serious rock guy (which I assuredly do - almost as much as I'd like to one day be considered a 'football man').

A couple of clues though; thanks to an ex-girlfriend I have a Molly Hatchet 'best of', which contains the track 'Dreams'; plus somewhere in my dad's Zappa collection is a live rendition of 'Whipping Post'. My esteem for both of these recordings may very well have tipped the balance when it came to making a purchase.

Review: Approaching the Allman Brothers feels like more than just an appraisal of a single album. For many, they are totemic of a time and a place; a group whose craft and musicianship hauled southern rock - mixing together blues, boogie, soul and country - out of the juke joint and into the arena. The Allmans, more than anyone else, broke ground on a subgenre that would catapult the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Black Oak Arkansas, .38 Special, Blackfoot, the Marshall Tucker Band and the rest into the rock-buying public's consciousness. Despite those they dragged in their wake, the Allmans were also sumthin' else - nobody played a sweeter slide than Duane Allman, or jammed out harder (witness Eat a Peach); and, save for the notable exception of Skynyrd, nobody rivalled the Allmans for the twin tragedies of early deaths and substance abuse.

So, to their debut - and it's easy to hear why they cast such a long shadow. Almost every ingredient that would season the successes of other southern rock acts is present - some took one or two elements, others would port the template across wholesale. There's the gospel organ, swallow-dive guitar runs, white soul vocals and a bedrock of blooze upon which the confection sits. In fact, about the only influence that isn't discernible in these boys from Macon, Georgia, is an overt country influence; certainly not when stacked up against a barroom weepy like Skynyrd's 'Tuesday's Gone', or the backwoods zen of Black Oak Arkansas's 'High 'N' Dry'.

In fact, on opening instrumental 'Don't Want You No More', 'Every Hungry Woman' and 'Black Hearted Woman', there's another flavour that seems incongruous; perhaps my ears are playing up, but I hear a lot of early Santana in The Allman Brothers Band. These songs are essentially interchangeable with cuts from the first two Santana albums, their self-titled debut and Abraxas; both 'Evil Ways' and 'Hope You're Feelin' Better' could grace this album without seeming out of place. You wouldn't blink at a touch of Latin rock or a smattering of congas (indeed, the latter are present on 'Every Hungry Woman'). This certainly sounds more like Abraxas than, say, Strikes or High on the Hog.

Is it good though? Ain't that the point of a review? Yeah, it's good. But fifty years of chesty white guys pumping the blues at megawatt volumes and spooging all over their fretboards has, alas, diluted the impact a little. Greg Allman is a fine vocalist, and his organ work really does take some of these tracks to church in an appealing way. Rhythmically it's all pretty interesting too, a jazz influence discernible in the drumming (the finest example can be found on 'Dreams') and nimble interplay between percussionists Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks (which doesn't always pay off). Nonetheless, of everything on here, it's the approach taken on 'Trouble No More' which has proved the most enduring - a big ol' sledgehammer that works well enough here but has spawned a thousand more workmanlike, leaden imitators.

At  least the juddery rhythms and soaring glories of 'Whipping Post' are still worth the price of admission alone. Yes, yet another song of a woman who dun him wrong (like, half the tracks here, goddamn - you'd think that stadium rockers playing to full houses of adoring fans never had any luck!) but it's a good'un. Better - it's a reet belter. Overall, worth a look - especially if you like Santana.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Angry Machines - Dio

Provenance: This one's a bit weird.

A few of my colleagues at work know I'm a bit of a metalhead; nonetheless I was surprised when a pal in another department emailed me to ask if I wanted eight Dio albums for free. Of course I did.

According to the people in that office, a ratty old carrier bag had been left lying around containing eight Dio albums for about six months. Nobody knows from whence they came or who might have owned them. I'm thrilled that a Dio fanatic may have been moving quietly amongst their ranks this whole time.

Anyway, my theory is that the late Ronnie James Dio sent them through a timewarp from an alternate dimension to round out my Dio collection. These holes in the space-time continuum are a bit fuzzy and offworld-RJD probably didn't realise I had four of those albums already (since palmed off to my brother), leaving me to enjoy the span of Dream Evil to Angry Machines releases, generally considered a fallow period.

And so boys, girls and friends beyond the binary, here it is - 1996's Angry Machines.

Review: My word, those machines do look rather peeved!

The whole deal with robots turning on their creators is not only bound up with their conception - the word, of Czech origin, was introduced into English via a play by Karel Capek called Rossum's Universal Robots, which ends when the robots, er, turn on their creators. This is a very cool and heavy metal thing to do, as some rockin' tunes have come out from this ceaseless conflict - Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man', Judas Priest's 'Metal Gods', a bunch of Clutch stuff, UDO's 'Man and Machine':



Dio - the man - is not usually associated with this kind of jazz. Or, more accurately, he's very closely associated with a particular strain of lyricism - magic, wizards, dragons, rainbows and such. This is also pretty metal, but also absolute nerd shit, so Angry Machines is a welcome swerve into unfamiliar territory. He does this with a slightly rag-tag band, borrowing bits of Dokken and Love/Hate alongside hard rock's very own Zelig, Vinny Appice, the Man of a Thousand Projects.

All the stars are here...Jeff Pilson...Vinny Appice...Tracy G...
But enough crap about robots and personnel, what's the muzak actually like? Long-time readers might be surprised that I listen to my albums more than once (or even at all), and I had Twitter opinions on Angry Machines over a year ago:


Yeah, I quite liked it. And I quite like it now. Listen up Jack, it's no Holy Diver (what is?), and it's not even in the same tier as Dream Evil (because that's got 'Sunset Superman', which rules) but Angry Machines is a perfectly decent metal album, albeit replete with the pinched harmonic guitar sounds that seemed to riddle the genre at the end of the last millennium (NB: this tended to be something 'legacy' artists adopted to sound legit, when they weren't doing shamelessly chasing the nu-metal bandwagon).

As with most Dio cuts it starts off on a plodder, but 'Don't Tell the Kids' is the most bitchin' tune about divorce (lol) I've yet to hear; the next track after that, 'Black', is even better, with a nagging vocal hook and pounding lockstep riffing. Really - as per my tweet - this is all pretty solid, even if the lyrics reach a new zenith in gibberish. I have listened to 'Double Monday' (huh?) more than most humans and I still haven't the first idea what it's about. Meanwhile, 'Big Sister' is a slapdash appropriation of Orwell's Big Brother, except the gender has been changed from male to female and...that's it. It doesn't go anywhere or explore any interesting potentialities that could occur from framing this universal overseer into a maternal figure.

Besides, who's listening to Dio for lyrics? You're in the game for natural minor riffs and that gigantic, operatic, hammy bellow that was RJD's unique instrument. I can even look past the fact that there aren't that many angry machines actually depicted in the lyrics. What fucking sucks, though, is the last track, 'This Is Your Life'. Ronnie can really deliver on a rock ballad when the fancy takes him - 'As Long As It's Not About Love' from Magica is superlative, whilst one of his efforts in Rainbow, 'Rainbow Eyes', stands as one of the greatest examples of the form. 'This Is Your Life', on the other hand, is garbage.

The production on Angry Machines isn't too bad - a little dry, as was the fashion, but not anything radically different from any other Dio release until that point. Odd, then, that 'This Is Your Life', a piece for voice, piano and baby's first Casio keyboard, sets my teeth on edge. For obscure reasons it sounds really clangy and even out of tune - as if close-miking Mrs Mill's beer-slopped old upright was exactly what the closer to Angry Machines needed. To compound matters further, Dio - man capable of great subtlety when required (seriously, check out 'Rainbow Eyes') - positively moos all over this shit. He sounds like a bison with a headache, and drags the song into fresh realms of atrociousness.

Yes, there are missteps - two(!) songs introduced by nursery rhymes, a breakdown in 'Stay Out of My Mind' that sounds like a Looney Tunes cartoon - but these are venial sins in the grand scheme of it all. 'This Is Your Life', however, is a real dud, even more soporific and tiresome than Michael Aspel ambushing some c-list 'sleb with a poxy red book. Put it in the bin. Still, Angry Machines is worth a listen, though keep that finger at the ready to stop the show after track nine. Why ruin a good time?