Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Blood Lust - Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats

 

Provenance: A track of theirs was on a Classic Rock magazine sampler compilation, and it stood out so much that I was moved to start a thread about Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats on the music forum I used to post on, asking whether anyone else was aware of this band.

Well, bugger me if K.R. Starrs (Uncle Acid himself) didn't send me a private message to say that it was his band, and that he's glad I enjoyed what I'd heard thus far. As he posted with a hair metal-themed portmanteau username on the site (I did too), and had the good grace never to mention his band on the public boards (unlike some others - I'm looking at you, Carlos from Stonebreed) it was sheer chance that we came across each other.

Anyway, I have bought every album UA&TD have released - Blood Lust being their debut - and managed to see them live in Brighton, a gig which left my ears ringing for a couple of days afterwards. It was at this show where I encountered the rather startling Vodun for the first time, incidentally. 

Hey, live music - it weren't bad, were it?

Review: I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that 'I'll Cut You Down' is one of the best rock tracks of the last ten years. It's right up there with highlights provided by Ghost and Night Flight Orchestra, but to me it's all the more remarkable that it sounds like some ghoulish revenant from the Brown Acid series, a long-forgotten blast from 1971 rimed with murk and smoked with the lingering whiff of patchouli oil. I'm not usually keen on modern resurrectionists but I have a definite soft spot for anyone keeping the Sabbath flame alive, and 'I'll Cut You Down' is right in that wheelhouse.

'I'll Cut You Down' is the kind of brain-tenderising stomper I'll always love; eerie, charnel-house vocals, slabs of huge riffage and drums so ferociously primitive that they'd make the Stooges blush. If I had authored such a mighty piece of music I genuinely think I'd be tempted to call it a day. Once you've got the likes of 'I'll Cut You Down' under your belt, you can retire undefeated.

Fortunately, K.R. Starrs has more gumption than I'll ever possess, and so there's eight more tracks pitched somewhere in atmosphere between the gnarliest Hammer Horror films, the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, side two of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and the dying embers of Altamont. Yeah, Blood Lust hangs its hat on a very particular Seventies aesthetic, but there wasn't a better decade for curdled dreams, mental degradation and bummer endings. (Incidental note: one could posit that Black Sabbath and Steely Dan were two sides of the same coin, wrangling with much the same issues but from different perspectives; Sabbath embodying the howling death throes of an industrial working-class, whilst 'the Dan' tap into the irony, lassitude and weltschmertz belonging to a demimonde of sybaritic glamour - wot say you?)

Weren't we talking about Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats?

I can make this simple - if you like doomy stoner rock, you'll love this. If you like an epicene creepiness to your vocals, you'll love this. If you play this album loud enough, your neighbours will complain; if you play this loud enough and long enough, they will end up worshipping you. Do you want to be the Jim Jones of suburbia? Then get yourself a piece of Blood Lust.

Everything on here is stone cold killer material, right down to the unsettling bonus track 'Down To The Fire', but blunderbuss to my head, if I had to pick another highlight it would be 'I'm Here To Kill You', which sounds nothing less than a demented take on Van Morrison's 'Moondance', tapping into a hitherto invisible seam of violence lurking beneath the surface. So, Blood Lust - in terms of tasting notes this pairs well with psychonautic journeys to the centre of the mind, or simply lashings of the old ultraviolence.

Right-o, I couldn't let Ying-Yang Ballsteam provide the final review for 2020, but that's your lot for this year. Let's hope 2021 can clear the, admittedly, very low - almost 'pro-limbo dancer low' - bar that's been set by this shitshow, and that this time next year we're gambolling around like spring lambs, albeit with Windows 95 having been implanted into our arms. 

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Fire And Ice - Yngwie Malmsteen

Provenance: Fucking hell. Suffice to say that we all go through some awkward phases in our adolescence, and one of mine was a fleeting interest in shred. 

I confess, I wanted to play guitar like Satriani, Vai - and Malmsteen, at one stage at least. Perhaps I was infected with a relatively benign precursor to Covid-19 as I certainly experienced an extreme lack of taste in order to walk into HMV, see this on the shelves and think to myself, "that'll do for me."

Even back then, green around the gills as I was, I had an inkling that Malmsteen had a hint of farce about him. Prior to being unmasked as a particularly charmless air passenger, there was the braggadocio about his own abilities, his disparagement of other fine guitarists and his ludicrous stage-hogging

But he can sure burn it up on the fretboard, right?

Review: I haven't listened to this for many, many years in the belief that it is doubtless garbage, and - surprise, surprise - I am right. Released in 1992, the tail-end of the butt-rock era, it has the sonics and clarity of an album produced ten years prior. Before I go any further, I would like to reproduce Malmsteen's personal thanks entry from the sleeves notes in full. I think these shed much light on the whole endeavour:

Yngwie Malmsteen's personal thanks to: Erika Malmsteen, Lennart & Lolo Lannerback, Fuzzy, Peter, 'Putte' Rooth, Guilio Lomma [sic], Nicolo Paganini [sic], J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix, H.P. Lovecraft, Enzo Ferrari, Leo Fender, Dinsdale, Monty Python's Flying Circus and to all his family and friends.

What an absolutely marvellous porridge this is; and we shall come back to the principals in a moment, but there's a glaring omission here if influences are being reeled off. Where is Ritchie Blackmore? Surely one cannot produce what is essentially a bad Rainbow album, albeit one juiced to the gills on steroids, without a tip of the hat to the Man in Black? Fire And Ice is essentially the first three Rainbow albums sped up, with less interesting guitar playing, and a complete absence of the charm that made that trilogy so exceptional. So, power metal, essentially.

Credit should be given where due, and I am thankful that Fire And Ice is an attempt at squeezing Malmsteen's electro-baroque sensibilities into band format; much like Steve Vai's (admirable) Sex And Religion, we have a singer present to give shape and meaning to all the twiddling. Furthermore, the fellow in question - Goran Edman, a kind of throat-for-hire - does sterling work. It cannot save the material, naturally, much as one strong swimmer cannot tow a freighter into port, but he does a manful job nonetheless.

What we're left with, then, is a melange of Rainbow, Magnum, Stratovarius and a clutch of other bands that see merit in rhyming 'fire' with 'desire' and wailing away on harmonic minor scales (so, power metal, essentially). Where Jimi Hendrix figures in this whole farrago one can only speculate, but if Malmsteen is laughing into his sleeve at 'forgetting' Blackmore ('How Many Miles To Babylon', really?), the more deceased of his influences come through loud and clear. Boy howdy.

I am not a good musician, and as such I think I would find it a tough yomp trying to build a metal song around, say, a Bach fugue. This trickiness is untroubling to Herre Malmsteen, who cuts the Gordian knot by simply stopping the song in its tracks so we can hear some fruity organ work. It is distracting and tonally illiterate in 'Cry No More' and 'C'est La Vie'; at least he has the restraint(!!) to only bamboozle the listener for a few bars of this guff in fizzy AOR radio-bait 'Teaser'. Hey, what do I know? I ain't never had no number one album in Japan.

We should come into the soloing. It's all reheated Bach 'n' Paganini I'm afraid. Blackmore was, to my mind, the first to popularise neo-classical soloing into heavy rock and metal, but Malmsteen is the one who has really picked up the baton and run with it. But to where? He is undoubtedly a master at playing all these baroque and romantic scales incredibly quickly, but it's almost as if he's boxed himself into a corner. Taste, musicality, moderation are all sacrificed to a frightening, but ultimately banal, demonstration of speed and technicality. Malmsteen is not quite as incontinent a guitarist as double haircut-haver Michael Angelo Batio, but on a track like 'Forever Is A Long Time' (stupendous title) he runs Nitro's finest close.

Highlights? Yeah, there are a couple. Literally, two. After the snorefest of instrumental introduction 'Perpetual', the first track to feature vocals, 'Dragonfly', is pretty decent melodic metal. At the halfway mark, title track 'Fire And Ice' achieves something utterly absent on the rest of the album - a catchy chorus hook. It's a good track! Sad, then, that the album sags with the preposterousness of 'Forever Is A Long Time', and then takes a swan dive off a bridge with 'I'm My Own Enemy' (never a truer word spoken, etc.) which sounds like the Michael Schenker Group (drunken edition) in slow motion.

It's hard to truly loathe Fire And Ice, however. Much like its creator, it's a bombastic, strutting popinjay of an album, all surface and no depth, but it doesn't try to pretend to be anything it's not. I do want to be a little more charitable, truly. But then I hear a fucking lute on some dog awful shit called 'Golden Dawn', remember that Eddie Van Halen is dead but Malmsteen lives, and that I always have the option of listening to Helloween or Savatage.   

Sunday, 6 December 2020

The Turning Tide - PP Arnold

 

Provenance: An interview in the Guardian set me on the path to buying a copy of The Turning Tide. This was meant to be Arnold's third album, but having been recorded in the late 60s and early 70s it languished in the vaults until issued by Kundalini Music in 2017.

It's not just that PP Arnold was - and no doubt remains - a fantastic vocalist who could do powerhouse bombast and quiet intimacy with equal success; this album is stacked with talent. Alongside Barry Gibb, who produced and wrote a number of the tracks, there are performances by Caleb Quaye, Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock and Rita Coolidge, Bobby Keys plus a squadron of crack session players.

There's a good chance I'd have bought this album anyway, given all the hands involved, but The Turning Tide's status as a 'lost' album lends it that extra gloss of curiosity that makes it impossible to resist. Sometimes, the mere idea behind an album amplifies it as more than just a collection of songs; the trauma behind AC/DC's Back In Black (excellent album), the teeth-pulling pursuit of technical ecstasy that went into Steely Dan's Aja (excellent album) or the sad documentation of a mind coming apart at the seams as on Skip Spence's Oar (one of the most uncomfortable listens out there).

Review: Apparently, we have former Bee Gees manager, the late Robert Stigwood, to thank, at least in part, for stalling the release of The Turning Tide. I would submit that anyone who heard Arnold's pulsing interpretation of of Traffic's 'Medicated Goo' and decided it was not up to snuff needs their ears syringed. Support for this assertion comes courtesy of the fact that Stigwood was the producer responsible for the execrable Saturday Night Fever and Grease films.

It is as a conduit for the writing efforts of others that Arnold primarily appears on the album, although two of her co-write efforts with Quaye, the soaring ballad 'If This Were My World' and the dewily idealistic 'Children of the Last War' are real highlights. The full range of Arnold's talents are made apparent on the Gibb number 'High and Windy Mountain', which begins as a fairly nondescript soul-inflected soft rocker and mutates into gigantic beast propelled entirely by Arnold's astonishing - and frankly, scary - vocal power. For good measure, the trick is repeated on 'Bury Me Down by the River'.

Maybe - maybe - what counted against the The Turning Tide was that it undoubtedly looks backwards, towards a time of lush arrangements and voices spilling over with melodrama. Comparisons with Ivor Raymonde's arrangements for artists like Dusty Springfield, the Walker Brothers and Kathy Kirby are apt. And perhaps it was this polish and care that meant it fell between the gaps, awkwardly out of synch with the glam-stomp, prog meanderings and bedsit folk that was starting to poke through the crazy paving at the time. Arnold's cover of 'Spinning Wheel' is a sizzler, but was there any call for it come the early 1970s? And whilst the version of the Rolling Stones' hardy perennial 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' is certainly in the top division of attempts, it must have sounded old hat, even then.

Am I allowed one last little dig? When every song is a towering blancmange of emotion, one wishes for a track to come along to give proceedings a kick in the pants. 'Medicated Goo' is the most lively in that sense, but it's the first track; a couple more uptempo numbers sprinkled hither and thither would've been welcome.

Look at me, though, what an utterly ungrateful little piglet I am! I'm writing this in 2020, so what business do I have making lazy assumptions at was in or out in a period I know mostly through Hollywood and my album collection. I wouldn't even make my debut on Spaceship Earth for another decade-and-a-half, so I should just shut my trap and enjoy the fact that The Turning Tide is even available, and sounds this good. An assessment, which, by the way, takes in every aspect of this album; I understand it was cleaned up somewhat from the original masters, yet every track possesses the soft glow of care and craft that went in to so much recording of 'throwaway' music of the time. Pretty much everything recorded in the last twenty-five years sounds dog awful in comparison.

Nobody with my haircut can lay a plaint about anything with a hint of the retrograde about it, so I will leave you with this - Gibb's knack for tugging on the heartstrings is almost unparalleled, the music is cool and classy, and above all other consideration, Arnold is a singer of preternatural talents. Is there anything else gathering dust in the vaults, one wonders? 

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Safe As Milk - Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

 

Provenance: My Dad is a big Zappa fan, so as a consequence had a couple of Beefheart releases that included some degree of Zappa participation - the joint Zappa/Beefheart album Bongo Fury and the Zappa-produced Beefheart release Trout Mask Replica.

Nevertheless, I came to Beefheart fairly late, and mostly through reading about him. I think I needed this primer, because the one time I put Trout Mask Replica on as a teenager, I was left utterly flummoxed. Granted, I didn't have the most adventurous taste in music, and even now I am not sure as to whether I would derive much enjoyment from listening to it; TMR just seemed too wilfully weird.

Having read about it, I now think I'd get some appreciation at what was being attempted, and possibly its execution. But a few albums really caught my eye - Bat Chain Puller (Shiny Beast), Clear Spot and this, their debut - Safe As Milk. So now I own all three.

Review: On one level, and at least if you were only paying attention to the first three or four songs, you might be tempted to file it alongside the slew of other blues-rock bands emerging from both sides of the Atlantic during the mid-1960s; certainly, at the chewier end of the spectrum, but not a million miles from either the Pretty Things, Rising Sons or Canned Heat. 

Yet it's there from the very first moments; there's a slightly manic edge to the voice intoning "I was born in the desert / Came on up from New Orleans / Came upon a tornado / Sunlight in the sky." Those lyrics! They both hang together, and yet don't make much sense at all. And once the slide guitar gives way to the full band in clattering form, there's both a precision to the playing and a shiftiness where rhythm is concerned that sets it apart. 'Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do' both sounds like the archetypal sixties bloozer and an observation of the genre through the proverbial looking glass.

There follows five more tracks of excellent, if twisted, takes on blues and pop in the period mould. Sometimes, such as on 'Dropout Boogie', the fuzz guitar and Beefheart's hyper-guttural vocal grant the music an air of snarling menace; on others, such as 'Zigzag Wanderer', the jingle-jangle of the Byrds is played with more swing and abandon than McGuinn, Hillman et al could ever muster. Then follows a trio of tracks so extraordinary that I don't think such a sequence was matched on any other release from 1967, and possibly thereafter.

First up is the electric jugband stomp of 'Electricity', Beefheart's strained, strangulated vocals stretching out atop the futuristic bore of a theremin. The theremin is both a perfect instrument to take the lead in a song titled 'Electricity', and also utterly incongruent with the hoedown jigging along behind it. It's mad, it shouldn't work, and of course it comes together.

Next is 'Yellow Brick Road', so saccharine you'd take pause before playing it to a diabetic, with cloying lyrics like "Bag of tricks and candy sticks / Peppermint kite for my toy." I vividly recall the first time I heard the chorus come crashing in, with the force and seeming heaviness of death metal, Beefheart's voice transformed from twee songster to the cavernous roar of an explosion in a mine shaft, "Yellow brick, black on black / Keep on walking and don't look back". Underneath, a roll of toms rumbles like thunder; at once, the tone is ominous, fearful and uncomfortable.  

Finally, the piece de resistance - 'Abba Zaba'. This one short track seems to contain all the music one could ever wish to hear. The lyrics seem to come from the Marc Bolan "hubcap diamond star halo" school of writing, yet conceptually come together to make more sense on an imagistic level than anything T.Rex ever accomplished. Simply put, 'Abba Zaba' sounds nothing like anything else going on at the time; the percussion alone, courtesy of John French, makes you wonder whether his DNA was spliced with octopus. I believe it was French who once described Ry Cooder's guitar over the third verse as "taking off like a bird, just floating over the melody", and it's spot on. All this whilst guitars whirr and crash, Beefheart and co. chanting about 'Babette Baboon'. 

Who else could've done this?

The rest of Safe As Milk contains stellar performances; the gritty, harmonica-driven 'Plastic Factory' sounding like a blueprint for Tom Waits' gnarlier moments and 'Grown So Ugly' turning the blues into math-rock. Yet none of this possesses the difficulty - and seeming obscurantism - of Trout Mask Replica. It's perfectly accessible pop music, if one accepts that a steady beat and tonal consistency don't have to be part and parcel of the deal. But Safe As Milk is much more than that - for me, it remains one of the most essential releases of the era, entirely identifiable with the experimentation of late 1960s acid rock and psychedelia yet almost a goad to other bands, as if to say "see? You can take it further and still make music people can sorta groove to." Tip top entertainment.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

OMG! Dein Body Ist So Heiß - Loona featuring Ko & Ko

 

It was six hours ago, but I've already forgotten. Six hours ago, I stared into the inky blackness of the Spotify interface, and the abyss stared back.

This is the abyss - 'OMG! Dein Body Ist So Heiß', by Loona ft. Ko & Ko.

Yes, it had really come to this. The darkly gnomic utterances of Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz buzzed in my mind as my finger hovered.

Six hours ago, I did not have this grim knowledge. And even now, I cannot tell you how this came to be, save that I was chasing a thread through Wikipedia and ended up being confronted with a discography containing a single glorying in the name of 'OMG! Dein Body Ist So Heiß'.

Come on now, I hear you say, it's a rum business mangling up Nietzsche and Apocalypse Now! to cheap effect. It's nicht so schlecht, surely? And yeah, in one sense it's just one piece of music from a digital jukebox that I can switch off in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, it's gotta be just some throwaway Euro-pap, one bopper amongst many that you hear as you sip your watered-down margarita poolside. A mote of dust, drifting in a Balearic morning sky.

Here's the deal; it's not as bad as going up the Mekong to terminate a rogue officer with extreme prejudice, but nor can this be written off as mere sub-Vengaboys pabulum. It's bad, very bad. Aggressively, offensively bad. I'm not entirely convinced that this isn't the stray product of a top secret psy-op loosened unwittingly into the world. The bleakest corners of the MKUltra project didn't harbour such crimes as this.

So what do Loona (for it is she) and this pair of ridiculous middle-aged popinjays conjure up? Well, I've been lucky enough to experience a wedding in Romania and a boat cruise in North Macedonia, and the common factor between them was turbo-folk. In a world where electro-swing exists, turbo-folk still reigns supreme as the single shittiest genre of music ever devised. The late Barry White farting into a bathtub is more appealing. 

Turbo-folk is the unholy alliance of what is typically upbeat or lively folk melody with electronic, often synthesised instrumentation, with a club-friendly BPM pumped underneath it all. This is even more wretched than that, being some mutant version - turbo-polka or turbo-oompah, maybe. I speak the most rudimentary German imaginable, but even if I was beaten half to death with a weißwurst my two functioning brain cells would still be able to parse the idiotic lyric, blatted out here by Loona in a vocal drenched in robotic autotune. Ko & Ko's role is obscure, save for the odd vocal interpolation - one wonders which brother pressed play on the Casio demo function to excrete this tune?

At best, I can say that 'OMG! Dein Body Ist So Heiß' resembles music inasmuch as the sounds are fashioned into a recognisable song structure. That's your lot. I'm off now to listen to something far less depressing, like Suicide's 'Frankie Teardrop'. Tschüß!

Sunday, 15 November 2020

La Futura - ZZ Top

 

Provenance: By the time I wound up getting this album I was already a hardcore ZZ Top fan. Big into the albums and a few years away from being thoroughly disappointed by a lacklustre live performance at Wembley Arena.

(The Wembley gig, which I attended with my friend Sandy, sucked. The Arena a bit of a pain to get to on public transport, isn't it? Once there, I went through a screening process more rigorous than at most international airports and then spent £14 on two beers.

Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel was the support act, and although his ragged bellowing was fun for a while, he failed to do 'Seven Days', his best solo track. ZZ Top were worse; Billy Gibbons can move about but can't sing, whilst Dusty Hill can sing but can barely move.

After little over an hour, including covers of 'Sixteen Tons' and 'Jailhouse Rock' - a song that nobody ever needs to cover, ever again - the Top shuffled off stage and the lights came on. Sandy hoped that the second half would be better, but it was clear to me that they'd stuck a fork in it. Sixty-five, seventy minutes at a push? Eye-watering ticket prices and untold hassle? Cheers guys. Frustrated, we headed to the much-missed Big Red bar, saw a cracking metal act for free, and were able to get a pint under a fiver.)

Review: I don't know what everybody else was expecting from ZZ Top in 2012 but kicking off La Futura with a cover of a 1989 Houston hip-hop track possibly wasn't one of them. Yet ZZ Top have never been afraid to go off-piste, from individual oddities such as 'Manic Mechanic' from Deguello right the way through to fusing synthesizers and drum machines with southern boogie, practically inventing their own genre with Eliminator. So repurposing DJ DMD and the Inner Soul Clique's '25 Lighters' into 'I Gotsa Get Paid' - a nice nod to 'Just Got Paid', no? - shouldn't really set any eyebrows heading north. 

In fact, if one wasn't aware of its background, you'd just think it was another great raging slab of ZZ Top's smoke 'n' chrome hard rock that's been their hallmark since Rhythmeen. Crucially, both 'I Gotsa Get Paid' and the chugging blueser 'Chartreuse', tracks uno y dos, are simply better than anything from previous album Mescalero; an album that had its charms, not least the preponderance of Spanglish in the lyrics, but was ultimately too sprawling, flabby and unfocused for its own good.

Here, though, ZZ Top have enlisted Rick Rubin, which means two things - no excess, and a back-to-basics sound. So, aside from a few guitar overdubs, what one hears on La Futura is the basic rock combo formula of guitar, bass, drums and voice. There's the odd extra flourish here and there - the rather ponderous ballad 'Over You' fleshes out its sound with a much needed keyboard, for example - but insofar as these elements are used sparingly, it's a strikingly similar setup to that of ZZ Top's best album, Tres Hombres.

Accommodations have been made for time passed, however. Billy Gibbons, one of the more instantly recognisable guitarists out there, plays with gusto in that choppy, greasy style that makes ZZ Top records so goddamn fun, but he's quite obviously close-mic'd to allow for deficiencies in the voice department. But it's good! In fact, the additional sandpaper to a voice already coloured with road rash makes everything sound ten percent meaner and sleazier than would otherwise be the case. Sticking with performances, my only real bugbear is that Frank Beard still demonstrates some tasty stick work but it's nowhere near as creative as the rhythms he was banging out before Eliminator. Go back and give those old platters a spin and you'll hear some chewy, fiddly drum figures. Beard was (is?) a superb drummer with a great pocket feel. On La Futura the latter is in evidence, but it lacks finesse.

(I remember playing 'Just Got Paid' with my former band, and easily the most taxing aspect of recreating the feel of the original was getting the drum pattern right. Fortunately, that's nothing to do with me, guv!)

If one or two numbers can be a bit samey - just how many times can you chop and change the blues? - it's alright, there's enough variety elsewhere to maintain interest, and at a hair under forty minutes La Futura is well-paced. I was surprised a couple of times - 'Flying' High' had an almost power-pop feel to it, and the best track was a little unexpected. I've often been underwhelmed when ZZ Top slow things down, yet the molasses-crawl of 'It's Too Easy Manana' possesses an authoritative, anthemic quality and one of the more characterful vocal deliveries on the joint. Mescalero was rotten with these songs, which, when coupled with its hour plus run time, dragged the thing into a swamp. Here, the two strollers act as welcome interludes.

All things said and done, La Futura isn't going to cause ships to capsize, but it's a very good addition to the ZZ Top canon. Stripping back their sound exposes the dirty innards of the engine, and they sound all the better for doing so; I don't think there's a skeevier intro around than the sound of Gibbons' guitar revving up on 'I Don't Wanna Lose, Lose You'. A triumph, then - and certainly more rewarding than the live experience. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Hourglass special edition

 

As we're back into lockdown (not that I was ever going to do anything spectacular on a Wednesday night anyway), I thought I'd try something a little different. I hope you like it, and if so, I might repeat the trick until it becomes boring for both myself and you, dear reader.

Thanks to science, we now know that popular music has existed since at least 1967, and possibly even further back than that. What we do know is that, since then, we as a species have made up for lost time by banging drums, twanging guitars and hollering into microphones to try to please each other with cool sounds and pleasant vibes. 

Another imperative that humanity follows is a yen for organising; the biggest, the quickest, the longest - and the best. As a seasoned music listener of many years standing, I feel there are few people on this planet better placed than myself to make the final judgement on 'best song ever'. My friends, it is my honour and privilege to inform you that the greatest piece of music to flow from the hands and minds of this race is...

'Hourglass' by Squeeze.

And yet, despite Squeeze being the definitive authors and performers of a song called 'Hourglass', Spotify reveals oodles of contenders, all with their own 'Hourglass' song. Thusly, I have decided to review the top ten 'Hourglass' tracks on Spotify, and in a Swinetunes first, actually score out of ten. Here goes!

Artist: Squeeze
Song: 'Hourglass'
Not only the best song about possibly drowning a puppy, but it narrowly edges out Boney M's 'Rasputin' as the apogee of musical genius. This is what Phil Collins wished he wrote when he came up with second-rate pabulum 'In The Air Tonight', which is of course about watching a man drown and doing nothing to help. 10/10

Artist: Catfish and the Bottlemen
Song: 'Hourglass'
More heavy breathing and out-of-tune acoustic guitar than I'd ideally like. The dude singing sounds like a real dweeb and this is boring as fuck. Cold, mushy baby food music. Too much bleating about missing someone, quite frankly, and zero references to potentially drowning a puppy or a man. 2/10

Artist: Lamb of God
Song: 'Hourglass'
Holy shit, I remember these guys absolutely tearing it up at my student union. This one's from 2004, so there's every chance that I brang the ruckus in the pit to this particular 'Hourglass'. Much better than the simpering Catfish et al., because this is full of slamming riffs and head-snapping tempo changes. Frontman Randy Blythe also killed a guy by accident, which is one-up on Phil Collins, who simply watched a man drown. 8/10

Artist: S U R V I V E
Song: 'Hourglass'
No, I'm definitely not typing that name out again. This is a (mostly) instrumental synthwave track with a tense, nervy undertone to it. Great music if you're sweating over Nikkei movements on your pager or whatever people got up to back in the day. Actually pretty cool, drop this in between Skinny Puppy and Killing Miranda at your local goth night, grim good times guaranteed. 7/10

Artist: A Perfect Circle
Song: 'Hourglass'
I have dim memories of listening to A Perfect Circle back in the day - I guess it's the band you whacked on if TooL were proving a bit too intense? Anyway, this sounds terrible. It's just fundamentally shit in so many ways, like the worst bits of Depeche Mode, Clutch and Porcupine Tree being played through the speaker of a 56k dial-up modem. 3/10

Artist: Mammal Hands
Song: 'Hourglass'
Initially comes across like the soundtrack to a British Airways business class lounge advert, it at least has the good grace to transform into a more interesting piece of music about two minutes in. It just isn't unhinged enough for my palate; one is just waiting for the saxophonist to go full-King Crimson, but even at its flightiest there's still too much taste and restraint. I'd watch these guys at Love Supreme, though. 5/10

Artist: Disclosure, LION BABE
Song: 'Hourglass'
Deep house really isn't my thing, but as far as I can tell this is a pretty good R&B-influenced joint. This would be a lot of fun whomping out of a bass sub in your car boot whilst you cruise around the shitty market town you've called home your entire worthless life. 5/10

Artist: Rodrigo Amarante
Song: 'Hourglass'
Do you remember that song 'Your Woman' by White Room? That's what this 'Hourglass' reminds me of, except it substitutes that nice vintage horn hook for a wonky old synth sound. Regardless, I'm rather taken with this, it packs in a whole host on neat musical tricks and your man sounds like the singer of the Narcos theme song. 8/10 [Edit: it is the guy who sings 'Tuyo' from Narcos!]

Artist: Motionless In White
Song: 'Hourglass'
This is metalcore, aye? Fine. Production wise, I can only assume whomever helmed the desk just loathes music with a passion, as there's simply no excuse for this sonic hodgepodge. There are more effects slathered on the vocals than on David Lee Roth's 'Skyscraper'. Any pretence towards aggression are undercut by the chucklehead keyboards that sound like they were surgically grafted from the Damned when they thought they were goths. 2/10

Artist: Set It Off
Song: 'Hourglass'
"Is-tan-bul - Con-stan-tin-ople!" Ballsy move to start off a track with that melody - in this economy. What a strange duck this track is; it's got a giddy, queasy feeling to it in places, coming on like a cyberpunk Ricky Martin. Trust me, that's good! It's just a shame that the big chorus hook aims for, and almost achieves, the bland catchiness of a mid-90s boy band banger. Ah well - an attempt was made. 6/10

And there you have it. The most listened to 'Hourglass' on Spotify, that of Squeeze fame, is, perhaps not coincidentally, also the best. It easily crushes its opposition through its jubilant horn riffs, cod-funk guitars and chanted, percussive choruses. My advice to any musician looking to write a tune called 'Hourglass' is this - don't. You'll only draw negative attention to yourself on blogs like this, read by tens of people (hi Mum!).

Sunday, 8 November 2020

License To Kill - Malice

 

Provenance: Another present, either birthday or Christmas (one arrives hot on the heels of the other, alas), but not anything out of the blue. I had included this on some list or another. Why, I'm not so sure, but it's called License To Kill and the band's name is Malice, all of which is suitably metal.

Having said that, what a bait 'n' switch it is to call yourself Poison, a very cool name, only to dribble out crap like 'Unskinny Bop'. Any other examples spring to mind? If you were going solely on the cover art, you'd expect Molly Hatchet to sound like Manowar instead of workaday southern boogie. Meat Loaf falls into this category a little, doesn't he? Quite metal album art, songs that sound like showtunes. 

Incidentally, if you're stuck with buying me a gift, an album or two always does the trick. Not hinting at anything, but yeah, just think about it.

Review: Thank fuck Malice don't sound like Poison.

Thank fuck, instead, that License To Kill sounds like a cross between Riot, Ratt, Y&T and especially Killing Machine era Judas Priest. In fact, on opener 'Sinister Double' I felt compelled to (sinister) double check the liner notes to make sure Priest main man Rob Halford didn't have a hand in any of the wailing. This is meant as nothing other than a compliment to actual vocalist James Neal (Halford is my favourite metal vocalist), and his performances throughout are consistently excellent.

More good news - License To Kill is fat free, coming in at a taut thirty-nine minutes-and-change; it's nine tracks of beefy heavy metal with nary an acoustic moment or prog flourish to be seen. It's a diesel-charged, palm-muted chuggathon with all the elements for a rollicking good time present and correct: sticky hooks, laser-cut guitar soloing and positively brobdingnagian power chords festoon the nine tracks on offer here.

If I could offer the most muon-sized criticism, it's that Malice, on the basis of License To Kill at least, sound so comfortable because they remind you of other bands you probably also like. I've already mentioned how close Neal cleaves to Halford in the screaming stakes; in addition, some of the guitar tones resemble those of Dokken's George Lynch; and there's a moment in the intro to 'Chain Gang Woman' where the whole package comes together to sound like vintage Motley Crue. (Incidentally, 'Chain Gang Woman' features backing vocals by Daves Mustaine and Ellefson of Megadeth fame, alongside Jaime St. James(!) and Jeff Warner(!!) from Black 'N' Blue(!!!!), and current Kiss guitarist / Easter Island head life model Tommy Thayer - wowza!).

The star of the show is the title track, 'License To Kill', which could have easily been one of the stronger cuts on Priest albums like Point of Entry or even Screaming For Vengeance. See what I mean? Even when praising them, I can't help but slip into comparisons with other, better known, acts. Failure to establish a distinct identity may have been what ultimately holed Malice below the waterline, because on the basis of License To Kill alone they should've been a force. Nonetheless, it's 2020 and here I am thoroughly enjoying the whip-crack riffage of 'Breathin' Down Your Neck', so by no means can we consider this enterprise a failure.

Frankly, any metalhead worth his, her or their salt should own a copy of License To Kill. It combines so many classic and recognisable aspects of what built the genre in the first place, and executes them with aplomb and no little flair. In addition, unlike many metal releases of the era, there's simply no filler to be found. Tight songwriting, good singing, good playing - what more could one want? Perhaps they could've upped the Black 'N' Blue quotient a little?

Lastly, I've just tweaked something in my neck nodding along to 'Breathin' Down Your Neck'. Irony aside, 'License To Kill' failed to injure me, so I'm declaring the former song to be the strongest joint on the album. That's how it works with metal - I don't make the rules! (But yes, 'Breathin...' is probably the better track thanks to its neat chorus and the fact that bits of it sound like a good UFO number.)

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Townes Van Zandt - Townes Van Zandt

 

Provenance: This is slightly odd, insofar as a half-remembered post on a music message board percolated away for more than a decade before breaking through into my consciousness.

Back in 2018 my partner was away for a few days, and I was idly lounging around on my bed trying to think of something new to tickle the tympanic membrane with. For some reason, the name 'Townes Van Zandt' floated to the surface, and as we own a couple of those accursed Amazon Echoes, I asked it to play me some of his music.

The only reason I even knew of TVZ was due to a single poster on the forum, who during the mid-2000s would respond to every 'best songwriter', 'most underrated songwriter', 'most overlooked artist', etc., thread with the same answer: Townes Van Zandt. Going purely by a few detail-light posts sandwiched between threads on John Corabi and Bang Tango, I has assumed he was some sub-Neil Young Laurel Canyon folkster.

Ten minutes after commanding my personal surveillance device, I felt like punching myself. I'd heard what sounded like the strangest, most pungent, deep country music I'd ever encountered - the mighty, cinematic double-cross ballad 'Pancho and Lefty', the harrowing 'Waitin' Around To Die' and one of the most singular compositions ever, the ominous, apocalyptic two-chord blues 'Lungs'. I bought this album, which features the latter two, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, almost immediately.

Review: I like discussions about great songwriters - in fact, just last night my father-in-law and I were marvelling together at the prodigious output (and success) of the Brill Building stable of the 1960s and 1970s. A few nights previous, I was advancing to a group of friends that Ray Davies of the Kinks has to be considered in the same bracket as Lennon and McCartney, at least where British performers are concerned. There's no real answer, obviously, because what are you looking for in a song? Beautiful music? Storytelling? Mood creation? Nonetheless, if I were to put together a Mount Rushmore of American songwriters, Townes Van Zandt would be my first nomination.

Here, on his third album, is the most consistent and cohesive collection that TVZ put out in his career. For the most part it's three- or four-chord country music, with acoustic guitar to the fore, songs driven by Van Zandt's deceptively complex fingerpicking and swooning, keening Texan drawl. Although it's absolutely the kind of album to inspire me to dribble out inanities like 'timeless', there are signs of an era; hand drums on 'For the Sake of the Song' and a harpsichord to back that and subsequent track, the pure romance of 'Columbine', mark it as a product of the late 1960s.

These two are perfectly good compositions and would be standouts on any other singer-songwriter collection, but it's on 'Waitin' Around To Die' where things get interesting; an itchy, nervy drum tattoo and tubercular harmonica underscore a tale of almost grotesque woe, taking in abandonment, infidelity, criminality and drug dependence. Reflecting some of the bummer endings creeping into popular cinema at the time, this doozy ends on one of the grimmer twists in country. 

What's abundantly clear is that Townes Van Zandt is a testimony of an artist fully in command of his talent and his craft. In any other hands, 'Colorado Girl' would be pedestrian, perhaps even a little goofy. However, TVZ's ability to imbue his simple, homespun poetry with untold depths of feeling make this remarkable. When he steps outside his established metre to deliver the line "I got to kiss these lonesome Texas blues goodbye" it just about breaks your heart. If you're missing somebody in your life right now, perhaps save this one for later. A few tracks later, he's back to making you feel like utter dogshit again on the tender, consolatory 'I'll Be Here in the Morning'.

Betwixt and between moments where he's duffing your into an emotional wreck, something else remarkable happens - the ominous, hallucinatory 'Lungs', apparently written whilst in an illness induced delirium. Crossing the imagery of the Book of Revelations with the haunted Texas blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson, 'Lungs' feels like an entire dread universe has been called into being in the span of two and a half minutes. As mentioned previously, it's a whole two chords, with a needling guitar riff and some gunslinger slide playing added in to spice the recipe, but that doesn't tell half the story. Above it all is TVZ sounding both fearful and mighty, as if he knows the spell he is weaving possesses a rare and unpredictable power. Lightning in a bottle.

In just ten songs, and less than thirty-five minutes, Townes Van Zandt manages to do something peculiar. The palette of sounds Van Zandt works with is not particularly diverse, and nor does he ever demonstrate much vocal range (albeit, the singing is gorgeous). Nonetheless, this album takes in the ache of romance, existential horror, teary-eyed wistfulness and the depths of insanity. Both 'Lungs' and, say, the delicate country waltz of '(Quicksilver Dreams Of) Maria' are indelibly TVZ songs, yet in terms of sensibility couldn't be any further apart. This is one of the many reasons why I feel Townes Van Zandt ranks right up there: it's not just brilliant, it's also substantial, and maybe even important.

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.