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?).