Sunday, 21 February 2021

Don't Hear It...Fear It! - Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell


Provenance: The band with the best name in the biz

After moving to the south coast from London, all on my lonesome I went to my first gig in my new environs to see Orange Goblin at the Haunt. Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell were the support act, and they kicked my ass.

Anyway, it turns out that 'the Shove' are a local band, plus I share a rather tenuous connection with bassist Louis Comfort-Wiggett (which I shan't reveal here - small world 'n' all, especially online), so I've subsequently got to see them a few times since. They kicked my ass on those occasions, too.

As for Don't Hear It...Fear It!, I bought this either at the Goblin gig or shortly thereafter via Rise Above Records, undefeated as the coolest label out there.

Support your local bands, even if they're not as tuff as Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. 

Review: As I am wont to do, I shall describe the sound of Shovell, a band you may not have heard of, by comparing them to another bunch of bands you also may not be familiar with. Suck it up, you knew the deal when you came here. So, here's a name I certainly haven't used before - Stack Waddy! And, let me see, I reckon there's more than a soupcon of the Groundhogs (Split era) in there, plus some Edgar Broughton Band, Budgie, a bit of Atomic Rooster and a whole smorgasbord of bands simply too hip to ever break through that you'll nonetheless find on the peerless Brown Acid compilations.

What I'm getting at, rosy-cheeked reader o'mine, is that Don't Hear It... is a distillation of all the things I love about hard rock - evil vocals, slammin' riffs, doomy lyrics and generous use of phase effects. It's right in that sweet spot of nascent heavy metal and come-down psychedelia, located somewhere in the dusty cracks between Black Sabbath and the wailing space-distorting stylings of Robin Trower. It's heartening that right here in the 21st century there are still people like Louis and the band's fret-mangler Johnny Gorilla maintaining such noble traditions.

(And, if I make this sound a little like Ewan MacColl's Critics Group, why the hell not? Pretty much half of what they purported to be 'authentic' folk had existed for less time than the heavy metal rama-lama that Shovell put out. If any British tradition is to be celebrated, let it be our contributions to making heads bang the world over.)

A very pleasing aspect to Don't Hear It... is the production, which is as raw as a scraped knee in November. Finger in the air, I'd guess that vocals and solos aside the band laid down the tracks live in the studio. Given the vim and vinegar in the music it certainly sounds that way, and if I've had my pants pulled down on that front then fair play; however, few contemporary albums achieve this kind of loudness without a horrible amount of compression. Don't Hear It... has a real heft to it, and the volume feels more akin to being trapped in the guts of a blast furnace than it does to some prick pressing a button on a laptop. 

It almost feels pointless to highlight any one track to recommend above the others, as Shovell have bowed to the wisdom of elders in the best way by actually producing an album. Not just a collection of songs, but an album, one that actually pays attention to sequencing, much in defiance to the shuffle generation. However, blunderbuss to head, I'm going to plump for 'Red Admiral Black Sunrise', a perfect encapsulation as to what Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell are all about.

One final thing to say in summation - fuck you, guys, for doing that 'hidden track' thing at the end of the CD. Not because it's inherently annoying (though, it is) or that the track is bad; rather, I just about shit my pants every time the album comes crashing back into life after minutes of dead air. At home, fine, but sometimes I'm in control of a motor vehicle when this happens. My message to the Louis, Johnny and Bill Darlington (or Serra Petale, if you're still pulling these japes) - you wouldn't want to be responsible for a multi-car pile-up on the A27, right?

On second thoughts, that's pretty badass. Buy this album, folks. 

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Curse Of The Hidden Mirror - Blue Oyster Cult


Provenance: I am the world's biggest Blue Oyster Cult fan (fight me), and bought this the very day it came out in the UK.

Review: Coming only three years after Heaven Forbid, I had hoped that Curse of the Hidden Mirror was a continuance of momentum that might see BOC release new studio material at a stately but steady pace. Well, I was wrong on that front - this release, on the final day of my GCSEs, would be their last until The Symbol Remains emerged last year, a gap of almost twenty years.

At the time that Curse... came into my possession I was deep into my BOC obsession; if Eric Bloom farted into a bathtub I would've considered it genius. I also recall defacing my parents' car with a Curse... bumper sticker, much to my dad's chagrin. You must understand, valued reader, that as a daydreaming sixteen year-old Blue Oyster Cult were a galaxy of music unto themselves. I would listen to Secret Treaties or Tyranny and Mutation and imagine myself an inductee into some kind of eldritch confederacy, a cabal of initiates who could tease out dark themes and cryptic signifiers from the music. I now realise how insane this all sounds. However, for a couple of years or so, in my little world, Blue Oyster Cult were The Truth.

Of course, exposure to new people, places, experiences and Steely Dan was to instil a degree of perspective into my worldview but I'm still, by most measures, a fanatic. Alongside the aforementioned Dan and Judas Priest, Blue Oyster Cult constitute the triumvirate of my own personal 'Big Three' artists. Nonetheless, the passage of time has mellowed me, and opened me up to all kinds of sounds I used to disdain (country music, for starters), which should grant me slightly more nuance in my assessments of their output.

The first thing that needs to be said is that, despite a title that acts as a callback to previous albums and the band's 'Imaginos' mythos, the qualities that made BOC so special in the mid-1970s are difficult to discern here (which has been the case, really, since Fire of Unknown Origin). Gone is the twisty, tumbling harmonic minor riffing and the oblique cod-Modernist poetry courtesy of the late Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer. These elements are lamented, and I still don't think BOC ever properly recovered from the firing of drummer Albert Bouchard, their secret weapon with regards to both songwriting and infusing their sound with a light, jazzy sensibility on percussion.

What we do have on Curse... is a slick band of highly talented players who have come up with a diverse and distinctive collection of songs. Yes, horror and fantasy lyrics are still in place, albeit a little more on the nose, less mysterious and arcane, but that's fine. And if the Cult no longer possess the juice that made their early run of releases so damn unique, it's been replaced with a whipcrack sharpness. The best news is that Buck Dharma, one of the most identifiable guitarists of any era, does not miss a beat. I am sure I'm repeating erstwhile Metallica bassist Jason Newstead's impression here, but when he said Dharma's playing "was like hot needles pushed into your ears", I recognised that immediately. Further: Dharma came from a musical background, and there's something of the horn player in his lead work. The pulses, the climbs, the internal rhythms all come from a bop consciousness, even if the modes he typically plays in doesn't (but neither does he really hang around much in the typical rock box of the minor pentatonic). Beautiful.

When it comes to sensibility, it's long been obvious that frontman Eric Bloom favours the heavier material, whilst Buck is the pop guy. That delineation is clear on Curse... with Bloom helming headbangers such as 'Showtime', 'Eye Of The Hurricane' and the excellent, brawling 'The Old Gods Return'. Meanwhile, Buck's sweeter singing style gives a light touch to the almost-power-pop single 'Pocket', lead track 'Dance On Stilts' and 'Here Comes That Feeling', the latter of which could've easily slipped into the Eddie Money catalogue without too many eyebrows being raised.

There are a couple of interesting departures here - Bloom sounds like he's having a whale of a time hamming it up on 'I Just Like To Be Bad', which takes its cues in the verses from mid-period Who; and 'Stone Of Love', a Buck composition that's been knocking around since the early 1980s, has a suggestion of the more Latin-influenced tracks by Love, albeit with resoundingly modern hard rock dynamics. There is, alas, one crap tune here, unfortunately appended to the end of the album - 'Good To Feel Hungry' sounds like an undeveloped studio groove that should've been left on the cutting room floor.

Still - for a band that's been ploughing its own peculiar furrow for the past fifty or so years (a mere forty when this came out), Curse... sounds much hungrier, much livelier than it had any right to do. Okay, so perhaps vampiric skull-grin creepiness remains only in homeopathic memory, but thankfully we've got Ghost, who these days do a fabulous, classic BOC tribute act, so I'm happy. And I'm happy with Curse... too, a superlative hard rock record that crackles with verve, energy and no little craft.

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Greatest Hits - Nazareth


Provenance: Early on in my album collecting life I had a notion that 'best of ' and 'greatest hits' compilations were the way to go with a new artist - sample the cream first, dig through the muck for truffles later. This was an HMV job, probably about a tenner, and an early addition to the collection, within the first thirty albums or so that I owned.

The catalyst for buying this was hearing 'This Flight Tonight', a superb cover of a Joni Mitchell song. What set it apart from much of what I listened to was that Nazareth eschewed groove for a jittery, tense atmosphere. Combined with the cryptic lyrics and Dan McCafferty's razor-wire singing - I hadn't heard anyone like him until this point - I felt I was onto a winner.

Oddly, I've never followed up - this remains my sole Nazareth album. Some bands' output lends itself to compilations, but as I never took the plunge with their catalogue, to me this album is Nazareth. I did see a version of the band at Sweden Rock that featured originals McCafferty and Pete Agnew, and they were - fine. A little slow, and McCafferty faltered at times, but they rendered their greatest hits more or less faithfully. Except...

Review: ...where the pigging hell is 'Hair of the Dog' on this album? Where's 'Telegram'? It seems that this particular greatest hits, first released in 1975, has gone through more transfigurations than Dr fucking Who. According to the version I'm staring at right now, apparently from 1990, I've got four more tracks than the original yet somehow I don't have 'Hair of the Dog'; and whilst subsequent expansions included 'Telegram' its absence is keenly felt here. When I saw Nazareth at Sweden Rock, 'Telegram' was quite easily their best performance, a drama roiling in the sturm und drang of life on the road. I'm getting steamed just thinking that some feckless longhair in the mid-1970s was enjoying tracks made unavailable to me when I bought this in the dawning days of the 21st century.

Anyway, before I get too salty, I should probably return to the task at hand, which is reviewing what is on the album. Two things strike me immediately - one is that Nazareth indulged in more than a few ballads that stray over the line between sweet and saccharine. Weepies like 'Love Hurts', 'I Don't Want to Go On Without You', 'Star' and 'Dream On' are performed competently (I actually like 'Star' a lot) but it jars with the band's image of rowdy Scottish toughs. 

The second is that Nazareth are really good interpreters of other people's material. Which isn't a quiet slight against their own songwriting and compositional abilities - it stands alone as a compliment. Where Nazareth succeed is making their versions distinct from the originals, as opposed to slavish note-for-note copies that are all too prevalent. So we have the aforementioned 'Love Hurts' (Everly Brothers), 'This Flight Tonight', 'Morning Dew' (Bonnie Dobson), 'Gone Dead Train' (Randy Newman) and a loopy take on Tomorrow's 'My White Bicycle'. So thoroughly Nazarethfied is this version of 'Gone Dead Train' that I let out an audible "huh?" when I heard the original pop up at a student screening of Performance. Half a millisecond's worth of thought would've led me to the conclusion that it was unlikely Cammell and Roeg asked Randy Newman to bash out a Nazareth number for their arthouse crime flick.

Most everything else on Greatest Hits is the brawling heavy blues rock with which Nazareth made their name - on gigolo anthem 'Bad Bad Boy', which takes its cues from the hoary blues 'Old Grey Mare', McCafferty vies with Bon Scott and Rod Stewart for the title of rock 'n' roll's chief rogue, whilst 'Shanghai'd In Shanghai' and the menacing 'Turn On Your Receiver' hide a great deal of craft beneath their bruising sonics. All of this adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable hour-and-change in the company of Dunfermline's finest.

All of this gives me a slight pang of regret - that unlike the feckless longhair and his mid-1970s copy of Greatest Hits, I will never get to see Nazareth in their pomp. On this evidence McCafferty sounds like he gargles tarmac as part of his morning routine, and to see him going full bore, yelping "I'm a bad bad boy, and I'm gunna steal you love" like some demented yard dog would've been a treat. What I saw at Sweden Rock was serviceable; but just think about it, back in the day, Nazareth slamming it into overdrive, all double-denim, hair billowing from every nook and crevasse, nicotine-stained teeth, the whole nine yards, powering their way through another unstoppable chugger. Hey. at least I've still got Rival Sons, right guys?

It's settled then. Some people would use a time machine to bear witness to the Crucifixion, or to the Great Fire of Rome. Others would go and slay some historical ghoul like Hitler in the hopes of a better world blossoming in the aftermath. Me? Hastings Pier, 9 May 1975 - sounds like it was a blast!