Sunday, 23 May 2021

Melissa - Mercyful Fate


Provenance: This one's easy - as a consequence of hearing the Mercyful Fate medley from Metallica's Garage Inc. album, I really had no choice but to get this bad boy by Denmark's finest.

Review: This whips ass.

Genuinely, I could leave it there and consider it a suitable review. Why expend a bunch of bytes and bloviation on Melissa when anybody with one working lughole could tell you that this smokes?

The album cover is cool; King Diamond (lead screamer) looks like some unholy mashup of Ace Frehley, Rob Halford and Dave Vanian; and a simple rundown of the track listing should give one a flavour as to how motherfucking incredible this platter is going to be: 'Evil', 'Curse of the Pharaohs', 'Into The Coven', 'At The Sound of the Demon Bell' goes on, but I could just halt here and let those marinade in your brainbox for a while.

I often have the albums on loud when I'm reviewing them. This one, however, was cranked to distinctly un-neighbourly volumes, and I'm banking on either being taken down by an armed response unit or being worshipped by the locals as the true spawn of Wotan. 

Perhaps you might appreciate some context around this sulphurous little beauty; this is Mercyful Fate's debut album, released in 1983 just around the time that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was losing momentum. However, this makes Melissa contemporaneous with some important Euro-metal developments, not least of all the release of  German outfit Accept's Balls To The Wall. I highlight this album in particular because Accept shared with Mercyful Fate a sensibility that includes classical influences. This represents something of a break from most NWOBHM bands, who still looked towards the pentatonic-based hard rock of the 1970s for musical cues.

Which isn't to say that Melissa doesn't sound like a NWOBHM release - it absolutely does for the most part. However, unlike the Roundhouse mob, who flirted with demonic imagery without ever really going the whole hog, the Mercyful Fate of Melissa definitively choose the left-hand path, and in doing so would influence bands like Morbid Angel and one of my faves, Death. They're probably just pipped to the post of black metal pioneers by Venom, but as a listening experience Venom suck whilst this slaps, so let's call Mercyful Fate the first good black metal band.

Why? Because they're songs are full of Tonka-truck sized riffs, banshee screams and some inventive soloing from guitarist Hank Sherman. Really, King's vocals cannot be emphasised enough - his mid-range is characterful (and not unlike fellow Scandinavian Tobias Forge of Ghost, tonally speaking) but it's the Halford-esque falsetto that powers these tracks to new heights. There are great King Diamond moments all over the shop, but probably the bit that tickles me most is on 'Black Funeral' where he first sings "Oh, hail Satan" in his chest voice, and then replies to himself with "YES, HAIL SATAN!" in his ghoul-shriek. Stryper never did anything half this fun, and that's why Lucifer, Son of the Morning, is winning the rock 'n' roll stakes.

As mentioned before, the riffage is supreme and each song has about a million great examples. My favourites are probably those that underpin the chorus to 'Into The Coven' (one of the wretched PMRC's so-called 'Filthy Fifteen' songs) and the bit in 'Satan's Fall' where King spits "Bringing the blood of a newborn child!", plus virtually every moment in 'Curse of the Pharaohs' (sample lyric: "Don't touch, never ever steal / Unless, you're in for the kill"), a song that should be the Danish national anthem. (NB: having said that, Denmark's national anthem does have some pretty heavy metal lyrics; don't let "There is a lovely country" fool you, the rest of it rips.)

All this winds up with the strange, chilling tale of the title character, Melissa, who we are told is a witch and it is heavily implied that she's been executed for her eldritch practices. But is she truly gone...? Great business, all told. I can't get enough of this. As it so happens, King Diamond used to own a human skull he named Melissa; par for the course, one could surmise, for guy who also has a microphone stand made from human leg bones. Plus, after leaving Mercyful Fate he did a bonkers track about his "grandmaaaaaa!". Essential heavy metal.


Sunday, 16 May 2021

Millennium Gold - Various Artists


Provenance: This goes back to the days when I was a weekend drone at WHSmith. Like an oasis in the desert, Millennium Gold felt like the only halfway listenable music (I got to choose what went on the in-store stereo) amidst the shifting dunes of Blue, Russell Watson and True Steppers & Dane Bowers ft. Victoria Beckham.

Back then we also enjoyed a handsome 25% staff discount, which put this compilation firmly within my budget. At the time, I felt, it featured enough artists whom I liked a little, but not enough to go beyond their 'best of' offerings. Millennium Gold represented decent value for money, you know?

Review: So, we have a digipack double-CD that, I suppose, commemorates a whole millennium's worth of music! If by 'millennium', you mean 'the last four and a bit decades of the 20th century', the oldest tracks here appearing in 1967. Back in 2001 I didn't really grasp what conceptually links together all the songs on these discs, and twenty years later I'm still stumped. Maybe some music biz Thucydides dipped his or her toe in the stream and said "fuck it, let's just slap something together that feels timeless". Let's go.

Disc one: The first thing that should be observed is that in many instances, these aren't what I, nor many fans of the artists herein, would consider to be their best tracks. They are arguably up there in terms of collective affections; and perhaps that's the real key to Millennium Gold, namely, alienate as few people as possible whilst still putting out a marketable product. It's why so many compilations feature the same old chestnuts, I suppose. Putting together Millennium Gold feels less like the product of someone's musical passions (unlike, say, the incomparable Nuggets collection) and more like a focus-group exercise in compromise. In that respect, it's the perfect album of the New Labour era.

I think most people - and I do mean most people, not music obsessives like me - will hear Queen's 'One Vision' or Extreme's 'More Than Words' and think "yes, that's nice", whilst I'm seething away in the corner that some wonk at Universal wasn't bold enough to put 'Seven Seas of Rhye' or 'He-Man Woman Hater' on here. However, as much as I do like to go deep on artists I like, I don't exempt myself from the everyman in my ability to enjoy the biggies. I do like Prince's 'When Doves Cry', Steve Miller's 'The Joker', Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain' and even the much-decried 'Lay Lady Lay' from His Bobness. In terms of songs I positively love, here's 'Money For Nothing' (that guitar tone is stone cold!), 'The Boxer' by Simon & Garfunkel, Seal's 'Crazy' (though it ain't no 'Kiss From a Rose', right guys?), and I'm impressed that the Velvet Underground's droning paean to sadomasochism made the cut.

There's stuff I don't like here, too! One must experience a degree of tonal whiplash when, two songs on from the dead-eyed Velvets art-rock, we're subject to David Gray's 'Babylon'; and for some reason I've never quite rubbed along with the Pretenders (but I concede there's really nothing wrong with 'Brass In Pocket'). As fun as Meat Loaf's vocals are on 'Dead Ringer For Love' - all histrionics and eye-popping hysteria - I'd forgotten how clattery a track it is; the farty guitar on the Face's 'Stay With Me' is too much of a distraction to be dismissed; and I'll happily live the rest of my prescribed three-score 'n' ten if I never heard 'Brown Eyed Girl' ever again.

Disc two: Despite my fairly mean-spirited mitherings, I can listen to disc one without skipping anything. The same can be said for disc two - mostly. I'm no U2 fan but 'Pride' is great; likewise, I don't own any Paul Weller but 'Changingman' is effective, catchy rock 'n' soul. Again, I look at some of the artists and think to myself that the options are too on-the-nose. If I told you Alice Cooper was here, you'd probably think it was a toss-up between two songs and, yes, it's one of them. Likewise, if you think of the biggest tunes for T Rex and Fleetwood Mac, it wouldn't take you long to alight upon the selections that the mind behind Millennium Gold (disc two) opted for.

That said - I really like 'Substitute' by the Who, really really like the tumbling arena rock of Bryan Adams' 'Run To You', and find that 'Imitation Of Life' has prompted me to be a bit more thorough with REM's back catalogue, given its ability to charm me. Look, even the obvious ones are, more or less, alright. The first half of disc two is listenable without offending.

However, 'I Shot the Sheriff' stinks up the joint, because it ain't Bob Marley; it's Eric Clapton (who, like Paul Weller and Sting, appears twice on MG through membership of Cream, the Jam and the Police respectively). It is, as we all know, crap. Not long after that we've got 'Long Train Runnin'' from the Doobie Brothers, except that, inexplicably, it's some godawful 1990s remix. It's the final fucking furlong that really gets my goat though - a Pulp's 'Disco 2000', a cheap record if there ever was one, and then a gallop through New Order, Simply Red, Everything But The Girl, the Corrs and Sting. Galloping trots, more like! I don't think I've ever listened to this sextet more than three times in my entire life, and certainly never through anything other than sheer accident.

Listening to Millennium Gold again after so long is akin to wakening from a draught of sleeping potion; I emerge into the light groggy, discombobulated, and asking myself "how did I get here?" As much as individually some of these tracks are passable, agreeable even, they exist in such an awkward cheek-by-jowl configuration here that it's tough to swallow in one sitting. It's as if the sequencing was done on Dice Man principles alone. Kids, this was the pre-shuffle life. 

Another thing that makes this feel quite redundant is that, as means and opportunity came my way, I've built a rather large CD collection that includes many of these artists. I simply don't need 'School's Out' on a comp when I have the School's Out album. I had to literally blow dust off the case after picking Millennium Gold off the shelf. Still, it was nice to hear 'Changingman' again! 

Sunday, 9 May 2021

In One Eye And Out The Other - Cate Brothers


Provenance: Saw these cats playing on the title track on a BBC4 compilation show called Southern Rock at the BBC. I'm reasonably sure it was from The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The track was really fresh, true, but the best bit was that the Cate Brothers appeared to be near-identical twins - a couple of healthy looking lads with haircuts seemingly achieved by using each other as mirrors. Criteria enough for me to hunt down the album.

As a sidenote, although I wrote my X-Ray Spex review to coincide with the anniversary of Poly Styrene's passing, I'm mildly pissed off that I didn't do this one beforehand, thus continuing the run of eponymous bands that began with Van Halen and continued with Santana

Review: One of the best things about Southern Rock at the BBC was that it really did play fast and loose with the word 'rock'. Taking a rather catholic approach, it wound up including, of course, the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Atlanta Rhythm Section (playing 'So Into You' - cool), but also Dobie Gray, Charlie 'Benghazi ain't going away' Daniels and the Cate Brothers. There is a rock edge to the track 'In One Eye and Out the Other', true, but it's more a funk number, and going by this album, the brothers' true metier was funky blue-eyed soul. 

Fortunately for them, and me - and perhaps you, dear reader, if you decide to check the Cates out after this review - on In One Eye... they do this very, very well. Brother Ernie tends to take lead vocal duty and plays the keys (including some real 'come to church' organ), whilst Earl works the guitar and harmonises nicely. It's a pretty hot bunch backing 'em up too - Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn of the M.G.'s, sax greats Jim Horn and Bobby Keys (literally everyone), Jay "I played the solo on 'Peg'" Graydon and David "I've won sixteen Grammy Awards and I'm Tommy Haas' father-in-law" Foster. With this kind of talent onboard, you'd think it was impossible to make a bad album, right?

The opener 'Start All Over Again' sets the tone, a widescreen soul weepy with Ernie emoting over a river of organ, but things really get cooking on the title track; a slippery, stuttering funk number featuring cute chromatic runs, a crackerjack solo from Earl and a monstrous chorus. Honest to God, this is one of my favourite joints not only on the album, but in the entire funk genre.

I recall when I first heard In One Eye... I was ever so slightly disappointed that, title track aside, it lacked any other real stompers, and altogether was a little soft. I should get my ears syringed, because whilst that it true in a formal sense, closer inspection reveals so much that is warm and accomplished. The closest the Cate Brothers get to replicating 'In One Eye...' comes right at the end of the record, the barrelling 'Where Can We Go' wrapping things up in exhilarating fashion. 

What I hadn't properly appreciated was the brothers' facility with writing nagging, ear-wormy parts that don't always hit in the obvious places. Yes, their choruses are hooky, but on tracks like the prowling 'Give It All To You' the chewiness is in Ernie's tough singing in the verses and the incredible groove the band lay down. The breezy catchiness of the chorus to 'I Don't Want Nobody' works, yes, but it's amplified through rubbing up against the nervy chicken-scratch guitar of the verses. It's just well-crafted material played by crack musicians. When I try to explain the appeal of Nils Lofgren's music to me, I always fall back on "good singing, good playing" and the same applies here. I should point out that Ernie Cate is a much, much better singer than Nils (no offence dude), and one of the most underrated soul vocalists out there.

Really, the only track that still does little for me is the sappy 'Music Making Machine', which just about tips into schmaltz with it's self-pitying lyric. You want to shake them, and point out they've already done their 'road song', 'Travelin' Man', a bouncing horn-powered rave-up that would've slotted nicely onto Dr John's In The Right Place. I guess they went for Al Jarreau but ended up more... (NB: I've no idea where I was going here - Al Pacino? Al Qaeda?)

One minor blemish aside, In One Eye... is superior stuff, an album I play frequently, which is something you should look into doing also.  

A bit of fun trivia for you here, by the way - Jay Graydon and David Foster would go on to collaborate in the short-lived AOR band Airplay, and together with Alan Thicke would write the incredible theme music to Thicke of the Night