Sunday, 22 May 2022

Angel Witch - Angel Witch


Provenance: The song 'Angel Witch' by Angel Witch appeared on a heavy metal compilation I was gifted during my teen years. Not long afterwards I bought a second hand copy of the album, Angel Witch.

Review: Angel Witch by Angel Witch kicks off with a track called 'Angel Witch', the chorus of which (witch?) goes "You're an angel witch / You're an angel witch." Suffice to say, you're going to see the words 'angel' and 'witch' crop up fairly regularly in this review.

For the uninitiated, Angel Witch fall squarely into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, who can count as their London-based contemporaries Iron Maiden and Praying Mantis. One of the bands to haunt the Soundhouse in its heyday, Angel Witch released their debut album (this one 'ere) in 1980 and then took their sweet time following up with 1985's Screamin' and Bleedin', by which time the NWOBHM had, bar its big beasts, largely run out of puff. 

Was it this gap between releases that meant Angel Witch were never destined for the big leagues? Within that same span, Saxon managed six albums, Iron Maiden five, and even the largely ponderous Def Leppard managed three. Meanwhile, three-piece Angel Witch managed to sack their drummer, split up, re-form with an entirely different lineup (excepting main man Kevin Heybourne), split up again, re-form with the sacked drummer, finally record the tricky second album - oh, and sack the drummer again. In a scene reasonably infamous for the shifting sands of band membership, Angel Witch seemingly took it upon themselves to show their competitors how to truly meltdown.

A shame, because Angel Witch is a classic of NWOBHM. Never mind that it sounds like it was recorded in the back of a meat truck - never an impediment in the genre - the songs and performances shine through. Or, should I say, Kevin Heybourne's talents shine through; which is no disserve to Kevin Riddles (bass) and P45 addict Dave Hogg (drums), but this album is all about guitar and vocals, which are Heybourne's department. 

There are a few bands who can lay claim to foundations of thrash metal - Judas Priest, Motorhead and Venom all fed into the sound - but I have rarely heard its precedent articulated so clearly as it is on tracks like 'Angel Witch' (yes, that phrase again), 'Atlantis', 'Sweet Danger' and the outro section of 'Sorcerers' (which sounds a bit like speeding up a cool Uriah Heep track). All of these examples push tempos into the red and are underscored with imaginative lead playing, that frequently breaks off into hot-fingered fret-worrying solos.

Interestingly, you can see the joins - inasmuch as, considering how forward-looking Angel Witch is, the voice of its ancestors ring through loud and clear. I mention Uriah Heep - well, 'Gorgon' (on my version of the album, misprinted as 'Gordon') is essentially the midpoint between 'Easy Livin'' and, say, one of the heavier numbers off Thin Lizzy's Jailbreak. Elsewhere, its possible to make out Rainbow, the Judas Priest of 'Exciter' and 'Hell Bent for Leather' and the Scorpions (the intro to 'Free Man', especially). It's all good though, Angel Witch borrow from the best and synthesize their influences with their own trademark sound. This is, namely, Heybourne's haunted yelp and the superior guitar playing he brings to the party. I don't think there was a better musician in the NWOBHM mix than Heybourne.

Nothing strikes fear into the heart like 'Gordon'

Were Angel Witch able to avoid the tumult that occasioned their frequent implosions, they could have been contenders. Angel Witch is now seen as a classic NWOBHM release, and with its combination of skill, melody and aggression it's not hard to see why. The only oddity is the rather beery, terrace-chant backing vocal on the title track - it almost sounds like, for a brief moment, Cock Sparrer or Sham 69 had gatecrashed the studio. It breaks the spell for a moment, removing you from the atmosphere of darkness and occult mystery that Heybourne so adroitly infuses the rest of the album with. Three years later, Mercyful Fate would release an album - Melissa - which is very similar to Angel Witch, but at no point does it take the listener to the Shed End on a Saturday afternoon.

Maybe I'm reaching, but perhaps here was the seed of discord - the esoteric Heybourne versus his more prosaic bandmates? Nonetheless, an excellent collection of distinctive metal that has weathered the test of time. Now, time to give that 'Gordon' another listen...

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Mothers of Invention - Cruising with Ruben and the Jets


Provenance: I have mentioned before that my dad's Zappa fandom continues to echo through my musical tastes. What I probably haven't mentioned so much is where we diverge. Although my dad's favourite albums are probably mine, too (we're talking Overnite Sensation, Hot Rats, Apostrophe here), I certainly have more patience for the jazz-oriented stuff. Oh, and I really like 1950s doo-wop and rock 'n' roll, which makes me the perfect mark for Cruising with Ruben and the Jets.

Review: For those not up to speed, this is the Mothers of Invention playing dress-up - in 1968 - as a 1950s combo. It's the music they grew up listening too, but the passage of a decade must have seemed remote enough, in musical terms, that there was mileage in the notion. And the Mothers weren't alone - a year later Sha Na Na would debut with a schtick entirely around recreating the doo-wop phenomenon. In the 1970s, perhaps as a bastard offshoot of glam rock, the UK caught the bug with bands like Darts and Showaddywaddy. And what is the Rubettes' 'Sugar Baby Love' if not a hyperreal recreation of the doo-wop sound? Were Mud, with their matching wide lapels and spoken-word middle eights, a thousand miles away?

(Incidentally, Sha Na Na prove an interesting etymological bridge between the Silhouettes (whose 'Get A Job' is one of the great pop songs of all time) and the first president of an independent East Timor.)

Still, arguably, Frank Zappa and his mates were the first to breathe life back into the 1950s, but Cruising... is a peculiar record. One leaves with the impression that Zappa loved the music, but can't quite come down off his perch to play it straight. That would be too earnest, too po-faced by half. Which is a great shame, because it feels like every time the Mothers get close to producing something heartfelt and beautiful, there's a discordance or sneering that sours the deal. 

As a consequence, the full effect of swooning slow burners like 'Love of My Life', 'Fountain of Love' and the wonderful 'Anyway the Wind Blows' are undermined with a mocking condescension, usually with some silly falsetto or bass vocal. Sadly, these aren't the only crimes to report.

To prepare Cruising... for release on CD in 1984, Zappa (in full control of the Mothers catalogue) decided to re-record the rhythm parts with Arthur Barrow and Chad Wackerman providing new bass and drum tracks respectively. Well, it sounds shit - farty, rubbery bass tones and crispy, plastic and utterly unsympathetic percussion. For an album that sets its stall out to recreate a particular era, to have these anachronistic sounds pulsing through the mix takes you as listener right out of the moment. Bring back Jimmy Carl Black (but not Roy Estrada).

(Incidentally, pre-everything being available on the internet, I saw the Grande Mothers whilst a university student. I would hazard that the Grande Mothers are probably the Zappa tribute act with the highest convicted sex-offenders-to-band-members ratio going. Probably. I even got a photo with Estrada. Sheesh.)

A pity, a pity. There are moments where everything works - 'Cheap Thrills' is fun, bouncy and irreverent in a way that bespeaks fondness, and 'Jelly Roll Gum Drop' is a fizzy showstopper that celebrates the inane potential of doo-wop lyrics in exactly the right way. And hey, it's nice that Zappa cuts loose with an outro guitar solo on closer 'Stuff Up the Cracks', just to remind you that you're not listening to an authentic forgotten relic from the Golden Age (a gag that would've flown better without the terrible 1980s overdubs).

Hey, it's still a decent listen and a bit of a curio, if somewhat ephemeral. Ray Collins' voice is great. Shame that, in places, it's utterly hamstrung by its creator. On purpose! You get the impression that Zappa hated pop music, deep down - and so, that being the case, why should the listener care either?