Sunday, 28 April 2019

New Orleans Heat - Albert King

Provenance: Yeah, I picked this up for a fiver somewhere. I'm a big blues fan, and I've a solid regard for New Orleans musicianship, so this one seemed like a slam dunk.

Review: When people talk about superstar producers, names like Mutt Lange, Joe Meek, George Martin, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones and Rick Rubin readily come to mind. Now, it's possible that he's over-represented in my music collection because of the direction in which my tastes skew, but I'd include Allen Toussaint in that crowd. In my mind, he is the central figure of 20th century New Orleans R&B, acting as a triple threat of songwriter, performer and producer. It's no surprise, then, that when Albert King pitched up in the Crescent City to try to inject a new lease of life into some of his classics that we find Toussaint producing, arranging and playing on New Orleans Heat.

As one of the 'Three Kings' of the blues, Albert can sometimes find himself lost in the shuffle. Way out in front is the late B.B. King, a man who came to signify the blues for many, even if his sleek, city-sophisticate take on the genre never quite jived with purists. Then you had the volcanic talent of Freddie King; a big man with a gritty soul voice and a flamboyance on stage that was only matched by his scintillating guitar playing. Then you had the six-and-a-half-feet of Albert King, pinging needly guitar bends around an upside-down Flying V, cooing his songs in a warm, keening moan. Maybe he didn't quite have B.B.'s versatility, nor Freddie's chops, but to me Albert thoroughly deserves his place in the pantheon if only for 1967's Born Under a Bad Sign, recorded with Booker T and the MGs and pound-for-pound one of the greatest rhythm and blues albums, period.

However - despite the marriage of two colossal talents in Albert King and Allen Toussaint, New Orleans Heat doesn't really click. Why so? Well, I think Allen Toussaint's work with soul, funk and even jazz musicians eclipses his production of blues artists; his tendency is to deliver something smooth and sly, whilst King thrives with a more knockabout backing. Perhaps it's King's mellow voice that gulls one into thinking that he can fit in with the Toussaint template, but opener 'Get Out Of My Life Woman' can't hold a candle to Lee Dorsey's version (which was, of course, both written and produced by Allen Toussaint). The next track fares no better - the immortal 'Born Under a Bad Sign' brought to heel by Toussaint's tendency to smooth out rough edges.

Sounds like I've got some real beef with Allen Toussaint, huh? Think again. His work with Lee Dorsey in the mid-1960s is sublime (he wrote 'Working in the Coal Mine', fercrissakes) and in Life, Love and Faith and especially Southern Nights he wrote and performed two of the most remarkable funky New Orleans soul albums of all time. At his best, Allen Toussaint could be untouchable; but New Orleans Heat isn't anywhere near his best. It's simply a bad pairing, with some unfortunate results such as the insipid 'The Very Thought of You' and the embarrassing funk of 'We All Wanna Boogie' (though artists who started off in the blues certainly could produce very credible funk records - King's near-contemporary Johnny 'Guitar' Watson springs to mind).

On a few occasions the King-Toussaint collaboration hits the mark. Despite sounding a little neutered, 'Born Under a Bad Sign' is too good a song to ruin; 'I Got the Blues' has a sinuous minor-key groove running through it and leaves enough room for King's guitar to stretch out; and Leo goddamn Nocentelli's chanky rhythm playing injects some spice into 'I Get Evil', in spite of its too-glossy horn arrangements.

One final thought - despite the lead guitar work all being very idiosyncratic to Albert King's wavy, elastic attack, his guitar tone is dogshit. Pure dogshit. In an ill-advised attempt to sound contemporary, I guess, it's got some kind of horrible phasing effect all over it. The one track where they seemed to have forgotten to plug the fucking pedal in, 'Angel of Mercy', coincidentally happens to be the most straightforward blues number of the bunch, and - lo and behold - the guitar playing absolutely cooks. Oh well, it was 1978; in any case, it's not the disaster that Electric Mud was (yeah, some disaster - it sold a quarter of a million copies, but it's a mess).

Sunday, 21 April 2019

The Lexicon of Love - ABC

Provenance: Not a clue. I had 'The Look of Love' on a compilation called Atomic 80s before I obtained this album; I think that it would've been a combination of hearing that and 'Poison Arrow' on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City that convinced me to lay my money down.

Incidentally, the radio station in the game that plays 'Poison Arrow' was called Wave 103, and a few years later I would end up writing advert copy for a station called Wave 105. Did it feel like being in a GTA game? Just a bloomin' bit!

Review: In the normal course of my reviews I fish out the CD, blow the dust off and await my auditory cortices to ping my consciousness a faint pulse of recognition. Not in this instance; Lexicon of Love is a staple part of my musical diet, one of the select few albums to make it onto my iPod. As such it's frequently in my headphones when I'm navigating the circuit of micro-humiliations otherwise known as going to the gym, or pumping out of my car's ridiculously overpowered sound system. It's a keeper.

Furthermore, earlier this week I saw ABC (well, Martin Fry 'n' friends) play the entirety of this album with the assistance of the South Bank Sinfonia. I guess that it's the only way to properly experience Lexicon of Love live - even the most sophisticated synthesisers would struggle to replicate this album's lush, widescreen approach to composition. Seeing original arranger Anne Dudley conducting the orchestra was merely the cherry on top.

Nonetheless, I'm going to play it through whilst typing, purely for the sheer enjoyment of it all. I don't have to; I know every horn flourish, every cluck of slapped bass, every lovelorn sigh. It's majestic, the pinnacle of New Romanticism; the Guardian review of a show on the same tour called Lexicon of Love Martin Fry's Citizen Kane, and it's hard to disagree. As interesting and ambitious as Beauty Stab or How to Be a...Zillionaire! are, it's Lexicon... that has ended up looming over ABC's discography, the yardstick by which everything else Fry produced would be measured against. It's no wonder that the latest ABC release is The Lexicon of Love II (a fine album).

The fact remains that the least of the tracks on Lexicon of Love would probably be the lead single off any other band's biggest seller. It's that good. Trevor Horn's trademark impeccable production means that every note shines with an iridescence; if you're familiar with either Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome or Yes' 90125 you'll know what I mean. If not, it's hard to explain in a pithy way exactly what it sounds like, but here goes; dry, chickenscratch guitar; prominent, rubbery mid-range bass; reverb-laden keys; and tightly wound percussion that eschewed the then-fashionable practice of noise-gating the snare (think Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' for an example of noise-gated reverb on the snare). It all adds up to a glossy, zesty mix that both dates Lexicon of Love very definitely to the early 1980s and makes it explode out of a good set of speakers.

None of this would add up to much more than an airily pleasing confection if it wasn't for the songs. And what songs! I don't know who my readers are, but if you're not familiar with 'Show Me', 'Poison Arrow', 'All of My Heart' and 'The Look of Love', get onto Spotify or YouTube toot sweet. Better yet, just buy this album because it's brilliant and I want to see ABC play with an orchestra again. In an era - and subgenre - that welcomed cerebral lyrics within a pop framework, Fry combined clever wordplay with an almost inestimable depth of sincerity on the topic of love. Love, that most hackneyed of pop subjects, is the unifying theme of all ten of the tracks. As Paul McCartney acknowledged, it's tricky enough to write a single non-silly love song. Check this out:

A pirate station or the late night show
A sunken ship with a rich cargo
Buried treasure that the four winds blow
Wind and rain it only goes to
Show me, show me, show me that you're mine

Or this:

When I'm shaking a hand I'm clenching a fist
If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed
And I got dancing lessons for all the lips I should have kissed
I'd be a millionaire
I'd be a Fred Astaire

The whole album is littered with these lovely little associative twists and turns which gather into impressionistic nuggets of imagery that always make me cock an eyebrow in appreciation, no matter how familiar I am with the song in question. Oh, and every song is shot through with irresistible hooks. Hooks on top of hooks. More hooks than Captain Hook's spare hook drawer.

The greatest performance on the album comes courtesy of frontman Martin Fry. In some ways it reminds me of Sandy Denny's work on Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief;  on that album, and often in the course of a single song, Denny's voice would swoop and soar, coo and caress. Fry does exactly the same thing, with an added dollop of melodrama. Even when it sounds like he's straining at the outer edges of emotion there's a catch, a sob in his voice that makes even the most over-the-top declaration of love's vices or virtues absolutely believable. Yet the sophistication with which this is all-delivered makes Fry sound tragic in only the most heroic sense, albeit a hero imbued with the lizard charm of Bryan Ferry. Fry never knowingly undersells a line, and that's part of the magic.

To sum up, The Lexicon of Love is not just a great album; it's possibly resident in my all time top ten, and considering the number of albums I own and have listened to down the years, that's no mean feat. I haven't even touched on the influence of cinema that is keenly sensed - just look at that album cover - but driving down the coast into a pink sunset with 'Poison Arrow' as the soundtrack certainly makes me feel like I've been transported momentarily onto the silver screen. Put that into the mix with Cole Porter, Roxy Music, David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder and you're somewhere in the ballpark of where this album ends up. Epic, panoramic, witty, debonair and unapologetically overblown, The Lexicon of Love is the stuff of dreams.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Hellbilly Deluxe - Rob Zombie

Provenance: This one was definitely bought for me by my parents, seeing as I would've been too spooked to have taken it off the shelves myself! Actually, it was a Christmas present.

Why Rob Zombie? Probably a combination of the cool White Zombie animation in Beavis and Butthead Do America and the fact that The Matrix (which featured a remix of 'Dragula' on the soundtrack) was literally the coolest film in the world when you're a boy in your early teens. I managed to download that Matrix remix via Napster, which probably took about four or five hours to do.

Before we get on to Hellbilly Deluxe, a word about The Matrix. I sure as shit didn't really understand it when I first encountered it back in 1999, but I thought those leather dusters looked sweet, an opinion that has since been validated in popular media. I recall that the film inspired a slew of doctoral theses, as it certainly tackled some rather chewy themes, but - good grief - it's dated badly. Looking back, it feels like Keanu Reeves got called up for any old cyberpunk caper. At one stage a character gets handed a MiniDisc. The kicker? A Joe Pantoliano starring role in a major motion picture (though I see he's on the slate for the next instalment of the Bad Boys franchise, which seems entirely apt). Anyway, long story short, a film that explored all kinds of stuff like postmodernism and nihilism became the lynchpin for a loose confederacy of women-hating internet racists whose emblem is a sad frog.

Review: Before getting into the meat of the review, may we please take a moment to admire this tweet?


I could genuinely stop now, as I don't think anybody will ever quite be as accurate and pithy as @MetalShayne was (he also posted a very good digest of Bruce Springsteen, sadly overlooked by most of Twitter). The Rob Zombie playbook for Hellbilly Deluxe is pretty much all there - pounding industro-metal, lyrics like a Tristan Tzara cut-up of Amicus and Universal monster movie scripts and his trademark elongated 'welllll' used almost like punctuation. The only aspect missing from the @MetalShayne pastiche are the sound clips ripped from B-movies that either introduce or feature within many of the tracks. Incidentally, these are fun when deployed sparingly, but Zomb slathers them on somewhat.

Sounds like a load of old pony, right? Well, that depends. Does the notion of Rammstein being produced by Quentin Tarantino appeal to you? Exactly, no, that also sounds terrible - so it's a pleasant surprise to plug this bad boy into my stereo and let it rip.

Firstly, despite my avowed preference for pre-1990s recording techniques, Hellbilly Deluxe is a big, chunky, scuzzy beast of a record. Production-wise, it actually sounds a little like Prodigy's Fat of the Land, albeit somewhat more maximalist. They're like two sides of the same coin - Fat of the Land was dance music acceptable to the heavy metal crowd, whilst Hellbilly Deluxe just switched that formula around. The Hot Rod Herman remix of 'Dragula' in The Matrix is a perfect illustration of how, with just a few bells and whistles, a Rob Zombie track could become a rocket-fuelled clubland shack-shaker.

Aside from the creeping tedium of hearing yet another track prefaced with a fuzzy movie snippet, I have only one real bugbear with Hellbilly Deluxe, which is that it becomes a little samey quite quickly. Zombie's distorted, growled vocals are appealing, and instantly recognisable, but tracks have to be built around his rather distinct delivery. Nonetheless, there are some real gems here, not least of all the mind-scrambling techno-grind of 'Living Dead Girl' and the pumping, vein-bursting intensity of 'What Lurks on Channel X?' Hellbilly Deluxe contains all the schlock and grue one would expect from a Vincent Price or Boris Karloff feature, conjured up into a wall of guitar, buzzing synthesisers and pounding electro beats.

Even at a rather lean 38 minutes the creepozoid interludes between tracks feel skipworthy, but I'd certainly whack Hellbilly Deluxe on shuffle down the gym, or perhaps if I just felt like scaring the kids living next door. Overall, the journey is one that is fun, loud, antisocial and a little bit daft - all things a good metal album should be.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Best Air Guitar Album In The World...Ever! - Various Artists

Provenance: This was a Christmas present from back in 2001. One might say it personifies the very essence of the phrase 'stocking filler'. Like the football blooper VHS / DVD, though it has no overt relationship to the festive season there is virtually zero chance you'd buy this at any time other than the three weeks leading up to Christmas.

Review: Whilst I'm admittedly a bit snobbish about 'best of' collections, I'm quite partial to a compilation, especially if there's precious little discernible link between any of the tracks. Having said that, the blue ribband examples - I'm talking the original Nuggets compilation, or the wonderful Close to the Noise Floor, chronicling the early days of the British electronica scene - are propped up by some kind of conceptual scaffolding.

Such is the case of the hubristically titled Best Air Guitar Album in the World...Ever!, created under the aegis of Queen axe-mangler Dr Brian May. The gag here, I guess, is that every cut on this double dose of rawk is going to get you Tom Cruising it on the sofa with your imaginary gitbox. Observe:



(Incidentally, the second instalment of the franchise, which, given the title of the first album is implicitly inferior, featured beloved amateur astronomer / full-time bigot Sir Patrick Moore in its TV advertising campaign.)

You know what? It's pretty damn good! But it's probably in spite of, rather than due to, its stated remit.

I like the way it starts, because it disc one does something a bit weird; it launches you into the coda of Queen's 'We Will Rock You', the only bit with a guitar part worth talking about. Essentially, the first slice of action is one-fifth of a track from 1977, which then segues into 'Tie Your Mother Down', one of the few genuine headbangers from the Queen oeuvre, albeit from a completely different album. Eh? Is this going to be some kind of strange high-concept mishmash like Frank Zappa's Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar, which consisted entirely of his guitar solos? Sadly not.

Instead, we are treated to some of the hoary old classic rock dinosaurs one expects on such a project. Except that...w-w-what's this? I'm enjoying them?! To quote marble-mouthed former US Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, "you betcha!" For example, I could quite happily never listen to Deep Purple's Machine Head ever again, nor indeed endure yet enough saloon bar bore recount how 'Smoke On The Water' was inspired by a fire at a Frank Zappa show, but shorn of its leaden context it sounds pretty cool. I don't have to slog through seven-odd minutes of 'Lazy', because on this doozy I get the short, sharp gut-punch of Blur's 'Song 2'. It's fun, a musical pick 'n' mix that cocks a snook at the rules. Follow up Def Leppard with the Troggs? Sure! Amputate Duane Allman's gorgeous slide guitar solo from the end of 'Layla'? Why not!

Like a pick 'n' mix, there's also the odd crumb of shit in there (Black Jacks, in case you're interested; foul little rectangles of liqourice hatred that look like a chainsmoker's lung). Whoever thought that Paul McCartney's version of 'All Shook Up' merited inclusion needs a few words in the mirror, and the suspicion of log-rolling creeps in when Robbie Williams' 'Let Me Entertain You' makes an appearance (NB: did Williams ever make good on that offer?). Amidst the Planet Rock staples there's a smattering of left-field choices that do work, though; both Weezer's 'Hash Pipe' and Wheatus' 'Teenage Dirtbag' fit the vibe but give the proceedings a sheen of modernity. There's even space for the true shred believer to have their moment in the sun, with Joe Satriani's 'Surfing With the Alien' bringing about a startling change of pace. That no room could be found for Vinnie Moore, Rusty Cooley or Michael Angelo Batio was noted by this listener.

That the platters from Rainbow, Dire Straits, Free and Thin Lizzy are exactly what you expect them to be (need I even list them?) comes as little surprise, but there is one very bizarre inclusion; the Jeff Beck / Terry Bozzio / Tony Hymas instrumental 'Where Were You'. There is simply no place on this riff factory of an album for this celestial, floating dream of a soundscape. It sounds ephemeral and ghostly at the best of times, but here it righteously gets the stuffing knocked out of it by Joe Walsh's sturdy 'Rocky Mountain Way'. 'Where Were You' is the beautiful, frail goth child forced to play in nets during games lesson, flapping in futility as 'Monkey Wrench', 'Paranoid' and 'Free Bird' blooter volleys past it from six yards out.

One last thing: as much as I find the space-race twang of the Shadows appealing I would be hard-pressed to say they were air-guitar worthy. Has anyone ever been driven into a frenzy by Hank Marvin? I very much doubt it.

How wrong am I? This wrong, apparently:



In conclusion, The Best Air Guitar Album in the World...Ever! is not - and does not aspire to be - high art, and nor does it do much to distinguish itself from the slew of rawk compilations that infested the shelves of music stores throughout the early days of this millenium. It does scratch an itch, though. Put simply, listening to lots of loud, dumb rock can be a hell of a lot of fun. Think of this as the lamb doner with extra chili sauce one enjoys as a guilty pleasure after a gargle down the local, just before you top off the night by kicking the shit out of 'Where Were You' in a supermarket car park.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Hot Shots: #12 - Ever So Lonely - Monsoon

I found this cracker when I was reading about the Prodigy's Fat of the Land (RIP Keith Flint), as one of the vocal tracks on that album was based around a Sheila Chandra piece. I had no clue who she was, and the first thing I discovered was that due to a medical condition she is no longer able to sing.

The second thing I found out was that she was in Grange Hill, and the third thing was that she fronted a band called Monsoon, who played a fairly early Anglo-Indian fusion pop. Upon watching the video I vaguely recall hearing this song before now - but I certainly hadn't recognised the amazing voice that Chandra possessed. In any case, this is a catchy, ear-wormy crackerjack of a tune.

It's a crap video though, isn't it? Probably not the band's fault, as it's clearly a TV performance. Light digging seems to suggest it was a German pop show called Bananas, though that bloke dragging himself across the sand right at the end does look a little like Russ Abbot, doesn't it?

Sunday, 3 March 2019

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida - Iron Butterfly

Provenance: I bought this because it has 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' on it.

Review: Well, at least In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida has 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' on it.

Alright, it's not terrible. Most of IAGDV is listenable enough. Hell, I even saw a Butterfly lineup that featured classic-era members Ron Bushy and Lee Dorman play at Arrow Rock Festival, and I enjoyed it. I was especially taken by a track called 'Easy Rider', which isn't on this album.

What IAGDV does serve up is a trip through the various flavours of psychedelia popular in the late 1960s. You've got the peppermint 'n' patchouli of the insipid 'Flowers And Beads', coming on like a heavier, less artful Zombies throwaway. There's the slightly more ominous, bad trip psych of 'My Mirage' and 'Are You Happy' - these are fairly engaging, sounding a bit like The Nice or Atomic Rooster. Comparisons with Atomic Rooster are especially apposite as the member who takes the majority of lead vocals, Doug Ingle, has a touch of John Du Cann about his vocal delivery, brimming with portent yet slightly haunted.

But, just like the reviews on this blog, it's a touch ham-fisted. Perhaps its just a symptom of heavy psychedelia of a certain vintage that I'm not used to, but the sudden transitions into the 'wig out' portion of each track is irksome. 'Are You Happy', which has some of the strongest musical ideas on the whole album, is, alas, also the worst scene of the crime.

It should also be said that IAGDV has also dated quite badly. I was going to say 'inevitably', but so much pop music of that era still stands up to this day - Motown, Stax (hell, a lot of soul and R&B of the time), garage rock, even a fair bit of the blues rock laid down at the time (such as Taj Mahal's debut, or the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet) all sound fresh to me. Sadly, IAGDV is a museum piece, trapped in amber, deemed too hoary a dinosaur for Jurassic Park. To twenty-first century ears (even those as accustomed as mine are to listening to older stuff) the sentiments are twee to the point of cloying and the music lacks any kind of edge. But surely - surely - IAGDV is rescued by 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida', no?

Ah, a little. Rescued-ish, perhaps.

Yes, that riff is immortal. It's incredibly satisfying to crank up the amp, slam your guitar through a fuzz box and wail on that bad boy for a good five minutes. It's also been a mainstay in popular culture; you have probably encountered it, whether in The Simpsons, on a Nas album (he's used it twice so far by my reckoning) or in my favourite example, the climactic scene to Michael Mann's superb film Manhunter. That riff is totally one of the most metal things from the 1960s.

Yet 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' is also seventeen minutes long. To put that into perspective, the studio album version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' is only nine minutes. I've argued before that time is a quality of music that can be stretched or constricted for effect, just like any other, but it's a dicey one to fuck with. Much can be excused by playing loud 'n' fast, but to do the opposite - slow, soporific, measured - takes no little skill. Black Sabbath can do it. Electric Wizard can do it. Sunn ())))) can do it. Iron Butterfly can't do it.

The lion's share of the title track should be that devilish minor-key riff and Doug Ingle's slurring, zonked-out vocal. In reality, it's dedicated to Ingle's meandering organ (variously sounding, at points, like a drunk version of 'Tidings of Comfort and Joy' or the Tetris theme music on quaaludes) and a drum solo. Not a very good drum solo either (if, indeed, such a thing exists). I can't find the piece right now, but I'm sure I read about Led Zeppelin laughing at Ron Bushy's interminable solo at the heart of 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida', and that's a band who weren't averse to self-indulgent percussion centrepieces themselves. I guess - and I'm really guessing here - that if you've taken a few bong rips, or you're staring into the depths of your lava lamp after a tab, all of 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' could conceivably sound cool. I am sitting in my front room with nothing stronger than Dr Pepper (diet, I should add) to aid me. It just sounds boring.

In summary, IAGDV isn't bad, but it isn't good either. It entirely bespeaks of a very short time in popular music that has retained its traction within the wider consciousness for a number of reasons - the enduring quality of the music not necessarily one of them. On the other hand - DUM DUM, DA-DA-DA-DUM - DA DA DAA!!!!

Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Fat Of The Land - The Prodigy

Provenance: As was the case with ZZ Top's Recycler, my exposure to The Fat of the Land came about thanks to my mum's employment at a library. This time around it wasn't an old chewed-up tape but a CD that had to back, so I recorded it onto cassette along with Led Zeppelin IV.

Why did I request this album? Possibly because of all the brouhaha around third single 'Smack My Bitch Up'. The controversy surrounding the song made its way to Parliament, although the subject of early day motion 565, proposed by newly-minted Labour MP Barry Gardiner, was actually the billboard campaign for the singles. Signatories to this motion included Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.

The video, directed by a former drummer from the black metal band Bathory, got the curtain-twitchers of Middle England going too. You can see why. There's a good article on the Louder website about the infamous video's genesis; my favourite detail, given the signatories of the early day motion, is that the model playing the protagonist was called Teresa May. Then there was 'Firestarter', which also got talked about in Parliament on the basis that its video might incite arson, possibly in the same way that Link Wray's 1958 instrumental 'Rumble' was considered a likely tinderbox for street gang violence.

The fuss, especially around 'Firestarter', all seems impossibly tame now. Hell, even dad-rock idiot and cow tongue graftee Gene Simmons recorded a version of 'Firestarter', which you can see here if you truly hate yourself that much.

Review: I'll start by saying I had to listen to something other than the Prodigy to cleanse my palate after checking that Gene Simmons link worked. I just don't think I could've given 'Firestarter' a fair shake otherwise. Anyway, I'm not a massive dance fan, but that's okay, because the Prodigy were always the most 'rock' sounding of that tribe. Certainly, the songs on Fat of the Land follow something closely resembling the rock music I was almost exclusively listening to at the time. Hell, the band did an L7 cover and were even fronted by Keith Flint, a kind of John Carpenter re-imagining of Vyvyan from The Young Ones - that's cool, right? Right?

Yet despite the guitar hooks on 'Breathe' and the rapping on 'Diesel Power', it's unmistakably a confection put together through the tried and tested technique of melding a clutch of samples with some big beats and studio magic. So although 'Smack My Bitch Up' became notorious for its subject matter, its true charms are to be found in its barrelling percussion and Shahin Badar's beautiful, wordless vocal (apparently based off of a track by Sheila Chandra, a remarkable singer in her own right whose voice has sadly succumbed to Burning Mouth Syndrome).

Listening to this from the perspective of 2019, it's odd to hear just how much dynamic range exists in the music. Had I misremembered how loud Fat of the Land was? Or have contemporary studio practices in popular music rendered such notions as dynamics the preserve of nerds and wankers? Much pop music in the present day sounds like it packs out every inch of aural real estate with grey noise, giving the track enough heft that it, no doubt, 'slaps' in one's ear-pods. Friends, on a proper stereo system, it sounds shit. Not Fat of the Land - certainly, 'Serial Thrilla', 'Diesel Power' and 'Fuel My Fire' sound chunky, but there's good definition between all their elements, and a track like 'Funky Shit' really shifts around dynamically. Forgive me for pulling a Horatio Caine here, but you could say...that these songs really 'breathe'.

Oh, and my favourite track on Fat of the Land is the one most obviously wedded to hip-hop, 'Diesel Power'. Kool Keith, who was someone Liam Howlett sampled on a few occasions, spits a wonderfully aggressive lyric over a bombastic, relentless backing track that reeks of smoke and adrenaline. Bottle it up and sell it as psych-up juice - it's what I listen to in the gym if I want to try and lift something moderately heavy more than a few times.

Actually - the closer I listen, the more I'm tempted to say that it's a dance-metal album fused to the spirit of Afrika Bambaataa. Perhaps it's just the bowl of chili I had earlier (a dish which, it has been claimed in a court of law, can mess with your mind) but to me there's a direct thread between Fat of the Land and Bambaataa's seminal Afro-Teutono-futurist floor filler 'Planet Rock'? Fat of the Land might be its gobby, steroid-addled British nephew, but a blood relation nonetheless. Yet Howlett was determinedly pursuing a singular vision, and its exciting to hear the symphony of cymbals he created in the coda to 'Narayan'; and its only on today's listen that I became fully conscious of the huge heartbeat bass drum at the core of 'Firestarter' (a favourite amongst my generation, not least because an instrumental version featured on the Playstation version of Wipeout 2097 - a kind of cyberpunk Mario Kart if that helps orientate younger readers).

Yeah, Fat of the Land was - and remains - the absolute business. I've got a couple of other Prodigy albums, and they're great; but this is the one where sonic invention is married to a pop sensibility, enabling even a denim 'n' leather bore like me to enjoy it from front to back. A triumph.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Double Live Assassins - W.A.S.P.

Provenance: I think my brother bought this for me, either for Christmas or my birthday a few years back. These events are mere days apart, so I trust he forgives me the inexactitude.

Review: Before I go in on the album, I want to share a W.A.S.P.-related anecdote with you. At Sweden Rock Festival one year I had gotten to chat with Zinny Zan of Zan Clan fame (I use the term advisedly). I was introduced to the band by the girlfriend of guitarist Rob Love, who I had stood next to during their set.

I talked with Zinny about his band's (excellent) album, the fortunes of QPR (about which he was surprisingly knowledgeable) and what-have-you. He then he asked if I wanted to meet Randy Piper, formerly of W.A.S.P.

Well.

Let's just say that Zinny's congeniality was only matched by Piper's intoxication, and the latter took an instant dislike to me despite the fact I'd not said anything beyond hello.

"You're a pretty small guy," he snarled, "I could fucking kill you." At which I guess he attempted to prove a point by strangling me in the manner redolent of Homer's frequent throttlings of Bart. It all got out of hand, and Zinny (also a pretty small guy) had to pull him off me, but not before someone took a photo on their phone. Of course, I tell my friends that Randy Piper tried to asphyxiate me - and of course they didn't believe me. But here's the kicker: after the festival's over we're relaxing in Malmo, eating pizza on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant, and I'm still getting ribbed about the alleged incident when the bloke who took the photo strolled past. After some initial confusion I got the guy to bring the photo up and - lo and behold - there's Piper with his shovel hands around my throat.

Anyway - Randy Piper left W.A.S.P. in 1986 and this live set is from 1997, so he doesn't feature at all. However, equally large guitarist and part-time sasquatch Chris Holmes does, along with frontman Blackie Lawless, current bassist Mike Duda and Metal Church drummer Stet Howland (whose Wikipedia page lists Gene Krupa, the Muppets and Hulk Hogan amongst his influences).

So - on to Double Live Assassins! Well, its one hour and forty minutes of W.A.S.P. doing their thing and features not one but two medleys. Like the wretched, wedding-plaguing 'Grease Megamix', the first one smashes together four - actually quite good - songs into one awkward, unsatisfactory whole. 'On Your Knees' is a genuine corker in the schlock-metal genre and deserves better treatment than this. W.A.S.P.'s take on Ray Charles' 'I Don't Need No Doctor' is hardly the definitive version but gets a the lion's share of play here. Again, 'Hellion' and 'Chainsaw Charlie' are solid but receive short shrift. The worst aspects of this unholy mishmash are the transitions between the songs, which are dreadful. The concluding riff of one section is crunched into the start of the next with seemingly no heed paid to either key or tempo. It honestly sounds like some poor schlub just cut bits of full performances together because I can't believe the band performed the medley live in the way its presented here.

At least the rest of disc one has enough to commend this. The sound is commendably raw and nasty, although the drums seem too loud and guitars are a tad muddy. However, neither of these quibbles are able to dent the power of both 'Wild Child' and the impressively-titled 'Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)', the latter of which Lawless has vowed never to perform again thanks to his Christian faith. It's a shame because it's an anthem; let it never be said that Lawless can't find his way around a chorus. Like an X-rated Paul Stanley, Lawless previews 'Animal' by asking the crowd if anybody "came here tonight looking for some...pussy? Does anyone here - fuck like a beast?!" I imagine it wasn't covered at Lilith Fair, let's put it that way.

And so it goes - there's enough meat on disc one to keep me happy. Continuing the theme of punchy, hooky metal stompers, we're treated to dirtbag classics such as 'L.O.V.E. Machine' (I l.o.v.e. this track), 'I Wanna Be Somebody', 'Kill Your Pretty Face' et al. Ya know, even with the medley, I would've been happy with this as a single-disc lie album. Even the tracks from the then-contemporaneous Kill.Fuck.Die, shorn of their industrial trappings, sound cool.

No, the problem for me is the inordinate amount of space given on disc two to The Crimson Idol, and album that steadfastly refuses to reveal its charms to me. It's hard to beat the jab-cross of 'Blind in Texas' and 'The Headless Children', but unfortunately we're then bogged down with both 'The Idol' and then a fucking Crimson Idol medley. I know of some people who consider Crimson Idol to be W.A.S.P.'s crowning achievement, and let me tell you folks, these people are plain wrong. The standout song from the album is 'Chainsaw Charlie', which has already featured in the first goddamn medley. To make matters worse, Crimson Idol is a concept album. I'll leave it at that.

Otherwise - look, it's a fine live heavy metal album. Some of the backing vocals sound like they received some, ahem, studio enhancement but that charge can be levied against Live and Dangerous, Unleashed in the East and KISS Alive!, all of which are widely acknowledged to be up there in the firmament of hard rock recordings. Double Live Assassins isn't quite on that level; W.A.S.P. are a little too quotidian an act to reach those dizzying heights, despite the ballwashing this album receives from some quarters. It's certainly no Live at Leeds, but hell, if you want to headbang along to a heavy metal cover of 'The Real Me', Double Live Assassins is the one for you.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Straight Shooter - Bad Company

Provenance: This dates back to the time when I was first seriously getting into rock music. I am fairly certain my knowledge of Bad Company extended to two songs - 'Can't Get Enough' and 'Feel Like Makin' Love', the latter of which appears on Straight Shooter. As with approximately one third of Bad Company's recorded output, these songs are about makin' it with your old lady (NB: my decision to replace the 'g' in 'making' with an apostrophe is apt as this practice is rife in the Bad Company discography. It demonstrates that they place fast and loose with the rules, see).

Review: I have now reached the age where every contemporary young pop star looks the same. Every single one. And they all have names that, although ostensibly signifying plural nouns, only serve to make them sound like posh butlers from Edwardian farces. It's too much for me. I made a half-hearted attempt to keep up with the grime scene but really, I'm much more comfortable with Ghost because they wear funny masks and sound like Blue Oyster Cult.

However, you shouldn't ascribe any value judgement to what I've just said, as gazing back to the early 1970s I'm amazed anybody could tell Bad Company apart from Deep Purple, Nazareth, Foghat, Uriah Heep, Argent and the rest. It's a blur of denim, hair and yellowed teeth. Rhythm sections appeared to be about forty despite being twenty-five, sometimes people wore kaftans and overall everyone looked immensely shit. A torrid time for fashion, then, but also for music. How anybody endured the live drum / guitar / organ / theremin solos of the era is absolutely beyond me. The tolerance for interminable jamming was a gift to the myriad mediocrities of the time, their every blooz-flavoured squeak or parp given to be evidence of their musical genius.

Bad Company had the awful dress sense, the blues rock stylings and the voguish predilection for cliched guitar solos but on Straight Shooter things are kept relatively tight. The music itself is pretty unimaginative but elevated by the presence of Paul Rodgers, who is one of the great rock voices these islands have ever produced. The ease with which he shifts between gravelly aggression and blue-eyed soul cooing is demonstrated by the rollicking opener 'Good Lovin' Gone Bad' (note the apostrophe) and its neighbour 'Feel Like Makin' Love'. The latter is a rather effective country-tinged power ballad that has, (un)fortunately been irreparably damaged for me thanks to the rendition by Ned Gerblansky that appears on Chef Aid: the South Park Album.

The best song on the album is 'Weep No More', which sounds like a hangover from one of the later Free albums. Tasty string arrangements bump up against a verse driven by a jaunty piano and heartfelt singing. It's a fine rock song, which more than can be said for much of what follows. 'Shooting Star' tries to replicate the rootsy verse / power-chord chorus combination of 'Feel Like Makin' Love' but its married to a lyric that is the most maudlin crap I've come across in quite some time and carries on the fine tradition of 70s navel-gazing that witnessed a slew of bands writing about the perils and pitfalls of becoming very famous and rich. Poor babies!

About the only listenable track on side to is 'Deal With the Preacher', which, although it's about makin' it with your old lady, has enough lead in its pencil to pass muster. The guitar riff in the verse is the strongest on the whole album, pugnacious and dirty. Rodgers yelps and emotes in all the right places, making the finished article a very satisfying hard rocker indeed. Had Bad Company decided to cruise to the finish line with a few more like that I'd be inclined to review Straight Shooter more favourably.

Therefore it's a genuine disappointment that Bad Company fill the home stretch with anaemic bilge like 'Wild Fire Woman', 'Anna' and 'Call On Me'. Despite superficially sounding very different, all are infected with the same strain of 'will-this-do?'-itis. 'Wild Fire Woman' (about makin' it with your old lady) plods along without much heft or purpose. 'Anna' is insultingly poor, a torch song that contrives to sound more like a nursery rhyme than a tender paean to the track's titular subject ("I found me a simple woman..." - fucking embarrassing). 'Call On Me' commits to nothing other thanbeing both boring and lethargic, and has no business stretching out to six minutes. Not even Rodgers can salvage these stinkers, and on 'Anna' he even sounds a bit pitchy.

As an epilogue to this I will say that I caught Paul Rodgers live at a Dutch rock festival in 2004 and he was outstanding. He both looked and sounded incredible, which is definitely not a given for many artists of his vintage. Even though the 2019 version of me can't quite discern the charms of Straight Shooter that were apparent to me in 2001, nevertheless I retain an affection both for the album and Bad Company. If you're a classic rock aficionado give it a spin, especially if you're tryin' to make it with your old lady.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Leftoverture - Kansas

Provenance: I know more about the state of Kansas than I do about the band (who hail from Topeka, KS, a fine city folks), due not in no small part because it's where my partner comes from. We got married in Kansas and, by God, I shall die in Kansas (note: I live in the south-east of England so I haven't quite thought through the logistics of this latter claim).

However, long before I had any kind of association with Kansas the place, I was into Kansas the band. More precisely, I was into Leftoverture, and even then I would say no more than two-thirds of the album. I could never really bring myself to sit through all six 'movements' of 'Magnum Opus'. I bought a Russian import of Leftoverture from a secondhand shop in Bournemouth for about a fiver.

Before I go on, I really want to point out that despite my frequent digs at the place I really do hold a lot of affection for Kansas. From the First Nations peoples of the region and Coronado's 16th century expedition to find the Seven Cities of Gold, to Bleeding Kansas through to the great cattle drives of Wild West mythology, it really is a fascinating place - and that's before you even get to its natural history. You've still got mass graves from the Oregon Trail and innumerable ghost towns, plus some cool places like Lawrence, Manhattan, Abilene and Dodge City. Rather than the usual sun-sodden vacation spots or overhyped cities, why not give Kansas (or the Midwest in general) a go?

Review: Yes! If Kansas got nothing else correct, they damn well knew that frontloading Leftoverture with 'Carry On Wayward Son' was an absolute pro move. A song like 'Carry On Wayward Son' swings for the fences on all kinds of fronts. Even the a capella intro, something I tend to dislike, sounds great. From there it's a real Nantucket Sleighride of a track, pulling you through riff-rock, gentle piano balladry and a warped kind of Midwestern boogie-prog. It should be a hot mess, but it isn't.

One of the textures that distinguished Kansas' brand of pomp-rock from their competitors was the prominent use of violin in the mix. Nowhere is this better exemplified in 'The Wall', soaring and bombastic, underpinned by a lyric describing one man's search for inner tranquility. This becomes more interesting when you replace 'one man' with 'Kerry Livgren', Kansas' guitarist and main songwriter. Listening to many of the other songs - 'Carry On Wayward Son', the hard-driving 'What's On My Mind', the epic 'Miracles Out of Nowhere' (all of which was side one, basically) - and you're left with the impression of a man at a crossroads. Someone who's had his fill of what the world has to offer and is turning inward for succour.

For enlightenment.

For peace.

Yes, my friends, I think we've found yet another hidden Christian rock album.

Three years after Leftoverture was released, Kerry Livgren became an evangelical Christian. It was a move that would eventually lead him to quit Kansas and release actual Christian rock. Betwixt and between, he also flirted with a rather bizarre niche of Judeo-Christianity codified in a gargantuan work called The Urantia Book, all of which mirrors the unsettled mind wrestling with notions of truth and uncertainty during the first half of Leftoverture. The subtlety employed here has to be commended, as each song taken individually doesn't give a clear picture; but taken as a whole, side one is a fairly obvious delineation of introspection and the struggle of a dawning spirituality, one that would lead him to leave Kansas and secular rock music behind (spoiler: he came back).

Unfortunately, past about 'Questions of My Childhood', two-thirds of the way through, Leftoverture runs out of steam a bit. Although Kansas have a keen ear for melody and some chewy, inventive musical ideas they're simply not an out-and-out progressive rock band. They simply lack the nimbleness and light-touch of a band like Yes. As such, 'Magnum Opus', a six part - count 'em! - suite of rockaria tries its best to gather speed but never quite leaves terra firma. There's a couple of cute ideas hidden amongst the weeds that surely could've been developed into fuller compositions. What possibly seemed like a questing and adventurous format actually ends up strangling all the clever bits in the crib.

Nevertheless, Leftoverture can be considered one of the good'uns, and side one is up there as a high-point in the pomp rock annals. Plus, in the fingerpicked guitar in 'Miracles Out of Nowhere', you can hear the blueprint of what would become 'Dust In the Wind', Kansas' most famous composition. As Coronado once concluded, four hundred and fifty years ago, Kansas are well worth exploring.