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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Black Sabbath: Forbidden

BLACK SABBATH: FORBIDDEN (1995)

1) The Illusion Of Power; 2) Get A Grip; 3) Can't Get Enough; 4) Shaking Off The Chains; 5) I Won't Cry For You; 6) Guilty As Hell; 7) Sick And Tired; 8) Rusty Angels; 9) Forbidden; 10) Kiss Of Death.

On their sixty-sixth studio album, Black Sabbath go for the gusto — they pay a humble tribute to their degenerate friends in Aerosmith (ʽGet A Gripʼ), nostalgize for the old innocent days of Bad Company (ʽCan't Get Enoughʼ), tip their hat to bluesman Johnny Winter (ʽSick And Tiredʼ), and slyly reference old film noir classics (ʽKiss Of Deathʼ). Or else they just run out of ideas for new song titles, you choose which idea you like best.

Forbidden is often extolled by fans and anti-fans alike as one of the absolute worst, if not the absolute worst, record to have the misfortune of being associated with the name of Black Sabbath. Honestly, I do not see what makes it so much worse than Seventh Star or TZR or even Headless Cross — they all consist of the same uninspired, by-the-book musical sludge. The only extra flaw on Forbidden is the horrendous desecration of the Sabbath temple by allowing a goddamn rap­per inside: the first track, ʽIllusion Of Powerʼ, features a spoken-word contribution from Ice-T, and even if it is very brief and he doesn't even «rap» as much as he just blurts out the words, that was quite enough to do the damage.

That this was a stupid idea from the outset is pretty obvious — some classic metal bands make a point out of meshing with hip-hop (Anthrax, for instance), but the Sabbath spirit and the hip-hop spirit can only annihilate each other, and it shows a remarkable lack of insight that they still went on with the idea. Any Ice-T fans out there who made their acquaintance with Sabbath through Forbidden? I hope to God there were none.

But apart from that one bit of silly pseudo-publicity, the rest of these songs are not «offensive», they are just boring. A (mercifully) short, unassuming, unnecessary record, for some reason produced by Ernie C, lead guitarist of Body Count (I think it was he who got them Ice-T, since they went to high school together), and seemingly trying to put on a «commercial» face once again, a decade after Seventh Star had showed how awful it could be if Tony Iommi switched over to harmless pop metal. So there's rotten power balladry (ʽI Won't Cry For Youʼ — who really cares if Tony Martin cries or does not cry for anybody?), stale blues-rock that rehashes old ideas in new sterile incarnations (the «heavy» parts of ʽCan't Get Enoughʼ sound like the heavy parts of ʽMegalomaniaʼ with all the excitement sucked out of the riff), and colorless pop metal that tries to deliver a message but forgets to add atmosphere (title track).

How, within less than a year, the band went from an album that at least faintly glimmered with a sense of (cross) purpose, to this batch of songs that try to growl but show no healthy teeth what­soever, is not exactly clear. We can blame Cozy Powell, whose presence had always ended up a bane for the band and who is back in the saddle here; or Neil Murray, whose return in Geezer's stead is equally deplorable; or the producers; or the rapper; or Tony Martin's ridiculous over­singing on the pop choruses. But ultimately, the blame probably rests on Iommi for allowing this underwritten, overproduced piece of metal junk to go public — a decision which, according to his own admission, he'd since come to regret.

Thumbs down with a vengeance and all, yet at least one good thing came out of it: this was the last ever product to bear the name of «Black Sabbath» that did not relate to the original Black Sabbath. With Forbidden, The Great Tony Martin And Cozy Powell Experiment finally came to a close. These days, Tony Martin is said to occasionally front his own band called — guess what? — right, Headless Cross; and I can only imagine what sort of stuff they play before fans who are generous enough to give them money — yet, all the same, good luck to them in whatever it is they do, even if it means replicating Ice-T's parts on stage. Apparently, Iommi booted Martin out rather unceremoniously (just hung up and never called him back or something), and Martin said that he'd never go back to Sabbath after being humiliated not once, but twice. Formally, that was very bad behaviour on Iommi's part, and I hope he blames himself for that — but thank God, we never got to see the proper follow-up to Forbidden.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bob Marley: Soul Revolution

BOB MARLEY: SOUL REVOLUTION (1971)

1) Keep On Moving; 2) Don't Rock My Boat; 3) Put It On; 4) Fussing And Fighting; 5) Duppy Conqueror; 6) Memphis; 7) Soul Rebel; 8) Riding High; 9) Kaya; 10) African Herbsman; 11) Stand Alone; 12) Sun Is Shining; 13) Brain Washing.

Even though this second album, too, was produced by Lee Perry, it actually sounds quite different from the first one — lighter and much more playful, in contrast with the more firmly pronounced «protest» spirit of Soul Rebel. Maybe this was deliberate, to show how the true Rasta spirit is supposed to concentrate on the positive by default, leaving the negative for very special occasions — in any case, the fact is that most of these here songs are not about four hundred years of slave­ry, but rather about the delights of chillin' out, gettin' down, ridin' high, and swingin' low, not necessarily in that order.

The record does begin with ʽKeep On Movingʼ, one more song about escape, salvation, and sweet dreams of "a land somewhere not near Babylon". But musically it is a lazy, nonchalant, almost melodic tune, friendly to boot, as if the singer were dreaming of all these things while enjoying some warm Jamaican sun in a swinging hammock — the misery and agony of the Rasta preacher is only implied, not expressed in easily understandable terms. Later on, ʽFussing And Fightingʼ, calling upon all of us to stop the aforementioned, is delivered without the slightest trace of anger or anguish in Bob's voice (well, maybe only at the end of the song does he get heated up enough to raise his voice a bit: "LORD, I wanna know!"). And then there's the final track, ʽBrain Washingʼ — if you really need to know, it is a rant against... nursery rhymes and fairy tales, all of which are acknowledged to be "just the poor's brain washing", and "I don't need it no longer" — sure enough, when you got Haile Selassie, who needs Cinderella and Little Miss Muffet?

This is about as «rebellious» and «political» as the album gets. In between these tracks, there is a lot of short, tight, often catchy, always friendly, and usually quite endearing little numbers about smoking pot, making love, and not giving a damn if the ganja is worse than expected or the lover is jivin' around with some other, temporarily luckier, soul brother. There is a lot more vocal har­monies from the Wailers on these tracks, too, echoing the band's early days and owing a lot to old-time gospel and, occasionally, doo-wop (ʽPut It Onʼ). There are also more keyboards, and there is even an extended melodica solo from Peter Tosh on ʽMemphisʼ, an instrumental formally credited to Chuck Berry for some reason (I fail to see any resemblance with ʽMemphis, Ten­nesseeʼ whatsoever — did they just want to toss ol' Chuck some royalties for no particular rea­son?). In short, it's really all fun and games over there in sunny Jamaica.

One of the main highlights is ʽKayaʼ, arguably one of the finest combinations of exuberant joy and simplicity in Marley's repertoire — catchy and invigorating enough for him to revive it half a decade later on the Island album of the same name. Ironically, in 1978 Kaya would be written off by quite a few fans and critics alike as a disappointingly «relaxed» follow-up to Exodus — but the story actually begins here, with Soul Revolution being an equally «relaxed» follow-up to Soul Rebel without the Wailers having any international notoriety whatsoever. Sure enough, reggae can be fiery and militant, but what about peace, love, and understanding, then? Marley's "got to have kaya now, got to have kaya now, for the rain is fallin'" acknowledges sufficiency of «the bare necessities» without a shred of self-aggrandizing — even if few of us can tell the proper difference between kaya and ganja, you don't even need to understand exactly what he is reaching for on the song to succumb to its peacefulness.

Another highlight is ʽSun Is Shiningʼ, punctuated by Tosh's lonesome, slightly gloomy, but not desperate melodica puffs — I don't think the song does much of anything except simply proclaim the fact of life: "here I am / want you to know just if you can / where I stand". Its mood is some­where in between «neutral» and «sad», so that both the melodica and the occasional overtones in Bob's singing hint at life's harsh realities — yet, at the same time, it is quite clear that as long as "we'll lift our heads and give Jah praises", ultimately, it's going to be all right. So what is this if not the ultimate anthem of the primordial way of life? Even if it was recorded in a modern studio, listening to the song can still transport you thousands of years back.

The album also includes a cover of Richie Havens' ʽAfrican Herbsmanʼ, which is probably the closest they come to the subject of ʽ400 Yearsʼ, but, again, in a far more lightweight, even poppy, manner, with a spritely-hoppin' bass line and tender harmonies that seem a little odd when applied to lyrics about "old slave men" who "grind slow but it grinds fine", yet that is the record's message — even dire, gruesome subjects are approached with a levity of heart and mind. Hatred, hysterics, and vengefulness have no place here; maybe that is what Soul Revolution is really all about, brother. Thumbs up for that.

Technical note: although most sources show the album sleeve to include the title Soul Revo­lution Part II, the real «Part II» was actually a «dub» companion to the vocal version, consisting of purely instrumental tracks of the same songs — a special offer for cannabis patients, I suppose. In the process, Part II somehow also got stuck on the cover of Part I, so that unsuspecting people might think that the record was intended to be a conceptual sequel to Soul Rebel, which is not the case (it being an «anti-Soul Rebel», in a sense). To confuse matters further, three years later there would also be a special UK release of the album, retitled as African Herbsman and replacing a couple of the tunes with non-album singles (including an early version of ʽLively Up Yourselfʼ, among other things). You'd think that musicians had finally got rid of that messy crap, so typical of the mid-Sixties and so passé after LPs had finally become a respected medium, but apparently, Jamaica caught on slowly to those new trends. Must be all that heavy smoke. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Cultösaurus Erectus

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: CULTÖSAURUS ERECTUS (1980)

1) Black Blade; 2) Monsters; 3) Divine Wind; 4) Deadline; 5) The Marshall Plan; 6) Hungry Boys; 7) Fallen Angel; 8) Lips In The Hills; 9) Unknown Tongue.

Kind of a confused record, but not without some major points of interest. As the disco backlash hit the streets, Bloom and Co. must have realised that they'd wandered a bit too far off in the back alleys — even if songs like ʽDr. Musicʼ and ʽLonely Teardropsʼ were not without their merits, hearing them in 1980 might make the fans feel as if they'd just caught the band with their pants off or something. Quickly, the boys devised Salvation Plan B — drop all the vaudeville and get realigned back to heaviness. For extra security, they teamed up with famous hard rock producer Martin Birch, fresh off work on Heaven And Hell, the new album by the new-look Black Sab­bath (with Dio) — and once Birch helped them get out their own record, they even went on tour with Sabbath together (an old video, still officially unavailable on DVD, predictably called Black And Blue, actually captured that glorious moment).

Getting back some of that heaviness was a good thing, and, in fact, what with all the advances in technology and all, Cultösaurus occasionally sounds thicker and denser than anything they ever did before (Birch certainly saturates some fat inside Joe Bouchard's bass, for one thing) — but don't let that fool you: this is not an improvement on the first three albums, and, in fact, I'd rather we did not compare them at all, because the poor skeletal beast will not survive the procedure.

With just a couple exceptions that I will save up for a little later, Blue Öyster Cult have finally entered what is commonly referred to as «Spinal Tap territory». The typical song here is a big, bombastic, superhero-style light metal rocker — sometimes equipped with its own riff, but more often not (I'm still trying to locate one in ʽBlack Bladeʼ, but to no avail: most of the time it is the bass that drives the song rather than the rhythm guitar). The first songs start us off in sci-fi / B-movie mode, but as the album progresses, the band moves on to the subject of «Rock And Roll Hero», dedicating song after song to issues of superstardom, rebellion, and fall from grace — and much of this stuff just sounds like parody (sometimes rather pedestrian parody) on rock'n'roll aesthetics. Not deconstruction of rock'n'roll aesthetics, as it used to be in the glory days, more like relatively simplistic parody.

The «epic» number that opens the album is ʽBlack Bladeʼ, another collaboration with Moorcock on one of his fantasy subjects (the «soul-sucking» sword of Elric) — but, unlike ʽSun Jesterʼ, this one has no emotional subtlety whatsoever, and even though its fat chords, Neanderthal vocals, and scree­ching guitar leads do a good job visualising images of Boris Vallejo characters, the melody is not particularly memorable, and the song is neither awesomely impressive nor awesomely funny, so I am not exactly sure what to do with it. ʽMonstersʼ is much more interes­ting, melody-wise, especially the way it manages to combine jazz with hard-rock (the mid-section reveals direct influences of King Crimson's ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ), but... it doesn't sound much like «monsters». More like a passable jazz-fusion piece integrated with some generic hard rock passages. No visions springing up.

The second side is dominated by the shadow of ʽThe Marshall Planʼ, a bombastic saga of a proverbial rock'n'roll hero, peppered with lyrical references to Don Kirshner, quotations of the ʽSmoke On The Waterʼ riff, fake audience noises, and endless namecalling of a certain «Johnny» — good thing the album was released a good half-year before the Lennon shooting. As a glam-rock theat­rical piece, it's okay, I guess, but not particularly necessary after we've had ourselves that lengthy Alice Cooper streak of early 1970s albums, much more powerful on the whole. Again, musically it is the shorter songs that have more pull. ʽHungry Boysʼ is a rare case of a New Wave-influenced pop-rocker here, with electronic effects and slightly robotized vocals that contrast with fully traditional rock and roll guitar leads; and ʽLips In The Hillsʼ is a good showcase for the boys' guitar interplay — nasty swirling arpeggios overlayed with stinging solos, fully redeeming the song for Meltzer's whacko lyrics.

But all of this is merely «decent». The only moments where the album approaches an oasis of greatness are, interestingly enough, ʽDivine Windʼ and ʽDeadlineʼ — two songs credited solely to Buck Dharma, indicating that, at this particular time, he was the most reasonable of the band members. ʽDivine Windʼ is melodically unexceptional — a fairly standard blues-rocker — but, alone of 'em all, it actually sounds serious: Buck's chorus — "if he really thinks we're the devil, then let's send him to HELL!", with heavy threatening emphasis on the last word — occasionally sends a shiver down my spine. Apparently, never mind the actual title, but the song was referring to the Ayatollah and the Iran crisis, and in these politically sensitive days would probably count as warmongering and maybe cost Blue Öyster Cult their place in respectable society and align them next to Ted Nugent, but things were kinda easier in 1980, and besides, regardless of deeper causes, the Ayatollah was one rather sick son of a bitch, so I can empathize. Most ardently, though, I empathize the howling guitar breaks and the doom-laden basslines.

ʽDeadlineʼ, one of the record's lighter tracks, memorizes an incident in which one of the band's booking agents was shot by a guy from whom he wanted to wrestle out a gambling debt — and the memorial is well held, with a chorus that somehow implies that being resolute and determined is not always a good thing ("he missed the deadline / he passed the deadline, darling"), and some moody, echoey guitar leads for atmosphere. Lighter it may be, but ultimately it cuts deeper than anything else on here, and I'd certainly return to the album in the future for ʽDeadlineʼ rather than ʽBlack Bladeʼ or ʽThe Marshall Planʼ.

Unquestionably a thumbs up here, because even the «bad» songs are so obviously tongue-in-cheek that only an idiot could get offended. But I would be lying if I said the album didn't have its problems — the major one being a noticeable disappearance of good rhythm guitar. You can't live on solid Buck Dharma solos for eternity, and the riffs did provide a reliable foundation for the BÖC legend in the past. Taking them out and substituting «theatrical pomp» in their place, hoping that we do not notice, is a bad move, and one that would eventually lead to their downfall. Fortunately, here we are still some way away from it. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Adebisi Shank: This Is The Third Album By A Band Called Adebisi Shank

ADEBISI SHANK: THIS IS THE THIRD ALBUM OF A BAND CALLED ADEBISI SHANK (2014)

1) World In Harmony; 2) Big Unit; 3) Turnaround; 4) Mazel Tov; 5) Thundertruth; 6) Sensation; 7) Chaos Emeralds; 8) Voodoo Vision; 9) (Trio Always).

The third and the last, apparently — only one month after the record's release, Adebisi Shank announced they'd be splitting up, what with Larry Kaye being involved in several other bands at the same time (possibly as a more authoritarian bandleader, I have no idea). Perhaps the split will not be for eternity, or maybe some new phoenix will rise out of the older's ashes — all the more desirable since this third record clearly shows that they may have run out of money, or of love for each other, but definitely not out of creative ideas.

The album begins with a clearly intentional «band-as-orchestra» quotation of the main riff from ʽLet It Beʼ — match it with the title ʽWorld In Harmonyʼ and Lady Irony is upon us, because ten seconds into the song, Adebisi Shank are back to their usual tricks, piecing together disparate melodic strings that borrow almost chaotically from every musical genre imaginable. ʽWorld In Harmonyʼ alone is classical, pop, blues-rock, country-western, and speed metal, sometimes at the same time, as the guitar lays hard rock chords over a Beethovenish synth pattern.

Most importantly, though, the third album establishes its own face by going for the grand style. The overdubs get denser, more bombastic and anthemic than ever before — this is Adebisi Shank getting out of the heat of the small club and well into the open air, delivering their schizophreni­cally deconstructed Odes to Joy to the entire world. There is also less emphasis on guitar virtuo­sity and much more on composition, development, and, so to speak, «angularity» of the particular tracks — I guess that, technically, this makes Third even more of a «math-rock» record than First and Second, but, strangely enough, it does not feel that way. Maybe because the songs are catchier and the themes seem to make more emotional sense.

With nearly all the songs striving for this «bigness», and with the band's clever selection of the appropriate major chords, the album is segmentable into similar-themed movements rather than distinct songs, and the whole thing is like one big symphony: I did not namedrop Beethoven for nothing, and wouldn't be surprised to find him among these guys' influences — ʽVoodoo Visionʼ, the album's grand closing, may begin with what rather suspiciously sounds like Windows' stan­dard speaker test, but soon enough it will move into a grandiose, life-asserting theme that cannot even be spoiled by the silly electronically-encoded vocals (that, too, is part of the schtick, because what's a proper futuristic 21st century symphonic piece without electronic encoding?).

ʽBig Unitʼ is a little more personal and close-by, sounding like a big friendly monster slowly, but accurately moving through the city as crowds of observers cheer in admiration and wave the flags. ʽMazel Tovʼ adds an R&B-influenced brass component and a funky bassline for about four minutes of a soundtrack to a happy, if a bit too sternly regulated, party. Only ʽSensationʼ, with its accelerated tempo and hyper-bubbling synth patterns, sounds a bit too frenzied and nervous for the album's overall vibe, but it would still be a stretch to call the song «dark» or «aggressive» — rather, it is just a temporary detour from the anthemic happiness, a «breather» of sorts.

I would like to go for a little controversy here and say that, as long as we're talking about «weird», «innovative», and «meaningful» all in one, I actually prefer Third to any single album by The Animal Collective — not that this band ever had, or will have, any hopes of approaching the fame of the authors of Merriweather Post Pavillion, because they have no vocals (beyond those few instances of electronic grunts) and because their main influences seem to be outside the stereotypical hipster range (Beach Boys, etc.). But don't let that stop you from enjoying them — the one thing they do have is focus, and a respectable ambition to adapt their skills to the basic needs of humanity. I mean, exactly how many «math-rock» albums could you label as «uplifting»? Probably none, mainly because you'd have a hard time trying to label them as anything (except for «aggressively kick-ass» if the math is steeped in metal).

All the more irony, then, that the band may have exploded just as they'd reached, or came close to reaching, their peak — but perhaps that is what you get as punishment when you begin your record with a musical quote from ʽLet It Beʼ (in fact, we should all be happy that they did not begin it with a musical quote from ʽHighway To Hellʼ instead, or some poor guy would have already be choking upon his vomit). Then again, it is a bit hard to understand where else they could have been headed from here — if this is their Ninth Symphony in a nutshell, there isn't supposed to be a completed Tenth. I only hope this reverential thumbs up will offer at least a little help, so that the memory of Adebisi Shank does not evaporate with the passing of the band itself, under a rather natural scenario for the majority of today's artists. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Blackmore's Night: Winter Carols

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: WINTER CAROLS (2006)

1) Hark The Herald Angels Sing/Come All Ye Faithful; 2) I Saw Three Ships; 3) Winter (Basse Dance); 4) Ding Dong Merrily On High; 5) Ma-O-Tzur; 6) Good King Wenceslas; 7) Lord Of The Dance/Simple Gifts; 8) We Three Kings; 9) Wish You Were Here; 10) Emmanuel; 11) Christmas Eve; 12) We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

A Christmas album from Blackmore's Night, come to think of it, was inevitably happening, so the only relevant question in expecting its imminent forthcoming would be: «Will they or will they not be featuring a new version of ʽHighway Starʼ, with Candice Night singing, ʽNobody's gonna take my sleigh, I'm gonna race it to the North Poleʼ?»

Apparently not, and this here is a rather loyal, no-shock-value-whatsoever, and courteously brief collection of hymns,  carols, covers, and just a couple original numbers, in keeping with the 21st century understanding of the «Christmas album» (adding one's own individual twists rather than just keep recording new versions of ʽRudolphʼ and ʽWe Three Kingsʼ 'til eternity). So it pretty much sounds like you'd expect it to sound — Ritchie's medievalistic guitar, Candice's friendly, unexceptional vocals, and lots of baroque overdubs.

You do get to hear the lady sing in Hebrew, with the band paying tolerant tribute to Hanukkah (ʽMa-O-Tzurʼ — sic, instead of the required ʽMaʽoz-Tzurʼ, but Lord Blackmore ain't the one to be stopped by trifling orthography problems), but other than the lady's struggle with pronunci­ation, arrangement-wise, this is not one iota different from the rest (well, actually, the old hymn itself was written in the German rather than Near Eastern tradition, so that is hardly surprising). You also get to hear Sydney Carter's ʽLord Of The Danceʼ, which I, shamefully enough, only originally knew from the cuddly Donovan cover — even though Donovan actually transformed the song from its hymnal incarnation into an endearing kiddie tune, whereas Blackmore and Night stick to the solemn choral interpretation.

To fill up empty space, they also include ʽWish You Were Hereʼ from Shadow Of The Moon (not a «re-recording», as some sources incorrectly state, but the exact same version), and repeat each chorus on each song a couple dozen extra times — ʽLord Of The Danceʼ, ʽChristmas Eveʼ and others are all plagued by repetitiveness, and the short closing number ʽWe Wish You A Merry Christmasʼ is nothing but exactly that, really. And if you ever tried to insinuate that the old standard ʽDing Dong Merrily On Highʼ is really a song about sex (ding dong), drugs (on high), and rock'n'roll (merrily), well, there's nothing to confirm this in the actual execution.

By all means, the record is eminently skippable, but it does fill its own niche, because whoever actually bought the whole thing and, in his or her mind, had already been dwelling in Sherwood Forest and/or Nottingham Castle with Kevin Costner and/or Alan Rickman for almost a decade, now finally gets to spend Christmas in the perfect way possible — playing Winter Carols from dawn till dusk until the herald angels stop singing. For everybody else, the record will be point­less, but Blackmore's Night is not an ensemble that panders to the hoi polloi: in terms of primal enjoyment and accessibility, its intended audience is only the entire Christian (and, this time around, Jewish) world, former Christians who celebrate Christmas without believing in Christ included — just a few billion people or so, most of whom ended up not buying this record by sheer accident of providence, or so we will have to assume.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Black Crowes: Warpaint Live

THE BLACK CROWES: WARPAINT LIVE (2009)

1) Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution; 2) Walk Believer Walk; 3) Oh Josephine; 4) Evergreen; 5) We Who See The Deep; 6) Locust Street; 7) Movin' On Down The Line; 8) Wounded Bird; 9) God's Got It; 10) There's Gold In Them Hills; 11) Whoa Mule; 12) Poor Elijah – Tribute To Johnson; 13) Darling Of The Underground Press; 14) Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye; 15) Don't Know Why; 16) Torn And Frayed; 17) Hey Grandma.

Oh, this is just too good to be true. But it is true — so, what is the next logical move once you have just released the worst (okay, one of the worst) albums in your career, passing it off as a «mature» product? Why, simple: release a live version of it — performed in its entirety. I mean, I could at least understand it if they did this trick for Shake Your Moneymaker or Southern Har­mony: at least those albums have had enough time to pass into some sort of legend. But War­paint, really? Has it instantaneously become such a «modern classic» that the world would say a big thank you to a second version?

So apparently, the Crowes had some kind of deal with Eagle Rock Entertainment, one of the big­gest rock video labels out there, to provide a concert recording for them — and, apparently, the idea was that, since they already had several live albums out, this one was to be in some way «special». Maybe they all bought the critical hype, or maybe they just thought that this additional promotion would help sell a few extra copies of the real Warpaint — whatever. The sore reality is that there is this extra live package now, DVD and CD versions of it, and, apparently, it begs for its own, independent, unbiased, and open-minded assessment.

Ultimately, I guess, it is impossible to make a bad thing good, but it is possible to make it a little more tolerable, and from that point of view, if I ever had to, in the future, I would prefer listening to Warpaint Live than to Warpaint Dead. The brothers add on a little grit in these performances, putting a tad more distortion on the line, and occasionally extending the songs to include longer and ever more fluent solos from Luther Dickinson — for instance, he goes completely roman­tically berserk on the slide guitar at the end of ʽMovin' On Down The Lineʼ, where his wild runs proudly stand competition with Derek Trucks. The overall sound of Warpaint was good — the overall sound of it played live is, in fact, even better. But there is nothing to be done about the songs. At heart, they were boring, and they still stay boring. Nothing to do with that.

It gets better and worse, though, on the second disc. Better — because, as a large appended bonus, the Crowes end their performance with a bunch of covers by famous «roots rock» artists, such as Clapton in his «Delaney & Bonnie» period of 1970 (ʽPoor Elijahʼ and ʽDon't Know Whyʼ), the Stones in their Exile period (ʽTorn And Frayedʼ), and Moby Grape (ʽHey Grandmaʼ). They still sneak in a couple of their own songs (including a really long, really tedious version of ʽBad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbyeʼ), but overall it's like a respectful celebration of past glories — and this is also what makes it a little offensive. It's as if they were saying, "Hey, all the great guys had their roots-rock phase, see? We too have one!" — which would be justified if they had at least one song as emotionally resonant as ʽTorn And Frayedʼ, which is not the case. They do a good enough job on the covers, and Dickinson once again goes into full-out astral mode on the slide at the end of the Stones' song, playing things of such complexity that Mick Taylor would not have been able to reproduce — except that ʽTorn And Frayedʼ is really all about the original vocals, and brother Chris' one-dimensional delivery totally fails to recapture or play upon the smiling irony of the Stones' approach.

In short, if you are a fan of the modern slide, do get this record for some totally stellar examples (it is a little uncanny, though, just how much this Dickinson dude and Derek Trucks sound alike, which begs for the question — do all these young guitar virtuosos tend to blend together or am I just being unnecessarily grumpy?). If you are a fan of Chris Robinson's beard, get the video — the camera loves it. And if you are a fan of neither, but are still reading this review, you're as crazy a reader as the reviewer is a writer. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Blind Guardian: Battalions Of Fear

BLIND GUARDIAN: BATTALIONS OF FEAR (1988)

1) Majesty; 2) Guardian Of The Blind; 3) Trial By The Archon; 4) Wizard's Crown; 5) Run For The Night; 6) The Martyr; 7) Battalions Of Fear; 8) By The Gates Of Moria; 9*) Gandalf's Rebirth.

According to genre rules, the debut album by Blind Guardian is neither «thrash metal» nor «power metal», but rather «speed metal», which seems to be lodged somewhere in between the two — metal music played at extreme tempos, but with more emphasis on melodicity and «clean­ness» of sound than thrash. Oh well, whatever. The real question is: when all your songs are played at the speed of fifty billion notes per second, is there anything you can do to make any of them stand out? How do you avoid falling into the usual trap — where your whole LP sounds like one extended track with a few seconds of air inserted every now and then?

Well, Battalions Of Fear shows that it can be easily done: you just have to compensate with the vocals, and make sure that every individual track has its own distinctive chorus. If there is one single thing that might make these songs «stick», it is the simple, basic, anthemic bits — "OH, MAJESTY! ", "GUARDIAN, GUARDIAN, GUARDIAN OF THE BLIND!", "HALLOWEEN!", "RUN FOR THE NIGHT! BURN AWAY!", and so on. This is a tactic they may have inherited from Iron Maiden, who are easily the single hugest influence on these guys, but they need it so much more than Iron Maiden, who usually played at slower tempos and could rely on complex riffage and challenging song structures even without a vocal hook.

Unlike Maiden, Blind Guardian do not rely on «guitar weaving»: the two guitarists in the band seem to have their duties delineated quite properly, as Marcus Siepen concentrates on the chug­ging rhythms and André Olbrich is responsible for all the melodic lead parts. Hansi Kürsch, the frontman, is at this point still combining the double duties of the bass player and the vocalist, though clearly favoring the latter job more than the former — he's got a voice similar to Bathory's Quorthon, «snapping» rather than «barking», without any traces of corny sentimentality, perfectly suited to this type of metal-theater material. Lastly, drummer Thomas Stauch is as good as your average speed metal drummer gets, but there's not a lot to add to that description.

The artistic influences of Blind Guardian are completely clear: first and foremost, they are rabid Tolkien fanaticists (no less than three different songs — four, if you count the bonus track ʽGan­dalf's Rebirthʼ on the re-issue — are based on Lord Of The Rings), and second, they like all sorts of horror fantasies and occult dabblings, with Stephen King and Aleister Crowley each providing in­spiration for one of the tracks. Current events in this here mortal world only concern them as long as their global evilness begins to match fantasy visions — the title track, in particular, is about the horror of SDI, which they probably considered on par with the construction of Mor­goth's Than­gorodrim or something of the sort. This is a consistent position of theirs, and while their musical style would change significantly over the years, the «vision» would not, so please be warned that it's a little hard to get deep into Blind Guardian without having previously done your Tolkien homework, and yes, that actually means reading the books — all of them.

With the basic formula for this early record sort of set in stone, there is not much mood variation, and the atmosphere generated by the melodies does not always match the lyrics — for instance, ʽMajestyʼ seems to be about the last King of Arnor losing his kingdom to the forces of evil and running for cover, but the melody is neither doom-laden nor tragedy-bound, but, like all the rest, pushes forward with martial brutality and determination. The two things to look out for are the already mentioned chorus hooks — and Olbrich's solo passages, which show an honest desire to become the Paganini of the heavy metal guitar solo, combining technical virtuosity with careful attention to melodic structure. Unfortunately, my own spirit remains somewhat insensitive to this approach, but it is hard not to admire these results at least «formally».

Likewise, the instrumental ʽBy The Gates Of Moriaʼ hardly refers to the Gray Company relaxing in the shade of said gates, but could probably trigger an association with the bloody battle between Orcs and Dwarves that took place there much earlier — and who will now recognize, unless specially informed, that the melody actually quotes Dvořák's ʽFrom The New Worldʼ sym­phony? Everything is made to serve the same purpose: kick ass, hero-style. One of my favorite tracks is ʽTrial By The Archonʼ: it serves as a brief, concise intro to ʽWizard's Crownʼ, but has a completeness of its own, stating the theme, then consecutively offering the spotlight to the band's riffmeister and the band's lead hero. The theme is suitably ominous, the riffage is more inventive than on the vocal tracks, and the solos are brilliantly constructed, but I can only imagine your average Archon conducting his average trial in this particular manner if he had a schedule of around 300 trials to perform per day, two minutes per each — state the accusation (opening theme), take in the prosecution (riff variations), hear the defense (solos), pronounce final judge­ment (closing theme), next in line please.

No matter how monotonous this atmosphere is, though, the album as a whole, by metal standards, deserves an unquestionable thumbs up; in fact, its monotonousness may ultimately be its major advantage, since, not having yet established their own personal style, Blind Guardian would probably have achieved little if they tried to walk all over the metal turf — by sticking to this one particular gun, they are at least able to «mine» this speed metal formula all the way down to its logical con­clusion. In terms of songs, you'll probably only remember the epic choruses — but in terms of overall cohesiveness, you will probably retain a very precise general impression. And there is no one but J. R. R. Tolkine to blame, I guess, that in the metal world, Battalions Of Fear is altogether so less popular than Slayer's Reign In Blood, even though, for all I know, they are more or less on the same level in the «goal-achieving» department.