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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Arch Enemy: Burning Japan Live


1) The Immortal; 2) Dark Insanity; 3) Dead Inside; 4) Diva Satanica; 5) Pilgrim; 6) Silverwing; 7) Beast Of Man; 8) Bass Intro/Tears Of The Dead; 9) Bridge Of Destiny; 10) Transmigration Macabre; 11) Angelclaw.

It's a lucky thing I have to review this on New Year's Eve — too many things to wrap up, too little energy to spend on music writing, and here comes a live album that is absolutely impossible to write about in long, scrutinizing detail anyway.

So, briefly and up to the point. These recordings were made in October/November 1999, during se­veral shows in Tokyo. The line-up is the same as on Burning Bridges, meaning that this is the officially last album to feature Liiva as vocalist. The setlist is predictably heavily tilted towards Burning Bridges, with Stigmata only represented by three songs and Black Earth by two. The performances are practically indistinguishable from the studio originals. And the audience is ab­solutely in­audible, except in between tracks. Happy New Year!

PS. Liiva's vocals are actually far more «shiver-inducing» during his stage announcements than when he is singing. So shiver-inducing, in fact, that I am embarrassed to play this album in front of any person of any level of intelligence without first submitting the person in question to a long lecture about artistic conventionalities, traditions, customs, and rituals. Want to increase your to­lerance levels? Try death metal. Beats modern art and bestiality all to hell.

PPS. No, but seriously, it is a good album, if only you take your expectations off the «live» regis­ter (it is admirable that they can play with such speed and complexity on stage, but, presumably, much of their studio output was recorded «live in the studio» as well, so no outstanding feats of originality here). Excellent production — certainly better than on Black Earth, which is why 'Dark Insanity' is more of a success here than it was over there — and a strong setlist. And yet, completely unnecessary for non-fans.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Asia: Alpha

ASIA: ALPHA (1983)

1) Don't Cry; 2) The Smile Has Left Your Eyes; 3) Never In A Million Years; 4) My Own Time (I'll Do What I Want); 5) The Heat Goes On; 6) Eye To Eye; 7) The Last To Know; 8) True Colors; 9) Midnight Sun; 10) Open Your Eyes.

The follow-up to Asia was much less successful, both commercially and critically. No big sur­prise there, considering that Howe and Palmer, the two acknowledged «giants» of the supergroup, are now completely missing from the credits — all of the songs are associated exclusively with the Wetton/Downes songwriting duo. Critical hatred may have engulfed «progressive rock» as a whole, and Yes and ELP as its representatives, but it was never targeted against individuals — you could be disgusted with Yes, but not its guitarist, and with ELP, but not its drummer. So, cri­tics were asking, what exactly is the point of having one of the best guitarists and one of the best drummers in the world in your «supergroup» — and relegating them to the position of easily re­placeable bit players?

It is true that Howe's role on Alpha is diminished even in comparison to Asia. I do not recall a single interesting or, in fact, noticeable guitar riff or solo on the entire album. But, on the other hand, it's not as if Asia's main points were about guitar work, either — and as for Palmer, he was drastically underused from the very beginning. So my bottomline is clear: if you like Asia at all, get ready to like Alpha, because they are twin brothers, concentrating on bombastic, but catchy arena pop-rock. That's about all there is to it.

I will not talk much about individual songs; they are fleshed out more or less in the same way, and alternate democratically between romantic balladry ('The Smile Has Left Your Eyes', Wet­ton's signature tune for years to come), upbeat happy arena-pop ('Don't Cry') and slightly harsher, grittier «rockers» ('The Heat Goes On', mood-wise = 'Cutting It Fine' from the previous record and, consequently, my personal favorite). The «progressive» spirit is only present on the coda to 'Open Your Eyes', but only in the form of a catchy and quite commercial «romantic mantra» that will emotionally convert fans of Styx and Journey rather than Yes and ELP.

What has always puzzled me is the question — why is it that I do not actively hate either Asia or Alpha? Both records seem to be the perfect candidates for stirring up green-tinged emotions. One key reason may be Wetton's singing voice: like Greg Lake's, it does not have that «operatic» flavor that so many arena-oriented vocalists often develop, thinking that, the closer you sound to Pavarotti on your records (and never mind the years of training — any idiot can sing opera as long as he ain't completely tonedeaf), the closer they get to Real Art. Wetton knows his limits and is always careful not to overstep them.

But even more important may be the fact that all of these songs are, essentially, quite well arran­ged. Lack of a distinct guitar sound may disappoint, but I would say it might have been an advan­tage — otherwise, too many of these songs could sound like Aerosmith power ballads. There is just enough guitar here to avoid the tag of «synth-pop», and the decision to generally avoid solos, or, at least, «egotistically mixed» solos, with the soloist high on top of everything else, was also correct (reducing potential threats of «pretentiousness»).

There may be other things at work, too, but I just want to draw attention to the fact that Asia and Alpha, of all the «dumb» arena-rock out there, are some of the «smartest» records in the genre. This does not mean that the «smartness» blows away the strong cheese smell, or that even a sin­gle of these «ecstatic» anthems merits even a single tear out of anyone's eyes (unless it's all about «how low the mighty have fallen»). But I believe this reasoning is at least enough to justify the thumbs up that I would not deny Alpha as Asia's little brother.

Check "Alpha" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Alpha" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Atomic Rooster: Nice 'N' Greasy


1) All Across The Country; 2) Save Me; 3) Voodoo In You; 4) Moods; 5) Take One Toke; 6) Can't Find A Reason; 7) Ear In The Snow; 8) What You Gonna Do.

The second and last Farlowe-containing album from Atomic Rooster continues in the direction of Made In England — so assuredly and predictably that it is even less interesting. By now, the band has completely transformed into a roots-rock act, evenly spreading its creativity between ba­sic blues-rock, «blue-eyed funk», and soul balladry. Crane's piano instrumental 'Moods' is a sole minor glimpse of what used to be, but even here the melody is R'n'B-ish rather than classically in­fluenced, and, frankly, the instrumental's emotional effect is nothing to write home about.

Not that Atomic Rooster were ever about «academicity», though. They were about «Evil as a Side Effect of Mental Instability» — with Vince Crane's personal problems serving as the driving wheel for everything that made this band stand out. By the time Nice 'N' Greasy came along, ei­ther he got temporarily better at controlling these problems, or the other band members were so successful at side-sweeping them, that Nice 'N' Greasy comes out as a perfectly normal — and a perfectly boring — record. One needn't go further than the limp, unnecessary, funkified rewrite of 'Friday The 13th', re-titled 'Save Me', saddled with a «celebratory» Sly & The Family Stone-like brass section, and completely bereft of its devilish attitude. For this kind of music, one needs to go to George Clinton anyway.

The only track that still establishes a weak link to the past is the seven-minute «epic» 'Voodoo In You', which, curiously, is the album's only non-original number (a cover version of an older, lit­tle-known R&B composition by Jackie Avery). It is deep, somber, driven by brutal mid-tempo riffage rather than chicken-scratch, and, although new guitarist Johnny Mandala's lengthy solo is little more than a set of professionally played, uninventive Clapton-isms, in this context I would rather listen to a so-so Cream imitation than all the fruitless attempts to place Funk on the payroll of Vince Crane's personal demons. (Note that «Johnny Mandala» is actually the first stage name of John Goodsall, who would later become much better known for his fusion work in Brand X; in 1973, though, he must still have been learning, because there is nothing particularly outstanding about the guitar sound on Nice 'N' Greasy).

The UK and US versions of the album were once again different: the UK version ended with 'Sa­tan's Wheel', and also contained Mandala's only contribution to the band ('Goodbye Planet Earth'). Both were rather mediocre R&B, and for that or for some other reason were replaced on the US version with 'Moods' and... the equally mediocre fast-paced blues number 'What You Gonna Do', whose only point, I guess, is that Farlowe wanted to try out a B. B. King impersonation. It's pas­sable, as is everything else on here, but is never going to make history.

On the whole, Nice 'N' Greasy is so painfully «unnecessary» that it must have been obvious to everyone: the band had stuck its nose into a dead end. Falling apart was the only reasonable thing to do. Of course, we'd always expect of Vince Crane to do only unreasonable things, but there was this little matter of his far more sane friends — and, after the record label dropped them for losing all signs of vitality, Farlowe and Co. simply took off and left. Can't blame them, either — after such a thumbs down reaction, who'd want to stay?

Check "Nice 'n' Greasy" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Nice 'N' Greasy" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Amon Düül II: Live In Tokyo


1) Nada Moonshine Union; 2) Black Pearls Of Wisdom; 3) Dry Your Ears; 4) Castaneda Dream (In Another World); 5) Deutsch Nepal; 6) Kiss Ma Eee; 7) Speed Inside My Shoes; 8) Lilac Lillies; 9) Wolf City; 10) La Paloma; 11) Flowers Of The Orient; 12) Surrounded By The Stars; 13) Archangel Thunderbird; 14) Jam Hai.

The main point of this release, as I attempt to reconstruct it, was to assert that Nada Moonshine # was, God forbid, by no means merely a pretext to get together, go on tour, and play some oldies. Believe it or not, the briefly resuscitated Amon Düül II actually insisted on the album's relevance — and, climbing up on the stage, concentrated almost exclusively on new material. Evil conspira­tors might drop poisonous hints that, perchance, the band had simply forgotten how to play the old stuff (and their not being able to get Weinzierl back in the fold guaranteed that the proper old sound was hardly recuperable). But it is more polite to presume innocence and believe that the band's worst fear was to come out before their audiences as an «oldies act».

With 6 out of 14 songs faithfully recreating the latest studio album, Live In Tokyo seems to go for overkill. However, despite occasionally unfocused bits and spoiled vocal notes, many of these songs work better in a live setting. The most obvious improvement is 'Lilac Lillies', done here without the annoying techno beats — still not a very good song, but, at least, shed of its unna­tural and ridicu­lous packaging. Others simply replace the excessive use of echos and electronics by a more «natural» approach, and that's a big plus.

Most of the old material is from Wolf City — three big numbers that are performed quite close to the original versions, and honestly reproduce their «Babylonian Gothic» atmosphere (particularly 'Deutsch Nepal'); guitarist Felice Occhionero is at least capable to reproduce the «regular» guitar parts of old, so that the band can play its old «song-like» successes. Eventually, they even go into 'Archangels Thunderbird', done a bit too noisily for my taste (the old live version from Live In London, with its violin parts, is much more impressive), but still decent.

There isn't really much more to say about the record, except to stress that the assessment of Mr. Stephen Thomas Erlewine at the All-Music Guide («...the group is no longer experimenting — they are simply recreating their sound, and that slavishness prevents the music from being any­thing other than a nostalgia trip») is completely off the mark, given the setlist. Most likely, Mr. Erlewine just threw on one track whose title he happened to remember ('Deutsch Nepal'), com­pared it with the studio version, and then hastened away to review Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love before dinnertime.

Fact of the matter, subtle changes are introduced almost every­where: if there is one thing the band is determined to prove here, it's that anyone wanting to talk about «nostalgia trips» should be dragged out into the street and shot. It's an entirely different matter if Amon Düül's attempt to re­form in a progressive way was a success or a failure. It seems that they themselves were hardly satisfied — the band's official site omits both Nada Moonshine # and Live In Tokyo from its discography section. But credit must be given for trying, and trying in a way that was not simply copying current trends, but actually «upgraded» the old sound with a mixed bag of various tricks, some modernistic, some retro. Live In Tokyo is, therefore, quite a respectable companion to its studio counterpart, and demands the same modest thumbs up reaction.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Beach Boys: L.A. (Light Album)


1) Good Timin'; 2) Lady Lynda; 3) Full Sail; 4) Angel Come Home; 5) Love Surrounds Me; 6) Sumahama; 7) Here Comes The Night; 8) Baby Blue; 9) Goin' South; 10) Shortenin' Bread.

The follow-up to M.I.U. Album is a somewhat more collective effort — we now have writing and arranging contributions from all five members, and, in addition, Bruce Johnston is back from exile, taking the producer's seat and setting the stage up for the band's final descent into Reputa­ti­onal Hell. But that wouldn't truly occur until next year; in 1979, the band was still floundering, and L.A. at least saw a couple risks taken, a couple opportunities made use of, and a few embar­rassments that were at least surprising in all of their embarrassing boldness. It is the last Beach Boys album I could claim to «like», if hardly respect.

More collectivism means more eclectic choices, and a sense of creative chaos and commotion that, one could say, rivals 20/20 — just like ten years ago, the album involves everybody vying for attention and no creative control whatsoever, à la «anything goes». In 1969, this worked fine; in 1979, it could hardly be the same way. With Brian's mind still in a haze and Brian's backlog of solid material mostly exhausted; with Dennis focusing what drugs and booze condescended to save of his talent on his solo career; with Carl's passion for «angelic arrangements» gradually tur­ning into an embrace of «adult contemporary» values; and with Mike's and Al's ever-increasing penchant for cor­ny gimmicks — clearly, L.A. promised to be a mess, and it was.

The main anti-hero of L.A. still turned out to be Bruce Johnston, whose main claim to fame here is the rearrangement of 1967's 'Here Comes The Night' as a hot eleven-minute disco number. The only time the band ever dabbled in disco, it was a critical disaster, but still managed to snatch its approximately five seconds of fame (given that 1979 was disco's last year of prominence) among club-goers. All I can say is — if you manage to forget that this is the Beach Boys (or think about it as some trendy joker's remix of a Beach Boys number, without the band themselves being in­volved), it's a fair enough disco attraction for the likes of John Travolta. Nothing more. But it does waste eleven minutes of running time...

...which, given the quality of some of the material, could have certainly been put to better use. As far as I am concerned, this is Dennis' last big hurray: 'Love Surrounds Me', an outtake from the sessions for his second solo album Bamboo, which never came to pass in his own lifetime, is a typical D.W. confessional number (grizzled vocals + tender string and keyboard arrangements = Dennis heaven), and 'Baby Blue' is a nearly-ambient atmospheric piece that may not be too me­morable, but is grand and lush in classic Beach Boys tradition.

Brian's contributions, both of them outtakes from older epochs, bookmark the album: 'Good Ti­min' is a retro ballad, with harmonies straight out of 'Surfer Girl', but mixed with... some might say, maturity, others would call it mid-age soft-rock boredom (heading straight into mid-age and finding more tolerance for soft-rock each day, I still give it a plus); and 'Shortenin' Bread' is just a goofy, dumb old coda that would not be out of place on Love You. His presence is thus drastical­ly reduced from M.I.U. times — but, in those troubled days, would anyone notice?

Al's 'Lady Lynda', a fast-paced ballad tribute to his wife loosely based on a Bach piece (! — guest musician Sterling Smith plays the actual melody of 'Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring' on the harp­si­chord), is not great, but modestly catchy and humble enough to be pleasant; Mike Love, in the meantime, sets his sight on the Far East and delivers 'Sumahama', the first song in the Beach Boys catalog to have been written exclusively by him (if we count 'Big Sur' as only part of the collective 'California Saga') — and a fairly decent Japanese-stylized trinket it is, even if every­thing about it, each single chord and each single lyric, sound clichéd. Somehow, when all the clichés fall into place, I still find myself liking it every single time. At the very least, everyone simply has to admit that, in choosing between 'Sumahama' and 'Kokomo'... that is, if one is ever forced to choose between... never mind.

Curiously enough, my conscience selects Carl Wilson as the largest failure of L.A. His three num­bers presage the soft, sweet, and utterly hookless adult contemporary he would sink into in his own solo career, and even sharing lead vocals with Dennis on 'Angel Come Home' does not help matters much (even if that's just the right way Dennis could always save one of his hookless numbers from failure — by singing it like a TB-stricken street bum with a big heart). His brief artistic rise in 1971-73 and his vocal presence on some of Brian's best numbers had always ob­scured the fact that, to a large part, he simply missed the opportunity of rescuing the band late in its career — abandoning invention and creativity and relying entirely on the dubious power of «beautiful» synth tones and formally «beautiful» singing.

But even so, the production on these C.W. numbers is still miles ahead of what we would be see­ing very, very soon. As it is, L.A. is the last Beach Boys album I would — with a fair warning — recommend to anyone. At the very least, it is diverse. There's your adult contemporary balladry, your Saturday Night Fever, some Bach, a Mikado tribute, Dennis' bully-eyed soul, you name it. Even if you happen to think it all sucks — a respectable opinion — the think is well worth happe­ning. A gullible thumbs up it is.

Check "L.A. (Light Album)" (CD) on Amazon
Check "L.A. (Light Album)" (MP3) on Amazon