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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Blodwyn Pig: Getting To This

BLODWYN PIG: GETTING TO THIS (1970)

1) Drive Me; 2) Variations On Nainos; 3) See My Way; 4) Long Bomb Blues; 5) The Squirrelling Must Go On; 6) San Francisco Sketches; 7) Worry; 8) Toys; 9) To Rass Man; 10) Send Your Son To Die; 11*) Summer Day; 12*) Walk On The Water.

The critical consensus (provided that the tiny handful of consenting critics can be reliably called «consensus») seems to consider Getting To This, the original Blodwyn Pig's second and last album, as an artistic letdown after the inspiring promises of Ahead Rings Out. Even the two titles, taken together, give out a whiff of irony — ahead rings out, and you're still only «getting to this»? At a time when everyone else has already gotten to this, and more than this?.. A year like 1970 wasn't exactly the best time for half-measures, if you know what I mean.

What really did happen was sort of predictable. Even with the jazz-influenced Jack Lancaster aboard ship, Ahead Rings Out was very much a «conventional» blues-rock record in the well-established, but already not very cool UK tradition of John Mayall, Peter Green, pre- (and post-) Cream Clapton and all these other well-meaning guys who decided that channelling the spirit of American blues was a worthier enterprise than trying to find their own. But as the 1960s closed and «progressive» was on the verge of becoming a viable commercial proposition, even the staunchest roots-rockers began thinking in terms of «progress or perish». Blodwyn Pig were a good example — even if Ahead Rings Out, upon release, sold enough copies to be commercially compared to Jethro Tull's Stand Up, it didn't take a lot of brain to understand which of the two bands was awaited by a more glorious future.

Maybe Mick Abrahams did stay cool enough so as not to bite his fingernails each evening, regret­ting the decision to leave and start his own band, but he was smart enough to understand that the formula of Blodwyn Pig needed some shaking up. Consequently, there is no more generic blues on Getting To This — it is still bluesy in essence, of course, but syncopation is the word of day, as the controls are seemingly placed in the hands of Lancaster, and the status of role model is transferred almost completely to Blood, Sweat & Tears, even as Blodwyn Pig continues to rock in a far grittier manner.

The band's major «progressive test» is the multi-part suite ʽSan Francisco Sketchesʼ, beginning with some assorted seagulls and going through several, mostly jazzy, sections dominated by flutes or saxes; only one part, an anthemic piano ballad, has vocals and is, for some reason, stuck in the middle rather than at the end, where it would have far more naturally summarized all the sketches. Never once particularly outstanding — the basic themes are not too captivating and the energy level seems lower than required, maybe due to somewhat slacky work on the part of the rhythm section — it is still a very competent, mood-wise diverse, and entertaining performance, much as I fail to see what exactly, apart from the seagulls, it has to do with San Francisco. (Still, better this sort of mood-alternating jazz jamming, I guess, than a genuine attempt to write a tri­bute to Quicksilver Messenger Service).

Also, the fact that they glued together several distinct jazz-rock parts to make one cohesive whole does not prevent them from using very similar jazz-rock parts to serve as the basis for most of the other, shorter, songs as well — in terms of general approach, ʽSan Francisco Sketchesʼ is not al­together different from the flute-driven funky dance of ʽVariations On Nainosʼ, or the ominously dressed jazz dance of ʽWorryʼ (which seems itself to have been influenced by Tull's ʽFor A Thou­sand Mothersʼ), or the anti-war diatribe ʽSend Your Son To Dieʼ, or the instrumental ʽThe Squir­relling Must Go Onʼ, the title hinting that the tune is supposed to be a sequel to ʽCat's Squirrelʼ, which Abrahams had earlier arranged for This Was while still a member of Jethro Tull, but ended up carrying it over to Blodwyn Pig's live setlist.

In the end, what the record suffers from the most is not its relative lack of diversity (there have been thousands of less diverse albums that had more impact), but its relative lack of commitment: Lancaster's flutes and saxes have a formally restrained, «academic» nature, and Mick, despite his burly chap image, always ends up sounding far less wild and «out there» than his replacement in Tull, Martin Barre. Repeated listenings confirm that a lot of work must have gone into these songs — they constantly try locating interesting themes and coming up with unusual arran­ge­ments (for instance, the combinations of Mick's slide guitar parts with Jack's woodwinds can be quite fascinating for those who pay enough attention) — but while the formal craft is there, the vision is lacking. The band is simply locked in a perpetual state of «getting to this». To their ho­nor, they must have realized that, too, and disbanded soon after the album's release.

On a sidenote, the two bonus tracks appended to the CD edition — strangely enough, the same tracks are also appended to the CD edition of Ahead Rings Out as well — are arguably the best pair of songs to come out of Blodwyn Pig in the first place: an A-side and a B-side of a mid-1969 single, where ʽSummer Dayʼ is a hyper-catchy rocker with what might be the coolest riff ever thought of by Abrahams; and ʽWalk On The Waterʼ cleverly sews together bits of folk, jazz, blues-rock, and even a boogie bridge and infests them with a little bit of starry-eyed hippie idea­lism, giving the song a better sense of purpose than almost anything on Getting To This.

All of which means that Blodwyn Pig were essentially a classic example of a singles band — it just had the misfortune of working in a time zone where albums happened to be valued over individual songs, and so, in the battle of Jethro Tull against Blodwyn Pig, it was quite clear from the start who was predestined to be the winner. Still, let us be kind to the loser: even without a clear sense of purpose, Mick Abrahams and his friends made music that always tried to respect our emotions and intellect rather than offend them — as a result, this plainly B-grade stuff will continue finding a grateful listener for quite some time, I'm sure.


Check "Getting To This" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Blues Project: Reunion In Central Park

THE BLUES PROJECT: REUNION IN CENTRAL PARK (1973)

1) Louisiana Blues; 2) Steve's Song; 3) I Can't Keep From Cryin'; 4) You Can't Catch Me; 5) Fly Away; 6) Caress Me Baby; 7) Catch The Wind; 8) Wake Me, Shake Me; 9) Two Trains Running.

Believe it or not, but the original Blues Project did come back together in 1973 — if even the Byrds could have a reunion, why not the noble act that tried to carry on the relay? (It wasn't their fault, after all, that time was speeding up way too fast for them). Everybody except for Tommy Flanders is here, yet somehow, the inspiration just wasn't there to try for some creativity — instead, The Original Blues Project, as they call themselves on the sleeve, embarked on a brief American tour, culminating in a free show in New York's Central Park, almost a whole decade before Simon & Garfunkel popularized the idea on a wider scale.

Actually, according to Al's own memories, the LP continues the band's tradition of strange «semi-fakes»: only the audience reaction comes from Central Park, while most, if not all, of the per­for­mances come from earlier shows (in Washington), where the atmosphere, Al says, was more «spontaneous». Not that it would probably matter much — I'd bet anything that The Blues Pro­ject at their worst differed little from The Blues Project at their best: mediocre bands do have that slight benefit of consistency, you know.

The setlist is largely predictable: Projections done in almost all of their entirety, plus a couple additional live favorites from the early days — no attempts whatsoever at sinking their teeth into anything written in the post-Kooper epoch. The surprising glaring omission is ʽFlute Thingʼ, which made me double-check if Kulberg was present at the show at all, yet apparently, he was, and they did perform the song, but, for some reason, left it off the final album, even if, the album being a double one, there was most certainly enough space remaining for it. Maybe Andy forgot to oil the flute or something, or perhaps they consciously decided that it would be a cool gesture to leave their best-known and most-respected composition off the reunion album — you know, so it wouldn't go multi-platinum and turn them into commercial sluts.

Seriously, though, this is a decent performance, delivered with such confidence as if it were 1966 all over again — the band plunges into old-school dance-blues of Muddy's, rockabilly of Chuck's, and starry-eyed folk idealism of Donovan's with such vehemence you'd think the world still lived and breathed these tunes in 1973. However, once we get past this element of energetic surprise there is little else to say — except that the slow blues numbers (ʽCaress Me Babyʼ and particular­ly the excruciatingly tedious journey through the twelve minutes of ʽTwo Trains Runningʼ) are predictably uninteresting, and that, with their exclusion, the album could have been a far more elegant and economic single LP.

Since Kooper had already established himself as a solo artist by that point, it was obvious that the reunion would not last long — this was, in fact, the last time that The Blues Project blipped on the radar, although, rumor has it, in recent years Katz and Blumenfeld have brought the name back from the grave once again, touring as «The Blues Project» with a bunch of sidemen (hope­fully, we will be spared any new studio recordings). As a last goodbye, Reunion In Central Park plays its part with sufficient conviction — more credibly, at least, than the Kalb-dominated bland platters from 1971-72. But if you want a good live album by The Blues Project... then again, I am not even sure why you should want a live album by The Blues Project in the first place. Just get Al Kooper's Soul Of A Man instead.


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Monday, July 29, 2013

Bobby Bland: Blues At Midnight

BOBBY BLAND: BLUES AT MIDNIGHT (2003)

1) Where Do I Go From Here; 2) I Caught The Blues From Someone Else; 3) You Hit The Nail On The Head; 4) I've Got The Blues At Midnight; 5) Baby What's Wrong With You; 6) What A Wonderful World; 7) My Sunday's Co­min' Soon; 8) This Man-Woman Thing; 9) The Only Thing Missing Is You; 10) I'm A Blues Man; 11) Ghetto Nights.

Old age finally caught up with Mr. Bland at the turn of the millennium: Blues At Midnight was his first new album in five years rather than two (the usual interval for his entire life at Malaco), and, as fate would have it, his last album altogether — it was certainly not intended to be a swan song, but the next ten years of Bobby's life were spent without further ventures to the recording studio. Kind of ominously ironic, then, that the first song on his last album just had to be titled ʽWhere Do I Go From Hereʼ — verily and indeed ever so.

In fact, the shadow of the nearing end does loom over the entire record, and, when seen from that angle, Blues At Midnight may end up looking like the most interesting, touching, and thought-provoking record of Bobby's entire post-1970s career. As long as he was still relatively hale and hardy, and set up with a low-budget, but solid 'n' steady recording contract, he had little to care about other than recording whatever came his way, as long as it had that beat and gave him plenty of room to insert an explosive snort or two. Now that he has bypassed that 70-year-old mark be­yond which even Mick Jagger starts having problems, it almost feels, subconsciously, as if his next record were an attempt at summarizing something — and even though all the songs, as usual, are credited to his corporate songwriting team, they must have caught that hint, and made sure that Blues At Midnight, in many ways, sounded like some sort of a last confession.

Formally, ʽWhere Do I Go From Hereʼ is just another blues lament on lost love topics, but Bobby delivers it with just a little more tension than usual, and the brass / organ / guitar / backing vocals combo seems ready to assist him as best they can. Later on, three of the tracks feature the word «blues» in the title — a record-breaking streak for Bobby — and they are all meaningful: ʽI Caught The Blues From Someone Elseʼ is a bitter rocker that examines the roots of getting into the business (well, not really, but could be...); ʽI've Got The Blues At Midnightʼ is a passable, but 100%-Bobby interpretation of what the blues is all about (12:00 A.M., and you're still not getting any); and ʽI'm A Blues Manʼ, starting off with slide guitar, harmonica, our favorite snort, and "I was raised up on Jimmy Reed" (what? you were a contemporary of Jimmy Reed, Bobby!), is a kind of tune that Bobby never really tried before — this sort of semi-authentic swamp-blues was almost as far removed from his brand of blues-de-luxe as, say, heavy metal. All the more curious to see him try and assert this legacy thus late in his career — with a direct invocation of the spirits of Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and the rest.

The «magnum opus» of the album, however, is its last track. ʽGhetto Nightsʼ is a slow, moody shuffle, very much in the vein of Bobby's mid-1970s «blacksploitation» period, with similar pro­duction and socially-oriented sentimentalism, and suitably loaded with atmospheric overdubs (such as the superimposition of a police radio transcript to simulate an actual ghetto environment). There is no attempt at a universalist statement here, such as on ʽSad Streetʼ, and, in fact, the lyrics do not even directly deal with issues of poverty / crime / etc., but this only helps the track gain in subtlety — it may not be a masterpiece, but it is one of the moodiest, bleakest-sounding things Bobby had the luck to record ever since his image-makers in the late 1970s decided that «dark» and «shivery» are unsuitable epithets for suave ladies' man Bobby B.

I guess I should stress that none of these songs are genuine masterpieces (as usual, they are too generic and middle-of-the-road for that), and that there is plenty of completely routine filler as well, let alone the irritating detail that Bobby really takes his time while stretching out on the coda to almost every one of these songs: only a (rather shaky) cover of ʽWhat A Wonderful Worldʼ sticks to a three-minute length — everything else, for some reason, must have from one to two or three extra minutes of Bobby trading signal calls with his female backing vocalists across the studio hall, even such dumb 12-bar exercises as ʽYou Hit The Nail On The Headʼ (and you did it so many times, Bobby, that little remains of the hammer, much less the nail).

Still, I would like to end this with a thumbs up — not merely out of general respect for the recently deceased Bobby B., but continuing to insist that Blues At Midnight is moving and mea­ningful (in spots), not to mention that Bobby's vocal abilities remain almost completely un­im­paired to the very end. Whether there is some sort of uncomfortably intriguing premonition here or not, is up to you to decide — but, as far as my own sixth sense is concerned, the record rises just one small inch above mere routine professionalism, and that is enough to recommend it.


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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Alcest: Ecailles De Lune

ALCEST: ECAILLES DE LUNE (2010)

1) Ecailles De Lune (Pt. 1); 2) Ecailles De Lune (pt. 2); 3) Percées De Lumière; 4) Abysses; 5) Solar Song; 6) Sur L'Océan Couleur De Fer.

On their second album, Alcest are almost a band: Neige is still credited for most of the work, but there is also a separate drummer (going under the name of «Winterhalter», which, I would say, is a rather gross intrusion of the Germanic element into Alcest's French conceptualism), and multi-instrumentalist Fursy Teyssier also contributes a brief atmospheric interlude (ʽAbyssesʼ) that mainly consists of the heaves and ho's of a huge electronic bellows, but still provides some merry company to Neige's soliloquy existence.

But none of this really matters if you are not into that whole trivia-seeking enterprise, because in general, Ecailles De Lune (Scales Of The Moon for those unfamiliar with Anglo-Nor­man) is not at all different from its predecessor. Actually, I would say that it is a little worse. Worried, per­haps, that his black metal roots were altogether neglected and eclipsed by the melancholia and sentimentalism of Souvenirs, Neige now takes steps to ensure that the sound be a tad heavier and gruffer, even going as far as to use growling vocals on a couple of the tracks — and in the pro­cess, something important is lost.

The two-part, 18-minute-long title suite that opens the album should suffice to illustrate that point. It works at the intersection of two guitar tones — a ringing, echoey, «lunar» tone for melancholia and psychedelia, and a noisy, distorted, «earthy» tone for martiality and aggression — and two vocal styles (clean / romantic in the first part, growling / apocalyptic in the second). By shifting around the dominance of one tone / style over the other, and by alternating loud and quiet parts, Neige gives the whole thing some dynamics and development. But the actual musical themes are not very interesting, and the vocal melodies are unmemorable — and overall, the impression of being transplanted into an «autre monde», this time around, is not nearly as strong as when you first put on ʽPrintemps Emeraudeʼ. And I blame the superfluous «metallization» for that: there is only so much distance you can cover, speeding along the black metal trail, before your imagery ceases to be evocative and becomes, at best, boring, and at worst, self-parodic.

It gets better as we move along, though: ʽSolar Songʼ tones down the metal aspects in order to make way for an inspired vocal part that sounds, indeed, like some sort of ritualistic invocation of the supernatural — with the vocals themselves «felt» from behind the thick curtains of droning guitar overdubs rather than properly heard, which is only natural, since the layman is not suppo­sed to be let inside the Holy of Holies, right? But the best track is still the last one: ʽSur L'Océan Couleur De Ferʼ completely jettisons the metal element, being built almost entirely around one repetitive, plaintive guitar figure, to which Neige then adds layer after layer of extra acoustic rhythms, electric flourishes, synthesizers, faraway percussion bursts, and New Age vocalises. The lyrics, formally interpreted, speak of massive deaths in the ocean waves — Titanic? Lusitania? whatever — but the music is unnaturally calm and quiet for such a subject, more like a small-scale requiem mass rather than a direct depiction of some gruesome tragedy.

On the whole, this is not bad stuff, but it does seem as if Neige had mostly emptied his bag of subconscious reminiscences on the first Alcest album, and is now forcing himself to come up with new impressions on the spot — not exactly a «sophomore slump», because it is very hard to distinguish efficient from inefficient in the case of such static, atmospheric music; but still a rela­tive disappointment. Perhaps it could have been better, if more of the tracks were similar in form and spirit to the album's subtle, lamentative coda — then again, this would have rendered it even more monotonous than it is, so let us refrain from guesswork. In any case, what with so many artists today giving their best shot on their first album and then fizzling and fading away over the course of ten more, it would probably require a miracle for Alcest to best his own Souvenirs, so just lower your expectations and be done with it.


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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Barenaked Ladies Are Me

BARENAKED LADIES: BARENAKED LADIES ARE ME (2006)

1) Adrift; 2) Bank Job; 3) Sound Of Your Voice; 4) Easy; 5) Home; 6) Bull In A China Shop; 7) Everything Had Changed; 8) Peterborough And The Kavarthas; 9) Maybe You're Right; 10) Take It Back; 11) Vanishing; 12) Rule The World With Love; 13) Wind It Up.

Every once in a while, the world needs to be reminded of that old adage — «quantity does not equal quality» (said the Turkish sultan, ordering his ninety-nine brothers to be put to death). For that very reason, the Barenaked Ladies held a historical recording session in early 2005, where they came up with no fewer than 30 original compositions — an impressive pile that took a fur­ther year and a half to finalize, sort out, and release in several variants, eventually settling upon the «white album» and «whiter album» recipe that The Beatles never followed: Barenaked Ladies Are Me, with 13 songs on it, came out in September 2006, and Barenaked Ladies Are Men, containing the rest, followed half a year later.

Had these guys been songwriting geniuses, the story would be truly intriguing. Had these guys displayed their trademark «quirky» behavior and sarcasm, there would be some hope. What hap­pened instead can only be called a blundering catastrophe: apparently, they went into the studio with the solemn goal of writing a shitpile of deadly serious, «thinking-man-introspective-singer-songwriter» pop songs, almost completely bereft of any sense of humor or lightness of approach — or clever hooks, for that matter.

It is not even a question of monotonousness: formally, Barenaked Ladies Are Me is fairly di­ver­se, mixing acoustic folk-pop, electric power-pop, art-pop, alt-rock, bits of electronica, bluegrass, etc., in other words, touching upon all sorts of familiar ground that the Ladies had already cove­red previously, but wouldn't mind shuffling together one more time. And yet, simultaneously, it all sounds thoroughly tedious, mind-numbing, and sort of gooey, taking the stagnation of Every­thing To Everyone to a whole new level.

The few songs that are pinned to loud electric riffage can be seen as relieving exceptions. The best of the lot is probably ʽWind It Upʼ — why it happens to close the album rather than opening it with its bulgy, almost Townshend-ian punch, is way beyond my limited comprehension. Of course, it does not have much to recommend it other than that swirling riff (as well as a monster psychedelic guitar solo from guest star Kim Mitchell), but a good riff and a good solo is the bare minimum required from a decent power-pop tune. Another good one is Kevin Hearn's ʽSound Of Your Voiceʼ, whose garage-influenced lead melody spends most of the time battling against the slower, blues-shuffle-style rhythm section.

And both of these songs were singles, all right, but for some reason, the lead single was ʽEasyʼ — a song that stands much closer in spirit to the somnambulistic bulk of the album. Like many of the Ladies' songs, it is a potentially good number — but in this case, it would have probably rea­lized its potential much better, had it been handed over to U2. Listen to it, then try to imagine the Edge's echoey style instead of the wimpy acoustic foundation used over here, and Bono wailing "make it easy, make it easy" instead of Robertson. Now that could have been something; this version, compared with the imaginary ideal, sounds like a first-stage demo.

And the same applies to more than half of these songs. The ballads are smooth and mushy (ʽAdriftʼ, ʽHomeʼ), the electronics are underdeveloped (ʽBank Jobʼ starts out with bleeps and beeps that still end up chewed up and swallowed by generic alt-rock guitars), and even some of the fast, supposedly energetic pop-rock numbers are thoroughly devoid of creative ideas (ʽBull In A China Shopʼ — ʽBottle Of Diet Poisonʼ would have been a better title, if they really needed a suitable «tired old metaphor» to pick from the song's lyrics). Worst of the lot might be Creeggan's ambitiously titled ʽPeterborough And The Kawarthasʼ — a neo-folk concoction that has no dyna­mics whatsoever; I would have trouble recommending it as elevator muzak.

In short, we are «reborn on a pirate ship» here — once again, the Ladies are offering us serious intellectual pop music, forgetting that even serious intellectual pop music has to address the emo­tional centers in order to succeed. Besides, it's not even all that intellectual: a song like ʽMaybe You're Rightʼ, with its supposedly «deep» chorus of "shall I take back everything I've ever said / and live my whole life in silence instead?", hardly suffices to make the Ladies into respectable social spokesmen for their, or any other, generation.

Had this been a «simple pop» album, it would have been just mediocre. But it is not — the Ladies' acute desire to release everything they came up with, in two subsequent installments; and their equally acute desire to be judged as Serious Singer-Songwriters rather than monkee enter­tainers intentionally push the plank higher than necessary. And since, the way I see it, nothing makes me hate an album more than «inadequacy of intention», Barenaked Ladies Are Me is a certified thumbs down. One more time in its stubbornly frustrating career, the band simply tries to bite off more than it can chew — or, to be more precise, bites off something that is genetically incompatible with its digestive system.


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Friday, July 26, 2013

Bathory: Hammerheart

BATHORY: HAMMERHEART (1990)

1) Shores In Flames; 2) Valhalla; 3) Baptised In Fire And Ice; 4) Father To Son; 5) Song To Hall Up High; 6) Home Of Once Brave; 7) One Rode To Asa Bay; 8) Outro.

Bathory's one true masterpiece. Yes, it may be a bit hard for those who are not innate fans of the formulaic «epic fantasy» genre to acknowledge this — that a pompous, thoroughly un-ironic, crudely recorded metal album about the forceful conversion of one's Viking ancestors to Chris­tianity could ever deserve being called a masterpiece. It has not been easy for me, either. But I did get over it, eventually, and now am confidently re-stating this: Bathory's Hammerheart is a masterpiece, and probably the one «Viking Metal» album to get if you only plan to get one. Un­less you have vikingophobia or something.

So what is the key to Quorthon's secret here? The key is quite simple — in fact, simple is the key. Where the general trend among power metal and progressive metal bands was to make the music more complex, by adding more and more notes to the riffs, more and more sections to the songs, more and more influences to the styles, etc., Quorthon, having temporarily jettisoned the «evil speed metal» warhorse, has retained the overall idea of keeping his melodic base as simple and repetitive as possible. Had the guy been utterly talentless, this would probably have been the end of him. But as it is, the slowing down reveals his genuine knack for «basic» heavy melodies with a strong emotional undercurrent. Be it the old pagan gods that inspired him for this one, or some other unknown factor, these here riffs work, and work admirably.

Naturally, the album is not «authentic». No matter how bloodthirsty / pure at heart / worthy of adoration / awesome in every way Quorthon's Northern ancestors might have been, they did not entertain each other with heavy distorted riffs and heavy artillery-style drumming. Nor was the process of converting to Christianity always as dramatic and tragic as Quorthon paints it to be in ʽOne Rode To Asa Bayʼ (even if violence was indeed involved in many a particular occasion). But, like most Viking metal, going all the way back to Led Zeppelin's ʽNo Quarterʼ, this is not a case of «history in music» — this is musical mythology, standing with one toe in facts and the rest in inflamed imagination, and the value of Hammerheart is not in educating the listener, but in spreading the inflammation.

ʽShores In Flamesʼ and ʽOne Rode To Asa Bayʼ are the two major epic pieces that open and close the album — the former presenting the «Viking» world at its apogee (a tale of raiding and rava­ging, of course) and the latter at its nadir, with Christianity taking its revenge and burying the old pagan pride and warpower six feet under. ʽShores In Flamesʼ has all the required scenery: sound effects (steady rowing at the beginning, burning embers at the end); eerie build-up (acoustic intro with faraway vocals, gradually unfurling into fire and fury); anthemic sing-along battle march de­livered in tandem with the riff, early Black Sabbath-style; and some of the most bloodthirsty, banshee-wailing soloing ever delivered by mortal man. Special honorable mention goes to the percussion onslaught of «Vvornth» — nothing particularly complex, but the guy was clearly pic­turing himself in the guise of a mighty fur-clad warrior, with each beat falling like a heavy blow from a mighty warhammer. Evocative!

My personal favorite number, however, is ʽBaptised In Fire And Iceʼ — this one wastes no time with no sissy intros, but plunges headfirst into one of the most beastly-brutal riffs in Bathory his­tory... wait, there are at least three different riffs here: the verses are driven by a simplistic, one-chord pattern that might as well have a punkish origin, then the bridge is turned over to one of those «deep sea metal» riffs invented by Toni Iommi, and then the "baptised in fire and ice!" cho­rus is accompanied by something in between the two extremes (and sounding fairly grungy, or alt-rockish, whichever you prefer). Against this background, Quorthon's «singing», now mostly free of growling and throaty screeching, is perfectly credible — the guy may have no range or subtlety, but neither would we expect it of an idealized duty-bound Nordic warrior, whose spirit this guy is channelling so successfully. In fact, it is a good thing that Quorthon does not have a very powerful voice: it adds a bit of realism to the proceedings — otherwise, the whole thing would have taken on a cartoonish, Manowar-style aura, and that would be the end of Hammer­heart as we know it.

Because, indeed, the most amazing thing about the album is that it does not feel «cheesy», not to me, at least. Its subject matter is anything but new, and rather banal in theory; its English lyrics, though surprisingly literate and well-articulated for a Norwegian guy with a fantasy fetish, are still nothing to write home about; its instrumentation is minimalistic, and its music repetitive (ʽOne Rode To Asa Bayʼ is like an endless droning saga, going on and on and on until you are finally forced to believe in its utmost importance through sheer length alone). But, having lost the crazy speed and the aggressive Satanism of his early years, Quorthon still preserves the essence of Bathory — an uncanny ability to substitute the boring «institutional» pathos of power metal for a snappy, snarling, attacking style of delivery, so that even at his most pompous, he is still directly kicking the listener's ass instead of roaring away pointlessly somewhere high up in the sky. The balance between mediocre production, sparse, but loud arrangements, good riffs, and genuine inspiration is pretty much unique here — so much so that, despite the superficial simpli­city of the formula, even Quorthon himself was never again able to capture it quite so well.

It goes without saying that for some of Bathory's veteran fans the stylistic change was a bit too much — those who were won over by the original trilogy could not pardon Quorthon for relea­sing a record so completely devoid of crazyass Satanic thrashing. And for others, Blood Fire Death, with its compromise mix of the old and the new, remains the definitive Bathory album for ages to come. But personally, I hold the opinion that it is only on Hammerheart that the guy achieved his purpose on Earth, and came as close to fully realising his true potential as possible, even if, technically, the album is less diverse than its predecessor — then again, was there ever a time in music history when a heavy metal band could be seriously criticized for lack of diversity? Thumbs up, Viking brothers and sisters. But don't you go burning any Christian churches — for the record, please note that Hammerheart provokes anything of that sort no more than ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ provokes anti-Yankee partisan action.


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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Eyes Of The Universe

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: EYES OF THE UNIVERSE (1979)

1) Love On The Line; 2) Alright Down Get Boogie; 3) The Song (They Love To Sing); 4) Skin Flicks; 5) Sperratus; 6) Rock'n'Roll Lady; 7) Capricorn; 8) Play To The World.

Woolly's departure did not make much of an actual difference — his regular «one track per al­bum» quota (occasionally graciously increased to two) seemed to uninspire him to the point of not really giving a damn, and, with the possible exception of Octoberon, most of his songs re­corded in the «silver age» of BJH were not the major highlights of those albums. His keyboards may certainly be missed, but the new guest player Kevin McAlea, drafted in mid-session when it became clear that Lees and Holroyd were unable to properly compensate without a separate key­boardist, does a fine job both filling in for Woolly's «old-school artsy» style and propelling the band into the electronic age — ʽLove On The Lineʼ opens the record with a gruff synth loop in a Kraftwerk fashion. Would Woolly have wanted that? Would Mahler have wanted that, for that matter? Isn't this transition a bit too straightforward?

Then again, who cares. Eyes Of The Universe sold exceedingly well in continental Europe, fur­thering BJH's reputation in Germany and other neighboring countries, but in retrospect, the only thing that makes it different is a bit of homage to contemporary musical styles. ʽAlright Down Get Boogieʼ, for instance, is a disco-rocker, supposedly tongue-in-cheek, given the unhidden sarcasm in Lees' lyrics — but if you do not consult the lyrics, it is quite easy to take the "lights, boogie, lights, get down boogie alright" chorus of the song for serious, and the more seriously one takes this song, the more stupid it ends up.

ʽLove On The Lineʼ, apart from its electronic loops, also makes room for a disco bassline; and ʽThe Song (They Love To Sing)ʼ is a completely synth-dominated rhythmic ballad that makes ABBA sound like tough hard-rockers in comparison. Sequenced together and placed at the top, these three songs really create a strong impression that Eyes Of The Universe is the beginning of something radically new for Barclay James Harvest — a third period, in which the gates are finally opened for the onslaught of disco, New Wave, synth-pop, electronics, and all kinds of fresh new ideas used in predictably bad ways. As if it were only the presence of Woolly that hin­dered Lees and Holroyd from finalizing the bill of sale.

However, once we are past the opening three, the remainder of the album is much more tradi­ti­onal. ʽSkin Flicksʼ is an acoustic-based, orchestrated, anthemic ballad about how glitz, glamour, and easy money separated the protagonist from his loved one, continuing Lees' ongoing and slightly suspicious fascination with «adult-oriented» themes. ʽSperratusʼ wobbles from tragic introspective ballad to agitated pop-rock chorus and back, before launching into a spirited, but somewhat cartoonish guitar duo battle à la Thin Lizzy. ʽRock'n'Roll Ladyʼ is one of those many late-Seventies songs that have a subversive mention of "rock'n'roll" in the title, but are really targeted at nightclub audiences, with their stiff, glitzy, dancebeat-oriented atmosphere. And the last two songs are traditionally «wall-of-soundish», but completely non-descript — ʽPlay To The Worldʼ, in particular, might be the most boring, uninventive, one-finger-on-a-piano epic ballad  that ever served as a coda to a BJH album.

I suppose that it must have been the double-punch of the silly disco send-up and the achingly boring seven minute epic at the end that made me, at one time, think of Eyes Of The Universe as one of the worst efforts from an «art» band in the 1970s, and rate it as 1 star out of 5. In all fair­ness, it is not that bad — with a few exceptions, BJH do not have to sacrifice much of their usual melodic talent to keep up with the times. At the very least, it is about as consistent as XII, and should be rated modestly high by everyone who generally favors the «poor man's Moody Blues» vibe. Still, for old times' sake, I award it a thumbs down, if only because I still cannot stand ʽPlay To The Worldʼ and everything it represents — pretentious sentimental pomp without any genuine dynamics whatsoever. Leave it to the mighty state of Germany to disagree — they are all wusses anyway. Imagine making a national hero of Les Holroyd instead of Lou Reed.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blodwyn Pig: Ahead Rings Out

BLODWYN PIG: AHEAD RINGS OUT (1969)

1) It's Only Love; 2) Dear Jill; 3) Sing Me A Song That I Know; 4) The Modern Alchemist; 5) Up And Coming; 6) Leave It With Me; 7) The Change Song; 8) Backwash; 9) Ain't Ya Comin' Home, Babe?; 10*) Sweet Caroline; 11*) Walk On The Water; 12*) Summer Day; 13*) Same Old Story; 14*) Slow Down; 15*) Meanie Mornay; 16*) Backwash.

What in the hell is a «Blodwyn Pig», anyway? Surely a band that chooses to call itself thusly can hold no high hopes for the future — offending vegans, Muslims, and people with Celtic heritage at the same time. But none of that seemed to bother guitar player Mick Abrahams, when, after having quarrelled with Ian Anderson over the planned career trajectory for Jethro Tull, he quit that band in order to become undisputed master of his own domain. In the process, he enlisted the temporary loyalty of his own flautist (and also saxophonist) Jack Lancaster, bassist Andy Pyle (later known for a brief stint with the Kinks in 1976-78), and drummer Ron Berg. And a trendy, shades-wearing, nonchalant-looking pig mascot to boot.

Ahead Rings Out, the band's debut album, came out in August 1969, at almost the exact same time as Jethro Tull's Stand Up — and although it is sometimes fondly mentioned by rock histo­riographers as a neglected classic (okay, minor neglected classic), there is clearly no comparison between the two: where Ian Anderson was using old school blues-rock as merely a foundation for something excitingly new and dizzy, Mick Abrahams simply stuck to doing old school blues-rock, period. Well, not merely blues-rock, okay. Jack Lancaster provides a strong jazz flavor, there is an acoustic folk ballad or two, so it would be more fair to speak of «roots-rock» in general, with­out any serious experimental or «progressive» sides to it. However, even conservative roots-rock can be done blisteringly well if one has the proper talent — and, unfortunately, Mick Abrahams is no Ian Anderson when it comes to stringing notes together.

Do not expect a Beatles cover with the opening ʽIt's Only Loveʼ — that would have been a much more stunning move than giving this title to a loud, fast-moving, moderately energetic boogie blues number that never amounts to anything more than a boogie blues number. Mick Abrahams is a competent vocalist and guitar player, but his burly Bedfordshire voice pales next to Noddy Holder's (this sort of material does, indeed, work best in the hands of drunken hooligans such as Slade), and his Clapton-influenced guitar playing style offers little that Clapton himself — or, for that matter, Martin Barre, Mick's replacement in Jethro Tull ­— could not have offered.

In fact, the chief asset of Blodwyn Pig was not even Abrahams, either as songwriter, singer, or lead guitarist, but the woodwinder Jack Lancaster. It is his merry double-tracked sax-solo on ʽIt's Only Loveʼ that turns the performance into a spirited one, and it is his sax and flute improvised pieces on most of the other tracks that give the album a little bit of personality: at least, as far as our being able to call it «a decent sequel to Jethro Tull's This Was» — the jazzy instrumental ʽLeave It With Meʼ has a flute theme and a crazyass flute solo that could, indeed, very easily be mistaken for a little bit of early Ian Anderson creativity.

The best song on the album is probably ʽSing Me A Song That I Knowʼ, with a well-constructed wall-of-sound (very loud bass + double-tracked sax = decibel heaven!) that cleverly disguises the song's true «pastoral minstrel ditty» nature, coming out clearer in the accappella bits of the chorus. Abrahams himself was more fond of ʽDear Jillʼ, an acoustic country blues number that sounds like a poor man's Beggar's Banquet outtake, briefly lifted out of the mire with a sunset-mood Lancaster soprano sax solo, but quite plain otherwise. And you know something goes wrong when the whackiest moment in a song is a thirty-seconds spoken intro, delivered in such a thick, exaggerated Cockney accent that you cannot understand a single word (ʽThe Change Songʼ), even if you are sort of supposed to dig the song's guitar-and-fiddle vibe itself.

Personally, I think that Ahead Rings Out truly «rings out» in its «thickest» bits, when all the musicians are engaged in creating a meaty, beaty jam monster — on such tracks as ʽThe Modern Alchemistʼ and ʽAin't Ya Comin' Homeʼ. On the former, they eventually hit the cool jazz spot, with Abrahams stepping away from second-rate Claptonisms and getting bolder and riskier in a (quasi-)Django Reinhardt-like mood; and on the latter, they get really dense and heavy, like a slightly more disciplined Blue Cheer, which goes real fine on the ears, if not necessarily so on the memory storage cells.

So I probably will not be exaggerating much if I state that the most memorable thing about the record is its front sleeve — an inspiration, no doubt, for Black Sabbath's ʽWar Pigsʼ? — but also that the album is a must-have for all serious fans of ballsy roots-rock in all of its incarnations. Because the band did have balls a-plenty. They did not write interesting melodies, they did not have any great musicians, but at least they weren't treating the roots idiom in any «reverential» fashion. Too bad they didn't manage to get too drunk at these sessions.


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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Blues Project: Blues Project

THE BLUES PROJECT: BLUES PROJECT (1972)

1) Back Door Man; 2) Danville Dame; 3) Railroad Boy; 4) Rainbow; 5) Easy Lady; 6) Plain And Fancy; 7) Little Rain; 8) Crazy Girl; 9) I'm Ready.

Little of what applied to Lazarus would not equally well apply to Blues Project, the reunited band's foolishly arrogant attempt at «re-booting» with a self-titled album. The major change is that the original vocalist Tommy Flanders is back for this particular show — not a big deal at all, since we now know that Danny Kalb's vocal powers do not lag far behind Tommy's. In fact, Flanders makes an immediate false start — this version of ʽBack Door Manʼ is one of the worst I have ever heard, in terms of lead singing: most of the time, Tommy alternates between «sloppy drunk» and «whiny schoolboy». No self-respecting lady would ever let this guy through her back door, if you know what I mean.

The sad thing is that Kretmar and Kalb have now managed to keep up a heavy groove, at least on the level of, say, soon-to-come Bad Company — the guitar / bass dialog on ʽI'm Readyʼ is grim and snappy enough to attract some interest. Then in come these ridiculous schoolboy vocals, once again, and the groove goes to hell: the Blues Project were incapable of properly covering Muddy and Wolf in the early days, and there is no reason why they should have gained that capacity in their twilight years. And then, when they do a regular, less criminal-minded, ultra-slow 12-bar blues (Jimmy Reed's ʽLittle Rainʼ), with «nice» vocals and «clean» sound, you start thinking that, perhaps, Jimi Hendrix did sacrifice himself for nought after all. Entertaining people at a late-night diner with this kind of stuff is boring enough, but actually book studio time for that? Waste the world's vinyl resources? Forget it.

There is one good original song on this album: Danny Kalb's ʽCrazy Girlʼ, a darkly romantic «jazz-folk» concoction that has much in its favour — a quirky «trilly» rhythm pattern for starters, catchy psycho-jazz guitar leads, and a slightly paranoid atmosphere that matches the title so well. Had they focused on exploring this jazzy route with its melodic twist further, instead of stubborn­ly sticking to limited formulae of the past that they could never properly sink their teeth in to be­gin with, there might be a real reason for this reunion.

On the other hand, original material contributed by Flanders is hardly much stronger than their blues cover material — he is now favouring anthemic soul balladry, to which his voice is indeed suited much better than to Chicago blues, but ʽPlain And Fancyʼ is rather plain than fancy, and ʽRainbowʼ, despite adding some lively sunny funk notes to the picture, does not have enough energy to turn its optimism into something infectious. So it makes no sense, either, to try and overrate the band's songwriting abilities.

The final verdict is pretty much the same as for Lazarus — a few real awful performances, a few minor highlights, but most of the time, simply run-of-the-mill early-1970s blues rock with no «hall-of-fame» ambitions whatsoever; unless you are a certified enthusiast of the style, just join me in my thumbs down and let us get a move on.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Bobby Bland: Memphis Monday Morning

BOBBY BLAND: MEMPHIS MONDAY MORNING (1998)

1) I'm Bobby B; 2) I Don't Want No Kickin' In My Stall; 3) There's A Rat Loose In My House; 4) The Truth Will Set You Free; 5) Memphis Monday Morning; 6) I'm Glad; 7) My Baby Is The Only One; 8) I Hate Missin' You; 9) You Left Me With The Blues; 10) Lookin' For Some Tush.

Very little unpredictable stuff here, either. The punch is in Bobby's age — he cut this at the age of 69, and he still snorts it out the same way he did thirty years ago. In fact, at this point he even allows himself a bit of straightforward swagger, opening the album with the uptempo cut ʽI'm Bobby Bʼ, written and performed in the been-there-done-that-licked-'em-all manner that is so ty­pical of old school R&B artists, but, let us admit that honestly, had rarely, if ever, appeared pre­viously on a Bobby B record. So if, at 69, he finally yields to the temptation of calling himself the greatest, let him. Anybody who does not turn to liquid shit at that age deserves a little self-flattery, and Memphis Monday Morning has the man going as strong as ever.

The songs do tend to drag — particularly the title track, creeping at a snail's pace for almost nine minutes, not to mention that its late evening vibe, lounge piano and sunset trumpet romanticism included, does not particularly well agree with the word «morning» in the title. Some of the gene­ric blues-de-luxe numbers, like ʽThere's A Rat Loose In My Houseʼ, also go on for absurdly long time periods, although it could be said that Bobby's band, after all these years, simply gels toge­ther so well that it makes them reluctant to stop.

But on the positive side, the whole album has but one blues ballad (ʽTruth Will Set You Freeʼ), and it is a good one, with sparse, but clever brass arrangements and an atmosphere that seems totally lifted off from some early Solomon Burke torch song. In fact, if possible, the entirety of Memphis Monday Morning sounds more retro and oblivious to «modern blues standards» than any previously released Malaco recording — which is great news for Bobby, even if it does sur­mise surreptitiously rewriting old classics: ʽMy Baby Is The Only Oneʼ, for instance, lifts its main vocal / instrumental melody directly from Sam Cooke's ʽTwistin' The Night Awayʼ. But there is no way we could use this a pretext for incrimination: at this point, Bobby B. has nothing left to prove, nor do his resident songwriters.

That said, the last two tracks of the album seem like last-minute additions that do try to prove something new. ʽYou Left Me With The Bluesʼ switches the mood from «old school R&B» to «new school R&B», with programmed beats, looped funky leads, synthesizers (which were pre­viously dormant), and even a few forced «ughs!» from the man. It isn't nauseatingly bad, but it does spoil the overall feeling a bit. But the real surprise is the short and surprisingly kick-ass (hard rock riffage and all) cover of ZZ Top's ʽTushʼ — a style that Bobby B. had never before approached in his whole life, and for a 69-year old guy, he tackles it with more gusto than could be expected. So why didn't this guy try on some authentic rock'n'roll shoes decades ago? Or, at the very least, offered his services as lead vocalist for Grand Funk Railroad?..


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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Alcest: Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde

ALCEST: SOUVENIRS D'UN AUTRE MONDE (2007)

1) Printemps Emeraude; 2) Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde; 3) Les Iris; 4) Ciel Errant; 5) Sur L'Autre Rive Je T'At­ten­drai; 6) Tir Nan Og.

From an «everyday basis» point of view, the only shoegazing band the regular Joe really needs to hear, if only to understand what all the fuss is really about, is probably My Bloody Valentine. But even the most limited formula in the world can always opt for some freshness and individuality if you succeed in coming up with the right extra ingredients. And particularly in the 21st century, where we constantly suffer from lack of freshness, this odd need for «synthesizing the unsynthe­sizable» has revived pretty much every musical genre and sub-direction ever thought of by man, woman, quadrupede, or mineral — shoegazing included.

«Alcest», essentially a one-man project by French musician Stéphane Paut, better known un­der the code name «Neige» («Snow»), has its roots neither in pop nor in psychedelia, but in black metal: Neige's pedigree begins with Peste Noire, a leading French black metal outfit heavily in­fluenced by the likes of Cannibal Corpse — their discography includes such telling titles as Aryan Supremacy (an early demo where Neige was still playing drums rather than guitar) and Folkfuck Folie, among other things. If this worries you, do not be worried as far as Alcest is concerned: Neige has gone on record stating that, for him, his career in Peste Noire merely satis­fied an «urge of animal and primitive regression», and we all have our demons to exorcise.

Neige's black metal history does somehow influence his shaping of Alcest — no wonder this style of music is sometimes called «blackgazing» — but there is nothing particularly ugly, vile, racist, or shock-oriented about that influence. The blackness, created by the distortion and feed­back of the rhythm guitar, is only there to provide an important counterpoint for the «shoegazing» lead parts, which, on their part, are always set up in «melancholic beauty» mode. The sound is therefore reminiscent, at the same time, of such contemporaries as And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (although those guys are far more noisy and «rock»-oriented) and Agalloch (although those guys always hunt for a doom-laden effect, which is not the purpose of Alcest).

But Neige has one more card up his sleeve — the vocal parts, usually handled by himself, but occa­sionally by Audrey Silvain, his partner in his third project, Amesoeurs. And this is where the Frenchness comes through: strip away the thick distorted guitars, replace the shoegazing drone with some light jazz muzak, and you will have yourself a sentimental / melancholic / atmospheric French intelli-pop record circa the mid-Seventies or so. The effect that this particular synthesis has on the feelings may not, in fact, probably will not be immediate, but eventually, it does let itself be known — the triple combination of «earthiness» (black distorted fire), «transcendence» (shoegazing trills and drones), and «lonesome beauty» (distant, echoey vocal parts that always seem to be coming from somewhere under the ground) makes for some tasty escapism.

Alcest's stated musical philosophy is that he does not create, but re-creates the sonic and visual images of a Fairy Land that he claims to have come in contact with in his childhood (and I do not necessarily disbelieve him — it all depends on what exact kinds of fairy tales he might have read instead of doing his sums and playing football in the yard). Naturally, the musical invention of ano­ther world is not his personal know-how — from Sgt. Pepper to Amon Düül II to Cocteau Twins and whoever else, people in pop music have been doing that ever since pop music became an art. But Neige makes an explicit point of it: the album title is literally translated from French as Memories Of Another World, and, if anything, it lets you know that this is not just some sort of unpredictable experiment, but that the man really knows what it is that he is doing.

That world of his is not particularly diverse. The music may get softer or louder, switch from acoustic to electric and back, shift between male and female vocals, or even show some mild Cel­tic influence in ʽTir Nan Ogʼ, but the mood on all the six tracks is essentially the same. The lead parts conjure sadness, the vocals conjure elfishness, and the rhythm compensates for the elfish­ness with earthy heaviness (although, contrary to some reviews, there is nothing truly dark, sinis­ter, or threatening about any of these compositions). I do, however, wish that there were more of those pretty acoustic folksy interludes — the patterns that Neige plays are anything but complex, but each of these repetitive acoustic tapestries that he weaves is generally more memorable than the metal/shoegaze duets, which can get way too samey even with lowered expectations.

The repetitiveness itself is not a problem, though: the title track states that "d'où je viens le temps n'existe pas, les secondes deviennent des heures" ("where I come from time does not exist, se­conds become hours"), and the whole point of the album, indeed, is to make you lose track of the time — including subtle variations on previously played themes that make you wonder if you have not accidentally pressed the rewind button. The key thing here is that if, for you, at least fifteen or twenty seconds of this album work fine, the whole album will work fine, since its pri­mary purpose is to put you in a specific trance-like frame of mind. If you are well experienced, however, in the art of shoegazing, the trick may not work, and then you will probably be able to take no more than the aforementioned twenty seconds of it, in toto.

Of course, even being fond of Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde does not equal finding it a truly «magic» experience: Neige, to me, is less of a genius than a master craftsman, painstakingly learning his trade so as to be able to express his childhood dreams, much like a master pilot is diligently working on perfecting his skills so as to be able to do that fabulous loop he imagined himself doing when he was six years old. But as a first significant attempt at catching that dream, it is highly impressive — especially if you keep in mind that this is a one-man band project, with Neige himself responsible for most of the overdubs. Therefore, a certified thumbs up here, even if I cannot claim to have ever been to the same place as Neige in my own childhood. (For that matter, I'm more of an ʽI Am The Walrusʼ type of guy, myself...)


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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Barenaked For The Holidays

BARENAKED LADIES: BARENAKED FOR THE HOLIDAYS (2004)

1) Jingle Bells; 2) Green Christmas; 3) I Saw Three Ships; 4) Hanukkah Blessings; 5) O Holy Night; 6) Elf's Lament; 7) Snowman; 8) Do They Know It's Christmas; 9) Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah; 10) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 11) Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer; 12) Carol Of The Bells; 13) Footprints; 14) Deck The Stills; 15) Christmastime (Oh Yeah); 16) Sleigh Ride; 17) Christmas Pics; 18) I Have A Little Dreidel; 19) Wonderful Christmastime; 20) Auld Lang Syne.

I reserve the usual right to keep reviews of Christmas albums as short as possible, but the farther we get on with this practice, the more this traditional Christmas album format tends to be subjec­ted to various alchemic practices and postmodern deconstructions — and despite all their at­tempts at being judged as a «normal» band, it would never make sense for the Barenaked Ladies to release a «normal» Christmas album. So this one has a few points of interest that might be worth listing for those who think that the «Christmas album» is just a kind of discography var­mint, to be exterminated or at least boycotted wherever possible.

First, about a third of these songs are original compositions — ranging from fluffy ditties about having to celebrate Christmas in the wrong part of the world (ʽGreen Christmasʼ, the Ladies' con­scious addition to the stock of ʽWhite Christmasesʼ and ʽBlue Christmasesʼ) to Page's merry Brit-pop celebration of his Jewish heritage (ʽHanukkah Blessingsʼ) to some really weird stuff (ʽElf's Lamentʼ — lyrically, I mean) to another heartfelt ballad from Kevin Hearn (ʽChristmastimeʼ, with nary a hint at any irony behind the sentimentalism). Naturally, the restrictiveness of the topic is an obstacle to any of these songs being masterpieces, but there is plenty of original songwriting, enough for all the regular fans to sit up and take notice.

Second, the choice of covers is certainly not all that predictable. There is not a lot of traditional Christmas chestnuts, and those that they do feel obliged to include are usually turned on their heads: ʽJingle Bellsʼ, for instance, consists of a hyper-slow «introspective» part and an absurdly sped-up «village idiot» section. Themes for ʽO Holy Nightʼ and ʽRudolphʼ are given over to organs and drum machines, stripped of vocals and made to run exactly one minute each. And ʽCarol Of The Bellsʼ features a spooky electronic chimes arrangement that could just as well be suited for the needs of Walpurgis Night, if necessary.

In addition, there are also takes on more recent Christmasy material — for instance, yet another one-minute instrumental electronic deconstruction deals with Paul McCartney's ʽWonderful Christmastimeʼ (serves it well, since it is arguably one of the worst songs the man has ever writ­ten), and then they run through a superficially-passionate take on Bob Geldof's Live AID monster, ʽDo They Know It's Christmas?ʼ — actually, the song sounds much better without all the Band Aid pathos of the original. Well, seems natural: if we are going to continue the lovely tradition of releasing Christmas albums long after the whole world has converted to Islam, atheism, or pasta­farianism, it does make sense to update the classic repertoire of ʽI'll Be Home For Christmasʼ, ʽHave Yourself A Merry Little Christmasʼ, etc., from time to time, even if we have to do it with bad McCartney tunes and Live Aid anthems.

In order to further commemorate their own legacy and assure the fans of Judaeic faith equal rights and privileges, the Ladies also quickly run through several jiggly Hanukkah tunes (ʽI Have A Little Dreidelʼ is worth getting to know if you never had any earlier pretext to get to know it — as a cultural bonus, you get to learn what a dreidel is), and, along the way, martyrize ʽDeck The Hallsʼ as ʽDeck The Stillsʼ by chanting ʽCrosby Stills Nash & Young!ʼ instead of the original words (it's funny for the first time, and then I just skip the track on subsequent listens).

The whole ravage ends with a straightface, no-bull finale of ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ, left holy and in­tact either because they have no courage to desecrate this one, or because something had to be left intact just for the sake of adding more colors to the record. Well, it's... ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ, it's hard to spoil it anyway. In short, this is a curious, often bizarre twist on yer average Christmas album, which is sort of what we'd expect in general from the Ladies. Whether it helps or not to add a special twist on your actual Christmas (or Hanukkah, for that matter) is up to you to decide — personally, I have never once in my life wilfully listened to a «Christmas album» on an actual Christmas or New Year, so I have no opinion on this situation.

For the record, it must be added that Page would later pretty much disown the record; that not a single track here was recorded by the band naked in the studio; and that ʽGreen Christmasʼ was originally recorded way back in 2000 for Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a movie starring Jim Carrey who also sang ʽYou're A Mean One, Mr. Grinchʼ, a song covered by many artists including Aimee Mann, who put it on her own Christmas album that would be recorded two years after Barenaked After The Holidays and would be a better album because Aimee Mann is (in my humble opinion) a better artist. See, that's why I hate trivia — when they're all piled up and disconnected, they look dumb, but once you try to chain them together, you find out that it's almost impossible to stop.


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Friday, July 19, 2013

Bathory: Blood Fire Death

BATHORY: BLOOD FIRE DEATH (1988)

1) Odens Ride Over Nordland; 2) A Fine Day To Die; 3) The Golden Walls Of Heaven; 4) Pace 'Til Death; 5) Holo­caust; 6) For All Those Who Died; 7) Dies Irae; 8) Blood Fire Death.

According to false rumors, the original title was to be Wine, Women, And Loud Happy Songs, but this was ultimately deemed way too scary for Bathory's target audience, so they settled on the far more cozy and conventional Blood Fire Death instead. After all, it was just another quiet, uneventful, peaceful, friendly, sunny day in the Bathory neighborhood when Quorthon and his trusty companions with easily pronounceable names, Vvornth on drums and Kothaar on bass, set out to record what some would later call «the first true example of Viking metal».

Actually, this is a prime example of a «transition» album: predating the full turnaround of Ham­merheart, Bathory's fourth record introduces multiple new elements — epic intros, slower tem­pos, acoustic guitars, occasionally «clean» vocals — but still largely rests upon the same old vicious, «sincerely evil» thrashing style. The ideological change from «Black Metal» to «Viking Metal» does begin here, though. Maturation takes on specific forms in specific people, and for Quorthon, it meant moving away from Satanic posturing (which, no matter how sincerely he tried to get into it, still retained the status of posturing... fortunately for him and for us all) and, pre­dictably enough, embracing his mythical Scandinavian heritage.

So, instead of yet another concept album about the next coming of the Antichrist, we are now invited to look back into the past rather than the future, with a concept album about... on second thought, the most «Viking» thing about the album is the title of the opening ambient instrumental: ʽOden's Ride Over Nordlandʼ (I do presume Quorthon, whose spelling skills are not clear enough to me, means Odin, and not a Japanese winter dish consisting of several ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon radish, konnyaku, and processed fish cakes stewed in a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth) is little more than some medieval choral harmonies mixed with very distant thunder and not so very distant vigorous horse neighing. But it does set up a better atmosphere than any other previous Bathory intro.

Then, ʽA Fine Day To Dieʼ starts out with a dark acoustic pattern — already an acknowledged instrument for «artsy» metal bands, but feeling almost like a sellout signal for Quorthon, who had never before stooped to anything softer than a viciously distorted, blacker-'n'-night guitar tone. But unlike many other metal epics, this one makes a genuine point with its acoustic intro: setting a deceptive "orgy of silence, conspiracy of peace" tone for the coming onslaught. The acoustic guitars and church harmonies will be returning later, but the bulk of the song is given over to carefully thought out and terrifiedly played «martial» black metal riffs (with a strong Metallica influence, I suspect, but it is not likely that Quorthon's proud Scandinavian nature would ever let him admit being influenced by a bunch of Californian sissies).

Barring the intro, the record is bookmarked by two epic length songs: ʽA Fine Day To Dieʼ has enough potential for eight and a half minutes, while the title track, which essentially picks up where the other one left off, clocks in at 10:29. Actually, it is not quite true that they have enough potential: each one is dominated by one riff only, and there is not enough dynamic rising and falling, particularly with Bathory's limited instrumentarium, to rise above the «mesmerism for headbangers» level. But it is also true that each of the riffs is great to headbang to, and Quorthon is also improving as a lead player — his solos are now becoming highly melodic without having to depen­d on any Van Halenesque displays of technicality.

On the other hand, Blood Fire Death is not at all free from «old-school» speedy thrash blasts: ʽGolden Walls Of Heavenʼ and pretty much everything else in between the two epics are taken at same old breakneck tempos (although some of the songs, like ʽDies Iraeʼ, consist of alternating fast and slow sections), and, considering how much the production has improved here — in fact, Blood Fire Death marks Bathory's assured transition from lo-fi to hi-fi — these songs are pro­bably your best bet if you want to hear classic Bathory speed/thrash metal in decent sound quality. Whether these tracks are good examples of thrash songwriting is another matter — as far as my ears are concerned, they are all interchangeable, with the exception of the slightly slower and even dumber-sounding ʽFor All Those Who Diedʼ (this track also has the unfortunate distinction of trying to make a «hook» of Quorthon's accappella laryngeal screaming in the chorus — not a good idea if one is aiming at a genuinely shivery atmosphere).

Moreover, even the lyrics for those «thrashers», many of which are written in the old «Satanist» manner, show that the crossover might actually have begun not prior to, but during the sessions for the album — with the two «battlefield epics», presaging the sonic scapes of Hammerheart, framing the traditionally-oriented material simply because Quorthon was just testing the waters, and still had a bunch of old unused stuff lying around. As it is, Blood Fire Death is either a good choice for a Bathory beginner — getting to know Quorthon as «Satan's sidekick» and «Epic war­rior» at the same time — or an obligatory choice for a Bathory completist, but for those people (like myself), who can really only appreciate a band like Bathory when it is at its very, very best and «quintessential», Blood Fire Death may seem like a historically important, but artistically clumsy com­promise. So, no thumbs up here, but a significant promise that will be honestly capi­talized upon in the next installment.


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