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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Black Crowes: Before The Frost... Until The Freeze

THE BLACK CROWES: BEFORE THE FROST... UNTIL THE FREEZE (2009)

CD I: 1) Good Morning Captain; 2) Been A Long Time; 3) Appaloosa; 4) A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound; 5) I Ain't Hiding; 6) Kept My Soul; 7) What Is Home; 8) Houston Don't Dream About Me; 9) Make Glad; 10) And The Band Played On; 11) Last Place That Love Lives;
CD II: 1) Aimless Peacock; 2) Shady Grove; 3) Garden Gate; 4) Greenhorn; 5) Shine Along; 6) Roll Old Jeremiah; 7) Lady Of Avenue A; 8) So Many Times; 9) Fork In The River.

This is where the band's «maturity» starts overflowing, as they grow themselves more roots than a five hundred year old oak tree, and you can almost smell the overpowering scent of freshly turned earth and steaming piles of dung on the ground. These twenty new songs weren't just put down anyway, anyhow, anywhere — all of them were recorded honest-to-goodness live before a small, but attentively respectful audience at «The Barn», Levon Helm's personal studio in Wood­stock, NY, the next best thing to The Basement, I guess.

Supposedly the band wrote so many new songs for this happy event that they were afraid to let go of all of them at once — the original album, Before The Frost, only contained the first 11, while the remaining 9 were made available separately as Until The Freeze, a free download from the band's website provided you bought the CD and had your personal access code. They could actually count as two different albums for stylistic reasons — the former is rowdier and more elec­tric, the second one is a little hillbillier and more acoustic — but they do form a conceptual unity, after all, so it probably makes more sense to discuss the whole package in one go.

Which is a bit intimidating — so many songs, for one thing, and for another, the album is a tougher nut to crack than Warpaint. Warpaint was just derivative boring. Before The Frost, on first sight, goes in the same direction — simply with more sprawl, spreading those proverbial roots across a larger chunk of territory. The principal criticism stays the same: the band may have mastered very well the standard lingo of «roots-rock», but whether they have added to that lingo, let alone started their own dialect of it, is quite debatable. However, on their respective individual levels the songs seem a little stronger, and, more importantly, less predictable.

What I mean is, we'd never dream of being pleasantly surprised by a disco song on any «classic» Crowes album — but a sudden encounter with ʽI Ain't Hidingʼ, with its sci-fi keyboards, funky guitars, and hopping bass, here turns out to be a revelation: a damn clever synthesis of blues-rock with old-fashioned disco, not to mention the daring nature of the move in general — accept disco as an integral, if peripheral, part of «Americana». Another surprising and effective attempt at synthesis comes near the end of the first album, as ʽAnd The Band Played Onʼ effortlessly veers between Britpoppy music hall ("let's all gather round the grand piano...") and slide-based country-blues, as the Robinsons celebrate a «homecoming» — well, I suppose the entire album is really just one big celebration.

Big, bombastic rock and roll makes a welcome return on ʽBeen A Long Timeʼ, with those thick, juicy riffs we hadn't heard in a long time, and with a long coda that gives all the soloists plenty of opportunities to stretch out and flex those playing muscles — the bad news is, that's just one track out of twenty, and on the whole, there is no indication whatsoever that The Crowes are still willing to rock out on a consistent basis. A couple others, like ʽGood Morning Captainʼ and ʽMake Gladʼ, are loud enough, but are either too slow or too shapeless to count as legitimate «rockers» — in fact, ʽCaptainʼ is more like a very conscious attempt to suck up to Levon Helm and write a bona fide Band imitation. I could easily picture the late Levon singing it himself, but the question is, would he want to? The melody is nowhere near the average level of Robbie Robertson's songwriting, and Chris Robinson is a very «bland» singer compared to Levon in his prime, even if it is not his fault that nature endowed him with such a dull singing tone.

Surprisingly, I must say that on the whole, I think that I got hit a little harder by the «hillbilly» part of the album — Until The Freeze has a higher percentage of memorable and emotional songs, such as ʽRoll On Jeremiahʼ (friendly-sad country-western travelog with a beautiful duet between piano and slide guitar), ʽLady Of Avenue Aʼ (a nod to James Taylor-era folk-pop with a convincing bitterness to Chris' delivery, even if some of the chords bring on unnecessary associ­ations with ʽDisney Girlsʼ), and, most importantly, ʽAimless Peacockʼ — another of these crazy syntheses, sort of a psychedelic country romp, with harmonica and fiddle on one side and sitar and Eastern vocal harmonies on the other, as the band spends almost seven minutes in a cloudy haze. No discernible melody to speak of, but a distinctly unusual sound combination that works, particularly if you are in a hazy mood yourself and want to align yourself better with the world around you. Experimentation has never hurt the Crowes, no really.

Yet at the same time, I cannot join in the happy chorus of people who not only think that this is a big improvement over Warpaint, but even that it is a downright late-period masterpiece, and opens up a whole new world before the band and their fans. For every good song and for every interesting idea here, there are at least two mediocre bores, completely devoid of original ideas. But then again, how could it be any different? Rock bands are not supposed to reach enlighten­ment and release their hitherto hidden genius after twenty years of existence. I wouldn't altoge­ther discount the possibility of a miracle, but there ain't no miracle here — just a big pile of diligently performed homework, and a few technical inventions to alleviate the charges.

I am almost tempted to give the album a thumbs up for its sheer scope, out of respect for all the good work, but only its second part really gives a bit of a taste of the «salt of the earth», and why should I be recommending a record that I do not properly enjoy, nor am I finding any serious intrigue in it? As far as contemporary roots-rock goes, I suppose you won't find many records better than Before The Frost — but then again, you probably won't find many contemporary good roots-rock records, period, what with 21st century people either not giving a damn about «roots» in the first place or not being able to find a proper way to access them, so that ain't much of an argument. And as far as the songs on here being, well, just good songs — take a good listen to Wilco's Being There instead. Now that was an album of good songs, period, cutting deep and hard. The Crowes here merely brush across the surface. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Blind Guardian: Follow The Blind

BLIND GUARDIAN: FOLLOW THE BLIND (1989)

1) Inquisition; 2) Banish From Sanctuary; 3) Damned For All Time; 4) Follow The Blind; 5) Hall Of The Ring; 6) Fast To Madness; 7) Beyond The Ice; 8) Valhalla; 9) Don't Break The Circle*; 10) Barbara Ann.

Not exactly a «sophomore slump» here — more like a temporary turn in a questionable direction. Like its predecessor, Follow The Blind is bona fide «speed metal», but distinctly less melodic than Battalions Of Fear: consistently wilder tempos, not as many catchy choruses, and, saddest of all, downgrading of Olbrich's guitar playing to rather generic shredding on most of the tracks. Apparently, the band members had developed a temporary fetish for thrash metal, and this is reflected in the extra aggression at the cost of melodicity.

In situations like these, it is often the case that the first couple of tracks will look like the best ones on the album, and the rest will simply bore the listener to death, regardless of the composi­tional particularities of the songs. Indeed, ʽBanish From Sanctuaryʼ is so emblematic of the entire record that you are not missing much of anything if you limit your listening experience to this one song. Faster than ʽMajestyʼ, two guitars rattling away at machine-gun speed, Herr Stauch pounding away on his cylinders with robotic precision, and, amazingly, a vocalist that can actually sing at this insane tempo rather than just growl. Great, marvelously precise sound — problem is, apart from perhaps the vocal melody of the chorus, I can hardly tell it apart from ʽDamned For All Timeʼ or, in fact, the absolute majority of the songs that follow.

The epic-length title track, with its acoustic intro and outro, presence of slower sections, complex structure and a slightly more interesting set of solos than usual, is the album's central point of focus, but with its lack of truly piercing riffage, seems more like a tentative Metallica imitation than an attempt to find and/or preserve their own face. Metallica influence may also be reflected in the name of the album's major instrumental composition (ʽBeyond The Iceʼ, bringing to mind ʽTrapped Under Iceʼ), but on the whole, it just sounds like one more excuse to perform some exer­cises in casual shredding.

Other than ʽBanished From Sanctuaryʼ, the only song here to have lingered on in the band's set­list was ʽValhallaʼ, either because you simply don't lose a song title like that, or because it's got the most seductively sing-along-ish chorus on the entire album: "VALHALLA! Deliverance, why've you ever forgotten me?", repeat ad infinitum until Thor and Odin are finally forced to expedite a return letter with some legal explanation of why they have ever forgotten you. There's also a special bridge section with Kai Hansen, of Helloween and Gamma Ray fame, contributing guest vocals that culminate with his famous high-pitched screeching at the end (but I must say I far prefer Kürsch's «roaring» approach on the live versions instead). It's a decent track, but hardly all that different from ʽHall Of The Ringʼ or ʽFast To Madnessʼ, in terms of composition or energy. Maybe it's a little more Blind Guardian-esque than the oh so Iron Maiden-esque ʽMadnessʼ or the oh so Slayer-esque ʽHall Of The Ringʼ, but who could really tell?

Perhaps the true spark of greatness that is placed in this record is the completely unpredictable finale — a minute-and-a-half-long rendition of ʽBarbara Annʼ with a bit of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ thrown in, on which the band's producer Kalle Trapp sings lead vocals and plays guitar. This is just a musical joke, but arguably an indispensable one after fourty minutes of incessant, mono­tonous thrashing. In fact, I sure wish there'd have been more of them — a minute-long interlude of good old surf-rock or rockabilly done heavy metal style in between all the jackhammering might have worked wonders on the senses. As it is, the lack of diversity, multiplied by this deci­sive «speed over melody» approach, will certainly limit the audience of Follow The Blind to the hardcore public. I remain fully impressed by the band's technical ability to pull it all off without a hitch, but, in the light of their future successes, this one seems to belong to their «diligently earning their credentials / raising their qualification» phase — a stop-gap effort, in other words, never really going any place special. 

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. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Black Sabbath: Cross Purposes Live

BLACK SABBATH: CROSS PURPOSES LIVE (1995)

1) Time Machine; 2) Children Of The Grave; 3) I Witness; 4) Into The Void; 5) Black Sabbath; 6) Neon Knights; 7) Psychophobia; 8) The Wizard; 9) Cross Of Thorns; 10) Heaven In Black; 11) Symptom Of The Universe; 12) Head­less Cross; 13) Paranoid; 14) Iron Man; 15) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

A live album of a 25-year old Black Sabbath with Tony Martin as lead vocalist was exactly what was needed in 1995 to restore the band's reputation, I guess. At least Live Evil (a) had the novelty of being the first officially sanctioned B.S. live record, (b) had Dio on it, adapting the old Ozzy classics to his own style, (c) coincided with a creative revival for the band, whether the fans were willing to admit it or not. Cross Purposes Live has none of these advantages — in fact, it doesn't even have its own frickin' title (although that was probably due to the fact that the concert was first and foremost released as a video, with the audio CD as a bonus accompaniment).

Still, as long as Black Sabbath consists of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and whoever else, no live Sabbath album can be a completely worthless proposition — if there ever was a night in history when Tony played real bad, or the setlist was completely dominated by subpar material, I'd actually be interested in hearing how that may have sounded. If Martin's voice does not piss you off immediately, there is no reason why Cross Purposes Live should be written off. Because of the setlist? Well, as you can see, more than half of the songs are impeccable classics — and there is even one pleasant surprise, as the band resurrects ʽThe Wizardʼ, a song not performed at all since their first gigs in 1970, unjustly forgotten just because it wasn't a radio hit. And out of the Martin-era material, only ʽCross Of Thornsʼ is a suckjob, and should have been tossed out in favor of ʽEvil Eyeʼ or, at least, ʽVirtual Deathʼ, if we want to be funny.

Martin's live personality is not seriously different from his posturing in the studio, and not a lot of stage banter made it onto the audio disc, anyway. Of course, hearing him howl on the Ozzy num­bers is a weird thing — rather than Ozzy's amusingly stoned intonations, and rather than Dio's entertaining «corn-de-luxe» roar-from-Hell, what you get is a guy who seems to be trying to imbue «sincerity» and «genuine passion» into these phantasmagoric, anti-reality soundscapes. Who really wants to hear a ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ or a ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ that de­mand to be taken sternly-seriously, let alone a ʽBlack Sabbathʼ? The poor guy is stuck in the middle between the excessive extremes of Ozzy and Dio, and with Sabbath, there is no middle ground by definition. Then again, the man is just doing his job the best he can — I hope very much that nobody cheated him out of any money on that or any other tours.

Trivia-wise, ʽTime Machineʼ begins with a few brief samples of classic Iommi riffs (as in, "let us illustrate this title for those who think it needs illustrating!"); ʽBlack Sabbathʼ, as usual, has a brief «medieval» introduction; ʽParanoidʼ is preceded by one minute of Iommi playing around with the evil wah-wah effect; and ʽIron Manʼ is inexplicably cut down to three minutes (perhaps due to CD length limitations). Oh, and ʽHeadless Crossʼ sounds much better live, free from the clutches of the hideous 1989 production values. And that's about it, folks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bob Marley: Soul Rebels

BOB MARLEY: SOUL REBELS (1970)

1) Soul Rebel; 2) Try Me; 3) It's Alright; 4) No Sympathy; 5) My Cup; 6) Soul Almighty; 7) Rebel's Hop; 8) Corner Stone; 9) Four Hundred Years; 10) No Water; 11) Reaction; 12) My Sympathy.

For all those who are accustomed to Marley's Island-era worldwide hits, from ʽNo Woman No Cryʼ and ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ to ʽOne Loveʼ and ʽJammingʼ, these early albums by the Wailers, produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry and recorded back when «the Wailers» did not yet signify «any interchangeable body behind Bob's back», but meant an actual reggae band with elements of active democracy, might sound a little... tough.

Soul Rebels is a good example of «hardcore» reggae, one that does not try to render itself more accessible to the ears of the global listener — by incorporating «rock» elements, or simply by trying to be more melodic — but instead concentrates almost exclusively on groove, atmosphere, and its own type of rugged spirituality. This is Perry's typical style of work, and this why Soul Rebels is as «authentic» as these guys are ever gonna get. For proof, compare this here version of Peter Tosh's ʽ400 Yearsʼ with the fuller-arranged, slower, subtler arrangement on Catch A Fire three years later — both have their own strengths, but this early one has a brutal roughness, expressed by the prominent position of the bass guitar and the «scratch» pattern of the rhythm, without any further embellishments, that would eventually be gone.

Although the Wailers had already been around for more than half a decade, this particular in­carnation, consisting of the «original» Wailers (Marley himself; Peter Tosh on guitar, keyboards, and vocals; Bunny Wailer on percussion) as well as the Barrett brothers, formerly from Perry's "Upsetters" (Aston on bass and Carly on extra percussion), was transitional — the «originals» would part ways with Marley in 1974, while the Barretts, on the other hand, would hold on until the very end. In this particular case, «transitional» might easily mean «best», the single largest accumulation of talent in the Wailers' history — except that you really have to «get it» before you can make proper use of that accumulation.

The key test, I think, is in whether one has any good words to say about the album's final track, ʽMy Sympathyʼ, which is really just an instrumental variation on the main theme of the album's vocal title song (ʽSoul Rebelʼ; for the record, the remastered and expanded CD edition of Soul Rebels adds a whole big bunch of instrumental takes on the songs). The main groove is set about in the first three or four seconds, after which nothing new happens right until the final fadeout at 2:43 — just the same rhythmic pattern, with scratch guitar and Tosh's quietly bubbling organ part in the background repeating the same chord pattern over and over again. It is the easiest thing in the world to call this thing «crap», but that could very logically lead to calling the entire album crap, and, subsequently, the entire reggae genre, or, at least, Marley's entire career.

The thing is — if the groove is well set, the groove is likeable. Just as it is possible to dig the 12-bar blues progression, per se, and dig it specifically when it is performed with extra gusto, so it is possible to feel abstract sympathy towards the skank, straight or shuffled. A whole album of ins­trumentals like ʽMy Sympathyʼ would soon become unbearable, but this placing of one instru­mental «re-run» at the end of an album is sort of a symbolic gesture — this is who we are, and this form of music is what we play, and it is through this groove that we convey everything that we have to say, because that's how Jah set it all up, basically. One of the most fascinating things about the groove is how, despite requiring very strict rhythmic coordination, it ends up giving this impression of nonchalant friendly laziness, steaming in the Jamaican heat — I guess they don't emphasize the «offbeat» quality of the rhythms for nothing.

Still, it goes without saying that the most important part of the compositions are the vocals — leads, harmonies, tones, mantras, expressions. The primary topic, «escape from Babylon» and everything that it entails, dominates the album's theme, from the title track, now and for all time branding Marley as a «soul rebel», and right to ʽ400 Yearsʼ, sung by Tosh and serving as the al­bum's, if not the entire movement's, definitive anthem of liberty. These two are the most memo­rable bits of the puzzle — ʽSoul Rebelʼ not only because of Marley's bittersweet confession, but also because of the way it opens, with Aston's soul-pumping bass brought all the way up to 11 by Perry and immediately pulling your ears down to the ground, because that sound weighs a fri­ckin' ton, no less. As for ʽ400 Yearsʼ, it really makes you wonder why Tosh did not take up lead vocals more often — his voice, lower and more «solemn» than Marley's, was really great for taking on grand, anthemic statements. They say he was kinda lazy, though, in a Rastafari manner.

Other, less notorious, highlights include ʽNo Sympathyʼ (where the Wailers do a great wailing job, joining the lead singer on the last mournful vowel of each line) and a series of «funny» num­bers that show a strong James Brown influence, such as ʽMy Cupʼ (actually a cover of James' own ʽI Guess I'll Have To Cry, Cry, Cryʼ) and ʽSoul Almightyʼ, full of references to doing the alligator and the mashed potato. Both songs are firmly reggae-based, yet even in this «hardcore» setting, they show that the Wailers were perfectly okay about interacting with other black music subgenres. Indeed, ʽSoul Almightyʼ could probably be called a halfway hybrid between reggae and funk — so much for the idea of stark monotonousness.

One thing that, at this stage in their history, the Wailers still pull off weaker than the rest is the love theme: songs like ʽTry Meʼ and the heavily allusive ʽCorner Stoneʼ ("you're a builder, baby, here I am, a stone") never really go beyond «nice» into that territory where Marley's relations with women start taking on an almost religious quality. Their little «humorous» interludes, such as ʽRebel's Hopʼ, are also relative trifles without a whole lot of replay value — in other words, Soul Rebels is not entirely filler-free. But then again, neither were the Wailers quite prepared for prime time: Soul Rebels is very much an album for «local consumption», and there is no way for most of us to assess its sound the same way it was assessed around Kingston in the year 1970. For all I know, ʽRebel's Hopʼ may have been a local smash.

In any case, the album as a whole gets a thumbs up from me, which I would never deliver solely for the sake of «politically correct» reasoning — there is no getting away from the original Wailers' charisma, no matter who they were and what cause they were standing for. I do, however, have to repeat the warning that Soul Rebels requires affection, not sheer tolerance, for reggae. It is technically possible to be completely indifferent to reggae as a whole and still love an album like Natty Dread — whether this would work with these Perry-produced records is not so clear to me. Then again, I really don't know a whole lot about the various kinds of reggae, and I seem to dig this, so maybe that's a sterner judgement than necessary. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Mirrors

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: MIRRORS (1979)

1) Dr. Music; 2) The Great Sun Jester; 3) In Thee; 4) Mirrors; 5) Moon Crazy; 6) The Vigil; 7) I Am The Storm; 8) You're Not The One (I Was Looking For); 9) Lonely Teardrops.

As the band's commercial fortunes started slipping somewhat with Spectres, a shift of direction and environment was thought of as a potential good move. A radical shift indeed — the band not only ditched Pearlman (temporarily) and long-time co-producer Murray Krugman (permanently), but it also betrayed its alma mater — New York City, going to California for the bulk of the re­cordings. The new choice of producer wasn't too bad: Tom Werman, the guy behind several clas­sic late-1970s Cheap Trick albums — but the choice of location certainly was, at least for 1979, the last year of the classic disco era.

Mirrors is not a disco album, but it is certainly one of their most danceable records, going very light on heavy metal riffs (no ʽGodzillaʼ for a hundred miles around) and very heavy on Cali­fornia-style folk-pop and contemporary R&B influences. Technically, it is not so much a sellout as an experimental attempt to plant the «BÖC spirit» into a different kind of soil and see how it works — the songs are still relatively «weird» in construction terms, and the lyrics still contain plenty of the mock-Gothic, ironic-romantic imagery of yore. On ʽThe Great Sun Jesterʼ, they even enter into collaboration with a new familiar face — fantasy goon Michael Moorcock, who probably needed a change from his long-term collaboration with Hawkwind. All in all, this here is not a case of «band on autopilot»: Mirrors is an honest-to-goodness attempt to reinvent them­selves and stay up-to-date while at the same time conserving the old essence.

Naturally, it is a little offensive when a song called ʽDr. Musicʼ opens the album and sounds like a mix of ʽPretty Womanʼ, ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ, and some dinky mid-1970s proto-disco dance number that I can't quite lay my finger on. But it is essentially a comedy number, more of a straight parody on sexy posturing than anything else — Bloom's vocals are quite indicative of that — and condemning the band for this experiment, while trying in vain to get its catchy chorus out of your head, would be as useless as condemning the Beatles for ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ. It is much easier to condemn the closing number: Lanier's ʽLonely Teardropsʼ, riding on a Clavi­net line not unlike the one in ʽSuperstitionʼ, and taking it a little more serious than necessary (the "Lord I tell you, all I want to do is get back home" bit sounds achingly poignant, but the rest of the track is so dance-centered that the vibes clash and explode).

Yet the album is diverse, enough for everybody to be able to pick at least one or two favorites. I really like ʽThe Great Sun Jesterʼ, for one thing — a fun, exciting lite-prog epic, which I could have easily imagined on a Yes album, exuberantly sung by Jon Anderson instead of Eric Bloom and with a high-in-the-sky Steve Howe solo for the climax, but even in the hands of this here band it still rolls along with a wallop of life-asserting optimism, a little surprising for a song that laments the «death of the fireclown» (a Moorcock fantasy personage), but where there's death, there's always rebirth, you know.

On the other end of the pole, there's ʽI Am The Stormʼ, the album's only seriously rocking cut: a little Boston-glossy, perhaps, but it does rock the socks off, true to its name, with magnificent lead guitar from Buck Dharma and a hyperbolic-exaggerated old-testamental anger at the betrayal of love that we haven't seen since ʽI Can See For Milesʼ. It's a pop song at heart, but they work hard to imbue it with rock fury, and I am quite won over by its theatricality. Heck, I am even won over by the theatricality of ʽMoon Crazyʼ, with its odd wobbling between old-time Kinksy music-hall and new-style whitebread 1970s pop — especially when it goes into overdriven drunken Slavic rhythmics and wild guitar pirouetting at the end.

Quite a bit of the time the record is boring, or somewhat limp: you'd have to be a major fan of the decade's conventional pop balladry, for instance, to get any thrill out of the ballad ʽIn Theeʼ (de­livered way too sincerely to be salvaged by irony), and ʽYou're Not The One (I Was Looking For)ʼ seems to be a very self-conscious effort to write something in the style of that hot new Boston sensation, The Cars, but with those boring power chords for the chorus hook, the song becomes Foreigner rather than the Cars when it comes to climaxing, and gets the death sentence for that. Even so — it is at least interesting to watch it start out so promisingly and then self-de­struct so maddeningly.

Underwhelming as the effort is next to Spectres, with the lack of a definitive highlight (ʽI Am The Stormʼ comes close, though), I still give it a thumbs up — if you want to look for something really bland in this style, check out the average Average White Band from the same time period; Mirrors has its own intrigue, diversity, and charming clumsiness when you view it in context and see them try to corrupt all those new influences with their irreverent approach. One of these days we might even forget them the temporary move to California, I guess.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

ABC: Lexicon Of Live

ABC: LEXICON OF LIVE (1999)

1) Poison Arrow; 2) Stranger Things; 3) When Smokey Sings; 4) How To Be A Millionnaire; 5) Be Near Me; 6) Who Can I Turn To; 7) Show Me; 8) Skyscraping; 9) Rolling Sevens; 10) One Better World; 11) Tears Are Not Enough; 12) All Of My Heart; 13) The Look Of Love.

There is obviously so not much to say about this record that the current Wikipedia entry on it is marvelously laconic, and very much up to the point: «The Lexicon Of Live is a live album released by pop group ABC. Although Martin Fry was the only member left, he had a backing band, and came out in his trademark gold suit». I guess that pretty much says everything a layman needs to know, but just for the sake of I-don't-know-what, let's add a few extra details.

Apparently, ABC never toured all that much while they were still all together, which makes this Skyscraping-era «coming out» with a live album even more of an odd cash-in. On a video, at least, you could enjoy the gold suit in proper lighting, but as it is, all you have to do is sit through a bunch of ABC classics, interspersed with a few selections from Skyscraping, as they are faith­fully and professionally reproduced on stage by Martin and his then-current backing band. It's not as if Fry sounded too disinterested or anything — he gets all of those songs' original strengths through without any problems — but neither is he interested in letting the people experience anything above and beyond these original strengths.

The setlist is respectable, predictably concentrating on Lexicon Of Love material and the most popular hits that followed (ʽWhen Smokey Singsʼ, etc.), and the disappointing Up/Abracadabra period is represented only by ʽOne Better Worldʼ, which at least sounds a little better with real drums, and is also shortened by about a minute and a half. They also take the best material from Skyscraping, so, on the whole, no complaints in that direction. But ABC were so much of a studio band in all possible ways and manners that, paradoxically, only their bad songs would benefit from a live rearrangement — all the good songs inevitably suffer from poor mixing and lack of studio gloss that defines the ABC sound.

For reasons of politeness, we do have to thank the band for being tight, and Fry's backup vocalists for being appropriately sexy, but a live ABC album simply does not compute, let alone a live ABC album that only pretends to be an ABC album (at least it might have been vaguely interes­ting to witness original member Mark White play some guitar on stage). I guess you really have to be into gold suits in order to convince yourself to own it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Blackmore's Night: The Village Lanterne

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: THE VILLAGE LANTERNE (2006)

1) 25 Years; 2) Old Village Lanterne; 3) I Guess It Doesn't Matter Anymore; 4) The Messenger; 5) World Of Stone; 6) Faerie Queen; 7) St. Theresa; 8) Village Dance; 9) Mond Tanz / Child In Time; 10) Streets Of London; 11) Just Call My Name; 12) Olde Mill Inn; 13) Windmills; 14) Street Of Dreams; 15*) Once In A Garden.

It is reasonable to accelerate a bit with these reviews, since Ritchie and Candice are so admirably steady in their approach that stylistic divergences between Ghost Of A Rose and The Village Lanterne (yes, with a final orthographic -e all right, although it may be worth noting that, in contrast, the presence/absence of the article the is oddly fluctuating between various releases) are kept to a barely distinguishable minimum. Perhaps the most curious addition to the lineup here is Anton Fig on percussion, the drummer from David Letterman's house band. This really gives the drums a more fluent, African style (lots of bongos, among other things), which only goes to show how much Ritchie really cares about «authenticity», but it is useful to be reminded every once in a while that this whole project is a multi-colored «fantasy», not some scientific recreation of stark medieval realities. Betcha didn't know Ritchie's boots are really made in China, did you?

Cover material this time around includes Ralph McTell's ʽStreets Of Londonʼ (a little over­saturated with woodwinds, but we will assume they are just trying to make it more baroque: Can­dice does a good job conveying the friendly melancholy of the original), and Joan Osborne's ʽSt. Teresaʼ, here transformed into an electric rocker with a much faster tempo, and adorned with one of the album's most blazing (though fairly unexceptional for Blackmore) solos. The most contro­versial cover, of course, will be Deep Purple's own ʽChild In Timeʼ — not only does Ritchie dare to integrate it into one whole with his own merry instrumental dance number (ʽMond Tanzʼ), but he desecrates the holy of holies by actually letting Candice assume the duties of Ian Gillan, which she is unable to do due to the natural weakness of her voice, so, wisely, she does not even try to «scream» the scream-chorus, but instead, just lets all the aah-aahs and ooh-oohs flow calmly and naturally. Even so, there is nothing particularly interesting or newly inspiring about this rearran­gement — and legions of outraged fans, even now as you are reading this, are pouring out their vitriol at its live performances on Youtube, joining the ranks of the freshly formed «Protect The Ian Gillan Legacy From Green-Clothed Ladies With Ample Bosoms» society.

Oh yes, there is also a cover of Rainbow's ʽStreet Of Dreamsʼ here — actually, two covers: one of the bonus tracks is an alternate version with Joe Lynn Turner himself contributing guest (host?) vocals — and this one might even be an improvement on the original, stripping it from the excesses of Eighties' production. Besides, while I'd never take Candice over classic-era Gillan, taking Candice over the cheap bathos of Joe Lynn Turner is a far more seductive proposition. In fact, re-recording the entire post-Dio Rainbow catalog with Blackmore's Night would, on the whole, be much more useful than doing the same with the old Deep Purple catalog.

As for the originals, there are a few catchy folk-rock creations here like the galloping ʽI Guess It Doesn't Matter Anymoreʼ and ʽJust Call My Nameʼ; a couple nicely harmonized ballads like the opening ʽ25 Yearsʼ and ʽFaerie Queenʼ, the latter with a special dance coda; a stupid-sounding drinking song (ʽOlde Mill Innʼ — where ʽAll For Oneʼ was about drinking, fighting, and dying, this one is just about drinking, drinking, and drinking some more); and some more of those pretty and thoroughly interchangeable acoustic Blackmore instrumentals. For those who have been waiting, the goods have been honestly delivered as expected. For those who have not, no reason to begin now, unless you have a fever, and the only prescription is more shawm.