Friday, December 27, 2019

Archive Review: Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour (1998)

Rory Gallagher's Irish Tour
As recounted in our reverent review of his seminal BBC Sessions set, Rory Gallagher was a hell of a guitarist, a gifted artist with one foot in rock ‘n’ roll and the other solidly in the blues. As a handful of legitimate live albums and dozens of bootlegs would attest to, Gallagher was at his best when onstage. This Buddha Records reissue of Irish Tour showcases the artist at the top of his game, a six-string guitarslinger without peer who could tear off blistering riffs and crunching chords with lightning fast ability, a powerful showman holding the audience in the palm of his hand.

Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour

The performances on Irish Tour were taken from shows done in Belfast, Dublin and Cork during January 1974. Gallagher was an Irish homeboy who had made good, a star of significant drawing power throughout the European continent. Because of the violence and chaos in Northern Ireland, however, most artists refused to play the region, leaving audiences starved for rock ‘n’ roll. In this environment, Gallagher came home, causing everybody to forget their differences for a while. Consisting mostly of familiar songs drawn from previous Gallagher studio albums, Irish Tour nonetheless offers up a handful of inspired covers alongside the scorching originals.

Among the highlights of Irish Tour’s ten tracks are a soulful cover of Muddy Water’s “I Wonder Who,” which includes some sparse tho’ well-placed guitar licks, and a simply unbelievable rendition of the crowd favorite “Tattoo’d Lady” that showcases Gallagher’s considerable six-string skills alongside some tasty keyboards from Lou Martin. A funky, down-and-dirty cover of J.B. Hutto’s “Too Much Alcohol” will knock you on your ass every bit as quick as a pint of Old Crow whiskey. With flaming keyboards behind him, Gallagher knocks out a firey, hard rocking version of “Walk On Hot Coals” that includes an extended instrumental jam while “Back On My Stompin’ Ground” is a cajun-fried slab of Southern-styled funk that is razor sharp and sonically dense as a bayou fog.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Gallagher would go on from this performance high to play hundreds of shows and record dozens of albums during a career that stretched across a quarter-century. Although he always delivered the goods on stage, never again would he play with such feeling and fire in a series of performances that would mean so much. With a talent the equal, not less than contemporaries like Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher was a true rock ‘n’ roll treasure. (Buddha Records, released September 7, 1998)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine

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Archive Review: Rory Gallagher’s BBC Sessions (1998)

Rory Gallagher’s BBC Sessions
He never played with one of John Mayall’s legendary bands, nor did he go through the revolving door that was the Yardbirds’ lead guitar slot. He’s a contemporary of folks like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck – the holy trinity of British blues guitarists – but has never enjoyed the kind of semi-legendary status conveyed upon those three artists. Much like Gary Moore, another fine axeman, guitarist Rory Gallagher has attracted a cult following; unlike Moore, who is still alive and well, Gallagher’s death seemed to doom the blues guitarist to rock ‘n’ roll obscurity.

Thanks to the folks at the brand new Buddha Records, however, Gallagher’s fate may not be quite so bad. An ambitious reissue and rediscovery program by the reformed label is placing Gallagher’s musical legacy back on the street, where it belongs. The label reissued Gallagher’s self-titled first solo album and Deuce, his second effort – both on CD for the first time domestically – about a month or so ago. Buddha seems to be buying up Gallagher’s work from other labels, as well, suggesting a champion somewhere in the corporate ranks, and rumor has it that we’ll be seeing reissues of Irish Tour ‘74 and the underrated Photo Finish on compact disc sometime soon.

Rory Gallagher’s BBC Sessions

Perhaps Buddha’s greatest coup, however, is the recently released BBC Sessions, a two-disc collection of live performances and radio broadcasts that serves as an excellent place for the uninitiated to become familiar with Gallagher’s talents. Following hot on the heels of BBC collections from Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and preceding an upcoming release from the Who, Gallagher is among heady company, as well he should be. British union rules required BBC radio to broadcast a certain amount of live music each day, which led to a number of different programs that featured live performances from local venues around London, as well as in-studio appearances from various popular performers. The BBC has hundreds of hours of this stuff, covering almost every British artist of note and more than a few American talents, as well. Realizing the treasure trove of recordings in their hands, the BBC has begun to cash in on their archives, much to the delight of music lovers everywhere.

The Irish-born Gallagher grew up listening to these BBC broadcasts, and made his first appearance on those airwaves in 1968. Gallagher’s first breakthrough came with Taste, a blues-oriented power trio much like Cream, and his work with that band caught the ears of European audiences. As a solo artist, Gallagher toured relentlessly, both across Europe and the United States. It was his BBC appearances, however, which helped support this touring, Gallagher’s scorching six string work reaching out across the airwaves and making converts out of listeners across the globe. Gallagher did a lot of work on the BBC – his brother’s liner notes to BBC Sessions says that they had to work their way through 10 hours of tapes to compile this set – and if the material here is representative, he never disappointed.

Rory Gallagher In Concert

The BBC Sessions set is divided into two parts. The first disc is a collection of performances that were broadcast on a program called In Concert and were caught live in clubs like the Hippodrome, the Paris Theatre, and the Hammersmith Odeon. Most of these ten cuts are taken from 1977-79, a period that many consider to be Gallagher’s golden age. A lone cut from 1973, the traditional blues number “What In the World,” serves mostly as a foreshadowing of Gallagher’s still maturing talents. There are many great performances caught here, including the rollicking “Country Mile” and the fluid “Calling Card,” one of Gallagher’s signature tunes. “Got My Mojo Working” is an electric boogie while Gallagher’s original “Used To Be” showcases some red-hot playing beneath the artist’s growling vocals.

The second disc here is comprised of live studio broadcasts and, with the producers casting a wider net, features performances that range in age from 1971 to 1986, with an emphasis on the mid-‘70s era Gallagher. If the first disc shows Gallagher’s energy and skill in a live setting, the material performed in the studio on disc two showcases the deliberate and complex side of Gallagher’s talents. Again mixing scattered originals with inspired covers and custom arrangements of traditional blues numbers, these studio performances provide a more complete look at Gallagher’s evolution as a guitarist. A couple of more familiar tunes dominate the side – the haunting live staple “Daughter of the Everglades” and “Seventh Son of 7th Son,” which sounds as close to authentic Delta blues as any Irishman is every going to get, but there’s plenty of solid performances to choose from.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

A mesmerizing guitarist and charismatic performer, Gallagher was capable of both great subtlety and outrageous bluster in his playing. A hard-working performer who toured to the point of exhaustion, Gallagher often cranked out studio albums – especially in his later years – that balanced mediocrity with brilliance, hiding a truly magical performance or two among the musical chaff. His better tunes usually made it into his live set, and it’s indeed his live albums, of which he made several, upon which his legacy is built.

Gallagher deserves more respect than he’s received. With twenty-five years under his belt, he literally died from too much living. He left behind a lot of great music, however, and thanks to Buddha we’ll get to hear some of it again. Gallagher had a talent every bit as great as Clapton, Page, or Stevie Ray and, as such, is quite worthy of rediscovering. (Buddha Records, released 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Archive Review: Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand (1994)

Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand
Artists who are tagged with the deadly “critical favorites” label tend to have a very brief commercial existence, if, indeed, they create a meager blip on the old product sales radar at all. There are many reasons for this simple rock ‘n’ roll fact of life, the foremost being that rock critics (this writer included) tend to be overeducated shitheads with an arts and literature background, an elitist crowd grabbing free promos and a spot on the guest list even while they’re damning the latest pop icon with faint praise. Critics tend to shun the sort of “lowest common denominator” rock far too frequently cranked out by the labels in favor of more esoteric work.

The funny thing about ‘Art’, though, is that it tends to sneak up and bite you on the ass. Yesterday’s artistic obscurity is tomorrow’s influence; and the seldom-heard and often under-appreciated work of folks like Alex Chilton, Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock, et al will be a part of that next Top 40 sensation. The critic’s job is to discover and recognize the quiet genius of the aforementioned and let you know how woefully “unhip” you are since you obviously passed on buying their records in favor of the new U2 or Van Halen sets...which brings us, in a somewhat roundabout way, to Robert Pollard, Guided by Voices and Bee Thousand.

Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand

Pollard is one of those rare finds in rock ‘n’ roll, a completely innocent and unjaded  thirty-something school teacher toiling away in the artistic netherlands in his spare time. Bee Thousand is a visionary work; absent is the simpleminded posturing and preening evident on even the most sincere “alternative” release. There are twenty songs crammed into a thirty-six minute space, reminiscent of the Minutemen in their economy and scope. Whereas D. Boon created from the viewpoint of a punk aesthetic, Pollard wraps his work around some forty years of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Musically, Bee Thousand offers scraps of British and American pop, discordant punk, spacey guitar riffs and quick thrusts of a dozen different sharp-edged influences. Pollard’s lyrics are sheer poetry, often times oblique, literary gems hidden beneath the mix. Many of the songs here consist of nothing but a single verse wrapped around sparse instrumentation and, I’ll admit, that I often times haven’t a clue what Pollard is singing about. A few mental gymnastics under the headphones have assigned meaning to a number of songs, but most remain a mystery.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Is it the critic’s lot to deify that which we don’t really understand? Sometimes, perhaps, but the main weapon in the critical toolbox is the ability to recognize that something is going on in a song, that the artist is doing something important and extraordinary. With Bee Thousand, Guided by Voices has used a familiar musical language to expand the barriers of thought and expression in rock lyricism. Although they may never rise above their currently-growing status as “critic’s darlings,” the influence of what Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices are doing today will be felt in the years to come. (Scat Records, released June 21, 1994)

Review originally published by R.A.D! music zine

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Archive Review: Rosie Flores' Dance Hall Dreams (1999)

Rosie Flores' Dance Hall Dreams
Rosie Flores has come a long way since her mid-eighties stint as guitarist for flamboyant female cowpunkers the Screamin’ Sirens. Over the past decade and a half or so she’s managed to build a career and a fine rep as a better-than-average songwriter and a skilled six-string maestro – such a good reputation that she was asked to tour with western swing aficionados Asleep At The Wheel as their guitarist. A handful of solo albums has served as solid credentials for an artist too traditional for Nashville yet too country for the rock world.

Rosie Flores’ Dance Hall Dreams

As shown by Dance Hall Dreams, Flores’ recent Rounder Records release, there’s still quite a fire burning in this lass and if Music Row is too blind to notice it, well, this critic isn’t. Dance Hall Dreams is a wonderful collection of performances, a fresh breath of country-flavored artistry that is at both tough and tender, emotional and intellectual.

Dance Hall Dreams opens with a nifty little piece of western swing titled “Little Bit More,” a funny bit of bragging that stands up even after repeated listens. The mournful “Tremolo” and Flores’ touching song about her father, “Who’s Gonna Fix It Now” are both radio-ready hits if country radio wasn’t so petrified by trends and bad taste. Flores’ cover of “Funnel of Love” is a rocking little number that stays true to Wanda Jackson’s original while “Bring It On” is a swinging little love song propelled by Flores’ come-hither vocals and some tasty pedal steel. “It Came From Memphis” tackles the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and along the way name-checks some of the great talents of country and rock both, including Sonny Burgess, Scottie Moore, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

In her heart, Rosie Flores is a country traditionalist, masterfully blending elements of 1960s-era honky tonk with western swing and roots-rock. A charismatic and energetic performer, a fine songwriter and a guitarist of some style and imagination, Flores deserves a much wider audience than her indie label efforts have brought her. If there were anybody in Nashville with the intelligence to recognize her talents and with the guts to sign Flores to a major label deal and promote her, the results would be phenomenal. Commercial country music could only benefit from a wider audience entertained by an artist of Flores’ talents and passion. (Rounder Records, released March 2, 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ music zine

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Friday, December 13, 2019

Archive Review: Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation’s Mighty ReArranger (2005)

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation’s Mighty ReArranger
Simply put, Mighty ReArranger offers Robert Plant’s best work since, perhaps, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. Invigorated by his skilled backing band, the Strange Sensation, Plant takes musical risks and climbs out on a limb more than once with the finest batch of songs he’s delivered during a lengthy solo career that has lasted nearly a quarter-century. Picking up where he left off with 2002’s acclaimed Dreamland LP, this is the Robert Plant of yore – dropping the hammer of the gods and belting out songs with a cocksure confidence that many lesser vocalists have tried to capture and failed, often times miserably.

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation’s Mighty ReArranger

Working in tandem with his excellent band, especially guitarists Justin Adams and Skin Tyson, with no little assistance from keyboardist John Baggot, Plant has crafted a solid collection of material. The songs on Mighty ReArranger revel in their hard rock roots, but also incorporate Plant’s fascination with Eastern modality and polyrhythms, elements of complex, Zep-styled British folk, and the singer’s love for classic American blues and soul music. If it sounds like a heady mix, well, it is; Plant and the Strange Sensation masterfully weave in and out of genres, challenging one another and coming up with truly breathtaking performances.

Suffice it to say that the second coming of Robert Plant is no dull affair. Mighty ReArranger is filled with memorable moments that blister and peel. The Middle Eastern rhythms of “Another Tribe” are paired with weeping lead guitar and Plant’s mournful vocals offer precise social commentary, asking hard questions. The singer attempts a bit of vocal gymnastics on “Freedom Fries,” the syncopated rhythm track approximately a sort of rockabilly shuffle but matched swerve-for-swerve by Plant’s assured phrasings.

“Tin Pan Valley” takes a look at days gone by, Plant’s subdued vocals supported by a sparse soundscape as he takes a few lyrical jabs at contemporaries trying to hold onto past glories. By the time the guitars roar into the mix and Plant’s voice soars to Wagnerian heights, it’s clear that the rock legend is moving forward, not back. “Dancing In Heaven” offers the sort of crystalline acoustic guitarwork that Zeppelin fans cut their eye teeth on, Plant’s brilliant lyrical imagery matched by the band’s instrumental virtuosity. The title cut is a bluesy, gospel-tinged rocker with raw fretwork and otherworldly keyboards.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Mighty Rearranger is not a reinvention of Robert Plant as such, but rather a showcase for the artist’s creative evolution. Without ignoring his past triumphs, Plant has built a bridge to the future, finding a revival in fortunes by working with the second great band of his career. With Mighty Rearranger, Plant and the Strange Sensation have discovered the legendary fountain of youth, and its name is rock ‘n’ roll... (Sanctuary Records, released April 25, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

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Archive Review: Alan Morse's Four O’ Clock and Hysteria (2007)

Alan Morse's Four O’ Clock and Hysteria
Guitarist Alan Morse is almost exclusively known for his day job as a founding member, along with his brother Neal, of neo-prog legends Spock’s Beard. Over the past 15 years, Spock’s Beard has risen to the top of the modern prog world, the band’s ever-evolving sound splashed across nine studio albums and half-a-dozen live sets. Nothing if not prolific, Spock’s Beard has helped define prog-rock for a generation of fans, and Alan Morse’s nimble fretwork and creative talents are a major element of the band’s trademark sound.    

Through the years, however, Morse had never found the time or inclination to record a solo album. Our loss, really, because as a player Morse is perhaps one of the most underrated axemen in the world of rock music, no doubt overlooked by the critical intelligentsia because of his “progressive” background. No matter, really, because Morse’s first solo album – Four O’ Clock and Hysteria – has arrived, and guitar fans everywhere are going to have to sit up and take notice. If you’re impressed by the likes of Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, or Joe Satriani, then you’re going to kick your own ass ‘til it turns blue when that snot-nosed little punk from down the street – the one with the black-dyed hair and nose-ring – THROWS Alan Morse’s solo debut in your face!

Alan Morse’s Four O' Clock and Hysteria

Freed of the constraints of the band dynamic, Morse was able to go nuts and CUT LOOSE on Four O’ Clock and Hysteria, unleashing his inner improviser and exploring the depths of his considerable talents. Um, I’d say that it worked; admirably, actually, with Morse merging disparate styles and instrumental genres into one giant mofo six-string workout. With brother Neal at the boards to capture every passing nuance, Morse tosses bits ‘n’ pieces of rock, prog, jazz, and blues into the blender, turns the button over to “shred” and hits that sucker with a mallet. The resulting instrumental gumbo evokes memories of notes, riffs, and magical moments from a dozen legendary six-string wizards, ranging from the Yardbirds troika of Clapton, Beck, and Page to Duane Allman; from Al DiMeola, Shuggie Otis and Ernie Isley to Rory Gallagher, as well as modern-day guitar heroes like Vai and Satriani. Morse takes ‘em all, adds his own indelible stamp, and makes it all new again.

Morse is joined here by his mates from Spock’s Beard – bassist Dave Meros, drummer Nick D’Virgilio, and keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, impressive talents all – as well as by some friends from the CCM community, in-demand session players like bassist Gary Lunn and drummer Scott Williamson and, of course, his multi-instrumental brother Neal Morse. With his first album, Morse delivers a dozen complex, energetic and creative instrumental songs that illustrate his amazing skills and diverse creative chops. “Cold Fusion,” for instance, is a trippy little slice o’ space funk, with a constantly-shifting electronic buzz laid down behind Morse’s fluid leads, Okumoto’s keyboard riffing providing an excellent counterpoint to Alan’s squiggly lines.

The atmospheric “R Bluz” has an underlying Brit blooze-rock feel to it, Morse tearing off some Claptonesque tones while either Neal or Ryo kicks the keyboards until all sort of icy-cool psychedelic-jazz notes come tumbling out. The deceptively soulful “First Funk” is actually a mellow, but powerful instrumental jam, the kind of ethereal, R&B-tinged tune that we used to enjoy back in the late ‘70s. “Dschungel Cruz” includes some funky syncopated rhythms behind Morse’s screaming leads while “Spanish Steppes” is an intricate, delicate composition, its rich tones and subdued instrumentation matched by D’Virgilio’s tasteful drumming and Morse’s Mediterranean-styled playing. The album-ending “Home” has a melancholy, almost wistful feel, with Alan’s layered guitar tracks creating a rustic vibe over the top of gentle percussion and Neal’s sparse mandolin work. In the end, the notes come tumbling down like rain, every lick shimmering through the speakers with a painfully beautiful sound. “Home” would be a great song to end a movie with, its instrumental grandeur shining as the credits roll. In this aspect, it reminds me a lot of Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack work for The Princess Bride.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Alan Morse’s Four O’ Clock And Hysteria will naturally be embraced by the Spock’s faithful, as well as by prog-rock fans in general, but the album’s innovative instrumentals and Morse’s undeniable six-string talents would also hold strong appeal to any music lover that appreciates fine guitar playing. If you have yet to discover Alan Morse, Four O’ Clock and Hysteria is your entry drug of choice…be forewarned, though, because once you hear this stuff, you’ll be forced to jump into the Spock’s Beard discography. After that, who knows? (Inside Out Music, released 2007)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality blog, 2007

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Archive Review: Porcupine Tree's Deadwing (2005)

Porcupine Tree's Deadwing
If any band leads the charge, bringing progressive-rock back to the great unwashed masses, it may well be Porcupine Tree. For almost a decade and a half, the English band, led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Steven Wilson, has forged a career by tempering prog-rock tendencies with hard rock sensibilities. Unlike other leading lights in the modern prog movement such as Spock’s Beard or the Flower Kings – bands that take their cue from ‘70s-era progmasters like Yes or King Crimson – Porcupine Tree instead follows a path similar to Pink Floyd. Throw in a strong measure of NWOBM reliance on startling guitar riffs; add elements of lush, ‘90s-vintage 4AD label atmospherics, and stir well with Wilson’s self-taught musical genius and you’ll have the sound of Porcupine Tree.

Porcupine Tree’s Deadwing

The eighth studio effort from Porcupine Tree and only the band’s second album to receive any sort of significant stateside distribution, Deadwing is a magnificent collection of songs with easy appeal to both the mainstream music fan and the diehard prog-rocker. The album opens with the nine-minute-plus title cut, a stunning musical tour de force that never loses steam no matter how many twists and turns the song takes. Infected with an overall moody ambience, Wilson’s somber lyrics are supported by taut leads and blazing riffs, tribal drumbeats and Richard Barbieri’s magnificent keyboard wizardry. The wiry guitar solo in the middle of the song is provided courtesy of Adrian Belew, a well-respected fretmaster with credentials from both the prog-rock and art-rock worlds.

Deadwing gets a little heavier with “Shallow,” a riff-happy rocker that edges into industrial territory, swinging back towards sanity before Trent Reznor comes knocking at the door. Alternately both brutally electric and gently melodic, the song’s theme of technological alienation stands in stark contrast to “Lazarus,” a pastoral composition with fine vocal harmonies and beautifully constructed instrumental passages. “Halo” ventures into horror-rock territory, echoed vocals and monster rhythms counterbalanced by a harmonic chorus with its roots in hard-rocking ‘90s-era grunge.

The band is at its most progressive with the twelve-minute “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here,” the song’s breathtaking instrumentation incorporating elements of swirling psychedelica, Eno-styled ambient electronics and classic, ‘70s-vintage prog-rock song structure. The punchy “Open Car” may be as close to a single release as Deadwing ventures; with its monstrous riffing and larger-than-life vibe the song sojourns into prog-metal territory and would fit perfectly into a modern rock radio format.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Handling vocals, guitars and some secondary keyboards, Wilson’s talents are abundant. Every wunderkind needs players to push them towards greatness, however, and Porcupine Tree offers an impressive collection of instrumental virtuosos. Richard Barbieri, who cut his teeth with groundbreaking ‘80s-era new wave art-rock band Japan, brings a classical element to the band, his keyboard and synth creations providing the underlying structure for Wilson’s complex, extravagant compositions.

Bassist Colin Edwin is more than mere background scenery, his fills and occasional leads providing the band’s sound with a heavy bottom end while drummer Gavin Harrison brings an explosive hard rock mentality to the material. Altogether, the band’s musical chemistry is quite impressive, the foursome creating a tapestry of sound and emotion that is ambitious in scope and invigorating in its results. Poised on the brink of U.S. stardom, Porcupine Tree is ready for you…but are you ready for Porcupine Tree? (Lava Records, released March 25, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

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Archive Review: Entombed's Serpent Saints (2007)

Entombed's Serpent Saints
I swear, I put this thing on the box and sparks started flyin’ like ball lightning. The low bass kicked in, bouncing off my head like a concrete police baton and then the guitars – those damn guitars – started to shred my eardrums like a hungry carnivore tearing into a hot meal. Yeah, verily, I speak of the mighty Entombed, Swedish purveyors of black noise most disturbing and yet alluring. Serpent Saints is the hallowed band’s new album, a return to the magnificent metal onslaught of 2003’s Inferno and a gut-busting, liver-shaking, migraine-injecting exercise in tension in its own right.

Entombed’s Serpent Saints

Serpent Saints kicks off with the title track, a deceptive bit of hallucinogenic, hypnotic six-string noodling leading the listener down a dark path on a rainy night, the drums kicking in like thunderstorms on the horizon…and then L.G. Petrov’s werewolf-like vocals kick in and the guitars assault your ears like a concussion grenade. “Serpent Saints” and its follow-up, “Masters of Death,” both flex the band’s thrash muscles, getting good and limber to better drop to the ground and limbo dance across the low-frequency, bass-heavy doom-like soundscapes of “Thy Kingdom Coma” and “Amok.”

If the first four of the ten monster tracks on Serpent Saints haven’t caused you to wet your bed and dive beneath the mattress in horror, wait until yer hungry lobes get snatched up by the razor-sharp fishhook of “Warfare Plague Famine Death,” a tasteful tune straight outta the Four Horsemen’s fakebook, the wiry, tense, demonic six-string pyrotechnics scatting around your cranium like a thousand bloodsucking locusts. Yowsa!

“The Dead, The Dying, And The Dying To Be Dead” is an impressive cross between Sabbath-inspired riff-laden doom and classic Entombed death ‘n’ roll, with galloping drumbeats, bass to beat you over the head with, disturbing fretwork, and lyrics so angry one wonders why Petrov’s head doesn’t burst into flames when he sings ‘em… “Love Song For Satan” is just plain ooky-spooky, cult voices heard beneath a fog of ambience when the song goes all scratchy and industrial with backwards vox and arcane refrains and found sounds and metallic crashing and, well, you’ll certainly be headed for hell in a handbasket of your own weaving if you listen too closely to this song, kiddies…and I’ll see you there!

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Entombed has often been criticized by notoriously tight-minded death metal fanatics for the band’s frequent experimentation in other less…shall we say…metallic endeavors. The result is always the same, however – the band takes a trip down a stylistic side street of its choosing, expands its musical palette, and returns to metal with its batteries recharged and its instruments set on stun, stomp and blister.

After their intriguing (and enjoyable) dalliance with classical ballet forms on Unreal Estate, Entombed has eagerly jumped headfirst back into the abyss with Serpent Saints, an album every bit as stone-crushingly powerful as anything these talented Swedes have ever recorded. (Candlelight Records, released June 25, 2007)

Originally published by the Trademark of Quality blog, 2007

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Blues Images 2020 Calendar Is Here!

Blues Images 2020 Calendar
The Reverend has hung a copy of John Tefteller’s incredible Blues Images calendar on his office wall for over a decade now, its brilliant imagery and blues spirit providing inspiration for my own humble creative efforts. When the leaves begin to turn each autumn, I look forward to receiving the 12”x12” square box with the next year’s calendar enclosed, and I’m happy to say that the 2020 edition is now available!

For the neophytes among you, the Blues Images calendar features vintage advertising artwork from long-gone blues label Paramount Records that noted record collector and dealer Tefteller literally rescued from a dumpster over 20 years ago. Each year’s calendar preserves an immensely-valuable visual history of the early years of the blues; I donate my copies at the end of each year to the Bill Schurk Sound Archives at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

The 2020 calendar offers the imaginative pen-and-ink art promoting Paramount releases of plastic fantastic sides like Charley Spand’s “Ain’t Gonna Stand For That,” Leola B. Wilson’s “Ashley Street Blues,” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Bad Luck Blues,” and a holiday-themed December ad featuring Mississippi Sarah and Daddy Stovepipe’s “Read Your ABC’s.” There are little photos of B&W advertising artwork reproduced in the empty squares among the days as well.

This year, for the first time, the Blues Images calendar features more photographic advertising art than pen-and-ink drawing, probably because printing technology had improved by the 1930s-era date of many of these ads. As such, the calendar features rare, not-seen-for-decades photos of artists like B.B. King, Victoria Spivey, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter, “Texas” Alexander, Lonnie Johnson, and Bessie Jackson instead of the usual B&W drawings. Each calendar page is annotated with historical and biographical information about the featured artist, and each month also includes the birth and death dates of classic blues artists.
The Blues Images 2020 calendar cost slightly more than some cheap wall-hanger you’d buy from the mall or local bookstore, but for the hardcore blues fan, Tefteller packs a lot of value for the $24.95 (plus shipping) it will cost you. Each Blues Images calendar includes a full-length CD that features rare, impossible-to-find, and often one-of-a-kind tracks, many of them sourced from Tefteller’s extensive personal collection. The performances, which include the songs from the original advertising as well as related releases, have been remastered from the original 78rpm records using the ‘American Epic’ digital process that makes the sound on these antique shellac marvels really pop out of your speakers.

Blues Images 2020 Calendar
For 2020, Tefteller expanded the reach of the enclosed CD’s coverage to span from the late 1920s through the late 1940s, which encompasses a heck of a lot of great blues sides. The 2020 CD opens with a rare track from the calendar’s cover artist, the phenomenal blues legend B.B. King. “Got the Blues” is a jaunty, jazzy track released as King’s second single in 1949 by the Bullet Records label. It wouldn’t chart, but that’s OK ‘cause a couple of years (and a half-dozen singles) later, B.B. would strike gold with the R&B chart-topping “3 O’Clock Blues.” Still, “Got the Blues” sketches out the bluesy, jazz-flecked sound that King would take to the bank over the decades to follow.

Victoria Spivey’s “Blood Thirsty Blues” takes the listener back to the 1920s – 1927 to be exact – the song’s vaudeville roots apparent in its early jazzlike feel. Spivey recorded with greats like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver throughout her career, so the jazz influences heard in her vamping blues are honest. The Mississippi Sheiks’ “Baby Keeps Stealing Lovin’ On Me” is a prime slice of jug band blues dating to 1930 while Sheiks’ guitarist Bo Carter’s “Howling Tom Cat Blues” is an enchanting, underrated track from 1931.

There’s a lot of other great stuff on this year’s CD, including tracks by “Texas” Alexander with the Mississippi Sheiks (“Days Is Lonesome,” 1930), Blind Lemon Jefferson (“Bad Luck Blues,” 1930), Lonnie Johnson (“She’s Making Whoopee In Hell Tonight,” 1930), and Bessie Jackson (“Shave ‘Em Dry,” 1935), all of which are represented by cool advertising artwork across the months. The CD includes another ten tracks for which there is no artwork, but represents a treasure trove of blues music nevertheless. You’ll find three recently-discovered (and unreleased) demos by obscure bluesman Juke Boy Barner, a couple of songs by Blues Boy Bill (one of ‘em previously unreleased), and super-duper-rare recordings by folks like William Moore, Mississippi Sarah, and Joe Stone (a/k/a Jaydee Short).

The annual Blues Images calendar and CD is a “must have” addition to the collection of any serious old-school blues fan. Blues Images sells other cool blues-related stuff, too, like posters, t-shirts, CDs from previous years, and past years’ calendars. You can find it all on the Blues Images website. Tell John that “the Rev sent ya!”

Short Rounds: Holiday Gift Suggestions (2019)

Cindy Lee Berryhill's Garage Orchestra
Reviews of holiday gift suggestions in 150 words or less…

Cindy Lee Berryhill – Garage Orchestra (Omnivore Recordings)
One of the leading figures in the ‘anti-folk’ movement of the 1980s, which sought to bring punkish intensity and creativity to a staid old traditional sound, singer/songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill’s first couple of albums were a mixed bag but, by the time of 1994’s Garage Orchestra, Berryhill had found a delicate balance of influences like Dylan, Patti Smith, and the Beach Boys in developing her own voice. Reissued by Omnivore, Garage Orchestra has been expanded with a slew of bonus tracks, but the ten original songs sound as fresh and endearing as they did 25 years ago. Berryhill’s expressive vocals and erudite lyricism on songs like “Radio Astronomy,” “I Want Stuff,” and “Every Someone Tonight” color outside the lines while musically she tends to follow wherever whimsy leads her. The result is a magical musical journey that has held up surprisingly well over the past quarter-century (and worthy of rediscovery). Berryhill’s 1996 LP Straight Outta Marysville was also recently reissued by Omnivore with a half-dozen additional bonus tracks. Grade: A   BUY!

Black Pumas' Black Pumas
Black PumasBlack Pumas (ATO Records)
The self-titled debut album from Black Pumas – the Austin, Texas duo of Adrian Quesada and Eric Burton – is a magnificent hybrid of psychedelic-drenched rock, throwback soul, and contemporary R&B with more than a hint of old-school funk to be found in the blood-red grooves. The two co-produced the album and they hit all the right beats, bringing a modern neo-soul feel to the performances while still managing to capture the heartbeat of 1960s and ‘70s-era Stax Records, Sly & the Family Stone, and Parliament-Funkadelic. With ten original songs, Burton has a lot to work with, and his bluesy vocals edge close to Otis’s turf while Quesada is a nuanced, but powerful guitarist. The studio players fall in behind Burton and Quesada to create a mesmerizing tapestry of sound, but it’s the masterful combination of all these factors – songs, vocals, instrumentation, and production – that propel Black Pumas above their contemporaries. Grade: A+   BUY!

Alice Cooper's Bread Crumbs
Alice CooperBread Crumbs EP (Ear Music)
I haven’t been a big fan of a lot of Alice Cooper’s recent work, but this nifty lil’ 10” vinyl EP kicks ass! Aided and abetted by guitarists Wayne Kramer (The MC5) and Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad) and drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek (The Rockets), among others, Alice pays tribute to his Motor City roots with five cover tunes of songs originally recorded by Mitch Ryder (“Devil With A Blue Dress On”), Suzi Quatro (“Your Mama Wont’ Like Me”), Bob Seger (“East Side Story”), the MC5 (“Sister Anne”), and the Dirt Bombs (“Chains of Love)” as well as a couple of rockin’ new tunes in “Detroit City 2020” and “Go Man Go.” Alice has seldom sounded better, really investing his musical charisma into these performances, and his scratch band plays like starry-eyed teens on a collection of hard rock, punk rock, and garage-rock that sounds like 1970 all over again… Grade: A-   BUY!

Robyn Hitchcock & Andy Partridge - Planet England EP (Ape House)
This collaborative effort between two of rock music’s mad geniuses offers the best of both Robyn Hitchcock and XTC’s Andy Partridge. Although Planet England features only four cool tunes on compact disc or collectible 10” vinyl EP, there’s a lot going on in these grooves. Both artists share a distinctive British pop sensibility that skews their compositions towards the complex, lyrically and musically, and they play off each other here like old friends, with all the chemistry that implies, each song overflowing with lush instrumentation. “Turn Me On, Deadman” has a decidedly Hitchcock slant, while “Got Me…” evinces a distinct Partridge whimsy. The other two tracks on Planet England are equally quirky, charming, magical, and entertaining as only two well-respected gentlemen who have forged a career on the fringes of rock music could create. Caution: after spinning Planet England a couple of times you’ll be yearning for a full-length Hitchcock/Partridge album… Grade: A+   BUY!

Handsome Dick Manitoba's Born In the Bronx
Handsome Dick ManitobaBorn In the Bronx (Liberation Hall)
With the testosterone-fueled swagger of a professional wrestler and a larger-than-life personality custom-made for rock music, Handsome Dick Manitoba made his bones as frontman for legendary ‘70s-era sonic terrorists the Dictators. He formed Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom in the late ‘80s with a couple of Dictators bandmates, but Born In the Bronx is Manitoba’s first bona fide solo album. You won’t find any secret penchant for folkie ballads or wimpy pop tripe here, just scorched-earth rock ‘n’ roll with a surprising blues edge. Recorded in Nashville with producer/musician Jon Tiven and a cast of talented musos, Manitoba infuses story-songs like “Thicker Than Blood,” “8th Avenue Serenade,” and “The Cooker & the Hit” with gritty, street-smart gravitas. His somber, updated cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction” is eerily prescient’ Manitoba’s vocals throughout the album capturing the aspirations of every young man and woman whose life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll. Grade: A   BUY!   

The Muffs' No Holiday
The MuffsNo Holiday (Omnivore Recordings)
With Kim Shattuck’s death from ALS earlier this year came an outpouring of grief from the rock ‘n’ roll community. Shattuck was a beloved figure on the scene, a member of 1980s-era distaff garage-rockers the Pandoras and founder of pop-punk pioneers the Muffs, the band recording a trio of albums for Warner Bros. during the ‘90s before going indie. No Holiday, recorded during Shattuck’s illness, brims over with the charm and intelligence that has become Shattuck’s trademark sound. Although much of No Holiday is softer around the edges, with more introspective songs, perhaps, than the band’s earlier work, a few tunes like “Late and Sorry” or the raucous “Pollyanna” could easily have fit on those first couple of albums. Shattuck’s distinctive raspy, shouted vocals capture the energy of rock ‘n’ roll while her underrated guitar playing could often be both subtle and over-the-top. No Holiday is a fitting tribute to Shattuck’s passion and talents. Grade: A   BUY!

Uh Oh! It's...the Coolies

Check out Kim Shattuck’s other band, the Coolies – Little Steven’s Wicked Cool Records has re-pressed the band’s recent Uh Oh! It’s…the Coolies 10” EP on colored vinyl as a tribute to the late singer, songwriter, and guitarist with 100% of the profits from sales donated to The ALS Association Golden West Chapter.

Harry Nilsson's Losst and Founnd
Harry Nilsson – Losst and Founnd (Omnivore Recordings)
Harry Nilsson found modest success as a singer and songwriter during the 1960s and ‘70s, scoring a handful of Top 40 hits and earning the respect of contemporaries like John Lennon and Ringo Starr. He’d gone over a decade without releasing an album when he went into the studio with producer Mark Hudson in the ‘90s but sadly died before they could finish the project. Hudson has resurrected these tapes for Losst and Founnd, sweetening Nilsson’s demo vocals and adding instrumentation by folks like Jim Keltner, Klaus Voorman, and Nilsson’s son Kiefo. The result is nine new original Nilsson tracks and a couple of inspired cover songs that explore the singer’s love of pop and rock music and display the man’s undeniable musical charisma. It’s been almost 40 years since we were gifted with a Harry Nilsson album, but for longtime fans of the artist, it’s better late than never! Grade: B+   BUY!

The Rosalyns' Outta Reach
The Rosalyns – Outta Reach (Pig Baby Records)
A veritable “supergroup” of distaff rockers, the Rosalyns features multi-instrumentalist Birdy Bardot along with members of the Loons, the Schizophonics, and the Gore Gore Girls. Credentials like these mean that their debut LP, Outta Reach, rocks like a trailer park in a tornado. The Rosalyns formed a few years back to pay tribute to pioneering “girl groups” like the Pleasure Seekers and Ace of Cups, the band pursuing a similar sonic blueprint, i.e. unbridled 1960s-styled garage-rock with swaths of psychedelic color. They put their original spin on classic songs and obscurities alike here, infusing tunes like “Give Him A Great Big Kiss,” “Hanky Panky,” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop” with plenty of howling guitars, heavy bass, explosive percussion, and old-school keyboards. You haven’t lived, though, until you’ve heard the Rosalyns tear up the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” like a pack of hungry she-wolves. Highly recommended…and pick up a copy of the Schizophonics new LP when you check out the indie Pig Baby Records website! Grade: B+    BUY!

Bobby Rush's Sitting On Top of the Blues
Bobby RushSitting On Top of the Blues (Deep Rush Records)
Blues legend Bobby Rush, at 86 years old, rocks a performance like singers a third his age, and has been doing so since long before most of us were born. Rush has been recording since the early ‘60s, creating his own unique fusion of blues, soul, and funk. Rush follows-up on his 2017 Grammy™ Award-winning album Porcupine Meat with the stellar collection Sitting On Top of the Blues, one of the most entertaining entries in a catalog rich with such. The self-referential “Hey Hey Bobby Rush” is a brash, swaggering ode to the blues while “Recipe For Love” is a rollicking instrumental showcase for Rush’s underrated harmonica skills. The sweltering “Pooky Poo” is a Swamp Dogg-styled old-school R&B jam and the bawdy “Bowlegged Woman” is trademark Bobby Rush with good-natured ribald humor. Vashti Jackson provides guitar on most tracks, the Mississippi bluesman’s talents providing a counterpoint to Rush’s vocals and harp-play. Grade: A   BUY!

Previously on That Devil
Short Rounds, April 2019: Steve Earle, Nils Lofgren, Lone Justice, Adam Sandler, Sour Ops, Robin Trower, Jimmie Vaughan 

Short Rounds, March 2019: Tommy Castro, Gary Clark Jr, R. Stevie Moore, Jason Ringenberg, 3x4
Short Rounds, February 2019: Pete Berwick, Big Star, Ted Drozdowski, Walter Trout & Watermelon Slim

Friday, November 29, 2019

Archive Review: Thunderharp Choir’s Hope & Gloria (1996)

Thunderharp Choir’s Hope & Glory
A few years back, the Detroit scene gave birth to a rock ‘n’ roll band by the name of Jugglers & Thieves, a promising outfit with a pair of skilled guitarists, a talented female bass player (a rarity in those days), and a female vocalist with the voice of an angel.

The band mixed flash and form with acoustic balladry and electrifying hard rock, standing head and shoulders above their Motor City musical brethren, who all seemed to want to be either Guns ’N Roses or the Sex Pistols. Jugglers & Thieves released one wonderful album, played a single memorable Nashville show at a now-defunct local club, and then faded into rock ‘n’ roll history.

Thunderharp Choir’s Hope & Gloria

That angelic voice, personified in the form of one Christine McCall-Kuehn, has returned with another Detroit-area band, Thunderharp Choir. Their independently-released Hope & Gloria has nothing in common with the ex-Miss McCall’s previous band save for her subtly matured vocals and an impressive range of musical styles. The disc opens with “Magical Days,” a folk-pop tune which highlights Chrissie’s singing and songwriting skills, delighting with its lyrical hooks and its infectious, melodic “doo-doo-doo” chorus. It’s the perfect entry to Hope & Gloria, a collection of songs guaranteed to grow on you with each subsequent playing.

McCall-Kuehn trades off leads with the equally talented Graham Strachan, whose gutsy, more earthy style contrasts well with Chrissie’s heavenly vocals. Guitarist Jason McCall-Kuehn is certainly no slouch in the six-string department, tearing off some tasty licks in a blues-rock vein while keeping up a strong instrumental presence; the rhythm section adds a strong backbone to the material. Cuts like Graham’s “Strawberries,” with its nonsensical nursery-rhyme ending; Chrissie’s lonely, tearful “Where Your Heart Was,” with its appropriately sparse instrumentation, or Jason’s mournful ode to love lost, “Red Dress,” showcase a great depth of songwriting talent among the members of Thunderharp Choir. Even the hauntingly beautiful and chaotic “Soon,” cowritten by Chrissie and ex-J & T bass player Jill Zimba-Dybka, is served well by the band’s underlying chemistry, their musical skills perfectly tying together the material found on Hope & Gloria.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Thunderharp Choir, much like their musical antecedent Jugglers & Thieves, is a rarity in today’s musical world: a completely unique and original band that refuse to fit into any neat category or pigeonhole. They masterfully blend the finer elements of folk and blues, melding them seamlessly with a rock background. Hope & Gloria is intelligent, thoughtful, sincere and most of all, entertaining. This time around, let’s hope that Chrissie and her latest band receive the acclaim and success they so thoroughly deserve. (Black Thistle Records, 1996)

Buy the CD from Thunderharp Choir’s Hope & Gloria

Archive Review: Electric Flag’s Old Glory The Best Of Electric Flag (1995)

Old Glory: The Best Of Electric Flag
If Michael Bloomfield was still alive today, he would surely enjoy the same sort of elder statesman status that has been bestowed upon Eric Clapton. During the late 1960s/early ’70s, Bloomfield – a middle class white kid from Chicago – was accorded the kind of critical acclaim that only British guitarists like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page received. Poor health, a fragmented recorded legacy, and his mysterious death in 1981 has instead relegated Bloomfield to the history books as an interesting, if obscure, icon of the period.

It’s a shame, too, because as anyone who has heard Bloomfield at his best would testify to, he was one of the most exciting and intricate axemen of the era – Hendrix included. Electric Flag, Bloomfield’s ill-fated stab at success, was conceived of as an "American” music band, that is, a vehicle for gathering together two decades of rock, soul, and blues into one musical entity. The original band only released one album, A Long Time Comin’ before splintering into different factions, with Bloomfield the first to leave due to his health.

Most of that album is represented by Old Glory: The Best of Electric Flag, the eight cuts culled from Flag’s debut illustrating a band that is trying to cover too much artistic ground at one time. It nevertheless serves as an excellent showcase for Bloomfield’s six-string prowess, building upon his work with the Butterfield Blues Band and opening the door for the solo work to follow. Cuts taken from The Electric Flag: An American Music Band, the band’s second album are sans Bloomfield and mostly provide a forum for the less subtle musical tendencies of ersatz band leader Buddy Miles.

A few rarities and a pair of unreleased live cuts taken from the band’s debut performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 round out the compilation. I’d recommend Bloomfield's solo material or his work with the Butterfield Blues Band first, but if you're hungry for more after that, check out Old Glory: The Best of Electric Flag for another look at this unheralded talent. (Sony Legacy Recordings, 1995)

Buy the CD from Old Glory: The Best of Electric Flag

Friday, November 22, 2019

Archive Review: Michael Monroe’s Life Gets You Dirty (2000)

Michael Monroe was an integral part of Hanoi Rocks – one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most tragically overlooked bands. Over the course of half a dozen albums, Hanoi Rocks set the stage for most of what would follow in ’80s hard rock.

Guns ‘N Roses would subsequently rip off a good deal of Hanoi Rocks’ unique hybrid of flamboyant glam-rock and metal-edged hard rock, with Axl repaying the favor by getting the Hanoi Rocks’ catalog reissued stateside by Geffen. After the death of the Hanoi’s drummer, the band broke-up. Monroe made a couple of solo albums afterwards, later returning to Europe and fading from stateside awareness.

Michael Monroe’s Life Gets You Dirty

As an original Hanoi Rocks fan, I was overjoyed to find Life Gets You Dirty stuffed in my mailbox one afternoon and after a couple of months of listening to Monroe’s long-overdue solo effort, I am not disappointed. Life Gets You Dirty plumbs much of the same hard rock territory as Monroe’s previous solo material, and even his work with Hanoi Rocks, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Monroe’s vocals are particularly suited to this type of performances, complimented by additional vocals from songwriting partner Jude Wilder.

Monroe’s blistering guitar work evokes memories of former bandmate Andy McCoy while his current rhythm section nails every song. Cuts such as “Just Because You’re Paranoid,” “If The World Don’t Want Me” and  “What’s With The World?” as well as the obligatory Hanoi cover, “Self Destruction Blues” rock with a fervor and electricity that is truly timeless.

Since Life Gets You Dirty is an import disc, it may be difficult to find on your local music store’s thinly-stocked shelves. If you like your rock hard, though, you might want to check out Michael Monroe. With a high-voltage blend of amplified roots-rock, heavy metal, punk attitude and glam theatrics, Life Gets You Dirty blows away every hard rock poseur on the charts today. (Steamhammer Records, 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2000

Archive Review: John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters (2000)

John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters
Crossing Muddy Waters, John Hiatt’s current acoustic project, makes perfect sense considering that Hiatt has always been about 25% folkie, 25% country, and 50% rocker at heart. Hiatt mixes all of his artistic inclinations together on Crossing Muddy Waters, throwing them into a big pot, adding a dash of soul and some blues to make a big ol’ tasty musical gumbo!

A gifted songwriter who has received far more recognition for other people’s versions of his material than for his own recordings, the raw ambiance of Crossing Muddy Waters probably won’t do much to lift Hiatt from undeserved obscurity.

John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters

Crossing Muddy Waters is a fine collections of songs, though, Hiatt’s masterful tales of the rural south exploring themes such as unrequited love, betrayal, religion and death that remain universal in their appeal. At this point in his lengthy career, Hiatt certainly harbors no illusions, and even if other people’s recordings of his songs have made him comfortable, his songs remain as intelligent and thoughtful as ever. Like most every other John Hiatt album that I’ve ever heard, there are some real gems among the tracks, and Crossing Muddy Waters is no exception.

“Gone” is a song of lost love that is nevertheless funny, the singer comparing his true love’s departure to other fleeting moments in life. “Mr. Stanley” is a bluesy dirge done Mississippi Delta style while the title cut is a lyrical “who dunnit” – why did the woman run away and leave her daughter behind? “God’s Golden Eyes” is a spiritual reflection on nature’s beauty and the intricacy of love. The album-closer, “Before I Go,” is a lively tale of eternal love that is rife with imagery and emotion (and will probably become a big hit for some other artist).

Aside from songwriting, another talent of Hiatt’s has been his ability to work with some of the best musicians around. Crossing Muddy Waters is no exception, with Hiatt enlisting the help of former Camper Van Beethoven members Davey Faragher and David Immergluck to help get his acoustic ideas across.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Crossing Muddy Waters has been nominated for a Grammy Award™ for “Best Folk Album” but it is much deeper than that. John Hiatt is an American treasure, a humble poet laureate with talents as wide and deep as the great Mississippi. His contributions to rock, country, and folk music is immeasurable and, as proven once again by Crossing Muddy Waters, Hiatt only continues to get better with age. (Vanguard Records, 2000)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2001

Buy the CD from John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters

Friday, November 15, 2019

Archive Review: Strapping Young Lad’s SYL (2003)

Strapping Young Lad’s SYL
To make this comparison really come alive, you’re gonna need one o’ those industrial strength blenders, the kind they have in some food factory or maybe a slaughterhouse. Stick your head inside the giant metal bowl and feel the razor-sharp metal blades against your ears. Then reach over and hit the button for ‘puree’...that’s what listening to SYL is like. After a half-hour or so of joyfully experiencing Devin Townsend’s demonic growl and tortured six-string work, yer brain is guaranteed to turn to mush.

There’s heavy metal and then again, there’s HEAVY FUCKING METAL, and Strapping Young Lad definitely falls into the ‘HFM’ category. Townsend, former sideman for Steve Vai and a talented solo artist in his own right, mimics the sound of your brain being shredded like no other axeman plying his or her trade today (save for maybe Zakk Wylde). Townsend’s solo work tends to downplay his gonzo energy a degree or two on the old manic-meter in favor of prog-rock experimentation. When fronting his mates in Strapping Young Lad, Townsend throws caution (and the listener’s eardrums) to the wind to deliberately blast dangerous plaque from your speakers as loudly as possible.

Strapping Young Lad’s SYL

SYL proves that there is more to Strapping Young Lad than Townsend’s considerable ability to crack yer cranium open with his guitar. Guitarist Jed Simon of Front Line Assembly adds a dimension of industrial insanity to the sound while drummer Gene Hoglan of Dark Angel pounds the skins with the force of an underground nuclear test explosion. Along with bassist Byron Stroud, Hoglan creates an intense rhythmic undercurrent over which Townsend and Simon throw down their clashing guitars. It’s kinda hard to follow the lyrics buried in Townsend’s vocals, so they provide a cheat sheet in the CD booklet. Inane poetic whimsy such as “dripping... gigbutt... dirt pride... my pride... dripping... bunksock” sounds a lot better when it comes roaring out of your speakers like so much unburned jet fuel from the ass end of a F-16.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The songs on SYL were inspired by the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and the album does express a fair degree of intelligent rage and frustration over man’s inhumanity to man (and woman), the above lyrics notwithstanding. Then again, nobody listens to HEAVY FUCKING METAL for the Dylanesque lyrical inspiration of the band’s muse. You slap something like SYL on yer box, crank the sucker up as far past ten as the amp will go, and then spend the next thirty or forty minutes bouncing off the walls until you either shit or go blind. To this end, SYL stands up admirably, temporarily robbing you of your vision and your hearing. With the apocalyptic tango of SYL, Strapping Young Lad delivers the first classic death metal disc of the century. (Century Media, 2003)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003

Buy the CD from Strapping Young Lad’s SYL

Archive Review: Icons of Filth’s Nostradamnedus (2003)

Icons of Filth's Nostradamnedus
The first wave of British punk, circa 1977, spawned a number of bands that possessed a social consciousness and expressed their concerns through song. The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, even modish new wavers like the Jam all stirred up their fair share of controversy with lyrics commenting on social ills or championing left-leaning causes.

Nothing could prepare the Queen’s subjects for what was to follow, however. Extremist punks like Crass, Conflict, Discharge, Flux of Pink Indians, the Subhumans, and Icons of Filth took their cue from American hardcore bands, mixing anarchist philosophy with powerful thrash-and-burn instrumentation to create some of the most invigorating punk rock ever heard.

Whereas some of these bands – Crass readily comes to mind – were naïve idealists, forming communes and spinning off side bands, others such as Conflict or Discharge were more nihilistic in nature. With Maggie Thatcher in office in the U.K. and Ronnie Ray-gun sleeping in the White House, anarchist punks were forced to form their own record labels to get their music out since no corporate label wanted to touch them.

Conflict formed Mortarhate and, aside from the band’s own albums, they also released a number of singles and an album by fellow travelers Icons of Filth (all of which were reissued on CD by Go Kart in 2000). Throughout the years, Icons of Filth has grown in statue rather than sinking into obscurity, becoming one of a handful of artistic touchstones for underground punks wanting to bring politics into their music. With the recent revival of bands like Discharge and old mates Conflict, it was only natural for Icons of Filth to reform and stroll into the recording studio.

Icons of Filth’s Nostradamnedus

Nostradamnedus is the result of the band’s efforts, the first album from Icons of Filth in nearly twenty years and, let me tell you kiddies, this shit’ll grab you by the ears and knock your head into the wall. The band members seemingly haven’t lost a step through the years, still quite capable of creating balls-to-the-wall sounds that’ll shred yer greedy lil’ eardrums and make yer nose bleed. The usual lyrical preoccupations are found on Nostradamnedus: anarcho-leftist rhetoric about animal rights, vegetarianism, and racism and so forth, but Stig, Daffy and the boys have updated their perspective to appeal to a new millennium zeitgeist. While songs like “Riddled With Guilt” or “Treadmill” hit your brain like sticking a fork in an electric socket, others, like “Henry Ford,” tickle yer cerebellum with not-so-subtle thoughts of Luddite sabotage.

Once you get past the bad joke hidden in the album’s title, Nostradamnedus stands as an instant classic of hardcore punk, if only for the title track and “Airwaves.” Pointing directly at the fools who take every world event and match it to one of Nostradamus’ many prophecies, the band cleverly wraps up the past and future in a package with a neat little bow. After all, if the future has already been foretold, why bother to try and change it? Nostradamnedus, indeed! As for “Airwaves,” it was probably written by Icons of Filth a couple of years ago but, as we stand on the brink of war in early 2003, it couldn’t be any more relevant.

Set to a migraine level six-string drone and explosive rhythms, Stig sings “if you form an opinion that’s not in dominion/then you’re an oddball and should be kept quiet.” Kind of like how Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and these other rightwing radio gasbags keep beating the fucking war drums, ridiculing anybody who’s not ready to prostrate themselves before the wisdom of massa Bush and his Konservative Klan. “Airwaves” doesn't stop there, however, as Icons of Filth verbally slamdunk the entire corporate media monopoly and its restriction on diversity of thought – Stig spits out “when they tell you of free speech, they’re liars.”

Mindless television programs, radio playlist homogenization, empty consumerist dreams, “antenna head and already dead.” Fittingly enough, the band saves its worse barbs for punk rock itself, “rock ‘n’ roll has lost its soul and now everything's diluted/bands with fans, big money plans/your pockets empty, looted.” Kind of like how you feel when you buy that ultra-groovy new CD at the mall and get home to find out that it only has one decent song and when you stop to think about it, that song kind of sucks, too…

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Now, more than ever, we need Icons of Filth, one of the few bands with the balls to be bold in a meek musical landscape. The Rev sez “check it out!” (Go Kart Records, released November 26, 2002)

Buy the CD from Icons of Filth's Nostradamnedus

Friday, November 8, 2019

Archive Review: Motörhead's Inferno (2004)

Motörhead's Inferno
Motörhead has been this “legendary heavy metal band” for so long that even many critics have overlooked the metal icon’s overall importance in the grand scheme of things. Frontman Lemmy Kilminster’s roots are in typical ’60s-era British R&B, but it’s when he joined prog-rockers Hawkwind that things began to get interesting. As bassist for the space-rock outfit during the early ’70s, Lemmy perfected both his bottom-heavy instrumental style and his songwriting skills.

When kicked out of Hawkwind for a myriad of offenses, Lemmy formed Motörhead as an outlet for his aggressive hard rock vision, equal parts British biker culture, pre-punk punk rock attitude, and heavy metal thunder. Over the course of dozens of albums, Lemmy and Motörhead's ever-evolving line-up managed to affect punk, heavy metal, and thrash unlike any other artistic influence.

Motörhead's Inferno

For almost thirty years, Motörhead’s musical blueprint has been consistent and consistently powerful: Lemmy’s gruff vocals spitting out lyrics above a massive slab of feedback-driven guitar riffs and thunderous drumbeats. Inferno, the band’s latest, doesn’t stray far from the formula. The blistering “Terminal Show” kicks off the disc, a futuristic tale of woe set to a speed metal soundtrack that careens out of control approx. 30 seconds into the song, guest axeman Steve Vai’s razor sharp leads standing in counterpoint to Phillip Campbell’s percussive riffs.

Motörhead's Inferno
From here, the pace never diminishes, drummer Mikkey Dee’s merciless rhythms driving the songs forward while Lemmy’s bass bludgeons the listener and Campbell’s six-string work punches with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The only surprise on Inferno, perhaps, is the acoustic “Whorehouse Blues,” an overt reference to the influence of traditional blues (and British blues-rock) on Motörhead’s metallic sturm-und-drang.

Inferno is both timeless and out-of-time, Lemmy serving up uncompromising rock ‘n’ roll field-tested by better than a quarter-century of hard roadwork. In Campbell and Dee, Kilminster has the band he’s always wanted, the iron fist inside the tattered leather glove. Like most Motörhead albums, Inferno is dominated by themes of sex, death, power, and the near-mystical aesthetic of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs roar like a wolf at the door and scream louder than Dante’s nightmares, Motörhead an anachronistic thorn in the side of the music business, the rude guest that refuses to leave the modern rock party.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

You won't hear Inferno on the radio, but its importance will be felt five or ten years from now when the kid who discovers Motörhead through this album forms the next Metallica or Nirvana. In the end, Lemmy won’t be remembered so much for the remarkable simplicity and strength of his music but for the young musicians who continue to be influenced by the uncompromising honesty and anarchistic spirit that is Motörhead. (Steamhammer Records, 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

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Archive Review: Various Artists - Yes New York (2003)

Various Artists - Yes New York
If early ’90s Seattle was the new Athens, then early ’00s New York City must be the new Seattle, if you catch my drift. Sure, there are “garage rock” bands (or whatever you want to call ’em) scattered all across the fruited plain (and in old Londontown as well), but all that is hip and happening tends to somehow, eventually, inevitably find its way to the “Big Apple.” Yes New York documents the current crop of NYC bands, freezing the scene in a perfect moment in time not unlike the handful of late ’70s albums that captured the Ramones/Television/Patti Smith scene that made Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s the places to hang out in 1977.

Yes New York

The producers of Yes New York are a savvy bunch, throwing in some heavy-hitting major leaguers like the Strokes, Ted Leo, and Interpol alongside a minor league crop of future superstars like Radio 4, the Walkmen, and the Natural History. Round it out with some players-in-training like Longwave, Le Tigre, and Unitard and you have a batting line-up that will hit for power and percentage.

The once-banned “New York City Cops” is the hook to entice you to spend your coin on Yes New York; the rare live (and previously unreleased) Strokes cut copped from an April 2002 performance in Iceland. Most of the rest of Yes New York is culled from the artist’s current albums, although a few worthy gems – such as the anarchic “Tired” by LCD Soundsystem, or the new wave throwback cut from the Witnesses – are unreleased or barely released.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

So is Yes New York worth your time and money to track down? If you're interested in what is going on musically on the fringes of pop culture, then the answer would be an emphatic “Yes, New York!” As a microcosm of the current American music zeitgeist, NYC’s current scene offers all of the diversity, influences and varied sounds that any rocker would want to hear. If you're looking for a fresh take on some old sounds, check out the bands on Yes New York for a taste of what’s being done these days on the indie music scene (before it’s co-opted and corrupted by the majors!)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003

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