Friday, October 16, 2020

Archive Review: Pestilence's Spheres (1993/2007)

Pestilence's Spheres
Dutch heavy metal trailblazers Pestilence – along with contemporaries like Death, Cynic, and Atheist – stood at the creative forefront of the late ‘80s death metal movement. They defined the sound, the stylistic vacuum cleaner roar of the genre’s vocals, and the instrumental fusion of fast-n-furious thrash with deliberately bone-crushing heavy metal…and tens of thousands of teenage listeners swapped their white t-shirts in for logo-clad black cotton battle armor.

For many of these bands, though, the purebred expectations of death metal and its rabid fans became chains to restrict their sound rather than supporting the expansion of their creative endeavors. Such as it was with Pestilence – the band charted its course with a pair of brutal, razor-blade bulldozers in 1988’s Malleus Maleficarum and the following year’s Consuming Impulse. They navigated off the map with 1991’s Testimony of the Agents though…when vocalist Martin Van Drunen left the band over creative differences, guitarist Patrick Mameli took over on vox…and the new helmsman steered the band towards a more progressive musical course. Conservative death metal fans disliked that album, but not nearly as much as they hated 1993’s Spheres, Pestilence’s fourth and final effort.

Pestilence’s Spheres

Mameli took his talented crew into uncharted waters with this masterpiece of complex, elemental, progressive metal that literally took the normal, accepted death metal blueprint and set it on fire, then drowned it in a vat of boiling oil. The first half of Pestilence’s Spheres more or less walks a conventional death metal line. “Mind Reflections,” for instance, offers up enough machine-gun drumbeats, tortured guitarwork, guttural vocals and manic energy to satisfy any died-in-the-wool hesher. “Multiple Beings” starts to get a little loosey-goosey with song structure, serving up some head-snapping time changes and discordant, Fripperian six-string squonk. “The Level of Perception” hides a complex and maddening rhythmic construct beneath its concrete-smashing fury.

The album’s first “musical interlude” – the atmospheric “Aurian Eyes” – tip-toes not-so-elegantly into the avant-garden of composers like Phillip Glass, its stark beauty and crashing horizon painting a dark psychological portrait in a mere 92 seconds. By the time that the polyglot instrumental frenzy of “Soul Search” hits the listener’s ears, the corpse-paint has been peeled from this edifice…Spheres has clearly entered into newfound, and dangerous territory. Mameli’s six-string mangling throughout “Soul Search” is disturbingly brilliant, a chaotic tangle of razor wire, rusty chains and glass shards that shatters the artificial barriers of death metal propriety.

“Personal Energy” comes at you like a voice from the inner recess of your mind, the muted albeit industrial-strength rhythms complimented by a taut jazz-fusion guitar line that Stan Lassiter or Al DiMeola would have been proud to crank out. “Voices From Within,” the second brief though incredible musical interlude on Spheres, sounds like Ralph Towner on steroids, second guitarist Patrick Uterwijk’s electronically-altered axe carrying the Pestilence crew dangerously close to the siren’s shore of Sun Ra’s dreams. Steering away at the last minute with the raw, dissembled title track, its familiar cranium-crushing brutality should have soothed any disaffected death-kiddies’ fears…until the third brilliant instrumental break of the album combines a chilling lead with a stabbing riff. The song ends with a cool prog-styled keyboard run, strictly anathema to young early ‘90s headbangers.

Changing Perspectives

The martial “Changing Perspectives” foreshadows Sepultura’s mid-’90s work on Roots, Mameli’s vocals reduced to a mere howl, tribal rhythms and muscular riffs creating a dense framework upon which the guitarist lays down more of his incredibly adventurous six-string embroidery. The last musical interlude, “Phileas,” treads closely to the ambient work of Brian Eno, or maybe Stephan Micus. Although most metal-flakes tuned out and turned away from Spheres long before “Demise of Time” had a chance to properly assault their speakers, the loss is theirs, not ours. The song is a grand experiment of what could only be called “math metal,” a cacophonic blitzkrieg of sound and fury that melds rapid-fire signature changes with crystalline string-bending and a hurricane of tumultuous rhythms and blustery vocals.

Sadly out-of-print for years, Spheres has been resurrected by the good folks of Poland’s Metal Mind label, the disc distributed by our friends at MVD Audio in the United States. A limited edition of 2,000 copies pressed onto a gold disc, including a booklet with informative liner notes and song lyrics, this deluxe reissue of Spheres adds four bonus tracks, including remix versions of “Soul Search” and “Demise of Time” that emphasize Mameli’s freelance six-string work and bring the keyboards to the front of the mix, emphasizing the band’s Killing Joke influences.

Live versions of “Mind Reflections” and “Multiple Beings” showcase Pestilence’s Godzilla-strength performance chops, the band bludgeoning the audience with a blistering drone that sounds like the ass-end of an F-14 Tomcat. By the time that Pestilence recorded Spheres, the band had clearly jumped onto a higher musical plane. Mameli’s fretwork was both more nuanced and literate as well as heavier, diamond hard. Drummer Marco Foddis hits the skins with the finesse of a jazzman and the power of a jackhammer, and his matured lyrical abilities veered sharply away from the stuffy death metal confines of doom-and-gloom to explore themes of psychology, philosophy and the cosmos. Bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling is as creative in his realm as Jaco Pastorius was in his, while guitarist Patrick Uterwijk is a crazy, inventive player. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Altogether, the four created a metallic masterpiece that, although disdained and discarded at the time – Spheres reportedly sold about 25% of the copies of any of the band’s previous three titles – the album’s stature has nevertheless grown through the years. Pestilence’s experimental metal paved the way for modern explorers like Nile and Meshuggah, and deserves to be respected and revered for the groundbreaking effort that Pestilence risked its career to lay down on tape. Yes, with the genre-expanding Spheres, Voidvod’s The Outer Limits, Atheist’s Elements, and Cynic’s Focus, 1993 was a great year for metal! (MVD Audio/Metal Mind Records, released 2007)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2007 


Archive Review: Sahg's Sahg II (2008)

Sahg's Sahg II
No doubt, the axe-manglers in Sahg have drunk from the cup of Popoff and listened intently to their scratchy old Sabbath and Zeppelin elpees. Their obvious influences notwithstanding, Sahg aren’t your garden-variety dirt-merchants, tilling the fertile doom-metal earth that so many others have plowed before them. Nosirree, these Norwegian knuckleheads have the audacity to believe that they can improve upon the original blueprint, adding a little razzle-dazzle here, and a bit o’ stoned proggy vibe there, thinking that it would pass muster.

Ordinarily, the Reverend would give ‘em the thumb and send the lot of them on their way back to the frozen fjords of northern Europe…’cept that Sahg II is a mighty nifty slice of good ol’ fashioned ear sludge. This disc will provide the discriminating listener with all of the max-volume daily requirements of broken guitar strings, busted drumheads and jackhammer basslines that you need to go about yer daily bizness, whatever sordid debauchery said bidness might involve…

Sahg’s Sahg II

With their 2006 debut album, Sahg showed that they could successful create music that conveyed a sense of texture…yeah, that texture was mostly concrete-quicksand, threaded throughout with rebar-like six-string histrionics that would make Uncle Tony gleeful with gratitude. But, it was the kind of album that Sahg could bring home and hang on the
Osborne family refrigerator. With Sahg II, however, the boys have jumped in front of their glue-sniffing, gold-star elementary school classmates and are ready to spin-the-bottle on their junior high prom night. Sure, these songs still include the kind of plodding dino-dance rhythms and down-tuned guitars that send the cult of Iommi into ecstatic cold shivers and priapism. But Sahg has expanded its palette here, ya see, broadening the sound of their songs…and more power to ‘em, I say. If their initial musical efforts displayed great texture, Sahg II brings ATMOSPHERE into the mix…thick, beefy, lung-smothering atmosphere, the kind of heavy drapery that inhabits nightmares and really, really good horror movies.

How Sahg made this major league leap o’ faith, musically, is nobody’s business but their own, I suppose…my job is to simply evaluate and criticize, yours is to shut your yap and listen up. My guess – if my lifetime batting average was better than .233 with these sort of pitches – is that the prog-metal flourishes that the band brings to the table this time out, along with a longer song structure (the tunes are 25% longer here on average than on Sahg I, by my cipherin’), has allowed Sahg to fully display their instrumental prowess, thus creating that wonderful atmospheric backdrop that I was raving about somewhere previously. Simply put, there’s a lot of meat on this bone, and you can really sink your teeth into some of the rabid rave-ups on Sahg II. “Echoes Ring Forever” sounds like Zep’s “hammer of the gods” poundin’ on yer noggin, but with vox that rip and tear at the fabric of reality while the music comes crashing down around your ears like shattered glass and twisted steel. The guitar solo in the middle of this one is so frightfully magnificent that it hurts.

“Star-Crossed” might pass for an outtake from Sabbath’s Vol. 4 save for the song’s rhythmic foundation, which just kind of shuffles along at a Vanilla Fudge pace while frowny-face guitars creepy-crawl all over the vocals. “Pyromancer” is the kind of alchemical firestarter that only Killing Joke has managed to conjure up during my lifetime, while the nearly eleven-minute dirge “Monomania” is a cinematic bloodbath. Breathless, hypnotic, exotic, and possibly addictive, this radioactive-relic of another era successfully molds the mystery of Sabbath, the lysergic-fueled insanity of Hawkwind, the dark occultism of Zeppelin, and Sahg’s own unique, disturbing metallic vision into a saber-rattling golem hellbent on destruction…the song is just that damn good!

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Bottom line, droogs: if you live and breathe for the holy trinity of Sabbath, Pentagram, and Saint Vitus, you’ll probably dig this, too, even if it doesn’t exactly adhere to the doom-metal orthodoxy. With only their second album, Sahg has delivered a near-masterpiece of HEAVY music, and you can’t say that about many underclassmen. Can’t wait to see what they drop on us when they get kicked out of high school... (Regain Records, released February 11, 2008)

Buy the CD from Sahgs Sahg II

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

Friday, October 9, 2020

Archive Review: Realm's Endless War (1988/2006)

Realm's Endless War
From jump street, Realm’s 1988 debut album Endless War comes galloping out of your speakers like the Four Horsemen of some alternative, leather-clad Apocalypse, grabbing your ears and smacking your pointy lil’ head against the pavement until you give up your lunch money. That’s lofty praise, to be sure, but from the opening chords of the album’s title track ‘til the final musical explosion that Realm titled “Poisoned Minds,” Endless War is a high-octane kick-in-the-groin with the dreaded steel-toed work boot (size 12, I think). Part of the MVD Audio reissue series of classic Roadrunner Records titles from the golden age of heavy metal, Endless Realm kicks serious ass in every way that you could imagine (967 if you’re actually counting).

Roaring out of the unlikely environs of Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Realm took the early ‘80s thrash-metal revolution that had already infected the West Coast seriously. More so, these jugheads took it PERSONALLY as well, figuring, I guess, that they could tear down buildings and deflower virginal young maidens as well as Hetfield, Mustaine or the assorted (sordid?) mopes from Testament, or maybe even better. Fey Cali metalheads aside, Realm was formed in 1985 by vocalist Mark Antoni, guitarists Takis Kinis and Paul Laganowski, bassist Steve Post and drummer Mike Olson. After circulating a couple of demo tapes around the growing metal tape-trading underground, and selling a few thousand copies out of their collective car trunks and by mail order (back in the pre-web daze), Realm signed a with the young Roadrunner Records label in 1988.

Realm's Endless Wars Endless War

With Endless War, the Realm guys figured that they had built a better metal mousetrap, and I’d have to agree with them (and not only ‘cause they’re currently holding my dog Mugsy hostage…you’ll be home soon boy, I promise!). In Mark Antoni, Realm had an unusually talented vocalist (for a thrash band, that is), an old-school warbler that soared rather than growled, hitting the notes high and low like Dickinson from Iron Maiden or Savatage’s Jon Oliva. Antoni struts and swaggers through the mix like some sort of spotlight-clad Greek deity while the rest of the band knocks down the riffs and rhythms with reckless glee.

Here’s the other unusual thing about Realm – even a casual listen to Endless War displays technical chops more akin to contemporary prog-metal outfits than twenty-year-old thrash-metal bands. The guys in Realm, particularly guitarists Laganowski and Kinis, bring a big dose of melodic technicality to the music, refusing to trade skills for power and vice versa. There are a lot of progressive elements in Realm’s sound, from the intricate guitar interplay to the careful rhythmic construction. Drummer Olson can blister the skins with the best of ‘em, but he can also follow Post’s rhythmic lead and deliver subtle flourishes that fill out the band’s sound nicely.

Progressive Metal

It all comes down to the songs though, don’t it, which in the case of Realm’s Endless War, are a breathless mix of traditional metal construct, futuristic flights of fancy (a la Voivod), classic thrash-and-speed-metal elements (think early Metallica or Megadeth) and an undeniable progressive undercurrent (Uriah Heep, Rush). Lyrically, with words mostly penned by guitarist Kinis, Realm follows an artistic path similar to heavy metal colleagues like Nuclear Assault, Riot, or Intruder, mixing socially-conscious story-songs with fantasy-influenced wordplay. It’s the sheer sonic power of the material on Endless War that keeps Realm in high favor among metal collectors, though, from the unrelenting search-and-destroy mission that is “All Heads Will Turn To the Hunt” to the gentle-like-a-sledgehammer Zeppisms of “Root of Evil” or the soul crushing, eardrum-busting, liver-shaking sturm und drang of “Poisoned Minds.” To further turn the world on its head, Realm dared to deliver a red hot cover of the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby,” reinventing the classic rock chestnut in a way that not even John Lennon’s mother would recognize.

In the long run, Realm didn’t have the spark in ‘em to carry on much further than Endless War. They released an appropriately vicious follow-up, Suiciety, in 1990, which has also been reissued by MVD Audio with the entire luxury package, and the band reportedly recorded an unreleased third album a couple of years later. As I’ve told you all before, however, the early ’90s proved to be a sodden bloody killing floor for all things metal, and it wasn’t until later in the decade when boy bands suddenly ruled the earth that shaggy-headed teenaged miscreants (much like the Reverend when he was a young Neanderthal) went looking for more meaningful musical experiences, finding Realm’s fine pair of albums in the process.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Regardless of your tastes in metal (I like mine barbequed, personally), if you still get shivers at the sound of clashing guitars and are drawn to rampaging drumbeats like a flea-bitten hound at the sound of a dog whistle, you owe it to yourself to dig up a copy of Realm’s Endless War. Provided a proper reissuing with scalpel-sharp 24-bit remastering, a high-quality shiny gold disc, original art, an attractive booklet with lots of words and song lyrics (and liner notes from guitarist Takis Kinis) in a limited edition of 2k, you’d better find your copy today. The Reverend doth decree it! (MVD Audio/Metal Mind Records, released 2006)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2006

Archive Review: Xentrix's Shattered Existence (1989/2006)

Xentrix's Shattered Existence
I wrote previously about MVD Audio, the CD end of the Music Video Distributors empire, coming to an agreement with Roadrunner Records to reissue nearly two dozen of the label’s classic ‘80s metal titles in grand new limited editions on gold discs with original cover art, liner notes, lyrics and everything. Having received a number of these groovy reissue discs from the good folks at MVD, and after listening to them repeatedly over the past couple of months (between my stories on teevee and, well, that job thing), now it’s time to write a few words about these mutts.

U.K. thrashmasters Xentrix (pronounced “Zen Tricks” for you Hooked On Phonics™ types), unremarkably, began life as a garden-variety Metallica cover band known about town as Sweet Vengeance. That they chose to channel Metallica is not surprising, really – British bands struggled during the late ‘80s to define their own particular brand of thrash-and-speed-metal chops and many of ‘em sounded like Lars and crew. By the time of the band’s signing with the fledgling Roadrunner label in 1988, based on the strength of their four-song demo tape, the band had changed its name to Xentrix and had already begun to develop its own voice.

Xentrix’s Shattered Existence

Released in 1989, Shattered Existence is one raucous mother of a debut disc. The band kicks the amps up to “11” before declaring “No Compromise,” and then they kept the damn tape rolling long past the point where their collective ears began to bleed. “Dark Enemy” offers up a literal human sacrifice in the form of guitarist Kristian Havard’s hands – surely he lost them after performing the song’s caustic fretboard runs, while “Bad Blood” expanded the band’s musical palette, displaying melodic elements alongside machine-gun drumming, courtesy of the bombastic Dennis Gasser. Vocalist/guitarist and band founder Chris Astley is a capable frontman, his vox sounding like the same shade of gray as James Hetfield’s, snapping and growling like a rabid pup above the razor-sharp mix. The rest of Shattered Existence mines similar thrash/speed-metal turf, alternating between Iommi-inspired heavy riffing and lightning-fast, virtually blinding lead runs.

This MVD reissue of Shattered Existence tacks on three songs from the band’s ill-fated (but energetic) 1990 Ghostbusters EP. The three-song vinyl was released as a stopgap to satisfy new Xentrix’s fans until the release of the For Whose Advantage? album later that year. The band’s inspired cover of Ray Parker Jr’s movie theme song was met with threats of a legal smackdown, however, and the label was forced to recall the EP from the stores. The episode set Xentrix back a bit, but they regrouped and released three more albums for Roadrunner with Astley at the helm, sadly experiencing diminishing returns with each one, proving that they had pretty much spent their creative allowance on Shattered Existence.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Met with commercial indifference in a fluctuating market that had begun to favor grunge bands and vacuous pop, Xentrix dropped its founding frontman and released one last album, 1996’s Scourge, with a new singer and guitarist before disappearing off the heavy metal map. Shattered Existence remains as a classic example of ‘80s-era thrash-metal, however, a solid collection of songs with performances that transcended the musician’s combined skills. With old-school thrashers like Testament and Exodus still kicking the ball around and digging up new fans from beneath the blood-soaked sod of the music industry, Xentrix deserves another day in the sun... (MVD Audio/Metal Mind Records, released 2006)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2006 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Short Rounds: Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite, The Hangfires, Kursaal Flyers, Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets, Toots & the Maytals (2020)

Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite's 100 Years of Blues
New album releases in 200 words or less…

Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite – 100 Years of Blues (Alligator Records)
Guitar maestro Elvin Bishop and harp wizard Charlie Musselwhite are both bona fide blues legends, and it’s a cryin’ shame that they’ve never made an album together until now. This pairing of two beloved bluesmen, both masters of their craft, is as much of a sure thing as you’ll find in these sorry times, and 100 Years of Blues doesn’t disappoint. The duo’s blending of blues and roots-rock goes down like honey mead, ol’ Charlie handling the heavy lifting on the hardcore blues tunes with his soulful vocals and fluid harmonica-play while ol’ Elvin tackles the humorous material with his usual aplomb, peppering every performance with gut-wrenching tone and texture. For instance, “Birds of A Feather” is an old-school blues jam with plenty of harmonica and guitar boogie; the pointed topical lyrics of “What the Hell” are delivered with Bishop’s slyly disarming vocals and Musselwhite’s instrumental counterpoint; and the instrumental “South Side Slide” gives both musicians a chance to shine while transporting the listener back to Chicago circa 1966. Much like Musselwhite’s recent recordings with Ben Harper, the collaboration of these two seasoned blues veterans makes sense, and if you dig either artist, you’re gonna love 100 Years of Blues! Grade: A   BUY!

The Hangfires' Curly Q
The Hangfires – Curly Q (Underground Treehouse Records)

Former Georgia Satellite Dan Baird has played with fellow-traveler Joe Blanton in the Bluefields for a few years, developing an impressive musical chemistry and songwriting shorthand that reveals itself in the grooves of Curly Q. A Covid-quarantine project, the Hangfires is a studio amalgam featuring Baird and Blanton on guitars and vocals, with keyboardist Jen Gunderman and drummer Greg Morrow, all four recording remotely and swapping files online. The result is unbelievably cohesive, the talented foursome making a near-seamless album of joyful noise that blends the twang ‘n’ bang of the Bluefields with the Keef-inspired throwback sound of the Satellites. Unbridled rockers like “The Good Part” or “Mama Thinks I’m Alright” provide the cheap thrills we need in these dark times, with zealous vox and stinging six-strings, while the slower-paced “Wild Imagination” blends soulful vocals with lush instrumentation, slashing fretwork, and thoughtful lyrics. Not just another bunch o’ guitar-happy rawkers, the Hangfires bring hard-won wisdom and intelligence to their lyrics to go alongside their raucous musical soundtrack. R.I.Y.L. The Georgia Satellite, Jason & the Scorchers, Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ Grade: A   BUY!
Kursaal Flyers' Little Does She Know

Kursaal Flyers – Little Does She Know (RPM Records, U.K.)

Pub-rock, that uniquely British sound, never grabbed more than a cult following stateside, with Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe, and Dr. Feelgood getting all the love. But Southend’s Kursaal Flyers were one of the better bands of the era, as proved by Little Does She Know, a four-disc, career-spanning box. Including three studio and a live album circa 1975-77, plus the band’s 1988 reunion LP, the set throws in another seventeen bonus tracks, including live performances, that showcase the Flyers’ inspired blend of roots-rock, power-pop, and British R&B that was incredibly progressive at the time. The band’s guitarist, Graeme Douglas, would go onto success with Eddie & the Hot Rods, singer Paul Shuttleworth found solo success, and drummer Will Birch formed world-beating power-poppers the Records before becoming an esteemed music journalist. Pub-rock built the foundation for the punk-rock kiddies of ’77 before melting into obscurity, but the Kursaal’s timeless sound still echoes across the ages. Grade: A   BUY!

Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets' Walkabout
Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets – Walkabout (Yep Roc Records)

On paper, the pairing of British rock legend Nick Lowe with Mexican wrestling mask-clad American rockers Los Straitjackets seems an odd couple but, in practice, it’s a match made in heaven. The guys in Los Straitjackets have the instrumental chops to capture the nuance and elegance of Lowe’s songs and, with a rock-solid band playing behind him, ol’ Nick can climb out on a limb now and then. Walkabout is a compilation album originally only released in Australia, collecting songs from Lowe’s recent EPs with the Straitjackets, including the swinging, jazz-tinged rockabilly swing of “Tokyo Bay” and a soulful cover of the Bee Gees’ “Heartbreaker.” Los Straitjackets strut their stuff with instrumental surf-rock covers of Lowe gems like “Half A Boy and Half A Man” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” A previously-unreleased live version of Nick’s “Heart of the City” closes out Walkabout with a bang! Grade: A   BUY!

Toots & the Maytals' Got To Be Tough
Toots & the Maytals – Got To Be Tough (Trojan Jamaica)

Reggae legend Toots Hibbert passed away in September from that damned Covid, but he left us one helluva parting gift. Got To Be Tough is the first Toots & the Maytals album in a decade, but it’s an uncompromising, tough-as-nails collection of roots, rock, and soul that will make your speakers smile in ecstasy. Even at 77, Hibbert’s rough-hewn vocals have diminished little in power or subtlety, and his original songs showcase his underrated songwriting ability. “Drop Off Head” is a chainsaw rocker and the defiant “Just Brutal” matches hurricane-strength vocals with sassy horns and socially-conscious lyrics. The title track is a masterpiece of roots-reggae with empowering lyrics while the haunting “Stand Accuse” displays Toots’ ability to mix strength and vulnerability in a single verse. Produced with a deft hand by Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son), who also contributes musically alongside some of Jamaica’s most talented, Got To Be Tough is a fitting coda to an amazing career that spanned six decades. R.I.P. Mr. Hibbert. Grade: A+   BUY!    

Crawling Up A Hill
Various Artists – Crawling Up A Hill (Grapefruit Records, U.K.)

Thanks to the good folks at Grapefruit Records, you can now do a deep-dive into the British blues boom circa 1966-1971 with Crawling Up A Hill. The three-disc, clamshell-boxed, 56-song collection offers plenty of the usual suspects – John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Alexis Korner, Free, Taste (w/Rory Gallagher), Status Quo, and Savoy Brown – among its wealth of entries. It’s between these grooves that the set really shines, Grapefruit plucking jewels from the lesser-known likes of Love Sculpture, Steamhammer Medicine Head, Stack Waddy, Black Cat Bones, Blodwyn Pig, Skid Row (w/Gary Moore) and Killing Floor to paint a brilliant picture of the then-thriving scene. There are a few notable exclusions, (Jethro Tull, Zeppelin?) due to licensing, but throw in often-surprising obscurities like Heavy Jelly, Red Dirt, Levee Camp Moan, and Dr. K’s Blues Band and you have a collection well worth the roughly $30 price tag. Grade: A   BUY!


Previously on That Devil
Short Rounds, May 2020: The Burrito Brothers, Richie Owens & the Farm Bureau, Webb Wilder, Lucinda Williams & X

Short Rounds, April 2020: Datura4, Dream Syndicate, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Bryan Ferry, Game Theory & Supersuckers

Short Rounds, March 2020: The Bluefields, Dave Clark Five, Marshall Crenshaw, Gwil Owen, Gary Moore & Watermelon Slim

Short Rounds, February 2020: Beach Slang, The Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Delaney & Bonnie, Mott the Hoople & Television Personalities

Thursday, October 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: October 2020 releases

October is here and the labels will be emptying their vaults and clearing their slates to get Q4 releases off the books with an eye towards January and maybe, just maybe a more sympathetic commercial environment. Considering that artists are unable to tour much, if at all, in support of new records, it's no surprise that the record labels are hedging their bets, releasing a lot of goodies from the archives, and hoping for the best in terms of sales. 

There's a lot of very cool archival material that will resurface in October, including albums by Memphis rocker Van Duren, rarities from NRBQ, and big box sets from folks like Bob Mould (24-CDs), Bobby Bare (8-CDs), Tom Petty (4-CDs), and Thin Lizzy (6-CDs, but no more info is available right now, so it's your guess is as good as mine if it will actually be released this month). But it's not all just vault-diving, there's also new tunes from folks like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Chris Smither, Joey Molland of Badfinger, and Dream Theatre guitar whiz John Petrucci, among others. 

Release dates are probably gonna change and nobody tells me when they do. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy! If you're boycotting Amazon and don't have an indie record store close by, may we suggest shopping with our friends at Grimey's Music in Nashville? They have a great selection of vinyl available by mail order, offer quick service, and if you don't see what you want on their website, check out their Discogs shop!

Bob Mould's Distortions

45 Grace - Sleep In Safety [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Coven - Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Death Valley Girls - Under the Spell of Joy   BUY!
Bob Mould - Distortion 1989-2019 [24-CD set!]   BUY!
New Order - Power, Corruption & Lies: Definitive Edition BUY!
NRBQ - In • Frequencies BUY!
Robert Plant - Digging Deep: Subterranea [2-CD set]   BUY!
Chris Smither - More From the Levee   BUY!
Corey Taylor - CMFT   BUY!
Roger Waters - Us + Them   BUY!
Frank Zappa - Halloween 81 [6-CD box set]   BUY!

The Replacements' Please To Meet Me: Deluxe Edition

Buffalo Tom - Birdbrain [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Dire Straits - The Studio Albums 1978-1991 [6-CD set]   BUY!
The Doors - Morrison Hotel: Deluxe Edition   BUY!
The Replacements - Please To Meet Me: Deluxe Edition [3-CD box set]   BUY!
Thin Lizzy - Rock Legends [6-CD box set]

Allman Brothers Band's The Final Note

Allman Brothers Band - The Final Note   BUY!
Joey Molland (Badfinger) - Be True To Yourself   BUY!
Kevin Morby - Sundowner   BUY!
Tom Petty - Wildflowers & All the Rest [Deluxe vinyl & CD reissue]   BUY!

The Mountain Goats' Getting Into Knives

Bobby Bare - Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus [8-CD box set]   BUY!
Shemekia Copeland - Uncivil War   BUY!
John Frusciante - Maya   BUY!
Greg Lake - The Anthology: A Musical Journey   BUY!
Little Richard - Lifetime Friend   BUY!
Little Richard - The Second Coming   BUY!
The Mountain Goats - Getting Into Knives   BUY!
Pearl Jam - MTV Unplugged   BUY!
Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You   BUY!
Jim White - Misfit's Jubilee   BUY!

John Petrucci's Terminal Velocity

Black Stone Cherry - The Human Condition   BUY!
Elvis Costello - Hey Clockface   BUY!
Grateful Dead - American Beauty [3-CD Deluxe 50th anniversary]    BUY!
Joni Mitchell - Joni Mitchell Archives - Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)   BUY!
Mr. Bungle - The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo   BUY!
John Petrucci - Terminal Velocity   BUY!
Van Duren - Are You Serious? [CD & vinyl reissue]  BUY!
Van Duren - Idiot Optimism [CD & vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Jimmie Vaughan - The Pleasure's All Mine: The Complete Blues, Ballads & Favorites Collection   BUY!

Album of the Month: Tom Petty's Wildflowers finally receives a deluxe reissue that restores the album to the two-disc set that the rock legend originally envisioned. The four-CD or seven-LP set features 54 tracks, 8 unreleased songs, and 24 unreleased alternate versions. In addition to the 15 track original album (remastered), the deluxe edition contains the album All The Rest (10 songs from the original Wildflowers sessions), a full CD of 15 solo demos recorded by Petty at his home studio, and a disc of 14 live versions of Wildflowers songs recorded from 1995 – 2017.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Archive Review: Don "Sugar Cane" Harris' Sugar Cane's Got the Blues (2008)

Don "Sugar Cane" Harris' Sugar Cane's Got the Blues
Classically-trained violinist Don “Sugar Cane” Harris was one of the most interesting characters in rock music. Harris formed the mid-50s rock duo Don and Dewey with his childhood friend Dewey Terry, playing guitar on a number of period R&B recordings for Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. Although none of the band’s singles became hits, songs like “Farmer John” and “Justine,” written by Harris and Terry, were hits for other artists and subsequently became garage-rock standards.

Switching over exclusively to violin, Harris became an in-demand sideman during the ‘60s, performing alongside R&B, blues and rock heavyweights like Johnny Otis (who gave Harris his “Sugar Cane” nickname), John Mayall, John Lee Hooker, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, appearing on the Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh albums. During the ‘70s, the talented violin-mangler recorded a number of albums of brilliant jazz-rock fusion, mixing jazzy instrumentals with soulful R&B, blues and progressive rock.

Don “Sugar Cane” Harris’ Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues

The albums that Harris recorded for the long-defunct BASF label were particularly influential and ground-breaking works, efforts like 1973’s Keyzop and 1974’s Cup Full of Dreams sadly long out-of-print. In between solo albums, Harris formed the critically- acclaimed rock band Pure Food and Drug Act with some friends from Mayall’s band. PDFA recorded a single album, Choice Cuts, in 1972 with guitarist Harvey Mandel. Originally released in 1973 by BASF, the scorching, white-hot Harris live set Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues was recently reissued by European label Promising Music. All I can say is that it’s about time, ‘cause this is one roller-coaster ride of an album, leaving blood on the bricks in its wake. The high point of Harris’ acclaimed but sometimes erratic career, Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues captures a 1971 performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival.

Harris was backed for this performance by a skilled rhythm section that included Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, his high-flying violin complimented by talentedNorwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal and a previous Harris collaborator, German axeman Volker Kriegel. The band line-up for the festival was rounded out by keyboardist/electronic wizard Wolfgang Dauner. This deluxe Promising Music reissue has been provided 24-bit/88.2kHz digital remastering, a gatefold cardboard digipak that approximates the artwork of the 1973 vinyl release, and a booklet with the original liner notes along with new notes from avant-garde musician Eugene Chadbourne. The CD itself is black, looking like a record album, and is slipped into a paper sleeve. Too freakin’ cool…

The album derived from the live performance is divided into four lengthy songs, ranging in time from ten-anna-half, to as long as fifteen minutes plus. Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues kicks off with the energetic “Liz Pineapple Wonderful,” the song cautiously introducing the assembled band's enormous chops before lurching headfirst into the chasm. Above a crashing wave of jazzy instrumentation, Harris spits out a few soulful vocals before launching into a madman’s dance with his electric…and electrifying…violin. Notes fly off the strings like sparks from a burning battery as the band improvises a funky and sometimes cacophonic soundtrack behind Harris. The song circles back around to Harris’ vocals before fading out with a screech of catgut and semi-psychedelic guitar.

Song For My Father

The album’s title track kicks off with a virtuoso violin mugging courtesy of Harris, his instrument sounding at once both melancholy and hopeful as the band fills in behind him with scattershot solar flares of drum, cymbals, and oddly disjointed piano. The song’s dark vibe devolves into a mere whisper of silence before swelling upwards with crescendos of fluttering violin and shattered piano as brushes hit the cymbals with zeal. The last half of the song drops the atmospheric angst and rocks into an improvised jazz-fusion romp before sliding into a bittersweet...almost pastoral...chording similar to its first notes, ending on a strangled high note with Harris’ plaintive vocals moaning “Sugar Cane’s got the blues.”

“Song For My Father" opens with chiming percussion and Wyatt’s fanciful drum-play, the violin kicking in above a Latin-tinged minor-key soundtrack. As Harris scrapes the strings with fierce imagination and focus, the band brings a sense of muted whimsy to the performance. The song is one of the best showcases of Harris’ talents, the string-bender burning up the bow with the speed of a Formula One racecar, the song's many twists and turns providing an exhilarating thrill-ride. The guitar here is sublime, the bass lines fluid, and the rhythmic drumwork at once both bombastic and subdued. The song reminds me of an extended Santana jam at times, and of one of Zappa’s lengthy ‘70s-era jazz-based compositions at other times.

Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues closes with the twelve-and-a-half-minute-plus “Where’s My Sunshine,” which places the spotlight on the talents of the entire band. Above a jagged musical undercurrent, Harris introduces the song by saying, “this song is about a girl, called her Sunshine…and every word of it is true!” before pleading “where’s my Sunshine?” A lonesome, fractured piano blast comes in beneath Harris’ R&B styled vocals, joined by the artist’s screaming violin and a throbbing bass line. Nimble-fingered fretwork punctures the soundtrack, leading back around to Harris’ rhetorical question, the song walking off in a flurry of stiletto-like violin jabs and a rapid storm of lightning piano and thundering percussion.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Harris would go on to be a contributing member of the experimental rock band Tupelo Chain Sex during the early ‘80s, recording a couple of albums with them. However, his substance abuse problems allowed him to record only sporadically during the ensuing years, and his personal demons made Harris an unreliable live performer; he later reunited with Terry during the late ‘90s as a revived Don and Dewey. Sadly, Harris died in 1999 from heart disease at the still-young age of 61. This truly gifted musician left behind a significant, if too often overlooked, body of work, the pinnacle of which was Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues. (Promising Music, released February 1, 2008)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

Buy the CD from Don  “Sugar Cane” Harris' Sugar Cane’s Got the Blues


Monday, September 21, 2020

Planet of Sound book now available!

Rev. Gordon's Planet of Sound
The Reverend's latest effort, Planet of Sound, is now available from Planet of Sound is a collection of essays, retrospectives, artist interviews and album reviews penned by award-winning rock critic and music historian Rev. Keith A. Gordon. Originally published by the Rock and Roll Globe website, the Reverend covers a wide range of rock and blues music with these essays.

From well-known artists like Steve Miller, Walter Trout, Frank Zappa, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the Blues Brothers to lesser-known talents like avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, singer/songwriter Buzzy Linhart, British oddball Screamin’ Lord Sutch, and cult rockers the Flamin’ Groovies, the Reverend explores the history of these artists and places their legacies into proper context.  

Within these pages are 33 aggressively looong essays, etc on rock and blues music – popular and otherwise – that you can read for free online but, in keeping with my obsessive quest to publish nearly every word I’ve ever written in some misguided and utterly futile attempt at immortality, I’m trying to sell you in printed and eBook form. I can only hope that you have as much fun reading this stuff as I did in writing it. Rock on!

Buy the print version from Planet of Sound

Friday, September 18, 2020

Archive Review: Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Super Session & Fillmore East The Lost Concert Tapes (2008)

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Super Session
Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield are two of the most underrated and influential talents in the canon of blues-rock. Both were phenomenal musicians (Bloomfield died in 1981, Kooper now only plays sporadically), insightful and knowledgeable with a true love of music. Both men’s credentials are impeccable. Kooper was, perhaps, the most valuable session player in the ‘60s rock universe, adding his considerable talents to records by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. A founding member of two seminal ‘60s bands – Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears – Kooper also discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, producing their first three albums.

Bloomfield was an equally decorated veteran of the rock ‘n’ roll army. A familiar presence on the early ’60s Chicago club scene, Bloomfield made his bones as a guitarslinger with the Butterfield Blues Band. He toured with Dylan, formed Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites and subsequently played sessions with Kooper, Muddy Waters, James Cotton and folks of that caliber. Between the two, they have played on/produced/written some of the most memorable music in rock music. So why aren’t more people familiar with these two? Blame it on the short-term memory, perhaps, of pop culture or blame it on an industry that no longer nurtures talents of extraordinary vision like Kooper and Bloomfield.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield’s Super Session

Two recordings document the pair’s legacy. At the time of its 1968 release, rock fans had never heard anything like Super Session. Kooper was a staff producer at Columbia Records at the time, dreaming up a project to produce. Kooper thought of his old Dylan session cohort Bloomfield and, with a crack rhythm section in tow, retreated to a Los Angeles recording studio to “jam.” Half of Super Session offers day one of the sessions, Bloomfield’s guitar ringing clear as a bell on the Chicago blues-styled instrumental romp “Albert’s Shuffle,” the nine-minute ‘90s-jam band precursor “His Holy Modal Majesty” and the mournful blues jam “Really.”

Bloomfield was AWOL come day two of the session, his health problems and insomnia aggravated by a growing heroin addiction. Bloomfield simply picked up his guitar and went home, forcing producer Kooper to recruit Steve Stills, fresh from a stint with Buffalo Springfield, to fill in for the missing guitarist. The Stills-dominated tracks travel in a more psychedelic direction than Bloomfield’s blues-rock virtuosity. A faithful cover of Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” leads into a dynamic eleven-minute reading of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Kooper’s vocals and keyboard work on the song are spot-on, Stills’ wah-wah driven six-string providing the fire while the rhythm section of bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Eddie Hoh provide the pulse.

Super Session spent several weeks in the top twenty upon its release and helped spawn the first generation of “jam” bands (including the Grateful Dead), opening the door to greater instrumental improvisation. This remastered reissue of Super Session includes four bonus tracks, including original takes of “Albert’s Shuffle” and “Season of the Witch” sans horns (which were added to the final mix later) and two interesting outtakes. The success of Super Session led to a sort of sequel in The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, the live album a document of three nights at the Fillmore West in San Francisco featuring mostly new material.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield’s Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Fillmore East

The previously unreleased Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 is the second of two releases that further highlight the often-overlooked talents of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Recorded two-and-a-half months after the “live adventures” disc, these tapes were all but discarded after the performance due to engineering problems and musical incompatibilities between some of the players. Rediscovered by Kooper a couple of years ago, the performance has been carefully resurrected, masterfully remixed and skillfully remastered for the digital age. A real treat for Bloomfield fans, any young musician with an interest in the blues should check out this set and hear the playing of a true blues aficionado.

Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 is a veritable showcase for Bloomfield’s enormous talents, the guitarist dazzling the audience with his fiery fretwork. Bloomfield pulled every trick he had out of the bag for covers of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out” and “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” and his original “(Please) Tell Me Partner.” He wasn’t afraid to share the stage, bringing out Texas guitarist Johnny Winter for a scorching take on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault,” the red-hot performance subsequently earning Winter a recording contract. Throughout Fillmore East, Bloomfield’s six-string work is fluid and graceful, Kooper’s keyboard work is subtle and if the rhythm section often seems at odds with itself, it does little to distract from the prominent guitar pyrotechnics offered by Bloomfield.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

It could be argued that Mike Bloomfield never played better than he did circa 1968, the Super Session album and accompanying live performances spotlighting his talent at its peak. Bloomfield wrote the blueprint for the white blues guitarist, informing the work of those who would follow, from Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and David Jacobs-Strain. (Legacy Recordings, released 2008)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

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Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield Super Session
Al Kooper & Michael Bloomfield’s Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68

Archive Review: The Detroit Cobras' Tied & True (2007)

The Detroit Cobras' Tied & True
The band line-up of the Detroit Cobras changes more often than a politician’s poll numbers, but the band’s trademark sound seldom budges an inch. Built around a solid core of sultry singer Rachel Nagy and guitarslinger Mary Ramirez, the Detroit Cobras continue to crank out soul-drenched rave-ups and garage rock gems with Tied & True, the band’s dynamic fourth album. With the addition of Memphis guitar-for-hire and boy genius Greg Cartwright of Reigning Sound, and slammin’ bassist Carol Schumacher of the Gore Gore Girls, Tied & True offers the most enjoyable Cobras listening experience yet.

The Detroit Cobras’ Tied & True

Any old rock band can grab a hit song off the charts of yesteryear and jazz it up for the modern record buyer, usually slaughtering it in the process. The Detroit Cobras, on the other hand, take an old song and handle it like a nebbish collector at a record convention. They treat each one in the spirit of the original, with love and reverence, and they never cease to amaze with their spot-on choices of rare and obscure cuts. Garnet Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You” is provided a cool rocking arrangement, with Ramirez’s and Cartwright’s guitars intertwined behind Nagel’s best upbeat Martha Reeves vocals. “Nothing But A Heartache” is all swooning girl-group goodness, an aged U.K. hit for the Flirtations, a mid-60s Northern Soul band, that the Detroit Cobras play straight with delicious harmonies and soaring vocals.

“Puppet On A String” has a sort of syncopated beat and features a hypnotic guitar lead with great tone and vocals to match while “The Hurt’s All Gone” offers up a fine vocal performance, lush arrangement and authentic feel. A vintage ‘60s R&B classic by the Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, “The Hurt’s All Gone” is about as smooth and soulful as you can get and keep your feet on the terra firma. The Detroit Cobras continue their Louisiana road trip with the wonderful “Try Love,” a Dori Grayson original from Shreveport’s Murco Records. In Nagy and crew’s hands, the lovely romantic tune is supported by gentle shimmering guitar, tasteful background vocals and deliberate rhythms.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, Tied & True is the Detroit Cobras’ best album since their first, the band adding subtlety and tact to their performances where once they depended on balls and bluster. There’s room for plenty for rocking when you’re on stage, but the low-key and relatively subdued treatments provided the songs on Tied & True greatly enhances the material, rather than detracting from the original magic. It’s tempting to call the Detroit Cobras America’s best cover band, but it takes a considerable amount of creativity to grab a song and make it entirely your own. A lot of bands have tried and failed, while the Detroit Cobras keep on rocking, relentlessly… (Bloodshot Records, released April 24, 2007)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2007

Friday, September 11, 2020

Archive Review: Ken Hensley's Elements (2006)

Ken Hensley's Elements
Back when I was a wee lad, attending Franklin H.S. in lovely suburban Nashville, my friends and I were simply *ga-ga* over Uriah Heep. We all thought that they were the bee’s knees, the hot-cha-cha, the Nazz…well, you get the point. With Heep’s landmark 1972 album Demons & Wizards as our starting point, we championed the band’s excesses while reveling in their Goth-inspired, fantasy-influenced proto prog-metal trademark sound. Our love affair lasted throughout high school as albums like The Magician’s Birthday (also ’72); Sweet Freedom (1973, with the great AOR track “Stealin’” leading the way) and Wonderworld (1974) dominated our turntables.

Aside from the operatic voice of frontman David Byron, the other dominant element in Heep’s mid-70s sound was provided by guitarist, keyboardist, and songwriter Ken Hensley. Byron and guitarist Mick Box originally formed the band, called Spice, changing the name to Uriah Heep when Hensley joined. Hensley came over from a British band called the Gods which, at one time, included future Rolling Stones’ guitarist Mick Taylor and future ELP member Greg Lake. Hensley’s influence can’t be found on Heep’s debut album; however, with Salisbury (1970) and Look At Yourself (1971), Hensley took over the reins as the band’s primary songwriter. Writing both punchy metal-edged cuts like the title song as well as prog-oriented tracks like the symphonic “July Morning,” Hensley provided the band a distinct identity and a future direction.

Shaping the Uriah Heep Sound

With the addition of bassist Gary Thain and drummer Lee Kerslake – a former bandmate of Hensley’s from the Gods – on Demons & Wizards, the band found the players and chemistry that would take them over the top. Kerslake proved to be a talented songwriter in his own right, penning three of the eight songs on the band’s breakthrough album, and serving as a valuable counterpoint to Hensley’s efforts. Whereas Hensley’s work tended to lean more in a poetic prog-metal direction, Kerslake’s songs tended to be darker, more Goth-oriented exercises. The work of both writers coexisted well on the album. Gary Thain would also spread his wings as a songwriter for the band, contributing two tracks on The Magician’s Birthday. Hensley would still carry the brunt of the creative load, however, writing five songs for the album, including the incredible tracks “Sunrise” and “Rain.” By the time of Sweet Freedom and Wonderworld, the Hensley/Thain songwriting axis was well in place, the two experimenting with a more radio-friendly, harder-edged sound on songs like “Stealin’,” “Seven Stars” and “Something Or Nothing.”

Ken Hensley's Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf
In a case of “did he jump or was he pushed,” Thain would leave the band in 1974, after the release of Wonderworld. Suffering from a serious drug problem, Thain tragically died a year later. Kerslake would subsequently pick up the pen once again for 1975’s Return To Fantasy, writing six of the album’s nine songs. I mention the Hensley/Thain/Kerslake songwriting tandem as a way to underscore the dynamic that was created by having three solid writers in one band. Although not privy to any “backstage” maneuvering by any of the songwriters, it’s clear that having a trio of such talents drove the band to new heights. It’s also telling that when Hensley recorded his first solo album, Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf, he recruited Thain and Kerslake to play on the sessions. I feel that the competition between the three was a healthy one, pushing each to achieve great things.

Hensley’s solo debut was released in 1973, Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf benefiting from Heep’s commercial success at the time. According to interviews with Hensley, the prolific songwriter would offer a slew of songs to the band and they would subsequently record some and discard others, mostly due to the 40-odd-minute time constraints imposed by the vinyl LP format. Thus songs like “Proud Words” would never be recorded by the band while “Rain” is afforded slightly different interpretations on both The Magician’s Birthday and Hensley’s solo album. Hensley has said that the solo album wasn’t an effort to try and launch a solo career, as such, but rather as a forum for sharing all the songs that he had written with his fans.

Ken Hensley's Eager To Please

Ken Hensley's Eager To Please
Hensley would record his second solo album, Eager To Please, in 1975 while trying to figure out exactly where Heep was going, commercially and creatively. Thain was gone, replaced by journeyman bassist John Wetton, a detour on his way towards forming Asia. Byron would leave after 1976’s High and Mighty album to pursue solo fame, replaced by former Lucifer’s Friend frontman John Lawton. Lawton would subsequently record three albums with the band, leaving after 1979’s Fallen Angel to be replaced by the generally reviled John Sloman. Kerslake would also leave at this time, working on Ozzy Osbourne’s first solo album before rejoining Heep in time for 1982’s Abominog. Along with founder Mick Box, Kerslake has been with Heep ever since, until he had to retire from the band in late 2006 due to health problems.

The tensions surrounding Lawton’s departure from Heep, and the conflicts created by the band’s internal struggles spelled the end for Hensley. The talented songwriter and musician would leave the band after 1980’s ill-conceived Conquest album to pursue a full-time solo career. Hensley would release his third solo effort, Free Spirit, the following year. Representing somewhat of a departure from both his previous solo work and his legacy with Heep, Free Spirit includes synth-pop songs and new wave flourishes that were decidedly un-metal like in their execution. Hensley himself seems to have expressed reservations about the album’s material, and it stands alone as an anomaly in the artist’s catalog.

The party was pretty well over by the time that I got to see Uriah Heep live, in May 1978, probably touring in support of their twin 1977 releases, Firefly and Innocent Victim. In a rare show of largesse, Rush had asked the band to open for them on their 1978 tour, paying back Heep for dragging Rush along on one of their previous tours. I had just scored my first ever backstage passes through Thom King’s Take One Magazine to interview Rush and figured out that the passes could also be used to get backstage and meet my idols, Uriah Heep. Although Hensley was reserved but friendly, Mick Box and Lee Kerslake were both chatty and accommodating. Box got the entire band to pose for pictures holding a copy of Take One and he invited my friend Wayne and myself backstage after Rush’s set to talk some more. We ended up drinking champagne and talking about music and motorcycles until early in the morning with Box and Kerslake.

Ken Hensley & Visible Faith

Ken Hensley
Ken Hensley’s influence on a generation of musicians is often understated. From his 1981 solo album, Hensley would go on to hang out for a while with southern rock band Blackfoot, performing on two of the band’s albums and touring with them for several years. Although it seemed as if Hensley had retired from music by mid-decade, a number of bands called upon his talents to contribute to their songs in the studio. Well into the late ‘90s, when Hensley became “born again” and rebooted his career with 1999’s A Glimpse of Glory, recorded with the band Visible Faith, Hensley lent his unique keyboard signature to recordings by Cinderella, Metalium, Ayreon and W.A.S.P.

Elements, released late last year in the U.K. by Castle Music, attempts to place Hensley’s contributions to rock music in context. The two-CD set features a handful of tracks by Hensley’s early bands the Gods and Toe Fat, with the Gods’ “Looking Glass” standing out as a strong cut from one of the ‘60s lesser-known outfits. There are fifteen Heep songs on Elements, ranging from “The Park” and fan-favorite “Lady In Black” from Salisbury, to “Falling In Love” from Fallen Angel. These aren’t necessarily Heep’s best-known songs, or even the hits, but from “Look At Yourself” and “The Wizard” to “Sunrise” and “The Easy Road,” they represent some of Heep’s best work.

Disc two of Elements jumps right into Hensley’s solo career, offering up six songs from Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf and five songs from Eager To Please, including the album’s lone single, “In the Morning.” The anthology also includes three songs from Free Spirit, including a standout track in “The System.” A lone Blackfoot track, “Send Me An Angel” is included here, as is “The Return” from A Glimpse of Glory. A rare recording of “I Close My Eyes,” originally from Running Blind, features the first reunion of Hensley and former Heep frontman John Lawton since ’79. Elements closes with a fine recording of the previously-unreleased “Romance,” part of the 2005 album Cold Autumn Morning where Hensley re-recorded some of his classic songs.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Elements is a fine representation of Hensley’s career, presenting his work in a strong light and successfully balancing his band and solo efforts accordingly. The anthology serves as an excellent bookend to Hensley’s 1994’s rarities collection, From Time To Time, and is a great place for the neophyte to experience Hensley’s musical talents. The time is ripe for a critical rediscovery of Ken Hensley. A new Hensley album, titled Blood On the Highway, is scheduled for release in 2007, and features vocal contributions from prog and melodic rock heavyweights like Glenn Hughes, Jorn Lande and John Lawton. To the delight of his fans, Hensley’s biographical book When Too Many Dreams Come True will also be reissued in 2007. Some 40 years after his first recordings, Ken Hensley is still going strong. (Castle Music, released 2006)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2006 


Archive Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan's Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985 (2001)

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985

When Stevie Ray Vaughan took the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 17, 1983, few watching could have expected the subsequent events his performance that night would inspire. The relatively unknown Stevie Ray and his seasoned band delivered a red-hot set of Texas blues to an indifferent and hostile audience. Sitting in the crowd that night, however, was a thoroughly impressed David Bowie, who provided an artistic “coming out” for Vaughan by later using the six-string wizard on his highly-successful Let’s Dance album. Jackson Browne, who also witnessed Vaughan’s incendiary Montreux performance, provided free studio time for SRV and Double Trouble to record their debut album, the ground breaking Texas Flood.

With a pair of critically acclaimed, best-selling albums providing his credentials, Vaughan recreated the blues-rock genre and kick-started a blues revival that continues today. Two years after his Montreux debut, Stevie Ray returned to the festival stage as a conquering hero. This time, the young guitarist delivered another smoking set to a far more receptive crowd than previously. Both historic performances are paired on Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985, a scorching two-disc set that showcases Vaughan’s considerable live chops and further cements his legacy as one of the greatest guitarists ever.

Listening to these two live performances – one as a brash, youthful guitarslinger and the other as a maturing, confident artist – one can hear strains of Vaughan’s artistic lineage, masters such as Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and Lightning Hopkins. You’ll also hear signature songs such as “Pride and Joy” and “Texas Flood,” refined from show to show, performed alongside such gems as “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and a cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” Much of the material on Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985 is previously unreleased, the set complimented by extensive liner notes and rare photos. Vaughan’s accidental death in 1990, while on the verge of even greater success, robbed the music world of an incredibly gifted guitarist. If you’re unfamiliar with the brilliant blues-rock of this legend, these inspired Montreux sessions serve as an excellent introduction to Stevie’s world. (Legacy Recordings, released 2001)

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


Friday, September 4, 2020

CD Review: Little Richard's The Rill Thing (1970) & King of Rock and Roll (1971)

The Legendary Little Richard

In the early 1950s, “Little Richard” Penniman was just another struggling Southern rhythm & blues singer. A handful of singles released by both RCA Victor and Peacock Records between 1951 and 1954 failed to chart, leaving the dynamic performer back in Macon, Georgia working as a dishwasher. He’d form a new band, the Upsetters, touring the Southern chitlin’ circuit for months before fellow R&B performer Lloyd Price recommended that he send a demo tape to Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. The label liked what it heard and Rupe paired him with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, sending Richard to New Orleans to record at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, thereby changing the course of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Initial sessions at J&M Studios yielded little in the way of marketable recordings. When Blackwell and Richard went to the Dew Drop Inn to relax one night, Richard commandeered the piano and launched into a song he called “Tutti Frutti.” Sensing a hit, Blackwell hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to rework Richard’s risqué lyrics into something more “radio friendly,” and they managed to record Little Richard’s first hit single in a mere three takes. Released in November 1955, “Tutti Frutti” peaked at #2 on Billboard magazine’s R&B chart and #21 on the pop charts, eventually selling better than a million copies. Richard’s next single, “Long Tall Sally,” was released in March 1956 and surpassed its predecessor, topping the R&B chart and peaking at #13 pop, while also hitting Top Ten in Great Britain on its way to another million flapjacks sold.

During the mid-to-late ‘50s, Little Richard and producer Blackwell recorded a string of Top Ten R&B hits, songs like “Rip It Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” By the end of the decade, though, Richard had grown dissatisfied with his fame and turned to the ministry, releasing a trio of gospel-oriented LPs in 1960 and ’61. When the British Invasion struck, and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were confessing their love for Little Richard, the singer turned back to secular music with an under-performing string of singles and albums like Little Richard Is Back (1964) and The Explosive Little Richard (1967), which did little to improve the singer’s commercial fortunes.     

Little Richard’s The Rill Thing

Litle RIchard's The Rill Thing

Flash forward a few years and Little Richard was working on his comeback. Booked by his then-manager Larry Williams, a R&B singer from New Orleans, to perform rock festivals like the Atlantic City Pop Festival and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, Richard would steal the show from stars like Janis Joplin and John Lennon. Subsequent TV appearances cemented his renewed celebrity status, while Richard’s still-explosive live performances earned the singer a three-album deal with Reprise Records that resulted in 1970’s The Rill Thing, 1971’s King of Rock and Roll, and 1972’s The Second Coming, three somewhat underrated albeit uneven recordings that served to complicate rather than cement Little Richard’s legacy at the time.   

Little Richard journeyed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the legendary FAME Studios to record his comeback disc, 1970’s The Rill Thing (Grade: B). Produced by Richard, the album featured the minor hit single “Freedom Blues.” Co-credited to longtime friend and musical influence Esquerita, the song found Richard in R&B shouter mode, his vocals riding high in the mix above blasts of sax, Travis Wammack’s fatback guitar, and Roger Hawkins’ steady drumbeats. The song’s socially-conscious lyrics attracted an audience, the single hitting #28 on the R&B chart and inching up to #47 on the pop chart. The album’s second single, the energetic “Greenwood, Mississippi,” performed less well, the rocking tune failing to break on the R&B chart and only rising to a meager #85 on the pop chart.

‘Tis a shame, too, ‘cause Richard’s performance on “Greenwood, Mississippi” is like lightning in a bottle, the singer delivering inspired, soulful vocals around which he layers Wammack’s red-hot, psych-tinged guitar licks, and a solid, almost funky rhythmic track. In 1972 or ’73, they might have garnered FM radio airplay as part of the “Southern rock” revival but, in 1970 with AM radio still relying on bouncy pop songs, programmers largely ignored the adventurous and exciting track. Memphis guitarist Larry Lee’s “Two-Time Loser” rides a similar musical vein, Richard’s bluesy delivery nicely complimented by some fine chicken-picking and an up-tempo R&B groove. Paying homage to the New Orleans club that helped launch his career, Richard’s “Dew Drop Inn” is a reckless, old-school rocker with plenty of whoops and hollers and raging piano-play and honking saxophones.

“Somebody Saw You” is another Southern rock precursor, the band’s strolling rhythms matched by a bit of country twang and Richard’s unvarnished R&B vox. The album’s title track is a real poser, however – when you have one of the greatest, most recognizable vocalists in rock ‘n’ roll and R&B history, why do you want to hide him in a ten-minute instrumental track? That’s what “The Rill Thing” is, ten minutes of Little Richard not singing, nearly a quarter of the album’s running time spent jamming to a funky groove…fine, maybe, for Booker T. & the M.G.’s but not for Little Richard’s first album in three years. It’s not a bad song, just a bad choice – cut the performance in half and stick in another song the quality of “Freedom Blues.”

Luckily, the album finishes with the playful, New Orleans-styled romp “Lovesick Blues” and a high-octane cover of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” which both showcase Richard’s powerful vocals and underrated keyboard-bashing. Only Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps, could do as much damage to a piano as Mr. Penniman. This Omnivore reissue includes bonus tracks in the form of the single edit version of the Beatles’ songs as well as promotional radio spots as only Little Richard could deliver them, along with the non-album single “Shake A Hand (If You Can),” a very cool, gospel-tinged slow-rolling R&B jam with a great vocal performance, a swinging rhythm, and funky sax-play. 

Little Richard’s King of Rock and Roll 


Little Richard's King of Rock and RollAfter the modest success of The Rill Thing, Little Richard returned to L.A. to record the album’s follow-up, the audaciously-titled 1971 release King of Rock and Roll (Grade: B-). Working with his old friend, H.B. Barnham, as producer and, well…who else? Reprise Records oddly didn’t keep any records for the sessions, so there’s no clue to the guitarist or others that played on the album, just Little Richard’s vocals and electric piano. The album cover features Don Peterson’s regal cover photo of Richard sitting on the throne in all his resplendent glory with beams of light shooting out of his head as he reigns at the top of the world. It’s a fitting image for an album comprised largely of contemporary rock and soul covers by artists as diverse as John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival), the Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, among others.

King of Rock and Roll kicks off with the bold, throwback title song, a swaggering R&R honker with a farcical introduction replete with horns and excited shouting before Richard cranks up the amp and belts out his roller-coaster vocals, name-checking peers like Ike & Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin to a soundtrack that evokes his best-known hits of the ‘50s. Little Richard wears his best P.T. Barnum ringmaster clothes throughout the album, introducing songs with the self-mythologizing and braggadocio that would become the singer’s stock-in-trade throughout the ensuing years. The Hoyt Axton-penned Three Dog Night hit “Joy To the World” is provided nearly two minutes of introduction before launching into a perfectly on-point performance that adds gospel-styled harmonies to Richard’s soulful vocals.

A cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” suffers not from a lack of commitment on the part of the legendary vocalist as much from a lackluster arrangement that robs the song of its bite and sidelines Richard’s performance behind mediocre instrumentation and shallow production. We may not know who was playing on the record, but they sure weren’t the Swampers. Richard’s original “In the Name” fares better, offering a more nuanced and soulful vocal performance on a fine lyrical Penniman story-song. Richard’s take on the antique folk-blues standard “Midnight Special” is all over the place, the singer choogling like a rattletrap freight train one moment and pouring it all out with joyful abandon the next.

The lone single released from King of Rock and Roll was “Green Power;” ostensibly penned by Barnham, the song’s chill funk soundtrack and a powerful Little Richard vocal performance that offers both bluster and nuance should have made the song a hit. It seems that, much as with his previous Southern rock exercises from The Rill Thing, Richard was a couple of years ahead of the trends with the engaging “Green Power,” the song failing to make the charts at all. Richard displayed a deft hand with the Hank Williams’ chestnut “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” imbuing his performance with a yearning, emotional edge while his cover of Hank’s “Setting the Woods On Fire” is reimagines the song as a rompin’, stompin’ R&B rave-up with a vocal performance that’s hotter than July, accompanied by roaring saxes and backing harmony vocals.

The Omnivore reissue of King of Rock and Roll offers six additional bonus tracks, including Richard’s original “Still Miss Laza Jane,” which takes flight from what is essentially an a cappella opening to become a rowdy juke-joint rocker. Three instrumental performances – the sizzling “Mississippi,” with its loping keyboards and guitar licks; an instrumental version of “Setting the Woods On Fire,” which does exactly that with a no-holds-barred performance; and the best of them all, the raucous “Open Up the Red Sea,” which showcases Richard’s fierce piano-pounding – all could have replaced the dowdier cover tunes here and made King of Rock and Roll a much better album. It fell short of its predecessor as it was, yielding no hit singles and peaking at a lousy #193 on the Billboard pop chart.

Critical Response

Little Richard In Person

Critical response for Little Richard’s first two Reprise recordings proved to be a mixed bag. In his review for Rolling Stone magazine, critic Joel Selvin effusively wrote that “as incredible as it may seem, Little Richard is as great as he says he is. His new album, the first in three years, is packed with the sort of stuff that all good rock is made of,” Selvin concluding that The Rill Thing was “the most significant chapter in the living legend of the greatest rock and roll singer ever.” By contrast, Rolling Stone critic Vince Aletti would subsequently pan King of Rock and Roll, writing that “the new album is the vocal equivalent of running through the studio audience and just as disappointing for its lack of real audacity behind the pretense of outrageousness. Much of the album seems designed around the Talk Show Personality rather than the Singer, giving it the sticky veneer of a jive extravaganza.”

These Omnivore Recordings reissues feature nice CD booklets with extensive and informative liner notes by blues and R&B historian Bill Dahl, who places these albums in proper context in regards to Little Richard’s overall legacy. Both albums have been out-of-print for over a decade, and were reissued only sporadically before that, so it’s nice to see them available again. The singer’s third and final Reprise album, The Second Coming, would reunite Little Richard with producer “Bumps” Blackwell and familiar faces like drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen but when it, too, failed to chart, it looked like Richard’s ‘comeback’ had stalled.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Although Little Richard’s career would rise and fall throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, his status as a rock ‘n’ roll innovator and originator was set in stone with his 1986 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With his death earlier this year at the age of 87, only the seemingly immortal Jerry Lee Lewis remains from that groundbreaking group of early rock ‘n’ rollers that would launch a musical revolution and influence generations of musicians to follow. There’s unlikely to be another performer like Little Richard to come our way again... (Omnivore Recordings, released September 18th, 2020)

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Little Richard's The Rill Thing
Little Richard's King of Rock and Roll