Friday, October 23, 2020

Archive Review: Electric Wizard's Witchcult Today (2008)

Electric Wizard's Witchcult Today
It’s kind of a shame that my generation missed out on this whole stoner rock/doom metal thingie. The best that we suburban cannabis commandos could do was climb in the back of bud Charlie’s Chevy van, torch up something out of a scraggly $15 bag o’ tumbleweed and jam to the Edgar Winter Band’s “Frankenstein.” Edgar and his pals weren’t exactly Kyuss, ya know, bordering closer to the kind of new agey muzak that they’d play at yer Grandma’s nursing home these daze (which gives a whole new meaning to this rocking chair concept, eh?).

The problem with this stoner rock/doom metal nameplate (the two are joined at the hip like some kind of shiny Siamese musical genre) is that the spacier, mellow bands are like an “entry drug,” fuzzy lil’ kittens compared to the bigger, badder, more beastly critters that lie in wait in the darkness of your most-troubled id. When it comes to good, old-fashioned ear thuggery, you won’t find another band that grabs your cochlea and refuses to let go better than Electric Wizard. These purveyors of fine British sludge have been kicking the can around for almost a decade-and-a-half now, and if they haven’t been particularly, well…prolific…during that time, they’ve championed raw, muscular quality over quantity since the very beginning. Jeez, after all, EW ain’t no pop band, innit?

Electric Wizard’s Witchcult Today

Witchcult Today is Electric Wizard’s latest slab o’ musical madness, and the disc’s eight longish dirges find the Dorset warlocks leaning – almost vertically – into the abyss. Whereas the album-opening title cut is a nifty lil’ piece of mesmerizing ambient childplay, the second mind-numbing track, “Dunwich,” rewrites the rulebook of horror-stoner-doom or whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it. With a detached, fuzzed-out, and distorted guitar attack that sounds like carpenter bees drilling a hole at the base of yer skull, lead Wiz Justin Oborn does his best Ozzie impression, yelping out some hopeless lyrics from the bottom of an endless sonic well. As the blasting rhythms swirl around your head and virtually guarantee swelling of the brain later in your miserable life, the guitars strike, forcing their feedback-drenched, barbed stingers right into the ole medulla oblongata. Yup, the song is that damn good!

Electric Wizard, relentless bunch of bastards that they are, the rest of Witchcult Today provides no rest for wicked little sinners like you and I, cranking songs like “Satanic Rites of Drugula” (so slow-and-methodical that it sounds like two dinosaurs making love), the blood-curdling instrumental “Raptus” (it’s black mass time, and you’re coming over for “dinner”) or the truly eerie “Torquemada 71” (the future soundtrack for a Medieval torture theme park). Witchcult Today closes with two extended, eleven-minute exercises-in-tension, the album-closing “Saturnine” kind of a free-falling, Sabbath-inspired flight of fancy, a real Dave-Brock-meets-Sun-Ra rave-down with the kind of guitarplay that takes Tony Iommi’s nightmares to their absurdist excesses while concrete-block rhythms stomp-and-trudge towards oblivion. The maddening result of this instrumental dichotomy is that “Saturnine” manages to be both a transcendent experience and the most claustrophobic song that’s possibly ever been written – the musical equivalent of solitary confinement in the eternally-gray cell-block of your own damaged cerebellum.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

This is some heady stuff, to be sure, Witchcult Today providing plenty o’ riff-driven funeral finery, skull-splitting rhythms, and more than enough Sturm und Drang* to satisfy any dozen chaos-lovin’ thrill-seekers. As a band, Electric Wizard has only one speed – heavy – as they subject your synapses to the dancing white heat/white light of tortured instruments and strangled vocals. There’s nothing subtle about these bounders, and to be honest, an album as brutal and self-realized as Witchcult Today isn’t everybody’s cuppa hemlock tea. As for the Reverend, I think that I’ll take another drink… (Candlelight Records USA, released July 16, 2008)

(BTW, there are exactly 666 words in this CD review. Gotcha!)


* American Heritage Dictionary definition:

1.    Turmoil; ferment: “A book’s historical roots represent another barrier; so does the personal Sturm und Drang of the author” (Robert Kanigel).
2.    A late-18th-century German romantic literary movement whose works typically depicted the struggles of a highly emotional individual against conventional society.


Buy the CD from Electric Wizard’s Witchcult Today

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



Archive Review: Burzum's Anthology (2008)

Burzum's Anthology
One of the more notorious founding fathers of the Norwegian black metal sound, Burzum – the musical realm of Count Grishnackh, a/k/a Varg Vikernes – is also one of the few truly three-dimensional bands in the genre. Whereas other black-cum-death-metal outfits steadfastly refuse to step outside of the growl/rip/tear/bash approach to vocals and instrumentation, Burzum would mix things up lyrically, drawing from a number of Northern European folk and mythological traditions; and musically, tossing in electronic experimentation anathema to two-dimensional black metal stalwarts.

Burzum’s good Count, the infamous VV, has spent much of his recording career behind bars, imprisoned for the 1993 murder of Euronymous, his bandmate in the influential death metal forebears Mayhem. The pagan, anti-Christian, seemingly racist, back-to-the-days-of-Viking-yore Vikernes was also suspected in the burning of several historic churches in Norway. His ‘evil’ reputation thus sealed within the metal underground, Vikernes launched Burzum in 1992 with a self-titled album of mostly traditionally-styled 2-D black metal, albeit with a few slower passages devoid of the typical blast-beat rhythms, and including a few synthesized flourishes.

Burzum’s Anthology

Aske, an EP, followed Burzum’s debut, the cover featuring the corpse of a burned-out church (which only further fueled VV’s infamy). The similarly metal-oriented Det Som Engang Var came out in 1993, after which VV went to prison; the four Burzum albums that have been subsequently released were either pieced together from pre-recorded material (Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in 1994 and Filosofem in ‘96) or were recorded by the artist while still in prison (1997’s Daudi Baldrs and 1999’s Hlidskjalf – my apologies for not having the proper Norwegian typefaces available). Although much of Burzum’s catalog is reasonably well-known in Northern Europe – there have been better than a half-dozen tribute albums released of Burzum material, fer chrissakes! – for the typical American or British metal fan, this stuff is largely unknown (and more than a little unknowable).

Anthology will be the first collection of Burzum recordings to be released on these shores. Although a few Burzum albums have shown up stateside through various metal-specialty retailers (especially the first album and the Aske EP, both of which were hot shit at the peak of VV’s trial), for many this will be their first exposure to the controversial artist’s milieu. Note: this 2008 Candlelight Records Anthology album should not be confused with the 2002 release by VV’s own Cymophane Productions – the two albums have widely differing track lists, and the Candlelight collection will undoubtedly receive wider distribution.

Black Metal Pioneer

So what can black-metal fans expect to hear from Burzum? Not what you’re expecting to hear, to be sure…outside of the self-titled debut and Aske, the Reverend is unfamiliar with the entirety of Burzum’s work, so much of Anthology came as a surprise to me. If you’re expecting something along the lines of Mayhem’s early albums, or maybe Darkthrone, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is more cerebral material, less sonically powerful, perhaps, than traditional 2-D death-metal, but more intellectually challenging and, in the end, offering deeper musical textures and fields to play in. Pulling material from across Burzum’s first five albums and Aske, Burzum’s Anthology presents an incredible snapshot of this intriguing artist.

First of all, forget about understanding a word of Vikernes’ vocals, which sound like nothing more than the death throes of a tortured beast. I honestly can’t tell if the artist is being controversial or not with his lyrics as they’re in a tongue unknown to me, thus I can only speak of the overall sound-and-fury of these tracks. Anthology kicks off with “Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown” from Burzum’s debut album, opening with an unrelenting blast-beat paired with guttural vox and screaming guitar in typical death mode before dropping into an interesting slurry of doom-laden instrumentation and gutted vocal punctuations. “Stemmen Fra Tarnet,” from the EP, descends into darker territory, with fallow guitarwork and strong, albeit more conventional drumbeats.

“Lost Wisdom,” from Det Som Engang Var, shows the beginning of a gradual evolution of the Burzum sound. Slower, down-tuned guitars and plodding rhythms would tread closely to doom-metal turf if not for VV’s howling vox and some imaginative metallic six-string flights of fancy. With “Svarte Troner,” also from Det Som Engang Var, the game really begins to change. The shortest song on Anthology at a mere two minutes, eighteen seconds, it is a provocative ambient soundscape that sounds like being lost in the murky woods as malevo¬lent creatures circle your campfire, hunger on their minds.

Brian Eno’s Worst Nightmare...

Black metal pioneer Burzum
“Det Som En Gang Var,” from the 1994 album Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, continues the trend towards dark-ambience, beginning with a single guitar ringing out above the ever-shifting sands of electronic instrumentation. At times it sounds like Killing Joke, and other times it sounds like Brian Eno’s worst nightmare. It’s an exhaustive, fourteen-minute track that changes directions several times throughout, but it is well worth the journey.

Ditto for “Jesus Tod,” from Filosofem. An eight-minute barrage of white light/white heat with a noise chaser, the song’s unrelenting brilliance and changing moods is simply exhilarating. While rapidfire machine-gun drumbeats prime the canvas, Burzum layers on industrial-styled echoed vocals, often lost in the mix, scattergun blasts of (synthesized?) fretwork, and colorful electronic tinting. Fans of contemporary noisemakers like Earth or Boris could probably embrace this sound.

Both “Gebrechichkeit, from Filosofem, and “Balferd Baldrs,” from Daudi Baldrs, sojourn further into ambient madness, gentle tones dotted throughout tense white noise on the former, while the latter follows a more conventional tact with a strident, almost symphonic recurring riff augmented by shots of menacing keyboards and foreboding synthesized sounds. By the time that you stumble through the album-closing “Dunkelheit,” also from Filosofem, the song’s industrial clash and forged metallic tones offer a respite from the dominating ambient darkness of the previous songs. A bonus QuickTime video of “Dunkelheit” on this enhanced disc sounds different than the album-closing song, but no less dangerous. Anyway, what the hell do I know?

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If all of this sounds interesting well, it is…it’s seldom that you get a chance to find something as fresh and relatively unknown as Burzum in this day-and-age of cloned bands and media overkill. Anthology is an important collection of past work by a near-legendary figure on the black-metal horizon, and well worth further study and discussion. Grab it while you have the chance… (Candlelight Records, released March 3, 2008)

Buy the CD from Burzum’s Anthology

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


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