Friday, April 25, 2008

A Reason To Celebrate

Just when I thought the days of a really & truly cool record store in the Baltimore area were well in the past, I've been turned on to CELEBRATED SUMMER RECORDS in Towson MD. (Thanx, Peacedogman!). CSR owner Tony Pence has a real winner on his hands here with his killer store, located in the back of Legends Comics at 503 York Road. Featuring a great selection of punk, hardcore, thrash, etc., this is exactly what I always looked for back in the glorious '80's and it's going on right now. Tony is an awesome dude who's infectuous and genuine enthusiasm will turn you onto ripping stuff, as he just did today for me with Japanese monsters SYSTEMATIC DEATH. Not only is this little goldmine loaded with a rich vein of CD's, there is also an absolute ton of massive vinyl to check out. In a world where I'd thought Record & Tape Traders and Sound Garden were the last word, CELEBRATED SUMMER RECORDS is a whole new universe. Check out more details including hours, etc. at:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

By The Numbers

After some long-time consideration and input from readers with valued opinions, I've started with the latest group of reviews (see below) and included a numerical rating with each album review. It appears in red at the end of each review and is based on a scale of 0.0-10. 0. In this case, of course, 0.0 being a living piece of cow-dung and 10.0 being an utter classic. Enjoy!

A Current Day Classic

BLACK 47 – “Iraq” CD ’08 (United For Opportunity, US) – Interesting, how we arrive at things. After doing this ‘Realm thing, first as a printed mag for some 14 years and then on to the internet, I’ve learned to listen to others as much if not a lot more than I speak myself. My dad has always told me, “You can’t learn anything while you’re running your yap” and I believe there’s a good bit of truth in that. So, I sit back, listen to other people, regardless (You thought I was going to say “irregardless,” didn’t you? Don’t you hate that?) of their opinions and then after I take it in, well, I run my yap. So, as I’ve listened (or read, in the ol’ email box), especially lately, I’ve heard rumblings about people liking numerical album ratings along with reviews. I thought about it and after a bit of a “think” said to myself, “Yeah, I can do that.” Don’t know why I never did before, really. And how interesting it is that the very first album I give an actual numerical rating to is this, “Iraq,” the new one by New York’s BLACK 47. How did I find out about these guys to begin with? Hmmm…my mind rolls back. I had begun exploring music with an Irish heritage (my own background) in about ’95 or so and as anyone knows, I have a voracious musical appetite. The floodgates opened and disc after disc reflecting this rich vein began to push the ‘Realm mailbox to the bursting point, heavily laden as it already was with all things heavy, hard, metal, prog, etc. As the smoke started to clear (or at least thin a little), I was of course taken by wonderful veterans like The Chieftains but was left with 2 newer bands rising to the top. One was Seven Nations and the other was BLACK 47. Here was something really and truly different. Led by the charismatic, dynamic and poetic Larry Kirwan (vocals/guitar), this band played a kind of music that was at once captivating and yet completely defied categorization. As I listened to the first album I bought by them, “Trouble In The Land” (and older ones like “Black 47” and “Home Of The Brave”) I was amazed by the musical landscapes being covered: punk, rock, Celtic, urban, Latin, swing, jazz etc. Moreso, I was flabbergasted by the fact that they could not only play all these styles but somehow stir them into a magnificent blend that emerged on the other side as simply “BLACK 47.” Nothing sounded like them. When you then added in the fact that Larry Kirwan wrote lyrics that explored aspects of life from man/woman in the street to political vistas of Ireland, the USA and the world beyond and with such a passionate delivery…well, I was hooked. Completely. In the years since then, I’ve been waited with baited breath for each of the band’s releases and have yet to be anything but blown away. I remember the day Kirwan’s solo CD “Kilroy Was Here” came out back in 2001 I came home from work and drove to Rockville MD (55 or so miles) to the only store in Maryland I could find that had it…just so I could hear it that night. I remember playing B47’s 2004 disc “New York Town” (a panoramic vision of NYC in relation to 911) oh, probably about 100 times the week it came out. It was my Top album for that year. And so, we now have “Iraq.” Once again, Larry Kirwan & BLACK 47 have come up aces beyond any other band I know. In truth, I find it nearly defeating to try to describe a record like this. Probably an hour alone could be spent talking about the deceptively simple, yet unbelievably catchy melody of “Sunrise In Brooklyn,” as an example. The sheer beauty of “No Better Friend…” is but another. As a staunch objector to the US invasion of Iraq from the word go, Kirwan laces the power of these masterwork songs with lyrical paintings of such depth and passion that they can alternately make one shed a tear, suck in a deep breath or raise a fist. The fact that such a command can be present in rock music comes, in great part, I think, from the fact that BLACK 47 in general and Kirwan in particular have a real connection with people of all backgrounds & opinions and listen perceptively to them. In fact, a lot of the background for the lyrics present on “Iraq” come from first-hand accounts of things that have been going on “over there” from friends/fans of the band who’ve been there. Man, how can I explain any more about this record. It’s not really fair for me to try to and I’d advise anyone wanting to learn more or gain a deeper understanding to go to the band’s site at: and read the current opening article, particularly Larry K’s song commentary. And, please. If you only buy one album this year…let this be it. 10.0

OGRE – “Plague Of The Planet” CD ’08 (Leafhound, US) – I always used to like science in school. Not sure how much my science teachers liked me, though. They were the ones who always said, “Never mix this chemical & that one together!” I was one who always said “Why not?” Problem was, I was never content to take their word for it and when the smoke had cleared, a $10,000 lab table would be laying in shards on the floor. Luckily, no one ever got hurt. The funny thing is, I never had a chemistry teacher warn me against the effects of mixing Tony Bourge’s guitar plundering, Bon Scott’s vocals and Neil Peart’s early lyrical phantasmagoria. Had they, I would’ve probably found a way to pull Will Broadbent, Ed Cunningham & Ross Markonish back in time from the future and create OGRE back then. As it is, this trio from Maine decided to do the trick several years back. They are now 3 albums into a career that has produced some of the most interesting, original and flat-out kick-ass heavy music that not only New England, or the USA for that matter but the world has seen in a good long while. “Plague Of The Planet” is OGRE’s newest opus and even though I could see it coming (with the long, multi-sectioned cuts on the band’s first 2 platters), it’s a wonder to behold. Clocking in at 38 minutes, the album is one massive, twisting, turning and yet marvelously cohesive single song. Unlike Matt Pike’s droning-doom masterpiece “Dopesmoker,” “Plague…” follows a more Rush-like pattern of distinctly individual sections, each with a sub-title and a mood all it’s own. Parts like the thundering doom of “End-Days” mesh beautifully with, say, a Budgie-romp like “Drive.” The whole thing tells an other-worldly story of Dogmen, the Queen Of Gasoline & The Proto-Man, borne on the super-organic 3-piece groove. Just listen to the way Broadbent (drums) & Cunningham (bass) lay down a nasty groove while Markonish layers gigantatron riffs & melodic leads throughout the proceedings. And how ‘bout those snarling Bon-ish vox from Ed?! Amazing stuff, and you want to know the scary thing? As great as this is, I don’t think OGRE have even reached their zenith yet. Buy now. 9.5

THE SWORD – “Gods Of The Earth” CD ’08 (Kemado, US) – This is the 2nd release by Texas’ THE SWORD and it is quite interesting to me, as much for the +/- hype surrounding it as by the music itself. It seems, from what I’ve been reading across this wild, wonderful (?) thing we call the internet, as though THE SWORD is a love ‘em/hate ‘em deal. On one hand, we have the mainstream metal fans who have elevated them to elite, Godlike status on the strength of their previous “Age Of Winters” album. On the other hand, the more underground people really have opened fire on these guys from word go, labeling them such things as “hipsters” and branding them as nothing more than trend-followers who aren’t even into metal, just seeing a potential ride to glory on the coattails of bands like High On Fire or Mastodon. Of course, like talk radio, the truth to this writer lies somewhere in between. In listening to “Gods Of The Earth,” my take on THE SWORD is very simple. They are a decent metal band that has gotten signed to a label that has done a very good PR job. There are, in fact, a lot of elements here that remind me of things like the aforementioned HOF. Other things popping up include nods to various others like Megadeth (the melodic intros), Iron Maiden (in the double lead department) and things in the more “stoner” end of the pond. It’s ok stuff musically, nothing to write Ma about but then nothing to make the listener run for cover either, save for the dry production style & the somewhat whiny tone to the vocals. (Of course, this never stopped us from listening to Dave Mustaine, I suppose, although that boy could spin a mean yarn…no “Black Fridays” here!) Point is, “Gods Of The Earth” is neither a landmark epic nor the dangerous enemy of the underground. It’s simply a very average metal album that’s happening to sell. What else is new? 5.0

DANKO JONES – “Never Too Loud” CD ’08 (Bad Taste, Can) – I was a bit of a late-comer to North-of-the-Border’s DANKO JONES, having come aboard via actually hearing a track from their “Sleep Is The Enemy” on local 98 Rock (imagine, something good coming of listening to the radio!). Snared by the Lynott-like pipes of Dan Jones I snagged said disc, finding a really nice collection of sharply-written hard rock that kicked as much butt as it’s variety was clever…kind of a Lizzy-ish trait, I might add. This provoked me to dig deeper into the even earlier “We Sweat Blood,” finding another hidden diamond there. This newest disc from the Canadian threesome sees no major change in direction as cuts like “City Streets” and “Ravenous” show that full-bore, switchblade-tight hard rawkin’ style intact. An unfortunate inclusion, however is the track “Still In High School.” Honestly, I’m not sure what JONES & cronies were thinking when they churned this one out, as it reminds me for all the world of exactly why I hated rock radio in the late ‘90’s/early ‘00’s so much. Still, that blemish aside, “Never Too Loud” is not only a law to live by around these parts, it’s a dang good album, so check out these Canucks. 8.0

RUSH – “Snakes & Arrows Live” 2CD ’08 (Anthem, Can) – One thing I’ve noticed right off when it comes to discussion of this latest RUSH live album is pointed directly to it’s very existence. That is “Why another RUSH live album?” And, for those who have pledged allegiance to this Canadian trio through all their years, I suppose that may be a legitimate question. For me, however, it’s a bit different. I loved this band, swore by them through the early days, right up through the massively popular “Moving Pictures.” It was after that that Messrs. Lee, Lifeson & Peart went off the rails with Police-influenced drivel like “Grace Under Pressure,” etc. I hated this band, swore AT them during that period, etc. So, it was with interest that I noticed the somewhat subtle upswing in quality of their material starting with 1996’s “Test For Echo” and increasing through ‘02’s “Vapor Trails.” Still, even with those in mind I was unprepared for the dazzling return to form that was last year’s “Snakes & Arrows” (an album that narrowly missed my Top 11 for the year). So, for this listener in particular, it makes perfect sense for the band to issue a live chronicle of the show supporting “Snakes…” and especially weighing it heavily in that record’s favour. In fact, of the 13 cuts that populated “Snakes…,” 9 of them show up on this record. The fact that they sit comfortably amidst bristling takes on “Limelight,” “Natural Science” and “Circumstances” not to mention “A Passage To Bangkok” speak volumes about their quality, particularly scintillating renditions of “The Larger Bowl” and “Spindrift.” Yes, there is a smattering of numbers like “Dreamline” & “Distant Early Warning,” not among my very RUSH faves, but they actually sit nicely in this set, recorded with a clear bright production this past October in Holland. The bottom line is, this is not only a worthy live album but a clear indication that this old fave of mine from Canada still has more than a little gas left in their tanks. Just sayin… 8.5

LAIR OF THE MINOTAUR – “War Metal Battle Master” CD ’08 (Southern Lord, US) – I have a very strong feeling that LAIR OF THE MINOTAUR is not ever going to do an “Unplugged” CD. Call it intuition, but I don’t think I’m going to flip around the channels one night and be greeted by the image of Steve Rathbone, one leg up on a stool and hunched over an Ovation 12-string, pouring his guts out in a heartfelt wooden rendition of “Black Viper Barbarian Clan.” And that is good, I suppose. When it’s all said and done, LOTM will have never been great innovators but they will have released a succession of records that are the musical equivalent of shoving one’s head into a circular saw. Metal through and through, anyone who enjoys “Reign In Blood” or “Death Is This Communion” (and that includes your’s truly) will embrace this record as you would a rabid mongoose. And that is good. 8.0

THE BLACK CROWES – “Warpaint” CD ’08 (Silver Arrow, US) – I am generally not a violent man, but I would probably have to hurt somebody…badly, perhaps, were they to try to remove from my possession my copy of “Shake Your Money Maker.” Same might go for “Southern Harmony” and “Amorica.” Still, break-ups & reunions marking the way, the later years of the CROWES have supplied some good-yet-uneven releases from Chris, Rich & the boys. And, at one point, if someone told me there would be a new BLACK CROWES studio release in 2008 I’d have probably not believed it. My take on “Warpaint” goes something like this. Like a lot of the bands’ more latter-day stuff, it’s not peeling the paint off my walls like “…Money Maker’s” unbridled explosion of young, southern blues fire. Still, cuts like “Wounded Bird” & “Wee Who See The Deep” continue the bro’s long line of handing down the rockin’ business. Even more interesting, actually, are a couple of the more laid-back acoustic tracks “Whoa Mule” & “Locust Street.” These display that light-shade dynamics I always admired in both the group’s writing and in the vocals/guitar of Chris & Rich R respectively. Yeah, there are a few tracks here that lean toward the “filler” territory, so the pace is a trifle uneven. Still for those into bluesy hard rock with excellent vocals and a disc that’s super-easy to find, you could do way worse. 7.0