Saturday, August 16, 2008

It's Christmas In August!

U.S. CHRISTMAS – “Eat The Low Dogs” CD ’08 (Neurot, US) – North Carolina’s U.S. CHRISTMAS is truly one of the only bands on this earth that frighten me. There are bands that kick my ass, ones that give me pause, some that float my boat and even those that cause me to lose sleep. There are precious few, however, that sincerely make me the hair stand up on my arms, my hackles raise and find me groping for a light switch at high noon, even if only to locate the dictionary and look up the word “hackles.” U.S CHRISTMAS does all of these. I’ve followed these guys since their humble beginnings and, while they are still a fiercely underground unit, it makes me proud to see them being finally recognized and promoted by a label that both can understand them and give them some exposure, Neurot. Of course, the question of the day, the one you’re just waiting to ask is “What does this band sound like?” C’mon, guys, that’s kinda like asking what the Mona Lisa looks like, ya know? But…How about if Neil Young, in his heaviest days with Crazy Horse, lost his mind and got locked in a deserted warehouse with 5 Marshall stacks, assorted Gibsons, a theremin and then decided he’d try to yell something called “Goddamn vocals.” Mingle all that with hoarse whispers, driving rhythms that are metalized and heavy but not nearly so one-dimensional as to be called “heavy metal.” That simply wouldn’t be fair to music as deep, visceral and suffocating as this. This is the eternal Nytemare across epochs that you can’t wake up from and yet, in some way, are thankful for. It’s music that makes you uncomfortable and yet satisfied in a way that is nearly sexual and yet hideously disturbing. Through songs like “The Scalphunters,” “The Light And Trails” and “Black Lung,” not to mention a wondrous re-working of “Gallows Humor” from the band’s “Bad Heart Bull” disc, U.S. CHRISTMAS make you want your mama. They also have made one of the very best albums of the year. 10.0

PHARAOH – “Be Gone” CD ‘08 (Cruz Del Sur, US) – I’ve gotta admit, I come into this one with the ride already in progress, never having heard either of the band’s previous records. Always a sucker for the Cruz Del Sur label, however, I eagerly popped in “Be Gone.” What we have here is a very good release from this Philadelphia-area metal unit. I’m going to say straight out that you’re not going to play this one and say to yourself, “My God, self, what a bunch of true metal originators we have here!” PHARAOH has a lot of the same characteristics that have taken bands like Bruce-era Maiden to their heights, namely stratospheric vocals, twin guitar riffing/leads and a penchant for titles like “Buried At Sea,” “Red Honor” & “Telepath.” The thing is, these guys do what they do well, and even though I could personally use with a little more balls in the production department, this is a disc most people into good, kick-ass power metal (NOT national anthem metal) will find worth spinning more than once. 7.0

DANTESCO – “Pagano” CD ’08 (Cruz Del Sur, PR) – I suppose that, over the years, I’ve come to know a pretty fair amount about metal world-wide but I have to say I’m not familiar with a whole lot of bands from Puerto Rico. After hearing this disc from DANTESCO, however, I’m wondering if I should be paying a little more attention to that U.S. territory. On “Pagano,” the band’s 2nd release, they whip up a fantastic blend of epic power metal that really took me by surprise with it’s originality and verve. DANTESCO go for the jugular on this disc, pulling out all the stops and lacing every cut with a torrent of riffs that dazzle but never overwhelm. I was reading a review of this on The Ripple Effect ( that really hit the nail on the head when they spoke of some mid-later period Savatage references. That’s definitely a good jumping-off-point, and true to the band’s bio, there’s even a bit of Mercyful Fate thrown in courtesy of the blinding lead guitar work, not to mention some sweet acoustic action. What I like most though, are the plentiful moments where you just can’t pinpoint the influence and you get some of that rush that speaks true originality. The band’s use of their native language only emphasizes that point and the manner in which they’re delivered by singer Erico “La Bestia” drives it home even further. Rather than emit the “typical” air-raid-siren worship we often hear, this guy sings with a deep, fervent tone that speaks very emotionally. It’s nearly a jarring juxtaposition with the rest of the band but thankfully never becomes twee, only serving to give a real extra jolt of personality to the proceedings. All in all, while I’ve come to expect nothing but good things from Cruz Del Sur, I was not necessarily ready for this one to come close in quality to the label’s standard-bearers like Bible Of The Devil & Slough Feg. Surprises like this are good to buy, so please do so! 8.5

JOURNEY – “Revelation” 2CD/DVD ’08 (Frontiers, US) – I’m a closet JOURNEY fan. Ok, there, I’ve said it. Like any self-respecting heavy prog-head, I dug the shit out of their first 3 ‘70’s albums, laced as they were with violent 6-7 minute excursions into post-Santana Schon/Rolie firestorms. Then…along came Steve Perry…at that point, in my mind, an interloper who changed these wild-assed muthas into a slick AOR monster. I wanted to hate the guy so bad. But over time, it occurred to me: the dude had a voice & a half, often matching Sam Cooke greatness and songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” & the nearly Uli-chugga-rhythmed “Separate Ways” were hard to stop blasting out of the Impala’s open windows. Of course, time moves on, the inevitable “personal differences” creep in and the next thing we’re left with are rather OK albums with accused lip-syncher Steve Augeri. Yeah, “Arrival” & “Generations” were ok, ‘cept the songs were samey & Steve A. just didn’t have the pipes. JOURNEY also brought in Jeff Scott Soto to finish a tour and I’m thinking, Christ, what’s next, Yngwie joining on 2nd guitar?! Fortunately, Soto exited and Neal Schon got out his laptop & started watching YouTube. There he found a Filipino dude called Arnel Pineda and we now have “Revelations.”
A sprawling 2 disc/DVD set sold exclusively at Walmart/Sam’s Club (I had to make peace with my creator about purchasing music there), what direction does this JOURNEY take into the future? Thankfully, a good one. The new material here, all written by Schon & keys-man Jonathan Cain is quite good. The opener, “Never Walk Away” will take you back to the “Frontiers” days with it’s driving rhythm. Yes, Pineda does sound strikingly like the tuxedo-ed one, but not in a karaoke sense. His own voice emerges, fueled by both his slight accent and tone. Of similar ilk is “Where Did I Lose Your Love,” featuring a deep chorus hook that’ll have you going into your ‘80’s wardrobe cupboard instantly. Elsewhere, “Like A Sunshower” is a breathy look to the “Infinity”/ “Evolution” days and the instrumental “The Journey (Revelation” harkens even further back. Sure, a couple ballads may outstay their welcome by a minute or 2 and I do hope that Arnel lends some writing credits to the next effort. But while you may not be ready to throw that well-worn “Frontiers” vinyl in the fire, this one sure had the flame burning nicely again. Damn, it’s actually bright enough that I can see in this closet. 8.0
NOTE: Shit, I forgot to mention it in the regular review, but the 2nd CD here is a collection of re-works of songs like "Separate Ways," etc. with the current band including Arnel Pineda. Let me just say that the dude does an excellent job in making these cuts sound re-invigorated. Moreover, the DVD features live footage of the same current line-up and they come off as a pretty charged up bunch. Nice to see.

GRAND MAGUS – “Iron Will” CD ’08 (Candlelight, Swe) – This Swedish power trio has been around for awhile now, this being their 4th effort. It’s really hard to quarrel with this record as, front to back, it’s quality metal with a sound akin to Dio-era Sabs and a lyrical bent not unlike Manowar if they actually were Vikings. Still, I’m left a trifle cold by “Iron Will” and I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s that after this many releases, JB and crew have sailed the same fjords a lot of times. Perhaps there just aren’t as many standout riffs as on the band’s previous works. Either way, while still a decent listen, this is not GRAND MAGUS’ best & I’m hoping they can blow me away next time around. 6.5

BRAVE – “Monuments” CD ’08 (Private, US) – Having associations going back in the DC-Va-Md doom scene, one might expect Virginia’s BRAVE to trod a musical path blazed by those like Pentagram, Asylum or The Obsessed. Such is deceptive, however, and on their new full-length “Monuments,” these guys (& woman) show exactly why. Imagine a sound driven by “Permanent Waves”-era Rush, amped up with some ‘80’s guitar aggression and then brought into sharp relief by a nearly Celtic violin touch & awesome female vocals. Yeah, BRAVE is all that and then some on this refreshing long player. The musicianship is spot-on, led by the crystalline lead guitar of Scott Loose (who also supplies deft acoustic work) and the aforementioned violin of Suvo Sur, who’s work recalls the emotion of another semi-local player, Celtic wiz, Cathy Palmer. And, speaking of emotion, the word was probably designed for vocalist Michelle Loose. To begin with, I can honestly say that her engaging upper range does not immediately remind me of anybody else, quite a credit. Secondly, her persona is a fiercely strong one, bringing a feeling of hope to darker songs like “Hurt” and one of uplifting transcendence to something like “Stronger.” In all, this is a sterling record, nailed home by BRAVE’s own self-production job. I’d very much like to see them lay this stuff down live. 9.0

BILL BONDSMEN – “Swallowed By The World” CD ’08 (Dead Beat, US) – Punk rock can be a wonderful thing. It’s a wonderful thing when it has something to rail against. Something to rail against is not being bummed by your parents refusing to drive you to the mall stylist because your roots are showing under the purple in your Mohawk. Something to rail against, however, means wondering which fucking drug corner you’re going to be living on when your slumlord won’t buy your reason for not having last month’s rent on Friday because you had to use it to pay child support to your hooker ex-wife. Something to rail against means wondering how long it’s going to take before someone knocks in your front door after your power’s turned off and the sun goes down. BILL BONDMEN sound like something to rail against all that and maybe a million other real things in the world that, for a lot of people, is an extreme series of black & white snapshots from a life growing colder by the day. Punk rock can be a wonderful thing. 8.0

MOTORAMA – “Psychotronic Is The Beat” CD ’08 (Dead Beat, US) – MOTORAMA is composed of 2 people, Daniela & Laura and this is their 2nd full-length effort. To be brutally honest, if it’s better than their 1st, I probably don’t ever want to hear that debut. This is noisy, trashy punkish rock with mega-annoying vocals that has been done so much better by people like The Oblivians, Reatards, etc. In fact, the paltry version of the Gang Of Four track “Damaged Goods” here reminds me only that I wish I was spinning the new Jay Reatard singles collection instead. 3.0

JUANITA Y LOS FEOS – “Juanita Y Los Feos” CD ’08 (Dead Beat, Spa) – Now, this is more like it, as far as noisy garage punk goes. Interestingly, JUANITA Y LOS FEOS are from Spain and they sing this record in their native language, which in my opinion only adds to their appeal. The production here surely of the “garage” variety, meaning that you’re not going to confuse it with anything lain down with Roy Thomas Baker at the desk. That’s way ok, though, as it’s also clear & listenable enough to rattle your brain in a most delightful way. Without any exaggeration, opening cut “El Agujero” is completely awesome in every sense of the word, combining an insistent melody that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘50’s rock & roll classic, suspended on vocals that are perky but never cutesy. “No Tengo Ritmo” matches this one for coolness and, likewise does “Baila Como Un Robtot.” The rest of the album doesn’t stretch into the league of these high-level cuts, but the fact remains that it is good and a damn good example that there are people out there doing this kinda stuff that need to be discovered. Dead Beat Records seems to be, overall, doing a damn nice job of it and many of their releases have me thirsting for more. 8.0


Mark said...

Ladies and gentleman, the only other place where you can read the praises of the new JOURNEY record alongside the latest BILL BONDSMEN release...long live Chaos Realm!

The RIpple Effect said...

Great stuff, Ray. Thanks for the nod, and I'm glad you found Dantesco to be as intriguing as I did. We're also eye for eye on Bill Bondsmen and Juanita y Los Feos. Love her trashy garage vibe.

So, with so much agreement between us, I guess I have no choice but to check out U.S. Christmas. One of your albums of the year? A perfect 10? I'm drooling in anticipation!


The RIpple Effect said...

Just got my copy of US Christmas. I'll send you my thoughts.