Thursday, January 29, 2009


Of course, we all know that it’s pretty damn cool to find bands you like and get into ‘em, become a fan. That’s, in essence, what having this hobby is all about. When such a band is from your home town, that makes it even more special. When the band is not from your home town, and yet becomes wildly popular there, well that’s kinda odd…but also cool. Enter CRACK THE SKY, from Pittsburgh PA and yet as much musical sons of Baltimore, Md as any rock group has ever been. Yes, as John Palumbo (vocals, guitars, songwriting) has said himself, CTS has found pockets of fandom in several places but there’s nothing like Baltimore – my hometown – for these guys. Sporting a style that marries heavy guitar rock to jazz lines & odd song structures to impossibly catchy hooks, CRACK THE SKY is completed by the perceptive, thoughtful yet often biting & sarcastic humor of Palumbo’s lyrics. What follows is a talk with John about the band (now back to 4/5 of their original members), their history, their latest opus “The Sale” and the world in general. Enjoy!

RAY - How did it come about that Joe Macre returned to CRACK THE SKY? I know you had some pretty damn hot bassists, like Carey Ziegler, but Joe is really a motherfucker and I mean that in the best possible way. When I first put “The Sale” in and heard the bass lines in “American Refugee,” I was like “Yeah…all is right in the world.”

JOHN - Thanks for the compliment. Joe and I worked on a project called The Precious Bros. He did such a great job producing that, I asked him to produce The Sale. He told me he was interested in playing some bass on it, and it kind of took off from there. Same thing...I heard his parts and said, "Yeah!' Except, not all is right with the world. By far. We all discussed asking Joe back in, and then gave Sonny a 3 month window. Understand, this was almost a two year turn of events. Even so, I feel bad about Sonny, as he was a terrific bassist and wonderful person.

RAY - Joe D’Amico returned on drums after “The Sale” was recorded. How did that come to pass, did his return have anything to do with the fact that he’d be playing with Joe M again?

JOHN - When I let Sonny go, John Tracey told me he could not stay on, as he felt a kinship with Sonny, and that I (we) had done him wrong. We did not want John to leave...another exceptional player and fine person. Still, he made the decision, and as for us, there was no other choice. Joey was the only person we asked. Had Joey said no, my son would probably be the drummer.

RAY - Again, I’m sorry to have to plead ignorant to a lot of what has gone on with the band over the last many years but how long has Bobby Hird been with you? He & Rick seem like a great guitar combination, that duel they did in “Lighten Up McGraw” was smoking.

JOHN - Bobby has been with us for over 20 years. He will have to die before I let him go!

RAY - The one guy from the old days who’s not involved is Jim Griffiths. Is he out of music or just out of the picture as far as CTS is concerned? I’ve gotta say that with what I’ve seen of Bobby, it’s not an issue musically. In the old days, I was trying to remember, was the lead guitar work split between Rick & Jim? It seems like Rick & Bobby each do a lot of soloing now.

JOHN - Jimmy is no longer playing. He lives in L.A. and is a pilot. Joe M keeps somewhat in touch with him. Yes, the playing was always split this way, but we never extended solos live like we do now, so maybe that is why you don't remember.

RAY - I know this story has been told ad nauseum but for the sake of any readers I have who aren’t familiar, I wanted to touch on it. Is it correct that there was a lot of record company fuck ups with distribution of the first record and that, somehow, by accident, one of the only places it became readily available was Baltimore, thereby contributing to CTS’s popularity here?

JOHN - No one knows what happened in Baltimore. We assumed things, yet since leaving Lifesong 5 other labels tried to copy the model and break us in other places...never happened. We have pockets internationally, but Baltimore is absolutely like home for us.

RAY - So, how does that work, if you’re Steelers fans? (Just kidding…I think)

JOHN - HA! yes.. see above! I'm an Eagles fan and it doesn't work out well at all!!!!!! Bobby loves the Ravens (as he should), Rick is a Steelers fan, Mac is a pond jumper... lives in Dallas but dives on who is winning at the time! HA! The rest really could care less. They are into Lacrosse.

RAY - I have to say again that I am really pleased with “The Sale.” It strikes me as a very dense, dark album with a lot of layers musically & lyrically. In that sense, it reminds me a bit of “Animal Notes.” That is to say, it’s not as immediate or catchy as the first album or “White Music” but kinda unfolds, reveals itself after several listens.

JOHN - The Sale is a task to listen to. I realized that after trying to listen to it. I got carried away. I consider it more of a novel than a record. The new Cd, MACHINE, now in the hands of Ricky and Bobby, is even darker. The Sale ended with some hope, MACHINE does not. Cheery, huh?

RAY - You seem to be looking very closely at the American condition, the political & social environment with “The Sale.” Is this a concern that’s escalated for you over the last several years? Do you see any chance for this changing appreciably with the incoming administration or is it going to take a lot more than that?

JOHN - I sincerely wish President Obama the best. My theory is that humans are too stupid to inhabit something as beautiful and peaceful as the Earth, and so no...I see nothing but a slow slide to the inevitable end. I am hopeful that my children get to grow old, otherwise I don't care, as I wasted too many years giving humanity the benefit of the doubt. We - in my opinion - can form tiny loving communities (family, a few close friends) and attempt to do our best within that dynamic. I plan on living out in joy and fun, but also in relative isolation. When I come back, my hope is that it is to someplace harmonious and not as an invader.

RAY - A couple things have always stood out to me about CRACK THE SKY, one lyrical & one musical. Since we were on the lyrical bent, I’ll stick with that for a minute. A lot of so-called “progressive” bands (what the hell does that mean, anyway!) are often brutally serious lyrically, to the point of putting me off. What I always dug about your stuff is that you seem to be able to speak about things you think are important, yet lace it with a kinda humor that makes it seem human & sometimes more than a tad sarcastic, yet not preachy. Any commentary?

JOHN - If I were to write a song like I just wrote the above paragraph, do you think anyone would be entertained? Humor is art. To be able to say, "My congress has moved to Mexico," is way more interesting than saying, "My congress has sold out."

RAY - I know you worked in the psychology field. How much of your interest in this do you think has come out in your lyrical take on things?

JOHN - It helped only in that I can identify certain aspects of the human condition, and play with them a bit more accurately. Otherwise, the two are completely separate.

RAY - Would I be wrong in guessing that John Lennon was a big influence?

JOHN - No.

RAY - Musically, another thing that’s always stood out to me in CTS, and is delightfully prevalent on “The Sale” is a funk influence. Any love for George Clinton out there?

JOHN - YUP! But that credit should go to Mac.

RAY - RED LIGHT CHALLENGE: Which of the following 4 musicians from the past would you think would have been the most interesting to work with? Hell, comment on all of ‘em if you want! Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Brian Jones.

JOHN – Miles Davis.

RAY - Something that impressed me as much as anything you or the band did at the recent Recher show was when you brought your son & daughter up on stage for a minute and made a comment to the effect that there is nothing more important than this. I’m a father of 5 children myself, including a special needs boy (a 14 year old who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) and I agree with your sentiments exactly. While I think it’s the right, the only way to feel, it was also very nice to hear that come from a musician that I admire. Any comments?

JOHN - Being a father, you understand it completely. Once we bring life into the world, we must come 2nd. You have been blessed with a special needs child. To me this says that whatever power is out there made a determination that you and your wife are special , as well. You have my deepest respect.

RAY - I understand a live DVD is coming in 2009 as well as another new studio album. What can you share with us about those upcoming releases?

JOHN - The new music, I already spoke about. The DVD is more of the know, walking down memory lane in HD.

RAY - What do you see as the future of CRACK THE SKY and John Palumbo? Do you see the band continuing on indefinitely, and if so, is this more likely now that 4/5 of the original line-up is working together?

JOHN - Actually, it is less likely since the original people are together! HA! No, I don't see any reason for us to stop. I mean we are in our 50's!!! I imagine we will do it until we realize how absolutely silly we are being, or if we start to get critiques that "explain" to us how out of touch with EVERYTHING the band is.

RAY - You’re not going to get away without this one, it’s always one of my favourites. Tell us about one of the most bizarre, crazy, ridiculous or just plain funny things that has ever happened to you in the times of being in CRACK THE SKY, either on the road, onstage, in the studio, etc. Jesus, don’t hold back!

JOHN - I was handed a baby once. We had finished a Painters Mill show, and walking off stage and up the aisle, a woman actually handed me her baby!!!!!!!!!! At first, I didn't know what it was...then, the security guy stopped everything, thank god!!!! It was one of those frozen one, but the security guy knew what to do. He fetched "mom" and gave the baby back. I don't think she was really giving me her kid, but ya never know!

RAY - John, thanks so much for taking the time to do this. Any final comments for the readership?

JOHN - Just thank you to everyone for continuing to enjoy and for showing us they enjoy the music.

When it comes to the terms hard rock, prog, heavy lead guitar, intelligence & humor there are few places you could go and do better than CRACK THE SKY. For any longtime fans who’ve not yet done so, grab “The Sale” immediately. For anyone else, who’s never had the chance to hear this awesome band, get searchin’ for that as well as these “Ray” picks: “Crack The Sky,” “Animal Notes,” “Safety In Numbers,” “Live Sky,” “White Music” & “From The Greenhouse.”


Sometimes “simple” is best, you know? I mean, ok, a villa on the Mediterranean, a Ferrari and a super model can be nice but...a nice house in the suburbs, a comfortable amount of scratch, a cherry ’68 Camaro & my wife & kids sounds awfully good to me. Such is life, and when I heard “Twisted” by THE COTTON SOETERBOEK BAND, I was pretty damn happy. You see, with all the progressive-dark-new-old-rock-metalized-punk-&-roll that crosses my desk here at the ‘Realm, it’s nice to hear a simple hard rock album that kicks butt. Sure, the first thing that crossed my mind when “Set Me Free” came tumbling out of the speakers was vintage Whitesnake. Still, as the album proceeded through “Twisted,” the bluesy “Little Sister” and the southern hard rock of “Colorado,” I was feeling a band who had their own thing. Buoyed by the rawk-steady rhythm section of Wim Den Boer (bass) & Wilfried Broekman (drums), Robert Soeterboek’s commanding vocals & Alan Cotton’s cutting Les Paul drive this vintage roadster right down the classic rock highway. I recently spoke to Alan & he helped me navigate the band’s current trip.

RAY - I kinda came into THE COTTON SOETERBOEK BAND blind, meaning that I heard the CD without having any prior knowledge of any of the musicians and what they’ve been involved in before. Since, I’ve learned that there is a history involving bands like Halford, as well as the vocalist (Robert Soeterboek) being involved in Ayreon’s band. With prog and metal involved in some of the pedigree here, how did the band end up doing such straight-ahead hard rock?

ALAN - We wanted to record an album of the music we loved and grew up on. Blues based hard rock and we wanted to record it like they did in the old days. Just trying to capture the magic of the moment. Just a good old Rock and Roll album. The band started out all Americans and one Dutch member, now it's all Dutch members and one American haha. Bassist Wim den Boer and drummer Wilfried Broekman joined the band soon after we had completed recording the album. Robert and I couldn't be happier since they have joined and we can't wait to hit the road together with the new line up.

RAY - I understand that the band released an EP before this full-length album. Was it pretty much the same style?

ALAN - Yes, the EP is along the same lines as “Twisted”. Robert and I try not to write the same songs twice. Since the EP is only two songs, it's hard to get a full picture of the band, but if you listen to it back to back with “Twisted”, the songs fit right into place.

RAY - How did the band end up settling in Colorado?

ALAN - It's one of the most beautiful places in the States to live. I can see Pikes Peak from my front yard. I had just gotten fed up with the rat race of LA and New York and needed a change. I can take care of most business from here and fly to LA when I need to so it has worked out really well so far.

RAY - What are the chances of Coors Brewing Company giving you an endorsement? Do most of the people in Colorado actually drink their beer or do you think it’s just typical weak American shit? Is it true what their ads say, that if you address an envelope simply Coors, Golden, Colorado it’ll get to them? Are you wondering why I’m asking you this crap?

ALAN - Chances of endorsement with Coors? Probably pretty good because we have a song about Colorado. Most people here in Colorado do drink Coors. I won't say anything bad about them in case they want to give us a wheelbarrow full of money to use one of our songs, but our preferred drink is Heineken. And yes, if you address an envelope as Coors, Golden, Colorado it will get to them. The Coors factory takes up the whole side of a mountain. This is definitely one of the most entertaining questions I have gotten in a long time.

RAY - To me, the album has a great sound that reminds me of classic British bluesy hard rock. It has a real nod to the best parts of a band like Whitesnake without being anything like a clone. Is that the kinda vibe you guys were trying for?

ALAN - Thank you so much. That's it. We play blues based hard rock, so we fall into the same category with bands like Whitesnake and Deep Purple, but we try and bring our own unique take to the music.

RAY - That being said, there’s also a track like “Colorado,” which not only pays tribute to your home state but also has a distinctly Southern rock feel. It’s a track that has a very rich, honest feel, almost like some of Skynyrd’s better melodic numbers. Care to comment?

ALAN - I'm actually a Southerner with Colorado being my adopted state. Southern music was such a huge influence on me growing up, so we just tried to bring that honesty to our music.

RAY - RED LIGHT CHALLENGE: Miss Colorado walks up to you at a COTTON SOETERBOEK show and says “I’ll give you a choice! A lifetime supply of Coors, a vintage Les Paul or me for the night.” Which one do you choose?

ALAN – That’s an easy one. The vintage Les Paul. Haha.

RAY - Alan, one thing that strikes me about “Twisted” is your guitar solos. The thing I like about ‘em is the fact that they’re not long but they just fit perfectly in the songs, they’re lyrical in the sense that they say something very concise and yet powerful in each track. Again, I’m reminded of the Marsden/Moody work in Whitesnake. Or am I just a musical ignoramus?

ALAN - Once again thank you for your kind words. My take on it is just play for the songs. That's the most important thing you can do. Bernie Marsden and Mick Moody were also influences on my playing. For somebody that has probably sold 20 million records, Bernie Marsden is such an underrated guitarist. Not only is he a soulful and melodic player, he's a fantastic song writer.

RAY - How’s it going with the band as far as live shows go? Done a lot in the Denver area? How about elsewhere, have you taken this show on the road yet?

ALAN - Because of the delays between the EP and getting “Twisted” out, we decided to do a full tour behind the second album. We will let you know how it goes.

RAY – What’s next for the COTTON SOETERBOEK BAND as far as recording, any new tunes in the pipeline? Any chance we’ll see you doing a “Nostradamus”-styled concept box set about a race of guitars that rise up out of the country hills and take over the world? Gotta love that album cover?

ALAN - I've have just begun writing the second album this week. It should be a pretty eclectic mix of songs and there will be a few heavier and faster songs as well. Concept album? Haha. I tend to like shorter and more concise songs. I think it would actually be pretty hard to keep a common thread tied through out one of our albums but I do like your suggestion. How about just a four minute song about guitars ruling the planet? Haha.

RAY - Tell me something crazy. Tell me a story, an anecdote, a bizarre tale or a wild story about the most unusual, insane or God knows, obscene thing that has ever happened to the band in it’s history, either onstage, on the road, etc. Be as truthful or creative as you can without flat-out lying!

ALAN - Just being in this business is crazy enough. OK, one night after a show, somebody was so touched by my playing they gave me a Fender Stratocaster! How cool is that? Just thinking about it right now, where did that guy get the guitar? I hope it didn't belong to the opening band Haha.

RAY - Any final comments for the Raysrealm readers?

ALAN - Thank you Ray for this interview and also for supporting new music like ours. To all of Raysrealm readers, thank you for taking the time to read it. Please stop by our website or myspace page and check out the band. Help support the music you enjoy and also support websites like Raysrealm that make interviews like this possible.

If you listen to a classic hard rock station in your town and they’re not playing cuts from THE COTTON SOETERBOEK BAND’s “Twisted” between tracks from Skynyrd, Whitesnake & Stevie Ray Vaughan, then, like most classic rock programming directors, they’re idiots. And, hey, if you’re reading this site, then what the hell are you doing listening to the radio anyway?! Get off yer ass & order this CD now!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Heavy Handed New Yorkers! Reviewed & Interviewed

HEAVY HANDS – “Smoke Signals” CD ’08 (Language Of Stone, US) – “HEAVY HANDS.” On first impression, the moniker kinda reminds me of a nickname for a shortstop that wouldn’t get drafted too high. But then I put the inner sports fan aside and think…hmm, “heavy, yeah, we like heavy around these ‘Realm parts.” And, so when I see a used copy of this disc in a local emporium for the bargain price of $8, I keep thinking, “Yeah, I can do this.” And when I finally get the piece of plastic home & spin it in the spinner, I’m like “Yeah, I can definitely do this!” See, while HEAVY HANDS are a trio of young whipper-snappers from Brooklyn, NY, they sound for all the world like a crew of crafty German veterans from 1971 (wasn’t that a good year, Pooch?) Is it so ironic then, that this nifty disc starts out with a ditty called “Can’t See Thru,” when Hairy Chapter once lamented that they “Can’t Get Through?” Yeah man, moving from that prophetic opener, right on thru (ooch!) slammers like “See Saw” to “3 Days Gone,” these cats summon up the Liebling-named “ambulance guitar,” crashing drums & rumbling bass enough to wake the dead. Your neighbors will be awake too, honcho. And… while some of ‘em may call the fuzz, the dude in the tie-dyed t-shirt downstairs who just fell asleep with a roach on his copy of “Vincebus Eruptum” will be up to ask you for a copy. Mighty sweet smoke! 8.0

Pretty frickin’ nice find, this here HEAVY HANDS disc and I’m really looking forward to what these dudes come up with on their sophomore effort, as they’ve got quite a promising future. In the meantime, I spoke just recently to guitarist/vocalist Sterling & here’s what he had to say!

RAY - I’ve got to admit, I’m 51 years old. That’s not something I take lightly…especially when I’ve spent a day working, picking up 5 kids from school, doing 4+ loads of laundry, fixing dinner & then listening to music! I’m tired! But then again, it means I came up during a period when rock was pretty damn exciting, so I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Bands like early Sabs, Cactus, Vanilla Fudge, 13th Floor Elevator, Blue Cheer, Hendrix, Hairy Chapter, Silberbart, Budgie…that was fun. So how old are you guys? Were you around for any of this stuff when it came out or have you gone back to investigate? If you’ve done that, many kudos…a lot of younger guys don’t take the time…and it shows in their music. Your commentary?

STERLING - We are investigators, and quite avid, but not first-hand witnesses. We range in age from our late twenties to early thirties.

RAY - Maybe it’s just my bad eyes, but I couldn’t see band member names on the CD and there’s just first names on the website, not saying who plays what. Care to introduce yourselves…or do you like to dwell in mystery?

STERLING - Well, we don’t mind a little mystery. The whole idea of HEAVY HANDS is that it is a collective creation, so we don't focus too much on our individual roles but for curiosity sake...Sterling plays guitar and sings, Mitch plays bass and Matt is on drums.

RAY - You guys are from Brooklyn, NY. Is that where you’re all originally from or is it merely the portal of magical confluence where the 3 of you have come together to form an unholy racket called HEAVY HANDS?

STERLING - To get technical about it we actually practice in NYC in the lower east side and two of us live in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan. As for our origins there are no original Brooklynites in the outfit, Matt is from upstate NY, Sterling from Detroit and Mitch from Atlanta, GA.

RAY - And, to what do we have to thank for the band name?

STERLNG - Namely the excessively loudness of our drummer.

RAY - RED LIGHT CHALLENGE: I used to shop at a record store in Brooklyn during the ‘80’s called Zig Zag Records (Since moved to Staten Island & now New Jersey). 10 points (which are good for absolutely nothing) if you can tell me what corner it was on.

STERLING - Alas no clue on this one....none of us lived round here back then.

RAY – Well, then, I can tell you it was 23rd and AvenueU! Is “Smoke Signals” your first recorded work? You really managed to get a sound that takes the listener back to “the day” and yet still, somehow does not sound “dated.” Who produced the record…or did you…and what kinds of production techniques/gear did you use? The guitar sound has that great “ambulance” sound, as Bobby Liebling of Pentagram once described it.

STERLING - Yeah the whole record we did ourselves, with some help from our friends. We recorded most of the record live (engineered by our friend Charles Burst at Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn) to 2" tape with the exception of overdubs for vocals and the odd extra guitar, keyboard or percussion track. We have the good fortune to have an engineer in the band, Mitch, so most of the work of overdubbing and mixing was literally done hands on by us with Mitch at the knobs. As you might guess we use lotsa vintage gear both what we are recording and what is doing the recording. As for the guitar sound, that is achieved by using a tape delay and sending the delay signal to a second amp thus creating the big "ambulance" sound.

RAY - Pick…oh, let’s say 3…songs from “Smoke Signals” and give us a run-down about them, what they’re about, where the inspiration came from, etc.

STERLING - Well most of the songs are not terribly specific in nature as they tend to be more about state of mind or being out of your mind, which is not to say they don't have some reference point or inspiration, the most obvious being the song no. 6 which is a roundabout reference to the 60's british tv show The Prisoner, a personal favorite.

RAY - “Smoke Signals” is on the Language Of Stone label, which appears to be fairly new in that they only have a couple artists. I see that the disc is also manufactured by Drag City, who have a pretty diverse artist roster. What can you tell us about how all this worked out and what kind of distribution have you seen for the disc thusfar? I can tell you that The Sound Garden in Baltimore had 2 copies in stock (1 new and 1 used) and the clerk who rang me up said he was really digging on the album.

STERLING - Hey we are always glad to hear that the record is getting out there and people are getting a chance to hear it. We have great distribution, thanks to Drag City, though in this day and age it's a pretty tough market out there to draw attention to yourself and your music. Ideally we'd be out touring and supporting the record, which we hope to be doing more of in the upcoming year.

RAY - RED LIGHT CHALLENGE: Do some word association for me!

a. Baltimore, Maryland = George Brigman
b. Tony McPhee = Groundhogs
c. Sarah Palin = Bulldog
d. NY Mets = Baseball

RAY - I saw that you guys have played Baltimore…and grimaced to myself because I missed it. Any chance of a return trip? Where else have you guys presented your wares?

STERLING - Yeah we love playing Baltimore, we've been twice actually to play with our Baltimore buddies Sri Aurobindo and plan to go back sometime soon. We have played around mostly close to home here on the east coast, in Philly and in Conn, also at Wesleyan College and of course, frequently in Brooklyn and NYC. We are trying to get together a more coherent and longer tour, but its complicated by scheduling, money etc.

RAY - What’s next on the recording front for HEAVYHANDS?

STERLING - As of this early this last week we headed back into the studio to lay down basic tracks for 5 new songs. We'll be working on these over the next couple of weeks/months so stay tuned, no plans as yet on how these would be released, but we are looking forward to sharing them when they are ready.

RAY - You know what? I’m not going to let you off the hook without this one…Give me the lowdown on some crazy, nutso or just plain disgustingly weird story about something that has happened in the course of the band’s history! Entertain us!

STERLING - Hmm, putting us on the spot eh? The only thing that pops into my mind was actually on our last trip to Baltimore which happened as we were getting back to the house where we were going to crash for the night. As we pulled up a woman came out onto the fire escape and violently tossed a couple big flourscent tubes which smashed into a million pieces right in front of us, needless to say we were a bit baffled by our welcome, as it turned out it wasn't intended for us but was just conicidental with some kind of lovers quarrell, at the time though it was a bit nutso...

RAY - Any final ramblings for the readers of ‘Da Realm?

STERLING - Many thanks and good vibrations...

Great to see a buncha young guys reach back into the past & embrace the music that led to so much of today’s heavy metal thunder! HEAVY HANDS have got the gonads to plug in, turn up and kick all kinds of lysergic-tinted ass and the world had better pay ‘em some heed. I’ve gotta see this crew live!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Real Seven Nations Army

SEVEN NATIONS – “Time As The Enemy” CD ’08 (Moriah, US) – While New York’s Black 47 has been the Celtic rock band that’s impressed me the most from a lyrical and musical standpoint, seldom has a band ever occupied a part of my psyche as Florida’s SEVEN NATIONS did in the early ‘00’s. Having gone through a period of personal upheaval during that very era, I found myself often buoyed by the perceptive thoughts and immediate catchiness of songs from the band’s “The Factory” disc (’99). From the heart-searing “This Season” & “Twelve” through the staunch & hard delivery of “The Ballad Of Calvin Crozier,” SEVEN NATIONS and their leader Kirk McLeod (vocals, guitar) took me on their backs & got me through the shit…not something I can say about many bands. 7N (as they’re known by their loyal following) seemed to be poised for success as the decade began to unfold, and their 2002 effort “And Now It’s Come To This” actually surpassed “The Factory,” in my opinion, remaining one of the greatest records of the decade thusfar. The musical climate seemed right and with the right push at the right time, I thought they were going to unseat the wildly-overrated Dave Matthews Band in the college-rock arena and yet…just didn’t seem to happen. The band went on to issue another superb albeit bit-of-a-left-turn in 2005’s all acoustic “…Thanks For Waiting.” Now another 3 years have gone by and Kirk & Co., despite still making the rounds of decent-sized clubs and Celtic festivals, have dished out another gem, “Time As The Enemy.” Yes, it’s true that SEVEN NATIONS have not become household words, except for that crap White Stripes song that pisses me off every time I hear it. And yet, the truth is, I don’t personally give a fuck because this band still rules…completely! Once again, the 7N line-up is populated by Mr. McLeod, Struby – bass, Scott Long – pipes and Crisco Macelli –drums. A difference here is the fiddle work, handled long-time by Dan Tracey, has now been taken over by Victor Gagnon. This latter blip is barely noticed as, I’m delighted to say, the band has returned to the rock format with a record that has me doing Irish step dances for joy…and this white boy can’t dance! For anybody who’s familiar with 7N already, “Time As The Enemy” jumps right back into the fray of “The Factory” and “And Now…” with big freaking boots. From the very opening of “Infinity” there’s no question that SEVEN NATIONS is here to rock this time out. And if there was any doubt, “Mugs Away,” with it’s “I wouldn’t want to be you!” chorus leaves little doubt. The rhythm section of Macelli & Struby synch up like a fine-tuned hot rod as McLeod lays down chords that range from jagged to lush and Long & Gagnon stir in their Celtic leads to the mix. All that aside, there’s nothing saying the boys still can’t deliver a stirring ballad or two, as the heartfelt “My Favorite Photograph” proves, nor are they shy about really piling on the Celtic flavor in brand new pipe and fiddle sets. Of course, the question comes to bear as to whether or not this CD is the equal of “The Factory” and, while not trying to side-step the issue, I’ll say that it truly doesn’t matter. In this case, despite the fact that massive stardom has still eluded them, time has been anything but the enemy for SEVEN NATIONS. 9.5

KARCIUS – “Episodes” CD ’08 (Unicorn Digital, Can) – Instrumental music is a funny deal. I mean, let’s face it, how many times have you heard a tag line that goes something like, “Well, for an instrumental album, it’s pretty good.” Or how ‘bout “One of the best instrumental discs of the year.” See, there’s almost always that qualification. I wonder why that is? Actually I know why that is. It’s the matter of “songs.” We, as rock fans, have been conditioned over time to respond to hooks, patterns, etc. that are far more easily indentified and remembered when accompanied by vocal melodies, I think. Therefore it’s much more difficult for something sans singing, crooning, yelling, screeching, hollering or growling to etch it’s way into our musical brains. And yet…there are exceptions. Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” is one of the key examples of the masses embracing an instrumental “hit.” But even those of us on the periphery often have a difficult time really pulling a vox-less record to our bosoms. Still, we have a handful of our own “Frankensteins,” records that we nearly universally regard as classics despite their lack of emanations from the human pie hole. Return To Forever’s “Romantic Warrior” springs to mind as does Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue.” And while I’m not quite ready to include Canada’s KARCIUS in the company of the previous 2 artists, they certainly have made some noise with “Episodes,” their 3rd release. Sporting a 4-piece line-up (Simon LeEsperance – guitar, Dominique Blouin – bass, Thomas Brodeur – drums, Mingan Sauriol – keys), these guys go for the gusto right from the git-go by opening the disc with a 31 minute piece! Now while this may sound intimidating, or just downright tiring to the jaded reader, I gotta tell ya, fear not. “Elements” (composed of 3 sections, “Submersion,” “Sol” and “Combustion”) is as tight and focused as many numbers a fraction of it’s length. What KARCIUS does is play a super-hot, vibrant blend of heavy (at times damn metallic) prog that slides easily into a jazzy fusion and is a magnificent treat for the ears. Axeman LeEsperance has a real command here, alternating distorted crunch with fluid lines of liquid lead and biting licks. Still, what I like about this dude so much is that he never over-plays. He allows plenty room for Sauriol’s keys and, in fact, all 4 musicians play in a way to converse rather than compete. It’s a special feeling that you only get from a band who is not only firing on all cylinders but doing so with a truly fierce joy. Lengthy cuts rule the day on “Episodes,” as of the remaining 4 tracks, only one comes in at less than 7 ½ minutes but don’t let that daunt you. KARCIUS lavishes their scintillating jazzy-metallized-prog with generous dollops of melody that will have you pushing the “repeat” button many more times than once. I have to really thank the folks at Unicorn Digital for sending this one my way, as “Episodes” is simply a corker! The best part? No annoying singer! 8.5

AEOLIAN RACE – “Landlocked Nation” CD ’08 (Private, US) – Here is a 3-piece band from Massachusetts who ply the trade we’ve come to know as progressive rock. In that end they are indebted, influence-wise, to people with names like Waters, Gilmour, etc….that is, Pink Floyd. And AEOLIAN RACE do a pretty decent job of it through the 11 cuts here, with some attention-holding tracks like “Tethys Ocean” and “Stillborn.” I’m left thinking that this release may have served the band better had they limited it to an EP length, however, as a few of the numbers really wander afield such as the cringe-worth pop of “Alligator.” Still, with that and a few technical wavers (the vocals could be stronger), AEOLIAN RACE makes me wonder what they have in store next. 6.0

VALIENT THORR – “Immortalizer” CD ’08 (Volcom, US) – North Carolina’s VALIENT THORR have gotten a bit of a bad rap from the underground, in my opinion, for having been a participant in the emo-trendy Warped Tour. Surely not anything I’d regard as emo, this latest disc is pretty much up-yer-ass-styled metal, complete with twin Gibsons sending cascades of riffs & harmony leads flying all over the hills & dales, loin cloths & cod-pieces being the fashion of the day. As happens so many times however, these guys are somehow infinitely more popular than bands like Bible Of The Devil, Slough Feg & Colossus, each of whom cause a higher quality brand of axe-laced decibel damage on a regular basis. So, for anybody who’s already privy to the latter brain-bashers, this would be a genre-complete-ist purchase. Anyone else, head to BOTD’s website and duck! 6.0

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Cynical Pair

CYNIC (UK) – “Suburban Crisis” CD ’08 (Vergette, Eng) – I have to admit, the first thing that happened to me when I opened this package from Vergette Records and took a gander at this disc was that my chin hit the floor. After taking the few minutes that were required to pick up, not only the lower half of my face, but several teeth, my tongue and my uvula, I sat back and reflected on what I was holding in my hands. It didn’t take long for me to get my brain cells back on track enough to realize that this was easily the most mind-blowing CD packaging job of the year. Seriously, I would expect this kind of awesome work on something with the kind of monetary clout behind it like the new Journey album. And hey, nothing against Neil, Arnel & the boys, as they concocted a top-shelf slice of AOR genius with “Revelation,” but let’s face it: they’ve then got the bucks on board to make it look like a million smackeroos as well. On the other hand, I had never even heard of this English CYNIC until reading about them on With bands from the underground, who I love to support, I’m also very used to and understanding of a pinch being saved in the visual presentation. Hell, I’m down with how hard it is just to get a record recorded, much less gussied up enough to catch the public eye and I’ve looked past many a white sleeve & Sharpie-labeled CD-r to get to a diamond in the rough. But here, I first open up a gorgeous digi-pack (complete with artwork by Hugh Syme, he of Rush fame) to find a CD that looks even better than the cover! This baby is one of those black discs, made to look like a record, with the grooves on the front & label in the middle. Shit, this looks so good I don’t even want to touch it! Next, I pull out an immaculate 16 page lyric booklet complete with more killer artwork. Now, I begin to get depressed…sad, actually. And the reason for this is that, upon looking at what is resting in my hands, I realize that there is no way the music is going to be able to match it. No, I think, this is going to be a dud or, maybe worse, simply mediocre and a riveting example of style over substance.

Then, I noticed something…the album was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales, legendary recording site of Rush’s “A Farewell To Kings,” as well as countless other greats like Sabbath & Van Der Graaf Generator. Coupling this with my prior knowledge that CYNIC has 2 lead guitarists and a history that goes back to a formation in 1979, at the birth of the NWOBHM, I felt at least hopeful as I slid the glistening jet-black disc into the player. Some 38 minutes later (Yes, an album that’s actually the length of...wait for it…an album!) I felt drained, happy and in one of those special moments, a joy at why I do this site. You see, as McCoy’s go, “Suburban Crisis” is the real one. Opening with “Suicide,” the band instantly shows their NWOBHM pedigree, with inspired mid-paced riffing that could easily sit side by side with that of any band from the era. Immediately captivating my attention are the vocals of Shaun Grant (also one of the 2 lead axe men). His vocals are sometimes gruff, although far from anything remotely “death metal.” In fact, I’d have to call him a very unusual cross between Lemmy and Mike Lezala (from English gods, Legend). Also coming to the immediate fore on this first song is the tremendous production job courtesy of Matt Butler. This record has all the sound of walking into a small club and hearing a hot-ass band on their top form, with all the amps, effects and mikes having been set up perfectly. Raw, clear as hell and I love it! The mid-paced crunching continues with “Ten Years From Now,” this one laced with a scalding Schenker-eque solo. We then come to one of the absolute highlights, the 8 ½ minute “Dark December.” Much as you’d expect from it’s title, this is a moody epic of the highest order. It opens with an acoustic guitar, overlain with plaintive soloing reminding me of Glenn Tipton on an early Priest masterpiece like “Run Of The Mill.” Here, Grant tones down the guttural side of his pipes a bit to really sound a lot like Mike Lezala. The song then escalates through several flowing changes, from a galloping, Maiden-ish middle leading into another melodic solo of stop-in-your-tracks quality and on to a ripping, fast-paced coda. While some bands may shoot their wad by putting a number like “Dark December” this early on in a record, CYNIC is just getting warmed up. Moving through the title cut with it’s clever Bon Scott lyrical turns, through the “Obsession”-era UFO styles of “Rebel Eye,” this sounds more like a band of hungry 20 year olds than guys who have been around nigh on 3 decades. But perhaps this is a perfect duality, in that CYNIC may be this good because they’re also committed enough to get back to forging their art in 2008 (their last effort hit the streets in 1989). And in fact, rather than losing steam, these guys pick it up even more through “Faithless One,” “Do Or Die” and “Eight Below.” The entire band is completely on fire as the album reaches it’s climax, with guitarists Grant and Dom Heptinstall playing fiery multiple & harmony leads off each other as the simmering rhythms of Tim Batkin (drums) and Gary Curtiss (bass) rumble beneath. How good is CYNIC and this “Suburban Crisis” of their’s? If you’re reading this article and love the very best things about ‘70’s hard rock and early ‘80’s metal, then please, if you never do me another favour, buy this album now. This is one pure and rare case where the book is even better than it’s cover. No fake McCoy’s here! 10.0

CYNIC (US) – “Traced In Air” CD ’08 (Season Of Mist, US) – So there’s a NWOBHM band called CYNIC who put out their last album in 1989. They just put out the follow-up in 2008. There’s also a band from Florida called CYNIC who delivered their first record in 1993 and released that one’s successor in 2008. Now, would you consider me cynical if I thought this was all to weird a story to believe? Well, guys & dolls, you know what they say, the truth is always stranger than fiction and this one is the truth. Unlike our English cynics, this bunch are somewhat more well-known. Having formed in 1987, they graced the world with their debut, “Focus,” in 1993. With a pedigree that included the most brutal of early death metal (guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal & drummer Sean Reinert were in the line-up of legends Death at one point), that was merely a jumping off point for these guys. As “Focus” proved and now “Traced In Air” continues some 15 years later, CYNIC have combined the virulent aggression of death metal with not simply highly technical musicianship, but that which would actually turn the heads of a lot of jazz musos. In fact when I listen to this new CD I’m reminded bizarrely of a band who could somehow play death metal in the jazz section of a Barnes & Noble store and get kudos from both a kid in a Deicide shirt and a bespectacled guy eyeing a John Coltrane CD. You can go anywhere on this disc and this wildly original style is right there, whacking you in the face with all the subtlety of a hazelnut latte poured over a bank Marshalls. From the spacey bookends of “Nunc Fluens” & “Nunc Stans” to the twisting labyrinths of “The Space For This” and “King Of Those Who Know,” CYNIC alternately (& sometimes simultaneously!) caress with deft brushstrokes and hammer with a blunt instrument. Credit some of the left-field feel of this baby to things like Masvidal’s dueling robot-vocals & axe Frippertronics, Sean Malone’s touch on the Chapman Stick & Tymon Kruidenier’s growls. Still, the thing that makes “Traced In Air” a breath of fresh air is the songs themselves, certainly written with an ear for the unusual and yet kept focused (ouch, Ray, you’re killing me!) enough to be a more than palatable listen. I realize that the super-high-end structures & playing here might be considered twee by the smash-your-cranium-only death metallers. Similarly, the brain-battering parts may send the proto-typical “prog metal” nerd running for his mommy. All the same, anyone interested in hearing some “extreme” music that is not only way-different, but “extremely good” ought check this one out. Go ‘head…don’t be a cynic. 8.0

NOTE: To add to the Lincoln-Kennedy freaky coincidence factor between this UK and US CYNICS, the band’s “Traced In Air” is also less than 40 minutes in length (a bit of a joy, in the plethora of today’s commonly bloated releases) and it also comes housed in a breathtaking heavy-cardboard book-like package (with a poster!)...another of the most visually striking CD’s of the year.