Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Grand Halls 23

LODESTONE – “Lodestone” LP ’81 (Private, US) – One thing I’ve discovered over the years collecting and writing about music is that you can’t have an ego. What I mean is, you just cannot claim to be some all-knowing poobah, some great wizard who knows everything about everything. Had I done that awhile back, I may have totally missed out on what is a purely fantastic record. See, some cool cut was playing at a fellow-collector’s house and he says to me, “Sounds like LODESTONE right there.” If I was a big ego-boy, I’d’ve gone “Oh yeah, really does” and probably forgot about the whole thing a couple hours later. Instead, ol’ humble me replies “Like who?!?!” An hour later I was leaving the guy’s house with a cd-r in my hand and a bug up my ass to FIND THIS DAMN VINYL NOW! Luckily, I recently did score the vinyl in a trade & have been stoked ever since. Pay attention friends…

LODESTONE were apparently from Camarillo, California and were composed of Joe Silva – vocals, guitar & keys; Phillip Sheldon – lead guitar; Terry Sapp – bass; Jeff Easom – drums. Their lone album was a self-released affair that came in 1981, not a bad year on the other side of The Pond either! The jacket that houses this record features a cool, primitive painting of a Gibson SG hovering over a backdrop of mountains and a lake. And, from the minute that the stylus hits “Nomad,” you can tell that what comes inside is not the product of a million dollar studio. That great, raw sound gives the 6 minute opener just the impetus it needs, as it straddles the line between late ‘70’s hard rock & early ‘80’s metal nicely. Another thing I love about it is that it contains all kinds of lead fills by Phillip Sheldon. Not just content to showcase his talent with a solo, Sheldon follows in the tradition of ‘70’s stalwarts like Schenker & West who always augmented verses & choruses with flowing lead flourishes. Up next is the short “Golden Rod,” and from it’s simple structure and overtly sexual lyrics, one might guess that it was aimed toward the mainstream (as if an album like this would’ve ever had a chance with the FM radio dweebs!). Whatever the case, it’s not a bad song, just the most basic on offer here. “And Then I Met You” is far from basic, however! Over 8 minutes in length, it opens with an introspective acoustic section, featuring some emotional vocals by Silva. He certainly isn’t a super-technical singer by any stretch, but has tons of feeling in his mid-range voice, somewhat akin to Kirk Bryk of Sorcery (ask me about them sometime!). Midway through this opus, the band breaks into a heavy, faster rhythm over which Sheldon lays down a blistering extended solo, highlighting another aspect of his style. Unlike most modern-day guitarists, who tend to plan out every note in advance, Phillip’s work throughout this album strikes me as very exploratory. What I mean is that when he launches into a solo, you get the idea that he’s going to take his time, not rush things and see where it takes him. The destination is always good, and as “And Then…” proves, half the fun is getting there! Side One closes with “Take Me There,” an oddly-structured number in that it opens with a rather long instrumental passage before the vocals finally come in about halfway through. Again, super song and killer axe work.

Side Two of “Lodestone” starts out just as strongly and keeps on gaining steam. “Last Days” and “One More On The Shelf” are both wonderfully original HM / HR crossover that display nice melodic sections and heaviness to boot. Sapp’s bass and Easom’s drums set the pace as Sheldon and Silva give the songs a depth and flavor that make them come alive. The third cut, “Cerebrate” (interesting pun) is a dynamic rocker that I really dig a lot, for one reason in particular. During it’s solo, Sheldon cops a snippet of a like that Tony Iommi used at the end of Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat.” It’s one of my very favourite guitar lines of all time and it’s very seldom mentioned. To hear it picked up on here (whether intentionally or not) and segued so well into this song is way cool. Finally, LODESTONE wrap up their solitary album with one of the greatest heavy ballads in history, standing just a notch or 2 below Winterhawk’s “Free To Live.” “Kim’s Song” is quite a tour d force. Weighing in at a hefty 9:40, it opens with what has to be among the most emotional and plaintive melodic sections ever committed to vinyl. Joe Sliva’s vocals are just wracked with feeling here, and you can imagine he’s throwing his soul into every word. After a bit, the entire band joins in and Sheldon goes about the business of delivering his definitive solo. Long, far-reaching and epic in scope, this lead guitar section knows few peers, standing in good company with such axe statements as Macarus’ in “Free To Live” and Schenker’s in “Rock Bottom.” If you don’t feel like you’ve gotten at least close to Mecca by the time this one’s over, you probably are reading the wrong website right now. 9.5

“Lodestone” is a total obscurity and, as I pointed out earlier, one that almost got by me. It goes for a pretty penny these days on the collector’s market. My advice for best bet on trying to locate a copy in some form would be to contact Rockadrome Records at:

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Put The Machine In Overdrive

RIOT – “Rock City” 1977 (Ariola / Firesign, US) – People do things for weird reasons, you ever notice that? I mean, granted, there is SOME logic present in the human brain responsible for it’s decisions. Like just the other day, my 7 year old daughter poured an entire bag of breakfast cereal into a sink full of water. I asked why. She said “Mommy had it in a bag that said ‘dry cereal’ and it needed to be wet.’” Ok, makes sense to me. But there are those times the thought process makes you scratch your head and even your’s truly (well, especially your’s truly) is susceptible to such questionable thinking. Take the reason I originally bought “Rock City,” the 1977 debut by NYC band RIOT for example. I remember clearly, to this day, standing in Record And Tape Collector in Towson MD, with $10 burning a hole in my pocket. It was during those glorious years of having enough cash to snag one LP a week and sometimes throwing it down on something I had no idea about…often for that most peculiar of reasons. So, there I was in the “Various R” section and suddenly found myself staring straight into the eyes of some guy with a rodent head, holding an axe while a huge explosion was going off somewhere behind him. Hmm..that at least warranted a look at the back, so I turned it over. Interesting: 5 long-haired guys, the right instruments present in the line-up (guitar-bass-drums)…. But, the songs looked short, 5 to a side, and those days being a worshipper of the early Priest, I tended to put my money on bands who had at least a couple 6-7 minute cuts on offer. I was about to slide the record back in the bin when I noticed the one guitarist’s name: L.A. Kouvaris. And, here’s where it comes to my weird reason. My mind suddenly snapped into word association and it was a simple one: L.A. Kouvaris – K.K. Downing – Judas Priest. Without a further thought I walked to the counter, plunked down my bucks and strode home, assured I had made the right move. Little did I realize that Mark Reale was actually the main lead player and that Kouvaris would leave the line-up before the next album was even completed (to go onto a band called Special Forces). But his dual-letter mojo had done it’s duty for me.

“Rock City” may not be the blistering metal assault of it’s later brethren like “Narita” or “Fire Down Under” but it’s one serious hard rawkin’ affair. Opening with the catchy “Desperation,” the short & to the point rocker sets the table for what would remain one of RIOT’s legendary tracks, “Warrior.” Sporting a driving, chugging fast-paced rhythm “Warrior” flat-out kicks ass, making a major statement about how a song can be both heavy and hook-laden at the same time. It’s also the first place Mark Reale makes a mark as a new guitarist to watch, ripping out a solo that reminds me of Ronnie Montrose at his Les Paul-totin’ best. Next would come the title track and it’s interesting in 2 ways. To begin with, it calls to mind some of the best of the early Bob Seger rockers, something I’ve always had a jones for. Secondly, it sets up the arrival of not only one of this band’s best songs ever but a stone-cold metal classic. “Overdrive” is simply a thundering beast. From the fantastic stop-start verse to the accelerating freight train of a chorus, this song not is not only the template for the volatile metal the band would continue to produce for years, it also is one of the crowning achievements of late vocalist, Guy Speranza. Guy would only appear on RIOT’s first 3 albums, but his legacy is strong & safe with performances like this. One of the rare hard rock singers who could operate with both a swagger in his giddyup and power to spare, his upper range intonations of the old woman-as-a-car metaphor here make it sound like a wholly new idea. “Overdrive” would also go on to become a huge part of the group’s live show, often extending into a scorching guitar battle between Reale & his 6-string sparring partner of the day, be it Kouvaris, Rick Ventura or Mike Flyntz.

Elsewhere on this record, RIOT continues to lay the foundation for what would be a run of devastating albums and the strong suit was the memorability of the songs. Listen to "Tokyo Rose,” “Gypsy Queen” and especially the closer, “This Is What I Get.” The Reale/Speranza partnership fully understood that while the blistering power of distorted, riffing axes is awesome as hell, when you put pop-level melodies on top of it, you can reach rarified air. Think Thin Lizzy, right?! So, if for some reason, you’ve been behind the door on this blazing bunch of New York rawkers, end that travesty today. Start with this bad boy, “Narita” & “Fire Down Under.” You’d be hard pressed to find a better trio. If you want to go further and explore Mark Reale’s later incarnations of the band, grab “Brethren Of The Long House,” “Innishmore” & “Nightbreaker” among others. LA, KK Or Any Double You Want

HURT – “Goodbye To The Machine” CD ’09 (Amusement, US) – HURT are from Virginia and, to be honest with all of you loyal readers, I had not heard one iota of them until about 3 or 4 weeks ago when The Ripple Effect site ( turned me onto their most recent disc, “Goodbye To The Machine.” The review was damn interesting and after reading it, I returned to the picture of the album cover. Dang if it didn’t remind me of Riot’s “Rock City.” I mean, ok, a kid instead of furry-headed rodent-dude but still…. The bottom line is that, at this point, you’re all thinking “there’s no connection, Ray, give it up!” I say, patience, dear motherfuckers, as I intend to educate and inform. Look here! Right off the bat, singer J. Loren was born in Baltimore, MD. That’s where I’m from! Maybe no connection, man, but that’s where I’m from, so that’s a sign I should be paying attention to this shit. Secondly, he was born there in 1981. Now, in case you’ve forgotten, 1981 was the year Riot released what may arguably be their best album (or would that be “Narita?”) “Fire Down Under.” Think we’re done? Not a chance. HURT guitarist Paul Spatola was born in Brooklyn, NY. Riot was from Brooklyn, NY. Finally (and maybe only because I’m giving myself a damn headache), both HURT and Riot (each of which have 4 letters in their names) were given a raft of holy shit by Capitol Records. So now we’ve established that Oliver Stone oughta be making a frickin’ film about this, let’s hear something about “Goodbye To The Machine,” eh?

I hate to use labels. Even the kind that come out of those damn Dymo label makers, remember those things. As a kid my mom always wanted me to use one to put labels on my stuff so it didn’t get lost but I always had trouble perforating the things right, getting the backing off, ad nauseum. But if you want labels, I’d have to call HURT alt. metal. Now you’re scared and running away, I know. That’s silly, come back. I’m serious. I know that the term alt. metal conjures up nightmares for the “underground” guy or gal, sending visions of hideous things like Slipknot, Breaking Benjamin and the like dancing around in your NWOBHM-fueled mind. But don’t judge so quickly. HURT takes the thick, polished riffing, mid-range vocals and panorama-wide production you may have come to fear and makes them…um…damn good! They do this in ways that are pretty impressive and have made a believer out of this old gnarled scribe. The first thing they do is write some seriously killer songs. Right from “Got Jealous” you know something different is afoot here. The hooks were in my head and my first thought was, “I’ve heard a million bands throw their only great song at the beginning, then peter out quick.” So when “Pandora” came up and was even better, I was quickly hushed. The second thing that makes these guys stand out way above the crowd is their actual skill. I mean, these cats can play and that dexterity allows them to extend the structure of some of these songs into surprising little cul de sacs that really refresh. Not in the sense of Radiohead, who for all the world confuse the shit out of me most of the time, but more like what Rush shoulda done during their “Signals” era if they hadn’t listened to Sting & his crew of wining pussies so much. And how ‘bout the neat little thing around the middle of the album, where the band go into a Zep-like acoustic set for “World Ain’t Right” (quite Acousti-tallica sounding) and “Sweet Delilah?” That’s nice stuff. The whole pot is sweetened even more by the production which, from my understanding is purposely strictly analog. It sure sounds it and it gives this record a very unique sound in the context of this miserably digital-ized world.

Does HURT sound like Riot? Surely not, man, but at the same time, don’t worry if your friends say they’ll beat you up if you listen to this instead of the new Satan’s Rotting Ball Hair disc on Southern Lord or whatever. This is a damn good album. God, this is a damn good album! In fact, it’s so good I’m going to stop writing this crap and go listen to it again.
1331 Reasons To Buy Now

Friday, April 24, 2009

Children Of Dunes

DALI’S LLAMA – “Full On Dunes” CD ’08 (Dali’s Llama, US) – I have a confession to make. I went to a Genesis concert at RFK Stadium in D.C. in 1989…and, I actually enjoyed parts of it. Ok, maybe that would be enough to hang my head but I need to stop beating around the bush. A couple years ago, DALI’S LLAMA sent me their “Sweet Sludge” CD and I forgot to review the damn thing. Sure as shootin’, I put it in a stack of discs with the full intention of giving it some spins, writing it up and wa-la…got lost in the shuffle. So, a short time back when I saw an ad for their new one “Full On Dunes” I had this sinking feeling of “Uh-oh.” So, I dropped ‘em a quick line & offered to write up their newie, my only trepidation being I’d end up not liking the sumbitch after all. As it turns out, that wasn’t a worry. It is very true that DALI’S LLAMA’S music would occupy a category that has become known as stoner rock. Unfortunately, it’s a genre that has a lot in common with this dude who lives at the corner of my block. He has a stomach that hangs so far over his belt that only 2 words come to mind: pregnant and, yes, “bloated.” Fortunately for DALI’S LLAMA they’ve done well to avoid a lot of the clich├ęs that abound in this style of late. Rather than sounding like yet another band who’s mainlined liquid forms of “Sky Valley” & “In Search Of…,” this 3-piece takes a different tack and it works to their advantage. Zach Huskey (guitar, vox), Erica Huskey (bass) & Jeff Howe remind me a lot more of a refreshing combination of Sabbath around Side 2 of “Sabotage” & Raging Slab without the slide. Zach has an interesting axe sound throughout that is, yes, mid-period Tony in the rhythms and varying enough on the leads to keep the listener a good way. I especially like the tempo-shifting “King Platypus” & the laid-back, back-porch bluesy feel of “Cheap & Portable.” An interesting note is that Kyuss’ Scott Reeder produced this record as well as contributed bass to several tracks and yet the band still does not lapse into the trap of aping the man’s former band. Good stuff and I’m sure glad this one didn’t end up in the wrong pile. And…um, hey, Genesis did do something from “The Lamb…” that night. 8.0

DAMONE – “Roll The Dice” CD ’09 (Private, US) – DAMONE is, contrary to what their name may imply, not a band that sounds a lick like the Ramones. What they were was a hard-rockin’ crew sporting a tough-as-nails female lead singer and some decent hooks. While their last disc, “Out Here All Night” (Island Records) was no classic by any means, parts of it gave me hope that they might develop into something special. This time around, going the self-release route, DAMONE have also taken a startling giant step…backward. I have searched high and low throughout each song on this platter and have, unfortunately, uncovered about 2 minutes worth of material that I can even remember 15 minutes later. Honestly, this is about as bland as a McDonald’s bun with nothing between it and worse yet, for some reason the bass player sings lead vocals on a few songs. Why the hell, when your best asset is your personality-driven singer, would you have her step aside in favour of a half-assed hair-metal wannabe? An absolute crash into the rocks for what I thought might be a band with potential. 3.0

AGAINST NATURE – “Action At A Distance” CD ’09 (Bland Hand, US) – It would be a ridiculous understatement to say that AGAINST NATURE has done some pretty decent music over the last few years. For me, as a listener, it’s reached a personal zenith thusfar in 2007’s massive “The Anxiety Of Influence,” a mammoth cross-section of progressive rock, ‘70’s hard rock, doom and an intangible originality borne on the lavish talents of 3 unique and thoroughly cohesive musicians. That’s not to say that everything else touched by the hands of John Brenner, Bert Hall & Steve Branagan is chopped liver! In reality, one of the great pleasures I have in my musical life is when John sends me a new AN release, as I know it’s going to be some damn good listening. Still, it’s often not easy to pigeon-hole great artists and that’s why when I first pushed “play” on “Action At A Distance” I had to scratch my head for a minute. Where were the guitars, the layered riffs, the unique axe tonal experimentation Brenner has become known for, as Hall & Branagan churn out their living, breathing organic rhythms? Instead, I was hearing keyboards…and then, somewhere into my 2nd listen I realized that even though there was no 6-string action to be found, my ears were being quite pleasured indeed. See, what AGAINST NATURE does on “Action…” is to merely steer their starship into a different part of the musical universe…and with quite killer results. I’m thinking of things from the old Kraut rock days like Grobschnitt and even Amon Duul II, yet mixed with something even more dark & sinister like the key work of Italian master Paul Chain. Another thought crosses my mind, and it’s the Italian horror theme gurus, Goblin. This leads me to echoes of another current band who have done some nice work, Blizaro. All of these are wonderful name-checks but as always with AGAINST NATURE, there is plenty more going on here that identifies this disc as the work of none other than these 3 guys on these 3 cuts, “Action At A Distance,” “Graviton” & “Another Geometry.” Special stuff. 9.5

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Case Of Classic

CORY CASE – “Waiting On A Remedy” CD ’09 (Dead Beat, US) – Of course, I know what you’ll be thinking: here comes the old man again. That’s right, Ray regaling us with another of his stories from the past as way of an intro to a review. As Ed McMahon used to say to Johnny Carson, that is correct, sah! Watching Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, Midnight Special, all those things used to be my poison. Damn, I used to love it. So much so that in 1973 when I decided it was more important for me to play guitar than do my homework I failed 3 classes, my folks knew just what to take away: the TV on Friday & Saturday nights. But as usual, I digress. One of my favourite episodes of said shows (I think it was Kirschner’s) featured a line-up of Black Sabbath, The Doobie Bros. and Jim Croce. Just that combination right there tells you all you need to know about the difference between the pop music culture of the early ‘70’s and today. In 2009, we put everything in a pigeon-hole. I mean, let’s face it. Even in the so-called mainstream, can you picture Slipknot and Amy Winehouse on the same television show? Shit, the underground has similar problems. I mean, I’m not seeing Pentagram sharing any DVD time with Grace Griffith lately. But back then…Sabbath, Doobies, Croce. Same show and it all made sense. Back then people just seemed to enjoy good music. They appreciated the differences, for sure, but they celebrated that…the many styles, sounds and originality. But what did the 3 artists of this example share in common? To me, it’s simple. Simple and yet great songs, performed with a passion that crossed many lines. Of them, possibly the most pure and vibrant was Jim Croce…a simple voice & guitar. I carried a beat-up comp tape of songs like “I’ve Got A Name” and “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” around everywhere and it always made me feel pretty damn good to listen to it. The fact is, few things have made me feel that way until recently hearing this debut disc by CORY CASE.

I’ve love the packages sent to me by Tom at Dead Beat Records. Featuring a lot of killer, cutting-edge and garage-styled punk & roll, it’s usually a full pack of sometimes jarring and full-on intense sounds. Something I was not expecting, however, was this little plastic bundle of joy called “Waiting On A Remedy.” I search for important, captivating and interesting things to say about an album that knocks me on my ass with it’s verve & vitality but here’s the best thing I can muster about CORY’s debut: This record sends me back to those days of sitting beneath a tree in my backyard & letting the late-teenage bullshit slip away as I let Jim Croce’s simple-yet-emotion-wracked songs slip over me. At the same time, it somehow sends me catapulting into the future where I see a world overwrought with more bullcrap and it gives me at least the possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel. To start at “Takes Time” and work your way through all the cuts here you’d have to write a book. I intend to write a book someday, but probably not about one album so in summary I’ll say this. I am astounded, amazed and absolutely out of “A” words to describe a journey of the kind of depth and proportions taken here by a man as young as Mr. CASE (he’s 21, I believe). Nearly every sense of the human spirit is on offer here, distilled down through CORY’s experiences and imagination and then channeled through his pen, guitar and voice to fit into an album-length format. His voice alone is so special because he manages to sound so sincere, friendly and unassuming and yet with that voice he’s unafraid to tackle any subject or feeling. It is without any trepidation whatsoever that I can say “Not For Sale” is one of the best pure songs I’ve ever heard and this album is already, in my mind, a classic. Not only for roots, folk, Americana or any such thing but for music in general. Well done, young man, and while I look forward to much, much more, I'm not sure how you're going to top this one! 10.0

New Crack, Old Crack, Everywhere A Crack Crack!

MASTODON – “Crack The Skye” CD ’09 (Reprise, US) – I wasn’t barely into my first listen to “Oblivion,” the opening track of MASTODON’s new CD when I thought “uh-oh.” My reaction was not a personal one. I was actually pretty damn stoked at what I was hearing. No, I was more so mulling over the reaction I knew would be coming from the knee-jerk metal press. “Duh…they aren’t growling anymore, dude…and like…the guitars aren’t as heavy, man!” And then I came to my senses. Who gives a fuck what the “I-Saw-Lamb-Of-God-On-Tour-So-I’m-A-Hardcore-Death-Metal-guy”…um…guys think anyway. They’ll be watching American Idol tonight anyway. MASTODON are so far beyond this kind of bullshit that it’s not even funny. And the wonderful thing about this Atlanta band is that while continuing to hone, refine and sharpen their sound, they’ve not only managed to stay as cutting-edge as possible, they’ve also done a little thing called getting huge. In the ‘70’s, a plethora of truly original & heavy bands did that: Sabbath, Purple, Zeppelin to name a few. It’s nearly the ‘10’s now and a decade of a different sort altogether and yet MASTODON is making the same kinda monster tracks the big boys of old did.

This latest set of footprints may make the casual listener believe this 4-piece (Brent Hinds, Bill Kelleher, Troy Sanders & Brann Dailor) has lightened their step a bit. Yup, there’s a definite move toward clean vocals taking the forefront. Oh, the boys still issue a harrowing yell or two but for most of these 7 lengthy tracks, the vox are…wait for it…understandable! Secondly, the production, handled by Brendan O’Brien has a more layered feel than they band has employed in the past. But be careful. Listen a few times. I’m left thinking about the first 2 Metallica albums…immediately raw, sure, and then “Master Of Puppets” came along and the first thing people said was “lighter.” Really? Is that what you thought after a few listens to that title cut or “Disposable Heroes?” Didn’t think so. Listen, absorb and let the flower open slowly and embrace you before you suddenly realize it’s a Venus flytrap crushing you in it’s gorgeous petals. This album and band remind me so much of another I watched develop over the years with great glee (when’s the last time you saw the word “glee” in a MASTODON review?!), Voivod. They started as a pretty raw, noisy metal band & next thing you knew, they’d morphed into a formidable progressive band who managed to stay heavy while getting a helluva lot smarter & more interesting. Granted, MASTODON may have had more chops early on than the late Piggy’s crew but look at the journey these cats have made since “Lifesblood” back in 2001. It all arrives here, with “Crack The Skye,” in what I can only describe as a Technicolor hybrid of Rush, DBC, The Melvins & Thin Lizzy with a little BOC thrown in for good measure. “CTS” simply superbly written, played and produced and the arrangement of the songs as well as their flow is a study in metal for 2009 and beyond. The album features 5 “shorter” songs, mostly in the 5 ½ minute range, save for “Divination” (3 ½). It also contains two mammoths, the 4-part “The Czar” (10:54) and “The Last Baron” (13:01). Even these, however, are jewels in that Hinds & Kelleher never solo needlessly, often choosing instead to steer in the direction of guitar harmonies & melodic figures that fit the mood of the piece. The entire band works together seamlessly, buoyed by Dailor’s ridiculously great Lombardo-esque sticksmanship, and at the same time they develop a give-&-take tension that amplifies the power of the songwriting 10-fold.

It’s odd because sometimes an album of this depth (the lyrics are a story unto themselves) requires less said by a critic than one might believe. And so, I’ll shut up. You go to the store, buy this disc and listen…many times. The reward will be your’s. Hoofprints, Beards & Refinement

CRACK THE SKY – “Safety In Numbers” LP ’78 (Lifesong, US) – 1978…wow! I mean, hey, what can you say about 1978? It’s the year “Stained Class” was released and hence, by that fact alone, stands atop a sort of musical mountain all of it’s own. Any year that produces my favourite album of all-time is worthy of some damn decent props. But is that all it has to offer? Providing day in which our ol’ buddies Halford, Tipton, Downing, Hill & Binks laid waste to the world of metal in a way it has never been beaten before or after? Nah, there’s more. Take for instance, this 3rd effort by Pittsburgh’s chosen rock sons, CRACK THE SKY. My love for this band won’t surprise many people who’ve read this page over the last year or so. My review of their December ’08 show in Towson MD as well as a pretty cool interview thanks to main CRACK man John Palumbo tell you that these guys reside pretty high on my musical rungs. Interesting then, to take a look back at an album that not only ended the first studio era of the band but also was very odd in terms of John Palumbo’s role.

It was after the release of “Crack The Sky” and “Animal Notes” that CRACK THE SKY began work on their 3rd record. With a few of the songs for “Safety…” already having emerged from the brilliant pen of John Palumbo, the band were in the middle of recording the record when John decided to take his leave of the group. From what I understand, it was a decision carefully considered by John, based on personal things at the time and the band respected his decision. They opted to carry on with vocalist Gary Lee Chappell, writing enough material to complete the record. As it turns out, it was a smart move to go on as the band scarcely missed a beat. Opening with “Nuclear Apathy,” CTS waste little time in going right for the jugular with one of the most massive tracks of their career, penned by Palumbo. Beginning with a lilting opener stating that “Something’s wrong from the moon,” the 8 ½ minute opus is a scathing social commentary about the human race, as it would be seen by those from another world. From it’s mild-mannered intro, the song explodes into a mega-riff-fest, as guitarists Rick Witkowski & Jim Griffiths hand out an auditory beating heavier than any in the band’s catalogue. The wicked time signature changes that peppered the band’s earlier pieces are still around but on this cut, they take a backseat to the mighty RIFF! Up next is another of the cuts John Palumbo had scribed before he left and it’s a wonderful example of CRACK’s great style juxtapositions. Entitled “Long Nights,” it’s a ballad that oozed just as much wrenching melody as it does JP’s superbly barbed lyricism. From there, the dichotomy continues. On one hand you’ve got the proto-NWOBHM of “Lighten Up McGraw.” Witkowski’s solo reaches KK Downing levels of wang bar madness & his lyrics are pretty damn Palumbo-esque, including one of my fave lines ever: “I sleep in a pyramid & I visit a shrink. A bum in a cave said he thought I could think.” On the other side of the coin (but on the same side of the album!) CTS swings into “A Night On The Town (With Snow White),” a super-catchy pop number complete with doo-wop backing vox. And, speaking of vocals, while not Palumbo, Gary Chappell gets close enough to his illustrious predecessor throughout to render this “classic” CRACK THE SKY while still putting his own stamp on the proceedings, especially on the 7 minute title track.

“Safety In Numbers” is surely the work of a band in flux, so much so that they’d disband shortly after the tour to support it (only to reform a few years later around the Palumbo/Witkowski core). Still, the raw musical talent and artistry here allowed these guys to play it anything but safe…and rawk like a bitch all the while. Big Numbers

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Preying Mantis

UMPHREY’S MCGEE – “Mantis” CD ’09 (SCI Fidelity, US) – You ever go to some theme park and in order to board a ride, have to step onto one of those moving sidewalks? For the first few seconds or so, you kinda lose your equilibrium? A little disorienting, eh? That’s where I’ve come into things with Chicago’s (formerly Indiana’s) UMPHREY’S MCGEE. See my prog-rawk bowling buddy Rick had mentioned their name a few months back, but in all the flotsam floating around in my brain, I quickly forgot it. Maybe ‘cause it sounds silly as shit, maybe ‘cause I can’t remember my own Social Security # either. Thing is, I was sitting there at the kitchen table, thumbing thru the City Paper last Saturday just minding my own business and turning a page I saw: Ram’s Head Live, UMPHREY’S MCGEE, Saturday night 7:45 PM. The ticket price was $30 and I’m not made of bucks but with nothing to do that night, my wife having plans with her friends and babysitter in place I figured why the fuck not? So, I tooled downtown in the trusty Town & Country (thank God I’m not trying to pick up women anymore) and after being directed to the ONE remaining parking spot (up on level 6) by the biker dude at the gate, I stepped into the world of UMPHREY’S MCGEE. Here’s where the moving sidewalk hit me. The place, not exactly tiny, was freakin’ packed!!! Featuring a mix of those from college drunks to ‘70’s freaks to non-descript guys like me to grunge chicks that my 18 year old might date, this band’s got a following! And, I saw why. Coming on with little fanfare, they proceeded to impress the living shit out of me. Live they sported a wild combination of hard prog mixed that then stretched into long, exploratory jams. Dang, I was taken in…especially by the guitar work of Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger. Heck, these cats could really play…not just soloing but intertwining melody lines & snaky little riffs, all the while handing down some vocals as well. The cover of The Stones “Can You Hear Me Knocking” had was the final straw. Had to make it to the merch stand and pick up their latest, no choice, you know? And so, we have “Mantis…”

I have to say that on my first run though this disc, I was a little nonplussed after having seen UMPHREY’S live. Most of the songs were in the 5 or so minute range, maybe a 7:00, and the long jams of that night faded into oblivion. But then I listened again…and again…and again…and then I immediately deleted the first thing I could find off my I pod so this sumbitch could go on instead. Sure I know this bunch can go off into deep space in the concert venue but with the talent to write songs and arrange shit that’s as good as the stuff on “Mantis,” I’m glad they made this into the much more coherent statement that it is. When you listen to this record, the first thing you become aware of is the kind of creative force you have going on with these cats. Right off the proverbial bat, with “Made To Measure,” you not only feel a deep connection to the very beginnings of ‘70’s progressive rock but they also somehow manage to fuse that with Beatle-esque melodies and the kind of feel I USED to love with the indie rock of the ‘80’s. The song “Mantis” is something to behold early on in the record. This is a fantastic, grandiose piece that has me pining for those halcyon days when Peter Gabriel fronted Genesis wearing phallic headgear and all was right with the world. “Cemetary Walk,” broken into 2 sections, is another work that manages to evoke the words “sprawling” and “concise” all in one…how the hell do you do that?! I don’t know, but UMPHREY’S does. Crazily, the 2nd portion of this one sees the band suddenly shift into what could only be called a ‘70’s disco beat for a moment and yet…horror of horrors…it works! Famously! “Spires” could only be called Gentle Giant meets “Pet Sounds” and “Red Tape” in some way marries Peter Banks (ex-Yes) guitars to the Dave Clark Five.

More than a couple years back the old trail we used to call Enlightened Chaos Mag ‘round these parts, I once described the debut Psychotic Waltz disc as the aural equivalent of chewing up about 50 Altoids then taking an ice cold drink of soda behind it. That’s seriously damn refreshing and so is this fantastic new album by UMPHREY’S MCGEE. 10.0
NOTE: I’ve come to understand that “Mantis” is this band’s 8th album. I’ll be needing to get them all!

GUILLOTINE – “Blood Money” CD ’08 (Pulverised, Swe) – I’m going to let you in on a little secret. People who’s idea of thrash metal is Metallica’s “Fuel” are not going to like this CD. And that’s ok. Really, it is. Because, you see, people who still worship dog-eared vinyl with titles like “Pleasure To Kill” & “Infernal Overkill” are going to cream their jeans over “Blood Money.” What GUILLOTINE do is jack up the raw, nasty, virulent thrash produced by ‘80’s kids called Mille & Angel Ripper and inject it with an updated, steroid-laden production. Are the riffs in “Dying World” & “Insane Oppression” going to have you calling Daniel Sundbom the next Satriani? No. Are the lyrics to the title song going to make you chuck your Black 47 records in the bin? Core snot. And that’s ok. Really, it is. Because GUILLOTINE stomps ass.
NOTE: Can it be a coincidence that the cover artwork, on a glance has the same colour scheme as “Bonded By Blood?” Perhaps not, and it’s a nice tribute.

MINOTAUR – “God May Show You Mercy…We Will Not” CD ’09 (I Hate, Ger) – Not stomping so much ass, unfortunately, are Germany’s MINOTAUR. Plying the same basic trade of ‘80’s Euro-thrash, these guys fall short on lots of fronts. The thing is, when you’re going to come at me with titles like “It’s War” and “Rather Die,” you’d better have riffs like machine guns, a singer who sounds half nuts and production like a freight train tying it all together (see GUILLOTINE review). MINOTAUR, on the other hand has riffs you’ve heard a million times (possibly on this very same album), vocals that sound like my grandmother and production as flat as a witch’s tit. It all reaches an embarrassing conclusion with the closing cover of W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (Fuck Like A Beast).” Whereas, in the hands of Mr. Lawless, this was a bad-assed rock anthem, here it has every ounce of it’s addictive melody sucked out like dust mice by a Dyson vacuum. No mercy for lovers of good European thrash here. 3.0

FORSAKEN – “After The Fall” CD ’09 (I Hate, Malta) – Well, well, well. This is more like the quality of releases I’m used to getting from I Hate Records. First off, I remember these FORSAKEN dudes from way-back. After all, even when you do a music zine it’s not ever day you get a package from Malta. I still have that CD EP they mailed me then, a kinda rawly produced and yet definitely memorable brand of melodic doom. Apparently, while I’ve been here frittering away my time at the keyboard over the last several years FORSAKEN has been busy, issuing no less than 3 more records, this one being their debut for I Hate. Seems the boys have grown up, as first off, the production here is strictly major league. Especially nice is the guitar sound, doom as hell and yet with a decidedly wailing tone that reminds me of the old days with a wah-wah pedal stuck in the “up” position. I love that! But how would I describe the overall feel of “After The Fall?” Here’s the skinny: If you the first 3 Candlemass records you simply cannot go wrong here. Visions of tracks like “Samarithan” run through my mind during the lengthy numbers present, especially the brilliant “Armida’s Kiss” and “Metatron And The Mibor Mythos” (say that 3 times fast!) each filled with several flowing changes. Thundering iron-clad riffs, caustic Iommi-ish leads, and epic “Messiah”-styled vocals with lyrics involving words like “Sins,” “The Lord,” “Father” and “Tempter” abound throughout these 49 minutes. And, in truth, that may be the only problem I hear with this record not being a classic. There really isn’t a fancy-lot here that distinguishes it from being the long-lost Candlemass album between “Epicus” & “Nightfall.” But for pure listening enjoyment, that’s not such a bad thing, now is it? Doom on! 8.0

ASG – “Win Us Over” CD ’07 (Volcom, US) – For some odd reason, I very recently received a package in the mail with this one…running a little slow there with an ’07 release, but anyway…. ASG does what we’ve come to know as good ol’ stoner rock and they do it ok. Drawing heavily from the Monster Magnet school of thought and coupling that with a bit of southern rock they lumber through cuts like “Palm Springs,” “Gallop Song” and “The Dull Blade.” Trouble is, they come across an awful lot of times like just that, a dull blade. You see, in an area of music so bloated over the years, you’ve really gotta do something to stand out. Granted, Jason Shi’s voice may be better than some doing this style in that he’s actually got ‘70’s rock pipes but the music too often falls flat. For stoner complete-ists only. 4.0

An Irish Two-Step

THIN LIZZY – “Still Dangerous” CD ’09 (Classic, Ireland) – I’ve been at a personal quandary with the band currently called THIN LIZZY for sometime now. When Scott Gorham, John Sykes & Brian Downey decided some years back to pay tribute to Philo, the leader of their “gang,” I was onboard. A tour, a tribute to Philip Lynott, a wonderful idea. It’s a kinda far reach from that, however, to Scott & John now helming a band actually called THIN LIZZY (no “tribute” subtitle in sight) and touring incessantly. On one hand, it’s kinda nice to see the old songs being kept alive but I’m a not sure a band called THIN LIZZY without Phil in it’s line-up should ever exist. With all that as a back-drop, however, I’m nothing but ecstatic with this release.

“Still Dangerous,” you see, has nothing to do with any current incarnation, tribute or any other such nonsense. Nor does it wallow meekly in the shadow of it’s timeless older brother, the legendary “Live & Dangerous.” Recorded a year down the road from that monster, this one’s only chink in the armor could be it’s title, perhaps better named “Even More Dangerous.”

As great as “L & D” was & is (and believe me, I love it), it always had a sorta slick sound that made you wonder if the boys had been unleashed in the…er…studio just a bit. As Cactus would say, “no need to worry” here. While some may have already criticized the whittling of this set from some 17 songs down to 10, I think it was a smart choice. The perfect 40-some minute length gives this baby a sharp, direct punch to the jaw just like a barroom brawl. With “Soldier Of Fortune” opening, then carrying on to the title cut from “Jailbreak,” the sound is vibrant yet raw. Scott & Robbo harmonize in 3-D as Brian Downey’s stick-engine thunders & Philo lays down the business supreme. His sharp, thoughtful pick work often critically overlooked, Lynott’s 4-string efforts ring loud & clear on this platter. But it’s his vocals & personality that steal the show. His easy slide from tough Irish street warrior to suave balladeer comes to the fore early as the band swing into “Cowboy Song.” Move my fingers up & down, indeed. I’m sure the ladies always loved this one!

From there it’s a tour d’ force, from the obligatory “Boys Are Back In Town” (never gets old on these ears) through the Boss-like “Dancing In The Moonlight” and guitar explosions like “Massacre” & “Opium Trail,” this band is none other than shit-hot. And hey, show me a guitar rhythm more bad-assed than Robbo’s in “Massacre.” That’s right, you can’t and the less-is-more production by elder statesman Glyn Johns hits with an Ali-like uppercut. THIN LIZZY then bring it on home with the triumvirate of “Don’t Believe A Word” & extended versions of “Baby Drives Me Crazy” and “Me & The Boys.” The latter is just the perfect climax, summing up that fierce us-against-the-world mentality LIZZY always shared, not only with each other but with their fans in the live arena. “Still Dangerous?” I don’t know about now, but in 1977 this bunch was as lethal as any rawk band has ever been. A Lot More Irish In Ya

THE ANSWER – “Everyday Demons” CD ’09 (The End, Ireland) – Back in 1986, an interesting thing happened. The record store that your’s truly had called his employment home for 8 years went under and he had to find a “real” job at an investment firm. Holy shit! Wasn’t that exciting?! Ok, ok let me see what else I can find here for 1986…hmm…oh yeah, a metal band from California who’d found a modicum of success with their 1st 2 records put out their 3rd. It was called “Pastor Of Muppets” or some such thing and they got an opening slot on Ozzy Osbourne’s U.S. tour. They then became the biggest metal band in the world…and stayed that way.

It’s now 23 years later and something interesting is happening as well. Ray has just celebrated his 51st birthday and seen his oldest child reeling headlong into adulthood. Hmm…that ain’t it? Alright…well, here we go, I’ve got one! Irish hard rock band THE ANSWER have committed to plastic their 2nd full length effort, “Everyday Demons” and landed an opening slot on AC/DC’s U.S. “Black Ice” tour. Three things are important to me about this: 1) I’m Irish. 2) THE ANSWER is reportedly going down a storm with the ACCA DACCA crowd. 3) I’m about to discuss “Everyday Demons.” So, strap in ‘cause here we go!

THE ANSWER’s debut disc “Rise” was a damn good one. Four young guys, they came out of the box with a strong set of bluesy hard rock, highlighted by the soulful vocals of Cormac Neeson & the hard riffing of guitar man Paul Mahon. Was it a full-blown classic? No, but songs like the infectious “Come Follow Me” and the stirring ballad “Always On My Mind” (not Willie’s!) were enough to stop this writer in his tracks. Here were a buncha lads from the Emerald Isle who were a cut above the pack when it came to new bands flying the classic rock banner. With “Everyday Demons,” the interesting thing (lots of ‘em in this article, no?) is that THE ANSWER has not tried to re-invent the wheel. Instead, they’ve simply taken what they do and elevated it to a remarkable level. Yes, they’ve employed the knob-twiddling skills of John Travis (Buckcherry & Kid Rock). Brilliantly, he’s given them a powerful “umph” while letting their sound dwell fiercely in the early ‘70’s. So well does this work that I’m reminded of a similarly glorious dichotomy achieved years ago on the first 2 Black Crowes LP’s. In fact, for all the world, THE ANSWER strikes me as a wonderful Guinness-fueled barroom send-up between said Crowes and early Free. Christ, if you sounded like that would you wanna fuck with it?! THE ANSWER have instead merely turned on the afterburners and let rip!

With as relentless an opening 3 as Trouble’s “Manic Frustration” set, the lads punch the listener silly with the sonic knuckles of “Demon Eyes,” “Too Far Gone” & “On & On.” But don’t think these guys are THE ANSWER to just one question. Yeah, they can rabble-rouse with the best of ‘em, but like the best of ‘em as well, they have a few other cards up their collective sleeve. Take a gander at “Tonight.” If that isn’t a chorus Mr.’s Nielsen & Zander would die for, I’ll eat donkey dong. Then I’m going to talk about “Comfort Zone.” A bit like it’s title, it’s a peaceful trip down to Psychland but led by a current powerful enough to sweep you under. Or, dive into my personal favourite, “Why’d You Change Your Mind,” bluesy as hell & plastered by one of Mahon’s most scalding axe statements thusfar.

Sure, a 19 year old Paul Rodgers can be caught in the glint of Cormac Neeson’s eye. Yes, a dash of Rich Robinson’s wallop coalesces momentarily in Paul Mahon’s Gibson tone. But that’s ok. In fact, that’s way, way more than ok. This is a pack of buddies who have sauntered through the saloon doors with the kind of individuality and big brass balls their forbearers had some 3 decades ago. Rock is dead, they say? My ANSWER is: not a fucking chance.
Hung Like An Irish Bull Elephant