DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS: IN EXTREMIS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

Days Between Stations In Extrimis

IN EXTREMIS (a Latin phrase that means “at the point of death”) features some of the final recorded work of legendary Yes and Flash guitarist, Peter Banks. Given Banks’ resume, it isn’t in the least bit surprising to note that the music of the California-based duo of keyboardist Oscar Fuentes Bills and guitarist Sepand Samzadeh (performing under the odd moniker Days Between Stations, after the novel by Steve Erikson) is what could be classified as “neo-progressive.” There are eight tracks on the self-released IN EXTREMIS, with fully half of them clocking in at more than 10 minutes each. The title track, presented as a suite with six separate movements, is over 21 and a half minutes long. “In Extremis” features Peter Banks on lead and rhythm guitar, as well as “guitar textures.” He also features on the 12 minute “Eggshsell Man.”

Add to the mix uber-bass and stick man Tony Levin, drummer/vocalist Billy Sherwood, keyboard guru Rick Wakeman and XTC bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding and you’ve just turned an impressive progressive concept album into a formidable piece of progressive hero-worship. So, let’s look at this work track by track to learn why this is most certainly an album that you will want to add to your collection.

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

No Cause For Alarm (Overture),” led by Oscar Fuentes Bills’ militaristic piano and the very marshal-sounding drums of Billy Sherwood, leads into “In Utero,” which is more of a soundscape. It features some very ethereal keyboard and guitar washes by Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, as well as a cool, tinkling guitar effect and a nice Samzadeh solo. Chris Tedesco provides a long trumpet solo, adding to the Crimson-esque atmosphere of the piece.

Visionary” builds on the emotional feel of “In Utero” with more nice guitar work from Sepand. This is the first of the vocal tracks, with Sherwood’s voice reminding me of Trevor Horn’s work on DRAMA, his only album with Yes; they’re kinda hard to understand, but the power of this vocal stands more in the melody and feel. Sherwood’s drumming is rather subdued but features some very nice fills. Bills once again offers some great piano to the instrumental section. He is joined by Matt Bradford on dobro and, together, they offer one of the more emotionally charged pieces of the entire album. “Blackfoot” is a tasty piece of jazz-tinged progressive rock, especially the slower middle section. A nightmarish piano line repeats to start the song, then an equally nightmare-inducing guitar solo is added. There is a definite Mothers of Invention vibe to this song, with guitar parts that are very much Zappa influenced and drums that remind me of Chester Thompson or Ralph Humphrey and their work with the Mothers. “Blackfoot” ends with some quite nice Floydian guitar freak-outs, definitely reminiscent of the swirling, calamitous sounds of a cinematic death scene.

Colin Moulding appears on “The Man Who Died Two Times,” a song whose title sounds quite a bit like something that he would do within the confines of his band, XTC. The tune seems to be a song about revived hope – a very poppy, happy sounding song. Moulding’s voice adds just the right touch, as “The Man Who Died Two Times” is very much in the vein of mid-period XTC or early Genesis with Peter Gabriel.

Peter Banks (uncredited photo)

Peter Banks (photo credit: GLEN DICROCCO)

The Angel City String Quartet performs the short, quiet piece, “Waltz In E Minor,” which is dedicated to Peter Banks. A very fitting requiem for a major influence on the art form known as “progressive rock music.” “Eggshell Man” is a very folky sounding tune. The vocal melodies and phrasing remind one of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding’s XTC bandmate, though they are provided by Billy Sherwood. They add just the right emotional air to the tune, as a man once drawn from the brink of death has been walking on metaphoric eggshells and realizes that he is once again at death’s door. As the song progresses, Ali Nouri solos on the tar (a Central Asian stringed instrument), Rick Wakeman offers a mini-moog solo and Peter Banks adds great atmospheric guitar “textures,” all of which give the song a very Middle Eastern sound. “Eggshell Man,” along with “The Man Who Died Two Times,” are my favorites on an album of great tracks.

Finally, “In Extremis,” is Days Between Stations’ magnum opus, the centerpiece to a highly enjoyable album. The first movement is called “Mass” and, as should be expected, is an atmospheric mass for the dead. “On the Ground,” the second movement, is very much “funeral music,” with lyrics evoking either a life wasted or a life well-lived and much missed by those who loved the deceased. This section features great guitar and keyboard work and interaction by the core duo of Samzadeh and Bills, alongside Banks. The third movement, called “A Requiem,” is exactly that, with very dark lyrics set against an almost claustrophobic musical backing. Along with the instrumental fourth and fifth movements (called “Writing On Water” and “Overland”), “A Requiem” borders on schizophrenia, perhaps hinting at the soul’s departure from the mortal coil as a battle rages between Heaven and Hell to determine its eternal resting place. “It Never Ends,” the final movement, revisits lyrical themes from the entire album, offering, at times, a gloomy overview of life, but also a pastoral, restful triumph that ultimately comes with the end of life. Overall, “In Extremis” is a song cycle that leads you through just about every emotion that you would feel knowing that your birth certificate does, indeed, come with an expiration date.

IN EXTREMIS is an album that has a little something for everybody. Whether your musical tastes tend to run to progressive or classic rock; classical music; Gothic lyrics and motifs; or just darn good music, this is the record for you!


THE PASSION: ALL MY YESTERDAYS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

The Passion

The Passion are from Columbia, MO. Their music is from all over. They have a kind of Joy Division meets the Smiths meets Echo and the Bunnymen sound, with guitarist Chris Dohm evoking (invoking?) memories of Will Sergeant and Johnny Marr and their slashing, percussive style of playing. There’s even a little hint of very early David Evans (you may know him better as the Edge from U2). Singer Larry Krapf could (and maybe does!) front a Smiths tribute band (for some reason, these bands insist on calling themselves “tribute bands” instead of cover bands which, in fact, they are… they just cover songs by one band… but I digress) as he has a definite Steve Morrissey sound, only with less whining.

Carved In Sand” starts things off nicely, with a very Joy Division sounding tune. I suppose if you squint your eyes and hold your head just right while listening to ALL MY YESTERDAYS, you can hear a bit of Ian Curtis in Krapf’s voice, as well. Now, all of these comparisons may have you thinking, “You know, I already have all of the Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen albums I need and I can’t stand the Smiths because of Morrissey’s whiny voice and hissy fit lyrics, so why do I need this record by the Passion?” A valid point, I assume (except for the Morrissey thing,,, that’s just me), if this band didn’t have more to offer. Making comparisons is kinda what I have to do so you’ll have a musical reference to see if a particular band’s music falls somewhere in your listening wheelhouse. That doesn’t mean that the Passion are a carbon copy of any of the band’s mentioned. In fact, dip down a few songs, to track 7, and you’ll find a very goth sounding tune called “Everybody Wants,” with Melissa Robertson’s synth out front more than any other song here.

The Passion: Chris Dohm, Larry Krapf, Melissa Robertson, Shannon Morris and SeanErickson (publicity photo)

The Passion: Chris Dohm, Larry Krapf, Melissa Robertson, Shannon Morris and Sean Erickson (publicity photo)

Robertson’s playing is understated and her parts are well thought out and add just the right texture. Her voice is also well used, not all over the place but appearing when (and where) it’s needed. The rhythm section of Andy Gibbs on bass (he left shortly after this album was recorded, replaced by Shannon Morris) and Sean Erickson on drums are solid, with Erickson exhibiting a more adventurous side on several of the tracks. The title track (“All My Yesterdays,” in case you’ve forgotten) has a little bit of everything: great vocals from Krapf, gang vocals on the chorus, a driving rhythm propelling things forward at nearly breakneck speed, a punchy synthesizer part and a trashy garage-like solo from Dohm.

Overall, I can find very little negative to say about the Passion’s ALL MY YESTERDAYS. It definitely brings back memories of some really great late ’70s/early ’80s bands; it also breaks some new ground production-wise, giving Larry Krapf’s voice a more meaty sound than Morrissey ever dreamed of and a certain bright sheen on Chris Dohm’s guitar. If you’re still thinking, “So why do I need this record by the Passion?,” how about this: you can pick up a digital copy on the band’s Bandcamp page (that would be thepassionband.bandcamp.com) for a “name your own price” download fee. Listen to “Carved In Sand,” “I Won’t Be Another Story,” “Everybody Wants” and the title song and I can virtually guarantee that you’ll be hitting that download button!


RICK DERRINGER: RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2009) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

Rick Derringer

Alternately called LIVE AT THE RITZ, NEW YORK – 1982, this album features Rick Derringer and his then-current band performing some of his best tracks and being joined by several guest artists to play a couple of their’s. The sound has been called “raw” and that works as well as anything to describe a nearly 30 year old show remastered from a video source. It has its faults but, that’s part of the charm.

Rick Derringer (uncredited photo)

Rick Derringer (uncredited photo)

Things kick off in fine fashion, with one of my favorite Derringer (the band) songs, “EZ Action” from IF I WEREN’T SO ROMANTIC, I’D SHOOT YOU. Rick and the boys in the band (Alan Merrill, sharing guitar licks with Derringer; Donnie Kisselbach on bass; Jimmy Wilcox on drums; Benjy King on keyboards) are obviously having fun. This thing ain’t called RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR for nothin’, though, as Karla DeVito (you know… the girl who wasn’t on BAT OUT OF HELL but appeared in all of the accompanying video material and toured with the Loaf for several years) joins the band for “Cool World,” from Karla’s album, IS THIS A COOL WORLD OR WHAT. The song is one of those B-52’s/Cyndi Lauper kinda new wave pop things that sounds a little quirky played by a solid-state rock ‘n’ roll band, but they pull it off. Nothing, however, can save “Just Like You,” a ballad from the same album. I guess every album or show has to have one cringe-worthy moment and this fits the bill perfectly!

Karla DeVito, Southside Johnny (video stills)

Karla DeVito, Southside Johnny (video stills)

Next up is Southside Johnny Lyon, who brought his harmonica but left his Asbury Jukes behind. Southside Johnny may be the only musician from Asbury Park, NJ who is worth even a second look. Check out the voice and harmonica on Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” (it’s called “Honey Rush” in the artwork) and the Eddie Boyd blues workout “Five Long Years” if you doubt the veracity of that comment. Probably the most well-known (one might say “infamous”) of all of Rick Derringer’s songs is “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” first recorded on the JOHNNY WINTER AND record in 1970. It has one of the coolest riffs in rock history and I’m not certain if Derringer can ever play live without at least referencing that riff (I’m fairly certain that his family Christian group won’t touch those lyrics with a 10… make that a 50 foot pole!). The version here is… serviceable. I don’t know what the deal is with those backing vocals, but they sound like they borrowed the guys from Spinal Tap to faux heavy them up.

Carmine Appice, Tim Bogert (video stills)

Carmine Appice, Tim Bogert (video stills)

For two glorious studio albums (and one live release), the band Derringer featured Vinny Appice (pronounced Ap-puh-see) on drums. So, of course, what would this show be without a little Appice? Carmine Appice (pronounced A-piece), Vinny’s big brother, brings his former Cactus and Beck, Bogert and Appice bass-playing partner, Tim Bogert, along to do “Have You Heard,” a riff-loaded track from Carmine’s then-new ROCKERS album. With Derringer (and, one would assume, Alan Merrill) supplanting Jeff Beck on the guitar parts, they rip into “Lady” from BBA’s one and only studio album. Probably one of the coolest thing about Carmine is the fact that he can utterly beat the crap out of his kit AND sing lead. Before “Lady” he mentions that instead of Jeff Beck, the song’s going to be played by “Derringer, Bogert and Appice,” a band that actually came to official fruition nearly 20 years later.

Ted Nugent (video still)

Ted Nugent (video still)

As is Carmine’s wont, he tends to take things into his own hands. So, rather than Rick announcing the next guest, Carmine does the honors. As Appice mentions, he had just finished a tour with Ted Nugent (in support of the NUGENT album, which featured Carmine on drums) and the Motor City Madman – alongside Derringer, Appice and Bogert – rips into an impressive, if a little ragged, version of “Cat Scratch Fever.” That group sticks around for a funny-car-fueled take on the Chuck Berry classic, “Oh, Carol,” with Ted on lead vocals.

Alan Merrill (uncredited photo)

Alan Merrill (uncredited photo)

It’s back to the Rick Derringer band for the yet-to-be-released “Party At the Hotel” from Rick’s upcoming album, GOOD DIRTY FUN. To be perfectly honest, the guest performers were fun and the interaction with Derringer was nice to hear but, the three songs with just Rick, Alan, Benjy, Jimmy and Donnie are just a notch or two above in energy, excitement and delivery. The big “let’s bring everybody back out” number to finish the set is – next to “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” – the other number for which Rick Derringer will forever be remembered: “Hang On Sloopy,” a song that a 17-year old Rick Zehringer took to the top of the charts with the McCoys in 1965. Even with the “everybody solo” feel, this is one time that everything (and everyone) was hitting on all cylinders. A good way to end the evening and this disc. Are there rough spots along the way? Certainly. Do they detract from the music and the vibe of the performance? Not really. Is RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR worth owning? Absolutely!


CAPTAIN BEYOND: LIVE IN TEXAS – OCTOBER 6, 1973

(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)

Captain Beyond LIVE IN TEXAS

Okay, since you asked, here’s my Captain Beyond story: When I was a youngster, I took the word “consumer” to (my father would say) stupid new heights as regards music. There was very little at this stage of my life that I would not buy, if given a chance. Well, I mean… country was obviously uncool! Disco had yet to rear its ugly, simplistic head… we were okay there! So… other than the obvious, what would cause me NOT to purchase an album? In the case of Captain Beyond, there were two reasons: first, I absolutely hated that name (although I thought that Captain Caveman was pretty cool, but that’s another story) and second, I thought that they had – quite possibly, the crappiest cover art I had yet beheld on an album. Be it known that I also consumed many a crappy album because I loved the cover art but, again, that’s another story. Anyway, I could not be swayed! I didn’t care that Rod Evans, the original voice of Deep Purple was in the band (personally, I was an Ian Gillan man). Didn’t make a bit of difference to me that a pair of refugees from Iron Butterfly filled the guitar and bass spots (wasn’t a huge Butterfly fan back then). And, even though I really liked the Edgar Winter Group, are you kiddin’ me? JOHNNY Winter? I think not!

Now, here we are 40 odd years (and you have absolutely no idea how odd!) later and I’m reviewing a (kinda) new release from the band with the unpurchasable moniker and album art. I say “(kinda) new” because this one has been around for a little while as a bootleg. Purple Pyramid (Cleopatra’s “old hippie music” label) has reissued the band’s first two albums, CAPTAIN BEYOND and SUFFICIENTLY BREATHLESS (the album for which this tour was in support) and has added a spruced up version of this live show to the pile. It definitely has a “bootleg” vibe to it, but I honestly think that’s because the master tapes are almost 40 years old. Despite the unwieldy (and totally generic) title, LIVE IN TEXAS is far from unlistenable; in fact, it sounds pretty good to me! There… I said it! Forget the name, forget the artwork; I totally missed the mark on Captain Beyond all those years ago. My only complaint this time is, “was the person responsible for coming up with album titles on vacation or what?” How about calling it DANCING MADLY ACROSS TEXAS or something equally pithy (heck, even a simple LIVE is better the long winded LIVE IN TEXAS – OCTOBER 6, 1973)? Ah… but, I digress (or is that regress?)! You wanna know about the tunage, right? Well…

Bobby Caldwell (uncredited photo)

Bobby Caldwell (uncredited photo)

From the first note of “Distant Sun,” the band (the aforementioned Rod Evans, drummer Bobby Caldwell, bass player Lee Dorman and guitarist Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt) is on, pounding their way through a solid, trippy (what else would you expect from a band called Captain Beyond?) set before ending with a nice version of the Hendrix gem, “Stone Free.” Along the way, there’s almost seven minutes of Rhino solo and another nearly 13 of Bobby Caldwell solo. It has been said that drum solos on a record are not only superfluous, but an egregious crime against humanity. I don’t agree. I happen to like a well done drum solo and Caldwell’s is among the best I’ve heard on record. Rod Evans’ voice is simply magnificent! Not in an Ian Gillan “Pictures of Home” kind of way. Or even a Rod Evans “Kentucky Woman” kind of way. The knock on Evans when he left Purple was that he couldn’t handle the new, harder style that the band was headed toward. This live performance, at least, shows that he was every bit as capable (if not as distinctive) as Gillan or Ian’s successors, David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes.

Rod Evans and Larry "Rhino" Reinhardt (uncredited photo)

Rod Evans and Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt (uncredited photo)

Evans retired from music after this tour and does not appear on the band’s 1977 album, DAWN EXPLOSION. He came out of retirement to hook up with a bogus Deep Purple in 1980. That lasted a few months before Ritchie Blackmore and the rest sued. Rod has gone underground and hasn’t performed or recorded since. A shame really, as he did have a great voice. Just listen to “Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)” or “Myopic Void” if you doubt that statement. Of course, both Lee Dorman and Larry Reinhardt have left this mortal coil behind, Rhino in January and Lee in December of 2012. They were, as witnessed here, musical forces to be reckoned with, as was Bobby Caldwell, who continues to play with his group, the Boulder County Conspiracy and has recently appeared on the new JD Blackfoot album, THE LEGEND OF TEXAS RED.

So now, the obvious question is, “If you knew then what you know now about the music of Captain Beyond, would you have consumed or would you have been hard-headed and (still) missed out on some great music simply because of a so-so name and bad cover art?” You know, I’d really like to think that, had I actually heard the music first, I’d have bought the records no matter what but… I was a knuckle-headed kid back then and I probably still would have passed. I’m a lot older and a little smarter now, which means I’ve got some catching up to do! LIVE IN TEXAS is a good place to start.


JEFF BERLIN: LOW STANDARDS

(RANDOM ACT RECORDS; 2013)

Jeff Berlin LOW STANDARDS

Jeff Berlin has jazz hands… big ol’ bass-playin’ jazz hands. Jeff is a masterful player, as are the other two members – acoustic bassist/pianist Richard Drexler and drummer Mike Clark – of this trio (do the math… it adds up… really!). LOW STANDARDS is marketed as “an incredible nod to master jazz composers” and the first track, Wayne Shorter’s “ESP,” is full-on Stanley Clarke bass-as-lead-instrument rockin’ jazz (fusion, if such a word is still used). Drexler, on acoustic bass, I suppose, is holding the rhythm with Clark, though it’s rather hard to tell for sure. He does, however, solo on piano on each of the eight tracks. “ESP” is one of three Shorter pieces featured (“El Gaucho” and “Fee Fi Fo Fum” are the others) and, therein seems to lie the chink in the armor of LOW STANDARDS. Wayne Shorter is wildly talented sax player and composer but the players here seem to have dug themselves a rut by picking too many slow-to-mid tempo numbers (or maybe it’s just a matter of the band’s arrangements… I don’t know). These guys border on virtuoso stature in the jazz field, but so much of this album just feels ponderous and over-thought-out. So much of what’s good about jazz is its unpredictable nature; I don’t feel that here. Everything is just too neat and tidy!

Mark Clark, Jeff Berlin, Richard Drexler (Brad Kugler Photography)

Mark Clark, Jeff Berlin, Richard Drexler (photo credit: BRAD KUGLER PHOTOGRAPHY)

Things don’t pick up again, for me anyway, until Carla Bley’s “Vashkar,” track number 5. It, then, however, reverts back to form with more – for want of a better term – “easy listening elevator muzak.” I wish I had more nice things to say about LOW STANDARDS as a whole but, especially after that first track and “Vashkar,” I just get a sense of unmet expectations. I know that Jeff Berlin has more to offer. Hopefully, he’ll bounce back with his next one. Here’s a really cool thing about Random Act Records: 10% of the proceeds from album sales goes to charity. In the case of Jeff Berlin’s LOW STANDARDS, sales benefit the Doctor Theodore A Atlas Foundation (www.dratlasfoundation.com), a worthy endeavor, indeed.


SPOCK’S BEARD: BRIEF NOCTURNES AND DREAMLESS SLEEP

(CENTURY MEDIA/EMI/INSIDE OUT; 2013)

Spocks Beard cover

We like us some Spock’s Beard ’round these here parts! We really do… and that fact makes it hard to say that, while much of BRIEF NOCTURNES AND DREAMLESS SLEEP is top-notch Beard, some of it just makes you say, “What was they a-thinkin’ here?” Now, to be sure, every album can’t be golden from first note to last but there are more than a couple of dubious musical choices made here. Things start off fine, with “Hiding Out,” a poppy little prog-rocker (or is that a proggy little pop-rocker? A rocky little prog-popper?) that bodes well for the proceedings. It’s got a heavy groove coating and a crunchy guitar/organ center, with a smooth vocal (by the limber-throated Ted Leonard) over the top, kinda like a latter day version of early era Kansas. The first misstep comes early on with “I Know Your Secret” and its intergalactic booty call vibe, featuring a melody and a synth line right out of the Era of Disco, one of the most dread, disease riddled times in recent music history. To make matters worse, the thing clocks in at almost eight minutes!

A Treasure Abandoned” sees the ship righted, as the progressive bombast throttles the unsightly keyboard noodles into submission. The smarmy, cloyingly offensive late-period Styx keyboard patterns try to sneak in through the backdoor in the closing seconds of the tune, but the muscular, bass-heavy bottom is having none of that and, wisely, orders up a big brick of nastiness just at last call. The band calls up the ghosts of 1980s progressive music for the poppy “Submerged,” which works on just about every level. The vocals on this one are particularly pleasing. “Afterthoughts” seems to wanna stir the turd into the punchbowl. There are plenty of really good ideas here, but there are just as many that don’t work. Of the ones that work, the most satisfying is a multi-layered vocal section, reminiscent of “Leave It” by Yes. More goofy keyboard noodlings totally destroy whatever impetus the song had built up. A sad disappointment to a song that offered so much merit.

Spock's Beard (Alex Soloa)

Spock’s Beard (photo credit: ALEX SOLOA)

That tune, oddly enough, segues into one of the better tunes of the album proper, “Something Very Strange.” The strident melody line propels the song forward, with a fat rhythmic underbelly. As most bands of this stripe are held up to a measuring stick that falls somewhere between King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson Lake and Palmer, it’s very hard not to compare the bass work of Dave Meros to Crimson’s John Wetton and Yes’ Chris Squire. That, my friends, is heady company and Meros holds his own against those two titans admirably. “Waiting For Me” closes out the album, with another Yes-like jazzy solo-heavy 12 plus minutes of pure progressive bliss, with Alan Morse doing his best Steve Howe and drummer Jimmy Keegan plowing through in a swinging, muscular homage to Bill Bruford. This is the Spock’s Beard that I’ve come to expect… not aping or imitating their prog-rock predecessors, but adding to and building upon the rich history that has been lain before them.

There’s a second, bonus disc with four more songs, including a “Sanctified Remix” of “Something Very Strange.” The disc opens with another solid piece of progressive music called “The Man You’re Afraid You Are.” There’s an odd sort of spoken word section – the tone and timbre recall that Rush song with the odd sort of spoken word section, “Roll the Bones,” so I’m a little loathe to call it a “rap,” though, I suppose, taking the word in its strictest terms, that is exactly what it is – that seems as out of place as some of the annoying synthesizer farts. “Down a Burning Road” continues to redefine the genre, as it blurs the lines between heavy guitar rock, pop music and a solid progressive arrangement. “Wish I Were Here” isn’t quite the rebuttal to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” that the name implies. It’s loopy, fun and rather mystical sounding, with Alan Morse offering a less serious version of Frippertronics on the outro solo. The final track, “Postcards From Perdition,” is a solid instrumental, with plenty of bottom and an engaging drum pattern. As with “Hiding Out,” there’s a certain early period Kansas feel, with a great harmony guitar intro and some keyboard solos that border on ostentatious, but are reeled in before they actually become overbearing. A nice way to close out an album that, when taken as a whole, is much better than some of it’s parts. Hopefully, for their next album, the Beard boys will rein in the pretentious parts of Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard playing, as he is quite good when he stays away from that stuff.


WIDOWSPEAK: ALMANAC

(CAPTURED TRACKS; 2013)

Widowspeak Almanac

I like this record! I really like this record! How do I love thee, Widowspeak? Let me count the ways… or, at least, let me tell you why I am so enamored with the duo’s sophomore release, ALMANAC.

The tone is set with the pulsing dynamics of set opener, “Perennials,” and the ethereal vocals of Molly Hamilton, which evoke (rather than mimic) memories of both Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and Stevie Nicks (the latter more for her hippie, gauzy lyrics – and looks – than any vocal similarities). This combination of powerful, noisy music and almost whisper-thin voice grabs you from the outset and doesn’t relent until that final, strangled note, some 4 minutes and 9 seconds later! Molly and band mate Robert Earl Thomas pile on layer after layer of guitar – alongside autoharp and keyboards aplenty – to produce a swirling backdrop for Molly’s voice, with crisp yet understated percussion provided by Kyle Clairmont Jacques. The effect is stunning and we’ve only gotten through the first track.

With “Dyed In the Wool” and its kaleidoscopic walls and sonic washes of guitars giving off a definite psychedelic vibe, Molly’s hypnotic voice has an even more ominous, spooky appeal for me. Sounding like the evil step-sibling of Chris Issak’s “Wicked Game”(which the band covered as a B-side to their GUN SHY single in 2011), the tune is the closest to a standard-issue “rock and roll” song you’ll hear on ALMANAC, though the record does rock from one end to the other.

The Dark Age” surges and swells, ebbs and flows as it roils toward its inevitable terminus, with a marshal drum track and an unforgettable guitar riff forcing Molly’s voice to ever more urgent levels. “Thick As Thieves” has an old-time country murder-tune vibe, reminiscent of some of Johnny Cash’s best. While not as harsh and uncompromising as Cash, the feeling is nonetheless foreboding.

Widowspeak (Andrew Smith)

Widowspeak (photo credit: ANDREW SMITH)

A short, quiet intro called “Almanac” leads into the album’s first single, a slow building mid-tempo tune called “Ballad of the Golden Hour.” The Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac comparisons are most noticeable here. Thomas’ guitar moves from a Lindsey Buckingham-like percussive, slashing lead to a Peter Green style, no-holds-barred solo as Kyle Clairmont Jacques does an almost perfect Mick Fleetwood imitation behind the drum kit. Of course, over it all, is Hamilton’s lilting vocals, again not matching Nicks’ volume or power, merely evoking memories of her through lyrical content and phrasing.

The word “hypnotic” has continually cropped up in this review, and with good reason. The terminology is again applicable to “Devil Eyes” and its circular rhythmic patterns and a repeating lead guitar part that could be mistaken for a taped loop. The lazy, slow burn of “Sore Eyes” continually threatens to head off into a crazed guitar rave-up, but is reined in at just the right time to build the suspense and tension of the song. If not for the sufferingly dark lyrics, this could be the most cleverly executed ballad I’ve heard in a very long time. The circular quality of “Devil Eyes” returns two songs later with “Locusts.” The instrumentation is, if anything, more restrained here as Hamilton’s vocals weave a claustrophobic melody over it all.

The sounds of crickets and burning wood envelope “Minnewaska,” a dreamy campfire song, with acoustic guitar, harmonium and multi-tracked background vocals and a certain lost-in-the-woods echo throughout. The languid feel of the short “Minnewaska” is again on display – with more success – on the next cut, a lazy, sleepy little ditty called “Spirit Is Willing.” The album closer, “Storm King,” maintains the slow, almost dirge-like quality of the previous tracks, though it possess an ominous, grinding feel throughout. While each of the last three songs are as good as anything else on display here, they may have been better spaced out among the other tunes. Coming, as they did, at the end of the album, just seems to leave the listener feeling down and – maybe – just a little bit crushed by the suffocating effect of the triptych’s sullen pace.

As you can tell from these observations, I really do like this record. And, if the only thing even remotely negative I can find to say about it is a minor sequencing issue (from my standpoint, at least), then I must assume that you will feel like-minded regarding Widowspeak. Spoil yourself with an aural treat… pick up a copy of ALMANAC and enjoy!


SCORPIONS: COMEBLACK

(LEGACY/SONY; 2012)

Comeblack

At the tail-end of a 40-plus year career, German rockers Scorpions offer COMEBLACK, a cover album. Kinda. Seven of the 13 tracks are actually re-hashes of some of the band’s best known tunes, including ”Wind of Change,” one of the top five worst songs ever written – if not THE worst! I guess, now that there are two versions (not counting live) of this suck-fest on record, it officially drops “Born In the USA” out of the top five. No… wait. That’s really not fair, is it? Actually, it is a top five non-Springsteen turd. So, figure up how many songs your Boss (he ain’t mine… if he were, he owes me a heck of a lot of back pay!) has written and THEN you start counting from there. Which means that this second version of “Wind of Change” has, in reality, knocked Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” out of the top five non-Bruce stinkers. Of course, “Wind of Change” has competition right here on this album with “Still Loving You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” although neither stoops to the levels of heiniousity that particular ditty reaches. But, I guess hammering these things out on a nightly basis during the endless “farewell tour” has kept James Kottak gainfully employed for the last four or five years.

Scorpions (Marc Theis)

Scorpions (photo credit: MARC THEIS)

Alright, having gotten that off my chest, I must say that I used to really like Scorpions, at least ’til MTV found them. Two of my favorite Scorps songs, “The Zoo” and “Blackout” are both here, as well. So, it ain’t all bad! Plus, the other six songs are pretty okay. The cover of Soft Cell’s cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” is a fun, if rather odd, choice. But it works. There are also covers of Marc Bolan’s T Rex track, “Children of the Revolution” and “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. Steve Mariott’s Small Faces get play with “Tin Soldier.” “All Day and All of the Night” by the Kinks and the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” finish the set. These Teutonic takes on some of the most well-known songs of the rock era don’t add anything special to the originals, but then, I don’t think they were intended to. Like so many other bands who’ve been in the game for a good long while, Klaus Meine, Rudolf Schenker and the rest just wanted to say “thanks” to some people who inspired and enabled them to do what they love. I guess that’s one of the most confounding things about COMEBLACK: If you wanted to do a covers album, why revisit your own career (the originals are on several hits packages and feature prominently on a few live albums) for over half of the album? I would have liked to hear the guys cover the Who, the Doors and, for some reason, I think that they would have tore things up with a version of the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey To the Center of the Mind.” And, hey… “Dancing Queen” by ABBA! That would have been AWESOME!

If you just have to own versions of the seven “original covers” by the current band of Scorps and want a fun second half’s worth of “inspirational covers,” then, by all means, COMEBLACK is for you. I just wanted (and expected) a little bit more.


RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: XX

(LEGACY/EPIC/SONY; 2012)

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If there is one thing that can be said about the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album, it is this: It is impressive. Impressive and awesome. Hmm… now, wait a minute. Let’s start over. There are two words that can describe the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. Those words are impressive, awesome and comprehensive. Aawww, shoot! There are several words that can be used to describe the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. Among those words are impressive, awesome, comprehensive and essential.

Enough of that, huh? I mean, nobody expects a Monty Pythonesque review of one of the seminal albums in the realm of rap-metal. Check that – Rage Against the Machine’s first record is THE seminal album of the then new genre of rap-metal. The politically charged lyrics of Zack de La Rocha and the unique guitar sound and phrasing of Tom Morello gave new meaning to the word “intense.” The imaginative yet rock-steady rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Timmy C (Commerford) provide a bottom you could caulk boats with. Well, then! Using the four words in the previous paragraph, let’s take a look at this set, shall we?

Rage Against the Machine (uncredited photo)

Rage Against the Machine (uncredited photo)

First, impressive. This is where the music is discussed. From the opening track, “Bombtrack,” it is quite obvious that we are listening to something special. For a band with less than a year under their collective belts as a working unit, that is impressive! “Killing In the Name” follows. This is, quite literally, the track that put Rage on the map and in heavy rotation on alternative radio stations and MTV. This riff-heavy tune along with others like “Bullet In the Head,” “Wake Up,” and “Freedom” gives a nod to the band’s forefathers (stylistically, if not lyrically), Black Sabbath. Morello strangles sounds from his guitar that will have you checking the credits for the name of the guy playing the synthesizer. His rhythm work mimics the bass line (and vise versa), blurring the line between the two, much like the interaction between Tony Iommi and Terry “Geezer” Butler. Brad Wilk has a jazzy sensibility that belies the music’s style, much like – again – Sabbath’s Bill Ward. Of course, Zack de La Rocha, is like nothing before – a seething, venom-filled voclist who wears his convictions like a badge. When you add all of this up, what else can you call it but… impressive?

And, so, we move on to awesome. This is where we discuss the breadth (if not the size, which we’ll get to next) of the material here-enclosed. I think that the awesome aspects of this release can be best exemplified by a DVD feature. A camera was rolling as Rage Against the Machine made their public debut on October 23, 1991 on the campus of Cal State, North Ridge. As the band works into “Killing In the Name,” you can see a couple of people milling about; by the time they finish with the second song, “Take the Power Back,” the crowd is growing. As we realize that this group of individuals have been together for just a handful of months, the power and scope of what they’re doing is mind-boggling. Now, you aren’t gonna watch this video for innovative camera angles or production value. You get one camera that appears to be mounted somewhere close to the soundboard. You also get 20 year old technology, a video shot on analog tape. You will, however, watch for the historic significance of the performance, as well as the music, which is fully formed at a very early stage. Take some of the best cuts from the debut album, toss in a few lesser known tunes (“Darkness of Greed” and “Clear the Lane” from the English 12” of KILLING IN THE NAME; “Autologic,” a song from the group’s demo tape; “Hit the Deck,” which I can’t find on any other official release) and a Clash cover (“Clampdown”) and this 52-minute piece of video alone makes this package – if not indispensable – awesome!

Tom Morello (Max Whittaker-Getty Images)

Tom Morello (photo credit: MAX WHITTAKER-GETTY IMAGES)

Up next, we have comprehensive. At this point, we’re gonna talk about the packaging. First off, the “official” name of this reissue is XX, which is Super-Bowlese (or Wrestlemanian, if you rather) for TWENTY. Somewhat fitting for a 20th Anniversary issue, wouldn’t you agree? Now… here’s what you’re getting: One CD with original album (including the three track live bonus EP that was offered with some versions of the 1992 vinyl); another CD of demos, originally given away free at early, pre-record deal Rage shows; a DVD featuring a live show recorded in London on June 6, 2010 along with 12 videos spanning the band’s first eight years (4 of which are either unreleased or are officially available for the first time) and live material from a 1997 compilation; a second DVD which features video of the band’s first public performance in 1991 and 10 more live videos from 1992-94, recorded at various venues. If that’s not enough, you’ve got a vinyl copy of the album, complete with lyrics and that famous 1963 cover photo of the Buddhist Monk who immolated himself in Saigon to protest the Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. There’s also a 40 page booklet with plenty of pictures, lyrics and an essay by someone who knows a bit about the power of music and politics, Chuck D. Toss in a large 2-sided poster, a postcard and other ephemera and you definitely have something that is… comprehensive!

Rage Against the Machine (Max Whittaker-Getty Images)

Rage Against the Machine (photo credit: MAX WHITTAKER-GETTY IMAGES)

Finally, we get to essential. Well… that’s an easy one. The original 10-track album alone is an essential piece to any music collection. Add to that all of the extras discussed above and a gloriously remastered sound for that original release and you have one of this (or any) year’s essential music purchases. By the way, if you’re not into all of that extra stuff (or if you don’t wanna shell out $100 for the full monty), there are two “smaller” versions of this release: one that features just the 2 CDs and a bonus DVD with six videos from the larger package and one that offers just the first CD (the original album and three bonus tracks).


GREG LAKE: SONGS OF A LIFETIME

(ESOTERIC ANTENNA/MANTICORE/CHERRY RED; 2013)

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I’m not sure how I feel about this album. I mean, this is the guy that sang one of the all-time great metal anthems (though, I’m sure Robert Fripp will shortly have a price out on my head for saying that), “21st Century Schizoid Man!” This is the “L” in not one, but two, ELPs! This is the man who replaced John Wetton in Asia for a six-show tour of… uh… Asia! Greg Lake is a musician of some considerable skill, on both acoustic and electric guitar, as well as his chosen instrument, the bass guitar. He also possesses one of the silkiest voices in rock, with a rich, resonant baritone that is as forceful as it is smooth. So, you say, “Alright! Enough already! We get it… Greg Lake is good! You like Greg Lake! Now, what about SONGS OF A LIFETIME?”

SONGS OF A LIFETIME, prompted by work on his biography, was recorded during Lake’s 2012 solo tour of the same name. When I say “solo tour,” I mean “solo,” as in on his own. No one else on stage with him. At this point, you might be wondering how such bombast as “Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part Two,” the above-mentioned “21st Century Schizoid Man,” and “Touch and Go” sound with just a voice and an acoustic guitar (after all, that is the way most of these “solo” things are done, right?). Well… surprisingly full! Mister Lake wanted an intimate evening without the hindrance of a band onstage while he reminisced. He also wanted to give the listener a full concert experience. C’mon… we are talking about the Greg Lake from King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and, briefly, Powell). Even the soft, acoustic stuff from those groups was noisy! So, what to do? Why, take certain elements from the songs he would be performing, add new parts to make it sound close to the original, then flesh it out with his vocals performed live along with either the bass, electric or acoustic guitar and – if I’m not mistaken – piano on at least one tune. Don’t get me wrong! The sound and the performance are top-notch. It just leaves me feeling a slight bit cheated. While this type of show with these kinds of playback are nothing new, they don’t lend themselves to any spontaneity or interaction between musicians. They are almost too precise. In fact, for a little bit, I thought that I was listening to new studio recordings of some of Greg’s greatest hits.

Greg Lake (Lee Millward-GRTR)

Greg Lake (photo credit: LEE MILLWARD-GRTR)

Also, while I found his stories entertaining and somewhat enlightening as to the inner workings of a 50 year veteran of the music industry and a man who was a part of two of the most well respected rock bands of the past 45 years, I also found them rather strained, a little forced and more than a tad over-rehearsed. You just wanna say, “Geez, Greg! Lighten up, huh?” Okay… enough of the negatives, huh? While I did find them initially off-putting, they really did not hinder my enjoyment of the whole package. Lake was in fine voice for these recordings, sounding more like the 30 year-old version of himself than the well-traveled 64-year old version (his age when these shows were recorded). Also, while I would have liked to have seen (or, more precisely, heard) a few different tunes, especially from his Emerson, Lake and Palmer days (“Benny the Bouncer” from BRAIN SALAD SURGERY immediately comes to mind), the four Crimson tracks are solid enough and there’s enough good ELPalmer (the already-alluded-to “Karn Evil 9” piece, “Still… You Turn Me On” from the same excellent album, and the ubiquitous “Lucky Man” among them) and ELPowell (“Touch and Go”) to keep me happy. The fact that Greg also tosses in a nice grouping of songs that influenced his music and his career amounts to icing on a very tasty cake! As, apparently, every musician who ever picked up an instrument after 1956 or so is influenced by Elvis Presley, we are presented with a story and a song – “Heartbreak Hotel.” More understandable – to me anyway – is the influential aspects of the Beatles. Lake’s version “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” is spot-on and fairly awesome. The final “cover” is a little less immediately obvious for a progressive rock icon: the beautiful and oft-covered Curtis Mayfield tune,“People Get Ready.”

Okay, then… bottom line time, right? Can I recommend that you go out and procure (by any LEGAL means) Greg Lake’s SONGS OF A LIFETIME, considering some of my early qualms? Absolutely! Taken as a whole and considering the obvious thought and work that went into constructing this musical biography, the pluses far outweigh a couple of relatively minor minuses (that wasn’t a double negative there, was it?). This album is well worth adding to your collection.