CORROSION OF CONFORMITY: NO CROSS NO CROWN

(NUCLEAR BLAST RECORDS; 2018)

NO CROSS NO CROWN is the first album from the “classic” lineup of CoC in nearly twenty years. AMERICA’S VOLUME DEALER was the last album we got from this lineup… way back in 2000! Pepper Keenan is back on vocals and it sounds… RIGHT. They come in with a psychedelic opener in “Novus Deus” and it moves along until… a sharp left into “The Luddite,” and then… there they are. Like they never missed a beat. Classic Corrosion sound; Pepper has some age in his voice now, but the fire is still there. Lyrically he’s better than ever. “The Luddite” ends and “Cast the First Stone” comes in and sounds like …VOLUME DEALER-era Corrosion. It’s everything you want: Aggression, groove, melody, and phenomenal guitar work. The drop in the middle moving into the solo is a great way to jar you awake and make you pay attention… super interesting! Pepper lets a demon scream out a few times on this track and it is AWESOME. In a time where the state of modern rock is… well, the way it is, it’s great to see an album come out sounding this way. A short instrumental titled “No Cross” leads into my favorite track on the album, “Wolf Named Crow.” This song is CoC in a nutshell. Groove heavy, Sabbath inspired riffing with Pepper laying down grimy vocals to tie it all together. The middle section goes into an almost jam band style movement before it comes back around into the main riff of the drums dropping out and guitars shining, and Pepper screaming “BEWARE THE WOLF NAMED CROW.” There’s not a skippable track on the album so far!

Little Man” is the weakest track on the album. I enjoyed it but, it just didn’t feel up to the same standard as the rest of the record. It’s the first skippable one. “Matre’s Diem” is a GORGEOUS instrumental. It’s a fingerpicking acoustic track that is just beautiful and conveys a ton of emotion. It fades out with a trippy effect right into one of the strongest grooves of the album, as “Forgive Me” is killer. Pepper’s best vocal work on the whole album, from melodic vocals to screams. Great riffs, solos everywhere, jam section: It checks all the boxes and has an AMAZING breakdown in the middle. The number is an instant playlist selection for me.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY (Pepper Keenan, Mike Dean, Woody Weatherman, Reed Mullin) (photo credit: DEAN KARR)

In my opinion, songs like “Nothing Left To Say” is where CoC make their best music. It’s got a “13 Angels” vibe. The slow, clean vocals into the harsh riff and gruff vocals make the song insanely easy to listen to. And to get lost in. Very close to my favorite on the album. Next up is a dark instrumental, with “Sacred Isolation,” which moves right into “Old Disaster” which, to me sounds… okay. It’s got a decent groove, but again, like “Little Man,” just feels a little weak. It does have an incredibly good solo section, so that does redeem it a bit. “ELM” comes next and this is my favorite riff on the album. Super solid work on this song on every front. When Pepper hits into the “Eternity is long gone” line in the bridge, it’s simply badass. Short, but awesome; you can’t deny the groove.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY (Reed Mullin, Woody Weatherman, Pepper Keenan, Mike Dean) (photo credit: DEAN KARR)

No Cross No Crown” is doom-y, with creepy vocal lines from Pepper to start it and a choir to back him up. There’s just a simple guitar accompaniment that changes about halfway through and has a reprieve, but gets darker from there. Wicked! It has almost an Opeth/Type-O Negative vibe. “A Quest To Believe (A Call To the Void)” sounds like it fell off the back end of the DELIVERANCE album. It kicks ass. The trippy guitar effects on the solo are amazing and Pepper’s vocals over top of the simple drumming and funky bass line just… again, check every box you’d want from Corrosion of Conformity. The tune is by far up to the high standards they have set over the years. A cover of Queen’s “Son And Daughter” closes the album out. And, just like the original, it’s dripping with a heavy Sabbath influence. It features the best drumming on the album. The thump from the drums keeps the track moving, and the riffage is stellar. Hell of a way to close an album out. Pepper’s vocals are filtered on this song, so it sounds even closer to classic Sabbath.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY (Pepper Keenan, Reed Mullin, Mike Dean, Woody Weatherman) (photo credit: DEAN KARR)

What a spectacular album! To my ears, there were only two songs that weren’t a mandatory listen for any CoC fan. Or any fan of badass, groovy, southern fried metal. Pepper cements his status as a rock god. Although his voice is aging, his songwriting skills are better and it sort of evens out in its own way and you can tell that bringing back the classic lineup makes a difference. Check it out. The instrumentals are awesome and the other tracks are a killer delve into what the old dogs can bring to modern rock and metal. Never count them out – they may surprise you.


LAMB OF GOD: ASHES OF THE WAKE FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

(EPIC RECORDS/LEGACY RECORDS/PROSTHETIC RECORDS; 2019)

What is there to say about Lamb of God’s third release, ASHES OF THE WAKE, that hasn’t already been said? By FAR one of the greatest metal albums of all time; COMPLETELY changed metal; nominated for a Grammy! See what I mean? What else can I say? This fifteenth anniversary edition (vinyl and digital only) has some demo tracks and an unused track that absolutely belongs on the album.

LAMB OF GOD (Randy Blythe, Mark Morton, John Campbell, Willie Adler, Chris Adler) (photo credit: MICK HUTSON/REDFERNS)

Lamb of God does what only they can do on that tune, “Another Nail For Your Coffin.” Absolute brutality with Randy (that’s Mister Blythe for the uninitiated) hitting pure aggression with his screams. Mark Morton shines with a blistering solo about three quarters of the way through. This track has everything you could ever want, melody, guitar solos, brutal screams, awesome lyrics. Why it was left off of the original release is a mystery.

The rest of the bonus material (side four of the double vinyl record) are demos of cuts from the original release. The first is “Laid To Rest.” It sounds almost the same; the lyrics are the same, just a little less production value, so you can REALLY hear Randy’s raw vocals. Sounds great… just shows you how talented this band really is! Next up is “Ashes of the Wake” that again, just shows how badass Lamb of God are: Tight, solid and brutal. Blyhte sounds absolutely awesome on the final cut, “Remorse Is For the Dead.” His presence here is palpable; you can feel it all the way through! The highs he hits about a minute in are just amazing, while the lows at two minutes in are just… evil. Randy is on fire.!

LAMB OF GOD (Chris Adler, Mark Morton, Willie Adler, Randy Blythe, John Campbell) (publicity photo)

ASHES OF THE WAKE is one of my favorite albums of all time and the addition of the extras is really cool. This is one album that should be in everyone’s library and playlists. It’s one of the best ever. Check it out!!


BROADSIDE: KING OF NOTHING

(VICTORY RECORDS 7” single; 2019)

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve listened to any Pop Punk music (at least, on purpose) and, granted, Broadside’s new single may be more Pop than Punk but… it’s a’ight. In a totally non-threatening, Radio Disney kinda way. Well… mostly.

BROADSIDE (Ollie Baxxter) (uncredited photo)

The edgier Punk tone of the A-side, “King of Nothing,” while weighted with the softer sounds that are all the trend with today’s Pop music, nonetheless does feature a cool guitar signature alongside some frenetic drumming. Now, to a rocker like me, that sentence would generally set off all kinds of alarms, with the robot from LOST IN SPACE flailing its arms and wailing, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” and send me into an apoplectic frenzy searching for the off button (or, at the very least, the mute button ‘til I could figure out how to get the noises out of my head). And, of course, the tune could have been as disastrous as that, but the drums and guitar are definitely nice touches and Ollie Baxxter’s vocals and lyrics – the chorus warns, “Don’t pray for me/Don’t wait for me/I’m such a mess/I’ve lost all control” – have an urgency that sets “King of Nothing” apart from most of the current Pop radio fare. There are some nice – dare I say, fun – qualities, as well, making the song a rather nice introduction for the Radio Disney kids to the rough and tumble world of real music. And, it still has enough cool for the old school Pop Punk crowd to get behind.

BROADSIDE (Ollie Baxxter) (uncredited photo)

The opening twenty or so seconds of “Empty” had me flashing back to what is undoubtedly the worst Van Halen song ever written, Jump.” Don’t worry though, as the ship was quickly righted, as the keyboards aren’t as cloyingly saccharine and the lyrics are far better than that offered up by ol’ Diamond Dave; the drums are rock-steady and the guitars peek out from behind the clouds every once in awhile. While “Empty” is a couple of ticks below “King of Nothing,” it’s still a nice little diversion and quite listenable, falling more into the Aforementioned Radio Disney category than its brethren from the other side of the record. As songwriter/vocalist Ollie Baxxter relates, “I wanted to write a dance-y song making fun of how unfortunate it is to be in love, sometimes.” And so he has. Victory Records has announced that Broadside is working on a new full-length, scheduled for release next year; I’m not sure if this 7” single is intended as a preview of the album or if it’s just a stop-gap to hype the fans up for the group’s upcoming tour, opening for Set It Off. Either way, it’s certainly worth picking up at your local record shop.


PHILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS: CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS AS A VIRTUE

(HOUSECORE RECORDS; 2018)

Our Mister Anselmo has been a busy guy over the past couple of years: 2016 saw the return of Superjoint Ritual, redubbed as Superjoint, with CAUGHT UP IN THE GEARS OF APPLICATION; last year, Phil released SONGS OF DARKNESS AND DESPAIR, an EP recorded under the name “Bill and Phil” and featuring horror icon Bill Moseley; now, he’s back with the second album of crushing little ditties from the Illegals, CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS AS A VIRTUE. At the very least, he’s gotta get some type of reward for longest record titles by three different acts.

PILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS (Stephen Taylor, Mike DeLeon, Walter Howard, Phil Anselmo, Jose Gonzalez) (photo credit: JODY DORIGNAC)

This latest offering starts with a black hole of extreme metal that legitimately rocked my actual socks off. That opening salvo, “Little Fucking Heroes,” is a FAR step in a different direction, even for the Illegals. Extreme doesn’t even begin to cover it, there’s a lot of anger and rage here. I haven’t heard this type of rage from Phil Anselmo for a long time, and I have listened to him my entire life. Be ready, because it’s intense: Screeching vocals, insane drumming and guitar, and a not too-veiled message from Anselmo, with lyrics like “ANYONE/With a pair of eyes/Should be able to logically see it/For what it really is/Riding the coattails of infamy/(You) little fucking heroes.” That’s a 10/10 for the first track! The second track, “Utopian,” kind of lost me. It sounds like a bad black metal cover band for the first two minutes, and then it sounds like Phil again. The Illegals are making bold choices on this album, but some just don’t work. The high-scream vocals that Anselmo throws at you at the beginning (and periodically throughout the song) sound just plain bad. No real message to this one, just an attempt at something different that, honestly isn’t worth listening to. I respect the choice, just don’t like the outcome; give it a shot, may work for you, just didn’t for me. “Choosing Mental Illness As a Virtue” is one I have a soft spot for… I love it. It was the lead song off of the album, and I think it encompasses the Illegals’ wheelhouse. It does everything right: Brutal riffing that makes you feel like you are falling into the depths of hell, Phil Anselmo slowing down and making you feel like he is squaring up directly at you, and chaotic time signatures and vocals. Absolute chaos… but in a good way. Everything the Illegals should be is encapsulated in this one song. They are REALLY beginning to come into their own as a band and starting to separate themselves from all of Anselmo’s numerous side projects. “The Ignorant Point” has some filthy riffing in it, but nothing that makes it stand out on the album. Nothing new. Not bad, just not anything you haven’t heard up to this point on the album.

PILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS (Phil Anselmo) (photo credit: DANIN DRAHOS)

The Individual” is the best song on the album at this point. Absolutely crushing instrumental and the best vocals from Anselmo on this record. If you want vintage Anselmo, you won’t find him here. This is an all new dude, with a new message and a new style, but… somehow the same old Phil we all love. It’s an absolutely killer performance on this song, and kudos to him for being able to throw down vocals this heavy at his age. This song itself is killer, the last 60 seconds are absolute insanity! From here, the album begins to run together a bit. It’s hard to decipher where you are in it. Everything is just much of the same thing; I would have liked to hear a little bit more branching out rather than just the same style over and over again, closer to what they did in the first few tracks. “Finger Me,” with all jokes aside, features Anselmo throwing out a gravely “Walk through Fire” that is totally bad-ass. But, still no different from the last two or three songs. The riff at two minutes is filthy! Unfortunately, there has to be a turd in every punchbowl and, “Invalid Colubrine Frauds” is the one here. The tune is totally skippable. “Mixed Lunatic Results” puts a close on CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS… and, I honestly don’t know how you write things like this on guitar. These guitar tracks (by Mike DeLeon on lead, Stephen “Schteve” Taylor and Anselmo himself) are ridiculous… absolutely bonkers! I am a guitar player and I just don’t understand this level of intricacy. Stops, changes in the riffs and key changes, funky time signatures and palm mutes… it’s amazing! Phil delivers vocally, as well, making the closer everything you want in your extreme metal. And then all of a sudden, it changes. It plays you out of the hellhole you just stepped into. All in all, this record isn’t bad at all and worth a listen; I think Phil made some poor choices on some of the vocals, but I understand taking risks.


VOK: IN THE DARK

(NETTWERK MUSIC GROUP; 2019)

There was a time about 15 or 16 years ago when everything coming out of Iceland or Scandinavia would excite the hell out of me. Bands were being written about like crazy by lovestruck American scribes including yours truly, and in those post-Bjork days groups like Sigur Ros, GusGus, the divine Mum, Ampop, Trabant, Mugison and many others had me at “Halló, þetta er okkur!” I craved hearing DIFFERENT sounds, DIFFERENT voices, anything that wasn’t predictable American formulaic stuff. And I falsely concluded that anything coming outta the Arctic Circle or thereabouts was gonna be thrill-tronica.

VOK (Einar Hrafin, Andri Mar, Margret Ran) (publicity photo)

Not quite, it turned out. Just ‘cause you have weirdness in your country with midnight suns or a month or two of darkness or the like, doesn’t mean you’re driven to make potently original music. Bland pop can come from anywhere. However, it wouldn’t be fair to call Iceland’s Vok bland. Take the fact they’re from Iceland, with the exceedingly high expectations I’m guilty of, out of the picture and you have an accomplished band with a good strong singer (Margrét Rán), a vibrant enough arsenal of peppy keyboard sounds and tons of production finesse, and you got yourself a more than listenable pop/rock platter. IN THE DARK won’t annoy you or your friends, not at all. But neither is it likely to make you scramble to the web to look up everything you can find about the band. They’re from Rekjavik. They started in 2013. Besides the serious-of-intent Ms Ran, the group sports saxophonist Andri Mar and the multi-instrumentalist Einar Hrafn. This is their second major release, and it’s a decent listen. I looked for details that stood out, and on the title track, onesuch is the tart way Ran sings the refrain “I better toughen up!” That last word comes out at a higher pitch than the previous words, and it gets you. So does this interesting, clearly sung verse: “A creature in the making/Is taking a shape/It’s a form that I’ve seen before/It feels so familiar/But still so rare/Wanna see it but it shakes me to the core.” That’s pretty evocative, and when you consider she’s likely singing about love, you know you got someone with some real artistry here. Guitars are muted, there’s a slow build going on that is refreshing… but it does feel like the sound itself is rather familiar. That impression is reinforced with tracks like “Night and Day” (marked by clean, cool ‘80s-retro keys) and the mid-tempo “Scarcity,” which sounds like, well, “Night and Day.” The first clutch of songs really have a sameness about them which, if you like female fronted synth-pop, you’ll probably enjoy. By the time you get to “Spend the Love,” a bit of ennui may be setting in, although I was grateful the chorus was “spend the love” instead of “spend the night.” Anything for a difference.

VOK (Einar Hrafin, Margret Ran, Andri Mar) (photo credit: SIGGA ELLA)

Fortunately, there are three stellar tracks on tap. “Round Two” begins with a bit of ominous keyboard, almost alien, then a lovelorn sonic dreamscape unfolds, with Ran’s voice mixed to maximize an edge of heart-piercing vulnerability. “Would you step away with me/And give me everything I wanted,” she sings, with just a hint of Bjorkian eccentricity. Her lyrics here actually remind me of Taylor Swift, but the murky “otherness” of the production kills that impression pretty quickly. The underlying shadows in this song make it a winner; so does Ran’s vocal. “No Direction” is the other mixtape-worthy number, starting with wordless singing and a handclap-emulating rhythmic element before one of the standout verses emerges: “The highway’s leading me the wrong direction/The silhouettes are dragging me down the road/The question is, where am I going?/Better find out than not knowing.” At least that’s what I think I heard, and it sounds an awful lot like my own life. So yeah, this is a nice, showy number. Some film director may get ahold of this one for a deeper than you expect romantic melodrama down the road. “I can wait another day for love” is the chorus line that’ll lodge in your memory, possibly. The surprise but short instrumental “Rooftop Views” is a bit of welcome respite, then we get another standout: “Fantasia.” This is probably the best song on the album, actually. It’s cool, classy melancholy all the way, with Ran’s voice in your face and bigger than life, yet intimate in that chilly Icelandic manner. There’s a minor-key beauty here, coupled with a true sense of purpose at painting a mood of romantic anguish. And this verse is killer: “It coulda been love from the start/We could have been home/Words are a game to you/The only thing you can control/I felt so lonely falling/We had put on a bad show/Too proud to let you know/Too proud to let it go.” Although one more step into production busy-ness could have deflated this one, they kinda get it just right… it’s angsty and musically captivating in about the right blend. If someone is gonna shed tears during Vok’s new release, it’ll be to this song.

VOK (Margret Ran, Einar Hrafin, Andri Mar) (publicity photo)

So it’s like this: IN THE DARK is a perfectly competent, listenable album with a way better than average chanteuse in charge of things. But in a country known for original sounds, it doesn’t break much ground. Ran was asked by an interviewer where their name “Vok” came from. Her response was, “It’s one of those words used to describe something, and it has no equivalent in English.” Most of the sounds on this record have PLENTY of equivalents in the English-speaking world. That doesn’t make it bad, not at all. Just not truly intoxicating except for a song or two.


TOR LUNDVALL: A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999

(DAIS RECORDS; 2019)

Sometimes an artist can be quite prolific without most folks knowing who they are. That seems to be the case with Tor Lundvall, an East Hampton based electronica auteur whose largely ambient works tend to be limited editions. He was on a label called Strange Fortune from 2004-2006, where I first heard his evocative works LAST LIGHT and EMPTY CITY, the latter a perfectly satisfying dark-ish ambient platter that worked fine as immersive mood music. Lundvall has categorized his own music as “ghost ambient,” which, while not an official sub-genre in most texts I have read, sums it up tidily. Before the Strange Fortune years, he released a series of seasons-themed platters (something not unsurprisingly common in ambient circles) such as THE MIST and UNDER THE SHADOWS OF TREES. Lundvall is an introspective observer of nature, it seems, and woodlands, fields and changing weather informs his sound rather pervasively. Works for me, as I am a total ambient freak.

TOR LUNDVALL in Washington DC, 1990 (uncredited photo)

Now, however, in one of several retrospective collections he has put out (a couple being very limited-edition box sets), he’s gone back to his youthful coffers to gather up the material that comprises A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999. This does not qualify as ambient, although the evocative and tonally rich keyboards Lundvall plays could certainly serve it up, and HAVE on later recordings. But we get vocals throughout, and unless you’re Elizabeth Fraser or that guy who sang on a track on Eno/Budd’s classic THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR, or any number of nameless ethereal female vocalists who’ve spruced up more heavenly music-style outings than I could name, you don’t get invited to the “Ambient Party.” What Lundvall was doing in yonder years was essentially synth pop, music with two or three well-known IDM type beats, simple but atmospheric keyboard sounds generally mixed upfront, and soft but clear vocals.

TOR LUNDVALL in the studio, 1994 (uncredited photo)

Original One” comes right out of the speakers with a four-on-the-floor dancey beat and a rather distracting male vocal occasionally barking something unintelligible. No lyrics, but… no “ambience” in the classic manor, either. But it’s kinda fun. “Procession Day” is better, centered around a lovely descending minor fourth interval and an airy Lundvall vocal: “From my window, leaves are turning/From my window, I watch the changing world,” he sings, and there are plenty of casual observations like that throughout the remaining tracks. This is genuinely pleasant, however, and may remind you of classic Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “The Clearing” features dual vocal tracks, one virtually whispered, the other a gentle, higher-register vocal that, when occurring in tandem with the other, creates a hypnotic effect. There are three or four different keyboard elements in the mix, so Lundvall was clearly already a master of light electronica, and he has too much serious intent to let any of this approach the shallow side of the electronica pool. That said, much of this music sounds like standard ‘80s synth-pop, something that many of us were listening to in colleges and clubs at the time. “The Melting Hour” has a rather driving rhythm that recalls early Echo and the Bunnymen (Lundvall’s sweet lead vocal sounds like a lyric he sings, “haunted by dreams”), and “Watched” is rather hypnotic in its purposeful airy pop sound, even if you get the sense that this kind of music was and still is being made by any competent electronica musician with the right computer setup.

As the album progresses, though, you realize you are hearing an artist that loves getting lost in the music. “Hidden” has a 1-2-2-1 keyboard phrase that repeats over and over, effectively, while Lundvall’s shy, boy-ish vocal seems to hover between the background and the foreground. There’s a kind of hazy allure to this track that leaves a lasting impression. “The Night Watch” is even better, a cumulatively mesmerizing song offering more of those evocative lyrics: “I see a tree sitting on the field/The twisted limbs, its leaves conceal/The small dark birds fly against the sky/Along the black streets, the shadows try… ” I let this one play three times. “Lessons That Kill” offers bright, pinging electronics that call the French duo Air to mind, and convey a sense of underlying drama that would have made for a fine instrumental. There is a cool shift in the main melody just after the two-minute mark. Lundvall does sing again, though, and the vocals don’t really command attention, even though they are pleasant enough. The closing “August Rain” features cool, fizzy keyboards in the foreground and a dreamlike, half-whispered vocal firmly in the background. The effect is like lucid dreaming… are you fully awake in reality or not? And how important is it to you to even KNOW what the lyrics are saying? These final few tracks raise that question.

TOR LUNDVALL, 2016 (publicity photo)

Ironically, even though this isn’t a Tor Lundvall ambient release, it would sound pretty good in the background at a social event. I can’t imagine this soft, pop-tronica style really bothering anyone. Lundvall has focus and clarity in his music; you could tell he was thinking things over, and trying to direct his sonic assembly to do his artistic bidding. His later work may be more entrancing to those of us into the ambient immersion thing, but A STRANGENESS IN MOTION… , while not particularly “strange” by my reckoning, does showcase an artist making strides towards a promising musical destiny.


MARK MORTON: ANESTHETIC

(WPP RECORDS/SPINEFARM RECORDS; 2019)

Mark Morton (Lamb of God’s guitarist) has released his first solo album. Titled ANESTHETIC, it is far from something to make you fall asleep. This album truly has something for everyone. It has dark, grooving, fast paced metal, soft rock, vocal focused ballads and just about everything in between.

The record starts with “Cross Off,” an absolutely thumping track from Morton and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park, Stone Temple Pilots). The groove heavy track begins with a scream from Bennington reminiscent of HYBRID THEORY (Linkin Park’s first album) as the late singer delivers searing metal vocals throughout, leading into a breakdown that’s impossible not to move to. From “Cross Off,” the album storms into “Sworn Apart,” with Papa Roach vocalist Jacoby Shaddix delivering a solid performance. Once again, Morton offers a filthy groove. “Axis” features Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) and Slash’s favorite singer, Myles Kennedy. Lanegan sounds like he has been gargling gravel for five years. The track slows things down and forces you to listen. And, so, away we go again with “The Never,” featuring Testament’s Chuck Billy. The tune takes off like a rocket launch 2 inches from your head. More filthy grooves and barking vocals littered throughout this track force you to bang that head. The album slows down a bit from here, with tracks featuring Kennedy (“Save Defiance”) and Mark Morales from Sons of Texas (“Blur”). Both are solid efforts, with Morton and bassist Mike Inez delivering solid performances.

MARK MORTON (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

The record moves on to “Back From the Dead,” a track with Buckcherry’s Josh Todd. A solid, hard punk/metal thing, this is the best vocal performance Todd has given in years. Another highlight is the hard left turn of “Reveal,” featuring Naeemah Z Maddox. This track really shows Morton’s ability with a guitar. He slows it down and delivers a soulful and sweet guitar solo that works seamlessly with Maddox’s vocals. The album moves on to a hard rock track featuring Morton on vocals. He does a really solid job putting the vocals down in “Imaginary Days.” Very surprising, indeed. And, on to the finish… My favorite track of the year so far is “The Truth Is Dead,” featuring Randy Blythe (Lamb Of God) and Alyssa White-Gluz (The Agonist, Arch Enemy). You can already guess what happens here. White-Gluz opens the track with a beautiful singing intro which breaks into Blythe hitting his signature growl. Lows, highs, everything you could want from Blythe. Alyssa comes in at the perfect time to deliver the chorus, with Blythe throwing some clean vocals behind her. They both show off their growls through the breakdown. The album finishes STRONG. You can definitely tell Morton put a lot of time into this and chose carefully who he wanted performing each track. It’s obvious this is a labor of love and respect for the music. ANESTHETIC is highly recommended, as I think the album is killer… absolutely worth a listen.


ACE FREHLEY: SPACEMAN

(eONE MUSIC/ENTERTAINMENT ONE; 2018)

Even though Ace Frehley wasn’t my favorite member of Kiss, I was certainly appreciative of his guitar pyrotechnics (figuratively, if not literally) and, once I heard his first lead vocal on the LOVE GUN track “Shock Me,” his stock shot up dramatically in my estimation; the band now had three very distinct voices (Ace’s other-worldly, Marvin the Martian on helium atonal delivery alongside Gene Simmons’ deep-throated growl and Peter Criss’ gravelly purr) to offset Paul Stanley’s rock star style and front-man proclivities. Frehley’s ups and downs (and ins and outs) with Kiss and his battles with more than a couple of personal demons have been well documented; I won’t waste your time rehashing Ace’s checkered past… I’m just glad to have new music from the man.

ACE FREHLEY (uncredited photo)

SPACEMAN kicks off with the anthemic grind of “Without You I’m Nothing,” a track – surprisingly – co-written by former bandmate Gene Simmons, who also adds some chunky bass to the proceedings. Ace’s vocals, which have taken on a certain world-weary quality, are in top form and a slow-build solo is a much-needed cherry on top; not that the song is bad, it just never seems to catch fire, much less spark, aside from that solo. “Rockin’ With the Boys” is a hook-laden rocker that, oddly, hearkens back to “Beth” with its “No need to worry/I’ll be home soon/’Cause I’m rockin’ with the boys” chorus. The song is quite easily one of the best things Ace has recorded as a solo artist. Proving himself to be “King of the Power Chord Riffing World,” the hooks just keep coming with “Your Wish Is My Command,” Ace continues to turn up the cool factor with each successive tune. Even though Alex Salzman is onboard as bassist, the cut is another Simmons co-write, featuring just about everything that we’ve ever loved about Kiss. “Bronx Boy” has a little harder edge than the previous tracks, but then, the New York borough that spawned Frehley and Kiss tends to be a little harder edged than a good chunk of the United States. Another anthem, “Pursuit of Rock and Roll,” closes the first half of the album, as Ace name-checks some of the biggest names in the history of good ol’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, while visiting upon many of the cliches that the music is founded upon: Power chords, riffs you could caulk your house with, wicked solo after wicked solo, gang vocals and, I’m pretty sure that there’s a chunk of apple pie in there somewhere. Oh, and Anton Fig. Ace’s long time friend (Fig played drums on Frehley’s first solo record way back when) is in there, too. While Scot Coogan and Matt Starr are fine time-keepers, they aren’t always willing to show any flashes of aggressive playing, tending to keep things simple which allows the guy who’s name is on the album cover to show off his prodigious guitar chops; Anton has played with Ace long enough to feel comfortable playing with a more aggressive style.

ACE FREHLEY (photo credit: JAYME THORNTON)

Even though it’s a cover (originally recorded by Billy Satellite, later a hit for Eddie Money), “I Wanna Go Back” fits in well with what could be described as a “developing pattern,” with its lyrics-as-catharsis recalling both the happier times and a life sometimes ill-spent. The song, short on lyrical content (though it does get the point across nicely), is a mid-tempo rock ballad that fades just as Frehley takes flight on another guitar solo. Picking up the mantle envisioned with the album’s title, Ace is off to the final frontier with “Mission To Mars.” It’s another song that somehow feels unfinished; again, the tune’s not bad, just… incomplete. Another fine solo saves the number from mediocrity. “Off My Back,” likewise suffers from an early fade. The number itself feels more fully formed than the previous two cuts, with an aggressively biting vocal and another finest-kind solo. The album’s final track, “Quantum Flux,” is an instrumental track with ebbs and flows that has me thinking that I sure wouldn’t mind hearing an entire record of instrumentals from Mister Frehley; hey, don’t laugh… it has been done before. With a really cool acoustic riff playing underneath, Space Ace delivers some of his tastiest runs on this piece. Even though there are other stellar moments on SPACEMAN, it seems that Frehley saved the best for last. I will admit that many of the problems I mentioned above are merely minor annoyances; something a bit more troubling is the mix on the vinyl version of the record (the version I used for this review). The music seems compressed and muddy, which could have clouded my perception of the players’ (particularly drummers Starr and Coogan) performances. With vinyl making a strong comeback, it’s a shame that many of the mixing techniques that were perfected in the ‘70s and ‘80s are now, seemingly, forgotten. Still, while this album probably won’t get as many plays as DESTROYER or HOTTER THAN HELL, it won’t necessarily be collecting dust on my shelf, either.


BE BOP DELUXE: POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE… INTRODUCING BE BOP DELUXE

(EMI RECORDS/CAPITOL RECORDS; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

So, it’s somewhere around the middle part of 1977 and I’m in the “I’ll buy virtually anything that ain’t disco or Country and Western music” mode that typified my life for several regrettable years (with wisdom and age, I’ve repented/recovered from that dark period, except for the disco… that’ll always suck!). While deciding on which 8 to 10 albums to buy on this particular day, I came across a two record set (one full-length album, one 12″ EP) with a striking black and white cover – a still from the classic silent German flick, METROPOLIS. The price was right, so I was soon the proud owner of LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE by something called Be Bop Deluxe. I’d seen a couple of studio albums by the group, of course, but I just could not get behind that name (or the inexplicably hideous cover art or… perhaps it was a deep-seeded fear of Jazz music, another of my quirky phobias of that bygone era)! But, great googley-moogley, chil’uns! When I dropped the needle on side one, track one (“Life In the Air Age”), my brain nearly exploded! This was great stuff… incredible stuff. “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape.” “Fair Exchange.” “Piece of Mine.” “Maid In Heaven.” These were absolutely magnificent slabs of sonic beauty, propelled by the lush, orchestral guitar style of Bill Nelson, the mad genius behind the quartet’s sound.

It was a VERY long time before I came into contact with another Be Bop Deluxe record (though I did purchase a couple of great imports by the then-solo Bill Nelson) – in fact, the band only managed one more album, DRASTIC PLASTIC, before packing it in. Now, a band of which Nelson says, “I don’t think about Be Bop Deluxe as often as fans of the band might presume,” is given its due with this 18-track “Best of… ” package alongside re-issues of the original five studio albums and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (all with bonus tracks, naturally). Does it sound dated? Not as much as you’d think! In fact, I could think of a few current artists who would be regarded as the next big thing if they had recorded this stuff in the past couple of years.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1974 (Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, Ian Parkin, Bill Nelson, Robert Bryan) (photo credit: MICK ROCK)

This 18 track collection starts with the title song of the very first Be Bop Deluxe album. “Axe Victim” is rather a lost gem, full of the lyrical wryness and imagery that became a main-stay of not only this band, but of all of Bill Nelson’s subsequent projects (solo or with the group Red Noise). Of course, the benchmarks of Be Bop Deluxe were always Nelson’s guitar work and the solid interplay between the four men (on AXE VICTIM, Nelson was joined by guitarist/organist Ian Parkin, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and bassist/vocalist Robert Bryan). The second track, also from that debut, “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape,” is fueled by Nelson’s ingenious arrangement (and a smoking guitar solo). The tune would later be retooled for the second version of the band, turning it into an almost orchestral live masterpiece.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia) (uncredited photo)

The band’s second album, 1975’s FUTURAMA, introduces drummer Simon Andrew David Fox and bassist Charlie Tumahai, with Nelson exerting his dominance on all fronts: all lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards are performed by him; all songwriting and arrangements are by him. FUTURAMA is the most well-represented release on POSTCARDS… , with four tracks (“Stage Whispers,” “Sister Seagull,” “Jean Cocteau,” and the wickedly cool “Maid In Heaven”). The wisdom of adding Tumahai and Fox is evident from the first notes of the charging train wreck that is “Stage Whispers.” The funky calypso break merely adds to the insanity, and – if I haven’t mentioned it yet, Bill Nelson can play that guitar thing! “Maid In Heaven” follows. Like “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape” and the song that follows, “Sister Seagull,” this tune became a live staple, taking on a new feel with the addition of Simon “Andy” Clark on keys. Speaking of “Sister Seagull,” again the guitars and the arrangement sets Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe apart from most acts of that time (or, for that matter, most acts that have followed in the 30 years since its release). The final track from FUTURAMA is a jazzy homage to “Jean Cocteau.” The song is a major departure for the group, but the trio show that they are more than capable of pulling off such a change of pace.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Charlie Tumahia, Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (photo credit: JOHN THORNTON)

By the time of the band’s third record, SUNBURST FINISH, Clark was well ensconced on keyboards. His impact is immediately felt on another live staple (and quite possibly the one song that you may have heard on the radio at some point), “Fair Exchange.” The interplay between guitarist and keyboardist on this track is a good example of the direction that the band was headed. Plus, it’s just a darn good song! “Ships In the Night” builds on the slightly Caribbean feel that was first explored during the break in “Stage Whispers.” The keyboards are, by turns, grandiose and whimsical… not an easy feat in the same song! “Blazing Apostles” re-introduces us to Bill Nelson, guitar hero. During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Nelson goes from metal crunch to jazzy runs to strident funk to fleet-fingered progressive solos.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia, Simon Fox) (publicity photo)

The group’s second release of 1976 (and fourth, over-all), MODERN MUSIC, finds the revitalized quartet performing as a more cohesive unit, though it is still quite obvious that Nelson is pulling all of the strings. “Kiss of Light” could have (should have) been a big hit back then; it would probably be a big hit if it were to be released today, with its rather staccato vocal delivery, especially on the chorus. The title track is as laid-back as Be Bop Deluxe ever got, with a lilting, slightly bluesy sound. “Twilight Capers” continues the orchestral approach that was adopted on the previous record, with guitars and keyboards ebbing and swelling throughout, leading to a short Jazz-inflected guitar solo at the outro. This is the band and the musical vision that Nelson took on the road, with the tour that eventually produced the amazing LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (uncredited photo)

And this is where the continuity of this release comes into question: The single tune from the live album, “Life In the Air Age,” the title track, if you will, does not follow “Twilight Capers.” Three songs from the group’s final release, DRASTIC PLASTIC, is wedged between the MODERN MUSIC and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE tracks. The tunes – “Electrical Language,” “Possession,” and “Islands of the Dead” – are fine songs, but it is very obvious that Nelson was tiring of Be Bop Deluxe and guitar-driven rock music. “Electrical Language” is powered more by the vocal performances than by guitar (or keyboards), while “Islands of the Dead” is a rather thoughtful, mostly acoustic piece. “Possession,” of the three, is the closest to what fans had come to expect from Be Bop Deluxe’s grand wizard of the nicely turned phrase (of both word and fretboard).

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Andrew Clark) (photo ourtesy: GAB ARCHIVES/REDFERNS)

“Life In the Air Age,” a track from SUNBURST FINISH, bears witness to just how great this group was as a live unit. The song itself is a progressive pop masterpiece and the band certainly prove their mettle in bringing it to life on stage. As good as they were in the studio, the fact that they were able to improve on those studio versions is a testament to the combined talents of the four musicians, and the arranging acumen of Bill Nelson, in particular. The final two tracks of the package brings it full circle (another continuity issue), with both the A and B sides of the first Be Bop Deluxe single, the independently produced and released “Teenage Archangel” and an early version of “Jets At Dawn,” a tune re-recorded for AXE VICTIM. The A side is, actually, a fairly standard sounding teenage-angst pop song. The B side, however, clocks in at nearly seven minutes and features some of the most exquisite guitar on this package. I just wish that the single tracks would have been sequenced as the lead tracks on this package, even though they were tack-on, bonus cuts for this version of POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE. Ah, well… you can’t have everything, but you can have a fairly comprehensive Be Bop Deluxe primer to hold you over until the proposed box set that Bill Nelson is reportedly working on.

BE BOP DELUXE (Bill Nelson, on stage November 1976) (uncredited photo)

UPDATE: Bill Nelson’s eight-disc box set, THE PRACTICE OF EVERY DAY LIFE: CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF RECORDINGS was finally released in 2011, featuring 34 choice cuts from the Be Bop Deluxe era. Aside form various compilations and reissues, Nelson continues to set a furious pace, releasing no less than four albums of new music this year alone. The last,DYNAMOS AND TREMOLOS is half synth-pop, half guitar rock, all instrumental.


A DYING PLANET: FACING THE INCURABLE

(CYNNORMAL LAB RECORDINGS; 2018)

Survival stories are the threads that we cling to when we are at our lowest. “If that person can overcome the things that should have destroyed them then, surely, I can overcome, too.” When we see or hear about someone who has overcome a devastating loss, a child who overcomes a withering illness or an unimaginable injury, we cheer, we cry tears of joy and triumph, we are moved to be… better. When a musician suffers such an injury and faces not only their own humanity but, the prospect of losing – not only their job, but the ability to create, to help or heal others through their music. Troy Tipton was on top of the indie-metal world, playing bass in Zero Hour, among others, when an injury and subsequent surgery left him unable to play. But, he overcame and, though he was unable to return to the bass, he truly found his voice. Literally. His family and band members say that Troy has always had a great voice; now, that voice has allowed him to create once more. FACING THE INCURABLE is Troy’s victory lap and it is not only catharsis for him, it is incredibly moving.

A DYING PLANET (Brian Hart, Troy and Jasun Tipton, Marco Bicca) (photo credit: BRIAN KIRKSEY)

Resist,” at 14 minutes sets the standard for what a great slice of heavy progressive rock should be. Troy wrote the lyrics and melodies and says the song is “is about the struggles I personally went through after having my left arm unsuccessfully operated on. I had been playing the bass guitar for twenty-five years before I was forced to hang it up. So many changes have occurred in my life since the day of my surgery. I am so grateful for the years of emotional support I’ve received from my twin brother, my father, and my wife. Paul Villarreall did an amazing vocal performance delivering the message.” And, Paul’s vocals are quite impressive, backed by heavy bass and drums while Troy’s brother, Jasun, supplies an ethereal guitar sound that still delivers some beefy riffage when needed, as well as keyboards that are atmospheric and definitely on-point for the musical style. A sobering piece of lyrical beauty, “Facing the Incurable” sends a shiver down the spine. Troy’s lyrics and vocals take center stage with several spoken word passages, delivering a message of hope to the millions facing debilitating, life-altering injuries or diseases. Jasun’s guitars coarse and weave over, under and through a stunningly effective slow groove with solid (dare I say, stellar?) underpinning from the rhythm section of bassist Brian Hart and drummer Marco Bicca. “Human Obsolescence,” about the fragile nature of our existence, features beautiful piano and a chiming guitar that powers the tune. Troy’s vocals are haunting and provocatively effective, coming off sounding a lot like Dennis DeYoung (if Dennis DeYoung were cool and not some clownish Vegas lounge singer), while Marco’s understated but powerful drumming and Brian’s nearly passive bass work play into the piece perfectly.

A DYING PLANET (Brian Hart, Jasun and Troy Tipton, Marco Bicca) (photo credit: BRIAN KIRKSEY)

Even though “Poisoning the Well” was written – with lyrics from Zero Hour’s Erik Rosvold – and the guitar parts (which are more percussive strokes rather than a series of notes, except for the solo) and vocals (also by Rosvold) were recorded several years ago, it fits perfectly within the theme and feel of the album. The drums and bass echo the brutal, heavy chords of the guitar making for a stark but striking piece of metal magic. “Missing” was the first song written and prompted in Troy a desire to try his hand at lyric writing, as well as singing them. Beautiful, fragile playing (including keys from guest Bill Jenkins of Enchant and Thought Chamber fame) gives way to a brittle vocal from Troy counterbalanced by a soaring performance by Luda Arno (Troy’s vocal coach) which, in turn, gives way to one of the most beautiful, evocative guitar solos you will ever hear. Is the number a cry of anguish to a love lost, a soul lost or a life lost? Hope amid the infinite struggle to merely be, to overcome any obstacle is the underlying, overwhelming theme of FACING THE INCURABLE; everything is summed up in this single, nearly nine-minute piece. The shortest track on the album, “Separation Anxiety,” is an instrumental that features Hart’s dexterous bass work and the supple, powerful drumming of Bicca with solid jabs of light from Jasun’s guitar interspersed with short, fleet-fingered runs. Though the tune is exceptionally good, amply displaying the instrumentalists’ abilities, it does come across as rather a second-thought add on to the basic concept of the album as a whole. Coming as it did, while I was facing uncertainties of my own (though, to be sure, nothing to the extent that Troy Tipton had experienced), this record is like a restorative balm to the soul; thank you for sharing it with us.