LIARS: TFCF

(Mute Records; 2017)

Liars have managed an unprecedented feat in my music world. The art punk band that, until their new CD was the work of duo Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, have now made 8 albums in a row that I have loved. In the past 30 or so years, no other artist has made that many consecutive albums that knocked me out. Radiohead and Wilco were in the running, but then each made an album that failed to floor me. So Wilco stalled at 7 in a row. That leaves Liars in this unique position… a band I love who have never made an album I didn’t find thrilling. Their debut in 2002, the bizarrely titled THEY THREW US ALL IN A TRENCH AND STUCK A MONUMENT ON TOP, was responsible for one of the most memorable listening experiences I’ve ever had on the road, with a 30-minute closing track that absolutely marked them out as authentic weirdos. The follow-up, THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, was kind of a song cycle about witches and witchcraft, with some seriously spooky stuff on it, and some willfully perverse anti-commercial compositions that dared you to like them. I did, though… something this band was doing sounded like no one else, and seemed to be the product of an aesthetic that was hard to pin down. Their music combined chants, tribal percussive elements, odd fragments that could be haunting for a spell and then disappear, ambient passages and, sometimes, kick-ass driving rockers. Through it all, the voice of Angus Andrew, which sometimes he’d use to actually sing and sometimes he’d employ in the service of controlled atonality or spooky asides, served as a sonic trademark; Liars established their sound early on, one that was never less than intriguing and that featured fascinating stylistic variations each time out. It was weird, hypnotic, rhythmic and mysterious. It wasn’t for everybody, but so what? It was for ME, that’s all that mattered. In just 15 years, this eccentric band have made 8 albums I love. That’s a damn good track record!

LIARS (Angus Andrew) (uncredited photo)

But when I heard that Hemphill had left the band before this new CD, I was seriously worried. My first reaction was anger.… what, Aaron, being in one of the most fascinating bands of the new millennium wasn’t enough for you? Was Angus too controlling? Was your own muse being stifled? Not enough records being sold? I really wanted to know WHAT happened, and in the pre-release publicity, I read that Andrews wasn’t too happy about the departure. He went back to his native Australia after shuffling around multiple locations between the US and Europe, and set about making TFCF on his own. He remarked that he felt like a “bride being left at the altar” or somesuch, and indeed, the unsettling cover photo shows a dejected looking Andrew sitting by himself wearing a bridal gown, an uneaten cake nearby. It’s the most off-putting Liars cover, but in context, it makes sense and it’s quite sad. As a fan, going into this record, you had to be wondering if this was going to be the first Liars album to fall short – if the departure of Hemphill was gonna reveal that Andrew REALLY needed someone else to rein in his weirder artistic impulses, of which there were many. What were we in for, anyway?

The answer, miraculously, is another great Liars record. Here is proof positive that Angus Andrew is a true visionary, a singular composing talent who has enough adventurous ideas and experimental willfulness to keep the Liars sound fresh and flowing. One big surprise is the prevalence of acoustic guitar on this album. “The Grand Delusional” begins right away with a bit of sombre picking… haunting and evocative. “We said we would ride/We said we would take them out to sea,” Andrew sings, and it could be a reference to his ex-bandmate or a metaphor for something else. It doesn’t really matter; it’s lovely and cryptic. There are two songs that have a specific recurring line that must surely have something to do with the pain of Hemphill’s departure. “Staring at Zero” is short but it has a fairly typical ominous Liars rhythm track over which Andrew sings “Why can’t you shoot me through the heart?… We both were broke right from the start.” Sounds like admitted self-pity to me, and when it segues into some singer/songwriter-y acoustic guitar again right away, the effect is not typical Liars at all, and yet startling in that Liars way. Fascinating stuff. On the memorably titled “No Tree No Branch,” one of several songs that has echoes of Radiohead (past albums had even more songs somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke and company), the recurring lyric that sticks in your head is “If you listen you’ll hear that sound right there in my mind.” It’s true, we DO hear that sound and the rapid, demented keyboard bit over which it’s sung is captivating. This goes right into “Cred Woes,” possibly the most quintessential Liars track on the album. With a truly insistent simple percussion track and an ascending synth line that is sort of an earworm for those of us into this kind of weirdness, Andrew goes on about something obviously important to him but you won’t necessarily make out all the words. You also may not be able to read them in their tiny white type over green background flora as presented in the CD booklet. No matter; something compelling is being presented here, something dramatic and original. It has never mattered to me personally if I could understand everything Andrew was singing on Liars recordings. Some of the most memorable moments are slow and contemplative here: “Ripe Ripe Rot” is like an Eno-esque, slightly sour ambient track with a subdued Iggy Pop-style vocal. “You don’t remember what I said/And it’s time again to explode your heart/Yeah it’s time again to let go,” Andrew sings, with a resigned sadness. This dissolves into a big slice of ambient drift that would be pure hymn-like afterthought if not for the repeating dissonant machine sound that laces it, but maybe that’s the point. Andrew is still carrying on, still indulging his sense of sonic wonder… but his brain is surely hurting, and he’s up to something more than prettiness. In fact, he’s always been up to something partially inscrutable, something where others may not go gently. Liars albums take WORK, and I’m glad this one is no different. It’s one of the shortest Liars discs, but a worthy successor to 2014’s MESS. Sorry about your bandmate, Angus, but hell… you’ve proved you don’t need ANYONE, right? You’re one of the most interesting guys in rock, and I for one plan to follow you wherever you go.


COLISEUM/DOOMRIDERS: NOT OF THIS WORLD

(MAGIC BULLET RECORDS/AUXILIARY RECORDS/LEVEL PLANE RECORDS; reissue 2016, original release 2005)

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Eleven years ago, Ryan Patterson of Louisville three-piece Coliseum released a split EP on his Auxiliary label, sharing the slab with a Boston band called Doomriders, one of Nate Newton’s many side projects when he isn’t playing bass for Converge. The intent of NOT OF THIS WORLD was to pay tribute to Glenn Danzig’s eponymous metal monster, Danzig. Each choosing one song from Danzig’s 1988 debut, the bands added some originals – very much in a similar vein to Danzig’s dark metal – to the mix (Coliseum, two tracks; Doomriders, one). Now, as part of their twentieth anniversary celebration, Magic Bullet Records has taken the two tribute tracks and stuck ‘em on a special 7” reissue. I wouldn’t have minded hearing the whole thing, but… I will definitely take what I can get.

Coliseum (Matt Jaha, Mike Pascal, Ryan Patterson, circa 2005) (uncredited photo)

Coliseum (Matt Jaha, Mike Pascal, Ryan Patterson, circa 2005) (uncredited photo)

Coliseum’s contribution, “Am I Demon,” comes across as standard-issue lo-fi heavy rock… you know, the good stuff. It’s kinda like Mountain and Blue Cheer tag-teaming with Lemmy, taking the low road while the ref’s not looking to retain their championship belts. Patterson offers suitably dark and gravelly vocals, as well as some brilliant guitar work; bassist Mike Pascal and bassist Matt Jaha lay down an underpinning that is so brutish, so heavy that you could caulk a window with it. If you like what you hear – and who wouldn’t? – check out the band’s latest release, 2015’s ANXIETY’S KISS, available here.

Doomriders (Chris Bevilacqua, Nate Newton, Jebb Riley, Chris Pupecki, circa 2008) (uncredited photo)

Doomriders (Chris Bevilacqua, Nate Newton, Jebb Riley, Chris Pupecki, circa 2008) (uncredited photo)

Possession” comes from Doomriders… DUH! The track starts with a wicked backward guitar that leads into a riff that reminds me of “Battle Axe” by Billion Dollar Babies, with sort of a minimalist (for a metal band, anyway) percussion thing from Chris Bevilacqua and Jebb Riley’s sonorous bass groove; the guitars, supplied by Newton and Chris Pupecki, are more akin to Tony Iommi’s dense slabs of tonality than anything else. Danzig’s punk pedigree is definitely on display on this one, particularly with the Misfits style gang vocals on the chorus. You gotta go back to 2013 to find new music from the quartet with the album GRAND BLOOD. You can find that and everything else Doomriders at this location.

NOT OF THIS WORLD original packaging.

NOT OF THIS WORLD original packaging.

So, short and sweet… just like this awesome blast from the past. Any fan of pure metal, hardcore or any type of aggressive music, really, will want this limited edition release in their collection; likewise, if you’re a fan of any of Glenn Danzig’s previous work, whether it be the Misfits, Samhain or Danzig, this record will fit in nicely with those, as well. It’s available on black, white or clear vinyl from Magic Bullet or any of the usual suspects.


THE YARDBIRDS: ROGER THE ENGINEER

(REPERTOIRE RECORDS/COLUMBIA RECORDS; reissue 2016, original release 1966)

Album cover

Throughout the early 1960s, popular music was a “singles” medium. Sure, full-length albums were part of the mix but, by and large, these collections consisted of up to one half recent single releases and massive doses of filler and cover tunes. However, by the spring and summer of 1966, album rock music was going full force, with classic records being released by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Jefferson Airplane, among others. One of the “others” was the first official studio album by a band called the Yardbirds, who had generated a string of hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic beginning in 1964. The album, released as YARDBIRDS in the United Kingdom and most of the world, was renamed OVER UNDER SIDEWAYS DOWN for North American release (as well as in France, Germany and Italy); the Australian mono release was dubbed ROGER THE ENGINEER.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)

The record featured the vocal prowess of Keith Relf, Chris Dreja’s rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, Jim McCarty on drums and… oh, yeah… some guy by the name of Jeff Beck playing lead guitar. Jim McCarty’s original liner notes opines, “It has often been said that Jeff Beck is one of the leading guitarists in the country, and I am inclined to agree with him.” This is a terrific, classic 1960s rock album, with plenty of something for everyone: Fuzz guitar, Middle Eastern influences and straight-on boogie rock in the form of “Beck’s Boogie,” performed by a true master. It’s also one of the first albums to highlight a new sound, a sound that would become known as psychedelic rock.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty) (uncredited photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty) (uncredited photo)

This 2016 two disc remaster features both monaural and stereo mixes of the album and is chock full of bonus tracks. The mono disc (which was still the most common configuration for mass consumption fifty years ago) contains the more interesting bonus material, including the two singles (and accompanying B-sides) from Relf’s short-lived solo career. Also on board – and of more interest – are a pair of songs recorded after the departure of bassist Samwell-Smith: “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Psycho Daisies,” released in the UK as a single. The B-side, “Psycho Daisies,” features the final line-up before the implosion that ultimately led to the formation of a legendary monster of rock; the track has a rare lead vocal from Beck, as well as a lad named Jimmy Page playing bass. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is a guitar-lover’s wet dream, with Jeff and Jimmy sharing lead duties. Also playing on the session was a young bassist by the name of John Paul Jones. When Page inherited the Yardbirds name, he enlisted Jones as a member of what would become the New Yardbirds before morphing into another band you might have heard of… Led Zeppelin.

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf) (publicity photo)

The Yardbirds may, of course, be best known for having Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton playing with them at one time or another during their brief run; they didn’t achieve the same elevated status as some of their counterparts, but they did have their share of great music and have proven to be quite influential over the last half-century. The band’s first proper album, affectionately called ROGER THE ENGINEER (after Chris Dreja’s cover art, depicting the man who engineered the sessions), is a great place to start delving into the genesis of not only psychedelic rock, but two of the most iconic guitar players ever, as well as the group the Who’s John Entwistle said would “go over like a lead balloon”; it is, truly, one of the great rock albums of any generation.


LAMB OF GOD: THE DUKE

(EPIC RECORDS/NUCLEAR BLAST ENTERTAINMENT; 2016)

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I don’t know if you are a fan of Lamb of God or if you know anything about their passionate, compassionate singer, Randy Blythe. I don’t really care but, you should know about this incredible new EP from the aggressively progressive boys from Richmond, Virginia; you see, Randy and his bandmates care and they are more than willing to go the extra mile for their fans and put their money where their mouths are. I’m just gonna let Mister Blythe speak for himself about this record’s title track: “A little while ago, I became friends with a fan named Wayne Ford – he was terminal – leukemia. I talked with him often, even video chatted him into the studio. He was very calm about his impending death, and we discussed it very openly. I learned a lot from him. This song is for him.”

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe with Wayne Ford, 2012) (uncredited photo)

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe with Wayne Ford, 2012) (uncredited photo)

Randy was made aware of Wayne’s illness in October 2012, when one of Wayne’s buddies asked him if he could give his sick friend a shout-out from the stage; Randy met Wayne and his wife after the show, giving him a much needed shot of positive energy. A little over two years later, in January 2015, Randy received an e-mail telling him that Wayne was losing his fight with cancer; Randy contacted Wayne and they stayed in touch for the next few weeks, as Lamb of God worked on their next album (VII: STURM UND DRANG), with Blythe even allowing Wayne to video conference with him during recording of his vocal tracks (something that even his LoG brethren aren’t allowed to experience). On February 3, 2015 Randy learned that Wayne had succumbed to the disease. His immediate response was to write a song for Wayne Ford, called, perhaps with a bit of divine intervention, “The Duke,” as Wayne’s father later told Randy that he was a huge John Wayne fan and that he had named his son after the legendary actor known as the Duke. The band has also set up a charity campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society online, at propeller.la/lambofgod.

Lamb of God (John Campbell, Chris Adler, Randy Blythe, Willie Adler, Mark Morton) (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

Lamb of God (John Campbell, Chris Adler, Randy Blythe, Willie Adler, Mark Morton) (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

Now that you know what kind of men… no, make that Men… the guys from Lamb of God are, here’s why you should check out the music they make. “The Duke” is a progressive metal tour de force. The track features pounding drums (should it be otherwise?) from Chris Adler, a John Campbell bass line that thrums ominously along the bottom and inventive, pulsating guitars from the tandem of Willie Adler and Mark Morton, topped off with a stunning solo; Blythe’s vocals are mostly clean, only hitting on that well-known throaty growl on the chorus. I always considered Lamb of God to be a very technically proficient group, but this song really blows me away! The other new tune is “Culling,” which is more of the same, while not quite as inventive; this one is all abut the groove. There’s a Zakk Wylde style stun guitar running throughout, with a fleet-fingered, trebley solo punctuating the affect. Randy’s vocals revert to the norm here: Intense, guttural screams, which ain’t a bad thing.

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe, 2005 SOUNDS OF THE UNDERGROUND TOUR) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe, 2005 SOUNDS OF THE UNDERGROUND TOUR) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The remaining three cuts are live versions of three numbers from VII: STURM UND DRANG. The first, “Still Echoes,” recorded at Germany’s Rock am Ring festival in 2015, features quick, precision strikes from the four musicians while still delivering a vicious, pummeling riff. The last two, “512” and “Engage the Fear Machine,” are from the 2016 edition of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. The autobiographical “512” is particularly moving, as it recalls Blythe’s plight, being locked away in a Czechoslovakian prison awaiting trial on charges of manslaughter; the music, especially the snaking, circular guitar figure gives the song a suitably claustrophobic feel. By the way, the full story of Randy’s ordeal is told with brutal honesty in his memoir, DARK DAYS is available from Da Capo Press and all major book outlets, both online and brick and mortar varieties… or, you could check out a copy at your local public library. If the above story about his interaction with one terminally ill fan hasn’t given you proof of the man’s character, this book surely will!


AENAON: HYPNOSOPHY

(CODE666 RECORDS/AURAL MUSIC; 2016)

Aenaon is a Greek word that means “inexhaustible, indestructible, durable.” Aenaon is also a Greek progressive metal band formed in 2005 who, through several demos and split releases, an EP and two full-length albums, seem to be as durable and indestructible as their name implies. Now, two years after their last album, EXTANCE (and a year after a 7” split with Virus of Koch), the group tests their durability with HYPNOSOPHY, a record that stretches the boundaries of traditional black metal, veering toward an experimental sound that is every bit as groundbreaking in its scope as IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING was to psychedelic music in 1969. The band seems to evolve – as any good band should – with each new record; I can draw a fairly reliable line to two events in the career of Aenaon that sparked this evolution: The return of a former creative spark, guitarist Achilleas Kalantzis in 2009 and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Nycriz joining in 2012. Lyricist/vocalist Astrous, Achilleas and the adventurous Nycriz have redefined metal music for the 2010s by introducing elements of the early free-form Jazz movement alongside liberal doses of their cultural heritage, via traditional Greek Folk music and instrumentation.

Aenaon (Achilleas Kalantzis, Orestis Zyrinis, Nycriz, Astrous) (photo credit: EVI SAVVA)

The album kicks off with “Oneirodynia,” a song that’s highly operatic in scope; there’s just something inherently unsettling about throat-ripping blackened vocals supported by a Wagnerian chorus. Equally damaging to the psyche are the dark, Jazz-like saxophone skronks – as an unlikely lead and solo instrument – supplied by the group’s newest member, Orestis Zyrinis. We are definitely off to a great start! Staccato guitar riffs, thumping, pumping bass and a massive drum assault introduce “Fire Walk With Me” before some imaginative – dare I say, “progressive” – guitar/keyboard interplay, via Achilleas and fellow guitarist, Anax (John Memos), takes center stage. The use of both Astrous’ harsh vocals (which are a wicked cross between Venom’s Cronos and King Diamond) and the clean vocals of guest, Giorgos Papagiannakis (Memos’ Absinthiana bandmate), along with blistering speed metal-like guitar solo, infuses a bit of the psychotic into the number and plays very well into the genre-bending sound of HYPNOSOPHY. “Earth Tomb,” for me, is a step back; not quite up to par with the record’s two opening salvos. The tune is features a rather repetitive operatic type of groove with a harsh spoken word section that does absolutely nothing for me (or the song itself, actually). I’m not saying that the song is devoid of any redeeming features; highlights include a moody guitar solo in the break, as well as the return of Orestis’ inventive sax work. I guess what I’m saying is that the thing isn’t horrible, just not great. Okay, so… next track, same as the last… sorta. With the vocals of Astrous sounding more ominous amid the slower groove and the voice of guest Sofia Sarri taking the lead, “Void” actually grows on you before the tune ends. In fact, the song – with its somber, vaguely Middle Eastern vibe – is far better than I had originally anticipated it to be a minute or so in. Yeah… okay, this one is a keeper.

Tunnel” kicks off the second half of the record. While further expanding the definition of the term, the number maintains an old school trash sound, with lightning fast guitar and sax (!) parts. Papagiannakis’ vocals have an odd Axl Rose quality that is not unappealing, while the drumming is powerful and jackhammer-fast; even the slower keyboard/sax break is cool – in a strange kinda Bowie or Foreigner way. I really like the dichotomy of sounds and styles on this one. “Thus Ocean Swells” is more of a straight-on slice of operatic metal with a heavy King Crimson progressive vibe. The clean vocals work exceptionally well in this context, while the harsher vocals seem woefully out of place; instrumentally, however, horns, keys and guitars all swirl around in a magnificent rush of Crimsonesque grandeur. The album closer (and magnum opus), a couplet of “Phronesis” and “Psychomagic” absolutely screams early ‘70s prog-rock excess – which I’m definitely a fan of, by the way – right from the song title(s) and fifteen-minute-plus length. A stick-in-your-brain guitar riff, powerful bass, awesome (not overly busy) drumming and Mel Collins-like sax runs inform the cool three-and-a-half-minute intro, as Nycriz’s drums pick up the pace around the five miute mark. Whereas Astrous’ harsh vocals seemed out of place on “Thus Ocean Swells,” here, his stage-whispered lyrics sound more at home, more demonic and ominous. A fitting way to close out a really solid record. It’s easy to create an album of heavy metal music in 2016, it’s a little harder to mine your own metal vein and develop a sub-genre in your own image; Aenaon has subverted the scene, reinvented the wheel and lain the fruit of their labors at the feet of those of us looking for a little more range within the realm of heavy music.


GRIDFAILURE: FURTHER LAYERS OF SOCIETAL COLLAPSE

(THE COMPOUND RECORDS; 2016)

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I like noise! Noise is good. Particularly the conflagration of noise manifested by David Brenner, recording as the dark ambient project, Gridfailure. Five months after the release of the bone-jarring debut, ENSURING THE BLOODLINE ENDS HERE, Brenner is back with FURTHER LAYERS OF SOCIETAL COLLAPSE, an EP that is full of the best kinds of noise, utilizing field recordings, as well as heavily processed rock and pop instrumentation, lending the entire proceeding the air of a landscape decimated by industrial collapse. In less than thirty minutes, David (who is co-founder of the influential extreme music public relations firm, Earsplit) takes the listener on a trip that is – alternately – serene and pastoral, frightening and apocalyptic. In short, this is a sound pastiche for the thinking man. The seven-tracks, released on October 31 as a free download (name your own price) at Gridfailure’s Bandcamp page, is scheduled for a limited edition cassette release in the near future. In the meantime, feel free to listen below.

Gridfailure (David Brenner) (uncredited manipulated photo)

Gridfailure (David Brenner) (uncredited manipulated photo)

If you’re familiar with paranormal investigative shows like GHOST HUNTERS or GHOST ADVENTURES or the “found footage” of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, you will recognize the underlying vibe of “A Severing of Ties.” The entire thing plays like an EVP (electronic voice phenomena) session conducted deep in a haunted forest, with weird, disembodied voices buried in a sea of white noise. Toward the end of the track, some tribal percussion (courtesy of Full Scale Riot’s BJ Allen) peeks out of the miasma. “Digital Crush” maintains the thematic thread of the first piece, as the drums resurface briefly at the beginning, before more found sounds and other-worldly voices are introduced into the mix; what appears to be a ghostly single-note piano coda intrudes on the whole affair, while crickets, cicadas and other woodland noises filter in and out to great affect. On “Android Infusion,” the EVP detector has been replaced by a transistor radio tuned to a weak-signal free-form Jazz station transmitting from somewhere within a war zone. “Get Fucked Dance” sounds like a residual (looped) haunting at the site of a horrible train wreck, relaying images of doom, destruction, pain and… a Native American wind instrument?

With “Broken Systems,” the skittering and buzzing of insects reacting to the wildly fluctuating radio waves and apocryphal voices seem to announce the opening of the Gates of Hell. The sounds of forest creatures is slowly replaced by a fever dream of industrial cacophony on “Indian Point Direct Proximity Warning Tester.” This calm before the atomic fallout is, quite naturally, played out over the incessant drone of a warning siren. “Woodlands of Self-Impalement,” though the final track, is the pivotal centerpiece of this dystopian soundscape, encompassing nearly one third of the total time. Thunder in the distance heralds the heavy winds and the storm is upon us; the creatures – natural, spiritual, demonic – cease their chirping and moaning and laughing… the dream, the inner turmoil gains momentum as the white noise of despair overtakes all thought, leading to silence and the sweet release of…


ZZ TOP: LIVE GREATEST HITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD

(SURETONE RECORDS; 2016)

album-cover

ZZ Top are like an old friend… you just want to hang out with them and have a good time. After four-and-a-half decades (and counting), they have the distinction of being the longest running rock band with ALL its original members still going strong. That in itself is great, much less that they are still rocking as hard as ever. Their new live album, with songs recorded at tour stops all over the world (thus, the name) sounds great and is as fresh and as fun as the Tops have ever been… even after all this time. “Got Me Under Pressure,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man, “La Grange,” and “Tube Snake Boogie” are all here and, so is guitar legend Jeff Beck, who joins the trio for “Rough Boy” and “Sixteen Tons” (yes… the Tennessee Ernie Ford song). Billy Gibbons and Beck have known each other for quite a long time and the former Yardbird has been a touring companion with the “Little Band From Texas” on more than one occasion.

ZZ Top (Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons) (uncredited photo)

ZZ Top (Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons) (uncredited photo)

Bassist Dusty Hill, the great stickman Frank Beard and Gibbons still rock with an unbridled wit and vigor and some of the coolest licks you’ll ever hear. Personally, I find Billy to be one of the finest axemen around, taking a backseat to no one. Frank Beard (the only member of ZZ Top without a beard!) is just fine, a powerful meat-and-potatoes type of drummer… steady as a rock. They, like any band that has been around as long, will have their ups and downs, but they still manage to record some new stuff on occasion (their last album, LA FUTURA, came out in 2012). Im so glad they are still around – just the three of them – still blasting out their own style of rockin’ Blues and still having a blast doing it. This new LIVE GREATEST HITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD record should serve as ample proof of that. Long live the ultimate party band, that little ol’ band from Texas, ZZ Top!


ANCIENT: BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD

(SOULSELLER RECORDS/ELLEFSON MUSIC PRODUCTIONS; 2016) UPDATE BELOW

Ancient Cover Artwork

Twelve years after the band’s last release (NIGHT VISIT) and seven years after the latest version of the band came together, Ancient is back with what may be their most nuanced music ever. The album is not without problems, but BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD is more than solid enough to keep the group’s diehard fans happy and new listeners – like me – intrigued. The album exists in both digital and CD forms, as well as a two record set, pressed on beautiful gray vinyl (available only from Soulseller Records; EMP has released a marbled blue version); this review follows the latter’s format.

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Thunderous double bass drums explode on the de facto title track, “Land of the Dead,” while the guitars and bass seem to be buried in the muck and mire of a poorly executed mix. The vocals of band founder, Zel (shortened from Aphazel), are of the standard black metal variety: Gutteral, but not in the least bit unpleasant, as some other voices in the genre can be. The guitars begin to distinguish themselves in the second half of the tune, particularly with an odd, short solo that somehow works within the context of the driving hailstorm of noise. “Beyond the Blood Moon” features rudimentary progressive riffing. Once more, the vocals are buried in the mix a bit too much to be REALLY effective; a shame, too, as the lyrics are a cut above: “Chaos, fear, turmoil, despair/Millions dazed, trapped in the snare” and “What lies beyond the blood moon?/Will the end occur too soon?” are just samplings of the song’s bleakness. Plus, bonus points are awarded for fitting “sagacity” and “antediluvian” into the densely constructed wordscape. Okay… with “The Sempiternal Haze,” I’m finally starting to get a bead on Zel’s voice; it falls somewhere between that dude from Venom and King Diamond (though without the latter’s range). The levels seem to be… uh… leveling out, as the gigantic bass and guitar riffs are a bit louder than the drums, without dampening the full-throttle pounding one iota; the vocals seem to be cranked more, as well. A softer, more melodic break – a la Tony Iommi – leads into a nice guitar solo.

The Empyrean Sword” sets a wicked-fast pace from the get-go. The drums sound like helicopter blades decapitating a group of people who forgot to duck; the guitars churn and roil as the bass pounds in rhythm to the breakneck speed of Nicholas Barker’s percussion work. Some very nice guitar flourishes show up, once more, during a couple of slow breaks, the last right before Barker tears into a final, rapid-fire martial beat that would make Thunderstick proud. On “The Ancient Disarray,” another Iommi-esque guitar noodle leads into a downward spiral of chaos. The track features more pronounced guitar and vocals but, in breaking lockstep with Zel’s guitar parts, Dhilorz weaves some fairly interesting bass runs just below and through both the vocals and guitars. The vocals give way to an arcane-sounding incantation which lends a certain sense of authenticity to the whole affair, particularly as it leads to the song’s abrupt end. “Occlude the Gates” finds Zel’s voice taking on an animalistic, demonic air, even as the music assumes a more measured approach. The drum parts seem to be more well thought-out and… musical and powerful, as opposed to speed for the mere want of speed; the guitars hit on a majestic Maiden-like riff progression, sounding quite crisp and on-point. Even though the vocals are harder to decipher here, the song is actually one of the best on BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD.

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

The majority of side three encompasses a three part “suite” called “The Excruciating Journey,” an apt title indeed, as themes of darkness and light, good and evil poke a finger in the eye of world politics. As the vocals continue to be brought to the fore in a more aggressive manner, the lyrics seem to become more garbled. However, with the triumvirate’s first movement, “Defiance and Rage,” the charging guitars and perpetual brutality of the drums continue unabated, making the piece virtually impossible to ignore. “The Prodigal Years” shows a softer side of the band… musically, anyway. Here, the lyrics are delivered in whispers, barely audible, which makes the song even creepier. “The Awakening,” the final piece of the triptych, is a return to the musical themes of “Defiance and Rage.” As the trio turns up the heat, Zel gets right to the heart of the matter: “Rot! Grime! Angst and blight!” The second chorus tears the scab completely off the festering wound, intoning, “Just a neverending disarray, can’t avoid going astray/Like a fly in a flushing toilet/Surely seems the end has come.” The music doesn’t become less urgent or bludgeoning on “Death Will Die,” but there is something violently majestic about the guitars and keyboards that make this one a stand out. In fact, with Zel’s voice turning back to the biting growl of the first several tracks, this could just be the best tune on the record.

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Side four opens with “The Spiral.” Powerful and intriguing, the tune’s circular (dare I say, “Spiraling?”) guitar figure offers up the record’s ultimate classic rock riff, referencing Alice Cooper and Deep Purple,as well as the twin-guitar assault of bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. As cool as “Death Will Die” is, this track comes in a close second, due to its diversity in approach; for six-plus minutes, the band manages to incorporate not only several styles of metal, but straight-forward 1970s hard rock into the album’s matrix, including a slight slowing of the tempo behind a cool dual guitar part. Again, a more pronounced keyboard presence adds to the overall effect. It seems that band mastermind Zel has divided …LAND OF THE DEAD into two quite different parts. The first five or six numbers are playing to the Ancient base – the long-time fans who are here for the dome-crushing blackened riffs and ceaseless drive of the double kicks; the second is, for want of a better term, more experimental, giving the trio a chance to stretch out and display their talents on a wider stage. “Petrified By Their End” is a perfect example: While maintaining the band’s ultra-heavy roots, it tends to lean toward the progressive. There are four distinct sections to the nine-and-a-half minute piece that will hold even the most cynical listener rapt throughout. In point of fact, the Alice reference comes into play again as, at about the six minute mark, there’s a buzzing beehive guitar solo that reminds me of Glen Buxton’s killer (pun intended) work on “Halo of Flies.” The album ends with a bonus track (but, not really a bonus, as it appears on every configuration and version of the record). “13 Candles” is a cover of the Bathory tune that I’m not sure really adds anything to the original, but covers are always fun. Having just discovered Ancient with this album, I have just one request: Please… don’t wait another dozen years to release your next record.

(UPDATE) After further listens to BACK FROM THE LAND OF THE DEAD, I must amend my thoughts regarding the sound quality on the first few tracks of the record. The sound is not as muddied and muffled as I originally opined; seemingly, the problem actually lies with the digitized version I used for this review. So… turn it up and enjoy!


JOHN THAYER: FACE TO FACE

(EON RECORDS; 2016)

4PAN1T

If that name looks vaguely familiar, there’s good reason for it… John’s little brother, Tommy, is Ace Frehley in KISS; not really – the younger Thayer, who spent a couple of decades as the band’s sorta right hand everyman, stepped into the boots and make-up when the original Space Ace left the band for the second (or was it the third?) and final time. But, this review isn’t about Tommy, it’s about his brother, John and his latest EP, called FACE TO FACE. John’s music is as far away from KISS as you’re likely to hear: A slick alterna-pop sound with a high gloss production sheen. Thayer and his current partner-in-crime, Rob Daiker, handle vocals, most instrumentation and production on this third release. The title track kicks things off, with some really nice – dare I say, “pretty?” – vocals and layers of strings, provided by a group called the Magik-Magik Orchestra. “Not Afraid” has a little harder feel; featuring a slightly Gothic tone and a solid guitar solo, the song is fairly impressive. As good as the track is, I’m just not sold on the over-production. I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing this one in a live setting… I’m betting that it absolutely burns on-stage with a full rock band.

John Thayer (uncredited photo)

John Thayer (uncredited photo)

Another strong entry is “Really Doesn’t Matter.” The number has a definite Tom Petty feel to it, delivered in a standard rock ‘n’ roll format with two guitars, bass and drums with the occasional orchestral flourish. “Angel” is what is called, within the industry, “Adult Contemporary.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that; the song really isn’t too bad, falling somewhere between Nsync and the fluffier bits from Goo Goo Dolls. On “Lonely Eyes,” the guitars have a harder edge and the orchestration somehow sounds rather ominous, if not downright vicious. The whole sound of the tune is kind of haunted, with a dark, lonely feel to it. The track threatens from the beginning, finally letting rip with a mean guitar solo. FACE TO FACE isn’t long, clocking in at just under nineteen minutes, and it sounds just a little too slick for my tastes but, the songs themselves and the performances are top notch; if you are a fan of the glossy pop and rock that dominated radio and MTV from the early 1980s into the pre-Grunge ’90s, John Thayer will sit nicely in your collection with those bands and records. You can order FACE TO FACE, as well as John’s previous EPs, LAUREL STREET and TAKE IT BACK from the artist’s website.


THE MONKEES: GOOD TIMES!

(RHINO RECORDS; 2016)

Monkees-Good-Times

If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?

You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!