The music of Stratospheerius is a frenzied, brilliant amalgam of the Blues, Progressive Rock, Funk, improvisational Jazz, Classical and orchestral music, along with just about any other genre or sub-genre you can come up with. I’m not sure, but… there may also be a bit of the kitchen sink in there somewhere. Led by virtuoso violinist Joe Deninzon, a man sometimes referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin,” the quartet comes closest in spirit – if not in actual sonic delivery – to the early music (through, say, 1976’s ZOOT ALLURES) of Frank Zappa and his various groups. The resultant sound is a chaotic rush of genuine (and genius) eclecticism. There is certainly more than a little of something for everyone on the band’s fifth release, GUILTY OF INNOCENCE.
JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS (Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Lucianna Padmore, Jamie Bishop) (uncredited photo)
The record kicks off with “Behind the Curtain.” With lyrics like “Welcome to the circus/It’s your biggest nightmare/Wear the scarlet letter/Scrutinized forever” and “Put your mask on/And tuck your shirt in/Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the song acts as a sort of catch-all warning against the behind-the-scenes machinations that fuel the music industry or intolerance or political correctness or… You get the point. With a heavy, pound-yer-face-in riff-a-rama approach, bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lay down an exceptionally tight groove allowing Deninzon and guitarist Aurelien Budynek to go crazy with wicked dueling solos. As an opening salvo or as a stand alone piece of music, this one is a near-perfect shot across the bow of accepted norms. “Take Your Medicine” is a nasty little piece of work about “glass houses” and “casting the first stone.” It’s a bass heavy blast of funkiness with Joe’s violin filling in nicely for a full horn section. Guitar, violin and vocals add a rather hard rock urgency to the proceedings, with another dose of wild soloing, a feature that lends a certain Zappa-esque quality to this record. According to Mister Deninzon, the title track (“Guilty of Innocence,” for those with a short memory span) was “inspired by my 2012 stint in jury duty and deals with crime and punishment. I was presiding on a rape trial and the guy who I thought was guilty got off practically scot-free.” Padmore and Bishop lay down a modest Ska-influenced groove, while spastic violin leads and muscular metal riffs drive the tune. The violins and bass take on an almost operatic quality during the break and, just because I enjoy mentioning musical touch-points to give the reader a better idea of what to expect, the song’s chorus has a very Who-like feel, melodically speaking. Piling on to that musical heritage, let me say that if you’re a fan of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones or the previously mentioned Frank Zappa, you’re gonna love this one. “Face” is a sombre little ditty, sort of a slow burn piece with scathing lyrics about people (lovers, partners, friends, perfect strangers) who are more than willing to openly attack you just for the pure enjoyment: “These scars ain’t healing/It’s too late to make amends/I dodge the bullet/Your tongue flies across the room/Build up the callous/’Til I grow numb to the doom and gloom.” A very Hendrix-ian solo by Deninzon adds a certain psychedelic (or maybe it’s “psychotic”) mania to the number. The introduction to the frantic retelling of the Muse hit “Hysteria” features glass-shattering soprano Melanie Mitrano before a warbling high-register vocal from Joe takes over; the latter fits the surrounding chaos of the tune perfectly. There’s a certain “Flight of the Bumble Bee” quality to the always on-point violin work, highlighted by a massive solo, all backed impeccably by the metal leanings of Stratospheerius.
“Affluenza” is another funky number with “ripped from the headlines” lyrics about people who believe themselves superior to “the little people” and, therefore, above the law because of that superior wealth and high standards of living. The song has a kind of Living Colour rock vibe happening, with lyrical barbs aplenty over sharp jabs of guitar and violin. Guest performer Rave Tesar adds an oddly appealing set of synthesizer “bloops,” giving the whole thing a cool late ‘70s funk sound. A hard(ish) rocking, progressive sort of pop-metal thing with Queen-like aspirations, “Parallel Reality” is choke full of breathy vocals, an absolutely killer rhythm (and a melody line to match) and, of course, the usual high-minded violin/guitar interplay that makes this band and this album essential listening. “Game of Chicken” starts out sounding like it coulda been an OVER-NITE SENSATION outtake, but then turns into sort of a Kansas prog-pop kinda thing. The playing and soloing remain top-notch and raise the piece out of what could have been a severe abyss of doldrums. The wholly (holy?) improvisational “Dream Diary Cadenza” is a muscular, solo violin freakout rife with flashes of Hendrixisms, Van Halenisms, Beckisms, Zappaisms and any other guitar genius ism that you could ever bring to mind. A brilliant workout from a master technician of his chosen craft. “Soul Food” is a nearly thirteen minute extravaganza with a veritable orchestra of guest artists: Melanie Mitrano, Rave Tesar, guitarists Alex Skolnick (!) and Randy McStine, violinist Eddie Venegas, violist (?) Earl Maneein and cellists Patrice Jackson and Leo Grinhaus. The piece is epic in every musical sense of the word and is, truly, a fitting end to a superb album. You owe it to yourself to obtain GUILTY OF INNOCENCE; you can do so by visiting CD Baby, Amazon or any of the other “usual places” and, naturally, at the group’s Bandcamp page.
So… what to make of this Eye of Nix thing? Noise! A lot of noise. Glorious, glorious noise. The kind of noise that makes you thankful for ears. On their second full-length release, BLACK SOMNIA, the more experimental aspects of the band’s curious brand of metal fuel the spooky, Gothic feel created by the lyrics and vocal prowess of Joy Von Spain. You know that you are in for something special from the moment the needle drops and the opening surge of “Wound and Scar” slithers and bores deep into your shattered psyche. Von Spain alternately sings, screams and growls over the roiling mix of droning guitars, a thrumming, distorted bass and some quite violent percussion. While there is no apparent melody here “Wound and Scar” is, nonetheless, a wickedly impressive cacophony and a brilliant opening salvo. “Fear’s Ascent” sees the recently-departed Justin Straw piling on the primal pounding, while Nicholas Martinez supplies layers of abrasive, discordant guitar noise as Masaaki Masao plays the mad alchemist with various samples, keyboard effects and, just for good measure, more guitar. All the while, Joy’s hauntingly beautiful vocals lay, virtually buried beneath the din, before erupting into a frantic, inconsolable wail about halfway through. This all, almost inconceivably, makes for a much more structured sort of violence than that heard on the first cut. Side One’s final track, “A Curse,” is a rather surreal soundscape, with whispered, frenzied vocals, skittering guitar and – a now seemingly obligatory feature – thunderous drums; snaking under and through the track is the sublime bass work of Gerald Hansen, another now-former member of the group. I really like this newly reimagined behemoth from 2013… it sounds almost Siousxie-like when the vocals come in and the chaos intensifies.
Eye of Nix (Nicholas Martinez, Masaaki Masao, Joy Von Spain, Zach Wise, Luke Laplante) (photo credit: SEER PRODUCTIONS)
A gently strummed guitar, an impressive bass part and – believe it or not – almost understated drumming highlight the first two-and-a-half minutes of “Lull,” the Side Two opener. As the nearly operatic voice of Joy Von Spain is introduced into the mix, the strumming turns into majestic power chords while Hansen and Straw attack their chosen instruments with a sudden sense of urgency. “Lull” is the most melodic, straight-on rocker on BLACK SOMNIA so far. What can I say about “Toll On?” It features more of the same overpowering intensity and emotionally draining experimental metal/operatic vocals that have informed the first four numbers, while instrumentally, the song remains crushingly heavy. The softer middle section of the tune is beautifully suffocating, rather like a watery grave; as the music regains steam, the voice takes on an almost punk or No Wave aspect. “A Hideous Visage,” as the name implies, plays as a soundtrack to a fever dream, rising and falling to create an inescapable blackened nightmare landscape. Like the music, there are also a disquieting ebb and flow in Von Spain’s voice, from soft and pretty to harsh and haunted. The eight-and-a-half minute horror-inducing piece is certainly a fitting way to end what is a very solid third offering from Eye of Nix. One can only imagine the heights this band can reach with the recent infusion of new blood, as Zach Wise and Luke Laplante take on the formidable challenge of replacing the rhythm section of Hansen and Straw. I, for one, can’t wait!
(BARKING PUMPKIN RECORDS/ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST/DTS ENTERTAINMENT; Audio DVD, 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS
To say that Frank Zappa was ahead of the musical curve – WAY ahead of the curve! – is, quite possibly, the understatement of this very young millennium. Recently, FZ’s eldest male offspring (the one titled “Dweezil”) discovered an old tape box, dated March 1, 1970, bearing his name (that would be “Dweezil.” We just went through this – in an earlier parenthetical aside – at the beginning of this impossibly rambling and circumlocutious sentence). The box contained a very early, unimaginably expansive recording of what would eventually become “Chunga’s Revenge,” recorded in an unto then unheard of separation/mix called “quadraphonic”; this recording, in fact, preceded the whole quadraphonic rage (“rage” may not be the best way to describe it, though… the process never really caught on with anyone other than audio geeks of the highest form) by several years and today’s hip new sound, Digital 5.1 Surround Sound by nearly three-and-a-half decades! That recording (in the guise of “Chunga Basement”) is now released in all of its four-channel glory, alongside nine other such experiments recorded by FZ and his various groups (Zappa, the Mothers, and… Dweezil, the proposed name of the new group with which Frank recorded this version of “Chunga… “). Dweezil (the son, not the band), after inquiring as to the existence of other like-minded recordings, has sequenced the ten tracks culled from the vaults of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not chronologically, but with an eye (an ear?) toward maximum listenability. So, how’d the kid do? Let’s examine, shall we?
Frank and Dweezil Zappa (uncredited photo)
QUAUDIOPHILIAC begins with two of Zappa’s orchestral pieces, the first (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) comes from the much-contested LATHER (an historic four-album set that was whittled up and edited into five separate albums – STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, the two-record set LIVE IN NEW YORK, and ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, the latter being the place that this tune eventually saw release); the second is a re-worked, unreleased “Lumpy Gravy” from the same session that spawned the former. The two tracks combined clock in at a robust 2:39. The third track comes from the same source, but features – for the first time here – a signature FZ guitar solo. The previously unreleased “Rollo” is everything that made you fall in love with Zappa’s music (except without the pee-pee and fart jokes): Intriguing time-changes, adventurous arrangements, squiggly guitar leads. This, friends and neighbors, is truly the stuff of which FZ’s legend was made!
Aynsley Dunbar, Frank Zappa (uncredited photo)
A previously unheard version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” retitled “Drooling Midrange Accountants On Easter Hay” by Dweezil, is next. The new name comes from an FZ quote in which he discusses the record business in – as you can tell – his usual glowing terms; this spot-on diatribe is now edited over an alternate arrangement of the tune. The next two songs – SHEIK YERBOUTI’s “Wild Love” and SHUT UP ‘N’ PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE’s “Ship Ahoy” – feature several musicians who cut their teeth in Zappa’s late ’70s bands: bassists Roy Estrada and Patrick O’Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, vocalist Napolean Murphey Brock, and uber-percussionist Terry Bozzio. Though the songs are familiar, the four-channel mixes bring out the hidden intricacies inherent in all of FZ’s music. The much bally-hooed (just how much? Well, check out the first paragraph of this here critically-motivated piece) “Dweezil” tape rears its magnificent head next. Apparently, Dweezil would have been a kind of Mothers super-group in a standard four-piece rock setting: FZ on guitar (and, presumably, vocals), Ian Underwood on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. As far as I know, Zappa’s reasons for retiring Dweezil after this single recording session has never been revealed. Obviously, Frank decided to reconvene the Mothers in a newer, harder-edged version and to maintain his steadily growing solo career, as well. “Chunga’s Basement,” now, is merely a glimpse of what could have been.
Frank Zappa (photo credit: FRANK LEONHARDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS IMAGES)
The next two tracks are the oldest of these recordings, aside form the Dweezil tape. An unreleased live recording from 1974, “Venusian Time Bandits,” features three more impressive Mothers: George Duke, Chester Thompson, and Tom Fowler. While FZ usually went large – as on the WAKA/JAWAKA title track which follows – it is in the stripped down arrangements for four-piece combos that his own virtuosity is featured in its best light; there is no doubt as to the genius he displayed as a composer, a conductor, an arranger, a band leader. The thing that these smaller groups shows is that Zappa was an unselfish (though demanding) player. He was more thanwilling to stand aside and allow his bandmates to shine, but was able to play rings around just about anybody you could name when he chose. “Waka/Jawaka” is a prime example of FZ standing aside, allowing his compositional and arranging skills to dictate how the other musicians move the music along. “Basement Music #2,” a piece culled from the soundtrack to the BABY SNAKES movie, finishes the set off in fine fashion. Chil’uns, if the newly discovered mixes don’t sell you on this one, then the unreleased stuff is surely enough to convince each of you to become a QUAUDIOPHILIAC! Dude, this just reminds me how much I miss FZ… hopefully there’s more to come.
SOUTHERN BLOOD is a fitting last release for the star-crossed survivor, Gregg Allman. Allman was quite ill and he knew that this would be his last record, a final goodbye to his fans, a love letter to family and friends. As his son, Devon, writes in the liner notes. “What you hold in your hands is our father’s last statement. He wanted to leave you a most poignant, soulful and deep parting gift as he left us all.” The album is filled with great tunes – most of them covers – done in that inimitable Allman style, with that whiskey voice and Southern growl, maybe a little weaker due to his failing health but unmistakable, nonetheless. That style made him a true rock legend, alongside his brother, Duane, and their prototype for Southern Rock and Blues, the Allman Brothers Band. His band – Steve Potts and Marc Quinones on drums and percussion, Ronald Johnson on bass, Peter Levin on keyboards, a horn section of Jay Collins, Marc Franklin and Art Edmaiston and musical director Scott Sharrard on guitar – offer just the right tone and backing for such an important project.
GREGG ALLMAN (photo credit: PATRICIA O’DRISCOLL)
The covers range from Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” and Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” to Bob Dylan’s, “Going Going Gone” and Lowell George’s “Willin’,” songs that leave the listener with a bitter-sweet feeling, as they all – in one way or another – deal with endings and loss and loneliness. One of the most powerful songs on SOUTHERN BLOOD is the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” as Gregg sings “I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And dream me a dream of my own.” What an emotional, draining song, with a mournful pedal steel part provided by Greg Leisz. Jackson Browne guests on his own “Song For Adam,” possibly the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful lament as, according to producer Don Was, “Gregg always loved this song because it reminded him of his brother, Duane. When he gets to the line ‘Still it seems that he stopped singing in the middle of his song,’ you can here him choke up and falter.” Was says that they never got to finish the song’s last two lines and feels that it was a “poetic way for him to make his exit.” Definitely a fitting end to a storied career and a final album.
GREGG ALLMAN (photo credit: MATT BUTLER)
Like David Bowie before him, Gregg Allman knew this would be his final statement and he put everything – his heart, his soul – into it. It will stand as a great, lasting testament to Gregg and his phenomenal legacy. His life and his legacy can best be summed up in the record’s opening cut, an original called “My Only True Friend.” If these lyrics don’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will: “Keep me in your heart/Keep your soul on the mend,” “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul/When I’m gone,” “I can’t bear to think this might be the end” and “Still on and on I run/It feels like home is just around the bend/I got so much left to give/But I’m running out of time, my friend.” Rest well, friend. Enjoy that reunion with Duane and Barry.
Once again, my life has intersected with the occult band Ancient VVisdom, led by lyricist, vocalist and Satanist, Nathan “Opposition” Jochum. The group has released three previous albums (including my introduction to the group, 2014’s SACRIFICIAL), as well as a notorious single-sided split with Charles Manson. Yes… THAT Charles Manson. The guy who is rumored to have written a tune or three with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. So, with a name like that and lyrics like that and a pedigree like that, their new record, 33, should be heavy enough to have its own gravitational pull. And, it is that heavy… except in the delivery. Antithetical to SACRIFICIAL, this is an album of mid-tempo, near-folk Gothic rock with acoustic guitars aplenty, minimal percussion and an almost soothing vocal performance. Sure, there are plenty of recognizable metal tropes on 33, with enough reference points to keep any headbanging historian ooh-ing and aah-ing but, the heaviness doesn’t come from any crushing musical fury; rather, the true heaviness comes from Jochum’s belief in what he’s singing. Whether you are – like Nathan himself – a true believer in the power of Lucifer or – like yours truly – a follower of Christ, you can feel the man’s fervor and… well, love for the subject matter. And, wherever you fall within that wide spectrum of beliefs, that emotional connection between Jochum and his own belief system makes for a very heavy – and very real – listening experience.
The genesis of the album is a fairly simple one. As Nathan explains, “33 is a master number. It is also the age Christ was crucified. 33 is the age of the peak of existence. It is the age I am. 33 is the answer.” With that concept in mind, Jochum – along with his brother, guitarist Michael (the Dark Angel) and new bass player, Connor Metsker – created his ultimate peaen to the Dark Lord, the first new music from Ancient Vvisdom in three years. Admittedly, it may sound a little strange to hear love songs to Satan but, again, with Nathan’s fervent beliefs laid bare, the lyrics aren’t as disagreeable as you might think. The album opener, “Ascending Eternally,” is a minor key piano piece which serves as a short, atmospheric intro to “Light of Lucifer,” a kind of space hippie, semi-acoustic dirge that – more than anything else – recalls very early Pink Floyd. With nearly whispered vocals, a wicked, droney vibe and the underlying philosophy of “less is more,” the track definitely gets the record off to a great start. “In the Name of Satan” has a Sabbath-like riff that’s dense enough to caulk Tony Iommi’s entire house. And, yet… even with that heavy riffage on display, as well as some rather hefty percussion (Nathan, again proving that less is indeed more, offers nothing more than a lead foot – or, perhaps, a Led foot? – to the pedal of a kick drum to produce the perfect percussive part for the song) and some Maidenesque twin guitar leads over the top, the number seems to be a near-balladic love song. Hearkening back to the last album, Jochum’s vocals are a nasally cross between Klaus Meine and Ozzy Osbourne. With the band seemingly working its way through every conceivable metal touchstone, “True Will” is Metallica’s “One,” with all of that band’s angst removed… just to prove it can be done! It features more of Nathan’s fine acoustic work floating through some great lead work from Michael. If possible, the vocals are even more understated than on “Light of Lucifer,” making the track that much more powerful. “The Infernal One” is very groove-oriented and much more of a ‘90s alt-rock sort of thing – it comes off as an oddly appealing cross between Soundgarden and Manowar, with kind of a ‘70s arena rock guitar solo thrown in for good measure. It’s actually not a bad song at all, though it seems a bit short at less than three minutes.
Ancient VVisdom (Connor Metsker, Nathan Jochum, Michael Jochum) (publicity photo)
The bass-heavy slab of Sabbath-cum-Metallica-cum-Gothic instrumental moodiness, “Summoning Eternal Light,” gives Connor Metsker a chance to shine (no pun intended). Like similar tracks from Geezer and Cliff, it works well as a stand alone piece or as an intro to the next number. Here, that number is “Rise Fallen Angel,” which features still more Sabbath crunch with Dio-like lyrics of mysticism and spiritualism, while visions of the mighty Priest (along with Cirith Ungol, Diamond Head and Night Demon) dance in your head. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is close. “33” is the one where the group (and, in particular, Nathan Jochum’s vocal performance) revisits that weird Blue Oyster Cult/Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser world of heavy ballads. The only thing missing is an actual drummer; far be it from me to question such decisions but, that one missing factor could have possibly pushed the entire album over the top. As is, though, the return to the heavily BOC-influenced SACRIFICIAL sound may also make “33,” lyrically, the most powerful song on the record. Having stumbled upon the BOC comparison, I am now hearing more evidence that the Jochum boys owe more than a fleeting nod to that august court. On “The Great Beast,” the vocals have settled into a nice pop-rock niche, while the music adds a wickedly cool swamp vibe to the proceedings. This track is definitely in the running for my favorite on the album. “Lux” starts off with a languid, melancholic slice of Americana before the song proper kicks in, a languid, melancholic slice of Americana, with self-affirming lyrics and a chorus that pleads – or warns – “Don’t give yourself away.” I gotta say that the further I head into 33, the better it sounds. A short, chilling piano piece called “Dispelling Darkness” closes the album. Echo-drenched and sustain-heavy, the thing may be the single most disturbing piece of music I’ve heard this year. I wonder how it would have sounded if it had been fleshed out into a full band arrangement with suitably maudlin lyrics. Ah, well… one can dream, can’t one? 33 may not be Nathan Jochum and Ancient Vvisdom’s magnum opus, but… it is one fine record.
There are a mere handful of people that are readily recognizable by just one name: Cher, Liberace, Siegfried-and-Roy (Which I believe was actually the name of a white tiger that had a very successful show in Vegas until some German sap stuck his head in its mouth and it bit down… hard), Madonna and, apparently, Ringo… some dude that, aside from having one syllable more in his name than Cher (who’s primary claim to fame was from a line in a song by the Tubes: “Oh, God! More beautiful than Cher!”), but one less than Madonna and falling far short syllable-wise to the other two, is the father of a fairly successful rock drummer. Okay… I guess I have to come clean and tell you… I have absolutely no idea who this guy with the large proboscis actually is! Well, other than the drummer for, arguably, the greatest band to ever trod this earth. And, oh, yeah… he can sing a little and he’s not a half bad actor. Other than that, a real nobody! Aaand… I think I’ve got all of the stupid jokes out of my system for this review, so…
RINGO STARR (photo credit: GARY MILLER)
GIVE MORE LOVE kicks off with “We’re On the Road Again,” which features a spendly, snake-charming lead guitar from Steve Lukather (yes, THAT Steve Lukather) and bass from that other guy that Ringo played with back in the 1960s. Ringo is his usual rock solid drummer-type, nothing flash but spot on, nonetheless. His vocals are nice on this song, utilizing a standard rock and roll lyrical tool: We’re on the road and we’re coming to your town. “Laughable” is a pretty solid rocker with another nice guitar part, this time from Peter Frampton. Benmont Tench turns out to be the song’s MVP with some quite effective keyboard coloring, while the bass player (either Sir Paulie or background vocalist Timothy B Schmitt) also delivers a stand out performance. One of the more memorable songs from the album (and, just maybe, from Mister Starkey’s recorded output for the past twenty years or so). “Show Me the Way” is Ringo’s love song to either McCartney, his legions of fans or, – more likely – wife Barbara Bach. The “growing old together” theme is one that only a human who has lived through as many years as this artist can pull off with any kind of conviction. It’s a modest little mid-tempo rocker that definitely hits the mark, proving once again, why we love this guy so much. Lukather again gives us a rockin’ little guitar part; Jim Cox’s organ borders on the exquisite. (That last part didn’t come out quite right, but… it is what it is.) “Speed of Sound” is not the Wings tune, but a rather out-of-character “gotta get away” sentiment from Ringo. There’s quite a nice melody line from Ringo, a gentleman who always seems to deliver the perfect vocal for someone with his limited vocal prowess. Lukather and Frampton shine on guitar and co-writer Richard Marx (who, coincidentally, is NOT dead) offers some nice acoustic backing. “Standing Still” is Ringo revisiting the Country sound of his 1970 album, BEAUCOUPS OF BLUES. The vocals are far more forceful here than on any of the more rocking tunes on this record. A name from the very distant pass – Gary Burr – gets a co-writing credit and adds a bit of acoustic guitar to the proceedings, while Steve Dudas plays the electric and Greg Leisz takes the lead on the dobro, all of which adds up to a most impressive tune!
RINGO STARR (publicity photo)
After a pause to flip the record (there’s just something so exciting and special about turning over a slab of vinyl to get to the rest of the recording, isn’t there?), we’re on to side two. “King of the Kingdom” is co-written by yet another music legend, Van Dyke Parks. The tune features a cool wa-wa guitar lead from Dave Stewart and some tasty sax work from Edgar Winter. The newfound Starkey swagger returns, at least lyrically, though it’s tempered by the punchline, “But, she’s the King of the Kingdom.” The brilliant Nathan East continues his stellar bass playing, introducing a little bit of a Reggae feel to the number. You just knew that Joe Walsh was gonna show up somewhere on this record, didn’t you? Well, “Electricity” is that spot. The Starr of our show is definitely having fun with this one, both vocally and percussively. Tench is back with Don Was pitching in on bass and co-writer Glen Ballard offering up some Fender Rhodes. Another Country number, “So Wrong For So Long,” proves that a bit of tongue-in-cheek goes along way. Stewart, Cox, East and Burr return in various capacities, as does Leisz, this time on the pedal steel. Honestly, as much as I like the rock stuff here, I certainly wouldn’t mind another full-blown Country record from this old fart. “Shake It Up” is Ringo playing Carl Perkins (as he did on “Matchbox” way back when), Edgar supplies some finest-kind rolling boogie-woogie piano. Toss in a spot-on Rockabilly solo from guitarist Dudas, and this one may just be my favorite track on the whole record. The album’s title track and closing number, “Give More Love,” is another echo from the past, with a late ‘50s/early ‘60s atmospheric teen idol kind of tune, the type of song that made Ricky Nelson my sister’s favorite singer. Dudas’ bassy guitar sound is perfect for the song, with the Bissonette brothers (Matt on bass, Greg on percussion) adapting their heavier sound to the proceedings with great success. Ringo in the role of Ringo is, per usual, very Ringo-like and that ain’t a bad thing. This is certainly a nice way to end a record from a guy who’s main claims to fame is as the father of famed drummer Zak Starkey and as the lead in the snubbed-by-the-Academy feature film, CAVEMAN.
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.
Discovering new music and artists that you truly enjoy listening to is one of the percs of this business. It makes you wanna hear more, delve into the back catalog; above all, you find yourself anticipating where the artist will take you with the NEXT release. However, in a world where many a band are increasingly more of the one-and-done variety, perhaps toiling away in virtual obscurity, playing random small clubs and house shows in their own backyards, it is becoming harder and harder for artists to deliver that next single, EP or album. 42 Decibels is one of those bands I came to late, picking up on their sophomore release, ROLLING IN TOWN a couple of years back. To say that I was heartened to discover record number three in my in-box would be a gross understatement. The question is, though, does it live up to my preordained hype? I say yes but, I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.
42 DECIBEL (Nicko Cambiasso, Billy Bob Riley, Junior Figueroa, Matt Fraga) (publicity photo)
Believe it or not, OVERLOADED does have an overarching theme, though not a particularly high-minded one. The title is derived from the band purposely pushing their equipment to its absolute limits, intentionally burying the VU meter in the red causing varying degrees of distortion. They get right to their task with “Whiskey Joint,” a Ramones/Misfits punky kinda vibe. With the ghost of Bon Scott howling over an infectious groove and Glen Buxton’s poltergeist offering up a “spirited” solo, it’s possible that these guys just might have a future in the rock ‘n’ roll game. “Dangerous Mess” is a swampy AC/DC sort of thing that helps add to the Bon Scott comparison. Just to make sure everyone is well aware of 42 Decibel’s influences are, there’s a sloppy Angus-like solo to liven up the final 45 seconds. On “Brawler,” the insistence of Nicko Cambiasso’s drums pounding out a rather primal beat, I am put in mind of a Gary Glitter tune; while it may not be as anthemic as a Glitter song, it is a lot of fun. “Roadkiller” is another on of those chuga-chuga AC/DC foot stomper with a monster riff. However, vocalist Junior Figueroa has traded in his good-time Bon Scott sound for the more menacing style of the incomparable Alex Harvey. The cut features yet another solidly rockin’ solo from redoubtable Billy Bob Riley. There’s a slightly heavier vibe (if that is even possible!) on “Hot Shot.” Think Steppenwolf or, maybe Deep Purple, but without the keyboards. Matt Fraga offers a massive, fuzz-infused bass sound that could very easily substitute for the heavy organ sound of either Jon Lord or Goldy McJohn, while Billy Bob’s lead work and slide solo are wicked cool.
The punk groove, seemingly left for dead after “Whiskey Joint,” is back on “Half Face Dead,” hanging out behind some seriously heavy riffage. I’m not exactly sure what “Half Face Dead” means, but it sounds kinda evil, in a villainous Harvey Dent kinda way. “Lost Case” has a brighter, springier (dare I say, “spritely?”) bounce with some more nice slide work and the return of Junior’s Harvey-esque (as in Alex, not Dent) growl. In a pared down version of THE THREE FACES OF EVE, Riley’s slide and rhythm guitars fight it out like a couple of drunk boxers for a really cool sounding “duet.” “Cause Damage” is a stompin’ Blues thing, a la Foghat’s take on Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” or, I guess, just about any early Foghat song. The dirty slide (man, I do love that slide guitar sound!) and pumping bass line propel the song along its slowly grinding path and helps make the track one of my favorite offerings from OVERLOADED. Another slow Blues, “Double Itch Blues,” reintroduces the AC/DC similarities – and comparisons – with loose guitar runs and Figueroa’s nearly unconscious delivery. A gutteral bass and some rather heavy-handed, if a bit lugubrious, drumming add to the slinky, slippery feel of the tune. With 42 Decibel, I’ve read comparisons elsewhere to Nazareth and, on “Cannon Fodder,” I finally hear it; the guitar work could actually be mistaken as a guest appearance by that legendary band’s highly under-rated Manny Charlton. The group picks up the tempo after a couple of slow Blues pieces, with things speeding up even more, leading to a beautifully messy terminus. I’ve gotta give a huge “Thank you” to the band’s record label (yes, those beasts do still exist), Steamhammer, for sticking with 42 Decibel throughout their – I guess you could call it their “gestation period.” So many artists find their creativity stifled by corporate heads demanding a string of hit singles right from the get-go but, Steamhammer (and their parent company, SPV) has allowed this group (and several others) to grow and evolve, much like the two bands that 42 Decibel are most often compared to. AC/DC and Nazareth – arguably – didn’t find their voices until their third albums (DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP and RAZAMANAZ, respectively); I think with OVERLOADED, 42 Decibel’s third record, they have, indeed, found their voice and their groove. I cannot wait to hear number four!
Ain’t gonna lie… Asia’s self-titled debut album was one of my favorite – if not my absolute favorite – and most listened-to releases of 1982. Why? This type of supergroup progressive pomposity was well out of favor by the time of its release. Well, first and, perhaps, foremost was the fact that I would buy anything… make that ANYTHING that featured John Wetton on bass and vocals; the former Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, UK and Wishbone Ash player was and remains one of my all-time favorite singers and bass players. Mister Wetton did not disappoint with this record! Next, Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake and Powell… er… Emerson, Lake and Palmer) was much more than a drummer… he was a percussionist who could pound out a beat like John Bonham or lay down a swinging Jazz groove, a la Bill Ward or any number of his early influences like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, plus… BRAIN SALAD SURGERY and “Karn Evil 9.” Need I say more? The final pieces to the puzzle were 40 percent of the band that recorded my favorite Yes album, 1980’s DRAMA: Steve Howe, an innovative and virtuoso level guitarist and Geoff Downes, keyboard genius and former Buggle. I was in Prog Nerd Heaven even though I had been listening to tons of Punk Rock back then, including the Damned, XTC and the Jam (though those bands had taken their music down a more inventive, progressive path by that time). So, anyway… I was hooked from that very first power chord to “Heat of the Moment.” These guys were the real deal and I was more than ready to snatch up their next offering, ALPHA, released the following year. Yeah… it suffered from what many call “the (dreaded) sophomore slump” and the discouraging reception to the album led to the exit (temporary, though it was) of Wetton. John was back in time to record the next set, ASTRA, though Steve Howe had headed out the back door as the bassist was reentering through the front; Wetton’s return and Howe’s replacement, Mandy Meyer, couldn’t salvage the sinking ship and Asia became a distant memory as everyone moved on to other projects. The original four (Downes, Howe, Palmer, Wetton) reformed in 2006, releasing three albums of new material before Howe left once again in early 2013 (citing the wear and tear of juggling touring and recording schedules with both Asia and Yes). Which brings us to this album, featuring current guitarist Sam Coulson on what was his first tour with the band; released, unfortunately, six weeks after John Wetton lost his years-long fight with cancer, the quartet is in fine form – even if the set list is a bit spotty, which may have to do with the involvement of the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra during the second half more than anything else.
ASIA (Carl Palmer, John Wetton, Geoff Downes) (publicity still)
The album is broken up into two distinct parts: Asia performing as a standard four-piece rock band (Disc 1 of the 2 CD set) and accompanied by the orchestra on a somewhat more sedate set (Disc 2). The first set gets off to a rousing start with “Sole Survivor,” a track from the debut album. The core members of the group – Wetton, Palmer and Downes – are in fine fettle here. John’s voice is strong; Geoff’s keyboard work enters into (Jon) Lordian realms, heavy and intense; Carl’s drumming borders on hyperactive, with thunderous fills and a slightly quicker tempo than I remember from the original. Sam Coulson’s guitar parts offer a bit more heft than did Howe’s original which, alongside Palmer’s jackhammer delivery, gives a certain urgency to this updated arrangement. “Time Again” is a propulsive proto-metal behemoth, somehow reminiscent of Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The guitar is more in line with the original and the backing vocals are on point, as well. It’s another great version of one of the prime cuts from the first record. Truth be told, when I first heard the lead track to 2012’s XXX album, “Face On the Bridge,” I did not like it. At all! It sounded like a sappy, sentimental “time has passed me by” ballad from a band whose time had, indeed, come and gone. Brother, was I wrong! How could I have missed on this one so badly? Here, the song bristles with a vigor that belies that inevitable passing of time. Compared to the original, though the song was barely a year old (release wise), in this setting, Wetton’s voice sounds even stronger, Downes delivers some inspired live flourishes and Coulson’s guitar adds a little somethin’-somethin’ that even the legendary Steve Howe couldn’t bring to the original. “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want),” from the group’s second record, is very much a product of its time. ALPHA saw the band move further into the realm of schmaltzy MTV/Journey balladry, leading to divisions within and an eventual split. This particular song isn’t really too bad, just not what Asia’s fans were expecting after that monster debut; now, thirty years later, the tune seems to take on a new relevance, especially with Wetton fighting various major illnesses. I’m sure the other three men on stage felt the emotional power that their singer put behind these lyrics during this tour.
ASIA (Carl Palmer) (publicity still)
“Holy War,” a song from the OMEGA record, is a heavy prog ballad propelled forward, primarily, by Carl Palmer’s ferocious percussion and Geoff Downes’ keyboard artistry. Wetton seems to be loosening up by this point as his vocals become a bit more aggressive with a raspy sort of growl that fits perfectly within the context of the tune. An overblown symphonic intro from Geoff leads into the overblown progressive balladry of “An Extraordinary Life.” The lyrics are this number’s saving grace. John delivers his words with conviction, though – in the hands of lesser singers – such fare could well have been expressed in an overly dramatic, overwrought fashion. Finally… going all the way back to THEN AND NOW, the 1990 compilation of new and old, comes a power ballad that actually works! “Days Like These” is a great example of how well the Palmer/Wetton rhythm section complimented each other. This version also features a simple organ part from Downes and a spot on solo from Sam Coulson. It’s very nice to hear this one in a live setting. With “Open Your Eyes,” a weird vocoder intro turns into a very nice mid-tempo rocker featuring Wetton’s newly-positive and uplifting lyrics. Carl is particularly… uh… restrained here, showing us that, yes, he can be a true team player. There are more vocoder shenanigans during the middle break, which is a very operatic, chorusy thing that simmers just below John’s improvised vocals. Sam’s guitar fits quite comfortably within the confines of the song, shining especially bright on some very tasty solos and, his interplay with Downes’ organ to end the number is just awesome.
ASIA (Sam Coulson) (publicity still)
As the album’s name implies, Asia is joined for the second set by the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra. The first song with the orchestra, “Only Time Will Tell,” one of the many favorites from the group’s stunning debut, still sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did the first time I heard it, with Sam Coulson echoing that amazing Steve Howe riff, while adding a bit of his own flair to the tune. At this point, I’m not certain how the addition of the orchestra is going to work, as everything in this arrangement sounds exactly like Downes’ original keyboard embellishments. Even with the inevitable intermission between the band set and the introduction of the orchestra factored in, it seems strange to bookend the progressive power of “Only Time Will Tell” with a pair of the group’s more sedate numbers, “Open Your Eyes” and ALPHA’s “Don’t Cry.” With a slightly quicker tempo and Downes pretty much sticking to piano on the latter, the orchestra definitely adds to the overall sound of the piece. I’ve already praised John Wetton’s vocal performance but, really haven’t mentioned his bass work; as always, it is superb (in my estimation, Wetton was one of the best ever) and especially so on this song. Palmer again proves to be a master craftsman, playing deep in the pocket and offering a tasteful fill only when required. Next up is “Heroine.” Uh… okay… not a fan of this one. At all. Wetton’s voice is okay, Downes’ piano and the orchestra sound fine but, “Heroine” is just… BAD! It’s a sappy ballad that simply cannot escape its own sappiness.
ASIA (John Wetton) (publicity still)
I’m not too sure what this says about Asia’s recorded output but, with five songs from their stellar debut and another four from the artistically disappointing follow-up, ALPHA, it certainly seems that, as of 2013, the group was content to bask in the glory of those two records. “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” the fourth tune from that sophomore release, starts slow and features the epic build inherent in all early ‘80s power ballads, though with a bit of an edge due to Carl driving the band and orchestra with an accelerated tempo that is not unappealing for an all but forgotten thirty year old single from a mostly forgettable album. The final two numbers come from the formidable ASIA album. “Wildest Dreams” somehow seems more relevant today than it did 35 years ago. I’m not even sure how they even managed to pull this off (unless the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra also brought along a hefty chorus) but, the massive background vocals sound… if not over the top, at least completely out of place. Regardless, this is the quartet hitting on all cylinders, with an aggressive arrangement that highlights a cool duel between Sam and Geoff. The first song on the first side of that first record, “Heat of the Moment” may sound somewhat dated lyrically (featuring one of the most well-known couplets in Prog Rock history, “And now you find yourself in ‘82/The disco hotspots hold no charm for you”), but the power of the music and the conviction in Wetton’s voice still make it a crowd-pleasing sing-along… even in Bulgaria. The sheer firepower that the combined talents of John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer and then-newcomer Sam Coulson bring to bear on this version delivers a fantastic finish to a rather uneven show that may very well have suffered due to the limitations of playing with an orchestra.
I fully understand that this is a very different band than the one that recorded that 1982 debut offering… they are far more thoughtful and introspective, particularly after the health scares faced by their frontman throughout the latter part of their history and, well… let’s face it, apart from Coulson, they aren’t exactly young men. Even when considering the phenomenal accomplishments of Palmer, Wetton and Downes before and after ASIA, it must have been a hard pill to swallow realizing that the group was at their creative peak on their first album; it couldn’t have been easy trying to equal or outshine a record that could quite easily be released under the title ASIA’S GREATEST HITS with no additional material needed to bolster the original nine-track sequencing. However, having said that, shortcomings aside, this album does work as a fitting memorial to John Wetton, one of the true legends of Progressive Rock. I should point out here that I was privy only to the music tracks that make up just a part of the SYMFONIA package, which also contains a DVD (or Blu-Ray) of the concert; there is also a double vinyl set available, without the additional video media.
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’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 underpinningthat 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)
“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.
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.