42 DECIBEL: OVERLOADED

(STEAMHAMMER/SPV; 2017)

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!


ASIA: SYMFONIA – LIVE IN BULGARIA 2013 WITH THE PLOVDIV OPERA ORCHESTRA

(FRONTIERS MUSIC; 2017)

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.


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)

gridfailure

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.