(REPERTOIRE RECORDS/COLUMBIA RECORDS; reissue 2016, original release 1966)
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 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)
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 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.
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)
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)
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)
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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)
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). I‘m so glad they are still around – just the three of them – still blasting out their own style ofrockin’ 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, ZZTop!
(SOULSELLER RECORDS/ELLEFSON MUSIC PRODUCTIONS; 2016) UPDATE BELOW
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)
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)
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)
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!
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)
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.
If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?
You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.
The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)
I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!
(MAILBOAT RECORDS/PASCO MELVIN MUSIC; reissue 2016, original release 2015)
During the recording sessions for Aerosmith’s NIGHT IN THE RUTS, the excesses fostered by the 1970s Rock and Roll lifestyle (primarily perpetuated by vocalist Steven Tyler) had taken their toll: Joe Perry exited before the album was completed, with his stage-right counterpart, Brad Whitford, following him out the door after nearly two years of inactivity and in-fighting. Derek Saint Holmes had been “let go” from Ted Nugent’s band at least twice between 1975 and 1978 because… well, because he wasn’t Ted Nugent; while the ‘Smith fell apart in 1979, Derek formed Saint Paradise, releasing an excellent record before hooking up with the newly bandless Whitford for 1981’s WHITFORD/SAINT HOLMES album. With another album recorded and ready for release, the project was (seemingly) shelved permanently when Brad returned to a presumably clean and sober Aerosmith and Saint Holmes went back for another round of abuse from Uncle Ted. Now, three-and-a-half decades late, the pair have come together again to clean up a little unfinished business. That unfinished business has manifested in the form of REUNION.
REUNION is exactly that, with the two living in the same town just outside of Nashville, Derek and Brad got together and started writing at least an album’s worth of new songs. And what a fine record it is, drawing on a combined 80-plus years of rockin’ experience. “Shapes” kicks things off nicely, offering all of the best parts of the namesake’s previous bands – Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and Saint Paradise – with none of the excesses (the drugs, the loincloths, the over-the-top frontman). The guys still sound great together and Saint Holmes hasn’t lost the vocal prowess that made so many of those early Nugent records (and, indeed, the sole Saint Paradise release) so memorable. Surrounding themselves with a group of like-minded players (bassist Chopper Anderson, drummer Troy Luccketta and keyboardist Buck Johnson) is also a plus, with Luccketta’s presence, in particular, paying immediate dividends, as the drums crack and pop, adding just the right amount of heavy bounce. A bluesy little slice of Americana, “Tender Is the Night” finds Saint Holmes doing his best Bob Seger. The guitars jangle and shine, while Johnson’s keyboards and Anderson’s bass take the tune to completely unexpected heights. This song could easily be a hit on Classic Rock or Country (yeah, I said it!) radio, making it an early favorite. On “Rock All Day,” a dirty “Hooligan’s Holiday” guitar riff leads into an ‘80s hair metal groove featuring a wicked slide part. For some reason, Derek’s vocals remind me of Steve Walsh’s Kansas heyday. With Motley Crue and Kansas musical references tossed into the mix, this one is some really good stuff!
“Hot For You” is a slice of Stones-style Rhythm and Blues that hits on Brad’s Aerosmith ancestry more than anything else so far on this album. More of that magnificent slide guitar, a boogie-woogie piano from Johnson, a memorable hook and some funky horns all add up to another great tune. A power ballad, “Hell Is On Fire” brings to mind certain MTV juggernauts like Snookie and… just kidding! Those juggernauts would be late ‘80s/early ‘90s Aerosmith and Uncle Ted’s super-group, Damn Yankees, with this song’s lyrics coming closer in feel to that band’s Tommy Shaw. Derek also recalls the melody to one of Saint Paradise’s better tunes, “Jesse James.” On “Catch My Fall,” pounding drums and chiming guitars lead into a track that reminds me of Pat Benatar for some reason. It’s probably the most disposable number here and, having said that, maybe one of the tunes most likely to be a radio hit.
WHITFORD/SAINT HOLMES (Derek Saint Holmes) (photo courtesy: STRAIGHT 8 ENTERTAINMENT)
Steve, is that you? “Shake It” is the most Aerosmith-sounding track on the album, right down to Saint Holmes’ vocal histrionics and phrasing. As guitarists, neither Derek nor Whitford have lost any of the sting for which they’ve been known and, this is not a bad little tune, with some nice piano and a killer drum groove (a la Joey Kramer on “Rag Doll”). With its infectious, funky groove, “Gotta Keep On Movin’” could have been the follow-up single to Ray Parker Junior’s “The Other Woman,” or at least the B-side. Chopper Anderson and Troy Luccketta really shine, as do Derek’s vocals; the song also features one of the best solos on the entire record. “Flood of Lies” is another big Rock song. So big, in fact, that it could be mistaken for an outtake from ROCKS. The number is led by Buck Johnson’s organ and fueled by the singer’s passionate performance. Saint Holmes spent so much time as Nugent’s side man that it has caused many to miss (or dismiss) just what a powerful voice he possesses and, like a fine wine, he seems to have improved with age.
It took almost 35 years for these two men to reconnect in any sort of creative way. As far as I’m concerned, it was well worth the wait. This reissue revisits that first record with a bonus disc featuring a remastered version; as a small, gentle reminder of how Derek and Brad sounded in 1981 with a quick rundown of the cuts on WHITFORD/SAINT HOLMES…
“I Need Love” kicks things off. The song is anthemic and poppy; very much a product of its time. “Whiskey Woman” has turned out to be the record’s most enduring number, an AOR staple then, a Classic Rock radio staple now. “Hold On” is your standard-issue marketable pop ballad with a bouncy New Wave groove, courtesy of drummer Steve Pace and bassist Dave Hewitt. “Sharpshooter” is a muscular, Sammy Hagar style rocker that woulda done really well on the fledgling MTV network. “Every Morning” takes the best parts of the two previous cuts and tosses in an absolutely massive drum sound. “Action” is a power-pop sorta thing that’s actually pretty good, if a bit repetitive. Columbia Records chose “Shy Away” as the record’s first (and only) single, though I’m not sure it was ever officially released (even if it was given a catalog number). It’s a great piece of (Greg) Kihnsian pop. “Does It Really Matter?,” like much of the record, is an AOR/pop anthem. In a bit of a departure for the duo’s debut, “Spanish Boy” is a nice slab of hard rock. “Mystery Girl” continues in the same vein. In fact, it’s probably the hardest rocking track on the entire set. It’s a very nice way to close out a pretty solid ‘80s rock album.
(ZODIAC SWAN RECORDS/T-BOY RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES; 2016)
For whatever it’s worth, I was one of those people who could either take it or leave it as far as the wildly, improbably popular band White Zombie were concerned. Why? I don’t know… wrong time, wrong place? Maybe it was the demonic over-saturation at Alternative Radio (you seemingly couldn’t swing a severed head without hitting a DJ playing, having just played or getting ready to play “Thunder Kiss ’65” or “More Human Than Human” between 1992 and 1997 or so). Whatever, I was just never that into the band; however, fast forward a year or two and the release of vocalist/visionary Rob Zombie’s solo debut, HELLBILLY DELUXE, and I was hooked. In the ensuing years, the erstwhile banner-waver for low-rent, science-fiction based shock rock has expanded his influence, taking his playfully bent visions into other media… most successfully in the realms of indie comic books and movies. He’s also become quite the live draw, as well as an in-demand producer and co-writer in certain musical circles, as well as a professional “guest vocalist,” having made appearances on several Alice Cooper albums. When the Coopers were (finally!) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rob did the honors.
Rob Zombie (John Five, Rob Zombie, Piggy D, Ginger Fish) (publicity photo)
THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER (say that three times fast… heck, say that once without messing it up!) marks Zombie’s sixth solo release of twisted boogie metal, and though it would be easy to dismiss this record as just more of the same, it would appear that the living dead man still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Does it sound like Rob Zombie? Well… duh! You see, the thing about an artist like Rob is this: No matter how much someone complains about everything sounding the same, the first time Zombie and his band deviate one iota from the accepted sound and formula, the fans are gonna yell that he doesn’t care about his REAL fans and he has – DUNH, DUNH, DUNH! – sold out. So, THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… sticks to what has worked in the past, while adding just enough “different” to be subversive. “The Last of the Demons Defeated” is a 90-second introduction with Rob chanting/intoning “Electric warlock… electric warlock… electric warlock acid witch” over a massive tribal stomp. The second track begins with a cartoon voice delivering a well-known mantra of those uptight traveling tent revival preachers from the ’50s through the ’80s, decrying rock music as “Satanic cyanide” before erupting with a from-the-bowels Death Metal vocal over a Sabbath-worthy riff before a murderous Zombie relates his story of how rock turned him into a depraved maniac over a swirling cacophony of guitars (courtesy of this record’s secret weapon, John Five); the song’s title, obviously, is “Satanic Cyanide! The Killer Rocks On!” plus… bonus points for fitting the phrase “mohair coffin” into the lyrics. Continuing the insanely long titles, “The Life and Times of a Teenage Rock God” is more to form, with Zombie’s rumbling, staccato vocal delivery; there is a cool “Spaghetti Western” synth break toward the end of the track, provided by Zeuss. “Well, Everybody’s Fucking In a UFO” follows, a weird metal hoedown filled with allusions of getting high (either by smoking some weed or breathing some swamp gas), being abducted by aliens and being… uh… probed. Rob’s whacked-out backwoods voice is hilarious and definitely adds to the silliness. The exquisitely named interlude, “A Hears Overturns With the Coffin Bursting Open,” starts off with a voice repeating “So revolting and yet so interesting” over and over before giving way to a quite pretty acoustic guitar, disturbing in its elegance. The final tune on Side One of the vinyl version of THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… is “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Gore Whore,” is kind of a ’60s-style Farfisa-heavy garage homage to THE MUNSTERS and bad horror movies, featuring such genre-worthy lyrics as “She got Vincent Price tattooed on her thigh/Below a devil bat with a crazy eye” and “So much blood everywhere/And all she wants is more.” The images this number evokes makes it one of my favorites of this release.
Rob Zombie, OZZFEST (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
“Side Two” of the record stays the course set by the first half, with “Medication For the Melancholy” playing up the misconception that celebrities have lives far-and-above those of “ordinary people,” steamrolling the more listener-friendly lyric put forth by Mark Knopfler more than thirty years ago with Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.” John Five once more delivers a trippy, effects-laden solo and suitably like-minded leads; Ginger Fish’s drumming is… BIG, as always. It would seem that “subtle” is something Ginger doesn’t do well, nor would we want him to. “In the Age of the Consecrated Vampire We All Get High” is more like White Zombie’s syncopated stomp than anything else on THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… , with an incredible backward solo from John. And, I don’t know if it’s the mix or the playback systems I’ve been listening on but, this is the first time on the album that Piggy D’s bass stands out, a wicked thump and rumble that perfectly fits this song. “Super-Doom-Hex-Gloom Part One” is another short (relatively speaking) interlude with a short spoken-word introduction before evolving into a series of computer blips and a throbbing synth bass, a weird piece of soundtrack music to an even weirder, cheaply produced early 1970s horror movie. With guitars set to stun and effects a-plenty from Zeuss’ keyboard and Piggy’s bass and Zombie’s processed voice delivering a litany recounting his reasons for being (“Well – I was born a rotten freak/Slicking back a widows peak,” “Well – I was born on Hullabaloo/Mind control is what I do”), “In the Bone Pile” is one of the more satisfying tracks on the record. Plus… ya gotta love the images that title conjures in your mind. “Get Your Boots On! That’s the End of Rock and Roll” is truly the only full-tilt rock and roll song here, with pummeling rhythms from Ginger and Piggy and a vicious solo from John Five. The record clocks in at 31 minutes, more or less, with each of the first eleven tracks running an economical 2:58 or less, which makes the final cut, “Wurdalak,” somewhat of an anomaly with a run time of five-and-a-half minutes. It’s all Rob’s phased voice spitting out Lovecraftian lyrics over some spooky music and noises until the final couple of minutes, which turns into a creepy piano coda that sounds right out of THE EXORCIST… somehow a fitting end to the insanity of the last half hour. So, is this the greatest record ever made? Is it the greatest Rob Zombie record ever made? Will it change lives? Will it make the world a better place? The answer to all four questions is, “No.” But, if you ask me if it’s fun, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” And… what more can you ask from a rock and roll record?