NO VALENTINE: KNOCK KNOCK

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2019)


The should-be-signed-immediately New York trio, No Valentine, live by the old Punk credo of “Loud, Fast Rules!” Their latest release, an EP called KNOCK KNOCK, features five songs clocking in at an impressive thirteen minutes. The group is fronted by songwriting force, guitar-slinger and powerhouse vocalist Cindy Pack; Pack is quite ably supported by the rhythm section of Laura Sativa (who has played bass with legendary punks Sylvain Sylvain and Jayne County) and versatile sticksman Mike Linn.

NO VALENTINE (Cindy Pack, Mike Linn, Laura Sativa) (uncredited photo)

Things are off to an ominous start with “Down Down,” a tune so dense that you could caulk an entire house with the riffs alone. Guitar, bass and drums all meld together in a thick soup of awesomeness, while Cindy relays a spiraling mental anguish, climaxing with this final verse: “Sometime I feel like a walking train wreck/An epidemic, a viral agent/A bad narcotic/A hopeless neurotic/But mostly, I just feel psychotic.” Even the backing vocals sound somehow wounded. “Barnyard Apocalypse” sounds brighter, a rollicking type of Rock ‘n’ Roll, kinda like Unknown Hinson or Reverend Horton Heat on a bender. Still, the lyrics belie the jaunty feel of the music, with such poetic gems as, “Hallelujah, motherfuckers/Pass the mashed potatoes.” Ms Pack is apparently on a mission to prove that she is the manifest destiny queen of snotty punk music; she gets my vote! Yeah, I know that with a monarchy, you ascend to the throne (or take it in a most brutal fashion); she still has my full support. Sounding very much like a shorter version of “Halo of Flies,” the classic Alice Cooper track, “You’re Sick” grinds, grooves and hisses along ‘til the charging beast simply comes to a sudden end, as if felled by a shot from a master huntsman. The number – undoubtedly my favorite here – is the longest on the EP, coming in at an economical 3:52, besting its predecessor by a full second.

NO VALENTINE (Cindy Pack, Mike Linn, Laura Sativa) (uncredited photo)

Lemon Pie” features a spry bassline, some nimble drumming and a wickedly fuzzed-out guitar delivering a decidedly whacked approximation of a classic Country tune. If you listen closely, you can even hear Cindy’s sly vocal twang, offered, as usual, with her tongue firmly implanted in her cheek. It’s probably the most upbeat song you’re ever gonna hear from No Valentine but, it in no way sounds out of place nestled amongst the harder, punkier fare on display with KNOCK KNOCK. “Detour” is a meaty slice of early ‘70s proto-punk heaviness, sort of a bookend of dismay and misery with the opener, “Down Down.” Still looking for answers on a trip to nowhere, Pack intones her dilemma with lines like, “Ran out of gas/Ran out of oil/Can’t pay the tax/Can’t pay the toll/And now I’m stuck in the slow lane of life/And I can’t get over.” All I can say is, “And who hasn’t been there?” All in all, KNOCK KNOCK is one of the best indie releases I’ve had the pleasure of listening to in quite some time. I just wish there was more to it! Full-length, anyone? Until then, KNOCK KNOCK and No Valentine’s three previous EPs can be acquired through the group’s website or Bandcamp page.


ADULT CINEMA: TEASER TRAILER

(ILLICIT RECORDINGS; 2016/vinyl reissue, 2018)

North London-born Mike Weston is Adult Cinema. It is Weston’s purpose – some would call it his destiny, considering his familial legacy and musical heritage – to tear down and rebuild classic Progressive Rock in his own thoroughly modern image. TEASER TRAILER is the debut record from Adult Cinema, recently re-released (to coincide with the release of album number two, THIS IS YOUR LIFE) on glorious vinyl. Mike handles virtually everything on the self-produced recording. This approach means that most everything sounds exactly as the artist heard it in his head while writing the album. Also, I’ve gotta tell you that, though the vinyl version is the latest, the track order reviewed here is actually the original CD version. And, so, after getting those pieces of technical info out of the way, let’s look at the music itself, shall we?

Feel Your Eyes” gets things off to a very nice start, with a general approximation of early Steely Dan, some Doobie Brothers vibes, a Brian Eno era kind of Roxy Music psuedo-prog and just a sniff of early Gilmour period Floyd. The song features some great guitar, bass and a Hammond organ owned (but not played here) by a certain Mister Winwood. Adding to the atmosphere is some quite nice piano and Weston’s laconic, somewhat breathy vocal performance. Much of this album was originally released on a self-titled promotional/demo record before TEASER TRAILER was unleashed upon the world-at-large. Such is the case with the next song (as well as the opening track). Here, “Flowers” is presented in what I must assume is either a re-recorded or remixed version parenthetically called “Fallout Version.” I like this tune so much that whatever Mike wants to call it is fine with me. The number starts out as a very nice acoustic thing for the first couple of minutes before heading deeply into a Floydian psychedelia, complete with very Syd-like vocals. The track continues to mutate with a great hard rock ending, putting one in mind of early Uriah Heep or Hawkwind. “Asleep At the Wheel” is very trippy, with another solid dose of spacey Hawkwind noises, not a tribute to Ray Benson. The tune features a great bassline, while the piano and organ are very prominent throughout. Guest performer Paul Nelson’s guitar has a rather metronomic quality to it, adding to the late ‘60s psychedelic vibe. “Dreamt the Other Night (Prog Version)” would not sound out of place on DARK SIDE OF THE MOON or WISH YOU WERE HERE. Acoustic based, the song features understated guitar, powerful bass and a nice, simple drum pattern. Short and sweet, “Dreamt… ” really pulls you in. The album’s first half ends with a dramatic, sorta Styxian shanty, “We Sailed Across the Ocean.” The multi-layered vocals reinforces the Styx reference. There’s a thumping, swirling break before the tune begins ramping up with a slightly heavier organ sound and a dive-bombing bass pattern. This heavier turn is very Deep Purplish, save for a far lighter guitar sound (which is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way). The twist and turns in styles, if not genres, make the track a personal favorite.

ADULT CINEMA (Mike Weston) (photo credit: KENT MATTHEWS)

Got To Prove Myself Today” features a far more powerful vocal approach than the previous cuts on the album, matching the heavy feel of the song. Nelson returns, with an intricate guitar weaving its way through the organ and above the massive bass and drums that underpin everything. It all gives way to an acoustic guitar and piano coda that drives home the tune’s intent. In sort of an English Folk meets Country way, “My Tangled Mind” is filled with a nice acoustic guitar lead, some solid bass, pretty vocals and some darned fine whistling. The beauty and simplicity does the memory of the Beatles and, in fact, the entire British Invasion sound quite proud. “Rowboat” is featured in two versions on the original 2016 CD of TEASER TRAILER. The first (and the one featured on the vinyl reissue) is the original. Trippy, watery machinations of Paul Nelson’s guitar and a lugubrious bass runs throughout the mostly instrumental tune. The vocals are purposely buried in the mix but, checking the lyric sheet, it would appear that the story revolves around a troubled individual who, apparently, has killed and disposed of someone in a watery grave. The second version, offered as a “bonus track” on the CD, is called the “Southend Version.” It’s definitely a heavier take, featuring some serious Hammond organ. The vocals and the number’s true meaning comes into finer focus on this longer version (more than two minutes are added to the original’s 3:47 running time). With the guitars, bass and drums pushed to the front, the studio trickery is gone until the end of the song. If I had to choose one version to listen to on repeat, it would most assuredly be the latter. “Witches” is a rollicking kind of Dancehall Jazz, with some nice period drums from Andy Russell, Nelson moving over to upright bass, a player piano and a traditional Jazz trio featuring Weston’s Dad, Tony, on clarinet. The piano coda from “Witches” wanders back in on “La La La La La,” a rolling kind of tune delivering the tune’s sole lyric, “La” over and over again. The birds chirp, the guitar dips in and out of the mix, cementing a rather pleasant end to what is a better than average album. Head on over to Mike Weston’s website to get a free download of TEASER TRAILER and, while you’re there, pick up a copy of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, too.


CORROSION OF CONFORMITY: NO CROSS NO CROWN

(NUCLEAR BLAST RECORDS; 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


LAMB OF GOD: ASHES OF THE WAKE FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PRIMUS: GREEN NAUGAHYDE

(PRAWN SONG RECORDS/ATO RECORDS; 2011) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS


For those of you who have been living under a rock, Primus is an experimental fusion rock band that incorporates more genres than I can even begin to list here. They have a sound that is completely original, theirs and theirs alone. The trio formed in 1984 in San Francisco, California coalescing around the songwriting talents of bassist and vocalist Les Claypool. Guitarist Todd Huth and Claypool, were later joined by drummer Jay Lane, though both Lane and Huth departed the band at the end of 1988. The GREEN NAUGAHYDE lineup is composed of Claypool alongside Larry LaLonde on guitar and the returning Lane on drums. The three-headed beast has had many different lineups over the years, Claypool having been the only constant. GREEN NAUGAHYDE is the group’s seventh studio album.

PRIMUS (Larry LaLonde, Jay Lane, Les Claypool) (publicity photo)

The opening minute or so of “Hennepin Crawler” features some ethereal bass soloing and swooshing effects, then immediately bursts into a classic Primus bass line of the type that only Les Claypool can come up with. The slinky guitar playing and pumping drums make this track really groove and with Claypool graveling out the vocals in his signature way, it starts the album off in a definitively Primus way. The next few tracks are a journey, honestly; really easy to just sit back and get lost in. “Last Salmon Man” is a nice continuation of the opening track.There’s a very strange bridge leading into the chorus that is definitely original. LaLonde’s guitar is the one that shines in this track, with the solo and the bassline behind it sucking you in, getting you lost in the extremely well crafted soundscape. This album is meant to be listened to as an album which, in the singles era is super refreshing. I found myself really enjoying the record, almost losing my place and forgetting what track I was on a few times. That rarely happens to me. I thoroughly enjoyed GREEN NAUGAHYDE and you can absolutely tell that there was a ton of effort put into it by Claypool and company. If you are a Primus fan, then this will not disappoint; even if you just enjoy listening to masterful musicians play their instruments, you’ll find something here for you, as well.

PRIMUS (Larry LaLonde, Jay Lane, Les Claypool) (photo credit: TAYLOR CROTHERS)

There are a few tracks here that attempt to make a statement on the state of current events. Those, you will either really enjoy or choose to skip. I’ll be honest, there are a couple on here, like “Eternal Consumption Engine” that really ruined the groove I had going, and pulled me out of the experience. All in all, I liked this album a lot, though. Claypool is as badass as he has ever been on the bass; there are some seriously original moments on the album and a few gems that I originally overlooked: “Eyes Of The Squirrel” is a brilliant, bass filled ride into madness. “Lee Van Cleef” is by far my favorite track from the record, from the popping bassline all the way to the commentary about how everyone moved on, preferring the younger Clint Eastwood over legendary Western star Lee Van Cleef. Musically, it is an incredibly catchy song that you’ll find yourself singing and humming for quite awhile. It’s an instant addition any Primus “greatest hits” compilations. “Moron TV” is an absolute masterclass on funky bass playing. Les proves, in this song, why he is consistently placed on lists of greatest bass players of all time; there’s a thumping bass line that incorporates chords, slaps, and tempo changes that are just crazy. With high and low harmonized vocals and another slinky guitar line from Larry, with Claypool spitting out lyrics underneath that flow extremely well. Another absolute gem. All in all, I would highly recommend GREEN NAUGAHYDE as one to put on your “listen to” list, but you’ll definitely want to set aside enough time to digest it as in its entirety. That’s where it really shines!


THE WHO/THE HILLBENDERS

(May 23, 2019; HOLLYWOOD CASINO AMPHITHEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

The more you see your rock heroes pass away or visibly age, the more nervous you get that an advertised performance might be the last chance you’ll get to see them. Hence, when I was “on the fence” initially about catching the Who’s May 23rd performance at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, a friend’s willingness to facilitate everything made all the difference. And I’m glad, because this was one hell of a concert. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey could have stopped years ago… it’s likely that their most towering musical achievements are behind them. But man, those two have still got it. And I love being reminded of past rock glories. Nothing wrong with nostalgia at all… that’s why we keep going back to enjoy the legends proving yet again why they deserve to be in that category.

THE WHO (Pete Townshend) (photo credit: LS)

I’ll say upfront that TOMMY was a significant album in my life. Musically it is brilliant; conceptually, it was at the very least bold and adventurous. The “Overture,” which the band opened with, is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. Truly. With the full orchestra in tow (The Who have planned this tour to include local orchestras joining them along the way) and a rather dazzling lighting backdrop, the audience was immediately treated to sheer spectacle. A suite of TOMMY tunes, including the expected “Pinball Wizard,” fab as always, and the timeless brilliance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” roused the crowd plenty, but affected yours truly on a very emotional level. I won’t pretend that this wasn’t nostalgia of the deepest kind for me. I could tell you all the personal associations this music holds for me and how it transcends what rock tends to be on every single level, but then this would cease to be a review and instead turn into my diary. I’ll be disciplined here and just say… I loved it. And the orchestra added grandeur and layers of sonic dressing to Pete’s extraordinary compositions.

THE WHO (Roger Daltrey) (photo credit: LS)

I would have likely been okay if the band wanted to do the entire album, but they didn’t. Instead, “Who Are You” was next, a catchy but overly familiar song from their catalog. It’s one of those insidious tunes that you can’t escape with this band. Nothing wrong with it, and Roger Daltrey sings the crap out of it (Rog was in good voice tonight, by the way). But to assess where it stands in the scheme of things, try making a song out of your own name, to be cute. Or, try NOT to think of the theme song for a really, really successful TV crime show. Can’t do it, can you? Well who the hell are YOU? “Eminence Front” is a reasonably catchy later-period Who tune, which the crowd enjoyed. Familiarity tends to breed affection, especially with one of the greatest classic rock bands of all time. “Imagine a Man,” from the 1975 album THE WHO BY NUMBERS was pleasant and melodic and Pete seemed to be having a great time performing it. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that Pete and Roger both seemed to be in great spirits. Both addressed the audience repeatedly, commenting on the “nice people” of Saint Louis, our great rivers, and of course, the exciting status of a certain hockey team. More on that shortly. But a nice surprise for me personally was the song “Join Together.” It’s a quirky mid-period Who tune that I liked so much as a youngster, I bought the single. I would never have imagined they would perform that one; it was NOT a huge hit. But by god, here it was, complete with Jew’s harp and pure weirdness. Happy music fan! Two classic older tunes, “Substitute” and “The Seeker” came next, with Daltrey complimenting Townshend’s writing and stating how a certain lyric was one of the best lines Pete ever wrote, that being “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” The crowd listened attentively whenever Daltrey or Townshend addressed them, and this was truly a fun part of the show. Again, their upbeat moods were palpable. These guys know how much they need each other, and every time Daltrey sidled up to Pete and put his arms around him, you had to get a deep thrill. The “bloody Who” have been at it since the early ‘60s, my friends. You have to respect their longevity! A pair of classics from WHO’S NEXT were served up: “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the latter performed in an intimate acoustic style that made for one of the evening’s most tasteful choices. It’s a legendary song with heaps of gravitas, I just would have preferred a bit more intensity on the utterly classic closing line ”Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” which has been quoted so much in the years since its inception. You could hardly hear Daltrey sing the lines in this arrangement. But no matter; it was still a delight. Pete addressed the audience after that by apologizing, sort of, for ENDLESS WIRE and allowing that they were only going to do one song from that record, which was actually a guitar-pickin’ pleasure (“Tea and Theatre”). Pete then introduced a suite of songs from QUADROPHENIA, which likely represented the grandest musical section of the show overall. The legendary guitarist is justifiably proud of his second double-album rock opera in a five-year span, and what struck me about this section is how under my skin these songs were, in some special little corner, even though I could name the titles on TOMMY much more easily. But musically, this batch of songs: “The Real Me,” “I Am the Sea,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “5:15” and the genuinely transcendent instrumental “The Rock,” exemplify the art form of rock and roll ascending to heights it rarely goes to, with riffs and cool harmonies and quirky little passages that only an inspired musician can conjure. History has already recorded Pete Townshend as having a kind of ambition and understanding of rock melodrama and emotional release in a truly pioneering manner. This was simply incredible stuff. Rock as ART. Who conceived of such a thing? “Love Reign Over Me,” of course, is indispensable Who, with Daltrey demonstrating that he is taking care of himself… he doesn’t screech excessively… he delivers only the drama and peak moments he knows he NEEDS to these days. His partner has suffered hearing problems and a voice that has “gone away to some strange place,” or however it was he put it. But there is something profound about such an influential group still aiming for the sonic heights, and when they GET there, it is shiver inducing. Such was the case with the closing “Baba O’Riley.” I can’t say enough about this one. Criminy. It’s a rock classic, yes. But the indescribable highlight of the show was having Rog and Pete kick ass backed by an electrifying orchestra on one of their grandest musical offerings, during which leggy violinist Katie Jacoby strolled out in a Saint Louis Blues jersey, attacking her instrument flawlessly on the climax of the song. The crowd went justifiably wild. It seems improbable that the Blues’ first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, an aging rock band’s bid for one last dramatic chapter (they announced that they have a new album ready for fall, though they didn’t play anything from it), and the expansive power of a full orchestra would combine to such powerful effect here at what most of us came to know as Riverport, with floodwaters wreaking havoc nearby. But man, this was a moment! When you see and hear this sort of spectacle happening and creating another memory so potently, you appreciate it. It was so powerful that I didn’t sense ANY grumbling about the lack of an actual encore. You hit the giddy, transcendent heights and then you say farewell. The Who did so, acknowledging each and every sterling band member like Pete’s brother Simon Townshend and that Zak Starkey fellow, who has been manning the drums for them for years. And heck, how can you NOT appreciate the epic nature of a local violinist having a huge moment onstage? Everyone felt it, trust me.

THE HILLBENDERS meet PETE TOWNSHEND, 2015 (Gary Rea, Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Pete Townshend, Chad Graves, producer Louis Jay Meyers, Jim Rea) (uncredited photo)

Springfield’s Hillbenders opened the show with an 8 or 9-song run through a biting mix of rock-flavored bluegrass. This quintet achieved notoriety for recording a bluegrass version of TOMMY that was way more resplendent than anyone expected. Townshend was more than a little impressed; he posed for photos with the band in Nashville a while back, and praised them to the hilt onstage here. It may have seemed odd to those not familiar with these matters that an acoustic bunch from down yonder in southern Missouri would be opening for rock legends, but I thought it was rather profound. Music should be surprising, unpredictable, and adventurous. It should continually shoot up the “sparks” of life. Everyone onstage did that tonight, and it was truly a thrill.


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

(HOUSECORE RECORDS; 2018)

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

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

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

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

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


VANILLA FUDGE

(March 22, 2019; WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville, IL)

I knew only a couple of things about Vanilla Fudge before I stepped into the Wildey Theatre to see them on March 22: One, that they had been around a long, long time, and two, that they took an old Supremes song called “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and did a spectacular, lengthy remaking of it that became a giant hit and established a kind of freeform, jammy trademark that still powers their style today. VF bear many of the trappings of a classic prog rock band: Long instrumental passages, tight vocal harmonies and multi-textured keyboard work (courtesy of Mark Stein) that occasionally sounds like a relic from another era. Which it sort of is. But what prog rockers do you know that start their show with… a MONKEES song? That almost made me fall over, their wildly unique take on “I’m A Believer,” which had a bigger impact on me than you might expect since I’d just seen the Dolenz and Nesmith show in Saint Charles not even a week prior. Wow! It was almost unrecognizable, but there it was… the beloved Neil Diamond-penned number. That was followed by something else unrecognizable but jammy, which they introduced as “a tribute to our old friends, the Doors.” And this one was… “Break On Through (To the Other Side,” which featured their own three-part harmonies, slowed down but repeated over and over on just the phrase “Break on through.” Okay, so now it was clear that we’d be treated to epic cover songs, done in a manner seldom heard before. These guys, original members Stein, guitarist Vince Martell, drummer extraordinaire Carmine Appice and “the new guy,” bassist Pete Bremy, who replaced Tim Bogert in 2010, have a curious aesthetic that is nostalgic but fresh, proggy but curiously low-key, sonically far out but couched in a downright neighborly stage demeanor. They told the story of dedicating Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” to Martin Luther King right after he was assassinated; it was sung by Appice here with tenderness and power, and laced by terrific organ work by Stein. Soon after they did a casual original both retro and vitally relevant, “Let’s Pray For Peace.” That was from their classic SPIRIT OF ‘67 album, and Stein talked about how the band had the chance to play it in Belgium not long after the terrorist incident there. Good as all this was, the show’s real highlights were yet to come.

VANILLA FUDGE (Mark Stein, Vince Martell, Carmine Appice, Pete Bremy) (photo credit: JIM FORD)

This song took up an entire side of our fourth album,” the band cheerfully announced, before launching into “Break Song,” an incredible extravaganza that was sometimes loud, sometimes soft but always musically engrossing, especially when it featured a borrowed chunk from Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” and then segued into “Season of the Witch,” which clearly took the audience to a whole new level of psychedelic nirvana. The vibe was like Kansas meets Yes at times, but actually, it was the kind of thing Vanilla Fudge excels at, these long, intricate, rapidly varying passages. It was clear to me that they were underrated… possibly because cover bands don’t often rise to the level of bands that do this sort of thing on their own material. But it was grand, and it was mesmerizing. So was the unbelievable drum solo Appice performed on “Shotgun,” a song they did on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, they told us. Drum solos can be tedious and overly cliched, but in all honesty, this was one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard. Appice performed with muscular mastery, keeping it intense and focused, and doing a section with only one stick which you could see he was passing from one hand to the other. The sound was especially bracing and adrenaline-pumping for this showcase. And he justifiably earned a partial standing ovation. Next, Stein told the story of how long ago, in ‘68, a band opened for them featuring the “guy who had just left the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page.” At this time, Vanilla Fudge were at their peak, with three albums in the Top 40. These young whippersnappers, Led Zeppelin, may have opened for them this one occasion, but soon eclipsed them… and every other band by becoming the biggest thing in the rock world. Such is fate! The Fudge did a tribute album called OUT THROUGH THE IN DOOR, and they quoted from it with a fun combo of “Dazed and Confused” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” No, they aren’t the Zep, but this was still a nice, fun surprise. Everyone was waiting for the big hit, of course, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” They talked about the initial inspiration for it, which was an offhand exposure to the song outside a club in the ‘60s, and then invited the audience to sing along on the chorus. Who’s gonna refuse that offer? It’s their signature song, and they know it. A vibrant encore of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” then it was all over. I didn’t really expect to be so impressed by these guys. I’d heard a few of their songs before and sort of had an idea what I’d hear… lots of organ and guitar, long instrumentals. I had no idea. They are masterful musicians, nice guys, and unique in being able to survive performing long, often weird versions of other people’s classics. Not to mention having clearly one of the best drummers in the world in their lineup, and singing sterling three-part harmony. This was quite a fantastic show, to summarize. I’ve now been educated in the tasty stylings of “the Fudge,” and I won’t forget it.


MARK MORTON: ANESTHETIC

(WPP RECORDS/SPINEFARM RECORDS; 2019)

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

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

MARK MORTON (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

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


ACE FREHLEY: SPACEMAN

(eONE MUSIC/ENTERTAINMENT ONE; 2018)

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

ACE FREHLEY (uncredited photo)

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

ACE FREHLEY (photo credit: JAYME THORNTON)

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