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.


BE BOP DELUXE: POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE… INTRODUCING BE BOP DELUXE

(EMI RECORDS/CAPITOL RECORDS; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

So, it’s somewhere around the middle part of 1977 and I’m in the “I’ll buy virtually anything that ain’t disco or Country and Western music” mode that typified my life for several regrettable years (with wisdom and age, I’ve repented/recovered from that dark period, except for the disco… that’ll always suck!). While deciding on which 8 to 10 albums to buy on this particular day, I came across a two record set (one full-length album, one 12″ EP) with a striking black and white cover – a still from the classic silent German flick, METROPOLIS. The price was right, so I was soon the proud owner of LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE by something called Be Bop Deluxe. I’d seen a couple of studio albums by the group, of course, but I just could not get behind that name (or the inexplicably hideous cover art or… perhaps it was a deep-seeded fear of Jazz music, another of my quirky phobias of that bygone era)! But, great googley-moogley, chil’uns! When I dropped the needle on side one, track one (“Life In the Air Age”), my brain nearly exploded! This was great stuff… incredible stuff. “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape.” “Fair Exchange.” “Piece of Mine.” “Maid In Heaven.” These were absolutely magnificent slabs of sonic beauty, propelled by the lush, orchestral guitar style of Bill Nelson, the mad genius behind the quartet’s sound.

It was a VERY long time before I came into contact with another Be Bop Deluxe record (though I did purchase a couple of great imports by the then-solo Bill Nelson) – in fact, the band only managed one more album, DRASTIC PLASTIC, before packing it in. Now, a band of which Nelson says, “I don’t think about Be Bop Deluxe as often as fans of the band might presume,” is given its due with this 18-track “Best of… ” package alongside re-issues of the original five studio albums and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (all with bonus tracks, naturally). Does it sound dated? Not as much as you’d think! In fact, I could think of a few current artists who would be regarded as the next big thing if they had recorded this stuff in the past couple of years.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1974 (Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, Ian Parkin, Bill Nelson, Robert Bryan) (photo credit: MICK ROCK)

This 18 track collection starts with the title song of the very first Be Bop Deluxe album. “Axe Victim” is rather a lost gem, full of the lyrical wryness and imagery that became a main-stay of not only this band, but of all of Bill Nelson’s subsequent projects (solo or with the group Red Noise). Of course, the benchmarks of Be Bop Deluxe were always Nelson’s guitar work and the solid interplay between the four men (on AXE VICTIM, Nelson was joined by guitarist/organist Ian Parkin, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and bassist/vocalist Robert Bryan). The second track, also from that debut, “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape,” is fueled by Nelson’s ingenious arrangement (and a smoking guitar solo). The tune would later be retooled for the second version of the band, turning it into an almost orchestral live masterpiece.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia) (uncredited photo)

The band’s second album, 1975’s FUTURAMA, introduces drummer Simon Andrew David Fox and bassist Charlie Tumahai, with Nelson exerting his dominance on all fronts: all lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards are performed by him; all songwriting and arrangements are by him. FUTURAMA is the most well-represented release on POSTCARDS… , with four tracks (“Stage Whispers,” “Sister Seagull,” “Jean Cocteau,” and the wickedly cool “Maid In Heaven”). The wisdom of adding Tumahai and Fox is evident from the first notes of the charging train wreck that is “Stage Whispers.” The funky calypso break merely adds to the insanity, and – if I haven’t mentioned it yet, Bill Nelson can play that guitar thing! “Maid In Heaven” follows. Like “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape” and the song that follows, “Sister Seagull,” this tune became a live staple, taking on a new feel with the addition of Simon “Andy” Clark on keys. Speaking of “Sister Seagull,” again the guitars and the arrangement sets Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe apart from most acts of that time (or, for that matter, most acts that have followed in the 30 years since its release). The final track from FUTURAMA is a jazzy homage to “Jean Cocteau.” The song is a major departure for the group, but the trio show that they are more than capable of pulling off such a change of pace.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Charlie Tumahia, Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (photo credit: JOHN THORNTON)

By the time of the band’s third record, SUNBURST FINISH, Clark was well ensconced on keyboards. His impact is immediately felt on another live staple (and quite possibly the one song that you may have heard on the radio at some point), “Fair Exchange.” The interplay between guitarist and keyboardist on this track is a good example of the direction that the band was headed. Plus, it’s just a darn good song! “Ships In the Night” builds on the slightly Caribbean feel that was first explored during the break in “Stage Whispers.” The keyboards are, by turns, grandiose and whimsical… not an easy feat in the same song! “Blazing Apostles” re-introduces us to Bill Nelson, guitar hero. During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Nelson goes from metal crunch to jazzy runs to strident funk to fleet-fingered progressive solos.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia, Simon Fox) (publicity photo)

The group’s second release of 1976 (and fourth, over-all), MODERN MUSIC, finds the revitalized quartet performing as a more cohesive unit, though it is still quite obvious that Nelson is pulling all of the strings. “Kiss of Light” could have (should have) been a big hit back then; it would probably be a big hit if it were to be released today, with its rather staccato vocal delivery, especially on the chorus. The title track is as laid-back as Be Bop Deluxe ever got, with a lilting, slightly bluesy sound. “Twilight Capers” continues the orchestral approach that was adopted on the previous record, with guitars and keyboards ebbing and swelling throughout, leading to a short Jazz-inflected guitar solo at the outro. This is the band and the musical vision that Nelson took on the road, with the tour that eventually produced the amazing LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (uncredited photo)

And this is where the continuity of this release comes into question: The single tune from the live album, “Life In the Air Age,” the title track, if you will, does not follow “Twilight Capers.” Three songs from the group’s final release, DRASTIC PLASTIC, is wedged between the MODERN MUSIC and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE tracks. The tunes – “Electrical Language,” “Possession,” and “Islands of the Dead” – are fine songs, but it is very obvious that Nelson was tiring of Be Bop Deluxe and guitar-driven rock music. “Electrical Language” is powered more by the vocal performances than by guitar (or keyboards), while “Islands of the Dead” is a rather thoughtful, mostly acoustic piece. “Possession,” of the three, is the closest to what fans had come to expect from Be Bop Deluxe’s grand wizard of the nicely turned phrase (of both word and fretboard).

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Andrew Clark) (photo ourtesy: GAB ARCHIVES/REDFERNS)

“Life In the Air Age,” a track from SUNBURST FINISH, bears witness to just how great this group was as a live unit. The song itself is a progressive pop masterpiece and the band certainly prove their mettle in bringing it to life on stage. As good as they were in the studio, the fact that they were able to improve on those studio versions is a testament to the combined talents of the four musicians, and the arranging acumen of Bill Nelson, in particular. The final two tracks of the package brings it full circle (another continuity issue), with both the A and B sides of the first Be Bop Deluxe single, the independently produced and released “Teenage Archangel” and an early version of “Jets At Dawn,” a tune re-recorded for AXE VICTIM. The A side is, actually, a fairly standard sounding teenage-angst pop song. The B side, however, clocks in at nearly seven minutes and features some of the most exquisite guitar on this package. I just wish that the single tracks would have been sequenced as the lead tracks on this package, even though they were tack-on, bonus cuts for this version of POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE. Ah, well… you can’t have everything, but you can have a fairly comprehensive Be Bop Deluxe primer to hold you over until the proposed box set that Bill Nelson is reportedly working on.

BE BOP DELUXE (Bill Nelson, on stage November 1976) (uncredited photo)

UPDATE: Bill Nelson’s eight-disc box set, THE PRACTICE OF EVERY DAY LIFE: CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF RECORDINGS was finally released in 2011, featuring 34 choice cuts from the Be Bop Deluxe era. Aside form various compilations and reissues, Nelson continues to set a furious pace, releasing no less than four albums of new music this year alone. The last,DYNAMOS AND TREMOLOS is half synth-pop, half guitar rock, all instrumental.


CLUTCH/SEVENDUST/TYLER BRYANT AND THE SHAKEDOWN

(18 October, 2018; POP’S NIGHTCLUB, Sauget IL)

Needless to say, as soon as I heard that they were coming back to Pop’s, I was pumped to have the chance to see Sevendust again! Then, I found out that Clutch was going to headline. What!?! Clutch AND Sevendust on the same night? Hell, yes! I was definitely gonna be in that pit!

TYLER BRYANT AND THE SHAKEDOWN (Tyler Bryant) (photo credit: DUSTIN GABEL)

Opening the show was Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown from Nashville, Tennessee. Since their start in 2009, Bryant and the band have released several singles and EPs, including 2015’s THE WAYSIDE, as well as their first full length album, WILD CHILDREN, in 2013, and the recently released self-titled follow-up. Onstage, they definitely perform very well, feeding off the energy of the crowd; their influences, likewise, play a vital part in the Shakedown’s sound: Kinda like a mix of Blues riffs combined with a good, solid rock base that I strongly believe places them in a musical genre all their own! Their unique blend of musical styles and strong onstage presence has led to the band touring with and opening for such acts as Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, AC/DC, BB King and Jeff Beck and has garnered them an opening slot on several dates of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ NOT IN THIS LIFETIME tour, which wraps up on December 8 in Honolulu. If you do get the chance to see them live, you definitely shouldn’t miss it!

SEVENDUST (Lajon Witherspoon, Morgan Rose) (photo credit: DUSTIN GABEL)

The second act of the night, much anticipated by myself and all of their fans, was Sevendust from Atlanta. The band is a personal favorite and much of the crowd was cheering for them to come onstage. The group formed in 1994 and are currently promoting their 12th album, ALL I SEE IS WAR, which was released in May. They still deliver that unique Nu-Metal sound as only they can and always have from the first time I saw them live, promoting their very first album. The tradition continues with the latest release, highlighted by the hardcore vocals of Lajon Witherspoon, Morgan Rose’s blistering drum fills, and insane guitar riffs from Clint Lowery and John Connolly. The sound, the intensity and the level of professionalism definitely leaves you wanting more! The vibe you get seeing them perform live is just surreal! After a rocky start and multiple name changes, Sevendust has seen much success, with three consecutive RIAA gold certified albums, a Grammy nomination and millions of albums sold world-wide. Their fan base is huge and fiercely loyal. If you get the chance to attend one of their shows, you will soon see the love and respect people have for Sevendust, with the members of the band giving it all right back to their audience like I have never seen with any other live act! Much respect to the members of Sevendust for keeping excellent rock alive!

CLUTCH (Neil Fallon) (photo credit: DUSTIN GABEL)

Closing out the night was Clutch, touring in support of their just-released album, BOOK OF BAD DECISIONS. Since forming in 1991, Clutch have released 12 studio albums, as well as several rarities and live albums. As always, these guys have never failed to deliver a superb show. Even with a set weighted primarily with songs from the new record (11 of the 15 found on …BAD DECISIONS), the energy you feel by the second song is just unreal because the vocalist, Neil Fallon, is so pumped up, so quick to belt out that new material, interact with fans and dip into a back catalog filled with fan favorites. Fallon’s infectious energy keeps both old school Clutch fans and newer fans of the latest releases rocking hard. With 27 years on the front-lines of the metal scene, Clutch easily achieves their goal of rocking the venue down to the foundation!


A DYING PLANET: FACING THE INCURABLE

(CYNNORMAL LAB RECORDINGS; 2018)

Survival stories are the threads that we cling to when we are at our lowest. “If that person can overcome the things that should have destroyed them then, surely, I can overcome, too.” When we see or hear about someone who has overcome a devastating loss, a child who overcomes a withering illness or an unimaginable injury, we cheer, we cry tears of joy and triumph, we are moved to be… better. When a musician suffers such an injury and faces not only their own humanity but, the prospect of losing – not only their job, but the ability to create, to help or heal others through their music. Troy Tipton was on top of the indie-metal world, playing bass in Zero Hour, among others, when an injury and subsequent surgery left him unable to play. But, he overcame and, though he was unable to return to the bass, he truly found his voice. Literally. His family and band members say that Troy has always had a great voice; now, that voice has allowed him to create once more. FACING THE INCURABLE is Troy’s victory lap and it is not only catharsis for him, it is incredibly moving.

A DYING PLANET (Brian Hart, Troy and Jasun Tipton, Marco Bicca) (photo credit: BRIAN KIRKSEY)

Resist,” at 14 minutes sets the standard for what a great slice of heavy progressive rock should be. Troy wrote the lyrics and melodies and says the song is “is about the struggles I personally went through after having my left arm unsuccessfully operated on. I had been playing the bass guitar for twenty-five years before I was forced to hang it up. So many changes have occurred in my life since the day of my surgery. I am so grateful for the years of emotional support I’ve received from my twin brother, my father, and my wife. Paul Villarreall did an amazing vocal performance delivering the message.” And, Paul’s vocals are quite impressive, backed by heavy bass and drums while Troy’s brother, Jasun, supplies an ethereal guitar sound that still delivers some beefy riffage when needed, as well as keyboards that are atmospheric and definitely on-point for the musical style. A sobering piece of lyrical beauty, “Facing the Incurable” sends a shiver down the spine. Troy’s lyrics and vocals take center stage with several spoken word passages, delivering a message of hope to the millions facing debilitating, life-altering injuries or diseases. Jasun’s guitars coarse and weave over, under and through a stunningly effective slow groove with solid (dare I say, stellar?) underpinning from the rhythm section of bassist Brian Hart and drummer Marco Bicca. “Human Obsolescence,” about the fragile nature of our existence, features beautiful piano and a chiming guitar that powers the tune. Troy’s vocals are haunting and provocatively effective, coming off sounding a lot like Dennis DeYoung (if Dennis DeYoung were cool and not some clownish Vegas lounge singer), while Marco’s understated but powerful drumming and Brian’s nearly passive bass work play into the piece perfectly.

A DYING PLANET (Brian Hart, Jasun and Troy Tipton, Marco Bicca) (photo credit: BRIAN KIRKSEY)

Even though “Poisoning the Well” was written – with lyrics from Zero Hour’s Erik Rosvold – and the guitar parts (which are more percussive strokes rather than a series of notes, except for the solo) and vocals (also by Rosvold) were recorded several years ago, it fits perfectly within the theme and feel of the album. The drums and bass echo the brutal, heavy chords of the guitar making for a stark but striking piece of metal magic. “Missing” was the first song written and prompted in Troy a desire to try his hand at lyric writing, as well as singing them. Beautiful, fragile playing (including keys from guest Bill Jenkins of Enchant and Thought Chamber fame) gives way to a brittle vocal from Troy counterbalanced by a soaring performance by Luda Arno (Troy’s vocal coach) which, in turn, gives way to one of the most beautiful, evocative guitar solos you will ever hear. Is the number a cry of anguish to a love lost, a soul lost or a life lost? Hope amid the infinite struggle to merely be, to overcome any obstacle is the underlying, overwhelming theme of FACING THE INCURABLE; everything is summed up in this single, nearly nine-minute piece. The shortest track on the album, “Separation Anxiety,” is an instrumental that features Hart’s dexterous bass work and the supple, powerful drumming of Bicca with solid jabs of light from Jasun’s guitar interspersed with short, fleet-fingered runs. Though the tune is exceptionally good, amply displaying the instrumentalists’ abilities, it does come across as rather a second-thought add on to the basic concept of the album as a whole. Coming as it did, while I was facing uncertainties of my own (though, to be sure, nothing to the extent that Troy Tipton had experienced), this record is like a restorative balm to the soul; thank you for sharing it with us.


STONE TEMPLE PILOTS: STONE TEMPLE PILOTS

(PLAY PEN MUSIC/RHINO RECORDS/WARNER MUSIC GROUP; 2018)

After a brief dalliance with the late Chester Bennington, Stone Temple Pilots (drummer Eric Kretz and the brothers DeLeo, guitarist Dean and bassist Robert) are back with a new record and a new singer (Jeff Gutt) in tow. Unlike the recent stale, rather listless return of the Layne Staley-less Alice In Chains, this band had me intrigued the very first time I heard the advance single, “Meadow,” on the radio; this is not an “all new, all different” STP, this is an extension of those early albums that thrilled us throughout the ‘90s. With the ghosts of both Scott Weiland and Bennington floating in and through this music, we are pummeled by the realization of just how great this band are. Gutt – lyrically and sonically – is on virtually equal footing with Weiland (even if he does kinda remind me of Layne physically).

STONE TEMPLE PILOTS (Robert DeLeo, Dean DeLeo, Jeff Gutt,Eric Kretz) (photo credit: MICHELLE SHIERS)

Middle of Nowhere” is as straight forward a rock ‘n’ roll tune, with a ballsy Led Zeppelin riff and a snotty sorta solo, as anything from the band’s original run with Weiland. The music does sound a little compressed to me, but that could just be Dean’s guitar being tuned a little bit toward the lower side of things… a sound that is not entirely unappealing to these ears. We are definitely starting things off on the right foot here. On “Guilty,” Jeff displays a certain violent swagger, much like the dangerous edge that defined many of Weiland’s lyrics: “You’re gonna pay the price/You’re gonna pay tonight.” Robert’s bass is quite prominent in the mix, highlighting just how good he is… something that I somehow missed on those classic records. The compressed sound continues, an artifact I’ve learned is unique to the vinyl version of the album; again, it sounds pretty good to me, a little more bassy, which I like. I must admit, though, it is a bit nettling to think that this may not have been the sound the group was aiming for but, you know… VINYL! The first single, “Meadow,” is steeped in the classic STP sound and could very easily be mistaken for an early outtake or a B-side from PURPLE or TINY MUSIC… SONGS FROM THE VATICAN GIFT SHOP. A staccato guitar and pumping bass are indicative of that signature sound, as well as some multi-layered vocals from Gutt. “Just a Little Lie” burns low, a near-stately pace that finds the band hitting on all cylinders. More of Jeff’s brilliantly oblique and illusory lyrics lend the tune a rather melancholy feel even as he invites the listener to sample this new Stone Temple Pilots: “Step inside the maiden ride/It helps if you don’t breathe/Patronize and criticize/And welcome to the scene.” Dean DeLeo offers a trippily laid-back solo that perfectly fits the mood of the number. A short, potent stab of near-perfection, “Six Eight,” plays out as a weighty piece of psychedelic Blues of Zepplinesque girth and Hendrixian breadth. The lyrics, again, are at once fraught with a multi-leveled complexity yet given over to the simplicity of a well-turned phrase… and here I thought it was only Rock ‘n’ Roll! “Thought She’d Be Mine” is a magnificent ballad as only STP can deliver. There’s a certain power-by-subtraction approach to Eric’s drum work, as he concentrates his efforts on the vibes, underscoring the chiming quality of the guitars. Though he’s more than proven himself through the first five tracks, this is the best indication so far as to the superb lyrical and vocal abilities of the new guy.

STONE TEMPLE PILOTS (Jeff Gutt, Robert DeLeo, Dean DeLeo, Eric Kretz) (photo credit: MICHELLE SHIERS)

Side two (or, for those of you who don’t speak “record,” the second half) kicks off with “Roll Me Under.” The song kinda makes me think, “What CORE woulda sounded like if it had been recorded by some strange mash-up of Pink Floyd and Guns ‘n’ Roses.” As far as that statement goes, Gutt’s lyrics may answer the assertion best: “Do with me what you will.” “Never Enough” is a strolling piece of mid-’60s British Invasion Mod, with a nod to Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton-era Humble Pie and Robert’s bass part has a definite Entwistle quality to it… I can almost see the Ox’s nimble, fleet-fingered hands working this one out. The melody line on “The Art of Letting Go” reminds me – believe it or not – of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Melissa.” Obviously, with that comparison, the tune is another solid ballad. The kinda open-ended lyrics could be about a lost love or the band’s two previous singers; it works nicely either way. And, of course, after the Allmans where can you go but to the Beatles? There is just something about the vocal melody line of “Finest Hour” that keeps screaming “McCartneyism!” to me. The song features the usual solid work from the musicians, especially Dean’s guitar and Kretz’s drums. “Good Shoes” is STP playing Rockabilly filtered through a rough punk groove. While maintaining the Rockabilly feel, Dean also supplies the record’s most stinging, snotty guitar along with a very Rock God solo. “Reds and Blues” is the type of song that Alice In Chains should have gone with for their return. As is, it makes a great album closer for STONE TEMPLE PILOTS and bodes well for the future of this group. While the four members of STP embrace their history and the memories of Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington here, they are also forging a path forward that should excite their fans, both old and new.


TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA

(9 May, 2018; PEABODY OPERA HOUSE, Saint Louis, MO)

From the Nazz through his various solo outings, masterful production work and, particularly the ten albums released under the Utopia banner, I have been a fan of Todd Rundgren for a very long time. Sure, my previous experience with the live Rundgren had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but… this was Utopia! I knew that I must see the reunited progressive pop quartet that was responsible for the final eight Utopia albums, including ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA and OOPS! WRONG PLANET; Todd would be reuniting with Kasim Sulton, John “Willie” Wilcox and the keyboardist from the initial Todd Rundgren’s Utopia records, Ralph Schuckett, supplanting Roger Powell, who had to step away from playing in 2009 because of his health. When Ralph was forced to recuse himself due to health concerns of his own, Rundgren’s son suggested they check out a guy named Gil Assayas, who stepped into the very large shoes left by Schucket and Powell. Though Sulton and Todd had continued working together since the band’s unofficial dissolution, Utopia had not played together on North American soil for over three decades. Let’s just say that I was more than mildly stoked when I received confirmation that I would be granted access to this show. Before delving into specifics, might I also say that I was not disappointed!

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The guys very wisely split the show into two very different sets: The first half featured the longer, more progressively-attuned material (primarily from the first offering, TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA and the concept album, RA) with a couple of covers tossed in for good measure; the second half of the show concentrated more on the skewed pop asthetics of later records like UTOPIA and SWING TO THE RIGHT. The stage configuration for the first set featured Rundgren center-stage (was there any doubt about that?), Kasim holding down stage right with Wilcox on a riser behind him and Assayas on a riser stage left… a very prog rock look, fitting perfectly with the music. And, what music! Opening the evening’s festivities was a medley of classic Utopia tunes – “Utopia,” “The Ikon” and “Another Life” – which Todd affectionately dubbed “the Storm” after the tempest had subsided. “As you may have surmised, there’s a thing going around and I got it!,” the Runt declared before, apparently, hocking up a lung and ripping into a killer version of the Move’s “Do Ya.” The sound was virtually immaculate other than the occasional over-modulation of Todd’s mic. “Freedom Fighters,” one of my favorite tunes from my favorite Utopia album, is up next and Gil Assayas’ keyboards are on-point with that record’s version.

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Todd Rundgren) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Kasim Sulton) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The high notes were not coming off too well, as Todd’s affliction seemed to get the better of him on “The Wheel.” Later in the tune, Rundgren’s solo falsetto voice sounded stronger, if a bit strained. A very nice version. Kasim Sulton took the lead on “Back On the Street.” The number has a thumping groove and Todd looked absolutely hyped to be working in a true band environment again. Leonard Bernstein’s kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, “Something’s Coming,” from WEST SIDE STORY, comes off sounding very much like a kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, a great detour from the progressive pop that is this bands bread and butter. Kasim was back on lead vocals for “Monument,” a rather lightweight attempt at a hit single from Utopia’s last official studio release, 1985’s POV. The song’s break, however, does feature a really nice solo from Rundgren and a cool short blast from Assayas. A very cool visual backdrop adds to the atmosphere and the power of Willie Wilcox and Assayas’ introduction for “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise.” Sulton and Rundgren join in before a fist-pumping take of “Communion With the Sun,” highlighting the strength of an often-overlooked classic of the progressive era, RA. The coupling was absolutely great, with some nice vocal harmonies and all four players hitting on all cylinders. “Last of the New Wave Riders,” one of the stellar tracks from the group’s 1980 record, ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA, brought the first half of the show to a rousing conclusion. As the curtain closed, Todd tells the crowd, “We’ll see you in twenty.”

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Willie Wilcox) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As the curtain opened for the second set to a recorded intro to “Road To Utopia,” a more traditional stage set-up was revealed, with Willie’s drums now sitting center-stage back, with Gil’s keyboard rig in basically the same spot it occupied before the break; both musicians were now situated on a level with Todd and Kasim, the previous set’s risers having been removed. A quick look at the time as the quartet took the stage again – playing a spirited version of one of my favorite numbers from Utopia’s “pop period” – indicated that they were gone for nearly forty minutes. The additional rest seemed to work wonders for Rundgren’s voice, so I cannot be upset over a break that was nearly twice as long as promised. This second set proved to be punchier than the first, with shorter, more melodic songs emphasizing a true band dynamic. The point is driven home by Kasim Sulton’s lead vocals on the next two tunes, POV’s “Play This Game” and the jazz-tinged “Swing To the Right.” “Trapped” featured a patented Rundgren guitar freakout and, though Todd continued to take a few vocal turns (mostly choruses and harmony parts), it seemed at this point that Kasim was doing most of the leads after the group’s return to the stage. I thought that it may have been Rundgren’s illness forcing a readjustment of the set list but, after checking set-lists from previous nights, it would appear that Sulton’s songs were bunched together like this since the beginning of the tour. “Set Me Free” gave way to a very nice version of “Love In Action,” with Todd once again taking the lead vocal. “Hammer In My Heart” seemed to indicate that the Wizard was saving his voice for the “radio/MTV hits.” Though obviously ailing, Rundgren continued to push through with some quite animated and very spirited guitar histrionics.

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Kasim Sulton, Todd Rundgren) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Gil Assayas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Willie Wilcox got his “Ringo moment,” as he took the lead on “Princess of the Universe,” a very Nazz-like pop thing from 1982’s UTOPIA before Sulton again sings lead on “I Will Wait” from OBLIVION. A Philadelphian at heart, Todd always pushed a bit of the Philly Soul sound into his music. “Rock Love” was his “James Brown moment,” setting aside his guitar, exhorting the crowd and his bandmates like a Baptist preacher on a Sunday morning, to ever greater heights of ecstasy. Kasim, on guitar, played a nifty solo. With Sulton back on bass, Rundgren delivered a powerful, if strained (and guitar-less) “Love Is the Answer” as, finally, the audience rose to its feet for a sing-along, clap-along ending. With the Runt looking a little the worse for wear, he nonetheless strapped on the guitar for the final number of the show proper, “One World.” After a short break, the band returned for one final song, a cover of sorts – an emotional, Gospel-tinged “Just One Victory” from Todd’s 1973 solo release, A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR. The evening was everything I could have hoped for (well, I wouldn’t have minded if they did “Itch In My Brain” but, that’s a minor infraction) and, I gotta say, that even though he wasn’t feeling too well, Mister Rundgren looked pretty good for a guy that’s (mumble-mumble) years old.


ABJECTION RITUAL: SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH

(MALIGNANT RECORDS; 2018)

I am the type of person that likes to thoroughly research any artist that I write about, mentioning each band member and any guest musician’s contribution to the particular recording up for review. Finding ANY information about Abjection Ritual is like collecting hen’s teeth. However, after much scouring of various online data bases, I was able to identify the man behind the sounds. Now, after some soul-searching, I have decided that if this gentleman has gone to such extremes to keep his identity a mystery, I won’t blow it for him here. Suffice to say, the man is genuinely disturbed… the kind of disturbed that all true geniuses seem to share. These are the men and women who create the most adventurous and thought-provoking music, movies, literature, art… each a statement on the world, its populace or, indeed, the inner machinations of the creator of said piece. So… with that out of the way, let’s take a look at SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH, the fourth overall release from Abjection Ritual and second for Malignant Records.

ABJECTION RITUAL (publicity photo)

Previous Abjection Ritual releases have tended toward a kind of synthesized industrial metal. SOUL OF RUIN… sees the now-duo moving in a more organic direction, introducing guitar, bass and a live drummer into the mix of industrial ambience and heavy electronics. “Lamentations” is the shortest piece on the album, a droning dirge of an introduction with haunting female… uh… well, “Lamentations” leads right into “Body of Filth.” Tribal drums, eardrum-piercing feedback and an assortment of other evil sounding instrumentation replaces the hypnotic droning of the intro. Screamed male vocals are introduced before the whole thing devolves into a hive of noise, buzzing toward an unresolved terminus. “Blood Mother” is a sinister, Dio-era Sabbath wall of doom and gloom highlighted by ridiculously heavy riffs and ponderous drums. The middle section – a stinging, horror movie soundtrack – features a female voice (Rennie Resmini) and odd sci-fi sound effects before returning to the ominous bass grind of the track’s central theme. Hoarse, sore-throat inducing vocals plead and exhort, delivering what I must assume is the desired queasy effect. Author Christopher Ropes delivers a spoken word intro to “Deathbed Conversion.” The best analogy I can come up with regarding this one is that it sounds like the gates of Hell opening, inviting in the soul of a dying man. The lyrics are virtually vomited out, either Satan or the tortured soul seeking redemption (or condemnation). I’m not too sure about the conversion, but if the next song, “Ruin,” is any indication, things did not go well. The tone is oddly brighter, with a synthesized orchestra (or, is that a chorus?) seemingly offering light to the aura, if not the soul, of the entire record. Even so, the track features some crushingly heavy guitar and two guttural voices manage to give the tune and even more chaotic sound than the first half of the record. A lone voice, almost plaintive, dominates the second half grind.

“Carnassial Passage” is a kind of throbbing fever dream that somehow brings to mind the classic Alice Cooper tune, “Unfinished Sweet.” That may have more to do with the song title and the creepy drills that keep intruding into the mix. I feel fairly certain that this one would probably give even the Cooper boys nightmares. And that, friends, is a high compliment to the damaged minds behind the tune. The album ends with the nine-minute-plus magnum opus, “Old Sins.” It’s a slow descent into madness with heavily fuzzed-out guitar and bass with screamed vocals before the painful squall of a guitar’s feedback jolts you awake like electroshock therapy gone horribly wrong. Oddly effective and provocative, the minimalist drums make the cut intensely claustrophobic, forcing the listener into an unwelcome introspective haze. And we’re just a little more than halfway in; a more traditional approach is introduced at about 5:15 in, with a somewhat standard chord progression from the bass and Fripp-like sonic sweeps of guitar. Seemingly just out of listening range is what sounds like a psychotherapy session taking place. Taken by itself, “Old Sins” is a most effective and utterly disturbing piece of music; taken as a solitary piece of a larger construct, it seems to be the final abandonment of all hope, the dissolution of the final thread of sanity. The emotional turmoil that the song elicits, the journey we are forced to embark upon is exactly the desired effect that Abjection Ritual was aiming for. All good music, literature, art has the ability to lead its audience down a path that will generate a certain visceral reaction from said audience; SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH as a whole and, particularly, “Old Sins” by itself does exactly that. I was mentally drained from the experience and, just maybe, a different person for having had that experience. That is the kind of art that one rarely experiences nowadays.