KRISTEEN YOUNG: LIVE AT THE WITCH’S TIT

(SELF-RELEASED; 2017)

Holy crap, where did THIS thing come from? I’ve heard some Kristeen Young stuff before and thought it was unusual and compelling, but this record… whoa, mama! It’s full-on ass-kicking weirdness of the kind I used to revel in at the turn of the millennium. Young has been compared to Kate Bush before (her tendency to favor the higher registers, her unconventional delivery), but she also reminds me of a couple of Scandinavian singers such as Sofia Hardig and an artist whose name escapes me. Point is, there is a focused, melodious quality to Ms Young’s voice that you hear at times, but she is making the case here for high-stakes sonic melodrama. Young is a wild thing, untamed and sometimes scary. She takes a risk in virtually every song, and it’s breathtaking. You don’t hear stuff like this very often. And despite that title, this is NOT a live album. It’s Young’s eighth studio album and, although Tony Visconti is listed as co-producer and he has worked with Young for many years, this album was largely recorded just after David Bowie’s death; Kristeen has said Tony was not around that much. Bowie’s passing and the release of BLACKSTAR affected his availability during the sessions. Guitars growl, the bass lumbers around not necessarily keeping it linear, and Young herself stalks these soundscapes like an utterly fearless musical predator. It’s really quite glorious.

KRISTEEN YOUNG (uncredited photo)

In “You Might Be Ted, But I’m Sylvia,” a title that invites discourse, Young carefully balances some emotive, disciplined singing with a series of loud, boisterous piano octaves. At the one-minute mark, a ferocious sound emerges that sounds at first like it could be an attacking animal, but no, it’s an ominous synth sound distorted to resemble a primitive electric guitar, that bites instead. It’ll take a piece right outta ya if you aren’t prepared. “There’s a chance he might disappear,” the singer tells us, before intoning the song’s title, powerfully, preceded and followed by a hypnotically dissonant piano interval banged over and over, taking you prisoner. You CANNOT remain indifferent to the sound slicing into your ears here. You’ll either find it enthralling, as I did, or you’ll run away with your tail between your legs. “Why Am I a Feelmate” turns up the electronica, and takes things into territory occupied by the Knife (I’d be real surprised if Young was not familiar with Karin Dreijer). The vocal is spooky, partially distorted, and the music seems to celebrate chaos. And yet, Young’s control over this boundary-bashing sound is remarkable. I honestly feel rather inadequate to describe it. It’s thoroughly modern and thoroughly uninterested in anything but its own path. You can follow, yes, but you better stay a few steps behind, or something vicious may chomp into you. “These Are the Things I’m Not the Most” (another fascinating title) reminds me of what might happen if the Residents tried rapping for a bit, except the musical wilderness Young is wandering through here might freak out even the Residents. Yes, I just said that. This is really, truly strange rock music by any normal standard. But it DOES rock, and it does move and it does pulse. And it clubs you over the head sometimes, and it contemplates the universe sometimes, and it steps back with its arms crossed and simply stares at you sometimes. Often, in fact. And you don’t want to look away, cause that would make you a wimp. And you will be, some of you. This will put hairs on your chest, honestly. Or send you crying to Mommy.

KRISTEEN YOUNG (photo credit: TONY VISCONTI)

In “I Love You SOOOO Much,” Young sings “I have always been so alone… everything I say/No one can translate,” probably the album’s most self-revealing lyric. The relatively restrained keyboard and pretty-ish vocal really WANT to walk through the door that says “NORMAL,” but they end up entering the room next door, which is labeled “ACCESSIBLE BUT OFF-KILTER.” Young is just too much of an original spirit, after doing this thing for quite a few years, to settle for anything predictable. An early Eno-evoking guitar solo sees the track out the back door, and suddenly the tune ends. Lordy. “Catland” begins with a child’s voice wanting to coax a sound out of a “kitty cat,” but you just KNOW that kind of cuteness will be short-lived. It is. The song quickly turns into a crazed rocker with tempo and chord changes that the likes of Zappa might have admired. There is no attempt to please the audience here at all, unless you are, like me, in the audience that adores flat-out weird music. The word “challenging” was meant for discs like this. And it goes on and on: “Monkey On My Breast,” “I Know You Are a Coward” (you ARE, by the way, if this record overwhelms you), the short and sarcastic ghostly mini-song that calls itself “Everything About You is Always More Important Than Anything About Me,” which is pretty much the full lyric, uncharacteristically. “Come to the Party” offers another insistent piano track before rubbing your face in all sorts of other sounds. Young seems to be issuing an important psychic missive here, but you may or may not receive it. You are probably already whimpering in the back room by now. But she closes with “Different,” certainly the most obvious adjective that timid listeners will apply to this record. There is real melancholy at work in this song, and as this wildly original artist sings “But I’m different” repeatedly, it’s actually a bit touching. I have no idea in the world how audiences have responded to Kristeen Young in the past, and the fact that she is from Saint Louis has me beaming with pride right now. This record is absolutely fucking KILLER. Except for the newest Low album, there isn’t an album that has made a stronger impression on me this year. It’s insane, it’s fresh, it’s completely unpredictable, it’s weird as hell, and apparently proud to be so. Kristeen, I think I’d be afraid to talk to you in person, but allow me to say, totally sincerely, THANK you. Thanks for kicking every kind of ass in the world and showing that yes, a female singer/songwriter can beat most men when it comes to breaking the well-established rules of the game, and not have to apologize in the slightest. I’m in awe of this record. No, it wasn’t recorded live, but my God, does this thing have an unstoppable LIFE force flowing all through it.


DANIELSON: SNAP OUTTAVIT

(JOYFUL NOISE RECORDINGS; 2018)


Love ’em or hate ’em, Danielson, as they have been called for a while (used to be Danielson Famile), have given the pop world one of the most aggressively original and impossible to ignore musical styles ever conceived. That’s not easy to do, and it has something to do with Daniel Smith’s remarkable falsetto voice (he doesn’t use it ALL the time, but it’s there in abundance on the early albums), the crazily off-kilter arrangements and the blend of sweet sonics (the female members of the troop have light, soothing voices which contrast effectively with Smith’s style) with lyrical wildness. It’s no longer a big deal to talk of Smith’s sincere brand of Christianity; there is literally nothing about that which should influence your response to the music anymore. Smith is after bigger game anyway; he has the instincts of an impassioned art rocker, and the razor-sharp focus of your favorite classic rock singer/songwriter. I have been a fan of Smith’s creation since his family’s masterpiece of a second album, TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPING BLOCK. I delighted in hearing the extreme reactions of friends here and there upon encountering this highly original sound. While often challenging and a bit abrasive, I could handle anything Master Smith and company could throw at me. Therefore, it’s a bit odd to report that SNAP OUTTAVIT, a recent five-song Danielson EP, is… accessible. Sorta commercial. Easygoing. There isn’t a single track that would make anyone I know gripe, “Take that off, please!” It’s still original, of course.

The title track features, well, the title, chanted over and over by Smith while his wife Elin and sisters Rachel and Megan sing a contrasting ethereal chorus. It’s kind of strange but definitely not unlistenable. And that weird “chorus,” if you can call it that, stops here and there for a fairly normal verse or two, that sounds like, well, a singer/songwriter with something to say. Whatever that might be. “Dry Goods Dry Power” was released previously on a limited-issue vinyl EP; it’s a catchy, “normal” sounding rocker with a propulsive two-chord structure overall. Sure, there’s an eccentric middle section that has some of Smith’s patented falsetto, but not that much. It certainly is not weird compared to, say “Good News For the Pus Pickers” or “Cutest Li’l Dragon.” By the time you reach “Pendulum Mania” on this disc, you’re sort of WANTING the weirdness, if you’re a dedicated Danielson fan… and this tune mostly delivers. The girls keep singing “Swinging back and forth/Swinging back and forth now,” while Smith goes on about some convoluted topic that moves in a nice non-linear fashion, thematically. This is an imaginative song, and I have no idea what it’s about, but it’s Danielson. I like it!

DANIELSON (David Smith, Elin Smith, Rachel Galloway, Andrew Smith, Daniel Smith, Megan Slaboda) (publicity photo)

Then we get to “On Purpose,” the first song to break the five-minute mark. Here, Smith does a thing he does so well and that I used to dream about doing in a studio myself: chanting a commonly used phrase over and over, in this case, “What do you know?” It’s eminently listenable, beginning with subtle marimba and a surging background sound before that repeat phrase kicks in. Yeah! Best song here, methinks. The structural ambition of Smith’s songs is really a thing to behold, and this’un shows it quite nicely. But again, it’s not abrasive. It won’t drive anyone from the room. In fact, I can imagine some favorable “Hey, what are you playing right now?” type responses. “Who Hears Twell Van Dunder” is the kind of bizarro Danielson title that every album features examples of: What you get here is spoken voices saying things like “So happy to see you” and “Been thinking of you” and tingly marimba notes, before a childlike melody kicks in. I’m betting the children’s voices belong to Danielson offspring, and that everyone had a good time recording this gently ruminative little number. This is family music, all right. But not the family you know down the street. It’s the very talented, very original Danielson family, Mister. They play music. They sing combinations of things you’ve never heard before. They are passionate, driven and in love with life. And even if this modest little disc doesn’t truly blaze new trails, it’s a nice little reminder that one of the most original acts in pop is still out there, doing their thing. It’ll do fine until and if, Smith feels like launching another wacky full-length into the sonic universe. If you’ve never given Danielson a chance before, well, this might be a good time to “snap outtavit.”


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!


3.2: THE RULES HAVE CHANGED

(FRONTIER RECORDS; 2018)

In 1988, Geffen Records released an album of pop music with haughty (some would say pretentious) rock overtones by a band called 3. That band featured two-thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (the sixty-six percent that wasn’t Greg Lake) and multi-instrumentalist journeyman, Robert Berry. The partnership was an attempt to play the more melodic style of progressive rock which had given Palmer and Berry (with Asia and GTR, respectively) some successes in the previous few years. Maybe the impetus grew from Keith Emerson’s desire for a wider audience than he ever experienced in the Nice or ELP; a growing need to be accepted. Whatever brought the three together, the resulting record, … To THE POWER OF THREE, was well received. With the band doing well on the road, Keith began to feel stifled by the record company’s insistence that they strike while the iron was hot, virtually demanding that they return to the studio to begin work on album number two; Keith’s answer was simple: He quit. Fast forward to 2015. Robert found himself in conversations with Italy’s Frontier Records regarding a new project from 3; After consulting with Emerson (but, apparently, not Carl Palmer) regarding the possibility of resurrecting the band, the two began writing and demoing new material, scheduled studio time, signed contracts with Frontier and… as quickly as it began, it was over: Keith Emerson had committed suicide. Reeling from the loss, Berry set aside the project; after a time of grieving and reflecting, Robert decided to once again resurrect the project – utilizing songs and snippets of ideas that he and Emerson had shared – as a final farewell to his friend and band-mate. Working as a one man band, he began work on what would become THE RULES HAVE CHANGED under the name 3.2. Does it work? For the most part, I think so. The record is split fifty-fifty with new Berry compositions and pieces that he and Keith had been working on before the latter’s death. Still, Emerson’s larger-than-life character and overwhelming musical sensibility are felt throughout what Robert has accomplished here.

3.2 (Robert Berry) (publicity photo)

“One By One” starts with a magnificent, cinematic piano piece before a grandiose, symphonic blast of power propels the song into the first verse, where Mister Berry’s pop leanings are on display front-and-center. Here, the number takes on the feel and scope of an Asia-like progressive ballad; the instrumental passages convey a blend of piano-driven Jazz and Classical phrasing, which informed much of Emerson’s career. Time changes and sudden shifts in style over the tune’s seven-plus minutes, while off-putting at first blush eventually come into focus as the ultimate tribute and a heartfelt homage to Keith Emerson. On “Powerful Man,” the original intent of the group is brought into sharper focus, with what could be considered a more radio friendly sound within a simpler – by comparison – more compact and focused five minute rock song, led by Robert’s Emerson-inspired keyboard work. This certainly would not sound out of place nestled between the poppier works of GTR, Asia or even Trevor Rabin-era Yes. With the title track, the pomposity almost crushes the feel of what the artist was trying to convey, lyrically. The song is a double-edged sword, as the words could be taken as a betrayal by a lover or, more deeply, it may also be construed as an open letter in which Robert attempts to heal the wounds torn open by Emerson’s suicide. Perhaps “The Rules Have Changed” would have been better with a more stripped-down approach but, then, Keith Emerson was never known for his subtlety. Referencing many of Emerson’s most well-known riffs, “Our Bond” is, finally, Robert Berry’s soul stripped bare over the loss of a dear friend. Likewise, the music is stripped of any pretensions of grandiosity. This, the third of four numbers written solely by Berry, brought a shiver to my spine, particularly the perfect, lone piano that closes out the piece. It is, by far, my favorite track thus far.

“What You’re Dreaming Now” has the unmistakable mark of Keith Emerson and the glory days of ELP (as well as a bit of ELPowell ‘80s bombast) all over it; Berry’s vocal phrasing even shares a certain quality, if not timbre, with Greg Lake while his drumming exhibits the power of Cozy Powell along with the finesse of Carl Palmer. It may not be the strongest composition on the album, but for sheer progressive physicality, it’s hard to beat. The playful, almost joyful sound of WORKS-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I’m thinking something like “Tiger In a Spotlight” from …VOLUME TWO) are in full effect on “Somebody’s Watching,” with a pumping bass and a guitar set to “power chord stun.” The keyboards sound as if they could have been recorded by Emerson at any time over his illustrious career; as Keith has a co-writing and co-arrangement credit on the tune, one does wonder if Robert used a snippet of a demo that Keith had provided and built the track around that unfinished framework. “This Letter” starts off as beautiful ballad, with a nice acoustic guitar lead and hints and echoes of piano playing around and beneath a ragged vocal; an synth-derived orchestra plays in as the pace begins to quicken at about the halfway mark. All well and good but, the piece begins to morph into a sort of gypsy parody of itself shortly after the introduction of a ragtime piano and we are soon witness to the number devolving into something so far afield from where it began that the joy – for me, anyway – is sucked right out of it. It’s as if Berry has taken two very different songs and jammed them together in an attempt to… what? The first half borders on exceptional while the second half borders on theatrical overkill. Things are definitely back on track with the final track, “Your Mark On The World,” with power chords aplenty and the return of the Emerson penchant for verbose noodling on every keyboard he could get his hands on. As much as I dislike the second half of “This Letter” for that same verboseness, it works in the context of this more upbeat number. Oddly enough, the thing seemed to end way before it was actually over – at 5:20, Robert just… stops! It really felt like it could have and should have gone on for another two minutes, at least. Oh, well… such are the vagaries of Rock and Roll and, if it took me almost an entire record to find something to complain about, I’d say that Robert Berry has done Keith Emerson proud. Well done, Mister Berry!

3.2 (Robert Berry, Keith Emerson) (uncredited photo)


ADRIAN AARDVARK: DYING OPTIMISTICALLY

(EPIFO MUSIC; 2018)

Upon first seeing the name, Adrian Aardvark seemed to me a devouring angel, an agent of the bleakest of Black Metals. Nah… just kidding. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album but, I gotta say, it isn’t at all like anything else I’ve heard before… not even close! I mean, it looks and smells like a rock and roll record, spliced with a fair amount of Americana and not a little bit of angst. Even so, my initial thoughts were leaning toward “Ah! Someone’s rich father has bought studio time for his son and his friends to record an album. Kinda like the Shags, woefully untalented but determined to become a band.” After a couple of songs, however, I began to warm up to, even appreciate, what this motley crew were attempting to convey. Oddly enough, while researching the band for this piece, I was amazed to discover that DYING OPTIMISTICALLY is the group’s seventh release since 2008 (and the first since BONES POSITIVE, an EP released in 2014)! I cannot honestly conceive of how I could have missed anything for the last ten years called Adrian Aardvark, though I am now old enough that such things do escape me upon occasion. Anyway, on to the review…

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee) (photo credit: JERRY CADIEUX)

The first thing that you notice on “Just Us” is alluded to in rather veiled terms up above: Everything (wait… make that EVERYTHING) seems woefully out of tune, with the singer, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, sounding alarmingly like a drunken karaoke enthusiast. Somewhere around the two minute mark, things almost come together, as a fuzzy bass (or, is it a cello?), insistent drumming and the scraping of a violin keep the thing from totally going over the cliff. Bonus points for – unlike the short prelude/introduction/tune-up that starts the song off – everything ending together. “If Only” definitely sounds like a drunken lament to a litany of “what if’s” in a relationship gone very wrong. Stott-Rigsbee lists his transgressions before admitting, “Yes, I am ashamed of my insecurities/Yes, I am ashamed of my stupid feelings.” Here, the music kinda sounds more in tune and of one mind, occupying a certain feedback/drone frequency that is not unappealing. In fact, the discordant buzz of the whole mess is really starting to grow on me. The cello takes a more prominent spot on “Peace In a Loving Way,” with Shannon Stott-Rigsbee droning away masterfully. The lyrics seem as though they are wedged into a melody that is simply too small to adequately contain them; try, for instance, to fit the first verse into any standard rock format without breaking your tongue: “Through updates, versions and brand new postages/The letters inside remain the same as they travel to/You through signals unseen, speaking words/Floating like waves whisper your way.” It ain’t easy. Even so, at less than two-and-a-half minutes, it feels like you’re in and out almost before you realize that the sound – and, in fact, the entire record – is actually becoming, not only palatable but, begrudgingly enjoyable, as well. The bizarrely-titled “Young Pharaohs and Horses” comes with an equally bizarre video… as it should! Drummer Daz Bard adds a bit of trombone to the proceedings, with Shannon chiming in with a scratchy (whinnying?) violin part; the weird, out-of-place gang vocals, like just about everything else on this album, are no doubt added to merely muddle the lyrical issue. Four songs in and Christopher is starting to come across as more of a true musical genius, as opposed to the offspring of a wealthy Daddy Warbucks type bankrolling his kid’s musical aspirations. “I Don’t Wanna Love No More” is a step back for me. It isn’t necessarily that the sentiments aren’t spot-on in a society of individuals struggling to find their place but, the acapella (aside from three drum rolls somewhere in the middle) delivery – impassioned as it is – just doesn’t do it for me. “Little Girl,” however, is a completely different beast. Despite some rather questionable lyrics: “I am a little girl in a big big world/My dress so clean and my hair is curled” and “Don’t you want to ride with me/Don’t you want to sleep with me” (allusions to Christopher Stott-Rigsbee’s… uh… fluid sexual identity, I know, but… still… ), this is the most fully realized, hardest rocking and most in-tune song so far. A throbbing bass line (Catherine Harrison-Wurster… on the upright, no less) and a frantic vocal performance from Christopher highlight the number.

Creaky Wooden Floor” opens the second half – continuing the strong showing from “Little Girl” – with more weird metaphorical (metaphysical?) lyrics about beets and elephants. The song is pretty nifty, in a New Country kind of way and is delivered, like the previous four tracks, in a short, punk rock fashion. On “Get Gotten,” a chunky guitar riff rides along for a spell before being joined by a very nice violin part; the unmelodic, unnerving howls of Stott-Rigsbee deliver quite an impressive effect. Somewhere about two minutes in, the whole thing shifts gears amidst a beautifully shambolic break before completely collapsing in upon itself at the end. I may have just crowned a new favorite track! There is an insistent hint of didgeridoo (a masterfully understated performance by Christopher) throughout “Horny Wildebeast,” which seems perfectly natural given the song’s title. After a rather rambunctious start, the final four minutes or so seem to settle into a nice mid-tempo with – dare I say? – quietly elegant violin and cello dancing over the top. “Oo Ra Ra” and “The Sun” form a sort of intermingled couplet, with melody, choruses and chanting kinda running through the two-as-one pieces (or, piece, as the case may be). The former is a surprisingly melodic bit of falderol with lyrics somehow befitting the proceedings, such as “Put down the knife, we don’t have to fight/We can make love till morning’s light.” The number eventually devolves into the type of musical chants that the “natives” in all of those old Johnny Weissmuller movies are so fond of. “The Sun” blasts forth from that, a forceful, blistering piece of noise of the type I find so appealing. The lyrics here tend to lean toward a rather cogent warning from everybody’s favorite ball of light: “Feel my heat/Feel the cancer/You can’t be given life/Without being given death.” Oh, Sun, you’re such a kidder! A cool, unexpected blast of the Blues, filtered through various other styles of what has generally become known as “Americana” may, at a mere five-and-a-quarter minutes, prove “Misery Shaker” to be Adrian Aardvark’s magnum opus. Time changes and style shifts glide together seamlessly, held together by the superior percussive efforts of Daz Bird.

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee) (uncredited photo)

As mentioned at the outset, I was totally unprepared for the musical onslaught of Adrian Aardvark and was, initially, taken aback by the complete atonality of the first track but… I must say that I have been richly rewarded by sticking with the program, seeing it through to its brilliant climax. Heck, I may just have to revisit the group’s Bandcamp page and listen to their other releases… after I’ve rested up a bit from this DYING OPTIMISTICALLY experience.


ANCIENT: BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD

(SOULSELLER RECORDS/ELLEFSON MUSIC PRODUCTIONS; 2016) UPDATE BELOW

Ancient Cover Artwork

Twelve years after the band’s last release (NIGHT VISIT) and seven years after the latest version of the band came together, Ancient is back with what may be their most nuanced music ever. The album is not without problems, but BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD is more than solid enough to keep the group’s diehard fans happy and new listeners – like me – intrigued. The album exists in both digital and CD forms, as well as a two record set, pressed on beautiful gray vinyl (available only from Soulseller Records; EMP has released a marbled blue version); this review follows the latter’s format.

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Thunderous double bass drums explode on the de facto title track, “Land of the Dead,” while the guitars and bass seem to be buried in the muck and mire of a poorly executed mix. The vocals of band founder, Zel (shortened from Aphazel), are of the standard black metal variety: Gutteral, but not in the least bit unpleasant, as some other voices in the genre can be. The guitars begin to distinguish themselves in the second half of the tune, particularly with an odd, short solo that somehow works within the context of the driving hailstorm of noise. “Beyond the Blood Moon” features rudimentary progressive riffing. Once more, the vocals are buried in the mix a bit too much to be REALLY effective; a shame, too, as the lyrics are a cut above: “Chaos, fear, turmoil, despair/Millions dazed, trapped in the snare” and “What lies beyond the blood moon?/Will the end occur too soon?” are just samplings of the song’s bleakness. Plus, bonus points are awarded for fitting “sagacity” and “antediluvian” into the densely constructed wordscape. Okay… with “The Sempiternal Haze,” I’m finally starting to get a bead on Zel’s voice; it falls somewhere between that dude from Venom and King Diamond (though without the latter’s range). The levels seem to be… uh… leveling out, as the gigantic bass and guitar riffs are a bit louder than the drums, without dampening the full-throttle pounding one iota; the vocals seem to be cranked more, as well. A softer, more melodic break – a la Tony Iommi – leads into a nice guitar solo.

The Empyrean Sword” sets a wicked-fast pace from the get-go. The drums sound like helicopter blades decapitating a group of people who forgot to duck; the guitars churn and roil as the bass pounds in rhythm to the breakneck speed of Nicholas Barker’s percussion work. Some very nice guitar flourishes show up, once more, during a couple of slow breaks, the last right before Barker tears into a final, rapid-fire martial beat that would make Thunderstick proud. On “The Ancient Disarray,” another Iommi-esque guitar noodle leads into a downward spiral of chaos. The track features more pronounced guitar and vocals but, in breaking lockstep with Zel’s guitar parts, Dhilorz weaves some fairly interesting bass runs just below and through both the vocals and guitars. The vocals give way to an arcane-sounding incantation which lends a certain sense of authenticity to the whole affair, particularly as it leads to the song’s abrupt end. “Occlude the Gates” finds Zel’s voice taking on an animalistic, demonic air, even as the music assumes a more measured approach. The drum parts seem to be more well thought-out and… musical and powerful, as opposed to speed for the mere want of speed; the guitars hit on a majestic Maiden-like riff progression, sounding quite crisp and on-point. Even though the vocals are harder to decipher here, the song is actually one of the best on BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD.

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

The majority of side three encompasses a three part “suite” called “The Excruciating Journey,” an apt title indeed, as themes of darkness and light, good and evil poke a finger in the eye of world politics. As the vocals continue to be brought to the fore in a more aggressive manner, the lyrics seem to become more garbled. However, with the triumvirate’s first movement, “Defiance and Rage,” the charging guitars and perpetual brutality of the drums continue unabated, making the piece virtually impossible to ignore. “The Prodigal Years” shows a softer side of the band… musically, anyway. Here, the lyrics are delivered in whispers, barely audible, which makes the song even creepier. “The Awakening,” the final piece of the triptych, is a return to the musical themes of “Defiance and Rage.” As the trio turns up the heat, Zel gets right to the heart of the matter: “Rot! Grime! Angst and blight!” The second chorus tears the scab completely off the festering wound, intoning, “Just a neverending disarray, can’t avoid going astray/Like a fly in a flushing toilet/Surely seems the end has come.” The music doesn’t become less urgent or bludgeoning on “Death Will Die,” but there is something violently majestic about the guitars and keyboards that make this one a stand out. In fact, with Zel’s voice turning back to the biting growl of the first several tracks, this could just be the best tune on the record.

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Side four opens with “The Spiral.” Powerful and intriguing, the tune’s circular (dare I say, “Spiraling?”) guitar figure offers up the record’s ultimate classic rock riff, referencing Alice Cooper and Deep Purple,as well as the twin-guitar assault of bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. As cool as “Death Will Die” is, this track comes in a close second, due to its diversity in approach; for six-plus minutes, the band manages to incorporate not only several styles of metal, but straight-forward 1970s hard rock into the album’s matrix, including a slight slowing of the tempo behind a cool dual guitar part. Again, a more pronounced keyboard presence adds to the overall effect. It seems that band mastermind Zel has divided …LAND OF THE DEAD into two quite different parts. The first five or six numbers are playing to the Ancient base – the long-time fans who are here for the dome-crushing blackened riffs and ceaseless drive of the double kicks; the second is, for want of a better term, more experimental, giving the trio a chance to stretch out and display their talents on a wider stage. “Petrified By Their End” is a perfect example: While maintaining the band’s ultra-heavy roots, it tends to lean toward the progressive. There are four distinct sections to the nine-and-a-half minute piece that will hold even the most cynical listener rapt throughout. In point of fact, the Alice reference comes into play again as, at about the six minute mark, there’s a buzzing beehive guitar solo that reminds me of Glen Buxton’s killer (pun intended) work on “Halo of Flies.” The album ends with a bonus track (but, not really a bonus, as it appears on every configuration and version of the record). “13 Candles” is a cover of the Bathory tune that I’m not sure really adds anything to the original, but covers are always fun. Having just discovered Ancient with this album, I have just one request: Please… don’t wait another dozen years to release your next record.

(UPDATE) After further listens to BACK FROM THE LAND OF THE DEAD, I must amend my thoughts regarding the sound quality on the first few tracks of the record. The sound is not as muddied and muffled as I originally opined; seemingly, the problem actually lies with the digitized version I used for this review. So… turn it up and enjoy!


ROB ZOMBIE: THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER

(ZODIAC SWAN RECORDS/T-BOY RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES; 2016)

The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Di

For whatever it’s worth, I was one of those people who could either take it or leave it as far as the wildly, improbably popular band White Zombie were concerned. Why? I don’t know… wrong time, wrong place? Maybe it was the demonic over-saturation at Alternative Radio (you seemingly couldn’t swing a severed head without hitting a DJ playing, having just played or getting ready to play “Thunder Kiss ’65” or “More Human Than Human” between 1992 and 1997 or so). Whatever, I was just never that into the band; however, fast forward a year or two and the release of vocalist/visionary Rob Zombie’s solo debut, HELLBILLY DELUXE, and I was hooked. In the ensuing years, the erstwhile banner-waver for low-rent, science-fiction based shock rock has expanded his influence, taking his playfully bent visions into other media… most successfully in the realms of indie comic books and movies. He’s also become quite the live draw, as well as an in-demand producer and co-writer in certain musical circles, as well as a professional “guest vocalist,” having made appearances on several Alice Cooper albums. When the Coopers were (finally!) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rob did the honors.

Rob Zombie (John Five, Rob Zombie, Piggy D, Ginger Fish) (publicity photo)

Rob Zombie (John Five, Rob Zombie, Piggy D, Ginger Fish) (publicity photo)

THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER (say that three times fast… heck, say that once without messing it up!) marks Zombie’s sixth solo release of twisted boogie metal, and though it would be easy to dismiss this record as just more of the same, it would appear that the living dead man still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Does it sound like Rob Zombie? Well… duh! You see, the thing about an artist like Rob is this: No matter how much someone complains about everything sounding the same, the first time Zombie and his band deviate one iota from the accepted sound and formula, the fans are gonna yell that he doesn’t care about his REAL fans and he has – DUNH, DUNH, DUNH! – sold out. So, THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… sticks to what has worked in the past, while adding just enough “different” to be subversive. “The Last of the Demons Defeated” is a 90-second introduction with Rob chanting/intoning “Electric warlock… electric warlock… electric warlock acid witch” over a massive tribal stomp. The second track begins with a cartoon voice delivering a well-known mantra of those uptight traveling tent revival preachers from the ’50s through the ’80s, decrying rock music as “Satanic cyanide” before erupting with a from-the-bowels Death Metal vocal over a Sabbath-worthy riff before a murderous Zombie relates his story of how rock turned him into a depraved maniac over a swirling cacophony of guitars (courtesy of this record’s secret weapon, John Five); the song’s title, obviously, is “Satanic Cyanide! The Killer Rocks On!” plus… bonus points for fitting the phrase “mohair coffin” into the lyrics. Continuing the insanely long titles, “The Life and Times of a Teenage Rock God” is more to form, with Zombie’s rumbling, staccato vocal delivery; there is a cool “Spaghetti Western” synth break toward the end of the track, provided by Zeuss. “Well, Everybody’s Fucking In a UFO” follows, a weird metal hoedown filled with allusions of getting high (either by smoking some weed or breathing some swamp gas), being abducted by aliens and being… uh… probed. Rob’s whacked-out backwoods voice is hilarious and definitely adds to the silliness. The exquisitely named interlude, “A Hears Overturns With the Coffin Bursting Open,” starts off with a voice repeating “So revolting and yet so interesting” over and over before giving way to a quite pretty acoustic guitar, disturbing in its elegance. The final tune on Side One of the vinyl version of THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… is “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Gore Whore,” is kind of a ’60s-style Farfisa-heavy garage homage to THE MUNSTERS and bad horror movies, featuring such genre-worthy lyrics as “She got Vincent Price tattooed on her thigh/Below a devil bat with a crazy eye” and “So much blood everywhere/And all she wants is more.” The images this number evokes makes it one of my favorites of this release.

Rob Zombie, OZZFEST (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rob Zombie, OZZFEST (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Side Two” of the record stays the course set by the first half, with “Medication For the Melancholy” playing up the misconception that celebrities have lives far-and-above those of “ordinary people,” steamrolling the more listener-friendly lyric put forth by Mark Knopfler more than thirty years ago with Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.” John Five once more delivers a trippy, effects-laden solo and suitably like-minded leads; Ginger Fish’s drumming is… BIG, as always. It would seem that “subtle” is something Ginger doesn’t do well, nor would we want him to. “In the Age of the Consecrated Vampire We All Get High” is more like White Zombie’s syncopated stomp than anything else on THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… , with an incredible backward solo from John. And, I don’t know if it’s the mix or the playback systems I’ve been listening on but, this is the first time on the album that Piggy D’s bass stands out, a wicked thump and rumble that perfectly fits this song. “Super-Doom-Hex-Gloom Part One” is another short (relatively speaking) interlude with a short spoken-word introduction before evolving into a series of computer blips and a throbbing synth bass, a weird piece of soundtrack music to an even weirder, cheaply produced early 1970s horror movie. With guitars set to stun and effects a-plenty from Zeuss’ keyboard and Piggy’s bass and Zombie’s processed voice delivering a litany recounting his reasons for being (“Well – I was born a rotten freak/Slicking back a widows peak,” “Well – I was born on Hullabaloo/Mind control is what I do”), “In the Bone Pile” is one of the more satisfying tracks on the record. Plus… ya gotta love the images that title conjures in your mind. “Get Your Boots On! That’s the End of Rock and Roll” is truly the only full-tilt rock and roll song here, with pummeling rhythms from Ginger and Piggy and a vicious solo from John Five. The record clocks in at 31 minutes, more or less, with each of the first eleven tracks running an economical 2:58 or less, which makes the final cut, “Wurdalak,” somewhat of an anomaly with a run time of five-and-a-half minutes. It’s all Rob’s phased voice spitting out Lovecraftian lyrics over some spooky music and noises until the final couple of minutes, which turns into a creepy piano coda that sounds right out of THE EXORCIST… somehow a fitting end to the insanity of the last half hour. So, is this the greatest record ever made? Is it the greatest Rob Zombie record ever made? Will it change lives? Will it make the world a better place? The answer to all four questions is, “No.” But, if you ask me if it’s fun, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” And… what more can you ask from a rock and roll record?


DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR

(ISO/SONY RECORDS; 2016)

Blackstar

KEVIN RENICK review:

Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

BILL WINER review:

I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”


HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES: HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES

(JOHN VARVATOS RECORDS/REPUBLIC RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES; 2015)

Though I am an avid connoisseur of all things Alice Cooper, as well as a fan of the Joe Perry Project (and the guy’s other, lesser known band, Aerosmith), I have had a falling out with Johnny Depp over the past 13 years or so (I suppose I can forgive him for DARK SHADOWS, but… THE LONE RANGER? No my friend… that is a step too far… a step too far, I say!) As you can imagine, I was trapped betwixt the proverbial rock and an unyielding hard spot. My hard-headedness nearly cost me the chance to hear what turned out to be a really cool record but, thanks to a dear friend and her Christmas spirit, I was soon the proud owner of HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES… on magnificent black vinyl, no less. At first blush, this would appear to be the covers album that the Coop has been touting for the last few years… with a couple of tasty originals bookending the nostalgic trip down Alice’s drunken memory lane; apparently, though, that one’s still in the works. Oh… the record also features a butt-ton of special guests and old friends. Did I forget to mention that?

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp) (publicity photo)

While HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES is essentially a covers record dedicated to Alice’s “dead, drunk friends,” those delectable morsels are indeed bookended by a pair of originals… well, three, actually, with “The Last Vampire” acting as an introduction to the album, as well as to “Raise the Dead.” The short piece features Sir Christopher Lee reciting a vampiric lament from Bram Stoker’s DRACULA over a soundscape created by producer Bob Ezrin and Depp (with a little help from Justin Cortelyou). This may actually be Sir Christopher’s – forever Count Dracula to me – last performance before his death. “Raise the Dead” itself is the kind of song that Alice Cooper (the band) could have come up with. In fact, it’s so good that I’m a bit miffed that Depp had a hand in writing it and plays some pretty good guitar, to boot. One of Alice’s regular guitarists, Tommy Henriksen, also makes an appearance, evoking the memory of Glen Buxton and his psychedelic freak-outs. Current Alice Cooper drummer, Glen Sobel (who I thought was just mailing it in of late, particularly on the RAISE THE DEAD – LIVE FROM WACKEN release), also makes his first (recorded) Vampires appearance and, though he lacks Neal Smith’s percussive finesse, powers the tune along quite nicely. Along with bassist Bruce Witkin (who also gets a co-writing credit), he delivers a magnificently sludgy Zombie-like rhythm bed for the others to play over. Don’t you just love redemption stories? This early into the game, I’m already wondering what a full album of Vampires originals would sound like. So, now, it’s on to the covers. First up is “My Generation,” a song that the Coop has done off-and-on as an encore for a couple of decades with his tongue firmly set in his cheek. This salute to fellow Vampire (the drinking variety) Keith Moon is kind of a stripped down version for this group, with only bass, two guitars (again, Depp and Henriksen) and drums from the Who’s longtime skin basher, Zak Starkey (who I think is related to Paul McCartney or one of those other Beatle-type guys), who adds an extra bit of thunder to the proceedings. Zak sticks around to represent another of Alice’s departed drummer friends, John “Bonzo” Bonham, on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The intro to the song is absolutely mesmerizing, with Alice’s harmonica and slow burn vocals bolstered by some awesome Kip Winger bass playing and Joe Walsh’s slide guitar before the song kicks in full force. AC/DC’s Brian Johnson joins in on vocals, singing some serious ear-damaging high parts (I initially thought that it may have been Ann Wilson singing) and hot-shot guitarist Orianthi (again from Alice’s band) adds a wicked solo. Holy crap, boys and girls… this one may actually be better than the original!

Walsh sticks around for a rousing version of the Spirit classic, “I Got a Line On You,” as does Winger on bass. Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction fame, for you kids who don’t listen to the “new” music) joins Alice on vocals and longtime session drummer, Abe Laboriel Junior, shows us exactly why Paul McCartney keeps him on his payroll. This is a far better version than the hair metal version that the Coop did for the TOP GUN II soundtrack. Cooper, Depp, Henriksen, Witkin and Laboriel deliver fairly faithful versions of two songs from the Doors, “Five To One” and “Break On Through (To the Other Side),” with Alice channeling Jim Morrison’s Lizard King persona. Charlie Judge makes an appearance as Ray Manzarek while the legendary Robby Krieger (yeah… THAT Robby Krieger) absolutely tears it up on lead guitar. A nearly forgotten member of the original Hollywood Vampires, songwriter par excellence Harry Nilsson, is represented by a pair of his most well-known pieces: “One,” which Three Dog Night rode to the top of the charts (well… number 5, actually) in 1969 and “Jump Into the Fire,” from Harry’s 1971 masterpiece, NILSSON SCHMILSSON. Perry Farrell is back and Krieger continues to shred on the solos. Foo Fighters front-man Dave Grohl joins the festivities on drums… I guess old habits die hard.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Abe Laboriel Junior, Johnny Depp, Paul McCartney, Brian Johnson, Alice Cooper, Joe Perry) (photo credit: KYLER CLARK/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP)

If you’ve ever wondered what a duet featuring Sir Paul McCartney and Alice Cooper would sound like, wonder no more. Abe Laboriel Junior’s boss lends a few of his many talents to the song that launched Badfinger’s career, “Come and Get It,” playing piano and bass, as well as singing. Joe Perry finally makes an appearance, joining the guitar frenzy alongside Johnny Depp. Alice, Tommy, Glen and Bruce get a bit funky with Marc Bolan on “Jeepster,” from the T Rex album ELECTRIC WARRIOR. Joe and Johnny add some glamorous guitar, as is only fitting. The same group also delivers a very heavy version of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” with Perry soloing nicely. The heaviness adds – if you’ll pardon an unintended pun – weight to Lennon’s lyrics. While there may be better Lennon songs for the boys to cover, this is a really cool version of this one. “Manic Depression” sees the return of Joe Walsh and Zak Starkey to the studio. Though Jimi Hendrix was well-known for his guitar histrionics, this tune was more in line with the Rhythm and Blues he loved, with the fiery soloing replaced with a more riff-based sound that allowed Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell a lot of free space to kinda go wild. Here, the Vampires do the same thing, keeping things simple over the top while Witkin’s bass rumbles and Starkey’s drums steamroll through the understated guitar work of Depp, Walsh and Henriksen. While it’s hard to beat the original ARE YOU EXPERIENCED version, this is one of the better cover versions out there.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Joe Perry, Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper) (photo credit: ROSS HAFLIN)

Alice goes mod with the psychedelic pop of the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” a weird sort of song for this band to try to tackle. But, you know what? They pull it off, with a wink and a nod to the whole “Peace and Love Through Altered States” late ‘60s mentality (and Alice’s – as well as Johnny’s – own well-documented bouts of altered states), especially near the end, when the music is brought to an abrupt, record-scratching end and Alice asks, “Uh… because I’m HIGH?” before the background singers bring us back around to the tune. Musically, Tommy does most of the heavy-lifting on guitar, though Depp proves himself a stand-out guitarist, as well. For quite awhile now, Alice’s solo shows have featured the no-brainer coupling of “School’s Out” with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall, Part Two.” The track bristles with electricity, as Brian Johnson returns to hit some high notes to counter balance the Coop’s growl and Slash and Joe Perry join Depp and Henriksen (oh… and Bruce Witkin, too) for some wicked soloing and a little slash-and-burn riffing along the way. And, of course, what better rhythm section to have behind this magnificent mayhem than two-fifths of the original band, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith? In an album of highlights, this may very well be my favorite, as the basic “School’s Out” groove weaves it way in and out of both songs. “My Dead Drunk Friends” is a tune that Alice has played for a couple of years now. It certainly puts a fitting exclamation point to the first Hollywood Vampires album, with the group pared down to the five songwriters (Cooper, Depp, Henriksen, Witkin and producer Bob Ezrin) and drummer Glen Sobel. The tune is a swinging waltz with a bluesy kinda sway and a Depp (I’m guessing) solo to match. It features a particularly snotty vocal from Alice as he toasts the carnage that drink and drug wrought on the original Vampires. The zombie-fied (or, should that be “zombie-fried?”) chorus and the wind-down fade, with Ezrin’s just slightly off-kilter tack piano, definitely add to the faux drunken feel of the song, highlighting the spirit – if not the reality – of those bygone days of stupefied revelry.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, Joe Perry onstage) (uncredited photo)

There is a “deluxe version” of HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES out there, with three extra tracks: The Who’s “I’m a Boy” (seems a natural for Alice to sing), “Seven and Seven Is” by Love’s Arthur Lee (a song that Alice recorded back in 1981 for his SPECIAL FORCES album) and an original called “As Bad As I Am.” If, like most of us, you are digitally tuned-in, you can buy this digital album and pick up these tunes as a bonus. While much of the music I receive nowadays is of the digital variety, there is still something very special to me about holding an actual record in my hand and watching as the needle drops on that first track, especially with this release.


WIZARDS OF WINTER

(December 18, 2015; EFFINGHAM PERFORMANCE CENTER, Effingham IL)

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Let me say this upfront: I do not go in for these big Christmas spectacles. I have never seen the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I have never seen Mannheim Steamroller; I have never bemoaned the fact that I’ve never seen either act. The same could probably be said about the Wizards of Winter, as well, so I was perhaps a bit apprehensive when their publicist, Arielle, contacted me to review the show. All I can say is, “Thank you, Arielle!” I came away with an entirely new perspective regarding these types of shows. Not only was the show’s choreography amazing, the narration spot-on and the music both stirring and hard-rocking, highlighting both the Christian and secular aspects of Christmas, but every member of the band and their crew – right down to the bus driver – went out of their way to make me feel at ease and, yes, at home, amongst their little group. Additionally, the management and staff of the Effingham Performance Center made my first visit there as easy and pain-free as any venue I’ve ever worked. Thank you all for making this night’s assignment such a joy.

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band asked me to try to get a few shots from behind the drum riser into the crowd. The idea sounded good to me; however, the smoke machines were working overtime, which caused problems seeing the front of the stage, much less past the lights into the crowd. It did offer a unique glimpse into the band, though. The show kicked off with the first track from the group’s new album, THE MAGIC OF WINTER. As an overture, the instrumental “Flight of the Snow Angels” had everything you would expect from a holiday show, including heavy metal keyboard bombast, massive soloing from guitarists Fred Gorhau and TW Durfy, flautist Sharon Kelly and violinist Natalia Niarezka and… snow? Yeah, snow. The illusion was pretty cool and set the feeling for the entire evening. The albums “title track,” “Winter Magic,” was next, followed by another instrumental, the relatively quiet piano-dominated “The Arctic Flyer” and the power ballad, “Special Feeling,” which featured some nice dual lead guitar and the introduction of former Trans-Siberian Orchestra vocalist Guy LeMonnier. Both of the numbers are from last year’s eponymous record (and, apparently, an earlier version called TALES BENEATH A NORTHERN STAR). With drummer Tommy Ference pounding away and Gorhau and Durfy trading solos and power chords, it was hard not to get into the spirit of the season or, at least, into the progressive rock monster on stage. Sharon Kelly (co-founder of the group, with her husband, Scott), keyboardist Mary McIntyre and Natalia Niarezka added, not only a touch of beauty but, some nice choreographed flourishes, as well. With “First Snow,” we were presented with the first of several TSO covers (along with a few others).

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The music could very easily have carried the entire show but, Tony Gaynor’s presence, delivering a loose narrative thread, utilizing the accepted Christian nativity, as well as adding bits of ancient Winter Solstice celebrations and the legend of Santa Claus, was impressive. You are definitely drawn to Gaynor when he’s onstage, hanging on his every word. The first half of the show ended with a retelling of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, highlighted by Scott’s keyboards (approximating a harpsichord and a pipe organ). The song, “Ebeneezer,” was sandwiched between a pair of covers, the pomp of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Nut Rocker” (itself, a cover of a 1962 Bumble and the Stingers recording of Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers” from THE NUTCRACKER) and the TSO hit, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” (again, a cover of a cover, as TSO progenitor, Savatge first recorded the medley of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” for their 1995 album, DEAD WINTER DEAD). The latter, coupling a pair of the most well-known and beloved Christmas Carols of all time, was certainly stirring and elicited one of the loudest reactions from the audience.

Wizards of Winter (Tommy  Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tommy Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

During the short intermission, someone called the bass player (who I’d been eying all night long as someone I should know) “Greg” and, as the light went on over my head, I turned into the fan-boy that I am, pointed to him and said, “You’re Greg Smith. You used to play with Alice.” Sharon said, “Yeah, and we borrowed him from Ted Nugent’s band for this tour. He gets around.” Suddenly, this whole thing had been elevated a notch in my estimation, as if the spectacle (and the warmth of the band and the crew themselves) hadn’t already made this a great night. As the second part of the show opened, more keyboard and guitar bombast was in the air, with the hard-driving “March of the Metal Soldiers.” It’s obvious that this is a band of consummate – if not virtuoso – musicians, as they exhibited on several instrumentals throughout the evening, including “Gales of December,” which highlighted Sharon’s flute and some killer dual shredding from Fred and TW. A definite highlight of the night came when Mary McIntyre donned a little red Missus Claus costume, heading into the crowd for a spirited “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Another instrumental, “Toys Will Be Toys,” saw the vocalists tossing mini beach balls into the audience, as well as featuring a nice Natalia Niarezka violin solo. Even though all of the vocalists continued to be featured, the metal maven, Vinny Jiovino, was fully in charge of the second set, with his keening vocals falling somewhere between Dee Snider and Mark Slaughter, including a great version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The anthemic “Spirit of Christmas” closed the show proper. “Requiem,” the fifth and final Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover, opened the encore before the rousing, everybody-in finale, “With One Voice.”

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I really cannot say enough about the friendly atmosphere the band fostered backstage and, when I mentioned seeing a young special needs fan in the audience, Vinny and the rest went out of their way to make sure she had a mini beach ball, autographed by the entire band (I’m sure I made a pain of myself in securing the autographs for the young lady). So… maybe next year, not only will I revisit the Wizards of Winter, but add the TSO and Mannheim Steamroller to my winter concert schedule also.