Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Music Review - The Elms - Truth, Soul & Rock & Roll

It appears that a great deal has happened to this little Christian band since I reviewed their second album back in 2003. They got a major label release and toured with big names and ultimately decided to pack it all in after a fourth album. I just heard their shrewdly titled "Back In Indiana" song, which got licensed for basketball or something, and it sounded like what I remember of The Elms: well played but mostly generic rootsy rock.

Hailing from Seymour, Indiana, The Elms caused quite a stir among Christian music critics with their 2001 release The Big Surprise. That ghetto is unfortunately known for generating a sterilized copy of whatever is hot this week among the major leagues, so when a band like The Elms comes along, a band that so fully incorporates its influences as to make a unique sound, bored critics ruin computer keyboards in droves with excess salivation.

Their follow-up, Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, exhibits the same qualities as their debut: guitar-driven alt-power-pop played by a very tight band with lots of energy and polish. Lyrically they skate the fence, being spiritual enough for Christian radio and ambiguous enough to appeal to fans of their myriad non-Christian influences.

The classic stadium rocker “Speaking In Tongues” starts the show with an obvious Skynyrd guitar lick and an upbeat George Thorogood feel. As this is the radio single, heavy gospel choir and organ are added to temper the raw rock as a kowtow to make the song palatable for Christian radio formats. The second single, “You Saved Me”, keeps these same musical elements but in a slower anthem format. Here, as in other slow songs, the vocalist sounds like a cross between Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish and PFR, in other words, strong, clean and appealing.

With the label-required two radio songs out of the way, The Elms break loose with “All The While Having Fun!,” dispensing with the choirs and organs and going heavy with the guitar-driven, punk-inspired British rock sound of their first album. Simple yet solid song construction, tasty vocal harmonies and a melodic guitar solo highlight this song. “Burn and Shine” is a breezy smile with shimmering, clear melodies and a tinge of late 60s flower music … a perfect feel-good song that would make even Mr. Magoo crack a smile. Heavy on the Oasis influence is “The First Day,” a melancholy ballad fleshed out by orchestral strings supplied by The Lovesponge Trio. Fans of Queen would likely enjoy “Come To Me” which finds the vocalist sounding similar to Freddie Mercury before exploding to a big, big Brian May sound with a blinding flash of lights and guitars. Gentle acoustic guitar and relaxed vocal harmonies characterize the Nickel Creek-ish “Go Toward The Glow,” and solid rock guitar is to be found on both “Through the Night” and “Happiness”. The final track, “Smile At Life Again,” is a quiet closer with acoustic guitars, a bittersweet melody, encouraging lyrics, and an impressive, vulnerable performance.

While firmly set in the school of All-Things-Beatles, The Elms are able to bring in enough of the raw Rolling Stones and classic rock sounds to give their songs a unique and diverse twist. While not the best Christian music I’ve ever heard. I have no doubt these Hoosiers could make Jars of Clay eat Indiana clay any day of the week.


First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Paul Westerberg - Stereo/Mono

How many albums do I need to revisit? I recall liking this one but it was really, really rough.

Before a good friend recommended this album to me the most I’d ever heard of The Replacements was through the They Might Be Giants song “We’re The Replacements.” I knew of the legendary band but didn’t know that they practically invented both grunge and alt-rock in the mid-80s, unfortunately dissolving the way bands often do while others rode their invention to fame and lucre. While originally a democratic band, the group later came to be dominated by singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and his penchant for writing loud, sloppy, enthusiastic, punk-inspired rock and countrified ballads.

Stereo/Mono combines both of these disparate musical worlds by surgically splitting them onto two discs.

“Mono” is recorded by Paul’s altar ego, Grandpaboy, an ornery, beer-on-cereal, aging rocker who specializes in straight-ahead rockers full of raw, bluesy yet melodic songs. Known for his disdain of modern recording technology, the 11 ragged tracks of “Mono” were recorded in Paul’s basement in mono, usually with Paul unconscious upstairs with a concussion arising from a scratched guitar to the back of the head. Everything is run through an old Fender amp, according to the liner notes, “recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands.” Grandpaboy’s made-for-rock’n’roll voice and garage band guitars bang through a rough set of crunchy guitar riffs that capture the energy and inspiration of Tim-era The Replacements. Favorites include the intense and instantly likeable “Between Love & Like” and “High Time,” where a disconcerting echo gives the impression G-boy pointed his lone amp straight at a concrete wall and cut loose.

As unpolished as “Mono” is, it’s nothing compared to “Stereo.” Missed lines, room noise, tape running out in mid-verse and more, Paul started the tape rolling and captured the invigorating excitement of the first take. In the place of rowdy rock the listener is treated to sparse, soul-baring ballads containing the kind of dark, melancholy hooks and crusty, tearful vocals only Westerberg could write. “Baby learns to crawl watching daddy’s skin” is merely world-weary voice, guitar and a gentle accordion. “Only Lie Worth Telling” is a resigned confession of love, or perhaps not, with a single guitar and two-part vocal harmony. With song titles like “Dirt to Mud,” “No Place For You,” “Call That Gone?” and “Let the Bad Times Roll,” this is obviously an album to accompany heartbreak and loneliness.

Like the mildew of the basement where recorded, these intentionally unfinished songs need time to grow on you. The first listen or two might not sink in, but suddenly one lyric with speak to you and then a flawed guitar melody will remind you of sadder times and before long you realize that this coarse collection contains the dangerous nucleus of rock n’ roll, quivering and bloody from it’s birth, and you can’t help but to love this wretched runt.

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Welcome To My Nightmare (Remastered)

I remember well riding the bus in junior high, blasting "Department of Youth" out of my jambox while enduring the confused and scornful looks of my peers. Since it was 1985, and "Department" was released as a radio single in 1975, the reaction is somewhat understandable. Although I happened upon Welcome To My Nightmare, the album from which "Deparment" was culled, 10 years after its release, the songs retained a timeless quality I've found common in well written music.

Now 1975 is 27 years in the past, and the loving folks at Rhino records have remastered and re-unleashed this classic album to feed upon the masses. I'm pleased to say that despite a few pre-disco touches, the songs continue to hold up amazingly well, a testament to this loosely-formed concept album that inspired such classics as Kiss' Destroyer and Pink Floyd's The Wall.

For those not versed in musical history, Alice Cooper was the lead vocalist in the early 70s for the band Alice Cooper, a group which spawned a number of albums that only grow in my esteem for their musical punch and imaginatively macabre lyrics. In 1975 the man known as Alice Cooper took a respite from the group to focus on his penchant for rock theatrics, resulting in the band breaking up. The solo album that resulted was Welcome To My Nightmare, and the accompanying sideshow, er, concert was packed with vaudeville, theatrics, drama, gore, monsters, skeletons and other undead things, all without sacrificing the song.

And the songs! As is true with many of my favorite albums, the styles are all over the place. The opening and title track is an ode to Jim Morrison, a raucous horn-filled funkfest that introduces the rest of the album. "Devil's Food," "Escape" and "The Black Widow" all foreshadow pop-metal with blaring, yet melodic guitars and heart-pounding rhythms. The ballad "Only Women Bleed" is home to a full string section, and the raucous "Cold Ethyl" is a gritty and humorous homage to necrophilia. The creepy "Some Folks" hints at the pinnacle of the album, the psychologically freaky trilogy of "Years Ago," "Steven" and "The Awakening," a grandiose orchestral masterpiece in which the mentally disturbed Steven awakes to find that he's murdered his wife, the blood dripping from his fingertips echoed in an arhythmic piano figure.

Remastering-wise, I can't tell any difference between this CD and the original release I bought 15 years ago. Bonus tracks are nicely included, however. These are alternate versions of "Devil's Food," "Cold Ethyl" and "The Awakening," taken from the ABC TV special which aired in 1975. The slightly altered lyrics on these versions give a somewhat more rounded view of the songs, while fans of Vincent Price will enjoy the ending narrative where he warns the listener "bedrooms are only temporary sanctuaries from nightmares."

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - George Harrison - Brainwashed

While his solo music was never my favorite of the four I certainly do admire his acerbic wit and how he calls it like he sees it.

My first conscious experience with “George Harrison the solo artist” was with the video for “All Those Years Ago,” resulting in possibly my first album purchase (so young … so impressionable). It was a pleasant album with nice songs in what I would come to learn is the classic George Harrison style, but aside from the radio/video single, none of the tracks really lept off the vinyl as likely to sell five million singles. Such is the case with Brainwashed, Harrison’s final album, posthumously produced by Jeff Lynne and son Dhani Harrisonand and his first since 1987’s well-received Cloud Nine. Instead of flash and the material trappings of success, Harrison continues his quiet quest for personal peace. The 10 original songs (plus one cover) on this final outing are filled with sincerity, wisdom, humor, warmth and personal insights. For the most part, Lynne and Dhani were astoundingly true to Harrison’s style and vision, although now and then you can hear a double handful of Lynne’s fairy dust that remind you he’s behind the mixer.

The album kicks off with George asking “Give me plenty of that guitar,” a wry smile in his voice, and the music kicks in with “Any Road,” an apt celebration of life that simultaneously reminds us “If you don’t know where you’re going / Any road will take you there.” The joyous upbeat shuffle propels along with “plenty of that guitar,” Harrison’s trademark slide guitar, and an instrument called a banjulele. Melodic slide guitar is in the forefront of the dreamy instrumental “Marwa Blues,” a peaceful, reflective piece that could have easily been composed while pursuing his love of gardening.

Never one to pull punches, the title track is an assault on the false gods of our society, going after everything from politicians to mobile phones and the stock market. Harrison backloads this punchy song with a call to God, slowing the song considerably for a bit of tabla and a reading from the Hindu text “How to Know God.” Likewise “P.2. Vatican Blues” is a scathing address to the Catholic Church set to a standard 12-bar blues progression.

The highlights of the album are definitely the more personal songs such as the single “Stuck Inside A Cloud.” Here Harrison yearns to extricate himself from the fodder of life with lyrics that could also allude to his cancer such as “I made some exhibition / I lost my will to eat” with a relaxed, emotive vocal surely among the best of his career. Deep emotions also boil to the surface in “Pisces Fish,” another contemplative song about the joys of “mundane” life most of us miss, comparing himself with “I’m a Pisces fish and the river [of life] runs through my soul.”

While this album shot to No. 1 in Japan, it’s been largely ignored in this country of staunch radio formats. While disappointing to some, the quiet Beatle was never about success and would have surely taken such news with a quiet smile. Instead these charmingly modest songs full of melodic guitar leads and personal lyrics exist in relative obscurity, availing themselves to those who would seek them. Like his personality, they are in turn funny, spiritual, serious, critical and philosophical, yet somehow always remaining light and upbeat. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a George Harrison album.


First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Music Review - Frost* - Experiments in Mass Appeal

True to it's name this album is less proggy than the debut album but still filled with great (and in a few cases downright amazing) songs. BUY IT NOW!

A few years back this bloke named Jem Godfrey decided to take a break from producing megahits for Britain's pop music industry. His antidote was a studio band named Frost* and the album Milliontown, a dazzling, invigorating masterpiece where progressive metal met symphonic pop packed with bright melodies, dark rhythms and some amazing sounds. It didn't hurt that one or two of the songs were about zombies.

Given the side-project nature of Milliontown, I didn't expect a follow-up. Like Toy Matinee, this was going to be one of those one-off albums that exists in solitary brilliance. Fortunately, Jem still had some kinks in his system that needed to be worked out, resulting in Experiments in Mass Appeal.

Instead of grabbing you by the ear, yanking you off your feet and pulling you along while they giddily speed past at 80 mph, as on Milliontown, this time it's a bit more tempered. Just a smidge, though, as it's still an exhilarating ride with quite a bit of good fun to be had amongst the whopping helping of excellent music. Of special note are "Pocket Sun" and "Dear Dead Days." "Pocket Sun" starts with an almost industrial guitar sound before the pace skyrockets and some amazing drums come in, playfully tossing around driving yet angular guitar rhythms that will certainly get your feet moving. The vocals here, as on most of the album, are very similar to Foreigner in that they are clear and crisp, never going shrill. A giant blast of keyboards in a roaring flurry of anticipatory arpeggios opens "Dear Dead Days" before becoming a downer with dour vocals and piano. Fear not, for soon a pounding staccato pulse enters, leading the way to an invigorating and vivid chorus full of instantly appealing pop luster akin to those found on the classic 80s Yes album 90125. "Toys" is another astounding song crammed with gooey radio goodness and the kind of positive power pop energy stolen from Cheap Trick that will hook you like a kid after his first cotton candy.Â

For whatever reason Experiments in Mass Appeal failed to strike home with me as much as Milliontown. Each of the 10 keyboard-driven songs on this album is impressively strong, packed with emotion and performed with jaw-dropping skill. While I'm listening to each song I find my brain and heart engaged, as well as my feet, much to the chagrin of my office mates. I love the radio-friendly 80s prog-pop songs by bands such as Asia, Yes, and Genesis, and this album falls right in line with these giants, albeit pushing the sonic boundaries into more modern waters. But for whatever reason, once the album ends it ends. There's no pleasantly finding a vocal melody or instrumental passage bouncing around my brain later in the day, just an album of really great songs – a very respectable nine following in the footsteps of an 11.

Originally published 2009 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Frost* - Milliontown

Eight years later and I'm still loving this amazing album! A third album has been started and/or completed and possibly an album 2.5 but all traces of this band has disappeared, including Jem's hilarious video updates.

The album was halfway over, mere background noise pulsing past my uncaring ears, when suddenly a fishhook caught in my ear, causing me to stop my day job and actually listen. The song was "Black Light Machine," a 10-minute ditty that opens with a hint of Pink Floyd drenched in Asia and schooled under Flower Kings that rises to a rather heart-brightening chorus before blending into one of the most tasteful and passionate melodic guitar solos I've heard since Stream of Passion. The part that got to me was an intensely creative instrumental mid-section, their specialty it seems, where the previous mainstream power ballad gets turned on its head, using some great sounds to spin the song 540 degrees into a heart-inciting manic clavinet funk-fest.

There have since been many such illuminating instances when listening to Milliontown, the debut album by Frost – so many that it has quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year. The opening track, "Hyperventilate," is an instrumental orchestral prelude, giving a taste of things to come with it's mashing, flowing melodies and invigorating rhythms that weave into lush symphonic passages as good as anything done by Spock's Beard in their prime. A tranquil water-drip piano, accenting sounds of a woodwind trying to speak and laconic vocals make "Snowman" a brilliant offering for Chroma Key fans. In "No Me No You" your emotions collide with merciless drums and a dark huffing guitar that opens to half-time in the chorus before adding a string section while singing

"You're Killing My Love for You" is a gripping, desperate melody that can't help but to build hope. As if personifying the state of the relationship, the song crashes into a dissonant breakdown section that is both terrifying and beautiful. Kevin Gilbert is resurrected from the dead for "The Other Me," varnishing the entire piece in elastic guitars, walls of vocals, buzzing tones and stuttering Chroma Key digital dropout effects. The crowning composition is the title track, which zooms in at 26 minutes. During this time the mood switches from heartfelt angst (via an emotionally searing two-minute guitar solo by John Mitchell) to a calming Pink Floyd bit to a pulse-quickening funky rhythm section where every note is in the pocket to Spock's Beard-styled orchestration – all done to perfection with a half-hour that passes faster than some musicians can tune their instrument.

Spearheaded by British studio guru Jem Godfrey, who assembled musicians from Kino and IQ (British progressive bands whose recent albums knocked my boots off), Milliontown is more than a technical spree of progressive rock. Rather, it's a rare combination of the heart and mind, balancing the passion of heartfelt music with the muscle of rock in an intelligent format that is so well written that – like any Schoolhouse Rock song – you're enjoying the music so much that you don't realize until it's too late that there's quite a bit of meat beneath the surface. If you liked the commercial prog of Asia, Yes's 90125, Spock's Beard or Kevin Gilbert, you owe it to yourself to add Milliontown style='font-size:11pt;line-height:120%'> to your collection.

Originally published in 2006 in WhatzUp.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Penguin Point - Pointerburgers

The opportunity provided itself. So did the coupon. Yes, it was time to try two of Penguin Point's signature Pointerburgers (for a tiny price of $5.55). They have three on their menu and I could only pick two. One of the burgers is Jalapeno and Swiss so this was a no brainer because, as my wife would tell you, I have very wimp taste buds. This woman once ate an entire habanero and lived to tell the tale. I filmed (well, videoed) the whole show. It's on YouTube but I'll let you dig for the link because I'm mean that way.

Two burgers, each with a single quarter pound of beef. As the paper wrapped sammiches weren't labelled I picked one at random. It was the Western burger. Dig all those stringy onions! The pickles with the BBQ sauce is a nice touch, a very good tasting sweet sauce, I should add. Why is it that BBQ places in the south provide dill pickles but up here they don't? It's a perfect match! Anyway, there were a lot of onions on this burger. This tasty burger was good, I'll admit, a nice combination of toppings and my favorite of the two.

Next up is the Onion Burger, or rather "The Works." Again, look at all them onions! Shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, mayo, cheese. It's hard to go wrong with this classic sandwich... wait a minute! Where are the pickles?!?!? Oh well, I chewed this one up and let it mingle with the pickles from the Western burger in my belly.

As usual, Penguin Point food is good but doesn't have any kind of unique taste signature. When you eat a McD quarter pounder it tastes like a McD quarter pounder, something which it reminds you of for hours after eating it. On the plus side, there were no hours-later Pointerburger-flavored burps after eating this duo.

Music Review - Probot

Was this really ten years ago? I recall the music as being not quite my thing and only passably good but at the time my wife was a huge Dave Grohl fan so I reviewed the album. She liked it even less than I.

Like Pat Boone did with In A Metal Mood, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters/Nirvana/Queens of the Stone Age fame is trying to connect an audience drawn to his pop-based heavy foo music to a genre in which they might not normally dare to tread, in this case metal. Now we’re not talking Motley Cr¸e, Dio, Poison or even Metallica kind of metal; this is the dark stuff, the pure hardcore stuff that even I somehow managed to avoid: Napalm Death, Celtic Frost, Sepultura, Venom, Motorhead, King Diamond and others.

Over three years in the making Grohl wrote all the songs, played nearly all the instruments and invited all of his dark metal heroes to sing, one per track. Each song seems tailor-made for each vocalist, often being styled in homage to the vocalists own band. While no one would argue that Grohl is one of the premier rock drummers breathing oxygen, his guitar chops are a bit sludgy and belie his punk origins. But any lack of technical prowess is more than made up for in enthusiasm with nearly all vocalists delivering amazing performances.

Hardcore punk meets thrash metal in “Centuries of Sin,” where Cronos from Venom growls and rages through Grohl’s grinding riffs. “Red War,” sung by Max Cavalera of Sepultura, is menacing in its crushing wall of guitars and a melody that would make the bravest soldier turn tail and run. Motorhead’s Lemmy weighs in on “Shake Your Blood,” an excellent Motorhead clone. The blazing “The Emerald Law,” sung by Wino, has strong foundations in Queens of the Stone Age, while “Dictatorsaurus,” featuring Snake from Voivod, could easily be a heavy Foo Fighters song - go figure! One of my favorite tracks is the hidden “I Am The Warlock,” sung with intestine-rumbling intensity by Jack Black.

My wife Melynda, an avid Dave Grohl fan, should not mistake this review to state that I don’t think Probot is brilliant and thus consign me to the couch to rethink my views. Nay, this metal tribute album is boatloads of fun for the whole family and it’s only the lackluster and repetitive King Diamond track that I can’t stand. The variety of each song, in the guitar and drum sounds to the vocal delivery, makes this album bear up under repeated listens. But I’m left wondering how much better it could have been had some of these amazing and legendary guitarists (and bassists?) accompanied the singers to the recording sessions. Like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-Pop, the world may never know.

Originally published 2004 in WhatzUp.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Music Review - OSI

I had no idea who any of these guys were when I received this CD but it totally blew my mind. I became an avid appreciator of Portney while watching him playing drums on a "making of" video... what a blast!

The debut release from O.S.I. is a dream for fans of heavily produced heavy music and a nightmare for the unfortunate soul who must categorize it. Crushing guitars collide with lush synthetic soundscapes that fall away to acoustic excursions, all with overdosing amounts of studio wizardry. As the band is formed of Fates Warning guitarist and figurehead Jim Matheos, Dream Theater drum legend Mike Portnoy and Kevin Moore of Chroma Key. you might think the album would lean towards progressive metal, which would have been the case had not Kevin Moore been so heavily involved, imbuing the project with legions of intriguing sounds.

“Head” is a perfect example of the perfection this band can achieve. Sitars and tabula open, weaving a light hypnotic trance in the verse before a meaty and angular guitar riff interrupts the dream with a massive groove. Then, amazingly, oil and water mix as the two extremes coexist in the same sonic space. In “Hello, Helicopter,” laconic vocals overlay Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd acoustic guitars set to a throbbing beat. The nightmarish and emotional “shutDOWN” features vocals by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, alternating between murky “Signify” sections and purely evil sounding, Black Sabbath-influenced bits that will certainly raise goosebumps. The title track is four minutes of controlled chaos, with fat synth tones speeding alongside a thick guitar riff that crashes into the opening acoustic guitars of “When You’re Ready,” a song which never fails to bring a smile to my face. The melancholy vocals hide deep in a forest of metallic sounds and amazing production ideas, mostly directed this time at the drums, which should be pointed out are simply astounding throughout. Another impressive song is “Memory Daydreams Lapses” which is a driving underworld dance beat enshrined in more amazing percussion prowess and ends with the chillingly delivered lyric of “You hated your friends best of all”

There are so many influences wrapped up in this album that our feeble minds are boggled as to how it all holds together. In addition to Fates Warning there’s Pink Floyd, NIN, Radiohead, Porcupine Tree, Flaming Lips, Peter Gabriel, Eno, Tool, David Bowie, Dream Theater and Moby, all peacefully coexisting in the same creative space. Yes it’s progressive but not in a Rush/technical way. These songs have souls, and the melodies creep into your cranium, smuggled in through inventive, artistic production techniques and astonishing yet unpretentious musicianship. This is good gravy just like grandma used to make. Make sure your ears are gravy boats!

Originally published 2004 in WhatzUp

Music Review - OSI - Free

A very strong follow up to a masterful first album. Most artists couldn't have come back half as strong!

There will never be another album like the debut by O.S.I., as its songs were formed out of an unknowing situation that, like a quark, if attempted to be recreated would collapse under its own self-knowledge. This 2002 album came about when guitarist Jim Matheos (Fate's Warning) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theatre) came up with a fairly standard 17-minute progressive song. Then Kevin Moore (Dream Theatre, Chroma Key) came in, weary of the whole "progressive epic" thing, and chopped the song into 10 standard length songs. Well, more than "chopped." He rearranged, overdubbed, pureed and added his luscious organic synth tones, laconic vocals and enough creative production touches to fill 15 albums. The result was a textured, layered collection of emotion-packed songs that schizophrenically jumped between light and dark, heavy and soft with astounding alacrity, making it the most original album of 2002.

With Free this "supergroup" heads back into the studio under a slightly different format. This time Matheos and Moore composed the songs with Portnoy being brought in later in the process. If there is a weakness in these songs it is that Portnoy was not utilized further. Like most people I used to view drums as a utilitarian timekeeper, more beat than music. On the first O.S.I. album Portnoy showed me just how musical and inventive drums can be, and I'm forever grateful. That said, everything else is just as top-notch as the first time out: dead-tight songwriting skills, astounding musicianship that rarely calls attention to itself, eerie melodies sitting alongside gut crunching rhythms, an immense palate of tone colors and imaginative production that elevates the studio to an equal instrument.

Space prevents me from gushing about each of the 11 songs as much as they deserve. "Bigger Wave" is currently playing on my headphones, and the defeated verse ("But now I‚m worried there's a bigger wave just behind this one") just kicked into a frothy 5/4 explosion of gritty guitars. The opening track, "Sure You Will," could be a Rob Zombie song, if he still wrote eerie melodies packed with beefy angsty rhythms. "All Gone Now" starts with a hypnotic finger-picked acoustic guitar backed by subdued techno drums and most unusual studio-stuttered vocals that peak in a musical passage highlighting a synth sound so textured you can feel it, like a 50s movie reel burned by acid. Portnoy gets his chance to shine on the cinematic post-apocalyptic "All Gone Now," superbly playing under a chilling tone in odd meter. The band somehow evokes music out of buzzing noise in "Better" as lyrics like "Things got better when you left / Your friends always say that" lead into a striking section of scalding bass, drums and vocals. Fuzzy static, a sonar "pling," fuzzed out bass, more killer drums (no fuzz) and an Adrien Belewish guitar part make "Simple Life" a study in the daily grind ("I can sleep, sleep, sleep / Or maybe I'll just sit in the car"), while "Once" is almost cheerful despite morose lyrics of "Once / You looked so happy together." The album ends with "Our Town," featuring a Gilmour-esque lead guitar, classic rock organ, acoustic guitar and banjo. Expect the unexpected.

Like many of my favorite albums Free grabbed me right from the start and then backed off, slowly reaffirming and rebuilding our relationship to new heights. Yeah, I know I need to get a life – but with music this good it's difficult to get out of the house. How often does one get to hear intelligent yet heavy rock music so original that outside influences are difficult to detect? There may never be an album like their first, but Free comes wonderfully close.

Originally published 2006 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - OSI - Blood

Still my least favorite of their four.

The good news is that the new Chroma Key album is here! The bad news is that it was supposed to be the new OSI album.

OSI began when Mike Portnoy, the phenomenal drummer from Dream Theater, and Jim Matheos, the guitarist from Fates Warning, decided to get together and do a prog-metal side project. They wrote a typical half-hour proggy song and then brought in Kevin Moore, former keyboardist of Dream Theater who left because he was sick of the typical progressive metal excesses. Moore took their work, chopped it up and rearranged it into four-minute songs, adding mountains of his organic synth tones to create an amazingly compelling album. Moore was there from the beginning for their second album, while Portnoy seemed to take a back seat. The album was quite good but seemed to be softer, lacking a bit of the muscle of the debut album.

For the band’s third and most recent album, Blood, Portnoy has ducked out completely, and Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree has taken his place. No slouch on the kit is he. Once again, however, the music slips more and more toward that of a Chroma Key album, the name Moore uses for his solo albums. There’s less of the innovative, hard-hitting magnum opus that was their debut. Thankfully, a few of the tracks manage to maintain the energy of the original, namely the opening number, “The Escape Artist.” This tune is six minutes of mysterious chiming guitars colliding with a massive groove in an unorthodox meter (14/4 for those who care) with room for a brief guitar solo and slower passages of Moore’s sonic tinkerings. “False Start” is a great prog-rock song with double kick drums a-flyin’ and gutsy guitars belting out low riffs sure to get your blood boiling. “Radiologue” is perhaps the closest to the original merger of prog-metal and avante-garde world music synth-pop that graced their debut. Here, too, are passages that repeatedly build up the intensity and back off, only to come at you from another angle.

The rest of the album is pretty much laid-back Chroma Key. I really like Chroma Key, so it’s no great shakes for this reviewer. “Terminal” has lots of squiggly synth sounds and the same quivering, watery keyboards Zeppelin used in “No Quarter.” Plus, there’s a melodic bit that sounds like a hooting owl being stretched like a rubber band. No, really – it sounds good. “We Come Undone” and “Microburst Alert” are full of bell-like synth tones and ring-modulated sounds zooming around the stuttered, studio-processed drums. Minimal guitars provide contrast. Guest vocalist Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth brings a refreshing change with “Stockholm,” his voice less forlorn than Moore’s usually melancholic delivery. Most of this song is mired in tranquil keyboards, but at the last minute they drag out the chunky and stuttering distorted guitars to end with a bang.

I guess it’s not exactly fair to say that this album is entirely a Chroma Key release. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a double EP from both Chroma Key and OSI. There really isn’t a dud on Blood if you like adventurous rock music and unique sounds lovingly coaxed from synthesizers. So here’s three cheers for the new OSI/Chroma Key album, Blood. (Jason Hoffman)

Originally published 2009 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - Deadwing

Once again I'm trying to find a sequel to the amazing in absentia and being disappointed.

With its dark, brooding sound full of massive riffs, wispy vocal harmonies, and transient Floyd-esque space rock, the last Porcupine Tree album, in absentia, absolutely knocked me on my flabby white buttocks. It was as accessible and commercial as it was creative, a very rare commodity. But that was three years ago.

With Deadwing the tenured band returns for more of the same ... and some of the old. While not nearly as dark or heavy or creepy as the last album, Deadwing sounds like a cross between in absentia and their previous albums, which were just as adventurous but lacked the crunch of heavy guitars. It’s almost as if this album should have come between their prior work and in absentia, somehow getting lost in the shuffle of time and being released five years after its inception.

The ambitious 10-minute title track is a compelling mix of prog, alternative and crushing metal, with guest Adrian Belew adding a quirky signature guitar solo. “Shallow” is easily the heaviest song the band has ever recorded, with fierce guitars grunting to a poppy chorus melody. In the words of author Steve Wilson, it’s “the equivalent of a big, dumb rock song, but in the way that people who are not dumb would do.” A similar song is “Open Car,” where muscular riffs in the verse contrast with spooky, clean vocals in the bridge, taking on the guise of a straight-forward rocker. Atmospheric, acoustic, and melodic, “Lazarus” is a gorgeous pop tune, a throwback to their earlier albums and a nice respite from the distortion.

“Halo” picks things back up with a full, round bass driving this groove-laden fest of frenzied guitar, symphonic rock, NIN-influenced industrial, and funk. The dreamy “Mellotron Scratch, “ in which acoustic guitars bash with electronic explosions, will appeal to Pink Floyd fans, as will “Glass Arm Shattering,” which features haunting washed-out vocals over Gilmour guitars and spacey keyboards.

The most ambitious track is the 12-minute “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here.” Skillfully jumping through a variety of styles, the band manages to pull it all together, creating a pastiche of dapples of light and dark, heavy shadows that pay tribute to Rush, Black Sabbath, Radiohead, early Genesis and even a bit of Zeppelin. Although Wilson intones “Never look for the truth in your mother”s eyes,” few would deny the truth that this song packs a very satisfying emotional wallop.

While it”s difficult to follow the perfect 10 of in absentia, Deadwing is a very respectable nine, mixing various shades of metal with art rock and atmospheric Floyd in a way that few can match. It’s heavy, it’s light, it’s proggy, it’s poppy, it’s just a big ol’ hootenanny for the ears.

Originally published 2005 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - In Absentia

I sure do love me the contrasts on this album, how the crushing metal guitars collide with walls of cotton candy pop vocal harmonies and melt into acoustic instruments. Some of the lyrics give me the creeps now as they can be mighty dark and icky.
Twenty-two seconds into my first listen of this album my ears perked up. “What’s this? A mysterious intro followed by angular metal riffing? Now there’s a relaxed acoustic guitar topped with melodic verse vocals (real singing) and … no … a catchy chorus complete with rich harmonies, similar in feel to that first album by Asia … now more metal and …” I was hooked.

Although relatively new to the states, Porcupine Tree have been around since 1987, exploring various avenues of musical creativity, earning the moniker “What Pink Floyd would sound like if Pink Floyd were making good albums.” On In Absentia these talented veterans lean toward metal and modern rock, drawing many comparisons to Radiohead and, as evidenced from their video, Tool. Given the luxury of full artistic control on this outing, they have created 12 works of contrast, mixing a slightly dark edge in with the metal and rock, brightening the pot with shimmers of pop and a slice of progressive.

“Trains” strikes this delicate balance often evident in these songs, starting with plaintiff, fragile vocals and acoustic guitar akin to Zeppelin’s acoustic work. An instrumental section near the end incorporates both banjo and handclaps before jumping back into a heavier fray of guitars, all without breaking stride or feeling disjointed. Although written with a 7/4 time signature in the verse, “The Sound of Muzak” is one infectious hook aching to show radio what real music sounds like. The video song, “Strip the Soul”, is a creepy number about a man who bumps off his family, clocking in at a mere seven-plus minutes. While the verse and chorus are appropriately moody, it’s the inventive instrumental section that wins my vote. Aggressively played acoustic guitar with a Fripp-like solo (all in 3/4 time) the song goes into a 5/2 instrumental buildup that dissolves into a bare, chilling cello before the band crashes back in with heavy guitars. Another lengthy track is the 6:33 instrumental “Wedding Nails” wherein, like King Crimson’s “Red,” the crunchy guitars career along at breakneck speed throughout, only stopping for a brief period to explore some chunky rhythm ideas midway through while accompanied by stimulating guitar sounds. “The Creator Has A Mastertape” is a nervous drum and bass song that spookily intones the story of a man who “captured and collected things” and “raised a proper family / So he could tie them to a bed”.

More contrast is found in the relaxed “Prodigal” where leader Steve Wilson sings “I tried the capsule and I tried the smoke / I tried to aid escape like normal folk / But I never seem to get the joke” while surrounded with Crosby, Stills and Nash vocal harmonies. “Lips of Ashes” is reminiscent of Floyd’s “A Pillow of Winds” with ethereal, spacey sounds. Former XTC member Dave Gregory provides lush string arrangements for the minimalist “3” and the delicate “Collapse The Light Into Earth” which is simple piano, floating vocals, reedy organ and strings, an appropriately haunting album closer.

Porcupine Tree expertly manage to mix pounding rhythms, spacey sounds, acoustic journeys, pop-tinged harmonies, menacing guitars and thoughtful lyrics into a thoroughly engaging album that continues to reveal more of itself with each listen, haunting your subconscious with it’s imagery and sounds. As a music freak, you hope to find three or four albums per year as good as this. A nearly perfect album!

Originally published in 2003 in WhatzUp

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet

I need to revisit this one. I recall that it was enjoyable but perhaps a bit less aggressive than I had expected, which threw me.

       Steve Wilson and Porcupine Tree are back with Fear of a Blank Planet, a six-song collection of dark, moody songs dealing with the bleak future of children raised on MTV, X-Boxes and the Internet. The whole package runs about an hour, exploring murky ambient territory with a healthy dose of big metal guitars and melancholic vocals, dredging up atmosphere at every turn. While Wilson is incapable of putting out a weak album, he unfortunately isn't really breaking any new ground this time out.

       Which isn't to say that the album lacks substance. Compared to most of what's out there it ranks a very well. Take, for instance, the title track which opens with an insistent acoustic guitar part that unnervingly picks away at your sense of ease before a solid rock beat invades. The music itself is quite invigorating at times, but it's the lyrics that suffer, a usual Wilson reliance on cliche that is almost embarrassing compared to the intricate music. One example: "My friend says he wants to die / He's in a band / They sound like Pearl Jam / The clothes are all black / The music is crap." Not exactly poetry. Telling the story of a boy struggling to overcome messed-up parents, "My Ashes" is more tranquil with dripping synths and pulsing tones, raising the lyrical bar as well with "And my ashes find a way beyond the fog / And return to save the child that I forgot." "Sentimental" is likewise soothing, almost bringing hope to the album with a piano backed by a cathartic vocal melody which realizes "that you can't blame your parents anymore," eventually leading up to an emotional breakdown that borrows a bit from In Absentia's excellent "Trains."

       "Way Out Here" plays with dynamics, starting with a New Age soundscape compliments of King Crimson's Robert Fripp before seamlessly building to a psychedelic metal jam sure to satisfy the black leather-wearin' crowd. The creepy "Sleep Together" closes the album, incorporating industrial elements from the best of Nine Inch Nails and orchestral strings that lift the song to a climatic finale. But the strongest song is the 17-minute "Anesthetize," which opens with a moody Pink Floyd passage that heats up with growling guitars and echoing keyboards to a massive syncopated riff that plays with stereo perception, leading up to an exceptional guitar solo by Rush's Alex Lifeson. The song deftly continues through many changes and moods, rarely staying on any section long enough for boredom to grow, fully exploring an alternative realm where thrashing guitars peacefully coexist with spacey keyboards and lush vocal harmonies.

       IÕm wanting to get excited about Fear of a Blank Planet, the latest album by Porcupine Tree, but something fails to move me. On the surface it has all the same characteristics of 2002's In Absentia, a landmark album that hit me hard, showcasing Wilson's ability to perfectly merge metal, industrial, goth, pop and prog. The follow-up, Deadwing, was good, but failed to hit the bulls eye. Fear of a Blank Planet is unfortunately even farther off the mark, sharing more with Porcupine Tree's earlier, more ambient albums. While some may prefer that style, I personally find it a bit sterile and remote. While the album deals with disconnected youth, I doubt it's what Wilson had in mind.

       But then again, maybe it's all a matter of having spent too many years on this warm globe to feel the alienation that is required to fully appreciate Fear of a Blank Planet. (Jason Hoffman)

Originally published in 2007 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - Signify

Sometimes you love an album and dig back into their catalog and find gold. Other times the music just sits there lit congealed gravy. Totally loved In Absentia... still do! This one, though, is just meh.

After drooling profusely over Porcupine Tree’s recent In Absentia, an album I highly recommend for everyone who would not be caught dead with a Jimmy Buffet record, I decided to do a bit of disco-graphic backtracking. Fortunately, their 1996 album, Signify, has just been re-released, thus allowing for my purchase to be counted as an expense against my vast whatzup earnings!

Signify signifies (sorry about that) a change from Porcupine Tree being a lone fellow, Steve Wilson, to a real, full, working band. While I can’t tell you about the solo years, this release clearly shows the potential and direction of a band that would one day release the darkly disturbed In Absentia.

The album opens with a 50s-sounding sample (which are used sparingly throughout between and within tracks), inviting the listener to “kick your shoes off … and join us in enjoying some very quiet and relaxing music.” The energetic instrumental title track then commences with a restrained metal-proggish guitar riff and lots of strange solos made by torturing unknown instruments with God-forsaken devices. The intoxicatingly depressing “Sleep of No Dreaming” begins with tenuous organs and the lyrics “At the age of sixteen / I grew out of hope.” The song further opens into a nostalgic psych-rock song with instant appeal. “Intermediate Jesus” is another spacey instrumental with a mesmerizing Barrett-era-Pink Floyd wash of guitar tones centered around a repeating bass line that had me thinking “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” “Light Mass Prayers” is indeed a voiceless mass, but its dark, ambient, creepy moanings are anything but light.

Both “Darkmatter” and “Every Home Is Wired” are comatose songs, the former with airy and emotional guitar leads, the latter with spooky slide guitar parts destined to haunt your head. “Sever” is heavy and dark, nearly atonal, sounding almost like a warning from the grave to the living with frightening vocal effects and experimental overdubs cascading in from the great beyond. My personal favorite track is “Waiting phase one,” a prodding yet mellow song based on an achingly fragile vocal melody that blossoms with harmonies as the song progresses. The lead solo on this song easily equals David Gilmour in his prime.

By borrowing from the stylings of ambient, classic rock, trance, psychedelic, metal, and prog, Porcupine Tree created a dark, experimental, spacey sequel to Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The multi-dimensional production and skilled song-crafting make this an album that grows with each listen, quickly making it clear why this unknown classic was re-released in the hopes of it finding a wider audience.

Originally published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Music Review - The Church - Parallel Universe

Aside from their late 80’s hit “Under The Milky Way,” The Church is one of those esoteric bands who are better known for the more popular (and better selling) bands they inspire than for their own albums. But after two decades of creating innovative music, they have forsaken all attempts to please the fickle average music listener and instead work to please themselves.

Their last album, the aptly-named After Everything, Now This, was a new collection of songs that seemed to sum up their entire musical history and position them for future endeavors. With the release of Parallel Universe, listeners receive a double dip of Church goodness in the form of a two CD set. The first disc contains remixes of each song from After Everything, reworked through some kind of gothic ambient filter by

the loving hand of producer/drummer Tim Powles. Although always known for creating textured, neo-psychedelic excursions, the addition of metallic vocals, fat synth sounds and extended samples pushes their music into new territory, further stretching the distended borders of melodic space-pop. The second disc contains six tracks that were recorded during the After Everything sessions but not deemed worthy for the original album, also (mostly) reworked. Of greatest merit are “1st woman on the moon,” an 11-minute “no overdubs” atmospheric jam that fully reveals their talent at creating a tapestry of sounds and “radiant 1934 remix,” a swirling, grinding journey of gurgling guitars juxtaposed with ethereal sweeps and supersonic chirps.

The tracks on this release somewhat defy deep analysis as they tend to cascade over the listener, hypnotically drawing you in with waves of sound that shimmer and float like the waning memory of a dream upon waking. It is lush, intricate, elegant, moody, deliciously melodic and of a mature caliber one can only expect from musical veterans. It is music you simply enjoy for the experience it provides. While some might be inclined to call the music of The Church arrogant, my overly sensitive anti-pompous radar has yet to pick up such snobbish vibes. Self-indulgent, yes, but after putting in two decades of effort, The Church has earned the right to make music as they hear it. And the way they hear their brand of shoe-gazer art-rock is nothing short of brilliant.


Originally published in 2003 in WhatzUp

Music Review - Lili Haydn - Lili

Boy, there was egg on my face with THIS review. Normally the rule is to review an album within a few months of it's release, the sooner the better. For this one I was way out of bounds... the album was released in 1997 and I wrote the review in 2003. It got published and someone wrote a funny yet scathing letter to the editor calling me out. After this I was more careful.

Lili Haydn has lent her silky violin tone to the likes of Tom Petty, Hootie and the Blowfish, The Rolling Stones, Tracy Chapman and even playing the classic “Kashmir” for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in concert. On Lili, her debut album, Haydn does her best to mix her classical background with her love of rock, pop and dance music. For the most part and much to her credit, Haydn not only wrote the majority of the songs but also played violin (well, duh!), sang, produced and handled some of the programming.

The result is a mixed bag filled mostly with tasty treats. The sour apple, for me, is the lyrics. “Stranger” has a great, funky beat with lots of violin accents, but the lyrics tell the story of a “pretty teenage baby [who] has a baby of her own” and who “strips for strangers to keep her baby satisfied.” Gee ... never heard that platitude before! Then there’s the pretentious and cloying single “Take Somebody Home.” While the song is full of sonically pleasing textures, pop-rock melodies and a very cool Mideastern- meets-symphonic feel, the lyrics are rife with politics and social hand-wringing about the homeless, making me wonder how many homeless people have enjoyed a stay at the Haydn household. And then there’s her voice ... it’s nice, but despite lots of obvious work done, it really is a bit thin to compete with all the dazzling aural delights whirling about these tracks.

But that’s the bad, at least for a crusty geezer like me. Now for the good. “Someday” mixes a quirky oriental melody augmented by pizzicato strings with nice cello and a wall of distorted guitars. Weird bass and chunky, distorted guitar highlight “Real,” a song which culminates with a mysterious and powerful instrumental orgy of rumbling bass, violin, and eerie guitar. Violin accents abound in the haunting ballad “Baby,” and the dramatic “Daddy” is perhaps the pinnacle synergy of classical and rock on this album, ending in a glorious symphonic mini-movement. Also very good are the two instrumentals. “Salome” allows the violin to finally step to the forefront, floating in melody above an ethereal façade of dark dreams and regrets. Much more classical in tone is “Wants Deep,” a six-minute violin and piano duet that opens with lugubrious violin and ends with a passionate and striking flair.

Overall this is a very solid album. The musicianship is dead-on and the arrangements are quite inventive. Unlike the mind-bending debut album by 100 Watt Smile, where the violin is integral to the song, socking it out with the guitar in bow-to-pick trench combat, the violin parts on these sophisticated rock songs are more for added color. Still, those bored with the radio should find plenty to enjoy off this creative debut album.

First published in 2003 in WhatzUP.

Music Review - Event- Scratching The Surface

I quite enjoyed the first major label release from Event, basking in the mathematical, progressive turns and unique, mechanical sounds. It wasn’t the greatest thing since the Garden Weezul, but it was most certainly different, a good different. With Scratching At The Surface this band has given their elegant robot a soul. Like any complicated machine there are many things going on at once resulting in a true “everything and a double kitchen sink” production. It also helps that these Berklee School of Music grads are in complete control of their own music, providing ample time to fine-tune and tweak each of the multiple layers inherent in each song. Those with Attention Deficit Disorder will find many shiny objects to distract the mind and yet, it’s tasteful … often full but never busy.

Event have continued their search for unique sounds. While you would think from listening that you hear electronica and synth sounds, the band insists that all the sounds start with guitars and that effects boxes, and computers are used to create the flurry of aural delights. But all the gizmos in the world can’t make up for a poorly written song. Event has that covered as well, taking obvious influence from King’s X and Alice In Chains, meaning melody is king and vocal harmonies are queen.

“Make Your Way” explodes the jewel case open as the opener, making it very clear what this band is about: raw energy polished by the crush of heavy guitars in a bed of melody. Heavy on groove, “Under My Skin” makes up for the lack of feel from the first album. The vocalist apparently worked at making the vocals emote, and along with the body-moving groove the listener is hit over the head with buzzing guitars while their body moves uncontrollably to the beat. Nearly an ode to later King’s X is “All Too Real” which delights in a chunky, hammering guitar riff that is unbelievably solid. “Live Life Love Breed” walks the dangerous line of Nine Inch Nails industrial with a pure rock motor, never once falling into cliché. Fans of progressive will enjoy the 7/4 meter of the creepy “Won’t Come Loose” and the 14/4 off-kilter sound of “Siren” that jumps to an orchestral bridge before swan diving into a pleasing 4/4 chorus, all with their usual plethora of engaging sounds. The album ends in a frenetic ride known as “Too Much,” one minute careening out of control with stuttering guitars a la Sevendust and the next floating on a melody coated in vocal harmonies before gleefully plummeting again into the cacophony.

I know this music isn’t for everyone and will probably never get on the radio … just another crime against the arts because this music is so well done, so inventive not only in melody but also in sound and form that I have no doubt that every musician and studio guru could learn at least a few new tricks from this release. Highly recommended for lovers of heavy melodic and headphone music.

Originally published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Phil Keaggy - Re-Emerging

Since writing this review I've had the opportunity to speak and/or write with Phil Madeira a number of times. His book was also a very enjoyable read.

Back in the summer of 1977, before the world knew the joys of rainbow suspenders and the phrase Nanu-Nanu, the Phil Keaggy Band released their only album, Emerging. Age one quarter decade and this album has been re-mastered and re-released on CD under the name ReEmerging. As is the case with any self-respecting re-release, spiffy bonus tracks are included, as is a 16-color booklet full of memories and pictures of young guys wearing late 1970s clothing and facial hair.

By 1977 Phil Keaggy was well known in the musical world, especially in the mostly unknown Christian music world. Unlike most Christian bands at the time, PKB was a professional working band. If they weren’t touring they were practicing eight hours a day - for two years. The result is evident from the first spin. This band is tight and is most definitely a band with members that understand each other musically. As you might expect, the original eight tracks (yes, in the pre-CD era eight tracks running 35 minutes was acceptable) sound a bit dated but it’s to their credit how well they stand up over two decades later. In addition to the strong songwriting is the broad variety of genres, ensuring confusion among modern-day record companies as how to pigeonhole and market such a beast.

The opening track, an instrumental written by Taylor University grad and PKB keyboardist Phil Madeira, is quite peppy yet suffers the most from a 1970s keyboard sound. “Where Is My Maker” is exceptionally diverse, combining country with reggae and Eagles vocal harmonies, ending in a fantastic jazz-fusion jam session where the Keaggy and Madeira trade solos on guitar and keys, respectively. Typical mid-70s Keaggy is the uplifting light rock of “Another Try” and the gentle lullaby “Ryan’s Song,” written for Keaggy’s stillborn son. Another Madeira track, “Struck By The Love”, is quite dramatic in its pacing with a charged verse juxtaposed by a quiet, reflective guitar solo passage. “Turned On The Light” is a bluesy song that segues into a countrified chorus that is unfortunately one of two songs that suffer from cheesy late-70s Christianese lyrics, the other being “Sorry,” which retells the New Testament parable of the 10 virgins and their oil lamps. These two aside, for the time period the songs are amazingly free of any kind of preachy attitude. “Take A Look Around” is a mid-tempo rocker full of baritone sax that melts into a blistering jam session that reveals how badly this band could kick your scrawny little butt if it wanted to and don’t bother trying to get your big brother to protect you ‘cause they’ll kick his arse, too.

With the four bonus tracks the album comes to a respectable 50 minutes. The only bonus track that really belongs is “Mighty Lord,” a Madeira song PKB used to close their concerts but was left off the original recording due to an inane decision higher up the food chain. But here it is, a brand spankin’ new recording sure to get your bootay shakin’ with lots of Hammond organ and dueling guitar solos. The other tracks include a song by Keaggy where he plays all the parts (dude, it’s supposed to be the Phil Keaggy Band) and one each by the drummer and bass player, both very country and with a bit of novelty feel about them.

Still, this re-release was obviously done with a lot of care, giving these well-written songs the justice they deserve and revealing a talented band in the prime of their prowess.

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Phil Keaggy - Inseparable

Now here's a Keaggy album I go back to every now and then. There's such a breadth within that each listen finds me discovering something new.

The prolific Phil Keaggy is at it again with Inseparable, a two CD set encompassing 21 tracks of guitarist glee. While Keaggy is known for jumping from genre to genre like our local radio stations switch formats, this time around he is firmly planted in rock/pop… well, sort of firmly planted. Okay, he’s all over the place again.

Dangerously self-produced, Keaggy is able to steer the straight and narrow this time out. The songs are usually quite bare but with an edge of roughness about them to keep one’s interest. Similar to his landmark Underground album, most of the tracks feature clever drum programming and interesting keyboard textures to accompany his trademark guitar and his silky smooth McCartney-esque voice. Lyrically you’ll be left with no doubt that Keaggy is a Christian, as the majority of these songs are directed to his Maker. But like the Psalms, the lyrics are personal and more poetic than your run-of-the-mill Christian lyrics, seeking more to commune than to convert. “Litany to the Spirit” is a prime example: “When I’m tossed about / Either with despair or doubt / Yet before the glass be out / Sweet Spirit comfort me.” As this contemplative, subdued prayer song ends with an unexpected gutsy punch of sinister strings, tribal drums and twisted bass, it became a quick favorite.

Also high on my list is “The Seeing Eye (remix),” where a gurgling synth sound is brought to the front, lending a strong sense of urgency to this dizzying song. The title track is similar in feel to the aforementioned Underground album in feel with lots of interesting chord changes and a Beatlesque sound. “Little Star” is an excellent bedtime song to sing to your young children with a catchy melody and calming, reassuring feel … that is, a great song if you can play the guitar like Keaggy.

Of course, with an album of this magnitude there are bound to be a few below par. The cover of McCartney’s “Motor Of Love,” for instance, usually compels me to press the skip button. A few other songs don’t earn the dreaded skip but fail to ladle my gravy. But for a self-produced album (and in my mind Keaggy usually needs a talented producer other than himself to be at his best) the strong tracks heavily outnumber the weaker cuts.

A single CD version is available in stores and should suffice for all but the freakiest Keaggy freaks, while the two CD set is available only at www.philkeaggy.com.

First published in 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Phil Keaggy - The Song Within

Not one of his more memorable albums. Still, the man is a living legend!

Phil Keaggy is many things. He's been voted one of the top finger-style guitarists in the world by Guitar Player Magazine the past three years. He's a master of the difficult eBow, a man with over 50 albums released over nearly 40 years, and he's a dedicated husband and father.

He's also extremely uneven when it comes to what he chooses to call an album. His releases range from platters of self-indulgent jam sessions and improvisational guitar loops, to watery vocal albums, to rock solid vocal albums, to instrumental albums of astounding depth that rival the big names of classical music. The highlights in this latter category are Beyond Nature and Lights of Madrid, both highly focused instrumental endeavors full of mature compositions of breathtaking beauty.

It is against such timeless perfect albums that his latest instrumental album, The Song Within, must unfortunately be compared. It is unfortunate because when compared to his random noodlings, this latest album is pure genius. But compared to the classics mentioned above it is merely "quite good," although this is akin to saying that while Beethoven's Seventh is no Fifth it is still Beethoven's Seventh, if you get what I mean.

Which is all to say that The Song Within is most definitely worth your time and money. Sixteen tracks fill the album with Keaggy's always amazing guitar prowess, fleshed out with drum kits, hand percussion, piano, cello, strings and Irish whistles. Additionally, his guitar tone has never sounded better, thanks in large part to his playing the excellent guitars of McPherson, which run at a paltry five grand, sans extras.

As an added bonus to longtime fans, Keaggy took an unusual twist in creating the music for this album by culling riffs and chord progressions from his immense back catalog and then reworking them into new creations. Fear not, these are far from "new version of old songs," but rather new songs that contain glimpses and shadows of memories “kind of like being in an unfamiliar city and unexpectedly running into an old friend. A shining example is the playful "Water Day," which runneth over with memories held together by his well known riffs. "Wow's the Weather" goes back to his days of The Wind and the Wheat, making extensive use of the eBow and fairlight strings to provide a lofty experience. The complete chord progression of an earlier song is reproduced on "Noah's Song," though you'd be hard pressed to tell from this new creation, crammed as it with a bridge of mellotron flutes and an "I Am the Walrus" beat.

Keaggy flexes his musical muscle on The Song Within, making everything look easy and proving why he is esteemed as an amazing finger-style guitarist, a solid composer and a skilled song crafter. Even without lyrics, many of these songs are easy to latch onto on the first listen, creating a hopeful sense of joy and beauty in the listener. If you enjoy acoustic guitar played only the way a seasoned virtuoso can, then you need look no further than The Song Within.

First published in Whatzup, 2008 - Ad Media Inc.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Brutal Planet

Well, here it is. The end of the series. Sure, Cooper wrote albums after Brutal Planet but I was writing CD reviews for Whatzup by then so these have already been handled. I wonder what I'll review next? Who knows! Who cares!

So as I just said, Alice Cooper came out with Brutal Planet in 2000, a mere six years after his previous release. Six years? Was he going to Bible college or what? Whatever he was doing Cooper came back with an album that proved that he could love Jesus while rocking harder than ever before, making Brutal Planet his heaviest and darkest album to date. In many places it's darn near industrial and Alice even admitted to going for a Marilyn Manson sound on a few songs*.

So it's heavy but is it good? You betcha! A lot of metalheads who don't consider themselves Alice Cooper fans have only this album and they like it**! And what's not to like? The title track kicks things off with a grinding rhythm guitar and mechanical sounding lead guitar pounding out a low and heavy riff. Lyrically the song concerns sin with overt lyrics like "We took advice from that deceiving snake" and female background vocals which are strangly offsetting to the thick sound. Cooper has always had a knack for memorable melodies and this song is no exception. In fact, well over half of the songs on the album have melodies so strong that one could easily play them folk-style on an acoustic guitar and the little ladies at church would listen attentively***. "Wicked Young Man" is just as heavy and twice as industrial, examining the concept of the innateness of sin via a young man who confesses "It's not the games that I play / The books that I read / I'm just a wicked young man." "Sanctuary" is an atomic explosion with breathless pacing and an anthemic chorus that is equally cathartic. Featuring a massive groove riff "Blow Me A Kiss" is another excellent song that captures timeless truths in a unique way. The dragging "Eat Some More" is the first of the very few clunkers on the album, though instead of clunking they kind of never really take flight. But who cares when most of the album kills? "Pick Up The Bones" is 100% creepy, telling the tale of someone picking up the body parts of family members and friends after a war massacre with a wall of thundering guitars and appropriately toned vocal performance. "Pessi-mistic" is good but sounds like a remake of the former song. "Take It Like A Woman" likewise is a fine song but appears to be a token ballad in the vein of "Every Woman Bleeds". Sonically it doesn't fit at all with the rest of the album**** so I can only assume it's inclusion was some kind of contractual obligation*****. Closing things out is "Cold Machines", the most industrial of all the songs, an extremely heavy song with a crushing riff sure to please all but the most finicky of metal mavens.

As an addendum, I just noticed that on my review for Dragontown I kind of dissed this album. In the last thirteen years I've listened to Brutal Planet more and it's twice the album of Dragontown. So there! Take THAT, stupid reviewing self from 2001!

Rank: Quality but not classic

* I should point out here that he had only one bassist, Bob Marlette, who was also the keyboardist, arranger and co-writer on most of the songs. I hope he got paid for all these hats.

** Also a lot of Christian hard rock fans who don't consider themselves Alice Cooper fans have only this album and they like it!

*** That is until one sings "Over there we filled the ovens / Right in the holocaust."

**** Which is why Alice apparently cut the song "Can't Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me." Huh?

***** Or he lost a bet.

Music Review - Opeth - Damnation

Possibly my favorite Opeth album. Sure, it's not really metal but that's what make it so unique... there's metal aggression beneath those supposedly tranquil melodies and therein lies the uniqueness.

Opeth is the salvation of the metal genre. Yes, that's quite a bold statement to make considering I forgot to take my medication this morning but it's true. While I sincerely doubt that their music will ever get broad airplay or rotation on MTV14, Opeth has consistently made music that inventively blends boundaries, music that most only wish they could create, ultimately influencing countless musicians. One day one of these musicians will find a way to water down the magic until the public finds it palatable and then that musician will make millions (think Collective Soul and King's X). When that happens, remember that it was Opeth who figured out the alchemy to combine death metal, prog, pop and classical.

So why does this Podunk reviewer think Opeth is so funk-tastic? Any band that can make death metal appealing to this Beatles-raised farm boy has got to be doing something right. The first Opeth album I heard was Blackwater Park, their fifth release. Starting with crushing guitar, vocal growling and thunderous tones the band opened the curtain on their dark night and like the dawn after a tumultuous thunderstorm, shards of light dappled in the puddles, birds returned and colors regained their brilliance. I still don't know how they pull off this trick time and again, seamlessly and effortlessly fading harsh tones into acoustic manna and back again.

With Damnation, Opeth is taking a huge risk for any metal band - tossing out the distorted guitars and writing an album of clean, acoustic songs. The majority of metal bands simply don't have the chops, hiding their sloppy technique behind volume, but Opeth does this with ease. Far from an album of ballads, Damnation is a compelling, sinister, haunting rumination on human loss. Acoustic guitars, mellotrons, pianos, clean vocals with perfect pitch harmonies create an atmosphere that is much heavier than one might expect and yet retains an almost other-worldly lightness. There are goosebumps on these songs with your name written on them.

Astounding production, intricately and expertly written songs, beautiful melodies, tastefully selected instrumentation - it's a masterpiece! Fans of Tool and Radiohead especially should buy this album and immerse themselves in real music. Musicians of all styles and calibers should buy this album as should anyone who has ever owned a Led Zeppelin recording or imbibed water. Plain and simple: this is a great album regardless of your personal musical tastes and I'm going to hold my breath until you add Damnation to your music collection.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp in 2003.

Music Review - Opeth - Ghost Reveries

Perhaps worth a return listen. I think this is the last album they made that I enjoyed.

By now every fan of heavy rock knows who Opeth are, right? I mean, you’ve got all seven of their albums and rushed right out to buy Ghost Reveries, thus sparing me the necessity of trying to put into words the enigmatic orchestral splendor contained in the eight compositions, er, songs, right? You know all about their unique and proprietary blend of death metal, folk, classical and progressive so there’s no need to stretch this writer out of his comfortable, stagnant hole.

You’re gonna make me earn it, aren’t you?

My accidental exposure to Opeth is chronicled in the vast whatzup online archives, but it was soon after that I read exploits of this band. Despite being of the metal ilk, they weren’t tearing up hotel rooms or ravishing nubile nymphettes; they were preparing to record instructional videos with extreme musicianship. Even with the distortion turned off, the author was astounded at their intense technical abilities and intricate playing. As a testament to their skills, Opeth wrote Ghost Reveries in a new open tuning, forcing them to examine their parts and avoid any comfortable licks. Far from being intellectual or sterile, this process resulted in their warmest, most human album to date.

The 66 minutes of Ghost Reveries is a complex yet easily enjoyable album, giving instant gratification. But ultimately there’s a lot to digest. Each song goes through a myriad of changes constructed of many layers, and not a one is superfluous. To try and discuss the details of even one of these expansive, beautiful and brutal constructions would be like trying to describe a movement of a symphony, losing the essence in the details. But in broad strokes, expect brain-mashing guitars, growling vocals and pounding rhythms that transform effortlessly into quiet moments of mellotron, organs, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies, all done with such a deft slight of hand that you’ll never see smoke or mirrors. As on their Damnation album, the quieter moments really steal the show by setting calming, gloomy moods that are torn apart in a frenzy, warmly welcoming you into a comfortable house inhabited by the Manson family.

You don’t need to be a snobby music critic or fan of bands like Tool, The Mars Volta and Pink Floyd to appreciate and enjoy the music of Opeth. You can think that death metal cookie monster growling is silly and still find no shame in owning all of their past albums. You can also think that progressive music is sterile, classical music is boring and folk music is simplistic, and still feel confident in shelling out the cash to purchase Ghost Reveries. You are forgiven of all these preconceived notions and may go in peace.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp in 2005.

Music Review - Opeth - Blackwater Park

I followed up on Opeth and had a co-worker with their entire back catalog. The album before this one was quite good but before that they were too Cookie Monster/Thrash for my tastes. A few albums after this one were enjoyable but then they started getting, er, Satanic? So I stopped.

I get a lot of unsolicited CDs to review, mostly death metal bands with corpses and satanic goats on the covers, bands with names from a morticians text book and members whose names are full of umlauts. After a quick glance, these CDs usually go into the trash or into the hands of my Venisection neighbor. And so it was as I opened the latest brown puffy mailer. Opeth. Never heard of 'em. Their bio sheet says they are from Sweden (aren't they all?)... no umlauts but lots of funny little circles, and that this is their fifth album. But the cover intrigued me enough to at least put the CD in for a sample. Very heavy and passionate with an interesting riff, fast but not to the point that it becomes blurred. And then the singer started in with the typical death metal "belching the alphabet" roar. Had it not been for the progressive, irregular rhythm and raw yet focused energy, I probably would have removed the disc. Five minutes into this dark, heavy track, the meter changed to 3/4, the tempo slowed, and light broke out as the hard-edged metal guitars were exchanged for acoustic, the rough melody replaced by a real, singable melody and the gravelly voice traded for silken, clear vocals. Two minutes of this startling interlude and the listener was plunged again into the dark roller coaster ride. Other tracks continue in this chiaroscuro, taking the listener through the darkest storm only to surprise them with rays of sunshine and abating rain. Instead of being abrupt, these drastic transitions are expertly executed, going from one extreme to another seamlessly and naturally. There seems to be a common theme throughout the eight tracks, though I've yet to be able to find a riff or a melody that ties it all together. This cohesiveness lends a nearly symphonic feel to the album. Most of the songs range from six to twelve minutes and this band works exceptionally well in such a large-scale environment. The songs never become tired or repetitive due to it's depth, sophisticated song structures, progressive elements and use of dynamics and atmosphere. Lyrically Opeth is pretty bleak but intelligently written, but what do you expect with song titles like "The Funeral Portait" and, well, "Bleak." With it's simmering black caldron full of death metal, prog, folk metal and classic rock, this album is difficult to categorize but easily one of the most pleasant and surprising finds I've had in the last year.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2001.

Music Review - Saint Low - Saint Low

Good but not as good as Madder Rose, which was good but not great.

Best known as the vocalist for the Madder Rose, Mary Lorson has accumulated quite a catalog of her own material. A quick listen to this CD will reveal why these songs were better held for a solo release. Instead of the textured walls of psychotropic guitar sound of Madder Rose, these songs are sultry and passionate, a smoldering collection of torch songs that borrow heavily from the age of jazz. Such songs fit in perfectly with Lorson's pure voice that sounds like the girl next door, only sexier, a playfully seductive voice that can make a young man fall in love and make a fool of himself. A June fool?

"Johnson City" is a prime example of the songs on this album with Lorson singing an aching melody in two-part harmony over a sedated mamboish rhythm that reeks of a melancholy memory, a song to slow dance close to. Equally smoky is "Crash", a smoldering song that evokes images of dimly lit nightclubs and those huge 40's microphones. "Only One", with it's infectious up-tempo melody and layered guitars is the only song that could fit on a Madder Rose album. My personal favorite is "On The Outside", a song of loss and alienation with an emotive violin line that permeates the song like a solitary tear moving down a beautiful face. The melody in this song, as in the others, seems intended to rend the heart of the listener. Overall, this album helps prove that Lorson is more than just a singer. The melodies are fresh and haunting and the entire "confessional song" feel of the album draws the listener into a secret confidence, an imaginary nightclub in the 40s where Mary is singing to you alone.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2000.

Music Review - Madder Rose - Hello June Fool

I still give this and other Madder Rose albums a listen every few years. It's good, melodic stuff and way too mellow to be a regular part of my diet.

An hour of high school petting and then going home. Such is the music of Madder Rose. With incredible self-restraint, this New York quartet creates richly textured songs with a controlled aggression lying just below the surface. The tension this creates is both tremendous and unnerving. As Mary Lorson's honey dulcet voice floats dreamily over Billy Cote's atmospheric melodies backed by a fuzzed-out yet controlled guitar, you expect that at any minute the cage door will open and the pent-up guitar will break into a ravenous frenzy... but it never does. The gentle, relaxed melodies are original and inviting while the music is a mixture of playful psychedelia and ethereal simplicity with Cote's distorted guitar pacing around the edges like a hungry animal.

With the exception of one song written exclusively by Lorson (with an annoyingly repetitive chorus), the songwriting on their latest release, Hello June Fool, is strong throughout. "Feels Like Summer" certainly does, transporting the listener to a lazy summer afternoon, laying in the sun-speckled shade of a tree, the temperature just right. "Overflow" has a subdued funk feel and tastefully placed wah-wah guitar that tugs at you, seductively promising release that never comes. "Hotel" is an ironic story of longing ("he took his life when he wanted to take yours") and "Train" has an incredible, and incredibly complicated, drum part that indeed sounds like a train. In "Goodbye June Fool", Lorson's rich voice contains just the right mixture of playfulness and sorrow to capture the feeling of paradise lost present in this song. The near-pop melodies and rich, textured feel of this music should appeal instantly to fans of The Breeders, The Choir, or Psychedelic Furs. However, anyone wanting to hear well-crafted music that appeals to both the heart and mind would do well to check out this latest release by Madder Rose, a band that knows who it is and where it is going.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 1999.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Music Review - Plankeye - Strange Exchange

I have zip, zero, zilch memory of this album. Of course I reviewed it thirteen years ago and can barely remember yesterday but still, Plankeye was/is a fairly well known Christian rock band so one would think that would have translated into some kind of memory.

Plankeye has gone through so many lineup changes that it’s questionable that any of the original members remain. While their earlier albums were definitely rock/punk excursions for a younger audience, Strange Exchange and their last album, Relocation, show a growing maturity both lyrically and musically from this youth-group mentality. What has not changed is the ringing, bristling guitars that capture the muscle of these indie rock tunes.

The album opens with “This Is,” perhaps the strongest track. The punk influence of their early albums is evident in this driving rock n’ assault full of pulsing guitar riffs and an intense, bursting rhythm. “The Meaning of it All” takes a slower turn with a definite U2 or Oasis vibe and cryptic, somber lyrics that search for, well, meaning: “With age comes time/And leaves to the earth must fall and die/Before they can find the meaning of it all.” The acoustic guitar is brought out for “My Wife,” a delicate track full of intricate playing that matches this emotive ode to the singer’s spouse.

< In the last two tracks the passion and intensity finally catch up with the frenetic pop exuberance of the album’s first few songs, resulting in some very fine songs indeed. But it’s too few too late. Between the energetic opening and the emotional ending, there’s 20 minutes of “I’ve heard this before.”

The album is full of well-executed post- indie rock with doses of The Tories and Semisonic and a dab of Brit-pop. The music is passionate, often dark and layered. The production is sparse and dry with enough experimental flourishes (thanks to veteran Chris Colbert) to keep your interest throughout. Unfortunately, it’s not an album that sticks with you. When I listen to this CD, I enjoy what I hear when I’m hearing it, but when the album is over I don’t find any of the songs sticking around and I don’t find myself thinking, “Hey, Mr. Cheesesocks, how about we listen to that new Plankeye CD?” Obviously the catchy melodic hooks aren’t sharp enough to stay in my mind longer than 45 minutes.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2001.