Saturday, 24 June 2017

Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics' 'The Man With Stars on his Knees' - Album Review

Those who know me well will know that British hard rockers Heaven's Basement were one of my favourite young bands of recent years. My love affair with the band began when I purchased their 2008 self-titled debut EP, either in the year it came out or early on in 2009, and I was blown away by their classic rock prowess, raw energy, and surprisingly mature songwriting. It was a friend that turned me onto the band originally, and I never looked back afterwards! It is still to eternal shame ad regret that I never got to see the original Heaven's Basement line-up live, but this dream was shattered in 2010 when frontman Richie Hevanz left the band. I feared this would be the end of one of my favourite young bands, but Heaven's Basement carried on, initially with a couple of guest singers (including the excellent Johnny Fallen who fronted another now-defunct young hard rock band theFALLEN), before settling on a permanent replacement in 2011. Enter Aaron Buchanan, a name unknown to me at the time, but he soon became well known - not just to me but the entire Heaven's Basement fan base and more! Making up for lost time and gigs, I went to the band's first live appearance with Buchanan in Leicester and bought one of the very first copies of their second EP Unbreakable. I managed to catch the band live six times between 2011 and 2013, and saw the band rise from young starlets to a band that genuinely threatened to make some musical waves. Their long-awaited debut album Filthy Empire (which I reviewed here) was finally released in 2013 and it really cemented my love for the band. I really thought that the band would finally get the recognition that they deserved but it sadly was not to be. In circumstances that were never fully explained, Buchanan suddenly left the band in 2015 and Heaven's Basement were once again left without a vocalist. After fulfilling a few last live dates with Danny Worsnop filling in on vocals, Heaven's Basement were put on hold. Buchanan was the first to show his hand, and last year he announced his new band Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics, made up of his sister Laurie Buchanan on guitar, fellow guitarist Tom McCarthy, bassist Chris Guyatt, and drummer Kev Hickman. After honing their craft with quite a few live shows, the band's debut album, which had been advertised for quite some time, was finally released in May this year with the enigmatic title The Man With Stars on his Knees. The album itself is more of a solo effort however, with only the two Buchanans from the band featured along with Ryan Woods on guitar and bass, and James Curtis-Thomas on drums. Curtis-Thomas also acted as the album's producer along with Buchanan; and Buchanan also spread his wings here musically contributing some guitar tracks, bass, and even some drums to the songs present here. Musically, this sounds like a mix of Filthy Empire-era Heaven's Basement with a strong 1990s grunge influence. There is a great mix of high-energy rock songs along with slower, murkier pieces which creates a diverse and enjoyable album from one of the best modern rock frontmen.

The album opens with a bass-heavy intro piece called Show Me What You're Made Of, which features Buchanan's voice singing gently over a pulsing bassline and a quasi-marching drum beat. Despite only being slightly longer than a minute in length, the song still builds up towards the end with some big guitar chords before exploding into All the Things You've Said and Done, the album's first true song. A driving drum pattern and strident guitar riffing dominates the verses, while Buchanan takes a more restrained approach vocally, almost talking in places. This works well, and when the song explodes into the chorus he lets rip more with a powerful delivery packed full of melody. Songs like this will be familiar to Heaven's Basement fans, and this feel is retained when the band launch into a guitar solo section, presumably performed by Laurie Buchanan, which contains plenty of classic rock swagger. Dancin' Down Below is another uptempo song and is my favourite cut on the album. It is probably the closed thing on the album to the sound Buchanan helped to forge on Filthy Empire, as the song is packed full of punky energy, squealing guitar leads, and a chorus that just grabs you and refuses to let go. While the vocal performance is definitely the best part of the song, the guitar playing here is also excellent with plenty of short bursts of lead playing that cuts through the tough rhythms with ease and helps to add extra melody when required. While the first two true songs on the album are packed full of pent-up energy, the rest of the album mostly moves ahead of more of a mid-pace. The Devil that Needs You, while still a strong rocker, definitely takes the pace down a notch and that slight grunge feel can be felt, especially during the choruses. The verses certainly rock harder, with an interesting drum pattern that feels frantic, yet also strangely in control, which contrasts well with the slower chorus with ringing guitar chords used for extra melody instead of the more traditional leads. A heavier breakdown section is excellent here, with some strong Alice in Chains-esque riffing and some hoarse vocal shouts from Buchanan which are mixed into the guitars to give everything more bite. Most of the songs on this album are concise, at around the three minute mark or slightly longer, but the next two songs both just break five minutes in length. Journey Out of Here opens with a guitar pattern that builds up with layers of chords over some wordless vocals, before everything drops out to an Alter Bridge-esque verse with clean guitars and a punchy drum pattern. Buchanan's voice is almost a whisper at first, but he adds more power as he moves along and finally hits full power during the chorus sections as heavier power chords take over to really pack a punch. I have already made the Alter Bridge comparison, but that is definitely who the song reminds me the most of overall. It has that slightly earnest, but also musically epic, feel with a dynamic vocal display and a good mix of light and shade.

The album's title track is up next and it is another fairly lengthy number, at least in the context of this album. It is again a good mix of mellower and heavier sections, and it opens out slowly with some clean guitar arpeggios that create a surprisingly dark mood as the atmospheric guitar melodies swirl around the vocals. A snaking bassline also joins the fray, which helps to add weight to the song and provides a surprising amount of extra melody. The chorus is, again, a heavier moment and it retains the dark mood of the verses with layers of heavier chords and no traditional rock guitar leads. A more light-hearted instrumental section follows however, with some Brian May-esque guitar lines which cut through the gloom with plenty melody and finesse. This is a very vocally-focused album, so it is great when the guitarists get a chance to cut loose occasionally and add a little variety. A God is no Friend is a slower number, and opens with a slightly bluesy guitar lead and spooky chords to back it up. The grunge mood is enhanced here with a slow-moving drum beat and Buchanan's voice has some subtle harmonies with it throughout to add that depth that bands like Alice and Chains always had vocally which was a big part of their sound. He unleashes a few howls throughout, which almost border on harsh vocals at times, which acts as a bit of a chorus, but mostly this song stays more down-beat. It is an extremely atmospheric piece despite the lack of any real heaviness and it shows something very different from what Buchanan was known for with Heaven's Basement. Left me for Dead picks up the pace again with a bass-heavy sound and a more powerful vocal delivery from Buchanan. The way the bass is mixed here gives the song a very dense and heavy sound, which is a big contrast from the sound that preceded it, and it helps to give the album a bit of a kick after a slower turn. It is songs like this that really allow Buchanan to show off more of his voice, and it makes you realise he has a much greater and range and talent than was ever explored on Filthy Empire. A strange guitar solo dominates the song's middle, which has an almost tortured sound which is certainly different from the norm. Mind of a Mute opens with some almost Eastern-esque wordless vocals before exploding into another riff that would fit nicely on an Alice in Chains or Soundgarden album. The Seattle sound is definitely a huge influence on this song, and in fact much of the album, but it is certainly more prevalent and obvious here. The bass is once again quite high in the mix, which gives the song quite a thick sound which means Buchanan has to really power his way over the top of the music with his voice and makes for a raw and strong vocal display. Snaking guitar leads dominate the song's ending section as the song moves towards a powerful and slightly chaotic climax. The final song here, Morals?, definitely has quite a theatrical Queen-like feel with a dynamic vocal performance, especially during the verses. The choruses are catchy too, and even feature some piano chords to add a certain drama, but it is of course Buchanan's excellent vocals that continue to drive the album right until the end. Overall, The Man With Stars on his Knees is a really strong debut solo effort from Buchanan and his collaborators. Despite throwing a lot of different influences into the songs, the album still maintains a strong identity and has a concise feel that makes me continually want to revisit it. I look forward to seeing where he will go from here.

The self-released album was released on 26th May 2017. Below is the band's promotional video for Dancin' Down Below.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Alestorm's 'No Grave but the Sea' - Album Review

It is fair that Scottish folk metal heroes Alestorm took the metal world by storm when their released their anthemic debut album Captain Morgan's Revenge back in 2008. Their keyboard-heavy brand of folk and power metal, coupled with their Pirate-themed lyrics, made the album, and subsequently the band, a bit hit. While only the bands founding member, vocalist, and keytar player Christopher Bowes is left from the band's original line-up, Alestorm are still going strong nine years on. Three more albums and plenty of world tours have followed, and the band have created a global fanbase of loyal supporters in the meantime. While the pirate theme has become the bands USP and has made them stand out from the crowd, I also feel it has become a bit of a rod for their own backs. There are so many songs that a band can write about one fairly narrow topic, and many of the same tropes have been trotted out album after album. I feel that your average Alestorm song will fall into one of two camps. Firstly you have the band's more 'serious' offerings, which are usually songs about great pirate adventures and battles; and secondly you have the more 'comedic' offerings which are often based around alcohol humour. The latter, usually, does little for me; whereas the first is excellent and is what makes me an Alestorm fan. While all of their songs are firmly tongue in cheek, there are few bands that can create an image for a stormy sea with a ship tumbling in the waves quite like Alestorm. The band's first two albums, the aforementioned Captain Morgan's Revenge and 2009's Black Sails at Midnight, were balanced more in the favour of the epic, storytelling songs. I loved these albums and still listen to them regularly, and it is these albums that I think of the most when thinking of Alestorm. The next two, 2011's Back Through Time and 2014's Sunset on the Golden Age (which I reviewed here), definitely seemed to rely more on humour than epic songwriting to get them by. While I do not dislike either of these albums, and in fact there are still plenty of enjoyable songs on each, I felt the balance had been tipped in favour of endless references to being drunk to please rowdy metal crowds at festivals. This is why I am glad that on the band's fifth album, the newly released No Grave but the Sea, the balance has been tipped back into the favour of the epic adventures! The synthesised accordion sound that really dominated the band's early sound is back, and the addition of guitarist Máté Bodor (Wisdom) has really helped to add more weight to the riffs and solos. A few of the more light-hearted songs are present here, and a handful of those songs are always welcome, but the majority of this album really takes me back to listened to those first couple of albums in the late 2000s! Incidentally, this is also the band's most collaborative effort yet, with Bowes sharing songwriting credits with Bodor and/or keyboardist Elliot Vernon on many of the songs. The large writing contributions by these two has certainly helped to strengthen Bowes' material and has helped to make this album as strong as it is.

After an explosive drum intro from Peter Alcorn, the album's title track gets underway with a keyboard-heavy riff that sits upon a simple guitar line that packs a real punch. This song really takes the listener back to the band's early days, with a tale of piracy and sailing the seas. A mid-paced verse soon gives way to a more upbeat chorus with a slightly dancy rhythm and plenty of powerful gang vocals to back Bowes' rasp. Harsh vocals, sung thoughout by Vernon, are more widely used on this album, and they are used in a supporting role in the chorus to really increase the power. A lengthy keyboard solo fills the middle of the song, and helps to enhance the song's folky melodies. Mexico opens with a melody that sounds like something from an old video game soundtrack, before opening into another highly melodic keyboard-led riff. This is one of the band's more light-hearted efforts, with lots of references to drinking, but the chorus is so infectious that I can see this becoming a live staple for years to come. A polka-esque beat drives the verses, before the pace picks up in the choruses with a shanty-like melody and more powerful gang vocals. To the End of the World is the sort of song that made me fall in love with Alestorm in the first place. I really like it when their songs have a bit of a sinister edge to them, and this is one of those numbers. A crunching metal riff, with that trademark synth-accordian over the top of it, is the song's driving force and the overall heaviness of this riff sets the tone for the song. The verses certainly have more dirt under their nails than many of the band's recent offerings, and the chorus is a real winner with a great mix of clean and harsh vocals. It is songs like this that make you realise just how good a band Alestorm can be, and they really excel when they stay away from the overtly humorous lyrical matter. Bowes and Vernon, the band's two keyboardists, really outdo themselves here with plenty of folky melodies and doomy soundscapes that really enhance the song's mood perfectly. Bodor gets his first true guitar solo on the album too, and shows that he is probably the best guitarist the band have had with some extremely tasteful lead runs. The next song, a self-titled effort, is enjoyable but is a real barrel-scraper when it comes to lyrics. Musically, the song is fantastic with a strong upbeat feel, choppy guitars, and powerful keyboards. It is also gives Vernon a real chance to show off his vocal skills with extended periods of harsh vocals being used exclusively to good effect. The lyrics really are awful though, especially during the choruses, but I suppose it does sum up the band's USP which is key being a self-titled effort. Bar ünd Imbiss does the meatheaded pirate metal so much more convincingly than the previous number and definitely sets out the band's stall much better. Co-written by Bodor, the song is quite guitar orientated with some strong grooves in the verses and plenty of little lead breaks for him to real sink his teeth into. The choruses has a bit of a feel of Nancy the Tavern Wench but with a heavier overall vibe which makes me think that this is another song that will become a live favourite.

Fucked with an Anchor is everything you would expect it to be. Filled with angst and humorous lyrics, this song is sure to become a fan favourite. It is one of the album's most instantly memorable numbers, with a chorus that will bury itself in your head and you will probably find yourself singing at extremely inappropriate situations. The verses are acoustic-led, which gives the song a bit more of a minimalist feel, but things do pick up during the choruses with plenty of gang vocals and crunching power chords. Pegleg Potion is a real throw back to the band's early sound with a slightly thrashy rhythm and powerful guitar chords. Vernon has plenty of harsh vocal sections here too, and his voice mixes perfectly with Bowes to create a dynamic and heavy song that is still filled with melody. The chorus is packed full of catchy little keyboard leads which really make the chorus one the album's best moments. Musically this is a very strong song, with plenty of virtuosity throughout including a keyboard solo and the guitar/keyboard duel which really sounds excellent. Man the Pumps is probably the weakest number of the album's second half, and fails to pack the punch of the songs that surround it. The chorus is pretty good, and again has quite an old-school Alestorm feel, but the rest of the song has quite a plodding feel. While I do enjoy their more mid-paced numbers, I just feel this song lacks the atmosphere that the best of their mid-paced numbers possess. The guitar solo is pretty good too, and goes on for a good length, but it does not fully redeem what is a less interesting number. Rage of the Pentahook opens with a fast riff, and the verses slow things down somewhat with a solid slab of groove metal in Bodor's riff and Bowes' storytelling lyrics. There is a lot of music packed into a relatively short song and shows the band's versatility. Alcorn really shows off his skills here, with great groove-based drumming and fast thrashy beats at other points to fit the mood that is required. There is even a little acoustic-based melody at the end that is very different from the rest of the song and ensures that it ends on a strange, but also satisfying, note. The album's closing number Treasure Island is fairly lengthy and shows off all of the band's best songwriting assets. The song's intro has a bit of a prog metal feel with an off-kilter beat a layers of melodic keyboards. There are plenty of strong guitar riffs throughout, which is unsurprising considering that Bodor co-wrote this one as well (he co-wrote four of the album's ten songs in total), and that provides a bit of a change from the usual keyboard-heavy sound. That is not to say the keyboards take a back seat, as their pomp is still felt here in spades, but there definitely seems to be more emphasis on guitars here than usual. It is certainly an ambitious song, and ensures that the album ends on a high. In fact the acoustic outro, which reprises a melody from the album's title track, is really very nice indeed and has the feel of a calming sea after a nasty storm! Overall, No Grave but the Sea is easily my favourite Alestorm album since Black Sails at Midnight as it contains all the hallmarks that made that album and their debut album so great. I am glad that the band have moved away from the humorous songs somewhat and focused again on epic songwriting and storytelling.

The album was released on 26th May 2017 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Mexico.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Guns N' Roses - London Review

It is safe to say that the news that the legendary duo of guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan were rejoining the American hard rock band Guns N' Roses, and band which they helped to catapult to stardom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was easily the biggest news in the rock world last year. Since Slash's departure in 1996, and McKagan's the following year, the band's huge world-wide fan base were pining for a reunion. What followed were years of line-up changes and delays, as frontman W. Axl Rose worked on the band's sixth album, the infamous Chinese Democracy, which would eventually be released in 2008 to mixed reviews. By this point Rose was the band's only founding member left, although long-time keyboardist Dizzy Reed who joined Guns N' Roses in 1990 opted to remain with Rose. In some respects, the final Chinese Democracy release perfectly captured the multitude of line-ups and vibes Guns N' Roses had evolved through throughout the ten year period it was recorded. The finished product featured performances by members who had long left the band, so it really is a conglomeration of songwriting and performance styles. While I loved the album from the off, many did not and it certainly became a divisive topic among the band's fan base. The touring that followed often featured large chunks of the newer material in the set which put many fans off attending the band's shows, and the often erratic behaviour from Rose that saw tours cancelled for arbitrary reasons and lengthy waits at shows for the band to actually come on stage definitely gave Guns N' Roses somewhat of a negative reputation. The touring cycle for Chinese Democracy ended with a residency in Las Vegas in 2014 and Rose put the band on hold for an end-of-tour break. What followed were months and months of rumours concerning many of the then-current members of the band. It was heavily rumoured that Ron 'Bumblefoot' Thal wanted to leave the band to focus on his own music, and he did eventually announce his departure, as did bassist Tommy Stinson and guitarist DJ Ashba. As you would expect, the rumour mill went into overdrive at this point and many thought that was the perfect opportunity for Slash and McKagan to return to the band. There had of course been plenty of rumours of this nature in the past, but this time the fans were actually right! On the 1st April last year, Rose, Slash, and McKagan played their first show together since 1993. Joining the three original band members were Reed, guitarist Richard Fortus (who has been a part of Guns N' Roses since 2002), drummer Frank Ferrer (who has been a part of Guns N' Roses since 2006), and the band's newest recruit Melissa Reese who contributes extra keyboards, backing vocals, and percussion. This show at the Troubador in Los Angeles was the springboard for the band's current and lengthy Not in this Lifetime... Tour which has already covered North America, and is currently wending it's way through Europe.

Although I saw a fantastic show in Nottingham in 2012 from the then-current Guns N' Roses line-up, I knew that this tour was really not one to be missed. A show at the London Stadium was announced towards the end of 2016 which sold out as soon as it went on sale. A second date was added due to the demand but I was initially hesitant to commit due to the high cost of the tickets. Luckily for me, this second show did not sell out so it allowed me time to ponder my options and weigh up the pros and cons in my head. I then changed utilities company and I had a rather large rebate from my original company. This extra money in my account made the decision for me and I decided to take the plunge and buy a ticket for the band's second night in London. The London Stadium was built for the 2012 Olympic Games, and is now used by West Ham United Football Club. It is in Stradford, East London, and has good transport links which makes it a good choice for large concerts of this nature. While it is smaller than the new Wembley Stadium, which was hosting The Stone Roses on the same night that I was soaking up the atmosphere at the London Stadium, there was still room for thousands and thousands of fans. Despite a combination of errors on my part which included booking a Travelodge in the anonymous North London town of Whetstone and not leaving early enough initially from Plymouth, which meant I spent most of the day on the tube without any real time to rest, I got down to the London Stadium in plenty of time for the main event. The opening act, Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, were just finishing their set as I got to the stadium and I took my seat in time to catch indie rockers The Kills. Usually I like to review the support acts at concerts I have been to, but I really have very little to say about The Kills. Their set was extremely unmemorable and just seemed to lack the power that an occasion of this nature deserved. Bands like The Cult and Alice in Chains had opened for Guns N' Roses in America and it seemed like The Kills were a very poor substitute for a band of that calibre.

Any notions of Guns N' Roses making their fans wait for hours on end for the show to start were soon dispelled when the band hit the stage bang on their allotted start time of 19:45. Instead of going for something grand, the band came out fighting with the punky energy of It's So Easy from their 1988 debut album Appetite for Destruction. It was clear to see from the off just how rejuvenated all of the members of the band are at the moment, and what followed was well over two and half hours of music from all portions of the band's career to date. The Stone-esque groove of Mr. Brownstone followed, and this allowed Slash to really let rip for the first time, peeling off the bluesy solo with ease while Fortus held down the rhythm. This was the first of many excellent solos from Slash throughout the evening, and he consistently displayed why he is considered one of the best guitarists in the business. Fortus is certainly no slouch either and was allowed healthy amount of chances to show off his skills too. The first of those came with Chinese Democracy, the first of three songs from that album retained in the current set, which featured a shredded solo from him which followed on nicely from a more bluesy effort from Slash. This hard-hitting anthem was one of my personal highlights of the early part of the show. Welcome to the Jungle of course received one of the biggest cheers of the night, before the bluesy strut of Double Talkin' Jive was the first real 'wildcard' number of the set which morphed into a lengthy Eastern-inspired jam session towards the song's end. Better featured more Fortus, including some impressive sweep picking, before the piano-led epic Estranged was the first real moment of class. Led from Reed from behind his piano, Rose crooned his way through the dramatic song with ease as the crowd lapped up Slash's bluesy leads. Rocket Queen also saw a large reaction from the crowd, and the sleazy number definitely whipped up a storm on the pitch below. The mid-section was dragged out with a guitar duel between Slash and Fortus, which was extremely impressive, before the sleazy vibe was continued with You Could be Mine. McKagan took the lead on a rousing version of The Damned's New Rose, which helped to bring back the punky energy of the show's opening few minutes. Many of the songs in the set were introduced with little snippets of other songs, which helped to really diversify the evening. New Rose opened with a short section of Johnny Thunders' You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory, while Civil War was rounded off with a few bars of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child (Slight Return).

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the real 'big guns' were left for the show's second half. After the more light-hearted Yesterdays, the juggernaut of Coma was wheeled out to the delight of the many of the band's hardcore fans. The lengthy song has never been a favourite of mine, but the hard-hitting riffs and excellent bass playing from McKagan made it a strong moment of the show. Slash's customary guitar solo spot followed, which included a great rock 'n' roll tribute to the late Chuck Berry and his now-classic rendition of the theme music from the 1972 film The Godfather. When this transitioned into Sweet Child O' Mine the place erupted, as is to be expected, and even the people around me who you could tell had been dragged to the show against their will by family or significant others were on their feet and singing along with Rose. The tough rawness of Out ta Get Me really was the last real back-to-basics number included in the set, before it was left mainly to the band's remaining epics to see out the show. While Rose's grand piano was being set up, Slash and Fortus treated the crowd to a gorgeous instrumental rendition of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here which showed the talent and finesse of the band's two guitarists. Rose then launched into his signature power ballad November Rain, after a short jam based around Derek and the Dominos' Layla, which was definitely one of the show's overall highlights. I would say that the song is Rose's singular greatest moment to date, and it always sends shivers down the spines of many when played live. Hearing Slash tackling the many heart-wrenching guitar solos again after so many years made the song extra special tonight and it rightly received a standing ovation from the huge crowd. A cover of Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun was a bit of a curveball, but it was done in tribute to the late Chris Cornell and Guns N' Roses managed a surprisingly good version of the grunge classic. The equally poignant Knockin' on Heaven's Door, dedicated to the victims of the recent Grenfell Tower fire and the recent terrorist incident that took place on London Bridge, also featured plenty of mournful soloing and chances for Rose to encourage the crowd to sing the lines back to him. The main set ended with the raw power of Nightrain, which provided a powerful change of pace from the more dynamic few numbers that had preceded it. An encore was of course to follow and the final ballad of the night, Don't Cry, went down really well before Rose surprised everyone with a hard-hitting and high energy version of AC/DC's Whole Lotta Rosie, a song that band used to cover back in their early club days. There was only one was the show was going to end however and the all-time classic party anthem Paradise City provided a perfect close to the evening as confetti streamed out over the crowd and as the band took their final bow the place really erupted. The setlist was:

It's So Easy
Mr. Brownstone
Chinese Democracy
Welcome to the Jungle
Double Talkin' Jive
Live and Let Die [Wings cover]
Rocket Queen
You Could be Mine
New Rose [The Damned cover]
This I Love
Civil War
Guitar solo
Sweet Child O' Mine
Out ta Get Me
Wish You Were Here [Pink Floyd cover]
November Rain
Black Hole Sun [Soundgarden cover]
Knockin' on Heaven's Door [Bob Dylan cover]
Don't Cry
Whole Lotta Rosie [AC/DC cover]
Paradise City

When the dust settles this will definitely be seen as one of the very best concerts that I have ever been to. Their 2012 show in Nottingham was probably my overall favourite until I saw Bruce Springsteen at Wembley Stadium last year. Whether this latest evening with Guns N' Roses will topple Springsteen from his pedestal remains to be seen but there is no denying that this show was easily worthy of that accolade. I really hope this tour leads to a permanent arrangement of this current version of the band as I would love to see what these seven musicians could come up with in the studio. While I know there are many fans that are not happy that this is not a full Guns N' Roses reunion, as Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler are not involved, I feel that this particular line-up of the band is probably their strongest yet and I really hope they continue to go from strength to strength!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Little Steven's 'Soulfire' - Album

I am not sure there is someone out there that exemplifies and has done more to forward to the Jersey Shore sound over the years than 'Little' Steven Van Zandt. He might not be a household name, but his songwriting and musicianship has been a big part of the popular rock/soul movement that emanated from the Jersey Shore and has become a world-wide movement over the years. As a musician, Van Zandt is best known as being a long-time member of Bruce Springsteen's famous E Street Band. His aggressive guitar playing and nasally backing vocals has always formed a large part of Springsteen's live sound, and he has also been featured heavily in the studio with Springsteen over the years so can be heard on many of his famous hits. While this gig more than pays the bills, it has never allowed him to flex him muscles as a songwriter. For a long time, Van Zandt never really had his own band and in fact wrote songs for other artists. Many of his compositions form the backbone of the catalogue of Jersey Shore legend Southside Johnny who, along with his backing band the Asbury Jukes, has helped to keep the horn-driven cross of rock and soul popular over the years. Van Zandt acted as the producer and main songwriter of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes for many years, and many of his songs have become popular through Southside Johnny's success. Over the years Van Zandt has worked and written with other artists, usually in a behind-the-scenes capacity, including Michael Monroe, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Meat Loaf. Despite mostly content to stay somewhat in the shadows, Van Zandt has also enjoyed a fairly successful solo career which he has dedicated time to on and off since the early 1980s. His debut solo album, 1982's Men Without Women, is real classic piece of the Jersey Shore sound and is an album that remains popular with connoisseurs of the genre. His following solos albums abandoned his signature style somewhat. 1984's Voice of America adopted a rawer garage rock sound, and 1987's Freedom - No Compromise experimented with some world music influences. A new solo album from Van Zandt was long-overdue, so fans of the Jersey Shore sound rejoiced last month when he released his latest solo offering Soulfire, his sixth studio album overall. While not strictly an album of all new material, Soulfire is a real celebration of Van Zandt's life and work, and of the Jersey Shore sound as a whole. Joining a handful of new songs and choice covers are new versions of some of his best known songs that he gave away. In finally recording and releasing his own versions of these famous songs, Van Zandt has reclaimed his own work and will probably alert people to his hidden genius that were previously unaware. It is ironic that more people now are probably familiar with Van Zandt for playing the calculating Mafioso Silvio Dante during the entire run of HBO's The Sopranos, as well as Frank 'The Fixer' Tagliano in his own TV creation Lilyhammer. Soulfire returns our attention to Van Zandt's music after his successful dalliances on the small screen, and does so with aplomb.

A jaunty guitar rhythm opens the album's title track, a song which Van Zandt wrote with the now-defunct Danish rock band The Breakers. Despite the spiky intro, the song is mostly a smooth affair with a gentle organ backing and a laid back drum beat, laid down here by Rich Mercurio. Van Zandt has never been the world's greatest singer, but his performance throughout this album is probably his best yet, and his natural warmth really helps the songs to life. A gospel-influenced chorus, complete with smokey female backing vocals, is the centrepiece of the song, and the crooning horn section that augments many parts of the piece really add colour. Many members past and present of the legendary Miami Horns have contributed to this album, and their presence really cements that Jersey Shore sound. I'm Coming Back, original recorded by Southside Johnny in 1991, is a bit more upbeat with an strident, anthemic chorus and an opening motif driven by pulsing keyboard horns. Twinkling piano lines are scattered throughout the song to great effect, but it is the chorus that really elevates the song to new heights with strong harmonies and a powerful melody that takes hold immediately. One of Van Zandt's typically schizophrenic guitar solos adds some real energy part-way through, before the chorus again takes hold. Blues is my Business is a cover, and the song was originally recorded by Etta James. Unsurprisingly given the song's title, this is a blues cut that really ticks all of those boxes. Van Zandt gets to show off his skills as a lead guitarist throughout, with many short solo sections and lead breaks to really sink his teeth into. The main bulk of the song is driven by a piano line, but the large horn section really adds to the song with plenty of punchy riffs. The highlight of the song for me is a lengthy organ solo from Andy Burton, who has toured with John Mayer and Ian Hunter among others, which is packed full of bluesy growl and attitude. The majority of the musicians on this album are relatively unknown names, who mostly undertake session work in the New York area, but they all turn in great shifts throughout and help to really bring these songs to life. I Saw the Light is a new song from Van Zandt for this album and opens with a three chord attack that really has shades of the music he plays day in day out with the E Street Band, and his nasally voice really helps in giving some bite to the song. The horns are easily the most dominant instrument here once the song really gets going, and their pulsing melodies really ooze out of the speakers. The rhythm section and some piano lines help out, but it is the horns that really take centre stage. Two songs from Southside Johnny's seminal 1977 album This Time it's for Real follow, with Some Things Just Don't Change up first. It is the first song on the album to take on more of a downbeat feel, with a slower piano melody and a mournful horn arrangement. There are shades of the great crooners of the 1930s and 1940s in the way Van Zandt sings this song and the overall arrangement of the piece which helps it to stand out. It takes a bluesy turn towards the end however, with a more prominent guitar line and prominent use of female backing vocals. Love on the Wrong Side of Town is next, and the song co-written by Springsteen is one of Southside Johnny's real classics. The slightly punky opening is great, with stabs of guitar and horns that really whip up a real energy, but the rest of the song is smoother with ringing guitar chords and a laid-back vocal performance. The chorus really soars however, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and plenty of organ to add a great 1970s classic rock backing. The effects-heavy guitar solo is also great, and adds another mood to a song that already contains many different vibes.

The City Weeps Tonight is another of the new songs recorded for this album, but it is a song that Van Zandt has been trying to finish for many years. The laid-back, almost lounge-like feel, adds a different feel to the album and shows that Van Zandt can really croon with the best of them when he feels like it. Strings are more the order of the day here than horns, and the subtle orchestral backing helps to bring out that dancehall feel the songs helps to conjure up. Down and Out in New York City, originally recorded by James Brown in the early 1970s, opens out with a strong percussive feel and a lengthy flute solo from Stan Harrison. Flute is not something usually associated with the Jersey Shore sound, and there are some parts of this lengthy intro that really have a strong Jethro Tull vibe (and this is not just because of the use of flute), but this is soon dispelled as soon as Van Zandt starts to sing over a bass-heavy rhythm with some great wah-heavy guitar from Marc Ribler (who also co-produced the album). The choruses are more typical of the Jersey Shore sound with strong horns and a impassioned vocal performance. Trombone and trumpet solos fill the latter part of the song with melodies and rhythms that make you realise how much of an influence this kind of music was on bands like Toto. Standing in the Line of Fire, a song which Van Zandt wrote with Gary U.S. Bonds for his 1984 album of the same name follows. This arrangement opens with a Spaghetti Western-inspired opening section with ringing bluesy guitar lines. The main song however is quite a laid-back feel that is built around strong piano chords and the odd burst of horns. I must say I feel this is one of the few songs on this album that never really gets going. I am not familiar with the original version, so it is hard to compare, but I feel this song lacks the energy of the rest of the album. There is a great trumpet solo however which really adds some class to the song towards the end. Saint Valentine's Day, which was written for a band called The Cocktail Slippers, puts the album back on track however with a more guitar-driven arrangement and a great vocal from Van Zandt. This is the first song from the album that I heard and it persuaded me to pre-order as it is packed full of the sort of things that has made Van Zandt so successful over the years. It also shows you how much influence he has had over the E Street Band's sound over the years, as this song could have fit on any of Springsteen's classic albums with a strong guitar-based rhythm and a an upbeat horn riff after the choruses that has a real triumphant feel. A raw guitar solo, filled with some slide, is the icing on the cake of what is a truly excellent song. I Don't Want to Go Home, from Southside Johnny's debut album, is apparently the first song Van Zandt ever wrote is does sound a little more rudimentary compared to many of the other songs here but is still packed full of heart. Big acoustic guitar chords and piano lines drive the song, along with a vocal that both shows Van Zandt's limitations as a singer but also shows that it is emotion that really counts rather than technical ability. The album's closing number, Ride the Night Away (which was written for Jimmy Barnes), is a real upbeat piece of rock that is a perfect album closer and also shows just how much the writing of Van Zandt and his peers has been on bands on Bon Jovi with a real 1980s arena rock-style chorus that shimmers with layers of keyboards and the real class of the ever-present horn section. It shows the more straight-ahead rock sound that Van Zandt also does well, and ends the album on a real high with plenty of memorable lines and moments. Overall, Soulfire is both a celebration of one of the underrated songwriters in rock history and an album that sees Van Zandt re-launch his solo career with a bang. With plenty of touring with his backing band the Disciples of Soul scheduled during the current Springsteen downtime, I am sure there are many out there that will finally learn of Van Zandt's genius.

The album was released on 19th May 2017 via Wicked Cool Recordings/Universal Music Enterprises. Below is his official sound clip for Saint Valentine's Day.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

DragonForce's 'Reaching into Infinity' - Album Review

Despite becoming famous (or perhaps infamous!) for the difficulty of their signature anthem Through the Fire and Flames on the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, the international power metal band DragonForce are certainly one of the most respected bands in the genre. While sections of the metal community still sneer at the mention of the band's name, there is no doubting the popularity and musical prowess of DragonForce. Despite being a fan for a long time, it is probably only during the past four years or so that I have really fallen in love with them. The band's last album, 2014's Maximum Overload (which I reviewed here), was a real turning point for me and it was the first of the band's albums that I really loved (rather than merely enjoyed). While I regard original frontman ZP Theart as the quintessential voice of DragonForce, it cannot be denied that the band have improved hugely during the Marc Hudson era. Hudson himself is a great singer, and probably more vocally diverse than Theart, but I feel the main reason for this overall improvement is the increased involvement of bassist Frédéric Leclercq in the band's songwriting. This role has increased exponentially since this first studio outing with the band, 2008's Ultra Beatdown, and his melodic and slightly progressive songwriting style has really helped to expand the band's horizons. Leclercq has become the perfect foil for Sam Totman - the band's founder, guitarist, and principle songwriter - and this writing partnership has only improved over the Hudson era and has made DragonForce into a much more interesting band as a result. I much as I enjoy the band's early discography, it cannot be said that there is a lot of variation to be found there! While that high-energy power metal sound that is filled full of fantasy-inspired lyrics and lengthy guitar solos is still the core of DragonForce's sound, that has been diversified in recent years with more changes in pace and interesting song structures. Following up Maximum Overload was always going to be tricky, but here we are three years on with Reaching into Infinity, the band's seventh studio album. While initially the overall impression of Reaching into Infinity is that it is not quite as strong as Maximum Overload, it certainly comes close. The diversity of the last album returns here too, and I feel that this is an album that is only going to grow on me further over time. Leclercq is not the only member of the band to increase their songwriting contributions here too, with Hudson this time contributing lyrics to nearly half of the songs. It is good to see Hudson really integrating himself into the band's creative process on his third studio outing with DragonForce, something which I am sure will continue to increase over time. Italian drummer Gee Anzalone, who replaced long-time drummer Dave Mackintosh in 2014, makes his debut in the studio with DragonForce with Reaching into Infinity and turns in a fantastic performance which helps to really drive the material found here.

After the short instrumental title track that really sets the scene with marching snare drums and slow-burning guitar leads, the album really explodes into life with Ashes of the Dawn and it's crunching main riff and washes of warm synths. A key part of DragonForce's sound has always been the twin lead guitar lines of Totman and Herman Li, and the song's extended intro features the first of the many examples of this on the album. In many ways, this is a typical DragonForce song that steams along at a decent pace and is lead by a strong vocal performance from Hudson. His voice during the verses seems gritter than his usual delivery however, and helps to add some overall weight. Hudson's performance throughout this album is probably his best yet with the band, and is extremely diverse and powerful. The lengthy guitar solos are back with a vengeance here, and Totman starts off the proceedings here before Li takes over with his legendary explosive playing. Judgement Day places a greater emphasis on keyboards than the band have done in a while, so it is unsurprising to read that the song was co-written by Vadim Pruzhanov. His songwriting contributions have always been strong in the past, but his role in this department has definitely reduced in the Hudson era. It is great to see him contributing again with this song, which is an early highlight and packed full of soaring melodies. The verse steams along at a break-neck speed, and Pruzhanov's synth melodies fill the gaps between Hudson's vocal lines perfectly in what is almost a call-and-response style. He even throws in a keyboard solo towards the song's middle, which starts off fast and then moves through a groovier section with tough riffs and a pounding drum rhythm. Guitar solos follow, but is the keyboards that steal the show here. Those who think the band have been neglecting their trademark speed in recent years will love Astral Empire, which is a real throwback to the band's early days with Anzalone's fast double bass drumming and machine gun rhythm guitars. The band have definitely been mixing things up in the speed department recently, but this is a piece of unashamedly fast power metal complete with blast beats and flashy shredding breaks. Hudson manages to sing the lines perfectly without it ever feeling like the lines are being rushed, and manages to throw in a few high-pitched screams as he does. The choruses maintain the same speed as the verses, which helps the song to maintain a strong atmosphere throughout. The instrumental section is somewhat different however, with a slower, bass-led section which works really well before the pace ramps up again to allow Totman and Li to trade solos. Curse of Darkness takes more of a mid-paced approach and in some ways feels like a sequel to Symphony of the Night from the last album with a similar horror-themed keyboard sounds throughout (in fact both song titles are subtitles from games in the Castlevania video game series). After the speed-fest of the previous song, it is good to slow things down a little with some crunching riffs and a soaring chorus which really allows Hudson to really get stuck into the vocals. I particularly like the acoustic-driven mid-section which is something the band do not do often; and makes Dracula's keyboard melody seem even more powerful when it kicks back in just before the solo section. Ballads are something DragonForce used to do fairly regularly, but the last couple of albums have lacked. Silence probably the first proper ballad for the Hudson era, and it works well to provide a mid-album break and an overall change of pace. The clean guitars have a really lovely tone to them, and really make you appreciate the meaty heavy guitars when they kick in for the choruses. It also makes you realise how well-produced the recent DragonForce albums have been. Working with Jens Bogren has really improved the band's studio output and has de-cluttered their overall sound to produce something which is sonically-stronger.

The second half of the album opens with the upbeat Midnight Madness which is another throwback to the band's early days with plenty of speed and the band's trademark fantasy lyrics. It is the only song on the album solely credited to Totman, and it showcases his songwriting style perfectly. Songs like this also showcase the drumming skills of new recruit Anzalone. While his style is not hugely different to that of Mackintosh, it is songs like this that demonstrate he is the perfect replacement for the Scotsman. While the song is very enjoyable, it does make you realise how the band's sound has progressed in recent years. DragonForce albums will always contain songs like this, which is great as it is arguably what they do best, but it is also great to see songs like this as part of a bigger picture of styles than their raison d'être. That difference in styles can easily be seen with the next song War! which, after a clean intro, morphs into a heavier song that definitely has more of a thrash feel than anything the band have done before. Hudson's vocals are gritter than their have ever been here, which helps to emphasise this thrash feel, and even a cheesy keyboard solo early on cannot shift this vibe! The pre-chorus is more of what you would expect, with more overt melodies; and the chorus mixes both feelings together perfectly. Leclercq's rough backing vocals mixed with Hudson's gritter delivery makes for a catchy and hard-hitting chorus. It is done in a bit of a call-and-response style with the rougher vocals being mixed with some of the highest power metal screams Hudson has ever performed which sounds fantastic when combined together (imagine King Diamond's trademark style and you will not be far off). This heavier style works well for DragonForce and this is something I would like to see them expand upon in the future. Land of Shattered Dreams is another fairly typical DragonForce song, but it seems to place a greater emphasis on vocal melodies than usual. The music here, despite still being a fast metal song, is fairly minimalist with simple rhythm guitars and basic beats. It is keyboards that provide many of the melodies with a fairly busy line during the verses and a strong presence throughout. The chorus is another winner too, which some of the most instantly catchy vocal lines of the album, which really benefit from the less-busy musical arrangement. One thing that has been noticeable in the Hudson era is that the band's songs have, on the whole, been much shorter. Seven or eight minute long songs were normal during the Theart era, but this has mostly not been the case recently. The Edge of the World is the band's longest song to date however at just over eleven minutes long! This is definitely the real highlight of the album, and feels like the song DragonForce have been threatening to write for a while with the more recent forays into progressive writing. The chorus is just stunning, with a really heroic overall feel, and the rest of the song is made up of a mixture of styles that just fit well together perfectly. Acoustic-driven sections mix well with heavier sections and everything that is great about the band just shines through here. The Floydian guitar solo after the second chorus is actually played by Leclercq, which shows he is more than a competent guitarists as well as a great bassist and songwriter, before the song takes a heavier turn with a death metal-influenced section with harsh vocals. I suspect Leclercq sings these parts, as he does the occasional harsh vocal sections in older songs live, but this is the first time the band have used them as a lead vocal style. It works fantastically, and just adds another dimension to this epic and potentially career-defining song. That would have been a great way to end the album, but instead Our Final Stand, which is a more typical DragonForce song, acts a victory lap and a great upbeat feel and lots of excellent twin guitar work from Totman and Li. It is just a fun song, and acts as a perfect coda for the album after the previous epic. Overall, Reaching into Infinity is another excellent from a band that continue to improve. While I feel that Maximum Overload is still the stronger album at the moment, if you ask me again in a year or so's time that might have changed! I can see this album ending up in my Albums of the Year list at the end of the year, and if it does it will be a well-deserved accolade to have earned!

The album was released on 19th May 2017 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional video for Ashes of the Dawn.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Warrant's 'Louder Harder Faster' - Album Review

Despite gaining popularity towards the end of the big hair metal boom of the 1980s, Warrant are a band that certainly left a lasting legacy on the genre. Formed in 1984 by rhythm guitarist Erik Turner, Warrant's brand of poppy metal become very popular at the toe end of the decade and are definitely one of the hair metal crowd that has really stood the test of time. The classic Warrant line-up, consisting of frontman Jani Lane, guitarists Joey Allen and Turner, bassist Jerry Dixon, and drummer Steven Sweet, was established in 1987 and the band signed a record contract with Columbia Records the following January. At this point, the hair metal scene was really at it's peak. Bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe were riding high in the charts, and Whitesnake had made their big shift towards a more 'American' sound and image. This is probably why, when it was released in 1989, Warrant's debut album Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich was an instant success and went straight into the Top 10 in America. This instant success was capitalised on in 1990, when the band's second album Cherry Pie went to number 7 in the US album charts and also produced a number of successful singles. While Warrant are mostly known these days for the album's title track, it is fair to say that Cherry Pie is easily one of the best hair metal albums of all time. It is remarkably consistent throughout, and the relative diversity of the material on offer shows that Warrant had more depth than bands like Poison. Sadly for Warrant, and many other great bands, the imminent demise of the hair metal scene saw them effectively consigned to the 'Where are they now?' file. Multiple line-up changes followed over the years, but there has always been a Warrant on the circuit touring and recording albums. 1992's Dog Eat Dog was the last release with the classic line-up and showcased a somewhat heavier sound that the band would then stick with throughout the 1990s. Fast-forward to 2011, and Warrant's eighth album Rockaholic was released to an unsuspecting world. Rockaholic introduced to Warrant fanbase to frontman Robert Mason, who had formally played with Lynch Mob in the 1990s. The classic line-up, minus Lane (despite a short run of shows in 2008), had been playing together again since 2004 and this was their attempt to show the world they were still capable of writing quality material. While Rockaholic was not a exactly a classic album, it definitely shined a light on the band again and showed potential. Six years later, following plenty of hard touring, that potential has mostly been fulfilled on Warrant's new album Louder Harder Faster, their second effort with Mason. Where Rockaholic was a few songs too long, Louder Harder Faster is a leaner beast that clocks in at around 45 minutes in length, and is packed full of anthemic, hard rocking anthems with killer choruses and strong riffs. Warrant fans have been made to wait a while for this album, but it sounds fresh and exciting and shows a veteran band that still have the drive to be creative.

Not wanting to waste any time, the comes out swinging with the hard-hitting title track which opens with a heavy, bluesy riff and a confident vocal display from Mason. This a song that is packed full of attitude and energy, and fills all of it's three minute length with riffs and melodies. The chorus is a sleazy moment, filled with 1980s-style gang vocals, and the little bursts of bluesy lead guitar from Allen really add a little class to a song that otherwise is based on pure energy. It is a cracking start to the album, and shows the band really firing on all cylinders. Devil Dancer, while being more of a mid-paced affair, still packs a punch. Dixon's basslines are prominent throughout, and really drive the sparse verses, and chorus really soars with some tight vocal harmonies and melodies that would have found themselves on the band's early albums. There is enough of an overall sleazy vibe throughout the song to link to the hair metal scene, but there is also enough bluesy crunch to give it more of a fresh modern feel. The guitar solo is excellent too, and Allen really delivers with a lengthy blues-based turn that is full of neat phrasing and fluid runs. Perfect opens with screeching guitar leads that trick you into thinking the song will be a heavier affair, but in fact it turns into a more laid-back affair with a slight West Coast feel with plenty of vocal harmonies and a summery feel. This song is more reminiscent to the sound that was featured quite prominently on Rockaholic and draws more comparisons with the world of AOR than the hair metal scene. Despite this, the song is still enjoyable with a strong chorus and a surprisingly technical guitar solo from Allen that sparks with playful fluidness. Only Broken Heart gets back to the harder-hitting sound of the opening two songs, but incorporates a twin-lead guitar sound reminiscent of Thin Lizzy. While most of the material on Louder Harder Faster was written by Mason and Dixon, Only Broken Heart was also co-written by Turner which might explain the more in-your-face guitar leads as opposed to the band's usual riff-based style. It is not just the guitar style that is reminiscent of Thin Lizzy, but the bass-led sections and the storytelling lyrics are also similar. Unsurprisingly, the song is a strong one and will no doubt become a fan favourite. U in my Life is a ballad, led by Mason's piano melodies and melancholic vocals. While the song is enjoyable, it is certainly not a patch of the classic Warrant ballads of old. It is not without merit however, and allows Mason to show us a different side of his voice and demonstrate that he is certainly no slouch on the piano. The song does build up somewhat as it goes along, but some rather ham-fisted guitar leads rather dominate and lack the subtly that a song of this nature requires. Music Man certainly helps to get the album back on track, and you get the impression that this song is intended to be the spiritual sequel to Uncle Tom's Cabin as it opens with a similar Southern acoustic blues section before a big dirty riff kicks in which drives the rest of the song. This is definitely one of my favourite numbers on the album, as it is packed full of great Southern grooves and excellent guitar leads which are played with the perfect tone for this kind of sound.

Faded returns to the more summery sound of Perfect with a Queen-like opening guitar lead, before a jaunty verse comes in with ringing guitar chords and a ride-heavy drum beat that is surprisingly good at lodging itself in your brain. The AOR trappings are back here, with lots of vocal harmonies during the chorus and lots of wordless backing vocals throughout to add depth. While I think the heavier, bluesier sound suits the current Warrant line-up better, these lighter numbers are also enjoyable and help to add some variation to the album. Like the album's title track, New Rebellion is a real upbeat rocker with some excellent sleazy riffs and a strident vocal performance from Mason. Songs like this are much heavier and in-your-face than Warrant ever were during their classic era, but it certainly works well in a modern context. The meaty riffs really help to build the energy, and the song once again possesses a strong bluesy guitar solo from Allen. Big Sandy returns to the more mid-paced that dominates the album but also has a strong Cheap Trick with vocal harmonies and melodies that are reminiscent of the great power pop band. The clapping rhythms also bring that genre to mind, as does the overall feel off the song that is more about thrashed chords rather than traditional riffs. This overall emphasis on vocal melodies makes the song very catchy, but also makes it rather stick out on the album. It does not sound like Warrant at all really, but it is still a decent song and helps to add variety to the album. Choose Your Fate is another strong song with probably the album's best chorus. The AOR feel of the chorus mixes well with the overall heaviness of the rest of the song and ends up feeling quite a lot like classic Warrant. The heavy verses have some excellent punchy guitar parts, but it is the chorus where the song really takes off with a fantastic vocal display from Mason aided by plenty of excellent vocal harmonies. After the excellent Choose Your Fate, the album's final two songs do fall a little flat. Let It Go is another summery song, and it just fails to live up to the excellent previous number. Nothing about the song really stands out, as there are no real riffs or big vocal melodies to catch onto. It is the first song on the album to really fail to be memorable at all, and is lacking a big chorus and a real hook to make it stand out. The album's final song is a cover of Merle Haggard's I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink, which is quite enjoyable but does not really fit in with the vibe of the rest of the album. In fairness, the song is classed as a bonus track so this is understandable to a point. I feel it would have fitted in better if it was placed in the middle of the album as a 'mid-album break' as opposed to being tacked on the end where it really sticks out. The heavy country feel of the song is enjoyable however, and Warrant certainly do it justice. Overall, Louder Harder Faster is a strong album from the veteran American band. Despite loosing it's way a little at the end, there are plenty of excellent songs here that show the band still have plenty to say. It is easily the band's best effort since the first three albums, and contains plenty of nods to the past while having an overall modern hard rock sound.

The album was released on 12th May 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Louder Harder Faster.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Mostly Autumn - Bilston Review

Despite Bilston, which is a relatively anonymous West Midlands town on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, being somewhat of a Mecca for the grassroots rock and prog scenes in the UK it has never been a regular gigging haunt of mine. For a non-driver it is not the easiest of places to access (it requires a slow tram ride from either Birmingham or Wolverhampton) and usually there is an easier option when it comes to choosing which show of a tour to attend. Every so often however, a trip to the excellent Robin 2 venue in Bilston is required - and what a better reason to do so than to spend another evening in the excellent company of Mostly Autumn. The Bilston date was announced before the rest of their UK shows, and I knew many of the shows would be scheduled in earlier due to frontwoman Olivia Sparnenn-Josh's pregnancy. May was already shaping up to be a busy month, so I booked to see the band in Bilston in case their yearly trip down to the Tavistock clashed with other plans. As it turns out, the dates worked out perfectly but I will never turn down a chance to see York's finest! The venue also runs a B 'n' B in part of the building too, so it made the trip easier with literally a 30 second walk from the venue to my bedroom after the music finished. While Bilston will never be a regular gig destination for me, it is always nice to go back there every so often. The venue has a loyal following, and the turnouts for shows there are always strong. While not as full as I have seen it in the past there for Mostly Autumn, there was still a strong crowd on a Sunday night which was full of many of the Mostly Autumn regulars - which always makes for a relaxed atmosphere.

Unusually for a Mostly Autumn show there was a support act, and this came in the form of fellow York resident Marc Atkinson. Mostly Autumn and Atkinson have a long history together, and Atkinson has contributed backing vocals to many of the band's album over the years. Atkinson was even in bands with many of the Mostly Autumn alumni long before Mostly Autumn was established in the late 1990s. His performance was just him with his acoustic guitar, and he sang half an hour's worth of pleasant acoustic numbers. Most of the songs came from his most recent solo album, but a couple of numbers from his Riversea project were thrown in. He has a lovely voice, and seeing him live after hearing his name many times over the years made me realise I need to pay more attention to what he is up to. Acoustic acts are not really my thing, but the Riversea album is one I have been meaning to get for a long time and hearing a couple of the songs in this stripped-back form reminded me that it is something I need to investigate. He ended his set with a nice cover of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb which went down well and he received a healthy round of applause as he walked off the stage.

Having only seen Mostly Autumn live less than a month ago, there were no setlist surprises, but with a new set introduced this year to support the new album Sight of Day this was not a problem. The show in Bilston was slightly shorter than the one in Tavistock (although still long by most band's standards at two and a quarter hours) and the band played straight through without the mid-set break. Regular drummer Alex Cromarty was also back in the line-up this time around, having sat out the three Southern shows in May due to prior commitments. As always with Mostly Autumn shows, this was a powerful musical experience full of light and shade - and one I will never tire of. As has become customary over the past couple of years, Angela Gordon (flute/keyboards/vocals) and Chris Johnson (vocals/guitar) get things underway with the instrumental piece Out of the Inn, which builds from a jaunty flute-based piece into a full-on hard rock workout led by founder Bryan Josh's (vocals/guitar) guitar solo as the rest of the band take the stage. This was followed by the gothic rock of In for the Bite from Josh's recent solo album and, as always, provides Sparnenn-Josh wish a dramatic entrance with a soaring vocal display. The set was rejigged somewhat, presumably to ensure the now-heavily pregnant Sparnenn-Josh plenty of chances to rest throughout the night, but the flow was still good. The classic Evergreen came early in the set, which was followed by the dynamic Wild Eyed Skies. Led by Iain Jennings' (keyboards) piano melodies, this song has really re-established itself as a live favourite over the past year or so and shows off the band's heavier side in places. The bluesy prog of The Last Climb gave Sparnenn-Josh a rest, with Gordon singing the harmony vocals at the front of the stage and really wowing the crowd with a lengthy and gorgeous flute solo, before Josh did his best David Gilmour impersonation during his excellent guitar solo. Newer songs came in the second half of the show, with Tomorrow Dies really getting kicking things into high gear again with one of Sparnenn-Josh's best ever vocal displays and the ending guitar harmonies from Josh and Johnson. This song is destined to become a live favourite for a while I think, and the slightly dancy vibe sets it apart from the rest of the band's songs.

Only the Brave is the new Deep in Borrowdale I think, and it really came alive on stage. Gordon's flute was often buried in the mix at the Tavistock show, but it was more prominent here which made the folky instrumental section enjoyable. A highlight of any Mostly Autumn gig however is Mother Nature, which has really established itself again in the set over the past year or so, and this was no different. It really is the ultimate Mostly Autumn song and contains everything that makes the band so great. The gorgeous opening third with Josh and Sparnenn-Josh's vocal harmonies is always spine-tingling, the atmospheric mid-section led by Jennings' keyboard solo always puts the crowd in a dreamlike state, and that piece is shattered by the hard rocking ending led by Josh's guitar work and Cromarty's frantic drumming. The current live version includes a bass solo from Andy Smith at the end which is excellent, and came after some technical issues he was having early in the set which caused a few songs to be rearranged to allow him chance to fix them! Johnson had a chance to shine towards the end, with two of his songs played back to back. Silver Glass is a favourite of many of the band's fans, and his new classic Changing Lives really becoming a true favourite of mine. His singing and songwriting adds so much to Mostly Autumn so I am really pleased he has become part of the band again in recent years. Changing Lives was probably the highlight of the whole show for me, and the cleaner sound mix in Bilston really allowed all the subtleties to shine through. Skin on Skin, not played in Tavistock due to Cromarty's absence, was re-introduced with his customary explosive drum solo; before Sparnenn-Josh's signature song Questioning Eyes and the gorgeous power ballad Tonight rounded off the set perfectly. An encore of course followed, and another new one Raindown really impressed this time with gorgeous harmony vocals from the two ladies in the band, and plenty of flutework from Gordon, including a lengthy intro. Heroes Never Die brought the evening to a powerful and emotional end as it always does, and the band took their bows to big cheers from the good-sized Bilston crowd. The setlist was:

Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Drops of the Sun
Wild Eyed Skies
The Last Climb
Tomorrow Dies
Only the Brave
The Man Without a Name
Mother Nature
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Silver Glass
Changing Lives
Skin on Skin
Questioning Eyes [Breathing Space cover]
Heroes Never Die

Overall this was another fantastic show from Mostly Autumn. The band never disappoint live, and this show in Bilston was no different. The new material in the set is already starting to become welcomed like old friends, which is always a good sign of the quality of a band's new album. I still hope to the Sight of Day title track live one day, but the band really are on top form at the moment so get to a show if you can!