Sunday, 27 July 2014

Chicago's 'Chicago XXXVI: Now' - Album Review

Chicago, the legendary 'rock band with horns', has been making music for well over 40 years now. Over their long career they have tackled many different genres of music, from the jazz/rock fusion of their early days, to the soft rock/AOR that characterised their late 1970s/early 1980s output, Chicago has touched many bases and made a huge army of fans that come from a wide range of backgrounds. Although I have heard the odd song on the radio throughout the years, Chicago XXXVI: Now - the band's twenty third studio album, is the first full album of theirs that I have digested. It is always hard to get into bands with large back catalogues, but the couple of songs that were posted on Youtube to promote the album grabbed me so pre-ordering the album seemed like a good idea. The album itself is not as openly melodic as I thought it would be after hearing those two songs. It is definitely much more progressive than expected, but repeated listens prove to be rewarding as more and more layers of sound are discovered each time. There is definitely a more progressive vibe to the pieces here, and this will please the fans of the band's early material who perhaps were turned off by their more radio friendly years. That is not to say that traces of that era are not prominent too. There are plenty of big vocal melodies throughout this album and certain choruses beg to be sung along to. While Chicago are pretty unique sound-wise, I would say that the band they can most be compared to is Toto. In fact, certain comparisons sound-wise can be made between this album and Toto's most recent studio offering, 2006's Falling in Between - despite the fact that Toto are catchier and embrace the AOR elements much more than the current version of Chicago. Those jazzy-prog undertones are present in both releases though which gives the songs more substance than on some other, simpler albums. This is also the band's first album with vocalist and keyboard player Lou Pardini and percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. Vocals have always been handled by many different members of the band, but Pardini contributes quite a lot of lead vocals throughout this album and sounds strong throughout. Reyes' percussion helps to augment Tris Imboden's drums nicely and create those strong grooves that are essential in all fusion music.

The title track, Now, opens the album and sees the majority of the band take on vocal duties. Although it is primarily led by bassist Jason Scheff (who also wrote the song), lots of the other members handle lines here and there, and they all harmonise well in the choruses. Interestingly, this song is mostly actually performed by session musicians apart from guitarist Keith Howland who gets to show off his chops during a really excellent guitar solo. The band's signature horn sound is prominent here and create many memorable, melodic moments. More Will Be Revealed follows and this is where the Toto vibe is very clear. Founding member Robert Lamm and Pardini take lead vocals on this song as Lamm's swirling keyboards and stabs of horn blasts helps to add a slightly dramatic side to what is otherwise a laid-back piece. Scheff's inventive bass playing helps to drive the song, and a subtle but enjoyable chorus acts as a good centrepiece to the song. America is a lovely smooth, jazzy piece that sees Pardini's strong, smokey voice to take the centre stage over some delicate piano and some offbeat guitar chords. The lyrics are the sort of chest-beating patriotism that only Americans will truly get, but the song is enjoyable and grows on you over repeated listens. Crazy Happy possesses more of a 1980s summer vibe but has a slight minor key overtone with some rather mournful horn lines that feature during the downbeat verses. Lamm's vocal delivery fits them, before Scheff takes over for the choruses which are much more openly melodic. It is an easy going song that would be perfect for summer prime-time radio play. Free at Last is a more of a mid-paced fusion piece with some really soulful vocals from Lamm and a chorus that almost has a big band swing feel about it. Midway through the piece, the song descends onto a more progressive path with plenty of horn passages and some distant, almost crooned vocals before the swing-y chorus returns. The final part of the song is guitar driven with Howland once again bringing some more tradition classic rock to the proceedings with a really fluid guitar solo that is backed up really well by the horns. Love Lives On is a really 1980s throw back. It is a power ballad sung by Scheff that would have probably been a minor radio hit in about 1985. The synth-heavy verses are cliché as anything, but the chorus is a real melodic treat. Scheff is an excellent singer, and has the perfect voice for this type of ballad.

Something's Coming, I Know gets back to the band's signature fusion sound with some really funky grooves from Scheff's bass guitar and some excellent keyboard rhythms from Lamm. The horns really drive the melody here though, as they pretty much fill every gap in the song that is not filled by vocals. Howland gets another short solo before the funky rhythms return and see the song out to a upbeat finish. Watching all the Colors is a strange semi-acoustic piece sung by Pardini that has quite and ominous vibe to it despite the initial feeling of relaxation. Again, the horn section provides a perfect backing to the song as Imboden and Reyes lock in really well together to form a really solid rhythm section. Nice Girl sees Howland take lead vocals and what we have is a poppy tune that would be perfect for a driving scene in an 1980s police programme. The horns give it that vibe and the simple vocal melodies will stick into your head, even if Howland is not the best singer in the band. Pardini's organ helps to add to a retro vibe to the song and Reyes' simple percussion works well to add to the rhythms and grooves here. The guitar solo section becomes a little more prog however with really prominent bass guitar riffs and some speedy, almost shredded guitar licks. Naked in the Garden of Allah is an ambitious piece that crams a lot of music into a short space of time. The Eastern elements of the verses work well, with lots of subtle keyboard textures to create this vibe and Howland's guitar works in an almost percussive way throughout the song, helping more with the rhythmic qualities than the melodic ones. Some excellent fiddle lines from session player John McFee works well to create melody before the horn section really takes over in a progressive wall of sound. Another Trippy Day is the album's final song and makes sure the album ends in a nice, upbeat way. It is a simple song but it works well as a closing number with both Lamm and Pardini handling the lead vocals. While some of the songs on this album have been slightly darker, this one is much more light-hearted and is a good way to end the album. With this album, Chicago do not really break any new ground, but the manage to fuse lots of different eras of their sound together to create a cohesive album that will be enjoyed by fans old and new. It has certainly persuaded me to go back and check out some of their older albums, and I am sure it will be a journey I enjoy!

The album was released on 7th July 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Now.

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