Sunday, 29 March 2015

Europe's 'War of Kings' - Album Review

Despite what popular opinion might sometimes tell you, Europe rock - and they always have! While the mega-hit The Final Countdown is the only song known by most people outside the band's circle of fans, the band have always written classy melodic hard rock songs that deserve to be heard by more people. Since reforming in 2003, the band have been working harder than ever. Five studio albums have been released and countless shows have been performed in that time and their latest release, tenth studio album War of Kings, shows that the band still have more to say. The band's modern sound has a harder edge than their 1980s heyday, and focuses more on guitarist John Norum's bluesy riffs and solos than on big keyboard leads. That being said, keyboards still play an important part in the band's sound and Mic Michaeli, along with being probably the second most prolific songwriter of the band behind frontman Joey Tempest, still makes his presence heard here. Lots of retro keyboard sounds are used, and the rumbling organ that envelops many of the songs here has more than a little hint of early Deep Purple about it. Sound-wise, this album sounds like a mix of the band's previous two studio releases: 2009's Last Look at Eden and 2012's Bag of Bones. Last Look at Eden had a very polished modern rock sound, while Bag of Bones was in contrast very raw. War of Kings is the best of both worlds in my opinion, with some songs benefiting from a smoother production, while others let rip in all their raw glory. Praise has to be heaped on producer Dave Cobb for achieving this mix of sounds. Tempest said that the band wanted to use Cobb for this album after hearing his work with the blues rockers Rival Sons (a band who I will admit I have never taken to), and they certainly made the right choice picking him to sit behind the desk. This might be the best sounding Europe album ever, losing some of the murkiness Bag of Bones had without losing the rock punch that it also had. The mix of songs is also great. Europe always write good ballads, and a couple of those are thrown in here to sit alongside the short, punchy rock anthems and the longer, blues-based workouts. Tempest also said in an interview that this was the album the band have always wanted to make, and I am glad they finally got the chance to make it.

The album's hard-rocking title track opens things up with a huge grinding guitar riff backed up by some seriously retro organ sounds. The verses have some serious rock swagger, but it is during the chorus that the song really shines. The hooks here are huge, and Tempest's voice still sounds fantastic. He is one of those singers who almost sounds better now than he did at the outset of his career, and he still has the knack for a great vocal melody. Norum's solo is great here too. He has always been a big fan Gary Moore, and that shows here with some tasty bluesy licks that convey emotion as well as rock energy. Hole in my Pocket is next and creates one of the best opening one-two punches on a hard rock album in a while. This is a faster song that comes speeding out of the gate with a frantic Norum riff over a tight beat from long-time drummer Ian Haugland. Michaeli's organ dominates the chorus and gives it an early Whitesnake feel as Tempest belts out some really catchy vocal lines. The Second Day is a grower. It took hearing this song played live and the album on repeat a few times to really 'get' it, but since then I've loved it. The song's opening is quite haunting, but it soon explodes into an Eastern-tinged riff that feels like something late-period Led Zeppelin might have come up with. Haugland's heavy-handed drumming enhances that sound, but then the chorus takes hold and it becomes something different again. The keyboards dominate again, providing an almost-orchestral feel that really compliments Tempest's vocals. The Eastern themes return in Norum's solo, that has a really strange, almost tortured sound as it escapes from his fingers. Praise You is a little similar to the previous song, but focuses more on the band's blues influences. Despite the hard-hitting opening riff, the song is actually fairly laid back in places. The verses are dominated by John Levén's snaking bass lines, and the choruses maintain a vibe similar to that of a classic 1980s power ballad, but viewed through a blues lens. A short keyboard solo follows, but the real star of this song is Norum who's beautiful solo two-thirds of the way through is nothing short of stunning. Nothin' to Ya has a real Deep Purple vibe. The way the guitars and organ mix together is reminiscent of that band's early work. It does pale a little in comparison to the excellent four opening songs, but it is still enjoyable with a really excellent string pattern in the chorus and another great solo from Norum.

The next two songs remind me a little more of the band's earlier albums. California 405 has a distinct AOR vibe to it, with a laid back chorus and with less aggressive guitars overall. A nice organ riff provides the main musical motif throughout, and the chorus is very memorable despite how unassuming it is. This song reminds me a little bit of Kingdom of Desire-era Toto. Days of Rock 'n' Roll continues on this sound, mixing upbeat, catchy keyboards with simple guitar chords. This song in particular would have probably sounded at home on 1988's Out of this World, and overall is a little throwback to their older sound. When I saw the band live, this some came across really well, and everyone in attendance was really enjoying themselves to it. This song was clearly made for the live arena, and it works very well in that context. Children of the Mind returns to their now-familiar modern sound. The swirling, atmospheric verses contrast well against the epic, hard rocking choruses to create a really dynamic song with lots of character. Norum really lets rip here again, with a really crazy solo that is soon replaced by Michaeli's keyboards, to create something really special. He does not get many opportunities to show off, but when he does he really shows you what he can do. Rainbow Bridge is probably the album's weakest song. I do not feel that the Eastern-feel of the opening riff and verses really fits with the organ-drenched choruses. It is not a terrible song, but it fails to stand up against all the other excellent songs here. Angels (With Broken Hearts) gets things back on track. It is a really beautiful ballad with a solid bass melody and lots of excellent blues breaks from Norum. He is another one who has improved with age, and his playing is tasteful and always for the benefit of the song. Everyone performs really well on this song, and it all comes together perfectly to make something lovely. Tempest sings the song really well, with plenty of emotion in his voice, and Michaeli's keyboards are the icing on the cake. The album ends with the hard rocking Light It Up, which has a bit of a jam feel in places with lots of great instrumentation, riffs and melodies. The song has a great 'end of album' feel to it, and it builds to a great conclusion with lots of excellent musicianship. It is a song that continues to give and give, and it shows off the skills of the band members perfectly. Overall, War of Kings is another great album from Europe. They have managed to successfully reinvent themselves over the past decade and continue to impress with stellar albums and live shows. I am sure they will just continue doing the same for years to come.

The album was released on 2nd March 2015 via Hell & Back Recordings/UDR GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for War of Kings.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

UFO's 'A Conspiracy of Stars' - Album Review

UFO are true rock legends. From their formation in 1969, the band have never stopped, and have legions of dedicated fans around the world. The band found greatest success between 1973 and 1978, when German guitarist Michael Schenker was a member, and during this time they were pretty much unstoppable. Although later versions of the band never managed to recapture the success of those early albums, the band have always been going strong. As a band who have had many line-up changes over the years, UFO have a rich and diverse back catalogue that is only helped by having many different people appear on it throughout their career. The band still have two original members though: frontman Phil Mogg (who is the only member of UFO to appear on all of their studio albums), and drummer Andy Parker. Other long-term members include lead guitarist Vinnie Moore, who has been in the band for over ten years now, and rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Paul Raymond, who himself featured on many of those classic early albums. A Conspiracy of Stars, the band's twenty first studio album, also features bassist Rob De Luca who has finally been made an original member of UFO after touring with the band for a few years. Their last couple of albums have featured session bassists, so it is great to see the band back up to full strength, and De Luca gets down to business right away by writing two songs for the album. Style wise, A Conspiracy of Stars is not a big departure from the band's recent work. There are similarities to both 2009's The Visitor and 2012's Seven Deadly, with the band focusing heavily on bluesy riffs and great solos from Moore. I do not find modern UFO to be as catchy as classic UFO, and this is probably because that Mogg's voice is not what it was. Despite this however, he continues to put in good performances on record and live, and sings in a register that suits his current voice and the bluesy newer material. I have to say that I think A Conspiracy of Stars is the best of the three post-Pete Way albums (the band's original bassist who has not appeared on an album since 2006's The Monkey Puzzle). I just find the songs here much more memorable, and Moore's guitar work throughout is excellent. Raymond shines here too, with plenty of lush keyboard arrangements that really make the songs sound bigger and more interesting.

The album starts with The Killing Kind which, although written by new boy De Luca, is very typical of the modern UFO sound. The song is built around a tough riff from Moore, which sits on top of some really tight rhythms. The verses are a little plodding, but the chorus is much more interesting with plenty of organ to back up Mogg's melodic vocal lines. It is a good introduction to the album, but it is on the next song Run Boy Run that things really start to get going. I really love Moore's riff here, despite the fact it is so simple. Lots of people say that Mogg sounds a bit like Bruce Springsteen vocally these days, and I have to say that I see what they mean. He does seem to channel his inner Boss these days, and this song is no different. The song moves along at a solid mid-pace, and Moore's extra guitar leads that sit just behind the vocals throughout make the song a very interesting listen with headphones. His solo in this song is excellent. He is a very fluid player, and in all honesty is probably the best guitarist the band have ever had. While he will never be as classic as Schenker, I think his technique and ability is superior. Ballad of the Left Hand Gun starts with some real bluesy guitar, but it is not long before the song becomes another mid-paced rocker. Again, there is nothing complicated about this song, but the riffs and beats are still very enjoyable. The song's chorus is again rather strong too, with lots of nice backing vocals to boost Mogg's strong lead vocal performance. Sugar Cane is a truly great song, and probably my favourite song on the album. From the outset, Raymond's keyboards are very prominent which gives the song a very retro 1970s feel. The classic keyboard sounds used on this album are excellent and, although never really getting a chance to properly shine, really help the overall sound of the album. UFO have always been a guitar band, with keyboards providing colour, but I do with that sometimes they let Raymond take the lead a little. That being said, Moore is still fantastic on this song, with some really excellent soloing at multiple points throughout. It is Mogg that steals the show here though, with some really heartfelt vocals and lyrics. Everyone is on top form here, and it shows. Devil's in the Detail is another mid-paced rock track. Again, Raymond's keyboard work is quite prominent, which really compliments Moore's organic guitar sound. The two musicians work well together, using very basic sounds that just sound great. The song's catchy chorus is likely to gain this song a few fans.

Precious Cargo is another excellent song, and another favourite of mine. After a rather quiet opening, the song actually becomes a rather upbeat number with a driving bass line and lots of excellent keyboard work. It also has what is probably the best chorus on the album which sees Mogg and Moore competing for the spotlight. I also think that this song showcases what Raymond brings to the band. I feel his contributions are very underrated, and without his all-encompassing keyboards, this song would not have the same impact that it does. The Real Deal, actually written by Raymond, is another good track. He plays rhythm guitar on this track too, and this gives a bit of extra crunch to the song as allows Moore to let rip while Raymond lays down an AC/DC-type riff underneath. There is lots of great bluesy guitar work in this song, and Mogg really pushes his voice to the max here, and demonstrates he still has a decent amount of range. One and Only recalls the boogie of the band's early days with piano that cuts through the mix occasionally and provides a foundation to the song along with De Luca's bass. Moore plays on top of their tight grooves and adds colour where appropriate, as the two of them have the main part of the song locked down. That being said, he still rips into a great solo about two thirds of the way through the showcases his real talent. He comes from the school of 1980s shredders as seen on his solo work prior to joining UFO, and he brings a little of that to this song. Messiah of Love opens with a great Led Zeppelin-esque riff, and these similarities continue throughout most of the song's guitar work. Mogg is no Robert Plant however, and lays down his trademark rough vocals with finesse. It is not one of my favourite songs on the album, but I really like Moore's playing throughout. Plus, the bass-led section towards the end is really interesting with some tight grooves from De Luca, allowing Moore to really experiment over the top. The final song here is Rollin' Rollin'. This is another good, rocking song that builds slowly after a rather explosive, hard-riffing opening. The verses gradually add layer upon layer until the song sounds huge. It is quite a slow-burning song, but it really rocks in the end and gives all members a band a chance to show off one final time. Overall, A Conspiracy of Stars is another really solid release from the veteran rockers. UFO have nothing left to prove, so it great that they still release new albums fairly regularly. This album is sure to please their fans, and anyone who likes good classic rock.

The album was released on 23rd February 2015 via Steamhammer/SPV GmbH. Below is the band's official teaser trailer released to promote the album, the music featured throughout is  the song The Killing Kind.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Scorpions' 'Return to Forever' - Album Review

The Scorpions are celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year! That is right, the band were formed in 1965, and since then have become one of the premier heavy metal bands in the world, and helped to shine a light on music that was not from either the United Kingdom or the United States of America - which paved the way for the 'German Invasion', which saw bands like Accept and Warlock find success. The Scorpions have always been a bit of an enigma however. Their first album, Lonesome Crow, was not released until 1972; and the band did not find huge success until their sixth album, 1979's Lovedrive. It was on this album that the classic Scorpions sound and line-up that we know and love was fully realised. The band had found moderate success before this, helped by guitarist Uli Jon Roth, but it was not until Matthias Jabs joined in 1978 that the real success came. The band, now consisting of the ever-present duo frontman Klaus Meine and guitarist Rudolf Schenker, plus bassist Francis Buchholz, drummer Herman Rarebell, and Jabs, took the metal world by storm and had a run of successful albums, singles and world tours. The band have never really slowed down and, despite some line-up changes, continue to record great metal albums in their own style. The band's current line-up has been around for over ten years now, as Polish bassist Paweł Mąciwoda joined the band in 2004. Rounding out the current line-up is American drummer James Kottak (back after his 'incident' last year..) who has been in the band for nearly twenty years! Fast forward to February 2015 and we are all listening to Return to Forever, the band's eighteenth studio album. Five years ago, the band released Sting in the Tail, which was hinted to be their last album and the band embarked on a huge tour that was muted as their farewell tour. Obviously the band has had a change of hear, hence the release of Return to Forever and the announcement of more shows. I for one am glad of this, as Return to Forever is another excellent addition to the band's catalogue, and is as good as the albums from their classic heyday. If Sting in the Tail and Return to Forever turn out to be the band's last albums, then they will really be going out with a bang. While some of their late 1990s/early 2000s releases lacked a certain spark to make them modern classics, these two albums have that spark in spades. This albums shows that traditional German heavy metal is alive and well, which is how it should be!

After a bluesy guitar intro, Going Out with a Bang gets the album going in true Scorpions fashion. They have never been the heaviest band, but their songs always have a great rock groove soaring melodies, and all those things are prevalent here.  Jabs and Schenker are still a formidable guitar duo, mixing crunching riffs and fluid leads well, and Meine can still write an infectious chorus, and this song's is simple but effective, which pits his voice against a wall of big power chords. We Built this House is the album's lead single, and it is one of the most immediately melodic songs on the album. The anthemic intro has some excellent trademark Jabs guitar leads, before things are taken down a touch for a gentle verse, with plenty of melody. The chorus picks things up again, with a slightly heavier section, before the big intro riff returns for one of the most epic moments on the album. This is the sort of song the band have been writing for years, and the trademark hooks are there for all to see. Rock my Car is a real stadium piece. Despite some rather awful lyrics (The Scorpions have always had a knack for dodgy lyrics..), the song really rocks and cranks things up into another gear. The chorus is sure to get the blood pumping, and is complete with a riff that is the sort Schenker has been churning out for years. It is a short song, but it rocks hard and encapsulates all that the band are about. House of Cards is the album's first ballad. The Scorpions have always written excellent ballads, and this is another to add to the list. Meine's voice is perfectly suited to singing them, and his German accent really aids their sound I think. It is a very gentle song, built around some basic clean guitar patterns, and Meine's vocal melody. I really like the way that lead guitar lines are used throughout the chorus to bulk up the sound. They are quite buried in the mix, but their presence is felt, and they really help the overall effect of the chorus. All for One sees the return of the rock, and it is a rather AC/DC-like rocker with a chunky riff, and a gang-vocal led chorus. It is a short song, but it helps to get the energy back after the ballad. There is a really nice bluesy solo in this song too. Rock 'n' Roll Band is another fast rocker like Rock my Car. Meine leads this song with some powerful vocal melodies, but the riffing throughout is also excellent. The Scorpions have never been about complicated songwriting, or progressive riffing - their songs are all simple and let the energy do the talking. This is a fine example of this style, and it works well.

Catch Your Luck and Play has one of the album's best chorus. The opening riff is also really nice, which sees a tight lead mixing well with a wall of power chords to great effect. The verses in between are rather unremarkable though, which makes this an odd song. I really like the chorus though, and Meine's vocal melodies are really infectious. Rollin' Home is another slower song that is packed full of excellent melodies. I would not call the song a ballad, but it is definitely gentler than your average Scorpions rocker. The big vocals in the chorus has a great feel to it, and the bluesy guitar patterns are nice. I really like the part towards the end where it explodes into a duel guitar solo before a final go around of the chorus, with plenty of catchy vocal moments. Hard Rockin' the Place is a rather generic rock song, but it is still enjoyable. The verses have a great groove with some prominent bass lines, and the chorus is powerful, despite the fact it seems to take an age to get to it. It has one of the better solos on the album too, that sees plenty of speedy licks being used. Eye of the Storm is another ballad, and it is a great one. It is acoustic-led, and makes use of subtle keyboards to create a great atmosphere. The chorus is a true lighters-in-the-air moment, as it has a natural swing and some lovely vocals from Meine. As I said earlier, the band have always written excellent ballads, and this is right up there with some of their best ever. I would be very surprised if this song was not played by the band on their upcoming tour, as it is too good not to hear live. The Scratch is another rocker, but it seems to wash over me without really leaving much of an impact. It is strange, because the song's chorus should probably be more memorable than it is, but for whatever reason it just does not seem to stick in my head. It is not a bad song by any means, it is just less memorable and interesting than others here. Gypsy Life is the album's last song and it is one of the album's best songs. It is another ballad, but it really hits all the spots melodically and emotionally. The short breaks of lead guitar help to enhance the mood, and Meine's vocals are perfect for the song. I really love the song's acoustic guitar solo too, and the moment that it morphs into an electric guitar is perfect. This song ensures that the album ends on a high, and that chorus will be swimming around your head for ages after it finishes. Overall, Return to Forever is a great album. I am not sure that it betters 2010's excellent Sting in the Tail, but it is still a worthy entry into their discography. Not bad for a band that are 50 years old!

The album was released on 23rd February 2015 via Sony Music. Below is the band's promotional video for We Built this House.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Black Star Riders' 'The Killer Instinct' - Album Review

It hardly seems like any time has past since Black Star Riders got together. From the initial announcement at the end of 2012 that the majority of the current incarnation of Thin Lizzy would continue on as Black Star Riders, to the release of their well-received debut album All Hell Breaks Loose (you can see my review of that album here) in May 2013, and the plentiful touring the band has undertaken since - it is clear that Black Star Riders are here to stay. I am glad that this band has become a full-time job for all the musicians involved, as although the current version of Thin Lizzy is a great live machine, the pleasure of new material is always greater than any nostalgia for me. Since releasing All Hell Breaks Loose, the band have barely stopped working. In between touring, they have managed to record their second album The Killer Instinct, which was released last month. The Killer Instinct follows on from where All Hell Breaks Loose left off, and what we have is another excellent slab of hard rock that contains all the hallmarks of Thin Lizzy's past brought up-to-date with modern production and ideas. There has been a change in the band's ranks since then, with original bassist Marco Mendoza departing and Robbie Crane (Vince Neil; Ratt; Lynch Mob) stepping in. This chance in personnel is not really noticeable, as both men are great players and suit the groovy hard rock sound the band create. There has been another change between albums, and that is the album's producer. The first album was produced by Kevin Shirley, but this one has been produced by Nick Raskulinecz who has worked with Rush, Trivium, and Alice in Chains among others. Again however, this change has little affected the overall sound of the album, and the band have created a natural follow-up for All Hell Breaks Loose which capitalises on that album's success. The band's debut album reached number 25 on the Official UK Album Chart, but this album has gone further and reached the heights of number 13! The charts have been full of great rock albums recently, and I hope this trend continues! The newly-established songwriting partnership of frontman Ricky Warwick and guitarist Damon Johnson continues to thrive here, with founding member and long-time Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham happy to take more of a backseat. The guitar interplay between the two is great as always however, and is what makes the band so special.

The album's title track gets things underway and it is clear that the band were keen to be firing on all cylinders from the get-go and pick up where they left off. The dual lead guitar riff is right out of the Thin Lizzy rulebook, and Warwick's soulful Irish delivery is as strong as ever. I am glad that Black Star Riders is finally giving the man the spotlight he deserves, as The Almighty never really seemed to. A bass-heavy, upbeat verse gives way to a groovy chorus, with Jimmy DeGrasso's percussive drumming laying down a tight rhythm for Warwick's simple melodies. Johnson's guitar solo is really melodic, and shows what a great player he is too. Bullet Blues is a heavier, hard rock number with a crunching riff and a driving beat. The way Johnson and Gorham's guitars harmonise during the chorus is excellent, and shows what a great band can do with two lead guitarists that is not incessant soloing. The use of two excellent lead players was Thin Lizzy's raison d'être throughout the majority of their career, and it is nice to see that tradition being continued here. Finest Hour is a catchy little song with some lovely laid back lead guitar and a verse that is built around some gentle acoustic guitar chords. This jaunty song is one of the early highlights of the album and shows that the band do not have to rely on huge riffs and distorted guitars to always get the job done. The song's chorus is big enough to fill any stadium and is sure to become a live favourite for that reason. Soldierstown really showcases Warwick. It shows his knack for writing great story-telling lyrics, and his slightly punky vocal delivery that channels The Pogues on occasions - especially during Celtic rockers like this. The only thing that bothers me about this song is that the main lead guitar melody is a little too close to Thin Lizzy's Emerald for my liking, but Warwick's contributions ensure that the song becomes more than just a clone. That being said, the guitar work here is still excellent. Plenty of wah-drenched guitar leads are present, and the ever-present acoustic backing gives the song real depth. Charlie I Gotta Go is a bluesy treat with a really delicious guitar riff that is all the better for it's off-hand laziness. When the rhythm section join in after the first chorus it loses none of it's power, but is in fact reinforced by DeGrasso's punchy, simple beat. The guitar solo in this song is one of the album's best too, that really has the classic Thin Lizzy sound. You can almost imagine Brian Robertson or Gary Moore playing it, and the tight backing just enhances the sound more.

Blindsided is the album's only ballad and is built around a delicate acoustic guitar pattern that Warwick croons over as subtle keyboards back him up to create atmosphere. The band have not really done a proper ballad before, and it nice to have one on this album. Despite the fact that the whole band does join in, the acoustic guitar still becomes the dominant instrument through the verses, and Warwick's chorus melody really gets stuck in the brain. The song does get a little rocky about two thirds of the way through and builds up to a really excellent solo that plays with the already established melodies of the song and takes them in new directions. Through the Motions is a real riff-based number. The punchy riff that perfectly cuts across the tight drum beat brings back memories of the Bad Reputation-era of Thin Lizzy with an aggressive chorus featuring lots of bended notes to create a slightly oppressive sound. I do feel however that the chorus does not really fit with the rest of the song, as the slightly chaotic sound clashes with the pin-point accuracy of the verse riff. Sex, Guns & Gasoline is another real rocker. The verses have a feel of a heavier version of Charlie I Gotta Go, but it is during the chorus where the song really takes off. The anthemic vocal melody mixed with the tight riffing of Johnson and Gorham really works well, and the song's guitar solo is a explosion of classic rock with huge bended notes and plenty of wah. This is the sort of song that classic rock is all about, and shows that the genre is still alive and well in the 21st Century. Turn in Your Arms is the only song on the album that does not really connect with me. After all the other great songs here, this just comes off as second best in comparison. It has a very plodding feel to it that never really gets going, despite some nice riffs and vocal melodies in the chorus. In fact, there are some nice moments throughout the song, but it never seems to come together to create something that is wholly enjoyable. The only real misstep on what is a great album. You Little Liar is the album's closing number, and the longest song on the album by some way. At just over seven minutes long, there is a lot of music here to enjoy and it never overstays it's welcome. The verses are classic Thin Lizzy with harmonised guitars and the choruses are slower with a deliberate change of pace that enhances DeGrasso's powerful drumming and Warwick's soulful voice. There are plenty of excellent lead guitar breaks during the song, and all that ensures that the album ends strongly. Overall, The Killer Instinct is another great album from a group of musicians who are really making waves in the modern classic rock scene. I just hope that the nostalgia and money pull of Thin Lizzy does not scupper the band's long-term future, as I can see this one running and running!

The album was released 23rd February 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Killer Instinct.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Thunder's 'Wonder Days' - Album Review

Thunder are one of the UK's best-loved classic rock bands. Since their hugely popular 1990 debut album Backstreet Symphony, that - in my opinion - they have never really bettered, they remain held in extremely high regard by many rock fans, including myself. Wonder Days, the band's tenth studio album, is their first since 2008 when Bang! was released. I have not heard Bang!, so cannot compare the two, as it has only been recently that I have really started to explore the band's back catalogue beyond their classic debut and other well-known songs from compilations and live albums. This exploration has been rewarding and, as a result, the band are going up in my estimations all the time. Wonder Days is the first Thunder album I have pre-ordered, and I was awaiting it's arrival for sometime. In my last review, of Blackberry Smoke's Holding all the Roses, I was talking about chart positions. It is not often I review albums that make it into the Official UK Album Chart, and it is very rare to review two on the trot that have done so. That album made it to number 17, and this one has reached number 9! It is great to see rock getting back into the charts, and I hope to see others throughout the year! This chart position is the band's first top ten album since 1995's Behind Closed Doors (which reached number 5). The band's 2009 break-up would only last for two years, and they have been gigging again since 2011 - albeit in a reduced format. Big tours do not seem to be the name of the game anymore, but the band make enough live appearances to satisfy the long-term fans. I never really expected another album so the announcement last year was a pleasing one. Thunder's albums are always enjoyable, so it would be a shame if the band were to really hang it up for good. The band's long time line up of frontman Danny Bowes, guitarists Luke Morley and Ben Matthews, bassist Chris Childs, and drummer Harry James are still as tight as ever, although it is unclear exactly how much input Matthews had during the recording of this album due to his ongoing health concerns which, thankfully, seem to be improving now as he will be joining the band on tour later this month. Morley has again written and produced the whole album, and has ensured the classic Thunder sound is present. From the opening notes, there is no doubt that this is a Thunder album, and Bowes' bluesy voice is a rich as ever. It is also worth noting that some versions of the album come with a bonus disc containing the band's whole set at the 2013 Wacken Festival, and some versions ordered directly from the band's website come with a bonus EP called Killer which contains four extra songs. Both of these discs are excellent and well worth the extra money!

The album's title track gets things off to a good start with some classic Thunder bluesy riffing for Bowes to croon over. It is clear that Morley has lost none of his mojo, and his three albums with The Union has not totally overtaken his songwriting outlook. The chorus is a much more laid back affair with gentler guitar lines as opposed to the distorted verses. About half way through, the song descends into a piano-led piece with some lovely lead guitar lines over the top and Bowes' gentle voice. The Thing I Want is a proper Thunder rocker. The upbeat nature of this song brings back memories of their stunning debut album with a catchy vocal refrain in the pre-chorus, and some lush guitar arpeggios in the chorus. This is uncomplicated rock and roll at its best and is a reminder of why Thunder found so much success early on in their career. The Rain brings things down a bit, and we have a song that is more reminiscent of Morley's other band The Union than Thunder. That being said, Thunder have always had slower, bluesy songs on their albums, so this song should not come as a surprise. Bowes' voice is made for songs like this, and it sits nicely above the acoustic guitars, mandolins and subtle keyboards. Black Water is another winner. Co-written with Lynne Jackaman (Saint Jude), this is a strident bluesy rocker that is full of fluid guitar leads and packs a punch with a killer chorus. It has that classic Thunder groove that permeates their whole discography, with a guitar tone and style that only Morley can really achieve. The solo in this song is really melodic and has all the hallmarks of a great classic rock moment. The Prophet is similar, but features a machine-gun rhythm to the riff that would make it a good driving song. There is a certain urgency to this number, with the long, ringing chords that fit in between the aforementioned riff still having a certain energy to them. James' drumming never lets up throughout, and his tightness holds the whole thing together. There is even a great slide guitar solo towards the end. Resurrection Day has quite a summery feel to it with some lovely ringing guitars and a nice, upbeat vibe that you can imagine it being blasted on car radios in the summertime. I can hear a little bit of Foreigner in this song, and I am sure that many fans will take to the accessibility of it. It is an easy to song to get into and sing, and this will probably become a live favourite.

Chasing Shadows is another bluesy rocker, but mid-paced riff means that the song never really gets going like the previous songs on the album. The gospel-type singers that sing in a call-and-response style with Bowes during the choruses work well though, and give the song a bit of an early Black Crowes feel (although maybe a Black Crowes b-side!). That being said, this song is not bad, it just pales in comparison to all the great songs that come before it. It is saved though by a rather tasty solo from Morley that showcases his talents and style. Broken is a piano-led ballad that possesses a fantastic chorus that is sung with real passion by Bowes. The rest of the band join in after the first chorus but the song never loses it's roots, and even a slide guitar solo does not damage to mood, in fact it really adds to it. All rock albums need a good ballad, and this is this album's! When the Music Played is the album's longest song at just over six minutes long, but it does not overstay it's welcome because it is a really enjoyable tune with some slightly discordant riffing and a soaring chorus. Morley's solo in this song is surprisingly fiery, moving outside his usual bluesy comfort zone and into a semi-shredding one. After the solo, the song morphs into a real rocker with a riff that sounds like mid-period Led Zeppelin and another cracking solo. Serpentine is an acoustic-led song, but this is no drippy singer-songwriter drawl, this still rocks and is sure to get your foot tapping as you listen to those catchy acoustic chords and Bowes' playful melody. It does not stay acoustic for ever however, and electric guitars soon replace the acoustics and the song gets a chance to rock out properly. This song should definitely be included in the band's set for their upcoming tour, as it is sure to get everyone moving and singing along. The album comes to an end with the bluesy rocker I Love the Weekend which is built around the traditional twelve bar blues formula and ensures the album ends in familiar fashion. Childs' prominent bassline really holds down the groove, and Morley's Chuck Berry-esque guitar playing is a real homage to all the great early blues rockers. Bowes has a great voice for blues, and he belts this one out fantastically. Overall, Wonder Days is a great addition to Thunder's catalogue. While I am still not wholly versed in their complete discography, I think this is probably their most cohesive work since their debut album all those years ago. Any rock fan should give this a go.

The album was released on 16th February 2015 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional live video for Wonder Days (N.B. This features Pete Shoulder on guitar instead on Matthews).

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Friday, 6 March 2015

Blackberry Smoke's 'Holding all the Roses' - Album Review

While southern rock is not as popular as it once was, Blackberry Smoke are beginning to make some real waves with their music. With their feet in many camps - namely country and rock - the band have amassed a large fanbase since their formation in the year 2000. Despite the fact they have been around for nearly fifteen years, it is only relatively recently that the band have started to become popular here in the UK. Their first two albums: 2004's Bad Luck Ain't No Crime and 2009's Little Piece of Dixie have still never been officially released over here, but that does not seem to have put off their growing number of UK fans. Despite it's original release being in 2012, The Whippoorwill - the band's third album - was only released in the UK last year after the band were picked up by Earache Records. Earache Records are more known for their roster of extreme metal bands, with the label's first release being Napalm Death's groundbreaking grindcore album Scum in 1987, but the label has diversified somewhat since then. They were the ones who picked up on British blues rockers The Temperance Movement, whose debut album reached number 12 in the Official UK Album Chart two years ago. Earache must be rubbing their hands together now as, after that success, Holding all the Roses (Blackberry Smoke's fourth studio album) has reached number 17 on the same chart! This is, of course, great for the band. Considering half of their back catalogue is still unavailable officially over here, reaching number 17 in the charts is no mean feat. Clearly the band is on the up, as their successful UK tour towards the back end of last year shows. While I was not originally that struck by Holding all the Roses, it is an album that has grown on me over repeated listens. At first I was disappointed that it was not as good as Little Piece of Dixie (you can order it via the band's website) and The Whippoorwill, but it pays to stick with the album. It might not be as raucous or as spiritual as the band's earlier work, but it is certainly more calculated. This probably has something to do with working with veteran producer Brendan O'Brien who has worked with AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen among many others. His guidance has helped to trim some of the fat off here and there, which makes for a more commercial and focused album - but also means the band has lost some of their rawness and natural feel, which can be seen as a positive and a negative.

The album starts off with Let Me Help You (Find the Door) which is probably the most rocking song here. Frantic acoustic guitar mixes well with strident guitar riffs, which adds a surprising depth to the track. This is an uncomplicated piece, based around a tight guitar hook and Charlie Starr's forceful vocal delivery during the verses. Brandon Still's washes of organ during the choruses add an organic feel to the whole thing, and the song feels like a throwback to their earlier work. The album's title track is up next, and has a great up-beat feel to it. Acoustic guitars again dominate the sound, with some complicated little picking workouts really standing out. The country-twinged duel between guitar and fiddle (courtesy of Ann Marie Simpson) makes way for a more traditional rock guitar solo, before another go-round of the foot-stomping chorus is sure to get heads nodding. Living in the Song is a more reflective piece and has much in common with the material found on their last album. Starr and Paul Jackson's guitars lock in together well to create a loose, raw sound; and the highly melodic chorus is one of the more memorable ones on the album. This song is a really nice country rocker that, although a little cliché, is extremely enjoyable. Rock and Roll Again has a real Status Quo vibe with chunky power chord rhythms and a solid mid-paced tempo held down by rhythm section, brothers Richard and Brit Turner. Short bursts of honky tonk piano just add to this British rock 'n' roll feel to it, but some nice southern rock guitar slides take us back across the pond. Woman in the Moon is a ballad and, although nice, does not pack the punch of their earlier ballads. The washes of organ and the almost Alice in Chains-esque vocal harmonies give the song a slightly uneasy feel, which does work quite well in the song's context. Enjoyable, but not the album's best song. The album really gets back on track afterwards with Too High, which is one of the album's best songs. This is a proper country rock song that makes liberal use of acoustic guitars, some slide, and more fiddle that mixes really well with the guitars during the song's chorus. While the verses are a little down-beat, the song really is elevated by the chorus. Subtle mandolin lines are thrown in too, and all of it comes together perfectly to create something that is extremely simple, but a real pleasure to listen to.

Wish in One Hand resembles the album's opening song in some ways, as a crunchy guitar riff and a wall of organ really dominate this piece. This is another foot-stomping song with some good twin lead guitar sections and a strident chorus which sees Starr belt out some cynical lyrics. This is about as heavy as the band get, but it shows that they can still rock out when they have to. After a rather strange short instrumental piece called Randolph County Farewell we get to Payback's a Bitch. This has a similar feel to Sleeping Dogs from the band's previous album, and is held together by some excellent playing from Still. Whether it be subtle piano lines sitting behind the distorted guitar riffs, or some classic organ sounds - he does his best to offer something else to listen to. Keyboards are always a key element to this type of music, and he makes the band a better unit. The instrumental section mid-song is pure classic southern rock, and something Lynyrd Skynyrd probably wish they had written in the 1970s. Lay it all on Me is another uncomplicated slab of gentle country rock. Still evokes the great Billy Powell with some excellent piano flourishes, but the stand out melody here is Starr's vocals. He does a great job delivering this song, and also playing some nice pedal steel lines some places for that extra doses of country. No Way Back to Eden is a down-beat acoustic song which would have made a good album closer if it was not for the song that follows it. It is not the band's greatest song, but it has something about it that is enchanting. Starr's vocal performance is great, and the percussive feel of the whole thing means that you cannot keep still, despite the fact this is not an energetic piece. Fire in the Hole is the album's final track and makes sure the album ends on a high. It's another mid-paced rocker, but it has subtle power through some big guitar parts and some laid back piano that sounds like something from an early Led Zeppelin album with all the effects on it. The whole end section has a slight psychedelic vibe to it anyway, with conga drums being audible as well as regular drums, and a spacey guitar solo that really fits the mood. Overall, Holding all the Roses is a really solidly enjoyable piece of work from a band that is still on the rise. They are currently on a huge US tour, which I hope will raise their profile even more - which is should as their reputation as a live act is very good. I just hope that they will not forget about the UK, and will return again before long!

The album was released on 9th February 2015 via Earache Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Too High.

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