Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Michael Monroe's 'Blackout States' - Album Review

As a member of seminal Finnish glam punk act Hanoi Rocks, Michael Monroe helped to spearhead what would become hair metal with a brand of rock that had the energy of punk and the image and melodies of glam rock. Bleached-blonde hair and spandex were the order of the day, and bands like Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses have called Monroe and Hanoi Rocks influences. After the final break-up of Hanoi Rocks in 2009, Monroe has put all of effort into his solo career. While he has always done solo albums, it is only since 2010 that Monroe has toured with his current band, which remains largely unchanged since day one, and recorded albums of new material. Both 2011's Sensory Overdrive and 2013's Horns and Halos are excellent slabs of punk rock, with plenty of big riffs, energy, and gang vocal choruses. They are not at all original, but they are masterfully constructed and produced. Throw in the 2010 live album Another Night in the Sun, which contained older solo material and covers, plus material from his previous bands Hanoi Rocks and Demolition 23., and you get three releases which could easily be described as the best in his career. Forming the core of the band are guitarist Steve Conte (New York Dolls), bassist and long-time friend Sami Yaffa (Hanoi Rocks; Demolition 23.; New York Dolls), and drummer Karl Rockfist. The second guitarist spot is the only one that rotates, and is currently occupied by Englishman Rich Jones (The Black Halos). Monroe's new album, Blackout States, is his third studio album with his current band; and eighth solo album overall. Those expecting a big change in direction from the previous two are going to be disappointed, and the formula has not changed at all, but this is the type of music Monroe does the best. This is Jones' first album with Monroe, and he has fit in well with the rest of the band. Him and Conte have formed a solid writing partnership, and share the majority of the writing credits, along with Monroe. As with Monroe's previous albums, this is an extremely in-your-face release. The songs are mostly short, and built around simple guitar riffs that let Monroe's rough vocals take centre stage and he sounds as strong here as he ever has. Throw in the odd blast of saxophone and harmonica and he is want to do, and you get a typical Monroe album. Chips Kiesbye's production is nice and polished, but still maintains the raw edge necessary to make this sort of material convincing and powerful.

This Ain't no Love Song gets things underway in the fashion that all of Monroe's albums do, with a big punky riff and a huge vocal hook. The verses are fast, with a chugging chord sequence and some snarling vocals, but the chorus has that gang-vocal style that many punk songs employ, and sounds a little like a football chant in a way, which works. There is a fairly lengthy (for this sort of music), bluesy guitar solo before another go-round of the rousing chorus brings the song to and end. Old King's Road is much more classic rock inspired, with big ringing chords and a combination between harder guitar rhythms and chiming patterns over the top. The same goes for the chorus, which uses more traditional harmony backing vocals as opposed to the punky gang vocals, which gives it a slightly anthemic feel. This was the album's first single, and is clear to see why it was chosen. It is a great modern rock song, and has the right balance between attitude and melody. Goin' Down With the Ship is much more melodic, and has little of the punk influence. This is probably as pop as Monroe gets, with the chorus and simple guitar lead during the intro could easily get some hands swaying live. The tom-heavy drumming during the verses sets the chorus up nicely, where a standard beat carries that poppy feel. Keep Your Eye On You is also a little paired back, with a nice descending guitar pattern that the song is built around and forms the bulk of the chorus. It is definitely one of the least interesting songs on the album however, as it lacks the punch the rest of the songs here have. It does have an excellent guitar solo however, which shows the musicianship of the band. The Bastard's Bash opens out with a great riff, that almost sounds like something from Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals album, and that sets the tone for the rest of the song, which is a big improvement over the previous number. Monroe's vocals have a real snarl here, and that hypnotic guitar riff just never lets up throughout. The chorus is a little more uplifting though, with more big gang vocal sections as Monroe shouts his way through it - you can almost see him jumping up and down in the studio as he sings it. A strange harmonica solo is the icing on the cake, and emphasises the odd nature of this song. Good Old Bad Days is a bit more punky, with some fast power chords and a simple, yet powerful chorus. The saxophone is broken out here too, and it works surprisingly well in the context of the song. I love Monroe's simple sax playing, and it always elevates a song and adds a little something.

R.L.F. is the fastest, punkiest song on the album, and it really rocks! There is plenty of shouting throughout, and some excellent riffing. This actually reminds me of his old band Demolition 23. quite a bit, as it has that same relentless energy. The song is over almost as quickly as it starts, but it is certainly memorable and one of the standout songs here. The title track seems tame in comparison, but it is still enjoyable. There is quite a lot of good lead guitar here, which actually outshines Monroe's vocals in places. I quite like the laid back feel of this song, with simple chords and a less intrusive bassline that usual. Again, this has a lighters-in-the-air feel to it, and would probably get the crowd singing along live and give them a break from the relentless other numbers. Under the Northern Lights, written by Dee Dee Ramone, starts out acoustically, with some lovely playing and delicate singing from Monroe. It is not long before the pace picks up though, but at it's core it remains fairly laid back, and almost slightly southern rock in places - especially during the guitar solo. This is the first non-original song Monroe has recorded with his current band, and it works well within the context of the album. He used to record a lot of covers, so I am glad they are by far the minority now. Permanent Youth actually follows on quite nicely from the previous song, and contains many of the same vibes as that song. The big ringing acoustic guitar in the chorus helps, as does the southern-sounding slide guitar section, which is followed by some bluesy harmonica. This is the sort of song that Monroe does not make often, but they are always welcome when he does. I like the fact that he can branch out a bit, and is not a one-trick pony. Dead Hearts on Denmark Street is one of my favourite songs on the album, with the punk feeling being brought back after three mellower songs. The choppy guitar parts are excellent, which have that old school Hanoi Rocks feel, but the chorus is a real winner, with lots of big backing vocals and irresistible vocal melodies. Six Feet in the Ground is another highlight, with a slightly country-rock feel, with hollow drums and acoustic guitar to back up the rock. The chorus melodies also have that feel, with an upbeat, slightly cheeky feel to it, that just really works with Monroe's attitude. Again, this comes slightly out of left-field for the veteran rocker, but it works really well and becomes a wonderful little song. Walk Away is the album's closing song, and it is a rousing rock song that ensures the album ends with a punch rather than one of the mellower numbers. It has a good shout-a-long chorus which works well for an ending song, and a good dual guitar send-off that is as close to pyrotechnics that you get on this album. Overall, Blackout States is another good album from Monroe in a run that has been very good for him. While slightly mellower than the previous two, it still contains attitude and rock to satisfy long-time fans.

The album was released on 8th October 2015 via Spinefarm Records. Below is his promotional video for Old King's Road.

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