Thursday, 2 June 2016

The 69 Eyes' 'Universal Monsters' - Album Review

Finland's goth rockers The 69 Eyes have been around nearly thirty years. That is hard to believe, especially for a band that has only really reached their commercial peak in the past decade, but it is true. Ever since their 1992 debut album Bump 'n' Grind, the band have been putting out high quality rock music to fans all over the world. While the band started out as a sleazy rock band, that borrowed a lot from fellow countrymen and glam rock pioneers Hanoi Rocks, it is the band's later gothic rock sound that they are more known for. 1997's Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams saw the first real transition to the more gothic sound, and by 1999's Wasting the Dawn is was the band's modus operandi. Frontman Jyrki 69's voice really came into it's own as the band moved to a darker musical territory. His low, rumbling voice was never suited for the band's sleazier early material, and his love for classic singers like Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley shines through now. When the band started working with producer Johnny Lee Michaels in 2000, the band embarked on their best run of albums. 2000's Blessed Be to 2007's Angels are easily the band's best work, and really showcase the band's now-trademark goth 'n' roll sound perfectly. The mix of simple, razor-sharp guitar riffs from Bazie and Timo-Timo, and the atmospheric, keyboard-heavy production was the perfect background for Jyrki's gothic crooning. The energy of the band's early work was never lost though, and this stopped The 69 Eyes' goth music become a dirge like so many others. Two more albums, 2009's Back in Blood and 2012's X, have been released since, but without Michaels at the helm. Both of these albums are excellent, but they lack the overt goth trappings of the Michaels quadrilogy. Both are more guitar-focused rock albums, that owe themselves more to the band's early work, but with more refined songwriting and production. Last year however, The 69 Eyes announced they were once again planning to work with Michaels on their next album. This was released back in April and is titled Universal Monsters. This, the band's eleventh studio album, is a return to that classic sound that made them so popular in the first place. This album is like a mix between the atmospheric sound of 2002's Paris Kills and the heavier rock of 2004's Devils. It is the best of both worlds, and really makes the most of Jyrki's unique vocals. There are some throwbacks to the band's early days too, but they still fit in within the context of the album. Those who have ever liked The 69 Eyes, in any form, should find plenty to like here. This is a finely crafted and produced album, by a veteran band who still have plenty to give.

The album starts out with the two songs that were available online before the album's release, and helped to generate quite a bit of excitement. Dolce Vita is classic The 69 Eyes, with buzzsaw guitar riffing and a dark atmosphere created with a subtle keyboard arrangement. Jyrki's voice is the star of the show here though, as the two guitarists create a fuzzy backing for his gothic crooning, which is at it's best during the playful chorus. Bazie does let rip part way through for a wah-drenched solo that has a real classic Thin Lizzy vibe to it, adding some real rock swagger to proceedings. This is the heavier end of the band's work, and ensures this album starts with a real melodic punch. The first song made available Jet Fighter Plane comes right from the Paris Kills school of songwriting. A delicious piano hook creates the main melody in the song's intro, and this leads into a verse that is more stripped back. Clean guitar chimes over Archzie's rumbling, simple bassline. Dark and brooding in the first song, Jyrki's voice is cracked and vulnerable here, but it works well with the subtler arrangement. The melancholic gang vocals in the chorus work really well too to create a repetitive hook that is hard to get out of your head. Blackbird Pie is a sweeping, classy piece of rock, part based around the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence which is somewhat featured in this song's chorus. It is the album's longest song, and also the most lush, with plenty of epic orchestrations and a really commanding vocal display from Jyrki. It is quite a varied piece too, with a lovely acoustic instrumental break part-way though which shows the diversity of the band's guitarists. When I first heard this song, I thought the chorus was quite clunky with the borrowed lyrics, but the more I heard it the more I love it. It is now one of my favourite songs on the album, and I hope the band include it in their future live sets. Lady Darkness is next, and has a really laid-back, chilled out vibe to it that you can almost imagine the band absentmindedly jamming this one out acoustically in a pub! The slightly sloppy guitar riffing and sound works in the song's favour, and give it real charm. Archzie's melodic bassline really drives the song, and provides very subtle melody throughout. The chorus, with some bluesy piano undertones, is another very catchy moment on the album. Miss Pastis picks up the pace, and we are transported to the streets of Paris with accordion sounds woven throughout the song, which fit in surprisingly well with the raw-sounding guitar riffing. This song returns to the sleazy song matter of the band's early days, with some leery lyrics, but the song is very memorable with the French chorus and the high energy riffing. Shallow Graves recalls the band's early attempts at the goth sound, with Jryki's cracked vocals and a sound that mixes 1980s-sounding riffs and a doomy chorus with plenty of vocal harmonies. Again, the bass really stands out, with an almost dancey rhythm to it. There is plenty of good guitar work here, with plenty of soaring bluesy leads throughout and a short but impressive solo.

Jerusalem is another stand-out track, which again comes right from the Paris Kills style. The sparkly synth riff at the beginning leads into a melancholic verse which is extremely atmospheric, despite the slightly funky drumming of Jussi 69. It is songs like this that bring out the best in Jyrki's voice, and he really dominates here. No-one else comes close when it comes to this kind of vocal style I think, and this is him at his best. None of the other band members attempt to steal his thunder here, with the ringing chords of the verse, and the slightly lumbering chorus riff, that has more than a little Judas Priest about it, only serving as a backing to his melodic vocal lines. Stiv & Johnny, a tribute to the punk legends Stiv Bators and Johnny Thunders, is less raw and in-your-face as you might expect given the subject matter. It still possesses a strong melancholic feeling, but Jyrki reverts back to the scratchy vocal style he used in the band's formative years to give the song some grit. That being said, the song does come alive in the chorus as Jussi ramps up the pace and the two guitarists lock in with a simple, but ringing riff. It is definitely not the best song here, but the retro feel of the song will definitely appeal to long-time fans who have been around since the beginning. Never gets the album back to the established high standards with a real gothic rocker with plenty of excellent keyboard work from producer Michaels. The intro melody, that also serves as the chorus' backing, has some excellent orchestral and keyboard work, and makes an instant impression. The bass guitar again dominates the verse, where it proves the main melody while the guitars just play long, ringing chords. The chorus is catchy, with Jyrki almost barking out his vocals with some venom. Elsewhere, the two guitarists plays some short, but tasty dual lead sections - something which is rarity for the band and should maybe be explored more often! Blue sounds a bit like a distant cousin to Red from X as, aside from the obvious colour theme, both songs are ballads with a gloomy feel. There is definitely something of Fields of the Nephilim here, with a really murky atmosphere and not much traditional 'rock' music to be found. The drums are percussive and rarely play a recognised beat, apart from during the song's short and tortured guitar solo and a final reprise of the song's depressing chorus. Not the album's best, but certainly an interesting song that stands out. The album's final song, Rock 'n' Roll Junkie, again harks back to the band's sleazier, punky beginnings with an upbeat, energetic feel throughout. The song has quite a low-fi production which works well. Jussi's drums have a hollow sound to them, and the guitars chime like on the best 1970s punk albums. The chorus is very memorable too, with Jyrki's scratchy vocals and some subtle slide guitar which adds colour and another dimension to the song. Overall, Universal Monsters is a fantastic piece of work from the Helsinki Vampires. While they never lost their stride in my opinion, this album stills feels somewhat like a return to form. This is the sort of music the band does best, and it shows throughout this very memorable album.

The album was released on 22nd April 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Dolce Vita.

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