Thursday, April 12, 2012

Europe - Bag of Bones - Rock and Roll's First Prequel

Europe has succeeded in doing the nearly impossible. They have made a great album that makes you forget what made them so irresistible in the first place. Bag of Bones, the band's new album is out this month on earMUSIC, and it flat out kicks major rock and roll ass. That there are no chances of this record being labeled 'melodic rock,' or having their classic hit The Final Countdown mentioned, happens to be, in this case, a huge benefit - one that makes little sense at first glance, but let's look deeper.

Bag of Bones is a stripped down, rough and ready rock record in the best British tradition. Its swagger and strut will have you remembering the halcyon days of the hammer of the gods. Singer Joey Tempest and guitar star John Norum have assumed the mantle, and they're taking no prisoners. Memories of summer days listening to Black Dog, and Burn will come back to you, as they have done for Tempest, as you listen.

"I recall the best days of my youth, when we first heard Led Zeppelin doing Black Dog, or Deep Purple doing Burn, and that's the vibe I hoped to return to with Bag of Bones."  the singer recalls, "That's why we recorded the album using a warm old Neve recording console, and all analog gear. All the compression, the EQ, everything was '60s and '70s gear."

The band also made an inspired decision when they hired super producer Kevin Shirley, the man who seems to have the modern day Midas touch - maybe the last of the great hard rock producers.

"Kevin was great," Tempest states,"He brought us back to recording in a way in which we had not done for many years. We would actually play the songs together in the same room, so we reacted to each other very immediately. We would do three or four takes of a song, and Kevin would listen to them, pick the best take, and then maybe we would add some overdubs, but much of the record is live takes. Even some of John Norum's solos were first takes, and they are great!

"We would finish a song completely before we moved on to the next. That made it so that every song had a different feel and sound, you could go, 'Well, what are these lyrics about, how should the guitars sound' - things like that. It made for a very dynamic sound."

He's right. Riches to Rags kicks off the album, and I actually stopped and looked to be sure I had the right CD in the computer. I admit that I expected a huge swell of synths, and rack mounted guitar tones. Instead, I was greeted by a swampy, bluesy swagger that had my feet tapping and my ass moving. Written at the end of a long tour, it has the very classic sound of a guy who's dragging himself onto the jet for one more flight, one more show in one more town. It kind of nails the downward spiral that saw great bands worked to the point of exhaustion, drugs, and despair in the late seventies. Thankfully, the days of record companies overtaxing their golden geese are gone.

Now, we have a band that has been on a steady climb since they reunited in 2004, peaking with the release of 2009's Last Look at Eden, an album that had Classic Rock Magazine exclaiming, "One of the few bands around still making thrilling records."

Photo: Michael Johannson
The album's first single, Not Supposed To Sing The Blues, makes me smile in a way that I haven't since I heard the 2010 debut of Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa's supergroup, Black Country Communion. Joey Tempest has never sung better, nor written in a more concise, direct fashion. This is great rock. By the time you get to John Norum's wah drenched solo, you've already been to a splendid rock and roll nirvana, but his solo is a biting, crying, howling beast of six string mastery. I hope that the band has the moxie to load their setlist with these tunes when they hit the European festival circuit this summer.

Tempest and Norum have at last become the equivalent of those great singer/guitar partnerships they loved as kids, when at 14 or 15 year of age, Tempest heard Norum play, and thought to himself, "I have to be in a band with this guy." Both have risen above their past accomplishments to truly become a great team.

Firebox is another soon to be classic, and this moody, mid-tempo thumper features some wonderfully dynamic keyboard riffing from Mic Michaeli - this is one of several that takes its cue from the incredible Mediterranean/Indian influenced arrangements of John Paul Jones. Middle Eastern modalities have always worked well with great guitars and drums, and Europe has applied just enough to satisfy the listener. Michaeli's playing is perfect across the whole of the album, as is the bass work of John Leven (who contributed some fine writing, as well). The secret weapon would seem to be drummer Ian Haugland - his tub thumping is simply smashing. When I think of great drummers in the realm of loud rock, my brain goes to Bonham, Cozy Powell, and Ian Paice, and for almost 30 years, Haugland has been equal the stickman. Time and time again, I am riveted by his flashy fills, and thunderous support. Go straight to the track Demon Head, and prepare to be amazed.

Producer Kevin Shirley knows how to get a performance out of a band, and he has again done a sterling job. Drink and a Smile features a very off kilter, though brilliant vocal from Tempest. Acoustic guitars spread across the mix, some well placed hand percussion keeps things moving, and again Europe produces brilliance while side stepping their pomp past. This is bluesy, emotive songcraft at its best. I know Shirley is famous for keeping the whole band engaged and involved from beginning to end, and there is no question as to his effectiveness - he doesn't just get great sounds, he makes great records. He is the only producer I can think of whose name alone can get me to buy a record.

I told Tempest that this record sounds more like a debut than an album from a band with a deep catalog, and his response was perfect.

"That's funny! Our manager said that this album could almost be a prequel! We were listening to young bands like Rival Sons, and Joe Bonamassa, and with Kevin's approach we ended up with an album that we are really pleased with. We had been listening to Bonamassa's Ballad of John Henry backstage before shows, and we really thought the song was fantastic, but equally cool was the production. We thought it would be great to work with Kevin, but it turned out even better than we had hoped."

Photo: Fredrik Etoall
My Woman, My Friend sidles in softly with a bit of piano, and a very dark shade of purple vocalizing from Tempest before kicking into a bottom heavy riff (courtesy of John Leven) that would not sound out of place on a Heaven and Hell record. It's heavy as hell, but it never gets weighed down in its own groove, and the vocals keep it bluesy and emotional enough to never suggest metal. Joey Tempest achieves a tone and texture that evokes the true greats of the genre without ever being too derivative - he has truly become his own man on this album.

Seldom do I say a singer has achieved greatness, but Tempest has continually grown as both a singer and a writer, and great he has become. He states, "I went back to the singers who originally moved me - Zeppelin, Deep Purple, but also Phil Lynott, who could do so much with his lyrics and his voice, and also UFO's Phil Mogg."

Requiem - Merriam-Webster tells me, is "a mass for the dead." It is also the title of a 29 second musical interlude that lays to rest the band's past. In fact, in Tempest's words, "It was originally titled, Requiem for the '80s, but we tamed it down to just Requiem. We finally have achieved expressing ourselves with no restraint, and so far the notices and reviews have been great! We really feel like we will get people on board. I feel like with this record, we could even go on the road with a blues band in America, and go over very well!"

John Norum has always been an exceptional guitarist. He always shined during his time with Europe (he was out of the band for six years in the late '80s/early '90s), and throughout a stellar solo career, but his playing has never been as brilliant, or shone as brightly as it does on this album. His lead playing is world class, and his riffing is exemplary. His tones are complex and varied, an obvious salute to Shirley's demand that the band start fresh with each tune and staying with each song until its completion. Every song has its own sound and the sound is always Norum leading the charge, with a new found sense of urgency and passion.

An autobiographical ballad, Bring It All Home closes out the album, and it sounds like an invitation for the band's fans to join them on the next leg of their adventure, as well as a heartfelt thank you.

Europe has indeed beaten the odds and made their finest album, many years after most of their contemporaries have hung up their boots, or turned to relying on past glories. Joey Tempest and the band have reinvented themselves as a seriously sleek and strong rock and roll machine. This is Europe's finest moment, regardless of how you look at it. They are going to blow some minds when they hit the festival circuit, and with a bit of luck they may just get to cross the ocean and unleash some of this rock and roll glory upon the Americas.

Bag of Bones will be released on April 18 in Japan, and April 30 in Europe and the UK.

My thanks to Joey Tempest, Europe, earMUSIC, and Peter Noble at Noble PR.

Edited by Libby Sokolowski.

1 comment:

crusheverything said...

Another great essay, Tony! I have to say, despite the fact that we appear to have the same exact taste in music, I think you're the best rock writer on the internet. No lie. It's nice to read about the artists I follow without the glaring mistakes found on many other sites, due to the writer not having enough familiarity with the artist or their catalog. Keep up the great work!