Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited II: Looking Backwards Boldly

With Genesis Revisited II, Steve Hackett has finally succeeded at a game that many have attempted of late, but have sadly failed. In an age in which many acts are re-recording old hits and albums, most generally for reasons financial, Hackett has went boldly into his past for reasons more artistic than commercial, and he's done a rather fantastic job.

First things first, let's deal with the absence of two huge voices - Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins won't be topped, that's both accepted and easy to admit. Hackett addresses this by using a variety of vocalists - some are more successful than others, but none fail in their mission, which speaks volumes. No one sounds tired, or like a pale imitation of themselves, a factor which has haunted almost every revisitation I've heard previously.

Musically, that's where this beast shines so mightily. Hackett has remained true to intents, but he has not sought to create note for note renditions. He also should be awarded huge points for spending the time, energy. money, and resources to make this sound fantastically good. He's grown as a guitarist, and as a musician, and he hits things head on and with tremendous gusto. Roger King, who is Hackett's musical majordomo is a vastly underrated resource. His playing, arranging, and recording are superb. Gary O'Toole's drum work is stellar, and always sits perfectly in these awesome mixes.

Steve Hackett is truly one of our finest musicians - by that, I mean on the planet, in this century, or any other. His solo work is regularly of remarkably high quality, and every project he gets himself into (such as last summer's Squakett record with Yes-man Chris Squire) is generally excellent. This may be his best moment for some time - I'm still trying to wrap my mind around how great this record sounds. He made all the right moves, and obviously with amazing care, talent, love, and respect - and it so, so shows.

I'm going to depart with my normal format now - I'm going to reprint Hackett's notes on the songs from his website. Suffice to say, what he has to say about it is vastly more interesting, accurate, and informed than any thoughts I could at this point put to paper. Not a cop out, just a simple truth. I love the sound of my own voice, but I also know when to shut up and let the music and musicians do the talking. This is a massive achievement.

Please, buy this album, and enjoy it as much as I have - to Steve, thank you for doing such great work and bringing such joy to so many. Best regards.

An Overview by Steve Hackett:

I sympathise with Hitchcock's need to re-make an earlier film. The vision is clearer, techniques improve inwardly and outwardly. For all us musicians songs of innocence are now inevitably songs of experience. I love the original Genesis music so much that I want to highlight it even more. The temptation to infuse those tracks with more detail and enriched clarity was irresistible.

Musos set the ball rolling by passing it to one another as a means to carry forward combined ideas. The songwriters then necessarily move on to the next project, but the avid listener knows it's really a chariot of fire, a bow of burning gold or a dark satanic mill... It's emblazoned into the mind with a life of its own that moves way beyond the dreams of the original perpetrators. But sometimes dreams need to be re-lived!

On these versions I've altered the detail within the songs whilst aiming to preserve the authentic spirit of the originals. Real string instruments are often used either with or instead of Mellotron, there are several new introductions, plus many additional effects recorded on Apple Mac Logic with amp plug-ins instead of going the traditional route. You'll also find changed guitar and other instrumental solos, as well as additional vocal parts.

Every time I change a solo I feel I'm in danger of messing with people's childhoods, but sometimes the muse just has to have her way with me...

The Chamber of 32 Doors:
I've always liked this song harmonically. It's an Anglo-American hybrid with unexpected gusts of passion. I wanted to re-play the original guitar parts with more control and sustain. Having tracked up string and flute players, this new version started to take on symphonic proportions. In contrast, the new subtle distant wailing guitars add to the song's unnerving quality. Nad Sylvan's expressive soulful range also reinvigorates the song for me, while sympathetically echoing Gabriel's vocal performance.

A small starter on the menu before Supper's Ready, recorded with a six string steel acoustic sent out through a Leslie to give it that authentic early Genesis sound. Influenced more by Bach and Byrd than Blues, this kicked off many acoustic ideas that were to follow.

Supper's Ready:
This one is often referred to by fans as their favourite progressive track of all time... This version includes several vocalists to add to the varying texture of all the elements. It begins with a soulfulness in Mikael Akerfeldt's presentation, followed by a sweetness in Simon Collin's voice and the exuberance of Conrad Keeley. I aimed to pull off the English pastiche aspect of Willow Farm with its array of characters in a kind of Teddy bears Picnic meets I am the Walrus. The whole thing finally opens up into its epic ending with the warm and expansive vocal of Francis Dunnery. I played extra guitar parts which aren't on the original in both the organ section and on the end to give it more colour.

To my mind this is the most poetic song on The Lamb... It expresses Pre Raphaelite magic amidst the urban sprawl of Rael's tale. It's a song that speaks to women as much as men. Nik Kershaw sings this one with great passion. His take is hymn-like, emotional and erotic at the same time. Steve Rothery of Marillion and I swap guitar phrases that wrap around each other in a snake-like way, reflecting the lyric.

Dancing with the Moonlit Knight:
This is possibly my favourite Genesis song, with influences ranging from Scottish plainsong to fusion... Elgar meets Brave new World. It epitomises the character and magic of early Genesis. It features tapping, nylon and twelve strings. Jeremy Stacey's drums give this version even more precision. The "Disney" section at the end has an English pastoral hypnotic feel - a thread to the world of Spencer's Fairy Queen - a small corner of England remaining while the rest is sold off as a job lot plunging headlong into an alienated future. In this version I started this piece with the beginning of Greensleeves to give a sense of the old English thread and the poignancy of the song, which Francis Dunnery's sensitive vocal also expresses.

Fly on a Windshield:
Influences in this powerful piece range from Ravel to Hendrix, with the ramming speed of Ben Hur along with echoes of the Egyptian pyramids, all brought to life under the watchful towers of New York. A wall of sound meets the wall of death. In this new version the guitar sometimes screams like slaves under the whip.

Broadway Melody of 1974:
Gary sings this with more blues inflection than the original. His vocal turns police radio commentary surveying an imaginary parade as the whole of the American dream turns nightmare. Consumerism runs riot whilst cheerleaders and the Clan join the procession.

Musical Box:
To introduce this new version I used a musical box sound that distorts into another kind of nightmarish feel. On this track was the earliest recording of the tapping solo. The three part harmony guitar on the end now is everything I always dreamed of doing on the original. Also check out Nad Sylvan's cameo choirs and the Fiddlers three who have become soprano sax and violin along with slightly distorted flute...

Can-Utility and the Coastliners:
The lyrics and music were essentially mine on this song about King Canute. This was Steven Wilson's favourite track on Foxtrot and he's sung it beautifully, with real feeling. Real orchestral instruments on this track enrich the sound.

Please Don't Touch:
Another Genesis branch rehearsed by the band, originally linked to Wot Gorilla on Wind and Wuthering. It's a variation on my Unquiet Slumbers melody and I feel more strongly thematic than Wot Gorilla. An orchestra again plays on this version, in places making it huge and uncompromising... something I couldn't get in the same way without the orchestral instruments on the original. This time I also enjoyed really letting the guitar sustain and let rip...

Blood on the Rooftops:
At the beginning is a totally new part for the nylon intro which then links to the original intro. Again, there's also now the addition of orchestral instruments which create an enriched sound. A great vocal from Gary O'Toole who really lives the song I wrote with Phil long long ago...

Return of the Giant Hogweed:
Roine Stolt leads the main guitar solo and we go off the map significantly together in the new version, with power chords and police siren noises coming in from me as the track reaches its crazy finale with disembodied Mellotron hurtling towards the end ... With John Hackett on scat flute and Rob Townsend doubling the bass from Lee Pomeroy in places the whole effect makes the track now sound even more preposterously huge than ever!

A song I wrote with Tony, inspired by the dream state. On this version Jakko Jakszyck's beautiful vocal is joined by Amanda Lehmann's harmonies in the chorus...

Eleventh Earl of Mar:
Again Nad Sylvan adds extra vocal parts here and I get to do the voice loops, an idea I had for Phil when the tapes were in danger of being chewed up. Doing many tape loops of vocals going 'aaah', my chest felt punctured from inside during the process! Guitar parts are clearer than before, plus a six stringed Rickenbacker, beloved of the Beatles, chimes in on the "features are burning" section.

This time I've chosen a female singer. Amanda Lehmann sings the song with beautiful vibrato like the young Marianne Faithful along with the poignant tone of the older Marianne. The electric guitar melody, which I created, I enjoyed really feeling my way back into and the guitar sound at the end was the product of three fuzz boxes hooked in series to create a distant string orchestra effect.

Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers:
This started out life on the nylon guitar but Roger King added Mellotron mandolins plus repeat to swirl the whole effect around. The synth sounds more voice like on our version as it's ghosted by vocal sample.

In That Quiet Earth:
I used one guitar on this instead of three. It's much clearer than the original. It's unnerving on the backwards section with a real siren quality. The Fernandes sustainer guitar comes into its own on this version. Gary O'Toole's drums sound deliberately aggressive and compressed on the slow powerful moments. Soprano sax replaces the synth for what I think of as the snake charmer phrases.

John Wetton seizes hold of this song and really lives the powerful romance of it, especially when he sings "And I would search everywhere..." On this version there are two Les Pauls and a Rickenbacker - a nod to George Harrison and the sound he developed with the Beatles.

A Tower Stuck Down:
With original input from Mike Rutherford, this is one of my Genesis Branches. Now played with more brutality than the original, this has a killer riff. Written by John Hackett and myself, we've returned to it with added fervour! Genesis was never quite this heavy...

Camino Royale:
Another Genesis branch, this time inspired by a dream I had of Genesis performing in a surrealistic version of New Orleans. Hungarian fusion band Djabe take the middle solos... creating a whole new authentic jazz feel to the song. Great mute trumpet from Ferenc Kovács and piano from Zoltán Kovác.

Shadow of the Hierophant:
This was a co-write with Mike Rutherford, part of which was rehearsed by Genesis for the Foxtrot sessions. This version is a little faster than the original and partly in a lower key and this time we've used two twelve strings plus a keyboard twelve string, giving it the English Rose feel behind Amanda's glorious vocal. The spirit of Genesis from a mere forty years ago is back, sounding fresher than ever, mellotrons scream, bass pedals thunder, and Gary's drums sounding like his life depended on it. There's a dead stop to give the piece an explosive finale.

Philip Sayce - Steamroller: Fear Killer First Class

Philip Sayce's Steamroller does just what it promises - it rolls over anything in it's way, wiping out fear, bringing on joy, and rocking like a crossfire hurricane. This record's been out for a while in most of the world, but it just landed on my doorstep and has found its way into my regular rotation.
"On the surface it's about the most beautiful woman in the world, but deeper inside the song, it's about steamrolling fear and doing what's in your heart and soul." Philip Sayce

This is Sayce's fourth solo long player, and Steamroller is a great distillation of his storied past, but much more than that it is a rockin' mother of a record that starts out in high gear and never slows down. Nothing in his discography quite prepared me for the in your face, straight up rock that Sayce, co-writer/producer Dave Cobb (Soundgarden, Jamey Johnson), bassist Joel Gottschalk, and drummer extraordinaire Chris Powell bring to this table. Sayce has finally corralled his huge skill set into an album that sounds like nothing but himself - the influences are discernible, but they've taken a back seat to the star of the show. This is one of the great hard rock records of 2012 - one of the absolute best.

Over the last few weeks, I've taken to playing Steamroller for people, and telling them, "If the new Aerosmith record rocked half this hard, I'll be thrilled." Truth is, that's pie in the sky dreaming, but mostly my point is that this song sounds like where I wish the Boston bad boys would have ended up. It's a brash riff rocker that is picture perfect - Sayce is in great voice, and his guitar playing is tightly focused and full of muscular punch. Cobb and Sayce captured as much of this record live in the studio as they could, and it sounds like it. Powell might be best known as a Nashville session cat, but here he's doing his best Bonzo, and his performance takes this entire set to another level - high octane rock - straight up, no chaser.

Stung By A Woman is another swaggering slab of brutish rock - this isn't blues rock, and it isn't confused about its heritage. When Sayce kicks the solo into gear, it's much closer to classic brit rock than tired SRV posturing that I'm asked to digest from most of the blues rock set. I love a little blues mixed into my rock, but pale imitations have exhausted me, and I'm thrilled by someone stepping up and rocking without apology. This is everything good about arena sized rock.

Sayce has continually grown as a vocalist, and this record is one of the first I've heard by a hot guitar slinger in some time in which I haven't found myself wishing that there were a better singer on board. Marigold is the album's first ballad, and it's some of the strongest rock balladeering I've heard since John Sykes left us in the lurch. This record reminds me a lot of Blue Murder, the great lost record of the '80s. No wonder Sayce has been on Glenn Hughes's mind so much of late. The 'Voice of Rock' recently told me that he's been itching to include Sayce in one of his projects for some time, and expressed great respect and love for Philip's work.

Riff rock is a not easy - in fact, it's a breed of rock that gets harder by the moment. Big slabs of fabulous rock easily fade into cliche, and it's really tough to write a rocker that doesn't sound re-hashed and re-packaged, so when I hear something like Rhythm and Truth, I am extremely grateful. This number rocks blissfully through a cool intro and verse when suddenly Sayce tosses off a few licks that sound like The Yardbirds cum 21st Century - a little Eastern motif, some great hammer-on madness, then it's off into a another dose of what made the 'Smiths of Boston so incredible. Maybe Rocks was playing when he first laid eyes on his first beautiful baby sitter, who knows? Who cares? This rocks - and beautifully.

Black Train is another rockin' testament to some brown sugar - when Sayce and Powell face off on this one, it's some of the finest drum and guitar jousting since Blackmore and Paice showed us how it was done back in the halcyon hard rock days of the '70s. Sayce's solo is pure scorching fireworks, then it eases down into a snare and choral re-intro that is steadily marched back into full rock fury by Powell's amazing stick work. If this don't rock ya, check your pulse.

Funk finds its way into Beautiful, but not in a forced, or stilted way - it is as much James Brown as it is anything, remember when Steven Tyler still 'had it?' Some Worrell approved organ makes it into the mix, and this has me dancing in a cool way - again, not forced, or stilted, this sounds righteously organic.

Holding On could be seen as just another Hendrixian string bouncing chordal workout, but Powell's intense thrashing, and Sayce's confident vocal elevate it beyond the mundane. When Sayce goes into his solo, it's strong and passionate - again, no regurgitating of things from the past, he's found his place in the world and he's clearly gone beyond being someone else's guitarist, or even just another guy playing hot blues rock. These tunes are very true is spirit and intent - you can hear the man in the musician, and that's point of the trip.

The big rock continues with A Mystic, a tune that evokes a plethora of familiar approaches - I find myself remembering the good old days with Eddie VH, Gary Moore when he was still blazing the rock, and generally a time when loud guitars and drums ruled the landscape of rock and roll. This is a wild roller coaster ride that satisfies my hunger for pure and exciting musicianship - Sayce pulls out effects, licks, squeals, squawks galore on this one, and it's an all too brief lesson in guitar heroism.

I really like The Bull - it separates the rock from the wimps. Let's face it, even the coolest, most enlightened muso will occasionally end up on the wrong end of a music business deal gone wrong, and there's been historically no better way to exercise one's demons than with a pissed off lyric, and a loud guitar - "When you fuck with the bull, you're gonna get the horns," indeed. If you can't dig this, well, I hate to say it, but you might just be a....well, I hate to say it, but you may be a pussy.

Aberystwyth is the town in Wales in which Philip Sayce found birth into this lifetime, and this set closing instrumental that closes out Steamroller shows that Mr. Sayce has spent his time well - he's plied his trade quite selflessly for a great many years, he's spent a few years finding his feet as an artist, and has now made a record that should, if the world is right, sound his arrival as a big, bright star.

Photo by Austin Hargrave
Steamroller has been out for some time in the UK, Europe, and Japan - I'm told that its stateside release is imminent. Upon hearing it, I immediately forwarded it to a few friends, including the aforementioned Mr. Hughes, producer Fabrizio Grossi, and a couple of others - turns out they were all about two steps ahead of me, and everyone I spoke with is clamoring to work with, and support the work of this man. I'd suggest you do the same and find yourself a copy of Steamroller asap - it's a slammingly satisfying piece of rock.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill: The Auteur Theory

Psychedelic Pill is a massively successful record. From the first to last note, you know what you're in for, and you're never let down. Neil Young's every strum, whisper, and howl are recognizable, and  again he has found the accompaniment of Crazy Horse to be the finest bed of sound on which to paint upon.

Photo: Joe Kroger
This record sounds like a long look back, starting with a gentle acoustic guitar and Young's distinctive warble - he lays it out, wondering if you read the book, if you hear the time he's took. Driftin' Back is an easing into it - all the earmarks you expect, there's no surprises, but it comes without torture, or angst. 27 minutes of the best of Neil Young - Crazy Horse is understated as always, but organic and wild enough to keep it from sounding pasteurized, or slick. If this is the soundtrack to Waging Heavy Peace, it's nearly as perfect as Young's book. Especially delicious is the voice's vibrato and the near raga mantra sermon delivered from "Old Black," Young's ancient Gibson Les Paul. This feels like home.

Photo: Joe Kroger
Pychedelic Pill is awash in a heavy flange, and the rock picks up the pace - not as desperately heavy as Young's violent explosions that nearly left him deaf in the '90s, but much more rock than Buffalo Springfield could ever muster. I can almost hear the wheels spinning in Young's head as he decided that the flanging was too much, and he chooses to include an un-effected alternate mix to end the album with - I like them both. Just lookin' for a good time, and finding it is OK, sometimes.

Cinema never quite escapes Young's grasp - he's always had one foot in the theater, painting big pictures, and telling his tales in ways to make them universal, and one foot remaining vividly planted in his own head. Ramada Inn takes us back to Neil's brilliant soundtrack work on Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man movie - but here, he inserts a lyric that tells the tale once again of his complex relationship with relationships. I can't imagine how difficult it must actually be to be Neil Young, and I'm glad he has his guitar to melt into - his solos are almost beyond poignant here. He's as expressive in his own way as Miles ever was, and it may be that he's captured his true soul with the six strings better than any other electric guitarist. When I saw the time's for these songs, I kind of cringed - now, I wonder what my hurry was, and I just hit repeat.

The D chord was surely made for Neil, and he manipulates it as deftly as ever - if you're not a guitar player, cue up the intro to Born In Ontario and you will surely know what I'm talking about. Young's lyric here is almost hokey, but it's more Mark Twain than cheesy, and  his embracing of the folk idiom is fitting. I like hearing him finally sound like he's having a great time in that damned barn.

Photo: Joe Kroger
Twisted Road is another look back at what's made NY rock for all these decades - he salutes Dylan, The Dead, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, and Crazy Horse's refrains are perfectly welcome. Young's simplistic structures have finally claimed a space in my consciousness in a way that let's me truly enjoy, and not judge.

If you played an alien this album, they would 'get' the whole of Neil Young's life and career. It's a signature record - no leaps into foreign genres, no lapses into synaptic journeys of subconscious and hidden meanings, or hurt. She's Always Dancing is an absolutely beautiful song that sees Neil still trying to find a new palette on which to mix his paints.

Photo: Joe Kroger
For The Love Of Man is one of Young's best ballads ever. This one touches down directly in a manner unallowed perhaps even the days of Harvest Moon, and Man Needs a Maid. He's OK with things as they are, but still, he wonders why. I like this Neil Young - gone are the days of defenses and the walls, the evasions and the mystery. He may jut be human.

Photo: Joe Kroger
He ends the album with a rolling. rollicking, and rocking Walk Like A Giant. He looks back over the hopes and aspirations that gathered so hopefully in Los Angeles in the late '60s, and how far they all fell from the promise, but he's survived, persevered and come out whistling on the other side with his faith and optimism still intact. He's still a big kid with an ink pen, a loud guitar, and a dream - life's like that. It sometimes takes us forty, or fifty years to get back to being who we were when we started. This is a fun, exciting piece of big, big rock.

This record is fucking fabulous. Neil Young is finally fucking fabulous. Crazy Horse? Yup - fucking fabulous.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wilson T. King - The Last of the Analogues: Jimi Would've Dug It

"This second solo album really defines my Future Blues Vibe. Like the first record there is a deliberate avoidance of the cliche ridden karaoke modern blues scene." Wilson T. King, 2012
The Last of the Analogues is Wilson T. King's new record, and with it he goes even further than he did with his first in distancing himself from what can be traditionally called 'the blues.' However, this is a blues record for our times - forget the stuff so many kids pedal as the blues these days as they regurgitate tired 1-4-5s, and SRV licks ad infinitum. I agree, Wilson T - that shit will give you the blues.

No, this record is closer to London's soul in '67, as Hendrix, Beck, Clapton, Gilmour, and Page decided that the Kings's days were over, and a new blues was on the horizon. Wilson T. King is ferocious. Even when he's laying a slow soulful number, he goes straight for the throat. Blade Runner Blues - that's what this is. Apocalyptic fires blaze out of King's Strats and Marshalls - freakishly incendiary are his bends, screams, and squalls as they descend down from the halls of guitar valhalla.

Dare I say, this is also a very beautiful record. This Mountain of Fire eases gently into being with acoustic guitars and a delicate vocal before a driving bassline picks up the pace, some very '60s stickwork evoke a sense of psychedelia, then King slices into his first solo of the record, and all bets are off - this cat plays for keeps. You can tell that there's much more at play here than what anyone could call the blues - it's a literal lesson in what makes for great rock.

Born Into This is a bodacious bastard of a manchild. Sounds like an alchemy of U2, the guitar lords, and plenty of completely unique mojo coming out of this mix. King sounds like a man possessed, but strangely in control. Almost nine minutes of some of the most exciting Strat strangling to be heard since Machine Gun. I don't say this casually - Band of Gypsys is the godhead of blues rock, and this ain't no joke. King might be the most authoritative player to come down the pike since Gary Moore - he plays with no fear, hesitation, or compunction.

Wilson T. King's vocals grow on you. Not a great singer, but his voice is his and his alone, not unlike those of Hendrix and Uli Roth - guys who can deliver a lyric with stunning sincerity and confidence, in spite of their inherent limitations. Like The Turquoise In A Crashing Wave is a compelling and cinematic tale that tells a story that would do well to find its way into a David Lynch film. It's hard to say, but this might be the record's defining moment. If you don't dig this one, I don't know that there's much that I can do to help you.

As the pastoral beauty of Turquoise winds down, it's overtaken by a brutal bass and drum attack - some heavily reverberated guitar sets the scene as King takes the whole production down the hellish side of the church of rock. Bury Me With The Bible is a fire and brimstone trip to Dante's seven levels of guitaristic bliss. Now I know why it took the guitarist a couple of years to follow up his debut. This record is deep - a sermon of light in dark times. Dan Whitley, brother of blues genius Chris Whitley lays down a harmonica solo born of the blues, but brandishing a might that Junior Wells never dreamt. I am converted.

The Edge of Forever brings things down just a bit, an acoustic starter that is brought closer and closer to the edge of insanity by insistent drums, a subtly engaging bass line, and some guitar work that cajoles and suggests more than it demands. I don't know much about Mr. King, but I'm guessing there are many levels to be investigated. This is a thinking man's form of visionary blues rock.

Had Roy Buchanan lived, he would have been quite pleased to hear a tune such as 29.10.71. I hope he can hear it now. Few since Roy have tapped quite this deeply into their psyche - it takes balls, and King has balls to spare. Audacious chorus after audacious chorus screams out of his rig as he's accompanied by some sweet, sweet piano playing, sublime kit work by European blues legend Wayne Proctor (without whom this record could not achieve so mightily), and the bass playing of Josh Lattanzi. Beckian in its fusion-y flight, this is another delight - a classic of the genre.

Great Things Never Forgotten might be the closest the album gets to classic blues structure, but that's not all that close, and it graduates into raging rock that evokes live Zep. Molten metal pours down this one like lava from Vesuvius. Hot shit.

Not content to end it easy, there's a challenge that emerges with every track, and it's no different for the set closing Broken Son. A busted up beat waltzes with a disturbed bass to set the stage for a wildly vibrato'd piece of Strat magic leading into King's final novella, this time in instrumental form. It's a tale of some sort, but I'm not sure that I could tell you exactly what the plot is, or where it leads. Maybe it's Wilson T. King's way of telling us that it's best not to get too comfortable - the Future Blues Vibe might be right behind you when you least expect it.

This is a raging, barn burning, son of a bitch of an album. It's not always easy, in fact, it's not meant to be, but it's always worthwhile. I hate calling it a blues record, but I'll damn myself and call it the best blues record of 2012. I gotta think Jimi would have dug it. I'm sorry I never said Pink Floyd throughout the review - there's some suggestion, but it's merely circumstantial.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Robthebank - Spoken Codes: Great Rock Spoken Here

"Life is in the hours that we waste, Love is in the words that we don't say." ~ Spoken Codes
Robthebank recorded their first album over ten years ago - it got backburnered by life. Guitarist and songwriter Nate Farley got an offer he couldn't refuse, and joined an army called Guided By Voices, and went off to see the world. Thank Christ they persevered to make it to the second - Spoken Codes is great rock, and the world would be way for the worse without it.

Comanche almost gave me whiplash when it blasted out of my ancient Custom Shop Radio Shack speakers - these overweight monoliths can take a wallop, but this band damn near broke this bank. It's a minute long warning shot over the bow that let's you know that you're in for an hour or so of ripping, infectious rock.

I've been spinning Spoken Codes for a few weeks now, and I haven't been quite able to let the title track get out of my consciousness. Farley's time as Robert Pollard's sergeant-at-arms was no waste - this has hooks that grab and don't let go, and lead singer Heather Newkirk and Farley sing this as if their lives depended upon it. This has hit written all over it.

Drummer Craigo Nichols takes this record, and mauls it, making it go from good to great in the process. Hypocritic Oath is another hypnotic slice of pop wonder, but Nichols and bassist Duane Hart take this and run with it - Hart's bass throbs and I congratulate producer Darryl Robbins on capturing this madness with such stunning clarity.

Bricks has Farley and Newkirk throwing lines back and forth with great aplomp as the guitarist's tube soaked Tele chases Hart's bassline, taking it over as the pre-chorus explodes into full blown anthemic rock. Farley's many years of experience reveal themselves in every guitar track on the record - he works the accelerator like a Formula One champ, slowing down for the curves but turning on the afterburners for the straightaways.

The band is much sleeker than your every day rock outfit. The beat and tempo of BFGU is a masterpiece of push-pull give and take. It's over before you know it, and you instantly reach to repeat it. Farley has matured into a great somgwriter in his own right, and every tune on this record displays just that.

The End of Time may be on nigh, but with rock like this it ain't a bad trip. The rhythmic thrusting on this menu is never the same twice, and it's the best amusement park in town.

I'm a sap for cinematic rock - So Sick sounds like the soundtrack of a trip we lived for years here in Dayton. Yeah, I gotta cop that I'm friends with this lot, and we know how this town gets. No one has so captured the vibe of a city since Dale Bozzio described in Missing Persons's Walking In LA. Farley should consider a novel - maybe better yet, a memoir. The guy can write.

Heather Newkirk narrates these tunes with a thousand megatons of rock star fire power. She's perfect in her role - she belts, she purrs, she's bawdy, then demure. Maybe the finest female rock chanteuse since Debbie Harry. Her duets with Farley are the first time I can remember that rock got hip to the male/female vocal couplings that made cool old country make sense. In The Future We'll Be History and I'm Saving Up are two more textbook examples of modern pop perfection. Goddamn, these guys are good.

I Like You Ugly is a twisted relationship tune that reveals the darkside of love and life. Ike and Tina should have done duets like this - at least we have it now. Nichols's precision drumming keeps this one between the ditches as the singers's vitriol threatens to take this one of the road. Artful.

Double time power pop propels Sad Sack Sam, and it's another wild ride. This is punk grown up - everyone learned how to play, how to write, and how to stay in tune. Even as Newkirks screaming reaches for the stratosphere, she stays true. Craigo Nichols has turned in maybe the finest drum performance on a rock album for 2012.

Farley plays great guitar all over Roast The Host, and if you take the time to learn this one you'll know about all you really need to know about playing for the song - with this record he steps into the rarified air space shared by guys like Mike Campbell and Peter Buck. The perfect accompaniment - and that ain't easy, Keith invented it, and Farley listened.

Spin Out gets spit out, and it rocks like a panzer division on rocket fuel. The band kicks it across the desert and Newkirk rides over the top like Rommel with a good cause behind him.

I haven't been this happy with a power punk record since The Dictators invented the genre in 1975. Too Bright wraps it up with a quick blast that goes away too soon, and I find myself hitting repeat once again.

Robthebank went to the tables at Monte Carlo and won with this slab - it's a fantastic slice of powerful, pop infused, rebel rock. It starts in the garage, goes to Nashville, takes some time in London and makes it back to the Midwest in time to realize that rock grew up, but it didn't die - it's still rockin'.

Nate Farley has been a great guitar player and straight up rockstar for years - he's become a great songwriter, Heather Newkirk was born to belt out high octane rock. The rhythm section of Duane Hart and Craigo Nichols is top notch - if these bunch can't make it, no one should. Robthebank is a superb outing, buy it today.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Leslie West Cranks It Up For A New Album

Leslie West is returning to the studio this month to start work on the follow up to his Grammy nominated, Unusual Suspects, one of the finest pieces of rocking blues to cross my path in 2011. He's being joined again by producer Fabrizio Grossi, who helped make the last album maybe the finest sounding hard rock record I heard that year.

2013's new release sheet is already shaping up nicely, and after Unusual Suspects raging slab of sound, I'm sure that this new record will go that much further - the combination of West, Grossi, super drummer Kenny Aronoff and a host of great cameos (Joe Bonamassa, Slash, Steve Lukather, Zakk Wylde) made for a great record, and I can't wait to hear what this combo dishes out next. I'm guessing I'll have to drive up to New York and check on them, make sure they don't burn the studio to the ground.

Voodoo Highway - Showdown: New Album Preview

Voodoo Highway return with their second long player, Showdown. Featuring cover art by Hipgnosis legend Storm Thorgerson, the record was produced/mixed by the Italian production firm Dysfunction Productions (John Wetton, Anthony Phillips) and mastered at Sterling Studios Ue Nastasi (AC/DC, Anthrax, Yngwie Malmsteen).

The former Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi is quoted as saying, "Voodoo Highway are crap! Do not for any reason listen to the preview of their forthcoming new wonderful album!"

Well, as seen all to often, politicians are full of shit - this stuff sounds great, and I'll be back shortly with a full review and chat with the band.

If you like your hard rock with a shade of purple, these guys are right up your....alley. Release date is soon to be announced - early 2013.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Focus X - Ain't No Hocus Pocus, This Is Real

Focus X is an excellent album that I didn't see coming. I knew the band had seen some renewed interest after penning the theme for Nike's World Cup commercial back in 2010, but then they disappeared off my radar. I couldn't be more pleased at their reappearance - this record is a clear winner.

I'm looking at new art by Roger Dean, and listening to the high intensity flute and organ playing of Thijs Van Leer, and I'm thinking, "Is time travel possible? Have I awakened in the early 70s?" This is the same eclectic and stimulating instrumental interplay that I remember coming from Focus during the days of the Nixon era, when we needed an intellectual respite from the daily pummeling we were receiving from a bad war and a rotten political scene. I guess some things never change, but in this case, I'll take what I can get, and I'm thrilled to be listening to some clever music that I'm loathe to label.

Father Bachus cheekily rips out of the gate with a riff that will have you thinking Hocus Pocus, but Van Leer's flute takes off and we're instantly taken in a direction that reminds why we loved prog rock, even before we knew what to call it. Drummer Pierre van der Linden is sharper than ever, driving the band into an ever accelerating rate of rock, but it's semi-new guy Menno Gootjes on guitar that really blows my mind - replacing the legendary Jan Akkerman is no easy task, but he's more than up to the task.

Focus is a sophisticated bunch - this isn't music that shrinks, hides, or avoids the fact that they have no compunction or problem with some serious genre jumping as they do on  Focus 10. This tune kicks off as a blues jazz number that is just edgy enough to avoid being lounge. Gootjes plays chorus after chorus of beautifully melodic guitar - it's just perfect tonally, a little distortion to deliver the edge, but it's some gorgeous stuff. Van Leer's keyboards are supportive, but he keeps tossing off fills and pads that keep things interesting. When Thijs grabs his flute and the two start waltzing across the tune together it's majestic - Gootjes finally recalls his guitar melody, and van Leer closes out with some wistful and haunting piano. Well played.

Romance is the theme of Victoria, and it's great to hear a tune which is straight - it doesn't mince around it's point. The affair comes to include a bit of funk, but it's then back into the starry eyed love. Cinematic, that's what this is. Bassist Bobby Jacobs slides from smooth to busy and back, and his playing is so elegant that you could be excused for not noticing just how virtuosic his playing is from start to finish.

Amok in Kindergarden - the title shows that the band has loss none of it's indulgence in ironic humor. This is a compositional showpiece that defies you to grasp it's exact structure, but it's so damned gorgeous that you don't mind that you know you can't quite grasp it's path. Fun, fun, fun - this is what jazz rock promised all along. Van Leer leads with his incredible piano playing, and the band follows with, dare I say, great focus.

Every time I've thrown this disc on, I do not want it to end. It keeps  grabbing me and making me listen, and I like it.

The band breaks out the rock on All Hens On Deck, van Leer scats with his own organ and Gootjes's dirty Les Paul tones, and the rhythm section percolates at a boil. I'll guess this is a live showpiece. Van Leer tosses in a bolero section that comes in just at the right time, and it's majestic again. These guys can't stop themselves from continually re-engaging and re-calibrating, and always at the right time.

Photo by CreepingMacKroki
Le Tango is just that - an understated lyric and vocal that is perfectly underscored by Jacobs's super cool bass line as Gootje's acoustic guitar weaves melodic magic before kicking into a high octane solo. Focus generally has such a tendency to play it for a laugh, or an aside that it took me a few listens to realize that this is indeed played straight, and very effectively. A gorgeous and romantic tune.

I congratulate Focus for containing their potential to overplay, and too go farther than an average listener can go - there's no shortage of chops, technique, and sheer brain horsepower here, but they keep it entertaining and accessible. Its tendency toward jazz is always obvious, but they never go so far outside as to lose their audience, an audience that was raised on rock. No, they play it just right, and I think it's a more than fair exchange for all involved.

Hoeratio is a hard tune to describe - maybe that's due to van Leer's Dutch dialogue, but it sounds great, cascading from melodic jazz to hard rock not unfamiliar to fan's of King Crimson. It's almost kabooki in it's theatrical glory. I'd love to know what the hell he's going on about!

Not taking one's self too seriously is a major plus these days - what with the world going to hell in a handbag, sometimes a guitar and flute duet with percolating bass and drunken drums is a wonderful thing, and Talk of the Clown is just that. This tune won't change the world, but it's very well done, and I dare you to sit down and play alongside it.

Focus doesn't come off as trying to sound like kids - they play like they should, and it's thoughtful, melodic, and mature. You'll find not a more pleasant piece of romantic rock than Message Magic, which again has Gootjes's playing melodic, sinuous and taut lead lines as van Leer and company support him superbly.

X Roads (Crossroads) was a considered title for the album at one point and this tune is a nice summation of the entire record. This is an excellent album that will seduce more than it will knock you down and force you to listen. It cooks, but it will drive down your blood pressure and reduce your anxiety for a while, and that's a great thing. Van Leer delivers a spoken lyric that is bittersweet, but matter of fact, and the band plays on - there's a ripping drum and bass solo near the end that sends the record off to sea, and I realize that I hate to hear it end.

I hope you get a chance to hear this record. Grab a glass of whatever it is you imbibe, toss on this disc, and absorb them both. See if it doesn't do your soul good. X is a record that's filled with excellent compositions, loads of great playing, a good bit of earthy humor, and no shortage of melodic wizardry. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bridge To Mars - JJ Marsh and Company Reach For The Stars

Bridge To Mars is a new project being fronted by JJ Marsh, and if their first demos are any indication, these Swedish rockers are going to be big news.

Marsh is best known for his stellar work as Glenn Hughes's guitarist for many years, but nothing he's done up to now quite prepared me for this. His playing is tough, taut, and imaginative. Almost unnerving is just how good a singer he proves to be. Powerful, melodic, and full of passionate soul -  where's this voice been all these years?

In A White Light first caught my ear with a compelling guitar hook, some incredibly cool bass work from Tomas "Pomma" Thorberg, and drum bashing (and finessing) by Thomas Browman that has me thinking of the great stick work by the brutish greats of '60s Britain - the names Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, Bonzo, and Moon come to mind. If this sounds like hyperbole, plead me guilty, but this is great stuff. Marsh's guitar work is stronger than ever, and his vocals and lyrics are world class.

Remember - this is an unsigned band, and these are just demos (though I would put them out today if I were a smart label owner).

If you like pomp/prog/metal organ driven dirges by the likes of Vanilla Fudge and Deep Purple, they don't get better than River of Disillusion. Of course, the organ here is actually Marsh's overdriven guitars, but the opening riff is the heaviest, coolest intro I've heard in some time, bringing to mind the Fudge's You Keep Me Hanging On, Purple's Perfect Strangers, and dare I say it, Whiter Shade of Pale. Every time I put this clip on, I lose a half hour from repeated listening.

Soulful vocals, great tunes, excellent musicianship, and incredibly groovy grooves. Marsh and his cohorts are off to an incredible start, and I listen to what comes next.

2013 is going to have at least one great album if this is any indication.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Steve Hunter's Kickstarter Project

Steve Hunter is responsible for some of the greatest guitar parts in Rock and Roll history - whether it's the intro lead on Aerosmith's Train Kept A Rollin', Lou Reed's Sweet Jane, Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, or Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies, you've heard his work.

Now Steve needs for the guitar and music lover communities to come together to help him complete his new solo record. Unfortunately, session guys don't reap royalties, and they have to just keep on playing. Steve toured with Alice Cooper for seven months last year, but is staying home this winter to get this new album done, and he needs our help. His video explains it very well, please give it a glimpse, and share it!

Please take a few moments to watch Steve's video (above) for his Kickstarter project, and if you're able lend him your support, please do so - he's offering some great rewards, but it's time we paid Steve back for some of the great joy he's given us over so many years.

Send him a donation if you are able, and of the mind - or at least share his video and his project on your Facebook pages, your Google +, your blogs, or wherever. You'll be helping a great guy continue his great work. I thank you, and I know Steve thanks you, as well.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Motel Beds - Dumb Gold: No Fool's Paradise

Dumb Gold is the fourth full length album by The Motel Beds, and they'll probably have another in the can by the time I'm done writing this. Following closely on the heels of last year's Tango Boys, which included the run away hit, Tropics of the Sand (a duet with local legend and ex-Breeder, Kelley Deal), this may be the album that finally sees another Dayton band pack the van and hit the road for bigger and better things.

Photo by Scott Ryan
Dayton rock bands have never gone by the rules - they don't know what decade it is, let alone what year, or just how many records they may have made and released in the last few years. They work fast, they work hard, and they leave some loose edges. Catch it while you can, because it won't last forever. This tradition began back in the last century when then school teacher Robert Pollard decided he's had enough of higher education and elementary school kids, and headed off to indie rock superstardom with Guided By Voices (and some few dozen sundry other bands, projects, and guises) - did I mention that Cheap Trick's Rick Neilsen branded them "Guided By Beer"? There's something in the water in this part of Ohio that has young rockers swilling more hootch than mother's milk, but it never seems to get in the way of the productivity - Pollard has recorded probably 2,000 songs in the last twenty years and some 100 full length albums, and The Motel Beds seem to be sticking with this method of madness.

Photos by Brooke Medlin
Dumb Gold will have you listing influences and signposts of rock pretty rapidly. In the first few spins I caught Pollard's act, T. Rex, The Flaming Groovies, Pink Floyd, Graham Parker & The Rumour, and The New York Dolls, to name a few. They wear these influences on their sleeves as they whack out melody after melody, semi-arbitrarily tossed off genius guitar fills, and the psycho-kinetic flailing of drummer Ian Kaplan. Lead singer P. J. Paslosky sounds as if he never let the transistor radio leave his ear as a child, and is helplessly and hopelessly lost in A.M. radio pop reverie. Tommy Cooper's churning rhythm guitars keep things in finely honed focus, while Darryl Robbins unleashes torrent after torrent of guitar leads and fills that suggest he's either too smart for the riff, or he's pulling our legs with his subtle six string sophistry. Then there's bassist/background vocalist Tod Weidner - he came late to the band, and his fluid playing, and pop informed harmonies have elevated the band significantly in terms of professionalism and focus. If you blink with this bunch you're liable to miss another growth spurt.

I mentioned earlier that the rock bands of Dayton, Ohio like to leave some rough edges - well, that's certainly true with this bunch. There's a fine line with this bunch between genius and not wishing to appear to give too much of a shit about either their performances, or their tunes. They don't take themselves too seriously as they toss back cold beers and casually pop out pop nuggets that have you shaking your head and wondering how they do it. I'd love to see what they could do with an actual budget and some serious homework. This record sounds like they threw up the microphones and had at it - there's not a lot of high science going on here. This is set them up and knock them out power pop.

Every song on the record delivers something new and different. I'm not going to give a track by track play by play - I'm going to let you do that. The quality ratio is uniformly high enough for me to say that when you buy this record, you will be finely rewarded, and you will realize that if every rock band out there delivered the goods like this, we wouldn't be buying tracks one at a time. This is complicated pop at its indie best. Nearly the entire album suggests an intriguing blend of childhood innocence and adult themes that will have you wondering what dark alleys of the soul these guys navigate when the ply their trade. There is an almost calliope kind of happy-go-lucky, whimsical nature to many of Paslosky's lyrics and melodies, but then things always seems to go a bit David Lynch. Fascinating stuff.

Dumb Gold is another large leap forward for this group of Midwestern malcontents, and if they can continue to get invited to shindigs like SXSW, and CMJ, and get out of Dayton and do some serious gigging, they might end up succeeding in the race to rock stardom.

Neil Young - Waging Heavy Peace: Pretty Perfect If You Ask Me

"The weakness of an autobiography is the lack of perspective of the person who's writing it. So, for that reason, I'll never write an autobiograhy, Never." ~ Neil Young 2000
Well, Neil, so much for that. Waging Heavy Peace is the autobiography of Neil Young. 497 pages of the songwriter doing what he said he wouldn't do - and I'm damned glad that he didn't keep his word.

I've just started reading Mark Twain's autobiography - Mark didn't think autobiography was such a great idea either. He didn't think a man could possibly put down in words what was true about himself. A man's true beliefs about himself were so monstrous, and the truths so ugly that it just couldn't be done. He'd either have to lie, or he'd have to bury it - deep, where it couldn't be found. Ever.

In his attempt to write his life story, Twain wrote fictionalized accounts of his life, only expressing the basic actions, good or bad. He wrote the truth, but then ascribed it to other people in other places. He went backwards and forwards for 40 years attempting to do what he imagined couldn't be done. Finally, he gathered what he had written over so many years, in so many ways, and agreed that it could be published - but only in a way that would save him the humiliation, and his children the embarrassment. It could only be published one hundred years after his death. A brilliant solution to his fears, and his trepidation.

Of course, he hadn't counted on the fact that he'd be dead, and not around to see his agreements honored. Versions appeared a short twenty five years later in various forms. When they did appear, they did little to tarnish Twain's reputation, little to embarrass the children.

Neil Young has done as Neil Young has always done. As he damned well pleases, and in the manner he sees fit. It's all about the work. He seldom spares himself responsibility or blame, and while he accepts his absolute adherence to the belief that it's only the work that matters, he realizes that this has often come at a high human cost, and he suffers for his often brutal ways of following his muse.

Waging Heavy Peace is about redemption. It's about a man facing himself in the mirror, and not flinching. He doesn't always apologize, but he does more often than not, and he also spends a tremendous amount of time sharing the credit for a lifetime of work, and thanking those who have helped so much along the way. He gives credit where credit is due, he explains why he's done what he's done, and along the way he keeps moving forward, keeps showing you where he's going next, and why.

Neil wrote this book sober. Sober for the first time in a great many decades, not a drink, not a joint, not a single bump. Not so he could get it right, and not because his work or relationships had ever suffered for his proclivities, but rather because his father suffered dementia at the end of his life, and Young hopes to avoid the same fate. However, with the cessation of imbibing also came the the end of the music - he hadn't written a single song sober, and wasn't sure what would happen when he did. He did have the clarity to realize, though, that he was writing - and that seems enough to keep him from over worrying the scenario. He reckons that his muse is off spending time helping someone else, and shall return when the time is right.

Don't expect this book to be a chronological listing of what happened with whom, and don't expect too much in the way of bloody details - oh, there's more than enough, but he relates things in a manner that will easily allow you to fill in the blanks, as opposed to a who with, and how many times revealing.

Young holds a conversation with the reader that lasts from beginning to end. He free associates, and jumps decades without a care, or concern - this is one of the many beauties of the book. It's casual, it meanders, in fact - it comes across as maybe a the great non-musical Neil Young album. It talks about the girl, it tells you about the places, it addresses what is and what should never be, but often is. It tells you a lot about a father's love and a father's absence. It tells you about the long suffering strength of mothers, and it tells you about the cars, the records, the shows, the bands - it tells you the tale of Neil Young.

This book also is an advertisement for two of Young's dreams. The first dream starts with a hearse called Mort that delivers the young songwriter to California, that gets recognized by Stephan Stills on a crowded Sunset Boulevard and starts a musical revolution. Young has always had an obsession with old and large motor vehicles - Lincoln Continentals and custom built touring coaches that have delivered him to his appointments with his muse. The dream is that these vehicles may still be viable - the Lincvolt is a project he's been working on for years in an effort to make a car that will run very efficiently and without polluting - he's convinced he's on the right track, and he's going to make it happen in this lifetime. He says he's doing it with a large automobile to show people what is possible - if he can do it with an old, incredibly heavy Lincoln convertible, the sky is the limit.

His other dream is one that is very close to my heart, as well - this one is personal. Pono.

What the hell is Pono?

Pono is a Hawaiian word that means good and righteous. It is the name Young has given his new method of delivering music to listeners. For years, he's been on the warpath with digital audio - he has long maintained that digital playback systems whether they be CDs or MP3 files only deliver a miniscule portion of the music actually played - CDs may deliver 15% of the true content, MP3s perhaps as little as 5% of the real sound.

Young's Pono promises to deliver nearly all the information  - the soul, the sound, everything beautiful about his art as he has intended. He believes it will reinvigorate the market - it will create customers. No longer will the listening public be willing to settle for the sad state of recorded music.

Imagine if you will, the pleasures of someone having condomless sex for the first time - the sheer bliss of experiencing the feel, the sensual sensations long promised, finally delivered. Pono might just be sex for the ears. Young spends a lot of time on this issue, and I think it is the one of the book's greatest values.

There's been much talk and criticism of Neil Young lately, the accusation being that he's siding with the freeloading downloaders of the world, but I don't see that as necessarily being valid - he admits that Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes are the new radio, but he thinks that if they are given a reasonable alternative, they will again spend money on music in a manner which will fairly compensate the musicians. I agree with him, and a good part of that is realizing that you aren't going to make them go away, and they shouldn't. They simply need to be in their proper place. I know that vinyl sales are skyrocketing - I can only imagine what will happen when you have the convenience of digital, and the audio possibilities of vinyl, or better.

Waging Heavy Peace is a great book. It serves the readers, giving insights into what has happened, who it happened with, and how Youngs sees things. His rambling, non-linear approach is perfect - I feel like I've just sat down with Neil, and he's told me his tale as it occurs to him. I feel like I know the guy, and better yet, I feel inspired. He's not always successful, he's not always been kind, and he's not always understood himself. But he's always been true to himself, and has attempted, and is still attempting to improve.

When it's all been said and done, chapter 66 may be the big payoff.
It's a bit of a summation - I almost quoted from it, but I don't think I will. Buy the book, read it yourself. Neil did his job, now you do yours. This was the best twenty bucks I've given Amazon in a long time.