Thursday, January 3, 2013

Snakecharmer: No Substitute For A Good Pedigree

Snakecharmer is an excellent album by any measure. The songs snap to attention, Chris Ousey sings his ass off, guitarists Mick Moody and Laurie Wisefield sound even better than you'd guess, you suddenly realize how much of Whitesnake's signature sound came from Neil Murray's bass, Adam Wakeman sounds much closer to the Lord than his pop, and Harry James hits the traps with a commanding, cozy beat. In fact, this record is going to turn tons of heads and put plenty asses into seats when the band hits the road.

The band's veteran players have great resumes - Mick Moody and Neil Murray were at the creation of one of hard rock's finest ever moments, the original Whitesnake. Chosen by David Coverdale while the singer was still twirling the mic stand for Deep Purple, the pair with them brought enough blues rock bluster to keep comparisons to Coverdale's purple past to a minimum and allowed Whitesnake to be its own band. Neil Murray - upon listening to this record, you will know just how much he meant to the overall sound of Whitesnake, and why he has been the 'go to' guy for guitarslingers the likes of John Sykes, Tony Iommi, Gary Moore and my old boss and friend, Michael Schenker. Harry James is best known as Thunder's thunder, but he's beat the tubs for Terraplane, Magnum, Ian Gillan, Graham Bonnet, and many others - he's as close as we have to the distinctive, slamming backbeat of Cozy Powell, and he is just exemplary on this outing. I don't exactly know how Laurie Wisefield has remained one of rock's greatest unknown guitarists, but that's a relative supposition - after his time in Wishbone Ash, he was Tina Turner's axe man, he's played with a literal who's who of rock greats such as Joe Cocker, Roger Daltrey, and Meat Loaf before settling down in this millenium as a permanent member of the hugely successful Queen musical, We Will Rock You, which has been seen by over 2.5 million satisfied fans. Like I said, unknown is a relative term. Adam Wakeman is getting to be as well known as his Yes-man father, Rick. His time with Yes, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, The Strawbs, and his own excellent band Headspace tells you much about his talents.

Chris Ousey may be the least known of this charming bunch, but it's largely due to his well weathered vocal chops that makes this record much more than a coattail follower. The last thing I wanted to hear here was a Coverdale clone, and while Ousey approaches nodding his hat to the past, this may be a matter of singing and writing songs with Moody and Murray more than any obvious attempt at giving the king snake his due. If, by chance, you heard the singer's 2011 solo debut, Rhyme & Reason, you'll know that he's his own man, and a fine, fine singer and songwriter. If forced to compare him to anyone, I'd say and earthier, edgier version of Mr. Big's Eric Martin, but that's only if forced. It takes a helluva voice to be heard over this glorious din, and Ousey makes himself a star with this outing.

Naming the band Snakecharmer is absolutely the only bone I have to pick with this outfit, as my fear is that the "Snake" connotation may cause some to not take them as seriously as they should be taken, but I'm guessing the quality of this record will soon have this notion rendered moot. I accept that Moody and Murray were a part of that puzzle which is huge - one listen and you'll see - while these tracks are obviously 'Snake oriented, how could they not, as Moody wrote such hits as Slow an' Easy, Fool For Your Loving, and many others with Coverdale. This record can stand beside any Whitesnake record, and stand proud.

Wisely avoiding any sense of cliche, the band is born with a nicely jangling, strummed acoustic and an unadorned vocal for its first verse, before the band jumps in and thickens things up. My Angel is a great introduction, and when you get to the bridge, you're going to be sold - what sounds like a rollicking hit single suddenly turns east and a beautiful and huge slab of synth sits wonderfully under Ousey's switch to a minor modality and it's over too soon, but not sadly, as it is replaced with one of the most majestic pieces of slide guitar I've heard in ages, only to melt into a sexy harmony duet between Moody and Wisefield before resolving into a snarling return to the final verse. An auspicious beginning, indeed.

Accident Prone is up next, and it's closer to the band's musical past, especially when you hear Neil Murray's pumping bass line - his bass marries a drum kit as well as any, and perhaps this was as much the key to Whitesnake's signature sound as the vocals and guitars. Ousey is given more to melody than the blues, and his voice is so distinct that again any comparisons are fairly senseless. The band produced this disc themselves, and the decades of experience are obvious - it's rich, organic, and I can't imagine that this is pretty near what the band will sound like on tour. The arrangements keep moving and never sound stale - the guitar solo is straight out of the early days of Bad Company (think Can't Get Enough), and will have you smiling from ear to ear. They haven't reinvented the wheel, but they've produced a damned fine one, and it rolls quite fabulously.

Great intros are a wonderful thing, and the first 30 seconds of To The Rescue serves as a reminder that Moody also wrote Slow and Easy - mind you, this is a bird of another feather, but the lineage is clear. The thump of the bass, the slide guitars gently sweeping the song back to the firm beat, and this is mid-tempo bliss. Wakeman's organ work is masterful - he's got chops galore, but he knows how and when to pick his spots. Here, he's providing the underpinning and it's perfect. I'll tell you now, every solo slot on this record is nigh on perfect - tasty, tuneful, and melodic in the extreme. These guys aren't just veterans, they're playing like they have something to prove, and are full of proper piss & vinegar.

Falling Leaves is a classic piece of British hard rock balladry - the background vocals harken back to the days of Mott The Hoople, a bit of Queen, and this ends up being a pretty good road map to the pop majesty of the best of Def Leppard. My litmus test for records that harken back to the '70s and '80s is to through it on a shuffle with a couple of albums from that esteemed era, and I must say I did that, and Snakecharmer would have done quite well in any era. Oh yeah, and more sweet guitar solos.

Slow simmering is a specialty with the 'Charmers, and A Little Rock and Roll is a cool percolator. Bluesy melodic British rock - if you dig it, you'll dig it. The acoustic guitars make another appearance, prefacing a wobbly bit of Leslie-fied laid back picking that is taken over by a nice piece of wah-wah work. The ending gets expansive with huge keyboards, epic drumming, and more sumptuous guitars. They lay it on pretty thick, but that's how we like it.

Turn Of The Screw is a barrel house rocker - sounding a bit like Aerosmith when they still meant something. This may have fit well on Get Your Wings as the piano and guitars slip and slide underneath Ousey's wailing. Before things get to familiar some clever songwriting turns things around for a cool twist, and then there's more great guitaring - Wisefield and Moody sound like they have a blast playing together, and I'll take all they can deliver.

The Ghost of Whitesnake raises its head on Smoking Gun perhaps more than anywhere on the record. It's very Coverdale-esque, but not in the sense that it apes anything in particular - it was bound to happen, and actually it's not a bit painful, as the band throws in so many cool riffs, fills, stops and starts that I can't really be mad.

As melodic AOR goes, this is some stellar magic. You can tell with every beat, with every note that this bunch was there at the beginning. Stand Up is a classy number that makes me remember Foreigner's glory days, and Murray's heavily chorused fretless bass solo sections are great ear candy - this is another one that will come across great live. It is my hope these fellows find a way to make it onto a lot of stages in 2013, as this stuff all sounds like it was written for the stage.

Guilty As Charged - the riff sounds familiar, the organ provides the perfect perch, and they're off and running. One of the band's finest qualities is in knowing when to push, and when to pull - there's no ball hogging, and it's teamwork all the way. Ousey is excellent again, and while this may be the record's weakest cut, it still sits well in the rotation.

The band turns it up for Nothing To Lose, a rolling thunder piece that steams from beginning to end with classic British brawn. the guitarists toss phrases back and forth quite nimbly, Ousey is still shouting his lungs out, and this is as fine as any album cut from their hallowed past.

Cover Me In You is a standout track with which to wrap up the proceedings, and after an intro that will have you thinking Lizzy, but with a solid backbeat instead of Brian Downey's Irish swing, this covers a lot of familiar territory in the best sense - again, Snakecharmer is not Shakespeare but what they are is a charming and exuberant bunch of rock vets who know exactly what they are doing it.

Sankecharmer is a charmer - a much better album than I had even hoped for, and I hope this is just the beginning. This bunch appears to supply rock solid material in a very smooth and easy fashion, and I can only see them improving with experience and age, which is a hell of a thing to be saying about a band with well over a hundred years of combined experience under their belts, but I'm saying it. Everyone here is at the very tops of their games, and I hope this is only the beginning of a long engagement.

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