Monday, 29 November 2021

The Stranglers - Dark Matters

I had tickets for the Final UK Tour in November 2020.  Obviously that didn't happen - it was rescheduled to April 2021, and is now scheduled for February 2022.

I'd bought those tickets back in early 2020 so was not aware what was coming.  Also - and perhaps of more importance - Dave Greenfield passed away in May 2020.
This leaves Jean Jacques Burnel as the last Strangler standing (Hugh Cornwell left in 1990, and Jet Black who eased into semi-retirement in 2015, fully retired in 2018 as he approached his 80th birthday)

Dave Greenfield's keyboards do appear on 8 of the 11 tracks on 'Dark Matters', an everyone of those 11 deliver what you want/expect from a Stranglers album.  Solid backbeat, rumbling bass, aggressive guitar, and sometimes confrontational vocal (but certainly not on acoustic "The Lines" which underlines the breadth of The Stranglers musicality).

Opener "Water" has all that you want to open the album, and "This Song" just keeps it going - and comes complete with a video featuring uber-fan Stuart Pearce
Track 3 is JJ's tribute to his keyboarding mate "And If You Should See Dave".  The lyric talks of loss and missed opportunity to say farewell properly and includes the poignant line:

"It would be nice to say Hello, This is where your solo would go ..."

Recorded against a backdrop of isolation, separation, and personal loss, this album stands as a testament to The Stranglers quality control, songcraft and musicianship.  If this is the last of the breed then it is a fitting send off to the band, and the restraint of closer "Breathe" signs off in some style, fading from a cacophony to a single electronic pulse.

All good things must come to an end, sadly some endings are a whimper - this one aint.
Roll on February 2022
(unless it gets postponed again ..)


And If You Should See Dave


The Last Men On The Moon

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Helloween

German Heavy Metal may not be the broadest of categories.
Dominating that list would be The Scorpions, Michael Schenker, Accept, Rammstein and Kreator.
Yes, there are probably many others, but as I don't own anything by them (or have never knowingly heard them), it's a bit difficult for me to comment

Anyway, one more band to add to the list: Helloween.

Formed in 1984, signed to Noise International and released their debut by mid 1985.
'Walls Of Jericho' included the track "Heavy Metal Is The Law" which gives a clue to the content - thumping drums, crunching guitar, volume cranked up - in short, a slab of thrash metal with, if I'm honest, few redeeming features.  It sits well alongside mid-80s thrash outings from Europe, but is not one I'd play again in my later years.

A change of vocalist in 1986 also heralded a change in the bands sound - the Metal they were now producing was closer to the Iron Maiden end of the market.  And in this vein, the and intended to release a double concept type album titled The Keeper Of The Seven Keys.
Lofty thoughts for a relatively low selling band on a relatively small, independent German record label (albeit with a licensing deal with Megaforce International in the US)

As a result, these lofty thoughts were reined in and the record label won out with "we'll release a single album, and if that's successful you can do part 2".

And with that promise ringing in their ears, they honed own the already written songs and sent forth an 8 track album.  The rough thrash edges were smoothed, new vocalist Michael Kiske provided a Dickinson-esque platform, Kai Hansen handles most the guitar work (in the absence of second guitarist and songwriter Michael Weikath), the drums thump, the bass plods, and what is produced is very enjoyable 37 minutes
Bookended by 2 similar pieces ("Initiation" and "Follow The Sign", it comes flying out of the traps with"I'm Alive".  That pace may not be maintained - there are some almost "Metal By Numbers" tracks present, but "Future World" and  the 13 minute multi-movement track (the near eponymously titled "Halloween") keep offer more than enough redemption and return-ability.

And with the critical and public acclaim, the band went on tour for nigh on 2 years.  And in the middle of their world-schlepping, Noise International held good to their word and released 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part 2'.

'...Part 2' isn't a bad album, it just doesn't feel as vital or worked at as '... Part 1'.  The fact it was written and recorded during tour down-time, and the increasing tensions in the band, just may explain the shortfall.  The album is dominated by the returning Michael Weikath, which is bound to affect the consistency and flow between the two parts.
By late 1988, MTV was heavily playing "I Want Out" - a single lifted from '.. Part 2' which was effectively Kai Hansen's resignation letter.

1989 started with a new guitarist in tow, and a change of record label - signing with major label EMI, quickly followed by a Breach Of Contract lawsuit from Noise International.  This basically stopped the band touring for the best part of 3 years.
Which should mean that without the distraction and efforts of touring, they could settle into the studio and produce a masterwork.
Sadly not - the resultant album 'Pink Bubbles Go Ape' (1991) shares more DNA with US Hair Metal than early Thrash days or Seven Keys Maiden-isms.  The fan-base was not convinced, and the album barely broke even.
One more album followed before EMI cut it's losses.  And add to that the departure of the vocalist and drummer, they stumbled on with their appeal growing ever more select (but continuing to sell well in Germany, Scandinavia and Japan).  Past members have returned, and they've even managed to update the 7 Keys tale with the album 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys: The Legacy'
(note: I've listened to it twice on Spotify - it's OK, but I'm not sure I'll be investing)

They may not be in the Premier League, but perhaps near regulars in the Championship Play Offs).  In a relatively small pool, they deserve a place in the pantheon of Germanic Heavy Rock merchants

I'm Alive


Halloween


I Want Out

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Hamish Hawk - Heavy Elevator

Edit:  After first publishing this, I discover that both my research and assumptions are flawed.
This is not Hamish Hawk's debut release, it is in fact his third - preceded by 'Aznavour' (2014) an 'Zero To One' (2018).
I have therefore modified the text to rectify my error (and left in the original text to remind me I am a fool, and should research properly in future)

Releasing your debut a new album can be a daunting task.  Without mass media hype, major record company support, or a persuasive sponsor and advocate, a relatively low key release on a minor, self-funded label is always going to be a risk.

But if you have a song titled "The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion 1973" in your cannon, then I'm going to want to hear the whole album.
Credit where it's due, it was Chris Hawkins enthusing on Radio 6, and the playing of the above track that piqued my interest, and now the album has arrived on my doormat ... I am not disappoint.

I sometimes feel when writing this drivel, that I do the artist in question a dis-service when I compare them to others.  But I need a hook ... imagine Scott Walker grafted to Morrissey, with a bit of Neil Hannon thrown in.  Oh, and passing nods to Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, and Joy Division.  Even a whiff of Pink Floyd for good measure.

11 tracks ranging from all out Indie rockers ("Bakerloo, Unbecoming") to introspection ("New Rhododendrons") to Post-Punk ("Caterpillar") and many points between.

If I'm honest, the album doesn't follow the mix-tape rule of "open with a banger" - "Vivian Comma" is a slight and brittle track.  I'd like a bit of oomph, which creeps in on Track 2 (the wonderfully titled "This, Whatever It Is, Needs Improvement"), and the fully oomphed with Track 3 ("The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion 1973") with it's jangling guitar, strong vocal, wordy and literate verses bolted to an incessant chorus.

Each track has it's own identity, rarely (if ever) do you stumble on a slight nick from somewhere, or a re-use of a past trick,but the voice and the lyrics remain strong.  Hamish Hawk may well come from the school of "can I just lever all these words into a line when it shouldn't actually fit" - and he does, and successfully too.

Not only is the album diverse and consistent, it's all delivered with a sure confidence and a little intensity - I dunno, this feels like it might just be one of those unimpeachable debut albums that will be the making of Mr Hawk's legacy.
And I'm looking to the future with bated breath.

I thought I'd got my Top Albums Of The Year List almost sorted, but now there is another worthy contender vying for inclusion


The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion 1973


Bakerloo, Unbecoming


New Rhodedendrons

Friday, 22 October 2021

The Professionals - SNAFU

 SNAFU is an abbreviation.  It stands for:

  • Situation Normal - The Professionals return with another slab of solid, energetic, balls out Rock n Roll
  • All F****d Up - their last new music appeared at the start of March 2020, that description pretty much describes the backdrop to the creation of this album

It may have taken 36 years for their second album (2017s 'What In The World') to arrive, but since then there have been 3 x 4 track EPs, almost constant touring (when they were able to) and now this new album.

And it delivers what you expect - straight ahead, no frills, rock which works on record and (if past experience is anything to go by) live on stage in theatres and clubs.

Showiness, histrionics, whimsy, clever-dicky lyrical turns, musical diversions - not a bit of it.  Paul Cook's tom toms herald the opening track "Easily Lead" and the tone and groove is set.
Tom Spencer (vocals, guitar), Toshi JC Ogawa (bass), and a host of invited guests (including Chris McCormack, Billy Duffy and Phil Collen) to add their own ingredients to the mix, and 'SNAFU' ensures those colder nights are not so biting - warm, honest, welcoming, and thouroughly entertaining.

Admittedly, the 11 tracks here rarely veer from the template, but why should they, and why do they need to?

"Spike Me Baby" (based on Paul Cook eating a bar of chocolate that was laced with herbal product by his daughter) a straight 4/4 rock with a memorable chorus, that would not sound out of place in the edgier parts of Radio 2, or tha lighter moments of 6Music

Steve Jones is not on this album, other than in spirit as the inspiration for "M'Ashes" - the tale of Paul Cook taking Jonesy's mothers ashes to LA, and the meeting and parting of 2 old friends.
The melody may be a slight lift from Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia", but this may very well be one of the best songs The Professionals have done - it's both a hark back to Steve Jones chug-a-lug riffing, shout along chorus, an added bit of poignancy and truth, and the current band standing front and centre.

"Punk Rock And A Hard Place" may be a bit of a cliched title, but a fine song indeed (and one where they invent a new word "jearlurful" - I think I know what they're meaning by it, but I might try and lever into conversation to see if anyone notices")

The lyrics of "Never Say Never" suggest a swipe at a Mr J Rotten - it's possible, but I think it's more coincidence of timing, and may well have been written before the recent disagreements (although saying that, I don't think Cookie has ever had a disagreement.  I don't think I've read one bad word about him)

Negatives are few (but I'm a grumpy sod so I'm going to highlight a couple):
"The Elegant Art (Of Falling Apart)" is a stonking track both musically and lyrically, but on record it sounds restrained, almost over-produced.
And I mentioned up there "why change the template" - I stand by those words, but would welcome one or two slight diversions.  I'm not complaining about chant-along choruses, or Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Middle Eight-Chorus song construct, but a splash of extra colour by changing the order a little perhaps.
But then again, I only know 4 chords and can't carry a tune in a bucket, so what do I know about songcraft?

"Gold And Truthful" includes the line "They don't make 'em like that anymore", but The Professionals were made that way, stay that way, and play that way.  And long may they continue.
Many bands second life exceeds their first, so all props to them

To paraphrase opening track of their last album: You can't keep a good band down


M'Ashes

Friday, 15 October 2021

Jimmy Barnes - Working Class Man

 Late 1985 / Early 1986 (not sure of the exact date) I won a competition on local radio station Radio 210 (about to be re-branded as 2-TEN since it was now on FM, and about to ditch it's 210 metres Medium Wave signal).

Whilst I can't remember the date, I can remember the question: "Who came alive at Reading in 1980?"

The answer is/was Slade, and for knowing the name of their 1980 Live EP netted me the princely prize of 6 singles.
4 of the singles have been lost to the mists of my memory (although one was Stan Campbell I think?), and they are probably somewhere on the shelf.

But the ones I do remember are a re-release of Blondie's "Denis" (in a blue sleeve, as opposed to the more common red one) and Jimmy Barnes "Working Class Man".
Nope, I had no idea who Jimmy Barnes was - and if I'm being cynical (Qui Moi?) I think it was the DJ just clearing his desk of that weeks promo detritus that had landed.
(which is probably the reason for those old local radio competitions).

Jimmy Barnes ...

He is an Australian singer who had some (Australian) success in the past with Cold Chisel - pretty much unheard of in the UK, but in the top 3 or 4 hard rock/bar rock bands doing the rounds in Australia alongside AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, Radio Birdman, The Saints, and early INXS.

Cold Chisel had split in 1983 and Jimmy released a solo debut in 1984 (in Australia only).
Somehow, this got to the ears of David Geffen, and he was duly signed up, plonked in a studio.Geffen must have had high hopes for Barnes as he was assisted in the recording by a high class line-up including Waddy Watchel (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon et al), Johnathan Cain and Neal Schon from Journey, Mick Fleetwood banging pots on a couple of tracks, and backing vocals provided by Kim Carnes.

If you want to make in-roads to the American market surround yourself with those that have already done it.

Now ... not knowing the singer, and going only by the single cover - all clad in denim - my expectation was  a sort of sub-Springsteen/Bob Seger Blue Collar Rock with an AOR sheen.
Well - and bearing in mind the above cast list - that is sort of what I got. I'm not sure the first impressions of the cover did him many favours.  But ... the voice - it was rough, tough, with a shouty blues-y edge.

The single sold by the shed-load in his homeland, and the album continued the usual sales business.  But in the US?  Nitto.
Even the placement of the title track in the film Gung Ho didn't have any effect (the fact the film pretty much tanked at the Box Office probably didn't help either).

The album (which again can't have sold in the numbers intended as I picked it up for a quid) bore the same cover photo. Originally titled 'For The Working Class Man', and later re-titled/re-issued as 'Jimmy Barnes'.
(I listened again recently, and it may not make me say "this is an undiscovered classic", I can't really find fault with it)

And despite the Gung Ho (see what I did there) all-out attack on the US market, there's something defiantly honest, balls-out, and defiant about the it,  Whilst the songs may not be earth shattering, or pushing for inclusion in a journos All Time Top (whatever) lists, there is nothing wrong with them at all.  Throughout, the music is clean, the band well played, and the singing top notch (if all that is a little hampered by an "of it's time" feeling with all the mid-80s production tricks stopping the needles going into the red).

Despite Geffen's (un-rewarded) investment, Jimmy Barnes did make an impression on the US chart (and in the UK) when he provided vocals on the Lost Boys Soundtrack, backed up by Aussie mates INXS ("Good Times" being the most successful and best known, and "Laying Down The Law").

Jimmy Barnes may never have made it out of the Southern Hemisphere, but he's still selling albums and regularly topping the charts in Australia and New Zealand

Working Class Man

Monday, 4 October 2021

Iron Maiden - Senjutsu / Manic Street Preachers - Ultra Vivid Lament / Public Service Broadcasting - Bright Music

 My plan with this here blog thing is to write about old and newly released albums with equal relish.

The intention was to focus on at least one album a month and write something informed (and sometimes excitable) about a current 5" silvery disc filling the quieter moments in my house.

In the main, I think I started well but tailed off in the Summer - and then September comes along and provides 3 new albums all deserving a write-up.
And as they all arrives within a couple of weeks of each other, I've crammed the listening in, formed opinions and thoughts about them, but not had enough time with them to create an aimless stream of conscious post about each of them.

So let's just bung em all in one post, and offer a mini-review of each

Iron Maiden - 'Senjutsu'

You can't be in the game for 40+ years without knowing what your audience want, what your artistic muse craves, and how to deliver both with quality.
Iron Maiden have managed a high quality output (bar a couple of mis-steps) through their life.  And with 'Senjutsu' they've kept the hit rate going.
Similar to recent albums, they're proggy tendancies are indulged - only 2 of the 10 tracks are below 5 minutes.  But as with Maiden of the near past even the epic moments are filled with melody, invention and commitment.
All the hallmarks are there - duelling guitars, traded solos, bass harmonics, solid drums with Nicko's ride cymbal playing a part, topped of with clear, almost operatic, vocal delivery.
"The Writing On The Wall" is the obvious pick - mixing proggy-Maiden with galloping-Maiden - but "Days of Future Past", "The Time Machine", "Darkest Hour" and "Death of the Celts" are fine additions to the cannon.
It may be 80+ minutes across 2 discs, but worthy of the time investment.


Manic Street Preachers - 'Ultra Vivid Lament'

Another year, another Manics album - and (like Iron Maiden above) their quality quotient remains high.
Yes, they have a tendency to be a bit insular, rail against politics (sometimes me thinks slightly naively) and use the word "revolution" quite a lot.
But the sometimes 6th Form Poetry, and the ever present reading of a lyric as a "missing Richey" moment, can more than be forgiven when bolted to tunes like these.
One can't help but notice (or say again) that since the loss of Richey Edwards, the Manics output has adopted a tunesmithery and emotion that was perhaps lost in the early days posturing.
The album is not without some slightly flawed moments - "Don't Let The Night Divide Us" is a bit filler-esque, and the duet with Mark Lanegan "Blank Diary Entry" just doesn't seem to fit - they have succesfully pulled in co-vocalists before (Ian McCulloch on the near epic "Some Kind Of Nothingness" being a good example) but this one just doesn't work as perhaps all parties hoped for.
Although, lay that off against tracks like "Still Snowing in Sapporo", "Orwellian" and "Afterending" then those flaws are more than forgiveable.
And speaking of duets, the co-vocal with Julia Cumming on "The Secret He Has Missed" upholds the trend of there being at least one sure-fire classic Manics single on each album


Public Service Broadcasting - Bright Magic 

Public Service Broadcasting's modus operandi is to find a concept/story (Public Information Films, the Space Race, Welsh Mining Industry), find archive documentary, and weave an atmosphere around it all.
With this album though, they don't have the "hook" of a story I (and others) know of, and can then go "on the journey" with them,.
What they have done is eschewed the archive and created a full concept celebrating Berlin.
Being simple about it, it's Public Service Broadcasting's trademark trance-like, indie/dance grooves, bolted to Krautrock, with moments of Berlin-era Bowie ("The Visitors" would not be too far out of place on 'Low').
"Im Licht" and "Lichtspiel II: Schwarz Weiss Grau" are two particular highlights, and nestled away in the middle of the album is (a firm contender for The Song Of The Year/Earworm Of The Year) "Blue Heaven" which evokes both Marelene Dietrich and Goldfrapp in equal measure.
This is their 4th full album, and one suspects there must be a duffer somewhere - well 'Bright Magic'; is most definitely not that album.


Iron Maiden - "The Writing On The Wall"


Manic Street Preachers - "The Secret He Has Missed"


Public Service Broadcasting - "Blue Heaven"


Friday, 24 September 2021

A Best Of Volume 2 Is Not Supposed To Be Better Than Volume 1

But in the case of Manfred Mann's Earth Band that is what happens.

A Best Of is usually a contractual obligation, or a record company curated collection of the highlights of a bands time on a label (or if they own or can afford the licensing, the bands entire career).All compiled together in one easy to digest, and comfort creating package.

If a Volume 2 appears then it's either that the band has a second-wind, and hence another 5 or 10 years of highlights to flog (again), or it is the last scrapings of the barrel as the label tries to eek as much from the investment as possible - with lesser known "hits", album tracks, out-takes and demos thrown out to earn a quid/dollar.

The Best Of Manfred Mann's Earth Band has all the big highlights one would hope for - including "Blinded By The Light", "Davy's On The Road Again", and a very fine live version of "Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn").  One big omission here though is "Joybringer" - although this is more as a result of me owning the Warners 1996 issue, rather than the expanded and re-mastered 1999 version.
Still, despite my incorrect ownership, I can report that the contents of said album are very good - nary a duff listen.  It's a bit jazzy, a bit proggy, a bit mid-Atlantic AOR, but it can get a bit ponderous at times.  Although, hang about, it'll be back on form in a minute.
It rocks along nicely - just in a gentle, sort of unchallenging way.
If I pretended I was reviewing it for a published magazine, I'd give it a 6 (maybe 7) out of 10.

Manfred Mann's Earth Band basis was to (sort of) re-visit the 60s idea of trawling around for the best unheard songs that they could record (and make their own) along with an equal volume of Band-penned tracks (possibly including a new reading of a classical music passage - a trick oft performed by Prog peers Emerson, Lake & Palmer).
If Volume 1 shows their appreciation of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, then Volume 2 continues the thread.

The Best Of Manfred Mann's Earth Band Volume II just feels a stronger set - it feels like there is some thought put into the track listing rather than "what singles got the highest in the chart?" of Volume 1.

Bob Dylan is present with renderings of "Times They Are A Changing", "Shelter Form The Storm", and "It's All Over Now Baby Blue".
No Bruce Springsteen on this one but Al Stewart gets a royalty with "Eyes Of Nostradamus", and Doug Hollis & Graeme Douglas get a bank balance boost with a strangely 80s-centric, but insistent and eminently listenable version of Eddie & The Hot Rods "Do Anything You Wanna Do".
And exalted songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are represented with Shirley Bassey's finest "I (Who Have Nothing)"

Among all the songwriters, the name Gustav Holst appears on the final track.  Yup, the 2 volume collection is rounded off with "Joybringer" - and yes it does.


Joybringer


Quinn The Eskimo