Album of the Week 47-2014: Dr. John – Goin’ Back To New Orleans

While a lot – if not all – of Dr. John’s albums a celebration of all things New Orleans, nowhere else is the tribute to his musical heritage nearly as obvious as it is on the two collections of New Orleans classics known as ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) and these fantastic recordings from two decades later. In a way, the album is also sort of an artistic reawakening for Dr. John after a somewhat unproductive decade. No matter how you view ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’, it’s an enjoyable listen. If only because of the celebratory nature and spirited performances by every musician involved.

Part of what makes the album work so well is that the Doctor is working with some veterans of the scene, including Danny Barker, Al Hirt and the Neville Brothers. The chemistry is alive and well throughout ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans'; it’s obvious that everyone involved had the shared enthusiasm for bringing new life to these New Orleans classics. That spirit would be reason enough to go out and buy this record immediately, but it’s also clear that Dr. John put a lot of effort into selecting a range songs and thinking of the order in which they worked best. That alone warrants the presence of eighteen tracks.

Amongst the tracks selected are traditionals that have been done by everybody, such as ‘Careless Love’ and a particularly swinging version of ‘Goodnight, Irene’ – have you ever heard that sung with such awesome horns? – there are also a few less predictable inclusions. The album opens with the very atypical ‘Litanie Des Saints’, Dr. John’s tribute to classical composer Gottschalk. The song has a classical vibe to it, but there’s also something African and something Caribbean to the rhythms. It took some time getting used to it, but it quickly became one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard.

Other highlights include ‘Do You Call That A Buddy?’ with its exciting vibe, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say’, which has a vocal cameo by Danny Barker, who actually knew Buddy Bolden, and the cynical Blues of ‘How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You Come Around’ with the Doctor himself ad-libbing brilliantly near the end. However, the perfect closing statement is the title track. The horn arrangement just pops, the choirs by the Neville Brothers are exuberant and the Afro-Cuban rhythms and piano parts make even me want to get up and dance. Joe Liggins’ original is amazing, but this is the ultimate version of the song.

Dr. John’s New Orleans class is complete with his extensive liner notes, in which he explains the history of the songs he’s tackled here and whose versions inspired him most. It accompanies the music perfectly and makes the album so much more than just another album by the musical genius that is Dr. John; it makes ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ sort of an archive release by an enthusiast who wants people to learn as much about the vast musical history of New Orleans as possible. But even when you approach this as “just an album”, it’s an incredibly enjoyable one with very long lasting impact. A must for any music fan.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’, ‘Litanie Des Saints’, ‘Do You Call That A Buddy?’

Album of the Week 46-2014: Warlord – Deliver Us

Some legends of Heavy Metal have their praise based on an incredibly small amount of output. For many of the unsung heroes of the NWOBHM movement, only a handful of singles remains as a monument to their supposed brilliance. California’s Warlord has recently expanded their catalog a little, but for a while, two half-hour albums were all the band had going for them. The praise they got, however, was more than deserved. While their original oeuvre predates the term Power Metal, that’s exactly what it is. And the whole thing sounds remarkably sophisticated for the genre too.

Despite the consistent input of drummer extraordinaire Mark Zonder, Warlord is and will always be the brainchild of guitarist William J Tsamis – “Destroyer” in the credits. His classy riffwork and unorthodox approach to Heavy Metal songwriting – some things he said in interviews may make one doubt if he ever actually liked the genre – are what make Warlord’s music. Listen no further than the semi-title track to this debut EP of theirs; ‘Deliver Us From Evil’ counts as an ultimate Heavy Metal classic through its triumphant main riff, marching rhythm, subtle keyboard flourishes and beautiful vocal harmonies.

And that brings us to one of the other redeeming factors of ‘Deliver Us’. Singer Jack Rucker – “Damien King I” in the credits – isn’t your typical Heavy Metal singer in the sense that he doesn’t have the raw, primal power that is normally associated with the more traditional variation of the genre, but his voice fits the ethereal quality of the melodies on ‘Deliver Us’ so well that it’s hard to imagine these songs with a different singer. He carries the changes in atmosphere in the brilliant ‘Penny For A Poor Man’ with remarkable ease. It borders on unbelievable that Rucker never did anything of particular relevance in the Metal scene after leaving Warlord, because his vocal performance here is among my favorites in the history of the genre.

‘Child Of The Damned’ is one of the more popular songs on the album due to inclusion on the Metal Blade compilation ‘Total Destruction’ and HammerFall covering the song much later. It is definitely the most explicitely uptempo song on the album and benefits from a great riff and fantastic double bass work by Zonder. Even better is the ‘Metal Massacre III’ inclusion ‘Mrs. Victoria’, due to its darker, ominous tone. That one’s only included on the re-release of ‘Deliver Us’, but it definitely rounds out the release. The more tranquil ‘Winter Tears’ is another brilliant track with a great vocal part courtesy of Rucker.

It’s easy to understand why ‘Deliver Us’ has earned its classic status. It’s a classy Power Metal album with a unique approach to Heavy Metal songwriting. The expert musicianship from everyone involved does the rest. Tsamis and Zonder have continued the Warlord legacy intermittently throughout the years and although they’re still releasing quality material, but the way all the starts have aligned for ‘Deliver Us’ is a rarity. A rarity waiting to be heard.

Recommended tracks: ‘Deliver Us From Evil’, ‘Penny for A Poor Man’, ‘Winter Tears’

Album of the Week 45-2014: Anthem – Absolute World

Where many old school Heavy Metal bands had an enormous identity crisis in the nineties due to the rise of Alt-Rock and – in this case – Visual Kei, Naoto Shibata did the right thing; he put his band Anthem to rest until new artistic and business opportunities presented themselves. The result: Anthem released only solid, quality Heavy  Metal records throughout their carreer. ‘Absolute World’ is one more piece of evidence proving that the band can still make fantastic records over three decades into their carreer. In fact, it is on par with ‘Immortal’ and ‘Black Empire’ as the band’s best post-reunion albums.

Iconic singer Eizo Sakamoto left the band after the album’s predecessor ‘Burning Oath’. His replacement – for the second time in Anthem history – is Yukio Morikawa, who has obviously aged since he last worked with the band on ‘Domestic Booty’, but still has a set of pipes many young singers can be jealous of. Admittedly, I sometimes miss Sakamoto’s primal energy, but Morikawa’s performance on the album is stellar. In addition, Isamu Tamaru became the band’s full time drummer, after replacing Hiro Homma during his injury.

However, what counts in the end are the songs and Shibata has once again written a collection of fantastic Heavy Metal and Power Metal tracks. Throughout recent years, many keyboards carrying the main melodies crept through Anthem’s songs, but ‘Absolute World’ is very much a guitar riff driven album. Opening track ‘Shine On’ misleads you for a second, but turns into a fantastic Power Metal track – as well as the most logical first single – with a couple of fantastic melodies courtesy of Morikawa.  Furthermore, there’s an awesome 2 minute Speed Metal track in the shape of ‘Destroy The Boredom’, the blazing ‘Stranger’ with its fantastic chorus and the driving ‘Pain’.

From the moment he joined, guitarist Akio Shimizu quickly became an important part of the band. His contributions here include his usual instrumental track (‘Absolute Figure’) and the more traditional Power Metal tracks ‘Edge Of Time’ and ‘In The Chaos’, which both build upon strong riff work and fantastic choruses with spirited performances by Morikawa. Shimizu also throws around some of the sickest guitar solos in contemporary Metal, most notably on the brooding midtempo masterpiece of a track ‘Sailing’ and the closing triplet riff monster ‘Run With The Flash’. Shibata himself, meanwhile, has an incredible bass sound.

In the end, the only bad thing about ‘Absolute World’ is that no European or American label has the balls to release an album that has mostly Japanese lyrics and therefore, the album is quite expensive. That and the fact that ‘Love Of Hell’ is about a minute and a half longer than it should be. But those are just minor complaints that in no way ruin the enjoyment in one of the best old fashioned Heavy Metal records in recent times. Even the financial aspect. It helps that Shibata isn’t only a great riff writer, he’s a great songwriter with a bunch of fantastic musicians around him. If that doesn’t make a fantastic Metal album, I don’t know what does.

Recommended tracks: ‘In The Chaos’, ‘Sailing’, ‘Destroy The Boredom’

Album of the Week 44-2014: At The Gates – At War With Reality

Comeback albums are always something of a risky breed. If you stick too close to your original formula, critics will scold your lack of originality and doubt the purpose of your reunion, but trying something new will alienate your fanbase. At The Gates has found the magical middle ground by picking up where they left things about two decades ago. All the more remarkable is the fact that ‘At War With Reality’ even got recorded after the assertion that the 2007 reunion tour would be the final chapter to the story of the Swedish melodic Death Metal pioneers. This fantastic album definitely justifies the decision to continue though.

At The Gates fans have always been split up into two camps. There’s the fans of the more streamlined approach of the massively influential ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’ album and there are those that prefer their darker, more complex, but also uncharacteristically sloppy earlier work. Despite the presence of more ominous material such as ‘Order From Chaos’ and ‘Heroes And Tombs’, ‘At War With Reality’ is more likely to please the former crowd. The songs are relatively concise, most of them only slightly past the three minute mark and built upon their oft-imitated, but never quite equalled formula of Thrashy Melodeath riffs and Tomas Lindberg’s anguished howl.

Somehow, it’s a little tragic that none of the imitators has improved upon the At The Gates formula, but it’s amazing to hear the true masters at work here. And they’re still as energetic as they were the first time around. That makes sense, because the band members were really young when the band first split up. Also, they have all been active ever since. That combination of somewhat youthful energy and experienced musicianship makes this album both musically satisfying and well…headbangable. A revelation in a time when most Death Metal bands are usually just either one of those.

With yours truly being somewhat of a Thrash fanatic, my favorites are generally the Thrashy riff monsters like ‘Upon Pillars Of Dust’, ‘The Circular Ruins’, ‘Eater Of Gods’ (that one has a surprisingly atmospheric second half though) and the supreme aggression of ‘The Book Of Sand (The Abomination)’. However, the band also excels at the more atmospheric experiments, most notably on closing track ‘The Night Eternal’ and the moving, dramatic ‘The Head Of The Hydra’. And the main riff to ‘The Conspiracy Of The Blind’ is so warmly reminiscent of ‘Suicide Nation’ that it’s a guaranteed classic.

In the end, I can only wonder where Anders Björler has been hiding all of these fantastic riffs all these years. He certainly didn’t use anything similar for The Haunted. Combined with an explosive mix, ‘At War With Reality’ is one of the best melodic Death Metal albums in a long time. It just may be a little awkward for every band that had been unsuccessfully trying to copy the At The Gates formula after their dissolution that these guys are still better. A lot better. And Tomas Lindberg’s desperate scream is still better than any grunter in the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Book Of Sand (The Abomination)’, ‘The Conspiracy Of The Blind’, ‘The Circular Ruins’

Album of the Week 43-2014: While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion

Ambition isn’t a thing that eludes Tom Phillips. From their humble beginnings as an old school Doom Metal trio, While Heaven Wept evolved into a seven-piece that – while still relatively subdued in terms of tempo – combines influences from many subgenres into a unique, majestic form of Heavy Metal. For me, as a fan of their massive epic ‘The Furthest Shore’, the announcement that ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ would be a fourty minute song (divided into eleven chapters) meant anticipation. And expectations are met; ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ is a beautiful work of art that has brought While Heaven Wept to a whole new level once again.

Labelling the music on this album isn’t an easy task. There seems to be a basis of symphonic Heavy Metal, but it definitely has a progressive edge to it. The progressive side isn’t all that surprising, as Phillips never made a secret of his admiration for Fates Warning and the album features contributions from Fates’ co-founding guitarist Victor Arduini and former drummer Mark Zonder, though the most “Metal” passages of the album are probably closer in atmosphere of the latter’s original band Warlord. Also, there are piano interludes, balladic segments and purely classical bits. Hell, ‘Icarus And I’ even features a section that has a Black Metal vibe, due to the dissonant chords and harsh vocals.

Phillips isn’t the only reason why this album is so incredible. Throughout the band’s existence, he has always profited from the strengths of his fellow musicians. Singer Rain Irving has an enviable range that is perfectly able to carry this masterpiece emotionally, Jason Lingle’s keyboards are essential to the album’s sound, Mark Shuping’s strings are tear jerking and Christopher Ladd’s work on the classical guitar is simply a revelation. The cooperation of the latter two on the breathtaking overture ‘Introspectus’ is more beautiful material than on many a contemporary album, but ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ has 35 additional minutes!

To get an idea of the sheer scope of the album, just listen how the progressive instrumental chapter ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’ moves into the epic Metal of ‘Souls In Permafrost’ through the heart wrenching piano ballad ‘The Memory Of Bleeding’. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The enormous amount of emotion could have easily carried on too far into the cheesy and the many layers of instruments could have turned into hollow bombast, but instead, the results are overwhelming. It is sort of ironic that an album that tells a tale of ambition and failure succeeds at its own ambition so well.

‘Suspended At Aphelion’ isn’t an easy album by any means, but it is well worth the time it takes to grow. There are many subtleties to grasp, but more importantly, there are many beautiful melodies and engaging rhythms to immerse yourself in all throughout the album. Or song, if you will. It will be hard for an album like this one to find its audience in the current Metal scene and its constant quest for louder, lower tuned and more extreme, but its sincerity should be enough to convince anyone with an open mind and a heart. Bonus points for the surprisingly dynamic mastering job.

Recommended tracks: ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’, ‘Souls In Permafrost’, ‘Introspectus’

Album of the Week 42-2014: Dr. John – Locked Down

For the white psychedelic Rock generation, Dr. John was the professor of New Orleans music history. His revolutionary ‘Gris-Gris’ (1968) and even moreso his record full of New Orleans traditionals ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) introduced a whole new generation of musicians not commonly associated with the town to the exuberant music and the mysterious rituals of The Crescent City. One of those – admittedly at a later time – was The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Dr. John’s 2012 masterpiece ‘Locked Down’ and plays guitar on it. The doctor himself sounds as convincing as always on this collection of dark, shimmering grooves and nocturnal melodies.

While Auerbach’s touch is quite distinct in the pseudo lo-fi production of the album, the brilliance of the material is very much a collaborative achievement of Dr. John and his backing band. Bassist Nick Movshon and drummer Max Weissenfeldt expertly lay down the earthy, low-key Funk grooves so typical of New Orleans’ rhythmical approach, although the percussion from several band members also contributes to that, and Dr. John’s electric keyboards top the whole thing off. Normally, I would complain about the lack of his unequaled piano playing, but the atmosphere of these compositions just begs for the direction he took for the album.

Between those instruments in the spectrum that is ‘Locked Down’, we find quite a lot of different approaches throughout the album. ‘Big Shot’ is relatively jazzy, with the horns and lingering rhythms pushing the song into fifties territory. ‘Revolution’ is also horn-driven, but much more aggressively funky in its beats. ‘Ice Age’ is carried by a haunting dual guitar harmony and the almost terrifying vocals of the doctor, where the opening title track is primarily built upon Funk riffs and rhythms. ‘Eleggua’ is wordless – but not instrumental – psychedelia and the Gospel track ‘God’s Sure Good’ closes the album in a surprisingly upbeat fashion, but makes perfect sense in context.

Although the album remains consistently impressive all the way through – all of the tracks are diamonds in the rough – there is one song that caught me completely off guard and that’s the subdued dream groove of ‘My Children, My Angels’. Its leading Rhodes piano riff strongly reminds me of my favorite Led Zeppelin song ‘No Quarter’, with which the song shares its darkness, and Dr. John proves that you don’t have to be Tom Jones in order to send shivers down someone’s spine by singing. Especially the somewhat uplifting – but once again in a subdued fashion – chorus. Simply breathtaking.

‘Locked Down’ rates along ‘Gris-Gris’, ‘Gumbo’ and ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ as Dr. John’s masterpieces in a discography that is consistently amazing anyway. And with his carreer spanning over six decades (counting his early years backing other New Orleans greats), that is nothing short of an impressive achievement. Those who enjoyed the mysterious nocturnes of his debut album will most likely be captivated by this amazing record as well. And for any musician, this should be a lesson in groove.

Recommended tracks: ‘My Children, My Angels’, ‘Ice Age’, ‘Big Shot’

Album of the Week 41-2014: Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died

Nevermore’s breakup – or hiatus, whatever you choose to believe – was terrible news for yours truly. Nevermore’s unique blend of crushingly heavy riffs, compositional complexity, Warrel Dane’s incredible clean vocals and a sense of melody that seems to be forbidden in contemporary Metal made them one of the best bands on the planet. Luckily, Dane and bassist Jim Sheppard also reformed Sanctuary, the band that put them on the radar in the late eighties, around the same time. With most of its original lineup intact even. ‘The Year The Sun Died’, their first recording after the reunion, is a downright fantastic record which sounds a lot like Nevermore.

Obviously, Dane’s typical voice would push anything he sings on into Nevermore territory, but Lenny Rutlege’s riffs sound surprisingly similar to those Jeff Loomis wrote for Nevermore. In all honesty though, the album’s predecessor ‘Into The Mirror Black’ – released a quarter of a century ago! – would have sounded quite a lot like this if it also had such a contemporary production with such a punchy low end. The lead work by Rutledge and the band’s only new addition, Forced Entry guitarist Brad Hull, has a distinctly more old school vibe than Loomis’ and the progressive sections have a hint of the early work of fellow Seattleites Queensrÿche, but any fan of Nevermore should get some satisfaction from this.

‘The Year The Sun Died’ seems to be a concept album about the fall of a civilization, which prove to be one of Dane’s favorite lyrical subjects through the years. The imagery fits the dark sound of the music really well. Most of the songs are built around powerful half-Thrash riffing in the intros and verses and wide chords topped off with strong vocal melodies in the choruses. The acoustic based ‘I Am Low’ and ‘One Final Day (Sworn To Believe)’ stray from that formula a little, with the latter being one of those sinister sounding semi-ballads that Sanctuary traditionally excels at.

With this being a concept album, it is best listened to in its entirity. Yet there are a few standout tracks. ‘Frozen’ has it’s killer, relatively uptempo riffs and Dane harmonizing with himself in the immense chorus, ‘Question Existence Fading’ is one of the most violent tracks on the album rhythmically (hats off to Dave Budbill’s drumming) and has another big, ominous chorus, while the title track is the doomy, pitch black closing statement that the album requires. That atmosphere is nigh impossible to reach. Just brilliant.

Fans of Nevermore can buy ‘The Year The Sun Died’ blindly and the only old school Sanctuary fans that may want to listen first are the ones who might expect another feast of falsetto mayhem and uptempo riffing akin to the band’s debut album ‘Refuge Denied’. Those who end up buying this would do wise by getting the limited edition, because of the awesome cover of ‘Waiting For The Sun’, one of the highlights of The Doors’ discography. It fits the band’s own material nicely, and not only because of its title. This is a release that will definitely end up extremely high on my end-of-year list. Why? Because it’s a god damn masterpiece, that’s why!

Recommended tracks: ‘The Year The Sun Died’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Question Existence Fading’


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