Album of the Week 29-2017: The Meters – Rejuvenation


Within the funk idiom, The Meters are the prime representatives of the New Orleans sound. Not as angrily defiant as James Brown, not as dirty as the Ohio Players and not as crazy as Parliament-Funkadelic, the band focused on swinging, relatively relaxed grooves, which landed them a job as the backing band of New Orleans greats like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. Their own material is worth hearing as well though. ‘Rejuvenation’ is their first album without any instrumentals, which were part of their charm, but the record is so full of inspired grooves and memorable melodies that it hardly matters.

On their first three albums, The Meters specialized in laid-back funk grooves, often making their songs sound like they belong on the soundtracks of one of the Blaxploitation films that were so popular at the time. The shift to predominantly vocal tracks on this album’s predecessor ‘Cabbage Alley’ may have raised some eyebrows at the time, but it is a fact that ‘Rejuvenation’ is full of excellent songs, some of which – most prominently the typical New Orleans rhythm of ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ – sound like they could have been on one of their earliest records, except that these songs feature singing.

At other times, ‘Rejuvenation’ features the band leaning heavily towards more contemporary funk. Opening track ‘People Say’ has a suprisingly propulsive, stomping beat that nods strongly towards the harder funk that was gaining popularity at the time, while ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ is as close as The Meters ever came to the slinky, sexy grooves of the Ohio Players. ‘Jungle Man’ and the excellent closing track ‘Africa’ are great examples of the band adapting the sparse, prominent grooves of Sly & The Family Stone to their New Orleans background and bridging the gap between several types of funk in the process.

The album’s centerpiece, however, is the massive, 12 minute track ‘It Ain’t No Use’. This masterpiece of a song starts out like a blues track with some excellent stinging guitar fills by Leo Nocentelli, which are strongly reminiscent of Clapton during his best days in Cream. Art Neville’s passionate vocals are incredible as well. After the more song-oriented part is out of the way, a long, inspired funk jam starts, during which every member gets a chance to shine. Especially the rhythm section of drummer Ziggy Modeliste and bassist extraordinaire George Porter Jr. is beyond incredible here. Its jamtastic nature makes it stand out from the relatively concise material on ‘Rejuvenation’, but that’s not a problem.

‘Rejuvenation’ is the ultimate proof that The Meters could handle any kind of funk. As such, it is one of the most versatile and varied funk records released to date, as its styles range from the highly poppy ‘Loving You Is On My Mind’ all the way to the hard driving ‘Africa’. And The Meters tackle all of these styles with equal enthusiasm and inspiration. The album is definitely where the musicianship and the songcraft of The Meters is in perfect balance. Which is great, because as much as I love their contributions to the records of all these New Orleans legends, making their own music is really what The Meters do best.

Recommended tracks: ‘It Ain’t No Use’, ‘Africa’, ‘Jungle Man’

Album of the Week 28-2017: Buck-Tick – Juusankai Wa Gekkou


Buck-Tick is one of the most influential bands from the Japanese visual kei scene. Singer Atsushi Sakurai has one of the most distinctive, appealing voices of that scene and yet, their classic material never appealed to me much. Their earliest work was a bit too upbeat for my taste, while most of their nineties output has strong electronic overtones that I find somewhat abrasive. ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ solves both of these issues by being a dark, gothic monster of an album with a pleasant, organic production. It turned out to be a unique entry in Buck-Tick’s discography, both stylistically and quality-wise.

While the gothic label ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ often gets is not entirely inaccurate, especially regarding its lyrical themes and horror-like imagery, the sound of the album is better characterized as a relatively dark post-punk band discovering how lively their songs can sound with a more organic sonic approach. As such, the album really plays to Buck-Tick’s strengths. Always the band’s main attraction, Sakurai’s voice is front and center and he obviously knows his way with the album’s atmosphere. However, the “less is more and every note counts” approach of guitarists Hisashi Imai and Hidehiko Hoshino deserves a lot of praise as well.

Those who are used to the virtuoso approach that even more accessible J-rock bands like Luna Sea and L’Arc-en-Ciel employ might be surprised at how the musicianship takes a back seat to the songs and the atmosphere here. The songs are pretty low-key and even the climactic outbursts are not very bombastic. As a result, ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ is a slow burner and in order to enjoy the record, it is imperative that the atmosphere absorbs you. That does not mean the musicianship is not important. The amazing ‘Doll’, for instance, is characterized by a brilliant, teasing guitar line as much as by the atmosphere and Sakurai’s performance.

Remains of the band’s electronic approach can be found in the spooky ‘Muma – The Nightmare’, which – despite the fact that it’s followed by two more tracks – sounds like the climax of the record. The electronics are just a bit less “busy” than on the material they released in the decade prior to ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’. The impeccably arranged ‘Alive’ is another standout track, due its memorable and strategically placed chorus. ‘Passion’ is one of the darkest, most horror soundtrack-inspired moments of the record and therefore, is best not listened to in the dark. It does capture the creepy mood exceptionally well though.

‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ is by no means a perfect record. At 78 minutes, some fat could have been trimmed, especially from the intros, outros and interludes, while ‘Seraphim’ and the vaudevillian ‘Diabolo -Lucifer-‘ stand out like a sore thumb due to their relatively upbeat atmosphere. Their main purpose seems to be to emphasize the darkness of ‘Muma – The Nightmare’. Despite those minor complaints, ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ has a consistency that some of the most popular Buck-Tick albums lack. It is easy to sit this one out, as this is one of those albums that refuses to let you go once it gets a hold of you.

Recommended tracks: ‘Alive’, ‘Doll’, ‘Muma – The Nightmare’

Víctor García (WarCry): “Language is no limitation on music”


The international world of heavy metal is dominated by bands who sing in English and while that is understandable, those who ignore bands who sing in other languages are really missing out on bands like WarCry from Spain. WarCry just released its ninth studio album ‘Donde El Silencio Se Rompió…’, an excellent piece of heavy/power metal with Spanish lyrics. I had the chance to speak with lead singer Víctor García about the past, present and future of WarCry.

‘Donde El Silencio Se Rompió…’ featured a return to the somewhat heavier sound of the band’s earliest work, but without forsaking the melodic and progressive touches of their other recent albums. “I don’t know if it was the right time for such an approach, but at the moment, this is exactly what we want to do“, says García. “People need to classify everything these days. For me it is all heavy metal, I don’t care if it’s fast or slow, hard or power metal… I don’t believe in styles. For me, a good band is about more than a certain style.

The band obviously took being a good band very seriously, as there was more than three years between ‘Donde El Silencio Se Rompió’ and its excellent predecessor ‘Inmortal’ (2013). “It’s not easy doing a record that is better than the last one every time“, García explains. “And now that we have recorded eight albums, it gets more difficult every time. We spent a lot of time working on the lyrics. I’m a storyteller. I share a piece of myself, the way I feel, my way of thinking, I express myself in every song. I tried to change this, to not talk about the same things or approach them in a different way, but this is what works.
Our lyrics always take a positive approach, even when dealing with subjects like death, pain or other things that hurt people: keep on fighting, always look for another chance and if you die giving your best, it is a good way to go. We like to sing about human emotions, history, love, anger, pain, death, fighting, victory and loss.

Professional
Speaking of the lyrics, while WarCry is now known and beloved for its Spanish language heavy metal, but on their 1997 demo, García still sung in English. “Since then, I’ve spent around four years playing in another Spanish band called Avalanch, singing in Spanish“, García explains. “That is when I realized that singing in Spanish perhaps is not really a limitation on music. It is my language and it is the best way to express my emotions and my music.
It certainly isn’t a limitation for the Spanish metal scene, among which WarCry is a highly popular band. “There are many bands in the Spanish metal scene, getting more and more professional day by day“, says García. “As for our position in that scene, perhaps I am not the ideal person to judge that. We are very popular in our own country and in Latin America. These days, there are even a few people who listen to us outside of the Spanish-speaking world, such as parts of Europe, North-America, Japan and even Australia. We are growing, step by step.

Speaking of people outside the Spanish-speaking world: for ‘Donde El Silencio Se Rompió…’, the band enlisted the help of Tim Palmer, who worked as a producer with the likes of U2, Pearl Jam and Robert Plant. “We contacted him to mix our album“, says García. “But he is also a creator and a great professional. He told our producer Dani Sevillano that he would record some ideas and that we could just remove them if we didn’t like them. He added some reverb, some filters and just some keyboard and guitar sounds. He did a great job.

Friendly
During their early years, WarCry’s lineup changed fairly frequently. However, their current line-up is about to reach its tenth anniversary in 2018. “We are not young boys anymore“, García states. “The band has been around for fifteen years now and all things are calm. We enjoy what we do. We are friends. We are having a very good time doing this and therefore, it is easy to do things right. We can talk when there are problems and we do the best we can. We are all in the same boat.
García himself is still the main songwriter of the band. “On some albums, there are a few songs that have been written by other members“, he says. “And all of them are arranged by the entire band. Their contribution as musicians is invaluable as well, of course.
Despite the fact that Spain has a metal scene, all of the band’s albums have been released on their own record label Jaus Records. “Our record label is our legal representation of the band“, García explains. “It’s like Napoleon said: if you need a friendly hand, it is more easy to find it at the end of your own arm.
Now that the Spanish-speaking world is familiar with WarCry’s material, the quintet is looking forward to presenting their music to the rest of the world. “Now is the time“, García states resolutely. “We have the experience, we have the sound, we have the music and we know what we want. We are passionate guys with a lot of energy on stage. We want to keep the band moving forward, so we are always looking to take the next step.

Album of the Week 27-2017: Jeangu Macrooy – High On You


Initially, it was Jeangu Macrooy’s voice that drew me towards his music. It strongly reminded me of Bill Withers in terms of timbre, power and intimacy. But a great voice only gets you so far. Luckily, Macrooy is an excellent songwriter as well. He mixes up many different genres, but instead of incoherent genre-hopping, Macrooy creates a smooth, listenable blend of soul, jazz, rock, pop and some Carribean influences. Last year, his ‘Brave Enough’ EP was an excellent introduction to what Macrooy was able to do, but his debut album ‘High On You’ really shows the full scope of his musical ambitions.

On ‘High On You’, it is possible to listen to three different songs and hear five different genres. However, things never get disjointed. It is quite clear that a lot of effort went into the arrangements, but it also helps that Macrooy has an excellent band behind him, consisting of musicians who are simply looking to upstage the songs rather than themselves, displaying an impressive amount of versatility. Macrooy himself does some nice work on the acoustic guitar as well. The fact that all the songs have a similar approach sonically positively influences the listenability of the album’s multi-genre approach.

Macrooy’s voice is on full display on the spiritual sounding opening track ‘Aisa’, but he also takes center stage in the folky ‘Circles’ and soulful ballads like ‘Antidote’, ‘Sleep You Off’ and the title track. But even the singer/songwriter himself has no problem taking a back seat to the generally relaxed, shimmering grooves of songs like ‘Tell Me Father’ and ‘Crazy Kids’. The vocals find a comfortable place within the mix, but Macrooy’s lyrics come across really well. On the EP, there were some interesting references to the history of his native country of Suriname, but he seems to have gone for words that are highly personal, openhearted and honest this time around.

While ‘High On You’ is consitently amazing, there are some standout moments. I personally think the seamless blend of light funk and dark, somewhat psychedelic rock that occurs in songs like ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’ and the somewhat more subdued ‘One Way Ticket’ is an extremely interesting approach that has not been attempted very often since the days of psychedelic soul in the early seventies. The rhythms of these songs are not exceptionally propulsive, but have a very pleasand drive to them. But the true highlight is ‘Step Into The Water’. The song sort of ties together all the influences on the album into a concise, amazing song with a highly memorable chorus. Truly this year’s best single out of the Netherlands.

Every once in a while, an exceptional talent appears who proves that contemporary music is not as stuck in a predictable pattern as much as I sometimes say it is. If it is done this way, I do not mind being proven wrong. Jeangu Macrooy and his band have made an excellent album that manages to be a pleasant listen and a musically challenging piece of art simultaneously. It has been a pretty good year for Dutch music already, but ‘High On You’ might just top everything else. This record deserves to be appreciated internationally.

Recommended tracks: ‘Step Into The Water’, ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’

Album of the Week 26-2017: Ningen Isu – Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros


Ningen Isu is the best seventies power trio that is not actually from the seventies. Despite starting out in 1987, their brand of heavily Black Sabbath-inspired, yet progressively tinged metal would have fit the same bill as Rush and Budgie in the mid-seventies. While the band has recorded some excellent progressive doom metal throughout the last three decades, they had yet to release an album that I enjoyed start to finish. Until ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’ was released last year. Though instantly recognizable as Ningen Isu, there are some surprises that make the record amazing right down to the last note.

As the band kept progressing, their albums kept getting more consistent and notably heavier, yet there was always a song that went overboard in weirdness or that suffered from the fact that none of the three band members are particularly strong singers. ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, however, plays to the band’s strengths. The songs on the album are crushingly heavy and the compositions take a few more left turns than we are used to by the band; the trio no longer builds on the same groove for more than sixteen bars and Nobu Nakajima’s rhythmic patterns are busier than ever.

Opening track ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’ actually gives a good impression of what the album will sound like. It is built upon a couple of monolithic, Sabbath-like riffs, but is not just about the riffs. It is a dynamic composition with some interesting twists and turns and a good vocal performance by guitarist Shinji Wajima. There’s an excellent interaction between the rhythms and the riffs, which constantly push each other to the front rather than off the record. These characteristics define all the songs, although sometimes they are a bit more straightforward (‘Doro No Ame’) and a little more complex at other times (‘Yomigaeri No Machi’).

In a typical case of saving the best for last, the brooding, doomy epic ‘Madame Edwarda’ is one atmospheric monster of a closing track. Another stand-out track, however, is the delightfully rocking ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, which starts out sounding like an AC/DC song and evolves into one of the most catchy, upbeat Ningen Isu songs to date. Nakajima’s vocal performance on the song is surprisingly good as well. The middle section of ‘Yukionna’ cannot be anything else than a tribute to Led Zeppelin classic ‘Achilles Last Stand’, but it is done in good taste and honoring an incredible band, so I will just let that slide.

The mark of a true progressive band that it keeps getting better. By that definition, Ningen Isu is a real progressive metal band, even though the King Crimson-isms were larger in number in their earlier years. In hindsight, it should not be too suprising that the trio outdoes itself on ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, as they have been improving from the day they started releasing music. And they were pretty damn good to begin with anyway. Anyone with a taste for seventies progressive rock and traditional doom metal should not be discouraged by the lack of English song and album titles and just give this band a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’

Iced Earth and more interviews in Gitarist


If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be interviewing Iced Earth main man Jon Schaffer someday, I would go insane. I was an Iced Earth fan to the point of obsession and although I have come to think about Schaffer in a more moderate light these days, it was great to sit down with him and discuss some developments surrounding the band with him for about an hour. A portion of this conversation can be read in this month’s issue of Gitarist, which should be in stores by now. We have been discussing the new Iced Earth album ‘Incorruptible’, his inimitable rhythm guitar style, sounds and equipment as well as running the band. I was pleasantly surprised by his honesty and self-criticism, resulting in what I think is a very interesting article.

As for my other contributions, I have interviewed guitarist Jan Wouter Oostenrijk about his brand new ‘We Are Connected’, an album heavily influenced by Middle Eastern and North African music, for which he modified his guitar to be able to play the quarter tones common in music from that part of the world. Naturally, we talk in-depth about this “quarter tone guitar” as well. What else is a guitar magazine for? In addition, there is an interview I had with Dutch session guitarist extraordinaire Age Kat about ‘Rhythm, Space & Time’, an album based around his guitar playing.

I wrote a handful of reviews as well, while my colleague Patrick Lamberts talked to upcoming djent and progmetal guitarists Plini, Sithu Aye and Jakub Zyteki. There is also an extensive feature about the Stratocaster that Robbie Robertson used at The Band’s ‘The Last Waltz’ concert as well as loads and loads of gear reviews. There’s even a short interview with Michael Schenker, who I consider one of the finest guitarists in the world. So if you are interested in guitars, there is no excuse to not check it out. You can do so right now!

Album of the Week 25-2017: Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand


Out of all popular contemporary metal bands, Mastodon is the only one I can get behind. I respect how little they care about genre boundaries or belonging to a certain scene. From day one, they have chosen their own path and there is always a possibility that a new album is not going to sound anything like its predecessor. Curveballs like their 2009 psychedelic metal masterpiece ‘Crack The Skye’ are probably a thing of the past, as every record that followed attempted to combine the best aspects of their discography thus far, but none of them quite succeeds as well as ‘Emperor Of Sand’ does.

‘Emperor Of Sand’ is the record on which Mastodon learned to do all the things they already did a lot better. Their riffs are still heavy and not too fast, there is an abundance of classy twin guitar harmonies, drummer Brann Dailor still lays down some downright incredible fills and yet, it all sounds just a little better than before. The highly melodic hooks that started appearing around the turn of the decade are integrated into the heavy songs a lot better than ever and the increasing classic rock influences mix with the band’s heavy metal and hardcore roots more satisfyingly.

More importantly, the compositions are extremely interesting. Mastodon has clearly made an effort to make every section of the song be a new climax, which is especially beneficial to songs with a lot of drama, such as ‘Roots Remain’ and the epic closer ‘Jaguar God’. As stated before, the melodic choruses are still here, some songs even have several hooks, but they feel less like an attempt to cross over to the pop rock audience. Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds have always been experts at weaving distinct guitar lines through each other and that feature of the band gets all the place it needs on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. Their bombastic sound helps. Hinds’ synth guitar in ‘Clandestiny’ adds an extra dimension to the sound.

In addition, the triple lead vocal assault seems to work better than ever. Dailor is there for the cleans, Hinds switches between a raw snarl and an Ozzy-like voice and bassist Troy Sanders is easily the rawest and most powerful of the three. They feed off each other and complement each other, which adds dynamics to songs like the highly catchy ‘Show Yourself’, dramatic harmonies to ‘Andromeda’ and impressive trade-offs are scattered all over the album. The vocals are not the thing that makes the album though; the guitars and the insane drumming are. As always.

While I will always be partial to ‘Crack The Skye’, Mastodon has really outdone itself on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. They have finally succeeded in combining all of their best qualities in a way that sounds “fluent”, for lack of a better term. I am somewhat reluctant to call the music on this record progressive metal, as the term conjures up images of Dream Theater clones, but it is a fact that this is the work of a metal band that wants to keep moving forward, with their virtuosity helping them rather than getting in the way of the songs. Quite an impressive feat, which makes ‘Emperor Of Sand’ one of the best metal albums released this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Jaguar God’, ‘Steambreather’, ‘Roots Remain’