Album of the Week 46-2017: Jamiroquai – The Return Of The Space Cowboy


While primarily known for their disco funk hits, Jamiroquai is actually one of the more versatile bands of the pop music landscape of the last few decades. No album proves this better than their sophomore record ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’. Sure, there is always a jazzy funk fundament, but what they choose to put on top of that varies wildly, resulting in their most accomplished and adventurous album thus far. Despite its experimental nature, the album is surprisingly consistent. Every song has a solid groove and an irresistible swing. Most of them have very strong choruses as well.

In addition, the album has a very pleasant live feel. Jamiroquai would experiment with electronic rhythms to varying degrees of success, but ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ is full of lengthy jams, which transforms even the simplest vamp into a dance classic. This is easily what the band is best at and with all the musicians having different musical backgrounds, a myriad of influences is brought to the fore; not just funk and jazz, but also pop, hints of rock and the odd Carribean touch. As a result of that, every song on ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ sounds different and has an identity of its own.

Though the album starts of on a high note with the remarkably complex, seventies Miles Davis-ish nine minute vamp of ‘Just Another Story’, the best material can all be found around the middle of the album. With its propulsive beat, ‘The Kids’ is likely the most aggressive song Jamiroquai ever recorded, ‘Mr. Moon’ is a delicious slab of late seventies funk and the soulful, socially counscious ‘Manifest Destiny’ is the brightest hidden jam in the band’s discography. ‘Scam’, while mainly super funky, has a bit of a psychedelic soul vibe, a genre that really isn’t practiced as much as it should be.

Of course, the album is not without its weird moments. The didgeridoo-lead instrumental ‘Journey To Arnhem’ couldn’t really be on any other artist’s album, but as a whole, ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ is an album full of smooth, streamlined grooves. Smooth does not necessarily mean soft though. Sure, there are soft moments, such as the quiet storm-like ‘Morning Glory’ and the latin jazz-inspired ‘Stillness In Time’, but sometimes it’s just a matter of polishing up the raw potential of the band, such as the delightful closer ‘Space Cowboy’.

Anyone looking for proof that Jamiroquai is more than just the native American headgear and Stevie Wonder-inspired voice of frontman Jay Kay should look no further than ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’. The record is full of excellent interaction between the other band members, with especially bassist Stuart Zender and (at the time) new drummer Derrick McKenzie shining brightly. Jamiroquai would carry on to make singles that were even better than the songs here (‘Deeper Underground’, ‘Runaway’, ‘Cosmic Girl’), but they have yet to make an album full of performances as inspired as on this one. ‘Rock Dust Light Star’ came close, but ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ still stands as a unique entry in Jamiroquai’s discography.

Recommended tracks: ‘Manifest Destiny’, ‘The Kids’, ‘Just Another Story’

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Album of the Week 45-2017: Genesis – Wind & Wuthering


A popular opinion is that Genesis lost its progressive edge after the departure of original singer Peter Gabriel. Stating that they did after guitarist Steve Hackett left the band would be closer to the truth. His frustration about the diminshing role of his guitar is justified, but still there are notable guitar moments on his final record with the band. As a whole, ‘Wind & Wuthering’ is very much an early Genesis album, on which progressive song structures, lush keyboards and folky passages blend into one atmospheric whole. It might lack a ‘The Musical Box’-like highlight, but it is one of their most consistent records.

‘Wind & Wuthering’ is also more adventurous than its direct predecessor ‘A Trick Of The Tail’. Phil Collins has obviously grown into his new role as the lead singer and as a result, he is allowed to stretch out a little. It is not just Collins who sounds more comfortable on this record though. Keyboard player Tony Banks is quite obviously the main contributor here, but everyone – including Hackett – truly gives their best here, never getting in the way of the composition as most progressive rock bands tend to do.

The album contains Genesis’ first stab at a full-on pop song and though ‘Your Own Special Way’ is expertly written and arranged, it is by far the weakest song on the record. Fortunately, it is offset against instrumental tracks like ‘Wot Gorilla?’ – on which Collins’ drumwork is truly out of this world – and the highly atmospheric diptych of ‘Unquiet Slumbers For The Sleepers…’ and ‘…In That Quiet Earth’. The 10-minute ‘One For The Vine’ sort of switches back and forth between those two extremes and despite a somewhat confused middle section, it turns out to be another strong progressive track in the tradition of songs like ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’.

Hackett’s finest moment on ‘Wind & Wuthering’ surprisingly isn’t defined by his electric guitar, but by his skills on the classical guitar. ‘Blood On The Rooftops’ is an excellent, atmospheric track with fantastic performances by both Hackett and Collins. Opening track ‘Eleventh Earl Of Mar’ is another highlight. It is a light, but still substantial progressive rock song with strong melodies, multiple climaxes and some catchy sections carried by Collins’ excellent vocals. Closer ‘Afterglow’ was the live staple of this record and though it is good, it sort of feels like a reprise of the non-instrumental sections of ‘Firth Of Fifth’.

Despite sort of being the end of an era, ‘Wind & Wuthering’ does not feel like Genesis was running out of inspiration. In fact, it is easily their most inspired record since ‘Selling England By The Pound’ and has moments that exceed the seventies Genesis average by quite a margin. The instrumental tracks are all mindblowing and both “vocal” Hackett compositions are simply excellent. In addition, the album has a very pleasant flow that every other Genesis record seems to lack. As a fan of Hackett, I used to approach the album with caution, but I should not have. This is essential listening for fans of British progressive rock.

Recommended Tracks: ‘…In That Quiet Earth’, ‘Eleventh Earl Of Mar’, ‘Blood On The Rooftops’

Album of the Week 44-2017: Marillion – Seasons End


When original singer Fish left Marillion, it was considered the end of an era. However, it was also the beginning of a new era. Steve Hogarth, who still fronts te band to this day, has an emotional depth to his voice that Fish just did not have, allowing the band to branch out even further away from the strongly Genesis-inspired neo-prog of their earliest work. Along its predecessor ‘Clutching At Straws’, ‘Seasons End’ can be seen as sort of a transitional phase. Not because of the singer change between the albums, but because it signals Marillion’s shift towards the most emotional progressive rock created to date.

Most of the music had already been written before Hogarth, himself a great composer, joined the band, so it’s not too surprising that ‘Seasons End’ is stylistically similar to ‘Clutching At Straws’. The record has a dark, passionate vibe, with occasional lighter or more upbeat moments keeping the darkness from becoming too overwhelming. The ‘Incommunicado’-rewrite ‘Hooks In You’ is the most obvious example of this, but the opening one-two punch of ‘The King Of Sunset Town’ and ‘Easter’ is remarkably positive as well, even though the lyrical contents – about the turmoils in China and Northern Ireland respectively – is at times quite bleak.

As usual though, Marillion shines brightest in their darkest moments. Especially the finales of the original vinyl sides are nothing short of incredible. The moving ‘Seasons End’ has been built upon a haunting clean guitar line by Steve Rothery – who still has the most beautiful clean guitar sound in the world – and features bone chilling performances by both Rothery himself and Hogarth. Closing the album is ‘The Space…’, Hogarth’s first major compositional contribution to Marillion along with ‘Easter’. This synth-driven masterpiece works its way through multiple climaxes and features some incredible vocal work.

Despite those closers being the undisputed highlights of the record, most of Marillion’s albums are remarkably consistent and ‘Seasons End’ is no exception. Each and every one of the seven other songs are worth hearing. ‘Berlin’ in particular is a bit of a beautiful suite of shifting moods and building intensity. ‘Holloway Girl’ and the surprisingly short ‘After Me’ both start out as moody ballads and gradually turn into something more bombastic, while there are excellent performances by everyone involved all around. Steve Rothery in particular truly delivers. He is easily one of the most tasteful and melodic lead guitarists in contemporary music.

Though the singer change would spark an endless “who’s better?” debate, it was exactly what Marillion needed around the time ‘Seasons End’ was released. The album was an essential step in refining their own sound and evolving from their neo-prog beginnings into a truly progressive rock sound that encompasses various influences from the alternative pop and rock field. And even more importantly, ‘Seasons End’ shows that Marillion consists of a group of excellent songwriters that can do more than just play their instruments really well. They can carry a memorable tune much better than many other bands in the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Seasons End’, ‘The Space…’, ‘Berlin’

Album of the Week 43-2017: Lovebites – Awakening From Abyss


After their excellent ‘The Lovebites EP’, I was expecting Lovebites’ debut album to be goot, but not this ridiculously good. In short, ‘Awakening From Abyss’ is the only album that can rival Firewind’s ‘Immortals’ as the best metal album from 2017. The record is chock-full of energetic riffs, blazing lead guitar work, pounding drums and passionate vocals. What more can you desire from a heavy metal album? Very little in deed. This Japanese quintet combines traditional heavy metal and contemporary power metal in an incredible manner and they seem hellbent on world domination. Song material this good certainly deserves to be heard worldwide.

On their EP, Lovebites excelled in dynamic and catchy, yet surprisingly inricate power metal with a powerful, rather unpolished production. The guitars are thick and raw and the incredible voice of relative newcomer Asami is one of the main attractions of this band. For ‘Awakening From Abyss’, the band has continued and enhanced this approach. At times, they end up sounding surprisingly aggressive. Songs like ‘Warning Shot’ and ‘Burden Of Time’ have a distinct Motörhead-ish vibe in the riff department, while several tracks combine recognizable choruses with riffs that angrily pound through the speakers.

No track combines those two extremes quite as deliciously as opening track ‘The Hammer Of Wrath’. After a brooding, vaguely Middle-Eastern sounding guitar melody, the song is an ongoing assault of vicious riffs and memorable melodies, which is exactly what one could wish from a heavy metal track. It is hardly the only highlight of the record though. ‘Shadowmaker’ has everything it takes to be a modern day power metal classic – that dramatic chorus is incredible – and ‘Don’t Bite The Dust’ is everything that classic metal bands aspire to be these days. On the lighter side – only slightly though – there are the epic semi-ballad ‘Edge Of The World’ and the gripping, haunting melodies of ‘Liar’.

It is impressive how the members of Lovebites combine their impressive skills and end up sounding significantly better than even the sum of their parts. Guitarists Midori and Mi-Ya are all over the album with high octane riffs and impressive solos, even throwing in a few awesome trade-offs like the one near the end of ‘Scream For Me’. Haruna tackles simple beats with the same conviction as busy parts and fills and though bassist Miho is not on the foreground, her aggressive right hand attack gives the music the balls it needs.

Then there is Asami’s golden throat. Her range is lower and more powerful – and as a result, more pleasant to listen to – than that of most Japanese singers, though she occasionally proves to be just as forceful in the higher regions. Honestly, ‘Awakening From Abyss’ is one of those albums that leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. It’s a boiling, dynamic and incredibly overwhelming stew of several eras of heavy and power metal. I haven’t heard many contemporary metal albums this good in a while. And due to their deals with JPU Records in Europe and Sliptrick Records in North-America, the whole world has the chance to get acquainted with the music of these ladies. I suggest that you’ll do so.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go and pick up my jaw from the floor.

Recommended tracks: ‘Awakening From Abyss’, ‘Shadowmaker’, ‘Burden Of Time’

Album of the Week 42-2017: Black Sabbath – Master Of Reality


If Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut was the birth of heavy metal, their third record ‘Master Of Reality’ is where the genre reaches adolescence. It retains some of its youthful mistakes – most prominently Ozzy Osbourne’s rather dull vocal lines, something which would not improve until ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ – but improves upon a lot of them as well. Despite its flaws, ‘Master Of Reality’ is an album that still sounds fresh and relevant today and the most important reason for that is the fact that Black Sabbath perfects its own intention on this record; the album is full of mighty riffs.

Nowhere is the power of the riff more apparent than on the massive closer ‘Into The Void’. It is Black Sabbath’s first encounter with the C# tuning – for non-musicians: one and a half step lower than standard tuning – and it has been a successful one. Many heavy metal riffs have been written since that intro, including a number of particularly fine ones by Black Sabbath themselves, but none has ever quite surpassed the thick, heavy majesty of this track’s intro. And that’s not even the only brilliant riff in the song. ‘Into The Void’ is probably the song that captures the essence of early Black Sabbath best.

There are many more songs to enjoy here, although the record really only has six songs if you subtract the two acoustic instrumentals. ‘Children Of The Grave’ is easily one of Black Sabbath’s finest compositions. The driving shuffle rhythm, Tony Iommi’s simple, but brutally effective riffs and Osbourne’s first truly decent performance form one of the band’s most exuberant compositions, even though it’s not particularly upbeat. ‘After Forever’ is quite a surprise upon first listen due to some unexpected twists and the incredibly downbeat ‘Solitude’ is one of the very few successful Black Sabbath ballads.

While the band was often berated for their dark lyrics, they are nowhere near as dark as they are made out to be. ‘After Forever’ and ‘Lord Of This World’ – another riff monster with surprisingly good vocals – are the most overtly religious lyrics that bassist Geezer Butler had written up to this point. In fact, the only more obviously christian lyrics in my collection are in Stryper songs. It does give the songs a unique character though. In contrast, I could do without the overt ode to pot that is opener ‘Sweet Leaf’, but at least Iommi’s riffs make it a worthwhile song.

Early Black Sabbath really triumphs over later work by the band because of the musical interaction between the members. Butler and drummer Bill Ward occasionally get a little jazzy, though ‘Master Of Reality’ is really the album where they started getting very bottom heavy. Butler’s right hand attack lacks even the vaguest hint of subtlety, but that is exactly what gives Iommi’s guitar work the balls it would not have had otherwise. Sure, Black Sabbath has made albums that are more interesting musically or more memorable melodically, but if anyone ever wanted to know why early Black Sabbath was so hugely influential, ‘Master Of Reality’ is the album to put on.

Recommended tracks: ‘Children Of The Grave’, ‘Into The Void’, ‘Lord Of This World’

Interview: Yoshiki’s new ways to express himself


Picture courtesy of YSK Entertainment

Call him dedicated or call him reckless. You would probably be correct either way. X Japan drummer, pianist and band leader Yoshiki severely damaged his neck due to his intense drumming style to the point that he needed neck surgery. In fact, since the last time I sat down with Yoshiki, he had surgery again, this time to replace a disc in his neck with an artificial alternative. While he appears to be more conscious of the health risks of his playing style than ever, he is also driven to pick up drumming again. If only to promote the new X Japan album, that he has been working on for years now.

It feels weird. I had neck surgery several years ago, but then they carved a bone to make a little space between the bones“, Yoshiki explains his most recent surgery. “This time, a disc in my neck was completely worn out, so they had to put plastic and metal into my neck. It was a big operation. Last time, they went through the back of my neck. This time, they went through the front. They had to pull the vocal cords aside and place the artificial disc. It’s a pretty intense surgery.
Is it a definitive thing or did the doctor give you an estimation of when you can play again?
The way I play drums is not good for my health. Period. That’s what my doctor said. So I just have to find a way to play drums the healthy way. There are some things I have to focus on. First off: headbanging is bad. At some point, people have to stop doing that. I guess I have reached the epitome. It brought me to this position: I had two neck surgeries. So we have to find a different way to express ourselves. Not only the artists, also the audience. Otherwise, we’re all going to have neck surgery in the end.
What’s your physical therapy like these days?
It is focused on building muscles in my neck. My nervous system is already damaged though. Luckily, my motor skills are still fine, so I can move my hands. But because of the nerve damage, I can’t really feel anything properly anymore. There’s always a burning sensation in my hand. It’s very uncomfortable. A terrible feeling. So I just have to find a different way to express myself. Without headbanging.
Does your situation impact your compositions at all, in the sense that you adapt what you write to what you can play?
Fortunately, I finished every single drum track for the upcoming album before surgery. But as of now, I can’t play drums. That’s what the doctor said: no more drums. The way I play drums is just too much, but I’m trying to find a way to go back to the stage as a drummer. Then I’ll play as hard as I can, as soon as I can. But believe it or not: the day after the surgery, I was already in the studio. There are things I can still do. Some editing, for instance.
Ever since we started working on the album, I haven’t really stopped. Even when we were doing the Wembley show back in March; I was in London doing some interviews and preparing for the concert, but I also booked a recording studio and I was also working on the new album. And I thought about it, since I’m in Europe now, to see if I had some extra time. I would like to keep recording. But my schedule is really tight, so I couldn’t do it this time.

Picky

Yoshiki already addressed the elephant in the room himself: the new X Japan album, their first studio album since the 1996 release ‘Dahlia’. “Pretty much all tracking is done. There is one more song I need to play piano to and I’m just adding a last touch, by means of sound effects or guitar effects or something like that. Vocal tracking is done, even the strings – we have recorded an orchestra – are done. So now I just have to find the time to go back to the studio and finish it. I’m trying to have it done by the end of this year.
Is the oldest material still up to your own quality standards after so much time?
Good question… I think so. I mean, I like it. It’s really hard for me to say I like the songs, because I’m super picky, but I think this album is going to be amazing.
Have you found the right label for the release of this album yet?
Most likely it will be Sony Records. Worldwide. I think the whole world will get it at the same time.
Is Extasy Records (Yoshiki’s own label, originally founded to release X Japan’s albums) still active at all?
Yes and no. As of now, I’m planning on producing artists, but I just have to concentrate on finishing X Japan’s album before I do any other things. Also, I have so much promotion and so many interviews to do for the ‘We Are X’ film, so I’m trying to find the time. I always have people looking for artists. Actually, I get a demo pretty much every day. Sometimes I’m really overwhelmed by what I hear. But it’s so hard for me to find the time to even produce now. So unless it is someone extremely good… Well, even then I would probably introduce them to some label or something.

Interest

If the documentary ‘We Are X’, which is in theaters now, shows anything, it is that the Japanese music industry is something that is almost impossible to imagine for westerners. There are superstars in Japan that hardly anyone in the west has ever heard of. Yoshiki does note an increase in interest in X Japan now that the movie is out: “The added interest is great, but we dit not make this film for that kind of purpose.
A lot of Japanese bands make a very clear distinction between their indie days and their major days. You have been in both situations. Are the differences really that big?
I don’t know. Of course, during our indies era, we had no director, no producers, no label telling us what to do. It was all about us. When we signed to a label, suddenly there were a lot of people telling us what to do. And sometimes that was great advice, sometimes it was not. But basically it is still you. You are making this music, so in essence, I don’t think it’s not that different.
Are there any projects you are working on at the moment?
I’ve been working with Marilyn Manson on a project of the two of us, but first I need the finish the new X Japan album. Also I’m working on a new classical album. Piano and a symphony orchestra, something like that.
Would you ever consider making a follow-up to ‘We Are X’?
I don’t know. We’re always filming, so there’s always enough material and there’s always a chance that there will be something else. But as of now, we are trying finish recording our new album. If anything comes out, it will definitely be after our new album. I’m pretty sure it will be released next spring.
Can I hold you to that?
Yes.

Dutch readers can watch ‘We Are X’ on Picl.

Album of the Week 41-2017: Saber Tiger – Timystery


Before Saber Tiger was fronted by the passionate howls of Takenori Shimoyama, they made a couple of excellent albums with Yoko Kubota, an impressive singer in her own right, at the helm. This was the time when the Japanese quintet started incorporating progressive elements into their music, slowly morphing from an above average heavy metal band to the amazing band they are today. ‘Timystery’ is one of those albums that does everything just right. The compositions are better and the musical interaction is more cohesive than ever before. And though it would turn out to be Kubota’s last album with the band, she really comes into her own here.

‘Timystery’ finds Saber Tiger streamlining the progressive touches that were on the foreground on its direct predecessor ‘Agitation’. As a result, ‘Timystery’ feels a little more like ‘Invasion’, Kubota’s 1992 debut with the band, but there is some more musical class hidden beneath the surface. In essence, the album is exactly what you would have expected from Saber Tiger at this point in their career: energetic songs, huge beefy riffs and recognizable choruses, but the songs take a few surprising twists. Also, it is Saber Tiger’s first album that features English lyrics exclusively.

Fortunately, these lyrics go beyond the usual English catchphrases surrounded by poor grammar that Japanese bands revelled in at the time. I don’t know if Kubota had any help, but her English is decent enough and the songs actually have topics. There is a lot of relational material and lyrics about trust issues, but they work. Sometimes even surprisingly well: every aspect of ‘Bad Devotion’ is flawless. The start-stop riffs and dynamics of the song really enhance the story of a woman trying to get back on her feet, while every section of the song is a new climax, culminating in the solo section, which is both virtuosic and goosebumps-inducing.

Of course, no one needed to worry about the qualities of the musicians; Akihito Kinoshita and Yasuharu Tanaka are likely the best guitar duo in the business, Takashi Yamazumi is a bassist who makes the most of his moments, but also has no problem holding down the bottom end and Yoshio Isoda is solid as a rock. That musicianship is what lifts songs like the highly rhythmic ‘Living On In The Crisis’, the relatively heavy opener ‘No Fault / No Wrong’, the pleasantly melodic ‘Distressed Soul’, the pounding ‘Revenged On You’ and the highly dynamic ‘Easy Road To Life’ above their obvious compositional quality.

Saber Tiger truly struck gold on ‘Timystery’. They found the perfect balance between progressive metal – the unconventional rhythms of the lengthy closer ‘Spiral Life’ are easily the most “proggy” moment of the record – and traditional heavy metal, creating something that may appeal to fans of both genres. The album contains several of the best songs the band has ever made and it would take more than fifteen years before the band would top it. Albums this consistent are a rarity, especially in the mid-nineties metal scene, but ‘Timystery’ is simply an album that will not let you go until long after it is over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Devotion’, ‘Living On In The Crisis’, ‘Easy Road To Life’