Album of the Week 29-2016: Golden Earring – Moontan

Outside of the Netherlands, Golden Earring is known as that band from ‘Radar Love’ and maybe ‘Twilight Zone’. For any Dutchman, they are the biggest Rock band in the country and have been so for a majority of their fifty-five years of existence. Yes, fifty-five uninterrupted years. Their mind blowing 1973 record ‘Moontan’ was even voted the best Dutch album by readers of the music magazine Oor. And even though I suspect the presence of their worldwide hit ‘Radar Love’ plays a part in that vote, its powerful musicianship and at time surprising songwriting make it one of the most enjoyable records made in the glorious seventies.

If there’s one thing you can criticize the Golden Earring on, it’s that they have been relatively sensitive to trends. Back in the early seventies, however, they were pretty much their own thing. Their riffs and rhythms had a Stonesy boogie feel, but the band mixed that with influences from the psychedlic and progressive Rock scenes as well as little flourishes of Americana and Soul. And while they released a couple of excellent albums since, the combination of styles was never as catchy and effective as on ‘Moontan’. Masterfully arranged and moreso, forcefully executed.

So by now, I’m assuming you all know ‘Radar Love’. Rightfully a popular song – it’s quite cleverly arranged; it’s got a steady tempo but feels like it’s moving through tempo changes and the horn-driven middle section is explosive – but it’s hardly the only good thing here. The most straightforward Rocker ‘Just Like Vince Taylor’ is an Earring live classic to this day, but opening track ‘Candy’s Going Bad’ is even better; it builds from a sleazy Bluesrocker with great vocal interplay between Barry Hay and guitarist George Kooymans to an almost spacey middle section without losing any of its power.

Highlighting the album – and Golden Earring’s entire discography, for that matter – is the haunting closer ‘The Vanilla Queen’. It’s a true exercise in climaxes; from the subdued verses to the bigger chorus and from the psychedelic middle section to the unbelievable finale, where the band’s best riff works its magic with the horns. The guitar break between the second and third choruses brings to mind vintage Rush, despite predating it by a few years. The other long track, ‘Are You Receiving Me’ is simpler, but profits from Cesar Zuiderwijk’s unconventional drums and – again – fantastic vocal harmonies.

In the end, only ‘Suzy Lunacy (Mental Rock)’ stands out like a sore thumb, but that’s rather because its sixties Pop vibe clashes with the sprawling character of rest of the record. It’s quite a decent song on its own. Apart from that, ‘Moontan’ is an unlikely, but ultimately highly infectious mix of early progressive Rock and classic Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s not surprising that it got voted the best Dutch album – really, only Urban Dance Squad’s ‘Mental Floss For the Globe’ and maybe Bettie Serveert’s ‘Palomine’ are serious contenders – but it may be surprising that the record still sounds so fresh today, 43 years after its release. Highly recommended to fans of seventies Stones, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and early Rush.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Vanilla Queen’, ‘Candy’s Going Bad’, ‘Are You Receiving Me’

Album of the Week 28-2016: Reckless Tide – Helleraser

Reckless Tide was a modern Thrash Metal band that should have made it big, but somehow never did. Maybe some things weren’t quite taken care of on the business end, because the musical side is excellent. Unlike other bands that were trying to breathe new life into the genre in the 21st century, Reckless Tide wasn’t just focusing on Pantera-like chugging. They knew how to write a good melody and had some impressive technical skills on board – their rhythm section in particular. ‘Helleraser’ maybe isn’t for the Thrash purists, but those who like their music propulsive, melodic and unpredictable should find something of their liking here.

On this sophomore album, Reckless Tide still had two singers in the band. At the time, more bands were taking this approach to various degrees of necessity, but even though I find myself enjoying Kjell Hallgreen’s melodic approach more, at least he and his more Hardcore-like British colleague Andrew Troth had quite different approaches. More interesting is the guitar work: while Susanne Swillus and Oliver Jaath don’t trap you in a crossfire of solos, their riff work is highly dynamic and their melodic themes are nothing short of amazing. They’re memorable and catchy, but don’t neuter the songs.

As with the vocals, my favorite songs on ‘Helleraser’ are definitely on the more melodic side. ‘Symbiont -Chaper II- (Welcome To My World)’ is defined by its heartfelt chorus, but there’s some tight riff work and a lot of irresistible twin guitar melodies at work as well. Also, I still don’t get why ‘C.H.A.O.S.’ is a bonus track. Okay, the lyrics are a slab of Glamrock cheese, but the riff work is so excellent and the almost dreamy atmosphere of the chorus is unique. ‘House Of Cards’ is the album’s most melodic and catchy moment, but manages to be powerful enough to not sound out of place.

However, the band has something to offer when they’re in full-on Thrash mode as well. ‘Evolution’ and ‘Extosterone’ are excellent in mixing up melody and aggression and end up being the most traditional sounding songs of the set. Drummer Kai Swillus is all over the place in the fantastic title track, which starts with one of the most chaotic passages of the record and evolves into a high octane Thrasher with raging riff work and a tranquil outro. And then there’s ‘Kleemähendeäbte’, which is too silly for its own good, but secretly has some excellent musicianship in it as well.

Combined with its awesome artwork – not just the album cover, quite a lot of effort visibly went into the booklet – ‘Helleraser’ was one of the better total products of an era in which the music industry increasingly invested in throw-away products. It’s also one of the very few modern Thrash records of which the listenability outstays one or two spins and that’s simply because the band has a couple of great songwriters in its line-up. Definitely worth your time if you haven’t heard it yet. If only because this band was really doing their own thing. It’s a shame they’re no longer together.

Recommended tracks: ‘Symbiont -Chapter II- (Welcome To My World)’, ‘C.H.A.O.S.’, ‘Helleraser’

Album of the Week 27-2016: Hiromi – Spark

So much girl power at the North Sea Jazz festival this year! Esperanza Spalding especially blew me away with her music meets performance art presentation of her excellent ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ album, but Hiromi wasn’t far behind. It wasn’t just her crazily accurate and sometimes warp-speed piano playing; her whole trio was on fire. Of course, she has enlisted the help of two cross-genre giants in the shape of drummer Simon Phillips and bassist – excuse me, contrabass guitarist – Anthony Jackson, but music history has proven time and time again that putting great musicians together doesn’t necessarily result in a great record. In the case of ‘Spark’, it does though.

Japanese Jazz – or Japanese music in general really – has a tendency to be excessively polished. And while I like my music a little on the clean side, the soul sometimes gets washed out in the process. Whether it’s the fact that she lives in America these days, I don’t know, but Hiromi’s found the balance between polish and structure on one side and wild abandon on the other. The former is quite clear in the very strongly composed melodic themes on this album, the latter in the improvisations by all three musicians involved.

Melodically, ‘Spark’ has a very dreamy, almost fairytale-like atmosphere. As band leader, Hiromi seems to make sure that the virtuosity of the entire trio doesn’t get in the way of those main melodies. Of course, Phillips’ powerhouse drumming and remarkable control over the strength of his hits plays a pivotal role in the album’s rhythmic strength – though I think his carefully crafted sound is the main merit of his presence here – but it never gets too busy. Jackson especially has no problem taking backseat to the composition, but then again: he’s a master of the groove, so why not use him as such?

In a way, the opening title track sums up the album quite well. After a slow fade-in, there’s an upbeat melody carrying the song before moving into more visceral improvisations that never go out of line. The rest of the record moves back and forth between relaxed (the almost Bluesy ‘Indulgence’, the seventies Herbie Hancock-esque ‘What Will Be, Will Be’) and propulsive (the choppy ‘Wonderland’, closing track ‘All’s Well’), sometimes even within the same song (the dramatic ‘Dilemma’). ‘Wake Up And Dream’ feels like a classical piano piece, while ‘Take Me Away’ is a special track; Jackson uses his instrument in an almost guitar-like fashion, after which the song moves through multiple hypnotizing climaxes.

Through several years of experience as a music journalist, I’ve grown a little suspicious of artists that are hyped. In case of Hiromi, it is fully justified. She can obviously play her heart out, but what made the attention last for the decade and a half that she’s been profesionally active now is that she’s able to channel that virtuosity into tunes that are crafted so well that you can call them songs. And that isn’t necessarily the case for Jazz artists. Also, she’s found the perfect people to accompany her in Jackson and Phillips. ‘Spark’ is easily Hiromi’s crowning achievement thus far and leaves a promising path open for the future.

Recommended tracks: ‘Spark’, ‘Dilemma’, ‘Take Me Away’

Guitar heroes where they belong: in Gitarist

In stores now: the “guitar hero special” of Gitarist. I have contributed quite heavily to this one by interviewing Adrian Belew about his fascination with strange sounds and providing a background to our Prince workshop. Tim Eijmaal maybe isn’t considered a guitar hero in the traditional sense, but I think he’s a great player and he gets an increasing number of opportunities to show how good he is in the amazing Sven Hammond. Be sure to check them out if you haven’t already. Other guitar heroes included that talked to my colleagues are Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck and Joe Bonamassa. Talk about big names…

Naturally, we have gear and music reviews of all kinds included as well, so I can’t see any reason to not run to the store right now. Unless you get it delivered to your house, of course.

Album of the Week 26-2016: Yossi Sassi Band – Roots And Roads

Ever since leaving Orphaned Land, Yossi Sassi seems to be more productive than ever. In fact, now that he only has his own band to mind, it looks like the last obstacle was broken down and he’s really not holding back anymore. How else can you explain the sound of ‘Roots And Roads’? Not only is the Israeli string wizard bringing east and west together again with a musical scope that borders on the incredible, it’s also the heaviest and most song oriented record he has made under his own name yet. A progressive work in the truest sense of the world.

Once again, ‘Roots And Roads’ finds Sassi and his excellent backing band combining the traditional music of the middle east with progressive Rock and Metal. There’s a distinct difference between this album and its predecessor ‘Desert Butterflies’ though; where that record focused mainly on instrumental works, about half of this one features vocals. It’s not like Sassi has toned down the sound of his band – quite the opposite actually – but there does seem to be a greater deal of memorability here. His instrumentals were always fairly well-written, but the melodies really have a way of getting stuck in your head this time.

‘Roots And Roads’ features an impressive list of guest musicians. And while some of them really put their mark on some of the tracks – Harel Shachal’s clarinet on the enchanting ‘Winter’ is mindblowing, while Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal yet again makes an appearance in the awesome ‘Palm Dance’ – it is Sassi himself who steals the show. If he’s not churning out powerful riffs and passionate leads, he’s rocking the bouzouki, saz, oud or chumbush like no one before or since. When those instruments appear, they usually carry the melody – ‘Root Out’ and opening track ‘Wings’ are the most obvious examples – which makes sense, given the pioneer status he has when it comes to incorporating Middle-Eastern elements in Rock music.

Another thing Sassi has done really well on this record is using many different vocal styles throughout the album. The line-up of his band has a male singer in himself and a powerful female singer in Sapir Fox, although the similarly-voiced Diana Golbi lays down the best performance on the record in ‘Root Out’. Myrath singer Zaher Zorgati, on the other hand, provides a strong contrast to Sassi’s voice with his Roy Khan meets Mats Levén performance on ‘The Religion Of Music’, marking his second appearance on a masterpiece in 2016.

If all that musical brilliance wasn’t enough, ‘Roots And Roads’ has a very pleasant flow due to a perfect sense of climaxes and light-and-shade workings. It’s the final polish on an album that is worth hearing by any music fan all over the globe, which seems fitting, given that it’s obviously Sassi’s mission to break down boundaries and letting the music speak for itself. The musicians are from different continents and so are the musical influences that can be heard throughout the album. And while any other musician would turn such a myriad of influences into an incoherent mess, you can leave it up to Yossi Sassi to make one of this year’s finest records out of it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Palm Dance’, ‘Winter’, ‘Root Out’

Interview: Yama-B’s expressions of his own worlds

When exploring Japanese music, I encountered a lot of bands that I liked musically, but seemed to lack something in the vocal department. One of the first singers who really blew me away was former Galneryus and current Gunbridge singer Yama-B. A true powerhouse with an incredible range. These days, he supports guitar heroes Kelly Simonz and Iron-Chino, whilst still leading Gunbridge and his solo project Rekion. For a project I’m working on, Yama-B and I had an extremely pleasant conversation about his musical background, but also his plans for the future.

Our drummer Hideki left Gunbridge, but we have a new drummer called Tommy. In a few weeks, our bassist Naoya, who joined us after Toshiyuki left, will leave as well. I really want to get a good bassist, but if we can’t find one, I will play bass and sing. Also, I joined a charity project called Ana – Metal For Charity, lead by Marius Danielsen, the vocalist for Darkest Sins from Norway. I already finished recording my parts, so the newest song should be released in the near future.

You sing in surprisingly good English, but your work with Rekion is all in Japanese. What makes you decide in what language a song should be?

First, let me explain the difference between Gunbridge and Rekion. Gunbridge exists so I can express my Heavy Metal music, as European and American bands have inspired me to do. I wanted to have this big band sound, like the music I heard when I was a young boy. That’s why I sing in English in Gunbridge.
Rekion, on the other hand, is a very personal project. Rekion is not meant to be played by a band. The sound and lyrics come from the bottom of my heart and express my inner space. It’s much more introspective and therefore, I need to write the lyrics in Japanese. I prioritize musical themes in Gunbridge and personal insistence in Rekion.

So when you started to get serious with music, you were listening to western bands?

There is no doubt that I was influenced by European and American bands. My parents liked classical music and western popular music, so we usually checked the American hit charts. Many Heavy Metal bands were in the charts at that time. It was a great age, I think (laughs). I was fifteen years old at the time and truly inspired by Heavy Metal music.

Did your parents’ love for classical music influence your somewhat operatic singing style?

My mother was an operatic soprano who practiced her skills through personal lessons. I was very curious, so I always asked her: hey mom, how was today’s lesson? (laughs) That’s how I learned my vocal techniques from when I was fifteen to when I was about twenty years old.

Your music has brought you to Europe. How different are European shows from Japanese shows?

There really isn’t that much of a difference between Europe and Japan. My memories of Europe are very positive. Everything was handled very professionally and very politely. That was very comfortable for us. I like the European audiences, because they always make a lot of noise during the shows. That’s very powerful for me! Their screaming makes me excited. Japanese people are very quiet, you know? (laughs)

Japan is well known for its Visual Kei scene. Is there still so much animosity between that scene and the Heavy Metal scene?

Both scenes are still very separate. Visual Kei audiences don’t see Heavy Metal musicians, because Metal musicians aren’t cool to them. And Heavy Metal fans don’t like Visual Kei, because they think Visual Kei musicians get a huge fan base without any musical effort. In my opinion, they are both wrong. There are many cool musicians in Heavy Metal bands and there are many great players in the Visual scene. For example, mr. Syu, the guitarist, played in a Visual Kei band before we formed Galneryus. Also, Issy and Hayato, both guitarists in Gunbridge, played in Visual Kei bands before Gunbridge. There’s a part in both scenes where there is no border. Dir En Grey is very heavy and I feel there is a deep musical effort there. Do you know Versailles? Very progressive! Their music is very cool, I think.”

How important is the visual aspect for a “non-visual” musician like yourself?

I don’t need strange make-up, but I do think we have to dress up and decorate the stage to express our own world, our inner space, when we play on stage. With Gunbridge, we decorate the stage with some flags and a large backdrop. We like to make that effort.

You are known to be a big anime fan and can even be heard on a few soundtracks. What is it that makes anime and Heavy Metal work so well together?

Both express a world of their own with extreme deformation.

What artists inspire you these days?

These days, I don’t listen to cd’s much anymore. My friends, musicians I work with on stage or in the studio inspire me. I get a lot of encouragement from them. Kelly Simonz from Blind Faith or Iron-Chino from Iron Attack! and Lightning, for instance. They are great as composers, players and band leaders. Also, my best friend and great senior Eizo Sakamoto, from Aisenshi, Eizo Japan and previously in Animetal and Anthem.

Album of the Week 25-2016: Steve Hackett – Spectral Mornings

Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is to me one of those people who should consistently be mentioned in any list of guitar heroes, but somehow hardly ever is. Maybe it’s because he focuses on tasteful, melodically oriented leads rather than constant speedy runs, although the is perfectly capable of writing the latter. Another reason why he deserves all the praise he can get is the fact that his records are infinitely more listenable than those of any neoclassical shredder. Hackett is an excellent composer and though his consistent embrace of technology makes some of his efforts sound a bit dated, his third album ‘Spectral Mornings’ was his first masterpiece. Definitely worth a listen.

Like the vast majority of his solo records, ‘Spectral Mornings’ is a bit of a hodgepodge, which can make it sound a little uneven at times. It’s not completely fair to judge it by that, because he tackles every style on the album with an elegance and an expertise that makes it nearly impossible not to admire Hackett for it. Even the humorous, vaguely Carribean sounding ‘The Ballad Of A Decomposing Man’, which does stand out like a sore thumb in a way, because the rest of the record is such stately, progressive music.

The most important reason for me to love this record is opening track ‘Every Day’. It starts out reasonably poppy with a prominent role for Nick Magnus’ synthesizers and the excellent vocal harmonies Hackett shares with bassist Dik Cadbury and lead singer Pete Hicks, but it’s the second half that turns the whole song into gold. Lead by a myriad of fantastic melodies, these are quite likely the most beautiful three minutes of guitar music ever laid down on tape. Hackett’s playing is highly expressive, but the melodies are also extremely well-written. The backing by his band, Magnus especially, is subtle, but just right for the part.

So ‘Every Day’ starts the record off in a mindblowing fashion, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else to be enjoyed here. The closing title track is more proof that Hackett is an excellent guitarist who refuses to let his playing get in the way of the composition. ‘Clocks – The Angel Of Mons’ is another great instrumental built upon a strong recurring theme and features an overwhelming drum solo by John Shearer, which I suspect is double tracked. But even outside of his pastoral Progrock sound, Hackett and his band excel: ‘Last Time In Cordoba’ is a vehicle for the guitarist’s considerable skills on the classical guitar, while ‘The Virgin And The Gypsy’ highlights his Folk origins beautifully.

Anyone who doesn’t consider Steve Hackett a guitar hero obviously hasn’t heard him play. Maybe part of the “problem” is that the calm, sympathetic Brit has never had the ego to impose himself onto the audience as the next facemelting shredder, but his best records feature some of the most tasteful, pleasant guitar music ever made. And he’s still going strong. His three most recent studio records are every bit as good as this one, but if you’re looking for a way to get into the man’s impressive skills, look no further than the last three minutes of ‘Every Day’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Every Day’, ‘Spectral Mornings’, ‘Last Time In Cordoba’


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