Album of the Week 25-2022: Darkane – Inhuman Spirits

Some bands don’t find the audience they deserve. Darkane managed to impress me as a teenager with their fairly unique blend of modern thrash metal, melodic death metal and distinct classical influences, but it felt like legions of copy-pasted Swedish melodeath bands were running away with their audience. That may be why the wait for a new album took no less than nine years, but here it is in the shape of ‘Inhuman Spirits’. The sound of ‘Inhuman Spirits’ is slightly more streamlined than their early work, but still instantly recognizable as Darkane. Not unlike ‘The Sinister Supremacy’ before it, but better overall.

What always intrigued me about Darkane’s sound is how the Swedes brought old and new together. The heavy riffs courtesy of Christofer Malmström and Klas Ideberg would not have sounded out of place on one of Machine Head’s better albums, but they mix those riffs up with tasteful melodies and harmonies. Those harmonies evoke the classic heavy metal spirit, but their broad sound give them a truly unique, almost cinematic flavor. There are slightly fewer complex, technical sections than there were on the likes of 2001’s ‘Insanity’, but that has ultimately benefited the memorability of the songs.

One of the biggest advantages of that approach is that each song on ‘Inhuman Spirits’ has a strong character of its own. Every song has at the very least an intro riff and a chorus that will cement itself into the listeners’ memories. While I personally have a slight preference for the thrashy approach of the likes of ‘Embrace The Flames’, ‘The Great Deceiver’ and the incredible ‘Mansion Of Torture’, literally every other track is worth hearing. ‘The Quintessence Of Evil’ is a midtempo monster that serves as an excellent change of pace, while ‘A Spiral To Nothing’ almost feels like traditional heavy metal on steroids until its crushing pre-chorus sets in.

A key characteristic to Darkane’s sound that thankfully is still there is the interaction between Malmström’s fusion-inspired guitar solos and Ideberg’s more traditionally melodic ones. This always made Darkane stand out in a field of melodeath bands with two nearly indistinguishable lead guitarists. In addition, it is great to hear that those nine years have done nothing to diminish Peter Wildoer’s qualities. He is still my favorite drummer of all time. Lawrence Mackrory is the most versatile singer the band has ever had and while Jörgen Löfberg is not the most audible bassist in the genre, listening to ‘Inhuman Spirits’ on good equipment shows just how important he is to the bottom end from a sonic perspective.

Comebacks usually come in two flavors: the triumphant return or the massive disappointment. Maybe it’s because Darkane never stopped playing in the meantime, but in a way, ‘Inhuman Spirits’ is neither. It could have come out fifteen years ago and it would be classified as another great Darkane album. That is not the criticism it may seem, as ‘Inhuman Spirits’ is significantly better than its two predecessors and “more Darkane” is exactly what the album needed to be. A bit more direct than the likes of ‘Expanding Senses’ and ‘Layers Of Lies’, but the same core sound that intrigued me twenty years ago and is far more unique than it often gets credit for.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mansion Of Torture’, ‘The Quintessence Of Evil’, ‘A Spiral To Nothing’

Album of the Week 24-2022: Dir En Grey – Phalaris

Usually, a Dir En Grey album is something to look forward to. However, with ‘The Insulated World’ being a borderline unlistenable barrage of noise that completely forsakes the band’s trademark dynamic songwriting, particularly during its first half, I was a bit apprehensive about ‘Phalaris’. Fortunately, ‘Phalaris’ puts Dir En Grey back on the right track. It has turned out to be an album that puts thick, meaty modern metal riffs and melancholic melodies with that typical Japanese flavor in excellent balance again. Fairly streamlined by contemporary Dir En Grey standards, but not without its crushing moments; exactly as dynamic as it needs to be.

Stylistically, ‘Phalaris’ sounds like the album that should have been released between ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ (2011) and ‘Arche’ (2014). It isn’t quite as extreme and dense as the former, but there are plenty of the extreme progressive metal riffs that characterized the album to be heard here. Especially the excellent lengthy opener ‘Schadenfreude’ and the brief ‘Mouai Ni Shosu’ would not have sounded out of place on ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. ‘Phalaris’ also isn’t quite as open and accessible as ‘Arche’, but it has a similar approach to memorable songwriting that gives every track its own instantly recognizable character.

Kyo seems to have toned down his vocals ever so slightly as well. His vocal extremities will always be a defining feature of Dir En Grey, but his approach is more musical this time around. Most of ‘Phalaris’ features his clean mid-range, his head voice or his hardcore-ish bark. There are some deep growls and shrieks here and there, but where he would have crammed the heavier songs full of them ten years ago, he actually goes for a fairly unpredictable approach on the likes of ‘The Perfume Of Sins’, making the songs so much more satisfying in the process.

After my first spin, the bookends of ‘Phalaris’ were clear standouts. ‘Schadenfreude’ is a ten-minute prog metal monster with fantastic riffs, ‘Kamuy’ a nine-minute brooding semi-ballad with interesting use of synthesizers. The idiosyncratic start-stop riffing, cool tom-heavy rhythms and surprisingly subdued atmosphere make ‘Utsusu, Bouga Wo Kurau’ a favorite as well, while ’13’ and ‘Oboro’ are the best examples of the types of “heavy ballads” that only Dir En Grey knows how to do. As usual, the actual ballads – ‘Hibiki’ and the almost alternative rock-sounding ‘Otogi’ – are excellent as well. Due to the dynamic nature of ‘Phalaris’, even the blunt, heavy tracks like ‘Ochita Koto No Aru Sora’ and the somewhat punky ‘Eddie’ manage to impress.

In a strange way, following up the worst album they have ever released with something this good is typical for Dir En Grey. While there are some characteristics you will always get, the overall sound of their albums tends to be a surprise until you hear them. ‘Phalaris’ is the sound of Dir En Grey clawing their way back to to the unique contemporary progressive metal sound that put them on the map worldwide around the time ‘Uroboros’ (2008) was released. ‘Phalaris’ isn’t quite that good, but it is as close as it gets. It is also somewhat more accessible, which might make it a good album for newcomers to get acquainted with the band. Keep in mind that “accessible” is always relative with Dir En Grey though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Schadenfreude’, ‘Utsusu, Bouga Wo Kurau’, ’13’

Album of the Week 23-2022: Dream Theater – Falling Into Infinity

‘Falling Into Infinity’ is arguably Dream Theater’s most controversial album. Allegedly, Elektra Records demanded a more radio-friendly album. In all honesty, it is difficult to picture any mid-nineties radio station having most of the material on ‘Falling Into Infinity’ on heavy rotation, with all the odd meters on display. There are a few more accessible tracks, but what Elektra’s alleged demands did result in is an album that is closer to contemporary progressive rock than it is to the progressive metal of its three predecessors. And for what it’s worth, I personally think Dream Theater does progressive rock better.

If Dream Theater was looking at successful nineties bands for inspiration, it seems like they mainly took it from the most prog-sounding bands, such as Soundgarden. There are nods to Alice In Chains (the vocal harmonies in the chorus of ‘New Millennium’) and Rage Against The Machine (the main riff to ‘You Not Me’), but the overall sound is fairly unique. Given the blatant Rush references on recent albums, one might assume Dream Theater would have looked to mid-nineties Rush for inspiration, but the compositions on ‘Falling Into Infinity’ are notably more complex. There is also plenty of room for instrumental virtuosity, though somewhat more reined in than before.

The album’s reputation seems to suggest that there are no progressive moments on ‘Falling Into Infinity’, but the opposite is actually true. In fact, ‘Lines In the Sand’ is possibly the best prog song released in the nineties. It slowly builds from an atmospheric keyboard-only intro by relative newcomer Derek Sherinian to a powerful rock song that goes through multiple changes. The gospel-tinged backing vocals courtesy of King’s X frontman Doug Pinnick are a great bonus. ‘New Millennium’ is another prog rock masterpiece and a fantastic opener, while ‘Burning My Soul’ and ‘Just Let Me Breathe’ are spirited rockers with cool rhythms.

Power ballads generally aren’t Dream Theater’s forte, often devolving into overly schmaltzy AOR choruses, but there are actually a few good ones here. Lengthy closer ‘Trial Of Tears’ is a moody slow builder with some excellent proggy sections and ‘Peruvian Skies’ is a brooding track that makes brilliant use of climaxes – or rather anti-climaxes if we’re splitting hairs – and easily the most nineties rock-sounding track on here. Even ‘Hollow Years’ and the Elton John-esque ‘Anna Lee’ are quite good, though both could have a minute chafed off without hurting the tracks. The instrumental interlude ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ is excellent as well.

Admittedly, ‘Falling Into Infinity’ did not need to be seventy-eight minutes long. There is an even better fifty-five minute album in here somewhere. But it is far from the pop album its reputation sometimes seems to suggest it is. The songwriting resonates with me more than most of the wildly inconsitent ‘Images And Words’ and the first half of ‘Awake’ did. Compared to the latter, I actually like that guitarist John Petrucci doesn’t chug on his lowest strings quite as much. If you go into ‘Falling Into Infinity’ with the right expectations, you will find a highly creative album that I rate as one of Dream Theater’s top three albums.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lines In The Sand’, ‘New Millennium’, ‘Trial Of Tears’

Album of the Week 22-2022: Czesław Niemen – Aerolit

Czesław Niemen was a remarkable artist. Not only was he one of the best singers I have ever heard, he was also the type of artist who kept pushing his boundaries. Between the late sixties and the late seventies, he developed from an unusually soulful beat artist to a progressive rock musician and an avant-garde artist experimenting with early electronic music in a manner that made complete sense. ‘Aerolit’ was his final progressive rock album and it is arguably where he pushed the style to its limit. There are so many good grooves, unpredictable melodic patterns and excellent vocals on ‘Aerolit’ that it still sounds fresh today.

Niemen was inspired by multiple genres. His powerful voice has a surprisingly natural edge that betrays a significant soul influence, but by the time ‘Aerolit’ was written, the progressive rock and jazz fusion influences were front and center musically. The music gets reasonably abstract from time to time, but always with a clear structure and memorable melodies. It helps that drummer Piotr Dziemski and bassist Jacek Gazda are a formidable rhythm section. On their rock solid, but never overpowering foundation, Niemen’s synthesizers and the guitars courtesy of later SBB member Sławomir Pirowar can improvise freely when the music calls for it.

Don’t expect ‘Aerolit’ to be crammed full of virtuosity, however. There are sections dominated by rapid successions of notes, most notably the intro and outro of opening track ‘Cztery Ściany Świata’, but most of ‘Aerolit’ is defined by subdued grooves creating a dark, at times unsettling atmosphere. ‘Kamyk’ is the most obvious example of this. There are sections with Niemen, Gazda and electric pianist Andrzej Nowak playing in unison that may suggest the song is a bit more forward than the rest of the album. Most of the song is built on a laid-back groove and Niemen’s surprisingly understated vocal performance though.

Those who want to hear Niemen’s vocals at their most powerful are well off listening to ‘Daj Mi Wstążkę Błękitną’. Since it’s a ballad, there is more room for his signature vocal acrobatics. The interaction between his mellotron and Pirowar’s accoustic guitar clearly make it a seventies prog ballad, but that should not be an issue. ‘Pielgrzym’ feels like a precursor to his avant-garde period. Particularly the first half, which consists of abstract washes of synthesizer runs and yearning vocal melodies with a distinctly Arabic character. The second half of ‘Pielgrzym’ is defined by a fantastic slow groove that feels like it never ends, nor does it have to end.

‘Smutny Ktoś i Biedny Nikt’ closes ‘Aerolit’ in a relatively rocking fashion. The song feels like a blend of the progressive rock Niemen has been exploring since his brilliant red album from 1971 and the Turkish psych-folk that was around at the same time, but he may not have heard. The main riff is simple, but brutally effective. ‘Aerolit’ is an album that may need some time to properly sink in, but it is truly one of the best progressive rock albums of the seventies. Especially out of the segment of the genre that openly flirted with jazz fusion. Highly recommended to fans of adventurous music that reveals something new with every spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Smutny Ktoś i Biedny Nikt’, ‘Kamyk’, ‘Cztery Ściany Świata’

Album of the Week 21-2022: Decapitated – Cancer Culture

What stood out to me immediately about the new Decapitated album ‘Cancer Culture’ were Wacław ‘Vogg’ Kiełtyka’s guitar solos. There are far more of them than on other recent Decapitated releases and most of them are surprisingly melodic or atmospheric. From there, ‘Cancer Culture’ gradually started to intrigue me more and more. It is a rare example of a modern death metal album that is highly creative without trying to sound smart or losing the aggression inherent to the genre. If anything, ‘Cancer Culture’ is the most aggressive album Decapitated released in a long time.

On the surface, ‘Cancer Culture’ may seem a similar type of groovy contemporary death metal album as its three predecessors. However, there is something different about the album. It is clearly the most dynamic album the band released since the death of original drummer and Kiełtyka’s younger brother Vitek. Possibly even more dynamic, because ‘Cancer Culture’ has a great deal of variation in the tempo department, expertly handled by newcomer James Stewart on drums. ‘Cancer Culture’ has some of the fastest moments in recent Decapitated history. Partly because of that, the groovy and atmospheric elements stand out more.

Although the album contains a number of highlights, ‘Just A Cigarette’ is one of the most incredible extreme metal tracks I have heard in a while. It alternates surprisingly melodic, at times almost black metal-esque tremolo riffs supported by blastbeats with extended clean passages which effectively make it a strangely paradoxical death metal ballad with a fantastic guitar solo. ‘Cancer Culture’ is full of those types of moments that subvert your expectations ever so slightly. Take ‘Hello Death’, which starts out like a violent mosher, only to suddenly open up for an almost Nevermore-ish section with clean vocals by Jinjer’s Tatiana Shmailyuk. The album constantly keeps you on your toes as a listener.

The other end of the spectrum contains ‘Locked’ and ‘No Cure’. The former is not even two minutes long and is carried by a twisted riff that would not have sounded out of place on Gorguts’ ‘Obscura’ album, the other an annihilating thrasher that comes closest to something the band could have done on one of their first four albums. In all honesty, I find most of the early Decapitated albums somewhat exhausting to listen to, but when moments like these are paired with groove monsters like the fantastic title track and ‘Iconoclast’ or atmospheric moments like the intense near-doom of ‘Hours As Battlegrounds’, you are suddenly left with an extremely listenable album.

‘Cancer Culture’ probably is not going to win back any fans who abandoned the band when their early technical hyperspeed death metal sound was traded for something a bit more groove-based. It is, however, an album with the potential to appeal to a very wide audience. Aggression, atmosphere, groove and even melody are excellently balanced on ‘Cancer Culture’ and complement each other perfectly. On these pages, I have often been fairly critical on the state of modern death metal, but Decapitated single-handedly shows the scene how a contemporary album in the style should be done.

Recommended tracks: ‘Just A Cigarette’, ‘Cancer Culture’, ‘Hello Death’

Album of the Week 20-2022: Vision Divine – When All The Heroes Are Dead

‘When All The Heroes Are Dead’ and I kind of got off on the wrong foot. After the band’s amazing new singer Ivan Giannini was introduced through the excellent single ‘Angel Of Revenge’, the singles from the following album largely left me cold. Listening to the album now, I am not quite sure why. It is easily their best album since Michele Luppi left the band fifteen years ago and it sees Vision Divine reconnecting with their power metal roots, albeit with slightly more pronounced AOR leanings than before. That typical Italian style of hyper-melodic power metal hardly gets any better than this.

Band leader Olaf Thörsen apparently wanted to re-establish Vision Divine as a progressive power metal band with a larger emphasis on the progressive side than ever before when original singer Fabio Lione joined the band after Luppi’s departure. The stylistic shift did work, but the band’s characteristic memorable songwriting was sacrificed somewhat in the process. Giannini’s arrival may have inspired Thörsen to steer Vision Divine towards a more melodic direction again. Contrary to its two predecessors, I can remember the melodies and choruses of multiple songs on ‘When All The Heroes Are Dead’ after hearing the album only once: a sign of excellent melodic songwriting.

Opening track ‘The 26th Machine’ has a chorus that contrasts with the rest of the song in terms of atmosphere and that initially threw me off. These days, the track is the perfect opening track for the album to me. All riffs have a triumphant quality and while the song largely follows a standard structure, some of the twists feel quite surprising. The speedy ‘The King Of The Sky’ is another fantastic power metal track and my personal highlight of the album. It’s full of propulsive palm-muted riffs and soaring melodies. Semi-title track ‘Now That All The Heroes Are Dead’ is stylistically similar, but has a more melancholic feel.

Giannini’s voice deserves extra attention. Thörsen really has a radar for great singers with impressive ranges. Unlike his two predecessors, however, Giannini has a slight sandpaper edge to his voice, which makes him sound so much more powerful and emotional than most singers in this particular style of power metal. This is also what makes a more AOR-oriented track as ‘Were I God’ work much better than it would have otherwise. His voice is also what lifts ‘3 Men Walk On The Moon’ to a higher level. His ever-shifting vocal approach adds an incredible amount of depth and dynamic range to the song.

Though ‘When All The Heroes Are Dead’ is not a perfect album, it is an incredible introduction to the combination of Vision Divine’s songwriting and Giannini’s vocal prowess. Ultimately, my biggest complaint about the album is that ‘Angel Of Revenge’ is not on every version of the album, as it is clearly one of the best Vision Divine songs to date. This style of power metal is made almost exclusively in Italy and often verges on being too emotionally pathetic to impress me, but Vision Divine has impressed me since their debut album and after a slight dip, continues to impress me with ‘When All The Heroes Are Dead’.

Recommended tracks: ‘The King Of The Sky’, ‘3 Men Walk On The Moon’, ‘The 26th Machine’

Kevy Metal’s Gateway to Jazz – Part I: Origins

Frequent readers of this blog probably would not be able to tell, but I do listen to a decent amount of jazz-related music. It just doesn’t get reviewed here all that much, because my review format does not work very well with jazz releases. Jazz generally tends to be relatively bare bones on the compositional side, having its focus mainly on the interaction between the musicians involved. Exceptions exist, we might actually go into a few in this article, but most jazz is too improvisation-based to lend itself well to having its compositions picked apart like I do in most of my Album of the Week reviews. Especially not the more traditional side of the genre.

This article exists for two reasons. One is simply to give myself an excuse to write something about jazz releases I enjoy without having to force it into a review. The other reason is that I wish an article like this existed when I was trying to get into jazz. An article that gives fans of the harder side of rock music a guide for getting into jazz without the snobbery of some of the more traditionally-minded jazz media – hopefully. This also means that the artists I will be discussing in this first chapter will be electric jazz musicians, with the focus on the jazz-rock and fusion scene of the late sixties and early seventies.

The reason why I think this scene will be of particular interest to fans of rock music trying to get into jazz is simply because it was the first time rock music and jazz came together. Also, I tend to prefer the textures of electronic keyboards to the sound of an acoustic piano, at least until smooth synthesizer sounds sanded the edges off the more rock-inclined jazz artists around the early eighties. So while this guide will not help you get acquainted with the discographies of old jazz heroes like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington, I thought another huge name in jazz would be the ideal place to start.

Miles Davis’ Electric Period

Miles Davis is the perfect artist to start with, because – spoiler alert – most of the other bands and artists covered in this article relate to him in one way or another. In a way, this should not be too surprising, as the trumpeter and band leader was at the center of almost every major development the genre went through during his lifetime. His 1959 release ‘Kind Of Blue’ is widely considered to be the greatest jazz album of all time. And while I personally don’t even think it is the greatest record of the era when he was still playing purely acoustic music, it does say something about the influence Davis had on other jazz musicians, as well as his immense popularity.

During the late sixties, Davis was introduced to rock and funk by his then-wife Betty. Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix were particularly influential and he tried incorporating rock elements into his music. The first careful steps towards a more electric interpretation of jazz were taken on his 1968 releases ‘Miles In The Sky’ and ‘Filles De Kilimanjaro’. But the following year’s brooding masterpiece ‘In A Silent Way’ is seen as a turning point in both Davis’ career and the history of jazz. All keyboards on the album are electric and John McLaughlin’s electric guitar is featured prominently on the album.

Stylistically, ‘In A Silent Way’ feels relatively traditional, but many jazz critics felt like Davis was selling out to the rock audience. Ever the stubborn guy, Davis dove head-first into electric music for his next recording session, which resulted in the abstract, psychedelic bestseller ‘Bitches Brew’. While ‘Bitches Brew’ is the first Miles Davis album with very pronounced rock elements, it isn’t the best record to get familiar with his work. The long songs have very little in the way of traditional structures and recognizable melodies. And while it is a rewarding listen once it sinks in, it might take a while before it will get there.

Easier to digest and in my opinion Davis’ best studio recording is ‘A Tribute To Jack Johnson’ (1971). This soundtrack for a documentary about the titular boxing legend feels closer to a true fusion of jazz and rock. McLaughlin is playing riffs rather than textures, while bassist Michael Henderson and drummer extraordinaire Billy Cobham lay down a really solid rhythmic foundation. Both pieces on the album are over 25 minutes long and full of lengthy improvisations, but have a decidedly rock ‘n’ roll feel that truly benefits the music.

Miles Moves From Rock to Funk

Throughout the rest of the early seventies, Davis’ fascination for funk and African rhythms increased, resulting in an album quite likely even more controversial than ‘Bitches Brew’ in 1972’s ‘On The Corner’. There are probably no albums in my collection with fewer melodies. And yet, the complete devotion to rhythms makes the album sound unlike anything released before or since. It’s not exactly funk, but it’s gritty, it’s greasy and it certainly sounds less intellectual than anything Davis had done up until that point. Once again, not an easy album to get into, but worth it if you get a kick out of cool rhythms.

During these years, Davis’ performances were frequently made into live albums. Whether or not those are worth having depends on your personal opinion of whatever Davis was doing at the time. But for what it’s worth, ‘Agharta’ is one of my favorite Miles Davis releases. The band Davis was working with at the time was incredible, with guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Cosey is one of the unsung guitar heroes of the era, basically taking Hendrix’ innovations to the extreme. And while the long tracks on ‘Agharta’ and its counterpart ‘Pangaea’ are as abstract and full of improvisation as most of Davis’ other seventies work, they also feel somewhat more structured and have a truly unique atmosphere.

Shortly after the performances on ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’, Davis retired from music and basically became a recluse for multiple years. He did briefly make his way back to the spotlight in the eighties, again following a different musical path inspired by funk and early hiphop. Occasionally interesting, but the rock influences would not return.

Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters

Herbie Hancock has a somewhat odd relationship with electric jazz. After being introduced to the electric keyboard during his time playing with Miles Davis – reluctantly, by his own admission – he spent a while creating music that was even more abstract and spacey during what came to be known as his Mwandishi period. This period lasted three albums and was named after the first from 1971 – as well as the Swahili word for composer. While the music on ‘Mwandishi’, ‘Crossings’ (1972) and ‘Sextant’ (1973) was more composed than anything on ‘Bitches Brew’ in the sense that it has more recognizable parts, the overall sound is even less accessible, resulting in disappointing sales and what seems like a premature end of the style.

This is made all the more apparent by 1973 classic ‘Head Hunters’, which sees Hancock and his band – including the fantastic bassist Paul Jackson – incorporate funk elements into their sound. Hancock was so inspired by Sly and the Family Stone that he even named one of the tracks on the album ‘Sly’. It barely sounds like them or any funk that was around at the time, but it’s definitely more funk or even proto-hiphop than most other jazz music flirting with funk at the time. Next year’s ‘Thrust’ successfully expanded upon the formula set on ‘Head Hunters’ by adding a more pronounced melodic layer, which is part of why I prefer it to ‘Head Hunters’.

‘Man-Child’ (1975) saw Hancock do what he should have done from the moment he went electric: he added guitars to the mix. And not just any guitars. Motown veteran Wah Wah Watson, later Funkadelic contributor DeWayne ‘Blackbird’ McKnight and David T. Walker, who worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, all recorded guitar parts for the deliciously funky ‘Man-Child’, which is easily one of my favorite jazz-related albums of all time. Unfortunately, it proved to be the peak for Hancock’s fusion period, as 1977’s ‘Secrets’ is a significant step down and he would increasingly experiment with electronics in the following years. Still, Hancock’s early seventies albums, as well as the albums his backing band The Headhunters recorded without him at the time are worth hearing for rock and funk fans getting into jazz.

Return to Forever

Return to Forever is my favorite jazz-ish band and likely the one closest to traditional rock music in terms of composition and line-up. They did have a bit of an odd history, however. The band started as a vehicle for Chick Corea, who worked with Miles Davis throughout the late sixties and early seventies. In fact, ‘Return to Forever’ was originally the name of Corea’s 1972 album, which along with its follow-up ‘Light As A Feather’ is rooted in latin and Afro-Carribean music rather than rock. If you want to know whether a Return to Forever album is worth checking out, the simple answer is: it is if Lenny White plays on it.

White is one of my favorite jazz drummers because he truly understands rock grooves. He hits harder than the average jazz-rock or fusion drummer, but he understands the nuance of the jazz idiom as well. His debut with the band was the 1973 release ‘Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy’, which immediately shows why Return to Forever has more crossover appeal than Miles Davis had. While there is still plenty of room for lengthy improvisations, there are actual riffs and rhythms on the album, structured in a way comparable to what a relatively adventurous seventies rock band would do. There are more melodies and the album has a sense of memorability that truly makes it stand out among his peers.

The classic line-up of Return To Forever was formed when Bill Connors left the band and a young guitar prodigy by the name of Al Di Meola joined the band. While Connors was great at translating jazz to a rock idiom, Di Meola’s dexterity and actual background in rock and classical guitar makes him sound like a precursor to heavy metal lead guitar at times, even more so on his first couple of solo albums. In Return to Forever, his interactions with Corea and especially bass virtuoso Stanley Clarke turn ‘Where Have I Known You Before’ (1974) and ‘No Mystery’ (1975) into hard-driving, yet sophisticated musical cocktails rarely heard before or since.

‘Romantic Warrior’ (1976) is considered to be a classic of both fusion and progressive rock and while I think its predecessors had better highlights, it can be considered a peak in both composition and musicianship for anyone involved. Corea felt this particular instalment of Return to Forever had run its course and decided to carry on without the rock muscle of White and Di Meola. The reunion live releases ‘Returns’ (2009, with Di Meola) and ‘The Mothership Returns’ (2012, with Frank Gambale on guitar and Jean-Luc Ponty on violin) are powerful reminders of how well this group of musicians worked together.

Mahavishnu Orchestra

One cannot talk about fusion without mentioning John McLaughlin. The British-born guitarist was already immortalized as a pivotal figure in electric jazz through his work with Miles Davis and longtime Davis drummer Tony Williams before starting his own band. But it was Mahavishnu Orchestra that truly cemented his reputation, as well as the value of the electric guitar in jazz music. The first Mahavishnu Orchestra line-up in particular is responsible for some of the strongest fusion ever released. Where Return To Forever generally sounds riffy and down to earth, Mahavishnu Orchestra has a rather unique ethereal vibe.

‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ (1971) and ‘Birds Of Fire’ (1973) are classic fusion albums on which the melodies of McLaughlin and the electric violin of Jerry Goodman create a fairly unique sonic pallette with a somewhat psychedelic character. Shortly after ‘Birds Of Fire’, the original line-up of Mahavishnu Orchestra fell apart and the band slowly morphed into a solo venture for McLaughlin. Good, but not as magical as the first two albums. However, in 1999, ‘The Lost Trident Sessions’ was released. It was recorded in 1973 and featured the original line-up. McLaughlin plays uncharacteristically straightforward riffs on that album at times and as such, it is recommended to rock fans trying to get into more jazzy territory.

All members of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra line-up had success away from the band. Most famously, keyboard player Jan Hammer wrote and performed music for ‘Miami Vice’. McLauglin continues to create interesting music to this day, even appearing on one of my favorite albums of all time: the all-acoustic ‘Friday Night In San Francisco’, recorded with Al Di Meola and flamenco legend Paco de Lucía. But the best Mahavishnu-related solo album is drummer Billy Cobham’s debut ‘Spectrum’. The album features all the muscle of rock music and all the unpredictability of jazz, as well as spectacular guitar work by Tommy Bolin. Cobham’s more funky work is also worth exploring.


Sure, calling Magma jazz is stretching it a bit, but that’s exactly what makes them such a great gateway band. Depending on who you ask, Magma will be labelled as either progressive rock, jazz-rock or zeuhl, the latter being the genre description first coined specifically for Magma’s unusual mix of influences. Their first two albums are reasonably traditional jazz-rock, albeit with fairly unconventional vocals in a partially improvised constructed language. It wasn’t until the lead-up to their third album ‘Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh’ (1973) that drummer and main composer Christian Vander truly found Magma’s completely bonkers sound. A sound that may require some time and might not ever make sense.

The foundation on ‘Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh’, ‘Ẁürdah Ïtah’ (1974) and ‘Köhntarkösz’ (1974) consists of Vander’s thunderous, at times almost militaristic rhythms and Jannick Top’s massive distorted bass sound. Due to the revolving cast of musicians, the exact instruments on top of that foundation differ from release to release. But there is always room for idiosynchratic choral vocals that occupy a space somewhere between haunting gospel and contemporary classical music. Most of them sung in the constructed language Kobaïan, which makes them sound like additional melodic instruments rather than traditional singing. Often, though not always, the singers and band – including Vander’s drums – play in some kind of hypnotic unison.

For the longest time, ‘Üdü Ẁüdü’ (1976) was the only Magma album I owned. Closing track ‘De Futura’ is a masterpiece and the album as a whole feels a bit more accessible. ‘Attahk’ (1978) overall feels like a more traditional fusion record, with its looser rhythms and its clear influences from African-American music. Vander laid Magma to rest in the mid-eighties, but rebooted the band about a decade later. Since then, Magma frequently released new material ranging from good to excellent, often using reworked versions of compositions that were performed, but never recorded in the seventies. Especially the live and studio releases with guitarist James Mac Gaw – who sadly died last year – and bassist Philippe Bussonnet are very much worth hearing.

Stay tuned for the second chapter, which will feature some more contemporary jazz artists that a rock audience might enjoy.

Album of the Week 19-2022: Providence – And I’ll Recite On Old Myth From……

Japan had its fair share of progressive rock bands throughout the eighties. Since most of them are fairly synth-heavy – often synths of the glossy, blaring variety typical of the decade – J-prog is not the scene I delve into most. There are, however, some true gems to be found if you know where to look. More often than not, these bands faded into obscurity after one or two good albums, most likely due to lack of exposure. Providence is one of those bands. Their debut album ‘And I’ll Recite On Old Myth From……’ – yes, I counted the dots – is a jazz-rock inspired masterpiece and probably my favorite J-prog album.

Many J-prog bands from the era had female singers and Providence is no exception. In fact, it was their singer that attracted my interest. Yoko Kubota would later front the fantastic heavy metal band Saber Tiger, but she sounds quite different here. Her voice has the narrative quality this kind of conceptual music requires, but she does show a lot more power when the music asks for it – her performance on the chorus of ‘Eternal Children’ is incredible. Musically, Providence is still quite keyboard-heavy, but keyboard player and main songwriter Madoka Tsukada thankfully seems to favor analog synths, electric organs and mellotrons over glossy eighties sounds.

Unlike many of their peers, Providence wastes no time getting to the point with opening track ‘Galatea’. Yes, its intro is quite long, but it is energetic and powerful. Tsukada and guitarist Satoshi Ono alternate between trading lead lines and playing them in unison, always surprisingly memorable melodically. The rumbling Rickenbacker-esque bass sound of Yasayuki Hirose does a great job moving the music forward with the drums of Yuichi Sugiyama, another Saber Tiger alumnus. The way the guitars and earthy keyboards interact has a distinct jazz-rock vibe, without moving too far into virtuosic fusion territory. Providence is about the riffs and progressions rather than the solos.

While the album is stylistically consistent, each of the four long songs has its own quality. The relatively subdued ‘Dream Seeker’s Mirage’ strays from the norm the most, being the calmest song by a considerable margin. The song does change atmosphere once the piano part that introduces the second half of the track sets in and goosebumps are unavoidable when Ono starts soloing over that part. Conversely, the twenty-minute title track is probably the most traditional seventies prog song here and contains some of the most riff-heavy parts of the album. ‘Eternal Children’ is relatively accessible and melody-focused, making it the best track to get yourself acquainted with the album.

‘And I’ll Recite On Ancient Myth From……’ is a remarkable album. It is something of an anachronism in the eighties J-prog scene, because it is so clearly inspired by prog and jazz-rock artists from the seventies, but because of that, it is one of the best prog albums of its era. And not just from Japan. There isn’t a single second on the album that feels like it should not have been there. The songs feel like adventures rather than excuses to be ten plus minutes long. It also simply sounds really good, just from a sonic perspective. An expertly composed prog album with fantastic vocals.

Recommended tracks: ‘Eternal Children’, ‘Galatea’

Album of the Week 18-2022: Rammstein – Zeit

Given the fact that their previous album was ten years in the making and their elaborate live shows take a lot of time to set up properly, rumors that the untitled Rammstein album from 2019 would be their last studio release were quite persistent. But then a pandemic hit the world and the band suddenly had all the time in the world to write and record a new album. And while it is not quite as good as its predecessor, which might just be my favorite Rammstein album to date, it is another quality album full of blunt riffs, deceptively sophisticated arrangements and dark humor.

‘Zeit’ is notably more direct than its predecessor. Where that album blew me away with its sonic depth and interesting songwriting twists, ‘Zeit’ sees Rammstein focusing on the elements that made them big in the first place. That means there are plenty of simple, but brutally effective riffs, sometimes enhanced by interesting use of synthesizers and electronics, Christoph Schneider’s drums are loud and thunderous, while Till Lindemann’s clever lyrics are delivered with conviction and drama. ‘Zeit’ is an album that will not bring in new fans, but might actually bring a handful of fans of the band’s earliest work back.

One of the songs that brought that idea to mind is the second single ‘Zick Zack’, which due to its riff-based nature and the overal guitar sound is reminiscent of older tracks like ‘Asche Zu Asche’ and ‘Zwitter’. ‘Giftig’ has a similar, though slightly more melodic approach. On the other hand, there are surprisingly sincere power ballads like ‘Meine Tränen’ and the title track, the latter of which contemplates aging in a touching manner. One highlight is ‘Angst’, on which a cool rhythm is the foundation for a song that explores the rise of racism by way of a children’s rhyme. The doomy chorus of ‘Angst’ might be my single favorite moment on ‘Zeit’.

While understanding lyrics is not necessary to enjoy a band’s music, I have always thought that doing so makes Rammstein’s songs even better. ‘Zeit’ appears to want to decimate the idea that Germans have no sense of humor. No album before has had so many overtly funny songs. ‘OK’ features an almost church-like reverence in a chorus honoring not using a condom – weirdly appropriate given the church’s stance on contraception – while ‘Dicke Titten’ is Lindemann’s ode to women with large breasts, made all the more funny by the fanfare-like melody over the heavy chorus riff. ‘Zick Zack’, meanwhile, humorously explores the exploits of cosmetic surgery.

The least flattering thing I can say about ‘Zeit’ is that it is just another Rammstein album. It did not overwhelm me like ‘Rammstein’ and ‘Reise, Reise’ did, yet it proves that the sextet is capable of putting together a perfectly good album in far less than a decade. While none of the songs impressed me as much as the likes of ‘Radio’, ‘Deutschland’ and ‘Puppe’, the more direct nature of the record means the songs might work better live. The performances are fantastic without exception. Fans of the band can pick ‘Zeit’ up blindly – and probably already have.

Recommended tracks: ‘Angst’, ‘OK’, ‘Zeit’, ‘Giftig’

Album of the Week 17-2022: Dana Fuchs – Borrowed Time

Dana Fuchs is not just one of my favorite singers, she is also part of a fantastic songwriting duo that stubbornly refuses to release the same type of album twice in a row with her guitarist Jon Diamond. And so, after successfully tackling southern soul on the fantastic ‘Love Lives On’ four years ago, Fuchs and her band go full southern rock on ‘Borrowed Time’. Fortunately, the rootsy foundation of the genre provides a perfect vehicle for Fuchs’ gritty alto. ‘Borrowed Time’ has a somewhat looser jam feel than Fuchs’ earlier albums, but also features some of the hardest rocking moments of her career.

Southern rock somes in several flavors. With its greasy grooves, potent rock riffs and memorable melodies, the closest comparison for ‘Borrowed Time’ would be The Black Crowes, albeit with more focused songwriting, fewer country leanings and far better vocals. The initial singles were good, but left me afraid that memorable hooks had been sacrificed in order to facilitate the band’s interaction. Fortunately, ‘Borrowed Time’ has a good balance of songwriting and musicianship. Quite an interesting balance of styles as well. Maybe the album cover carrying the name of its singer served as a reminder that ‘Borrowed Time’ should be about the songs first and foremost.

‘Double Down On Wrong’ is a banger of an opening track. Easily the best opener of 2022 thus far. After a few fairly subtle bars, the best riff of the album erupts. It’s a heavy, yet playful seventies rock riff that segues into a perfectly structured song, which is elevated to a higher level by the subdued anger in Fuchs’ amazing voice. ‘Curtain Close’ is another track that rocks surprisingly hard, though not without its traces of subtlety. Hints of southern soul remain, most notably on the cool Otis Redding-esque groove of ‘Save Me’, but since the styles share influences, it does not sound out of place in the least.

Most of the other tracks alternate between cool rockers with Stonesy grooves (‘Hard Road’, ‘Not Another Second On You’) and rootsy ballads (‘Call My Name’, ‘Lonely Lie’), which Fuchs is equally capable at. ‘Last To Know’ has a particularly pronounced rock groove that feels like Thunder’s ‘Backstreet Symphony’ squeezed through an American filter. It also has a lengthy, wild guitar solo with expert use of wah, not unlike the one closing track ‘Star’ culminates in. Another stand-out song is ‘Blue Ridge Road’, which builds from a swampy southern blues opening to a monumental, Led Zeppelin-esque climax.

‘Borrowed Time’ is another fantastic Dana Fuchs album. Ultimately, I do prefer the tighter songwriting of ‘Love Lives On’ and ‘Bliss Avenue’, but only just. The album’s highlights are among Fuchs’ best recorded material and all the other songs flow together so nicely that the album is over before you know it. The music on ‘Borrowed Time’ has a feel that suggests it would have happened regardless of whether it was recorded or not. That makes the album sound lively and inspired. No one knows what Dana Fuchs’ next step will be, but judging from everything she did in recent years, it will no doubt sound great.

Recommended tracks: ‘Double Down On Wrong’, ‘Curtain Close’, ‘Save Me’