Album of the Week 20-2017: Heart – Little Queen


While Ann and Nancy Wilson are still soldiering on making good music – in fact, their most recent studio album ‘Fanatic’ is easily the best thing they’ve done since the late seventies – Heart made its best albums in the second half of the seventies. They were always a good singles band, but 1977’s ‘Little Queen’ is a fantastic record almost all the way through. Though it may primarily be known for its energetic rockers like ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Kick It Out’, ‘Little Queen’ is a highly dynamic, balanced record and a songwriting triumph for both the Wilson sisters and guitarist Roger Fisher.

Anyone who has ever heard a Hart album except for maybe their eighties records should not be shocked that the band was heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin. ‘Little Queen’ is no different in the sense that it fuses hard rock songs with distinct folky touches like Led Zeppelin did on their third and fourth albums. The folky diptych of ‘Sylvan Song’ and ‘Dream Of The Archer’ even seems pretty directly modelled after ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, with its layered vocals and prominent spot for the mandolin. It does have a more dreamy atmosphere though. These folky ballads are juxtaposed nicely against forceful rockers, creating a very pleasant listening experience.

It’s still the rockers that got most of the attention though. And in case of ‘Barracuda’, it’s not hard to understand why. Built upon the secont meanest gallop around at the time – after Led Zeppelin’s ‘Achilles Last Stand’- ‘Barracuda’ is a strong, riffy rocker with what is arguably Ann Wilson’s most powerful vocal performance to date. It may sound realitvely simple, but just listen how well those guitars in the chorus are arranged: it’s a little work of art. The energetic rock ‘n’ roller ‘Kick It Out’ is another staple off this album and it’s easy to hear why: it practically begs for the stage.

There’s much more to enjoy on ‘Little Queen’ though. The title track, for instance, with its subdued, syncopated, almost funky riffing and qausi-psychedelic middle section, is a hidden gem in the band’s body of work. ‘Love Alive’ is another Zeppelin-esque masterpiece of layered guitars, many of them acoustic. The epic two-part finale of ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Go On Cry’ is gorgeous as well, with the dark nature and the almost wordless vocals of the latter making it quite a unique entry in Heart’s discography. ‘Say Hello’, with its weird reggae meets folk feel, is the sole misstep on this record.

Otherwise, it’s nothing less than excellent. ‘Little Queen’ is more focused and songwriting-oriented than many rock albums that were released in the mid-seventies, but still a very sprawling record in its own way. Part of the reason why is the fact that the album is very much a band effort. Nobody except for maybe occasionally Ann Wilson outshines the compositions and everyone’s performances are serviceable to the songs. Then again, that must be relatively easy to do if the songs are actually this good. Heart would go on to release a string of great songs, but they wouldn’t release an album this consistent until early this century.

Recommended tracks: ‘Barracuda’, ‘Little Queen’, ‘Love Alive’

In Memoriam Chris Cornell 1964-2017


Now this one came as a shock. Last week, I even reviewed the best album Chris Cornell was ever a part of and now, he is dead. Despite making a few dubious artistic choices throughout his career, Cornell had one colossal voice and has written a bunch of downright fantastic songs. His death is still shrouded in mystery at the moment, but it occurred only hours after a sold out Soundgarden show in Detroit. It’s hard to say anything useful at the moment, but let me at least pay a little tribute to – by far – the best male singer from the Seattle rock scene.

Despite ultimately being one of the biggest bands of the Seattle scene of the early nineties, Soundgarden started as early as 1984. Kim Thayil is often credited for the unique guitar tapestries of the band, but Cornell was quite the guitar player himself and their interaction was an essential part of the heavy, yet melodic and deliberately awkward sound of the band. Cornell either wrote or co-wrote a significant portion of the band’s output. Soundgarden had some of the most natural sounding odd time measures in the music business and a bunch of riffs that within Seattle were only rivaled by Alice In Chains in terms of heaviness.

Soundgarden was one of the more interesting rock bands that Seattle had in the eighties, but it wasn’t until 1991 that Cornell found his voice. Both litterally and in terms of songwriting. That’s the year when Temple Of The Dog released its sole album in April and Soundgarden released their massive ‘Badmotorfinger’ in October. Two monumental records with Cornell’s voice on them. ‘Temple Of The Dog’ was a strong tribute to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood which also featured the recording debut of one Eddie Vedder and ‘Badmotorfinger’ showed Cornell almost litterally outdoing himself with songs like ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’.

While it meant Soundgarden’s breakthrough and artistic highlight, the band didn’t reach its peak in popularity with 1994’s ‘Superunknown’. Five successful singles were released from that album, the most popular of which – the monster hit ‘Black Hole Sun’ – won two Grammy Awards. Personally, I always preferred the gloomy ‘Fell On Black Days’. After one more album in 1996 – ‘Down On The Upside’ – Soundgarden split up and Cornell focused on his own projects. Always an experimental guy, he tried out several genres and while I don’t agree with every decision he made – the R&B record ‘Scream’ that he made with producer Timbaland is borderline embarrassing – he deserves a lot of respect for trying.

In the meantime, Cornell also formed Audioslave with all members of Rage Against The Machine except for singer Zack de la Rocha. They had a couple of hits, but eventually the former bands of all members involved would reunite. That included Soundgarden, whose 2012 release ‘King Animal’ battle’s Alice In Chains’ ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ for the title of best comeback album ever made by a rock band. Thayil, Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron seemed to be very serious about reuniting for good, but while on tour, Cornell passed away.

Besides the songs, we would have to remember Cornell for having a sense of humor that didn’t ruin his music. How else would you explain the hilarious glam rock and hair metal parody that is ‘Big Dumb Sex’? Sadly, there is very little that fans of his voice can laugh about today, but we are luckily still left with recordings of his amazing voice and I suggest we play it as loud as we can. I’ll start.

Album of the Week 19-2017: Led Zeppelin – Presence


For some reason, ‘Presence’ turned out to be Led Zeppelin’s slowest selling studio album. Maybe because its sounds significantly more stripped down than ‘Houses Of The Holy’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’, but ultimately, I prefer it even to some of the band’s classic albums. The record shows Led Zeppelin reconnecting with its roots, attempting to capture the essence of what made them so good in the first place. And succeeding at it surprisingly well. ‘Presence’ is a muscular hard rock record with excellent songwriting and an unusually strong emphasis on Zeppelin’s brilliant rhythm section. It is simply everything I’d want from them.

‘Presence’ was written and recorded during a tumultuous time for Led Zeppelin. Singer Robert Plant was seriously injured due to a car accident and the recordings had to be rushed due to the studio being booked by The Rolling Stones, which may be why the album isn’t loaded with extra touches like its two predecessors were. Instead, it focuses on the power within band and has the distinct live feel that made the debut so exciting seven years prior as a result. Drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones sound bigger than ever and the compositions truly focus on the band’s strengths.

The album is bookended by two of the best songs the band has ever recorded. ‘Achilles Last Stand’ is probably the most carefully arranged song on the album and basically feels like proto-heavy metal, due to its propulsive, galloping rhythm and Jimmy Page’s almost orchestral-sounding, layered guitar work. It feels significantly shorter than just over ten minutes. The other masterpiece is ‘Tea For One’, which – after a misleading intro – is essentially a minimalistic slow blues, into which Page’s sparse riffs inject a dark, almost doomy vibe. It’s number one on my list of Zeppelin songs that don’t get the love they deserve.

While those two tracks take up almost half of the album’s running time, they are hardly the only enjoyable songs on the record. The band’s adaptation of Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel blues song ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ quickly became a live staple, which is easily justified by its drive and strong build-up. ‘For Your Life’ has a spontaneity that brings back memories of the self-titled debut, though with a cleaner production and the sleazy, dirty fifties groove of ‘Candy Store Rock’ makes the song a true hidden gem. The other two songs are just good, but figuring that this is Led Zeppelin, “just good” is still far above average.

Although ‘Presence’ never enjoyed the same classic status, it is every bit as good and consistent as ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ was. In the end, the most important reason why I prefer ‘Physical Graffiti’ to this is really that it has twice as much Led Zeppelin. On ‘Presence’, the band strikes a better balance between spontaneous jams and meticulously arranged songs than they have done before or since. I can understand why it’s somewhat lost between the sprawling majesty its predecessor and the confusing experimentalism of its follow-up, but the fact is that this is the band’s final masterpiece and a treat to fans of Zeppelin’s trademark rock sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Achilles Last Stand’, ‘Tea For One’, ‘Candy Store Rock’

My zero points for 2017


First of all, I would like to offer my apologies for not posting any Eurovision predictions this year. Due to completely foreseen circumstances, I didn’t have the time to delve into the Song Contest as much as I usually do. On the bright side, that also means I didn’t predict quite as much wrong as I did in previous years. So even if you were betting on things and looking for useful information, my sister may actually be a better source. Now, on to the actual Eurovision Song Contest…

What the hell have I just been watching for the last couple of hours? Honestly: this year’s Eurovision Song Contest was tragically bad. The good songs weren’t good enough to be enjoyable and – maybe even more disappointingly – the bad songs weren’t bad enough to be funny. And the songs that weren’t poor were just… Bland. Or blatant attempts to rip off earlier ESC success; ‘This Is Love’ from Greece’s Demy, while decent, was a pretty obvious clone of Loreen’s ‘Euphoria’ that won the contest five years ago.

Normally, I would do a post featuring the four or five best songs with the video footage of those songs, but I feel that none of the songs of this year’s Eurovision deserve any special mention. It’s not like there wasn’t any musical quality – in fact, some of the singers were really good – but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard so much lazy songwriting in one production. And I own two AC/DC albums, go figure… In addition, I have heard enough Eurodance clichés for a lifetime growing up in the nineties.

Having said that, it’s fun to see someone who doesn’t care at all win the Contest. With a song that feels more like a traditional Eurovision song. Congratulations to Salvador Sobral and his sister Luísa, who wrote the song, are in order. Maybe that means there will not be as much Eurodance next year. I would welcome that.

Album of the Week 18-2017: Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger


Along with Alice In Chains, Soundgarden is one of the very few bands from the early nineties Seattle scene that is actually appreciated among heavy metal audiences. The band’s third album ‘Badmotorfinger’ clearly shows why. The noisy punk leanings or mainstream ambitions that many of the band’s peers did have are absent here. Instead, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is full of heavy riff work reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and odd time signatures with ditto rhythms. And while the songs did streamline the band’s sound, it does so without sacrificing even the slightest bit of the Seattlites’ unique character and approach.

Compared to the album’s direct predecessor ‘Louder Than Love’, ‘Badmotorfinger’ sounds significantly more focused. The songs are harder-edged and while there is still a great deal of variation to be found on the record, the quartet doesn’t need quite as much time to get to the point here. However, the biggest improvement to be heard on ‘Badmotorfinger’ is in Chris Cornell’s voice. With this album and Temple Of The Dog’s sole release, 1991 prove to be the year that he transformed from a promising rock singer to a powerhouse vocalist with a massive range. Hardly anyone has come close since.

Ultimately, any of these improvements would be meaningless if the songs weren’t any good. Luckily, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is the most consistent set of songs Soundgarden has yet released. The band found a way to combine their love for odd measures with memorable melodies without having to alternate between those extremes. ‘Outshined’, for instance, feels like a catchy rock song despite its 7/4 meter and heavy riff and ‘Room A Thousand Years Wide’ is such a pleasant listen, that you hardly realize that the 6/4 rhythm that it’s built upon is quite unconventional. ‘Badmotorfinger’ is filled with such moments. It’s always a good thing when a band isn’t trying to be too clever with these things.

‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ is the ultimate proof of just how heavy Soundgarden could get: Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell pump out some crushing riffs, while the latter belts his heart out in the chorus. ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ has Matt Cameron’s incredible rhythms and the propulsive riff work pounding relentlessly underneath yet another amazing Cornell performance and opening track ‘Rusty Cage’ manages to be heavy and hypnotizing at the same time. ‘Holy Water’ is somewhat reminiscent of Alice In Chains and some songs are weirdly, but successfully decorated with horns. New bassist Ben Shepherd’s love for punk shines through the wonderfully aggressive ‘Face Pollution’.

Before ‘Badmotorfinger’, Soundgarden was a decent band that occasionally lost their way halfway through meandering songs. The increased focus did help the band a great deal, because ‘Badmotorfinger’ is easily one of the best records of its era. Terry Date’s production, which gave the band’s bottom end a not so subtle punch without damaging the clear highs, is another important factor in why the album sounds so good. And while its follow-up ‘Superunknown’ would definitively propel the band into stardom, ‘Badmotorfinger’ still stands as the bands ultimate artistic statement. One on which rock, metal, punk and pop melt into one irresistible whole.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’

Album of the Week 17-2017: The Gazette – Dogma


The Gazette is one of the most popular Japanese rock bands even outside of their native country. Save for a couple of songs, they never appealed to me much until they released their most recent studio album ‘Dogma’. For this dark monster of an album, the goth factor in the band’s familiar alternative metal sound is turned up considerably, resulting in an immersive atmosphere that works surprisingly well alongside the downtuned riff work. Despite being recognizable as an album by The Gazette, ‘Dogma’ is – thus far – a unique entry in their discography and truly takes their sound to a new level.

People who like The Gazette less than I do are prone to dismiss them as a Dir En Grey clone. And while they share a dark aesthetic as well as a preference for the downtuned mayhem of the American nu metal scene of the mid-ninties, The Gazette has always had a sound closer to J-Rock, though on ‘Dogma’, the J-Rock sound is mainly limited to Ruki’s baritone. The electronic experiments of recent albums are still there, but less prominent in the mix. This is a good thing: while the electronics made The Gazette stand out, they feel much more like an integral part of the sound here.

‘Dogma’ definitely excels most during its more atmospheric moments. Sure, the extremely heavy riff work by Uruha and Aoi – as well as their massive, crushing guitar sound – makes for pleasant headbanging on tracks like ‘Rage’, ‘Deux’ and ‘Incubus’, but if it wasn’t for the darker material, I may have taken a pass on the album. The fittingly titled closing track ‘Ominous’ has a subdued, brooding character that doesn’t really sound like anything the band has attempted before. The transitions are a little sudden, but it works remarkably well. Its finale is excellent.

Even better is ‘Deracine’. The guitar interaction in the verses – a pronounced riff with background atmospherics – is incredible, Ruki’s vocal melodies are fantastic and its atmosphere, which at times feels like a relatively heavy J-metal band covering Killing Joke, is impossible to escape. Another highlight is ‘Wasteland’, which brings together all the extremes of The Gazette’s sound. The guitar layering is extremely tasteful and the song flows very pleasantly. ‘Lucy’ is a little more straightforward and probably would not have stood out as much on a different album, but its effective main riff and huge chorus are great. The title track serves as a perfect introduction with its dark, gothic verses.

Before ‘Dogma’, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with an album by The Gazette altogether, but the fact is that it’s a strong, well-rounded album that doesn’t easily let its listener go. It also sounds less like a band trying to emulate its American influences than some of their early works, opting for a sound of its own instead. This is a development that I can only applaud and as a result, ‘Dogma’ is definitely worth hearing if you like your music heavy, dark and atmospheric. I’ll be honest: I never knew they had it in them.

Recommended tracks: ‘Deracine’, ‘Wasteland’, ‘Ominous’

Renewed Noise: Voivod


When BMG Rights Entertainment secured the rights to the legendary German heavy metal label Noise Records, it was celebrated by a bunch of entertaining compilations. “Amazing” would be one step too far, because they contained nothing new for those who followed the label during their glory days – roughly from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties – but good enough to remind us why it was such a good thing that they put bands like Skyclad, Running Wild and Kreator in the market. A compilation of Canada’s immensely creative Voivod made came later, which is now followed by full reissues of their three Noise releases.

Contrary to the compilation albums, the reissues of ‘Rrröööaaarrr’ (I’m not making this up), ‘Killing Technology’ and ‘Dimension Hatröss’ do contain a wealth of bonus material that was previously either not or very limitedly available. All three releases consist of 2 cd’s and one dvd. This often means that the band or label has cleaned the vaults and just threw every poor quality recording they could find on there. While that is true for a majority of the video footage on the dvd’s, the bonus cd’s all feature soundboard recorded concerts with a surprisingly good sound quality.

Most of these live tracks are from demos and fan club releases that the band has released throughout the years and that might explain why they sound so good. Sure, they’re a little rough around the edges – the ‘No Speed Limit Week-End’ live show that comes with ‘Rrröööaarrr’ is almost too raw – but they’re release-worthy. In fact, the live cd that comes with ‘Dimension Hatröss’ – entitled ‘A Flawed Structure?’ – is more or less on par with the official 2011 live album ‘Warriors Of Ice’. Not only is every instrument loud and clear; the mix is quite balanced, though it does favor the late Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour’s guitars. But then again: who doesn’t?

So should you be getting these re-releases? I would say that ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is indispensable. Though my favorite is still ‘Nothingface’, ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is the essential Voivod album. It’s where they first stretched their sound well beyond the boundaries of thrash metal, creating a progressive sci-fi metal sound that made them a truly unique band. And the bonus live recordings are a very worthy addition to any metal collection. The live footage on the bonus dvd isn’t as good, but at least the entire album is on it in demo form, as well as some of drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin’s cool artworks.

As for the other two: ‘Killing Technology’ is a brilliant progressive thrash record and its bonus live cd ‘Spectrum ’87’ is raw, but very listenable. By all means, get it if it’s not in your collection already, because it’s one of the best thrash albums of its time. That leaves ‘Rrröööarrr’. A record I have to be in the mood for, as it’s basically all fast, all loud, all heavy, all the damn time. It’s good that the album is easily available again, but don’t let it be your introduction to Voivod. If it is, you may not understand what all the praise is really about.

These reissues all come with fairly extensive booklets with essays by UK music journalist Malcolm Dome, decorated with quotes from interviews with all four original members. And while it is a bit awkward to see D’Amour quoted as if he is still alive – he died in 2005 – the booklets do offer a bit of interesting information about the recordings of the albums and the circumstances Voivod found itself in during those years. The band is allegedly planning to record its fourteenth album later this year and if it will be anywhere near as good as their last two releases, that is really good news. Until then, this is a very pleasant way to rediscover the sonic evolution they went through in the mid to late eighties.