Archive for November, 2012

Album of the Week 47-2012: Soundgarden – King Animal

Still I can hear guitarist Kim Thayil say it in an interview which took place shortly after Soundgarden’s return to the stage: “If we make another album, it will probably sound different than we’ve done before.” In the meantime, ‘King Animal’ was released and it sounds exactly like you would expect from Soundgarden. Maybe even slightly better than expected; it surpasses 1996 farewell album ‘Down On The Upside’ in every possible way. To these ears, ‘King Animal’ sounds like the album Soundgarden could have done between ‘Badmotorfinger’ and ‘Superunknown’. The Seattle rockers still sound fresh, inspired, powerful and open to the odd surprise.

Every element that made Soundgarden so good in the first place is still firmly intact on ‘King Animal’. Say what you want about Chris Cornell’s dubious solo carreer, his strong Rock voice with just the right amount of rasp is still among the best in the business. Matt Cameron hasn’t ceased to inject his grooves with the force of Rock and the technique of Jazz, Ben Shepherd still knows how to make his presence known, even during passages in which he plays fairly standard stuff and Cornell and Thayil once again weave their guitar lines into an irresistable, psychedelic tapestry.

Although Soundgarden has recorded a bunch of kick-ass straight forward Rock tunes for ‘King Animal’ – the appropriately titled opening track ‘Been Away Too Long’, ‘Attrition’ and ‘Non-State Actor’ are quite brilliant in that matter – it isn’t until the band hits that semi-psychedelic mode when the album really hits its peak. It’s probably not a coincidence that the three songs Thayil wrote or co-wrote the music to are among the album highlights; ‘A Thousand Days Before’ has a hazy atmosphere with great guitar work reminiscent of the nineties Stoner scene, ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’ has a monstrous groove underneath pleasantly dissonant riffs and the heavy ‘By Crooked Steps’ deliciously stomps through odd meters, which is also a hint of Cameron’s involvement.

That’s not where the fun stops though. Cornell’s slow and introspective ‘Bones Of Birds’ has an inescapable atmosphere, Shepherd’s ‘Taree’ has a bunch of amazing, Black Sabbath-ish riffs, ‘Worse Dreams’ has some killer unexpected twists, Cameron’s ‘Eyelid’s Mouth’ works towards multiple amazing climaxes and features a stellar performance by Cornell and the hypnotizing closing track ‘Rowing’ has a somewhat Delta Blues-like atmosphere, slightly reminiscent of John Lee Hooker, and a killer, fuzz-laden guitar solo near the end.

Okay, that’s a lot of tracks I mentioned, but the truth is that almost every song here is a direct hit. There’s nothing as crushingly heavy as ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ or as vicious as ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ on here, but ‘King Animal’ quickly became one of my favorite Soundgarden records. It’s just barely short of the brilliance of ‘Badmotorfinger’, but it’s at least on par with breakthrough record ‘Superunknown’. It’s good to hear that this group of musicians can still create something magical together; an album that isn’t a delight to listen to based on nostalgia, but on the amazing music created right now.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Thousand Days Before’, ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’, ‘By Crooked Steps’, ‘Bones Of Birds’, ‘Non-State Actor’, ‘Rowing’

Album of the Week 46-2012: Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day

Magical. That’s what it must have been like if you were at the O2 Arena in London on December 10th 2007, when the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin teamed up the the late John Bonham’s son Jason on drums for a one night only reunion show. Being the Led Zeppelin addict I am – I still think there’s nothing higher attainable musically than Zep – I of course entered the lottery for tickets. Didn’t win any, but this is almost as good. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to any release as much as this one. I counted down the days. But it was worth it: ‘Celebration Day’ shows a powerful, inspired performance by the best Rock band ever.

Most of the songs have been tuned down half a step to easier facilitate Robert Plant’s voice. It’s obvious from the first second of opening track ‘Good Times Bad Times’. Since Plant has a history of not playing Zeppelin stuff the way it has been released throughout his consistently amazing solo carreer, I don’t mind these little changes. And let’s not forget that the human voice does lower with age. And while Plant’s voice has inevitably aged, he handles this material incredibly well, albeit somewhat less over-the-top than on the originals. This causes him to sound like a reflecting old man rather than a young romantic on the eternal classic ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The subdued performance of the band backs him up there, adding a whole new dimension to an extremely familiar song.

Jason Bonham actually does a great job replacing his father. He has a powerful style that resembles his father’s and therefore makes him the only justified drummer. Just listen to him punishing his kit during a breathtaking version of ‘Kashmir’ – actually played in its original tuning, since it’s in an open D tuning – or ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ (also featuring a mean blues harp courtesy of Plant) and you’ll have no doubt that it’s a Bonham playing. He also shares vocals with Plant on a strong rendition of ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and does that well.

Pleasantly surprising is that the setlist for the night didn’t only focus on the obvious choices as ‘Stairway To Heaven’, ‘Black Dog’, ‘Rock And Roll’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’. In fact, with ‘Ramble On’ and ‘For Your Life’, the band played two amazing tracks from their back catalog live for the first time. Especially the latter is executed incredibly well. Unsurprisingly, half of ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ is included, but traditional blues tributes ‘In My Time Of Dying’ and ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ are the songs that the band seems most comfortable with. And let’s not forget my favorite Led Zeppelin song ‘No Quarter’, a psychedelic masterpiece that is just as good as the studio version from the moment John Paul Jones kicks in with the dreamy fuzz piano part. I wasn’t there, but it was a near-divine experience this way anyway. Also, playing ‘Dazed And Confused’ even slower than it was recorded almost sends it into Black Sabbath territory. Awesome!

Critics will always find something to attack on these performances. Jimmy Page is still a sloppy guitarist, but I have always felt that that was what gave his playing and the songs their breath of life. And of course, it doesn’t sound exactly like it did in the seventies, but it would have missed the point if it did. The bottom line is that these guys can still create magical music together. And judging from the looks on their faces, they were having a lot of fun doing it.

Any fan of Rock music should own this piece of history. Period. And if you haven’t gotten it yet, be sure to get a version with the bonus dvd, as it features the entire show as it was done during the production rehearsal. A performance that is filmed with only one camera and that is overal somewhat looser, but no less enjoyable. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on the dvd again, because one can never have enough Led Zeppelin.

Recommended track: ‘No Quarter’, ‘Kashmir’, ‘Stairway To Heaven’, ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’

Reasons to (not) buy ‘Machine F**king Head Live’

5 reasons to buy ‘Machine F**king Head Live’:

– The album generally focuses on a much beter era of material than ‘Hellalive’ and features Phil Demmel as a band member on every song, instead of just guesting on a few.
– Six out of seven songs from the most recent ‘Unto The Locust’ album, which I kind of overlooked at the time, are included and they sound great. This actually makes me want to revisit the album.
– The chorus to ‘This Is The End’ isn’t as godawfully annoying (Trivium/Killswitch Engage-style) as on the record here, actually making it quite a pleasant track to listen to.
– ‘Old’
– Both Phil Demmel’s and Robb Flynn’s guitar solos are simply outstanding! Possibly even better than on the studio albums!

5 reasons to not buy ‘Machine F**king Head Live’:

– The mix is downright horrible. The guitars are decent but miss the punch they need – maybe Flynn and Demmel should consider Blackstar amplifiers – and the vocals are somewhat buried beneath the rest every now and then. The sheen of the studio productions is missing. Juan Urteaga can do much better than this and I’m sure, because he has done much better.
– Every time when there’s audience participation, suddenly the audience mics are mixed into the sound loudly, with all the hall reverb included. This accounts for an irritatingly unbalanced sound during most of the choruses.
– Robb Flynn is a much more pleasant listen on the studio albums: he sings much better there, plus you’ll be devoid of his cliché ridden American frontman antics.
– Besides the amazing ‘Halo’, only the mediocre ‘Beautiful Mourning’ and the fairly obvious ‘Aesthetics Of Hate’ are included from 2007’s brilliant ‘The Blackening’.
– The lack of their discography’s highlight ‘Descend The Shades Of Night’.

Album of the Week 45-2012: Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited II

Sales numbers don’t quite back me up here, but Genesis was best when they were still a folky Progrock band fronted by Peter Gabriel. However, it wasn’t his departure that irreparably damaged the band, it was guitarist Steve Hackett’s in 1977. And though Hackett has made fine albums on his own – especially ‘Spectral Mornings’ is nothing short of amazing – he never made a secret of his persistent fondness of the Genesis material he played on. He’s even less subtle this time: for the second time, Hackett has released an album (a double album this time!) with him and a large arsenal of guest stars reinterpreting his former band’s best tunes. And unlike its 1996 predecessor, ‘Genesis Revisited II’ is a success almost all the way through.

Most of the songs don’t stray from the originals too much, apart from the occasional extra intro or guitar solo, but that’s not really a problem, figuring how much of an obvious labor of love this album is. The fact that the production and mixes are alike for all of the tracks makes for an incredibly pleasant listen. These productions are somewhat more friendly towards Hackett’s amazing guitar abilities, but he has no problem stepping back and allowing Roger King’s keyboards a little more space, just like he did with Tony Banks on the source material.

The choice of singers is always vital for a release like this one. With half of the singers sounding a lot like Peter Gabriel, there’s not much to be desired here. Francis Dunnery even sounds eerily like Gabriel, which makes his rendition of ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’ one of the albums absolute highlights. Nad Sylvan does an impressive Gabriel on ‘The Musical Box’ (possibly Genesis’ best song ever), ‘Eleventh Earl Of Mar’ and opening track ‘The Camber Of 32 Doors’. The least obvious choice would be Nik Kershaw, who does a commendable job at ‘The Lamia’, but misses out on the absurdity of Gabriel’s original. Other highlights include Gary O’Toole, Hackett’s touring drummer, whose warm vocals especially shine on a goosebumps inducing version of ‘Blood On The Rooftops’, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson seems like a fish in the water on ‘Can-Utility And The Coastliners’, proving once more that Porcupine Tree and Genesis aren’t all that far apart, and Neal Morse, who lends a slightly agressive edge to ‘Return Of The Giant Hogweed’, which – also aided by the production and a killer guitar solo by Hackett – possibly even exceeds the original.

Eternal Prog classic ‘Supper’s Ready’ even contains a grand total of five singers. Opeth singer Mikael Åkerfeldt really shines with his warm delivery in the sections ‘Lover’s Leap’ and ‘How Dare I Be So Beautiful?’, Phil Collins’ son Simon does a more than decent job, but most remarkable is Hackett’s over the top performance of the clownesque ‘Willow Farm’. I still think Gabriel did that better, but it’s a fun interpretation. In fact, the only interpretation I consider failed is Amanda Lehmann’s somewhat latter-day Marianne Faithful rendition of ‘Ripples’, although her interpretation of ‘Shadow Of The Hierophant’ – yes, Hackett took the liberty of including solo stuff that sprung during his Genesis days – is just great. The instrumental stuff is maybe even better.

Those of you who only know Genesis from the giant Pop hits they had in the eighties and would like a representative introduction to Genesis’ seventies work, this would actually not be a bad choice. It’s only one ‘Dance On A Volcano’ and one ‘Get ‘Em Out By Friday’ short of being a best of collection. And Steve Hackett did this with all the love he has for the material. The criticism may be that Hackett is stuck in his own past, but the fact of the matter is that ‘Genesis Revisited II’ gets repeated spins in my house.

Recommended Tracks: ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’, ‘Return Of The Giant Hogweed’, ‘Blood On The Rooftops’, ‘The Musical Box’, ‘…In That Quiet Earth’

Album of the Week 44-2012: Pentagram – MMXII

Not every band can get through the process of replacing an iconic singer without any damage. When the amazing Murat İlkan sadly left the band, Turkey’s Pentagram did the right thing and replaced him with Gökalp Ergen, who has a completely different timbre. And that also grants the band the chance to take things in a slightly different direction. ‘MMXII’ is still instantly recognizable as Pentagram, albeit slightly more direct and less elaborate arrangement-wise than on their more progressive works with İlkan. ‘MMXII’ is first and foremost a Metal album. A good one. Pentagram style.

Ergen is rawer in the more Metal passages and more akin to the better Turkish pop singers in the cleaner passages. This sounds like somewhat of a contradiction, but the band uses these extremes to great effect on this album. As much as I love İlkan’s powerful vocals, I wouldn’t hear him doing stuff like ‘Wasteland’ and parts of ‘Beyond Insanity’ as fierce as Ergen does them. Also, the softer regions of his voice work extremely well with the Turkish material on this album. I can’t, for instance, picture any better singer for a song like the melancholic ‘Geçmişin Yükü’. I have somehow always felt very attracted especially to the Turkish Pentagram songs and somehow, it does make a lot of sense with Ergen at the helm.

‘MMXII’ is a relatively heavy album by Pentagram standards. The guitars by Metin Türkcan and founding member Hakan Utangaç are heavy and crunchy and stuff like ‘Wasteland’, ‘Beyond Insanity’ and to a lesser extent opening track ‘Sand’ are probably the heaviest the band has done since the humble Thrash beginnings of the first two albums. This isn’t without a strong sense of melody, however. This album is best when the heavy riffs blend with the hypnotizing melodies.

My favorite tracks are the more epic ones. ‘Doğmadan Önce’ has a brooding atmosphere and a beautiful chorus that could have only come from a Turkish band, and not only because the song is in Turkish. The acoustic intro to the song is downright spine chilling and there are some awesome twin guitar harmonies throughout the song. The killer guitar solos do the rest of the work. ‘It’s Dawn Again’ shows Ergen at his most passionate in the chorus, while being backed by riffs that seem easy, but leave a lot of room to impressive nuance. ‘Ápokalips’ is a killer, stomping epic, ‘Now And Nevermore’ has a great build-up and melodic sensibility and ‘Uzakta’ is a very strong Turkish Metal song with another great guitar solo.

Why any European label has consistently refused to release Pentagram’s post ‘Unspoken’ output is beyond me. This is a band that doesn’t only rate among one of the best Oriental Metal bands, this is absolutely one of the greatest bands on the planet at the moment. They have strong songs, a great singer, extremely capable musicians and a unique sound influenced by their home ground. Many bands try and emulate the oriental sounds within their Metal framework, but the guys in Pentagram live and breathe these melodies. They never forget they’re a Metal band, however. Now go out and see if you can find ‘MMXII’ somewhere. Like the rest of Pentagram’s discography, it’s worth the effort.

Recommended tracks: ‘Doğmadan Önce’, ‘It’s Dawn Again’, ‘Ápokalips’