Archive for December, 2012

Album of the Week 52-2012: Jerry Cantrell – Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2

Jerry Cantrell is a genius. And ‘Degradation Trip’ is the best album ever recorded. During his tenure with the mighty Alice In Chains, he was already partially responsible for one of the best albums in Rock history – the bleak and gloomy masterpiece that is ‘Dirt’ – but never would his recipe of slow riffs, dual lead vocal harmonies and an incredibly dark atmosphere work as well as on this intense, pitch black work of art. This is basically the trademark Alice In Chains sound with all the elements that make that band so amazing turned up a bit.

What you hear on this record are the complete sessions of ‘Degradation Trip’. Cantrell funded the entire recording himself and even the only label that wanted to release the album (Roadrunner) didn’t dare to take the risk of releasing a double album and put out a single-disc edition – which Cantrell dubbed the “Reader’s Digest edtion” – half a year prior to this release. While that release was amazing in its own right, the only way to fully indulge the overwhelming atmosphere of Cantrell’s musings is through this double-disc set: there’s eleven additional songs, among which highlights as the Indian-tinged ‘Siddhartha’ (the natural successor to Alice In Chains’ disturbing classic ‘Frogs’), the psychedelic monster ‘Feel The Void’, the monstrous ‘Pig Charmer’ and the mind blowing guitar instrumental ‘Hurts Don’t It?’. Also, this is the original track sequencing as Cantrell intended it to be. Therefore, this version better represents his artistic vision.

Alice In Chains’ frontman Layne Staley was still alive during the recordings of ‘Degradation Trip’, but his drug-related struggles and upcoming death – he died two months prior to the release of the single-disc edition – seem to be a central theme on this album. Though Cantrell doesn’t name any names, it’s quite obvious that the recluse in ‘Bargain Basement Howard Hughes’ is either Staley or Cantrell himself writing this album. Cantrell’s lyrics are also harshly self-critical, condemning the Rockstar lifestyle, mourning the demise of Alice In Chains and questioning his own influence on the latter. Never do the lyrics veer into self-pity, however.

Part of this album’s brilliance lies within Cantrell’s perfect sense of dynamics. With the bulk of the material being gloomy and heavily depressive and the music being so absorbing, the risk of being dragged down into its atmosphere is quite large. Cantrell counters this every time when the atmosphere seems to get too depressive by interspersing somewhat lighter, uptempo Rockers like ‘Anger Rising’, ‘Mother’s Spinning In Her Grave (Glass Dick Jones)’ or ‘She Was My Girl’. Not that the vibe of those songs is anywhere near positive, but it provides a nice contrast with darker monsters as the epic ‘Spiderbite’, ‘Castaway’, ‘Chemical Tribe’ and opening track ‘Psychotic Break’. Closing ballads ‘Gone’ and ’31/32′ do a good job alleviating the sadness as well.

It’s almost unbelievable that most of this album was only recorded by three persons, with Cantrell only being backed by current Metallica bassist (and more importantly, former Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves bassist) Rob Trujillo and Faith No More’s Mike Bordin on drums. Two amazing musicians who were Ozzy Osbourne’s rhythm section at the time and have made themselves extremely servicable to this album’s music. Bordin’s drums also sound very warm and natural. The only additional backing is provided by former Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo on ‘Anger Rising’ and some percussion by Walter Earl. That huge wall of guitars is Cantrell only!

Seriously, I could go on for hours about the genius of Jerry Cantrell and this album in particular, but the only way to fully experience the immense affection I feel for this album is to listen to it and be absorbed by its intense atmosphere. This isn’t the soundtrack to the beautiful first day of Spring or the music that is going to accompany you when you are set out to destroy everything, but then again: it’s so much better than that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Siddhartha’, ‘Spiderbite’, ‘Psychotic Break’, ‘Anger Rising’, ‘Angel Eyes’

Album of the Week 51-2012: Elton John & Leon Russell – The Union

Alex Mulder, my bandmate in Chaos Asylum, once noted that Elton John’s artistic triumph ended roughly around the same time the taboo on his homosexuality did. No necessary causal relation there, but it’s definitely true that the days of the fantastic ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ were far behind him at that point. The best album with his involvement, however, came about two years ago. This isn’t just his album however: it is as much Leon Russell’s album. Since both are great pianists and I hold Russell in very high regard as both a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter, my expectations for ‘The Union’ were sky high. Luckily they were met.

Maybe a little background information is in place here. Elton John was an admirer of Russell and regularly sharing the bill with him on tours during the glorious seventies. When John was emotionally overwhelmed upon hearing one of Russell’s songs, he contacted Russell about recording an album. And T-Bone Burnett, as his role as this album’s producer is indispensible. His rootsy approach has graced many amazing albums over the last few years; B.B. King’s ‘One Kind Favor’ and Gregg Allman’s ‘Low Country Blues’ spring to mind immediately. The result: an album that breathes passion and joy. Even during the more bittersweet moments.

The lion’s share of the album is centered around the two voices and pianos of the protagonists weaving brilliant melodies. That may not sound as enough to stay interesting for over 70 minutes, but it does. The two pianos move all over the musical spectrum, from Americana ballads, through Blues and touches of Jazz, via ornate Gospel to the odd Rock song. And it’s equally brilliant, as the albums highlights are cross-genre as well; the stomping Rock rhythms of ‘Hey Ahab’, a song which is mainly led by Elton John, save for the chorus which features both men sharing vocals, ‘Gone To Shiloh’ is a beautifully subdued song with John, Russell and Neil Young alternating verses, Russell’s ‘I Should Have Sent Roses’ is a spine-chilling ballad which balances between Blues and Americana and has a magical chorus, ‘There’s No Tomorrow’ has an atmosphere almost reminiscent of Negro spirituals, ‘My Kinda Hell’ is a soulful Pop song and ‘Mandalay Again’ and ‘When Love Is Dying’ sound like they could have been sung by one of the great crooners. And Russell’s ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad’ is just the perfect opener, marrying Blues idiom with brilliant melodies.

Part of my compliments about this album should go to the fantastic backing band as well. Jim Keltner had worked with Russell on some of his most high-profile past endeavors – ‘The Concert For Bangladesh’, ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’ – and is a perfect fit for this album’s style, Booker T. Jones (of The M.G.’s) decorates some of the songs with his impeccable Hammond playing and I’d like to specifically mention Marc Ribot, whose rootsy guitar solos are downright goosebumps inducing highlights of the album. The band never gets in the way of Russell and John and only enhances the music when strictly necessary, which is the essence of a brilliant session band.

Every once in a while, a record comes out that just oozes with the love of the music that is presented. Those records need to be heard and cherished. ‘The Union’ is one of those moments. And like Elton John, I hope it’s enough to reawaken some interest in the genius that is Leon Russell.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hey Ahab’, ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad’, ‘I Should Have Sent Roses’, ‘Gone To Shiloh’

Loads of new publications in stores now!

For those of you who need something to read during the dark, family obligation ridden days around Christmas, you may want to consider reading some of the stuff I wrote, because a lot of it appeared in stores these last few days.

Gitarist features two big stories of mine this month. First of all, there’s the interview I had with Estelle Stijkel of the amazing The Jacks. She’s got an awesome, Slash and Jimmy Page influenced style and displays that on a downright awesome custom Les Paul to boot. We talked about her gear and the new release ‘Epic Trois’, the second EP The Jacks released this year. I would like to urge anyone to go out and check The Jacks, because they’re my best “new discovery” of this year. I’m also very proud of the picture I took that is included with the interview. Also, I talked with returning Focus guitarist Menno Gootjes – who incidentally was one of Estelle’s teachers – about his return to the legendary group, his Les Paul Classic, his amps and his general style. I loved his former band Nine Volt as well. I reviewed The Jacks’ combined release of their three EP’s and Bad Brains’ awesome new album and besides that, there’s an interview with John McLaughlin, a special about Fuzz Faces, a feature on Fender reissues and loads and loads more. Be sure to vote for the Gitarist poll as well!

Those of you interested in drums and percussion would do right by checking out the new issue of Slagwerkkrant. Besides the interview I had with Case Mayfield’s new drummer Nienke Overmars about her unexpected inclusion in the singer/songwriter’s touring entourage and her equipment, there’s a very interesting interview my chief editor Mark van Schaick had with Metal drummer extraordinaire Dirk Verbeuren as an introduction to the new segment he will have in the magazine, Ralph Rolle of Chic – a very beloved band for yours truly – is interviewed and among the others interviewed are Thomas Lang and Chris Dave. As you can see: we’re covering lots of different genres with equal love for rhythms!

Digging deeper into the technical side of recording music, Interface will deliver. My input in this month’s issue is limited to an interview with The Gathering’s René Rutten about the recordings of their brand new album ‘Disclosure’ – a different take on the same conversation appeared in last month’s issue of Gitarist – but there’s more interesting stuff in there. In-depth analysis on the Korg Krome, Cakewalk Sonar X2 and many other new software and hardware releases, something really interesting for me in the shape of a workshop on recording acoustic guitars and interviews, including one with Benny Blanco, who is responsible for two of the biggest abominations on the radio at the moment (‘Move Like Jagger’ and ‘Diamonds), but it’s an insightful interview nonetheless.

And if that’s not enough for you… There will no doubt be more reviews on here. Let’s not forget that the year is nearly at an end and that allows me to do the only thing I like about these festivities: end-of-year-lists!

Album of the Week 50-2012: Scorpions – Blackout

Even bands that have a string of classic releases tied to their names have these albums where everything just seems exactly the way it should be. ‘Blackout’ may very well be that moment for the Scorpions. The German Hard Rock machine had been churning out a number of fantastic albums – my favorites being ‘Virgin Killer’, ‘Taken By Force’ and ‘Lovedrive’ – for about a decade prior to ‘Blackout’, but this is the moment when all the stars aligned for the Scorpions. It’s a collection of brilliantly written Heavy Metal tracks, the punchy production is among the best of the era and Klaus Meine’s vocals are at their absolute high here.

Despite the presence of excellent songs on former albums, there were always one or two filler tracks included. On ‘Blackout’, every song strikes gold. Also, there’s obviously a lot of thought that went into the song order; there’s anever a dull moment here and the band doesn’t waste all its energy on the first few songs, a mistake often heard on Rock records. The band plays at a 110 percent energy level on the Heavy Metal outbursts that open both sides of the record (‘Dynamite’ and the headbang-or-die title track that opens the album) and the more subdued stuff, like the semi-ballad ‘No One Like You’ and the crushing midempo stomper ‘China White’ are kept for the middle. Also, the ballads that are here, are among the most dynamic of the post-Uli Jon Roth era, with patterns much less predictable than the songs they’d become much more popular with not long after the release of this album.

However, no matter how awesome the raging Heavy Metal of ‘Now!’ and ‘Blackout’ are, the album’s highlight is closing track ‘When The Smoke Is Going Down’, easily the best ballad the Germans have ever written. It’s hard to describe why that is, but it has to do with the goosebumps inducing atmosphere, look no further than Matthias Jabs’ subdued, but incredible guitar solo for an example. And I’d have to admit: I’m a sucker for these “musician after the music is over” stories. Klaus Meine definitely delivers with both his lyrics and delivery here.

Speaking of Meine, it’s impossible to discuss this album without going through his miraculous vocal recovery. Meine famously had lost his voice during writing sessions for this album and underwent surgery on his vocal cords, only to return with a wider range and greater power than ever. David Coverdale had a similar revelation with Whitesnake’s ‘1987’ album, but what Meine does here is unbelievable. He is wild all throughout the album and is spot-on within any part of his register.

As for the rest of the band; Rudolf Schenker has always been the riff master in the more accessible segment of the genre and although Matthias Jabs doesn’t possess the same supernatural qualities of his predecessors Uli Jon Roth and Michael Schenker, he is absolutely on fire here. His guitar solos are blazing with conviction and he is the perfect guitarist for this incarnation of the Scorpions, which – if you wish – needs flamboyance rather than flashiness. And of course, this type of music doesn’t succeed without a powerful rhythm section. ‘Blackout’ features an especially excellent Herman Rarebell on drums.

Quickly after the release of ‘Blackout’, commercial successes and frequent artistic failures haunted the Scorpions. And although there have been some strong records after – ‘Unbreakable’ springs to mind immediately, but the recent ‘Sting In The Tail’ and breakthrough album ‘Love At First Sting’ both feature stellar songwriting and the usual amazing musicianship – the band has never quite reached the heights of ‘Blackout’ again. However, that doesn’t degrade the band in any way, it’s just a testament to the lasting power of the brilliant record that is ‘Blackout’.

Recommended tracks: ‘When The Smoke Is Going Down’, ‘Blackout’, ‘Now!’, ‘China White’

Album of the Week 49-2012: Jethro Tull – Songs From The Wood

While Folk music has always been quite an obvious influence in Jethro Tull’s music, the band has never explored the genre as much as on 1977’s appropriately titled ‘Songs From The Wood’. Two years prior, the brilliant ‘Minstrel In The Gallery’ already hinted at this with its more acoustic based material, but it wasn’t until main man Ian Anderson moved to the countryside and immersed himself in English folklore, that Jethro Tull made its most Folky record yet. And not without Anderson’s unique sense of irony; the album cover clearly states that we will be treated with “kitchen prose and gutter rhymes”.

One of the reasons why ‘Songs From The Wood’ is one of the best Folk Rock albums ever released, is that it doesn’t ignore the Rock part of that. For instance, ‘Hunting Girl’ is one of the heavier songs Jethro Tull had done up until this point, with its pulsating riffs on both guitar and bass and impressive double bass drumming by Barriemore Barlow. The lyrical subject matter is definitely inspired by folklore and there are some Folk melodies, mainly in the keyboards of John Evan and David Palmer, but this is still very much a Hard Rock song. After the a capella intro, the title track opens in a rocking matter as well and ‘Pibroch (Cap In Hand)’ has Anderson’s flute and Martin Barre’s distorted guitars battling for attention.

As for the Folk stuff on this record, although Tull has had its fair share of brilliant Folk-inspired songs in the past (‘Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day’ and ‘Wond’ring Aloud’ spring to mind), the melodies have never been quite as captivating as the main melody on ‘Cup Of Wonder’ or the fantastic ‘Jack-in-the-Green’, which features Ian Anderson on every instrument. It’s almost as if they were learning Folk before ‘Songs From The Wood’ and the album is the first product of a Jethro Tull fully understanding the genre. I’m generally not too fond of bands mixing European Folk with contemporary genres – I possess a distinct hatred for European Folk Metal, for instance – but this is just one of those albums where all the pieces fall together in just the right places.

Combined with a fantastic production, ‘Songs From The Wood’ is one of those must-hear albums from the seventies. Jehtro Tull’s had quite a few actually and since they’ve been on heavy rotation at my place this week, I could have picked any of their albums from the 1971-1978 era, but this album has just been a landmark album for Jethro Tull finally reaching what they have been hinting at for all these years. This is where the Hard Rock and the Folk really came together with Ian Anderson’s unique sense of humor. Want a proof of the latter? Check out the gramophone needle on the dendrochonological growth rings on the album’s back cover and try not to chuckle.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hunting Girl’, ‘Songs From The Wood’, ‘Jack-in-the-Green’

Album of the Week 48-2012: The Tea Party – Live From Australia

Lots of big reunion things these days. It’s only been weeks since the recordings of Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion gig surfaced, now it’s The Tea Party’s turn. Last year, the Canadian trio reformed after half a decade of inactivity and as this document proves, they haven’t lost their touch even in the slightest bit. This collection of recordings made during this year’s Reformation Tour shows The Tea Party is still inspired, powerful and compelling. Also, singer and guitarist Jeff Martin, bassist and keyboard player Stuart Chatwood and drummer Jeff Burrows are incredibly well attuned to each other still.

For those unfamiliar with this brilliant band: imagine what Led Zeppelin would have sounded like if they further developed the direction they had taken on ‘Kashmir’ with Jim Morrison on vocals. That’s not completely fair to the band, I find Martin to sound a lot more passionate than Morrison and The Tea Party has really taken the Moroccan Folk influenced sound to a higher ground. It’s created a hypnotizing atmosphere within their music and on their first four albums in particular. And those are the albums that are represented with the most tracks on here; only ‘Lullaby’ from 2001’s ‘The Interzone Mantras’ was released later.

As soon as you get halfway through the opening ten minute rendition of ‘The River’, it’s already obvious that The Tea Party doesn’t shy away from stretching out. With two songs past the ten minute mark and only three tracks (and the short instrumental ‘Winter Solstice’, which is hidden before ‘Sister Awake’, but mentioned nowhere in the track listing) under five minutes, this is clearly a show of epic proportions. And that’s where experiencing this album comes out best. The intense acoustic Blues of ‘Sun Going Down’ opens with a rendition of the classic Gospel song ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ and builds towards a goosebumps inducing closing two minutes. Absolutely beautiful. ‘Save Me’ – featuring Martin on esraj and violin bowed guitar – is of similar length and works towards a number of fantastic climaxes. Other highlights include a thrilling version of ‘Halcyon Days’ and the mind blowing experience that is closing track ‘Sister Awake’. Both of these songs are “only” around eight minutes long.

If you get the DVD or Blu-ray, the beautiful performance of only the Sydney show – the CD gives you a compilation of recordings of all the Australian shows – is presented to you in absolutely flawless, razor sharp images with an enormous dosage of blue light. It all adds to the hypnotizing experience. And seeing Burrows attack his drum kit is nothing short of inspiring. The only criticism I could have is that I sometimes miss the bass on the songs on which Chatwood plays keyboards, but that’s usually covered just fine. I guess it’s just that I like his bass playing so much.

Word on the street is that The Tea Party is currently writing music for a new album. That would be just amazing, as this live collection proves that these guys are still among the best bands in the world. Just let the music speak for itself; it is bound to take you on a journey. If you need help to chose between formats: I’d just get both the CD version and the video version of whatever video system you possess. They’re different recordings and just seeing these guys play is simply overwhelming. Let’s just hope it won’t take too long before their new album can be the album of that particular week.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sun Going Down’, ‘Sister Awake’, ‘Halcyon Days’, ‘Save Me’, ‘The River’