Archive for April, 2013

Album of the Week 17-2013: IQ – Subterranea

Concept albums are always a tricky affair. When done right, they are genre defining masterpieces and highlights in the bands’ carreers (‘Quadrophenia’, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, ‘Operation: Mindcrime’, ‘Brave’). When done wrong, they’re either too low on musical ideas to facilitate the actual story (‘The Wall’) or the story doesn’t add much to the actual music (as is the case with many contemporary Power Metal records). Double album ‘Subterranea’ was therefore sort of a risk for British Progrockers IQ, but they did it to great success: ‘Subterranea’ was their first fantastic album and still stands as their carreer highlight.

When ‘Subterranea’ was released in 1997, IQ already was nearly two decades into their carreer. While they did release some fine albums (‘Ever’, ‘The Wake’ and ‘Tales From The Lush Attic’), the stars never before – or since – aligned quite as well as on this concept album. Maybe the dystopian story singer Peter Nicholls wrote for the album helped the band be more focused, both in compositon and playing, than ever. Many of the songs can be listened to separately and not lose any of their appeal. And that is exactly what is the essence of good songwriting for a concept album.

‘Subterranea’ has some of the hardest rocking tracks in IQ history, which is kind of a surprise with the album following up the relatively mellow ‘Ever’. And definitely, hard driving songs like the album’s title track – which is pushed forward by John Jowitt’s awesome bass lines – that got me hooked on IQ in the first place. ‘Failsafe’, ‘Infernal Chorus’ and ‘Breathtaker’ had similar effects on me. However, it’s IQ’s exercise in dynamics that make ‘Subterranea’ interesting for its full hundred plus minutes. ‘Capricorn’ is a beautiful ballad with one of Michael Holmes’ most beautiful guitar solos, many of the interludes add an intense layer of atmosphere to the album’s feel mainly courtesy of Martin Orford’s keyboards and Peter Nicholls truly makes ultimate use of his range, giving the protagonist color. My only point of criticism would be that closing track ‘The Narrow Margin’ is a bit light for a song featuring a confrontation. It’s there, the confrontational music, it just doesn’t start until nine minutes into the song. It still is quite a nice climax though, coming full circle. Also, the way some themes are reprised throughout the album is very cool.

Production-wise, I have very little to complain about either. ‘Subterranea’ has a crisp, crystal clear sound with a lot of space for every instrument. Also, modern productions have the tendency to put the vocals and drums way up in the mix, but Nicholls is exactly as loud as he should be and Paul Cook’s snares are characteristic, but not dominant at all.

Of course, ‘Subterranea’ had very little competition, but is most definitely the best Prog record of the late nineties. Possibly of the entire decade, although Marillion’s ‘Brave’ (another brilliant concept album) might take that cake. Fact is that IQ made a brilliant Progrock album that underlined, even enlarged their relevance at this point of their carreer. An obligated listen for fans of progressive music. The story itself is cool as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subterranea’, ‘Breathtaker’, ‘Failsafe’, ‘Capricorn’

Album of the Week 16-2013: Genesis – Nursery Cryme

Back when Steve Hackett was still playing guitar for Genesis, they were a much better band than when they became popular. In fact, his debut with the British band is the album yours truly tends to revisit most. Future albums may have been better in terms of performance – ‘Selling England By The Pound’, ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ and ‘A Trick Of The Tail’ spring to mind – the band never succeeded quite as good in capturing their hungry energy as they did on ‘Nursery Cryme’, an early progressive Rock masterpiece.

Those of you who know Genesis exclusively from their Phil Collins-led Pop heyday in the eighties may be surprised when they hear the extended Prog workouts on this album. As for Hackett, ‘Nursery Cryme’ was Collins’ debut for the band, although Peter Gabriel was still singing for the band at the time and it’s mainly Collins’ mindblowing drumming – he was one of the world’s best drummers at that point – that makes his presence known on his album. It’s that powerful drumming that gives ‘Nursery Cryme’ its distinctive aggressive edge. Although the tranquil, folky passages that the band is known for are richly represented here, the album features some of the band’s most aggressive playing to date.

Opening the album is bar none the best Genesis song ever recorded: ‘The Musical Box’. There’s a very strong build-up in this song, with the song growing darker with the introduction of each new part. The song starts out with no less than three guitars, with bassist Mike Rutherford and keyboard player Tony Banks joining Hackett on twelve string guitars. This creates an enormous amount of depth and a very lyrical guitar sound, contrasting amazingly with the pre-Maiden gallops of the heavier bits, that also have Hackett and Banks battling leads. Gabriel does a great job portraying the protagonist of the lyrics as well. Just awesome, I have no other words.

‘The Return Of The Giant Hogweed’ is the other highlight of the album. The dual lead melody of Banks and Hackett in the intro was enough to awaken my interest, but the rest of the song contains a lot of interesting and pulsating riffing, aggressive hammond organ playing courtesy of Banks. The middle part features some very unorthodox playing by Hackett over a fluent piano part. Other songs are almost as good; ‘Seven Stones’ is a strong song, reminiscent of sixties Prog, ‘Harold The Barrel’ sounds like a somewhat more complex take on what Supertramp and Queen would do later in the decade with Collins and Hackett singing in perfect unison, the short and tranquil ‘For Absent Friends’ is Collins’ first lead vocal ever and ‘The Fountain Of Salmacis’ features some amazing, dreamy mellotron playing by Banks.

Genesis would go on and make a couple of more amazing albums throughout the seventies and though I love them all, ‘Nursery Cryme’ is the one that gets most spins at the Kevy Metal residence. Its richly complex nature accounts for repeated listening delight and it’s amazing rhythms get my head banging, while being impressed by the musical accomplisments of the musicians. Isn’t that what all Prog Rock is about? Also, be sure to get the 2008 remaster of the album, you’ll be amazed at how fresh it sounds.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Musical Box’, ‘The Return Of The Giant Hogweed’

Album of the Week 15-2013: Thin Lizzy – Chinatown

Many people view ‘Chinatown’ as the first step towards Thin Lizzy’s decline. I see it as their last truly great album, better than ‘Black Rose’ in terms of songwriting anyway. It’s not their best album – that would be ‘Live And Dangerous’, one of my top 3 albums of all time – and not even their best studio album – ‘Johnny The Fox’ would take that cake if it was up to me – but it’s an inspired collection of great songs. ‘Chinatown’ spots quite a few classic Lizzy moments and especially the first half of the album is filled with stellar songwriting. This is Phil Lynott after all.

All the elements that created the magic in the commonly agreed classic period are in full effect here. The twin guitar lines of Scott Gorham and newcomer Snowy White are all over the place, singer, bassist and frontman Phil Lynott’s unique charm and appeal both vocally and lyrically hasn’t faded the slightest bit and his songwriting – I consider Lynott as the ultimate songwriter, ever – is still top notch here. Things would go downhill directly after this album, though I personally quite like their final ‘Thunder And Lightning’ album, but this is just an obligated listen if you like Lizzy.

Opening with ‘We Will Be Strong’, the album grabbed me straigt away. After a beautiful twin guitar intro, there’s this tension within the song, only to be released within this anthemic, powerful chorus that has this feeling of unity. And when the epic title track comes directly afterward, there was no turning back for me. Great riffs and an amazing atmosphere, topped off by the amazing and lengthy Gorham solo that closes the track. Other highlights include the confessional infectious boogie that is ‘Sugar Blues’ and the borderline Heavy Metal of ‘Genocide (The Killing Of The Buffalo)’. In fact, the only slight letdowns are ‘Didn’t I’ – simply because Lynott has written ballads that are much better – and the fun, but not particularly good ‘Having A Good Time’. The rest of the album is all killer.

Don’t let this album’s bad reputation (pun intended) keep you from hearing some classic Thin Lizzy songwriting. ‘Chinatown’ contains plenty of it and although Brian Robertson or Gary Moore isn’t here, Lynott, Gorham, White and drummer Brian Downey provide a great performance here. I honestly can’t see why a fan of Thin Lizzy’s trademark sound would not like this record. In addition, the deluxe edition of ‘Chinatown’ has by far the most relevant and interesting bonus tracks of all the Thin Lizzy deluxe editions. 27 years after his untimely death, Phil Lynott has still not been surpassed as a songwriter and ‘Chinatown’ is the fifth consecutive testament to his greatness.

Recommended tracks: ‘We Will Be Strong’, ‘Sugar Blues’, ‘Chinatown’

Review extravaganza and more

Due to my busy schedule, I didn’t get around to informing you earlier, but there are two magazines in Dutch and Belgian stores right now with articles from yours truly. Gitarist, for instance has a load of reviews I wrote, including the amazing debut album of Guild Of Stags (check out Guild Of Stags’ website for a scan of the review), the debut album of King Of The World (featuring Cuby + Blizzards’ Erwin Java), Iced Earth’s new DVD and short reviews on La-Ventura, Ruben Hoeke and Wicked Mystic. Also, I interviewed Arie van der Graaf from Rotterdam’s own Amazing Stroopwafel’s about his solo record and The Death Letters’ frontman Duende about the recordings of their brand new ‘Common Prayers’ record. Highlights include interviews with Robben Ford, Steven Wilson, Orianthi and personal hero Doug Pinnick, as well as a special on the 1960 Les Paul Standard.

For Interface, I had an interview with Reyn Ouwehand, who produced some of my nation’s biggest artists. Interface will host his part at the Muzikantendag of this year and as an introduction, I went out to his studio in a northern Dutch church to talk to him. My favorite interview in this month’s Interface is the one with Todd Rundgren though. There’s a lot of interesting reviews on brand new technology, of which the Korg MS-20 Mini displayed on the cover drew most of my attention. The best section as always is Analogica, this time looking at old Roland synth modules.

Perfect stuff to read on long train rides or quiet Sunday afternoons. I’m having both tomorrow, so I’ll set the example.

Album of the Week 14-2012: Gorguts – Obscura

The state of Death Metal these days worries me. Many well-known bands these days focus fully on either groove or technicality, abandoning the hungry aggression that is so essential to the genre. While it’s so easy to have it all. When Canada’s Gorguts released ‘Obscura’ in 1998, it was easily the weirdest, most twisted and dissonant Death Metal album ever released – except for maybe Cynic’s ‘Focus’, but that’s hardly even Metal anymore – yet it retains the aggression and general feel of a Metal record.

Just look at the album cover and think of how well it could depict the music on the album. It’s certainly unconventional. It’s dark. It’s somewhat eerie. Though it’s only an old man meditating and you shouldn’t judge any album by its cover (‘Court Of The Crimson King’ anyone?), it is a pretty accurate visual representation of what is offered musically. Somehow, ‘Obscura’ is a pretty damn scary album to listen to in the dark. The music’s high degree of unpredictability is partially to blame for that. Some twists and turns are a surprise even for the most seasoned Prog veteran. And the dissonance and throaty vocal assault is just insane.

Despite the class of Patrick Robert’s drumming – it’s all over the place – and Steve Cloutier’s godly bass sound, it’s the guitars of Steeve Hurdle and frontman Luc Lemay that really give this album its identity. Their highly original approach is revolutionary. There are riffs, that’s for sure, but Lemay and Hurdle make their guitars scream, squeak and vomit even within riffs (check the opening title track for the first example). They know when to hold back though, sometimes creating a spacious, hypnotizing sound somewhat similar in spirit – but not in sound – to what Swans were doing at the time.

With so many riffs and twists thrown at you, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, but there are a few standout songs to these ears. First of all, ‘Nostalgia’ has a main section lead by Cloutier’s bass that shows that Gorguts is still perfectly capable of keeping the groove when necessary. The song is relatively conventional in structure, but nothing short in dissonance. But the highlight of the album has to be the bleak, nine-and-a-half minute, pitch black masterpiece that is ‘Clouded’. An incredibly slow song that builds on seemingly endless repetition, though with subtle changes most prominently in the harmonics, of this massive riff that feels like dancing around the nine circles of hell. It predates Celtic Frost’s magnum opus ‘Monotheist’ by eight years, but definitely taps from the same pool. Which quite likely has ink in it instead of water. Other highlights include ‘La Vie Est Prelude’, ‘Faceless Ones’, the closing instrumental ‘Sweet Silence’ and the title track.

Technical Death Metal isn’t anywhere near my favorite musical genre, but I know brilliant music when I hear it and ‘Obscura’ is a brilliant record. I just love it when musicians decide to not let themselves be limited by set boundaries and this is one of those cases. When you first hear this, it will be the most inaccessible record you have ever heard. Upon second listen, you won’t know what to do with it and after that, you’ll either love or loathe it. If you think you know your technical Death Metal, but haven’t heard ‘Obscura’, then trust me, you don’t know yet.

Recommended tracks: ‘Clouded’, ‘Nostalgia’, ‘Sweet Silence’, ‘Faceless Ones’