Archive for December, 2014

Album of the Week 52-2014: D’Angelo – Black Messiah

When D’Angelo said he rushed through the last phase of ‘Black Messiah’ because of the Ferguson riots, I chuckled. Not that I doubt his sincerity, it’s just that rushing through any phase of an album that’s been fourteen years in the making seems a bit contradictory. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected to hear ‘Black Messiah’ this year anymore. Then suddenly, there it was. The anticipation was justified on account of ‘Voodoo’ being one of the best – if not the best – contemporary R&B records. And ‘Black Messiah’ is once again a masterpiece; almost as good as ‘Voodoo’, albeit an album with a completely different character.

It shows that we’re dealing with the same guy who recorded ‘Voodoo’ in 2000. ‘Black Messiah’ isn’t quite as seductive as ‘Voodoo’, but the album still revolves around extended, groove-based jams with D’Angelo often soaring on top of that with his typical Prince-like falsetto. It isn’t Prince, however, that comes to mind first upon hearing ‘Black Messiah’. The dark, shimmering grooves and socially conscious undertone immediately bring Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ to mind. And like that justified classic, ‘Black Messiah’ is pretty much the work of one man. Big names such as Roots drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, Funkadelic singer Kendra Foster and session bass giant Pino Palladino all lend a hand, but this is D’Angelo’s brain child for sure.

Upon first spin, the record didn’t quite reveal itself and as a result, I couldn’t appreciate it for what it was. The low key jamming character of the album makes the material sound a tad samey initially. Don’t let that put you off though. There’s a lot of subtlety at play here and therefore, revisiting the album reveals its many secrets. And then suddenly, ‘1000 Deaths’ turns from a confusing mess into a hard Funk masterpiece and the choirs heard throughout the album don’t sound that strange anymore.

Eventually, while the level is consistently high, a few tracks stand out. ‘Betray My Heart’ has this amazing, slinky bassline that carries the song. Any other artist would have fallen victim to the boredom trap in such a song, but D’Angelo builds guitar licks and horns upon this bassline perfectly. The almost psychedelic ‘The Charade’ has an incredible build-up in tension and some fantastic work done on both guitar and electric sitar, while ‘Really Love’ gets a somewhat Baroque feel due to the use of strings (the intro is just beautiful) and classical guitar.

Then again, this is one of those albums that should be heard in its entirity (repeatedly, as stated before) to be truly appreciated for what it is. Does it justify the fourteen year wait? I think it does. While it may be just a little short of what ‘Voodoo’ was, it is once again an artistic triumph for D’Angelo by doing just what he wants. And what he wants takes time, as his past had already proven. The comfort you get from that is this: whatever comes out is brilliant. Because that is exactly what ‘Black Messiah’ is.

Recommended tracks: ‘Betray My Heart’, ‘The Charade’, ‘1000 Deaths’

Album of the Week 51-2014: Dir En Grey – Arche

A new Dir En Grey album is much like the box of chocolates referred to in ‘Forrest Gump’. The Japanese quintet has been so eclectic throughout their discography, that you litterally never know what you’re going to get. ‘Arche’ is no exception. Ever since singer Kyo discovered a deep, almost inhuman growl in his already broad vocal arsenal, the Death Metal influence in their music has increased. A further exploration of the experimental extremities heard on predecessor ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ would therefore have been a reasonable expectation. Being Dir En Grey, however, the band chose a different direction. One significantly more straightforward and melodic. The resulting album is a winner.

Stylistically, ‘Arche’ is located somewhere between the emotional approach of ‘Kisou’ and the playful aggression of ‘Vulgar’, combined with the distinct contemporary progressive leanings of ‘Uroboros’. Kyo still employs all the extremes of his range, but has a considerably cleaner approach this time. The cleaner inclination is reflected in the guitar sound and the production as well. The mix is spacious with a lot of room for the drums courtesy of Shinya, who simply gives the performance of a liftime here. Granted, it works because the songs have more breathing room than the band gave their songs in a while, but it works fantastically.

In a way, the two singles released before the album – ‘Rinkaku’ and ‘Sustain The Untruth’ – give the wrong impression, or at least an incomplete one, of what ‘Arche’ sounds like. Then again, each of the sixteen songs has a distinct character of its own. This also is a result of the more straightforward songwriting; ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ was very abstract and as a result, some of the songs tend to blur a little. In this case, sometimes it’s a riff (the kickass headbanger ‘Chain Repulsion’), sometimes the brilliant light-and-shade workings (‘Uroko’) and sometimes just the alternative direction (the almost electronic-sounding ‘Phenomenon’), but all the songs stand out one way or another.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any highlights. ‘Un Deux’ has fantastic riff work as well as a downright brilliant chorus that sticks in my head despite my inability to remember the words due to the language barrier. It sets the tone perfectly and as such, it rivals ‘Vinushka’ as the best opening track of the band. The surprisingly sparse ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’ is easily one of the best Dir En Grey ballads so far, not in the last place because of Kyo’s fantastic performance, and ‘Kaishun’ features some fantastic guitar interplay by Kaoru and Die. Whoever plays that solo does an awesome job as well. Those who like that side of the band will probably be disappointed that the Death Metal factor has been toned down considerably, but the closing salvo of ‘The Inferno’ (as if the title didn’t give that one away) and the awesome riff monster ‘Revelation Of Mankind’ do highlight the more brutal side of the band.

Because of its variation and strong songwriting, ‘Arche’ is thorougly enjoyable through multiple spins. Each one of them slowly reveals more layers and secrets as you go along. In time, it may even come very close to ‘Gauze’ and ‘Uroboros’ as my favorite Dir En Grey album. Fact is that it’s another disc of brilliantly written and executed heavy music that doesn’t really sound like anything anyone else is doing at the moment. Dir En Grey at its best.

Recommended tracks: ‘Un Deux’, ‘Chain Repulsion’, ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’, ‘Revelation Of Mankind’

Album of the Week 50-2014: Gov’t Mule – Dose

Now that Gov’t Mule has started releasing several recordings to celebrate their twentieth anniversary, it seems the right moment to give some attention to their discography. And although their discography does seem to confirm Gov’t Mule’s reputation as a live band, they have released quite some impressive albums. ‘Dose’ is probably the most impressive one because it doesn’t only highlight the band’s qualities as musicians, but also as songwriters. While the record is all over the map style-wise, it does feel like a whole. Even when the songs get extremely jam-heavy, the trio keeps it concise and interesting.

It’s important to know where Gov’t Mule is coming from to fully understand their brilliance. Original bassist Allen Woody, who sadly passed away in 2000, and guitar slinging frontman Warren Haynes more or less brought The Allman Brothers Band their second youth in the early nineties. They teamed up with drummer Matt Abts to form a power trio and apparently have some more musical freedom. Their live sets contain Blues, Soul, Rock, Jazz, Folk and even some old school Heavy Metal covers and save for the latter, all these influences are represented on ‘Dose’. It seems unlikely, but it works incredibly well.

Why it works so well is because these songs are – despite the room provided for improvisation – extremely well written. The most obvious example is ‘Thorazine Shuffle’: due to its relatively simple structure, there’s plenty of space to solo over, but in the end, it’s Woody’s incredible and surprisingly timed bass line that makes the song. Also, it’s one of the best bass lines ever recorded. Opening track ‘Blind Man In The Dark’ seems relatively concise, but prove to be an excellent vehicle for extended jams in future live shows and on future live albums as well. Maybe that’s what makes Gov’t Mule the best recorded jam band: they know albums and live shows are different sciences.

The aforementioned songs, along ‘Game Face’ and ‘Larger Than Life’, became Gov’t Mule live staples through the years, and rightfully so, but there’s so much more to hear on this album. My personal favorite being ‘Towering Fool’, a surprisingly sparse and heartfelt power ballad with an incredible build-up. It does help that Haynes isn’t only a world class guitarist, but also a fantastic, soulful singer. It’s one of those ballads that cuts through your soul. Obligated listening. Other notable moments are the acoustic and folky ‘Raven Black Night’ and the gospel-like closer ‘I Shall Return’.

While Gov’t Mule has at least as many fantastic live albums as studio records and most of them are worth having, their studio albums generally are very pleasant listening experiences as well. ‘Dose’ is probably the one that captures them best without going all overboard on jamming, something that obviously works better live than on an album. Instead, it’s a collection of strong Rock songs, expert musicianship and Warren Haynes’ fantastic voice. And while Allen Woody is sadly no longer with us and the band has since expanded to a quartet, the legacy of the band lives on. Hopefully for much, much longer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Towering Fool’, ‘Thorazine Shuffle’, ‘Blind Man In The Dark’

Album of the Week 49-2014: Galneryus – Angel Of Salvation

On my never-ending quest for good Power Metal bands, I have stumbled upon the name Galneryus numerous times. While they have a couple of fantastic songs – ‘Struggle For The Freedom Flag’ and ‘Carry On’ come to mind – most of their albums just didn’t appeal to me enough. Original singer Yama-B was part of the problem; his operatic mid-range bellow – while technically very proficient – clashed with the guitars. This album, the band’s third with Masatoshi ‘Sho’ Ono holding the microphone, corrects my gripes with the band: Ono’s soaring approach is a much better fit for what Galneryus is doing these days and the level of songwriting is consistently high.

First things first – at least chronologically – the album’s overture ‘Reach To The Sky’ is quite possibly the most awesome intro I have ever heard. The main theme of the piece is so triumphant that it hurts. Guitarist and main songwriter Syu never shied away from such melodies, but such a victorious march is overwhelming even by his standards. It’s not just that though; every song is good. Galneryus’ upbeat, warp speed Power Metal on this record is most reminiscent of Helloween – whose discography, let’s be honest, is just as spotty – but Galneryus is more neoclassically oriented, which especially shows in Syu’s guitar histrionics.

Opening track ‘The Promised Flag’ – one of many flags in Galneryus’ discography – is one of those songs that will make your day. It did for me. Syu’s riffing and Junichi Satoh’s drums in high gear get your energy going and that huge, positive chorus with Ono soaring on top bring your spirits up. And that’s not where the fun stops. All the songs have great riffs, mind blowing solos (both by Syu and keyboard player Yuhki) and strong choruses. Favorites are ‘Lonely As A Stranger’ with its badass main riff and the triplet fest of ‘Infinity’, but any of the other songs would have done if you’re into this type of upbeat Power Metal.

Galneryus’ magnum opus, however, is the 15 minute title track of this album. The remarkable thing is that the song never really feels like it lasts a quarter of an hour. You’ll notice that it’s longer than the average song, but the band did very well to build in recurring themes and even a sort of chorus that returns frequently, though it’s more sort of a bridge if you count the monumental section near the end as the chorus. Personally, I love the way the mood of the song changes gradually throughout the song and Syu uses a lot of the room to show off, but then again: he’s good enough to keep even that interesting. Ono’s vocals are beyond amazing here as well.

So after a while, I did get the hype around Galneryus. This is clearly a group of very capable musicians who had done some awesome songs in the past, but as a compositional unit, this is definitely their crowning achievement. Also, I realize preferring Ono to Yama-B isn’t exactly the most popular opinion, but if you give this album a chance, you’ll realize that he’s an amazing singer at the very least. And if you, like me, would like to have a shot of Power Metal adrenalin once in a while by pumping your ears full of fast riffs and hyperspeed melodies, this is definitely the way to go.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Promised Flag’, ‘Angel Of Salvation’, ‘Reach To The Sky’, ‘Infinity’

Joanne Shaw Taylor and more in Gitarist!

Two months ago, I had an extremely pleasant conversation with British Blues, Rock and Soul singer/guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor. Regular readers of this weblog may know that I have been an admirer of her work quite some time and that only increased the delight of talking to her about her guitar choices, her songwriting proces and how she got where she is now. The resulting article, including two photos I took of her, is published in this month’s issue of Gitarist, which is in stores right now.

Besides the interview with Joanne Shaw Taylor, there’s a feature dedicated to the new album of Dutch Rockers De Dijk based on a conversation I had with their guitarist Nico Arzbach and one of our Fuzzboxes is dedicated to Richard van Bergen, with whom I had a very interesting conversation about the troubled genesis of his first solo record ‘Rootbag’. Also included is a handful of reviews that I wrote, along with a great deal of product tests and an interview my chief editor Mark van Schaick had with Dutch rising star Jett Rebel.

In a completely unrelated note: in my stats, I saw that someone got to this weblog using the search term “is every female fronted metal band the same?”. Whoever did that, first of all: kudos for the original search term and secondly, thank you for providing me with a belly laugh.