Archive for November, 2015

Album of the Week 48-2015: Allen Toussaint – Southern Nights

Two and a half weeks ago, one of the few true legends of music still alive passed away. Allen Toussaint almost single-handedly created New Orleans’ R&B sound and though he is primarily known as a composer, arranger and producer, he made a couple of excellent records under his own name. The two records he released when signed to Reprise, ‘Life, Love And Faith’ and ‘Southern Nights’, are nothing short of spectacular. The latter is sort of a mission statement for Toussaint. And a masterpiece of masterfully crafted, laidback, Jazzy New Orleans Funk. A record that belongs in any music collection.

As if the music itself wasn’t enough, one look at the credits reveals an all-star cast of New Orleans’ finest musicians. Most notably: The Meters. Not that the horns have no significance to the sound on ‘Southern Nights’, but the rhythmic backing of The Meters really brings the laidback Funk groove in Toussaint’s compositions to life. The master’s own piano playing and surprisingly understated – for a genre known for its outrageousness – vocal performance confirm the distinct Toussaint signature of the compositions. Even when he experiments with keyboards or effects, there’s no mistaking who we’re dealing with here.

Of course, the key moment on ‘Southern Nights’ is its title track. It would become a hit for Glen Campbell not much later, but the original with its lush keyboard arrangement and flanged vocals is the ultimate version. The atmosphere is unparallelled. It’s also interesting to hear how the song slowly reveals itself through several interludes before it actually begins. The slow reveal is part of the entire album’s charm: you’ll have to hear the seemingly simple Funk of opening track ‘Last Train’ a couple of times before you actually realize how complex the song really is.

In a way, ‘Southern Nights’ is quintessentially seventies: R&B records used to be collections of singles in the sixties, but this album has a few deep cuts that are even more impressive than its better known inclusions. ‘You Will Not Lose’, for instance, which builds upon a jumpy melody and bass line that truly enforces the positive message of the song. Closing track ‘Cruel Way To Go Down’ is extremely moving with its slow groove and desperate Blues feel, while ‘Worldwide’ stands out due to its Funky stomp, Boogie feel and awesome dual lead vocals. ‘Country John’ and ‘Basic Lady’ are nice and funky, while ‘Back In Baby’s Arms’ is a lesson in how to work toward a climax.

Everyone who is interested in Toussaint’s work as a producer and songwriter will have to listen to ‘Southern Nights’ and ‘Life, Love And Faith’ at least once in their lives. The – very pleasant – risk is that you’ll end up listening to it more than once, because both in terms of performance and composition, this is top notch material. ‘Southern Nights’ is a work of art by someone who has found a style of his own that he’s very comfortable with and has set out to make the best possible work within that style. It doesn’t matter if you like Jazz, Soul, Blues or Funk: they’re all represented here in an irresistible manner.

Recommended tracks: ‘Southern Nights’, ‘You Will Not Lose’, ‘Worldwide’, ‘Cruel Way To Go Down’

Album of the Week 47-2015: Galneryus – Reincarnation

Original singer Yama-B’s final album with Japanese Power Metal masters Galneryus is one of their most controversial releases. The album is more experimental in nature than any of their previous records – which have all been more or less straight up Power Metal – and that may put off some of their older fans, but personally, I think the experiments are at the very least partially successful. And while the band’s first few albums have been decent with a few amazing standouts, ‘Reincarnation’, not unlike its predecessor ‘One For All – All For One’, is one of Galneryus’ most consistent records yet.

Its experimental nature doesn’t mean that ‘Reincarnation’ showcases a completely unrecognizable Galneryus; the basis of the album is still the band’s trademark Power Metal with highly catchy choruses and a lot of room for Syu’s neoclassically influenced, but still highly emotional lead guitar. It’s just that with this album, the band seemed to be looking for the extremes of what they could do within the – admittedly somewhat limiting – framework of Power Metal. Another thing that may contribute to the “different” sound of the record is the increased involvement of other members than main composer Syu in the songwriting process.

Most successful is the experiment with downtuned guitars in ‘Blast Of Hell’, which also features some awesome percussion in its amazing chorus. ‘Stardust’ is similarly heavy. Bassist Yo-To – later Deluhi guitarist Leda – contributed ‘Shining Moments’, a highly melodic Hardrock tune somewhat close to Dio’s late eighties work which doesn’t really sound like anything the band has done before either. ‘Fairy Tale’ is one of the band’s best ballads – usually a weakness of Japanese bands – because it shifts moods so nicely. The middle section to closing track ‘The Flag Of Reincarnation’ feels fresh too, though the rest of the song is Galneryus’ trademark upbeat, big chorus sound.

However, the band does really well in more familiar territory as well. Yama-B’s solo compositions have proven to be amazing in the past (‘The Flame’, the mindblowing ‘Raid Again’) and ‘Against The Domination’ is no exception. It’s the song that fits his mighty semi-operatic bellow best and its positive energy is bound to leave a smile on your face. Keyboard player Yuhki’s ‘Face To The Real’ is a great work of more traditional Power Metal as well, while ‘Seasons Cry’ is a fine example of the band’s flair for the dramatics. One of the best even.

As understandable as the mixed reaction to ‘Reincarnation’ is, it’s a fact that it’s a consistently amazing Power Metal record which borrows a few elements from Hardrock and a few more contemporary Metal styles. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a Galneryus album. Syu’s guitar work and Yama-B’s vocal prowess just have a certain quality check to them and that is no different here. The latter would leave the band shortly after the release of this album, which lends something of a bitter aftertaste to it, but it can also be seen as a closing statement of amazing contemporary Metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Blast Of Hell’, ‘Against The Domination’, ‘Shining Moments’

Album of the Week 46-2015: Raglaia – Creation

After her departure caused Aldious’ fluff levels to increase significantly, one could conclude that Rami was pushing for the heavier side of the band. Raglaia’s debut album – or really even the singles that came out before it – seem to support that conclusion. Rami’s clean voice is supported by intense, heavy riff work that brings to mind contemporary melodic Death Metal more than once. The vocals and the highly catchy choruses keep the material very accessible though. In the end, ‘Creation’ shows a Heavy Metal band that is actually heavy. Combined with strong songwriting, this debut album is better than anything Aldious ever did.

More than half of the material on ‘Creation’ was released earlier this year on singles, so there might not be a whole wealth of suprising material here, especially since I doubt if the “album versions” are really that much different from the previously released versions. It’s easy to see past that though, because the album is a very pleasant listen all the way through. There are nice, heavy riffs and aggressive rhythms all throughout the record, alternated with strong melodic flourishes and the odd ballad. K-A-Z’s lead guitar – with more than a passing Vai resemblance – is just as essential to the songs as Rami’s vocals.

Raglaia shoots right out of the gate with the true riff monsters ‘Outer Dark’ and ‘Aching Memories’, the latter almost sounding like Machine Head with a female singer. ‘Ability’, ‘Break Down’ and ‘Cross’ are just as punishing. The good thing about this very heavy approach, is that it pushes Rami to her most powerful performance yet. She gets her chance to shine in lighter tracks like the stellar contemporary rocker ‘Remember’ and the more poppy – despite the intricate guitar work – ‘Promises’. Only the much too sappy ballad ‘Perfect Half’ disrupts the flow; closing track ‘Strings Of Fate’ and the title track adapt a darker, somewhat progressive ballad approach which is ultimately much more successful.

Another thing that makes ‘Creation’ stand out from other contemporary Metal releases is its extremely bottom heavy production. The riffs by K-A-Z and Youth-K!!!’s drums are supposed to pound your ear drums rather than cut through them. The latter’s drums sound nice and natural as a result; his kicks sound like actual bass drums instead of the clicking pen sound you get on many triggered kits. Rami’s voice, though in perfect shape, is a little too loud in the mix a few times, but that’s really the only downside of the production.

When I wrote the Pre-Album Praise article several months ago, I hadn’t expected ‘Creation’ to come out so soon, but I’m glad it did. The album proves Raglaia to be one of the most interesting new bands to come out of Japan in recent years. Really: as if Machine Head decided to write shorter songs and hire a J-Pop singer. If it’s hard to picture something like that, just listen to ‘Creation’ and tell me it’s not true. One thing is certain: this is Rami’s finest hour both in terms of her vocals and of the music underneath them. Promising stuff!

Recommended tracks: ‘Promises’, ‘Aching Memories’, ‘Remember’, ‘Strings Of Fate’

In Memoriam Allen Toussaint 1938-2015

Some people have so much influence on a musical scene that they have become the personification of that scene. Allen Toussaint is that personification of New Orleans music. Though he was a fine singer and musician in his own right, he is primarily known for writing and producing the work of many icons of New Orleans R&B. And although a heart attack sadly took his life at age 77 earlier this week – while on tour – Toussaint will live on through the enormous amount of highly influential and top quality recordings he has been involved with.

But it wasn’t just his output that made Toussaint what he was. His stately appearance – always suited up and with a calm charisma – and endless musical knowledge has made him the high priest of New Orleans music almost litterally. In interviews, for instance in the Foo Fighters’ documentary series ‘Sonic Highways’, it’s impossible not to hang on to his every word and when you see him working as an arranger, you can see an almost worship-like reverence in the eyes of the musicians working with him.

As a songwriter – either using his own name or one of his parents’ – and a producer, Toussaint has been responsible for either kickstarting or revitalizing the careers of the likes of seminal Funk group The Meters, Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas, genre-bending mastermind Dr. John and the town’s most musical family The Neville Brothers. Not much later, many popular artists from outside of the Crescent City – The Band, Paul Simon, Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney to name a few – requested his magic, usually (though not exclusively) through his impeccable horn arrangements.

Earlier in this century, the terrible devastation of hurricane Katrina also caused Toussaint to reawaken his musical career. He recorded solo and with Elvis Costello, did the horn arrangements for the debut record of ardent admirer Hugh Laurie and – most notably – played live more than ever. He was introduced to a wider audience when he appeared in the HBO series ‘Treme’. At the time of his death, he had just finished playing a concert in Madrid, Spain.

When you think of New Orleans, you think of Allen Toussaint. This simple fact is nothing more than logical; Allen Toussaint was a remarkable man and his work is legendary. Not many artists achieve immortality through their legacy, but Toussaint has done just that. During his lifetime already. Several of his songs have become part of the fabric that his city is made of. I’d like to close this in memoriam with what is probably the best tribute to New Orleans, to honor the memory of a musical genius.

Album of the Week 45-2015: Crimson Glory – Transcendence

Futuristic sounding albums ironically have a way of not standing the test of time too well. ‘Transcendence’, the sophomore album of Florida-based progressive Metal band Crimson Glory, still sounds quite fresh. It’s obvious that it’s a product of the late eighties Progmetal scene with its sizable amounts of reverb, but its pristine, hi-fi production gives the album quite a modern sound still to this day. Besides that – and even more importantly – the album contains all the melodic Metal songwriting and spirited performances one can wish for. It’s one of the greatest achievements of any American Metal band to this day.

While Crimson Glory obviously comes from the same sort of musical aesthetic as eighties progressive Metal giants Queensrÿche and Fates Warning – high-pitched clean vocals, traditional Metal riffs, melodic lead guitars and unpredictable song patterns – they always had somewhat more of a Power Metal sound than them. Crimson Glory’s songs transcend (no pun intended) the traditional verse and chorus structures, but at the same time are recognizable and intense. People who are allergic to catchy choruses should probably stick to less accessible bands, but this is also why Crimson Glory can function as something of a gateway Prog band for newcomers.

Most of the songs on ‘Transcendence’ are little works of guitar art with a twin melodies courtesy of Jon Drenning soaring on top of Ben Jackson’s remarkably melodic riff work. But just as impressive are Midnight’s vocal histrionics. He screams, he wails, he sings and he can move from a warm, soft voice to an aggressive edge seemingly effortlessly. All those elements shine in Power Metal classics like ‘Masque Of The Red Death’, ‘Where Dragons Rule’, ‘Lady Of Winter’ or the particularly theatrical ‘Eternal World’. ‘Red Sharks’ even borders on Thrash Metal; its vocal work is nothing short of insane.

Outside of their supposed comfort zone, Crimson Glory is possibly even better. ‘In Dark Places’ is slower and darker than the rest of the album, but that also gives Midnight the room to shine and Drenning to prove that he doesn’t have to be firing on all cylinders all the time. It also shows what a good bassist Jeff Lords is. ‘Burning Bridges’ shows the band at its most theatrical and the closing title track shows more than a passing Led Zeppelin resemblance. There are also two power ballads here. ‘Lonely’ is good, but ‘Painted Skies’ takes the cake. It has been one of my favorite power ballads of all time since the second I heard it. Midnight’s vocal performance is simply breathtaking, the dynamics are impeccable and the lyrics move me.

After ‘Transcendence’, Crimson Glory would enter a musical identity crisis they would never fully recover from. They attempted a few failed comebacks until sadly, Midnight died in 2009. The band tried a reboot with Todd LaTorre on vocals, who would later depart frustrated by their inactivity. And that’s really too bad, but at least they gave us two masterpieces of progressive Power Metal; the self-titled debut is almost as good as this. ‘Transcendence’ deserves to be heard by anyone who likes their Metal with melody and passion. And a fantastic singer. Rest in peace, Midnight.

Recommended tracks: ‘Painted Skies’, ‘In Dark Places’, ‘Where Dragons Rule’

Album of the Week 44-2015: Killing Joke – Pylon

London’s Killing Joke has somewhat of a unique position when it comes to expectations. You know you’re going to get something that is bleak and overwhelming, but the exact sound of their albums is often somewhat of a mystery until you actually hear it. ‘Pylon’ is surprising, because although it is a Killing Joke record through and through, it sounds so much more inspired and absorbing than ‘MMXII’, which came across as something of a rushed affair. It’s probably their most consistent effort since the original quartet reunited in 2008. An unsettling, but ultimately rewarding sonic adventure.

Geordie Walker’s guitar is the first thing that catches my attention; it sounds better than it has in a long time. The riffs sound razor sharp and precise, while the more soundscape-like work is spacious and vast. In addition, the way Paul Ferguson’s acoustic drum work mixes with the electronic rhythms is reminiscent of the band’s 1994 masterpiece ‘Pandemonium’ – not unlike the album cover – and Jaz Coleman appears to actually sing instead of yelling declamations of rebellion this time around. He’s still Britain’s prime prophet of disaster, but this change in vocal approach really fits the unimaginably bleak sound of the record.

While it was their semi-industrial Post Punk riffing that initially drew me toward Killing Joke, it’s increasingly been the songs that are something of a departure that are my favorites lately. Case in point: ‘Euphoria’. The heavy reverb on the guitars and the desolate atmosphere of the song suggest a strong New Wave and early Goth influence, turning the song into a beautifully ugly work of art, only rivaled by ‘New Jerusalem’, in which the swinging rhythms of Ferguson and the electronics make way for a storm of dark, grey clouds in the chorus. Ferguson’s drum work in the song is nothing short of exceptional.

Most of the other songs are typical Killing Joke affairs in which songs get their climaxes from building up layers of intensity rather than having loads of riffs around. In fact, some of the songs (‘Delete’ most prominently) hardly feature any changes in the riff department, they just grow wider when the chorus comes around. Youth’s sub-octave bass sound works wonders here. Also, the riffs on tracks like ‘War On Freedom’ and ‘Dawn Of The Hive’ are simply just really good. Closer ‘Into The Unknown’ adapts a somewhat more epic approach that works marvellously. Initially, I thought the song was a little too long, but every part makes perfect sense.

Reunions of original lineups are usually nostalgia-driven more than anything, but with ‘Pylon’, Killing Joke proves once again (‘Absolute Dissent’ was the first evidence) that the lineup of Coleman, Walker, Youth and Ferguson is really the only one that can fully capture the scarred, but unbowed spirit of Killing Joke. This rhythm section especially does miraculous things to the band’s loud, rude, but also danceable Post Punk sound. ‘Pylon’ perfectly measures up to the band’s classic sound, but open minded fans of Punk, Metal and darker Indie should definitely give this a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Euphoria’, ‘New Jerusalem’, ‘Into The Unknown’, ‘War On Freedom’