Archive for August, 2016

Album of the Week 34-2016: Thin Lizzy – Johnny The Fox

Immortality was never far away for Thin Lizzy, which is ironic, given the early death of frontman Phil Lynott. ‘Live And Dangerous’ will always remain in my top 3 albums of all time; even though it was heavily doctored in the studio, almost every song sounded so much more alive and energetic than its studio counterpart. However, ‘Johnny The Fox’, the second record the band released in 1976, succeeds surprisingly well in combining the Thin Lizzy’s raucous live energy with the possibilities that the studio offers. It’s raw and energetic, but it’s also incredibly well-arranged and sophisticated. A difficult line to walk, but Lizzy does it in style.

Honestly, everything Thin Lizzy released between the first 1976 record ‘Jailbreak’ up until 1980’s severely underrated ‘Chinatown’ should be owned – or at least listened to – by any fan of Rock music, but ‘Johnny The Fox’ is the studio album I revisit most often. ‘Jailbreak’ was the band’s breakthrough record, but it was also overproduced to the extreme; something that especially comes to light when you hear ‘Live And Dangerous’. ‘Johnny The Fox’ was released only seven months later, but feels so much more dynamic and powerful. And with Lynott being the greatest songwriter ever, of course the music itself is amazing.

While ‘Jailbreak’ was highlighted by the songs that would remain on the live sets for years to come, ‘Johnny The Fox’ is amazing all the way through. Sure, ‘Boogie Woogie Dance’ isn’t one of Lizzy’s best tracks lyrically, but it’s heavy, yet swinging rhythm makes it a winner. Also, I would generally be wary of a ten track album with three ballads, but they are all really good. ‘Borderline’ is dreamy and moving, ‘Old Flame’ is poppy and nostalgic and ‘Sweet Marie’ has a downright beautiful chorus that feels almost symphonic in terms of arrangement.

But Thin Lizzy could rock. Better than any other band at the time even. Nobody except for maybe Judas Priest at the time called themselves Heavy Metal, but that’s exactly what the amazing ‘Massacre’ is. Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson sound like a little guitar orchestra, Brian Downey’s drumming is propulsive and Lynott’s lyrics criticize religious intolerance… It’s no wonder that Iron Maiden later covered the track. ‘Johnny’ is another great rocker, balancing on the edge of seventies Rock ‘n’ Roll and early Heavy Metal. Thin Lizzy even tries its hand at Funk and does it quite successfully; ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’ features some delicious rhythms as well as a particularly cheeky vocal crime story from Lynott.

The album’s slightly underproduced nature actually contributes to its class. Even when it’s sometimes a little weird – my god, Lynott’s bass is loud in ‘Borderline’! But in terms of performance, ‘Johnny The Fox’ comes closest to ‘Live And Dangerous’. And in terms of songwriting, nothing can quite top late seventies Phil Lynott. Don’t believe anyone who says that this album is not what it could have been due to its troubled genesis – Robertson injuring his hand in a bar fight, Lynott hospitalized with hepatitis – each and every moment is worthy of your attention. Also, Lynott’s romanticism which is just as much wild west as it is his Irish heritage is always charming in its own right.

Recommended tracks: ‘Massacre’, ‘Johnny’, ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’

Album of the Week 33-2016: WarCry – Alfa

While maybe not directly associated with heavy music, southern Europe loves its Power Metal. As a result, a lot of bands playing that style pop up in countries like Greece, Italy and Spain that are popular in their home countries, but not so much over the border. Often, these bands just aren’t good enough to stand out in the saturated field of European Power Metal, but in case of WarCry, I think the Spanish language is really the only obstacle. It shouldn’t be. Give ‘Alfa’ one spin and you’ll hear all the euphoric, anthemic Power Metal you need on this side of the globe.

Many fingers point toward ‘Alea Jacta Est’ as WarCry’s best record. And while that album contains a lot of good music, it lacks the coherence that ‘Alfa’ – and its follow-up ‘Inmortal’ – do have. ‘Alfa’ isn’t quite as eclectic, but feels more like you’re listening to the same band for the entire album. And yet, there’s enough variation to keep the listener entertained all the way through. There’s definitely an outlined style at work here, but a catchy chorus and to a lesser extent its location within the song are the only things set in stone. Tempos, atmospheres and approaches vary.

Interestingly, WarCry almost always deviates from the standard Power Metal formula of opening with your best song. Not that ‘Alma De Conquistador’ is a bad song; in fact, it’s a very effective moodsetter for this record. However, it isn’t until later that the true brilliance of the Spaniards – sorry, Asturians – shines through. ‘La Muerte De Un Sueño’, ‘Amistad’ and ‘Ardo Por Dentro’ are all excellent, passionate slabs of Power Metal where none of the musicians outshine the actual song. Sure, Víctor García’s gruff, yet melodic throat is front and center and Pablo García regularly fires a blazing guitar solo towards the listener, but the song is always leading.

Generally, WarCry’s ballads bore the hell out of me and ‘Recuérdalo’ is no exception. The composition just hasn’t much going and the tempo is rather sedate. Better is the borderline progressive ‘Todo Es Infierno’, which has some balladesque sections and a surprisingly complex structure by WarCry standards. Another relatively progressive moment is Pablo García’s composition ‘Apariencias’, which has a complex guitar line, but also a strong seventies vibe due to Santi Novoa’s Hammond sounds. And a beautiful, intense chorus. ‘Tan Fácil’ is another masterpiece on the more atmospheric side of the spectrum and ‘Cobarde’ shows the band’s class even in midtempo.

The moment I stopped caring about understanding the language in which the lyrics are sung, a true treasure trove opened before me. WarCry was one of those treasures. It’s not like they do anything particularly special, they just do what they do extremely well. If you like your Power Metal anthemic, fun and melodic, ‘Alfa’ is a more than worthy addition to your collection. And there’s a good chance that you’ll be singing along the choruses despite not knowing any Spanish. You won’t be alone; that’s exactly what happened to me as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ardo Por Dentro’, ‘La Muerte De Un Sueño’, ‘Amistad’

Album of the Week 32-2016: Porcupine Tree – The Incident

For a genre with “progressive” in its name, there have been relatively little young progressive Rock heroes these last years. Steven Wilson has been the last man to be widely accepted as a Prog guru and even though he doesn’t look like it, he is in his late forties. A more positive explanation would be that he set the bar incredibly high and although people like Wilson – to no fault of their own – have an army of admirers incapable of criticizing him, they may be right in this case. Of all his project, Porcupine Tree is easily my favorite, because of its use of dynamics.

Despite being released seven years ago, ‘The Incident’ is Porcupine Tree’s most recent work and features probably their most fully realized material. Personally, I really enjoyed its predecessor ‘Fear Of A Blank Planet’, but that record was quite driven by the Metal elements that have been present since current drummer Gavin Harrison joined the band and Wilson has been producing Opeth around the turn of the century. ‘The Incident’ truly has the band moving from the calmest Folk sections through the most spacey, psychedelic passages to some surprisingly heavy riffing. As a result, the album stays interesting throughout its entire 75 minute run – spread out over two discs.

The centerpiece of the album is the 55 minute titular “song cycle”. Their words, not mine. It’s not one of those “one song albums” in a strict sense. In fact, the approach more closely resembles a traditional concept album with recurring themes, atmospheric interludes, but also expertly written songs that work very well as stand-alone songs. The dark, melancholic vibe, occasional Pop hooks and the way the obvious musical prowess of the instrumentalists generally a backseat in favor of the actual songs make the cycle feel like a modern take on Marillion’s ‘Brave’, albeit with a vastly different sound.

While I would generally prefer a powerhouse singer over this type of material, Wilson’s soft voice actually works really well with the introspective nature of the music and especially the lyrics. His guitar work is usuall simple, but brutally effective. He doesn’t play a lot of notes – Harrison is the only one who sometimes does – but what he does play resonates icredibly on an emotional level. The middle section of the 12 minute ‘Time Flies’ is the perfect example. This approach has an advantage; when the band does fire on all cylinders, like they do on ‘Octane Twisted’, it sounds highly overwhelming, even though it isn’t particularly complex in terms of composition or musicianship.

After the emotional roller coaster that is ‘The Incident’, the four songs on the second cd sound slightly out of place. It’s not like they’re bad songs; in fact, the abstract rocker ‘Bonnie The Cat’ and the powerfully built-up ‘Remember Me Lover’ are excellent, but they feel a little tacked onto the end of the record because… Well, let’s face it, they are. They may have worked better as a separate release without an epic, mind-blowing 55 minute journey fresh in mind.

Naturally, the conceptual nature of the record helps ‘The Incident’ have a consistency that many of the more disjointed modern progressive acts lack. Most of Wilson’s records do. What makes ‘The Incident’ so strong, however, is the fact that it manages to move all over the stylistic map without ever losing its focus. There’s the Folky feel of early Genesis, the layered Pop of the latter days of The Beatles, the riffy propulsion of Heavy Metal and even the Krautrock influences that were more prominent on Porcupine Tree’s oldest records haven’t faded away entirely. Combine that in a way that won’t make the listener lose his way and you’ve got an excellent record on your hands.

Recommended tracks: ‘Time Flies’, ‘The Incident’, ‘Octane Twisted’

Album of the Week 31-2016: Opeth – Pale Communion

Quite a bit of commotion has surrounded the fact that Opeth shed all of its Death Metal roots. Personally, I didn’t mind that much, as I was attracted to the band’s calmer side long before the Death Metal side made any sense for me; ‘Damnation’ was the first Opeth album I got into. The bigger problem I had with 2011’s ‘Heritage’ was its songwriting. The album’s dynamic was limited to soft and even softer and while that could work, there were hardly any memorable passages on the record. By contrast, ‘Pale Communion’ is actually a very fine progressive Rock record.

Although ‘Pale Communion’ shows the Swedes further down the progressive Rock road, improved dynamics significantly increase the replay value of the record. In fact, there are moments on the record – ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’ most prominently – that almost sound like the Opeth that recorded ‘Ghost Reveries’, save for the complete lack of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s death grunts. And while the heavier moments on the record are nowhere near as brutal as those on ‘Blackwater Park’ or ‘Watershed’, the contrasts really work wonders here, making tracks like ‘Cusp Of Eternity’ sound almost like a return to their Metal days without even being all that heavy.

Something I have always liked about Opeth’s calmer endeavors is the fact that it allows Martín Méndez to show what an amazing bass player he is. Sure, he’s not the fastest player of the bunch, but he has a creative, almost Jazzy approach to his bass parts that adds to the songs in a melodic fashion. And despite the fact that ‘Heritage’ and ‘Damnation’ are both calmer than ‘Pale Communion’, this is the highlight of his playing thus far. Another musician who finally gets the space he deserves is Fredrik Åkesson. Although I miss the brash Les Paul sound of his Talisman days, Åkerfeldt must have realized that Åkesson’s bluesy, emotional tone complements his more folky style perfectly.

What makes ‘Pale Communion’ easier to review than ‘Heritage’ is the larger amount of memorable moments. The album’s absolute highlight is the instrumental ‘Goblin’, that almost finds the quintet in Fusion waters. I really like the two string-laden songs that close the record – ‘Voice Of Treason’ and the particularly baroque ‘Faith In Others’ – as well, while opener ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’ has a nice dramatic build-up, as well as some beautiful vocal harmonies. In the end, the only song I don’t like is ‘River’, because I think its acoustic first section is much too upbeat, which contrasts too sharply with the rest of the record.

Of course, ‘Pale Communion’ isn’t the second coming of ‘Blackwater Park’ or even their latter-day masterpiece ‘Watershed’, but it’s a surprisingly good progressive Rock album. I feared the worst when I heard ‘Heritage’, but this record proves the Swedes only needed a slight change in dynamics to make the full transition to progressive Rock and still end up with something memorable. It’s not an easy record by any means, but no Opeth album ever was. Even when its predecessor put you off, give this record a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goblin’, ‘Faith In Others’, ‘Voice Of Treason’