Archive for July, 2019

Release of the Week Extra 30-2019: Soundgarden – Live From The Artists Den


Since I am trying to reserve the album of the week spots for studio albums as much as I can, Soundgarden’s ‘Live From The Artists Den’ seemed like a poor fit. However, it is easily my most anticipated release of the year so far and there has been a series of Chris Cornell-related reviews, so it seemed appropriate to cover this one in a slightly unconventional capacity.

‘Live From The Artists Den’ was filmed for the eponymous PBS program six years ago, on the last date of the American leg for the tour promoting Soungarden’s excellent comeback album ‘King Animal’. About an hour of the show was aired, but nearly two and a half hours of music was recorded. Some of the recent tracks surfaced on the ‘King Animal Plus’ re-release, but apparently, the fan base was requesting the entire show to be released. At least, that is what the sticker on the front of the releases suggests. Understandable, because Chris Cornell’s suicide rules out the possibility of them ever professionally recording a concert again. Fortunately, ‘Live From The Artists Den’ is excellent.

If you buy the Blu-ray, the first thing you will notice is how good the whole thing looks. The production team behind the television program records everything in high definition audio and video and that certainly shows. Sonically, the release is great as well, although I think Kim Thayil could have used a fuller guitar sound during the songs on which he is the only guitarist. In addition, the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles has an atmosphere that adds to the experience. Certainly more than the festival shows that have popped up on YouTube through the years.

What counts in the end, however, is the performances of the songs. And those are generally very good. The video of ‘Black Hole Sun’ that popped up about a week before the release is a tad misleading, as it feels somewhat obligatory; the rest of the show is mostly very good. Cornell’s voice suffers from slight bolts of end of tour fatigue at some points, though surprisingly less so later in the set than in the first few songs. Out of the Soundgarden live recordings that have been officially released, this might just be the most stable of his vocal performances.

The ‘King Animal’ songs in particular sound fantastic. And the set is built around those, as 10 out of the release’s 28 songs – the brilliantly titled outro ‘Feedbachhanal’ does not really qualify as a song – are from that particular album. ‘Non-State Actor’, the quasi-psychedlic ‘A Thousand Days Before’, the stomping 5/4 rhythm of ‘By Crooked Steps’, the hypnotizing ‘Rowing’, the somber ‘Bones Of Birds’ and especially the stomping ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’ and the gorgeous ‘Taree’ are all incredible in their performance. All of these songs are further evidence of how big a hole Cornell’s suicide left in the world of music.

Out of the other songs, it is notably the more obscure material that sounds best. Sure, ‘Spoonman’ and especially ‘Rusty Cage’ are executed fantastically, but long-time fans will be pleasantly surprised at how good the live premiere of ‘Blind Dogs’ sounds. The gloomy musical dystopia of ‘New Damage’ is one of the most taxing songs of Soundgarden’s ouevre vocally, but something pushed Cornell to rise above himself. Fans of the band’s pre-breakthrough days will be delighted by ‘Incessant Mace’ as the opener and remarkably good performances of ‘Flower’ and ‘Hunted Down’ later in the set. My personal Soundgarden favorite ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ closes off the set in a crushing fashion, with Cornell once again pushing himself to the limit on that chorus.

Since PBS is a public network, it is not too surprising that so many songs missed the broadcast. The angry hardcore of ‘Ty Cobb’ could never make it past the moral guardians lyrically – something Cornell cannot resist to make fun of prior to the encores – and the almost funereal dirge that is ‘4th Of July’ would likely have been the least accessible thing ever broadcasted on the network. For that reason alone, it is amazing to have the concert available in its full glory. The setlist is as close to perfect as it gets and the performances range from good to incredible. A must-have for fans of Soundgarden and heavy music in general.

Recommended tracks: ‘Taree’, ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’, ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘New Damage’

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Album of the Week 30-2019: Audioslave – Revelations


It is truly unfortunate that Audioslave never got to record more than three albums. They started out like any other supergroup; as musicians struggling to find a way to combine their musical histories in a listenable manner, although the self-titled debut certainly already had its share of great moments. It helps that 75 percent of Audioslave came from the same band, but by the time ‘Revelations’ was released, the band had evolved beyond sounding like Rage Against The Machine with Chris Cornell singing. This is a powerful, at times surprisingly soulful alternative hardrock album that showcases some excellent songwrited and spirited musicianship.

Rage Against The Machine’s biggest strength, to me, was always their rhythm section, but ‘Revelations’ is the record on which drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford deliver their best performance yet. Their rhythms can still punch hard if they want to, but there is a strong soul and funk undercurrent on the album. As a result, guitarist Tom Morello is forced to tone down his noisy effects in favor of a more swinging rhythm guitar approach, ending up sounding something like Led Zeppelin being pushed through a Motown filter. An approach that fits Cornell’s wide, expressive range like a glove.

The opening title track briefly misleads the listener into thinking ‘Revelations’ will be a moody, downbeat album, but the song quickly transforms into a powerful swing ‘n’ stomp fest. And while ‘Revelations’ as a whole is a tad darker in tone than the first two Audioslave albums – to its benefit, if you ask me – it also has its notably celebratory moments. ‘Original Fire’, most notably, ironically sounds more upbeat than the early Seattle bands it is a tribute to. ‘One And The Same’ and the amazing funk rocker ‘Broken City’ manage to walk the tightrope of dark, dangerous and life-affirming effectively.

And yet, the most convincing moments on ‘Revelations’ are the most melancholic ones. ‘Wide Awake’ is easily my favorite non-Soundgarden song Cornell has ever sang on. It could be described as a sorrowful ballad, were it not for Commerford’s busily funky bass line and Wilk’s dynamic drum work. The yearning chorus and the climactic ending are pieces of art. Closing track ‘Moth’ is another gloomy masterpiece driven by a massive, almost Sabbathian riff and a haunting chorus. Elsewhere, the pounding ‘Shape Of Things To Come’ and the almost jazzy chord work of ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’ run a different way with the melancholy. ‘Jewel Of The Summertime’ is one of the heaviest funk tracks I ever heard.

‘Out Of Exile’ was a great album, but ‘Revelations’ is the Audioslave album I would recommend anyone to start with, as the specter of the members’ former bands was no longer looming over the band by this point. The backgrounds of the musicians are fairly obvious, but the blend of styles is rather unique. Audioslave had finally found its own sound on ‘Revelations’, which is why it is such a pity that it was their final album. Certainly one of the most organic-sounding big budget post-2000 rock releases and that is truly the finishing touch of this great album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wide Awake’, ‘Moth’, ‘Broken City’, ‘One And The Same’

Album of the Week 29-2019: Soundgarden – Superunknown


In hindsight, the title of Soundgarden’s fourth album ‘Superunknown’ is almost ironic, as the album – and its singles in particular – turned the Seattle-based band into a bestselling rock act. In a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Soundgarden consisted of four great songwriters and in Chris Cornell, they had easily the greatest singer of the entire Seattle scene. On the other hand, the band’s fearless experimentalism, as well as their penchant for odd time signatures and dissonance made them the least likely huge rock act of the era. However, that is exactly what makes ‘Superunknown’ as successful artistically as it is commercially.

As tempting as it is to call ‘Superunknown’ a sellout record, the opposite is actually true. Sure, it is notably less metallic than ‘Badmotorfinger’, but instead, this is a textured, sonically rich record that explores all the extremes of rock music. From the punky bite of ‘Kickstand’ to the psychedelic leanings of ‘Head Down’ and the dark pop supremacy of ‘Black Hole Sun’, ‘Superunknown’ is Soundgarden’s ‘Physical Graffiti’. To do that without alienating your core audience is not an easy feat, but then again, Soundgarden never released the same kind of album twice in a row, so their fans knew they could expect something different.

Unlike many albums of the era, the singles that were culled from the album actually fit the general atmosphere of the record well. First single ‘Spoonman’ is as unconventional rhythmically as anything the band released up until that point and the downbeat semi-ballad ‘Fell On Black Days’ is one of the greatest songs Soundgarden ever released. The way Cornell’s voice commands the dynamics of the song over that simple, but brutally effective guitar riff is nothing short of genius. ‘Let Me Drown’ is a powerful opening track and the subdued, yet forceful ‘Fresh Tendrils’ really deserves more appreciation than it tends to get.

Fortunately, the Black Sabbath-inspired doom metal riffing has not disappeared. While nothing is of ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ proportions, there are no less than three songs that come close. ‘4th Of July’ is a sludgy, dissonant dirge on which Cornell’s understated vocals take a back seat to the riffs, which are right in front of the mix. The monstrous groove of ‘Mailman’ is evidence that Soundgarden shares a lot of influences with Alice In Chains and the riff work of ‘Limo Wreck’ is a clear tribute to Sabbath, while the chorus houses Cornell’s finest vocal performance on the record. Closing the record on a strong note, ‘Like Suidice’ feels like a blend of alternative rock and southern blues. It’s something which is not attempted often, but works very well.

So is ‘Superunknown’ better than ‘Badmotorfinger’? Of course it isn’t. ‘Badmotorfinger’ was a monumental release on which all the stars aligned ridiculously perfectly. ‘Superunknown’ is just about as good a follow-up anyone could wish for. The album shows a band refusing to compromise and surprisingly, that eventually gave them the audience they deserved. Soundgarden was always a band that defied genres or scenes and no record is better evidence of that than ‘Superunknown’. A rare example of a breakthrough record that does not pander to the masses. Not even a little.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Mailman’, ‘Limo Wreck’

Album of the Week 28-2019: Confessor – Condemned


Prior to hearing ‘Condemned’, technical doom metal was a mix of styles I pretty much considered impossible. There are plenty of doom metal bands that take a strong influence from Fates Warning’s early albums, so progressive doom metal: sure. But the idea of abrupt shifts in rhythms, tempos and time signatures did not blend with the despair-ridden atmosphere of the better doom metal bands in my mind. Enter the debut album of North Carolina’s Confessor. Not only does it manage to make sense of combining all the aforementioned elements, it also sounds significantly more anguished than many of their peers.

First things first: those expecting a more complex version of Solitude Aeturnus’ prog-ish interpretation to the Candlemass sound may not get what they are hoping for. In fact, Confessor does not really sound like any other band. The borderline thrashy riff work brings the better moments of Invocator’s second album to mind and there are traces of what Meshuggah would later attempt, but the voice of Scott Jeffreys immediately blows those comparisons out of the water. His high-pitched, almost spotlessly clean voice sounds more tortured than any growler ever could. His sustained notes sound like Jeffreys is actually exorcising some persistent demons.

The closest comparison would be a considerably slowed-down and less bass-heavy Watchtower, a band Jeffreys briefly fronted, in the sense that Confessor hardly stays in the same gear for too long. Only ‘Eve Of Salvation’ is built upon a relatively steady foundation of Black Sabbath-influenced riff work, while drummer Steve Shelton keeps his rhythms fairly straightforward. By contrast, ‘Prepare Yourself’ contains some of the most twisted, intricate riffing that Brian Shoaf and the late Ivan Colon are subjecting themselves too on the record. The rest is closer to the latter than the former: the riff work is dense, the drumming busy and Jeffreys wails lines that sometimes appear to have little connection to the accompanying music. And yet it works.

While there aren’t really any tracks that strike me as better than the others, a stand-out track is ‘Uncontrolled’, which has a slightly more thrashy vibe than the rest of the album through its (marginally) higher tempo and the gang-shouted backing vocals in its chorus. The title track that follows has a slightly more uptempo and violent vibe than the other tracks as well, mostly due to Shelton punishing his kit like there’s no tomorrow. His bass drums sound dry, but that somehow works well with the riffs. The start-stop riffing of ‘The Stain’ sounds delightfully claustrophobic, while ‘Suffer’ ties the album together very nicely.

In the end, my only two complaints for ‘Condemned’ are minor. Cary Rowells’ bass is hardly audible most of the time; it’s there, but it’s far too trebly for its own good. Also, since the songs don’t have very clear structures – at least not initially – they blend together a little at times. Neither of those factors should discourage anyone from listening to what is truly one of the most unique albums in heavy metal history. It might need a few spins to sink in. The first time, you’ll wonder what the hell you’re listening to. The second time, you might be able to wrap your head around it a little more. From then on, you’ll either get it or you won’t.

Recommended tracks: ‘Uncontrolled’, ‘Suffer’, ‘Prepare Yourself’

My video interview with Jared James Nichols

Last month, I had the opportunity to interview thumb guitar virtuoso Jared James Nichols for the Aquarium Sessions, an initiative of Gitarist magazine. Nichols had drawn my attention with his debut album ‘Old Glory & The Wild Revival’, initially with the cool blues rock vibe of his song material, but I later find out he had a rather interesting right hand technique that is closer to fingerstyle than anything else really. The result can now be seen on the YouTube channel of the Aquarium Sessions. Definitely worth seeing if you want to know more about Nichols’ signature Blackstar amplifier, his Epiphone Old Glory or his playing technique.

Album of the Week 27-2019: Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light


Occasionally, there are rare instances in which the cliché that great misery inspires great art proves to be true. Swallow The Sun’s seventh album ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’ is one of those instances. Rhythm guitarist and main songwriter Juha Raivio lost his wife, South African singer Aleah Starbridge, to cancer at the much too young age of 39 and her absence is felt throughout the album. Being a Finnish doom/death metal band, Swallow The Sun was never the most cheerful bunch, but the beautiful melancholy on display here gives the album its unique character within the band’s discography.

Even without knowing the story behind the album, one thing stands out immediately and that is the profoundly sad gothic atmosphere that defines a large portion of the album. There are still outbursts of extreme metal, but tracks like ‘Upon The Water’ and the gorgeous ‘The Crimson Crown’ are so full of arpeggiated clean guitar chords that they feel stylistically closer to Fields Of The Nephilim’s masterpiece ‘Elizium’ than to anything Amorphis ever released. In a way, the album reverses the process of ‘Songs From The North’ (2015), on which the band gave different discs to each aspect of their sound.

Bringing those extremes back together has really done wonders for the dynamics on ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’. Mikko Kotomäki utilizes his deep, clean vocals for a majority of the album, but he is backed by electric guitars almost exclusively. These alternate between the aforementioned clean chord work and beefy doom riffs that are notably more spaciously produced than the guitars on the band’s earlier works. It helps that the riffs are significantly less chord heavy than on their previous albums; the single notes can really ring through with the intensity they should have.

While an album like ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’ is best listened to in its entirity to let the atmosphere carry you away, anyone into the darker spectrum of music needs to hear ‘Stone Wings’. The song is mainly carried by a Nephilim-esque eye-watering guitar part and has what is probably the most hauntingly beautiful chorus released this year. There is a more extreme middle section, but even that part of the song is quite melancholic. By comparison: the aggressive middle part of the otherwise sorrowful ‘Firelights’ is the closest the band has ever gotten to black metal. Elsewhere, ‘Here On Black Earth’ contains a surprisingly dynamic guitar arrangement.

No, ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into Night’ is not an easy record to listen to. It is in the sense that it’s probably the most accessible album Swallow The Sun has released thus far, but the feeling of loss hangs over the album like a pitch black cloud. As a result, the album is not for the faint of heart, but it is in fact the best record the Finns have released thus far. Its superior flow helps too; many of their earlier albums were difficult to listen to in one setting, but once the piano and string laden closer ‘Never Left’ extinguishes, I have been captivated for 52 straight minutes. One of the better metallic releases of 2019. Highly impressive.

Recommended tracks: ‘Stone Wings’, ‘The Crimson Crown’, ‘Never Left’

Saber Tiger lyricist about ‘Obscure Diversity’


One thing that makes Saber Tiger stand out is the fact that their English lyrics are better than those of most Japanese bands. Starting with their 2011 release ‘Decisive’, the band has been extensively collaborating with lyricist Fubito Endo, who also wrote of all the lyrics for their new album ‘Obscure Diversity’.

Back in 2007, I came across a blog post from (founding guitarist) Akihito Kinoshita”, Endo explains. “Saber Tiger was at a low point in their career at the time. They had no record deal, no management, not even a singer. I had been a fan of Saber Tiger since junior high, when they hadn’t even released their major label debut yet. So when I saw on AK’s blog that he needed a lyricist, I decided to contact him. I was already a professional musician and producer at the time, so I hoped I could help him out.

I watch a lot of American and British movies and tv series. When I hear some cool words or phrases, I always write them down in my Saber Tiger memos. I have a long list of these phrases. When I receive demo tracks from the guys, I always check the memo and see if I can get a vision of what I want to talk about.

The basic concept of ‘Obscure Diversity’

For the previous trilogy of ‘Decisive’, ‘Messiah Complex’ and ‘Bystander Effect’, my lyrics were mostly about war, conflict, crime, life and death. I think I have written enough about these concepts, so I decided to write from a more personal perspective for this particular album. I never went to a war zone and I never pulled the trigger. I’ve never even seen someone die in front of me except for the natural deaths of my relatives. So these stories were all fictional for me. The basic concept of ‘Obscure Diversity’ was to write more about personal tragedies in our lives.

Daguerreotype Of Phineas Gage

This was the final song written for this album. ‘The Crowbar Case’ already existed and Takenori (Shimoyama, singer) came up with the idea to kick off the album with a kind of gothic choir. The vocal recording is actually a demo. We originally planned to hire professional opera singers to emulate the parts on the demo, but my demo recording went so well that we decided to keep the recording for the final product.

The title refers to one of the two silver prints that were left of Phineas Gage after his eye and part of his brain were taken out as part of a tragic accident. An iron rod pierced through his head. The fragmented Latin words don’t mean anything by themselves, but they are supposed to depict a fragmental image of what his life and death are all about.

The Crowbar Case

The story of Phineas Gage was really interesting for me. Before his accident, he was known as a very decent, hard-working man and a trustworthy boss. Then he had a tragic accident that made him lose part of his brain. Miraculously, he managed to survive, but when he recovered, he came back with a completely different personality. He was told to have become extremely violent and selfish. When I read this story, I began to think: which part of him made him the person he was? And who was the real Phineas Gage in the first place?

The Worst Enemy

“’The Worst Enemy’ was the very first song we wrote for this album. These lyrics set the basic concept for the whole album. Jealousy is our worst enemy. But if you’re human, you can’t live without it. No matter how decent you are, everybody suffers from jealousy. If you are faced with it, maybe you can control it or at least learn how to deal with it. But if you try to deny it, you will eventually be controlled by it.

Stain

Sometimes, people do things that never really go away. Even if you try to hide it or even erase them, these things will always leave a stain inside you. It is possible that everybody else forgets about it, but since you are the one who did it, you are never going to forget. You simply have to deal with it and learn to live with it. That is the basic concept of ‘Stain’.”

Beat Of The War Drums

When we went to Germany to mix ‘Decisive’ with Tommy Newton, Akihito had a stroke. He nearly died there. He had to be brought back to Japan on a stretcher in first class with a doctor present. Though he was super lucky to have survived, he has been suffering from pretty severe depression ever since. I wrote the lyrics to ‘Beat Of The War Drums’ to kind of cheer him up.

If people work too hard, it will eventually break their physical condition, after which it will break their minds. That’s when the war drums start beating in your head. That is the state of mind of hard-working people. I can relate to the feeling myself. When I was producing the vocals for ‘Paragraph IV’, I didn’t sleep anywhere near enough for two or three weeks. After that, I was sick for two months.

Distant Signals

“’Distant Signals’ is very different from the usual Saber Tiger style. It was a challenge to write these lyrics, because the music is so complicated, but I enjoyed it very much. This particular demo was the first song hibiki (bassist) wrote for Saber Tiger. It sounded so spacey! I felt like I was flying through space, from planet to planet. Therefore, the lyrics were inspired by the idea of quantum mechanics: we always take a shower in an immense amount of possibilities. Your actions will define the truth of the next moment.

For the previous albums, I always wrote about perfect despair. If you look deep into the abyss of despair, you will eventually find one small fragment of hope. I never wrote purely positive lyrics, but I wanted to write something really positive for this hibiki song, because I felt this positive energy from him. So I think the concept of believing in yourself and trusting your own actions really fits the song.

The Shade Of Holy Light

This is the very first ballad Machine (guitarist Yasuharu Tanaka) wrote for Saber Tiger. This is another story of a decent guy in an unfortunate situation. The guy in this song worked too hard covering for his colleagues and working overtime. One night, he works late and when he drives back home in the dark, during heavy rainfall, over the speed limit, he runs over somebody. He ends up in jail, where he reminisces his life. Nobody forced him to be nice; he decided by himself to help somebody out. That resulted in him killing someone. The idea is that the strongest light always creates the darkest shadows. Even if you are a good man. This happens all the time in our lives. The world is an unfair place.

Permanent Rage

Saber Tiger has had a long career and because they are such kind guys, they have often been hunted by predators. A lot of people show up to them, act all nice and end up ripping them off. They have lost a lot of money over the years simply because they are not businessmen, because they trust these people. They always tend to show up again though, because they think they will still be an easy prey. When that happens, you have to face them and say: I know what you are trying to do. Say that again and look me in the eye.

I have always loved the phrase ‘M.O.’. I’m a big fan of American legal dramas and often hear this phrase ‘same M.O.’ used by detectives or lawyers. I have always wanted to use it. When I heard the demo, there was a part where it just fit perfectly. That was the first idea for the song.

Seize Your Moment

Literally, ‘Seize Your Moment’ is very positive. This is your chance, your opportunity, so you have to grab it. Everything has two sides though. If somebody shows up and says: you have no problem, I will take care of everything for you, they might be trying to set you up.  If somebody really cares about you, they don’t always say nice things. Sometimes they say something that is difficult for you to hear. Seize Your Moment is about seeing both sides of everything.

Divide To Deny

Simply put, this one is about people who fear people with a different point of view. The reason why people attack others is fear. They fear something they don’t understand, so they try to attack it. But it’s impossible to understand everything. It’s only natural if there are things that you don’t understand. Being different is not a crime. You don’t have to understand it, but there is no need to attack anyone. You can just leave the people you don’t understand alone.

This idea is also reflected in the title ‘Obscure Diversity’. Diversity is kind of a trendy word these days. Everyone is talking about it, but a lot of people are simply talking about diversity because they are afraid to get attacked for being politically incorrect. The other extreme is trying to hide your actual incorrectness behind a screen or an anonymous handle. Living with something you don’t necessarily understand is true diversity.

Paradigm And Parody

As professional creators, we always suffer to create something original. On the other hand, it’s impossible to create something new, as most possibilities have already been done by someone at some point. All that we can do is change the combination or the color. That’s how you can leave your signature. We dedicate our whole life to these kinds of small changes, but some people have no problem being a copycat.

I don’t say that everything I create is completely original. Of course I have been influenced by my favorite artists and artists that I admire. But when I see people who just copy and paste, I always think: how can you sleep at night doing this as your profession?

My favorite lines from these lyrics are: you know there are ten thousand ways to be right / you know it’s so easy, a matter of pride / and what you want to be known for when you die. I don’t believe in life after death, so after I die, I only live in someone else’s memory. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who just stole or copied from other artists. At least I tried to create something to make people happy.

The Forever Throne

“’The Forever Throne’ was inspired by a real life incident. A few years ago, Tetsuya Komuro, a very famous Japanese music producer, was caught trying to sell the rights to songs he didn’t own. He was never prosecuted for fraud, because his label owner paid a lot of money to prevent that. However, he was already all over the news, so he had to talk about it. He said that the reason he did it was to make his wife happy until the day his fraud was discovered. He knew he was going to lose everything he created, but he took the risk to make his wife feel like a queen.

When I heard this story, the image of an empty throne came to mind. Spending a crazy amount of money on something meaningless. I feel in this story, Komuro kind of was the emperor in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It is impossible to own everything. Not even a millionaire can buy the sky or the sun. And happiness is not defined by how much you own. I really believe that everyone who experiences great happiness also has to face big sadness. At the end of the day, it’s all in balance.

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