Album of the Week 27-2012: Exodus – Exhibit B: The Human Condition

Essentially, a good Exodus album is characterized by a continuous kick in the face. That was the case when ‘Bonded By Blood’ came out and that tradition was carried forth with the 2004 rebirth of ‘Tempo Of The Damned’. Gary Holt’s songwriting has become somewhat more contemporary recently, but the solid Thrash punch is still there. However, things had become a bit stale on ‘The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A’. Holt’s insistence to write long songs was only partially successful (‘Children Of A Worthless God’ and the title track were awesome) and the band sounded like they were forcing something that wasn’t there.

Something must have crawled up Gary Holt’s ass then, because the ‘Exhibit B’-entry is much more vicious, inspired and powerful than its direct predecessor. These long songs actually make sense and my god they’re incredibly aggressive. It’s this sense of high-speed aggression that makes the seven and a half minutes of a song like ‘Beyond The Pale’ fly by as if the song is half its actual length. That is the essence of a good long song. And Gary Holt seems to have gotten a hold of that ability a lot better this time.

Another progression from the previous effort is that this time, the long songs are alternated with shorter burts of aggression, such as ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’ (not the Public Enemy song) and ‘Good Riddance’. It keeps the flow of the album strong, with the only exception that there’s two songs that could function as closer; after the punishing ‘The Sun Is My Destroyer’ – if those verses don’t make you want to go out and kill, nothing ever will – I really thought the album would be over, but there’s a little instrumental (‘A Perpetual State Of Indifference’) and ‘Good Riddance’ after that.

More variation is a huge improvement over ‘Exhibit A’ as well. The hyper-melodic ‘Downfall’ is a pleasant surprise, as are the slower, eastern-tinged tunes ‘Nanking’ and ‘Democide’. The latter is a contribution by guitarist Lee Altus, as is opening track ‘The Ballad Of Leonard And Charles’, the best “ballad” to ever open an Exodus-album.

Speaking of Lee Altus, apart from the rapid fire of riffs flying around, the solo sections of him and Gary Holt are nothing short of spectacular. Flashy, but not too flashy. Exactly like it was meant to be in Thrash. Tom Hunting shows why it’s an amazing thing why he’s back, with his powerful beats and trademark explosive fills and Jack Gibson’s bass work is remarkably present in the mix of this album. Also, Rob Dukes shows some improvement as a vocalist. Still pissed off and vicious (check his p’s and b’s, which are hardly distinguishable from each other, as proof), but a bit more varied. There’s this clean line underneath his typical shout in ‘Nanking’ that just lifts the song to a higher level.

So here it is, something or somebody (my guess is Lee Altus) lit a fire under Gary Holt’s ass and the result is possibly the best album since Exodus’ rebirth, or at least a worthy successor to ‘Tempo Of The Damned’. And they’re still a brutally lethal live band too. Exodus is here to stay and if it sounds like this, you won’t hear me complain!

Recommended tracks: ‘Beyond The Pale’, ‘The Ballad Of Leonard And Charles’, ‘The Sun Is My Destroyer’


Album of the Week 26-2012: Pearl Jam – Riot Act

Seeing Pearl Jam live – and it was fantastic – last week was a great excuse to revisit their entire back catalog, which makes me want to break a lance for what is probably the most criminally underrated album of the Seattle band. To these ears, ‘Riot Act’ finally picks up where ‘Vitalogy’ left off. Not that ‘No Code’, ‘Yield’ and ‘Binaural’ were bad albums – especially the latter spots a few fantastic tracks – but the band seemed drifting and insecure. ‘Riot Act’ displays something of a reborn Pearl Jam. The album sounds confident and mature.

Much of the album’s power lies within the fact that the band doesn’t restrict itself to one approach. In a fashion almost reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, ‘Riot Act’ is in turns reflective and powerful, straightforward and experimental, folky and rocking. All in a way that it makes sense; nowhere does it sound like you’re listening to more than one album. Part of that is the dry, almost rootsy sound that Adam Kasper and Brendan O’Brien gave the album. Very raw and in your face, but polished nonetheless.

Though the album went by largely unnoticed by mainstream Rock audiences at the time, the album still spawned a few classics among Pearl Jam’s fan base. ‘Love Boat Captain’ – which can be seen as the beginning of the collaboration with longtime Hammond and keyboard player Boom Gaspar – is a beautiful, moody Rock song in which the victims of the drama during the band’s 2000 Roskilde performance are commemorated, ‘I Am Mine’ is a subdued track in which Eddie Vedder’s spine chilling baritone is used to maximum effect and the acoustic guitar driven ‘Thumbing My Way’ is one of the band’s best ballads. The somewhat bluesy ‘1/2 Full’ became somewhat of a live classic as well.

But that’s not all there is. This is actually one of the most consistent albums Pearl Jam released. Matt Cameron proves his value to the band by not only being one of the planet’s best Rock drummers, but also by contributing three tracks, all of which are amazing Rock songs and one of which – the slightly psychedelic ‘You Are’, which also features Cameron on rhythm guitar – is one of the best songs the band ever recorded. The hard driving ‘Save You’ displays a full-band dynamic and energetic Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude that was missing from albums like ‘No Code’ and ‘Ghost’ also rocks along nicely. Closing track ‘All Or None’ is a moody and moving ballad. In fact, there’s not one bad song in the bunch. Only ‘Bu$hleager’ is skipworthy. There’s a few good riffs in the song, but ultimately, it’s a better protest than it is a song.

While ‘Riot Act’ isn’t Pearl Jam’s best album – the timeless classic ‘Ten’ is, of course – it is the only rightful follow-up to ‘Vitalogy’. And though ‘Riot Act’ may not be as crazily experimental as that album was – Vedder’s goosebumps guaranteed multi-layered vocal solo track ‘Arc’ isn’t exactly ‘Bugs’, ‘Satan’s Bed’ or ‘Stupid Mop’ – it is the ultimate proof of Pearl Jam finding their mojo back and maturing along the way. Those who ignored the album when it came out would do themselves a favor giving it another chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘You Are’, ‘Save You’, ‘Love Boat Captain’, ‘Thumbing My Way’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Get Right’

Loads of Kevy Metal in next month’s Gitarist!

If there is something like a favorite issue of a magazine I contribute to, next month’s issue of Gitarist, which will be in stores this week, is very likely to become this year’s entry. This issue counts three interviews and I’ve conducted and two photos taken by yours truly. Sami Yli-Sirniö from Kreator spoke to me about ‘Phantom Antichrist’ and the equipment used to record the album. Belgian-Dutch Rock sensation Drive Like Maria – check them out if you haven’t already, you must! – told me about the years between their debut ‘Elmwood’ and this years sensational self-titled album and Metal/Fusion bassist extraordinaire Steve DiGiorgio gives a lesson in fretless vs. fretted and claiming your place in Heavy Metal as a bassist.

Besides that, there’s a cool interview with Slash about the recordings of ‘Apocalyptic Love’ – last week’s album of the week on this weblog – and a special on Surf guitar. Legendary Strat player Eric Johnson is interviewed and my good friend Vincent van der Horst had a chat with Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher. As for photography, both live photos of Drive Like Maria included in the magazine are mine. All this and more in issue number 256 of Gitarist!

Album of the Week 25-2012: Slash – Apocalyptic Love

Initially, ‘Apocalyptic Love’ didn’t do anything special for me. Naturally, I bought it on the day of release and although I liked what I heard, it was nothing more than I expected. This may not necessarily sound negative, but when one of the best Hardrock guitarists of the world teams up with the guy that I consider by far the greatest singer since the generation of Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, something magical is not too much to ask for, right? In the month since its release, ‘Apocalyptic Love’ really grew on me – no doubt helped by the downright brilliant concert Slash, Myles Kennedy and their Conspirators gave at the Heineken Music Hall two weeks ago – and now I see the album for what it really is: a kick-ass Hardrock record.

Where Slash’s self-titled solo debut was a disorganized mess or a versatile record – depending on your viewpoint – due to the large number of guest singers and musicians, ‘Apocalyptic Love’ definitely profits from the presence of a fixed group of musicians, as there is something of a consistent band sound. There’s still plenty of variation to be found on the album, but it is obvious that Slash, Myles, bassist Todd Kerns and drummer Brent Fitz are in the same energy together. In addition, Myles Kennedy audibly had a hand in the song arrangements: his strong sense of melody works complementary with Slash’s feel for Rock licks.

Despite what I said in the beginning of this review, there were two songs that immediately hit me hard when I listened to the album for the first time and those are still my favorites. ‘Anastasia’ spots a few remarkably neoclassical guitar lines for Slash, a goosebumps-inducing chorus with double vocal harmonies, killer riffs, a brilliant build-up and an extensive jam at the end. This is easily one of the best Rock songs of this year and a prime example of why a Slash/Myles collaboration is such a great idea. The brooding Rock song that is ‘Bad Rain’ just has this amazing atmosphere, with its relatively subdued verses and big chorus. These two songs justified the money spent for me in the beginning.

Later on, I realized there’s a whole batch of other great songs on ‘Apocalyptic Love’. ‘One Last Thrill’ for instance, an energetic Rock song which in my eyes should have opened the album, they corrected this mistake by opening with the song in concert. ‘You’re A Lie’ is a relatively heavy track which took some time to adjust to due to its unconventional structure, ‘Hard & Fast’ lives up to its title, ‘Standing In The Sun’ has a more melodic finish and the title track and ‘Shots Fired’, which bookend the album, just plain kick ass.

First impressions aren’t always right, that much is proven by ‘Apocalyptic Love’. Of course, me wanting to like the album helped a little. Because let’s face it, you can never have enough Myles Kennedy. Slash finally sounds like he’s completely comfortable with what he’s doing again as well, for the first time since the Snakepit debut. Maybe it’s the lack of pretension. And isn’t that what a good Rock album needs?

Recommended tracks: ‘Anastasia’, ‘Bad Rain’, ‘One Last Thrill’

Album of the Week 24-2012: DeWolff – IV

It’s almost impossible to point out how impressive DeWolff’s mixture of mid-sixties Bluesrock, late sixties Psychedelia and early seventies Hard Rock is without referring to their young age. Four amazing releases and the three amazing Dutch musicians are still barely in their twenties – in fact, drummer Luka van de Poel has yet to reach his twenties. And there’s hardly any band doing it better, by not focusing solely on either of the genres they’re covering. In deed, on ‘IV’, DeWolff still plays a tasteful cocktail of The Doors, Deep Purple, Zappa, Pink Floyd and latter day Beatles.

Despite the massive sound on ‘IV’, there’s still only three guys doing this. The band’s power lies in the fact that neither Robin Piso’s vintage keyboards, neither Pablo van de Poel’s guitar and vocals, neither Luka van de Poel’s drums are a dominant factor in the music. They all work together to create an irresistable sound that sounds authentically old school. If someone had told me – prior to knowing the band of course – that this was truly something released sometime between 1967 and 1971, I would have bought it.

On the aptly titled ‘IV’, the band seems to have opted for a slightly lighter and looser sound than on its relatively dark predecessor ‘Orchards/Lupine’, but the overall sound is still undeniably DeWolff. There’s the Hammond-heavy Rocker ‘Crumbling Heart’, which is slightly reminiscent of ‘Gold And Seaweed’ from the debut EP, the band’s trademark misguidingly light-hearted sounding songs like ‘Devil’s Due’ and opening track ‘Voodoo Mademoiselle’ and the Doors-like, Psych-Bluesy slowburner ‘Six Holes & A Ghost’. One of the album’s highlights is ‘The Only Thornless Rose’, a strong psychedelic number with a sense of mystery in its sound, carried by Pablo van de Poel’s awesome riffs and some strong work on mellotron and Hammond by Piso.

But the true treat of ‘IV’ are the last 5 tracks that form the B-side of the album – let’s face it, you need to hear an album like this on vinyl – collectively called ‘A Mind Slip’. This 20-minute Psych-fest is the perfect conclusion to this record. The overture of ‘Devil On A Wire/The Telephone’ is slightly orchestral, going into the dark, Zappa-esque ‘Black Hole Raga’, continuing that fashion into ‘Sixth Dimension Blues/The Telephone Pt. II’, with a transition that is almost soundtrack-like, much like the following ‘Astral Awareness’ – as if that title wasn’t pretty self-explanatory already – concluding in subdued Rocking with ‘Vicious Times’, which spots brilliant solos by both Van de Poel brothers. The string section present in the entire multi-part suite adds a whole new dimension to DeWolff’s sound. It’s a simply brilliant batch of songs. The only downside is that I fear this is going to push the utterly brilliant ‘The Thrills That Come Along With The Landing Of A Flying Saucer’ off the regular DeWolff set.

If, by any chance, you like music from the late sixties and early seventies – and I don’t see why not, because that was the beginning of the best decade in musical history – you need to hear DeWolff. And if you love the band like I do already, you can blindly purchase ‘IV’. As with every album, the band tries their hand at a new direction without sounding radically different and therefore succeeds at moving forward without alienating their audience. Many artists twice or even three times the age of DeWolff’s members should watch and learn.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Only Thornless Rose’, ‘Six Holes & A Ghost’, ‘Black Hole Raga’, ‘Crumbling Heart’

Album of the Week 23-2012: Rush – Clockwork Angels

Over the course of their last few albums, the mighty riff has regained its territory within the music of Rush. As much as I appreciate the Canadian Prog giants for their fearless experimentalism, the Rush I like will always remain the riff-heavy late seventies, early eighties Rush. Let’s say ‘2112’ to ‘Permanent Waves’. However, the current era of the band isn’t too shabby either. Personally, I loved the earthy Rock tones of 2002’s ‘Vapor Trails’ and the latest addition to the canon, ‘Clockwork Angels’, may even be the best Rush album since ‘Moving Pictures’. Possibly even since ‘Permanent Waves’.

There’s a reason I referred to the riffs: there’s a lot of them that at least partially make the songs so awesome on the record. The huge seventies Hardrock riff on ‘BU2B’, the modern Rock riff on ‘Carnies’, the powerful chords in the title track… It seems like Alex Lifeson had something to mention. However, the first thing I noticed specifically is Geddy Lee’s masterful bass playing. He’s always been one of the world’s best bassists, but he’s all over this album with great fills and a killer sound to boot.

Style-wise, there’s a little something of almost every incarnation of Rush on here. There aren’t enough synthesizers to justify a comparison to the mid-eighties and the borderline Metal of seventies is far behind them, though the main riff to the amazing ‘Headlong Flight’ bares some similarities to the classic ‘Anthem’. It’s the closest they’ve come to their seventies sound in a long time. It sounds like the band is so comfortable doing what they do these days, that they don’t really mind what style it fits. The band rocks with ease, but also throws in some more atmospheric parts when you least expect them as if it doesn’t take any effort. The title track for instance, which is built upon three vastly different themes – one laid-back, though not quite ballad part, one stomping Hardrock riff and the celestial chorus part – that go together seamlessly. Mind you, Rush is still a progressive band!

Other highlights include the chillingly beautiful closing ballad ‘The Garden’, brilliantly orchestrated – yes, there’s a string section on a couple of the album’s tracks – and especially featuring a breathtakingly wonderful vocal performance by Lee. It’s also the logical conclusion to the concept drummer Neil Peart has written for the album, both musically and lyrically. Opening track ‘Caravan’ is an amazing Progrock song, from the powerful opening riff to the blissful chorus. ‘The Anarchist’  is a musical journey not unlike the ones on ‘Permanent Waves’ and ‘Carnies’ rocks hard.

Sonically, this is a top notch record. Producer Nick Raskulinecz and the band have put down a warm, real sound that especially Peart’s drums profit from. His snare sound is among the best I’ve ever heard. All the instruments have the space they need and nothing overpowers anything else. Take note, anyone who needs to take care of a bass sound!

What other recommendations would you need from me? Maybe I need to point out Hugh Syme’s incredible artwork – wait ’til you see the actual booklet! – as well? If you’re a fan of progressive, open-minded Rock music with expert musicianship, you don’t have to look any further than ‘Clockwork Angels’, Rush’s best album in over 30 years.

Recommended tracks: ‘Headlong Flight’, ‘The Garden’, ‘Caravan’

Album of the Week 22-2012: Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

Sure, there’s loads of new albums that I needed to cover these last few weeks, but sometimes, I just need to plug a classic. Like this one. Of course, I am eternally grateful to Black Sabbath for inventing Heavy Metal and to me, this is the crowning achievement of the Ozzy Osbourne-era. This is Black Sabbath at its most powerful and compositionally at its most brilliant, although the Dio-fronted ‘Heaven And Hell’ would top even this seven years later. Maybe ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ isn’t as revolutionary as the first two albums, but it is the album where Heavy Metal came into its own.

After the wildly experimental ‘Volume 4’, the band allegedly found themselves without inspiration until they retreated to the supposedly haunted Clearwell Castle in Southwest England. Haunted or not, what they have found there was the inspiration they were hoping for. The crushing main riff to the title track, often labelled “the riff that saved Black Sabbath”, is said to have come to Tony Iommi while he was working in the dungeons.

Like on any good Black Sabbath album, the riffs of such caliber are all over the place. ‘A National Acrobat’ is a goosebumps-inducing slab of early Heavy Metal riffing, ‘Sabbra Cadabra’, while being a bit lighter and almost Rock ‘n’ Roll in the lyrical department, has a couple of brilliant riffs to carry the song, ‘Killing Yourself To Live’ and its ever increasing intensity and also the brilliantly progressive closing track ‘Spiral Architect’ is chock full of them. Luckily, none of those riffs have taken any space at expense of drummer Bill Ward’s and bass god Geezer Butler’s almost Jazzy interplay.

The band’s progressive tendencies that were clearly present – maybe even excessively – on ‘Volume 4’ are still here. Especially on the latter half of the record, starting with the only minor flaw of the album, ‘Who Are You’. While still a fairly decent song, the idea of doing this entirely with synthesizers is a failed experiment to me. A few guitars may have done the trick. The medieval, flute-backed bridges in ‘Looking For Today’ were a better idea and what can I say about ‘Spiral Architecht’ that the music itself doesn’t already say?

Performance-wise, this is Ozzy Osbourne’s finest hour. He pushes himself vocally beyond what he can reasonably do. That may be why he isn’t doing any of these songs live anymore, but this is Ozzy at his most powerful. No more bored ‘Iron Man’-delivery, this is raw power. And the rest of the band is as good as always and just… loud! And tight-but-loose, in the best Led Zeppelin tradition.

If I had to name 10 records that every Metalhead should own, there would be two of Black Sabbath and ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ should be one of them. Everyone into Metal should own the first six (yes, people, six!) Black Sabbath albums, but as far as the Ozzy-albums go, this is the one I revisit most. One listen will probably explain why.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’, ‘A National Acrobat’, ‘Spiral Architect’, ‘Sabbra Cadabra’