Posts Tagged ‘ Classic Rock ’

Album of the Week 20-2017: Heart – Little Queen


While Ann and Nancy Wilson are still soldiering on making good music – in fact, their most recent studio album ‘Fanatic’ is easily the best thing they’ve done since the late seventies – Heart made its best albums in the second half of the seventies. They were always a good singles band, but 1977’s ‘Little Queen’ is a fantastic record almost all the way through. Though it may primarily be known for its energetic rockers like ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Kick It Out’, ‘Little Queen’ is a highly dynamic, balanced record and a songwriting triumph for both the Wilson sisters and guitarist Roger Fisher.

Anyone who has ever heard a Hart album except for maybe their eighties records should not be shocked that the band was heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin. ‘Little Queen’ is no different in the sense that it fuses hard rock songs with distinct folky touches like Led Zeppelin did on their third and fourth albums. The folky diptych of ‘Sylvan Song’ and ‘Dream Of The Archer’ even seems pretty directly modelled after ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, with its layered vocals and prominent spot for the mandolin. It does have a more dreamy atmosphere though. These folky ballads are juxtaposed nicely against forceful rockers, creating a very pleasant listening experience.

It’s still the rockers that got most of the attention though. And in case of ‘Barracuda’, it’s not hard to understand why. Built upon the secont meanest gallop around at the time – after Led Zeppelin’s ‘Achilles Last Stand’- ‘Barracuda’ is a strong, riffy rocker with what is arguably Ann Wilson’s most powerful vocal performance to date. It may sound realitvely simple, but just listen how well those guitars in the chorus are arranged: it’s a little work of art. The energetic rock ‘n’ roller ‘Kick It Out’ is another staple off this album and it’s easy to hear why: it practically begs for the stage.

There’s much more to enjoy on ‘Little Queen’ though. The title track, for instance, with its subdued, syncopated, almost funky riffing and qausi-psychedelic middle section, is a hidden gem in the band’s body of work. ‘Love Alive’ is another Zeppelin-esque masterpiece of layered guitars, many of them acoustic. The epic two-part finale of ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Go On Cry’ is gorgeous as well, with the dark nature and the almost wordless vocals of the latter making it quite a unique entry in Heart’s discography. ‘Say Hello’, with its weird reggae meets folk feel, is the sole misstep on this record.

Otherwise, it’s nothing less than excellent. ‘Little Queen’ is more focused and songwriting-oriented than many rock albums that were released in the mid-seventies, but still a very sprawling record in its own way. Part of the reason why is the fact that the album is very much a band effort. Nobody except for maybe occasionally Ann Wilson outshines the compositions and everyone’s performances are serviceable to the songs. Then again, that must be relatively easy to do if the songs are actually this good. Heart would go on to release a string of great songs, but they wouldn’t release an album this consistent until early this century.

Recommended tracks: ‘Barracuda’, ‘Little Queen’, ‘Love Alive’

Album of the Week 19-2017: Led Zeppelin – Presence


For some reason, ‘Presence’ turned out to be Led Zeppelin’s slowest selling studio album. Maybe because its sounds significantly more stripped down than ‘Houses Of The Holy’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’, but ultimately, I prefer it even to some of the band’s classic albums. The record shows Led Zeppelin reconnecting with its roots, attempting to capture the essence of what made them so good in the first place. And succeeding at it surprisingly well. ‘Presence’ is a muscular hard rock record with excellent songwriting and an unusually strong emphasis on Zeppelin’s brilliant rhythm section. It is simply everything I’d want from them.

‘Presence’ was written and recorded during a tumultuous time for Led Zeppelin. Singer Robert Plant was seriously injured due to a car accident and the recordings had to be rushed due to the studio being booked by The Rolling Stones, which may be why the album isn’t loaded with extra touches like its two predecessors were. Instead, it focuses on the power within band and has the distinct live feel that made the debut so exciting seven years prior as a result. Drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones sound bigger than ever and the compositions truly focus on the band’s strengths.

The album is bookended by two of the best songs the band has ever recorded. ‘Achilles Last Stand’ is probably the most carefully arranged song on the album and basically feels like proto-heavy metal, due to its propulsive, galloping rhythm and Jimmy Page’s almost orchestral-sounding, layered guitar work. It feels significantly shorter than just over ten minutes. The other masterpiece is ‘Tea For One’, which – after a misleading intro – is essentially a minimalistic slow blues, into which Page’s sparse riffs inject a dark, almost doomy vibe. It’s number one on my list of Zeppelin songs that don’t get the love they deserve.

While those two tracks take up almost half of the album’s running time, they are hardly the only enjoyable songs on the record. The band’s adaptation of Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel blues song ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ quickly became a live staple, which is easily justified by its drive and strong build-up. ‘For Your Life’ has a spontaneity that brings back memories of the self-titled debut, though with a cleaner production and the sleazy, dirty fifties groove of ‘Candy Store Rock’ makes the song a true hidden gem. The other two songs are just good, but figuring that this is Led Zeppelin, “just good” is still far above average.

Although ‘Presence’ never enjoyed the same classic status, it is every bit as good and consistent as ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ was. In the end, the most important reason why I prefer ‘Physical Graffiti’ to this is really that it has twice as much Led Zeppelin. On ‘Presence’, the band strikes a better balance between spontaneous jams and meticulously arranged songs than they have done before or since. I can understand why it’s somewhat lost between the sprawling majesty its predecessor and the confusing experimentalism of its follow-up, but the fact is that this is the band’s final masterpiece and a treat to fans of Zeppelin’s trademark rock sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Achilles Last Stand’, ‘Tea For One’, ‘Candy Store Rock’

Album of the Week 08-2017: Czesław Niemen – Niemen


Some singers are so good that you don’t have to understand the words they are singing in order to appreciate them. Case in point, Polish rock pioneer Czesław Niemen. With a voice that combines the power of a rock singer with the raw passion of blues and soul singers and a musical style that brings together elements of progressive rock, fusion, soul, folk and – later on – early electronic music, there’s no escaping the music even without understanding Polish. While its predecessor ‘Enigmatic’ is often considered the pinnacle of his work, ‘Niemen’ is the one where all elements are in perfect balance.

Alternately, the album is known as ‘Czerwony Album’ – the red album – for obvious reasons. It is also sold under the title ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, after its massive twenty minute opening track, which yours truly considers Niemen’s crowning achievement. The main sections are pushed forward by Janusz Zieliński’s simple, but brutally effective bass line and Niemen’s forceful, heartfelt vocals, while its middle section is lead by the fanastic improvisations of his backing band. Even Zieliński and drummer Czesław Mały-Bartkowski get extended solo spots, while guitarist Tomasz Jaśkiewicz and hammond organist Jacek Mikuła go nuts with strong, surprisingly passionate accompanied solos.

But while that monumental opening track is without any doubt the centerpiece of ‘Niemen’, there’s over fifty minutes of additional quality material on the album. The strong interaction between the musicians is more than apparent in the fantastic instrumental ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, which along the opening track is easily the most proggy moment on the record and again features amazing soloing by both Mikuła and Jaśkiewicz, while Niemen sounds like a man begging on his knees and surrendering everything he’s got in the highly soulful ‘Nie Jesteś Moja’, a surprisingly succesful European rock take on the Stax Records releases of the late sixties.

Other moments on ‘Niemen’ are significantly more accessible. ‘Wróć Jeszcze Dziś’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a seventies pop radio station if it would have had English lyrics and the same goes for ‘Zechcesz Mnie, Zechcesz’, the latter partially because of Jaśkiewicz’ notably cleaner guitar sound. ‘Italiam, Italiam’ is unsurprisingly the track that would later appear on many compilations and the main section of ‘Chwila Ciszy’ brings to mind Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. The flute-led sections of ‘Sprzedaj Mnie Wiatrowi’ and ‘Aerumnarum Plenus’ are reminiscent of the folky, pastoral sound of early British prog bands and the stomping ‘Muzyko Moja’ closes off the album on a high, albeit somewhat abrupt note.

Following ‘Niemen’, the singer and multi-instrumentalist that gave the record its name would continue to experiment with different styles, from the more fusion driven direction on ‘Niemen Aerolit’ to the increasingly electronic sounds that would characterize his output from the late seventies onward. Always with that incredible, incomparable voice. He kept on releasing strange, but deeply sincere music almost until his death in 2004, leaving behind a legacy that transcends boundaries, musically as well as culturally. Don’t let the Polish language keep you from hearing this remarkable musician, who also happens to be one of the best singers I have ever heard.

Recommended tracks: ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, ‘Muzyko Moja’

Album of the Week 05-2017: Drive Like Maria – Creator Preserver Destroyer


After their excellent self-titled second album, things went a little quiet around Drive Like Maria. Luckily, the Dutch-Belgian rock trio is still around. They announced the release of three EP’s that would form the new album last year and that album is finally here. And while it retains the band’s eclectic rock sound – the stoner component becoming less prominent with each release – ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ has a more streamlined, even somewhat more produced feel than the previous two records, which significantly benefits the catchy and melodic nature of the songs and Bjorn Awouters’ soulful vocals. The result is familiar, yet fresh.

For an album that consists of songs that were originally released on EP’s, ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ has a remarkably consistent flow. It helps that more thought went into the track sequencing than just throwing the EP’s tracks on front to back. This way, a nice balance is created between the energetic rock songs and the more subdued material and the whole thing sounds like an album rather than a collection of singles. The great deal of variation also contributes greatly to the album’s replay value; Drive Like Maria once again covers a wide range of emotions in a handful of extremely well-written songs.

That range is one of the biggest assets of ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’. If the record was full of pop songs like ‘Taillight’ or ‘I Wonder If It Goes’, there would be a considerable risk that the album would be a boring listen, but because there’s tracks like the heavy opener ‘Nighthawk’, the restrained ‘Sinners’, the dark ballad ‘Will We Ever’ or the upbeat rocker ‘Keeps Me Going’, the album becomes highly dynamic and the songs more or less accentuate each other. Also, the spirited performances elevate the songs above the already high quality of the compositions. Awouters and Nitzan Hoffmann are an excellent guitar duo and his versatility alone already makes Bram van den Berg the best drummer in the Netherlands.

My two favorite tracks on the album appear back to back, like they did on the ‘Creator’ EP. ‘Sonny’ is a melancholic pop rock song with amazing vocals by Awouters and a great build-up towards its dreamy chorus, whilst ‘Tiny Terror’ is more epic in nature and due to its subtle saxophone accents brings to mind the Golden Earring’s early seventies work. The latter shines in the way it slowly becomes more exuberant. ‘Forget’ also feels epic, despite the fact that it’s only 4 minutes long, and ends the album on a very high note.

But really, ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ is a really consistent album full of memorable melodies, strong performances and an amount of variation that is not all that common in contemporary rock music. Drive Like Maria never was so loud in its rock excess that they would scare away more casual pop rock listeners, but with this record, I would actually encourage people who aren’t usually into heavy rock to give this a listen. Simply because it’s twelve excellent songs performed really well. I’m very curious to hear how this material will sound in the live environment.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sonny’, ‘Tiny Terror’, ‘Forget’, ‘Will We Ever’

Album of the Week 04-2017: Navarone – Oscillation


When you listen to ‘Oscillation’ for the first time, you’ll immediately notice something has changed. The music is still instantly recognizable as Navarone; the big, beefy hardrock riffs are still there and Merijn van Haren’s magnificent voice hasn’t lost any of its force, but in terms of production, ‘Oscillation’ is a whole different beast than its two predecessors. As a result, the separate songs sound a little more streamlined, but the scope and variation that made Navarone’s previous records so great are also still here. And so, this fresh record proves that a rock band can expand upon its style without sacrificing its excitement and energy.

In a way, ‘Oscillation’ sounds a little more modern than what the quintet has done before. Navarone always found a nice balance between the relative complexity and riffiness of seventies rock and the directness of nineties rock. This time, some more contemporary influences have been brought to the table. The delightfully catchy ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’ has a very modern, poppy rock vibe, while opening track ‘Snake’ brings some of the stoner rock influences that were always beneath the surface front and center. The climax of the latter also sounds like nothing the band has ever done before, but it’s incredibly powerful.

On a more superficial level, ‘Oscillation’ is a typical Navarone record in the way it moves back and forth between powerful rock tracks and strong ballads with remarkable ease. The former category has the awesome ‘Step By Step’, probably the most “typical” Navarone song on the record, and the relentlessly pounding ‘Lonely Nights’, which is likely the heaviest track the band has recorded yet. ‘Free Together’, ‘Unmistakably Everything’ and closing track ‘Don’t Belong’ are all beautiful, delicate ballads with more acoustic work than the band has yet used and a more interesting approach than the well-known calm verse, big chorus contrast, which truly enhances the songs.

But most notable are the songs that don’t fit either category. The atmospheric ‘Chrome’ has an acoustic fundament, but is hardly a ballad. Progressive acoustic rock? Maybe. The song works its way through several distinctive movements that shouldn’t work together, but miraculously do. ‘Shadow’ is a little darker and has a psychedelic middle section somewhat reminiscent of ‘Sage’ from the debut album. However, the real winner here is the mindblowing ‘Days Of Yore’. From its monumental opening riff to Kees Lewiszong’s amazing blues solo, the song is a masterpiece that brings to mind Led Zeppelin’s ‘Tea For One’. The verses are very minimalistic, but serve as a perfect vehicle for Van Haren’s incredible voice. This is a song that needs to be heard to be believed.

The cliché is that when rock bands mature, their sound becomes calmer and more interesting. ‘Oscillation’ proves that this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, Navarone seems to have been exploring the extremes of their sound here, which makes the record heavier, more progressive, more melodic and more accessible all at the same time. It may need a little more time to sink in than the band’s previous two records, but once it does, you’ll realize that they have made another masterpiece. Their third in a row. And if that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.

Recommended tracks: ‘Days Of Yore’, ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’, ‘Lonely Nights’

Album of the Week 47-2016: Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation – Mighty ReArranger


“My peers may flirt with cabaret / Some fake the rebel yell / Me, I’m moving up to higher ground / I must escape their hell”. Sure, these words may come across a bit arrogant, but they’re very true first and foremost. Not a single member of any legendary group had a solo career that has been so consistently focused on constantly reinventing himself the way that former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant does. Not even George Harrison and Paul Simon. Hungry to discover folk music from all the corners of the world and determined to stay relevant, Plant’s solo output is consistently amazing.

What is it that makes Plant’s discography so good? Mainly that he stubbornly refuses to repeat himself. Whether he does a contemporary take on the Zep sound (‘Manic Nirvana’) or immerses himself completely in different styles (‘Shaken ‘n’ Stirred’), he is convincing rather than embarrassing. ‘Mighty ReArranger’ manages to be both extremes at the same time. There are big, beefy Zeppelin-esque riffs and Plant’s voice is of course one of a kind, but the textures and rhythms borrowed from Middle-Eastern, American and North and West African folk music give the record a clear identity of its own, not to mention a layered approach that slowly reveals its secrets over repeated listens.

Plant was in his late fifties when ‘Mighty ReArranger’ was recorded, but his backing band The Strange Sensation consists of people with indie, jazz and trip hop backgrounds, while guitarist Justin Adams grew up in Egypt and produced Mali’s mighty Tinariwen and brings a knowledge of the African music that Plant loves so much to the table. All these influences blend in a way that shouldn’t work, yet it does. Songs like ‘The Enchanter’ and the brooding ‘Tin Pan Valley’ sound like Massive Attack jamming with Led Zeppelin, while ‘Takamba’ and ‘Somebody Knocking’ have distinct desert blues leanings.

Another asset of ‘Mighty ReArranger’ is that a lot of attention has been spent on its flow. This isn’t just a collection of songs, it is designed for a listener’s maximum attention span. It builds up from the acoustic-based ‘Another Tribe’ and the accessible rocker ‘Shine It All Around’ through some more experimental moments like the folky ‘All The Kings Horses’, the Byrds-inspired hippie rock tune ‘Dancing In Heaven’, the aformentioned ‘Tin Pan Valley’ and the subdued, yet rhythmically throbbing ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ until it ties all ends together in the title track. And the bar boogie Ray Charles tribute ‘Brother Ray’ is a nice epilogue.

Despite the consistently high level of Plant’s solo output, ‘Mighty ReArranger’ is the record I revisit most. Possibly the presence of an actual backing band gives Plant a solid basis to work with and as a result, it’s about the music as much as it is about his performance. It speaks volumes about his versatility that everything sounds equally convincing, no matter if it touches upon hardrock, blues, indie, folk or world music. If you’re into one of those genres, you will do yourself a favor by checking this record out. You’ll probably end up liking the others as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tin Pan Valley’, ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’, ‘Freedom Fries’

Album of the Week 43-2016: Bad Company – Bad Company


Back in the seventies, supergroups sometimes actually were bigger than the sum of their parts. Led Zeppelin could be considered one, but the first band to release an album on their Swan Song label is an even better example. Bad Company combined the talents of Free’s Paul Rodgers (vocals, piano) and Simon Kirke (drums), Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and bassist Boz Burrell, who played on one King Crimson album. Their debut is one of the best albums ever released; practically every track is essential seventies rock with all the riffs and melodies you could wish for. And the album art is iconic.

Maybe this is sacrilege, but as much as I like Free, I have always preferred Bad Company. It’s a matter of performance versus composition. Free had loosely written structures that could be adjusted to the immense improvisational talents of – primarily – their late guitarist Paul Kossoff. Bad Company has tight, concise songs with highly memorable choruses and nice tension and release workings. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any impressive performances; Rodgers is one of the world’s greatest singers and always delivers, while Burrell is one of the very few bass virtuosos whose busy playing works on a bluesy rock record.

Sure, the market was flooded with bluesy hardrock by the time ‘Bad Company’ was released in 1974, but in the midst of excessive, drug-fueled jamming, the quartet brought the genre back to its bare essentials. Armed with a handful of good riffs and a bunch of melodies that will forever stick to the back of your mind, the band recorded a record of which almost every song is still a staple on classic rock stations worldwide. And it makes sense: songs like ‘Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘Movin’ On’ just feel right and have you singing – or at least moving – along during the first spin.

Even more interesting are the moments when the band takes things in a somewhat darker direction. The namesake track is beyond brilliant. From a brooding piano intro, the verses only have the guitar adding atmospheric touches before exploding in the chorus. Rodgers’ vocal is among his most moving performances yet. The same can be said about the subdued, bluesy masterpiece ‘Ready For Love’, which Ralphs took with him from his Mott The Hoople days. ‘Rock Steady’ is fairly straightforward, but has a brilliant, dangerous sounding chorus. And while the album sounds fairly American, the beautiful closer ‘Seagull’ brings the folk of Bad Company’s British home soil to the forefront.

While the original lineup of Bad Company would go on to release more fantastic albums – and even their less impressive records feature a number of mindblowing songs – their debut album is one of those moments where all the stars align and everything sounds just right. Of course it helps to have so much talent in one band, but that alone will not result in a timeless classic that still sounds as fresh today as it must have sounded the day it was release. I’m just assuming there, because I wasn’t born until twelve years after its release. Songwriting as it’s done on ‘Bad Company’ transcends trends and technological development. That’s why it’s still amazing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Company’, ‘Ready For Love’, ‘Seagull’