Posts Tagged ‘ Hard 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 12-2017: Seikima-II – Mephistopheles no Shouzou


A cliché often used for eighties rock bands that survived through the nineties is that their records sound as if the nineties didn’t happen. Hardly any album answers more to that sentiment than ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’. Despite being released in 1996, the compositions, arrangements and production scream eighties hard rock and heavy metal, while the band’s appearance and theatricality could be either a tribute to or a parody of Kiss during a time when Kiss themselves didn’t even wear make-up. One thing is for sure: it was almost impossible to find this much classy heavy metal on one record in the mid-nineties.

Most of Seikima-II’s records are good, but many of them lack a consistency that ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ does have. The fact that it’s a concept album of Faustian themes may help the excellent flow of the record, although not an inch of the band’s versatility has been sacrificed. There’s the NWOBHM-tinged heavy metal of their early days, melodic hard rock tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on their late eighties records and a bunch of power ballads, all passionately performed with a complete disregard of whatever musical trend reared its head, giving the album a timeless flair.

‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’ kicks off the album in a delightful early eighties heavy metal fashion with all the simple, yet effective riffs and twin guitar harmonies you can wish for. This approach is combined with powerful galloping rhythms in songs like closer ‘Holy Blood ~Tatakai No Kettou~’ and the extremely well structured ‘Yajuu’. The power ballads may sound entirely out of style for the time of the album’s release, but especially ‘Who Kills Demon?’ – somewhat reminiscent of the band’s own ‘Stainless Night’ – is really good. ‘Salome Wa Kaette Satsui Wo Shirushi’ has a more epic nature, sounding unlike anything the band has ever done before.

Notably, former members have contributed greatly to the record. Especially original guitarist Damian Hamada, who wrote some of the album’s best material, including the aformentioned ‘Yajuu’ and the dark, brooding, slithering masterpiece of a title track. Former guitarist Jail O’Hashi wrote the closing track ‘Akuma No Blues’, which doesn’t really sound like the rest of the album musically and production-wise – it’s a seventies inspired blues rock track – but it’s too enjoyable to complain about that.

As for the actual members, Sgt. Luke Takamura III and Ace Shimizu throw around amazing guitar solos – including a mindblowing acoustic one in the title track – and Demon Kogure once again opens up his entire vocal register. Bassist Xenon Ishikawa and excellent drummer Raiden Yuzawa are surprisingly laid back for a metal rhythm section, but it works really well within the context of Seikima-II’s unique music.

Sandwiched between two records that have the band experimenting with a somewhat more poppy approach, ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ often gets forgotten, but the truth is that it’s a quality heavy metal album released in a time that those were extremely rare. If you like your metal theatrical, epic, melodic and not afraid of a little experimentation, Seikima-II is your band. And with the consistency being as it is on ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, it’s going to be difficult to turn off the album before it’s over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, ‘Yajuu’, ‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’

Album of the Week 10-2017: Pentagram – Bir


Around the time ‘Unspoken’ was released, Pentagram must have realized that there was a demand for their Turkish language songs, which the album lacked. So a year after that album, the band released ‘Bir’, a collection consisting entirely of songs in Turkish lyrics or without any lyrics at all. This also marked the shortest break between two albums in the band’s history. And while the traditional Turkish flair that makes the band so unique wasn’t entirely absent on ‘Unspoken’, it is featured significantly more prominently on ‘Bir’, albeit not in the overwhelming, over-emphasized manner that bands with similar influences often employ.

If there should be any criticism about ‘Bir’, it’s the fact that it should have been an EP. The two instrumental tracks ‘Mezarkabul’ and ‘For Those Who Died Alone’ are exactly the same as the versions on ‘Unspoken’ and are probably only there for conceptual reasons. They’re fine tracks as they are for sure, but that only leaves the listener with about half an hour of new music. The good news is that every single one of those minutes is excellent music and many of the songs featured on ‘Bir’ are still staples in Pentagram’s live set to this day.

Starting with the diptych of the instrumental intro ‘Tigris’ and the title track, a downright fantastic, upbeat heavy metal track calling for unity. This song is bound to drive a Turkish heavy metal crowd crazy and it’s easy to see why: its message, its catchy chorus and its simple, but brutally effective riffing is designed for a communal feeling. The thrashy ‘Bu Alemi Gören Sensin’ – which features guitarist Hakan Utangaç on lead vocals instead of the more soaring Murat İlkan – and ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’ – which sounds like Metallica after a holiday to Turkey – feature traditional Turkish poems set to brand new music, something which works better than it may sound.

Less well known is ‘Sır’ and while it did take a while before the song grew on me, it is a monster of a slower metal track that manages to have both a symphonic and a somewhat industrial feel at the same time. It doesn’t quite sound like anything Pentagram has done before or since, but fits the darker vibe of the second half of ‘Bir’ really well. That vibe is further emphasized by the brilliantly brooding ‘Ölümlü’, which features what is quite likely İlkan’s most “evil” sounding performance ever in its verses.

While it may be intimidating to buy an album with four instrumental tracks of which the longest two have been previously released, ‘Bir’ is still a very worthy addition to any metal collection. For one because it emphasizes Pentagram’s unique, yet familiar style and it solidifies the band’s status in their home country, where they are viewed as the number one metal band. It’s easy to see why: the guys are excellent songwriters and will never let flashy instrumental egos get in the way of a good melody and a memorable chorus. You’re guaranteed to have them stuck in your head even if you don’t speak a single word of Turkish.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bir’, ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’, ‘Ölümlü’

Album of the Week 09-2017: Onmyo-za – Fuujin Kaikou


With the genre nearing five decades of existence, finding unique sounding metal is becoming increasingly difficult. Onmyo-za somehow succeeds at doing so without attempting anything too far-fetched. Their riffs and twin melodies are generally from the traditional heavy metal and hard rock mold, but their open-minded approach to songwriting allows for a spontaneous sound that contains elements of J-rock, progrock and hints of Japanese folk. Also, singing couple Kuroneko and bass playing band leader Matatabi forsakes the “Beauty and the Beast” approach of most metallic male-female singing duos in favor of something more melodic, further emphasizing their highly original nature.

‘Fuujin Kaikou’ is the wind-themed half of a diptych with the simultaneously released – and thunder-themed – ‘Raijin Sousei’. That doesn’t mean it’s all soft and subdued though; in fact, there are plenty of riff-driven metal anthems like ‘Ichimokuren’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the excellent opener ‘Kamikaze’ present. However, it is the more melodic and better – by a hair – of the two. This approach leaves all the room Kuroneko needs to deliver her best vocal performance to date and often lays the guitars of Maneki and Kurakan on an atmospheric, but never overpowering symphonic bed. And even the ballads – there’s quite a few of them – are remarkably powerful.

To start with the latter category: Kuroneko’s composition ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’ is the most beautiful, goosebumps-inducing ballad the band has ever released. It’s the only song on the record where the orchestral tracks take over the guitars, but it fits the beautiful, cinematic atmosphere of the song perfectly. Both guitar solos are simply breathtaking as well. This does not disqualify the other calmer songs though; ‘Manazashi’ and ‘Hebimiko’ are somewhat more traditional, but excellent ballads and ‘Yaobikuni’ brings to mind Dio’s lighter sounding singles from the late eighties.

On the – slightly – heavier side of things, ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is a true highlight. With a great build-up, highly climactic lead guitar themes and a downright spectacular chorus that has Matatabi and Kuroneko duetting beautifully, the song is simply a lesson in how to write a mindblowing melodic metal song. ‘Saredo Itsuwari No Okuribi’ is somewhat more subdued, but still a great metal song with irresistible melodies. ‘Muufuu Ninpocho’ features a godly bass sound courtesy of Matatabi and is a bit more rocky, as is the – almost traditionally – upbeat closing track ‘Haru Ranman Ni Shiki No Mau Nari’. Both of those are songs that could sound horribly out of place on a metal record, but the general atmosphere makes them work here.

Exploring Onmyo-za’s discography can be a bit intimidating for a westerner, due to the fact that every song and album title is in Japanese, but ultimately, it will be a rewarding experience. Their unique sound somehow feels familiar and highly original at the same time, which was exactly what yours truly was looking for at the time he discovered them. Their status as one of the more popular Japanese metal bands is absolutely justified and listening to ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ – or really almost any of their albums – is highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’, ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, ‘Kamikaze’

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 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’