Posts Tagged ‘ Pop ’

Album of the Week 44-2017: Marillion – Seasons End

When original singer Fish left Marillion, it was considered the end of an era. However, it was also the beginning of a new era. Steve Hogarth, who still fronts te band to this day, has an emotional depth to his voice that Fish just did not have, allowing the band to branch out even further away from the strongly Genesis-inspired neo-prog of their earliest work. Along its predecessor ‘Clutching At Straws’, ‘Seasons End’ can be seen as sort of a transitional phase. Not because of the singer change between the albums, but because it signals Marillion’s shift towards the most emotional progressive rock created to date.

Most of the music had already been written before Hogarth, himself a great composer, joined the band, so it’s not too surprising that ‘Seasons End’ is stylistically similar to ‘Clutching At Straws’. The record has a dark, passionate vibe, with occasional lighter or more upbeat moments keeping the darkness from becoming too overwhelming. The ‘Incommunicado’-rewrite ‘Hooks In You’ is the most obvious example of this, but the opening one-two punch of ‘The King Of Sunset Town’ and ‘Easter’ is remarkably positive as well, even though the lyrical contents – about the turmoils in China and Northern Ireland respectively – is at times quite bleak.

As usual though, Marillion shines brightest in their darkest moments. Especially the finales of the original vinyl sides are nothing short of incredible. The moving ‘Seasons End’ has been built upon a haunting clean guitar line by Steve Rothery – who still has the most beautiful clean guitar sound in the world – and features bone chilling performances by both Rothery himself and Hogarth. Closing the album is ‘The Space…’, Hogarth’s first major compositional contribution to Marillion along with ‘Easter’. This synth-driven masterpiece works its way through multiple climaxes and features some incredible vocal work.

Despite those closers being the undisputed highlights of the record, most of Marillion’s albums are remarkably consistent and ‘Seasons End’ is no exception. Each and every one of the seven other songs are worth hearing. ‘Berlin’ in particular is a bit of a beautiful suite of shifting moods and building intensity. ‘Holloway Girl’ and the surprisingly short ‘After Me’ both start out as moody ballads and gradually turn into something more bombastic, while there are excellent performances by everyone involved all around. Steve Rothery in particular truly delivers. He is easily one of the most tasteful and melodic lead guitarists in contemporary music.

Though the singer change would spark an endless “who’s better?” debate, it was exactly what Marillion needed around the time ‘Seasons End’ was released. The album was an essential step in refining their own sound and evolving from their neo-prog beginnings into a truly progressive rock sound that encompasses various influences from the alternative pop and rock field. And even more importantly, ‘Seasons End’ shows that Marillion consists of a group of excellent songwriters that can do more than just play their instruments really well. They can carry a memorable tune much better than many other bands in the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Seasons End’, ‘The Space…’, ‘Berlin’


Best of 2016: The Albums

No album of the week this week, because new year’s day is coincidentally on a Sunday. Also, I suspect you might be tired of my ramblings after reading all of this. When talking about 2016 in music, people tend to focus too much on the popular musicians that have died and as a result, call it a bad year. And sure, I have been a big fan of Prince for ages, but let’s keep in mind that most of the great musicians from the sixties, seventies and eighties aren’t getting any younger, so there’s a chance worse years are ahead in that matter.

When focusing on the actual music that has been released, I would say 2016 has been the year of heavily overrated western releases. Metallica released a record with a couple of good songs and one great one (‘Spit Out The Bone’, while two minutes too long, is amazing), Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is definitely not better than ‘I Am… Sasha Fierce’ and I feel that a lot of records by deceased musicians have done better simply because of their deaths. There will be one of those in the list though. With all this in mind, you probably won’t be surprised that my number one is not from Europe or North America and still very much alive.

1. Myrath – Legacy

With ‘Legacy’, the English translation of their band name, Myrath is finally showing its full potential, which in all honesty I thought they were already showing on ‘Tales Of The Sands’ five years earlier. The basic progressive power metal sound of their previous albums is still there, as are the beautiful string arrangements that are heavily inspired by the mal’uf music of ther native Tunisia, but the songs are more streamlined and melodic Zaher Zorgati’s voice -which was already amazing – has made tremendous progress. Every song has a strong identity of its own and yet, the record has a very nice flow. That sounds like everything about the album is very close to perfect and honestly, that describes my feelingsa bout this one perfectly; ‘Legacy’ is a masterpiece of fine songwriting and excellent musicianship and therefore, my album of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nobody’s Lives’, ‘Through Your Eyes’, ‘Get Your Freedom Back’

2. The Answer – Solas

After their amazing ‘Revival’ album in 2011, I sort of lost track of The Answer. The following albums were good, but missing the magic of ‘Revival’. The Northern Irish band must have realized that as well, because they have radically changed direction on this monumental record. The bigger emphasis on the band’s Celtic roots is often highlighted in reviews and while that is true, the albums as a whole is an exciting, atmospheric rock record with very diverse influences. Interestingly, it takes until the eighth track ‘Left Me Standing’ until you get something resmbling a “typical” The Answer song. The Led Zeppelin influence is still there, but think ‘Houses Of The Holy’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’ instead of the first two records this time around. The band has seriously outdone itself on this record and every fan of good rock music should have this one in his collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beautiful World’, ‘Solas’, ‘Untrue Colour’

3. Gargoyle – Taburakashi

Vicious as ever? No. More vicious than ever! Honestly, I don’t know where the members of Gargoyle – the youngest of which is in his mid-forties – get this unbridled, hungry energy from, but it has resulted in yet another mindblowing record – their third in this decade alone. It does seem like they’re exploring the extremes of their sound more and more; the hyper-aggressive thrash metal riffing starts this album with what is probably the most intense succession of five tracks ever on a Gargoyle record, but Kentaro’s classy guitar melodies – often dual harmonies – give the band a classic heavy metal or even power metal edge. Of course, with this being Gargoyle, there’s some crazy experimentation going on during the second half of the record, but it all stays pretty heavy. Gargoyle is about to hit their 30th anniversary this year and it sounds like there’s no slowing them down.

Recommended tracks: ‘Crumbling Roar’, ‘Ichi’, ‘Yaban Kairo’

4. Saber Tiger – Bystander Effect

Though released as a Tower Records exclusive in late 2015, Saber Tiger’s new record was released publicly this year and it’s almost as good as their recent masterpiece ‘Decisive’. Their perfect blend of classic heavy metal melodicism and contemporary progressive influences makes them more relevant than ever and that in itself is an impressive feat for a band that’s been around since the early eighties. The direction on ‘Bystander Effect’ is slightly more melodic than on the previous record and that makes the songs highly memorable. But fear not: all the rhythmic intensity and guitar solo euphoria is still there and Takenori Shimoyama’s raw, passionate vocal work is the icing on the cake. ‘Bystander Effect’ is proof that dwelling on nostalgia isn’t necessary as an eighties metal band; if your songwriting and musicianship is as good as it is here, there’s no need to do so.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sin Eater’, ‘RinNe’, ‘What I Used To Be’

5. Yossi Sassi Band – Roots And Roads

Since Yossi Sassi left Orphaned Land, he suddenly could use his heavy material alongside his more world fusion oriented stuff in his own solo band. As a result, ‘Roots And Roads’ is heavier and contains more lead vocals than the two albums that preceded it. That doesn’t mean Sassi has gone full oriental metal on this album though. In fact, it just means that his brand of world fusion – the term he has chosen himself is oriental rock – has gotten broader. And that’s really what Sassi’s music is about: exploring different styles from different regions and simply denying the fact that boundaries exist. In the hands of more pretentious musicians, the result could have become an incoherent mess, but as good as Sassi is on any of the struing instruments he plays here, he is a songwriter first and foremost. This makes ‘Roots And Roads’ both musically interesting and highly listenable.

Recommended tracks: ‘Palm Dance’, ‘Winter’, ‘Root Out’

6. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

Esperanza Spalding is a musician I had been following for a while, because she is a brilliant bassist and she always seemed to have interesting ideas on how to fuse jazz with somewhat more contemporary music. However, nothing could have prepared me for ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’. A fusion masterpiece if there ever was one. But if that gives you the impression that this record is full of self-indulgent soling, think again. The album is full of unconventional, but also concise and memorable songs. Spalding’s vocal performance is her best yet and Matthew Stevens’ “what if Hendrix played in a jazz band” approach gives the album something irresistible for me. The strong and rhythmically dense, but swinging interplay between the surprisingly limited number of musicians is simply excellent. Also, the part jazz concert, part performance art performance of this album at North Sea Jazz is probably the best concert I’ve seen this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Funk The Fear’, ‘Good Lava’, ‘Judas’

7. Epica – The Holographic Principle

From a surprisingly limited number of musicians to a huge amount of them. Epica was never devoid of bombastic arrangements, but ‘The Holographic Principle’ sounds simply huge and somehow, that hasn’t occurred at the cost of the band’s heaviness. In fact, I don’t think my attention was ever drawn towards Epica’s riffing as much as I was here. I would almost say that the riffs are even more memorable than the choruses. And that’s why the album is a bigger masterpiece than I expected it to be. I love symphonic metal, but often, it’s too much of either to be very interesting. ‘The Holographic Principle’ manages to be Epica’s most symphonic and most metal record thus far and it just works. It doesn’t fight each other, it complements each other. And for that, they deserve all the praise they can get. Due to a couple of big interviews, this is one of the albums I’ve had to listen to most all year, but I can’t say it’s been an ordeal in any way.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ascension -Dream State Armaggeddon-‘, ‘Tear Down Your Walls’, ‘Edge Of The Blade’

8. King Of The World – Cincinatti

Just when I thought that it’s been a while since the last King Of The World album, the press release of ‘Cincinatti’ reached me. What makes this band stand out from the rest of the blues scene is that they’re not just excellent musicians, they’re amazing songwriters as well. And that’s why their records have a deal of variation and memorability that’s quite uncommon in the scene. ‘Cincinatti’ is no exception. In fact, adding horns to the mix makes the album the next step in the evolution of King Of The World. I’d like to give a special mention to the amazing ‘World On Fire’, which doesn’t really sound like anything the band has ever done before, but still feels trusted. Still labelled a supergroup due to the band members’ previous involvement in some prestigious acts, King Of The World has proven these last few years that they are much, much more than just the sum of their parts.

Recommended tracks: ‘World On Fire’, ‘Voodoo’, ‘No Way Out’

9. Gackt – Last Moon

Gackt is probably the biggest rock star in Japan and although I’ve always appreciated him as a singer and songwriter, ‘Last Moon’ is probably the first of his records that I can listen to start to finish. Most importantly because he’s largely let go of his bombastic intro-soft verse-big chorus approach, which really got on my nerves after a while. Ironically, his diminished focus on those dynamics has made ‘Last Moon’ his most dynamic set of songs thus far. In addition, ‘Last Moon’ is still a highly polished product, as we’ve come to expect from Gackt, but it feels more organic and that’s largely due to his interaction with his fantastic backing band. One could wonder if it was a good decision to close the album with two ballads, but since they’re both excellent, I’ll give Gackt the benefit of the doubt. Possibly the best J-rock album released since Luna Sea’s last album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Zan’, ‘One More Kiss’, ‘Returner ~Yami No Shuen~’

10. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

Insomnium’s typically Finnish blend of melodic death metal and doom metal was something I always sort of liked, but lost track of due to my fading lack of interest in extreme metal. The idea of a one-track forty minute album did sort of attract my interest and I don’t regret checking it out. The lyrics tell the story of a group of vikings’ travel to an Irish island in a particularly severe winter and like any good concept album, the atmosphere of the music changes along what happens in the story. This makes ‘Winter’s Gate’ quite an immersive experience and also the most dynamic thing that Insomnium has recorded thus far. What makes this record so good is that no single element within the music overpowers the overall picture, though I do think that the lead guitars and the subtle keyboards work wonders for the atmosphere. ‘Winter’s Gate’ was a surprising highlight of 2016 for me.

Recommended tracks: ‘Winter’s Gate’ (there aren’t any others, after all)

11. Beth Hart – Fire On The Floor

‘Better Than Home’ was a good record, but a little too subdued for my taste. ‘Fire On The Floor’ luckily shows Beth Hart exploring all of her registers again, both musically and vocally. Honestly, Beth Hart is the best female rock singer alive today, so it would be a waste of her talent not to hear her rock out a little. She also puts many a blues man to shame with her slow blues performances and started experimenting with some show jazz-like tendencies remarkably successfully in recent years. All of this and much more can be heard on ‘Fire On The Floor’. In addition, Hart’s backing band for the sessions consists of giants like Michael Landau, Rick Marotta, Waddy Wachtel, Dean Parks and Ivan Neville. Again, I’m not sure if closing the record with three ballads was the right decision, which is also why I think it falls just a tiny bit short of the incredible ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’, but it’s a great album nonetheless.

Recommended tracks: ‘Love Is A Lie’, ‘Baby Shot Me Down’, ‘Fire On The Floor’

12. Ningen Isu – Kaidan Shoshite Shi To Eros

Although Ningen Isu has been recording some fine material on the intersection where doom metal, psychedelic rock and progressive hardrock come together for the last thirty years, they just keep on getting better. For me, the increasing heaviness – quite clearly influenced by Black Sabbath and Budgie – has given their recent material a consistency that earlier material lacked and therefore, their brand new ‘Kaidan Shoshite Shi To Eros’ turned out to be their best album yet. The heavy, Sabbath-ish riffing is front and center here, but there’s sparse folky elements, strange chants and other stylistic detours that still make the material unmistakably Ningen Isu. And despite this weird combination of styles, the album has a very pleasant flow. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Exploring Ningen Isu’s discography may be a bit intimidating because of all the Japanese titles, but it’s a very rewarding quest as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Chounouryoku Ga Attanara’, ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Ookami No Tasogare’

13. Marillion – F.E.A.R.

The acronym in the title is a little more crude than their subtle and intelligent music warrants, but luckily that’s the only problem I have with Marillion’s new album. Musically, it’s easily their best record since ‘Marbles’ twelve years prior. It shows the band all over the place: from folky to abstract and from highly accessible to almost impenetrably progressive. Because, in deed, after a decade of getting closer and closer to alternative rock – almost dangerously so at times – Marillion is first and foremost a progressive rock band on ‘F.E.A.R.’. It’s a 21st century take on the genre, but it’s highly progressive nonetheless. The band’s greatest assets – Steve Hogarth’s expressive vocals and Steve Rothery’s sparse, highly tasteful lead guitar work – are in full effect here and with three long, dynamic suites, there’s a lot to immerse yourself in here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Russia’s Locked Doors’, ‘Why Is Nothing Ever True?’, ‘Wake Up In Music’

14. DeWolff – Roux-Ga-Roux

Despite still not being particularly old, the three members of DeWolff have overcome the stigma of being “those three very young kids” in their early career remarkable well. Continuing to reinvent themselves musically has contributed to that as well. Where they sounded like British bands on their debut – Deep Purple and Pink Floyd quite prominently – their sound has gradually become more American, whilst still always sounding like DeWolff. On ‘Roux-Ga-Roux’, there is a strong New Orleans influence, if the title didn’t make that clear yet. The bigger emphasis on groove has considerably improved the band’s sound and while there are still a few inspired, semi-psychedelic jams, the more concise songwriting gives the record a somewhat more timeless edge, in addition to making it a very pleasant for those who aren’t as familiar with exercises in psychedelia. I’m very curious to see what they’ll do next.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sugar Moon’, ‘Stick It To The Man’, ‘Tired Of Loving You’

15. Vektor – Terminal Redux

Out of the whole retro thrash scene, Vektor was always one of the very few bands that could offer more than just nostalgia. They’ve always been labelled Voivod clones because of their sci-fi themes and use of dissonant chords, but that’s really where the comparison stops. Vektor plays hyperspeed progressive thrash metal that often borders on extreme metal, not in the last place due to David DiSanto’s screeching vocals. ‘Terminal Redux’ ups the ante in terms of the progressive side of the band, because almost all of the songs are very long, but because a lot happens within them, you’ll hardly notice. But no matter how intricate or complex it gets, Vektor seems to prioritize proper headbanging over a display of their dazzling capabilities. ‘Collapse’ isn’t just the Pink Floyd-ish highlight of the record, but also what happened to their line-up last week. DiSanto promised there’ll be more of this though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Collapse’, ‘Ultimate Artificer’, ‘Psychotropia’

16. Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

Believe it or not, but this release was already planned before the completely unexpected death of Prince. In fact, members of his fan club already had this release for a while. The first “phase” was released about half a year earlier and a little too electronic for me, but this is Prince as I like him best. It may not be very remarkable in terms of songwriting – despite the baroque ‘Baltimore’ being the best pop song of the year – but these are highly organic jams where Prince and his band audibly feed off each other and basically just let the music be what it wants to be. That results in a handful of jazzy pop tracks and light, shimmering funk grooves. Sometimes surprisingly bare bones, at other times lushly arranged. It probably wouldn’t have sold as much as it did if Prince hadn’t died about two weeks prior, but this is one of the cases where it definitely should have.

Recommended tracks: ‘Baltimore’, ‘2 Y. 2 D.’, ‘Stare’

17. Textures – Phenotype

Textures has a great reputation worldwide because of their contribution to the genre that is apparently now known as djent. They have always been able to write a good song or two (or nine, in this case) though and having a downright amazing vocalist may have made that particular job a little easier. Seriously, I thought Daniël de Jongh got the job down admirably on ‘Dualism’, but hearing him on a track like ‘New Horizons’ really shows how good he is in many different registers. The balance between heavy, choppy riffs and beautiful, atmospheric sections is better than ever on ‘Phenotype’ and the production of former guitarist Jochem Jacobs is remarkably organic for a contemporary heavy band. It’s surprising how a band can make such a refreshing album by simply improving upon what they have always done, but ‘Phenotype’ is one of such cases. I’m very curious to hear ‘Genotype’, the second part of this diptych.

Recommended tracks: ‘New Horizons’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Illuminate The Trail’

18. Santana – IV

Working for a guitar mag, you can probably imagine that the news of Carlos Santana reuiniting with Neal Schon and most of the other musicians that played on his untitled third album creates quite a stir. Luckily, the music backed up the hype. Most of ‘IV’ displays the almost reckless blend of psychedelic rock, blues and latin that the original Santana band was known for and seems to have evolved from jam sessions. Especially the instrumental tracks have spontaneity to them that isn’t very common on mainstream rock albums anymore. The only complaint I have about the album is that the clean, modern production is a little too glossy for some of the material, but luckily, not so much that it ruins your listening pleasure. With Schon and Santana jamming together, there’s enough spectacular guitar work for the magazine, but if you’re more of a rhythm junky, there’s more than enough to enjoy for you here as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yambu’, ‘Echizo’, ‘Filmore East’

19. Mary’s Blood – Fate

Highly anticipated for me, because I consider its predecessor ‘Bloody Palace’ a near-masterpiece. It doesn’t quite reach that level, but ‘Fate’ is once again a strong heavy metal, bordeline power metal record. Saki’s stellar guitar work will always be a point of interest for people who are into Mary’s Blood, but what really set this collective apart from all the other all-female bands that are currently conquering Japan – apart from their music having more power than many of their contemporaries, male or female – is the powerful, slightly raw voice of Eye. She is once again in excellent shape here. Some of the more experimental moments on the album are a subject of debate, but the record is full of driving rhythms, energetic riff work, catchy melodies and of course amazing vocals. There’s only so much hype a band can create; I strongly believe Mary’s Blood has a bright future due to having the musical value to back it up.

Recommended tracks: ‘Change The Fate’, ‘Queen Of The Night’, ‘Counter Strike’

20. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust

Another one-track album. This time a 33 minute one with lyrics about the rise and the ultimate destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Gorguts has taken that story and accompanied it with their trade-mark avant-garde death metal sound. While that style normally isn’t for me, Luc Lemay’s compositions full of guitar and bass lines that crawl and circle around each other have always intrigued me. This time, it’s no different. Even in the very subdued, tranquil and abstract middle section, there’s this tension that keeps me hanging on to the song. Very skillfully crafted and very powerfully performed. The production is surprisingly good as well; Patrice Hamelin’s drums actually sound like drums instead of computerized signals and it isn’t quite as “all loud all the time” as many modern death metal albums are. A very interesting piece of art with an interesting narrative to boot.

Recommended tracks: ‘Pleiades’ Dust’ (again, there aren’t any others)

Album of the Week 17-2016: Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

Not much more than a week after the sad, unexpected death of Prince, there’s the general release of his 39th studio album ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’. It’s not entirely new; it already appeared on several streaming media, but the CD is still pretty much my favored method of listening to music. And my favored side of Prince is strongly highlighted on this release. Where ‘Phase One’ was much too electronic for my tastes, this album is full of Jazzy Pop brilliance and light, shimmering Funk grooves. Though it misses the urgency of his best work, it’s a final testament to the genius of Prince’s musicianship.

Essentially, the album compiles a handful of tracks that were released in one form or another, but since The Purple One’s preference for musical media had the tendency to change faster than the weather, it’s good to finally have them all in one place. Especially considering the strong thematic nature of the record; though it doesn’t exactly shy away from modern production techniques, ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’ is strongly focused on performances and stripped down arrangements. Even the less Funky tracks are highly rhythmic and generally sparsely instrumentated, a couple of bombastic climaxes notwithstanding.

Personally, I had only heard ‘Stare’ before the release of the album and that track made me hopeful. It’s the bare bones Funk base of – I suspect, the credits aren’t very hepful – bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer John Blackwell that drives this track forward, while the horns and Prince’s guitar and vocals add some cool accents. ‘2 Y. 2 D.’ is equally Funky, but has more of a Motown-like arrangement. The rhythm is irresistible and the horns are explosive. ‘Black Muse’ and the upbeat, Stevie Wonder-esque closing track ‘Big City’ are less urgent, but still delightful Funk-Lite, and ‘Xtraloveable’ sounds so much like Chic, that it surprised me Nile Rodgers wasn’t involved.

A lot has been said about the socially conscious lyrics of opening track ‘Baltimore’, but I’d still like to highlight the musical side of it all, because the song is as close to Pop perfection as it gets. Despite the heavy lyrics, the song’s light, breezy feel and excellent string arrangement are goosebumps material. ‘RocknRoll LoveAffair’ is equally light and well arranged, though with a slightly more eighties light Rock feel. The actual Rock factor is turned up a notch for the cheesy, but highly enjoyable ‘Screwdriver’, while ‘Look At Me, Look At U’ and ‘Revelation’ are excellent, seductive Jazz exercises, both featuring some mindblowing saxophone work. ‘Groovy Potential’ deserves a special mention; it’s not necessarily the album’s best track, but its fusion of early Disco and contemporary R&B is unlike anything I have ever heard.

Opinions on ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’ are divided, but while I wouldn’t quite name it the best Prince record since ‘Musicology’ – ‘Lotusflow3r’ and ‘PlectrumElectrum’ are too close to my heart for that – it is definitely Prince as I like to hear him best: with a strong focus on rhythmically engaging musicianship. It wasn’t meant as such, but ultimately, the album is an excellent closing statement to a musical output that is practically unbeatable in ambition and scope. And in the end, that’s the only true downside to the album: knowing there won’t be any more like this.

Recommended tracks: ‘Baltimore’, ‘2 Y. 2 D.’, ‘Stare’


In Memoriam Prince 1958-2016

Call him weird. Call him an enigma. Call him a show-off. You’re probably right. But let’s never forget that Prince was first and foremost a musical genius who consistently refused to aknowledge the presence of genre boundaries in music. The announcement of his death came as a shock to me. Not only because have been a big fan of his work for ages, but also because I had no idea his health issues were so bad. He was rushed to the hospital in the middle of a tour last week, but he was back home and everything seemed to be alright. However, it was that home – Paisley Park, of course – where he was found dead at age 57.

I had the pleasure of seeing “the purple one” live when he closed the second night of the North Sea Jazz festival in 2011. It was an extremely hectic night as I was still fronting Chaos Asylum at the time and we had a gig before the show, but I’m still so glad I went. The Prince I saw there wasn’t Prince the Pop phenomenon or Prince the hit machine, but the musician Prince. Exactly the side of him that I admire so much. With a passion, he and his excellent band worked through a set of Jazz, Funk, Soul and even a little Hardrock. And whatever amazing song I missed that night – ‘Controversy’ first and foremost – I had a chance to see two weeks later at the same venue.

There’s so much to admire about Prince that I don’t even know where to start. Maybe his guitar playing, because I still think he doesn’t get enough credit for his amazing skills. He blends Hendrix’ intuitive Blues feel with Santana’s sultry tone and soulful melodicism, while adding his own awesome choppy, syncopated funk and the occasional shred moment to the mix. There’s not one player in the world who sounds like him sonically or stylistically and that to me is the mark of a great guitarist.

But he’s a fantastic composer as well. He’s made futuristic Funk (‘Controversy’), psychedelic Bluesrock (‘Colonized Mind’), relaxed Jazz (most of ‘The Rainbow Children’), excellent power ballads (‘Gold’), Hardrock (‘Peach’), his trademark light Funk (‘Dear Mr. Man’), T-Rex-ish Rock ‘n’ Roll (‘Cream’) and the perfect Pop song (‘Little Red Corvette’). And I’m probably forgetting a whole lot more here, but so much of his work is simply uncategorizable. What, for instance, is ‘When Doves Cry’? I wouldn’t know either, but it’s excellent without any shade of a doubt.

While Prince’s work is never too far away from my CD player – litterally actually; it’s right above it – I think this is a good time to pay tribute by playing even more of his work. There’s so much great material that he has made through the years. From the heavily bootlegged, yet never officially released Funk Bible that is ‘The Black Album’ to the Hardrock splendor of ‘PlectrumElectrum’ that he recorded with his all-female backing group 3rdEyeGirl… This stuff needs to be heard. It’s just a pity that nothing more will ever be made. I will be looking forward to the release of ‘HitnRun Phase Two’ next week though…

Prince Rogers Nelson, I’ve stood up to defend your musical qualities numerous times through the years and I will continue to do so. Your contributions to Pop music will be sorely missed.


Album of the Week 51-2015: George Harrison – All Things Must Pass

George Harrison’s proper solo debut is easily the best record released by anyone ever involved with The Beatles. The Quiet Beatle’s songs were always my favorite of the legendary British quartet, but one listen to ‘All Things Must Pass’ is enough to make the listener realize that whatever reasons John Lennon and Paul McCartney had for not alowing more Harrison compositions on their records, they weren’t musical. Don’t let the fact that some of these songs were rejected by The Beatles fool you: this triple album is filled with amazing songwriting, a great deal of variation and an almost tangible joy of performing.

While McCartney was probably the best musician in The Beatles, Harrison was always craving musical innovation and that shows on ‘All Things Must Pass’. All of the songs have a strong Pop vibe, but there’s experiments with Folk, Americana, Rock, Blues and Gospel throughout the record and almost all of them are successful. In addition, Harrison assembled a cast of friends around him that consisted of musical legends like Eric Clapton, former Beatle Ringo Starr and the always amazing Billy Preston, while Bob Dylan contributed to the songwriting. But the true power of the album lies within the songs themselves.

Best known are the Gospel-light of ‘My Sweet Lord’ and the uplifting, almost celebratory ‘What Is Life’, but that’s not where the highlights stop. Opening track ‘I’d Have You Any Time’ is a surprisingly brooding ode to friendship, ‘Beware Of Darkness’ and ‘Hear Me Lord’ are brilliantly structured ballads that build toward fantastic climaxes. ‘The Art Of Dying’, which was recorded with what would become Derek And The Dominos, is a driving Hard Rock track with a dark vibe, awesome dual lead vocals and amazing lead guitar work by Clapton. Speaking of lead guitars: this is the record where Harrison’s slide guitar really came into its own.

Much of the album’s criticism is aimed at “Apple Jam”, the third record of Bluesy jam sessions. While I tend to agree that some of them go on a little too long and it would have been better had they been more evenly distributed over the records, it’s a delight to just hear the musicians play without any pretense or assertiveness. Even Phil Spector doesn’t dominate the record; where I usually consider his productions too busy, ‘All Things Must Pass’ sounds exactly like it’s supposed to sound. Harrison, co-producing the record, probably reigned him in a little.

Even people who aren’t necessarily into The Beatles should give ‘All Things Must Pass’ a chance. It’s a lot of material, but honestly: it’s worth it. What you hear here is a music lover with loads of different ideas who is finally free to share them with the world. How can I not love that? And while Harrison would continue to record quality albums afterward – ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Living In The Material World’ and his closing statement ‘Brainwashed’ most prominently – this is still the one that highlights all sides of his broad musical spectrum best. Recommended to everyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Art Of Dying’, ‘Hear Me Lord’, ‘Beware Of Darkness’


Album of the Week 48-2014: Anouk – Paradise And Back Again

Internationally, Anouk is probably known for last year’s Eurovision entry ‘Birds’, but the Dutch music scene explodes whenever she releases something new. There’s a good reason for that: Anouk is Holland’s best (and best selling) female Rock singer and she understands the power of scarcity. Granted, she doesn’t play live much simply because she doesn’t want to, but it does keep her in demand. ‘Paradise And Back Again’ is her ninth studio record and though it isn’t on par with the underrated diamond ‘Graduated Fool’, it’s another strong album with mainly her Soul, Blues and Pop influences at the forefront. The album’s live feel is part of its charm as well.

Let’s get some criticism out of the way first. ‘Paradise And Back Again’ is a front-loaded album. This is especially true when you have the limited edition that closes with three electronically oriented tracks that have Anouk performing well, but because of the sudden stylistic shift, they rather stand out like a sore thumb. But also without those bonus tracks, the album doesn’t exactly close on a high note. Having said that, the album does contain a large number of fantastic grooves. Many Dutch reviewers have pointed out that the album is conceptually weaker than its predecessor, but I do think the songwriting is better.

Not so long ago, a lengthy interview with Anouk in the TV show College Tour was aired and she closed it off with excellent performances of ‘Looking For Love’ and opening track ‘Cold Blackhearted Golddiggers’. Those performances made me very hungry for this album and the two songs are definitely among the album’s highlights. Especially the former, with its overwhelming vocal work and monstrous groove, but the latter is a fantastic, darkly brooding Blues track that serves as the perfect introduction for ‘Paradise And Back Again’.

For me, ‘Don’t Wipe Us Out’ is the highlight of the album. The song is built upon one of the most awesome bass lines I’ve heard this year, while the climaxes of the song are reached by adding or removing layers of instruments. That killer bass stays though. ‘She Is Beautiful’ is a well-crafted Pop song with a Daptone vibe in its intro, ‘Daddy’ contains one of Anouk’s most spirited performances of the album, not to mention some of the best lyrics and ‘Last Goodbye’ is a short, genre-defying Pop song. ‘Wigger’ has more depth than its title may suggest and I somehow really like the creeping vibe of ‘Some Of Us’.

Okay, so there’s no classic like ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Everything’ on this record, but give it some time and the album will grow on you. This is mainly due to its more subdued nature; the songs have a way of revealing their secrets slowly rather than punching you in the face with them. That is what characterizes ‘Paradise And Back Again’ and it is also its redeeming quality, no matter what you might think upon first listen. What the first listen will reveal, though, is that Anouk has a fantastic voice and a knack for writing good hooks. That should keep us satisfied until she wants to play live again. And admit it: that album cover is awesome!

Recommended tracks: ‘Don’t Wipe Us Out’, ‘Looking For Love’, ‘Cold Blackhearted Golddiggers’


Album of the Week 31-2014: Fool’s Garden – Once In A Blue Moon

This week, I’d like to take you back to the first album I ever purchased with my own money. Back in the mid-nineties, Fool’s Garden had an enormous hit all throughout Europe and Asia with ‘Lemon Tree’. I was nine years old when the song came out and immediately fascinated by it. It took me at least another year to figure out what the band was called, but once I did, I came across this gem of an album in my local record store. ‘Lemon Tree’ wasn’t actually on it, but I was spellbound by it and now, almost two decades later, it’s still a brilliant record.

Fool’s Garden is a German band, but the sound they’re opting for is very much British. If the cover of ‘Cry Baby Cry’ or the fact that the album is dedicated to John Lennon didn’t give it away yet, the influence of The Beatles is fairly obvious. And while those influences would come to the surface even more on subsequent records, the band is much more than just another Beatles clone. Especially in Volker Hinkel’s big guitar sound, the Arena Rock edge is present, while this record especially has some references to the Soft Rock sound that graced many albums in the early to mid-nineties.

What mainly sets ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ apart from the band’s other output is the fact that Peter Freudenthaler and Volker Hinkel are still sharing lead vocals. The choice of letting Freudenthaler sing everything following this album is understandable, figuring that he technically has the better voice, but there’s something fundamentally bad-ass about Hinkel’s vocals. Just listen to the rocking Blues of ‘The Part Of The Fool’, on which he goes wild both vocally and on his guitar. A part of the abum’s charm is the interaction between Hinkel’s grit and Freudenthaler’s smoother delivery.

Most of the album would classify as easy listening. Songs like ‘One Way Out’ and the delightful ‘Careless Games’ could perfectly function as background music, despite the fact that that would undermine the quality of the compositions. However, the band proves they can rock out if they want to. Opening track ‘Awakenings’ is the perfect Arena Rock opener both musically and lyrically, with especially Hinkel’s guitar themes between the verses giving me euphoric goosebumps. The sultry ‘Lena’ has Freudenthaler seemingly on his knees begging the titular woman to give him another chance to a powerful backing with a somewhat southern European flair, while the U2-ish light-and-shade contrast of ‘Spirit ’91’ is quite likely the band’s most socially critical moment yet.

As with many albums in this style, there’s quite a large number of ballads. Luckily, most of them are pretty good. ‘Sandy’ is borderline cheesy, but the darker section with a fantastic guitar solo by Hinkel and Freudenthaler’s passionate delivery save it, while the short acoustic ‘You’re Not Forgotten’ is simply beautiful. One of the album’s absolute masterpieces, however, is the title track. The song evokes an atmosphere of being in a smokey Jazz café near closing time and Freudenthaler is once again on fire. The way this song works towards its climax is a compositional triumph.

Sonically, the album is treated exactly the way it should be. For Ralf Wochele’s drums, the perfect balance between Rock’s force and Pop subtlety of his playing is reflected in the way they are produced and the way Thomas Mangold’s bass is often doubled with Roland Röhl’s synths works fantastically. There’s a lot of room for the vocals, but not in a way that distracts from the fantastic music.

Fool’s Garden is still around today – minus the apostrophe – and they’re still creating expertly written music with prominent British influences. And while all of their albums are fantastically crafted Pop records, ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ is still the one I hold in highest regard both sentimentally and musically. The album is quite hard to find these days, but definitely worth tracking down. It’s been making my life better for almost two decades now and if you like good Pop and Rock music, that will quite likely be the case for you as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Awakenings’, ‘The Part Of The Fool’, ‘Once In A Blue Moon’, ‘Lena’