Posts Tagged ‘ Psychedelic Rock ’

Album of the Week 27-2017: Jeangu Macrooy – High On You

Initially, it was Jeangu Macrooy’s voice that drew me towards his music. It strongly reminded me of Bill Withers in terms of timbre, power and intimacy. But a great voice only gets you so far. Luckily, Macrooy is an excellent songwriter as well. He mixes up many different genres, but instead of incoherent genre-hopping, Macrooy creates a smooth, listenable blend of soul, jazz, rock, pop and some Carribean influences. Last year, his ‘Brave Enough’ EP was an excellent introduction to what Macrooy was able to do, but his debut album ‘High On You’ really shows the full scope of his musical ambitions.

On ‘High On You’, it is possible to listen to three different songs and hear five different genres. However, things never get disjointed. It is quite clear that a lot of effort went into the arrangements, but it also helps that Macrooy has an excellent band behind him, consisting of musicians who are simply looking to upstage the songs rather than themselves, displaying an impressive amount of versatility. Macrooy himself does some nice work on the acoustic guitar as well. The fact that all the songs have a similar approach sonically positively influences the listenability of the album’s multi-genre approach.

Macrooy’s voice is on full display on the spiritual sounding opening track ‘Aisa’, but he also takes center stage in the folky ‘Circles’ and soulful ballads like ‘Antidote’, ‘Sleep You Off’ and the title track. But even the singer/songwriter himself has no problem taking a back seat to the generally relaxed, shimmering grooves of songs like ‘Tell Me Father’ and ‘Crazy Kids’. The vocals find a comfortable place within the mix, but Macrooy’s lyrics come across really well. On the EP, there were some interesting references to the history of his native country of Suriname, but he seems to have gone for words that are highly personal, openhearted and honest this time around.

While ‘High On You’ is consitently amazing, there are some standout moments. I personally think the seamless blend of light funk and dark, somewhat psychedelic rock that occurs in songs like ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’ and the somewhat more subdued ‘One Way Ticket’ is an extremely interesting approach that has not been attempted very often since the days of psychedelic soul in the early seventies. The rhythms of these songs are not exceptionally propulsive, but have a very pleasand drive to them. But the true highlight is ‘Step Into The Water’. The song sort of ties together all the influences on the album into a concise, amazing song with a highly memorable chorus. Truly this year’s best single out of the Netherlands.

Every once in a while, an exceptional talent appears who proves that contemporary music is not as stuck in a predictable pattern as much as I sometimes say it is. If it is done this way, I do not mind being proven wrong. Jeangu Macrooy and his band have made an excellent album that manages to be a pleasant listen and a musically challenging piece of art simultaneously. It has been a pretty good year for Dutch music already, but ‘High On You’ might just top everything else. This record deserves to be appreciated internationally.

Recommended tracks: ‘Step Into The Water’, ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’

Album of the Week 36-2016: Marillion – Marbles

Last week, I wrote my review on Marillion’s new record ‘F.E.A.R.’ for Gitarist. Without giving too much away: I called it their best record since ‘Marbles’. Which may have been a bit lazy, because ‘Marbles’ is the designated “best since” reference for the Brits, since they’ve moved a bit too close to alternative Pop on subsequent releases. Those influences are quite prominent here as well, but somehow they blend with Marillion’s progressive roots much better here. Ironically, while it sounds less cliché Prog than some of their peers, it made Marillion one of the few bands to actually do something progressive in the 21st century.

As musicians, Marillion has become increasingly understated since the early nineties. Steve Rothery is one of the world’s most tasteful lead guitarists, but most of the time, he takes a backseat to the song and provides color through sounds that sometimes don’t even sound like a guitar. But most illustrative of the musical development is Mark Kelly. Remember the somewhat shrill keyboard leads on their eighties output? Kelly went along with the times and is more interested in laying down textures these days. The relevance of no one taking the spotlight can’t be emphasized enough.

Centerpieces on ‘Marbles’ are – maybe somewhat predictably – the three epics. ‘Ocean Cloud’ – the longest, clocking in just under 18 minutes – is perhaps the most traditionally progressive of the lot, with it’s clear movements, distinctly Pink Floyd-like ambient sections and quiet-loud dynamics. Closing track ‘Neverland’ is a downright beautiful ballad with one of Rothery’s finest guitar solo’s of all time and though the band hasn’t sounded like Genesis for the better part of three decades, I consider ‘The Invisible Man’ the ‘Musical Box’ of this century; singer Steve Hogarth’s emotional range strengthens the increasing intensity in the music and the band very creatively links highly different sections together.

The shorter songs lack the lasting power of those three monuments, but there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Influences from U2 (‘You’re Gone’) and The Beatles (‘The Damage’) are quite obvious, as is Radiohead’s influence on the sonic possibilities of the instruments, but Marillion stubbornly refuses to copy a formula and consistently turns it into their own thing. Highlighting the more concise side of the record are the jazzy psychedelia of ‘Angelina’ and the schizophrenic composition ‘Drilling Holes’, in which highly rhythmic sections with excellent bass work by Pete Trewavas are contrasted by calmer, late sixties Beatle-esque passages. The four short titular interludes are nice, calm pieces of music as well.

Make sure you check out the double cd version of ‘Marbles’, or else you’ll miss four songs, one of which being the amazing ‘Ocean Cloud’. Also, albums like these are just worth hearing the way the artists intended them to. It never was artistic vision that Marillion lacked and ‘Marble’ is one of the best examples to illustrate that fact. While it’s not their best record – ‘Brave’ will forever hold that title for me – it is one of the very few satisfying examples of a band with a “progressive” label actually still progressing. And one of the few that can make simpler songs work.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Invisible Man’, ‘Neverland’, ‘Ocean Cloud’

Album of the Week 32-2016: Porcupine Tree – The Incident

For a genre with “progressive” in its name, there have been relatively little young progressive Rock heroes these last years. Steven Wilson has been the last man to be widely accepted as a Prog guru and even though he doesn’t look like it, he is in his late forties. A more positive explanation would be that he set the bar incredibly high and although people like Wilson – to no fault of their own – have an army of admirers incapable of criticizing him, they may be right in this case. Of all his project, Porcupine Tree is easily my favorite, because of its use of dynamics.

Despite being released seven years ago, ‘The Incident’ is Porcupine Tree’s most recent work and features probably their most fully realized material. Personally, I really enjoyed its predecessor ‘Fear Of A Blank Planet’, but that record was quite driven by the Metal elements that have been present since current drummer Gavin Harrison joined the band and Wilson has been producing Opeth around the turn of the century. ‘The Incident’ truly has the band moving from the calmest Folk sections through the most spacey, psychedelic passages to some surprisingly heavy riffing. As a result, the album stays interesting throughout its entire 75 minute run – spread out over two discs.

The centerpiece of the album is the 55 minute titular “song cycle”. Their words, not mine. It’s not one of those “one song albums” in a strict sense. In fact, the approach more closely resembles a traditional concept album with recurring themes, atmospheric interludes, but also expertly written songs that work very well as stand-alone songs. The dark, melancholic vibe, occasional Pop hooks and the way the obvious musical prowess of the instrumentalists generally a backseat in favor of the actual songs make the cycle feel like a modern take on Marillion’s ‘Brave’, albeit with a vastly different sound.

While I would generally prefer a powerhouse singer over this type of material, Wilson’s soft voice actually works really well with the introspective nature of the music and especially the lyrics. His guitar work is usuall simple, but brutally effective. He doesn’t play a lot of notes – Harrison is the only one who sometimes does – but what he does play resonates icredibly on an emotional level. The middle section of the 12 minute ‘Time Flies’ is the perfect example. This approach has an advantage; when the band does fire on all cylinders, like they do on ‘Octane Twisted’, it sounds highly overwhelming, even though it isn’t particularly complex in terms of composition or musicianship.

After the emotional roller coaster that is ‘The Incident’, the four songs on the second cd sound slightly out of place. It’s not like they’re bad songs; in fact, the abstract rocker ‘Bonnie The Cat’ and the powerfully built-up ‘Remember Me Lover’ are excellent, but they feel a little tacked onto the end of the record because… Well, let’s face it, they are. They may have worked better as a separate release without an epic, mind-blowing 55 minute journey fresh in mind.

Naturally, the conceptual nature of the record helps ‘The Incident’ have a consistency that many of the more disjointed modern progressive acts lack. Most of Wilson’s records do. What makes ‘The Incident’ so strong, however, is the fact that it manages to move all over the stylistic map without ever losing its focus. There’s the Folky feel of early Genesis, the layered Pop of the latter days of The Beatles, the riffy propulsion of Heavy Metal and even the Krautrock influences that were more prominent on Porcupine Tree’s oldest records haven’t faded away entirely. Combine that in a way that won’t make the listener lose his way and you’ve got an excellent record on your hands.

Recommended tracks: ‘Time Flies’, ‘The Incident’, ‘Octane Twisted’

Album of the Week 15-2016: Santana – IV

While Santana the man hasn’t ever really been away, ‘IV’ is definitely the comeback of Santana the band. The first real Santana album since their untitled third record from 1970 or maybe, if you’re being lenient, ‘Caravanserai’ (1972). What apparently started as Journey guitarist Neal Schon stalking Carlos Santana has turned into a full-fledged reunion of all but one of the surviving band members from the 1970 lineup and they’re not being subtle about it. Just look at that beautiful album cover. If that doesn’t breathe the atmosphere that fans of the original band have been craving for years, I don’t know what does.

‘IV’ isn’t a full throwback, however. Sure, it is the first time in years that Carlos Santana sinks his teeth into the band’s exciting and highly original combination of psychedelic Rock, Blues and Latin. There’s wild lead guitars and percussion augmenting the drums. But at the same time, this is something fresh. Santana never sounded this Funky and modern production techniques allow for a brighter polish this time around. Also, the guitarists have a much more pronounced sound than they had in the past: Schon’s beefy Arena Rock sound provides a perfect contrast to Santana’s trademark sharp, yet smooth tone.

Most of the album sounds like the material was born out of spontaneous jam sessions. Not just because the band members themselves have pointed out this spontaneity in interviews – if anything, that could be a reason to be suspicious – but the songs sound alive and energetic, while it does feel like the musicians are moving along with each other when there are shifts in dynamics or intensity. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that quite a lot of time has been spent on the production, especially on the relatively modern sounding ‘Choo Choo’ and anything that is lead by Gregg Rolie’s vocals.

Generally, I prefer the less direct and accessible songs on the record. The long tracks ‘Fillmore East’ and ‘Forgiveness’ highlight the band’s psychedelic, almost jazzy side of the band with amazing lead guitar work by both Schon and Rolie, the appropriately titled ‘Sueños’ (“dreams”) features Santana’s beautiful work on the nylon string acoustic guitar front and center, ‘Echizo’ is a remarkably well-written instrumental and the strongly Afro-Caribbean opening track ‘Yambu’ feels like it was meant as an intro track, but quickly proves to be possibly the best composition on the record. Whatever your take on the track, it sets the mood for ‘IV’ perfectly.

Anyone who enjoyed ‘Abraxas’ and the two self-titled Santana albums would do himself a favor by checking out ‘IV’. As mentioned before, it’s not a complete copy of the old Santana sound, but it’s as close as it gets and that slightly more contemporary edge to the recordings gives the album a relevance beyond nostalgia. Everyone is simply in top form here, with special mentions going to – naturally – the guitar duo and Gregg Rolie, who manages to keep the band grounded. My only criticism would be that the album could have a little of its fat trimmed, but don’t let that keep you from enjoying ‘IV’.

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

Album of the Week 42-2014: Dr. John – Locked Down

For the white psychedelic Rock generation, Dr. John was the professor of New Orleans music history. His revolutionary ‘Gris-Gris’ (1968) and even moreso his record full of New Orleans traditionals ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) introduced a whole new generation of musicians not commonly associated with the town to the exuberant music and the mysterious rituals of The Crescent City. One of those – admittedly at a later time – was The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Dr. John’s 2012 masterpiece ‘Locked Down’ and plays guitar on it. The doctor himself sounds as convincing as always on this collection of dark, shimmering grooves and nocturnal melodies.

While Auerbach’s touch is quite distinct in the pseudo lo-fi production of the album, the brilliance of the material is very much a collaborative achievement of Dr. John and his backing band. Bassist Nick Movshon and drummer Max Weissenfeldt expertly lay down the earthy, low-key Funk grooves so typical of New Orleans’ rhythmical approach, although the percussion from several band members also contributes to that, and Dr. John’s electric keyboards top the whole thing off. Normally, I would complain about the lack of his unequaled piano playing, but the atmosphere of these compositions just begs for the direction he took for the album.

Between those instruments in the spectrum that is ‘Locked Down’, we find quite a lot of different approaches throughout the album. ‘Big Shot’ is relatively jazzy, with the horns and lingering rhythms pushing the song into fifties territory. ‘Revolution’ is also horn-driven, but much more aggressively funky in its beats. ‘Ice Age’ is carried by a haunting dual guitar harmony and the almost terrifying vocals of the doctor, where the opening title track is primarily built upon Funk riffs and rhythms. ‘Eleggua’ is wordless – but not instrumental – psychedelia and the Gospel track ‘God’s Sure Good’ closes the album in a surprisingly upbeat fashion, but makes perfect sense in context.

Although the album remains consistently impressive all the way through – all of the tracks are diamonds in the rough – there is one song that caught me completely off guard and that’s the subdued dream groove of ‘My Children, My Angels’. Its leading Rhodes piano riff strongly reminds me of my favorite Led Zeppelin song ‘No Quarter’, with which the song shares its darkness, and Dr. John proves that you don’t have to be Tom Jones in order to send shivers down someone’s spine by singing. Especially the somewhat uplifting – but once again in a subdued fashion – chorus. Simply breathtaking.

‘Locked Down’ rates along ‘Gris-Gris’, ‘Gumbo’ and ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ as Dr. John’s masterpieces in a discography that is consistently amazing anyway. And with his carreer spanning over six decades (counting his early years backing other New Orleans greats), that is nothing short of an impressive achievement. Those who enjoyed the mysterious nocturnes of his debut album will most likely be captivated by this amazing record as well. And for any musician, this should be a lesson in groove.

Recommended tracks: ‘My Children, My Angels’, ‘Ice Age’, ‘Big Shot’

Album of the Week 03-2013: Voivod – Target Earth

While the late Denis ‘Piggy’ d’Amour – who was the heart and soul of Voivod’s music, together with drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin – was deemed irreplacable, Martyr’s Dan Mongrain (nicknamed ‘Chewy’ for this occasion) did a fantastic job filling his shoes on the tours following Piggy’s death. When I saw them at the 2009 Wâldrock festival, I was amazed at how well Mongrain covered Piggy’s unique dissonant chords and psychedelic take on Thrash riffing. Now, there’s ‘Target Earth’, Voivod’s first album with Mongrain and all surviving original members. And it’s easily the band’s best album since the incomparable ‘Nothingface’ (1989).

Ever since ‘Mechanical Mind’ first surfaced online about three months ago, my anticipation for ‘Target Earth’ was immeasurable. ‘Mechanical Mind’ showed a Voivod reminiscent of their late eighties heyday of ‘Dimension Hatröss’ and ‘Nothingface’; the guitar riffs are dissonant and intense, Away’s rhythms are an odd mixture of Punky intensity and Jazzy twists, the trademark rumbling sound of returning bassist Jean-Yves ‘Blacky’ Thériault is back where it belongs and the vocals of Denis ‘Snake’ Bélanger are as weird as ever, although he has obviously come a long way since debut album ‘War And Pain’. The expectations caused by ‘Mechanical Mind’ were sky-high, but the promise was fulfilled or possibly even exceeded on ‘Target Earth’.

There isn’t one song on ‘Target Earth’ that is a letdown. That in itself is an impressive achievement by a band that just lost a key songwriter. Once the opening title track starts playing, one never has to check if this is actually Voivod we are listening to. And while there are a few hints to the slightly mellower, but still oddball Hardrock of the last few records (‘Kaleidos’ and parts of ‘Resistance’), most of the record is a very welcome return to the Sci-Fi obsessed, psychedelic and progressive Thrash Metal of the late eighties.

Besides the aforementioned ‘Mechanical Mind’, the highlight of ‘Target Earth’ is the first song these Québécois did in French. It’s called ‘Corps Étranger’ and after a short slower intro, it boasts THE riff of the album; the first fast riff is one of pure pulsating Thrashing rage (pun intended) with all the weirdness inherent to a Voivod riff and as such, a total throwback to the awesome ‘Killing Technology’. And it’s not just that riff: the entire song is filled with great riffs, unexpected twists in both rhythm and atmosphere and it’s just extremely well-written. Other highlights include the scorching Thrasher ‘Kluskap O’Kom’ (don’t ask, I don’t know either), the epic, progressive and atmospheric ‘Warchaic’, the powerful title track and ‘Artefact’, especially the passage where the guitar delay, rumbling bass and tom violence on the drums battle for supremacy.

In the end, the only criticism a fan could have on ‘Target Earth’ is wondering why the killer outro ‘Defiance’ wasn’t developed into a full song; it sounds like there was much more interesting stuff after the fadeout. When it comes to everything else, ‘Target Earth’ is the perfect album Voivod could have made at this point. Right down to the eighties drum sound. Mongrain is more than suitable as a replacement for Piggy – Martyr’s cover of ‘Brain Scan’ already made that perfectly clear – and the compositions are nothing short of spectacular. This is not for the conservative Thrasher – let’s not forget that we’re dealing with one of the very few bands who recorded a decent Pink Floyd cover here – but everyone with an open mind should find something enjoyable here. ‘Target Earth’ is an album more than worthy of the Voivod nomiker. Piggy would have been proud.

Recommended tracks: ‘Corps Étranger’, ‘Mechanical Mind’, ‘Kluskap O’Kom’