Posts Tagged ‘ Rock ’

Album of the Week 40-2019: The Magpie Salute – High Water II


While it isn’t entirely fair to keep comparing The Magpie Salute to The Black Crowes due to the large number of shared members, the fact is that the Crowes had not impressed me as much as The Magpie Salute’s debut album ‘High Water I’ did last year. Without his brother Chris, Rich Robinson was allowed to focus on what made his music so good in the first place: well-written songs and the inspired guitar interplay between him and Marc Ford. Add an exceptional singer in the shape of John Hogg and you’ve got recipe for success. ‘High Water II’ is no different.

Musically, ‘High Water II’ does appear to be a little more direct than its predecessor. The latter day Led Zeppelin-isms of ‘High Water’ and the slightly psychedelic touches have mostly been sacrificed in favor of a selection of tightly composed southern rock, southern soul and americana songs that are big on melodic hooks and spontaneity. Though I am not familiar with the recording process, it does look like it has been recorded with the entire band in one room again. The recordings just have that feel. Especially in the way the musicians react to one another at times.

Despite its more direct approach, ‘High Water II’ failed to make the impression the first part did when I listened to it the first time. A couple of spins in, it is hard to define why, as there is plenty to like on here for anyone who enjoyed the debut. Fans of the soulful rockers will be delighted by the likes of ‘Doesn’t Really Matter’, ‘Leave It All Behind’, the horn-heavy ‘In Here’ and ‘Turn It Around’, while the more americana-oriented part of the audience will certainly be enamored by the Marc Ford-sung tracks ‘Lost Boy’ and ‘Life Is A Landslide’. The semi-epic ‘Mother Storm’ marries the two sides quite perfectly.

As a whole, ‘High Water II’ has a very pleasant flow, because its consistently energetic, high-quality playing and writing does not let up. There are slightly less obvious highlights this time around, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t around. Closing track ‘Where Is This Place’ is a masterpiece in the way it combines the compositorical elements of country blues with the electrified grooves of late sixties and early seventies soul. The Stonesy grit of ‘Gimme Something’ accounts for a driving, powerful song, while ‘Sooner Or Later’ definitely is the most Crowes-like song on the record and therefore a perfect choice to open the record.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: without Chris Robinson’s insistent hippie mysticism, Rich Robinson’s songs come across much better these days. There don’t appear to be any ego’s in The Magpie Salute: everyone just seems to want what is best for the song. While it is easy to transform these types of songs into a vehicle for overlong soloing, the band keeps its records concise, memorable and highly inspired. While I still think ‘High Water I’ has a slight edge over this new album, it is basically as close as it can possibly get and quite likely is more consistent as a whole.

Recommended tracks: ‘Where Is This Place’, ‘Mother Storm’, ‘Gimme Something’

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Album of the Week 33-2019: Kukryniksy – Artist


Farewell albums often are a bit of an afterthought. Musicians throw some odds and ends together or, at worst, force one more product out. ‘Artist’, the final album of Saint Petersburg-based band Kukrynisky is the mirror opposite of that. For me, ‘Artist’ is the album where they finally fulfill their full potential. The flashes of brilliance that shone through their better songs are on full display here, ultimately resulting in the band’s best set of songs to date. Everything from the songwriting to the production seems to be just right on ‘Artist’. This is truly Kukryniksy at its very best.

Kukryniksy plays a highly accessible type of gothic rock. Uncomplicated songs with memorable choruses, atmospheric melodies and beefy rhythm guitars. In that sense, ‘Artist’ is no different than the majority of their output. Igor Vornov’s rhythm guitars just seem to be slightly beefed up this time around, resulting in something which sounds like a slightly less depressed take on ‘One Second’ era Paradise Lost. Aleksey Gorshenyov is relatively subtle in his deep vocal delivery and never overpowers the songs, though his harmonies with bassist Dmitry Oganyan – who has a killer bass tone – do provide most of the choruses with their sing-along quality.

The riffy nature of ‘Artist’ immediately becomes apparent when the propulsive start-stop riffing of the title track kicks in, but the way it develops into the mysterious vocal layering in its chorus already proves that Kukryniksy has not sacrificed any of its atmospheric leanings. There are lots of other excellent rockers which are atmospheric enough to appeal to the gothic rock crowd, but accessible enough for rock radio on artist. The particularly energetic ‘Shtorm’ is my favorite of those, but the bass-driven ‘Nadezhda’, the powerful single ‘Obnimay’ and the almost mid-period Moonspell-ish ‘Vihod Iz Roli’ are all nearly as good and similar in style. ‘Ekkleziast’ is a more electronically-tinged baroque goth track, but has the same impact as the more rocking songs.

Elsewhere, Kukryniksy shows its versatility. ‘Kommivoyazhor’, for instance, combines gothic piano and bass interplay with an almost spaghetti western-ish guitar pattern and a romantic string arrangement. That might sound like it could fall apart at any moment, but no one has to teach Kukryniksy how to arrange a song and therefore, the elements come together in an elegant track. This elegance can also be heard in the expertly structured power ballad ‘Nu Vot, I Ti Ko Mnye Slinoy!’, which is given extra power by Gorshenyov’s understated vocals. ‘Posledyaya Pesnya’ (which, fittingly, means “last song”) is the perfect subdued closing statement to sum up why we should be sad the band is no more.

Ultimately, finishing on such a high note as Kukryniksy does here is always unfortunate. On the other hand, there are very few bands that ever get to craft a rock album as good as ‘Artist’. The music has the hungry, visceral power that rock music should have, but never veers into mindless volatility, because Gorshenyov is too clever a songwriter for that. All we can do now is hope that he will continue this upward trajectory for his next projects. In the meantime, any fan of the more poppy spectrum of gothic rock should just ignore the language barrier and give ‘Artist’ a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shtorm’, ‘Obnimay’, ‘Posledyaya Pesnya’, ‘Artist’, ‘Vihod Iz Roli’

Album of the Week 30-2019: Audioslave – Revelations


It is truly unfortunate that Audioslave never got to record more than three albums. They started out like any other supergroup; as musicians struggling to find a way to combine their musical histories in a listenable manner, although the self-titled debut certainly already had its share of great moments. It helps that 75 percent of Audioslave came from the same band, but by the time ‘Revelations’ was released, the band had evolved beyond sounding like Rage Against The Machine with Chris Cornell singing. This is a powerful, at times surprisingly soulful alternative hardrock album that showcases some excellent songwrited and spirited musicianship.

Rage Against The Machine’s biggest strength, to me, was always their rhythm section, but ‘Revelations’ is the record on which drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford deliver their best performance yet. Their rhythms can still punch hard if they want to, but there is a strong soul and funk undercurrent on the album. As a result, guitarist Tom Morello is forced to tone down his noisy effects in favor of a more swinging rhythm guitar approach, ending up sounding something like Led Zeppelin being pushed through a Motown filter. An approach that fits Cornell’s wide, expressive range like a glove.

The opening title track briefly misleads the listener into thinking ‘Revelations’ will be a moody, downbeat album, but the song quickly transforms into a powerful swing ‘n’ stomp fest. And while ‘Revelations’ as a whole is a tad darker in tone than the first two Audioslave albums – to its benefit, if you ask me – it also has its notably celebratory moments. ‘Original Fire’, most notably, ironically sounds more upbeat than the early Seattle bands it is a tribute to. ‘One And The Same’ and the amazing funk rocker ‘Broken City’ manage to walk the tightrope of dark, dangerous and life-affirming effectively.

And yet, the most convincing moments on ‘Revelations’ are the most melancholic ones. ‘Wide Awake’ is easily my favorite non-Soundgarden song Cornell has ever sang on. It could be described as a sorrowful ballad, were it not for Commerford’s busily funky bass line and Wilk’s dynamic drum work. The yearning chorus and the climactic ending are pieces of art. Closing track ‘Moth’ is another gloomy masterpiece driven by a massive, almost Sabbathian riff and a haunting chorus. Elsewhere, the pounding ‘Shape Of Things To Come’ and the almost jazzy chord work of ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’ run a different way with the melancholy. ‘Jewel Of The Summertime’ is one of the heaviest funk tracks I ever heard.

‘Out Of Exile’ was a great album, but ‘Revelations’ is the Audioslave album I would recommend anyone to start with, as the specter of the members’ former bands was no longer looming over the band by this point. The backgrounds of the musicians are fairly obvious, but the blend of styles is rather unique. Audioslave had finally found its own sound on ‘Revelations’, which is why it is such a pity that it was their final album. Certainly one of the most organic-sounding big budget post-2000 rock releases and that is truly the finishing touch of this great album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wide Awake’, ‘Moth’, ‘Broken City’, ‘One And The Same’

Album of the Week 29-2019: Soundgarden – Superunknown


In hindsight, the title of Soundgarden’s fourth album ‘Superunknown’ is almost ironic, as the album – and its singles in particular – turned the Seattle-based band into a bestselling rock act. In a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Soundgarden consisted of four great songwriters and in Chris Cornell, they had easily the greatest singer of the entire Seattle scene. On the other hand, the band’s fearless experimentalism, as well as their penchant for odd time signatures and dissonance made them the least likely huge rock act of the era. However, that is exactly what makes ‘Superunknown’ as successful artistically as it is commercially.

As tempting as it is to call ‘Superunknown’ a sellout record, the opposite is actually true. Sure, it is notably less metallic than ‘Badmotorfinger’, but instead, this is a textured, sonically rich record that explores all the extremes of rock music. From the punky bite of ‘Kickstand’ to the psychedelic leanings of ‘Head Down’ and the dark pop supremacy of ‘Black Hole Sun’, ‘Superunknown’ is Soundgarden’s ‘Physical Graffiti’. To do that without alienating your core audience is not an easy feat, but then again, Soundgarden never released the same kind of album twice in a row, so their fans knew they could expect something different.

Unlike many albums of the era, the singles that were culled from the album actually fit the general atmosphere of the record well. First single ‘Spoonman’ is as unconventional rhythmically as anything the band released up until that point and the downbeat semi-ballad ‘Fell On Black Days’ is one of the greatest songs Soundgarden ever released. The way Cornell’s voice commands the dynamics of the song over that simple, but brutally effective guitar riff is nothing short of genius. ‘Let Me Drown’ is a powerful opening track and the subdued, yet forceful ‘Fresh Tendrils’ really deserves more appreciation than it tends to get.

Fortunately, the Black Sabbath-inspired doom metal riffing has not disappeared. While nothing is of ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ proportions, there are no less than three songs that come close. ‘4th Of July’ is a sludgy, dissonant dirge on which Cornell’s understated vocals take a back seat to the riffs, which are right in front of the mix. The monstrous groove of ‘Mailman’ is evidence that Soundgarden shares a lot of influences with Alice In Chains and the riff work of ‘Limo Wreck’ is a clear tribute to Sabbath, while the chorus houses Cornell’s finest vocal performance on the record. Closing the record on a strong note, ‘Like Suidice’ feels like a blend of alternative rock and southern blues. It’s something which is not attempted often, but works very well.

So is ‘Superunknown’ better than ‘Badmotorfinger’? Of course it isn’t. ‘Badmotorfinger’ was a monumental release on which all the stars aligned ridiculously perfectly. ‘Superunknown’ is just about as good a follow-up anyone could wish for. The album shows a band refusing to compromise and surprisingly, that eventually gave them the audience they deserved. Soundgarden was always a band that defied genres or scenes and no record is better evidence of that than ‘Superunknown’. A rare example of a breakthrough record that does not pander to the masses. Not even a little.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Mailman’, ‘Limo Wreck’

In Memoriam Dr. John 1941-2019


Dr. John was a gateway artist to me. While discovering the musical traditions of New Orleans, Dr. John was just “rocky” enough to have any sort of appeal on the staunch hardrocker I was at the time. By mixing the New Orleans jazz tradition with the funk DNA of the town and some psychedelic rock grooves, Dr. John basically had something for fans of all genres. His sleazy voice and jumpy, slightly Carribean piano parts immediately recognizable, while the dangerous voodoo-inspired, vibe in some of his tracks is still as hypnotizing today as it was in the late sixties. Malcolm John Rebennack, as was his real name – “Mac” to his friends – died of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 77.

New Orleans royalty

As I’m quite sure was the case for many white rockers, my first time hearing Dr. John was his solo debut album ‘Gris-Gris’ from 1968. The album can be downright weird at times, but I was intrigued from the first notes right down until the last. The seductive grooves of ‘Mama Roux’ and the irresistible darkness of ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ never wear off their welcome and I can’t be the only one who feels like that, as the latter is among one of the most covered non-traditional songs from Louisiana.

Before that album was released, however, Rebennack already made quite a career as a musician. Originally aspiring to be a professional guitar player, he was shot through the ring finger of his left hand in 1960 and eventually settled on the piano as his main instrument. His style was clearly influenced by another New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair, but he ran with it and sort of modernized the style without forsaking any of the swing and looseness that makes New Orleans jazz and funk so typical that it really can only be made in that particular area. He would appear on many records as a session musician before embarking on his solo ventures.

Throughout the seventies, Rebennack released one great record after the other. His 1973 album ‘In The Right Place’ in particular was a gathering of New Orleans royalty, with The Meters backing him and Allen Toussaint producing. The record, and the powerful single ‘Right Place Wrong Time’ in particular, was when he crossed over to the mainstream. It was hardly his only good song of the decade though; ‘Loop Garoo’, the lengthy ‘Angola Anthem’, ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Qualified’ are just a few of the masterpieces he released that decade, while ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) is one of the most exuberant celebrations of New Orleans’ musical history ever released.

Essence

While the eighties were unkind to almost anybody not playing synth pop or metal, Rebennack kept on releasing music that though not as inspired as his seventies work was enjoyable enough. In the meantime, there were session gigs he gladly joined. His return to form came in 1992, however, with ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’. An effort comparable to ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ twenty years prior, the album focuses on what New Orleans has to offer musically, from the gorgeous classical roots of the Gottschalk tribute ‘Litanie Des Daints’ to the standards ‘Carless Love’ and ‘Goodnight Irene’, the latter in a surprisingly bombastic rendition. The title track, Rebennack’s interpretation of a Joe Liggins tune, is a horn-heavy masterpiece.

Since that album reconnected him to his essence, Rebennack kept frequently releasing records, some of which are nothing short of incredible. In fact, not too long ago, ‘Locked Down’ (2012) introduced him to a whole new audience by teaming up with The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach. The album is sort of an update of his seventies formula, including career highlights like ‘Big Shot’, ‘My Children, My Angels’ and the title track, with a big shot of psychedelic rock. Those who followed Rebennack’s career would not have been surprised though, as he had shared amazing albums like ‘Tribal’ (2010) and ‘The City That Care Forgot’ (2008) not too long before his Auerbach collaboration.

On Rebennack’s 73rd birthday, I was fortunate enough to see him live with his band. Not a perfect show by any means; the band was almost too loose and trombone player Sarah Morrow hogging the spotlight got on my nerves after a while. Also, it was obvious that the Doctor was not in the best physical shape anymore. His musical feeling did not suffer even the slightest bit, however, with especially his improvisational skills being impressive without being too ostentatious. Clearly a natural musician at work.

According to his own words, Dr. John leaves behind “a lot of children”. My condoleances go out to them. What he also left behind is an impressive body of work that deserves to be celebrated.

Album of the Week 20-2019: Amorphis – Elegy


Perfection is hard to come by in music. More often than not, I refer to a certain aspect of an album being as close to perfection as it gets. In case of Amorphis’ third album ‘Elegy’, its atmosphere is just about as perfect as it gets. ‘Elegy’ was the second album on which Amorphis showed a massive stylistic change and it would not be the last, but it does say something that the signature sound they currently have is not too far removed from what can be heard on ‘Elegy’. It is simply an excellent work of melancholic Finnish metal.

In a way, it is odd that ‘Elegy’ is my favorite Amorphis album, as the band would become much better later on. Current singer Tomi Joutsen is vastly superior to both the throaty grunts of rhythm guitarist Tomi Koivusaari and the Hetfield-esque cleans of Pasi Koskinen, Santeri Kallio has a significantly more melodic style than ‘Elegy’ keyboard player Kim Rantala… Basically the only band member who is already close to the massive heights he would soon reach is lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, one of the most tasteful guitarists in rock and metal. And yet, everything on ‘Elegy’ is as it should be.

First off, the lack of vocal prowess does not hurt the music at all. Koskinen is the right fit for the melancholy expressed in the lyrics – all English translations of the poems in the ‘Kanteletar’, a collection of traditional Finnish songs and poems – and Koivusaari is buried in the mix. Besides, if I had to estimate, less than 25 percent of the album actually has vocals. ‘Elegy’ is the record that most clearly displays the influence that their fellow countrymen Kingston Wall had on Amorphis: it’s extremely jam-heavy, giving Holopainen plenty of room to excel, and the band opts to let the ideas unfold slowly rather than cramming their songs full of them.

Additionally, the eastern mysticism in Kingston Wall’s music is prominent on some of the Holopainen-penned songs, the incredible opener ‘Better Unborn’ in particular. That song deserves an award anyway. It’s easy to come up with something self-pitying for that set of lyrics, but Amorphis made something extremely powerful out of it, kind of like a Scandinavian metal interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s later works. ‘Song Of The Troubled One’ has a similar vibe, though notably more northern European. The twin guitar harmony laden ‘Against Widows’ is more propulsive, as is ‘On Rich And Poor’, which contains some incredible rhythm guitar work. The surprisingly good instrumental ‘Relief’ brings all the elements together.

Even when the band adopts a more laid-back approach, it sounds amazing. The climactic title track and the unbelievably gorgeous album highlight ‘My Kantele’ have some prominent Pink Floyd-isms, albeit with much more powerful rhythm guitar work. But really, only those who prefer Amorphis as a full-on death metal band might not find anything to like on ‘Elegy’, but I sincerely doubt if they ever were. The consistently melancholic tone is what largely makes ‘Elegy’ so amazing, but the unusually large amount of jamming helps too, plus the fact that Holopainen and Koivusaari hardly ever play in unison. A fairly unique album, even within Amorphis’ discography, that still sounds as fresh today as when I first heard it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Better Unborn’, ‘My Kantele’, ‘On Rich And Poor’, ‘Relief’

Album of the Week 19-2019: Rammstein – Reise, Reise


Rammstein is probably the most popular rock band that doesn’t sing in English. And yet, they are also one of the most misunderstood bands in the world. Not alone is the at times hilarious word play in their lyrics lost on people who don’t speak German, but their music is also often perceived as much more aggressive than it actually is. Sure, subtlety was never the band’s strongest feat – something which is even more evident in their massive live shows – but albums like ‘Reise, Reise’ should not be taken at face value. There is more to this record than one might first assume.

In a way, ‘Reise, Reise’ is a logical follow-up to the band’s definitive international breakthrough album ‘Mutter’, which saw the band improving their arrangements significantly. There is still very little complexity in Rammstein’s songwriting, as two or three riffs are the norm for the band, but the productions and orchestrations became notably more sophisticated on those records. In addition, Till Lindemann’s voice really came into its own on ‘Mutter’, and his operatic vocals in particular. These are featured prominently alongside his rawer performances on ‘Reise, Reise’. Put those two together and you end up with a brutally effective album.

Also not unlike ‘Mutter’ is the fact that Rammstein kicks off ‘Reise, Reise’ with a relatively adventurous track in the shape of its title track. The riffs are massive, the chorus larger than live and the nautical theme of the song is captured perfectly by the almost symphonic quality of the arrangement. The fact that I love how the accordion, an instrument I hate with every fiber of my being, is incorporated into the apotheosis says enough. ‘Morgenstern’ employs a similar sound with a particularly dramatic chorus and some delightfully aggressive start-stop riffing, while the brilliantly constructed and particularly intense ‘Keine Lust’ is probably my favorite single of the band to date.

That may just be why ‘Reise, Reise’ is my favorite Rammstein album. It is not radically different from earlier work, the highlights are just a tad better than on every album. Especially ‘Dalai Lama’, which is probably their most flawlessly crafted song to date. The modern interpretation of Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’ is perfectly expressed by Lindemann’s vocal delivery and Christian ‘Flake’ Lorenz’ keyboards form a perfect melodic contrast with the palm muted precision of guitarists Richard Z. Kruspe and Paul Landers. ‘Amour’ and especially ‘Ohne Dich’ are the band’s first successful attempts at honest power ballads, which makes them the perfect follow-ups to the gruesome moodswings of the excellent ‘Stein Um Stein’.

Sure, ‘Reise, Reise’ is full of simple, metallic downtuned guitar riffs and Christoph Schneider’s at times drum computer-like rhythms never go overboard on tempo and virtuosity, but the music is very clevery and carefully crafted. That was always what lifted Rammstein above their followers in the Neue Deutsche Härte scene and other types of industrial rock music. They have always made their own rules as they went along. How else could you explain something like ‘Los’, which sounds as heavy as the average Rammstein song, only acoustically? ‘Reise, Reise’ is equal amounts recognizable and experimental, which is better than what most successful bands can hope for.

Recommended tracks: ‘Dalai Lama’, ‘Keine Lust’, ‘Morgenstern’, ‘Reise, Reise’

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