Classic Rock Review

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Led Zeppelin Raid Over Brussels (June 1980)

zeppelin_brusselsFrom collectorsmusicreviews.com

Voorst National, Brussels, Belgium – June 20th, 1980

Disc 1 (58:39): Train Kept A Rollin’, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Black Dog, In The Evening, The Rain Song, Hot Dog, All My Love, Trampled Underfoot, Since I’ve Been Loving You

Disc 2 (61:54): Achillies Last Stand, White Summer/Black Mountain Side, Kashmir, Stairway To Heaven, Rock And Roll, Whole Lotta Love

The fourth release on this young label is the audience recording from the June 20th, 1980 show in Brussels.

It is the same tape sourced used on the Electric Magic four disc release and the recently issued Brussels Audience on Tarantura. It contains the same amount of cuts and sounds very good. It is slightly softer sounding than Tarantura because it hasn’t been remastered and is a fine release.

The choice between the two is dependent upon budget and one’s love of packaging. Brussels Audience is nicely package while Raid Over Brussels on TCOLZ comes in a double slimline jewel case with simple artwork. The front insert does open up to reveal a photo from the show and concert recollections of an attendee downloaded from the Led Zeppelin official website:

“I feel so lucky to have gotten to see Led Zeppelin at this concert. The highlights for me included Kashmir, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Achilles Last Stand, and Trampled Under Foot. Other memorable aspects of the show: a lot of pushing in the crowd, prompting Robert Plant to say something like, ‘Our intention this evening is to have a good time … so please, no pushing.’ John Paul Jones sported a close-cropped hairdo and looked studly.

Page sat down and spoke a bit of French to introduce the Rain Song (‘il s’appelle… il s’appelle… Rain Song!’). The concert was supposed to be June 5, and I and my friends got our tickets, only to find the show was postponed. We were able to exchange tickets at the same vendor, but it made us all feel even more doubtful that the dream of seeing them would come true. But it did.”

Led Zeppelin collectors generally consider their final tour to be their worst and few of the shows enter the canon of noteworthy performances. While there is some truth to this assertion, there is much to admire. Overall it represented an act of courage for the band. Courage, as defined by theologian Paul Tillich, is the assertion of one’s self in the threat of non-being. With shifting musical tastes and expectations and personal misfortunes of individual band members, it would have been tempting to not exert effort and end the band.

However these shows are a remarkable resurrection by a band who always looked forward and attempted to further develop and define their sound. There are some failures in their effort, such as the disjointed and meandering “White Summer” and their continuing infatuation with “Hot Dog” from In Through The Out Door.

But there were some successes as well, such as the elimination of the long virtuoso solos, varied interpretations of “Whole Lotta Love,” the move to make “Trampled Under Foot” into the centerpiece of the set, and the expanded solos in “Stairway To Heaven.” Following these recordings is like sitting in on a long rehearsal, eavesdropping in on the band attempting to find what is working and what is not.

It is interesting also to hear what might be nascent germs of creativity that would have propelled them into the eighties. Although Led Zeppelin were not the same band they were a decade before, hearing them try to discover the limits of their abilities and creativity is just as exciting as hearing the initial burst of energy on their early tours.

All of the documents from this tour are valuable for these reasons and are worth investigation.

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June 23, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Raid Over Brussels | , | Leave a comment

Yes The Ladder (1999)

Roger-Dean-1999-Yes-The-LadderFrom starling.rinet.ru

Finally! The good balance between the pop and the prog has been found… or has it?

I’m in a good mood today, so that is probably why this album does not offend me in the least.

Actually, at some point I almost ended up giving it an eight, but that would probably cause too much friction between me and ‘classic Yes’ fans, so no way. Anyway, the songs may be good, but really few of them are memorable, so I guess a seven will do for it quite fine.

The Yessers didn’t really like the final results of Open Your Eyes (neither did I, so we’re pals), so they re-worked their sounds once again, adding Igor Khoroshev on keyboards as a regular member and moving Billy Sherwood on to second guitar, and came out with an album that’s loads more fun and enjoyable than its predecessor. Now I may be on my own here, as I haven’t yet seen even a vaguely positive review of Ladder; and it’s more or less explainable.

The sound is much more simple and straightforward than on OYE or any ‘classic’ releases; while it’s still quite far away from your average modern pop ditty, most of the melodies aren’t convoluted or cunningly twisted at all. If anything, Yes sound pretty normal – do not be fooled by the pretentious Roger Dean cover, this sure ain’t no Tales From Topographic Ocean.

But you know, I have always loved Yes when they were pretty normal. To me, it always seemed like they were the kind of a band that was always intentionally moving away from what they deemed as ‘conventional’ songwriting, but their few attempts at ‘conventional’ songwriting, amazingly enough, always worked – ‘Time And A Word’, ‘Going For The One’, ‘Wonderous Stories’, all that crap, I actually loved it. It’s only when they added the Eighties’ cheesiness to the ‘conventional’ sound, resulting in Rabin-style garbage, that I began, sorta, you know, waxing nostalgic about eighteen minute long tracks… But Ladder certainly has none of the Eighties’ cheesiness.

It isn’t, in fact, even particularly keyboard-oriented: the sound is dominated by the guitars (although Howe still is nowhere near his best). Jon shows that his voice is still ‘great’, having lost none of its range or power; and, since the lyrics are more or less decent, I can certainly tolerate his singing more on this one than on Close To The Edge. But the biggest surprise, yeah, the biggest and by far the most pleasant one, is the return of Chris Squire.

Yes, you heard right: Chris is back! The bass work on this album is awesome, his best in at least twenty years and maybe more. Check any randomly selected track and you’ll see it for yourself; I would primarily suggest the mad pulsation of ‘Face To Face’ and the awesome funky riff of ‘The Messenger’. The bass alone pumps up the rating of this album a couple of points, I say.
Of course, if the aim was, once again, to emulate the Yes of old, it’s another failure. But somehow it seems to me that the guys really tried to go for something different. And do not forget, that, after all, it is Ladder, not OYE or the studio tracks off Keys To Ascension, that marks the radical departure from the Eighties – early Nineties style. If you’re looking for booming electronic drums, hi-tech synths or metallized generic guitar riffs (although why in the world you should ever look for these just baffles me), go somewhere else, please.

This one’s a surprisingly mellow album, and not at all rooted in the Nineties. Well, perhaps it is; the pathetic, echoey balladeering of ‘If Only You Knew’ or the slickly produced Latin rhythms of ‘Lightning Strikes’ do reek of the Nineties, indeed. But not in a bad way. And most of these songs cook – they’re quite enjoyable while they’re on. I still can’t remember even a single melody, of course (apparently, three times is not quite enough for such an album), but while they’re on, I remember really getting my kicks out of ’em. There’s also a couple of longish, nine-minute tracks, and the second one of them, ‘New Language’, ain’t that attractive, but ‘Homeworld’ is a great tune – built on a solid, stable dance-style melody and leading us through several complex, not uninteresting instrumental passages before dissolving in a charming little piano coda.

Truthfully, there’s little to complain about here. Even the ridiculous little ‘Fragile tribute’, ‘Can I?’, which recreates the innocent fun of ‘We Have Heaven’, has its merits. Apart from a general, not to say generic, feel of Yes-induced boredom that can’t help but grab me towards the end, I have no complaints. The songs jump, bounce, pulsate, vibrate, they’re quite lively and energetic and the band members don’t sound washed up at all. I feel a bit sad about Steve Howe, though: his presence is indeed marked by several stupendous guitar passages on some of the tracks, but overall, he still does not show up for the guitar god he is (or was? I’m starting to doubt his talents already).

Maybe this, in fact, is why people are sometimes so disappointed about latter days Yes releases: it’s not the dance beats or the straightforward melodies, it’s the lack of fascinating guitarwork. But I guess we’ll just have to take it as it is. In the meantime, just buy this album; this might well be a stable formula to which Yes will stick for a few more years now, if, of course, they don’t shift their line-ups once more. Which wouldn’t be at all surprising. And where the hell is Wakeman, by the way

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Yes The Ladder | | Leave a comment

Yes Union (1991)

UnionFrom starling.rinet.ru

This is actually two bands – the much hyped Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, and the latter days Rabin-led ‘Yes’ (yeah, really) including Rabin himself, Kaye, Squire and White.

For several years these two organizations had been trying to push each other out of the market but finally, seeing as how the market wasn’t really that much impressed with any of them, decided to join forces in desperate hope that this would be (a) successful artistically and (b) successful commercially. Well, it wasn’t. Instead, what they managed to do was to churn out an ultra-long album (well, what can be expected when you have two bands recording at the same time?) chock-full of self-rip-offs.

Approximately half of this stuff is ripped off from 90125/Big Generator, and the other half is ripped off from their mid-Seventies stuff (Going For The One or, well, Tormato type). The actual quality of the songs depends on the degree of accuracy in ripping off and nothing else.

To be honest, I must admit that they do succeed in that respect: few of the songs sound really horrendous (except maybe for the generic people-loving anthem ‘Saving My Heart’ that sounds fit for something Phil Collins might have written for a beer-loving society and the ridiculous heavy-metal-riff-meets-multitracked-screeching mockery of ‘Dangerous’). It’s not a case of an album which makes you draw back in disgust on first listen; rather, it’s just an album that strikes you as having A LOT of things going on in it and yet, amazingly, never achieving anything.

Of course, keep in mind that these bileful words come from a person who was never truly overwhelmed by Close To The Edge either – if that was the case, how can I NOT slam this record, when even most Yes fans tend to treat it sceptically? See, these songs are worked over, that’s for sure. Need some proof? Take a listen to the vocal harmonies – the way Anderson and company overdub these layers of chorale chants and triple, quadruple contrastive layers in each speaker.

See the song structures: they mostly evade lengthy epics, but even so, the melodies switch around pretty often and draw on all sources, from metal to New Wave to classic prog to gospel. But that doesn’t help the matters not a single bit – the songs just aren’t catchy enough, and it goes without saying they virtually add nothing to the Yes legacy and do indeed sound like a Yes parody in many cases.

Let’s see: the opening track, ‘I Would Have Faited Forever’, again sung by Jon in his cherished ‘Time And A Word’ style, almost manages to deceive you into thinking this might be a good one. It has all the formal traces of a classic Yes composition, such as the length (circa 6:30), optimistic robotic vocals, multiple sections and instrumental passages, etc., etc. The only thing it does not have is sparring guitarwork, blistering keyboard work or impressive drumming, but I guess that goes without saying.

Somehow I just don’t get to feel the presence of either Wakeman, Howe or Bruford on this album. On the other hand, the modernistic synths of Kaye, metallic riffs of Rabin and booming simplified drums of White are all over the tracks. Yup, there is a pretty little solo acoustic Howe spot (‘Masquerade’), but that’s about it.

The rest of the tracks can be separated into the Heavy Metal part and the Progressive Gospel part. The first one is totally worthless: apart from the already mentioned ‘Dangerous’ (the truly low point), its representatives are not really appalling but it’s certainly not the kind of music you’d be impressed with if you happen to know at least a couple of things about earlier Yes. Of course, if you’ve already heard Big Generator, you shouldn’t even bother. ‘Shock To The System’, eh? Hardly. Spare me generic Eighties hair-metal riffs, please.

The Progressive Gospel part does have its moments (personally I don’t have anything against the cute ‘Take The Water To The Mountain’ and ‘Lift Me Up’), but in the long run it just looks dull. Anyway, what the hell am I supposed to do with a Yes number that is neither emotional nor professional nor original? Of course, I don’t count the Kambodian text declamation in ‘Angkor Wat’ as ‘original’: it’s stupid and gimmicky. Nah. Funny, I can almost see them struggle and wriggle all over this record, trying in desperation to emulate their formula – in vain.

What’s even more pitiful is that none of them were really washed up – every now and then there’s a momentary blink of past glories going through our ears, but they never even try to solidify that moment. The main reason, of course, is that this is not really a return to the old formula – it’s a lame attempt at inserting selected elements of the old formula into the new Eighties/Nineties style of 90125-Yes. Without blistering guitar solos. Without inspired instrumentation. Without true inspiration. I mean, if they didn’t fire Rabin and Kaye that meant they weren’t really inspired.

And to think that this album has the best cover since Drama! Is this some kind of hand of fate or what?

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Yes Union | | Leave a comment

Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe (1989)

cover_734015102008From starling.rinet.ru

Gee. Turns out that legally, Yes was Chris Squire’s band after all. So when Anderson and Howe finally had enough of Trevor Rabin and his tendency to metallize Yes, on one hand, and move it into the mainstream, on the other hand, and they decided to part company, it became obvious that they just couldn’t keep the name, no matter how they wanted it, and ol’ butthead Squire was much too picky at them, not to mention he just probably wanted to keep the cash flowing. (Or maybe he really thought that Yes = Chris Squire? No, but seriously, did he really think THAT?).

As a delicate move of revenge, the guys re-teamed up with Rick Wakeman, who’s probably had enough of his blubby solo career as well (not to mention that Rick had a nasty tendency of putting out new solo albums faster than anybody could buy them), and were even lucky to have a go at Bill Bruford, and formed their own, ‘local’ version of Yes – even if they somehow totally lacked imagination to come up with a new name for the band.

Come to think of it, though, the guys badly needed marketing, and what’s a poor boy (hell, four poor boys) gotta do if they want their public to take their output as a standard Yes album in its own rights but lack the rights to put the word ‘Yes’ on the cover? Well, here’s a good recipe, then: 1) you put the words ‘Anderson Bruford Wakeman & Howe’ in large letters on the cover; 2) you make sure Roger Dean painted it, so that nobody will confuse it with the Big Generator stuff; 3) finally, if that wasn’t enough, you put up a sticker that says ‘From The Men That Brought You Close To The Edge’. And voilà! The nearest thing to a Yes album! And how cleverly masked, too! The old time fans must have been jumping on the spot…

Oh, sorry. I forgot Important Element Number Four. Which is: make the music sound much, much more close to ‘classic Yes’ than it ever sounded since 1977. As you might easily guess, this is the hardest task to accomplish. The problem is that none of the band really wanted, or needed to make an exact replica of Close To The Edge, so as not to seem too repetitive, derivative, whatever, and they updated their sound with ultra-modern technologies. That’s not to say that this particular album sounds just as fake or sterile as Big Generator. Actually, it sounds a lot better! The crappy metallic riffs are simply not there, to make your ears bleed, and there are no stupid dance rhythms meshed in – apart from the real disaster which is the seven-minute ‘Teakbois’ that incorporates… er… African rhythms… African rhythms??… … … … !!!!! …. !!!! ….. African rhithms for Yes? Get me the valium right now!

Oh, the other stuff is not that bad. Steve Howe plays some nice acoustic runs from time to time, and Wakeman just sits around and dabbles in his synths that are modernized, for sure, but they still sound moody and all. A bit worse than on the ‘real good stuff’, of course, but sure a little better than on Tormato. The bass duties are handled by Bruford’s old ex-King Crimson colleague Tony Levin, but I never really caught these basslines, and he never gets a serious chance to shine.

The big problem concerns the drumming: I’m perfectly sure that some of the stuff that’s bashing on here is not drum machines – as far as I know, Bruford is a real pro on electronically enhanced drums, but I’m also perfectly sure that my musical knowledge simply does not permit me to tell drum machines from real drumming here, and anyway, Bruford’s drumming on Eighties’ King Crimson records was tons more impressive. There, he sounded like a real innovative guy who could easily lock the public’s attention onto himself; here, he just bashes around until at times he becomes almost annoying.

The biggest problem, however, concerns the songwriting. Like I said, the band decided to sound more like the Yes of old, and in order to do that, they return to the ‘huge format’: four of the songs presented are multi-part suites, and only three of nine tracks end under five minutes. Out of these, the closing ‘Let’s Pretend’ is a gentle, melodic ballad that almost smells of the young and innocent hippie days of ‘Time And A Word’ (more probably, of the witty recreation of the hippie vibe on ‘Wond’rous Stories’); ‘Fist Of Fire’ rocks more in the vein of the Rabin-dominated Yes, but is still passable, maybe due to some particularly impressive synth bursts from Wakeman; and ‘The Meeting’ is passable, even if pretty and gentle.

Finally, repeated listenings have brought out the concealed charms of ‘Birthright’, in which Anderson states his case against the evil British Empire making nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean and failing to contact all the aborigines. ‘This place ain’t big enough for the stars ands stripes’, in particular, strikes me as an excellently placed line.

But most of the ‘suites’ are simply boring. Oh, I mean, they serve you well as mood music, but melodies? Where are they? No strong melodies to speak of at all, if you ask me. Do I like something about them? Well, I like the way ‘Themes’ start, with those pretty little tinglings, and ‘I Wanna Learn’ from ‘Quartet’ is quite nice, with a magnificent Steve Howe acoustic part. However, ‘Order Of The Universe’ is pompous, tedious and banal, and anyway, please be on your guard when you have to deal with Yes song titles with the word ‘universe’ in them, especially if they date from the Eighties.

Sounds more like late Genesis, if you really need my opinion (which I doubt). And even the ‘good’ beginnings lead nowhere in the end. Anyway, I’m not really complaining; it’s just that I had my doubts about the actual meaningfulness and enjoyability of overblown Yes epics from the very beginning, and it would be strange if I changed it towards the end, right? It’s a pretty decent album in all, much better than one could have expected.

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Anderson Bruford Wakeman & Howe | , | Leave a comment

Jethro Tull Aqualung (1971)

aqualung-front1From starling.rinet.ru

American audiences needn’t be introduced to this album – as far as I know, lots of its songs are constantly recycled on the radio, and overall, if Jethro Tull are to be associated with anything by anybody, it’s probably the menacing heavy riff which opens the title track.

The biggest ever commercial whopper for Tull, it is that good indeed – even though the same American audiences were slow on the move to really appreciate Stand Up. Anyway, for aspeaking out loud, it’s tons better than Benefit, and a true all-time classic. I may easily say that there’s not a single bad song on the album – for the very last time in the entire Tull career (barring the one song albums, of course, one of which is all good and the other… ahem… well, read on, oh gentle listener).

Maybe it has something to do with a radical change in line-up – this is where both John Evan and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond stand up to the blackboard (well, Evan did play some keybs on Benefit, but that doesn’t count – he wasn’t even a legitimate band member). Maybe Anderson was desperately looking for FM radio hits. Maybe he just had a good day. I don’t know. What I know is that this is the last Tull record which is listenable at first listen and memorable at first memory (forgive me my silly analogies).

Actually, it is something of a bridge between the lovely early blues-psycho days and the later murky overblown pompous fantasy days. This is the first of Anderson’s multiple concept albums, but the concept is still rather just a basis for the songs than vice versa. The plot is as follows: Man created God and God created Aqualungs. Or was it the opposite? Oh, never mind. It’s all written in a parody on John’s Gospel placed on the album cover.

In other words, it’s a stupid, self-indulgent concept that bashes organized religion and sometimes borders on bashing the very essence of religion – especially on tracks like ‘My God’, although Anderson always takes care so as not to cross the thin borderline completely. That’s not to say that the lyrics are bad: the underlying ideas and principles are very simple, but this is Anderson at his most poetic and involving, and his imagery has never been stronger, considering that on here he’s still able to uphold the balance between form and content – since Thick As A Brick and particularly later on, his lyrics would go off the deep end completely.

Let us not forget the immaculate melodies, though. The radio classics include the multi-part title track, highlighted by the above-mentioned cool riff, very expressive singing that ranges from a special Anderson-style ‘vomit-inducing sneer’ to passionate and heartfelt, and a mad, ecstatic, rise-to-a-shattering-climax guitar solo courtesy of Martin Barre; ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ with its gorgeous crescendo in the flute-dominated introduction and Anderson’s bitter condemnation of the middle class society; and especially my favourite – the bad luck anthem ‘Locomotive Breath’.

Have you ever heard a riff imitating the slow progress of a train? Then you haven’t heard ‘Locomotive Breath’, a song perfect from the first notes of the John Evan Bach-imitating piano introduction to the majestic fade out with Ian singing that ‘there’s no way to slow down’. If it ain’t my favourite song by Jethro Tull, that’s just because it isn’t on my turntable at the present moment. Yes, I admit it’s rather naive for a person who’s gone through the entire Tull catalog to announce that his favourite song by the band is the one radio standard that’s most popular among the beer-drinkin’ crowds, but what can I do if the song’s pure and clear genius? Forgive me, lovers of Tull. At least I don’t abuse beer.

But even if you don’t hear the other tracks on the radio every five minutes, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth of radioplay. ‘Hymn 43’ may not be great, but, once again, the riff is an absolute classic (and this is where you’ll find the famous line about how ‘if Jesus saves, he’d better save himself…’, so much hated by orthodoxal church abiders who intentionally neglect that the second half of the phrase goes ‘…from the gory glory seekers who use his name in death’). Barre and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond chug along on the track like mad, transforming it into a true hard rock masterpiece.

The plaintive, desperate ‘Up To Me’ is based on a cool repetitive flute line, ‘Mother Goose’ is just a funny tune (having nothing to do with the notorious rhymes), and the lengthiest track on here – the conceptual climax of ‘My God’ – also manages to keep the listener’s attention, going off from rifffests onto bits of Bach onto bits of Russian folk music (not that Anderson knew very well how to handle Russian folk music, but at least he made an entertaining try). Plus there are several short acoustic links which all the Tull-haters try to accentuate by saying all kinds of things about how they suck and so on, but I personally don’t see any trouble with them: Anderson is a decent classical guitar player, and anyway all the three are shorter than two minutes. No need to worry, Tull-haters!

‘Wind-Up’ is the only song I could live without on here, but maybe it’s just because it’s placed at the end. I’ve always thought that the best songs on any album should be placed in the beginning (so as not to let down the listener from the very start) and in the end (so as not to leave the feeling of being bored and deceived). As you see, Ian rarely fulfills the second part of the statement. But it’s not bad either way.

It’s still a little bit weaker than Stand Up, in my opinion, which is why the rating is a wee bit lower; the acoustic links and ‘Wind-Up’ and some instrumental bits on ‘My God’ and… well, little nasty tidbits now and there, couldn’t really grab ’em by the scruff o’ the neck cause they’re so tiny. But “near-immaculate classic” would be a suitable definition, too, and an album where many of the more reserved Tull lovers set a fat point. However, with all due respect, we’ll try and go dig a little deeper to see that Anderson’s talents were not yet exhausted. By no means no.

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Jethro Tull Aqualung | | Leave a comment

Ronnie Wood Slide On This (1992)

51p1K9qpCHLFrom starling.rinet.ru

While Ronnie did have a more or less independent solo career, unlike Keith Richards or Mick Jagger whose solo careers were rather, er, rudimentary and always reeked of the true Stones’ spirit, it wasn’t until Slide On This that he fully demonstrated all his possibilities: he grew up, oldened and wisened, burned out and came back, and delivered a set of songs which should definitely rank among his best. In fact, while I haven’t yet heard any previous albums of his, I’d be amazed if any of them turned out to be better.

On a normal, ‘technical’ level, there ain’t really nothing special about Slide On This. What Ronnie does is basically write up a series of simplistic R’n’B melodies and cover some older standards, and that’s about it. There’s nothing ground breaking or particularly interesting about this kind of music in 1992, unless, of course, you want to count such gimmicks as string arrangements sometimes overdubbed over plain rock’n’roll numbers innovative. And thus, when I first listened to the record, I couldn’t help but feel bored: after all, why not put on Voodoo Lounge instead?

Nay, friends and countrymen. I was wrong. Remember, always remember that Ronnie Wood is not just a second-rate Rolling Stone; Ronnie is just as well a first-rate Face. And the Faces always had that magical power to charm you with their restless energy, booze and grittiness even when the actual melodies were non-existent. Well, now that Ronnie Lane is gone and Rod Stewart is mutated, Ronnie Wood carries on the legacy. And thus, when I listened to the record for the second time, I couldn’t help but feel totally enthralled. To hell with Voodoo Lounge; in places, the ferocious rock’n’roll of Slide On This makes the Nineties’ Stones sound like pathetic wimps, much like Rod Stewart himself.

Only in places, though. I do hold a couple of grudges against Ronnie. First of all, he’s a nearly worthless balladeer. Okay, I know fans will flame me for this, just like they would flame me for my disliking Keith Richards’ ballads. But what’s to be done? I simply don’t like sloppy, overlong stream-of-conscience ballads with a primitive structure, sung in a shaky, ‘passionate’ voice. I know they’re heartfelt, sincere, from the very soul blah blah blah and so on and so forth, but, after all, we all have hearts and souls and sincerity. Gimme some musical ideas in addition, and then we’ll start talking. Until then, I’ll openly state that I don’t give a damn about the ballads on here.

‘Always Wanted More’ passes me by like a fly with a muffler, in particular, and “Thinkin'”, while a bit more powerful and hard-hittin’, is still not among the highlights. And ‘Breathe On Me’, the track that closes the album just annoys me: the melody is simple as a doornail, and Ronnie’s duet with Bernard Fowler is unimpressive. For some reason, I also detest the lyrics in the chorus – ‘Open your mouth and breathe on me/I need your Sen Siti Vity’. There’s no question, of course, that the song would make a great anthem for DUI-checking cops, but as a passionate ballad, it doesn’t exactly fit in. And it gets so repetitive near the end that I can hardly wait for it to end.

Fortunately, Ronnie seemed to realize it himself. Out of the thirteen album tracks, there are but the above-mentioned three that are ballads. A fourth one is a short sympathetic country instrumental (‘Ragtime Annie’), and all the rest are rockers. And this is where the fun begins. Ronnie’s harsh, hoarse, but finally well-trained voice is put to perfect use, as it’s less pretentious and a bit more ‘user-friendly’ than Jagger’s: when you hear it, you know you’re in for a good rock’n’roll party time. His guitar plaing is unparalleled: he lets loose with such a tremendous force that it really gives the impression he’d always been muffled by Keith as a Stone.

All kinds of guitar sounds are on here, from wah-wah to slide, and they’re awesomely produced: virtually no traces of the dratted Nineties’ computer-ish sound at all. The instrumentation, in fact, is the major advantage of the album: even if you don’t like some of the melodies (which is easy to do, as many of them sound alike), just dig in to that guitar sound! It ain’t innovative, right, but it sounds a million times more fresh, clear and crisp than all that electronic crap we’re so used to nowadays. Sometimes Ronnie is joined by guests, too, notably The Edge of U2 fame, and together they make hell freeze over with the unbelievable guitar poliphony on ‘Like It’. Basically, the fury of that number is due to a very simple trick: overdubbing of four or five lead guitars soloing like mad, but has anybody really thought of it before? Well, I have never heard anything like that. Pity they didn’t extend that jam at the end, I thought I was going to rock’n’roll heaven.

Other wonders on here include a flabbergastingly wonderful cover of Parliament’s ‘Testify’ – never has a simple R’n’B number been so magically effective on your brains. Sure it’s monotonous as hell, too (everything on here is monotonous, with refrains being repeated over and over a hundred times – it’s simply a part of Ronnie’s whole schtick), but I could care less, what with that beautiful ringin’ guitar sound in my right speaker and the endless squeak-squeak-squeak of more guitars taking turns to come out of both speakers. ‘I wanna testify what your love has done to me’.

I’d like to testify, too. Then there’s ‘Ain’t Rock And Roll’, a surprisingly gloomy rocker where Ronnie complains about how ‘this life is good, but it ain’t rock’n’roll’, with spooky wah-wahs poking out at you from every corner. ‘Josephine’ is so straightforward and dumb, it can’t be anything but genius, and ‘Knock Yer Teeth Out’ is surprisingly aggressive: I sometimes feel uncomfortable while listening to it, since hearing the refrain ‘I’m gonna knock your teeth out I’m gonna knock your teeth out I’m gonna knock your teeth out one by one’ gives me a toothache. Needless to say, the song is great, just like every other rocker on this record.

I suppose I also have to mention the rhythm section – Doug Wimbish plays some impressive bass lines, and the drums are for the most part handled by Charlie Watts who also highly contributes to the addictiveness of the sound with his trademark steady, unerring, minimalistic beat. By gum, the old chap is getting better and better with every year, like fine wine.

I also suppose I should stop this review here and now, as there’s really little else to say about these songs except they’re all oh so exciting bar the ballads. So far, it’s my best bet for a ‘pure rock’n’roll’ record to come out of the Nineties; the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge comes close, of course, but Slide On This is tons more sincere and, above all, it ain’t product, unlike the kind of stuff the Stones are currently putting out.

It’s fun to know somebody’s actually still doing some good old rock’n’roll on this planet and not giving a damn about anything else.

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Ronnie Wood Slide On This | | Leave a comment

Return To Forever Romantic Warrior (1975)

MI0002108979From amazon.com

Along with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever were one of the few major jazz-fusion/rock bands to gain popularity, and bring jazz to a wider audience, albeit in a rock context. These fusion bands generally created a more accessible form of jazz: by filtering it through large doses of the aforementioned rock aesthetic.

While this album has received everlasting praise from critics and fans alike, I was quite disappointed with this on the first few listens. The turn-offs at the time? The slickness of it all. While I found the musicianship quite accomplished, I found it to be quite cold, dry, over-manufactured and plastic-sounding, which gave me a feeling of the music coming off as quite soulless.

The synthesizer effects in many of the songs sounded flavourless and insubstantial, and the drum sonics sounded quite dry and plastic as well. As far as synthesizers go, I’ll be the first to disagree with the many who say that they produce little or no emotional substance, but here, this was the first time I was ever compelled to agree with the many detractors.

Most importantly, I was disappointed in this because everything mentioned above that bothered me seemed to be the very things that go against what I assumed are/were the very principles of jazz and/or jazz-fusion; the music needs feeling, it needs soul, it needs fire, it needs purposeful, authentic expression. A highly respected friend and pal of mine — if he reads this review, he will know exactly who he is — doesn’t enjoy this album for the exact reasons listed above, and it’s safe to say that I fully understand why. Only difference between us regarding our opinion of the album? He still doesn’t enjoy the album, while my opinion has changed, and I now enjoy it.

One thing I like to think that I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t always place expectations on what should be, and what shouldn’t. If you place a great deal of expectation on things, you are more than likely setting yourself up for disappointment. Sometimes it’s best to leave your preconceptions and expectations behind, and be prepared for anything.

Now, shouldn’t I be trying to describe the music on here? Yes! That’s right!

Musicians Chick Corea (keyboards), Al DiMeola (guitars), Lenny White (drums) and Stanley Clarke (basses) create some highly enjoyable, utterly infectious music, which is also quite fun to listen to as well. The music still has a certain slickness to it, but this one-time aggravating aspect has dissolved into an indescribable charm, albeit a quirky one.

“Medieval Overture” starts off with some twinkling synthesizer taps, which combine with other synth textures to create an ethereal, spiralling, and seemingly labyrinthine atmosphere. It propels forth an ambience: at once encircling, while penetrating the mind; in both peripheral and primal areas. Lenny White in particular shows off his flamboyant drumming, and you get the sense that Lenny was quite a flamboyant character when listening to this.

The title of this song resembles that of a classic progressive rock track, and while many mention that this offering shares much in common with bands like Yes, ELP and King Crimson — and in some ways, it does — it doesn’t necessarily sound too much like either of those bands to me, nor does it sound much like prog-rock in general.

“Sorceress” is a funkified jam written by drummer Lenny White. It doesn’t mix things up too much in the rhythm for the duration of the track, which is sometimes frustrating. This bothered me on the first few listens, but, now, I’ve come to appreciate the extended grooves. The jazzy piano chords, and their elegant-sounding arpeggios, the multi-dimensional bass lines, and the drumming; particularly in the way the cymbals are used here. Utterly romantic and sensual.

The title track shares a kinship with the previous track; in the sense that the rhythm stays pretty much the same throughout. Mid-tempo and relatively relaxed, the seemingly straightforward rhythm kept by Lenny White on the drums is something of a container for the other musicians to exhibit their respective strengths: Al Di Meola gives us some lightning-fast, yet polished and seemingly effortless soloing, Chick Corea gives us elaborate, yet restrained and atmospheric sprinkles of piano, and Clarke, as usual delivers some impressive bass lines.

“Majestic Dance” is the closest thing to a typical hard rock song on this album – excepting the quirky, virtuosic instrumental passages played in unison. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, since it was written by guitarist Al Di Meola. Features melodic, yet fiery solos, and virtuosic flights between guitars, bass and keys that are very precise and impressive.

“The Magician” is my favourite track on here. This track features elements that resemble prog-rock more closely than any other track on the album. Written by Stanley Clarke, the dynamics and motifs are quite mercurial and chameleonic; even including Renaissance and Baroque elements (which resemble Gentle Giant a bit.) A quirky mixture of impressive virtuosic flights (the bass playing on here impresses me the most), utter bombast, and whimsy: there’s even the sound of an alarm clock going off to close out the song, which is credited under one of Lenny White’s instrumental contributions.

“Duel of The Jester and The Tyrant” may run in a close second to the previous track in resembling the attributes of classic *prog* rock. The first part features chord phrasing which impressed me highly, and the virtuosic bass lines from Clarke are what I soak up the most here. The second half is probably my favourite part of the track: features a main descending line which exhibits galactic, skyscraping bombast which perfectly evokes the image of an arena battle, so to speak. The synthesizer lines in particular, take this image even further, to evoke that of a video game.

Give this one a shot if you have any interest in fusion. Skilled musicianship combines with accessibility, infectiousness and quirkiness. Sounds like a great combination to me.

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Return To Forever Romantic Warrior | | Leave a comment

Al Di Meola Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody (2011)

MI0003114572From amazon.com

When I saw them in concert a couple of years ago, Di Meola’s current band struck me as being between several stools. Accordion + loud electric guitar? Heavy drums + no bass or keyboards? It was a strange sound & combination, and I felt that their new material could do with some added band members & orchestration to bring the tunes to life. “Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody” does this…and more.

I would call this an uncompromising, inventive & artistic record, coming after a five-year hiatus in Di Meola studio recordings. I will try and explain.

In common with Pat Metheny, Di Meola has done many fine records where, in addition to great instrumental skills, the music can sound like a pop or rock record in terms of its production. Call it ‘mainstream’ or ‘commercial’ if you wish. That has a plus & a downside, the plus being its great musicality (to a higher level than pop/rock guys can offer), the downside being the music or melodies can sound a little too familiar or ‘eager to please’, even if they avoid the blandness of so-called ‘smooth jazz’.

Some of Di Meola’s best records in the last 20 years have been ‘World Sinfonia’ albums, as is this one, but those records, while not ‘mainstream’, also had an easily recognisable, or ‘feel at home’, sound, due to their heavy reliance on Astor Piazzolla material. By contrast, there are no Piazzolla tunes on this album. Instead, along with two cover versions, there are 13 original compositions all of which throw a ‘curve ball’ at the listener in the sense that they feature compositional turns, improvisations & orchestrations that will not remind you of anything else.

I say this as someone who has heard all Di Meola’s albums and much else besides. If this record reminds me in any way of any other recording, it might be Chick Corea’s “Ultimate Adventure”, if only due to its very free-spirited, imaginative & open-ended approach, but I think “Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody” actually far outshines that album in terms of compositional depth and inventive, while never repetitive, musical development. There is not a single lazy moment on this album in terms of content or style.

The album is recorded, mixed & produced brilliantly. There is an equal amount of electric & acoustic guitar playing on this album, and it is strictly a pure nylon-string acoustic & clean-toned electric sound (which pleases me, for one, as Di Meola sometimes relies a little too heavily for my tastes on MIDI effects). I think this album represents the ever-growing maturity & development of Di Meola as a musician in more ways than one.

For one thing, I would consider this as the most jazzy of Di Meola’s solo albums to date and yet it is also characterised by longstanding (if not very jazzy) Di Meola styles, such as sensitive nylon string playing (evident since the mid-80s) and highly rhythmic, not exactly ‘swinging’, twists & turns involving heavy snare drums & solid-body electric guitar (evident since the mid-70s). Not until track 10 does a tune in 4-4 appear!

The combination of all three factors actually works, however, to such a degree that this is constantly a musically stimulating, challenging and at the same time warm & richly harmonic sounding record. The latter point is worth stressing, because with all these contrasting elements the music could have ended up cacophonic, which it is not, or so tight that jazz improvisations are missing, which they are not.

To conclude, I would say this is Di Meola’s best album since ‘The Grande Passion’ while in terms of its melodic content it actually outshines that album in at least one sense, namely its non-reliance on the use of a single ‘traditional’ & ‘familiar’ musical phrase, from start to finish. If the key to artistic brilliance is to create something that will never remind you of anything or anybody else, maybe one could say that Di Meola has truly realised his artistic potential with this album, which provides very fresh listening.

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Al Di Meola Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody | | Leave a comment

Montrose 1st Album (1973)

imagesCANLB9V1From sfloman.com

The first album featuring future Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar, Montrose is the best album The Red Rocker has ever been involved with.

Of course, much of that has to do with the hotshot guitarist that this band is named after, as Ronnie Montrose (a session veteran who had recorded with Van Morrison and Edgar Winter) has a raw, thick, flat-out monstrous guitar tone and delivers several tremendously exciting solos, often towards the end of songs.

The album gets off to a rousing start with arguably its three best songs, beginning with “Rock The Nation,” an energetic, anthemic track on which the band just wants to have fun while making sure that we do as well.

These guys were heavy as hell for 1973, and a track like “Bad Motor Scooter,” which fittingly starts with Montrose’s guitar approximating an engine revving up, still hits like a ton of bricks, with a great overall groove and a catchy chorus too, plus a superb guitar solo from Ronnie. Also excellent is “Space Station No. 5,” which starts slow and atmospheric before powerfully surging forward, ultimately climaxing with a frenetic finish.

In general, the unheralded rhythm section of bassist Bill Church and drummer Denny Carmassi is far more than merely adequate, and Sammy sings impressively. Unfortunately, though he generally sounds good (though he can still grate at times), it’s what he’s singing that’s the album’s primary problem.

Lines like “well I gave love a chance and it shit back in my face” (on the still-formidable “I Don’t Want It”) are bad enough, as are simplistic “let’s rock out” lyrics elsewhere, but mindless cock rock lyrics like “you’re rock candy baby, hard, sweet, and sticky” can be hard to overlook.

Fortunately, the Brontosaurus-sized stomp largely overcomes said lyrics on “Rock Candy,” and Ronnie’s fierce guitar also manages to reinvigorate “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a golden oldie associated with Elvis Presley that’s the album’s lone cover song. Rounding out the track list, “One Thing On My Mind” is a melodic and catchy if not quite as heavy party tune, and “Make It Last” is a bluesy slide guitar showcase that gets anthemic and provides a satisfying finale.

So, as you can see, there’s not any filler on the album, perhaps in part because it’s rather short at a mere 32 minutes long. True, some of these songs are rather generic, and the silly lyrics are regrettable, but the incredible energy and intensity of the performances (expertly captured on tape by future Van Halen producer Ted Templeman), particularly from Mr. Montrose (who Eddie was a big fan of), makes this debut album extremely enjoyable despite its minor flaws.

Certainly Montrose deserved more recognition and acclaim than it received at the time, though the band can take solace in the fact that many a middle-aged headbanger now considers it something of a “lost classic.”

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Montrose 1st Album | | Leave a comment