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Friday, April 30, 2010

Alcatrazz: Dangerous Games


1) It's My Life; 2) Undercover; 3) That Ain't Nothin'; 4) No Imagination; 5) Ohayo Tokyo; 6) Dangerous Games; 7) Blue Boar; 8) Only One Woman; 9) The Witchwood; 10) Double Man; 11) Night Of The Shooting Star.

As Steve Vai must have realized the error of his ways, he reasonably quit, and, in a last attempt to keep the band going, Bonnett hired Danny Johnson in his place, whose main credits up to then included playing on several Rick Derringer records, as well as Rod Stewart's Tonight I'm Yours and Alice Cooper's Special Forces. This suggests several possibilities, some good, some bad; the reality is such that, in Johnson's hands, Alcatrazz' last album sounds like a cross between what it used to be and Rod Stewart: a mix of dumb hard rock and equally dumb electronic pop.

But even under these conditions, it is still the best album Alcatrazz have ever released, although I am voicing an opinion here that is entirely my own. The usual consensus over Alcatrazz is that the band pretty much said it all with No Parole, then misfired twice, once by including Vai who was too good for the band, twice by including Johnson who was too bad for it. (An alternate con­sensus, of course, is that Alcatrazz only misfired once, by forming). I believe, however, that such a consensus is most likely to emerge from people who either have not listened to the records in the first place, or those who scooped them up in «genre-expecting» mode — bracing themselves for crunchy metal when what they got was Eighties' pop.

As far as Eighties' pop goes, we have all heard worse. Yes, Dangerous Games blandly exploits all of the decade's clichés, adding lifeless keyboards and familiar simplistic dance beats to audi­ence-friendly, harmless metal guitars and Bonnet's macho yelling. In that respect, it is horrible. But the songs are better: Johnson, as opposed to both of the wizards whose shoes he was filling, writes the music in an attempt to produce decent tunes rather than serve as launchpads for his sonic rocketships. Not that he cannot play — he has got plenty of technique — but there is only a very small bunch of ecstatic solos here, meaning that, in all likelihood, he was consciously trying to shift the band's image from «Mad Guitarist Sanitarium» to something more modest.

It is all best illustrated by their choice of a cover tune: the Animals' 'It's My Life' is given a pre­dictably bleary arrangement, with the main riff sounding thrice as loud and monstruous as it used to be in 1965, but thrice as less threatening — yet the song itself has never lost any of its great­ness, and to hear it even in this arrangement (which is at least true to the original melody) is pre­ferable to wasting time on four minutes of Malmsteen's rucus.

To cut a long story short, rockers like 'That Ain't Nothin', 'Blue Boar', and the title track, pop songs like 'Under­cover', and even soul ballads like 'Only One Woman' all have modest hooks that deserve being tried out with better arrangements (and perhaps a different singer). Not that it really matters: saying that Dangerous Games displays a higher level of songwriting than Disturbing The Peace is, above all, just pedantic, and, like all other Alcatrazz records, it cannot hope for anything other than a thumbs down rating. But if mainstream pop-rock in big frizzy Eighties fa­shion does get your juices flowing, go for this — you will get all the muscles and all the big hair without all the guitar masturbation. It is a different sort of lack of taste.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Aerosmith: Get Your Wings


1) Same Old Song And Dance; 2) Lord Of The Thighs; 3) Spaced; 4) Woman Of The World; 5) S.O.S. (Too Bad); 6) Train Kept A-Rollin'; 7) Seasons Of Wither; 8) Pandora's Box.

No matter how high we may reinstate the value of Aerosmith in years to come, there can be no second opinion about Get Your Wings as the album that defined, explained, and firmly stated the reasons for the band's existence and asserted their individuality. In a symbolic gesture, it introdu­ced the famous Aerosmith logo and, for the first time, gave a large picture of the band in black and white, with facial expressions threatening enough to justify comparison with the famous pho­to of the Stones on their 1964 debut.

But let us no longer linger on the Stones connection. The important thing, of course, is not the photo, but musical evolution. The debut album, like we said, was mostly 'Dream On' plus a bunch of solid, but not spectacular blues-rockers. The process of getting one's wings, on the other hand, involves appropriating two musical styles: (a) sleazy, swaggery, nasty cock-rock born out of utter despisal and mockery of not just «the order», but just about every human being in existence — Aerosmith view females as disposable sex objects not because it simply pleases their hormonal system, like AC/DC, but because women are trash and deserve to be treated as such (not that the band has ever had anything against equality of the sexes — men, for them, are just as much trash); (b) dark, dense, uncomfortable, provocative art-rock that involves mutilating the blues-rock idiom until it bleeds enough to resemble the highly convoluted self-expression of progressive artists of the day, but still retains its rootsy core so as not to offend future generations of Jethro Tull-hating rock critics (and, also, because none of the band members ever could, or, in fact, cared about mas­tering the complex techniques of prog).

Sometimes both directions are captured at the same time. For instance, 'Lord Of The Thighs' is one of the band's most distinctive sleaze anthems, whose point it is to insinuate that mating with the heavenly beauty of Steve Tyler is, in fact, the primary duty of every respectable woman. (Another version has it that he is impersonating a pimp looking for fresh recruits). But what's up with the weird thudding bassline and its being doubled by Tyler's piano? Why does a simple cock rock song need all the creepy guitar effects and spaced-out vocal howls? And why the concealed Golding reference (it is a Golding reference, isn't it)? This is ritualistic pagan mu­sic, accompanying a friggin' phallic religious ceremony, rather than a mere soundtrack for the simple pleasures of copulation.

Things are much simpler with 'S.O.S. (Too Bad)' and 'Pandora's Box', where we first have the lead singer complain about not getting any (life sucks) and then extol the bodily virtues of a lady on a nude beach (well, occasionally, life is good). Normally, the former song gets a decent repu­tation because its melody is desperate and it touches upon the sordid aspects of slum life, whereas the latter has its worse because the melody is cocky and the lyrics are worse — truth is, I believe they were written with about the same level of inspiration and both serve their purposes quite adequately. If you like Aerosmith at all, you gotta accept 'Pandora's Box', although, as Tyler sings, "I gotta watch what I say, or I'll catch hell from women's liberation" — words that ring even truer today than they did in 1974.

Things are much more complex with 'Spaced', formally about someone lost in space but metapho­rically about someone lost somewhere much closer to home; and with 'Seasons Of Wither', ano­ther epic ballad that tries to follow the medieval excursions of Led Zeppelin, but, fortunately, does not stray too far away from restrained folk balladeering. These are songs that try to find them a corner on the serious artists' market, and, although they had to bitterly fight for that corner for the rest of their career — just how many people think of Aerosmith as «serious»? — they are both good songs, especially 'Seasons' which Tyler manages to inject with plenty of stateliness.

The lead-off single was 'Same Old Song And Dance', a simple balls-to-the-wall rocker that tells you that life sucks in yet another way; but the utmost popularity, for some reason, went to the band's version of 'Train Kept A-Rollin', which is a great song but to which there was little to add after the Yardbirds truly showed the world the phenomenal aggressiveness of its riff. That aggres­siveness is perfectly recaptured by Joe Perry (in a sly fashion, they start the song off as an uncer­tain, boring shuffle, before kicking into high gear after a couple minutes), but if there is any im­provement, it is in Tyler's singing, whose creak and crunch kicks the shit out of Keith Relf (of course, considering that Keith Relf was easily the worst lead singer to front a great Sixties' band, that is not saying much per se).

So is the title telling? I guess it is. Aerosmith are being told to get their wings, and they get 'em all right, although they are still a little too inexperienced to learn how to flap them properly. With the solid material easily outweighing the undeveloped throwaways, this is unquestionably a thumbs up record — but, even so, the growth period was far from ever.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alice Cooper: Dirty Diamonds


1) Woman Of Mass Distraction; 2) You Make Me Wanna; 3) Perfect; 4) Dirty Diamonds; 5) Pretty Ballerina; 6) Sun­set Babies; 7) Zombie Dance; 8) The Saga Of Jesse Jane; 9) Six Hours; 10) Steal That Car; 11) Run Down The De­vil; 12) Your Own Worst Enemy; 13*) Stand.

The album cover is almost the same as before — the important half of Alice's face staring at us from be­hind some ornamental camouflage — but the music is seriously different. Dirty Dia­monds is Alice's first album in God knows when that follows no specific agenda whatsoever, and deals with no particular concept other than «life as seen from the viewpoint of a cartoonish half-Satanic, half-criminal character», which is, by now, more than thirty years old. Now that all the points have been stated, all the comebacks effectuated, and all the trends perpetrated, there is lit­tle left to do other than simply write songs and record them. Or play golf. But I guess even a ma­niac golfer can go crazy from doing nothing other than play golf.

This is a good record, but it is not as focused or energetic as the four that came before it, so we can probably send the curve sloping down once again. Big bulging concepts do not work for eve­ryone, but they usually do for the Coop: his 1994-2002 «Trilogy of Hell» burned the same fuel of commitment to the idea as the rejuvenated ode to backyard brawls that was The Eyes Of... Two years later, Alice ran out of big ideas, and what we get is a rag-tag collection of small ones that frequently work, but also have the tendency to misfire from time to time.

Frankly speaking, the rock'n'roll numbers here are about as interesting as the recent attempts by the Rolling Stones — nostalgic riff-recyclers that will never appeal to the jaded fan, and, in all probability, will only make him mourn the fact that new generations of listeners, whose ability to turn the clock back usually gets lost together with their milk teeth, will take this for the real thing; but Alice Cooper may not be judged by 'Woman Of Mass Distraction' any more than the Rolling Stones' place in history can be decided based on 'Rough Justice'. It is a moderately fun song, but the chords are almost as recognizable as any standard 12-bar progression, and as for the sleaze — well, we sort of thought Alice would have outgrown that since his hair metal period; why return to it now? To appeal to the sacrilegious Eighties nostalgia guard?

The same criticism applies to 'Perfect' and maybe a couple other numbers that history, hopefully, will discard as unfortunate errors born out of boredom and temporary lack of focus. Then there are a few more similar numbers, helped out by nagging, nifty vocal hooks (the 'woo-hoo-hoo' on 'You Make Me Wanna') or by a combination of said hooks with on-the-level crunchy character asassinations ('Sunset Babies' — any song that trashes spoiled glammy trash is OK by me; where do I sign for turning the line 'Sunset babies all got rabies' into an international slogan?), but even these are sort of «melodically grim». And I do not support the idea of taking the Ramones' solo on 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue' and turning it into the backbone for the title track (granted, that solo was probably a lift itself, but that is beyond the point).

So the album is probably at its best every time it steps away from the generic rock'n'roll idiom; two obvious standouts are a beautifully felt and executed cover of the Left Banke's 'Pretty Balle­rina' (the Coop continuing the honourable mission of opening up the vaults of golden oldies to new listeners — although it is a little sad that most people commenting on the album do not even seem to realize the song's origins) and 'The Saga Of Jesse Jane', a tongue-in-cheek Johnny Cash send-up about a transvestite cowboy ending up in jail for defending his rights a bit too much on the violent side (and Brokeback Mountain had not even hit movie theaters at the time). Melody-wise, the latter at least hangs on a beautiful, melancholic guitar line that I do not recall ever ha­ving heard before — and this combination of ridiculously pointless lyrics with guitar gorgeous­ness gives it a nice post-modern flavour that the rest of the album lacks.

That said, I reiterate that Dirty Diamonds only sucks when taken in context — namely, in the context of Cooper's blistering renaissance with his four previous albums, and in the context of ha­ving almost nothing to add to the history of rock'n'roll as we know it. On their own, clear and unsoiled by extra knowledge, each number kicks its own midget ass, with the exception of the silly bonus track 'Stand' recorded in tandem with the rapper Xzibit (not just because it has a rap section, which can be tolerated, but because it is one of those ugly examples of the «let me teach the younger generation the important morals of life through their own voice because they are too dumb to figure them out on their own» approach that is always pretentious and fake, and I am sur­prised how a guy like Alice with his IQ level keeps falling in that pit so often). So, from the bottom of my heart, I still give it a moderate thumbs up; yet there is every reason to be afraid that the final comeback is over, and perhaps Alice should spend more time with that golf club, after all. Or, at least, try to write a concept album about golf.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Take It Like You Give It


1) Why Was I Born; 2) I May Never Get To Heaven; 3) Tighten Up Your Tie, Button Up Your Jacket; 4) Her Little Heart Went To Loveland; 5) Lee Cross; 6) Take It Like You Give It; 7) Only The One You Love; 8) Deeper; 9) Re­member Me; 10) Land Of Dreams; 11) A Little Bit Of Soul.

Aretha's last album for Columbia is a terminally dark horse that cannot even be found in some of her discographies, and even the info on its year of release is contradictory — some say '66, some say early '67. Considering that it only runs for a bare twenty-five minutes, and that at least some of the tracks date from much earlier sessions — e. g., 'Lee Cross', recorded in 1964 (which is why we find it as a bonus track on Unforgettable), but not released officially until three years later — it is not difficult to understand the slightness with which it had been treated.

A pity, because it is easily one of the best LPs Aretha ever cut (or, rather, had herself cut) for her original label. There are as many as five upbeat, uptempo numbers that give Aretha ample room to unleash her temper, of which the already discussed 'Lee Cross' is only one highlight; the other one is 'Tighten Up Your Tie', where she tells her man to beat it like only she can, and the nicely moralizing title track where she tells her man to balance his gives and takes more convincingly than any non-musical spokesperson for women's lib.

Both 'Lee Cross' and 'Take It', by the way, are credited to Ted White, her manager and first hus­band, and he also contributes the successful slow-burner 'Land Of Dreams', a lush ballad that somehow transcends the standard clichés with its unusual piano parts and moody backup vocals. If not a classic, it is still a far more interesting and sincerely moving track than, uh, 'Her Little Heart Went To Loveland' — the inclusion of which shows that, even at their most intelligent, the people on Columbia were still unable to properly distinguish material that emphasized all of Are­tha's talent from material that did nothing except extinguish that talent.

It is a little ironic that the last track on the album and, thus, the last track from Aretha to be issued on Columbia, bears the title 'A Little Bit Of Soul' — she spent half of the Sixties on that label im­plicitly begging for exactly that, and the «Columbians» spent the same time by understanding her way too literally, giving her a tiny bit of soul every now and then to whet our appetites, and not a crumb more. Perhaps 'Much Too Little Bit Of Soul' would be a more understandable title. Re­gardless of the irony, though, Take It Like You Give It, recently released on CD together with Soul Sister, is well worth keeping an eye on, and is a perfect «pre-shadower» of what would very soon put Ms. Franklin on and over the top; so a moderate thumbs up.

Monday, April 26, 2010

B. B. King: The Great B. B. King


1) Sweet Sixteen; 2) (I'm Gonna) Quit You Baby; 3) I Was Blind; 4) What Can I Do; 5) Someday Baby; 6) Sneakin' Around; 7) I Had A Woman; 8) Be Careful With A Fool; 9) Whole Lot Of Lovin'; 10) Days Of Old.

Back to the blues at least, even if, like most other albums from that period, this is another mish-mash of all kinds of different tracks from all kinds of different years. The selection had been made around exactly one new hit: B. B.'s rendition of 'Sweet Sixteen', originally made popular by Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records.

Back in 1960, B. B. was no Big Joe when it came to solid body mass (he would catch up pretty soon, though), but, after singing all these spirituals, he was in greater vocal shape than ever, and for this little bit of soap drama, he gives Big Joe quite a run for his money. The only solo on this blues rant takes place at the beginning, and the whole piece runs for over six minutes, covering both sides of the single — but the emphasis is really on the interplay between B. B.'s vocals and the weep and wail of the guitar. Arguably, 'Sweet Sixteen' is the first truly classic B. B. studio re­cording — live, like most other tunes, it would simply become a foundation for passionate instrumental blueswailing, but the studio original has its own modest charm.

The rest of the tracks are mostly blues, although diluted by occasional shades of doo-wop-tinged gospel ('I Was Blind'), doo-wop-tinged lounge entertainment ('Sneakin' Around'), and boogie-wo­ogie ('Days Of Old'). The blues, too, is diversified: on 'Whole Lot Of Lovin', for instance, B. B. tries out some Elmore James (i. e. goes for the 'Dust My Broom' riff), and slow and mid-tempos alternate frequently enough to make one at least notice the in-between song breaks. Plus, as intu­itive as it may sound, he seems to go for sharper, crisper tones, rougher cut-offs and shriller notes, toughening it up for a more demanding audience, perhaps? (Not that I have any idea of the abso­lute chronology of any of those recordings).

If Singin' The Blues was important for being his first, then The Great B. B. King is important for bringing the man back from the mischievous temptation of becoming a crooner or a gospel performer, kicking back into the blues idiom with a vengeance. Thumbs up.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Aliens: Luna


1) Bobby's Song; 2) Amen; 3) Theremin; 4) Everyone; 5) Magic Man; 6) Billy Jack; 7) Luna; 8) Dove Returning; 9) Sunlamp Show; 10) Smoggy Bog; 11) Daffodils; 12) Boats; 13) Blue Mantle.

I would like to be able to put the «rushed» tag on this record (in the 2000s, normal people do not release one new album per year, giving a lengthy, ample, modest, and politically correct chance for an army of underdogs to wash them out of existence instead). But Luna does not feel rushed. It feels very much like the proper, expected, surprise-free follow-up to Astronomy For Dogs, yet one that consumed just as many creative forces as its predecessor.

It is also more difficult. This time, the Lone Pigeon has steered clear of enticing commercial book­marks. The album's single 'Magic Man' (nothing to do with Heart) is less immediately stun­ning than 'Set­ting Sun' or 'The Happy Song', and it is stuck in the middle of the record where its catchiness has a psychological chance of remaining unnoticed. Elsewhere, we have plenty of nu­m­bers that break the eight- or ten-minute mark, not always with good reason, and more splurges of moody psychedelia that will only affect those in the proper mood. The proper mood may in­volve many things, from returning home at 5 AM after a serious night on the town to having injected the latest world news on TV, but there is no way Luna can be appreciated regardless of the shape you're in — which explains the wildly different pool of opinions that exists on the al­bum, and The Aliens themselves.

Fortunately, they caught me in one such mood, and, in this mood, Luna became an experience even more moving and powerful than Astronomy. Of course, like the former, it is utterly deriva­tive. Ghosts of the Beach Boys flutter all around the place, as does the ghost of Syd Barrett and the Small Faces and, perhaps, even Neil Young ('Boats'). But this is the default situation; were it otherwise — were their influences impossible to pinpoint — you would not be reading this, since I would be too busy looking for my detached jaw rather than writing it. The point is, they integ­rate all these elements so nicely that the ensuing psychedelic stew creates its own version of a Won­derland, dense, majestic, beautiful, and one in which getting lost is not so much a possibility as it is a bare necessity.

Surprisingly, only two songs speak to me on a «gut» level. First, there is the experimental perfec­tion of 'Dove Returning', a soft, slow, dreamy Floydian shuffle whose hushed vocals very soon give way to a series of solos (guitars and... phased electric pianos? Or more guitars with crazyass Adrian Belew-style processing?) that go for the good old feeling of catharsis; second, the dry, painful crackle of the Neil Young-ish 'Boats', brutally kicking the mainstream ass with its howl­ing riffage and soloing. These are the ones I fall for very quickly; they are also, however, the least interesting from the experimental viewpoint — if you know Weld, you know this.

Those other ones I find hard to talk about, because they form a wild jungle which takes time and better skill than mine to pull apart. The long songs may be hard to tolerate, but they deserve their length: 'Bobby's Song' alone has about ten or fifteen different melodies crammed into it, from drunken gypsy dance to art-rock chorales, to bouncy Brit-pop to electronic collages. And not many musicians these days, outside of the Flaming Lips, can build up such an impressively hea­venly wall of sound as the Aliens manage on the closing 'Blue Mantle'.

In short, if you are a grumpy, but romantic old-timer yearning for the return of the Beach Boys, but insulted at the frequent comparisons with Animal Collective (because Brian always had the good sense to stay away from that electronic crap etc. etc.), Luna is the album to get. And if it does not matter who you are, it is still one of the most important and successful psychedelic al­bums of 2008, as little as that suggests. Thumbs up.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Angra: Temple Of Shadows


1) Deus Le Volt!; 2) Spread Your Fire; 3) Angels And Demons; 4) Waiting Silence; 5) Wishing Well; 6) The Temple Of Hate; 7) The Shadow Hunter; 8) No Pain For The Dead; 9) Winds Of Destination; 10) Sprouts Of Time; 11) Mor­ning Star; 12) Late Redemption; 13) Gate XIII.

Sometimes the simple bigness of the banality can transcend its flaws and turn certified crap into dubitable art. Of course, it is hard to imagine that the Falaschi-led Angra ever understood its own production as certified crap — but not at all hard to hypothesize that they were not too satisfied with their Rebirth, and thought that, just like Holy Land, with its pretense and mighty sway, was able to blow away the mild results of Angels Cry, so would the «rebirth» only be complete with yet another pretentious, monumental concept album.

All I can say, however, is that the concept blows — completely — and, by blowing, places Tem­ple Of Shadows squarely into the group of medieval-crazed metal albums that continues to feed the genre's poor reputation. I will not waste space on a detailed description, easily attainable elsewhere; instead, here is just a list of key­words. Spot the odd one out.

Crusades. Crusaders. Catholic Church. Atrocities. Genocide. Jerusalem. The Dead Sea. The Tem­ple of Solomon. Lost scrolls of wisdom. Jews. Muslims. Tits. Past, present, and future. Body and soul. Redemption. The Morning Star (not the newspaper). The Angel of Death.

The protagonist, notably, is called «The Shadow Hunter», which, along with all the references to the Temple of Solomon, seriously makes me wonder whether someone in the Angra camp had been previously indulging in Gabriel Knight 3: Blood Of The Sacred, Blood Of The Damned. But, regardless of whether this is just a coincidence, for me as a listener the concept goes nowhere, because, in order to figure out if it goes anywhere, I'd have to spend time analyzing it, and I have lots of better things to do.

As for the music, again, it is probably okay as far as generic power metal goes. They inject a little diversity — apart from the obligatory classical influences, there is some flamenco guitar (e. g. on 'Sprouts Of Time') and some mainstreamish balladeering ('Wishing Well'). There is plenty of the expected violent thrashing, and quite a few multi-part epics. But never once could I get rid of the feeling that all of this has been made on order. The fans want loud guitars, screeching singers, pathos, fist-pumping, mystical medieval imagery, and long songs that create the illusion of seri­ous art. That is exactly what they get. You a fan? You'll love this. I prefer to replay my Gabriel Knight — at least that experience allows for immersion, whereas the gates of Temple Of Sha­dows do not even give a hint of the possibility of opening. Thumbs (yawn) down.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Alcatrazz: Disturbing The Peace


1) God Blessed Video; 2) Mercy; 3) Will You Be Home Tonight; 4) Wire And Wood; 5) Desert Diamond; 6) Strip­per; 7) Painted Lover; 8) Lighter Shade Of Green; 9) Sons And Lovers; 10) Skyfire; 11) Breaking The Heart Of The City.

As the 1984 tour drew to a close, Yngwie left Alcatrazz for his solo career — a reasonable deci­sion, because, whatever one thinks of Malmsteen's solo albums, it is, almost by default, better to experience his musical masturbation on its own than as a background for the puffed-up pathos of Graham Bonnet. In his place the latter recruited a different guitar wiz — Steve Vai.

Weird pairings, like B. J. Wilson of Procol Harum fame drumming on AC/DC's Flick Of The Switch (even if only on non-final track versions), do not happen every day in the world of rock'n'roll, and, for the sake of pure knowledge, it may be interesting to hear the results of one such pairing between the thoroughly mainstream, anthemic R'n'B belter Graham Bonnet and the deeply experimental, near-avantgarde guitarist Steve Vai. One might even think that, although the results would almost certainly be dreadful, they'd at least be intriguing.

Unfortunately, they are not. It is hard to guess Vai's logic for enlisting in Alcatrazz; perhaps, after several years of playing with Zappa and an obscure (if perversely brilliant) solo tryout with Flex-Able, he finally succumbed to the temptation of finance and fame. Why Bonnet? Why Alcatrazz? Well, the band did have some sort of reputation, and, besides, he'd be writing all the music any­way; as long as it was good, who'd care about the singer?

But it was not good. As interesting as Vai can be in the studio when he creates experimental ma­terial, influenced by his long-term Zappa association, he is completely bland when it comes to applying his talents to macho arena rock. Disturbing The Peace, like any good old Alcatrazz al­bum, has plenty of loud, rip-roaring anthems, but not a single meaningful riff. Apparently, Steve just cannot work right in this kind of setting (not that I blame him — it'd be a tough break for any­one to inject life into Alcatrazz). Sometimes, he really tries, like for the first few bars of 'Sons And Lovers', where he plays a funny little melody quite in the vein of Flex-Able; but then Bonnet kicks in with the vocals, and we are back to rote corporate faux-rocking.

Nothing helps. Not even provocative titles ('God Blessed Video', which, thank God, is ironic — but you will really have to listen to the lyrics to understand that), nor occasional attempts to emu­late the sarcastic style of Van Halen (on 'Painted Lover', Bonnet goes for a bit of snickering cha­racter assassination à la David Lee Roth), nor brief folk-art-rock passages ('Lighter Shade Of Gre­en', fourty seconds of a decent instrumental that begins like an Arcadian idilly, continues as a barrage of psychedelic shredding, and belongs nowhere on this record).

It is possible that, had Zappa himself volunteered to fill in the boots of Alcatrazz' guitar player, he, likewise, would have been unable to write any good songs for the band. The catch is, in order to write dumb songs for a dumb band, one has to be a dumb songwriter; this is, more or less, the on­ly way to make the final result into something exciting. Few things are more irritating, or more easily forgettable, than a clever songwriter, much less an experimental songwriter, writing an in­tentionally dumb song (and I do not mean «parody» — Zappa has written plenty of clever paro­dies on dumb songs); Disturbing The Peace is a perfect example, a record where everything went wrong because the laws of nature predicted that it would go wrong — and, in order to defy the laws of nature, you'd at least have to be Michael Jackson (not that I'd wish that to anyone). Thumbs down once again.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Aerosmith: Aerosmith


1) Make It; 2) Somebody; 3) Dream On; 4) One Way Street; 5) Mama Kin; 6) Write Me A Letter; 7) Movin' Out; 8) Walkin' The Dog.

In the beginning, «The Bad Boys of Boston» were not all that bad. Aerosmith's de­but is loud and raw, but to call it «dirty» would be pushing things; it is even considerably milder than Rolling Stones' records from 1971-72, and the Stones were the particular band that Aero­smith were intent on not just defeating, but obliterating in the big game of sleazy and smutty.

Perhaps it is the «backlog syndrome» that is really responsible. All of the songs here, minus one Rufus Thomas cover, are credited to lead vocalist Steven Tyler (one co-credited to lead guitarist Joe Perry), and at least some of them had been written or at least conceived as early as the 1960s, when the art of songwriting still implied certain standards of decency. What Tyler wrote was ir­reverent, kick-ass blues-rock, to which guitarists Whitford and Perry added a tiny touch of glam, and the results entertained, but did not overwhelm.

Nevertheless, Aerosmith did sound like no one else from the very beginning. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the near-classic 'Mama Kin' — today, they sound awesomely familiar, but in 1973, few, if any, bands really played like that. The principal role model are the Stones, but Whit­ford and Perry add an extra bit of technicality — not too much, just enough — that Keith was al­ways too lazy or too snobby to bother out, without, however, making a big fuss over it. From the start, they could play in a more complex and precise manner than the Stones without sacrificing the fun and raw energy (running a little ahead of the train, the Stones could never have written anything like 'Toys In The Attic', if you know what I mean).

This does not mean Tyler (and Perry) wrote better songs than the Stones, or had cooler guitar tones — but it does mean that questions like «why listen to Aerosmith at all when they're just an American clone of the Stones?» are really pointless, and, in most cases, stem from all sorts of biases, from rampant anti-Americanism to being allergic to the sight of Steve Tyler's facial fea­tures (the latter problem I can certainly understand, but then it's all in the eye of the beholder, and, besides, it is no mean feat being half-Cherokee, half-Italian).

Anyway, there are some excellent barroom blues-rockers on the album — apart from 'Mama Kin', whose opening chords were soon to be shamelessly stolen for Patti Smith's 'Ask The Angels' and Blondie's 'One Way Or Another', there is the powerful show-opener 'Make It', the seven-minute harmonica-drenched epic 'One Way Street', the dry, gritty, sex-driven 'Somebody', and even the Rufus Thomas cover rocks quite effortlessly (they do not shy away from pinpointing their idols, since the Rolling Stones also had a cover of 'Walkin' The Dog' on their debut album).

On the other hand, there are no truly memorable riffs: the best ones are standard, well-known blues-rock phrases that have been given a little dusting, and the worst ones are just ordinary 12-bar-based accompaniment. Most of the excitement centers on the guitar tones and Whitford's to­tally self-assured, intricate style of stringing chords together; yes, and Joe Perry delivers a couple red-hot solos. Likewise, Tyler has not yet grown into the laryngeal monster we all know and fear; his voice might even sound annoying on some of the tracks, and his forced «throat explosions» during the climactic moments of 'One Way Street' are somewhat out of control.

In the middle of all this we find 'Dream On', a song I used to professionally hate for the exact same rea­son that it has been entered in gold letters in the Big Rock Songbook — ushering in the genre of the Power Ballad. Of course, some might say that the first Power Ballad was really Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway To Heaven', or the Carpenters' 'Goodbye To Love', or even Hendrix's 'Little Wing' — but of all these early candidates, it is 'Dream On' that most faithfully satisfies the stereo­type. Big, pathetic, anthemic, building up from sad, silent complaint to explosive prayer without really changing the melody (unlike 'Stairway', where the «soft» and «power» sections are really two different songs somewhat clumsily sewn together), it is the stereotypical «monster ballad» of the 1970s, and its echo still resonates all around us.

But it is really a good song; taking more than half of its time to get to the climax (the 'Dream on, dream on...' chorus does not even begin until the three minute mark!), it totally delivers with its epic ascending guitar line and Tyler's transition to falsetto during the culmination. Its mentality is really that of a gospel song, along the lines of the Stones' 'Let It Loose' or 'Shine A Light', only delivered with a transparent sense of pain and desperation, and that is what makes it different from the ordinary, clichéd power ballad (check out the Who's 'Love Reign O'er Me' for a similar case). Particularly stunning is the realisation that Tyler, if his account is to be believed, wrote the song on the piano in friggin' 1965 — had it found its way on record back then, it would have cer­tainly put him on the pop map already in his teens.

Joe Perry, notably, did not like the idea of balladeering at first, and was only convinced to record it because of the necessity of generating a radio hit. Turns out that he made the right concession: without 'Dream On', Aerosmith would be forever pegged as a «passable debut», but with its pre­sence, even the lesser numbers are given extra solidness in the context, and a thumbs up rating is guaranteed properly and sincerely.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Alice Cooper: The Eyes Of Alice Cooper


1) What Do You Want From Me; 2) Between High School And Old School; 3) Man Of The Year; 4) Novocaine; 5) Bye Bye Baby; 6) Be With You Awhile; 7) Detroit City; 8) Spirits Rebellious; 9) This House Is Haunted; 10) Love Should Never Feel Like This; 11) The Song That Didn't Rhyme; 12) I'm So Angry; 13) Backyard Brawl.

Jumping on bandwagons is a skill, one that few can master as smoothly as Cooper. Clearly, the decision to dive into the oilfield of heavy metal must have been influenced by the success of nu­metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit; but it was carried out in full accordance with the Alice spirit, which makes Brutal Planet and Dragontown perfectly enjoyable on their own.

By the early 2000s, the new trend for the «alternative mainstream» emerged as the neo-garage rock of the Strokes, the Vines, and the Hives, and, according to the strict laws of determinism, there was simply no chance that Alice could have missed the opportunity, particularly since what the Strokes and the rest were reviving was, in part, Alice's own ancient style — the proto-punk vibe of the Detroit scene. The MC5, the Stooges, and Alice Cooper of Love It To Death fame. Let's admit it: if you spot a pack of spoiled, hedonistic young whippersnappers stealing your mu­sic, it is only natural for you to get pissed off and decide to resteal it from them. Is stealing from thieves stealing at all? The Eyes Of Alice Cooper may not rise up to the level of Love It To Death — no surprise, since that would require a bottle of rejuvenation pills and a time machine — but at least it competes fairly well with the Strokes and the Vines, and it still shows who is really the boss in all of this, lack of sales notwithstanding.

There is no trying to mask the «retro» attitude on this one. The title itself, focusing us on Alice's «eyes», makes us notice that he is not wearing much makeup except for the spiderish shades around those eyes, just like he did in 1971. The back cover shows him together with his new band, first time in decades — ever since the demise of the original Alice Cooper band, no sidemen ever got the unimaginable honour of entouraging The Monster on any album sleeves. And, speaking of the band, well, the band may lack the crudeness and imagination of Alice's former pals, but they still do a mighty impressive job. Of particular notice is Ryan Roxie, arguably the only guitarist in Cooper's history to wilfully go through several distinct styles — he is just as convincing as a pun­kish rock'n'roller as he was in the guise of an industrial metallist.

Then there are the songs, on which Alice, once again, rises to the occasion. Thirteen tracks, each one pretty damn good in its own way. Monotonousness is out of the question: the rock numbers are evenly split between «poppy» and «hard», and, from time to time, interspersed with ballads (one sentimental, one comical) and even a solitary «horror» number ('This House Is Haunted', written and recorded in the «spook that kid» style, rather unusual for Alice). Melodies? You bet. Humour? Lots. If there is one thing to complain about, it is the occasional scent of excessive «overproduction»: the guitars, at times, are too noisy, perhaps the biggest difference between Eyes and the true classic Detroit sound, which, after all, was born and extinguished not only in pre-Strokes times, but even in pre-Ramones' ones.

It would be nicer, I think, if more of the songs here were along the lines of 'Detroit City', or, ra­ther, its first thirty seconds, with the cool old chugga-chugga hard rock style, after which the wall of sound still kicks in (it is, however, notable that Wayne Kramer of the MC5 fame himself adds some guest-guitar to the recording). But then, of course, the entire album would be skewed to­wards the «nostalgia» line — 'Detroit City' alone, with its 'Me and Iggy were giggin' with Ziggy and kickin' with the MC5...' has drawn its fair share of smirks.

So let us enjoy life as it is, and just give in to the hooks of the female-bashing 'What Do You Want From Me', the bourgeois-bashing 'Man Of The Year', the amour-bashing 'Love Should Never Feel Like This', and especially the self-bashing 'Between High School And Old School', which is where Alice finds himself stuck in between — a perfect projection of the «confused teen anthem» style onto the idea of «too old to rock'n'roll, too young to die». Behind the big, fat sound on all these songs we still find the same indomitable spirit, plus a catchy hook or even two per song. And, just as the genre requires, much of this is about anger, anger, anger. No wonder the last two songs are 'I'm So Angry', where he takes it out on his cheating girlfriend, and 'Backyard Brawl', where he takes it out on anyone stupid enough to get in the way. 'Backyard Brawl', in par­ticular, stomps and thrashes about with such passionate violence that, unless you have seen one of Alice's peaceful, relaxed golf videos recently, you will be fooled.

However, I have to confess that my own favourite song on the album is the most peaceful one — the sweet love ballad 'Be With You Awhile', which sounds 100% like a solo John Lennon ballad, right down to all the vocal modulations, and, (not) coincidentally, the most beautifully arranged Coo­per ballad so far — a mix of deep underwater-ish electric piano, high above-the-sky-ish Mel­lotrons, and juicy, colourfully distorted electric guitars that, unlike the rockers, arises completely out of nowhere and is thoroughly unpredictable. And, unlike Alice's former hits in the balladeer­ing genre, this one is completely untouched by the chisel of commercialism. As hard as it is, es­pecially in recent times, to combine simple, old-school sentimentality with a sugar-free, pathos-free environ­ment, 'Be With You Awhile' is a total success. (Although, of course, the anti-senti­mentalists of our modern age will hardly pay much attention to it; they will prefer to concentrate on the hilarious send-up of 'The Song That Didn't Rhyme', a cool joke tune about the worst song ever written — 'a three minute waste of your time, no redeeming value of any kind').

The Eyes Of Alice Cooper cannot be among the greatest records of Alice Cooper: any album from an old Alice Cooper that toys with the departed spirit of the young Alice Cooper is doomed to be forever sitting in the second or third row, at best. But the goal has been achieved, and the have not been disappointed; the brain marvels at the efficacy of evading all the reefs and pitfalls, and the heart rejoices at the delightful mix of the rough and tender — thumbs up from both sides.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Soul Sister


1) Until You Were Gone; 2) You Made Me Love You; 3) Follow Your Heart; 4) Ol' Man River; 5) Sweet Bitter Love; 6) A Mother's Love; 7) Swanee; 8) (No, No) I'm Losing You; 9) Take A Look; 10) Can't You Just See Me; 11) Cry Like A Baby.

Not to be confused with the same-titled compilation of some of Aretha's biggest non-hits from the Columbia years, which, out of the two Soul Sisters, is the more widely available. This Soul Sis­ter is a fully original release, one that finally sets Aretha on the right track — except that Colum­bia lacked the manpower and the creativity to put the track on the same level with the train.

Most of the numbers, once again, return us to the Great American Songbook, but the sound is not as thoroughly retro, and the arrangements not as thoroughly traditional / nostalgic. Furthermore, slow sappy ballads occupy less than half of the album; someone finally realized that if Aretha's general style is most perfectly suited to belting it out, she should stick to belting it out on the «bel­ters» instead of belting it out on the «crooners». Songs like the midly rocking 'Can't You Just See Me' already give us an early glimpse of the classic Atlantic Aretha, except that the backing band obviously cannot compete with the classic Atlantic backing. Unquestionably the biggest surprise, however, is '(No, No) I'm Losing You', a little-known tune written by little-known song­writer Joy Byers which, however, could proudly stand its own on par with all those other songs about losing you (e. g. the Temptations or John Lennon). It is the first time Aretha tries to invoke a mood of sincere desperation, and it works — why the song never became a hit can only be ex­plained by a ridiculous marketing policy.

Most of the other stuff is perfectly well listenable; the more upbeat, the more listenable, vividly demonstrated by the bouncy reworkings of 'Swanee' and 'Ol' Man River', and even the glitzy lounge entertainment of 'You Made Me Love You' is fun. Overlook silly excesses like the pathos of 'A Mother's Love' (pretty much every Aretha record, including the best ones, has dissatisfying moments like that), and Soul Sister truly qualifies as an album that needed very little to push the singer over the edge. Very little. Just a better backing band, a better set of backup vocalists, a bet­ter arranger, a better producer, a better sequencing, a better level of songwriting, and better choi­ces for the lead singles. Other than that, Soul Sister rules.

Monday, April 19, 2010

B. B. King: Sings Spirituals


1) Precious Lord; 2) Save A Seat For Me; 3) Ole Time Religion; 4) Swing Low Sweet Chariot; 5) Servant's Prayer; 6) Jesus Gave Me Water; 7) I Never Heard A Man; 8) Army Of The Lord; 9) I Am Willing To Run All The Way; 10) I'm Working On The Building.

Far be it from us to say that B. B. King is a poor singer — he has a nice, endearing, sometimes al­most silky tone that never grates or annoys.

Further be it from us to say that B. B. King is not a spiritually sensible man — regardless of how much money he has made and how much of it he has not given away to the poor, there is little reason to doubt his sincere faith in the Lord (who has, among other things, provided him with all that money).

Still further be it from us to say that B. B. King has no right, or reason, or business recording an entire album of gospel tunes if he feels like it — especially considering that, every once in a while, everyone deserves at least a brief change from the 12-bar mold, and going into gospel is nowhere near as cringeworthy as, say, going into crooning.

And be it as furthest of the furthest from us as possible to say that B. B. King Sings Spirituals is a proverbially bad album. If you have not suffered priest abuse, be it Catholic or Protestant; if you have no 19th century-style racial prejudices; and if you can stand a little musical take on «ol' time religion» propel­led by good singing and good organ playing, the record cannot be put down on its own merits.

None of which, however, prevents me from stating the obvious: I cannot think of a reason why any­one would want to hear, much less own, a B. B. King album with no guitar on it whatsoever. B. B. King is a guitar player, period. If he does not want to play his guitar, let him not play his guitar in front of his parents, his children, his close friends, or his mirror. In this life, B. B. King has one and only one social purpose (that matters, anyway), and that is playing his guitar. I can understand that he did not want to be pigeonholed. I can do nothing about it — I want to pigeon­hole him, and I will pigeonhole him. Call me Dubyah if you will — but this is a thumbs down.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Aliens: Astronomy For Dogs


1) Setting Sun; 2) Robot Man; 3) I Am The Unknown; 4) Tomorrow; 5) Rox; 6) Only Waiting; 7) She Don't Love Me; 8) Glover; 9) Honest Again; 10) The Happy Song; 11) Caravan.

Among the founding fathers of The Beta Band one used to find musician and composer Gordon Anderson, a fully active member right until the recording of the first of the band's three EPs, upon which he left the band due to health conditions. Upon recovery, it was already too late to come back, so he bitterly rechristened himself «The Lone Pigeon» and began recording critically ac­claimed and publicly unknown self-produced and self-released solo albums. Most probably, he would still be as lone as ever, if not for The Beta Band's eventual dissipation — upon which two unemployed members, keyboardist John Maclean and drummer Robin Jones, not wishing to till the earth or sell car polish for the rest of their lives, suggested a reunion with Anderson in order to explore their destiny a bit further.

Calling themselves The Aliens was perhaps a little too far-fetched, because the music they set out to create is even less whacked out than The Beta Band's. Had Astronomy For Dogs come out in the era of Sgt. Pepper and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, they might have succeeded in blowing everybody's minds to the same degree. As it is, it merely feels like a tribute — a sincere me­mento, dedicated to the 40th jubilee of both these albums; and the name of «The Aliens» feels like a carnival gesture, much like XTC's alter-ego of «Dukes Of Stratosphear» in their own time. When the carnival is over, everyone just goes home.

However, as a tribute, Astronomy For Dogs is a perfect success. Except for the final psychojam of 'Caravan', stretching well over twelve minutes, the tunes are big, jangly, shimmering slabs of psychedelic pop, drawing upon the juices of not only early Pink Floyd and the Beatles, but also the Moody Blues, the Byrds, Love, and various other minor British and American art-rock bands of the era. No fan of those styles will be disappointed, or, at least, feel entitled to say that these guys do not know how to recreate those vibes with perfect precision.

But at the same time, Astronomy is a difficult record. It is skilfully bookmarked by two lively rockers — the ecstatic 'Setting Sun', steeped in screeching guitars and garage rhythms, and the psycho-bop of 'The Happy Song', whose '1-2-3-4' count at the beginning is clearly an homage to 'I Saw Her Standing There' but whose happy-happy-happy melody surely implies a reverence for substances that began to influence music a few years after 1963. These two songs are immediate­ly memorable and good proof of Anderson's songwriting abilities.

The stuff in between, however, is far less trivial. Most of the songs are long, ranging from five to eight minutes, and there is a lot going on there. Arrangements are dense, mostly guitars and key­boards with few extraneous instruments, but lots of those; sections are generally multiple, with time signature changes all over the place and constant recurring motives (such as chants of "we are The Aliens..." and "I am the robot man...") — and it does not trouble them at all to go from Western to Eastern modalities within one song, or to incorporate some very modern electronica-based parts when they feel the need ('Rox' — all of that and more). A song may start out in a music-hall Ray Davies style, transform into a barrage of 'Astronomy Domine'-type noises in the middle, and fizzle out as a madhouse mantra at the end ('Glover'). And, as 'Caravan' shows, they do not use song length as a tool for solidifying their grooves; they use it as a pretext to string to­gether a cartload of half-finished ideas.

All this means is that a serious judgement of Astronomy For Dogs (is it just a tribute? is it enti­rely derivative? if yes, does this mean it is not a classic? if no, what is the real depth of its artistic vi­sion?..) cannot be pronounced quickly. It has so much going for it, so many disparate elements synthesized in one barrel that is bursting at the seams, that it might be necessary to memorize all of it before one can answer if all of these elements really deserved being put in that one barrel — at which point, most likely, the answer will already be bound to be positive. Maybe «The Lone Pigeon» is simply indulging in nostalgia rather than continuing the naïve explorations of his Six­ties' idols; that is not for me to decide. But even if he is, he swarms us so much with all the side products of this nostalgia that the very process of arranging them on your own brain shelves will keep you up for a long, long time. And what is wrong with music that stimulates brain activity? Thumbs up, says the brain to the entire experience — and the heart, having been properly bribed with the effervescence of 'The Happy Song', is too confused to object.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Angra: Rebirth


1) In Excelsis; 2) Nova Era; 3) Millennium Sun; 4) Acid Rain; 5) Heroes Of Sand; 6) Unholy Wars; 7) Rebirth; 8) Judgement Day; 9) Running Alone; 10) Visions Prelude.

Conflicts of egos suck, but where there are egos, eventually unavoidable. And it so turned out that the ego of frontman, vocalist, and keyboardist André Matos lost to the egos of guitar players Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro. The rhythm section, apparently, sided with Matos, since they jumped ship together to form Shaaman; but three non-guitarists are a poor match for two guitarists, and the name of Angra remained with Rafael and Kiko.

Quickly recruiting a batch of new members — Felipe Andreoli on bass, Aquiles Priester on drums, and Eduardo Falaschi on vocals (whose principal prior claim to fame was that he almost became Iron Maiden's lead singer in 1994) — the mighty guitarists finally achieved their goal: transforming the once adventurous and experimental band into a thoroughly generic, stereotypical power metal outfit. Hooray for living by the rules.

As a generic power metal album, Rebirth would probably be decent enough if it did not call it­self Rebirth. Struck by the Three-Zeroes-Curse, the band decided that they were, in fact, among the chosen ones to whom God has personally entrusted the musical celebration of the upcoming new era; and thus, while there is no easily-defined «concept» to the album, its main vibe is a con­secrative one. Metal fans all over the world are invited to join Angra in a metal mass for the well-being of humanity. The basic idea is easily understood just by glancing at the song titles.

Usually, generic power metal consists of ripping off classical melodies, translating them into the language of metal guitars, and passing them for your own, only occasionally crediting the source in order for the average fan to accumulate some respect. Rebirth behaves suspiciously close to this model: 'Visions Prelude' is acknowledged to be «adapted from Chopin's Op. 24 in C minor» (actually, Chopin's Op. 24 is a set of mazurkas; what is meant is probably Prelude No. 20 in C minor, of the 24 Preludes), but God only knows how many of these other melodies have been pil­fered from Beethoven or Brahms or whatever lesser composer these guys must have studied. Re­gardless, some of these melodies might sound pleasant in a true symphonic arrangement — but set to an endless barrage of machine-gun chords and same-tone-using solo guitars, they make no impression whatsoever.

The new vocalist, unfortunately, fares even worse. Falaschi belongs to the old school of hard rock belters — his idols must have, at best, been Lou Gramm and Graham Bonnet, at worst, David Coverdale or Glenn Hughes. Or maybe not, but his vocal range and manner of using it falls in the same camp. Where Matos' shrill, thin, vulnerable, and at the same time loud and piercing delivery had lots of individual character, Falaschi is just big, fat, and flat. He does not particularly spoil the tunes he is assigned, but he could never hope to salvage a bad or mediocre tune by adding his own parts to it.

Predictably loud, thoroughly professional, inadequately pompous, Rebirth does not have one single song that I could write something useful about. If you like the simple waves of power me­tal, if you like them the same way that someone likes the vibes of classic symphonic music with­out being able to keep its themes in his head afterwards, Rebirth is for you. But if we insist that power metal, like any other metal or pop music in general, has its share of standouts and its share of flops, then Rebirth is, by all means, a flop. Thumbs down, says the brain; and I haven't even mentioned the lyrics — flatter than the flattest offerings from Matos. "New day shines, fallen an­gels will arise, Nova Era brings the ashes back to life; all over now, all the pain and awful lies, angels will arise back to life!" I am pretty sure I have even heard characters from Heroes Of Might And Magic speak lines with less clichéd wordings.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Alcatrazz: Live Sentence


1) Too Young To Die, Too Drunk To Live; 2) Hiroshima Mon Amour; 3) Night Games; 4) Island In The Sun; 5) Kree Nakoorie; 6) Coming Bach; 7) Since You've Been Gone; 8) Evil Eye; 9) All Night Long.

Of the two Alcatrazz albums with Malmsteen on board, this live performance, recorded on their 1984 tour of Japan, is unquestionably the better proposition, for at least two reasons. First, if you are going to sacrifice good taste, do it all the way — a «ridiculous» album is bad enough, but a «boring ridiculous» album will not even find its way to the currently in-print EBT (Ency­clo­paedia of Bad Taste). And Live Sentence certainly goes all the way, by putting Yngwie directly into the spotlight, as he plays even more notes than on the studio records, extends his solos, and gets a couple numbers all to himself, including an obligatory Bach guitar arrangement with an ob­ligatory awful pun for a title ('Coming Bach').

I do not want to mindlessly succumb to the idea of Yngwie Malmsteen as the prototypical heart­less finger-flasher who, with no understanding at all of the essence of music, had somehow put it in his head that speed is all that matters. His solo career has its ups and downs — mostly downs, but let us not entirely discard the ups — and he can play with feeling when he gets his hormones under control. Unfortunately, during his stint with Alcatrazz, it was all about the hormones. Bon­net sings with feeling; his singing does not mesh well with the music, and the songs are mostly rotten, but at least the record makes clear that he really came to Japan so as to share his emotions with some of the mystifying people from that mystifying land. (It is a little awkward, though, for a guy from Lincolnshire to sing about Hiroshima to the Japanese — not to mention finishing the song with a sloganish "don't forget Hiroshima! No more war!" as if it were only his, Graham Bonnet's presence, that could save the poor people of Japan from forgetting about one of their greatest national tragedies).

Malmsteen, however, came to Japan with one major goal in mind: to show how he can play faster than Eddie Van Halen. If some of the riffs manage to make sense, none of the solos do. Take your musical space, chop it up in an astronomical number of even spaces, fill each one up with a ran­dom note, and you basically get the scale equivalent of white noise; most of these performances could have been filled with static and the effect would be comparable. Granted, seeing and hear­ing this in a proper live setting may pass for a special psychotropic treatment, but one that has only superficial resemblance to «music as art». On the other hand, young Yngwie's aim is not to make art; it is to make PR, and he achieved that aim splendidly.

There is a second reason, though, why Live Sentence is mildly superior: although the majority of the songs are predictably pulled from their only studio album up to date, they also do a couple of Rainbow numbers from 1979's Down To Earth, and much as I dislike that record in comparison to classic Dio-era material from 1975-78, at least the songs there were all written by Blackmore and Glover: in this setting, 'Since You've Been Gone' and particularly the big radio hit 'All Night Long' tower over the rest of this material like a couple of jötunn giants over a pack of dwarves. Even Yngwie calms down a bit, sticking mainly to melody. Decent stuff. There is no escaping the obligatory thumbs down, of course, but if you are interested in a bad vibe with elements of en­tertainment rather than a bad vibe with no redeeming qualities at all, Live Sentence is the place where you start with Alcatrazz.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

AC/DC: Backtracks

AC/DC: BACKTRACKS (1974-2001/2009)

CD I: 1) High Voltage; 2) Stick Around; 3) Love Song; 4) It's A Long Way To The Top; 5) Rocker; 6) Fling Thing; 7) Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap; 8) Ain't No Fun (Waitin' 'Round To Be A Millionnaire); 9) R.I.P. (Rock In Peace); 10) Carry Me Home; 11) Crabsody In Blue; 12) Cold Hearted Man; 13) Who Made Who (12" Extended Mix); 14) Snake Eye; 15) Borrowed Time; 16) Down On The Borderline; 17) Big Gun; 18) Cyberspace; CD II: 1) Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap; 2) Dog Eat Dog; 3) Live Wire; 4) Shot Down In Flames; 5) Back In Black; 6) T.N.T.; 7) Let There Be Rock; 8) Guns For Hire; 9) Sin City; 10) Rock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollution; 11) This House Is On Fire; 12) You Shook Me All Night Long; 13) Jailbreak; 14) Shoot To Thrill; 15) Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be; CD III: 1) High Voltage; 2) Hells Bells; 3) Whole Lotta Rosie; 4) Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap; 5) Highway To Hell; 6) Back In Black; 7) For Those About To Rock; 8) Ballbreaker; 9) Hard As A Rock; 10) Dog Eat Dog; 11) Hail Caesar; 12) Whole Lotta Rosie; 13) You Shook Me All Night Long; 14) Safe In New York City.

Another cooky boxset, released at the peak of the Black Ice hype and featuring the latest and gre­atest in boxset technology: a box that represents a real small working amplifier (one watt power, so as not to disturb the neighbours). Apart from the packaging delights, however, Backtracks on­ly goes to show, once more, just how uncluttered the vaults are.

The set exists in two versions — three CDs/two DVDs and two CDs/one DVD, respectively — and only the first CD really makes any proper sense, since it carefully collects all, or most, of the B-sides and rarities that used to make the professional collector a human being of a different or­der from the mere mortal. No more. Now even the laymen have regular, simple access to pleasu­res they had missed, such as:

the B-side to the 'Jailbreak' single, surreptitiously called 'Fling Thing' but in reality the same 'Bonnie' that the band sang along with the audience on the Live album, only in the studio, with nearly inaudible vocals but quite well-pronounced guitar;

the Australian-only release of 'Rock In Peace' (originally on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Che­ap) and 'Crabsody In Blue' (originally on Let There Be Rock), a mid-tempo and a slow blues shuffle respectively, both of which further develop Bon Scott's sickly predictable brand of teenage humor ('Crabsody In Blue' is basically 'The Jack Part 2');

'Cold Hearted Man', a rocker from Powerage that sounds exactly like most other rockers on Powerage and (possibly, for that same reason) disappeared on the American LP;

some unremarkable Johnson-era B-sides from the late Eighties. If you hate Blow Up Yo­ur Video, don't bother. I don't, but I still don't bother;

'Big Gun', a pretty damn good thing written for the soundtrack of Last Action Hero (well, it ain't Scorsese, but still a good excuse for popcorn consumption). That is, until you rea­lize the principal excitement comes from the same type of vocal hook that used to be 'Bed­­lam In Belgium' (the riff from that one they recycled elsewhere).

Granted, this (plus a couple other unmentionables) is no Ali Baba's treasure cave, but still a good source of iron for completists. As for the two live CDs, the small bunch of Bon Scott-era live ma­terial is expendable (no surprises next to the wealth on Bonfire); the nine songs recorded live at Donington in 1991 are a complete waste of space — they are more or less the same as on the Live album from the 1991 tour — unless you are a particular fan of the Donington concert (avai­lable on video in its entirety) and are too lazy to rip the audio off your DVD all by yourself; the live stuff from 1996 lets you see that Ballbreaker was not all bad, but also shows that, by that time, the band was not able to amass the same level of fury onstage that it did in the studio; and the extended live version of 'Jailbreak' from 1985 is terrific until the strip section, where you will be subject to approximately five or six minutes of the bass drum going BOOM... BOOM... BO­OM... while Angus is slowly trying to figure out whether or not to give in to the crowd's demand for admiring his manhood. Authentic, but imminently skippable.

So, basically, the only real reason to own these extra two CDs is for the eight live tracks from 1981 to 1983, which capture a still young and fearsome band with hard rock's deadliest singer in his absolute prime. Granted, Brian, even at his very best and healthiest, never sang as good on stage as he did in the studio — apparently, lack of concentration and the necessity to lash and thrash about in order to keep up with the world's wildest guitarist, not to mention the necessity of constantly adjusting his cap (why he never came up with the idea of gluing it on is one of rock's deepest mysteries), hindered him from hitting all the right notes. But belt it out he could, and did, and once you get adjusted to all the little mistakes, these live renditions will be a nice change from the overplayed studio counterparts — plus, they include two of the best songs from Flick Of The Switch, and I count this as a personal gift.

Overall, while this is not the symmetric Johnson-era companion to Bonfire that the fans were ex­pecting (under a guessable title like Brianstorm or Brianshake), it is almost the thing — the Bon-era material is underrepresented, and the Brian-era material graciously lets us remember some of the best pages of his legacy. In that sense, it is a companion, and a must-have for fans, if not for general audiences.