THE BLACKOUT ARGUMENT – Remedies

Whilst browsing the internet, I stumbled upon a list of ‘obscure albums’ everyone should hear. At the top of that list,there was an album called ‘Your New Favorite Band’ by The Argument. No, me neither…so I guess their job was done (we’ll gloss over the inclusion of The Big Dish and the far better known Danny Wilson in their list). They likened The Argument to Ben Folds Five, so that piqued my interest. Next stop: I had a look on Spotify to see if I could hear something from it. No such luck, obviously.

 …What’s that at the top of Spotify’s list of bands with similar names? The Blackout Argument? No, never heard of them either. It seemed only natural therefore, that I’d hit the play button and see what they sound like.

It’s heavy. Hailing from Germany, The Blackout Argument specialise in a similar brand of hardcore metal/punk as Ignite and Shift. More metal than punk, for sure, but spiky around the edges. ‘Remedies’ is their second full-length album.

‘Tempest (Rescue Remedy)’ is a thirty second intro and sets the tone for the album with its pounding bass drums, before leading into ‘Broken Teeth (Agrimony)’ where The Blackout Argument marry heavy guitar riffs with shouty hardcore vocals, lightening to a singing voice for the choruses. Very little new in that approach, but as always, it’s whether they do it well or not that the real issue. ‘Treasure Chest Confidential (Gorse)’ is probably the closest the album gets to the punky hardcore (as opposed to metal) and may appeal to fans of The Sainte Catherines and recent Propagandhi – a definite highlight for me.

‘Kidnap Yourself (Aspen)’ is sludgy with the same sort of shouty vocals which dominate the album, more than reminicent of Glassjaw; again this utilises the more tuneful vocal for the chorus. I wish I could pinpoint whom that voice reminds me of – initially, I thought it was Jon Bunch from Sense Field, but it’s not soft enough. ‘Seven Tones of Grey (Pine)’ has slightly punchier verses leaning towards Sick of It All’s more metallic material, but it’s the more emo/screamo chorus that makes them feel more modern at the time of writing. ‘Dead But So Alive’ starts with a heavy, but tuneful guitar riff, but once vocalist Raphael starts shouting (or more specially alternating the shouting with the cleaner chorus vocals) it becomes very similar to previous tracks.

For melody, ‘Vampire Searching for Some Light (Larch)’, is a standout and probably the album’s best track, being more hardcore punk, recalling Strung Out and co, but there’s still more in common with metal than punk throughout. While The Blackout Argument are great musicians, ‘Remedies’ isn’t always the easiest album to listen to, as it’s so dense. With lots of hardcore punk and metal, though, it’s time that allows hooks to shine through, so I’ll certainly return to it and give it more listens at some point in the future.

There are a bunch of free mp3s up here: www.theblackoutargument.com/wordpress/music

December 2009

 

 

BREE SHARP – More B.S.

A few years ago, I picked up Bree Sharp’s debut album ‘A Cheap And Evil Girl’ on a whim. I’d not heard a note of it, but it was dirt cheap and allegedly both Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello had said they were fans, so I figured I ought to hear it. As it turned out, the album was good, alternative-rock singer-songwriter stuff. Bree’s voice may have been everyone’s cup of tea, being rather edgy…almost exactly like Jepp (about whom you’ll find next to nothing on the net – if anybody can help, send us an email!), but generally it was a solid debut.

This, her sophomore effort, (minus the title for its Japanese release) kind of takes up the baton where ‘Cheap…’ left off. There’s very little difference in the tone and as before, there are obvious stand out cuts, some solid moments and a couple of absolute clunkers. Of songs I’d rather forget, the cover of Don Henley’s ‘Boys Of Summer’ is misjudged and doesn’t really suit Bree’s vocal style at all. A definite skipper… ‘Sleep Forever’ also grates a little, as the hooks aren’t that obvious and the drum pattern isn’t so inspiring. Since that closes the album, it’s easy enough to turn off the CD early!‘Lazy Afternoon’ is very chorus driven and the backing vocals prepare the listener for what you think is going to be a killer chorus and then somehow, it falls a little flat. It’s not unpleasant, but it feels like filler.

With the album’s weak tracks out of the way, what of the rest? ‘Everything Feels Wrong’ has a big chorus though, so it follows ‘Lazy Afternoon’ very well. Like a fuzzy-rock Sheryl Crow, complete with between-verse ‘doo doo doo’ moments, this was very much meant for radio play. It’s the best track here, hands down. ‘Dirty Magazine’ is this album’s oddity. Musically, it’s at odds with the pop-rock style – it’s got a twangy rock ‘n’ roll edge, although it’s not at all rock ‘n’ roll. It has an old fashioned country twang too, but there’s no way you’d ever call it country…and the lyrics may hint at the edgier side of Bree’s debut, but somehow, it doesn’t quite work. ‘Morning In A Bar’ is gentler all round, more atmospheric and sounds like the album’s hangover cure – probably quite deliberately – although as penultimate track, it feels misplaced, as it’s more of a closing statement.

‘Galaxy Song’ – nursery rhyme la-la’s aside – represents the kind of thing Bree is best at. It’s mid paced, semi-acoustic and hints at KT Tunstall, although tougher sounding and recorded a few years before KT hit the big time. ‘The Last Of Me’ is also a high point – a song which takes typical post-break up themes and looks for strength, presents the listener with more semi-acoustic goodness. On the strength of this track alone, I’d like to know whether Bree has had much radio play in the US, aside from her debut’s ode to wanting David Duchovny. It’d be a shame if not, since she’s clearly written better, less throwaway songs.

Overall, ‘More B.S.’ is actually pretty decent. Maybe I only think of it as being not quite as good as the debut purely because ‘The Boys Of Summer’ makes me cringe. …And there’s nothing quite as edgy here as ‘Gutter Mouth’ or ‘Cheap And Evil Girl’. But then, as much as I like it, Bree’s debut was never perfect.

November 2007

 

SAXON – Saxon

In the late 1970s, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal created a musical storm. Fusing the heavy edges of the 70s rock giants with the energy of punk (although as a sub-genre it owed little else to punk), a new musical scene was born. You couldn’t go a week without Sounds featuring someone NWOBHM related (okay, so I’m a bit young to know that first hand, but that’s information I’ve gleaned from reliable sources). Obviously, Iron Maiden remain the best loved of all the bands associated with the scene (save for perhaps Def Leppard; though, due to the Americanisms of much of Leppard’s material, Iron Maiden have remained the most true to the roots of the NWOBHM), but this debut by Saxon is a key album in the scene’s breakthrough; it’s regarded by many as the first album released by one of the big NWOBHM bands.

In 2009 this debut celebrated its thirtieth anniversary…and one of the first things you notice are the rough edges. It was clearly recorded on a small budget and in a hurry. In fact, you could be left wondering what producer John Verity did at the sessions, since the whole thing sounds like a demo. Things are often a little muddy and occasionally Biff Byford’s vocals feel a little lost.
That aside though, there are some decent songs here. The opener ‘Rainbow Theme’ is a short instrumental which leads into ‘Frozen Rainbow’ which reprises the theme at the end. Beginning with an open stringed bass riff (something bassist Steve ‘Dobby’ Dawson would make his trademark at live shows, leaving him with a free hand to point with – allegedly the main influence for Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls), the piece leads into the main guitar riff before settling into the song. It could be seen as an odd choice for an opener as it’s an epic, slow piece, rather than a stomping track to get things underway. The high point here is the guitar solo -something which could be said for many of the tracks featured here. Biff’s voice is fine, suiting the slow delivery, but as mentioned the low-key production values don’t really bring out the best in his performance.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of no nonsense rockers – ‘Backs To The Wall’ is based around a simple but effective guitar riff, coupled with ‘don’t let them get you’ themed lyrics; ‘Still Fit To Boogie’ is simple, but not as good as the lyrics are a little embarrassing now. Of the rockers, ‘Stallions of the Highway’ fares best, with it’s motorbike theme (which would recur throughout the band’s work over the next few years). If it’s complexity you’re after, the album’s rockers mightn’t do much for you. For those of you whom want something to get your teeth into, the album features a couple more brooding, epic style songs to keep ‘Rainbow Theme/Frozen Rainbow’ in good company. ‘Judgement Day’ (hands down, the best track on the album) thunders from the speakers and captures the band at full power. There’s a mid section where things get a bit gentle, but that’s just a build up to a climax, with twin lead guitar harmonies. For best results, check out the live b-side version of this track from Saxon’s 3CD Anthology. Closing the album, ‘Militia Guard’ is the first of Saxon’s many war themed songs, and while the songwriting shows promise, it’s still the twin guitars which prove the high point.

At just under half an hour, the original album and it’s eight songs fly by, with no messing. For those who want more, the 2009 reissue features 14 bonus tracks – including demos, BBC Session tracks and part of the band’s 1980 Donington Monsters of Rock appearance (the rest of which is featured on other Saxon 2009 reissues). It’s great to have the live tracks, as in most cases they’re superior to the studio versions. As for the demos, they’re presented here in a form which is almost identical to the finished album cuts, just a little rougher. The best of the bunch is ‘Big Teaser’, which features a guitar riff which gives a nod to Status Quo, absent from the finished recording. The song is still one of the weaker offerings though. The real gem among the bonus tracks is the BBC Session, where the band premier ‘Motorcyle Man’ and ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’ – the latter being one of the band’s greatest achievements.

Recommended for fans, though new listeners would be better picking up the superior ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ or ‘Wheels Of Steel’ first – also both available with bonus tracks.

December 2009

BETTER THAN EZRA – How Does Your Garden Grow

Sitting rather comfortably alongside the Soul Asylum type bands, Better Than Ezra’s early albums are a solid mix of alternative rock and Americana stylings. ‘Deluxe’, particularly, may be a modern classic.

For ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ things don’t always feel as smooth. The band began to change direction on their third commercially available album, ‘Closer’, and by the time of this fourth release, for the most part, I’d say that the sound I most associate with Better Than Ezra isn’t really present. ‘Closer’ in many ways marked a definite shift, but for this album, the shift is more pronounced. The synths and electric pianos seem far more prominent and sometimes they seem to work, sometimes not. While some of the electric piano and keyboard led moments of ‘Closer’ had a smoothness (‘Get You In’ is lovely; ‘I Do’ is solid alternative pop-rock), moments which feel similar on this fourth outing are angrier, spikier and generally edgy. While some songs are obviously very good, it doesn’t have much in the way of user-friendliness. It may not even be the increased use of electronics; it may just be that for a good proportion of this album, the drums are way too loud. Maybe it’s because they’ve tried to follow up ‘Closer’ with something similar, to show how they’ve mostly moved on from the obvious Soul Asylum type sound, but the songwriting often lacks focus; that’s not to say it doesn’t have some notable moments – Better Than Ezra are, after all, a decent band.

On the opening track, ‘Je Ne M’en Souviens Pas’, the keyboards dominate so much of the arrangement. Combined with the vocals having a phased treatment and pretty much no guitar work, you could be forgiven that they’ve abandoned their past completely and gone synth-pop or electronica. It’s probably meant as a statement, but it’s a really poor choice of opening track and has little to make me want to listen to it more than once. They’ve attempted to be striking, but just about muddled through. ‘Live Again’is very drum led and clearly in the alternative rock bracket, but where guitars would normally be the focus, this song has nice electric piano flourishes. This could be a great song, but it’s not instantly obvious in the way that some of ‘Closer’ had been. ‘Under You’ is mellow and is much closer to old fashioned Ezra, but there’s something missing somehow. It’s not in the music; the music itself is as good as the band’s other pastel shaded moments. It seems to be lacking an obvious hook, which was something ‘Deluxe’ never really felt short of. It’s pleasant enough though. ‘At The Stars’ is definitely one of my favourite tracks; it sounds like a mix of older Ezra, with Our Lady Peace, but that may just be the drum pattern. Excellent.

‘Waxing Or Waning’ has a very relaxed feel, with brushes on the drums and twangy guitars. More Americana than much of the album, I wonder if anyone in the band is fond of the work of Howe Gelb? There’s a spaciousness which reminds me of him and his colleagues. He may well argue, of course. A mass of pre-programmed drums makes up the bulk of ‘Beautiful Mistake’ – a track which is nowhere near as focused or clever as it thinks it is. Largely forgettable at worst and casual indifference at best makes this track easily skippable. In total contrast, ‘Pull’ explores the band’s all-out alt-rock side, with big riffs and guitar solos. While their earlier work was only this rocky on occasion, personally, I’d much rather they went in this direction than the electronic one largely favoured on this album.

‘Particle’ matches pre-programmed drum loops with live drumming to good effect. Again, it’s the keyboard driven sounds here which carry the tune rather than the band’s previous Americana influenced styles. It’s hard not to think of Canada’s Our Lady Peace, although the vocals aren’t that striking. There’s a nice use of a mellotron sound during the last couple of minutes which more than fleshes out the arrangement, but still, at over six minutes, it feels slightly drawn out. Generally this succeeds in doing something ‘Beautiful Mistake’ failed spectacularly with. ‘Like It Like That’ somehow reminds me more of Third Eye Blind. It mixes slight samba rhythms, power pop chords and a repetitive hook that, while not brilliant, manages to stick in your head. The only thing here which doesn’t feel quite natural is the high pitched synth. After a handful of plays, it’s clear that this is one of the album’s high points.

Another of the album’s standouts is ‘How Wonderful You Are’. Again, while I’d struggle to recognise this being the same band who gave us the brilliant ‘Deluxe’, it’s kind of brilliant in its own right. Jangly guitars, a pure pop chorus and a nod to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ make this recommended listening. Near the end of the album, ‘Everything In 2’s’ finally offers the listener something unmistakable. The soulful vocals, mid-paced arrangement, build up to the chorus and semi-acoustic stylings are very much in keeping with the old classic Better Than Ezra, so they’ve not completely abandoned the feel which drew me to them initially.

There’s very much an ‘experiement-not-quite-realised’ feeling about this album and on the whole, while ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’ is solid enough, it never quite hits the spot enough to match BTE’s earlier work. As good as some of it may be (‘Live Again’, ‘Everything In 2’s’ and ‘How Wonderful You Are’ particularly), its hard to imagine it being anyone’s favourite album by these guys.

November 2007

 

THE NETWORK – Money Money 2020

These guys can be seen scattered across the internet, but it seems every time you find something, it’s often the same snippets of information and speculation. Take five people, put them in disguise and throw in a bunch of new wave tunes with pop-punk edges and it’s widely believed that you have a collaboration between Green Day and Devo. The first half of this theory is certainly correct: Fink sounds like Billie Joe Armstrong and close ups of his eyes blow away any doubt. The same goes for their drummer, The Snoo, who is unmistakably Tre Cool. Of most interest, though, is bassist/vocalist Van Gogh (Mike Dirnt). He handles a majority of the vocals on this release, with a delivery rooted in the new wave.

As for the second guitarist and keyboard player, it remains unclear who they might be. One thing’s almost certain – despite what you may have heard, they’re not members of Devo, even though Devo are an obvious influence on these songs. Although there’s still no concrete proof, I’d hazard more than a guess they’re old friends and Green Day touring band members Jason White (Billie Joe’s band mate in Pinhead Gunpowder) and Jason Freese. It’s also certain that this release exists as an outlet for Mike Dirnt’s vocal and songwriting talents as well as giving White and Freese greater creative roles.

Enough of the speculation and hype – what about the songs? There’s plenty here to enjoy. ‘Reto’ is spiky pop-punk in delivery, but the guitars are turned town giving it more of a new wave feel. The lyrics are biting, about someone who uses internet technology for exciting teenagers with cyber-sex; this may or may not be a true story (again, check your Green Day ‘American Idiot’ CD single – it’s engineered by someone called Reto – yet another clue?). ‘Right Hand-A-Rama’ also explores the smuttier side of The Network’s little world, being a song about buying porn and beer to pass the time. It’s rather more obvious who is involved on this song, with Billie Joe taking lead vocals.

Again, ‘Roshambo’ is more obviously a Green Day number, but treated vocals give this a fuzzy sound and the music between verses gives it a very mechanical feel, which seems to be a recurring approach. ‘Love and Money’ exploits the new wave side of things completely, being nearly all droning keys, coupled with a quite spiteful sounding vocal delivery. ‘Supermodel Robots’ was one of the earliest tracks available from this album, available at one point as a free download before the album was released, so I’m told. It’s obvious why. The vocals are unmistakably Billie Joe’s; less of an attempt has been made to disguise the Green Day input here, and this track was a favourite of mine from pretty much the fist time I heard the album (I have to say, though, most of the other songs took repeated listens before they took hold). One of the weaker offerings, ‘Spastic Society’ perversely offers one of the strongest musical arrangements, but is let down somewhat by seemingly stream-of-consciousness words on the verses, coupled with a fairly obvious ‘society is screwed’ chorus.  (Great tune, though their choice of words is an absolute travesty.)

Another album high point, ‘Joe Robot’ nods towards Devo’s ‘Whip It’ musically. It has lyrical concerns with changing technology asking whether these changes are helping us or hindering human progression. It’s almost certainly deliberate that one of the songs here most influenced by Devo has a lyrical concern that’s almost the anti-Devo. Also balancing out the fun and smutty offerings, ‘Spike’ is a piece based around telephone calls by a teenage heroin addict desperate to get money to get a fix. Like Devo, concerns of human wrongs are strong within The Network. Closing the original twelve track version of the album, ‘X-Ray Hamburger’ is slow and brooding, showing obvious homage to Tubeway Army.

The UK issue of this album features two bonus tracks, ‘Hammer Of The Gods’ and a quirky cover of The Misfits’ ‘Teenagers From Mars’. Neither of these add anything special to the overall feel or quality of the release, but from a fans perspective, it’s good to have them if you can track them down. As for the actual album itself, after a quick buzz, it seemed to go largely un-noticed here in the UK and full price copies of it sat gathering dust in the racks at HMV. If only Green Day would stop pretending they had nothing to do with it and start shouting about it a bit more, so many other people would have discovered this great album.

August 2007