NICKELBACK – Dark Horse

Most of Nickelback’s singles have been pretty lightweight. ‘How You Remind Me’ is a half-decent rock radio single, and ‘Rockstar’ is hugely unchallenging.  For those willing to not care about credibility and dig a little deeper,  Nickelback’s album tracks can occasionally offer something a little tougher, tunes that kick while retaining a certain level of user-friendliness.

‘Dark Horse’, their sixth album, has something instantly in its favour: it  is the first Nickelback album to be part-produced by Mutt Lange.  For the three of you who don’t know, Mutt Lange is a production legend. He’s worked with Def Leppard (‘Pyromania’, ‘Hysteria’), Bryan Adams (‘Waking Up The Neighbours’) and AC/DC (‘Highway To Hell’, ‘Back In Black’) and a whole bunch more. He has a trademark approach where he’ll beef up the sound and add lots of backing vocals (look no further than classic Def Leppard for the best examples); he’s even used that approach to some extent on Shania (ex-Mrs Mutt) Twain albums. I have a friend who has a theory: Mutt is a mad scientist. Bands knock on the door of his lab with their master tapes. He takes them and puts them into his special machine (the Mutt-o-tron™), shouts “Red light, yellow light, green light, GO!” and presto – everything comes out bigger, shinier and with extra Def Leppardy backing vocals.

 

And so it is with Nickelback’s ‘Dark Horse’. The album utilises all of Mutt Lange’s best tricks, and thanks to his partial presence, the band’s music has moved from tired sounding post-grunge, to more classic sounding hard rock. From the crunch of the opener it’s a good attempt at an attention grabber with a meaty riff in tow, but sadly, Chad Kroeger is an appalling lyricist and here he peddles out a bunch of smut that would make even Mötley Crüe cringe. This opening song is called ‘Something In Your Mouth’. I’m not gonna go into details, but let’s just say Kroeger sings about strippers – and not in a fun way.

Okay. With regard to the tunes which follow,‘Dark Horse’ there’s some enjoyable tunes, but excrutiating lyrics throughout spoil any chance of it ever being a decent record. During ‘Next Go Round’ Chad Kroeger sings (seemingly without irony) about doing it ‘until [he’s] good and sweaty until [he] can’t stand up’ and how he wants to be ridden ‘up and down the lawn’ (presumably like a tractor, since he name checks John Deere). Jesus Christ. During several other songs, Kroeger makes other lewd sexual references which spoil otherwise decent tunes.

‘Burn It To The Ground’ matches a hard driving riff with a huge chorus. The ‘hey’ vocal here is surely a sample (1000 Joe Elliotts?); overall, the end result is a winner. Sure, as expected, the lyrics are plain dumb, but at least this time Kroeger’s not thinking with his nob. Hmmm, a song about partying and drinking, on an album full of crass songs about girls? I sense a midlife crisis.

Mutt Lange’s work is the best thing about this record. Since with some help Nickelback can now present consistently decent tunes, maybe next time they’ll get someone clever in to help write the lyrics. I’m not sure Chad Kroeger can even spell shover chauver chauvinism.

Watch Chad talk about his house here! Could be better than the real thing.

January 2010

A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS – Exploding Head

Released on Mute Records in 2008, this second album by New York’s A Place To Bury Strangers is a twisted, almost torturous ride. There are moments where the listener is beaten into submission by a barrage of multi-layered guitars, driven by distortion. Somewhere among the noise, inspired equally by Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, Oliver Ackermann’s vocals waver in an out like a man drowning in sound. On most of the album, his voice remains buried below the music, his lyrics barely audible – but that voice is necessary as a point of aural focus. The blanket-of-noise approach is a key feature in the band’s sound, featuring on a number of songs, at least in part. In short, A Place To Bury Strangers are rarely easy to listen to. The opening track, ‘There Is Nothing’ sets the tone for most of the album, with vocals buried under guitars, but its pace makes it somehow captivating.

While the sheets of feedback and distortion are cranked up to ear-bleeding levels during parts of ‘Deadbeat’ and ‘I Used To Live My Life In The Shadow of Your Heart’, ‘Ego Death’ manages to temper the feedback-drenched squalls of the band’s noisier side (slightly) with a dark eighties, electronic feel. At times, Oliver is still using his effects pedals to levels which could be considered extreme, but despite this, there are signs of obvious songcraft bubbling just below the surface. These signs of musical ability are even more evident during ‘Smile When You Smile’ which features some sharp bass work (courtesy of Jono Mofo) somewhere in amongst the density.

It’s not all challenging though. At the centre of ‘In Your Heart’ and ‘Everything Always Goes Wrong’ there’s a mechanical bleakness carrying a spirit of Joy Division. The title track shows similar mechanical coolness and ‘Keep Slipping Away’ is a near-perfect piece of goth-pop. It’s a marriage of ‘Pornography’ era Cure and the lighter parts of ‘Psychocandy’ by Jesus and Mary Chain, which is played with so much love, you’d be forgiven for thinking it could be an unearthed obscurity from 1983.

These guys are likely to be met with open arms by MBV fans (particularly given Kevin Shields’s long periods of inactivity). The lighter gothy parts of their work are those with the most appeal – and as such could get the band a slightly broader audience, but on the whole, ‘Exploding Head’ is a record which requires patience and time.  Only then will the rewards begin to be reaped.

January 2010

THEM CROOKED VULTURES – Them Crooked Vultures

The idea of Josh Homme forming a supergroup with John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl, on paper at least, is a very exciting concept.  Imagine the energy of Grohl’s many previous works colliding with a wedge of Zeppelin fuelled goodness!  Surely that means that Them Crooked Vultures should have some big appeal?

And it does. …But only really to fans of Joshua Homme and particularly his band Queens of The Stone Age. Aside from an occasional obvious backing vocal from Dave Grohl and an occasional musical flourish (but seldom more) from Jones, a lot of Them Crooked Vultures’ material feels indistinguishable from Homme’s main band.

If viewed as the work of a supergroup, most of the album is unremarkable. Homme is clearly de facto band leader and most of the music takes his usual punchy but sludgy approach. Fine if you like Queens of the Stone Age, but of little interest to other people. ‘No One Loves Me & Neither Do I’ has a fantastic riff, but fails to back it up with a memorable hook. Lead single ‘New Fang’ has a decent drum groove, with stops on the what sounds like it ought to be a pre-chorus, but again there’s nothing too memorable about it. ‘Elephants’ is rather cumbersome and drags on far too long at nearly seven minutes (a common criticism of at least half of Homme’s work), despite a decent intro riff.

‘Scumbag Blues’, a Cream style power trio workout, is one of the only times that the potential behind Them Crooked Vultures can be seen. It’s also the first time Jones’s keyboard work makes an obvious appearance. Here, he occasionally breaks into some very welcome ‘Trampled Underfoot’ styled clavinet work. Although ‘Bandoliers’ features an old-style mellotron, it’s all but buried below the drums. Such a pity that Jones’s distinctive keyboard work (a la ‘No Quarter’, ‘Trampled Underfoot’ and ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’) doesn’t have much place in Them Crooked Vultures. It could be argued that Jones’s keyboard is the key to ‘Interlude With Ludes’, but he’s not playing much of anything resembling a tune and the whole thing is a mess.

Since Jones would be a hero to both Homme and Grohl, it seems odd that his contributions to Them Crooked Vultures would be so underwhelming. He’s credited as playing bass, keyboards, keytar, piano, slide guitar and mandolin, but most of these get lost under Josh Homme’s trademark bluster. Aside from occasional keyboards, most of his clearly audible work is restricted to the bass. While his bass playing is solid, there are a number of Homme’s chums who could have filled the bass player’s spot as easily.

Some of the material here sounds solid, but little of it makes any lasting impact. Some good riffs for sure, but a repetitive sound and lack of hooks makes ‘Them Crooked Vultures’ a wasted opportunity, considering the musicians involved. Some of this material would’ve made a decent Queens of The Stone Age album, but if viewed as more than that, it’s one of the biggest musical disappointments of 2009.

January 2010

MANOWAR – The Triumph of Steel

Sometime around 2001, I found a website which claimed to be “the future of heavy metal”.  In the twenty-first century, the very notion of calling metal ‘heavy’ metal was at complete odds with any kind of “future”. The website also had a logo which dripped blood. After I stopped laughing, I realised that these guys weren’t being ironic. They were still partying like it was 1982 and incapable of forward thinking. They probably loved this album by Manowar and were probably even naive enough to take it completely seriously.

As tight as they are musically, there’s no way Manowar aren’t playing their audience, with tongues firmly in-cheek.  ‘The Triumph of Steel’ – their sixth studio album – was released in 1992, in the middle of a very exciting time for alternative rock and metal. With that, they were outsiders – even more so than usual. With Soundgarden and Pearl Jam appearing regularly in Kerrang!, it was hardly likely Joey DeMaio and his gang were ever likely to be cover stars, with their battle songs and grimacing rock faces.

The album was released over a decade into the band’s career, so surely by then, their testosterone driven, Thor-hammered schtick should’ve worn a little thin?

They’ve thought of that.

In a move far braver than most weaklings would even consider, the album opens with a 28 minute epic ‘Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy In Eight Parts’. It takes their fascination with mythology and gods to whole new levels of pompousness. Over the course of nearly half an hour, Manowar churn out lyrics inspired by Homer’s ‘Iliad’, where the best bits are coupled with monster-sized guitar riffs, but there’s a lot of padding.  At worst, there are bits which sound like horrible musical theatre (think Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of “Sparticus”, but even worse) and surely the four-and-a-half minute drum solo could’ve been edited out? Overall, while Manowar deserve points for pushing their brand of battle metal to new extremes, at almost half an hour, it was bound to fall on its arse somewhere.  Realistically, the best parts of ‘Achilles’ could have created a career-defining, brilliant ten-minuter.

The second half of the album returns to more tried and tested formulas, with Manowar tackling standard length tunes.  ‘Metal Warriors’ begins with the claim that ‘Every one of us has heard the call / Brothers of True Metal, proud and standing tall’. I’m still laughing inside, whenever I think about it. Musically though, it pays homage to everything that’s decent about old-school metal, so despite being ridiculous in the extreme, that’s just enough to make it stand up.  ‘Ride The Dragon’ ploughs ahead, 80s metal style, with double bass drumming (courtesy of Kenny Earl “Rhino” Edwards…not to be confused with Status Quo man, Rhino Edwards) and some flat-out hysterical lyrics: ‘Demon’s blood and dragon fire, falling on my wings / Racing to the battle in the sky / Ancient gods are calling me, I hear them when they sing / Of all the heroes who wait for me to die / Beneath the cloak of magic, I’ll meet them in the air / I am invisible, I move without a sound / They look but cannot find me, they think that I’m not there / With a spell I send them crashing to the ground’… Death to false metal, indeed!

Both ‘The Demon’s Whip’ and ‘Cherokee Horse of the Spirits’ are stomping, slower numbers – the former, rather worryingly, seems to have been recorded without any bass (maybe Joey DeMaio was off having an Ægirian sized piss) – but on the plus side, finds space enough for a belting guitar solo. By this point, though, things are in danger of flagging, with most of the material feeling like an afterthought to fill the second half of the disc.

Most of you will be approaching this album knowingly. Despite a reasonable amount of musical prowess, Manowar remain big, brash and dumb. But then, since Manowar once featured Ross “The Boss” Friedman of Detroit garage punks The Dictators, they’re almost certainly having good-natured fun at the expense of eighties style metal.

Just don’t tell those guys at that website.

January 2010

THE TRUTH – Believe

This 5 track EP from Florida based band The Truth was self-produced and sounds like it was put together on a budget of $3.75. The production is extremely flat; the guitars are way too loud and the drums sound hollow and lifeless. Maybe bringing in an outside producer might’ve helped, guys…

Add to this a screaming, gobshite vocalist who’s about as tuneful as fingernails on a blackboard and you’ve got The Truth. As a band, they definitely aren’t shy in showing their influences – they are desperate to be Queensrÿche and so far, they’ve made a worse job of it than Fates Warning and let’s face it, Fates Warning were always a bit shite. They say imitation is the best form of flattery, but if I were Queensrÿche, I’d go to Florida and give this lot a good kicking.

Those of you who feel I’m being a little unfair as ‘the band have put this together themselves’ should keep schtum and check out the self-financed CD ‘Dogs’ by Bone Machine and see how well melodic rock can be done without the aid of a label and only a small budget.

Avoid The Truth at all costs. By thinking they could have a career with this old toss, they’re living a lie.

Originally written for Fastlane magazine, Summer 1995.