MARK E. SMITH – The Post Nearly Man

Modern Energy…and what it means to you and I” spouts Mark E Smith at the beginning of one of the tracks on this CD. A man with a skewed take on life, you may be forgiven for thinking a spoken word release from The Fall’s front man (and only constant member) could be an interesting prospect indeed. He goes from mentioning energy – something this collection of ramblings severely lacks – to mentioning Richard and Judy and then “Fred West’s sweaty family” in the space of less than a minute. As he does so, it becomes obvious that rather than being an outing of interesting beat or slam poetry as championed by Tom Waits, Henry Rollins or that under-rated wordsmith Mike Doughty, this is little more than a vanity project from a man who’d rather confuse and frustrate than entertain.

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THUNDER – Behind Closed Doors

Back in 1990, I knew people who were really excited by Thunder’s debut album, ‘Backstreet Symphony’. While it sounded like a decent British rock album, aside from a couple of standout tracks, it didn’t match their live performances. Their second album ‘Laughing On Judgement Day’ was a great improvement over the debut (if a little long), but there was still a niggle: while Danny Bowes’s voice was amazing, it owed a great debt to Paul Rodgers – and as such, as much as I liked Thunder by that point and knew they were a superb band – I always ended up feeling that time spent listening to them could be time better spent listening to Free’s ‘Highway’ LP.

When I first heard ‘Behind Closed Doors’ upon its release in 1995, it literally blew me away and it still remains my favourite Thunder disc.  Of course, the end result is still heavily influenced by 70s rock bands, but the songwriting is largely more varied than before, resulting in a few new tricks to be heard.

The album’s opening number is one of the heaviest tracks in the Thunder catalogue. It has a strong Zeppelin influence, both in the pounding drum style and the way keyboards are used to give things a slightly Eastern flavour. Danny’s voice still holds strong, even with the slightly harder approach and Luke Morley’s guitar riffs are simple but effective. ‘Fly On The Wall’ and ‘Too Scared To Live’ have strong funk/blues influences: the former makes excellent use of a horn section and soulful backing vocals while the latter has a slightly bluesy vibe during its brief chorus sections, but the verses show a far funkier style than Thunder have previously attempted. Mikael Höglund’s bass work is the main driving force and, again, Bowes is in decent voice. The track’s bluesiest vibes come courtesy of a couple of really smart guitar solos.

There’s plenty of other stuff from ‘Behind Closed Doors’ that’s instantly familiar. It’s lighters in the air time for ‘Castles In The Sand’, a big stadium number, very similar to ‘Love Walked In’ (from ‘Backstreet Symphony’). While very much a tried-and-tested formula, it represents one of the things Thunder were always best at. The slower blues-rock of ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ and ‘Preaching From a Chair’ feature Bowes’s strongest vocal performances (again tapping into his inner Paul Rodgers); ‘Preaching…’ is a particular stand-out thanks to some great reflective lyrics, where Danny sings about his “flannel shirt and an old tattoo”, before claiming that “clothes don’t make the man”, and musing “maybe [he] should grow a beard”. Great stuff…

‘Ball and Chain’, ‘River of Pain’ and ‘Stand Up’ are full-on punchy rockers, while ‘Till The Rivers Run Dry’ features a more acoustic, laid back band.‘Future Train’ begins with a slightly Zeppelin-y acoustic flourish, before developing into one of the album’s best hard rock workouts. It makes use of a swaggering guitar riff, which works excellently when coupled with fantastic harmony vocals on the chorus.  Danny Bowes’s vocal, with its blues-rock feel is superb throughout.

In February 2010, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was reissued as a deluxe 2CD set.If you like ‘Behind Closed Doors’, the bonus material (sixteen tracks in all) is worthy of investigation.If you’re a Thunder fan, you’ll already have lots of these extras on your dusty old CD singles, but it’s always good to get things rounded up and released in one package.The best of the bonus materials, live acoustic renditions of ‘River of Pain’, ‘Stand Up’ and ‘Castles In The Sand’ really highlight the strength in Thunder’s songwriting when they’re on form, not to mention the effortlessness behind Danny Bowes’ vocal delivery.

With or without the bonus material, this album is first rate, even though it’s still often derivative of many of Thunder’s influences.For me, it represents a band which has honed all their previous styles to perfection and has then become confident enough to expand their sounds.The record buying public at large obviously wasn’t as enthusiastic; ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was the first Thunder album not to achieve gold-selling status, marking the beginning of a downturn in the band’s album sales.It really needs to be as fondly remembered as Thunder’s two preceding albums.’Behind Closed Doors’ may not have yielded the hits, but it represents a band at their absolute strongest.

February 2010

AC/DC – Live From The Atlantic Studios

Following 1980’s multi-million selling ‘Back In Black’, Brian Johnson helped steer AC/DC to uncharted heights.  The band have headlined festivals the world over, filled arenas and held an enduring popularity.

No matter how good or how popular the band became in the 80s and beyond, the material AC/DC released in the 70s is among their very best.  On recordings like ‘High Voltage’ and ‘Let There Be Rock’, their style is a little looser and the rock ‘n’ roll ethic hasn’t yet given way to the band’s slightly more metallic tendencies explored throughout Brian Johnson’s tenure fronting the band.

The studio albums are great, but it’s on the live albums where the early AC/DC really hit home. It’s often said that 1978’s ‘If You Want Blood’ is one of the great live albums of the age – that’s a theory with which it is hard to argue and the 2CD soundtrack to the ‘Let There Be Rock: Live In Paris’ film has some cracking performances.  However, it’s ‘Live From The Atlantic Studios’ which captures the band on most consistent, lean and mean form.  The intimate setting really gives the performance spark.

Bon’s voice is strong throughout the 40-odd minutes; he’s in good spirit, chatting with the small audience between numbers. ‘Live Wire’, ‘Problem Child’ and ‘High Voltage’ set the stage and the Aussie live wire sounds really focused; Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams are impeccably strong in their understated role as rhythm section.  What really works here, though, is the volume of the guitars; ‘Live At The Atlantic Studios’ has a feeling throughout of a studio run-through and as a result, the eight numbers don’t offer much difference to the band’s recordings in terms of performance, but that bit of extra volume means these tracks stomp over many of their studio equivalents.  Solid renditions of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and ‘Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be’ maintain the spirit well, but it’s during the second half of the set that AC/DC relax a little and the fun really begins.

An extended version of the bluesy rocker ‘The Jack’ appears here in its best rendition, largely due to having retained the original album lyrics – much preferred over the sexually themed ones, full of schoolboy humour (pun intended) used on ‘If You Want Blood’ and other live performances.  An extended arrangement allows the band to really fall into a solid blues groove, with Angus turning in a fine solo en route. The band close their set with the double rock ‘n’ roll whammy of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and ‘Rocker’.  Both numbers by this point had been established as crowd-pleasers, but during ‘Rocker’ especially, you can feel the sweaty atmosphere, as Angus and co tear it up.  It would have been fantastic to have been there: it’s such a great shame this set never filmed for posterity.

For those of you who have the studio albums and have loved them for many years, there’s little else to add, as you know exactly what you’re in for.  AC/DC at their most powerful, in front of a tiny audience?  If you want a snapshot of a hugely influential band at their most vital, ‘Live From The Atlantic Studios’ gives you what you need.

Bon Scott (09.07.46 – 19.02.80)

February 2010

*’Live At The Atlantic Studios’ is available as part of the AC/DC ‘Bonfire’ 5CD box set.

VANILLA ICE – Hard To Swallow

Yes, Vanilla Ice. You know him. In 1990, ‘Ice Ice Baby’ was huge and people loved him. He sold millions of records – though it’s unusual to meet anyone who’ll openly admit to having owned either ‘Ice Ice Baby’, or its parent album ‘To The Extreme’. He faded from the public eye some time after and a follow up album, 1994’s ‘Mind Blowin’, went largely un-noticed.

In 1998, Ice returned with ‘Hard To Swallow’, a rap-metal album produced by Ross Robinson, a producer then very much in vogue due to his work with KoЯn, Sepultura and Limp Bizkit. It’s likely you’ll meet more people who’ve heard about ‘Hard To Swallow’ rather than actually heard it. Of those people, most of them will probably tell you they’d like to hear it, y’know…just out of curiosity. After all, Vanilla Ice has been treated as a bit of a joke for so long, could he actually pull off a decent rap-metal/nu-metal album?

Well, curious folks, let Real Gone help you out: ‘Hard To Swallow’ is nowhere near as bad as anything you’re expecting from Vanilla Ice.Nor is it as good as you’re hoping for, from something which fits neatly into its particular niche…and let’s be honest, the metal aspect is why most of you curious folk have remained curious over the years.Being one of the curious myself, part of me hoped this album would be great; thus giving the finger to all those who’d written off the project before it’d even begun.

Ross Robinson’s input as producer is blindingly obvious. The album sounds like you’re expecting, although possibly with a stronger bias toward nu-metal. There’s stuff here which could be compared to early Limp Bizkit on their ‘Three Dollar Bill, Y’all’ album (although about three times heavier); in part that’d be thanks to Robinson, but there’s another connection here in the shape of keyboardist and bassist Scott Borland, whose brother Wes is best known as Limp Bizkit’s sometime guitarist. There’s also a fair amount of KoЯn influence in the downtuned guitars. Again, this is likely the influence of Robinson and the other band members, since Ice claimed he never listened to any nu-metal bands prior to making the record. The drum stool is filled by Shannon Larkin of Godsmack and the heavy guitar work is provided by Snot/Amen man Sonny Mayo. Looking at those musicians’ previous works, the Limp Bizkit debut was enjoyable, if a little disposable, Godsmack have released some decent albums (although their best work was released after this) and the Snot album is an absolute classic of the nu-metal genre, so ‘Hard To Swallow’ is fairly solid from that point of view. It clearly sounds like the product of all the musicians involved – more than just a bunch of guys hired to back Vanilla Ice. Add to that some guest spots from Casey Chaos (Amen), Cyco (Insane Poetry) and Jimmy Pop Ali (Bloodhound Gang), the album has potentially got a lot in its favour.

Ice’s performances here are loaded with arrogance, as he shouts down his detractors and reminds everyone he’s sold millions of albums (hey, Ice, so has David Hasselhoff) but ultimately, this album feels like dozens of albums of a similar ilk, especially during the moments when the raps give way to nu-metal shouting. I still enjoy a lot of late 90s nu-metal stuff and have nothing against shouting, but for approximately half of this album, something doesn’t quite click. Ross Robinson carries a lot of clout as a producer, so why then, does ‘Hard To Swallow’ sound so laboured and generic? There’s plenty of heaviness for sure (maybe a little too much) and Ice does what’s required from him about as well as he can manage – but still, it’s lacking something.

Sadly, there’s very little variation in the material and by about halfway through, the sludgy sound and heavy handed approach starts to become wearing and doesn’t really let up. This isn’t a fun record and I feel it really suffers for taking itself too seriously. Maybe combining heavy riffage with a more light-hearted approach (like ‘Injected’ by Phunk Junkeez, for example) could’ve been a better route for Ice.

That said, there are a few clear standout tracks: ‘A.D.D.’ finds Ice accompanied by a sheet of downtuned sludge where the verses feel like Snot (quite understandably) and there’s more than a sliver of KoЯn thrown into the mix; ‘Stompin’ Through The Bayou’ is the bastard child of KoЯn and Disturbed and ‘Too Cold’ (a metal version of ‘Ice Ice Baby’) proves that Ice isn’t embarrassed by his past, even though many people think he ought to be (he really ought to be embarrassed by this album’s poorest effort though: ‘The Horny Song’ is tacky and frankly provides no entertainment).

All the guys involved with making this album supposedly had a fantastic time in the studio, but that doesn’t really come across when listening to the end product. If you’re still curious, you really ought to hear this album, just to say you have. The best advice I can give you is to not shell out any money in doing so.

February 2010

SAMMY HAGAR – Street Machine

Between leaving Montrose in 1975 and joining Van Halen a decade later, Sammy Hagar was a busy man. During that decade he embarked upon a solo career whereby he released eight studio albums and two live albums, as well as a collaboration with Neal Schon, Kenny Aaronson and Mike Shreive (released as HSAS: ‘Through The Fire’).

A great deal of this work represents quantity over quality as far as I’m concerned.Most of those studio albums contain three or four really great numbers, bolstered by approx half a dozen dispensable ones to bring things up to album length.1977’s ‘Musical Chairs’ doesn’t even stretch that far. After the opening good times of ‘Turn Up The Music’, most of what follows is lacklustre; even a deliberate attempt to rock during ‘Reckless’ feels a little flat, due to an over-reliance of Alan Fitzgerald’s organ, played like a limp Jon Lord. (It’s also worth mentioning that any decent material from fan favourite ‘Danger Zone’ [1980] is killed by a really flat production job from Geoff Workman).

Among Sammy’s pre-VH solo work though, you’ll find one genuine gem.1979’s ‘Street Machine’ is a solid offering which no fan of late 70s hard rock should be without.The Red Rocker and his band are firing on all six here right from the opening number, the simple boogie-rocker ‘Growing Pains’.The no-nonsense rock vibe carries through ‘Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)’, where the rhythm section of Chuck Ruff (drums) and bassist Bill Church (who’d previously worked with Hagar in Montrose) are the real stars.Chuck’s drumming style is very natural; he knows how to rock out, but never in a way which upstages Hagar.Bill Church’s bass style here – and throughout ‘Street Machine’ generally – is solid.He could be compared to a hard rock John McVie: you know the style, a firm anchor – plodding but never dull.

‘This Planet’s on Fire’ (one of the album’s better known numbers) is a full-on rocker, driven by Gary Pihl’s circular riff on lead guitar.He also gets to turn in a fairly hard edged solo – this will undoubtedly be one of the standout tracks for those wanting Sammy and co to rock in the way that Montrose’s ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ and ‘Space Station #5’ had previously.The ballad ‘Child to Man’ offers one of Hagar’s strongest performances, but it’s Gary Pihl’s guitar touches which makes it so memorable.Its subtle bluesy notes compliment Hagar’s voice perfectly.Also more reflective, ‘Never Say Die’ provides another standout.Here, Hagar and the whole band are at their absolute strongest: Sammy’s voice retains its hard rock qualities but he sings like a man who’s been let down, his voice showing a passionate side not quite so evident elsewhere.

Musically, ‘Plain Jane’ is a decent slice of 70s power pop, matching handclaps and a singalong element with hard rock guitars, reminiscent of work by Rick Derringer on his ‘Face To Face’ LP (recorded at a similar time).Hagar’s voice though remains hard and a little husky, so it’s likely this’ll always be far more associated with the hard rock tag.

The rest of the album’s material also passes muster. ‘Wounded In Love’ and ‘Feels Like Love’ both offer decent mid-paced rock stompers; ‘Falling In Love’, driven by ringing guitars features backing vocals by Boston members Brad Delp, Barry Goudreau and Sib Hashain giving it a slightly overblown late 70s vibe and ‘Straight To The Top’ is a fun workout with more than a nod to fifties style rock ‘n’ roll.

The difference in quality between ‘Street Machine’ and any of Sammy’s previous solo albums is astounding. Although Hagar’s best solo albums wouldn’t appear until sometime later (1987’s self-titled album, aka ‘I Never Said Goodbye’ and 1997’s ‘Marching To Mars’), ‘Street Machine’ – like the Montrose debut – does a decent job in highlighting why Hagar was a hero to US rock fans a long time before his alliance with Van Halen.

February 2010