Most of you will know Alexi Lalas as “that American soccer guy”. In 1998, Lalas released the album ‘Ginger’ (his third, I believe) and it’s a fantastic record, full of power pop gems.

On the album, he not only wrote and sang all the songs, but played guitar, bass and drums. Lalas is a fine vocalist, but rather more importantly here, he proves himself to be a superb songwriter. You won’t find any deep or life-changing lyrics, but then that’s not what ‘Ginger’ is about. The opening number ‘Goodnight Moon’ sets the tone with its upbeat jangle, sure to please fans of Gin Blossoms etc. However it’s the album’s second track which really makes the listener realise they could be onto something a bit special; musically, it’s got a similar vibe to the opener, but a catchy, simple guitar riff gives it edge. The lyric “hey hey hey, just another cliché, too much too fast and it slips away” would suggest Lalas more than understands the fickle nature of the music industry (and fame in general) and come what may, he’s getting maximum enjoyment from his work – and that’s something which really comes across in most of this album’s performances.

‘Drive-by Serenade’ has a more mature sound and slows thing down a little. It feels less throwaway than some of the album, but somehow that doesn’t make it better. If you want a comparison, this fits snugly into the late 90s alt rock mode again and wouldn’t sound too out of place played up against the likes of Far Too Jones. It holds its own with the best music of that style. ‘Sonic Lullaby’ tears by in full-on rock mode – and is gone in under three minutes. ‘This Should Be’ is perfect Gin Blossoms style jangle-pop. I may even dare suggest it’s better than some of the material on their second album! ‘Vacancy’ is another slower number which combines both acoustic and electric guitars and is very reminiscent of Five Easy Pieces – another great and largely unknown band from the late 90s.

The songs on offer are so strong; ‘Ginger’ is an album with no unnecessary filler and at approximately 37 minutes playing time, it leaves you feeling like you need to give it that second spin when it’s done, just to help keep up the good vibes. If you’re a fan of ‘Hang Time’ era Soul Asylum, Goo Goo Dolls or Gin Blossoms (and particularly their side project Gas Giants), then you need this record. As far as largely ignored albums go, this is one of the greatest.

March 2010

SAXON – Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie


If you’ve been a regular visitor to Real Gone, you’ll know that Saxon is a band who have been featured previously – more than once, in fact. …And deservedly so, since their long history has seen many changes; from changes in line-ups, to changes in management – the band, driven by the heavyweight enthusiasm of frontman Biff Byford, appears to be almost unstoppable.

This documentary film made by Coolhead Productions tells their story right from the beginning; when vocalist Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn were playing to small audiences in their slightly ambitious blues/prog hybrid Coast, while simultaneously Steve “Dobby” Dawson and Graham Oliver were getting gigs in a Free influenced hard rock outfit named Sob. Eventually the four musicians joined forces: Sob was renamed Son of a Bitch and with the addition of drummer Pete Gill, was eventually renamed Saxon.

Fans of the band’s first taste of success as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal will have plenty to sink their teeth into, since this movie sees their 1979-82 period discussed at great length, with a particularly in-depth segment regarding Saxon’s support slot on Motörhead’s ‘Bomber’ tour of ’79. As expected, Lemmy is on hand to recount a few stories and we are given an insight into a friendship which was formed between the two bands – a bond which remains strong. The main highlight with regards to storytelling comes from Saxon’s then manager – David Poxon – who recounts the night he was hired. Allegedly, he got stuck in room with the band who then embarked upon a five hour tea-drinking frenzy while Biff cornered him and talked incessantly.

The eighties are tackled with a similar depth, including some great in-the-studio footage of the band recording ‘Crusader’ with REO Speedwagon producer Kevin Beamish. For those looking for the traditional ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ spirit previously associated with Saxon, the 80s albums have always divided their audience. This documentary highlights that the band weren’t always sure with their direction here either – and it’s strangely comforting to hear that!

Although the documentary is superb, there’s a feeling that the band’s output between 1990 and their headline performance at the German Wacken Festival in 2008 is a little rushed. There are decent interviews with guitarist Doug Scarratt and bassist Tim ‘Nibs’ Carter, where they talk about joining Saxon; there’s the obligatory discussion regarding Graham Oliver finishing his tenure with the band. There’s also time given to the discussion of the Harvey Goldsmith documentary (which is claimed went some way to putting Saxon back on the right path, but from some angles here it looks like a hatchet job). But for the more casual fan (there are a lot of lapsed fans out there, and here’s hoping this documentary could inspire them to re-connect with the band), any discussion of the many albums Saxon released throughout the 90s and most of the 00’s appears to fly by in minutes. 1990’s ‘Solid Ball of Rock’ is discussed briefly as marking the beginning of a move back towards a more metal sound for Saxon, before barely any time at all is given to the albums which followed.

While all the interviewees have great stories to tell (Biff and Dobby are particularly engaging), ‘Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie’ is not always laughs abound. There’s a moment where the slightly boastful tones of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery turn to regret as Dobby recounts tales of times spent with groupies, particularly on the Mötley Crüe tour of ’84. Even though, as a viewer you know it’s coming, hearing the less optimistic voices of Dobby and Graham Oliver talk about their leaving the band/being fired also lends a gentle sadness. Biff also talks about his first wife and child and becoming a father at 17 and having to choose between them or life as a musician. When asked if he ever looks back, he replies: “No. I don’t think about it. You have to put it in a little package and put it away somewhere…

If the late 70s and early 80s established the band as one of the leading lights in the heavy metal scene of the time, then their renewed vigour in the 21st Century really highlights why they’ve endured for so long. There are extensive clips throughout the film of Saxon’s St George’s Day performance in 2008 and the aforementioned Wacken 2008 performance. Here, with the Byford/Quinn/Scarratt/Carter/Glockler line-up, the band sound stronger and heavier than ever before and hearing Biff talk of Saxon’s future, he remains very optimistic.

In addition to the many interviews with past and present members of Saxon, their managers and the always enjoyable input of Motorhead, ‘Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie’ also features cameo appearances from other musicians, some very well known, some not so. Probably the most famous interviewee is Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who as always, comes across as a little self important. He says that Saxon were the biggest influence on his band… Y’know, I could swear I’ve heard him say that about Diamond Head and other bands too… On the plus side (and it’s a big plus) Lars’s contribution means the viewer is treated to a clip of Metallica playing ‘Motorcycle Man’ with Biff guesting on lead vocals!

Despite the last 45 minutes feeling a bit pieced together, ‘Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie’ is fantastic – a roller coaster of happiness and sadness; full of great stories and great tunes. If you’re a fan, you’re in for a fantastic journey.

June 2010

BLACK FLAG – Damaged

damagedAfter the release of the ‘Nervous Breakdown’ EP in 1978, Keith Morris, Black Flag’s vocalist, quit the band. Attempts at making a full-length LP were started and abandoned during the following couple of years and both Dez Cadena and Ron Reyes had a shot at being the band’s replacement vocalist. Things eventually fell into place after Henry Rollins got on board as full-time mouthpiece and larger-than-life frontman.

The first release featuring Rollins (and the band’s first full length), ‘Damaged’ was released in December 1981 on guitarist Greg Ginn’s own SST label. (The album was originally scheduled to be released on Unicorn Records with distribution from major label MCA, who’d already pressed the first run of the LP. However the label pulled out at the eleventh hour. Ginn decided to release the album himself on SST; this would lead to a long legal dispute which meant Black Flag did not release any new material until March 1984).

All of ‘Damaged’s music tracks had been recorded prior to Rollins joining. In fact, nine of the album’s fifteen tracks had been attempted during the aforementioned album sessions; in some cases – like ‘Police Story’ – some tracks had been recorded several times (for those who want to hear the earlier attempts of these cuts with Black Flag’s three previous vocalists, then the ‘Everything Went Black’ compilation should be required listening). From a hardcore punk perspective the album is musically very powerful, but it’s that power combined with the album’s unrelenting lyrical content which has made it a genre classic.

‘What I See’ presents the band at their most outwardly aggressive as Rollins, with a perfect delivery, rants over Chuck Dukowski’s distorted bassline. With his fantastic groove, Chuck forces the listener to pay attention as Rollins makes such stark claims as “Life’s cold / I want to feel it reach inside and turn my mind off / I don’t wanna live / I wish I was dead”. ‘Damaged I’ (a track which looks towards Black Flag’s later, slower material) is similarly oppressive as the band hammer out a seemingly never-ending grinding, monolithic riff as Rollins screams “I’m blind, I’m blind / I’m damaged!” in a tortured tone, befitting of the musical arrangement. His delivery is so convincing – the sound of anger at its purest form. Rollins sounds like man fit to explode.

Musically, the rest of the album concentrates on faster material. Lyrically, a lot of it is still pretty heavy stuff, for example: ‘Police Story’ recounts the city’s heavy handed police force and ‘Padded Cell’, as you’d expect, deals with feeling trapped (“Earth’s a padded cell, defanged and declawed / I’m living in hell, it’s a paradise fraud”). On the whole, ‘Damaged’ as an album, shows Black Flag in a far more uncompromising mood than suggested by their earlier recordings.

‘Six Pack’ and ‘TV Party’ present a far more lyrically lightweight band. ‘Six Pack’ celebrates the live-for-the-moment spirit of youth seen through an alcohol haze (“My girlfriend asked me which I liked better/I hope the answer don’t upset her”); ’TV Party’ is rather unsubtle swipe at the TV generation. With their three-chord, disposable arrangements, they revisit the basic punk roots of Black Flag’s earliest work. However, the guitars are still unmistakably the work of Greg Ginn, as he occasionally breaks into atonal guitar leads. The gang vocals on ‘TV Party’ represent the album’s most trashy element, possibly designed with live performance in mind. Despite feeling more fun on the surface, both songs possess a nihilistic spirit, in keeping with the rest of the material. The album’s only obvious positive vibe comes from ‘Rise Above’ which deals with finding strength and breaking free from society’s control.

Although the band would sound more confident and self-assured on the releases which followed, (even when the material wasn’t always great) ‘Damaged’ is the quintessential Black Flag album – a genuine hardcore punk classic. While most of it doesn’t sound anywhere near as threatening as it once did (many bands would take similar aggression to more extreme levels later), this album still retains an energy and DIY spirit which many punk bands aspire to. No self-respecting punk collection should be without one.

March 2010

IRON MAIDEN – Powerslave

By the time this album was released in September 1984, Bruce Dickinson was settled in his place as Iron Maiden’s frontman, having replaced Paul Di’Anno over two years previously. He’d also proved to be a great songwriter, as evidenced by ‘Revelations’ (from the band’s 1984 album ‘Piece of Mind’). Nicko McBrain had replaced Clive Burr in December 1982 and he too seemed comfortable in his role as the new drummer. ‘Powerslave’ was the first album released by the band to feature the same line-up as the preceding offering, so it’s unsurprising the band sounded stronger and more confident than ever before.

Beginning with ‘Aces High’, the band sounds truly alive. Fast paced with Steve Harris’s trusty, galloping basslines, this track is an archetypal Maiden number, it tells the tale of a fight between British fighter pilots and the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Similarly inspired by true events, ‘2 Minutes To Midnight’ (a Bruce Dickinson/Adrian Smith co-write) features a lyrical theme about the Doomsday clock; specifically it’s reaching close to midnight after both the then Soviet Union and the USA tested H-bombs within months of each other. These two tracks were released as singles to promote the album and are among the band’s strongest songs and possibly explain why Iron Maiden are often thought to be more sophisticated than many of their contemporaries. ‘Back In The Village’ is a sequel of sorts to ‘Number of the Beast’s ‘The Prisoner’. While this album offers much better songs (notably in the songs which follow and the two singles), this song’s energy makes it stand up and demand attention. It’s not Maiden’s best song, but certainly not their worst by a long stretch.

The title cut shows a maturity rarely seen in Maiden’s previous work. Its Egyptian theme both musically and lyrically provide the album with something accessible and striking, with a stylish approach not traditionally associated with anything NWOBHM-related at that point. Both this number and ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ push the boundaries of 80s metal into new horizons. ‘Rime’ is a thirteen minute epic: on the surface, all of Maiden’s previous musical signatures are here – most notably the galloping rhythms, Bruce’s unmistakable voice with its siren-wail, and a knack for story-telling within the songs. Between the twin lead guitars and sheer power, it features a slow, atmospheric mid-section featuring a reading from Coleridge’s poem of the same name. Maybe it is a little pretentious, yes, but you’ve got to applaud them for branching out from their tried and tested musical traits. It truly raises the musical stakes.

Very few albums are perfect; ‘Powerslave’ is no exception: Its main flaw is that it sags in the middle (or the end of the first side, if you originally had this on vinyl). Firstly, the instrumental number ‘Losfer Words (Big ’Orra)’ has a decent drum groove from Nicko, but as is often the case with instrumentals, this feels like filler. And secondly, okay, Bruce Dickinson may be a championship level fencer, but surely two songs about swordsmanship is one too many? While ‘Flash of the Blade’ (written by Dickinson) and ‘The Duellists’ (Harris) are musically strong, their themes of valour and honour seem to wear a little thin by the end – especially so, considering they’re sequenced next to each other.

Rather interestingly, given these potential weaknesses, I’ll still tell you that ‘Powerslave’ is my favourite Maiden LP (and has been since release) and with good reason: there are moments which are far more adventurous then Maiden’s previous couple of outings. I love the way they took a gamble and went for something really extravagant in ‘…Ancient Mariner’. Whether they knew they were on to something special at the time, I don’t know – but with hindsight it is pretty special, as this is an album which could be seen as being responsible for starting the progressive metal subgenre.

February 2010

MASS – Sea Of Black


Despite this Boston based hard rock/melodic metal band forming in 1980 and releasing albums throughout that decade, they’ve never really gained much attention. They were inactive throughout the 90s, but returned at the beginning of the 21st Century and played live shows, which eventually led to a comeback album ‘Crack of Dawn’, released on Escape Music in 2007. I’ve been a fan of melodic and hard rock for years and have an extensive collection of cult albums, but somehow, Mass passed me by completely. This 2010 release – again released by UK based melodic rock label Escape – marks the first time I’ve heard them.

The opening track ‘Falling From Grace’ is probably the heaviest thing on offer as the verses really thunder, but this is counterbalanced by a very melodic chorus; this approach reminds me of the self-titled album by Heaven’s Edge (for those of you who’ve never heard that, their approach of melodic rock with guitar histrionics is almost unrivalled). During moments of this opening track Louis D’Augusta’s vocal approach can seem a little waily, but even so, it’s obvious right from the start he’s got a decent voice – although for me, it’s one which works best when played down a bit. ‘All The Years Gone’ slows things down and here, Mass are at their strongest: Gene D’Itria’s guitar riff hits a solid groove with a classic 70s rock vibe, but it’s Joey Vadala’s drum work which gives the track real power; his drum fills are more than reminiscent of a Bonham style, and due to this, it’s hard not to hear a Led Zeppelin influence.

The same heavy drumming is at the core of ‘All That I Needed’, its mid-paced stomping riff providing a base for one of D’Augusta’s more restrained vocal offerings (at least during the verses) and the guitar riff has a chuggier approach. You’d think given its chug and the heavy drums this song would end up sounding rather heavy handed, but at this stage in their career, Mass are clearly old pros and never overplay anything here. If you want things overdone though, look no further than ‘More Than a Friend’, a track which makes Firehouse’s ‘When I Look Into Your Eyes’ appear tough. In all honesty, this track’s four minutes made me feel queasy with its sickly sentiments, acoustic guitars and wailing. I like a rock ballad as much as the next man (provided that next man isn’t from a Norweigan black metal band), but this – in a word – is hideous. ‘Hear Me Now’ pulls out the acoustic guitars again, but uses them in an entirely different way. The contrast between the electric hard rock and these acoustics is fairly striking. The acoustic guitar remains clear in the mix after the heavy riffs make an appearance and are still used to create rhythm underneath a fairly aggressive guitar solo. This contrast, in fact, was one of the first things which struck me about ‘Sea of Black’.

‘Ashes To Ashes’ goes for a different tack again, in that the verses are guitar free. The drive here is provided by Michael Palumbo’s bass playing. His approach is very solid (and repeated listens of this album show him to be a decent player) and as such, the absence of guitars here almost goes unnoticed. When the guitars kick in, they are suitably heavy, replete with a decent amount of squeals. As with a few of the other tracks, it’s the drum work which provides this tracks greatest feature as, during a bridge section, Vadala goes for his best Bonham-esque fills.

‘Sea of Black’ is well produced and although musically it’s almost instantly familiar, Mass clearly have plenty of potential in their retro rock sound. Those who like hard rock with hair-metal touches and an occasional Zeppelin-ism should find more than enough entertainment here.

June 2010