DEMON’S EYE – The Stranger Within

demon's eyeDemon’s Eye, as their name suggests, are a bunch of chaps who are more than a bit fond of the classic era of Deep Purple. In fact, for over a decade, they plied their trade as a Deep Purple tribute act in Germany – eventually being given the chance to work alongside actual Deep Purple members. This release teams them up with Scottish hard rock vocalist for hire, Doogie White, best known for his stint with the last line-up of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in the mid 90s. Aside from that, White also found cult status as the vocalist with Midnight Blue, a much hyped AOR band, whose album was scheduled to be released on the UK label Now & Then. Eventually that album was given a belated Japanese only release. Over the years, White also performed with Axel Rudy Pell and Yngwie Malmsteen, as well as releasing albums with his own Deep Purple/Rainbow-esque hard rock band Cornerstone. Given both parties’ history and general musical bias, their work on this collaborative album ‘The Stranger Within’ offers absolutely no surprises, sounding exactly how you’d expect.

A wash of Hammond organ opens ‘Stranger In Us All’ before a thunder of drums breaks into an arrangement full of Eastern motifs a la Deep Purple’s ‘Perfect Strangers’ or Rainbow’s ‘Stargazer’. While the old school bombast of the arrangement should not be overlooked and White’s vocal style –a cross between a poor-man’s Ian Gillan and bad Glenn Hughes impersonator – is well suited to the task in hand, it’s not long before this is shown up for being no more than a second rate homage. Similar traits can be heard during ‘Sins of The Father’ which melds moments of ‘Burn’-era Purple with Doogie White’s wail which, in places, manages to resemble Saxon’s Biff Byford. This number has the distinction of having a better chorus, but musically speaking doesn’t push either Doogie White or Demon’s Eye’s collective talents. ‘A Foolish Man’ is a fast hard rock workout, the kind which held a strong place on Deep Purple’s classic ‘In Rock’; but while it’s musically spot on as far as imitation goes (the ‘Highway Star’-esque guitar solo particularly charming), the spirit is squashed under the weight of White’s vocal, which clearly attempts to imitate Gillan throughout. It goes from being questionable to flat-out embarrassing at the end, as White bravely aims for something resembling Gillan’s screaming in “top A”. Gillan may have impressed by screaming in tune during the early 70s, but when given a similar task, Doogie White really doesn’t. As the music stops, he exclaims “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” Oddly, you may find yourselves thinking the same thing…

The lengthy ‘Far Over The Rainbow’ gives an even more obvious nod to Demon’s Eye’s Blackmore obsession – and White’s previous employment – but while Mark Zyk’s guitar riffs evoke The Dio-era Rainbow rather strongly, the vocal doesn’t always do the music justice, and the hook is weak. An ugly keyboard solo stretches out over more bars than is necessary, but things then take an up-turn as Zyk steps forward for a lengthy guitar solo. Throughout his piece, plenty of string-bending and whammy-bar captures the mood of Ritchie Blackmore’s work during those early Rainbow years. The huge instrumental passages definitely present Demon’s Eye at their strongest and by the end of Zyk’s showcase, it’s obvious ‘Far Over The Rainbow’ is this album’s obvious highpoint. Once White steps back up to the microphone, the greatness ends; the spell is broken and we’re reminded that this isn’t a lost Rainbow outing after all…

White’s voice is somewhat of an acquired taste even by old-school rock standards, but he fares better on the softer stuff. The power ballad ‘The Best of Times’ provides one of those all too rare moments where his gentler side shines; it’s such a great pity Demon’s Eye couldn’t afford a proper string arrangement to lend it a more epic quality. Naturally, Florian Pritsch hammering string sounds from his keyboard is a poor substitute for the real thing– if indeed it can be regarded as a substitute at all. The only time ‘The Stranger Within’ stretches beyond overtly macho tributes to Blackmore, Lord and Paice is during the short acoustic instrumental ‘Le Vent Lament’, where Zyk gets to air his prowess on a classical influenced piece . Beautifully played as it is (despite a brief moment where it almost lapses into ‘Greensleeves’), it feels a little tacked on to the end of the album.

Both Jon Lord and Ian Paice have gone on record praising the quality of Demon’s Eye as a Deep Purple tribute act. That’s as maybe, but although Demon’s Eye’s musical chops sound as authentic as possible, it’s not enough to stop most of their self-penned material on ‘The Stranger Within’ sounding a bit tired. Despite the best musical efforts of everyone involved, the songs themselves seem unable to muster up anything greater than workmanlike Purple-isms. …And if it’s workmanlike Purple-isms you wanted, you probably own Deep Purple’s ‘Slaves and Masters’ and ‘The Battle Rages On’ anyway.

April 2011

JOHN WESLEY – The Lilypad Suite


Beginning his career as guitarist with the largely unknown band Autodrive in the early 90s, John Wesley gained wider recognition when he supported Marillion in 1994 on their ‘Brave Tour’. His debut album, ‘Under The Red and White Sky’, released earlier that year, is a strong work with a superb rock/pop sound, showcasing Wes as an emerging talented song writer. While the songs speak for themselves, it can’t have hurt that the album had a great supporting cast of musicians, including Marillion members Steve Rothery, Mark Kelly and Ian Mosley. A few years later, Wes gained even more recognition when he became touring guitarist for the legendary progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree.

Over the years, it’s been possible to hear Wes grow as a musician, each of his albums exploring different avenues, but always with strong song writing at the core of his work. His sixth studio release, ‘The Lilypad Suite’, isn’t a concept piece, though each of the songs are inspired by the struggle of a young girl coming to terms with the absence of a father.

‘A.M.W.’ opens things rather bleakly. The guitars make grinding noises like a train pulling into a station and scraping on the rails. Against the grinding and droning noises, Wes adopts a husky tone to his voice and states he’s “going to California” and those left behind “will have to find their place”. This leads swiftly into ‘Walls of America’, opening with a full compliment of reverb, over which Wes lays down a guitar line which has plenty of atmosphere amongst the echoed drones. Mark Prater’s drum sound has a live quality and Wes’s lead vocal has an edge which is suited to the slightly alternative hard rock. The track is lent an element of softness by some rather pleasing harmonies on the chorus vocal, but overall, it sounds like a work half a lifetime away from the young singer-songwriter who shared a stage with Marillion in the 90s. The semi-acoustic poppy vibes at the heart of ‘A Glittery Nothing’ leave no doubt that this is the very same musician though; Wes’s softer vocal stylings are joined by clean toned guitar work and a sunnier, more optimistic vibe. The guitar solo reverts back to a distorted sound -almost drowned out by a sheet of reverb – but once that’s over, it’s a quick return to the beautifully played acoustic edged rock/pop. Those whom found a great deal of enjoyment from Wes’ ‘Under The Red and White Sky’ debut will undoubtedly find this number one of ‘The Lilypad Suite’s stand out cuts.

While most of ‘Still Waiting’ centres around elements which are in abundance elsewhere (chiefly the dominant guitars and dark atmospheres), the opening riff is brilliantly heavy – sounding not unlike something which might at the core of the heavy parts of post-‘In Absentia’ Porcupine Tree. The best moments come near the song’s end, though, when multi-tracked guitars offer not only the heavy opening riff, but also some reverbed atmospheres overlaid by a cleaner lead. With three distinctly separate guitar lines, both Wes and Dean Tidey deliver an interesting arrangement, without resorting to overt showmanship. The ringing guitars and hushed vocals which drive ‘Lost’ have a haunting quality; the chorus refrain has an element of simplicity, but Wes’s emotive voice brings out the absolute best in the arrangement, while his slightly distorted guitar work brings with it another great atmosphere. The softness of the opening of ‘Firelight’ is reminiscent of Wes’s early work, but this soon gives way to yet another wall of heavily reverbed guitars, over which, Wes’s vocal builds gradually. Mark Prater’s simple, pounding drum riffs carry weight and appear sympathetic towards a number which could have ended up sounding somewhat leaden. The close of the number features some rather furious playing over an already powerful arrangement.

Although only comprising five new songs and an intro, ‘The Lilypad Suite’ is an accomplished work and well worth investigating. While fans will undoubtedly continue to sing John Wesley’s praises, first time listeners may want to check out a couple of his earlier works first, with both ‘Under The Red and White Sky’ (1994) and ‘Chasing Monsters’ (2002) being strongly recommended.

Buy CDs from Wes here.

March 2011

BRIAN ROBERTSON – Diamonds And Dirt


For a man who contributed a vast amount of guitar work to most of Thin Lizzy’s classic 1970s releases – and provided half of their trademark, hugely influential twin-lead sound – Brian Robertson’s place as a legend in the annals of rock history is assured. His solo debut ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ comes some thirty-two years after his departure from Lizzy and almost three decades since his short tenure with Motörhead.

Given his previous record, amount of talent and the fact that he has had years out of the spotlight, Robertson’s ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ could have been a belter. Sadly, it’s an album which often appears rather one-paced and workmanlike. In addition, since most of the tracks have supposedly been kicking around in demo form for ages (in some cases dating back to his early 80s band Wild Horses and beyond), ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ sounds like an album which would have been a hit in 1992, back when Robbo’s old running mate Scott Gorham struck out with his band 21 Guns. In 2011, however, it’s a different story – most of the tracks now sound plain dated as opposed to retaining a timeless rock quality.

The title track weaves a mid-paced groove, with staccato rhythms and occasional big chords, but as opposed to a classic seventies sound, the over-riding mood is one of mid/late 80s AOR, delivered decades too late. This could still have passed muster with a better vocal, but ex-Michael Schenker Group vocalist Leif Sundin doesn’t have a great range or an especially powerful delivery. On the plus side, Robbo’s solo is great, though. The funk-rock groove of ‘Passion’ fares a little better, but musically it’s still nothing out of the ordinary – and as the early 90s style funk moments give way to a lightweight AOR chorus full of female backing harmonies, it all gets really fluffy.

A cover of Frankie Miller’s ‘Mail Box’ (from his 1973 album ‘Once In a Blue Moon’) begins with some chunky chords, which it then doesn’t really follow up. Sundin’s vocal comes with a slight huskier tone, but still none of the power needed; the female vocals flesh things out yet again and while Robbo’s chords do their best to maintain interest, it’s not quite enough. A cover of Miller’s ‘Do It Till We Drop’ is similarly uninspired. The wah-wah driven ‘Blues Boy’ is better than most of the album’s tracks, as Robbo gets the opportunity to stretch out a little. The solos are classy while the main riff – a standard blues-rock – has a great tone. Sundin’s lead vocal has nowhere near the kind of grit required for the performance in hand though, and the addition of the female backing vocals (yet again) seem rather out of step with the bluesy mood.

Most of the interest in ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ is likely to concern the re-recordings of a couple of old Thin Lizzy numbers. While, like most of the album, these are fine for what they are, it’s best not to get too excited. A reworking of ‘It’s Only Money’, naturally, still comes with a commanding riff; but while Robbo’s performance is okay, the rest of the band falls short of Lizzy’s greatness. Naturally, a run-of-the-mill vocalist like Sundin is no match for Phil Lynott – and without Lynott’s Irish charm and unique delivery, it just doesn’t feel right somehow. Robertson’s take on ‘Running Back’ (already the weakest number from Thin Lizzy’s classic ‘Jailbreak’ LP) settles into a pub-rock sound, like The Quireboys without any of the clout. Throughout the number, Robertson throws in a few decent slide guitar flourishes, but these are often sidelined in favour of boogie-rock piano moments. A second take on ‘Running Back’ is presented as a swaggering blues, where Robertson’s performances are top-notch. His guitar work speaks for itself here, so it’s easier to overlook Sundin’s middling lead vocal or the obligatory female oohs.

’10 Miles To Go On A 9 Mile Road’ (a number written and originally recorded by alt-rock/country musician Jim White) feels completely out of step with the safe rock heard on most of the other songs. While the use of eastern musical motifs provide some much needed variety and some of Robbo’s guitar playing more than passes muster, the American drawl on the partly spoken vocal sounds very unnatural. Once again, they’ve managed to shoe-horn in the 1980s style female backing too… While it’s great that Robertson was brave enough to include this tune among the more predictable rock styles featured on ‘Diamonds and Dirt’, it doesn’t entirely work out for the best.

For guitar chops ‘Texas Wind’ and ‘That’s All!’ are undoubtedly the album’s greatest achievements, with Robbo offering a couple of fairly fierce solos in the way he was once capable. With a harder vocalist on board, ‘That’s All!’ could have potentially been an absolute belter. As it stands, though, it’s decent enough, with the rhythm section (featuring Treat’s Nalle Pahlsson and Europe’s Ian Haughland, on bass and drums respectively) providing just enough clout.

A cover of Frankie Miller’s ‘Ain’t Got No Money’ finishes things off well, though this has nothing to do with the predictable blues-rock plodding throughout. The god-like Rob Lamothe (one-time Riverdogs frontman) steps up for a guest vocal and in doing so provides the number with something memorable. While it’s admirable that Robertson would choose to include three of his friend Miller’s songs in this collection, you have to wonder if the album would have been improved by the addition of more original material, written by Robbo himself. But then, Robertson was never really work-oriented. Why spend hours and hours writing songs and spending time in the studio when you can spend it doing “rock-star activities”?

…And that brings us back to ‘Diamonds and Dirt’s main weakness. These songs were not really designed as a complete selection for an album release. It’s a collection of ideas and songs which have been pulled together from different sources and recorded at a later date. Despite having years and years worth of unused songs and ideas to draw from (not to mention years to actually write some new ones), Robertson couldn’t even manage to put together twelve original compositions.

From a new or lesser artist, ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ would probably sound okay, though still not remarkable by any means. From an artist of Robbo’s calibre however, a few guitar leads aside, the album just doesn’t cut it in the way it should. It’s certainly not wrong to have expected more than what’s on offer here, maybe up to the standard of the short-lived Wild Horses with Jimmy Bain. The album is far from objectionable, but there’s nothing here to keep listeners coming back for more.

If you’re a Thin Lizzy completist, you’ll certainly be adding ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ to your collection, but be fully prepared to play it a couple of times and then leave it on the shelf.

March 2011

WHITESNAKE – Forevermore


David Coverdale may be the only original member of Whitesnake to appear on ‘Forevermore’, but even so, the band sounds unshakably confident throughout their eleventh studio release. The twin guitar attack of Reb Beach (ex-Winger/Dokken) and Doug Aldrich (ex-Dio/Bad Moon Rising) make a fairly uncompromising frontline and ex-Pride and Glory drummer Brian Tichy provides a hefty punch behind the drumkit. One of the other things which quickly becomes apparent about ‘Forevermore’, is that it captures Coverdale in (mostly) good form throughout – often sticking to his bluesier voice (as heard on the latter Deep Purple and earlier Whitesnake discs). Naturally, his rock voice also appears in places, but even then, only on numbers where it seems perfectly suited.

The opening number ‘Steal Your Heart Away’ sets the scene with a blues-tinged slice of hard rock topped with unsubtle slide guitars. Coverdale’s voice sounds suitably scratchy and sits well with the musical mood. A solo split between Doug Aldrich and Reb Beach promises more than it eventually delivers, but overall, this is a number based on groove factor as opposed to just notes and flash. ‘Love Will Set You Free’ is loaded with harmony vocals and is driven by a classic sounding riff. It’s a number which very much harkens back to their formative, pre-Mel Galley years, where blues-rock was the order of the day. While Tichy’s drumming style is much heavier than that of Ian Paice, there’s a vibe here which is reminiscent of their ‘Ready an’ Willing’ sound.

‘I Need You (Shine A Light)’ moves things into a more cod-rock direction and with it comes fronted with Coverdale’s rock voice. It doesn’t sound especially natural for him singing in this style and doesn’t greet the ears well as his bluesier tones, but even so, this still manages to be an okay track, thanks to a big sing-along chorus and backing harmonies. It’s not essential Whitesnake by any means, but quite fun all the same. For those who found Whitesnake during the late 80s, ‘Easier Said Than Done’ should appeal with its solid AOR sound; it has a mid-paced delivery and Coverdale is particularly fine voice. It’s Coverdale who steals the show on this track, but even so, Reb Beach’s clean-toned guitars and tasteful solo also provide some stand-out moments.

The acoustic guitars at the centre of ‘One of These Days’ showcase the soft side of the band, and unsurprisingly, Coverdale sounds superb delivering a softer vocal. The electric lead guitar work which creeps in is incredibly tasteful, particularly towards the end, where Beach and Aldrich are captured in a classic sounding twin harmony. It’s great to hear Coverdale getting properly sentimental, as opposed to his previous feelings of “lurve”, which often had all the class of a quick grope behind some bushes. Maybe writing with Doug Aldrich has bought a calming influence? Even ‘Love and Treat Me Right’, which normally would get the warning lights flashing, isn’t quite as sexually charged as Coverdale would have once made it. It’s potentially cringe-worthy aspects can be overlooked in favour of the pounding rock riff and Doug Aldrich’s showy solo. [The album isn’t completely without the old Coverdale “charm” though, and it would have been churlish to expect otherwise. The sexual overtones are definitely played down compared to the earlier days, though].

For those looking for more great blues-rock, ‘Whipping Boy Blues’ delivers in spades. While David Coverdale’s squealy approach can grate on occasion, here, it’s the natural choice for such a Zeppelin-esque arrangement. Throw in some great soloing from both Aldrich and Beach, a rock solid bass line from Michael Devin, topped with crashy drums from Brian Tichy, and it presents the sound of an old-school band that isn’t to be messed with.

Things step up a gear for ‘My Evil Ways’ – a full-on boogie-rock number which showcases Brian Tichy’s powerhouse drumming style. Something this throwaway ought to feel like filler material, but the energy and tightness driving this incarnation of Whitesnake means they pull it off with aplomb…and just when things are in danger of slowing down, Aldrich and Beach step up to exchange high energy solos. This is certainly a number destined for great live performances.

The title cut is a seven minute epic, starting gently with acoustic guitars and keyboards. Coverdale adopts a very restrained vocal style, conjuring memories of the classic ‘Starkers In Tokyo’ acoustic live disc. As the music builds, Reb Beach and Michael Devin add harmony vocals, before the band crank things up with an Eastern sounding arrangement which (as is often the case with such things) tips the hat to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. It’s a well-thought out and brilliantly arranged closing number, capping off an already decent disc.

‘Forevermore’ is a surprisingly consistent album, with each of the thirteen Coverdale/Aldrich penned tracks offering the listener some top quality tunes. However, while the hard edges are somewhat refreshing in the same way as it’s predecessor (2008’s ‘Good To Be Bad’), like that album, it feels like a release chiefly for the Whitesnake die-hards. More casual listeners may be better of sticking with their copies of ‘1987’ and ‘Live In The Heart of The City’.

March 2011

BOWES & MORLEY – Moving Swiftly Along


Over the course of the 1990s, Thunder had gained a solid fanbase, a lot of press goodwill in the UK and notched up a few million album sales. Despite their sales figures dropping toward the end, it had been a successful ten years for the band. Vocalist Danny Bowes, guitarist Luke Morley and drummer Gary ‘Harry’ James had been working together for far longer, though, having previously made up the core of British rock band Terraplane, whose career highpoint had been a slot at the Reading Festival in 1982.

Everybody needs a change, and so it was with Thunder. After playing a farewell show at Camden Dingwalls in May 2000, the band looked to new projects. Luke Morley released a solo album ‘El Gringo Retro’ in 2001, which he promoted with live shows. These live shows featured other Thunder members (though no appearance from Bowes), so in terms of moving on, the Thunder chaps hadn’t exactly moved very far!

In 2002 Morley teamed up with vocalist Danny Bowes once again, forming the imaginatively named Bowes & Morley. Despite the duo being the driving force behind Thunder and most of the songs being written by Luke Morley as usual, their debut album, ‘Moving Swiftly Along’ echews Thunder’s classic Free and Bad Company influenced hard rock sound and opts for softer soul filled grooves. Though a few numbers edge towards syrupy, it’s not often soul in a soft Motown-esque style… Here, for obvious reasons, the album’s soul vibe often manifests itself in a “white rock musician” way.

‘Freakshow’ opens proceedings with a bouncing piano and a slight Stax vibe. Vocally, Bowes sounds completely at ease; female backing vocals add weight to the soul elements here, but it would have been just as good without them. ‘Hypnotized’ has a well-structured funk groove and far less of a throwaway party atmosphere. The track opens with a guitar line with a gently Spanish flavour, before a tight horn arrangement provides a big musical hook. The drums lead a shuffling groove with plenty of organ and while Morley’s contribution is limited to choppy rhythm guitar for the most part, everything builds towards a great solo which fills plenty of space until the fade.

Things get turned down a notch for ‘Something About My Baby’. While the soul elements of this track lean towards a more syrupy easy listening style (something really not helped by the female backing), a warm bass set against sitar (played here by the song’s co-writer Garfield Myers) provides a nice backdrop for Bowes, who naturally turns in a great performance. Luckily, a spirited cover of The Power Station’s ‘Powertrippin’ provides contrast enough to balance things out. Here, Morely’s rhythmic guitar is spiky and aggressive, competing against equally sharp horns. Childs’s bass line is busy without being obtrusive and on the whole, it’s one of a few numbers which could’ve graced a Thunder album. Winterville’s Peter Shoulder guests on a featured guitar solo, which is aggressive while remaining tuneful. [In 2010, Morley formed blues-rock band with Shoulder called The Union, not to be confused with the similarly named band featuring KISS man Bruce Kulick and ex-Mötley Crüe/The Scream vocalist John Corabi].

‘Dancing The Night Away’ contains a similar energy, but despite another top-notch bass line from Childs and superb vocal from Bowes, this one is weaker than the previous uptempo numbers due to an uninspired chorus which is too heavily reliant on backing vocals. ‘Hesitate’ gets the balance of the album’s key musical ingredients just right. Bowes finds a decent blend of rock and soul in his vocal and Morley’s guitar has an edge, but not enough of one to make this a hard rock number. The horns recall classic Stax once again (particularly work by Sam and Dave) and an electric piano solo (courtesy of David “Muncher” Moore) adds an extra element of retro cool. Even the backing vocals are well arranged here, making this a definite stand out track.

‘Better Times’ moves away from soul influences and moves towards acoustic singer-songwriter territory. Bowes’s vocal is as at ease as it ever was, while a few twangy guitars give the song a slight country feel in places, but its best moments are provided by Morley overlaying some subtle bluesy electric guitar lines. ‘River of Time’ has an unashamedly funky guitar riff which sounds like a re-write of the riff from Thunder’s ‘Too Scared To Live’ (from their 1995 album ‘Behind Closed Doors’) and as such, is one of the times that Bowes and Morley’s more mature approach falls aside almost completely. It’s none the worse for its outright Thunder-ness, of course. Bowes’s vocal is strong and the arrangement gives Morley the opportunity to cut loose (just a little). As good as it is, it’s a shame they didn’t swap the organ part for a clavinet, to make it more in keeping with the more retro styled funk present elsewhere.

‘I’d Take the Stars Out of the Sky’ closes the disc in a mellow way, with a very smooth performance from Bowes. Moore’s 70s style organ work is understated and very sympathetic to the vocal performance. Thanks to a couple of impeccably played solos, Morley’s performance here is arguably his finest on this album; he shows a great restraint with his playing and judges the mood perfectly, never upstaging Bowes.

While musically some of the material may be a little bit too soul influenced and a little lightweight for the more unadventurous hard rock fan, ‘Moving Swiftly Along’ is an excellent showcase for Danny Bowes’s bluesy vocal style. Granted Luke may have written most of the songs and played guitar, but it’s Bowes who really grabs the attention on most of this disc. It’s certainly an album which deserves a wider audience and its mature sound is natural companion to some of Thunder’s softer outings. Unfortunately, ‘Moving Swiftly Along’ was not a commercial success; but despite its poor sales, Bowes & Morley released a second album in 2004. Entitled ‘Mo’s Barbeque’, that second album fared much better, although still only achieved modest sales and gained a cult following.

Looking at the bigger picture, Thunder’s retirement in 2000 was arguably one of the shortest retirements ever, since it only lasted two years. They were persuaded to reform for the 2002 Monsters of Rock festival, to the delight of fans. The new line up of Thunder included Chris Childs, who was drafted in as a result of his great work on ‘Moving Swiftly Along’. The reformation was not to be a one off, however; Thunder stayed together for the next seven years, disbanding for a second time in August 2009.

September 2010