Queen Chief are an alt-rock band led by Justin Lien, a young musician with Native American and Germanic/Nordic roots. Their debut EP throws the listener in at the deep end with a particularly grand approach. It’s a concept release bringing (in the band’s own words) “a brutally honest, heavy rocking representation of life in the Northwestern United States’ low income suburbs and Native American reservations”. No messing there. Just as direct as the attitude driving the band, the tunes themselves pack a huge punch throughout – most carrying a weighty riff; each riff then given a huge send off courtesy of King Black Acid member and producer Daniel Riddle. The resultant sounds, resting somewhere between post-grunge and a hybrid of psychedelic blues, all come with plenty of volume – even if played quietly – and just as much attitude.
Put together at the suggestion of Frontiers Records as a classic rock vehicle to display the talents of legendary rock vocalist Joe Lynn Turner, Rated X is a heavy rock supergroup whose sound is – somewhat unsurprisingly – heavily indebted to Rainbow and mid-80s Deep Purple. As an ex-member of Rainbow, Turner is one of a few who can lay claim to this classic rock sound as being partly his own. Perhaps more importantly, he’s also one of a few veteran rock singers who’s still capable of lending some decent vocal chops to most projects when called upon to do so. Just one listen to the Sunstorm albums confirms his place as one of the all-time greats, so the record label’s faith in his abilities – even at the age of 63 at the time of this band’s formation – is justified.
‘Heaven Knows’ may be the first outing for Swedish rockers Edge, but the more aware listeners among you will certainly recognise a couple of band members. The core of this band features vocalist Jonas Forss and guitarist Tobias Andersson, both of whom have also plied their trade as members of Seven Wishes. Upon first hearing of these guys, one thing is evident: when recording this album, they had a bigger budget at their disposal than most. From a technical perspective, ‘Heaven Knows’ is a great sounding disc, with plenty of punch. Since so many lesser-known melodic rock bands feel that demo quality records are fit for release as finished product, the near impeccable sharpness here is most welcome indeed.
Combining years of experience with the great production and a few huge choruses, it seems that Edge are set to push all the right buttons for a classic melodic rock release. Toning down the glam edges of Seven Wishes in favour of something closer to classic sounding melodic rock, Forss delivers all of his vocals with conviction and a curly accent, while Andersson’s guitar playing is fairly solid throughout. He may not have the chops of Pole Position’s Lars Boquist, but he tackles each number with enough gusto to add a little more flair to this set of otherwise workman-like tunes. Some may consider the phrase “workman-like” to be harsh, but as yet another small fish in a pond full of other second division melodic rockers [most of whom seem to be signed to Edge’s label Escape Music], that’s how this album often comes across.
There is one main reason for this: despite knowing how to put together a melodic rock number which boasts a good chorus (nearly) every time, Edge aren’t quite as adept at crafting varied tunes. The main problem stems from their insistence on pounding most things out at just above a mid-pace. Aside from an obvious ballad, they rarely break beyond the boundaries set out by the opening track. This means, individually, each of the songs are fine, but when tacked as a whole – which should still be the preferred way of hearing an album – it all begins to blur. The differences between each number become so indistinct in places; it even sometimes feels as if Edge are recycling the same tune on occasion.
While ‘Heaven Knows’ is well played and well produced, there’s no real reason to recommend this above any number of melodic rock albums you could pick up instead. Although better than some, this album just don’t possess that “something special” that’s necessary in order to make a more indelible impression, which is surprising considering the number of years each of the band members have worked within the scene. At its very best, ‘Heaven Knows’ contains some rather fine stand-alone tunes, but looking at the album as a whole, it never feels like much more than a time filler. Some of the more undemanding among you may be okay with that, but in all honesty, if you have that much time that needs filling, there are literally hundreds of better melodic rock albums with which to fill it.
Although he has lent his musical prowess to many rock bands since the 70s, guitarist Micky Moody will always be most strongly associated with the early Whitesnake. Since parting ways with David Coverdale and company in the early 80s, his association with that band is one he’s always been keen to flaunt, with his later bands trading off the word snake wherever possible [see The Snakes with powerhouse vocalist Jorn Lande and Company of Snakes with members of Swedish Whitesnake obsessives Snakes In Paradise]. Snakecharmer –Moody’s principal vehicle for 2013 – sounds almost exactly how you expect, many of its eleven numbers sounding very influenced by Moody’s early 80s associations, something bolstered farther by the presence of former Whitesnake bassist Neil Murray.
In fact, Snakecharmer essentially marks the studio debut of the previous Moody/Murray live project Monsters of British Rock, re-enlisting three more of that band’s members. Joining Moody and Murray are other famous faces – sometime Thunder drummer Harry James and ex-Wishbone Ash guitarist Laurie Wisefield. That would be an impressive retro-rock line-up by most standards, but perhaps the icing on the cake with this outfit is the inclusion of Chris Ouseyon lead vocals. Having lent his great voice to works by Virginia Wolf and Heartland, as well as an excellent solo debut in 2011, Ousey’s emotive and naturalistic delivery is a great match for the old-school, melodic yet tough musical chops practised by Snakecharmer. Fleshing out the band on this debut release is keyboard player Adam “Son of Rick” Wakeman (also of Headspace) – the newest addition to the all-star line-up.
With no messing, ‘My Angel’ starts things off with an incredible slab of old-school rock, capturing each of the musicians in fine form. The guitars lay down a riff which recalls early Whitesnake’s toughest edge, blending it with a groove that may have suited the latter-day ‘In Through The Out Door’ Zeppelin. Harry James doesn’t quite bring the punch of Bonham or, indeed, the younger Ian Paice, but his backbeat is hefty enough, which with Murray’s beefy bass provides a rhythm section most classic rock bands would kill for. ‘Nothing To Lose’ is even more groove-led, its chorus driven bluesy swagger clearly influenced by Moody and Murray’s formative years. While not always a match for the late 70s David Coverdale, Chris Ousey takes the vocal and completely nails it, reigning in the higher registers of his voice and allowing the more soulful elements to take the lead. If, somehow, you’ve missed his work with Heartland over the years, these four minutes should be enough to demonstrate why melodic rock buffs rate him as one of the UK’s finest singers. Moving away from the tune’s solid foundations and enjoyable chorus, there are some even more enjoyable moments to be heard as Moody and Wisefield trade off lead guitar parts. In short, this is classic bluesy rock the way you’ve always loved it.
Among the other stand-out tracks, ‘Stand Up’ brings more of a Heartland influence to Snakecharmer’s sound, and rather understandably, Ousey sounds more confident here than ever. A strong chorus combining a killer hook and stabbing keys is the epitome of classic AOR, while the lead guitars attempt to bring a slightly stronger air of bluesy hard rock with their soaring notes, but ultimately it’s Ousey’s melodic rock background which carries the piece. With each band member bringing something great to the mix (check out some of James’s drum fills during the closing moments), this ranks as one of the album’s unmissable tunes…and it’s up against stiff competition. Bringing Murray’s huge bass sound to the fore, ‘Accident Prone’ is an enjoyable rock stomper, where the whole band weigh in with some hefty sounds. While Murray unquestionably carries the number, Wakeman’s Hammond organ adds a strong musical colour throughout. Since this is a tune firmly focused on rhythm and punch as opposed to any kind of flashiness, it’s not until the lead break the guitarists do anything of any huge interest. Upon arrival. their short solo includes some rather fine twin lead work, which while not necessary up there with Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham at their peak, is certainly sharp enough to make an indelible impression.
More excellent twin leads kick off ‘Cover Me In You’, a hip-swaggering blues-edged workout which could rival ‘Ready An’ Willing’ era Whitesnake at their best. Against the solid foundations, Ousey really pushes all aspects of his vocal range – but being a true pro, he never resorts to squealing unnecessarily or forcing any part of his delivery. The slower, near epic ‘Fallen Leaves’ brings each of Snakecharmer’s best elements together into a single number, as Moody and Wisefield indulge in emotive solos – bluesy and gentle at first, building to an inevitable climax, while the rhythm section sound like a force of nature throughout. Ousey, meanwhile, tackles the vocal line in his usual soul-inspired style, allowing the edges of his voice to fill spaces with a huge presence, but unlike a few of his peers [chiefly Toby Hitchcock, but occasionally Glenn Hughes too] never becomes overbearing.
While some may knock Moody and Murray for trading off the ’Snake name yet again, Chris Ousey’s presence is enough to ensure that Snakecharmer are a great band in their own right. The songs may not bring anything new to the genre, but this supergroup – for the want of a word – are the business. Eleven songs, no duds, Ousey and Moody in top form – this is a band whose work ticks all the right boxes for the classic rock fan. Get this album when you can, you won’t regret it.
December 2012/January 2013
Having already released a self-titled EP at the end of 2010, Philadelphia’s Ruby The Hatchet began to create a small buzz via a few cult music blogs. For those who sang the band’s praises previously, their first full length release will be welcomed with open arms. For the many yet to be enthralled by this band’s music – which previously included Real Gone, having missed that EP entirely first time around – it’s time to sit up and take note, for ‘Ouroboros’ is awesome. On this release, sounding like a cross between Fu Manchu and The Dead Weather, Ruby The Hatchet split their talents between heavy stoner rock numbers and spooky late 60s influenced psych, proving equally adept at both.
An instant hit, ‘Black Tongue’ rolls along with tuneful menace. The downtuned riffs takes a huge cue from Fu Manchu and Kyuss, delivering some of the finest bottom end grooves you’re likely to hear. The music may be overly familiar, but what sets this apart from many other bands ploughing a similar doom and groove-oriented furrow is Jillian Taylor’s vocal. Don’t be thinking that Taylor’s delivery is light and airy though; her voice – although often subjected to various reverb effects – comes with enough belt to hold up against the riffs, and a level of passion which really captivates the listener. ‘Wicked Ones’ features another great vocal – ending with a wail that makes Taylor sound like the dark cousin of Stevie Nicks – but of great importance is the number’s huge riff: not quite metal, far beyond its blues roots, it’s the kind of meaty monolith that powers lots of good quality stoner/retro rock. If that’s your bag, you’ll certainly get a thrill listening to this.
More upbeat, ‘Strange Hold’ is this album’s most danceable number. The drums may dictate more of a swagger and bounce, but the result has just as much power as the more ominous ‘Black Tongue’. Each member of the band brings equal brilliance to this short piece: the rhythm section is tight, the guitars have the kind of distorted dominance that befits such a Sabbath-inspired outing and the lead vocal once again has an extra something… The contrast between the tone of Jillian’s vocal and the fuzziness of the riffs works as brilliant musical yin yang. Beyond a solid drum line, ‘Good God Damn’ is a tad atonal, but that was surely the band’s intention. On this Dead Weather-eque workout, dressed in a little reverb, the lead voice sounds very cool. Beyond that, the number doesn’t break far beyond some oddly demanding drones until the inevitable climax, topped by a guitar solo that’s more about reverb than notes and flashiness. Generally, the music serves to draw attention farther to the vocal and drum parts – both of which are strong enough to carry this particular piece.
There are equally enjoyable moments where the band deviate from Fu Manchu inspired grooves and kick into more psych rock/rhythm ‘n’ blues fare. The second half of ‘Can’t Get Him Away’ is such an offering. Adding farther enjoyment to its distinctive fuzzed out rock, it has a dual vocal where Taylor is joined by gritty tones from drummer Owen Stewart – the result of which sounds kind of like Blue Cheer tackling Ten Years After, before being heavied up for extra impact. Going for atmospheres over intensity, ‘Holy Father’ is the softest and slowest number on the album, but is perhaps guitarist John Scarperia’s finest moment, swapping distortion for an echoing lead delivering no shortage of bluesy licks. A limited lyric means that any vocal is almost just extra instrumentation, adding a little something extra to the very late 60s/early 70s vibe. Even better, the jangly ‘Nowhere’ sounds at first like it’s going to break into a tune by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, before blossoming into a psych rocker that could be described as an atmospheric groover. Beneath the ringing guitar tones, bassist Mike Parise finds plenty of space to include busy riffs. It’s great to hear him branching out farther from the usual unwavering approach Ruby’s music usually demands.
Ruby The Hatchet may not be especially big on choruses (some songs don’t have any, others don’t always fulfil potential, settling for a few one-liners), but everything else seriously makes up for that. When it comes to style, these tunes have plenty. Listen…and you won’t be sorry you did. Don’t just take Real Gone’s word for it – after all, no amount of flowery prose makes up for hearing something first hand and ‘Ouroboros’ is worth any amount of time you’d care to invest in it. It’s 2012’s best heavy psych/stoner record, bar none.