Sometimes when a label which chiefly deals with AOR and melodic acts releases something they term “progressive metal”, it’s not usually progressive metal as such.  It’s more likely to be a bunch of Yngwie Malmsteen enthusiasts/ex-collaboators churning out similar neo-classical work, but delivered with a slightly bigger punch (see Artension and Ring of Fire for starters).  With Silent Call, this is not the case. ‘Greed’ is their second release and frankly, it’s a monster.  Throughout the album, each member of the band gives their all, but the real stars are Andi Kravljaca (ex-Seventh Wonder) on vocals and guitarist Daniel Ekholm.

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HARD – Time Is Waiting For No One

‘Time Is Waiting For No One’ is the second international release (but fourth release overall) by the part Swedish, part Hungarian melodic metal outfit Hard – a band fronted by Björn Lodin of Baltimore. It’s one of those albums where once you’ve taken note of their rather unsubtle moniker and band logo, you’ve got a fair idea of what it sounds like before hearing any of the songs.

Kicking things off, the title cut is a fast-paced riffer, showcasing Hard’s brand of melodic metal. The rhythm section is punchy and the guitar riffs are edgy, but any good qualities are killed by Lodin’s vocal performance, which is all squeal and no real passion – he’s been likened elsewhere to Marc Storace of Krokus and I can see why…and, no, I never liked Storace either. ‘Lonesome Loneliness’ (hey, what other kind is there?) has a swaggering approach and overall holds up as a solid piece of hard rock, although not groundbreaking. ‘Into the Fire’ features some fantastic metal guitar work and cracking rhythms, but generally, there’s little here to make a lasting impression.

‘The Pace and The Flow’ is a rock ballad with a bluesy edge. Surprisingly Björn Lodin’s vocals are far better here; he’s not forcing his voice so much and the end result feels more natural. Similarly with ‘Nona’ everything flows nicely and the vocals are both tuneful and well-suited to the material. ‘My Kind of Woman’ pulls out of the starting grid at full throttle, like a twisted cousin of early Deep Purple. It’s a track that shows initial promise: Zsolt Csillik and Zsolt Vamos’s guitar parts are superb once again, especially if this kind of melodic metal is your bag, but it’s let down by poor songwriting. ‘Shine On Me’ combines a driving hard rock riff and funky edges to fantastic effect. The vocals have an edge, but remain tuneful, if still an acquired taste. There’s a strong Bang Tango influence here and this track should appeal to fans of that very under-rated band.

Overall, although this album has a few good qualities, most of it does little for me. If Hard could’ve concentrated on the softer or funkier elements of their sound, it could’ve been very different indeed. Some bands in the world have a lot going for them. Judging by this album by Hard, it would seem their greatness hasn’t yet arrived.

March 2010

STATUS QUO – Picturesque Matchstickable Messages

In 1967, Britain was in the midst of a psychedelic musical revolution: The Beatles released an undeniable classic in ‘Sgt Pepper’, Steve Winwood’s Traffic released the rather more cult ‘Mr Fantasy’, while The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream fused a psychedelic spirit with blues influences on their respective albums, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ and ‘Disreali Gears’. By 1968, the psychedelic vibe had started to fade slightly, although it was the year in which The Zombies released ‘Odessey and Oracle’, which despite poor sales at the time, is possibly the greatest piece of British psych-pop. In that same year, Status Quo released their debut, ‘Picturesque Matchstickable Messages’.

‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ may feel like a well worn classic now and familiar to everyone, but what of the rest of that debut album? The opening track ‘Veils of Melancholy’ sounds rather like ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ with the notes played in wrong order, which probably says a lot about why it bombed when released as a single. But, while ‘Matchstick Men’ feels like a piece of late-sixties happiness, ‘Veils’ has an effect that’s slightly sinister. ‘When My Mind Is Not Live’ typifies the psych-pop movement, feeling like a Traffic and Tomorrow hybrid. ‘Gentleman Joe’s Sidewalk Cafe’ is rather more whimsical. Written by songwriter-for-hire Kenny Young (erroneously credited on occasion to Bob Young, who’d later be a regular Quo collaborator), this Kinks-esque number was originally scheduled to be the single. Although a decent album track, I’m not so sure about its single potential – they made the right choice releasing it on the flip-side of ‘Matchstick Men’. ‘Paradise Flat’, takes the psych elements slightly farther, complete with deep voice-over on the mid section. It’s hard to tell whether the voice over always sounded bad, or whether time has been unkind.

It’s interesting to note that Francis Rossi doesn’t play such a pivotal role on a lot of these songs, as he would in later years. Although the heavily phased guitars are important to the end product, it’s the electric organ which seems to dominate the early Quo’s multi-layered sound (courtesy of Roy Lynes, who remained with the band until 1970). Surprising as it may seem, the well-loved title cut isn’t the best track, nor is it the most psychedelic. That honour falls to Alan Lancaster’s ‘Sunny Cellophane Skies’. Rossi’s heavily treated guitar is the track’s driving force, coupled by multi-layered vocals, which evoke the period.

The album is padded out with cover material, all of which is more in keeping with 60s beat pop than psychedelia. In the 21st Century, that makes for okay listening for anyone with a liking for stuff of that retro style, but I suspect that in 1968, some of it felt a little ordinary. ‘Ice In The Sun’ and ‘Elizabeth Dreams’ (both written by Marty Wilde) are probably the best of the bunch with regard to the said cover material, while the Quo’s treatment of The Lemon Pipers’‘Green Tambourine’ isn’t too bad either. The cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘Spicks and Specks’ is horribly misjudged – while Gibb, Gibb and Gibb would prove themselves to be at the forefront of the songwriting masterclass, this isn’t one of their better late 60s tunes as it is, and it definitely doesn’t suit Status Quo.

‘Picturesque Matchstickable Messages’ contains some enjoyable music during its 34 minutes, even if it isn’t quite as inventive as some other albums of the period. The following year’s ‘Spare Parts’ followed a similar musical path, but had little commercial success. By the end of the decade, the psychedelic times were over. If Status Quo had thrown in the towel, they’d likely be remembered as one of Britain’s greatest cult bands.

[In 2009, ‘Picturesque’ was re-issued as a 2CD Deluxe Edition, featuring both mono and stereo mixes of the album as well as non-album singles and BBC Sessions. Also included are rare recordings by the pre-Quo band, in both their Spectres and Traffic Jam guises].

January 2010


In 1993, as Grunge was beginning to fade a little, Green Apple Quick Step (presumably named after The Byrds song of the same name) released their debut album ‘Wonderful Virus’. It achieved moderate success, but musically its post-grunge approach was a little dull aside from a couple of tracks.

In 1995, they released their second album, ‘Reloaded’, produced by Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard. Somewhere between the two albums, the bands songwriting moved away from their grungy earlier style and introduced a few more power pop influences. The variety of styles on this second album came as a huge surprise after ‘Wonderful Virus’ and as a result, ‘Reloaded’ became an album which was rarely far from my CD player for the next couple of years. The album finds GAQS stretching out and experimenting; a handful of tracks are fantastic and some of the musical ideas are interesting. Naturally, a couple of tracks miss the mark, but generally speaking, the fact that ‘Reloaded’ is a world away from the safe and formulaic nature of their debut should be applauded.

Things begin slowly with ‘Hotel Wisconsin’, a largely instrumental track. There’s plenty of atmosphere here with the organ sounds and reverbed guitars. It’s a far cry from the GAQS you knew from previously. The rhythmic pattern of the song never shifts far from Ty Willman’s organ, to the point where most of the lead guitar work is very low in the mix. It’s an interesting start to the album, incorporating a lot of moods you’d be unlikely to associate with a Seattle based band (except for maybe Screaming Trees). They change musical stance for the next couple of tracks: ‘Ed #5’ is a slab of fuzzy retro rock, heavy on the pedals and phasers and during the punky-edged ‘No Favors’, bassist Mari Ann Braden takes lead vocals for a track which has more in common with early L7 and Hole than GAQS’s more usual post-grunge and power pop. As a stand-alone track, its attitude and energy work very well, but as part of ‘Reloaded’ it feels very misplaced.

At three songs in, you may be forgiven for thinking this is a little directionless. After all, at this point, you’d be right…but you’ve got to give them credit for trying new things. ‘T.V. Girl’ offers the first truly great moment from ‘Reloaded’, with its mid-paced, guitar driven pop-rock. Ty Willman’s voice is at its strongest and has a passionate quality and once Mari Ann joins the chorus for harmony vocals, you get to hear the real potential behind GAQS, not heard much before now. ‘Alligator’ features another of Willman’s best vocal performances, with its mid-paced broodiness; it’s one of the key tracks for spotting how much the band has matured since their formulaic debut. The percussion-less ‘Underwater’ returns to a more atmospheric style with acoustic guitars accompanied by organ sounds; the song itself tinged with sadness and Willman’s voice being well suited to the more wistful nature of the material. The soft ‘Lazy’ works excellently, once again the call-and-response style vocals between Ty Willman and Mari Ann Braden providing its best feature.

The album’s best known cut ‘Dizzy’ (as featured in the movie The Basketball Diaries) is one of the album’s more positive moments. As far as this style of nineties power pop is concerned, this is a near-perfect example, with its great rhythm guitars and infectious chorus. Mari Ann’s backing vocals add something here – the combination of male and female voices matched with the feel-good nature of the song should have made this a sure fire hit. ‘Tangled’ has an interesting slightly retro edge – the ringing guitars occasionally have an Allman Brothers tone, even if the musical style doesn’t have anything else in common with Southern Rock. Despite the good arrangement, the song isn’t as memorable as it should be.

This album may arrive with a bunch of ideas and influences and seemingly no idea of which direction to go, but it certainly provides more than enough entertainment once it finds its feet. However, the momentum doesn’t last, as it ends in a rather disinterested fashion: ‘Space Cocksucker’ is a woozy funk based instrumental with the focus on rhythm guitar, punctuated by keyboard sounds; this is definitely filler material and ‘Halloween’ is an okay piece of jangle pop (largely based around a simple arrangement played by guitarists Steve Ross and Danny K) which features a good vocal but not much else.

It may feel rather hit and miss, but I love this album. Its relative lack of success – given its more commercial moments – is surprising and, as such, it’s unlikely to ever be thought of as more than a footnote in the Seattle family tree. The band recorded a follow-up three years later entitled ‘New Disaster’, which remains unreleased on a physical format apart from one track, ‘Kid’, appearing on the I Know What You Did Last Summer soundtrack. (However, part of the album can be heard courtesy of a legal stream via MySpace)

After the break-up of GAQS, Ty Willman went on to work with Devilhead (a band featuring Brian Wood of Hater and John McBain of Monster Magnet, Hater and Wellwater Conspiracy). He would also work with MariAnn Braden and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready in a short-lived project, $10,000 Gold Chain. Steve Ross, meanwhile, joined punk band The Briefs, under the pseudonym Steve E Nix. As of March 2010, Willman made a return playing Green Apple Quick Step songs. He hopes that one day the much sought-after third GAQS album will get a proper release.


Read the interview with Willman here.
Listen to the online stream of ‘New Disaster’ here.


March 2010

N.O.W. – Force of Nature

‘Force of Nature’ is the debut release by N.O.W., a Brazilian based melodic rock outfit formed by bassist Alec Mendonça. The music was recorded in Rio de Janeiro (aside from a few drum parts recorded in Sweden) and the tapes were then sent to Los Angeles, where ex-Unruly Child vocalist Philip Bardowell laid down his vocal tracks. The resulting album offers thirteen hook-laden songs which push all the right buttons – especially for Philip Bardowell fans.
‘Can’t Make It (Can I)’ opens the album with the band in full-on rock mode, focusing largely on Caio de Carvalho’s guitar riff, although there are moments where some classic sounding AOR keyboard work breaks through. Although this is great, it’s on the slower numbers where the band sounds more comfortable, particularly those with a traditional mid-paced arrangement. ‘Listen To Your Heart’ is the album’s masterpiece. It’s a classic example of AOR – the keyboards take a stabbing approach and the bassline is uncomplicated, but it’s the vocal arrangement which is key: Bardowell sounds absolutely at ease and his lead vocal is fabulous; on the chorus, it has a well-placed backing vocal as a counter-balance. ‘Once That Feeling Comes Again’ is a standard mid-paced rocker, but stands out due to another use of stabbing keyboards, as well as featuring a couple of pleasing keyboard flourishes. ‘You’ begins as a grandiose piano-led piece, where Bardowell could be accused of over-singing. Things settle down with the addition of drums and guitars, at which point the track becomes another in a long line of songs which sound like they’ve come off the AOR factory’s production line. There’s nothing wrong with it, but ‘Force of Nature’ offers better moments.
‘Lonely Soul’ is an excellent soft rocker, which should please fans of Jeff Scott Soto and ‘Long Way From Home’ features some well played pompy keyboards, before settling into a techy 80s groove on its verse; this track sticks out a little, as its stylistically quite different to the other songs. ‘Hail Mary’ opens with some terrific soaring guitar lines, before the main riff kicks in. As with most of N.O.W.’s material, it has a mid-paced approach. The pre-chorus feels a little out of place but a couple of effective guitar fills help to make it work; when the chorus eventually arrives, it resembles melodic rock at its best, with another big hook. ‘I’m Free (But Not Ready To Go)’ is slow-burner of a song which seems to take a long time to get to the chorus. While the chorus is memorable, I would have shoehorned an extra one in, before the two minute mark, especially since verses are in a key not best suited to Bardowell’s voice. Once it hits its stride and he gets to hit the higher notes, though, it becomes another standout track. The closing number comes with a great lead guitar part, full of vibrato. With regard to the lead guitar in the end section, Caio almost steals the show here with some smart fretboard work. It never upstages the song, though, as once again the chorus here is incredibly strong.
Although there are no bad songs here, the (polished) demo quality of the recordings stops the album being truly great (it’s also worth mentioning that for some reason ‘Long Way From Home’ has also been mastered at about a third of the volume of the rest of the disc). However, fans of melodic rock – and particularly fans of the mid-nineties releases via labels like MTM – should find plenty of enjoyment here, even if ‘Force of Nature’ sounds like something you’ve heard a thousand times before.
March 2010