In the early 90’s I was a big Guns n’ Roses fan.  I mean, who wasn’t?  They were the biggest rock band on the planet back then.  However, a fifteen year gap between the release of ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’ (a poor covers album) and ‘Chinese Democracy’ damaged their public profile, not to mention the record company’s wallet.  (‘Chinese Democracy’ was interesting in itself: the resulting album was essentially Axl Rose and some blokes, since nearly the whole of the classic line-up had walked by then.   Surprisingly, the end result was decent; although whether it was worth waiting fifteen years for is open to debate; as is whether or not Axl plus blokes actually equals G n’ R, for that matter.  Maybe we’ll talk about that some other time).

Anyway, I digress… During that wilderness period, the classic G n’ R band members released a multitude of discs, most with something to recommend them.  It became clear with each of these side projects and solo releases that Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Gilby Clarke and Duff McKagan all possessed a decent amount of talent.

‘Sick’ is the second studio album by Duff McKagan’s Loaded (the first being 2002’s ‘Dark Days’).  As you’re possibly expecting, the album offers a hard rock ride with a slightly retro sneer (on the surface that suits me fine, since both Velvet Revolver albums were dishwater dull. For a project featuring three ex-members of G n’ R and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots fame, the outcome could have been so much better).   It’ll come as no surprise that the best tracks are the upbeat ones with a trashy spirit.  If that’s what you’re after, then ‘Sick’ will provide entertainment.  Opening with the title track: one part Stooges, three parts glam metal; this really is where Duff excels.  Mike Squires kicks things off with a punchy guitar riff (and later throws in an edgy solo) and Duff’s husky voice lends attitude. In addition to the main riff, guitarist Mike Squires throws in an edgy guitar solo.  The stomping rock of ‘Sleaze Factory’ and ‘Flatline’ keep up momentum with plenty of sass and decent choruses.  It’s only by track four (‘IOU’) Duff’s bass work comes to the fore.  While not flashy, the more upfront bass sound is very welcome here.  It could’ve worked well on the previous tracks, but I think this album is more about attention grabbing attitude than musical prowess.

‘The Slide’ offers another slab of rock ‘n’ roll guitars with a punky edge and ‘Blind Date Girl’ is a superb five minutes of trashy rock (reminding me more of a few past efforts by ex-G n’ R chums Gilby Clarke and Izzy Stradlin); the addition of a horn section make this a standout – and as such, it’s the only slower track which really works (although ‘No Shame’ – another track highlighting Duff’s punchy bass work – fares quite well for a mid-pacer, thanks to a decent chorus).
Even more obviously, the woozy ‘Wasted’ and ‘Mother’s Day’ really let the side down.  The musical arrangements are rather empty and McKagan’s vocal limitations do nothing to give things a lift.  Face it, while Duff does a fine job on the punchy stuff, he just doesn’t have enough vocal chops to tackle the more emotional stuff.   ‘Translucent’ also misses the mark a little, sounding a little like a Tommy Stinson/Bash & Pop cast off (and hey, while we’re back here again, exactly why has Stinson been in G n’ R for years?  His input into his previous bands would suggest he’s got far more talent than he’s ever likely to have needed playing bass as part of Axl’s pick-up band.  I suppose the retainer must be good).

Essentially, this album by Duff McKagan’s Loaded is kind of like a doughnut.  In the main, it’ll make you feel good and give you a quick fix.  If you were looking for something with a longer lasting hit, it’s possible this could leave you unsatisfied.

February 2010

IRON MAIDEN – Number Of The Beast

By the time Iron Maiden entered the studio to record their third album, they had no previously unused material in their archive. Bruce Dickinson (aka ex-Samson vocalist Bruce Bruce) had also become the band’s frontman, replacing Paul Di’Anno, who’d provided vocals on Maiden’s first two full-length releases. The band and producer Martin Birch (who’d produced their previous album, ‘Killers’) were effectively starting from scratch. What resulted is probably one of the finest heavy metal albums of all time. It’s certainly the album where Iron Maiden’s “classic” sound found its feet.

Telling a tale of Viking hordes, of plundering, rape and pillage, ‘Invaders’ opens the album with a real statement of intent. The band approach the number at full pace; Steve Harris employs an unmistakably aggressive bass style, while Clive Burr turns in one of his most powerful drum performances. Dickinson’s wailing vocal shows itself to be almost the polar opposite to Paul Di’Anno’s raw, punk-influenced vocal style – and he announces his presence rather unsubtly. A strong opening, certainly, but there’s far better to come… ‘Children of the Damned’ (inspired by the movie of the same name) is the album’s gentlest track. In some ways it feels like it appears slightly too early on the LP, but provides a brilliant contrast to the opening number. It highlights the softer end of Bruce’s vocal range, as well as proving how effortlessly he hits the long vibrato-edged notes. Adrian Smith guitar work appears in both its extremes, offering some gorgeous soaring guitar work during the song’s intro and a blistering guitar solo towards the end. A couple of other songs from the album have outshone this one in terms of longevity, but musically, ‘Children of the Damned’ shows a great maturity and is one of the album’s standouts.

Inspired by the cult 60s series starring Patrick McGoohan, ‘The Prisoner’ returns things to a fast pace. The track begins with the famous sample of McGoohan’s “I am not a number…I am a free man” and Burr’s pounding drums, before kicking into high gear. Steve Harris’s bass playing here is upfront and high in the mix, but surprisingly he never opts for his favourite galloping approach. The track also features fantastic guitar work from both Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. A co-write between Steve Harris and Adrian Smith, ‘The Prisoner’ has a more melodic chorus than a lot of other songs here. I presume that was Smith’s big contribution, as his writing has sometimes shown a slight AOR/melodic rock influence. A sequel to ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ from Iron Maiden’s self titled debut appears in the form of ’22 Acacia Avenue’. Supposedly based on someone the band knew, lyrically it provides a low point for ‘Number of the Beast’ with its tales of red-light wrong-doing. Musically, though, the band is in fine form, yet again. A slow lead guitar break midway acts as the song’s climax.

The two single releases culled from ‘The Number of the Beast’ (‘Run To The Hills’ and the title song) have remained solid fan favourites. While neither of the songs are as complicated as some of the material Maiden would go on to record, both tracks typify the band’s classic sound. The ‘Number of the Beast’ song is interesting, if only for the fact that it’s lyrically better than most things from this album (supposedly inspired by a nightmare Harris had), yet musically isn’t quite as good as some of the album’s other tracks. However, that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable and it remains one of Maiden’s best known songs. The anthemic nature of ‘Run To The Hills’ has allowed it to become one of the tracks most associated with the NWOBHM and become a staple for rock compilations. Musically, this employs a galloping bassline; something which recurs throughout various other Maiden tracks and a sound very easily identifiable with Harris. Both ‘Run To The Hills’ and ‘The Number of the Beast’ have been almost permanent fixtures in the band’s live set since 1982.

‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is more grandiose, hinting at a more complex musical approach. Lyrically, it tells the tale of a man waiting to die. He waits in his cell for someone to take him to his execution. Dickinson’s vocals are soft and slightly reflective at first, identifying with the dying man’s plight, before building to his trademark wail. The music builds in tandem, soft to begin with, then adding some excellent twin guitar leads. Most of the track focuses on a mid paced, classic heavy metal sound; it builds gradually, always making fantastic use of those twin harmonies on the guitars, until it reaches its peak, as the whole band play their hearts out – parts of the end section are as fast as anything ‘Number of the Beast’ has to offer. Clive Burr hammers out a relentless drum rhythm as Smith and Murray offer up a couple of top guitar solos; all the while, the whole thing is being anchored by Harris’s bass work, always solid and never showy.

‘The Number of the Beast’ offers only one obviously weak track: ‘Gangland’ (written by Smith and Burr) sounds throwaway compared to the rest of the album. Clive Burr’s drumming is solid and, as always, Bruce’s vocal is great, but the opening guitar riff sounds slightly jarring. That’s enough for the track to never really recover, but it’s also a bit weak lyrically.

‘Number of the Beast’ became a platinum seller, reaching number one on the UK album chart. It’s now rightly regarded as one of the great musical milestones of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

[The remastered CD features ‘Total Eclipse’ as a bonus track.]

February 2010

KLARK KENT – Kollected Works

Between 1978 and 1980, using the pseudonym Klark Kent, the world-famous drummer Stewart Copeland (hi-hat god) released a 10” EP and a handful of singles. On these tracks, he performed everything, allegedly with no outside help. These releases sold moderately in the UK. Klark Kent’s career made little impact, barring his best-known release, ‘Don’t Care’, which charted briefly. Each of these singles is now hard to find, especially in decent condition.

In the mid 90s, the (almost) complete recorded works of Copeland masquerading as Klark Kent were given a CD reissue as the ‘Kollected Works’. It featured all the tracks from the 10″ and 7″s, as well as a few unreleased tracks (including ‘Strange Things Happen’ and ‘Love Lessons’, recorded a few years later, in the mid-eighties).

The CD appeared and then disappeared seemingly as quickly and now fetches stupid amounts of money whenever it changes hands, but is it worth it? Are Copeland’s extra-curricular offerings – part vanity, part novelty – actually worth listening to?
I’d say they were. I may be a little biased when it comes to Stewart Copeland, but I feel these recordings still have plenty of spark and make for decent listening, especially if you’re a Police fan.

In the past, rumours have circulated that some of these tracks were scheduled for inclusion on The Police’s debut LP ‘Outlandos D’Amour’ – but such rumours have never been confirmed, as far as I know. It’s worth keeping that in mind when listening, especially considering some of these songs are more than reminiscent of the Copeland penned ‘On Any Other Day’ (as featured on the second Police LP, ‘Regatta De Blanc’).

The best known track, ‘Don’t Care’ still has a sneer. Maybe it’s been softened a little over the years, but alongside ‘Where’s Captain Kirk’ by Athletico Spizz 80, remains one of the essential post-punk singles. ‘Rich in a Ditch’ is okay as far as it goes; an obvious chorus is saved from being ordinary, by Copeland’s unmistakable rhythms working between snare and hi-hat effortlessly. ‘Grandelinquent’ is classic Copeland. An instrumental piece, naturally heavy on the percussion, it falls somewhere between The Police instrumentals ‘The Other Way Of Stopping’ (although a fair bit slower in places) with atmospherics, similar to ‘Behind My Camel’ (from 1980’s ‘Zenyatta Mondatta’). There’s an interesting jazzy piano break and great percussion at the end which sounds like bottles…

‘Too Kool To Kalypso’ features a similar vocal delivery to the aforementioned Police song ‘On Any Other Day’ and is often thought to be a high point of this collection. While the percussion is good, I find the kazoo interludes (yes, kazoo) push this too far towards novelty. However, it’s not as much like that ‘On Any Other Day’ as ‘My Old School’, which almost feels like an earlier attempt at writing something in that vein. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me this was written with inclusion on that second Police album in mind. Another instrumental cut, ‘Theme For Kenetic Ritual’, differs from other tracks in that it’s not quite as percussion based, centring instead around a guitar riff. As such, while pleasant, it’ll never quite hit the spot in the same way as ‘Grandelinquent’, especially with the kazoo making a return appearance at the end. ‘Strange Things Happen’ has a reggae vibe and is one of the tracks most reminiscent of The Police, although it’s nowhere near as polished.

At the time of writing, you’ll never find this on CD without having to sell your internal organs to raise the asking price and it’s a bit much to hope for another reissue. It should be heard though, especially if you like The Police. Unless you’re a Copeland obsessive though, it’s unlikely you’d choose to listen to it instead of those early Police LPs, no matter how good some of the material genuinely is.

See Klark perform ‘Don’t Care’ on Top of the Pops here.
See the video for ‘Away From Home’ here.

October 2007