KING KOBRA – King Kobra

KK2011For some people, Carmine Appice will be most famous through his work with Vanilla Fudge, followed by a shortlived Blind Faith-eque collaboration with Jeff Beck (a collaboration which, aside from not being especially good, also featured Vanilla Fudge’s bassist Tim Bogert). For others – and mostly those whose musical tastes favour a more metallic approach – Carmine will be known as the older brother of Dio/Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice and founder of the cult melodic metal outfit King Kobra.

King Kobra’s first two albums -‘Ready to Strike’ and ‘Thrill of a Lifetime’- are cult classics. Granted, they’re a little hit and miss, but the great moments on both albums are among the best that 80s melodic metal has to offer. This is, in no small part, due to the then unknown Mark Free being the featured vocalist on both albums; a performer whom would go on to become one of the melodic rock scene’s best-loved voices, achieving greater accolades with cult AOR bands Signal and Unruly Child. Sadly, by the time King Kobra issued their third album a couple of years later – the appropriately titled ‘III’ – bassist Johnny Rod had joined W.A.S.P., Mark Free had moved on, King Kobra’s sound had toughened up…and new vocalist Johnny Edwards just wasn’t up to the job. [Edwards would face a similarly hard task replacing Lou Gramm in Foreigner a couple of years later]. King Kobra threw in the towel after that third album, with Appice joining ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes to form Blue Murder. Appice left Blue Murder in 1992 to move on to other projects.

Thirteen years after King Kobra’s third album, Appice resurrected the band name and released ‘Hollywood Trash’ – a King Kobra album in name only, with Appice being the sole original member. For this third incarnation of King Kobra, Kelly Keeling was enlisted on vocals (a man, whom coincidentally, had also been Blue Murder’s frontman sometime after Appice’s departure). While ‘Hollywood Trash’s material was patchy and had the audio quality of something recorded in a shed, Keeling did his best to deliver decent vocal performances. The end result, unsurprisingly, wasn’t really any better than ‘King Kobra III’; it seemed that no matter how hard they tried, this band were never going to match their early days with Mark Free.

A decade later, King Kobra announced they were to make a comeback. With Appice gathering together most of the original line-up (excluding Mark Free, now Marcie), it would certainly be seen as a step in the right direction. The resulting self-titled album – their first to be released on Frontiers Records – is marginally better than the worst bits of ‘King Kobra III’ and better sounding than ‘Hollywood Trash’, but in reality, that’s not difficult.

The riffs are chunky and the choruses are suitably big and the energy on show could possibly equal parts of ‘Ready To Strike’, but the album lets itself down with average song writing, full of absolutely brazen clichés. Their attempt at making a deliberately feel-good record is hampered throughout by an average vocal performance, courtesy of ex-Rough Cutt/Quiet Riot man Paul Shortino. A quick look at the track-listing ought to give you some indication of where the disc is headed: ‘Tear Down The Walls’, ‘Turn Up The Good Times’, ‘Screamin’ For More’, ‘This Is How We Roll’ – and even worse – ‘Rock This House’.

On the plus side, the band turns in some solid, if predictable, musical performances. A few of David Michael-Philips’s guitar solos really hit the spot and, naturally, Appice’s hard rock drum style is great throughout. It seems a shame that the decent moments are often let down by Shortino’s slightly rough delivery and even rougher lyrical content. ‘Top of the World’ is helped by some solid harmony vocals and a cracking guitar solo, only then to be let down by a lazy one-line hook, but even so, it at least hints at the better material from King Kobra’s early albums, while the Whitesnake-with-an-average vocalist approach of ‘You Make It Easy’ surprises with the inclusion of a nifty acoustic guitar solo.

The best track on offer is certainly ‘We Got a Fever’, where King Kobra attempt to put away their “rock clichés 101” bible and mix their brand of hard rock with a gentle bluesy tone. The slower, slightly more brooding feel allows David Michael-Phillips and Mick Sweda an opportunity for their playing to stretch slightly beyond King Kobra’s usual melodic metal confines, and the end result is far more sympathetic to Paul Shortino’s vocal style. Even though the big ballad ‘Tears Turn To Rain’ is an improvement over most of the material here, any passion it could have had gets flattened by Shortino’s approach – his husky tones are really at odds with the kind of huge, effortless delivery it really needed.

While some will praise this return of King Kobra after a decade away, this release is little more than okay at best, while at worst, it could possibly rival Paul Sabu’s 1995 outing ‘In Dreams’ as one of the most embarrassing, clichéd offerings imaginable. If you’re an undemanding rock fan who’s never really let go of the past, you may still be happy to “tear down the walls” or “turn up the good times”, but for everyone else, this album is about as fresh as Carmine Appice’s leather trousers from 1989.

April 2011


POBThe Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut was an album that got better over time; one of those discs that really takes hold unexpectedly.  A nostalgic affair, its core influences recalled the greatness of the mid 90s. It’s understandable, therefore that it could be suspected  their sophomore album would be a weaker effort having been put together in a fraction of the time.

The opening bars of the title track sweep away any misgivings, as Flood’s lavish production brings out the absolute best in the New York quintet’s sound. The drums have great presence, even once they find a space behind Kip Berman’s guitars (which appear in both crisp and fuzzy forms) and the bass sound that tips the hat to Simon Gallup of The Cure with its rattling nature. Berman’s voice is surprisingly wistful considering the full sound the band has adopted, but it’s the music which does all the talking here. With the opening number combining most of PoBPaH’s strongest features, it’s surprising the album doesn’t fall at the next hurdle. ‘Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now’ has moments which lean farther towards 90s jangle; its lead guitar riffs are simple and yet so effective. While Berman sticks to his usual aloof vocal approach, the music has a toughness which, in places, wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on either Buffalo Tom’s 1992 breakthrough album ‘Let Me Come Over’ or Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Bandwagonesque’.

The mechanical bass at the heart of ‘Heart In Your Heartbreak’ recalls the best sounds from the band’s debut. With the hushed vocals of Kip Berman and Peggy Wang melding together on its chorus, the feeling is one of familiarity. It feels a little throwaway after the weightiness of the opening pair of tracks, but clearly highlights how, for all of their multi-layered tendencies elsewhere, this is a band that possesses a knack for a good pop hook. For fans of the spikier elements of the debut, ‘The Girl of 1,000 Dreams’ should appeal, driven by Kurt Feldman’s hard drumming, overlaid by a wall of fuzzy guitars; as with a couple of their debut’s tracks, this has a musical edge which hints at the softer end of the 90s shoegaze movement.

‘The Body’ sounds rather like a New Order cast off from the mid 90s. While Berman doesn’t sound especially like Bernard Sumner, there’s a definite influence in the way the track has been constructed around a layer of keys, upfront bass and quirky drumming. The chorus here isn’t as strong as perhaps it could have been, but the other elements are top notch – and with the band’s delivery sounding so easy, it still ranks as one of the best numbers. The band aren’t above borrowing from other 80s alternative stuff either, as the upbeat approach of ‘My Terrible Friend’, recalls The Cure circa 1985-87 with its cheeky keyboard riff combined with jangly guitars (backed by a busy acoustic line). That’s as far as any similarities go, mind, since Berman’s breathy vocal keeps things really light and chipper. While it’s Wang’s keyboard line which lodges inside your head, Alex Nadius’s busy but uncomplicated bass work isn’t without merit here.

While its rhythm maintains a steady pace, with an almost unflinching mechanical vibe, ‘Strange’ closes the disc with something oddly beautiful. A track which recalls lots of alternative music from the early 90s, the way Wang’s keyboard layers shine through the multi-tracked guitars is just superb. Berman’s vocal is almost redundant; the multilayered sounds work in such an effective way they almost completely absorb the listener.

With ‘Belong’, Berman and co have delivered a release which is stronger than their debut and one which makes the art of the “difficult second album” seem so easy. The band sound confident throughout, and while their song writing hasn’t moved on a great deal, their arrangements have a smoothness which wasn’t always consistent before. Sounding stronger with every play, this is an album for iPods on long journeys – an album to take with you to bring a spark to crowded places. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have matured as a band – and it shows.

March 2011

FOE – Hot New Trash EP

FOEtrashWhy is it that every time a female artist with alternative leanings begins a career, they’re never accepted as just being themselves? It seems the knee-jerk reaction is to liken the artist in question to either PJ Harvey or Kate Bush. Foe (aka Hannah Clark) has been likened to both – but in reality, has little to nothing in common with either. It’s hugely unlikely you’d find Harvey or Bush delivering anything quite as rocky as the music offered by Foe, and you certainly wouldn’t find either of them donning a luridly coloured wig willy-nilly.

It would be so easy to dismiss Foe as a novelty, but once you get past her penchant for wearing day-glo headgear and oh-so-deliberate kookiness, her debut EP ‘Hot New Trash’ has a definite charm. If you’ve not given up after the first track, chances are you’ll enjoy Foe’s trash-filled musical aesthetic.

That opening number, the rather short ‘Ape Song’, is based around a waltz time signature played on a harmonium, creating the kind of carnival atmosphere which might please Kurt Weill and Tom Waits. Foe’s vocals are strong, but not especially user-friendly with their slightly sneering nature. The track falls apart fairly quickly, descending into ugly electronic drones and backward loops. ‘Tyrant Song’ combines a hard edged electronic punch with a fuzzy guitar riff, over which Foe’s slightly distorted voice works excellently. Where there should be a chorus, she spits “are you ready for the next big thing / are you ready for a clown in a g-string”. It just about passes as a hook; but the mood of the track seems more important than its sing-along qualities. If you like chunky riffs overlaid by electronica, this is a number should hit the mark. Even the jarring keyboard lines don’t interfere with the solid grooves.

‘Genie In a Coke Can’ is much slower and a fair bit darker, with its brooding riff clashing with electronica in a way which recalls the best work by cult 90s artists Snake River Conspiracy and Jane Jensen. The lyrics are full of anti-media messages and spite directed at record companies who spend “millions in marketing for pop star trash”. Once again, the ugly keyboards play against the mid-paced rock elements in a way that sets out to unnerve, but there’s enough bottom end and fuzz here give the track a proper edge. ‘Merry Go Down’ features a heavy use of keyboards, overlaid with upfront bass. Foe’s vocals avoid being twee by being slightly distorted via some studio trickery, but while her voice is loud in the end mix, it’s the instrumental arrangement which provides the greatest strength. The harmonium, combined with very measured drumming and retro guitar twang lends a slightly unsettling atmosphere; the kind of twisted spookiness you should expect from someone who claims that Oompa Loompas often invaded her bedroom at night via hallucinations.

‘Hot New Trash’ presents the sound of a raw talent refusing to be moulded and pigeon-holed by her record company. While it starts out on shaky ground by trying slightly too hard, by the mid-point, Foe’s mix of alternative pop, ugly electronica and chunky rock becomes more than endearing. Forget what you may have been told: she isn’t PJ Harvey, Kate Bush or any other female singer-songwriter you care to lazily pin on her; she’s just Foe – making her own music, and even better, she’s doing it on her own terms.

April 2011

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

COLDSPELL – Out Of The Cold


The second album by Coldspell ticks all the right boxes for a great sounding melodic rock release almost instantly. The Swedish five-piece don’t offer anything that could be described as cutting-edge, but certainly have a firm grasp of hard rock in the Heaven’s Edge/early Dokken vein.

Opening with a chunky riff, ‘Run For Your Life’ is a great example of Coldspell at their best, especially once the riffs get a bit of extra weight from some old fashioned slabs of organ work. Niklas Swedentorp’s vocal is strong throughout the number, with the almost obligatory slight European twang to his voice. The rhythm section are solid, but it’s Michael Larsson’s guitar work which really gives Coldspell their slightly harder quality. His featured solo near the track’s end, although fairly short, has a great tone and feel – particularly during a brief multi-tracked section. A similar punchy riff drives ‘Time’, although here, parts of that riff are accompanied by some very old-school keyboards (courtesy of Matti Eklund) which have a dominant sound which wouldn’t sound out of place on any given number of Euro melodic rock discs. Of particular note are the moments where Larsson opts for a cleaner guitar tone on the verses; while Coldspell’s music doesn’t always offer much in the way of respite from solid hard rock riffs, there are some welcome moments where the vocals get more room to breathe.

‘The King’ also offers something a little softer, at least to start off with. Beginning with clean guitar work and a superbly delivered, gentler vocal, Coldspell sound very comfortable when allowing their music room to stretch out in this way. While Swedentorp’s doesn’t especially sound like any other specific vocalists, the softer end of his voice features a great soulful vibe – one which he ought to have been given opportunity to use a little more. Musically, it’s another decent number, where at first the drums are used sparingly while retaining a presence; the arrangement here is joined by a layer of keys with a orchestral sound. The opening of this track offers one of the album’s strongest vocal performances and even once the hard rock riffs kick in, Swedentorp’s voice sounds like the kind found in many a great rock performance. On another mid-paced hard rocker, ‘Angel Eyes’, bassist Anders Lindmark gets a brief chance to step into the spotlight; during the verses, Larsson’s guitars take a backseat, allowing the rumble of Lindmark’s bass to cut through. Aside from that, it’s business as usual though, with melodic chugging riffs and plenty of harmony vocals.

‘Seven Wonders’ doesn’t move too far away from Coldspell’s melodic rock blueprint, but features a slightly bouncier feel throughout. The rhythm section hit the mark without offering anything outstanding, while Swedentorp plays up his role as rock vocalist. The chorus isn’t as strong as some featured, but Larsson’s ringing guitar work leading into his solo more than makes up for any shortcomings. The title cut opens with an unexpected use acoustic guitar before launching into one of the album’s heaviest riffs. The main riff is driven by a great chug, over which Swedentorp’s voice is typically strong. A few of the instrumental bridges concentrate on the heavier aspects of Coldspell’s sound, with the drums breaking into brief bass-heavy flourishes on occasion. Melodic rock fans need not be put off at all, though, since the chorus brings some decent vocal harmonies with a strong hook and Larsson’s guitar solo provides another standout moment (with both elements bringing things back towards melodic rock territory). For great mid paced hard rock, ‘Heroes’ also delivers, thanks to a chunky guitar sound and gang vocals, but just when things begin to feel a little too metallic (in a Heaven’s Edge style), Eklund chimes in with a very old-school, Don Airey-esque keyboard solo.

One review claims that ‘Out of the Cold’ is a metal album as opposed to AOR, before going on to say that those who can’t tell the difference between the two rock subgenres are idiots. Harsh words, indeed. Fact is, while it’s not AOR per se, most of this album absolutely would not pass muster as a metal disc by most people’s standards in 2011. Based on Coldspell’s core sound, it’s obvious that particular reviewer has been ignorant of anything which could be categorized as “metal” since about 1989. Swedentorp’s vocal style is far too clean to be a metal singer; the rest of the band seems content to settle into very melodic, mid paced grooves, which certainly makes Coldspell far more in keeping with melodic rock. There’s nothing here that’s remotely edgy enough to be classified as metal. Other reviews, though, rightly praise the quality of Coldspell’s brand of melodic rock – and in all honesty it’s hard to argue, since each of the songs here are very well crafted.

It may feel a little old fashioned to some, but what Coldspell do, they do extremely well, making ‘Out of the Cold’ a really worthwhile listen for melodic rock buffs.

April 2011