In terms of “supergroups”, Snakecharmer’s first line up was hard to beat. Centring around ex-Whitesnake members Micky Moody (guitar) and Neil Murray (bass), the band immediately came with a solid, classic rock sound that would be partially indebted to their formative years with David Coverdale, but – as was proven by their debut album – they relied far less on nostalgia than their earlier vehicle The Company of Snakes. Much of Snakecharmer’s superior sound not only came from stronger songwriting, but also the presence of vocalist Chris Ousey (ex-Virginia Wolf/Heartland), a man blessed with the kind of range capable of tackling almost everything with ease.
This four disc box set from Cherry Red Records/HNE Recordings is the perfect Snakecharmer primer. By bringing together their first two studio records and pairing those with some brilliant unreleased live material, it paints a full picture of veteran musicians who still have plenty of fire. It shows how, in a few short years, Snakecharmer not only took the bones of 70s and 80s rock and made it shine in the studio, but also really came alive in front of a crowd.
Years after release, Snakecharmer’s debut album (originally released in 2013) remains a great record, the kind of listen that would not just appeal to old Whitesnake and Virginia Wolf devotees, but a broad spectrum of rock fans who still love things in a “classic rock” mould. 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. Occupying the drum stool, Thunder’s Harry James doesn’t quite bring the punch of Bonham or, indeed, the younger Ian Paice, but his backbeat is hefty enough, which, alongside 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. 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 Virginia Wolf and 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 trades off lead parts with second guitarist Laurie Wisefield. Wisefield already had a legacy via some great work with Wishbone Ash in the 80s, but his appointment within Snakecharmer provides him with a much stronger role, allowing for bluesier sounds at times, and often something a little rockier..In short, this track serves up 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 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, Adam 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 Wiseman 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.
In many ways, with this record, Snakecharmer had set themselves up with a debut that couldn’t be beaten, but ‘Second Skin’ (originally released in 2017) isn’t short of great tracks. Even the departure of Micky Moody couldn’t keep a great band down. As evidenced by the best work supplied his successor Simon McBride – later to join Deep Purple – Snakecharmer didn’t necessarily rely on the bandana-wearing, ex-’Snake six stringer for their ultimate power, and the opening track ‘Sounds Like A Plan’ comes out of the gate with a massive swagger. The riffs are of a classic hard rock mould, and yet there’s something in the way they flow that also calls back to some classic R&B, making this play like the more fluid efforts of Free and Bad Company. As you’d expect, Ousey is able to approach this in full voice, with a massive curling sound that lifts a great arrangement further, and Murray’s bass brings a huge amount of punch. Within three minutes, it’s clear that this new Snakecharmer have all the power of the previous line up.
And so, the album continues, sharing many great jams and superb riffs, with ‘That Kind of Love’ bringing another early highlight. With a pop-ish bounce, some fine twin guitar sounds, and Chris crooning over a strong AOR melody, it represents the more sugary end of Snakecharmer in many ways, but that doesn’t mean rock fans will feel short changed. With some great harmonies, a big chorus and a flawless lead vocal, it casts Snakecharmer in the mould of ‘Here Comes Trouble’ era Bad Company, and as such, Ousey is in his element. ‘Fade Away’ finds the band very much reverting to type via a ringing guitar intro that could be modelled on at least three Whitesnake tunes, but as it gains momentum, there’s still much to love, especially with Ousey in strong voice and McBride showing more evidence of being a perfect fit for the band. The heart of the track, though, comes from Murray’s rock solid bass work, occasionally seeming as if it’d happily slide into ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart of The City’ at any given moment. It might sound like bread and butter stuff for the assembled musicians, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s still top notch blues rock.
For those who love Snakecharmer’s slightly heavier side, ‘Hell of A Way To Live’ combines a stomping rhythm with darker riffs, sometimes sounding like an old Deep Purple throwback circa ‘House of Blue Light’. During the instrumental bridges, McBride’s fat tones really cut through, and James hits his toms with a genuine thud – the sound of an old-school juggernaut at full pelt. The older heart is further shown via a few Hammond organ breaks, and McBride launching into a solo that definitely invokes the ghosts of Ritchie Blackmore, all of which makes this an instant classic. ‘Where Do We Go From Here’, meanwhile, has a faint Zeppelin-esque feel during the opening verses, but still sounds like a Snakecharmer workout due to a very distinctive voice. Eventually hitting a harder, bluesy crunch, the track blossoms into a moody rocker that isn’t exactly shy in flaunting the musicians’ roots, but despite a tried and tested approach, it’s still hugely enjoyable. Among other things, you’ll find some fine guitar work and strong harmonies at the heart of a solid track. A title like ‘Punching Above My Weight’ could have resulted in something clunky, but it’s to Snakecharmer’s eternal credit that they make a potentially lumpen title fly. McBride pulls out the acoustic guitar and thanks to excellent work throughout, a buoyant melody, and a few Thunder-isms en route, it’s actually a great number. Ousey chews confidently on some older clichés, but his great voice and boundless enthusiasm is enough to see the lyric through, whilst some excellent solos shared between McBride and Wisefield showcases more of Snakecharmer’s obviously melodic side.
Elsewhere, you’ll find the dark and brooding ‘Are You Ready To Fly’ wavering very close to Judas Priest’s cover of ‘Green Manalishi’ in more than a couple of places, ‘Follow Me Under’ supplying no-nonsense rock with a strong boogie backline contrasted by something that sounds like an old Heartland chorus, and ‘Dress It Up’ applying a pleasingly choppy guitar riff to a bluesy stomp, lifted up no end by Murray unleashing his inner Andy Fraser. None of these tunes ever aim to change the face of rock; they merely aim to give classic rock fans a great time – and that’s a job these songs do exceptionally well, and it all helps ‘Second Skin’ to rise far beyond “difficult second album” status.
For those who invested in the studio albums upon release, ‘Anthology’ brings further massive treats with two previously unreleased live shows. The first, recorded in Milton Keyanes just ahead of the debut’s release, is prime Snakecharmer. Taken from an audience source, the quality isn’t quite of official standard, but aside from a slightly echoey vocal, it’s solid enough for a bootleg recording. Mixing new cuts with several Whitesnake classics, it results in a broad set that’s nostalgic, yet still relevant. Fans will find solid renditions of ‘Accident Prone’ and ‘Guilty As Charged’ supplied with plenty of punch, and with Wakeman’s keys coming through a little differently compared to the studio cuts. It’s also great to hear Moody and Wisefield reaching for a few heavier riffs too. Obviously, with the debut album yet to be released, it’s a few Whitesnake tunes that are the bigger draw here, and the versions of ‘Ready An’ Willing’, ‘Fool For Your Loving’ and ‘Walking In The Shadow of The Blues’ are terrific, with Ousey sounding about a thousand times better than Coverdale circa 2012. The genuine highlight of this early show, though, comes from a storming ‘Slow ‘n’ Easy’ which, as you’d expect, really suits Ousey’s voice, both in terms of presence and range. What’s more, it’s prefaced by Micky’s big show piece at that time (‘Moody’s Blues’) which finds him working some fierce slide guitar. As anyone who actually saw Snakecharmer around this time will attest, it was one of the highpoints of the show, at least in terms of stretching out, so it’s good to have an audio souvenir, even if the quality isn’t perfect.
The second show, again from Milton Keynes, captures the band three years down the line, right at the end of the touring cycle for the first record. The audio quality is very similar to the previous set in that Ousey’s vocals are blighted by echo, but it’s slightly better sounding, since Murray’s bass adds a reasonable amount of warmth. The set list is very similar too, but the experience is worth repeating, with Chris sounding superb on the Whitesnake tunes, and very strong takes on ‘A Little Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Accident Prone’ and ‘Nothing To Lose’ holding up the newer material. For the bigger fan, there’ll be a lot of pleasure to be found when revisiting this show, and hearing Moody and Wisefield chugging through ‘Walking In The Shadow of The Blues’, another outing for ‘Moody’s Blues’ into a storming ‘Slow ‘n’ Easy’, and the presence of a soulfulness during ‘Here I Go Again’ that Coverdale has long lost. In fact, the only major difference between this and the 2012 show is the addition of ‘Take Me With You’ for a final encore. The assembled band play the vintage ’Snake jam with a real gusto, but it’s grim hearing Ousey singing of leg-spreading with such enthusiasm… These things have become the accepted lowbrow norm for Davy Trousersnake, of course, but to hear someone else tackling his sexually charged lyrics, in this instance, is more than uncomfortable. It’s a superb show, nevertheless, and despite having appeared as a Japanese bootleg, fans will welcome it as an official release here.
Despite the unreleased live material being audience sourced rather than being from superior soundboard recordings, this is a great set. Even for those who’ve owned and loved the studio records for years, the live material makes it more than worth the upgrade. It shows that, over the course of a few short years, Snakecharmer were one of the finest classic rock bands to work the circuit – and work it, indeed, they did. Time spent with this body of work not only uplifts the spirits, but also shows how, when done exactly right, classic hard rock never sounds tired or old. Warts ‘n’ all, this is a highly recommended package.
Buy the box set here: SNAKECHARMER – Anthology