SNAKECHARMER – Snakecharmer

38829Although 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

ROUGH CUT – Rollin’ Thunder EP

rough cut epWithin the first year of their existence, UK rockers Rough Cut have shared stages with cult rock bands Crashdiet and Jettblack.  They’ve supported the excellent Black Spiders.  They’ve even toured with American melodic rock legends Mr. Big – an impressive addition to the CV of any band, but especially so considering  Rough Cut were without a release behind them at that time.

On ‘Run Home’ – arguably the best track from this debut EP – Rough Cut attacks the listener with a hugely cocky guitar riff, its weightiness bolstered by a superb drum line from Jes Hartley.  Almost immediately, there’s a strong sense of Rough Cut’s love of classic rock and metal at the heart of their sound, although this is a band who never obviously set out to emulate any of their heroes or influences. The speed – if not necessarily the overall tone – evokes a mood of the early 80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal. This is something, perhaps, enforced a little farther by Jack Simkin’s vocal style; it’s not flat as such, but he favours a very natural tone which allows the Englishness of his vocal to cut through.  That said, his style is very complimentary the rest of the band as they power through this opening number – and, indeed, a couple of the others – at something nearing full-pelt.  If you don’t mind things adopting such a distinctly British slant, this is definitely enjoyable, especially as that great riff is coupled with a simple and relatively memorable chorus.

Another similarly full on hard rocker, ‘Romeo’s Dead’ doesn’t show much more of Rough Cuts talent, but, as before, the four musicians approach the material with a great power; a power evident even in the studio environment.  No nonsense riffing and another hooky chorus pass three minutes enjoyably, but the real high point is the guitar solo played by Simon J Court, whose blues edged, hard rock chops are terrific, filling a few bars with heavily wah-wahed notes like a true pro.
‘Midnight Rider’ starts excellently with some all-too-brief twin lead in the intro before the band career headlong into another punchy riff that’s not too far removed from those heard during the first two numbers.  While it may be tried-and-tested, the playing is spot on, with a great tightness in the rhythm section once again.  As before, Rough Cut ensure they take their meaty riffs and couple them with a decent chorus and the feeling of the band’s sweaty energy throughout really comes across on the recording.

In a slight change of pace, ‘Guardian Angel’ shows off a (slightly) more melodic side to Rough Cut.  After an acoustic intro (almost sounding like a quasi folk jig), the arrangement offers some terrific pumping bass, before settling into a more mid-paced rocker, again showcasing plenty of old-school chops.  At the slower pace, Simkin’s rough ‘n’ ready vocal approach seems more obvious than ever before, but he more than holds his own…and, obviously, a natural voice is often far more preferable to a voice subjected to studio shine. As with the other tracks, the highlight comes with the guitar solo; while a tad more restrained than before, it’s soon clear that although Rough Cut are a solidly talented quartet, it’s Court who is often in the driving seat.

Overall, ‘Rollin’ Thunder’ will certainly appeal to those who like a bit of trashy hard rock in the “classic” mould, even though three of the songs each have a very similar approach.  With a lot of potential and an obvious love of all things in the classic rock/old-school metal field, it’s just a pity they couldn’t have chosen a more distinctive name: for rock fans over a certain age, any band named Rough Cut are destined to be confused with Amir Derakh’s 80s hard rock band…

December 2012

BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION – Black Country Communion 2

bcc2It was surprising that Black Country Communion’s second album should be unleashed on the world so quickly. Released just nine months after their debut, you have to marvel at the speed these four musicians wrote and recorded their second batch of songs. It’s highly likely, of course, that this second album features material they were working on during the sessions for the first album. Whatever, this second album captures the band (once again featuring Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian) in fine form indeed.

A few early reports claimed this doesn’t quite have the impact of the debut album and in some ways that’s true as on this follow up, Black Country Communion offer far less bombast. This is helped by a slicker studio production and by Glenn Hughes reigning in his vocals a little. [Kevin Shirley’s production is much better on this album compared to that of BCC’s slightly more live-sounding debut; and thankfully it’s streets ahead of the nasty sound he gave Bonamassa’s own ‘Black Rock’ from the same year, which had all the sonic range and finesse of listening to something with your fingers in your ears]. Also, the songwriting is much stronger than before, perhaps more melodic in places, which is also very welcome.

The opening track, ‘The Outsider’ comes equipped with a huge pounding riff, which includes some great bass fills from Hughes underpinned by Jason Bonham’s “family inheritance” drumming style. While it’s certainly one of the album’s most full-on tracks (presumably positioned at the front to grab attention and provide continuity from the first album), it’s nowhere near as grating as the debut’s bombastic rockers, since Glenn Hughes’s vocals are nowhere near as squawky. Also, a far more sympathetic mix means that this time out, Derek Sherinian’s keyboard work isn’t buried and here, his featured keyboard solo is top-notch, carrying the spirit of Jon Lord and Don Airey. Although Bonamassa’s solos aren’t quite as striking as Sherinian’s keyboard work, it’s impossible not to smile when he breaks into some very Ritchie Blackmore-esque leads nearing the track’s end. ‘Man In The Middle’s dirty, swaggering old-school riff should be enough to persuade most of you that BCC mean business this time around, especially once that huge riff is intercut with eastern keyboard washes on the chorus. It’s like a perfect fusion of Glenn Hughes’s ‘Addiction’ and Dio era Rainbow (you’ll probably spot a cheeky Zeppelin-ism thrown in at the end too!).

‘Faithless’ endulges Joe Bonamassa’s Free fixation, featuring a riff which is very Paul Kossoff influenced in places. The eastern keyboards from ‘Man In The Middle’ make a welcome return and Sherinian’s understated work adds a nice touch.
Surprisingly (considering his over-the-top performances on BCC’s debut), this track gives Hughes plenty of opportunity to shine. His voice is spot on throughout – his rock chops retaining just enough soul to take the edge off – and his bass work is superb too; at times rock-solid, at other times offering small bendy flourishes which have a great impact – this is so, so much better than most of the Black Country Communion debut. Similarly, the eight minute epic ‘No Ordinary Son’ is absolutely first-rate. Bonamassa offers a superb, blues tinged lead vocal with hints of Paul Rodgers and Danny Bowes, while his softer guitar lines are very classy with a clean tone. Building from soft beginnings, it’s a very impassioned number and by the time the hard rock elements take their place for more even more Free influenced grooves, Black Country Communion hit all their marks with absolute ease. Even Glenn Hughes’s slightly warbly vocal section doesn’t spoil the overall mood, and even if it did, this time he could be forgiven, since his bass lines underpinning all the more obvious elements have a brilliant fluidity.

The softer side of BCC comes to the fore for ‘Battle of Hadrian’s Wall’ where the acoustic guitar work provides a great backdrop for Sherinan’s organ swirls and some great vocal harmonies between Hughes and Bonamassa. It’s not all pastel shades, though. A sharp rock riff cuts through once in a while, although it doesn’t always feel necessary. Jason Bonham takes this opportunity to play something a little softer too – his shuffling drum lines are very sympathetic to Bonamassa’s electric leads during the number’s closing moments. It’s great to hear a little mandolin in there; maybe it would have been even better if that had been given a more prominent role.

‘I Can See Your Spirit’ is a hard rock workout which features a great Led Zeppelin inspired riff and naturally, Bonham Jr is well-equipped to give that riff a suitably powerful backbone. Glenn Hughes’s vocal, meanwhile, has an air of Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ – an atmosphere driven to more obvious extremes by Sherinian’s Hammond organ work. For fans of Black Country Communion’s bluesier tones, ‘Little Secret’ is a slow burning number in the ‘Since I’m Gonna Leave You’ mould, which Hughes absolutely nails vocally, while Jason Bonham’s drumming has so much of his father’s spirit, you can almost hear the squeaky drum pedal. It’s probably a highlight with regard to guitar playing, since Bonamassa’s solos are mostly about feel rather than flash; his long, vibrating notes are just lovely.

Hughes, Bonham, Sherinian and Bonamassa sound more comfortable playing together than they did first time around and make recording that “difficult second album” seem so easy. Thankfully, they also avoid the pitfalls of the supergroup, and don’t feel the need for any kind of musical one-upmanship. With a better sound, better songs and proof that sometimes holding back a little can give the listener a greater listening experience, this is the album Black Country Communion could – and should – have made first time around.

June 2011

SAXON – Call To Arms

call to armsSaxon has always been one of Britain’s hardest working rock bands. They’ve had shifting line-ups over the years, band members have come and gone (and in the case of drummer Nigel Glockler, come back again…twice!), but at the heart of it all frontman Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn have strived to push the band ever onward, never giving up. Although still best known to many for their early 80s work, the band worked on tirelessly, releasing albums at regular intervals and playing live shows. After 1990’s ‘Solid Ball of Rock’, Saxon’s popularity waned in the UK, though they retained a strong following in Europe. Their 90s album’s aren’t always essential listening, but in the 21st century, the band eventually got somewhat of a second wind.

2004’s ‘Lionheart’ presented the band in an incredibly good light, while 2007’s ‘The Inner Sanctum’ and 2009’s ‘Into The Labyrinth’ featured similarly decent songs and strong musicianship. The line up of Byford (vocals), Quinn (guitar), Glockler (drums), Nibbs Carter (bass) and Doug Scarratt (guitar) which drove the latter two albums (and also Saxon’s 1997 release ‘Unleash The Beast’) is arguably the strongest line-up the band has ever had – and their work on 2011’s ‘Call To Arms’ goes a long way to cementing that opinion.

The choppy riffs which power ‘Hammer of The Gods’ resemble Saxon’s early 80s work (although slightly meatier) and as such have a classic 80s metal sound, but beneath those riffs, Nibbs Carter’s pounding bass sound gives everything a great boost (that bass in turn given a boost by a particularly loud production job, courtesy of Biff Byford and ex-Little Angels/Gun man Toby Jepson). While it doesn’t bring anything especially new or surprising to the Saxon catalogue, it makes a strong opening number. The title cut finds Biff’s songwriting in good shape as he tells of a soldier going off to serve in the First World War. The emotional lyrical content is given a suitably epic musical arrangement, with plenty of clean guitar work and a very melodic vocal on its verses, before a chugging riff appears on its chorus sections. Even though it doesn’t quite tug the heart-strings in the same way as Lemmy’s similar tale on Motörhead’s ‘1916’, lyrically, this is superb – one of the album’s best songs. Also taking on a fairly epic stance, ‘When Doomsday Comes’ offers chunky riffs served up with a slightly eastern vibe. The band sound tight here and the balance between hard edges and melody is pitched just right. The faster sections bring with them a couple of great solos, while the slower moments provide a base for Biff’s very confident vocal. The staccato keyboard and strings which bring the eastern elements are bound to conjure thoughts of Led Zeppelin’s brilliantly monolithic ‘Kashmir’, but it’s not plagiaristic by any means.

Like ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘And The Bands Played On’ before it, ‘Back In 79’ is a song which celebrates the union of band and fans (and the fans are something Saxon have never taken for granted); and in this case, Biff’s storytelling centres on the early touring experiences and how those audiences were really supportive. The riff is meaty, but it’s a simple chorus of “show me your hands” which is designed to stick in your head long after listening. Another recurring theme in Saxon’s work – standing your ground and taking on the world – reappears here in a storming 80s-style metal workout ‘Surviving The Odds’, which in addition to a really bracing hard rock riff and good vocal, features a rattling bassline from Carter. Occasionally lapsing into a riff which sounds a lot like ‘Western Eyes’ by Jan Cyrka, ‘Afterburner’ celebrates the power of the jet-fighter, which is given a suitably rousing arrangement, possibly the album’s heaviest (certainly it’s fastest). The riffs are intense enough, but after a few plays, it doesn’t offer too much beyond those. While Biff puts in a fine performance and Glockler’s drumming is powerful, in terms of songwriting, it’s not as good as some of the material here.

‘Mists of Avalon’ is a fantastic number which carries more of the spirit of Saxon’s mid-80s melodic experimentation. As the track fades in, Quinn can be heard using a smooth, clean tone. His work here, which recurs throughout the track between the bigger riffs, is evocative of his work on ‘Nightmare’ from Saxon’s ‘Power and the Glory’ album. It’s a style which is very welcome indeed. Most of the track is based around a very solid riff, but it’s the featured solos which provide the best moments, with both Quinn and Scarratt on top form. In addition to this, Biff is in great voice (one of his best performances on this album) and – guesting on keyboards – ex-Rainbow/Deep Purple man Don Airey adds plenty of extra texture. Also edging towards the more melodic, ‘Ballad of a Working Man’ features swaggering riffs, which occasionally tip the hat to Thin Lizzy with their twin lead sound. For those looking for “classic” Saxon, this track more than delivers, sounding very much like the best moments of their ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘Strong Arm of The Law’ albums.

Biff Byford believes ‘Call To Arms’ to be one of Saxon’s best albums – and he may be right; it’s certainly very consistent, with nothing which could be regarded as filler. It’s an album rooted in the old-school – at times more celebratory of Saxon’s past than some of its immediate predecessors – but that’s where most of its charm lies. And although its eleven numbers represent a band sticking to what they know best, Saxon still sound extremely vibrant some thirty-two years and nineteen studio albums into their professional career. There aren’t too many bands who can claim that after so long.

June 2011

THE CARS – Move Like This

the cars‘Move To This’ may be the first new material recorded by The Cars since their forgettable swansong ‘Door To Door’ back in 1987, but after a few bars of their 2011 comeback release, it’s like they never really went away. The keyboard bleeps which cut through the main riff of the opening number ‘Blue Tip’ are unmistakably the work of Greg Hawkes and frontman Ric Ocasek’s spiky vocal style is even more distinctive. More impressively, not much of an attempt has been made to change or update The Cars’ signature sound here – ‘Blue Tip’ could have opened a Cars disc in the late 80s.

The four surviving members – Ric Ocasek (vocals/rhythm guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards, bass, backing vocals), David Robinson (drums) and Elliot Eason (guitar/backing vocals) sound as sharp as ever and Jacknife Lee’s production job is as lavish as either Roy Thomas Baker or Mutt Lange’s previous efforts with the band. After ‘Blue Tip’ opens with a keyboard bass augmented by jagged rhythm guitars, Hawkes chimes in with the mechanical keyboard sounds, making this sound like a number which sounds like it could be a ‘Candy-O’ leftover. To balance out the shameless new-wave elements on the verses, the chorus has a fuller sound where Elliot Easton gets to deliver a simple guitar riff. The Cars always had a knack for great hooks and ‘Blue Tip’ has a decent one, but it takes a couple of plays to sink in, since initially it’s a little overshadowed by those keyboard noises and the general excitement of a new Cars record.

‘Sad Song’ utilises handclaps and a rhythm guitar in a way which recalls ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ and its chorus section riff has echoes of ‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’. Both elements are given a dusting down and a new slant though, and here Hawkes’s keyboards have a fantastic full sound, brilliantly complimented by Robinson’s drumming, which has a hard edge without ever becoming aggressive.
A similar mood can be heard on ‘Hits Me’, which showcases the best elements of each of the musicians – Hawkes’s keyboards maintain their retro futurism, while Easton’s staccato guitar style dominates. The slow number ‘Soon’ – in a better, fairer world – would be a number which previously would have been a vocal spotlight for Ben Orr [Orr passed away in 2000 after a battle with pancreatic cancer]. Despite his edgier style, Ocasek manages to rein his voice in a little and deliver a sympathetic, soft vocal. Musically, its simplicity is the key; the rhythm guitars have a lovely ringing sound which carries the tune throughout and Greg Hawkes’s keys offer a few subtle bell noises. He can’t resist an old-school keyboard solo in the middle though; but even then, it sits on the good side of tasteful.

The quirky pop rock workout ‘Free’ has a slightly harder quality, which in places is reminiscent of Ocasek’s 1997 solo release ‘Troublizing’ with its more modern take on a retro sound (but certainly none the worse for that), while it’s occasional stabbing guitar riff tips the hat to ‘Bye Bye Love’ from The Cars’ debut album. The chorus is strong, with Ocasek backed up by Hawkes and Easton on a pleasing backing vocal. ‘Drag On Forever’ has a gentle chug which manages to stay buoyant thanks to a lead guitar part creeping in between the verses, with Easton delivering long, full notes. The whole track is swamped by the sound of Christmas bells, which can seem a little jarring – maybe that was Greg Hawkes’s way of lightening the mood a little… ‘Take Another Look’ is the album’s most lightweight number, harking back to the most commercial moments of ‘Heartbeat City’. David Robinson’s electronic drums underpin a smooth arrangement full of harmony vocals on a very, very Ben Orr-esque number.

It may not be as classic as The Cars self-titled 1978 debut or as over-polished as parts of their 1985 million-selling ‘Heartbeat City’, but ‘Move Like This’ is streets ahead of 1980’s difficult ‘Panorama’ or 1987’s ‘Door To Door’. Original bassist/second vocalist Ben Orr is sadly missed in a couple of places, but the four surviving original members deliver an album which celebrates the past without ever sounding self-congratulatory. Comebacks can sometimes sound forced or stale (especially if that comeback is solely money oriented), but for ‘Move Like This’, there’s no hint of that. The chemistry between Ocasek, Hawkes, Easton and Robinson sounds magical, with their formulaic, somewhat predictable sound often working as a great strength. An album with so much riding on it could have been disappointing, but for long-time fans this is a welcome return and an essential purchase.

May 2010