Just Listening

Just Listening to…Storm Force – Age of Fear (2020)

The first great album of 2020 is upon us.  Brighton Rock guitarist extraordinaire Greg Fraser has returned to the recording studio and emerged with Storm Force, a hot new band born out of the roots of the 80s.

I am hesitant to do a full-on “review” of Storm Force just yet.  Why?  It’s simple really.  Some albums sound as if purposesly concocted for certain environments.  I sense that Storm Force is going to sound bloody perfect this summer in the car with the windows down.  In fact, I cannot wait to do it that way.  I think this album demands it.  Just like certain hard rock classics of the past just sound better on a warm afternoon on the highway.

Though the band has no weak links, it’s important to single out the strength of vocalist Patrick Gagliardi.  (Check out Superdekes’ interview with Patrick by clicking here.)   His power and range is reminiscent of singers such as Jack Russell and Axl Rose.  There’s grit, soul and there are vocal acrobatics aplenty.  Whether he’s singing a ballad or screaming a road-burner, Patrick is on point!

It cannot go unsaid that Greg Fraser has pulled some killer riffs out of the bag.  These are classic hard rock riffs, and would have been at home on any Brighton Rock record from 1987-1991.  Not to mention his lead work is still fantastic.  Frase has a recognizable style and you can hear it on Age of Fear.

You won’t find a weak track inside, and they run the entire range that a hard rock album should.  Closer “Ringside” is burning hot metal, but “Marshall Law” has a vibe akin to Lizzy’s “Jailbreak”.  For a commercial “rock single”, check out “Because of You” which pushes all the buttons.  “Different Roads” features piano like a classic Aeroballad from 1987.  Hard to pick a favourite among these great tunes.

Full review to come summer 2020.  Check out the official Storm Force Facebook to get the CD (signed or unsigned).

Just Listening to…all the Rush

I had already started a Rush marathon just hours before the news hit that Neil Peart had passed away from brain cancer.  Why did I choose Rush at that exact moment?  It’s not proof, but it’s certainly makes me wonder about premonitions.

I’ve been on a Rush binge ever since.  I have been listening to nothing but Rush with only two exceptions.  I listened to one album by another artist that I wanted to review, and I listened to something else (Hollywood Vampires) in the car.  I didn’t have any Rush on the car flash drive.

In that time (a week) I’ve listened to every Rush studio album, some of them more than once.  (Even the early Rush without Neil.)  When I cycled through all the studio stuff I moved onto live albums, which I am still enjoying.  The first four Rush live albums (All the World’s a Stage, Exit…Stage Left, A Show of Hands, and Different Stages) really form a cohesive story.  You can listen and hear the band grow, evolve, change, and adapt.

Most of the live albums past that point weren’t on my computer yet (something I am remedying now) but I still had plenty more live stuff to enjoy from a variety of sources.  A Farewell to Kings has two discs worth of live Rush added.  (I have the deluxe Hemispheres with another live album coming in the mail.)  There is also Grace Under Pressure Live from the Rush Replay X3 box set.  A live bootleg called Red Stars of the Solar Federation from 1981.  A couple radio broadcasts from 1974 and 1975.

What I’ve gained from all this Rush immersion is not only new appreciation, but old memories re-emerging.  Although 70s Rush is absolutely essential music, it was 80s Rush that hooked me in and still thrills me today.  Albums like Moving Pictures and Signals were played multiple times during my marathon.  Hold Your Fire and Grace Under Pressure were enjoyed more than once.  I grew up in the 80s when Rush were in constant rotation on MuchMusic.  Songs like “Subdivisions”, “Tom Sawyer”, “Distant Early Warning”, “Lock and Key”, and “Time Stand Still”.  Although not an 80s album, Counterparts is very special to me as well.  It was my first Rush studio album.  I think it’s magnificent and contains many triumphs within.  It’s the culmination of all the evolution that happened from Presto onwards.  Its followup, Test for Echo, unfortunately remains a low point in the discography.  I remember feeling the same in 1996 when it came it.  It just wouldn’t click with me and still won’t.

As brilliant Neil Peart was, my appreciation is balanced.  It’s about Rush.  The lyrics would not have the same impact without the voice.  The voice would be naked and bare without the guitar.  All three guys stand out when you listen to all the Rush like this.  There are spotlight moments for Neil, Geddy and Alex as individuals but that’s not what this marathon reinforces.  Rush is a band — an exceptionally great band, where the players can shine more than other bands because there are only three of them.

Only three dudes?  I know, even this guy can’t believe it!

“There’s no way!  There’s no way this is three dudes!”

I have plenty more live Rush albums to spin, so the marathon carries on. I’m grateful we have so much Rush. Some bands don’t deserve to release so many live albums and box sets. Rush do. They’re allowed for two reasons. One is a rich history with many nooks and crannies to explore. The other is sheer quality. They never put out something they weren’t proud of.

Thank you for the music — I ain’t finished yet!

Just Listening to…Whitesnake: Slip of the Tongue (30th Anniversary)

Sit down Sykes fans, because I’m a Vai kid and this is “my” Whitesnake.  The fact that this lineup existed at all is miraculous.  The most creative guitarist of all time joining one of the most successful commercial rock bands at the peak of their popularity?  Recipe for, at the very least, interesting history.  And absolutely perfect box set fodder.

So here we are buying Slip of the Tongue for at least the third time, and finally getting it (mostly) right.  At a quick glance, it appears the only detriment to buying this box set is that you will not get the complete Live at Donington concert on CD.  In order to fit the whole thing on one CD (disc 6), they axed all the solos.  Let’s face it folks.  When your band includes Steve Vai, you don’t cut the solos.  You’ll have to shell out for the original triple disc Donington set to get them on CD.  The good news is that the whole Donington concert is still here on video, on a fully-packed DVD (disc 7).  (The DVD also includes a detailed interview with David Coverdale and Adrian Vandenberg, touching on Adrian’s mysterious 1989 wrist injury.)

The running order of the songs on Slip of the Tongue, the 30th anniversary remaster, has been slightly shuffled.  It’s strange and off-putting enough that I’m keeping my old copy of the album, so I can still listen to it the familiar way.  “Sailing Ships” isn’t the last song?  “Fool For Your Loving” is.  The bonus track versions included, with alternate solos and guitar fills, are stunning additions.  Then there’s an entire CD, the “Wagging Tongue” edition, with the songs in the correct order but interviews with David interspersed.  This is a reproduction of a vintage 1989 promo CD, for contemporary perspective.   Disc 3, the “Evolutions” CD, is a favourite.  The “Evolutions” series of tracks, now a Whitesnake reissue trademark, mixes early demos with later demos and and even later versions, so you can hear the tracks evolve as you listen.  It’s deconstruction and reconstruction in one.  Importantly, you finally get to hear what the album would have sounded like before Steve Vai came in to record it.  Disc 4 includes 16 monitor mixes, including some superior rarities.  Finally, after 30 years of waiting and teasing, we get the unreleased tunes “Parking Ticket”, “Kill for the Cut”, and “Burning Heart” (originally by Vandenberg).  We also get “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” and “We Wish You Well”.  Verdict?  Worth the wait.  Oh, so worth the wait!  There’s no reason some couldn’t have been released as B-sides in 1989, and they should have!  “Parking Ticket” has a neat Van Hagar-like, and could have been a summer hit.

Disc 5 is “A Trip to Granny’s House”, actually the name of a rehearsal studio they used.  These funny tapes, “Wheezy Interludes & Jams”, are informal fun.  A highlight is the funky “Death Disco”, not unlike some of the stuff Purple were doing with Tommy Bolin towards the end.  These tracks predate Steve Vai’s involvement, so you’ll get the purity of Adrian’s original playing.

I look forward to investing more time with this box set.  Let us hope that David continues to empty the vaults.  Next up: Restless Heart?

Just Listening to…Alice Cooper – Welcome 2 My Nightmare

I was very enthusiastic for this album when it came out in 2011:  four copies purchased (to get all the bonus tracks) and a 5/5 star rating.  I can hear what I loved about it so much, even if the feelings are faded today.  That’s what makes these “Just Listening” writings interesting!

The original Nightmare is still a favourite and always will be.  Factors that appealed to me about the sequel album are the musical and lyrical callbacks.  These recurring cues unite both albums quite successfully despite the decades that passed.  Musical sequels can be a dicey affair (Mindcrime 2, anyone?) but Alice Cooper and Bob Ezrin managed to do the near-impossible.

The standard album runs 52 minutes, and that’s just a tad long.  Although there are no obvious duds to cut, the original Nightmare was more effective because it was more concise.  (You want a longer experience?  Adding in all the bonus tracks more than doubles the album’s length!)  Regardless of the digital age that most of us inhabit, there is something to be said for the length of a standard LP.  It just happens to jive with the natural attention spans of the human mind.  The new Nightmare crams 14 tracks into that 52 minutes, and it plays out as a lot to absorb.  Especially after giving the album a rest for a few years.

Another way in which the second Nightmare is inferior to the first is the overall tone.  Nightmare 2 is far more humorous.  A couple tracks (“Ghouls Gone Wild” and “Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever”) are there for the laughs.  That’s fine — Alice Cooper does humour in music better than 99% of those who try.  The original Nightmare had its fun, but the tone of the album was far darker, especially with songs like “Steven” and “Only Women Bleed”.  You’re going to have a preference one way or the other too.  I prefer the darker original Nightmare to the more comedic sequel.

These are all very fine hairs to split.  I still like the album, a lot.  I believe it to be Alice’s best from the last two decades.  There’s very little wrong with it.  I just don’t think it matches the first as much as I once did.

Just Listening to…Aerosmith – Permanent Vacation

This revisit is due to your Heavy Metal Overlord, who told me that Permanent Vacation is his favourite go-to album for reunited Aerosmith.  Due to the tremendous respect (and fear) I have for HMO, I decided that I needed to give it another listen.

My conclusion after hearing it again is that I had it dead wrong in my album review.  Yes, there are a couple filler songs.  “St. John” and “Girl Keeps Coming Apart” still don’t resonate with me.  But, man, there are some bangers on Permanent Vacation.  I didn’t remember how awesome “Heart’s Done Time” really is.  I forgot about the cool Beatles cover “I’m Down”.   I didn’t give due credit to the terrific title track. But most important of all is “Magic Touch”.  Is Joe Perry playing a whammy bar in the beginning?  What a song.  Could it be the best song on the album?  It certainly has a chorus that goes on for miles.

Permanent Vacation, as an album, might be overshadowed by its own singles “Dude”, “Angel” and “Rag Doll”.  But I’ll be damned if “Angel” doesn’t still make the hair on my arms stand up to this day.

I’ve been unfair to Permanent Vacation. It’s far better than I thought it was.

 

Just Listening to…Aerosmith – Nine Lives

It’s been a while since we’ve been “Just Listening” to an album here, but this one’s always good for a revisit.  The last truly great Aerosmith album was 1997’s Nine Lives.  I stand by that, because it’s a killer album.  We reviewed it back in 2015, so if you’re looking for a more in-depth analysis, check that out.  Today we’re just appreciating an album that is too often overlooked for the strengths it has.

The heavy stuff was heavy enough, and the ballads had balls.  Songs like “Nine Lives” and “Taste of India” are juggernauts.  Drummer Joey Kramer really took them to the next level, which is remarkable since he was sidelined for part of the making of the album.  His partner in rhythm, bassist Tom Hamilton, is also on top of things with his lyrical bassline meanderings.  You’ll rarely find a better guitar tag team than Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, but Steven Tyler’s words are also noteworthy.  The guy is a poet with a dirty mind, and Nine Lives has some of his better lyrics.   “‘Cause love is like the right dress on the wrong girl, You never know what you’re gonna find.”

Most people think of Pump or Get a Grip as the last decent Aerosmith.  Although it didn’t have as many great singles, Nine Lives is actually a better album than Get a Grip.  It has less filler, and rock fans don’t really care about singles anyway.  The fact is, from beginning to end, Nine Lives is just a smoother ride.

 

Just Listening to…Whitesnake – Unzipped (Deluxe)

Just Listening to…Whitesnake – Unzipped
Acoustic Adventures – Unplugged in the Studio and Live on Stage 1997-2015

I thought this was going to be a boring listen.  5 CDs and a DVD of acoustic Whitesnake?  The same songs over and over?  It sounds pretty dull on paper, but in practice it’s another story.  So far, Unzipped has been a blast!

It turns out, a lot of my favourite Whitesnake songs are acoustic.  “Sailing Ships” is a fine example.  When David Coverdale is in a philosophical mood and busts out the acoustic guitar, he has the ability to make magic happen.  (But damn, he sure does like to re-use lyrics and imagery.  “Circle ’round the sun” again!)  Other tunes, such as and “Summer Rain” are less intellectual, but still leave a lasting impression.  Then you have acoustic arrangements of old familiar songs.  Whitesnake, Deep Purple, and even Coverdale-Page are revisited, and not just the hits.  These are songs to warmly enjoy when in a laid back mood.

The discs also include a remixed and expanded version of the first acoustic live Whitesnake album, Starkers in Tokyo.  The differences are audible; the album finally comes alive.  As a bonus, there is a off the cuff version of David’s solo song “Only My Soul” done a-cappella.  There is also a disc of “unreleased acoustic demo ideas”.  They are very raw — one track even begins with David calling it a “very rough idea”.  Some are written on the piano.  It’s hard to say if any of these ideas could have been made into hits, but they’re not bad.  Points must be awarded for the best song title:  “Another Lick While the Missus is Busy in the Kitchen”, a swampy blues riff.

Man, this one’s gonna take a long time to review!

For a fully detailed review, check out this one by John Snow!

 

 

Just Listening to…David Lee Roth – Skyscraper

Just Listening to…David Lee Roth – Skyscraper

This is the first Just Listening post for an album I’ve already reviewed in full.  I tackled David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper back in 2013, rating it 4/5 stars.  However a recent conversation with singer/songwriter Derek Kortepeter led me to try to listen with new ears.

It started with Derek’s message to me.  “Unpopular opinion:  Skyscraper is better than Eat ‘Em and Smile,” he said.  “Better songs, better guitar, tons of awesome synth…when you have tracks like ‘Perfect Timing’ and ‘Knucklebones’ how can you go wrong?”  Derek says “Perfect Timing” might be his favourite song on the album.

Derek definitely has some good points.  It’s easily arguable that Skyscraper has better guitars.  Steve Vai was in the co-producer’s chair, and he layered his guitar parts as if he was building one of his own solo albums.  They’re very dense, yet melodically intertwined.  As for the synth, he has a valid observation with some songs like “Skyscraper”.  That song verges on progressive rock; it’s got so much going on, including synth and layered Roth vocals.  However I think the synth was overdone on tracks like “Stand Up“, which doesn’t even have Billy Sheehan on bass.

Skyscraper is an almost absurd album in some respects, with Dave pouring on that “charasma” to the nth degree.  There are so many “woo’s” “wow’s” and “oh’s” that you could make an entire song of just that.  Steve Vai was the star on Skyscraper, and as I said in my original review, how much you like Skyscraper will depend on how much you like Steve Vai.  I like Steve; I think his music and playing is fascinating.  Rock fans often don’t want “fascinating”, they just want the riffs and the choruses.  Eat ‘Em and Smile was much more about the big guitars and choruses, but it’s also just a fabulous record.  Skyscraper is colder sounding by comparison, and often drifts into experimental pop rock excursions.  It also suffers for the lack of Billy Sheehan, who wasn’t given a lot of creative freedom.  Where there should be bass, often you will hear synth.

Sorry Derek, you have made some really great points, and Skyscraper really is a great album.  It’s brave and fun and experimental, but it’s also cold with little bit of filler (“Stand Up”).   I’ll always rate it high…but not as high as Eat ‘Em and Smile.

Just Listening to…Styx – The Serpent is Rising

Just Listening to…Styx – The Serpent is Rising

For Christmas this year, my beautiful wife bought me not one, not two, not three, but four Styx albums!  This was easier than it sounds, because 1) I have an Amazon wishlist, and 2) the first four Styx albums were handily reissued together in a 2CD set called The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings.  I hadn’t heard any of these albums in full before Christmas.  All four albums were quite good, but the third, The Serpent is Rising, was especially intriguing to me.

I played the four albums in order, recognising a few songs and absorbing others for the first time.  After two full albums and over an hour of progressive rock, I was struck by a song so odd that I had to remove my headphones and check my computer to see what was going on.  Did a Youtube video somehow start playing in the background?  What I was hearing…did not sound like what I had heard!

Would you believe that way back in 1973, Styx were playing around with hidden tracks on albums?  On CD, the track came up with the name “As Bad as This”, written and sung by guitarist John Curulewski.  It is a low, bluesy lament, contrasting some of other more complex songs like “The Grove of Eglantine”.  When “As Bad as This” comes to a close, the last thing you’d expect to follow is a song about plexiglas toilets.

“Don’t sit down on de plexiglas toilet, said the mama to her son.  Wipe the butt clean with the paper, make it nice for everyone.”  All done acoustically in a really bad Caribbean accent.  I am not joking.  The hidden track “Plexiglas Toilet” is over two minutes of pure silliness.  I admit that I love it; it fits my sense of humour.  But this never, ever, ever should been on a progressive rock album!  How?  Why?  And it’s right smack in the middle!  It sits at the very end of side two of The Serpent is Rising!

Toilets aside, The Serpent is Rising is otherwise a pretty strong Styx album.   They were getting more diverse record by record, and their chops kept getting better.  Depending on the kind of Styx you like, the best song could be “Winner Take All” for its pop choruses, or the prowlin’ “Witch Wolf”.  But they really didn’t have a direction yet.  There’s rock, pop, blues, weird spoken bits, plexiglas toilets, and Handel’s Messiah.

The album is not cohesive at all, but a lovely gift it is!

Side one
1. “Witch Wolf” 3:57
2. “The Grove of Eglantine” 5:00
3. “Young Man” 4:45
4. “As Bad as This”
a. “As Bad as This” – 3:45
b. “Plexiglas Toilet” (Hidden Track) – 2:22

Side two
1. “Winner Take All” 3:10
2. “22 Years” 3:39
3. “Jonas Psalter” 4:41
4. “The Serpent Is Rising” 4:55
5. “Krakatoa” 1:36
6. “Hallelujah Chorus” 2:14

Just Listening to…Voivod – The Wake

Just Listening to…VOIVOD – The Wake

My first CD purchases of 2019 were based on lists:

  1. Tenacious D – Post-Apocalypto (Iron Tom’s list)
  2. Voivod – The Wake (Uncle Meat and Tom’s lists)

Tom and Meat both praised the new Voivod, so was a must.  The Meat Man happened to be online when I was giving first spin to both.  I struck up a conversation about the new Voivod, which went something like this:

Meat : Its The Voivod.

LeBrain : What do you mean?

Meat : Its a thing. Its The Voivod. Nothing before them was The Voivod. The phrase “one of a kind” is thrown around a lot, but is quite accurate about them in the literal sense. They are The Voivod.

LeBrain : I get you.

Meat : Sex Pistols meets Queensryche.

LeBrain : Yeah but more too.  Rush.  It’s really amazing they were able to carry on after Piggy. He didn’t play “normal” at all.

Meat : It’s still The Voivod. Even with a different writer. It lives within somewhere.

He said it way better than I could.  They are The Voivod and even with two “newer” members (guitarist Chewy and bassist Rocky), they still sound exactly like The Voivod.   A large part of this is singer/lyricist Snake, who has a voice identified with Voivod.  Away (drums) is also a vital component, always supplying the quirky rhythms and sci-fi cover art.

The Wake is a concept album but the story isn’t obvious on one listen.  “Scrolling down in paradise, absorbed by your next device.”  The setting is certainly familiar.  What The Wake does is bring classic progressive melodic elements into The Voivod.  This creates a swirly metal landscape, past present and future.

This is going to be an album that requires several spins before a deeper analysis.  Voivod’s icy brand of Quebec heavy metal can be cold as a Canadian winter.  Voivod will be getting plenty of play before it warms up again.

1. “Obsolete Beings” 5:35
2. “The End of Dormancy” 7:42
3. “Orb Confusion” 6:00
4. “Iconspiracy” 5:16
5. “Spherical Perspective” 7:41
6. “Event Horizon” 6:11
7. “Always Moving” 5:12
8. “Sonic Mycelium” 12:24