alex lifeson

REVIEW: Rush – “Caravan” / “BU2B” (2010 CD single)

RUSH – “Caravan” / “BU2B” (2010 CD Anthem single)

“Parts one and two of Clockwork Angels, a work in progress”.

That’s pretty monumental.  Rush were releasing two key tracks from their forthcoming studio album, a full concept album this time, well in advance.  Two years in advance.  Notably, this was a full concept album start to finish.  In the 70s, Rush were more known for half concept, half non-conceptual records.  The bands that Rush inspired like Queensryche and Dream Theater had done full concepts.  Now the original masters were taking a shot.

On the final album, “Caravan” is track one and “BU2B” is track two.  On this single the order is swapped.  “BU2B” (“Brought Up to Believe”) opens, although its intro changes on the album version.  “BU2B” absolutely slams.  “I was brought up to believe that the universe has a plan…”  Perhaps it opens this single because it sums up the overall album concept.  In a fictional world run precisely by a “Watchmaker”, a rebellious protagonist feels pulled in a direction different from that assigned to his life.  Questioning his reality, he embarks on his own adventures despite his mandated mundane role in society.  Musically, after the metallic riff has done its business, Neil Peart takes the spotlight a moment as the song shifts.  Geddy lays down the heavy bottom end while Alex strikes hither and yon with lightning-like licks.  Clearly a classic in the making.

“Caravan”, the final album opener, sounds pretty much the same as the record.  It establishes the setting, “in a world lit only by fire…”  The riff is a major feature, a deliberate, descending rock monster that feels just right in the guts.  The lyrics paint a picture of a steampunk world, half explored, with alchemy and ancient knowledge.

Clockwork Angels wound up as one of the greatest final albums by any band anywhere any time.  This single is a nice add-on, a reminder of the long careful gestation period that created a masterpiece.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Rush – Working Men (2009)

RUSH – Working Men (2009 Anthem)

Rush weren’t really known as a “cash grab” kind of band.  That’s why the Christmas 2009 release of Working Men was so surprising to fans.

12 tracks, all but one previously released on live Rush albums of recent vintage. It is not difficult to figure out that this disc was created to keep Rush product on the shelves while the band was on break during the Christmas season. While the music is excellent (obviously), it is hard to imagine a Rush fan that would play this single-disc album before listening to the actual live albums that the tracks were sourced from.  This is Rush’s version of You Wanted The Best by Kiss, but with only one unreleased recording instead of four.

Here’s a tracklist, and a breakdown of where these tracks were lifted from:

1. “Limelight” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
2. “The Spirit of Radio” (From R30)
3. “2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx (From Rush in Rio)
4. “Freewill” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
5. “Dreamline” (From R30)
6. “Far Cry” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
7. “Subdivisions” (From R30)
8. “One Little Victory” (From the R30 tour) (Previously Unreleased)
9. “Closer to the Heart” (From Rush in Rio)
10. “Tom Sawyer” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
11. “Working Man” (From R30)
12. “YYZ” (From Rush in Rio)

“One Little Victory”, a stormy firecracker of a version, is the lone previously unreleased song. Is that one song worth your $15? You decide. Unfortunately “One Little Victory” is basically all you’re going to get for your money. There is no booklet and there are no liner notes to speak of. The cover art, once again by Hugh Syme, is quite nice, hinting at past works.

The songs fade-in and fade-out, rather than flow as a seamless listen. The selections lean heavily on oldies as opposed to newer tracks, which does not really reflect what a Rush concert was about at that time. Clearly, this was to entice consumers who wanted songs they have heard frequently on the radio. At least the running order is well sequenced for maximum firepower.

This release is not particularly for anybody except completists and Rush diehards. Everyone else would be well advised to spend their money on Rush In Rio, R30, or Snakes & Arrows Live.

2/5 stars, not for the music, but just because it’s a bit of a Christmas cashgrab.

 

REVIEW: Gowan – Lost Brotherhood (1990)

GOWAN – Lost Brotherhood (1990 Atlantic)

I like to think of this Gowan album (a gift from Aaron at the KMA) as “the one with Alex Lifeson”.  Gowan has worked with some incredible musicians besides Styx, including Tony Levin (several times, including this album), Robert Fripp and Jon Anderson.  Gowan’s fourth album Lost Brotherhood has a distinct Rush tone on several tracks and so it easily became a favourite.  It’s important to note though that it’s not just Lifeson on this disc, but also Ken Greer from Red Rider providing the guitars.  Though Lawrence Gowan is primarily a keyboardist, this might be his most guitar-heavy album.  (Of note, future Triumph contributor Mladen Zarron also plays additional guitar on this album.)

“All the Lovers in the World” was the single, a hit as I recall, and still excellent today.  You can’t forget that chorus.  It sounds so very 1990, like Presto-era Rush, especially when Alex rips one of those patented Lifeson solos that’s more about the guitar tone than banging out a million notes.  In the back, you got Tony Levin dancing gleefully all over the neck of his bass.  One word:  breathtaking.

A Levin groove commences a nocturnal “Lost Brotherhood”, a serious prowler that you could easily mistake for latter-day Styx.  Lawrence has a way with writing piano hooks and “Lost Brotherhood” boasts a tasty one.  “Call It A Mission” could be Rush for all you could tell, if not for Gowan’s huskier voice.  The pulse of this song is like a “superconductor”, if you catch my drift, and the solo is slick and different.  Then it’s “The Dragon”, dramatic and weighty.  Levin is hitting some deep notes which just makes “Dragon” rumble like the titular beast.

Gowan goes for acoustic ballad territory on “Love Makes You Believe”, another big chorus.  Ken Greer accents the song with very slight touches and Tony adds so much texture.  They really crank it on “Fire It Up”, a rocker that would have led off side two of the original vinyl.  This boogie just stomps!

“Out of a Deeper Hunger” is another ballad, at least until a nice crunchy guitar kicks in on the excellent chorus.  Rock territory is reclaimed on “Tender Young Hero”, another Rush-like monolith with memorable chorus.  Gowan’s got a knack for a chorus, and the snare sound on drummer Jerry Marotta is a dead ringer for Peart.

Tinkling keys are the main feature on the delicate “Message From Heaven”.  Light, but still heavy.  Dramatic as hell.  But closer “Holding This Rage” is a masterwork, combining the piano and drama in a way that just reaches out and grabs you by your humanity.  Sounds like Marillion.

“Holding this rage isn’t your answer boy,
Holding this rage won’t lead you on.
Holding this rage will tear you to pieces boy,
Look what it’s done.”

By the fade out you’re…one again…breathless.

Though my Canadian bias is showing, it is a good thing that today, million of people get to hear Gowan’s special talents with Styx.  Though with Styx, Lawrence is part of a band led by Shaw/Young, as a solo artist he is the captain and always had the goods all along.  Lost Brotherhood is an excellent “first Gowan” album to check out due to the emphasis on guitar and of course the presence of one Alex Živojinović.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Rush – Rare Rush (bootleg)

RUSH – Rare Rush (2002 home made CD set from acquired downloads)

Once upon a time there was a cool, but doomed, Rush fansite.  This site had countless downloads for free, and was shut down in short order.  While it was up, I grabbed all the studio rarities that they had, and one official live track I was missing.  This compilation is made from all of it.

The rarities begin at the start, with the only two tracks featuring John Rutsey on drums.  They are significant ones.  “Not Fade Away” and “Can’t Fight It” were their very first single on Moon records in 1973.  It’s early Rush, more rock n’ roll, and way more high pitched.  These are very basic recordings, copied from vinyl.  “Not Fade Away” is the old Buddy Holly classic, but harder and with Geddy Lee walkin’ that bassline.  “Can’t Fight It” is an original, co-written by Lee and Rutsey.  It’s a simple but busy rocker.  Alex cuts loose some solos, Rutsey goes bananas on the kit, and Geddy holds it all down with a little bit of flash.  One listen to this and you’d know Rush were going places.  There’s an electricity on the single that carried over to the first album.  They were kids but they could play.

An edit of “Bravado” from Roll the Bones sounds like a CD single was the source.  What a song.  Is it a ballad?  Who cares.  It burns.  Neil kills it with a drum roll beyond perfect, right at the start of the fade-out, which is why you need the full-length original.  It also contains one of the most poignant Neil Peart lyrics:  “And when the music stops, there’s only the sound of the rain.”

Next is the three part interview “It’s a Rap”, from the Roll the Bones era.  Alex’s portion comes from a 7″ single, Geddy’s from a rare European CD single, and Neil’s from the more common one.*  Neil’s is probably the most interesting.  He discusses the controversial rap section from the “Roll the Bones” single, which was his idea. Robbie Robertson and John Clease were two people they thought of to deliver the rap, before Geddy did it himself.  Speaking of Geddy, his interview has the best quote:  “I don’t know how we got this image.  Maybe we wore too many robes in the 70s.”

The “pre-release” tracks here from Counterparts are slightly different in the mix.  The differences are very subtle.  Some more prominent keyboard here, a less double-tracked vocal there.  “Ghost of a Chance” has unique Lifeson fills in the last part of the song.  These tracks will be fun for any fan of Counterparts (a great album).  Some of the best songs have these “pre-release” tracks.  From “Animate” through “Double Agent”and finally “Everyday Glory”, these are awesome tunes.  “Cold Fire” absolutely smokes.  Unfortunately these tracks are not as clear as others, as they came (as I recall) originally from a rare promo cassette.

An edit of “Virtuality” from the (honestly dreadful) Test for Echo album is a drag.  I don’t like to speak ill of the dead but “Net boy, net girl” is not one of Neil Peart’s best lyrics.  In the 90s there was a trend of internet-themed songs, and none of them were really any good.  Moving onto “Nobody’s Hero”, which is a “master edit” (not sure what that is).  It’s only short by about 20 seconds at the end as it fades early.

The only live track on here, “Force Ten”, comes from the very rare and expensive Japanese import for Different Stages.  It could possibly be the only Japanese bonus track that Rush have.  Much like the album itself, this track is awesome and harder hitting than its studio counterpart.

Disc 2 opens with a radio edit of “Test for Echo”, one of the best tunes from that album.  Really cool is an instrumental mix of “One Little Victory”, though it’s so fuckin’ overdriven.  Vapor Trails reduced to mp3 (especially back then) is a harsh sound.  This is very brickwalled.  But as an instrumental, it’s worth suffering through.  Compare that to the crisp “Show Don’t Tell” (promo edit) that follows.  Now you have depth and texture.

Vintage vibes return on an old “Spirit of Radio” edit — two of them actually.  One is 2:59, the other 3:23.  They crackle of old vinyl.  Consider that the original is almost five minutes!  Radio edits are what they are — chopped to cram more songs in between commercial breaks.  “Shatter the illusion of integrity, yeah.”

Some high-tech songs shake it up a bit.  “Big Money” and “Red Sector A” are edited and truncated (“Big Money” for a music video).  “Red Sector A” is missing a whole minute of music from the middle, which you definitely miss.  The edit is just yucky, as is the one at the start of “Secret Touch” from Vapor Trails.  I’m realizing that, on its own, I can listen to Vapor Trails.  But I cannot listen to them one song at a time on a mix CD like this.  That overdriven mix is too drastic for a compilation.  (This is why Rush remixed tracks for their own Retrospective 3 album.)

“Time and Motion” is a “work in progress” pre-release, and it’s harder to listen to than the album version from Test For Echo.  More enjoyable is an edit of “The Pass” (Presto).  This brilliant, minimalist Rush tune was the start of a new kind of sound for them.  An awkward edit of “Tom Sawyer” cuts the song down to 3:32, a real shame.  Here’s thing:  “Tom Sawyer” was Rush tightening things up; making them concise.  There was no fat to trim on that song.  Everything that was there belonged.  This edit is a butcher job, cuts all over the place, an absolute travesty.

Next we arrive at the remixes.  The “Punchit Scratchit” and “Rock Slamfist” mixes of “Tom Sawyer” come from a promo single for the Small Soldiers soundtrack.  They’re pretty terrible.  Nobody needed to overdub somebody going “rock! rock!” over it.  There’s a neat loop repeated in both mixes, but most fans will call these tracks “abominations”.  Don’t forget that these were done for a kid’s movie.

Saving one of the best for last, it’s “The Weapon” featuring Joe Flaherty as “Count Floyd”!  Fans of SCTV know who that is.  The 7″ single this originated from goes for about 45 bucks on Discogs.  Definitely an item reserved for those with an all-expenses paid Rush card!  It really is a treasure though, considering the importance of SCTV to Rush over the years.  Joe Flaherty on a Rush single — yes, I want that.

The compilation ends on an up note, with an edit of “Time Stand Still”; though a bit choppy.  It stands as a reminder that Rush are not serviced well by single edits.  Indeed, any edit on this set is noticeably inferior to its album counterpart.  These particular Rush songs were honed in the studio to the necessary elements already.  Further thinning did not need to happen and only hinders enjoyment.

But, they’re rare, is the thing.  And collectors live for anything different from the album versions.  It’s part of our disease.  I won’t say “go and track down these promo singles”.  No, don’t do that.  That’s expensive.  I just hope you found this information interesting.  There are definitely treasures worth spending money on, among these downloads.  But sellers know that, and charge according to what they feel they can soak you for.  It’s unfortunate but owning this stuff physically is hard to prioritise, and for that reason, most of us will have to settle for downloads and bootlegs.

 

* Neil’s interview is the only one that I own physically on CD single.

#808.5: “Rare Rush”

Many years ago…I think I was still living with my parents…there was an amazing website with mp3s of just about everything Rush that you could imagine.  The site went down soon after, and I was unable to download any full concerts.  What I did get was all the singles and bonus tracks they had available.

I burned these tracks to a double CD and called it Rare Rush.  I printed the tracklist on brown paper so it would somewhat match with Chronicles.

Most of these tracks are alternate versions, some from promo releases.  The website had all the details, so they are now lost.  However I know some of these are very special versions.  “The Weapon” is the famous single version featuring Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty).

 

The quality varies from track to track depending on the original source (some are from cassette).  All are interesting to obsessive Rush fans.

Who wants to read a review of Rare Rush?

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#727: An Aaron Xmas

GETTING MORE TALE #727: An Aaron Xmas

How many Aarons do you know? I know several, but only one that bombards me on a regular basis with mystery parcels!

We’ve written about Aaron many, many times in these pages.  There is a whole series of videos called Mike and Aaron go to Toronto, where we spend our money on all things musical.  Then there are the numerous albums and even holy grail items he’s found for me over the years.  Aaron is a non-stop fountain of music!

The truth is, he sends me far more stuff than I send in return.  Hopefully he’s not keeping track too hard.  But now it is Christmas!  I sent him a couple CDs last week (Max the Axe and Styx), and he has returned the favour with interest (as he usually does).  Let’s see what’s inside, shall we?

Riiiiiiiip!

Christmas came early indeed!  Aaron and I have discussed Gowan before.  Many today know Gowan as the lead singer of Styx, but before that he had a couple decades worth of a solo career under his belt.  I told Aaron, “I want to start a Gowan collection, all of it.”  Amazingly I didn’t find any last time we were in Toronto, but Aaron doesn’t quit.

Check this out:  the two Gowan albums I wanted most!  Strange Animal, and Lost Brotherhood.  Woah!  What names in the credits!  Tony Levin on stick and bass, on both albums.  Alex Lifeson (Rush) and Kenny Greer (Red Rider) on guitar for Lost Brotherhood.  Talk about the best of the best of the best.  And between the two albums, I get all the Gowan songs that I like (so far)!  Those would be “Strange Animal”, “A Criminal Mind”, and “All the Lovers in the World”.

But that’s not all!

Clearly, Aaron remembered that I once had a crush on “Sporty Spice”, Melanie C.  I even owned her first solo album Northern Star.  I still think Mel C is the best Spice Girl; she even worked with Bryan Adams.  She’s arguably the most talented and the one with the most integrity.  My crush is long gone, but she’s still beautiful today; even more than 1996.  Yeah, I still like Sporty!  Knowing this, Aaron bought me the “Unofficial” Sporty Spice In My Pocket book.  From this, I learned that Mel C once worked in a fish and chip shop.  What a couple we could have been.  I love fish!

 

You know, I wasn’t actually looking forward to Christmas, until now.  It’s been a horribly downer year for us.  Thank you again Aaron for the thoughtful gifts.  I’m feeling the spirit now!  Maybe I’ll go put some Christmas lights on.  I’m a “Strange Animal”, that’s what I know, but Aaron seems to know what makes me tick.

Thanks buddy!  Did you know that Sporty Spice was kicked out of a gym in Japan because they saw her tattoos and thought she was Yakuza Ominus Spiritus!

 

 

REVIEW: Fu Manchu – Clone of the Universe (2018)

FU MANCHU – Clone of the Universe (2018 New Damage)

First the first time in a long time, “I’ve Been Hexed” by the brand new Fu Manchu album.

Clone of the Universe sounds cut from the same cloth as classic albums such as King of the Road and The Action is Go.  Aside from the mind-bomb that is the 18 minute track “Il Mostro Atomico”, each song is short, riffy and to the point.  “(I’ve Been) Hexed” is an immediate thumbs-up, a reminder of what we liked about Fu Manchu when we first heard them.

You can’t tell if “Don’t Panic” has anything to do with Douglas Adams, but it’s as fast and relentless as the UFO-themed “King of the Road”.  Maybe the Sabbath-crawl of “Slower Than Light” is also about space travel; maybe it’s not.  The fun is in the guessing, but by the end the song is at moving at warp.  Both “Nowhere Left to Hide” and “Intelligent Worship” boast riffs carved from the stones of Mt. Iommi, contained with in the Fu Manchu groove.  The title track “Clone of the Universe” is like a heavy metal hammer, or a stoner rock Mjölnir.

Despite the strong Fu Manchu grooves throughout, it is undoubtedly the side-long “Il Mostro Atomico” that is the centerpiece.  Suddenly from somewhere left of center comes the “Snow Dog”; Alex Lifeson of Rush with his own style of lead guitar.  Lifeson always had a knack for finding cool artists to work with outside his normal sphere.  Hearing him rip and make noise with Fu Manchu is so right.  Not to mention, this jam which keeps going on and on has plenty to offer when you listen all the way through.

Clear winners:  “(I’ve Been) Hexed”, “Il Mostro Atomico”.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Rush – A Farewell to Kings (2017 super deluxe edition)

RUSH – A Farewell to Kings (2017 Anthem 3CD/1 Blu-ray/4 LP super deluxe edition, originally 1977)

And the men who hold high places,
Must be the ones who start,
To mold a new reality,
Closer to the heart,
Closer to the heart.

Today’s rock fans have a new reality of their own:  a market flood of “anniversary” or “deluxe” reissues far and wide.  The floodwaters are murkier when multiple editions of the same reissue are available, or when reissues are deleted in favour of new reissues!

2017 represents 40 years of Rush’s fine sixth album A Farewell to Kings.  An anniversary edition was guaranteed, but choose wisely.  For those who need the brilliant new 5.1 mix by Steven Wilson, you will have to save up for the 3CD/1 Blu-ray/4 LP super deluxe edition.  Only that massive box set contains the Blu-ray disc with Wilson’s mix.

To frustrate fans even further, A Farewell to Kings had a 5.1 reissue back in 2011, as part of the Sector 2 box set.  That 5.1 mix (by Andy VanDette) has received heavy scrutiny from audiophiles.  Steven Wilson, however, is well known for his work in the 5.1 field, and his work on the 40th anniversary mix lives up to his reputation.  His crisp mix is deep but unobtrusive.  It is occasionally surprising but always stunning, and over seemingly way too soon.  The separation of instruments is done with care, and without robbing the music of its power.  Rush albums were fairly sparse back then but Wilson managed to make a full-sounding mix out of it.

Powerful is A Farewell to Kings indeed.  Though the title track opens with gentle classical picking, before long you’re in the craggy peaks of Mount Lifeson, with heavy shards of guitar coming down.  Young Geddy’s range and vibrato are remarkable, though for some this is the peak of Geddy’s “nails on a chalkboard” period.

11 minutes of “Xanadu” follows the trail of Kublai Khan.  “For I have dined on honeydew, and drunk the milk of paradise!”  Neil Peart’s lyrics rarely go down typical roads, and “Xanadu” surely must be listed with Rush’s most cherished epics.  Volume swells of guitar soon break into new sections unfolding as the minutes tick by.

“Closer to the Heart” is the most commercial track, never dull, never getting old, never ceasing to amaze.  “Woah-oh!  You can be the captain and I will draw the chart!”  Poetry in motion.  “Closer to the Heart” may be the most timeless of all Rush songs.

“Cinderella Man” and “Madrigal” live in the shadow of “Closer to the Heart”, always there but not always remembered.  (Ironically enough, both these tracks were covered by other artists in the bonus tracks.)  “Madrigal” acts as a calm before the storm:  a cosmic tempest called “Cygnus X-1”.  Another great space epic by Rush cannot be quantified in language.  As it swirls around (even better in 5.1), you’re transported across the universe by the black hole Cygnus X-1.  Peart hammers away as Lifeson and Geddy riff you senseless.


The blacksmith and the artist,
Reflect it in their art,
They forge their creativity,
Closer to the heart,
Yes closer to the heart.

Next, Rush forged their creativity on the road.  They recorded their London show on February 20, 1978 at the Hammersmith Odeon.  Previously, 11 songs from this show were released as a bonus CD on the live Rush album Different Stages.  This newly mixed version adds intro music, the missing three songs and the drum solo.  (The missing songs were “Lakeside Park”, “Closer to the Heart”, and all 20 minutes of “2112”.)  Because this set has all the songs in the correct order, the old Different Stages version is obsolete.

Opening with “Bastille Day”, the London crowd is into the show from the start.  They cheer for the familiar “Lakeside Park”, which is followed by “By-Tor & the Snow Dog”.  This early Rush material is as squealy as Geddy has ever sounded.  He’s pretty shrill but Rush are tight.  It gets more adventurous when “Xanadu” begins, and from there into “A Farewell to Kings”.  Hearing Rush do all this live helps drive home just how talented they are.  The powerful set rarely lets up, as it relentlessly works its way through early Rush cornerstones.  “Working Man”, “Fly By Night” and “In the Mood” are played in quick succession, but is “2112” that is the real treasure here.  Anthems of the heart and anthems of the mind; classics all.


Philosophers and plowmen,
Each must know his part,
To sow a new mentality,
Closer to the heart,
Yes, closer to the heart.

What about bonus tracks?  You got ’em.  As they did for 2112, Rush invited guests to contribute bonus covers, and each does their part.  Headlining these are progressive metal heroes Dream Theater with their own version of “Xanadu”.  Dream Theater really don’t do anything small, so why not an 11 minute cover?  Mike Mangini is one of the few drummers who could do justice to such a song — well done!  Big Wreck do a surprisingly decent take on “Closer to the Heart”.  Not “surprisingly” because of Big Wreck, but “surprisingly” because you don’t associate Big Wreck with a sound like that.  Ian Thornley ads a little banjo and heavy guitars to “Wreck” it up a bit.  His guitar solo is shredder’s heaven.  The Trews’ take on “Cinderella Man” is pretty authentic.  Did you know singer Colin MacDonald could hit those high notes?  He does!  Alain Johannes goes last with “Madrigal”, rendering it as a somber tribute to the kings.

The last of the bonus tracks is a snippet of sound called “Cygnus X-2 Eh”.  This is an extended and isolated track of the ambient space sounds in “Cygnus X-1”.  Steven Wilson speculated it might have been intended for a longer version of the song.


Whoa-oh!
You can be the captain,
And I will draw the chart,
Sailing into destiny,
Closer to the heart.

Box sets like this always come with bonus goodies.  The three CDs are packaged in a standard digipack with extensive liner notes and photos.  Four 180 gram LPs are housed in an upsized version of this, with the same booklet in massive 12″ x 12″ glory.  The LP package alone is 3/4″ thick!

A reproduction of the 1977 tour program is here in full glossy glory.  This contains an essay called “A Condensed Rush Primer” by Neil.  Additionally, all three members have their own autobiographical essay and equipment breakdown.  Alex Lifeson’s is, not surprisingly, pretty funny.  Things like this make a tour program more valuable and as a bonus, this is a great addition to a box set.  Digging further, there are two prints of Hugh Syme pencil sketches.  These works in progress are interesting but it’s unlikely you’ll look at them often.  The turntable mat is also just a novelty.  Perhaps the goofiest inclusion is a little black bag containing a necklace with a Rush “king’s ring” attached to it.  Wear it to work next casual Friday!


Whatever edition of A Farewell to Kings you decide to own (the most logical is the simple 3 CD anniversary set), you can rest assured you are buying one of the finest early Rush albums.  If you have the wherewithall to own the super deluxe with 5.1 Steven Wilson mix, then let the photo gallery below tempt you.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Merry Axemas – A Guitar Christmas – Various Artists (1997)

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MERRY AXEMAS A Guitar Christmas (1997 Sony)

Do you have a favourite Christmas album? Perhaps you need some Merry Axemas in your life.  The first one, in particular.

I used to have an annual tradition of making a Christmas mix CD.  I dropped it because after a while I ran out of good Christmas tracks. Something from Merry Axemas used to make the list every year.  Not only are there great traditional songs, but also the finest guitar slingers in the world.  For an album of (mostly) instrumentals, this one really rings the bells.

Louisiana blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd gets things started with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.  Anyone on board with the blues should enjoy the solid jamming going on here!  This isn’t for grandma.  This is for guitar maniacs!  Progressive stylist Eric Johnson has a beautiful “First Nowell”, on a classical and electric guitars with accompaniment.  Grandma won’t mind this one at all, in fact she might want a copy for herself.  The wizard of the wires, Jeff Beck, then presents his slide guitar version of “Amazing Grace” complete with choir.  A different mix of elements, but not too hard to digest.


Not the version from this CD, which is instrumental

The Brian Setzer Orchestra comes out swingin’ with their instrumental “Jingle Bells”.  If you ever needed reminding how awesome the former Stray Cat is on six strings, then check this out.  Brian keeps it all accessible while simultaneously blowing off your nuts.  The big band is icing on the cake.  Joe Satriani is next up to the plate with an adventurous “Silent Night/Holy Night Jam”.  This one is strictly for guitar-heads and players, as it’s more a Joe showpiece than anything else.  Picture Joe circa Flying in a Blue Dream and you’re in the right place, but not very Christmas-y.  This is the only song that has never made one of my annual Christmas mix CDs.  Steve Morse’s “Joy to the World” is far more successful as far as the Christmas theme goes.  Steve does do it his way, but at least you can tell which carol you’re listening to.  If anyone can capture angelic Christmas guitar tones, it is Steve Morse.

How big can these names get?  Try Steve Vai on for size.  You might recall “Christmas Time is Here” from the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special.  Vince Guaraldi made it popular for all ages, and Steve does a playful take on it, using his guitar like a voice.  And the names keep getting bigger.  Heard of Joe Perry before?  The Aerosmith guitar hero does Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” as a Hawiian guitar instrumental which suddenly goes surf rock.  Rush’s Alex Lifeson then brings “The Little Drummer Boy”, with a low-key and quiet instrumental.

“‘O Holy Night”, performed by Richie Sambora formerly of Bon Jovi, swings and just barely misses.  It just doesn’t have that Christmas feel.  The Japanese guitarist Hotei has the final track, John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which is actually a traditional that Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote lyrics to.  He goes a little over the edge partway through, but it mostly maintains the right feel.

Here’s the great thing about Merry Axemas.  Even if you don’t care for Christmas music, there is usually a need for it around, once a year.  Merry Axemas, with some modest editing, could suit your needs.  Don’t celebrate Christmas?  No problem — if you’re a fan of these players (particularly Morse, Vai, Perry, and Johnson) then you’ll want to hear what they did with these tracks.

4/5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

VIDEO REVIEW: Rush playing cards

4.5/5 stars