Christmas music

REVIEW: Marillion – Pudding On the Ritz – Christmas 2008

MARILLION – Pudding On the Ritz – Christmas 2008 (Racket Records)

This was the final fan club exclusive Christmas CD that Marillion issued for several seasons.  They switched to DVD for the next few years.  I think an album is more interesting than a DVD, but to each their own!

It’s the annual Christmas message first, an amusing one as usual, with the band goofing around for a bit.  The Christmas song in 2008 was “Little St Nick”, a tour de force progressive rock Christmas tune clocking in at over six minutes.  It appears to be unrelated to the Beach Boys song.  (Listen for the silhouette of “Hey Jude”.)  It could, in fact, be exactly what your progressive rock loving seasonal heart adores!

The next chunk of tracks are jams from the Happiness is the Road recording sessions.  Often these jams would have found their way into songs, but these are the best bits that did not.  “Singapore” has nice laid-back instrumental appeal, but then Pete Trewavas grabs hold of it and it starts sounding like a heavy Brave outtake.  Conclusion: Marillion should consider releasing more instrumentals.  “Jakarta” has some interesting screechy guitar, and vocals.  “Honolulu” goes rock and roll, boppin’ piano included, before heading into more progressive territory and back again.  “In Dorset” is quiet, but with Ian Mosely performing some seriously stupendous percussion stuff.  Fabulous music.  Finally, “In Goa” almost recalls “Black Night” by Deep Purple!

There’s more still.  The final bunch of tracks was assembled by producer Mike Hunter with a Christmas theme in mind.  He decided to arrange the music around the poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas.  Thomas’ 1952 recording was a BBC staple.  Steve Hogarth does the reading for Marillion’s version.  For the next 24 minutes you’ll hear the poem over music that occasionally fits, but is often incongruous.  Whether you can get into it or not, It’s 24 minutes of Marillion music arranged in a conceptual framework.  That’s going to appeal to some of you.  Hogarth’s narration is top notch.

The added value of all this unreleased music, much of it seasonal in nature, makes this one of the better Marillion Christmas albums.

4/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Marillion – Say Cheese! Christmas With Marillion (2003)

MARILLION Say Cheese! Christmas With Marillion (2003 Racket Records)

The 2003 edition of the annual Marillion Christmas CD featured a front cover picturing the guys lounging in their pajamas, lazily smoking pipes.  These discs are usually pretty loose assemblies of song, and it looks like Rothery is already into the wine.

The annual Christmas message is first; this time they just want to wish you a lovely Christmas and a happy, happy New Year.  Onto the music!  “Stop the Cavalry” is considered a Christmas song in the UK, and Marillion’s is hastily assembled with keyboard samples covering most of the instruments.  There are plenty of jingle bells to keep things seasonal-sounding.

“Seasons End” begins with “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as if often does, morphing it into an original seasonal song.  This live version comes from a 2002 Christmas tour, as released on a DVD called Christmas in the Chapel.  It was never released on CD, so this is the only physical CD you can get with any of it.  Expect the usual mindblowing weightiness.  From the same show, they also perform the carol “Gabriel’s Message”, dark and gothic.  “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) is a capella from a German Christmas show, and it is beautiful.  Finally Marillion and the Racket Records folks have their way with “The 12 Days of Christmas”, modifying the words for their own needs.  As usual, the song wears thin fast.

There’s non-seasonal material too, which is often the case.  “I’m the Urban Spaceman” (The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band cover) is a Steve Hogath home demo, dating back to ’96.  This rarity is originally from a Hogarth solo EP, a neat curiosity.

“Neverland” was brand new; the Marbles album was still fresh and this would have been some of the first live material available from it.  It’s a full-on 10 minute epic, performed with professional passion.

These Marillion Christmas albums usually have one seasonal song and then a bunch of rarities.  In 2003 at least they included a few extra seasonal tunes and carols to make it feel like you’re actually listening to a Christmas CD.  These being fan club discs, it’s hard being too critical.  This one was fun, with only “The 12 Days of Christmas” to annoy you.

3.5/5 Christmas stars

REVIEW: Marillion – marillion.christmas (1999)

MARILLION – marillion.christmas (1999 Racket Records)

The second Marillion Christmas CD was sent out the year of marillion.com, a pretty good if misunderstood experimental studio album.  Marillion began to incorporate elements such as dub and loops.  They were also getting the hang of this special fanclub Christmas CD idea.  Where the first was a mixed bag, the second is one of the their best.

Opening with a hauntingly beautiful “Gabriel’s Message”, the mood is set.  Steve Hogarth’s enviable golden pipes are front and center.  Heavier instrumentation begins to ebb and flow halfway through, and a cool carol is ended.  If you think Trans-Siberian Orchestra is cool, you’re going to love this.  It’s better.

Let the rarities commence, with the single edit of “The Answering Machine” from Radiation, unavailable on commercial CD.  Still an enjoyable song, with its cacophony of noise and keyboards lending it a unique progressive flavour.  The next two songs are real treats.  “Interior Lulu” and “Tumble Down the Years” were both recorded for Radiation, but held back for marillion.com because they didn’t quite fit.  For the first time, the Radiation mixes are included here.  (Not for the last time, as Marillion soon issued extensive “making of” albums for their later catalogue.)  If Radiation had included them, it would have been a far more mellow album.  Both tracks are quite different from the final versions.  “Tumble Down the Years” has a more rock and roll vibe.

Up next, a “Technopop Remix” of “Memory of Water”, a runner up for the “Big Beat Mix” that went out for CD singles and bonus tracks.  It’s not as iconic, and never really sounds like Marillion the way the “Big Beat Mix” does, and it’s far too long (10:02).  There are then three acoustic tracks:  “Abraham, Martin and John”, “Runaway” and “Estonia” originally done for a cancelled French EP.  You can find acoustic versions from this period on the album Live From the Walls, but these ones sound properly recorded in a studio.  “Abraham, Martin and John” is so good it will bring tears to your eyes.  An absolute treasure.

Hey remember on the 1998 CD, when Marillion included some instrumental “Karaoke” versions for a contest?  One of the winners is on this CD, the Cradley Primary School’s lovely version of “Beautiful” (the Dave Meegan mix).  They must have had some cool teachers at that primary school!  It’s pretty cool hearing the kids singing those words.

Heaven only knows that we live in a world,
Where what we call beautiful is just something on sale.
People laughing behind their hands,
While the fragile and the sensitive are given no chance.

Finally, the annual Christmas message from the band is placed at the end of the CD instead of the start.  They’re not as goofy (or drunk) on this instalment, as they run through the tracks and wish us all a Happy Christmas.  Thanks, guys!

4/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Marillion & the Web Christmas 1998 – Happy Christmas Everybody!

MARILLION – & the Web Christmas 1998 – Happy Christmas Everybody! (1998 Racket Records)

Marillion have always been a fan-friendly band, offering up special rarities for the most dedicated.  In 1998, fan club members received the very first Marillion Christmas CD.  It’s one of the least satisfying of what turned out to be a long-running proposition, but since it was the first, we’ll let it slide.  At just 30 minutes, Happy Christmas Everybody is also the shortest.  Most of the music consists of “Karaoke mixes” for a contest they were running.  Record your own vocals, send it in, and win!

The first-ever “Christmas Message” track from Marillion explains the origin of the CD, as the guys crack up themselves in the background.  This is mixed into “The Christmas Song”, a festive version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” by Marillion.  (A standalone song would have been better.)

Exciting at the time, the next tracks are excerpts from the next Marillion album, marillion.com.  Hey, it was 1998, what are you going to do?  Jethro Tull had an album called J-tull.com.  Regardless of the title, this CD had sneak previews of “Interior Lulu” (two snippets) and “Tumble Down the Years” from the next album.  The mixes are not the final ones from the album, which is interesting to fans, but they’re so damn short.  They’re also samples of very mellow sections of songs, which may (or may not) have given false impressions of the new album.

The four Karaoke mixes are all but full length, with one done by Marillion producer Dave Meegan himself.  The instructions are so quaint.  “We’re inviting you all to make tapes!”  Tapes!  Just mail them in!  It’s a little odd to hear landmark pop rockers like “Cover My Eyes” without the massive hook of the lead vocals!  All you get for vocals are some backing tracks on the chorus.  Fabulous drums on that track, by the way Mr. Mosley.  “No One Can” is cool because you can hear the backup instrumentation a lot more without the syrupy singing.  “Beautiful” is the one by Dave Meegan, and as such it’s the most listenable.  He mixed in new elements, making it more like an interesting instrumental arrangement.  The more recent “These Chains” is probably the least appealing of the Karaoke songs due to its minimalist approach.

We’ll cut Marillion some slack.  It was the early days, their first Christmas CD, and the exclusive mixes are appreciated even if the album previews are not.  There aren’t any really usable Christmas songs on this album, a problem they’d fix next time out.

2/5 stars

 

#800: It’s Beginning to Look Like Marillion Christmas

GETTING MORE TALE #800:
It’s Beginning to Look Like Marillion Christmas

Immediate apologies to probably a large percentage of readers.  There are two kinds of people:  those who like Christmas music, and those who do not.  Those in the “not” category will probably be dropping in droves this December, as I announce the latest review series here at mikeladano.com.

It’s an interesting matter of fact, but Marillion have a total 15 Christmas themed albums.  That’s an incredibly large number!  Most were only available (for free) to fans of the Marillion Web fan club.  Over the last few Christmases, I’ve reviewed a number of them (linked below).  In 2019, I finally acquired the only two I had been missing.  I didn’t get into Marillion early enough to get the first two, but I was on board by the third.  Now, two decades later, I decided to bite the bullet and pay Discogs prices, which were not all that bad ($30 US each).  And now I have them all!

For a short while, Marillion switched from releasing Christmas albums to Christmas DVDs, which I do not collect.  In 2014, CDs resumed for a short additional run.

  • Chile for the Time of Year (2014 – Webfree 17)
  • A Collection of Recycled Gifts (2014 – Compilation with new Christmas material)
  • Christmas Tour 2014 – Live at the Forum (2014 Abbey Road “instant live”)
  • A Monstrously Festive(al) Christmas (2015 – Webfree 18)

Now that I actually have them all, I’d like to get them all reviewed too.  After all, I can really only do that kind of thing once a year — in December.  Starting with Webfree 1, I’m going to work my way down the list.  And if this doesn’t interest you at all, that’s cool.  I get it.  That’s the thing about personal projects.  This is more about me than you, I’m afraid.  But there’s plenty of reason for you to stick around, too.  Many of these Marillion “Christmas” albums have minimal Christmas content.  Chile for the Time of Year? That’s just, flat-out, a double live album.  It was recorded in May!  It boasts some of Marillion’s best known songs (“Kayleigh”, “Easter”, “Cover My Eyes”), and also a number of key later progressive epics (“Gaza”, “Ocean Cloud”, “Neverland”).  If it were not one of their annual Christmas fanclub freebies, it would fit in any other time.

If you’re a diehard, or just remotely curious about Marillion, I’ve done my best to write for both of you.  These CDs are going to expose to you to variety of Marillion songs.  Hits, deep cuts, and stuff you never heard of before.  And you won’t find a series this detailed anywhere else.

As I buckle in for what looks to be a chilly season, I wish you all the very Merriest of Christmases.  It matters not if you celebrate it.  As the world pauses together this season, I hope you have nothing but warmth and happiness in your life.  Perhaps a hot drinky-poo or a pipe by the fire is all you desire.  Might I recommend a Marillion Christmas to nail the vibe just right?

#722: Christmas Mix 2006

GETTING MORE TALE #722: Christmas Mix 2006

It took some searching, but I finally found a copy!  This is the first Christmas mix CD I ever made, back in 2006.  I didn’t start making these until I had left the Record Store.  Nobody who works retail wants to listen to Christmas music outside of work.  Once I had been gone a year, my brain and soul were freed!

As discussed in the previous Christmas Mix article, after a few years I was running short on good songs to use, so I had to repeat a few from prior years.  Several tracks from the 2006 disc made a return appearance in 2010.

Repeaters included:

1. Hawksley Workman – “3 Generations”.  Truly an incredible, family-oriented song that is a highlight of Hawkley’s excellent Christmas album, Almost a Full Moon. The 2006 CD has lots of Hawksley songs.

2. Extreme – “Christmas Time Again”.  My sister always liked this one, which sounds like early Extreme – perhaps first album era.

3. The Beatles – “Christmas Time is Here Again”.  I leaned heavily on this one, though not a great song, just because it’s the Beatles and it’s a rarity you may not have heard.

4. Jon Bon Jovi – “Please Come Home for Christmas“.  Bon Jovi have done several Christmas songs, but Jon’s solo version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” is by far the best.  Let’s face it, this is a great tune!

5. Jim Cuddy – “New Year’s Eve”.  Another one I lean on because a song about New Year’s Eve is a nice change of pace.  Plus, it’s Jim Cuddy!

6. Ted Nugent – “Deck the Halls”.  I think every Christmas mix needs a kick in the nuts to keep things interesting.  Here’s the kick!

7. Bob & Doug McKenzie – “Twelve Days of Christmas”.  It can get a little tedious, as many joke songs are, but people know it and like it.

That’s not bad for repeat.  I’m sure Kiss have repeated more than just seven songs on their greatest hits CDs….


For creative types, the first thing you try something is often the best.  Maybe that’s the case with my line of Christmas mixes.  This first instalment is a great listen, even if you hate Christmas music and everything to do with it.  Check out the amazing songs you would have heard in 2006!

“Linus & Lucy” isn’t a Christmas song at all, but it works because Charlie Brown is associated with Christmas.  Wynton and Ellis Marsalis did an entire album dedicated to the music of Charlie Brown (Joe Cool’s Blues), but “Linus & Lucy” is the most instantly memorable.  And now, all of a sudden, you’re a kid again watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

Hawsley Workman’s first appearance here is “First Snow of the Year”, a song that is much too happy for a song about snow!  It’s homey, upbeat and jovial.  Keeping things upbeat, I went for the Brian Setzer Orchestra next.  “Jingle Bells” mixes the big band style with jaw-dropping guitar as only Setzer can do.  I then chose to cool things out with “The First Nowell” by the sublime Eric Johnson.  His acoustic/electric instrumental contains just as much original music as it does traditional.  It’s wonderful.

There was a time when Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas” was a rarity.  Now you hear it on the radio.  When I first had it, it was on a bonus CD within a Queen Classics/Greatest Hits box set.   (The “Green Cover”.)   Since just about everybody likes Queen (then and now) including it is a slam dunk.  It’s 80s Queen but that’s OK, isn’t it?

I used a lot of instrumental music on these Christmas mixes, which tended to come from Merry Axemas 1 and 2.  “Joy to the World” by Steve Morse is a beautiful rendition, much like the Eric Johnson track, though Steve’s is entirely electric.  Then it’s Joe Perry’s Hawaiian guitar version of Elvis’ “Blue Christmas”.  You may recall that I put Elvis’ version on my 2010 CD.  Joe’s version is cool because it’s different, though not as popular around our dinner table.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra is, honestly, a band I don’t get.  Look, I’m a huge Savatage fan.  Massive Savatage fan.  I’ve been a fan since I was 15.  Trans-Siberian began as a spinoff of Savatage, and I was absolutely shocked when little old men and ladies would come in to the Record Store asking for them!  Trans-Siberian isn’t as “metal” as Savatage, but the bombast is all there.  They’re popular though, so I put as much Trans-Siberian on here as I could handle.  “A Star to Follow” is a pretty gothic version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”.  Much better is “A Mad Russian’s Revenge”, an interpretation of Tchaikovsky.  I also threw on “The Silent Nutcracker” because it is a simple acoustic guitar instrumental, not at all like the other TSO tracks.

One of Marillion’s very best Christmas tunes is “I Saw Three Ships”, so for my debut Christmas mix, I used nothing but the best Marillion.  This is from 2001’s A Very Barry Christmas.  There is something special and unique about this band.  “I Saw Three Ships” is both true to the song, yet intrinsically Marillion.

Hawksley’s third appearance is a hat trick of perfect celebratory pop.  “Claire Fontaine” isn’t particularly seasonal, though it’s from his Christmas CD.  It’s about a girl who makes lovely decorative paper.  There’s a line about “going home for Christmas” but otherwise there is little connection.  Claire could use her paper to wrap gifts, though Hawksley uses it for writing.  “Your sheets are very smooth, I like to rub my pen across them.”  This was a selfish inclusion.  I just love this song.

“Ring Out Solstice Bells” is also a selfish inclusion, because although it is a brilliant track, nobody I knew actually liked Jethro Tull.  In fact some, like Mrs. LeBrain, are quite anti-Tull.  So who was this song for?  Me!  And I stand beneath the Christmas tree, doing my best Ian Anderson single-leg stand.

Lo, what is this I hear?  More Hawksley?  Yes, Hawksley Workman had four tracks on my Christmas CD.  That is a full one-half of his original album!  I chose “Common Cold” for the last Hawksley.  Nobody gets through the holidays without getting sick, not in my family anyway!  (Last year I had the flu.)  “Nearly OD, on Vitamin C, you’re standing in a lineup with a gift just for me.”

The disc ended with a slew of tracks I’d use again.  Cuddy, Nugent, and Bob & Doug closed the CD.  A joke song makes a good closer sometimes, so that’s why I re-used Bob & Doug in the exact same position on 2010’s CD!

I like this CD, but I today I would axe the first two Trans-Siberian tracks.  I don’t think I’d change anything else.  In fact I’m quite thrilled to hear “Linus & Lucy” again for the first time in ages.  (I’ll have to give the whole Wynton & Ellis CD a spin again.)  Hawksley is always a delight, and I used his very best Christmas songs here.  And that Jethro Tull song is brilliant; I don’t care what cynics say.

I’ll give myself a solid:

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Bon Jovi – “Please Come Home for Christmas” (1994 single)

BON JOVI “Please Come Home for Christmas” (1994 Mercury single)

Christmas of ’94 was a good one for Bon Jovi.  Their first greatest hits record Cross Road was a smash, returning Bon Jovi to the charts.   It spawned two hit singles:  “Always” and later on, “Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night”.  With all that going on, it is understandable if you missed another Bon Jovi single that was just under the radar.

“Please Come Home for Christmas” is billed as a Bon Jovi single, but in actuality it’s a Jon Bon Jovi solo track.  It was first released exclusively to the album A Very Special Christmas 2 (1992), billed to Jon Bon Jovi and not performed with the band.  By ’94, “solo” and “band” Bon Jovi were becoming blurred.  Jon’s solo track “Blaze of Glory” was on Cross Road even though it’s from Jon’s first solo album.  Nowhere on the “Please Come Home for Christmas” single is it indicated that this is a Bon Jovi solo recording, further blurring the lines.

None of that really matters; Bon Jovi is Jon’s band and this single gathers together his first three Christmas recordings in one place.  It’s actually a great value.

The old Charles Brown seasonal classic has been covered over and over, notably by the Eagles.  Jon’s version isn’t bad either.  You either like Bon Jovi or you don’t.  If you like Bon Jovi then this will probably be right up your alley.

Next up, one of the B-sides from Keep the Faith and an original song too:  “I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas”.  This has the vibe of Keep the Faith, with full production by Bob Rock.  Why can’t everybody be kind to each other every day like they are on Christmas?  It ain’t easy to write an original Christmas song, and Jon did an excellent job on this one.  I’ve always preferred it to “Please Come Home for Christmas”.

Finally, from the first Very Special Christmas album (1987), it’s a live take of “Back Door Santa” (Clarence Carter).  That means it’s from the Slippery When Wet tour.  Vintage Bon Jovi with cheesy keyboards right out “Social Disease”.  It’s not good but it’s here!  Meaning, Bon Jovi fans don’t have to look for A Very Special Christmas to complete their collections.

Two for three decent songs isn’t bad.  All are non-album tracks, so that’ll make this single worth it to you.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Twisted Sister – A Twisted Christmas (2006)

TWISTED SISTERA Twisted Christmas (2006 Razor & Tie)

One thing I love about Christmas time is the ability to knock out all these Christmas album reviews.  I can only listen to this stuff seasonally, and I wouldn’t subject you to it otherwise.  In my quest to Review Everything I Own and Then Some, we must occasionally delve into Christmas music.

Rock bands doing Christmas tunes is…well, I mean it worked out OK for Elvis, and then later on Twisted Sister and the guys from Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  Each of those artists had success with Christmas music for good reasons, but I think Twisted Sister’s was purely the novelty value of it.  The humour.  The nudge-nudge-jokey-ness of it.  It wasn’t that they made a Christmas album laden with integrity.  It’s a joke album as the intro implies.

The album commences with Dee & company singing a traditional acoustic version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”.  They are then interrupted by someone saying “This isn’t Twisted Sister!”  It then goes metal with a dash a punk.  “Ho ho ho!  Let’s go!”

The biggest joke is that, apparently, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was always just “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” in disguise.  This was the big Christmas hit that put Twisted back in the spotlight, and it’s certainly the most enjoyable track on the CD.

Songs follow vague heavy metal blueprints.  “White Christmas” is imbued with an Iron Maiden gallop and a couple chords from “SMF”.  One thing is clear, and that is Dee Snider’s voice still has it.  The guy is a hell of a singer, period.  He’s joined by Lita Ford on “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, in the style of Twisted’s original epic ballad “The Price”.  Unfortunately this one stinks like Christmas cheese that should have been thrown out last year.  A shouty “Silver Bells” is done with a splash of AC/DC, but ends up sounding more like Poison.  Bassist/producer Mark “The Animal” Mendoza has a pretty kickass bass solo, though.

Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” is the foundation of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, and it is at this point that you realise a whole album of this stuff is a bit too much.  “Let It Snow” is given the doomy treatment, as an amalgam with Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave”.  I suppose the doomy direction does go better with lines like “The weather outside is frightful”.  Maybe Dee & company are on to something here, but I’m not too sure about the Sabbathy version of “Deck the Halls” with echoes of “War Pigs” and “Never Say Die”.

“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is a little dull, and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is too long, as it often is.  The only version of “Twelve Days of Christmas” anyone needs for a novelty is Bob & Doug McKenzie’s classic.  That’ll make your party pop a lot better than Twisted’s version.

Let’s check some boxes.  Is this album:

  • Fun?  (sometimes)
  • Heavy?  
  • Twisted?  
  • Creative?  

All well and good.  But will you:

  • Listen to it more than once a year?  
  • Enjoy as much as something else you could have played instead?  
  • Be able to use more than one or two songs for your Christmas party?  
  • Ever really look forward to hearing it again?

It is good that A Twisted Christmas brought the band the kind of success they deserved, but it is truly a shame that it is the final Twisted studio album.  They were always considered a joke to the critics, they shouldn’t have gone out on vinyl as a joke.

2/5 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: The Darkness – Last of Our Kind (Christmas deluxe edition)

NEW RELEASE

Last review before Christmas!


 

Scan_20151221THE DARKNESS – Last of Our Kind (2015 Canary Dwarf deluxe holiday edition)

If there is one thing we collectors hate, it’s buying a rare collectible version of an album, only to see it reissued later with more tracks!  I waited ages to get the Japanese printing of the brand-new Darkness album Last of Our Kind, featuring two bonus tracks.  Now, just in time for Christmas, the Darkness have released a seasonal deluxe edition, with four bonus tracks this time, and special packaging that looks like Darkness wrapping paper being torn open to reveal the CD inside.  Even so, I had to order this CD in from Europe.

This counts as your annual seasonal content here at mikeladano.com, and it’s my only seasonal content this year!  Humbug.  Unusually for a seasonal post, this one is 100% rock!

Buying the album twice hurt a little bit less because it’s really, really good.  The Darkness have quality standards, and they have not dropped between albums.  They also had a new member, the talented drummer Emily Dolan Davies, who sadly couldn’t stick around and has since been replaced by Rufus Tiger Taylor, son of Queen sticksman Roger Taylor.  Emily plays on all tracks herein, and she does so seamlessly.  On first spin it would be hard to tell that original drummer Eddie Graham wasn’t around anymore.

Laden with the screams of flighting Vikings, “Barbarian” opens the album heavier than expected.  “Barbarian” storms the gates, leaving trails of blood behind it, but fear not!  “Open Fire” is fast n’ catchy hard rock n’ roll, the way the Darkness has always done it.  The high vocals are toned down, with Justin Hawkins singing in his normal voice for most of it.  His throat has acquired a little bit of grit to it (light sandpaper only) which he uses effectively on “Open Fire”, which would have been a hit had it come out 10 years ago.

The very best track on the album is #3, the title track, boasting one of those Darkness choruses that has become their trademark and strength.  “Last of Our Kind” rings down as the highlight album and indeed one of the best songs to come out in 2015.  Just like he did in the days of yore, Justin lets his voice rip, while laying down Lizzy-like guitar harmonies with his brother Dan.  If singles were a still a thing, this would be the one.  You’ll notice how Davies accents the song on drums the way Ed Graham used to.  She doesn’t overplay, but she punctuates it where it has to be.

Rather than having used up all their ammunition on these first three great tracks, The Darkness have plenty more shells in the belt.  “Roaring Waters” is a mid-tempo groove, and almost lacklustre except for that slippery Hawkins riff.   Then you need a ballad, so you get a ballad: “Wheels of the Machine”.  It’s not as pompous as “Love is Only a Feeling”, but still has the golden Justin voice that makes their ballads either unique or unpalatable, depending on your tastes.  I say, turn it up.  You’ll especially want it loud on “Mighty Wings”, which has a neat spacey 80’s sci-fi keyboard intro.  Don’t be mistaken, for “Mighty Wings” rocks with a groove so chunky that neck strain is a real danger.

“This ain’t no double entendre.  This ain’t no euphemism.  This is real life.”  Well hey, a mudslide is a weird subject for a song, but that’s what “Mudslide” appears to be about!  “It’s a fuckin’ mudslide!” says Justin, to reiterate his point, after lamenting the loss of his “dear beloved gazebo” in the natural disaster.  Fortunately, this song kicks lots and lots of ass.  I wonder how many song lyrics reference a gazebo?  “Sarah O’Sarah” has a vaguely celtic feel due to the mandolin.  It’s an album highlight, sounding much like the Darkness’ second LP, One Way Ticket.  Davies proves her mettle on the chorus section, a gallop of percussion that frankly Eddie Graham didn’t seem to have the chops to do.  “Hammer & Tongs” shares its pop-chorus bent, but has some juicy slide guitar backing it up.  There is even a slight Stones vibe in the gee-tars.  The proper album ends on “Conquerors”, a ballad that serves as the dramatic pompous outro, featuring Dan Hawkins taking the lead vocals.

This deluxe CD continues on, with four bonus tracks, the first two of which are also on the pricier Japanese import version.  “Messenger” and “Always Had the Blues” are fine as bonus tracks, with “Messenger” being album quality (and then some).  Lush vocals from the back create swirls of melody that stick in your ear like gum in your hair!  The real gem among the bonus tracks is the newbie “Million Dollar Strong”, which has a sweet 80’s riff (think Dokken) and a horn section for added oomph!  The fourth track is their second Christmas single, “I Am Santa”.  With an obvious “Do They Know It’s Christmas” bassline and beat, plenty of folks will find a nostalgic glow on this one.  I especially like the line referencing “Ferrero Rocher”, a candy I always look forward to every Christmas.  Like the chocolates, “I Am Santa” is sweet and delightful.

My only disappointment:  2013’s non-album single “The Horn” was not included as a bonus track.  That leaves it frustratingly unreleased on a physical format.

4.5/5 stars

Japanese version:

Merry Christmas, and stay safe!