Dedicated to my dear friend Uncle Meat. This CD was purchased off Joe “Big Nose” at the Waterloo branch of the Record Store at which I used to work.
DIXIE DREGS – Night of the Living Dregs (1979 Polydor)
If they could bottle genius, distill it down to its essence, sell it and serve it at a party…then the Dixie Dregs are the music that should be played at that party.
The Dregs are undefinable. Just when you think you have them nailed down to a progressive jazz-rock hybrid, they go classical on you, or full-bluegrass mode. Their instrumental chops are incomparable, while still managing to deliver such basic song pleasures such as “melody”, “hooks” and “grooves”. These melodies are usually delivered at the hands of Steve Morse (guitar) or Allen Sloan (violin). Listeners familiar with with the guitar stylings of Morse will have an idea of the kind of songs and arrangements he writes: challenging, but rewarding.
Night of the Living Dregs is half studio, half live. The first side, from the cleverly-titled “Punk Sandwich” to the ballad “Long Slow Distance” are carefully crafted studio recordings, each different from the last. While each track is unique and showcases different sides of the band, it is “Long Slow Distance” that really shines. This soft work captures so much of what Morse does well. There are jazzy licks embedded within melodies, and so many different textures of guitar.
The live side is recorded nice and clean without a lot of crowd noise. “Night of the Living Dregs” is an upbeat little number, featuring some absolutely jaw-dropping melodic bass playing from Andy West. This is also where drummer extraordinaire Rod Morgenstein comes up to the plate. His playing is so multifaceted and you can hear it on this track. The most fun can be found on “The Bash”, a full-on bluegrass ho-down, chicken-pickin’ full steam ahead. Any jaws left on the floor are hopefully picked up so they don’t miss “Leprechaun Promenade”. There are celtic flavours thanks to the violin, and the song is comparable to Jethro Tull. Then suddenly it turns into Frankenstein’s monster with some eerie keyboards (Mark Parrish). This is complex stuff, not for the timid!
The whole experience ends on “Patchwork”, which works as a description of the album at large. It is a patchwork of style and feels, which create the whole. The Dixie Dregs are a challenging listen, but ultimately rewarding. There is plenty of joy in the grooves. The band does not play anything simple or easy. Everything is a little bit of smarty-pants music, but for the listening, this is a delight.
Second review from Mike and Aaron Go to Toronto…Again! I paid $2.99 for this CD at Sonic Boom. A steal.
PLATYPUS – Ice Cycles (2000 InsideOut)
Platypus are: Ty Tabor – Guitars & vocals (King’s X). John Myung – Bass (Dream Theater). Derek Sherinian – Keys (Dream Theater, Alice Cooper, Kiss). Rod Morgenstein – Drums (Dixie Dregs, Winger).
From the information above, you already know several things: 1. Platypus is a supergroup. 2. This is going to have plenty of incendiary playing on it. 3. It’s gonna be progressive. Much like their first album (this is their second), it’s also gonna be fun!
If you’re a fan of any of these guys, you will love to hear them in this band’s context. There are plenty of King’s X-isms, but the personalities of the players have their own influences. Nobody plays drums like Rod Morgenstein, and I always enjoy the chance to hear him work.
The opening track, “Oh God” is quite heavy, with quieter keyboard moments. The track has some serious weight to it. Ty of course is a melodic singer, so that balances it. It’s just one of several standout tracks. “Better Left Unsaid” has a pleasant aura, similar to Faith Hope Love-era King’s X, but with Sherinian’s keyboards lending a completely different sound. Myung doesn’t play bass like Dug Pinnick does, but he does create a thick sound. Morgenstein’s drums have marching band precision.
The heavy melody-driven “The Tower” really gets the engine running during the chorus. The verses lack a bit, but that chorus section is furious, as is the guitar solo. The piano tinkle of “Cry” has a moment that is playfully lifted from Alice Cooper’s “I Love the Dead”, but the chorus is like Alice In Chains! This is a complex track, not instantly likable. Give it some time to sink in. Morgenstein, once again, leaves jaws on the floor.
My favourite tracks are two: the brief “I Need You”, which has the lush Tabor vocals that we know and love. This track is probably the most like King’s X, coincidentally. Then there’s the smoking hot “25” with its Dream Theater keys and Zeppelin guitars. There’s also a Rush riff in there somewhere. This is one of only two instrumentals on the album, but it sure is a corker! Just stunning.
The final track can only be called an epic. “Partial to the Bean (A Tragic American Quintology)” is a instrumental that goes all over the board, in seven parts. If you’ve heard instrumental epics by these players before then I’m sure you know what you’re up against. A challenging but rewarding listen.
That can be said for the album in general. It’s a rewarding listen that will, at times, challenge you. I like that.
FLYING COLORS – Live In Europe (2013 Mascot Music)
There hasn’t been a new band that got me going like Flying Colors did in a dog’s age. Their 2012 debut is a fantastic album, and it’s only grown on me more since I first reviewed it. Songs like “Kayla”, “The Storm”, and “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” had me hooked on repeat — in the car, at home, it didn’t matter. Flying Colors has been on constantly for months.
That’s why I decided to get the double Live In Europe CD. I had to have more. Who cares that it’s a double live album immediately following a debut! All 11 songs from that album are here, plus covers and songs from each member’s past. I am glad to report that Live In Europe is as stunning as the debut, even over its long running time. When you have a band made up of guys like Mike Portnoy, Steve Morse, Dave LaRue, Neal Morse and Casey McPherson, you can count on a live show full of explosive instrumental pyrotechnics. And that is present. But it’s the quality of the songs and the humour of the band that makes it special.
The band open the set with three album tracks in a row, each different from the last. “Blue Ocean” is the long, breezy opener, which is followed by the pummeling “Shoulda Coulda Woulda”. Then, “Love Is What I’m Waiting For” is more soulful. All three are outstanding songs with stunning playing.
Portnoy does most of the talking, but Casey McPherson gets the first solo outing. “Can’t Find a Way” is from his former band Endochine, but played by Flying Colors, it fits seemlessly in the set. Its soft vibe is similar to some of the quieter material on Flying Colors, and McPherson’s emotive vocals set it apart. Steve Morse throws down one of his classic solos and seals the deal. This powerful number could have been on the album easily. They follow this one with my favourite song, “The Storm,” and the whole place ignites.
From 1978’s What If album comes the Dixie Dregs’ “Oddyssey”. Since Flying Colors don’t have a violin player, it’s very different, but every bit as jumpy and complicated. Coming back to something a little more straightforward, the band rock out to “Forever In A Daze.” Then McPherson stuns the crowd with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Yeah, it’s been a trendy song to cover lately, but when you pull it off as well as MacPherson does, why not?
The first CD ends with a mellow “Better Than Walking Away,” and by now a Flying Colors concert already feels like an emotionally uplifting experience. It is a song like this that underlines not just the chops, but the melodic tendencies of this band. It’s always fun to listen to a bunch of guys shred for 90 minutes, but it’s even better when they play a bunch of great songs, too.
The second CD commences with “Kayla,” which to me is already a classic. The vocal harmonies of Neal Morse and Casey McPherson really dance. After this, Mike Portnoy takes over, at the request of Neal Morse, sings lead on his “Fool In My Heart.” I quite this swinging little ballad, and there’s nothing wrong with Portnoy’s vocal. Dave LaRue’s solo piece, “Spur of the Moment,” leads into a Dream Theater classic. “Repentance,” from 2007’s excellent Systematic Chaos, is part of Mike’s “12 Step Suite.” As such it’s only fitting that he sings it himself. It’s not the whole 10 minute version, it’s pretty much just the first half, “Regret.” But it is every bit as powerful as Dream Theater’s original, yet very different.
From 1998’s The Kindness Of Strangers, Neal Morse performs “June” by Spock’s Beard. This bright ballad enables McPherson and Portnoy to harmonize very nicely with Morse. It’s certainly a nice respite before the slamming “All Falls Down.” After the band lays waste with that tune, it’s only epics from there forward. From the album, 8 minutes of “Everything Changes” is only topped by 12 minutes of “Infinite Fire”. While these two are still “songs,” the shredders get their wishes granted with some long-bomb jams.
In a band like Flying Colors, you can’t single out any one player as an MVP. It seems like a band powered by all five members equally. Having said that, Steve’s Morse’s guitar solos are always a treat, and it also a pleasure to hear the rhythm section of LaRue and Portnoy gel like this. They give the whole album a tremendous pulse. Turn up your bass and see what I mean.
How many bands is Mike Portnoy in anyway? I have no idea, but I’ve bought many of them over the years. Flying Colors is another, a supergroup featuring Steve Morse, the unrelated Neal Morse of Spock’s Beard, Dave LaRue from Steve Morse Band, and Casey McPherson of Alpha Rev. McPherson is the only one I’m not familiar with from elsewhere, and he handles lead vocals as well as keyboards and guitar. Peter Collins (Rush) produces, a man who knows plenty about progressive rock that gets played on the radio.
Together they created an accessible album of jaw-dropping chops but also something melodically engrossing. While these guys are all primarily renowned as musician’s musicians, together it seems they know how to write a song or two. The 7-minute opener “Blue Ocean” is a great example. It’s very hard to describe because it’s not any one thing. It has a hypnotically cool lead vocal, but backed by a neat shuffle and Morse’s trademark hybrid style.
“Shoulda Coulda Woulda” is a heavy one, again with a hypnotic vocal. It’s unforgettable and one of the most powerful tunes. Steve Morse lays yet another awesome guitar solo on top of it. It’s not how many notes he plays or how fast he plays them. It’s what he wrenches out of them. Then like a 180, “Kayla” opens with some gorgeous classical guitar, as if we switched to a Blackmore’s Night album! But this is temporary; “Kayla” is a sparse mid-tempo rock song, with an anthemic chorus. “Kayla” is one of the most instantly catchy moments on Flying Colors. The vocal harmonies in the middle section are killer.
This is followed by my favourite tune, the radio-ready “The Storm”. The chorus here is the best one on the album, powerful and layered. The verses are soft and melodic; commercial rock goodness. Portnoy perfectly compliments the song without overplaying. Only a classic Steve Morse solo could further elevate “The Storm” to the heavens, and that’s exactly what happens.
LaRue funks it up a bit on “Forever in a Daze” which thumps along nicely. “Love is What I’m Waiting For” has a Beatles vibe, which is interesting enough. It’s probably worthy of radio play in a perfect world. “Everything Changes” is another 7 minute long-bomber, and I don’t want to call it a ballad, so I’ll call it “quiet”. It’s an epic. It has acoustic guitars and strings and all kinds of cool stuff, including plenty of electric Morse. Once again, I hear Beatles.
The introspective “Better Than Walking Away” is another really good song, soft and pretty but lyrically intense. Then like a cold slap in the face comes “All Falls Down”. This the most “metal” moment on the album, a blazing blitzkrieg of guitars and drums. It’s over in 3 minutes and 20 seconds, but it’ll leave you knocked out. I really love the vocals on this song too.
Approaching the end, “Fool in My Heart” is a slow dance. Its melodies are warm and classic sounding. This serves to cleanse the palette before the final 12 minute feast of “Infinite Fire”. It’s one of my favourites, and it’s over more quickly than it seems it should be. It doesn’t wear out its welcome; it has a bit of everything in it including melody and spellbinding playing.
How the hell have Portnoy and Morse managed to put out multiple great albums in 2013 is beyond me. Why are guys like these not the biggest rock stars on the planet? Thankfully, a live album and second studio record are on their way.
Here’s part 2 of 3 – 30 albums essential to Meat’s being, that should be essential to yours, too! So, without anymore preamble, I’ll leave you with Uncle Meat, as he discusses 10 more albums, in alphabetical order by title, that you need to visit (or re-visit).
HIGH TENSION WIRES – STEVE MORSE (1989)
Simply put, Steve Morse is my favorite musician of all time. I have had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Morse a total of 6 times when you combine The Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple and The Steve Morse Band. Unlike the releases of some of his contemporaries, High Tension Wires is not your typical shredder album. Oh it shreds alright, but Steve Morse is much more than a trickster. There are beautiful compositions, unforgettable solos and some just plain ol’ rocking too. Included is the link to a live version of a track perfectly named “Tumeni Notes”. For more examples of the greatness of Steve Morse, introduce some Dixie Dregs into your collection. You can thank me later.
HOT HOUSE – BRUCE HORNSBY (1995)
When Bruce Hornsby said goodbye to The Range, he immediately said hello with Harbor Lights, a heavily jazz-infused turn that completely changed the music world’s perception of him. Hot House sees Hornsby taking that one step further. The album’s cover speaks a thousand words. It is a painting of an imagined band session between Bluegrass legend Bill Munroe and Jazz legend Charlie Parker. Nuff’ said there. This recording contains many musical giants including Pat Metheny, Jerry Garcia, Bela Fleck and Chaka Khan. Hot House is very addictive. I know most of the words off by heart on this record. Hopefully someday you will too.
JEFF BECK GROUP – JEFF BECK GROUP (1972)
This album definitely falls under the underappreciated category. Sometimes known as The Orange Album, Beck’s playing has never been better on this collection of original compositions and covers. I would call this more of a Soul album than anything. The incredible vocals of Bobby Tench seem to highlight this record at times, as you will see on the live performance of “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” I have included for this entry. Also worth noting, this album is one of the first recordings of the late Cozy Powell’s career. The guitar work alone on “Definitely, Maybe” is enough reason itself to seek this record out. Perhaps a rock n’ roll legend’s best work.
JOHN PRINE – JOHN PRINE (1971)
I actually discovered the music of John Prine while working at the same record store chain that Mr. Ladano speaks of in this blog. There is no one quite like John Prine. Some artists write great songs. Some artists write great lyrics. Only a select few truly do both this well. There is no doubt that John Prine’s self-titled album contains some of the best lyrics ever written. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose?” That is just brilliant shit. “You may see me tonight with an Illegal Smile. It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while”. I have said this many times and I am still saying it now. John Prine is THE best lyric writer …. Ever. Fuck Bob Dylan. Yeah, I said it.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON – KRIS KRISTOFFERSON (1970)
For the sake of alphabetical order by album, this Kristofferson follows the John Prine album on this list. Really it should be the other way around. While I stand by my earlier praise of Prine lyrics, I would certainly listen to the argument that there wouldn’t be a John Prine without Kris Kristofferson. The songs on this album show a huge diversity and a sense of patience that just makes him so cool. “Best Of All Possible Worlds” is just insanely-good storytelling and “Me and Bobby McGee” became a mega-smash for Janis Joplin. Of all the great concerts I have seen, watching Kris Kristofferson and a guitar for two hours in 2006 will always be one of the best concerts I will ever see. The true greats just need to show up.
LEGALIZE IT – PETER TOSH (1976)
After being a key member of Bob Marley & The Wailers for years, Peter Tosh embarked on a solo career. On his first solo release, Legalize It, I personally believe Tosh recorded the greatest Reggae album of all time. Fuck Bob Marley. Yeah, I said it. (Wait why am I so hostile? Ha.) Remember that one of Marley’s biggest hits “Get Up Stand Up” was co-written with Peter Tosh. I love this album from beginning to end, and the album’s cover remains a visual anthem for Marijuana activists everywhere. Sadly, Peter Tosh was taken from us when he was shot in the head during a home robbery. Rastafarian music at its finest.
LITTLE EARTHQUAKES – TORI AMOS (1992)
There is only one way to put it. During the spring of 1994 I became a literal disciple of Tori Amos. By the end of 1996 I had seen her live 7 times. Several of them in 2nd or 3rd row center seats, since this was back when you could actually wait all night for tickets and be rewarded for it. This album spoke to me in a way no other album has, or really could. Frustration with women, with Christianity and with life, I didn’t want to hear about hope in the horizon. I obviously needed to experience the frustration of someone who understood. I still have a red-head obsession because of Tori. This is in my ten favorite albums of all time and always will be. Little Earthquakes is full of intense and pretty compositions. The humor of “Happy Phantom” contrasts the pain of “Me and a Gun”. And the included track here is “Precious Things”, which sees Tori Amos exposing herself as the angry and sexual piano player she truly is. Myra Ellen Amos is quite simply a beast.
MELISSA – MERCYFUL FATE (1983)
Mercyful Fate’s first two albums are among the best Metal albums of all time. When you realize that this album came out a full year before Kill ‘Em All did you can start to see just how important this band truly were. Mercyful Fate are the High Priestesses of underappreciation. Yes King Diamond looks kinda ridiculous. And yes their lyrics are nothing short of evil incarnate. Lines such as “Drinking the blood of a new born child” and “I’ll be the first to watch your funeral, and I’ll be the last to leave” sometimes are so over the top that I guess it is understandable how an album this good could be ignored. If Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden had a baby, and that baby grew up listening to nothing but Black Sabbath, the end result would have to look and sound something like Mercyful Fate. It’s no coincidence that the best thing Metallica has recorded since …And Justice For All is their medley-cover simply-titled “Mercyful Fate”. One of the greatest Metal albums of all time hands down. Click on the YouTube link and hear the start of “Curse of the Pharaohs”. If you don’t immediately recognize “2 Minutes to Midnight” you are lying to yourself.
NEVER, NEVERLAND – ANNIHILATOR (1990)
After Annihilator’s first album, Alice in Hell, it was time for a new lead singer. Out was the awful singing of the ridiculously-named Randy Rampage, and in was ex-Omen singer Coburn Pharr. The second album of this Ottawa, Ontario band was a vast improvement over the first album in every way. Without question the guitar playing of Jeff Waters alone makes this an absolute must-have recording for fans of thrash guitar or just guitar in general. If you can think of a better Metal album to come out of Canada then I would love to hear it. If you have never heard this album, and you consider yourself a “Metal guy” then you are missing out huge. I am having a hard time trying to pick a song to post here for listening purposes. That is how truly great this record is from beginning to end.
OPUS EPONYMOUS – GHOST (2011)
I know, I cannot believe it either. Only the second of twenty (so far) albums to be released after 1999 that appear on this list. This album by Swedish band Ghost is nothing but special. Before I heard this album I was told that it sounded like a cross between thrash metal and Blue Oyster Cult. As it turned out that description really was right on the money. Melodic background vocals nestled in between heavy riffing. I have to say that this album is my favorite Metal album in probably the last twenty years. The PERFECT blend of melody and heaviness. This is the only album that since I have got my iPod, every time I switch the music on it I leave this whole album on there. Every minute of this album is pure genius and I am super-stoked for their upcoming 2nd album titled Infestissumam that will be released this spring. Hail Satan!!!!
That’s it for now, stay tuned for part 3, coming soon…