progressive rock

REVIEW: Marillion – A Piss-Up in a Brewery / Christmas 2000

MARILLIONChristmas 2000A Piss-Up in a Brewery (2000 fan club CD)
MARILLION A Piss-Up in a Brewery (19 track download version released 2010)

Being a member has its advantages, and when joining the official Marillion fan club entails a free exclusive CD, you can always count on me to be on board.  Marillion’s third, A Piss-Up in a Brewery, was my first.  The original 12 track Racket Records printing (WebFree 03) is a treasure.  It was made available again to members of the Front Row Club subscription service in 2003, as Bass Brewery Museum, Burton, UK – 17th November 2000 (FRC-011).  CD has space limitations, but in 2002 a DVD of the full 19 song show was released.  Then in 2010, the audio (mp3 or FLAC) of all 19 tracks was made available for download.  Anyway you want it, you can get the complete performance as it was.

Marillion were invited to perform intimate gigs at the Bass Brewery and get their own signature beer.  They chose an acoustic format with new material, special covers and a guest.  They were hard at work on their new album Anoraknophia, “which you’ve already bought” said Steve Hogarth, referring to their innovative pre-ordering scheme.  The second gig was recorded for the fan club-only Christmas CD.

A quiet “Go!” begins and gently builds to the throbbing chorus, “Wide awake at the edge of the world.”  The second song also quietly builds from calm beginnings.  “After Me” is one of their most memorable pop melodies, infused with integrity from the start, and stripped bare in the brewery.  Then from their 1994 concept album Brave comes the single “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury”.*  Intense songs for an intimate show.  “Lap of Luxury” smoulders, and is it burns, Steve Hogarth blasts for all he’s got.

The first big surprise of the evening was the Fish-era B-side “Cinderella Search”, albeit the shortened 7″ version and not the full-on five and a half minutes of brilliance from the 12″ single.  The amusing thing is when a spoiling audience member blurts out the title having attending the night before.  “Oh, there’s always one,” says Hogarth.  The singer had never performed the song before these gigs.  The acoustic setting alleviates any pressure to be like Fish.  It also enables them to seamlessly meld the song onto “The Space”, already popular in acoustic form.

“A Collection” is another B-side with dark subject matter.  It’s about “an uncle” with an interesting hobby, but it’s also an ironically bright tune.  “Beautiful”* and “Afraid of Sunrise”* both date back to 1995’s Afraid of Sunlight, a pair really made for the intimate setting.

New friend Stephanie Sobey-Jones on cello is invited onstage for a sombre “Sympathy”, both a single and a Rare Bird cover.   Cello also features on the new song “Number One”.  It had simple beginnings, explains Hogarth.  “I had some words, and Mark had some chords.”  Interjects Mark Kelly, “Three, actually. I’m not joking!”   The track takes a stab at the artificiality of modern pop music, but was only included on the pre-ordered deluxe edition of Anoraknophobia.  Simple, but extremely intense.  The cello stays for “Dry Land”, a favourite ballad from 1992’s Holidays in Eden (and even earlier).  The voice of Steve (Hogarth) rings true on even the most difficult note, while the guitar of Steve (Rothery) makes for a sweltering solo.

Back to 1987, and the old favourite “Sugar Mice”.*  Of all the old Fish classics, “Sugar Mice” is the one that Hogarth most easily adopts.  The scars that he is nursing at the end of the bar sounds like his own.

Yet still the humour is always there.  As they warm up for the Mexican-sounding “Gazpacho”, Mark Kelly asks “Am I in the wrong band?”

“You have been for years,” deadpans Pete Trewavas.

“Gazpacho” gets you moving as the concert enters its final third.  Away, yon darkness; the music stays largely celebratory from here, though the lyrics maintain some bite.  Elvis Presley, O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson were mentioned as inspirations for the lively song.  Celtic sounds invade “80 Days”,* an ode to the audience who clap along to every beat.  “80 Days” was always acoustic, and “The Answering Machine”* has existed in a popular acoustic alternate arrangement for years.  The brewery crowd clearly liked both very much.

A slew of covers are encore treats.  Crowded House’s “How Will You Go” (from 1991’s Woodface) is a brilliant song and choice.  There’s one more original (drummer Ian Mosely smokes on “Cannibal Surf Babe”) before they do Carole King’s “Way Over Yonder”* and The Beatles’ “Let It Be”.*  Rothery gets a bluesy guitar showcase on “Way Over Yonger”, though Hogarth has the soul credentials too, as “Let It Be” ably proves.

For a long time, I felt that the original Christmas 2000 release of A Piss-Up in a Brewery to be one of the best Marillion live albums, period.  It’s still magnificent in its full length, though perhaps they should have just made it widely available to everyone in the first place.  Maybe it wouldn’t have been a hit, but if they were on Santa’s good list that year, you never know.

5/5 stars

* Indicates this song was not on the 2000 Christmas release of A Piss-Up in a Brewery, but only the DVD and download versions.

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REVIEW: Max Webster – Live Magnetic Air (1979)

MAX WEBSTER – Live Magnetic Air (originally 1979, 2017 Anthem remaster)

So you’re the canker banker?  They’re just Max Webster, here to thin the thickness of your skin.

Any good 70s act worth their salt had to have a solid live album. Max released theirs after four studio albums, a good basis for a fulfilling concert set. The 10 songs (plus one reggae jam) only begin to scratch the surface of their bizarre and rocking history, but a good 10 songs they are.

Want some rockers? Tap into “America’s Veins”. 70s radio rock? Take a lift up into the “Paradise Skies”.  Looking for some progressive rock?  You’ll find it “In Context of the Moon”.  The adventurous and quirky arrangements of some tunes are a direct contrast to the catchiness of others.  “Gravity” blends quirky and catchy into one successful gestalt.  “Charmonium” both challenges and pleases the ears at once.  Whether you’re soaring on “Night Flights” or biting into “Lip Service”, there is no filler on Live Magnetic Air.

One expects great playing on any Max Webster platter. Live Magnetic Air has plenty of that gonzo Kim Mitchell guitar work that he is known for.  Terry Watkinson’s keys explore different tones within single songs, never getting boring.  Yet it’s Gary McCracken’s drum work that seems to really shine, especially on the 2017 remaster from The Party boxed set.

It is difficult to throw too much praise at Max Webster, because surely they deserve it.  They were not as famous as Rush and not as worshipped as Zappa.  But those are the kind of names thrown about when speaking of Max Webster.  Each Max album is loaded with amazing material, but if you were looking to start with something, why not make it Live Magnetic Air?  The party atmosphere and ace selection of songs are the basic ingredients of a classic live album.  Now that it’s finally been properly mastered for CD, you can hear it the way you were always meant to.  For those who just wanna rock, the guitars have the crunch.  The discerning fan will enjoy the new clarity and depth that this remaster offers, without overdriving the levels.

Once again we wholeheartedly recommend The Party boxed set, but if you find Live Magnetic Air on vinyl, pick it up and hear what some genuine “Sarniatown Reggae” sounds like.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Max Webster – The Party (2017 box set)

MAX WEBSTER – The Party (2017 Anthem 8 CD box set)

Normally when we review box sets like this, we prefer to review each album individually.  Three of the eight discs have already been covered here:  Max Webster (their debut), High Class in Borrowed Shoes, and Universal Juveniles (their final album).  The rest of the Max Webster albums will be reviewed in due time, so for now we will take a general look at their brand new CD box set, The Party.

The Max Webster catalogue (and to a lesser extent, the solo Kim Mitchell discography) has been well overdue for a remastering.  The original Anthem CDs are thin and tinny.  Rock Candy did a fantastic remaster of the first three albums with better sound and a generous booklet, but what about the rest?  I first heard about this project via Uncle Meat this past summer at Sausagefest.  It was one of those “know a guy who knows a guy” stories, but the bottom line was, Max Webster’s catalogue was being remastered.  And now we have The Party in hand as proof!

The contents include all five original Max studio albums, their concert opus Live Magnetic Air, Kim Mitchell’s very rare solo EP, and a bonus disc of rarities called The Bootleg.  Those who buy the forthcoming vinyl version will also receive a booklet with rare photos and other goodies.  The CD version has no booklet, but it does have nice gatefold packaging for each album.  It’s affordably priced, so we forgive the lack of a booklet on the CD edition. Vinyl owners can look at it as a bonus for buying vinyl.

If improved audio is what you are longing for, then you should be very satisfied with The Party.  It’s not overdriven, but it sounds fuller and deep.  They didn’t go for loudness.  This is all very good.  You can safely ditch your old CD versions, rendered obsolete by this box.

The Bootleg will be the main draw for many.  It does not disappoint.  In fact, it intrigues, because it teases that there is more.  Unreleased demos are listed as “Contraband” — reports suggest this refers to a collection of unreleased material still in the vault.

Max Webster apparently recorded their 2007 reunion show, or at least “Let Go the Line”.  It sounds brilliant and makes you pray for a live album of the show.  Terry Watkinson’s classic ballad sounds a little older, a little wiser, but just as brilliant as ever.  Other live stuff from 1979 was recorded in Oshawa.  “Oh War” simply smokes, and was not included on Live Magnetic Air.  Then there’s the crazy jam centred on “Research (At Beach Resorts)”.  These insane live sessions really show why Max Webster is held in such high esteem, almost like a second coming of Frank Zappa himself.

The unreleased demos include some songs that didn’t make Max’s albums.  Fans know “Deep Dive” from Kim Mitchell’s solo live album, I Am A Wild Party.  Max’s original 1982 demo is completely different.  Same melody, same words, but a vastly different arrangement.  It’s like rock and roll bluegrass, fast as possible, and insanely good.  It was likely deemed too different to be on the Universal Juveniles LP, but there’s no doubt it’s awesome and the highlight of this box set.

Another standouts from the batch of demos is a version of “Battle Scar” without Rush; just Max!  It’s a revelation; an interesting work in progress.  There are also two songs you’ve never heard before, “Walden 5” and “Better”, both from 1979.  Let’s just say that the quality of these unreleased Max songs is album level.  “Walden 5” just needed some editing.  A demo version of “In the World of Giants” from 1979 has way more guitar soloing.  Kim fans will love it!  Oh — and stay tuned for a surprise unlisted bonus track.

The box itself is just a cardboard sleeve, but at least an attractively packaged one.  Yes, a booklet would have been appreciated.  In lieu of that, we recommend Martin Popoff’s brilliantly detailed book Live Magnetic Air: The Unlikely Saga of the Superlative Max Webster to accompany this otherwise perfect set.

Oh, one last thing:  The two “new” songs that were included on the hits compilation Diamonds Diamonds are not in this box set.  So, to be a completist, you’d still need to track that one down.  Vinyl is recommended; and then you’d own “Hot Spots” and “Overnight Sensation” to complete the picture.  Just a word to the wise.

4.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Rush – Roll the Bones (1991, remastered 200 gram vinyl)

RUSH – Roll the Bones (1991 Anthem, 2015 remaster on 200 gram vinyl)

There was a period in the 1980s when, in some circles, Rush had lost the plot.  Writers such as Martin Popoff have been very critical of this era, with its keyboards and shorter songs.  In 1989, Rush began to turn the ship around with Presto.  It and 1991’s Roll the Bones really ushered in the next phase of Rush, combining new and old.  Fans (and Alex Lifeson) were happy that keyboards were toned down, at least in comparison to Hold Your Fire (1986).

The theme of the album is “take a chance”.  Roll the Bones starts with a punch called “Dreamline”.  Geddy Lee’s pulse pushes this into overdrive.  The chorus goes into hyperspace.  It’s hard to think of too many other Rush songs that are so concisely hot.  “Dreamline” has it all:  hooks, licks, force and grace.

Neil Peart is king on “Bravado”*, a sudden change of direction.  His drumming, always hard, is unusually sharp.  Yet it’s a slow song that might be termed a “ballad”.  Whatever — it’s Rush.  It’s incredible.  It’s powerful in an understated, triumphant fashion.  If you know somebody who says they hate Rush, play this.

The title track and first single is a Rush classic, but that rap section sounds dated today.  That was always the danger of such an experiment, but fortunately the song is too strong for it to matter much.  That’s Geddy rapping incidentally, with his voice lowered and effects added.

Side one also has “Face Up”; fast but not particularly memorable.  But it also has “Where’s My Thing?”, a smashing instrumental featuring Geddy and Alex’s flying fingers.  It’s subtitled “Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy” as a joke on past pretentiously prog-rock titles they’ve employed.  Rush have always had a sense of humour, and also fun.  “Where’s My Thing” is a fun instrumental, kept short and ever so slightly funky.

The second side of Roll the Bones isn’t as consistent as the first.  “Ghost of a Chance” and “You Bet Your Life” are immediate standouts.  An appropriate spectre-like keyboard part enhances “Ghost of a Chance” and justifies the use of the instrument.  The other three songs (“The Big Wheel, “Neurotica” and “Heresy”) are fine for Rush deep cuts, but may or may not appeal to your specific tastes.

This 200 gram vinyl remaster is exquisite!  Keyboard parts previously unnoticed are now audible, as if brand new.  The drums have the punch missing on the old CD, and the bass hits the guts.  Great dynamics and depth.  If you are in the market for remastered Rush, these 200 gram vinyl reissues are pricey but a nice treat.

3.5/5 stars

*At 3:50 of the song, Peart performs a drum roll that I can only describe as pure ecstasy.  Chills up the spine.

GUEST REVIEW: Rush – “Distant Early Warning” (1984) by Aaron Lebold

I asked Aaron Lebold if he wouldn’t mind throwing in a few words about “Distant Early Warning” for my Grace Under Pressure review.  He sent me 772 words!  So here’s an entire separate post for you — Aaron Lebold on “Distant Early Warning”.

 

RUSH – “Distant Early Warning” / “Between the Wheels” (1984 Anthem)

by Aaron Lebold

Mike has asked me to do a review on the song “Distant Early Warning” by Rush.  When I first met Mike I quickly realized that Rush was one of his favorite bands,* and though he showed me a lot of their work, this song was the one that always stuck out to me the most.

My interpretation of the song may be a bit different now than it was when I first heard it; one of the greatest things about music is that its personal meaning can shift depending on what is going on in your own life.  I find musical interpretation to be completely personal, and what you take from it may be completely different than what the artist even intended.**

I was always reluctant to hear the artists of the songs I enjoyed explain them, as it could feel very crushing if the impact it had on me was not the actual meaning. I will explain what this song means to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m right.  It does mean that I am able to see why it had relevance to me, and if you have found a different interpretation, you are not wrong.

“An ill wind comes arising, Across the cities of the plain, There’s no swimming in the heavy water, No singing in the acid rain, Red alert, Red alert”

To me this is the ability to foresee an event, there is a metaphoric storm on its way, and it is serious enough for us to stop our own distractions, and unhealthy coping strategies in order to prepare for what is ahead.

“It’s so hard to stay together, Passing through revolving doors, We need someone to talk to, And someone to sweep the floors, Incomplete,  Incomplete”

This talks about the separation among us as people to me; we all tend to find our own paths and some of us become relevant to each other, where others become lower class, and we may see them as nothing more than the person who is sweeping the floors for us. This type of discrimination makes us incomplete as a human race.

“Cruising under your radar, Watching from satellites, Take a page from the red book, And keep them in your sights, Red alert, Red alert”

This again is a reference to having greater insight than others may possess. Being able to observe a situation undetected and being able to gather forethought about what the results may be.  The Red Book is a reference to Psychology, and this suggests using that manner of thinking as you move forward.

“Left and rights of passage, Black and whites of youth, Who can face the knowledge, That the truth is not the truth, Obsolete, Absolute, yeah”

To me this makes reference to our way of thinking, and things we may have misinterpreted as priority.  Rights of passage is the idea of moving from one group to another, and relates to social classes and advancement. Separating the races of children is another method of creating a divide.  The truth could refer to the idea that we are all one class and one collective  group of people, and that a lot of our perceptions are obsolete in the big picture.

“The world weighs on my shoulders, But what am I to do? You sometimes drive me crazy, But I worry about you”

To me this means that even though I may have my own problems, and I don’t always agree with someone’s actions, I still care for them and can’t help but notice when they seem to be heading in a bad direction.

“I know it makes no difference, To what you’re going through, But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you”

This basically means to me, that I am aware that my insight does not change your situation, but I can see the bigger picture and it makes me worried about how it may end up affecting you.  The Tip of the Iceberg is of course a reference to the Titanic, and how there is much more lurking under the water than is visible from the surface. The results can be potentially devastating, as they were for the historic vessel.

I can’t recall exactly what drew me to this song when I was younger, and I may have interpreted things differently back then, but the bottom line is that I found relevance and importance in the lyrics.  You may have a completely different take on this song, which is great.  The best thing about music is using it to find our own connections, and get us through our own lives.

Aaron Lebold


* So he thought.  In 1994 I was still a Rush poser.  I only owned Chronicles.  

 

** “Distant Early Warning” was written about the loneliness of someone who worked the DEW Line- a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion. – wikipedia

REVIEW: Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)

Part one of a two-parter.

RUSH – Grace Under Pressure (1984 Anthem, 2011 Universal remaster)

When Rush followed 1982’s synth-driven Signals, they said goodbye to producer Terry Brown.  The band weren’t satisfied with the sonics of Signals and wanted to try working with different people.  They chose Steve Lillywhite, who wasn’t available, and so used Peter Henderson.  The album Grace Under Pressure was one of their most difficult to make.  Perhaps this is why it has such a cold, dark aura.

Even if Grace Under Pressure has a downer vibe, the first side is excellent.  Few albums have a strong an opener as “Distant Early Warning”.  Rush’s recent penchant for keyboards is front and center.  It also boasts one of their most catchy choruses:  “I see the tip of the iceberg and I worry about you.”  This single is a perfect storm of hooks, tension and biting guitars.

The album as a whole shows new influences.  “Afterimage” has a contemporary 80s new wave sound, but “Rushified”.*  Alex Lifeson in particular seemed to draw new influence from Andy Summers of the Police.  Reggae and ska became a part of the band’s arsenal, with Lifeson deftly handling those enigmatic chords.  “The Enemy Within” is one track that shows off these tricky new rhythms, in a frantically rocking way.  Synths and sequencers are a part of the picture on “Red Sector A”.  This post-apocalyptic track utilizes robotic rhythms to paint a picture of a future world.  “Are we the last ones left alive?  Are we the only human beings to survive?”  The lyrics are actually inspired by Geddy Lee’s mother, a holocaust survivor.  With the digital pulse beneath, you could just as easily imagine it’s about The Terminator.**

The second side also has memorable tracks such as “The Body Electric”.  This number definitely has a Blade Runner-like future setting.  “One humanoid escapee, One android on the run, Seeking freedom beneath the lonely desert sun.”  And how many songs can you name with lyrics in binary?  A lesser Rush song, “Kid Gloves”, is upbeat but not legendary.  “Red Lenses” is also somewhat forgettable, except for Peart fans who will savour every little moment of exotic and electronic percussion.

Rush saved the longest track for last, “Between the Wheels”, a melancholy but challenging track that reminds of the old school progressive Rush.  Backing guitars are exchanged for keyboards, but Lifeson uses the guitar to make unorthodox sounds.

It’s unfortunate that Grace Under Pressure has a brittle and icy production.  While that definitely works on “Red Sector A” and “Distant Early Warning”, one wonders what side two would sound like if it were a little fuller.

4/5 stars

 

* “Rushified” is a word coined by Paul Rudd in the film I Love You Man.

** Aaron Lebold will return tomorrow to discuss Rush lyric interpretation.

REVIEW: Liquid Tension Experiment – Liquid Tension Experiment (1998)

LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT – Liquid Tension Experiment (1998 Magna Carta)

Liquid Tension Experiment is a supergroup on Magna Carta, which should tell you much.

Featuring not one, not two, but three guys from Dream Theater, plus Tony Levin, Liquid Tension Experiment is the progressive fan’s dream band.  Granted, keyboardist Jordan Rudess wasn’t in Dream Theater yet when they did this CD, but that’s where people know him from today.  Drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci are the other driving forces behind Liquid Tension Experiment.

To use phrases like “mind blowing”, “insane”, “incredible” or “the shredder’s wet dream” don’t even begin to touch what the album Liquid Tension Experiment is about.  The liner notes by Mike Portnoy reveal that this project was assembled based on a wish list of players and their availability.  Rudess and Levin were on the list but guitarists just weren’t available, so that’s how Petrucci stepped in.  Together they had six days to write and record this album.  That it turned out so incredibly well says volumes about these guys as musicians.

Liquid Tension Experiment is not just an instrumental album with wicked playing.  The compositions are strong enough to make the album rise well above similar projects.  Magna Carta is loaded with insane projects by the best players in the world, but how many of those albums are good for repeated listenings?  The melodic and tonal sensibilities of Petrucci in particular really keep the album grounded, in a way that even lay people can enjoy.  Levin adds the Chapman Stick and a new agey flavour to the lighter material.  Check out “Osmosis” for a fine example of this.

Most of the album is heavy jammin’. It’s Mike Portnoy, and he does that so well. Together, they create a challenging sound but one with enough hooks that anyone can get into it. You might not realize how many time changes, weird chords and tempos you’re being exposed to, but you are, and you’ll be far better for it.

Together the album consists of nine songs and one spontaneous jam that exceeds 28 minutes! In fact, the tape ran out while recording, so the tail end of the song is from a DAT tape that Portnoy always runs when rehearsing. According to the notes, this piece ironically called “Three Minute Warning” was 100% improvised. “Not a single beat or note was discussed beforehand.” And no fixes or overdubs were made after the fact. It’s over 28 minutes of pure improvisation, and it came out brilliant. Everybody needs some of that in their life, to experience what pure free-form musical genius sounds like.

Must-hear pieces include “Paradigm Shift”, “Osmosis”, “Freedom of Speech” and “Universal Mind”.  It goes without saying that the 28 minute jam is essential as well.

This self-produced album also just sounds incredible.  The sonics are huge, but when the layers are peeled back, you can hear everything so clearly.  The Chapman Stick also adds a huge palette, sometimes heavier than lead and others lighter than a feather.  I’m sure the excellent audio is partly due to the mixing skills of one Kevin “Caveman” Shirley.  Don’t hesitate to pick up Liquid Tension Experiment if you see it.  There was also a second album made called 2, but this is the one to get if it crosses your path.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Deep Purple – “Johnny’s Band” (2017 single)

DEEP PURPLE – “Johnny’s Band” (2017 Edel single)

2017 is the year of Purple. Witness: We have not just their awesome new album InFinite, but also a new live album included with the deluxe box set version.  There is a Classic Rock magazine CD called Limitless including an exclusive version of “Black Night”.  There have been two CD singles (“Time for Bedlam” and “All I Got is You“) each with their own exclusives.  Now, Deep Purple have released their third single from InFinite, called “Johnny’s Band”.  More exclusives abound, making this quite a fun year for Deep Purple fans and collectors.  Have you been keeping up?

If you bought InFinite (and you should, what are you waiting for?), then you know “Johnny’s Band” is one of the most instantly catchy songs on it.  Upbeat and danceable, “Johnny’s Band” is a hoot.  Gillan’s lyrics are witty and honest, and did you notice the musical segue into “Louie Louie”?  “Johnny’s Band” is a much more obvious single than the first two they released, so let’s be glad that somebody thought Deep Purple needed three singles for InFinite.  The lyrics tell the story of a band who hit it big, fell down hard, but keep slogging away in the bars anyway.  In the end, Gillan gives it a positive conclusion.  It is, after all, all about the music.

But hey, it’s Johnny’s Band,
Playing all those wonderful songs,
Making the rounds with that old fashioned sound,
And here we are singing along.

Perhaps there’s a little slice of life in there.

Track 2 is an unreleased studio jam.  “In & Out Jam” focuses on a low key guitar riff as its base, but spreads in other musical directions from there.  The bottom line is this:  Steve Morse, Don Airey, Roger Glover and Ian Paice jamming together is always going to produce something of value.  “In & Out Jam” isn’t a song and probably wasn’t likely to ever become one, but these are ideas from the best brains in rock and enough to make the musician in you weep in sorrowful inadequacy.

Live tracks from Gaelve, Sweden finish off this single.   There are now three different live versions of “Strange Kind of Woman” released this year.  My Deep Purple folder has 27 different versions of “Strange Kind of Woman”!  How much is too much?  Who cares.  “The Mule” is played far more rarely, but there is still another version of it on the deluxe boxed InFinite set.  It’s a thunderous showcase for drummer Ian Paice, who is still one of the greats at age 69.  The years take their toll on everyone, but Paicey does not sound 69 years old here!

The last of the live songs is the newest, “Hell to Pay” from 2013’s Now What?!  This is only the third live version of the song ever released.  It’s a short blast of guitar and keyboard mania, with a chorus on top.  Its most interesting feature is the organ solo in the middle, something you don’t hear on many singles (which “Hell to Pay” was).

Purple are currently on tour with Alice Cooper.  Both artists have put out remarkably strong albums in 2017.  Will wonders never cease?

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Dream Theater – Master of Puppets (2009)

DREAM THEATER – Master of Puppets (2009 Yste Jam)

From Dream Theater’s acclaimed self-released series of covers albums, we have before us Master of Puppets.  This was recorded in Barcelona back in 2002.  Just as advertised, it’s Dream Theater doing the whole album live, in sequence, and pretty authentically too.

Dream Theater are a very different band from Metallica.  This is bound to be interesting.

The most obvious difference is that Metallica have two guitar players, while Dream Theater has one and a keyboard player.  On this, Jordan Rudess does aggressive keyboard solos where Kirk Hammett may have laid down one with his axe.  He also plays the acoustic parts on keys.  From time to time, you forget it’s a keyboard.  In short, Rudess turns the prospect of Metallica with keyboards into a lesson on forgetting your assumptions about keyboards!

James LaBrie fits the silhouette of a young James Hetfield.  He sings a convincing Metallica cover indeed!  He cuts loose and goes for it.  Metallica requires a gritty singer, going for it 110%.  LaBrie handles it.  For Dream Theater, doing these cover albums (from a wide variety of bands in fact) must be a lot of fun.  They would have the chance to sing and play in a way that isn’t the usual for them.  Guitarist John Petrucci does not often get to riff on something for five minutes straight like Metallica do.

Lars haters are naturally going to ask “What do Metallica songs sound like with a real drummer?”  Hey, I’m no Lars hater.  (He can play better than I can…)  But in answer to that question I can only respond “fucking awesome”.

Dream Theater cover Master of Puppets without drawing attention to themselves.  Mike Portnoy does not grandstand and overplay.  Nobody does.  If the effort was to do an authentic version of Puppets, as close to note for note as possible, then I say mission accomplished.  Beat for beat, this is stunningly true to the original album.  The keyboards are the most obvious deviation, and that’s minor.  In anything, Dream Theater draw attention to the fact that these are great heavy metal songs.  Are they Metallica’s best-ever set of songs?  Some prefer Kill ‘Em All, some Ride the Lightning.  Any way you slice it, Puppets is metal immortal, a very important record in anyone’s collection.  Dream Theater painstakingly learned the album front to back so they could play it live for a few thousand people.  They did that because it’s a great album on any day.

Dream Theater’s live covers albums (and many, many other releases) can be found on their own Ytse Jam Records website.  Check out the multitude of stuff available (though some are out of print now) and try not to drain your bank accounts.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Styx – The Mission (2017)

STYX – The Mission (2017 Universal)

Did anyone in 2017 expect Styx to come out with one of the best albums of the year?  Even though Styx have successfully carried on with Lawrence (But You Can Call Me Larry) Gowan on keys and vocals, nobody really predicted this!  Yet here it is:  The Mission, surely one of the best albums of the year so far,* and the best Styx in decades.

Here’s another unexpected twist:  The Mission is a concept album about colonizing Mars!  It has a coherent story and recurring hooks.  In many ways The Mission sounds like a lost album from Styx’s progressive rock heyday.  But you wouldn’t guess that if you only heard the Gowan-sung lead single “Gone Gone Gone”.  Although it’s about a rocket launch, you might not catch that on first listen.  The year is 2033.  “Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!”  This hard rocker came out of nowhere as one of the big surprises this summer.

“Hundred Million Miles From Home” (vocals by Tommy Shaw) has a funkier 70s groove.**  When the band harmonizes together, it sounds like vintage Styx.   “Hundred Million Miles” is a great song and also fairly accurate.  Mars was 100 million miles away from Earth as recently as the 2012 opposition.  Problems happen on “Trouble at the Big Show” (vocals by James “JY” Young), a slower groove with killer bluesy guitar work.  This moves into the ballad “Locomotive”, about the brave pilot of the ship Khedive.  Shaw pours passion into it, as he does the next one “Radio Silence”.  Just as interesting as the actual music is the spacey backing sounds.  It certainly adds atmosphere to an excellent vintage sounding song.  “Radio Silence” recalls some of Shaw’s 70s hits like “Boat on a River” at times.

Gowan returns to the microphone on the lovely piano ballad “The Greater Good”.  It sounds like quintessential Styx; hit quality material with soul.  Things start to get upbeat again on “Time May Bend” (another Gowan vocal).  If you’re not familiar with Lawrence Gowan, he is not a Dennis DeYoung clone, sounding closer to Steve Hogarth of Marillion.  (He even looks a little like “H”.)  Listen for a subtle musical “S.O.S.” signal in the backing track.

There are musical segues and radio voices between some tracks, but  “Red Storm” is the next full song. It’s a very progressive song with all the trimmings.  It’s based on Tommy Shaw’s excellent acoustic work, and it paints a picture.  The crew of the Khedive must brave a dust storm on the surface of Mars.  “Carry what you can, there’s no turning back, gonna make it to the mothership.”  There are avante-garde flashes of guitar noise that emulates the squeals of a radio, or perhaps metal on metal.  Then a rocking riff and solo…”Red Storm” has it all.

Gowan absolutely proves his mettle on the piano opus “Khedive”.  The blur of piano recalls classical compositions, and the guitar solo is pure Queen.  The minimal vocals continue the story:  “Onwards!  Onwards!”  Then we revisit the sounds of the 80s on “The Outpost”, the triumphant conclusion to the story.  The 80s synth and beats remind of the classic “Mr. Roboto” period of Styx, but it rocks solidly too.  Listen for a reprise of the “Overture” music from the start for the album.  Finally “Mission to Mars” is the denouement, a bright and lively end.

The Mission is brilliant for a number of reasons.  First and foremost — great songs.  You will play The Mission over and over, simply because it has great songs, as good as the days of old.  Second, although Lawrence Gowan has his stamp all over the album, it sounds like Styx and nobody else.  Having Gowan more involved is a good thing.  He has a 40 year career in Canada, and he didn’t have enough time on the Cyclorama (2003) album.  But this sounds way more like Styx than Cyclorama did.  Finally, this album is loaded with incredible playing by all the members.  This is easily the best lineup Styx have had since Kilroy Was Here (1983).***    Fans of the guitar (both electric and acoustic) will find many moments of musical ecstasy.

For Styx, this is mission accomplished!

5/5 stars

* One of the best album covers too.  Is that a port hole, or a turntable?  You decide.  

** Bassist Chuck Panozzo plays the funky bass on “Hundred Million Miles From Home”, his only appearance.  Chuck, the other original member besides JY, is only able to make sporadic appearances with Styx due to his battle with AIDS.  Ricky Phillips plays the rest of the bass parts, meaning Styx have two official bassists!

*** Lawrence Gowan (piano/vocals), Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), James “JY” Young (guitar/vocals), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips & Chuck Panozzo (bass)