Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: Hank III, "Hillbilly Joker"

I debated for a while on whether or not to review this record – not because I don’t like it, but because of the back story. In case you don’t know, this isn’t a new record from III. Instead, it’s an album that was recorded some time ago. His record label at the time, Curb, refused to release it. Fast forward to 2010, III’s contract with Curb is done, and due to a string of disagreements with the label, including repeated delays of his 2005 masterpiece Straight to Hell, he’s not coming back. Now, the label has all of a sudden become interested and, thus, we have Hillbilly Joker.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Still Spinning: Kiss, "Revenge"

When you think of Kiss, most people think of the outrageous makeup and elaborate stage shows of the 1970s or, perhaps, the somewhat sad nostalgia act the band has become today, starring in reality shows and attempting to relive those glory days with two other guys dressed up like guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. The no-makeup period from the 1980s and early 1990s will largely be overlooked and perhaps dismissed as Kiss’ attempt to fit into the hair-band scene of the time. Never mind the fact that a 1970s Kiss performance featured more excess in one song than most of the 1980s bands did in the whole decade.

The truth about the unmasked version of Kiss, though, is that many of their offerings were superior to the classic records from a technical standpoint. Though it may offend some hardcore fans, most of the guitarists and drummers that Kiss had in the 1980s were, if we’re being honest, far more talented than Frehley and Criss. Was the band better with those guys than the original lineup? Well, that’s certainly debatable, but most Kiss followers, myself included, are going to reach for Destroyer or Dressed to Kill before Animalize or Asylum.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: Black Label Society, "The Song Remains Not the Same"

The days of getting a new Black Label Society record every year seem to be over, and that’s probably not a bad thing considering the way Zakk Wylde seemed to have burned out of good riffs on the band’s 2007 record Shot to Hell. So instead of a follow-up to last year’s outstanding Order of the Black, fans get the teaser record The Song Remains Not the Same.

We’ll put aside the bad title for the time being and dive right in. There’s no new material here. Instead, it’s a collection of four mostly-acoustic versions of songs from Order of the Black, four covers that all appeared as bonus tracks on various different versions of that album, an alternate version of “Darkest Days” featuring country singer John Rich, and an instrumental version of the Christmas carol “The First Noel,” which Wylde recorded for a guitar Christmas album some years ago.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Still Spinning: Black Sabbath, "Sabotage"

Mention Black Sabbath in a metal crowd, and everyone has a favorite. You’ll get plenty of votes for their self-titled 1970 debut, which most people, myself included, consider the very first heavy metal record. Paranoid, also released in 1970, will likely hog the bulk of the discussion with its hit parade of some of the band’s biggest numbers — “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” “Hand of Doom,” “Fairies Wear Boots.”

Master of Reality, from 1971, has an almost cult-like following among Sabbath fans who claim that it was the first record where the band truly brought it together. Vol. 4 (1972) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) will get their time, and devotees of the Ronnie James Dio years will be sure to interject Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981) into the discussion. All are outstanding and worthy pieces of the Sabbath catalog, and good arguments can be made for all of them as Sabbath’s best work.

Often overlooked and criminally underrated, though, is the band’s 1975 masterpiece (in my opinion, of course) Sabotage. Recorded at a time when the relationships in the band were just beginning to fracture, the album has a slightly different feel than the first five Sabbath albums. There was some experimentation on this record, but it wasn’t too off the wall, as on 1976’s Technical Ecstacy. There was tension, but it wasn’t like 1978’s Never Say Die!, which Ozzy Osbourne, having quit the band, basically phoned in. Sabotage represents a band still at the height of its powers, but just on the brink of slipping into chaos, and that translates into the music.

There’s certainly more variety than on earlier albums. Among the eight tracks are two of the heaviest songs in the band’s arsenal — arena-rock bits, blues-rock numbers, a choral piece and a pop song that just might be the strangest one in Sabbath’s catalog.

Sabotage blasts out of the gate with a raging slab of metal, “Hole in the Sky.” Guitarist Tony Iommi is the undisputed king of the metal riff. Name the top 10, and he owns them all. “Hole in the Sky” would be on that list, near the top. The main riff swaggers, swings and crushes all at once. There are hints of the band’s blues background in it, there’s a head-bobbing melody and there are those two big power chords that bring it back to the dark, doomy, oppressive sound fans had come to know and love. Drummer Bill Ward and bassist Geezer Butler, who I’ve always felt was the true backbone of Ozzy-era Sabbath, are locked into the groove, as always, and the song also features one of Ozzy’s best vocal performances.

Sabotage belongs in the conversation based on “Hole in the Sky” alone. But it has much more to offer. After a brief instrumental interlude that allows Iommi to show off some acoustic skills, we come to the proto-thrash number “Symptom of the Universe.” It’s arguably Sabbath’s heaviest tune, but it’s also a very important song — and not just because it’s my favorite. “Symptom of the Universe,” along with Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy,” forms the bedrock that the 1980s thrash movement was built on, leading directly to bands like Metallica and Megadeth. No “Symptom of the Universe,” no Metallica. Or, at least not the same Metallica. But for all of the song’s speed and heaviness, there’s a twist at the end. The distorted open E chugging and power chords drop out, and the last two minutes of the song become an organic bluesy acoustic jam that couldn’t be further from the tune’s opening. It shifts from anger, apocalypse and aggression to peace, love and happiness on a dime, and that’s one of the things I love about it.

Then things start to take a turn. Fourth track “Megalomania” opens with more doom and gloom. The first part of the song is a bit creepy with a vocal line that always draws a picture of a guy in a straightjacket and padded room in my mind. It’s really a little more Alice Cooper than Black Sabbath. About three minutes into the 10 minute opus, though, Ward starts whacking a cowbell, and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of an uptempo rocker with an almost happy hook. No surprise that the lyrics are about a schizophrenic soul, and the music matches perfectly.

“The Thrill of It All” is a pretty straightforward grooving blues rocker with another solid vocal performance from Ozzy Osbourne. In fact, Sabotage as a whole features possibly the best work of his career, as he pushes his vocal cords a little more than usual. There are moments here when Ozzy reaches right out to the edge of what he’s capable of, and in slightly different ways than we’d heard before. That leads us into the strangest section of the album. “Supertzar” mixes distorted electric guitars, jangling acoustics, chimes, symphonics and the English Chamber Choir. To be honest, it sounds like there were some good drugs going around the studio that day, but it works.

The good drug theory, though, comes into full play on the next track, “Am I Going Insane? (Radio).” Don’t bother looking for the non-radio edit of the song. It doesn’t exist. The “(Radio)” part of the title is apparently some kind of code-word/inside joke. The song opens with this kind of psychedelic, slightly Spanish-flavored keyboard riff. The guitars are pushed into the background, and it’s altogether too lightweight for Sabbath. It’s somewhere between the pop end of 1960s psychedelia and early Pink Floyd. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of decades now, and I’m still not sure what to make of the song.

As “Am I Going Insane?” fades out with crazed laughter, the final track on the record, “The Writ,” begins to build with a methodical bass line from Butler. Out of nowhere, Ozzy shrieks out the first lyrics accompanied by Iommi’s guitar. It brings things back to the blues rock sound with an impassioned performance, but still dallies with the progressive and psychedelic, incorporating some backwards snare and returning to that low bass line again. About halfway through, there’s a poppy section, followed by a couple of shiny clean guitar interludes with more chimes from Ward that give it an almost music box feel. Then they bring the song home near the eighth minute with another heavy rock riff that fades out the most unique of Black Sabbath’s classic first six records.

The end of Sabotage also begins the fade out of the Ozzy era of the band. Though the two records that followed both have their moments, it wasn’t until 1980 and the entrance of Dio that the band put out another truly amazing record with a sound so altered that, at times, it would be hard to identify the music as Sabbath. There’s also a very powerful argument to be made for that record as the band’s best, but I’ll save that one for another time.

Sabotage isn’t likely to overtake the groundbreaking debut record or the hit-filled Paranoid as Sabbath’s best work in most people’s minds, and I understand that. But the next time you’re looking for a Sabbath fix, dig a little deeper and give it a listen, especially if you haven’t heard it in a while. It might just be a much better record than you remember.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Freebies: New Enslaved EP offered for free

Scion A/V is offering the new Enslaved EP, "The Sleeping Gods," for the price of your e-mail address. To get it, click here, enter your e-mail address and download.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: WhoCares, "Out of My Mind"

For all the mediocre music he shelled out under the Black Sabbath name following the departure of Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi seems to be making amends later in life. His reunion of the Dio-era Sabbath lineup under the name Heaven and Hell a few years ago produced the best Black Sabbath record (and it was Sabbath, no matter what the cover said) since the same lineup reunited in 1992 for Dehumanizer. Now, he’s back together with Ian Gillan, who fronted Sabbath briefly after Dio left, for a charity record to benefit the rebuilding of a music school in Armenia that was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1988.

Since that earthquake, Iommi and Gillan, who helped in the original relief efforts, have spent a lot of time in Armenia. On a recent visit, they discovered a music school, which had been destroyed by the quake, still meeting and trying to carry on in tin sheds. On the flight home, the pair came up with the plan for a one-off project called WhoCares to help benefit the school. The result is a new single, “Out of My Mind,” out this month on EarMusic in Europe and Eagle Rock Entertainment in the U.S.

Just the reunion of Iommi and Gillan would likely be enough for most heavy rock fans, but the rest of the band reads like a who’s who of the genre. Gillan’s former Deep Purple bandmate Jon Lord handles the keys for the project. Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain and ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted make up the rhythm section. Representing the younger generation is guitarist Mikko “Linde” Lindstrom of HIM, who, at 34, is 14 years the junior of Newsted, the next youngest member, and 35 years younger than oldest member, Lord, who is 69. But all that goes to show is age doesn’t really matter when it comes to good music, and “Out of My Mind” is really good.

This first single is very much in the Black Sabbath mode. The song opens with a low rumbling as Newsted thumps a bass line that sounds just a bit like the main riff of “Black Sabbath,” while Iommi provides a quiet, slightly distorted guitar lick. It slowly builds into one of those trademark Iommi power chord beasts of a riff, and Gillan’s vocals, even at age 65, are great. In fact, it’s kind of funny to watch the video for the song below and see this nice, grandfatherly looking gentleman and then hear the voice that’s coming out of him. Lord builds some dramatic flourishes on the Hammond organ on the chorus, which is really the only place you can hear him on the song, Iommi’s guitar dips down for an even deeper, darker growl, and Gillan continues to soar mocking vocals over the top of it. It’s a thing of beauty for an old metalhead.

A little later in the song, the assault is toned down for a softer interlude that sounds a lot like something from Ozzy-era Sabbath, right down to a more nasally vocal tone from Gillan. Iommi delivers a soulful lead, and after another trip down into that dark chorus, the song fades out with some slightly exotic sounding lead guitar licks. I’ll admit that I wasn’t a fan of Gillan-era Black Sabbath, but this song makes me a believer. Maybe it’s time I went back and gave Born Again another listen.

The b-side of the single (can you call it a b-side anymore?) is a song called “Holy Water,” which should please the other half of this band’s target audience. The song fades in with some Persian-flavored sounds before going full on rock. Lord has a more heavily featured role in this song, as his Hammond gets behind Iommi’s main riff and pushes it along. We get a bluesier, smokier vocal from Gillan that has a very late ’60s feel, and the song, overall, is more of a Deep Purple number. I prefer “Out of My Mind,” but then I also prefer Sabbath to Purple. You can’t really go wrong with either tune, though.

My only complaint with this project is that there’s not enough of it. I’ve been both anticipating and dreading a Black Sabbath reunion with Ozzy Osbourne because I know it can’t possibly live up to their first six records. After hearing “Out of My Mind,” I say let Sabbath rest in peace. I want to hear more from WhoCares — a lot more.

Stuck In My Head: "Sad Man's Tongue," by Volbeat

Editor's note: This review originally appeared at Something Else Reviews.

When Volbeat’s “Sad Man’s Tongue” comes blaring out of my speakers on a shuffle, I’m always happy, and I always hit repeat — usually a dozen times or so, at least. And I always think about how I nearly missed such a great song.

I was plugging along at work one day in 2007 when I got an e-mail from a publicist pushing Rock the Rebel/Metal the Devil, the upcoming record from Danish band Volbeat. In the e-mail was a picture of the band with singer Michael Poulsen boasting a greasy, black pompadour, and the publicist describing the music as “Elvis Metal ‘n’ Roll.” The album title seemed a little awkward (and I often cringe at clich├ęd connections between metal and the devil), I didn’t quite get the band name, and being the good Southern boy I am, I wondered what in the world a Danish band could know about Elvis. I may have rolled my eyes a little before moving on from the e-mail.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: Cavalera Conspiracy, "Blunt Force Trauma"

If you’ve followed the career of Max Cavalera, you won’t likely be surprised by what you hear on Cavalera Conspiracy’s latest outing, Blunt Force Trauma. It’s the same blend of Sepultura-style thrash and groove metal he’s delivered since leaving Sepultura, minus the world music influence. His second reunion with brother and drummer Igor Cavalera is, perhaps, a bit more refined and a bit less ugly than 2008’s Inflikted, but it’s no less powerful. In fact, the variety on Blunt Force Trauma, including a slightly surprising twist or two, just might make it a better record.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: King Kobra, "King Kobra"

When the new self-titled project from reformed 1980s rockers King Kobra, issued by Frontiers Records earlier this month, landed in my hands, I remembered two things about the band. Sadly, neither one of them was legendary drummer Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Ozzy Osbourne, Blue Murder).

Instead, I remembered the cheesy, synth-laden, quintessentially 1980s theme song from the movie “Iron Eagle,” and the fact that King Kobra was the band whose original singer had become a woman. The band released three albums in the 1980s that barely made a blip on my metal-loving radar before breaking up in 1988, with most of the members moving on to moderate success in other acts. Appice joined Blue Murder with John Sykes, who had been ousted from Whitesnake. Bassist Johnny Rod joined shock-rockers W.A.S.P. Guitarist Mick Sweda joined Marq Torien, who had a brief stint as the singer of King Kobra, to form BulletBoys.