Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Best gets better

Yesterday was a good day.  My pre-order of the reissue of my favourite album of all time arrived, two weeks before it appears in stores, complete with limited edition t-shirt (075!) and a ton of awesomeness.

What is this great album, you're probably asking.  Well, it's by the mighty Clutch and it's called Blast Tyrant.  You might not have heard of them, or it.  So allow me to explain.  Clutch are a fantastic hard rock group from Maryland, USA, who have been putting out consistently great material for close to two decades now.  Their newer material has some pretty strong blues influences as well, but Blast Tyrant sees them in full-on hard-rock riff-mongering mode.  They seem to be one of those bands that have a major cult following in the US, but less prominence internationally (although their international fans are no less devoted).  Anyway, they're great.  Go buy their stuff.  DO IT!

So anyway, Blast Tyrant is basically their 5th studio album (of eight) and it was originally released in 2004.  It was the first Clutch record I got, although I went to Real Groovy intending to buy Robot Hive/Exodus (their newest album at the time) which I'd seen some intriguing reviews of.  But they didn't have it so I bought Blast Tyrant instead.  And thus began my love affair with a band that I personally think has few equals.  I'll save the full details of that for another time.  For now, Blast Tyrant.

Which admittedly doesn't have the best album art of all time, even if it is distinctive.  That might be its only failing.  Across its 15 tracks (spanning 54 minutes), Blast Tyrant is all killer, no filler.

There are countless things I love about this album, but here's a few:

1. They don't mess around
The first minute of album opener Mercury is an instrumental statement of intent - a rapid-fire barrage of riffs and drum fills, with guitarist Tim Sult, drummer JP Gaster and bassist Dan Maines sounding incredibly tight - before Neil Fallon launches into the cryptic/fantastic opening lyric "Daedalus, your child is falling... and the labyrinth is calling".  Everything about this track commands some sort of attention - whether it's head-banging, air guitar, air drumming, or simply trying to figure out what Neil is actually on about (this is not uncommon in Clutch songs).  This is basically the start of a five-song opening onslaught - the groove-driven, swaggering Profits of Doom, the alarmingly infectious The Mob Goes Wild - at that time the band's biggest hit since Spacegrass almost ten years earlier (but probably since surpassed by Electric Worry).

And then Cypress Grove (moar cowbell and Dio references) and Promoter (of Earthbound Causes) (a stunning, muscular riff and one of the all-time hard rock great choruses):

Ready to rock, if you wanna roll
Please step away from the vehicle
Ragnarock and revolutionise
Gimme just a minute while I clarify
OK, admittedly it sounds better on the record than on a web page.

2. It's a hard, hard-rock record, but not too hard
Fundamentally, this is a hard rock record, but Clutch are astute musicians and they know that turning everything to 11 the whole time isn't sustainable over a whole album.  So we get just enough tracks in there to balance out the heaviness - The Regulator, is a foreboding, slow-burner of track that eventually shifts up a gear with some nice dynamic shifts, and Ghost is equally brooding and well-constructed.

3. The lyrics, oh the lyrics
... are frankly brilliant.  I mean, Clutch rarely disappoint on this front, but this album is something else.  Here's a sample
from Army of Bono:
Your local programming
By the mindless banter of a soulless talking head
And the main chorus:
Don't worry
It's just stigmata
Pass me a napkin
And don't you dare tell your mother
Neil has the rare talent of being able to deliver songs in his distinctive, raw, powerful rock voice, while still enunciating everything incredibly clearly (this is helped even more by a really well-balanced mix), so one can appreciate gems such as the above even more.

4. In-jokes
There's some subtle hints at the band's influences at various points here - the "Holy diver, where you at?" lyric on Cypress Grove (which sounds appropriately reverential now too)... while Worm Drink has a reasonably blatant allusion to Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London.

5. Great production so you can hear the great musicianship

One other facet that the mix lends to this album is the fact that it allows the listener to really appreciate what a tight unit the band are in full flight, but equally it draws out individual instruments really effectively when it needs to.  This is no more obvious than on instrumental closing track WYSIWYG where it's incredibly easy to simultaneously appreciate what each of the different instruments are doing, whilst not detracting from the impact of the whole band.  So you get the full force of Clutch's not inconsiderable individual and collective musical talent (which I should add is always tasteful and never descends into showmanship). 

6. It's a concept album, but not obviously so...
It took a bit of listening, but it did eventually dawn on me that this is a loose concept album about the travels of Worm Drink (who is a demon or something like that), who is a member of the crew of a ship named The Swollen Goat, which is captained by the eponymous Blast Tyrant and tends to cruise around exploring, looting, pillaging and generally doing pirate stuff.  The album's full name in the liner notes is actually Blast Tyrant's Atlas of the Invisible World, Including Illustrations of Strange Beasts and Phantoms.  So maybe Blast Tyrant is sort of a crazy, demonic, pirate version of David Attenborough.  I don't know.

Anyway, Worm Drink gets a bit disillusioned with the whole thing, and deserts.  Of course Blast Tyrant tries to hunt him down, and whilst on the run Worm Drink takes refuge with a girl named La Curandera, but then Blast Tyrant and his crew find them (or at least her) and decide she's a witch and deal with her accordingly.

(I said it was a loose concept album... I didn't say it made sense!)

I don't think every track on the album is part of the concept, but a good number certainly are, and others (such as Profits of Doom) deal with sort-of-related themes.

Anyway, what I like about this is that there are some clever themes that run through the record, and some songs might only have one or two lyrics referencing the main story - but they're there.  It's a clever way of creating an album which is more than just the sum of its parts, while not doing the often-overcooked blatant-concept-album thing. 

7. Stuff grows on you
There are some tracks here that will initially catch your attention, thanks to either great riffs, brilliant lyrics or the fact that they're just damn catchy (such as The Mob Goes Wild).  My personal favourites have actually changed over time - it took about three years before I decided (In the Wake of) The Swollen Goat was probably my favourite and more recently (Notes from the Trial of) La Curandera has begun to threaten it (and not just in the battle of songs-with-bracketed-bits-at-the-start-of-their-names-either).

Look, I could go on about this all day, but I should really also mention the bonus disc, Basket of Eggs, that is what differentiates the reissue from the original, along with some nifty new artwork (and the aforementioned limited edition t-shirt).

Basket of Eggs is basically split between a series of early demos for Blast Tyrant, recorded after the release of 2002's Pure Rock Fury (but recently remastered), and some new acoustic recordings - including a new song and re-interpretations of older tracks.

The Polar Bear Lair demos are solid, but not brilliant, on a standalone basis - they're predictably lacking the polish and refinement - both musical and lyrical - that went into prior to the recording of Blast Tyrant.  What they do provide, however, is an insight into just how much effort went into the songs on Blast Tyrant - Cattle Car evolved into Cypress Grove (with mostly different lyrics)... Walpole Man into Army of Bono.  The changes to Promoter and La Curandera are less obvious but still clearly there.  The gem of the bunch here is the rollicking, previously unreleased Steve Doocy.

The acoustic material is the scene-stealer here.  The sole new track is Box Car Shorty's Confession, a jaunty, dixie-blues number, whilst the other four tracks are re-interpretations of older tracks, but all add major spins to their predecessors that fans of the band (myself included) will no doubt adore.  It sounds like a polished, impromptu, 2am-after-a-big-party-let's-mess-with-these-songs-on-acoustic-guitars and it's great. 

Anyway, I've rambled enough for now - as you can see I really do love this album.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

From Out of Nowhere #1: Graveyard

Sometimes you just happen by chance to stumble across a really great band you haven't heard before.  In the From Out of Nowhere posts, I'll profile bands that I've happened across by accident - see, accidents aren't always bad!  Up first is Graveyard...

So, it was payday yesterday, and one of my long-standing traditions is that whenever possible, I'll try to buy a new album on payday.  It's been this way ever since I worked in the music department in the Warehouse... now that I get paid monthly it's a bit more of an occasion.  And off I wandered to JB Hi-Fi at lunchtime, looking for nothing in particular.

After turning up a decent Creedence Clearwater Revival best of in the bargain bin, I headed off to the rock/metal section.  Perched on the shelf was a new release from a band called Graveyard.  Underneath it was one of those generally effusive hand-written cards to the effect of 'Exciting new release! Shades of Led Zeppelin and Cream!' which may or may not be true.  And although JB have often gotten it right in the past, well, sometimes they get it wrong too. 

So I resorted to a quick iPhone scout of Rate Your Music, which I probably shouldn't use as on oracle, but it tends to be right more often than not (even if it does have overly strong and sometimes conflicting biases towards all things metal and all things indie).  The really useful thing about RYM is that as well as a meta-rating, it tells you how many individual ratings that meta-rating is comprised of, and you can view all the user reviews which have a range of comments from completely throwaway to attention-seeking Pitchforkishness to highly insightful.  It's like Metacritic only what actual real people think. 

Anyway, Graveyard's 2007 self-titled debut rated a 3.87 (out of 5), whilst new release Hisingen Blues weighs in at 3.70.  That might not sound that high, but bear in mind that the highest rated album on the site (guess who) is only sitting at 4.30.  Anything above 4.00 is pretty much a classic (ffs even Powerslave only just breaches the 4.0 barrier, at 4.06), whilst 3.5-4.0 is the bastion of the very good.

So I took a punt and bought both their albums on a whim.  Good decision, it turns out.

Basically, these guys fucking rock.  There's a massive early-70's influence here, not just in terms of the songwriting but also in terms of the instrumentation and production style.  Think The Sword, only replace that band's influences with Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, and Cream and you're getting close to what Graveyard sound like.  And they look the part as well.

(plus, they're from Gothenburg, Sweden, which has to be WAY up there on the list of places with great rock names)

A bit more research unearthed the fact that these dudes actually have a ridiculously good pedigree.  They originally signed to Tee Pee Records, which has played host to some fine artists like Hermano, High on Fire and Priestess, and they're currently signed to Nuclear Blast which also boasts some huge names.  Oh and they've toured with the mighty Clutch (as well as CKY).

Both albums are great, although I'm probably favouring Hisingen Blues a little more right now.  It opens with Ain't Fit to Live Here, which is a good a showcase of the band as you will find.  A slick drum fill to start (very reminiscent of Keith Moon's style), then a stonking riff, and the opening lyric is a cracker: "I got no friends, only people that I know".  The old-school production really accentuates the band's greatest assets - apparently their producer Don Alstelberg pulled out a few Jimi Hendrix tricks, to good effect too I should add (the guitars sing at times).

Drummer Axel Sj√∂berg's busy but tasteful style fills the faster songs with a huge amount of energy and impetus - he never misses an opportunity for a drum fill, but never gets too flashy with it either.  And singer Joakim Nilsson has a phenomenal set of pipes, whether he's crooning his way through slower numbers like Uncomfortably Numb (well, before it morphs into a fantastic Skynyrd-esque guitar duel), or howling like a man possessed on the harder tracks.  

And that's another strength the band has too - they're certainly no one-trick pony with their work incorporating elements of hard rock, blues, and rock and roll.  There are fast rocking numbers, ballads, mid-tempo groovers, all executed very well.

What none of this description captures is the fact that this band just has... presence.  It's not an easy thing to describe, but there's something about Graveyard that urges you to take notice when their stuff is playing.  It's probably best described as 'stop what you're doing and rock the hell out'.

After a few listens, Hisingen Blues is an early contender for album of the year in my books, and their 2007 debut is sounding great too.  So thanks JB Hifi, and thanks RYM.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What Happened There? #1: Powerman 5000

So, the intention of the 'What Happened There?' theme is to look at bands that, at some point, went off the rails and strayed down a dimly-lit path into mediocrity.  Sometimes they emerge, normally they don't.  First up, Powerman 5000.

Powerman 5000, AKA PM5K, originally shot to prominence in the mid to late-90's.  Lead singer Spider One (known to his parents as Michael Cummings) is the little brother of Rob Zombie (known to the same set of parents as Robert Cummings).  Whether or not that had anything to do with PM5K's early success is arguable - while both brothers opted to go down the metal route they did so in quite different ways.  Whereas big brother Rob took a more industrial direction, firstly with White Zombie and then later as a solo artist, young Spider's leanings - at least on the earlier PM5K material - were probably best described as funk metal.  Both were also strongly influenced by film, but one suspects that the likes of Halloween and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension were constantly competing for the attention of the Cummings household VCR, with little brother clearly championing the latter.

PM5K's first major label release was 1997's Mega!! Kung Fu Radio, essentially a reissue of an earlier independent recording (The Blood Splat Rating System) with a couple of extra tracks.

  (incidentally, that was a normal way for bands to look in the late 1990's)

I will make no attempt to conceal the fact that this is one of my favourite albums of all time.  If nu-metal was the sound of the in crowd at school at the time, this was the sound of the rebellious kid with ADD who might be politely described as 'slightly unhinged'.  First and foremost it's a hard-rock album (I think the band described it as action rock), but there's a bizarre melting pot of influences sitting just behind that... forays into funk, a double dose of messy punk-rock energy, and the omni-present sci-fi references.  Spider One's vocals are really the glue that holds the whole mess together too... alternating between slightly creepy and scream-your-lungs-out-aggressive.  The great success of this album, in my opinion, is that PM5K walked the thin line between pushing the madness just far enough to create a really outstanding, addictive hard rock album, and the one-step-too-far that would've seen it all disintegrate into an incoherent shambles.  But it doesn't... from the kinetic funk-rock of Neckbone, to the full-throttle Car Crash, to the pseudo lounge-jazz of A Swim with the Sharks... there's not a single wasted moment.

Following this was 1999's Tonight the Stars Revolt!. A little more industrial and not quite as eclectic as its predecessor, but still a very strong album and one which also had a couple of very, very good singles in the form of When Worlds Collide and Nobody's Real.  The former really showcases PM5K's ability to pull off dynamic shifts with the best of them, whilst the latter showcases more of a mid-tempo industrial groove - which was at this point a new arrow in their bow.

Still a very good album, which many fans rate as their best, and it was a reasonable commercial success as well with over 1 million copies sold.

Then things went off the rails a bit.

The band had a full third album, Anyone for Doomsday? ready to go in mid-2001 but Spider One canned it at the last minute.  Exactly why is up for debate, but some of the mooted reasons include that he thought it sounded too much like the last album, that the label didn't like it, and that with a couple of band members leaving he didn't want to release an album with departed members on it.  There were also some suggestions that the September 11 attacks had something to do with it (given the name), but the album was originally scheduled to release in August so that doesn't really hold up.

Regardless, it turned out to be a straight-up bad call - and arguably a career-killer - for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it was actually a really good album.  Thanks to the joys of the interwebs, and more recently iTunes, it's not hard to track it down in digital form.  Doomsday has the same more-focused sound and sci-fi influences as TTSR, but with a bit more metal, a bit more force to it.  There's a few tracks on there that would have made brilliant singles.  It's consistent, it's kick-ass, and it's pretty widely acclaimed amongst those who have subsequently heard it.

Secondly, it saw the band - or more correctly Spider One and a revolving cast of musicians - spin off in a new direction, and unfortunately it was an inferior new direction.

2003's Transform was just that - a transformation.  Simpler songs, less aggression, none of the crazy sci-fi imagery, with the net result being an uninteresting album that sounds borderline pop-punk at times.  Not totally unlikeable, just mostly.  It was followed by 2006's Destroy What You Enjoy which was largely more of the same mediocrity, albeit with one or two good moments, most notably the up-tempo, edgy Heroes and Villains which has a metallic sound much more reminiscent of their older (=better) material. 

In between came a collection of early b-sides and out-takes mostly dating around the M!!KFR period, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Vol. 1 (2004).  Whilst it's a little patchy, there are enough really good tracks on here (including a great cover of Bjork's Army of Me) to remind one that PM5K's best days (amusingly, those where the album titles included punctuation) were fairly well behind them.

And then, just when I'd given up hope, along came a little glimmer of hope in the form of 2009's Somewhere on the Other Side of Nowhere.  The sci-fi influences were back, and the sterile sound of the last two albums was replaced by an up-tempo industrial sound.  It's not a great album and in places it's a little too reminiscent of big brother, but there's just enough to suggest that PM5K might still have a trick or two up their sleeve. 

But until they can prove it, I'll be spinning the early material and that's about it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thanks, Guitar Hero

Admittedly, it's not exactly news, but Guitar Hero in its current format is dead. I'll confess to being a little disappointed, being somewhat acquainted with the guilty pleasures of rocking out with a plastic guitar (or, more recently, a plastic drumkit).

In hindsight, it was hardly a surprise - the Guitar Hero franchise had just as many misses as it had hits - if not more. What was surprising, however, was that Activision could mismanage a franchise so badly that it could go from top selling video game of all time to cancelled in under four years.

Putting that aside, however, there are a few music-related things that I would to thank Guitar Hero for - things that will stick with me even though those plastic peripherals are all now gathering dust.

1. Introducing me to some classic bands that I'd never taken much interest in
There is a pretty long list of classic bands that I've been inspired to check out after enjoying their songs in Guitar Hero, including (but not limited to):
Iron Maiden
Thin Lizzy
Lynyrd Skynyrd
Judas Priest
Van Halen
ZZ Top
Blue Oyster Cult

The big name there, of course, is Iron Maiden. Never took a huge interest in them before... now I own 10 of their albums and have seen them live twice. Here is Aces High:

2. Getting me excited again about stuff I'd lost interest in
There are a few artists that I'd previously dabbled in, and then mostly lost interest in, only to have a track in Guitar Hero get me all excited about them again. The most screamingly blatant example here is Megadeth. I got Rust in Peace back in 2005, mostly liked it, but it just never really clicked with me. Then, after jamming Hangar 18 in Guitar Hero 2, I got really, really excited about Megadeth again - to the point where I'd now count them amongst my top 10 bands of all time and where I consider Rust in Peace to be the greatest thrash metal album of all time (yes, better than any individual Metallica record). Here is some dude getting a freakishly high score way out of my reach:

Other artists that fit in this category (although probably not to the same extent):
Jimi Hendrix
Stevie Ray Vaughan

3. Introducing me to some great new bands
GH played a big role in introducing some up and coming bands to the world. This admittedly deteriorated in later games as they opted more for the tried-and-tested, but it is thanks to Guitar Hero that I now count myself as a huge fan of The Sword. Here is their sensationally head-banging first single, Freya:

Also worthy of note are Canadian band Priestess, who contributed the excellent Lay Down to Guitar Hero 3.

4. Sudden Death
Yes, worthy of a point in itself, is the excellent Megadeth track Sudden Death that was penned for Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. Dave Mustaine and co. have produced some facemelting shredfests over the years, but this is one of their best.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Foo Fighters - Wasting Light review

Expectations can be a tricky thing. They can weigh down very good albums... and their absence can make above-average albums sound a lot better. New releases by iconic names are held to a much higher standard of account than a random chance discovery of a record by an artist we haven't heard before.

I'm grappling with this a little bit, because - for better or worse - I had a ton of expectations riding on the Foo Fighters' new album Wasting Light. Hard not to, after hearing the lead single Rope, the quasi-single White Limo and the 30-second teaser of Bridge Burning. Combine that with a ton of nostalgia (the self-titled debut was one of the first albums I ever got, and still a huge favourite), and you can hopefully understand how I really hoped the Foos would produce a sensational record.

Don't get me wrong here - I'm not saying that Wasting Light is not a good album. In fact, it is a very good album, with a number of fantastically good tracks. It just falls ever so slightly short of perfection though, for exactly the same reason that every Foo Fighters album post-Colour and the Shape has been an under-performer. Front-loading.

Let's recap. The self-titled debut and The Colour and the Shape are both consistent, balanced, excellent albums. There is Nothing Left to Lose starts with the utterly brilliant Stacked Actors and, aside from Generator and Aurora, never even gets close to those heights subsequently - and then a pretty similar pattern is repeated on the next three albums (substitute All My Life, Best of You, and The Pretender accordingly). There are some amazing songs on all of those later albums, but they're not great albums.

To be fair, the front-loading is a lot less noticeable here than on some of those examples. There are some very good songs on both halves of the album. It's just that on the back half, there's just a teeny-weeny bit of filler that becomes that much more noticeable given how unbelievably awesome the first half is.

And oh how awesome the first half is. It really is. The first two tracks are both incendiary, brilliantly-constructed rock songs. Opener Bridge Burning kicks in with a huge crescendo, dive-bombing riff and Dave Grohl screaming "These are my famous last words" before locking into a tight up-tempo groove a-la Monkey Wrench. Some great use of dynamics and just the right amount of use of the main riff/refrain/call to headbang keep the song incredibly interesting throughout.

Lead single Rope is equally brilliant, albeit for different reasons. Aside from being damn catchy, the use of clever musical counterpoints here is really, really nice. The opening guitar line - and most of the verse - has a slightly melancholy tone to it but then every fourth bar there's a great little twist that adds a real sense of urgency - either a punchy double-time drum/guitar-combination fill, or a slight delay followed by a big power-chord just to keep the headbangers interested. And then on a more macro scale, most of the song has a fairly constructed, radio-friendly vibe to it, but then there is a big rock freak-out mid-song which is a great contrast. If ever one single song has showcased all the many unique, enjoyable facets of the Foo Fighters - this is probably it.

Dear Rosemary changes things up nicely, more of a bluesy, broody mid-tempo number with a bit of help from Bob Mould and some nice stereo guitar interplay. Actually the three-guitar attack (thanks to the return of Pat Smear) is a highlight throughout - there's some really nice guitar layering and detail on a number of the songs.

And then White Limo. Hands up who remembers those great early Foos songs like Wattershed, Weenie Beenie, and The Colour and the Shape (which ironically doesn't appear on the album of the same name)? Well, White Limo is a return to the tradition of 'let's make a really fast, thrashy, rocking song with distorted, nonsensical vocals, which is completely awesome'. All I can say here is that if I was to make a list of my top 10 songs of all time, White Limo would almost certainly be on it. I do my best to headbang along in awe, and sing the only bit I can actually decipher "Go....... limo". Go, you good limo thing.

So how to follow that up? Well with a completely contrasting but almost as excellent track, Arlandria. This one, you can sing along to the whole way, and in fact you'll probably want to (the fact you can actually decipher the words makes it considerably easier, too). Insidiously catchy, with some great dynamic shifts.

And here's where the quality drops ever so slightly. These Days, Back & Forth and A Matter of Time are all decent, catchy tracks, but in contrast to their predecessors which see the band really pushing themselves, they sound just a little bit Foos-by-numbers. You might swear you've heard them before.

But then the closing trio really raise the bar again - Miss the Misery is a great song built around a fantastic main riff, and it's followed by the plaintive, slow-building I Should Have Known. Closing track Walk is ever so slightly reminiscent of New Way Home - albeit with the quiet-loud, slow-fast buildup replaced by some nice guitar interplay and Dave Grohl screaming "I never wanna die!".

Wasting Light is a really good album and one I'm sure will get a lot of repeat listens. If its third quarter was just a little more interesting, it would be a truly exceptional, career-defining album.

But you know, maybe I should just stop prattling on about that, crank it up loud, and enjoy it. Sure does seem like that's how the band intended it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Soundgarden: Live on I-5 review

Up until now, the whole Soundgarden reunion has been a bit of smoke and mirrors. There was a new track, Black Rain, but actually that was an old out-take from the Badmotorfinger sessions. There was a so-called "new album", Telephantasm, but that was actually a greatest hits collection. And according to setlist.fm, there have been a whopping 5 live performances since the reformation was first hinted at on January 1, 2010.

This didn't do a lot to allay my skepticism about the reunion. Not because I don't think they're a great band - they sure as hell are - but because I consider Soundgarden to be one of the few bands that actually timed their exit well. They produced a run of three great albums (Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down on the Upside), continued to put on great live shows through 1996 and early 1997, and then called it a day. There was no gradual decline in quality, no disastrous album a la St. Anger or Risk, no terminal rotation of band members until the line-up becomes unrecognisable. No, these guys went out as one of the great musical forces of their era.

The band members had previously downplayed chances of a reunion for those reasons. History is littered with bands that have shat on their own legacies. And in the present case, I personally didn't see a lot of upside, apart from distracting Chris Cornell from producing shite like Scream.

This live album hasn't totally changed my mind, but it has made me question those views just a little bit. Live on I-5 is a great live document of a band at the top of their game, and I'll admit it has got me excited about the possibility of seeing them perform live again.

It's not hard to make a live album. But it's hard to make a really good, memorable live album. By this I mean one that doesn't come off as just 'greatest hits with crowd noise'.

I reckon Soundgarden have done it though. Live on I-5 has all those little things that can make a live album great, and it has them in spades. A great tracklist, subtle little twists and nuances here and there, jamming (but not to the point of overindulgence), a couple of nice covers, and a boatload of intensity.

It opens with Spoonman, you know, the song that they accidentally wrote in 7/4 time about a dude called Artis the Spoonman. I still don't know understand how you can accidentally write a song in 7/4. But it is a great song. And like many of the singles that pop up on I-5, it just sounds gruntier live - as do Outshined and Rusty Cage (dedicated to Johnny Cash, who of course covered the song).

But of course Soundgarden were never just about raw grunt. And that's best illustrated here with a near-unrecognisable, sparse, somewhat eerie cover of the Beatles' Helter Skelter which metamorphoses into the uplifting Boot Camp. This is no gimmick either, it's actually an incredibly clever piece of interpretation and performance. To take a Beatles classic, put a unique and enjoyable spin on it, and then blend it into a song with an entirely different mood and tone... now that's some impressive musicianship. Oh, and they do a great (and rather more faithful) cover of Search and Destroy too.

What made me particularly happy was that not only do my two (arguably) favourite Soundgarden tracks pop up on here, but the performances of both are exceptional. Firstly, Slaves and Bulldozers. You know the opening guitar riff, the slightly creepy-sounding one? Well, Kim Thayil bends the notes just a little bit harder, a little bit further, to the point where it actually sent chills down my spine. It's a classic example of a band taking a great song and pushing it just that little bit further live. There's just so much to like about this performance - Thayil's theatrics, the incredible groove that Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd lock into from the opening note, Chris Cornell throwing everything into the vocals... fantastic.

And the other really great example is Jesus Christ Pose, the album's closer. It's sonically pretty different to Slaves and Bulldozers - fast, thrashy and in-your-face, as opposed to Slaves' far more groove-driven rise-and-fall. But it comes off equally well - there's a little extra aggression and it's just messy enough to make it feel like a really great full-on live performance.

From start to finish, the band sound like a very tight musical unit, a savage weapon. The mix is really nicely balanced across guitar, bass, drums and vocals and it really gives you an appreciation that at any one time there could be four completely different things happening - such as on Slaves and Bulldozers where Matt Cameron lays down the rhythm, Ben Shepherd is playing the main refrain, Kim Thayil shreds and Chris Cornell powers through the vocals. And despite having four entirely different things going on, the whole sounds and feels incredibly well-balanced.

There are one or two slightly dubious inclusions - I've personally never rated either Dusty or Head Down amongst Soundgarden's better tracks and I would have preferred, say, Superunknown and Rhinosaur.

But as a whole package, this is a very powerful live document of a great band, and after a few listens, my scepticism about the reunion has been at least a little bit allayed, purely because now I realise I might just get the chance to hear Soundgarden live again. And this time I might be old enough to appreciate it a bit more than I did at the Big Day Out 1997.

You can listen to the whole thing here.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The pre-Hockey playlist, 2011

So, every season I put together a playlist of songs to burn to a CD to listen to in the car on the way to hockey on Saturday.

The basic premise behind this is that these songs get me fired up for the game. Hence there is a strong preference for fast, loud, hard rock songs. Particularly given that the drive is short so I might only get 1 or 2 songs in.

Which is not to say that there isn't the odd exception, for example the DJ Shadow/Zack de la Rocha collaboration "March of Death":

Of course the other limitation is physical media (car = CD player), so I'm restricted to 80 minutes. And I'm trying not to repeat tracks I've used previously. I mean, I fucking love Superchrist (which sounds fast because it's in 6/8 time), but I've played that on the way to more games than I've scored goals. Which is actually not hard. But anyway. The other restriction is one track per artist.

Anyway, here is how things are shaping up for this season (which starts tomorrow).

Rob Zombie - What Lurks on Channel X?
Fast, simple, and heavy. Tribal drums and some thrash-influenced guitar. Check.

Monster Magnet - Tractor
The opening riff to this track just screams "bring it!". Opportunities for air-drumming abound, as does a great (if nonsensical) singalong chorus... "got a hole in my head, and a knife in my arm... and I'm driving the tractor on the drug farm".

Foo Fighters - White Limo
Sadly, I have to wait for the new album to come out on Apr 11, or deal with a low-quality rip of the youtube vid. Such a great, full-on song though, reminisicent of Wattershed or The Colour and the Shape.

Sevendust - Face to Face
There's no doubt a Sevendust song MUST be on here... it's just a question of which Sevendust song. The contenders include Hero, Strong Arm Broken, Terminator, Alpha, Headtrip and a bunch of others. But at this stage I'm going with Face to Face after seeing a particularly face-melting performance of it at Soundwave.

Street Sweeper Social Club - Mama Said Knock You Out
As covers go, one of my favourites. SSSC turn this LL Cool J track from club banger to head-banger.

Soundgarden - Jesus Christ Pose (Live from I-5 version)
Something about this live version just takes everything about this song and ramps it to 11... the shrieking guitars, the pounding drums (it was in fact Matt Cameron that instigated this song), the up-tempo mayhem.

Powerman 5000
- Danger is Go!
The standout track from the 'lost' PM5K album Anyone for Doomsday. Fast, aggressive, thrashy, and continuing a great tradition of PM5K psych-up songs that has previously included Standing 8 and Heroes and Villains.

The Sword - Freya
Such a huge opening riff. Such a head-banging bridge. Tough decision between this and the face-melting instrumental Unearthing the Orb though.

- Big News I
Clutch -
Big News II
The exception to my rule of not picking long and/or multi-part songs for this sort of thing. Any Clutch fan knows that the opening bass-line to I translates into English as 'awesomeness is about to go happen'. The gradual build throughout this song into the explosion of II is just fantastic, particularly on the live versions - in this case from the particularly ferocious Live in Flint, Michigan version.

Megadeth - Sudden Death
The most recent Megadeth track. Also happens to be an astonishing display of technical proficiency. That means it is a face-melting shred-fest.

- Day Will Come
From their particularly metal Love is the New Hate phase, although Lead or Follow, Bitter and Toxic Shock were also contenders. The power-riffing on this little number won it on the day.

Alice in Chains - Check My Brain

A great mid-tempo rocker with a stunning intro. Combines the trademark eerieness with genuine punch.

Nine Inch Nails - Burn

A tough contest here as there's no shortage of good options from the NINers. However, this particularly menacing b-side and live favourite gets the nod. Was tempted to go really left-field with Tetsuo the Bullet Man but that was just a little too cacophonic.

Airbourne - No Way But the Hard Way

Because frankly, sometimes in a game, there isn't any other way. An undisguised Acca-Dacca riff-along just like every Airbourne song, but this one carries particularly good memories after I cranked it on the way to a certain game last season. Everything was against us that day - it was a top-4 game, we were missing a few key players (actually we struggled to get to 11), some of us that were there were carrying injuries, and it was cold and rainy. Still managed to get the W though - and yeah we did it the hard way.

- Don't Look Down
Starts funky - as you would of course expect - and builds to a positively crunching, intense rock finale.
One of Supergroove's best-written songs.

Throttlerod - In the Flood
Full-steam-ahead rock and roll from Throttlerod from their more Southern-influenced area - and a great key-change solo section to boot.

Faith No More - Surprise! You're Dead!
Some old-school, maniacal FNM rounds out this set... when it comes to intensity not many things match seeing Mike Patton let rip on a live performance of this track.