Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rose Hill Drive - Americana

Every now and then, an album comes along that reminds me exactly why I love music so much.  You know, an album that you can't bear to stop once you've hit play, and once you get to the end, you just have to hear it all again.

Rose Hill Drive's new album Americana is one such album.

Ironically, it almost never happened.  The band from Boulder, Colorado went on hiatus in late 2008 after a relentless schedule that included a ton of touring, recording two albums - 2006's self-titled debut and 2008's Moon is the New Earth - and the pressure of living up to a ton of industry hype from the likes of Rolling Stone.  As much as the band was deserving of endorsements from the likes of Pete Townshend, the classic rock influences were both the band's biggest strength and their achilles heel - musically, the band spent so much time trying to emulate their heroes that they were in danger of losing their own sound.

So it was a promising sign when, not only did RHD re-emerge in June 2010, but they did so with a new member and a line-up reshuffle.  The addition of Jimmy Stofer on bass has allowed Jacob Sproul to move to rhythm guitar, and turned the power trio into a quartet.  More importantly, it's allowed RHD to develop their own sound and god damn is it good.

Don't get me wrong here - their first two albums were a blast, but Americana is something else.  The thing that immediately struck me about it is simply the sheer exuberance - RHD really sound like a band with a new lease of life, a band that is having fun.

You can hear it in the rock-out moments... you can just imagine the band grinning at each other as they cheekily hold the last note of the riff when Telepathic gets all low-slung and riffy about 3 minutes in.  You can hear it lyrically as Jacob Sproul places his tongue firmly in his cheek on Speed Dial - "You used to be number 1... now you're number 2.  You've never met 3, but 4 says she knows you.".  You can hear it in the zany guitar solos from brother Daniel, particularly on Psychoanalyst, which sounds just as madcap as the song's video looks.

But even with all that raw exuberance, Americana is also surprisingly clever.  The songs frequently keep the listener guessing, taking unexpected twists and turns - as does the album itself.  In contrast to the gleeful electric mayhem that populates most of the record, the last two tracks are acoustically led and thoughtfully constructed.  For every vocal LOL moment like Speed Dial, there's a wry, acerbic jab - like on the title track: "If it's real I don't care if it's plastic".

And yeah, the classic rock influences are still audible, and there might be shades of Jack White in some of the guitar solos, but fundamentally the way RHD sound on this album is refreshing, original and entirely unique. 

In a nutshell, Americana is a rambunctious, clever and frequently exhilarating slice of rock music that begs repeat use of the repeat button.  I won't be at all surprised if this ends up being my favourite album of 2011.  It's just too much fun.

Note: for the next little while, you can listen to the whole thing here courtesy of AOL's listening party.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The first XI of MMXI

With us now being ever so slightly past the half-way point of the year, it seems like an opportune time to look back at some of the better releases of the first half of 2011.

Before I start, it's worth mentioning that I'm still pondering the new album by Amplifier (The Octopus) and still waiting for my copy of Symphony X's Iconoclast to arrive - both have the potential to end up on here if the interwebs are to be believed.

So, counting down from 11...

11. Duff McKagan's Loaded - The Taking
The second album from former GnR bassist McKagan is harder and more refined than its predecessor, Sick.  It and opens with a mean one-two punch (Lords of Abaddon and Executioner's Song) and closes in much the same fashion (Your Name and Follow Me To Hell).  And in between there is a gloriously sing-song ode to addiction (Cocaine) and a bunch of other good stuff too.

10. Black Stone Cherry - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
I wrote heap-big-long review here, and you can listen to the whole album here.  It's a hard-rocking Southern hard rock album.

9. Hello Demons Meet Skeletons - Words That Sing Well

Hello Demons Meet Skeletons is the acoustic side-project of Sevendust guitarist Clint Lowery.  Words That Sing Well is the second HDMS EP, although the version I got also included the first HDMS EP, Chills.  Lowery plays all the instruments and sings, although brother Corey helps with some of the production - essentially this is his vehicle to channel his own ideas and thoughts as opposed to a band environment.

Anyone who has heard Sevendust's acoustic live record will know what can happen when Lowery gets hold of an acoustic guitar, but what makes this record enjoyable is not just nice acoustic guitar work, but the strength, texture and layering of the songs on offer, Lowery's vocals, and the great melancholy vibe throughout.  Words That Sing Well is a reminder of how good acoustic rock can be when it's done well.

8. And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead - Tao of the Dead
I'll be honest - I'd pretty much given up on this band.  They put out a cracker of an album in 2002, Source Tags and Codes, and pretty much everything after the second song on the subsequent album has been mediocre.  The news that they were releasing a concept 'symphony' record comprising two parts and 16 movements did not fill me with hope.  But totally against the odds, Tao of the Dead actually turned out to be fucking cool, a wonderfully enjoyable progressive rock album. 

And an 'album' it is - one that rolls from idea to idea rather than song to song, occasionally returning to an earlier refrain before bouncing on to something new.  The opening track Pure Radio Cosplay is an absolute ripper too.

7. Black Country Communion - 2
The second album from this supergroup sees them really finding their own sound.  For those who missed the news, BCC comprises Glenn Hughes (bass/vocals) [formerly of Deep Purple, occasionally of Black Sabbath, and mostly of solo stuff], Joe Bonamassa (guitar) [all around blues guitar dude], Jason Bonham (drums) [yes he of the Led Zeppelin descendance], and Derek Sherinian (keyboards) [Dream Theater and assorted other prog experimentation].

What you get here is a real melting-pot of rock influences - classic, hard, blues, prog - reflecting the various members.  This album also feels a lot more balanced across the band than the debut - in particular Derek Sherinian seems to be used a lot more effectively.  And Glenn Hughes really does sound great - I used to think it was a little wanky when his record company called him 'The Voice of Rock', but he pretty much justifies it with some of his performances here.

6. Beastwars - Beastwars
Here is a band whose name alone practically exudes awesomeness.  "What are you listening to man?" "Uh, Beastwars bro".  That's INSTANT credibility right there.

And it helps that their debut album is actually really good too.  There are hints of sludge, doom and desert on this baby.  This is a band that knows how to slowly, but surely pummel their listener into submission.  They played support for Kyuss in Wellington and I wish we'd got them up here in Auckland too - the best New Zealand band to emerge in ages (it helps that they are actually a good band, as opposed to just a good New Zealand band).

Oh, and they also know how to spell 'Cthulhu' (unlike a certain band that Dave Mustaine used to be in).  Anyway, go listen to it here (disclaimer: blog author accepts no liability for pummelled eardrums).

5. Head Like A Hole - Blood Will Out

WHAT! Two New Zealand albums in my top XI... outrageous.  Anyway, I wrote more about this swarthy, greasy, rock and roll album yesterday.  Even Simon Sweetman is gushy about it (and he is even more cynical about New Zealand music than I am).

4. Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part 2

So, a bunch of forty-something white rappers put out a new album.  It's not exactly the sort of sentence that fills you with hope - in fact, it sounds like it could be the intro to some sort of joke.  But The Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 is the best thing the Beasties have done in years (notwithstanding that they haven't actually put out an album in, well, years). 

Hot Sauce sees the Beasties sounding innovative whilst also harking back to some of their earlier material as a touchstone.  Make Some Noise has the carefree, energetic vibe of their earliest material, Say It and Tadlock's Glasses recall the dense sounds of Ill Communication, but then there are also tracks like Too Many Rappers and Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win which press bravely forward.

If the video for single Make Some Noise doesn't pique your interest, well, there's no hope for you.  There's some serious competition for music video of the year now, thanks to this effort from Mastodon and of course the Foos excellent video for White Limo (see below).

3. Graveyard - Hisingen Blues

It took about 10 seconds of opening track Ain't Fit to Live Here to sell me on this band.  A groovy opening drum fill, in kick guitars that recall vintage Steppenwolf, and then singer Joakim Nilsson howls the opening lyric: "I got no friends, only people that I know".

I don't know if these guys have sold their souls to the devil or something but the blues are strong with this one.  Not to mention that they also seem to have discovered some way of channeling late-60's/early-70's hard rock greats like Zep and Cream.  Hisingen Blues is an absolute rollicking good time.

2. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
The reason this album is so good is, ironically, also the exact same reason it will probably never make my 5-star album list.  The first 5 songs are just so obscenely, mind-bogglingly good, that it's all too obvious when the standard drops every so slightly in the second half of the album - something recent live setlists have confirmed.

But that first half of the album is just so staggeringly good... the exhilaration of Bridge Burning, the persistent riffage of Rope, the white-knuckle White Limo, and the insidiously catchy singalong that is Arlandria.

And yeah, I've harped on about the White Limo vid at length already, but it's fucking great.

1. Soundgarden - Live on I-5
We could argue at length about whether or not it's fair to include live albums on lists like this, but the reality is that I love Live on I-5 and no-one is going to change my mind on that.  All the things that make great live albums great are here in abundance - raw energy and intensity, a sense that the band is feeding off the crowd - and vice versa, subtle detailing on most if not all of the tracks and some nice improvised moments too.  Oh, and a sly, near-unrecognisable cover of Helter Skelter that segues perfectly into the uplifting Boot Camp.

The highlights for me are a killer version of Jesus Christ Pose and an absolutely crucial rendition of Slaves and Bulldozers - a touch faster than the recorded version and that bend on the main riff is just a semi-tone higher in a 'nails on a chalkboard' kinda way.

Frankly this has me excited as hell at the prospect they might tour Down Under next year, particularly given their recent setlists have a healthy dose of classics, plus such insanely good choices as Gun and Superunknown and tend to close on, yep, Slaves and Bulldozers.  But that's not why this album is my favourite so far this year - it's my favourite because it's a fantastic live document of a fantastic band at the peak of their powers.

Truth is, there's plenty of other good stuff still to come this year.  This wouldn't make a half-bad year-end list, but there's still stuff to come from the likes of:
  • Kasabian (their new album is entitled Velociraptor - surely a naming win in the tradition of Beastwars!)
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers (could be a total disaster)
  • Powerman 5000 (a covers album which has me more than a little intrigued)
  • Dream Theater (A Dramatic Turn of Events)
  • And a bunch of others (including, potentially, Megadeth)
So, things could change, people.  Things could change

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hang on, which one is the headliner?

So, as I was trawling the web this morning, trying to figure out if I could pre-order Rose Hill Drive's forthcoming third album Americana, I noticed that they had announced some dates supporting Stone Temple Pilots.

Don't get me wrong, I like Stone Temple Pilots.  I saw them earlier this year, and they were surprisingly good, better than I expected.  And of course they'll be headlining - they're the successful, big-name band.  But if I was to actually choose which of the two I would personally RATHER have as headliner, it would be Rose Hill Drive.  To me, their music - hard rock, occasionally bluesy, nods to the 70's greats whilst still maintaining their own unique sound - has a lot more to offer.  They can do incredibly tight, catchy singalong rockers, like Sneak Out or rambling, 7-minute jams like Reptilian Blues that showcase their considerable musical ability.  As much as I enjoy STP, they never really progressed beyond the verse-chorus-verse 4 minute grunge track.

This got me thinking about other shows I've gone to - or contemplated going to - where the acts were in the wrong order, at least in my opinion.

Slayer and Megadeth did a double-headline tour in 2009.  Of the headliners, Megadeth played first, then Slayer.  I've always thought Slayer are a little over-rated.  They have their moments, but for the most part it seems to me that their popularity is due at least in part to them being a bit controversial - a la Marilyn Manson, if I'm going to pick an extreme example.  If I had to rank the Big 4, they sure wouldn't be in the top two.  In contrast, Megadeth have consistently produced great material across their career (yes, I'm overlooking Risk) and haven't relied on controversy to sell records.  They probably got a bit of a kick-start from Dave Mustaine's background with Metallica, sure, but this is a band that gave us Rust in Peace, that gave us Peace Sells... But Who's Buying... and now 20 years on are producing some of the best material of their career - 2009's Endgame was a stunner.

Again, a lot of it is personal preference, but I'd rather Megadeth had top billing.  The Big 4 shows (oh please, come down under) have had their line up in this order: Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica.  It's hard to suggest that Anthrax shouldn't start and Metallica shouldn't finish, but I still rate Megadeth as superior to Slayer.

Heaven and Hell toured New Zealand back in 2007 - this is the Sabbath line-up that featured Ronnie James Dio on vocals.  I didn't go, although I wish I had now.  Not being a huge Sabbath fan, my thinking at the time was that I would much rather have had the support band, Down, play their own show (I wasn't arguing with H&H's right to headline!).  In hindsight this turned out to be a poor, poor decision - I missed the opportunity to see one of metal's great vocalists before his passing last year.  My logic was that seeing Down play only a short supporting set would be frustrating as hell - they're still on my bucket list.  Even that turned out to be dumb too - Sevendust were (and kinda still are) on my bucketlist, but I was happy seeing them put on an utterly dominating six-song set at Soundwave earlier this year.

And there are other examples too - not from New Zealand but from around the world.  Pearl Jam supported U2, I think.  Muse also supported U2.  Both of those bands are considerably better than U2.

I should also give an honourable mention to the Heavy Metal Ninjas who supported Shihad last year.  No way should they have been headliners, but it was one of the rare instances where, whilst listening to a support band, I've actually thought 'these guys are pretty fucking cool', and not 'for fuck's sake when are they going to finish'.

This is probably where this list ends for me, though.  The reality is that 95% of support bands I've seen sucked.  I'm not gonna lie about that.  The list of local bands that are actually decent enough to support a big international act is pretty short: Shihad, Supergroove, Head Like A Hole, Beastwars.  I'd actually love for more bands to do what the Foo Fighters are doing and bring a decent supporting band with them - in this case Tenacious D.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The return of Head Like A Hole

Head Like A Hole's reunion in 2008 came as a bit of a surprise.  Here was a band that had split almost a decade ago, for the usual rock and roll reasons, and had probably all moved on and got jobs or benefits or whatever it took to pay the bills.  I was away at the time and pretty disappointed to miss the reunion show at the Powerstation - particularly given that their contemporaries Supergroove had reformed about a year earlier and put on an absolute belter of a reunion show at the Kings Arms.

There was always a lot to like about HLAH.  For a brief history, check out "The Head Like A Hole Story in about 200 words by Nigel Regan".  They rocked hard.  They had a charismatic front man in Nigel 'Booga' Beazley.  They had their own quite distinct, unique sound, and wrote songs with quirky titles like Fish Across Face and Spanish Goat Dancer.  They also did a riotously good Bruce Springsteen cover.

Anyway their reunion was both a blessing and a reminder that New Zealand has really produced shit-all in the way of decent bands since that brief spurt in the 90's that gave us Shihad, HLAH and Supergroove.  OK, well admittedly Beastwars are pretty cool too, but that's about it.

But now, on the back of that reunion, HLAH have recorded a new album, Blood Will Out, their first since HLAH IV: Are You Gonna Kiss It Or Shoot It?  It could have sucked, as many reunion albums do.  Thankfully it does not.  In fact, it is rather good.

Blood Will Out is a swaggering slice of hard rock.  There is plenty of the trademark sweaty, greasy HLAH groove, but at the same time the songs somehow feel consistently a bit tighter, in a way the band only occasionally hinted at in the past (on the likes of Comfortably Shagged and A Crying Shame).  It is possibly the only HLAH record thus far where it is consistently the music and the songs that shine, without the aid of any supporting gimmickry (this has previously included chainsaws, excerpts from porn movies, and a cover of a song from Grease).

And some of those songs really do shine.  The album opens strongly with a barrage that includes singles Swagger of Thieves and Glory Glory, both of which showcase Booga's trademark growl - if anything he sounds better with age. 

But it is the middle where things really step up, courtesy of two particularly mighty tracks: Valhalla (10,000 BC) and Death of a Friend.  The former - surely a contender to pop up on season 2 of The Almighty Johnsons - is a rollicking, up-tempo barn-burner of a track which grooves along from guitar solo to guitar solo whilst never sounding lost or losing any of its considerable impact.  The latter is a sludgy, Sabbath-y doom extravaganza that would make Tony Iommi proud.  It is entirely possible that these are the two best songs that HLAH has ever written, so it is probably fitting that they are the centrepiece of the album.

Rounding out the record is the Monsta trilogy - the lurching stomp of Monsta X, the catchy almost-pop of Hardest Battle (Monsta Y) and the synthetic grind of Blood Will Out (Monsta Z).  It all ends almost too soon with (unexpectedly) an acoustic closer, In Articulo Mortis

Blood Will Out is an easy album to get into, and a hard one to put down.  It's refreshing to see a band with the benefit of extra years and wisdom put that to use crafting some damn good songs and not just rehashing past glories.  This is the best kind of comeback album - one that will appeal to HLAH's old fans whilst hopefully also winning some new ones.  And more power to them.