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

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