Monday, December 10, 2012

The best albums of 2012, according to me...

Arbitrary year-end list time, and in 2012, I'd have to say it was exceptionally hard to narrow it down to a 'top 12'.  There was an absolute glut of good music this year, from anticipated big-name releases (Deftones), unexpected comebacks (Soundgarden, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead), side projects / collaborations (Call Me No One, Projected, Dark New Day, Mark Tremonti), and from bands continuing a consistent vein of form (The Sword).

There were some duds too - the new Muse album was an almost-unmitigated disaster (of 'what were they thinking' proportions).

There were also some very good albums that missed the cut, so a quick tip of the hat to them first.

Worth a mention...

Projected - Human
A side project that was the brainchild of John Connolly (Sevendust) and also included Vinnie Hornsby (Sevendust), Scott Marshall (Alter Bridge) and Eric Friedman.  Punchy, catchy hard rock, well worth checking out.

Orange Goblin - A Eulogy for the Damned
A welcome and overdue return to form... Orange Goblin ditch the more direct hard rock approach of their more recent (and less interesting) material in favour of the more bluesy and occasionally psychedelic feel of their earlier records.

Black Country Communion - Afterglow
Album number three made it out despite some internal strife within the supergroup.  Personally, this is my favourite BCC album yet, the songs feel a lot tighter whilst still giving individuals opportunity to shine.  Also - Glenn Hughes just seems to keep getting better as both a singer and songwriter despite now being 61.

Cherri Bomb - This is the End of Control
Debut album from a group of teenage girls (the oldest is just 17!).  Tell you what, they're showing a few much more experienced rock / hard rock bands up.  Well-constructed songs, with some great riffs and catchy hooks, demonstrate abilities well beyond their years.

Anyway, on to the list...

12. Jeff Loomis  - Plains of Oblivion

The second solo album from former Nevermore guitarist Jeff Loomis is a big step up from his debut.  Make no mistake, this at times descends into the sort of shredding one would expect from a predominantly instrumental record from one of modern metal's great guitarists.  But it rarely descends into showmanship-for-the-sake-of-it and manages to remain consistently interesting, thanks to Loomis' compositional skills as well as some great guest slots - including Marty Friedman, Chris Poland, and Tony McAlpine.  The two tracks with Christine Rhoads on vocals are the only mis-steps, but the unbelievably good collaboration with the legendary Ihsahn almost singlehandedly makes up for that on Surrender. And tracks like Sibylline Origin, Mercurial and The Ultimatum are sheer instru-metal bliss.

Plus, we're unlikely to ever get another Nevermore album, and this is the next best thing.

11.  ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead - Lost Songs

The notoriously unpredictable Trail of Dead ditch the progressive concept album stylings of last year's Tao of the Dead in favour of a more direct, shouty vibe not unlike that on Source Tags and Codes.  Without rehashing previous blog material, this is an album which sees the never-static Trail of Dead at their best, this time mixing great melodies with an almost punk aggression in places.

10. The Sword - Apocryphon

The thing about The Sword is that you do largely know what you are going to get with their albums - 70's esque hard rock with some big riffs.  But they do it consistently well, and they have a remarkable ability to produce fresh-sounding material without straying too far from their roots - largely due, I think, to their near-unrivalled riff-writing ability as well as a bit more tempo variation and some clear development in their songwriting.  Cloak of Feathers and Arcane Montane are both great examples of this.  And the inclusion of an excellent ZZ Top cover is really the icing on the cake (and somewhat overdue).

9. POS - We Don't Even Live Here

Last year saw a great album from the Doomtree collective, and this year POS releases another excellent solo album, following on from Never Better.  I already blogged about this album, but it really highlights how under-rated POS is.  Musically and lyrically consistent, and I am personally a big fan of the way POS seems to deliver incisive lyrics with a smooth flow, without ever needing to resort to most of the usual hip-hop cliche's.  There's up-tempo tracks, there's slower tracks, there's even an excellent percussion-less track - and they're all good.

8. Adrenaline Mob - Omerta

This is entirely not what I expected from a supergroup consisting of various progressive rock and metal legends (Mike Portnoy, Russel Allen and Mike Orlando).  For a start, it's not progressive.  It's powerful, straight ahead hard rock / groove metal in a similar vein to some of the great material Corrosion of Conformity produced whilst Pepper Keenan was at the helm.  And it is kick-ass.  The only major diversion the album takes is to include an intriguing and memorable cover of Duran Duran's Come Undone.  It sounds to me like these guys had a lot of fun making this album - there's an enjoyable infectiousness throughout.

7. El-P - Cancer 4 Cure

This album seems to grow on me with every listen - and there's something about this record that just keeps me coming back to it.  From a production perspective, it's sparse, claustrophobic and bleak, but there's something about El-P's ability to craft immaculate beats that makes it very addictive.  Lyrically, he's on form throughout as well, but that was always going to be the case.  There are a lot fewer instant classics on this album than its predecessor, but there is still a great deal of depth to it.

6. Overkill - The Electric Age

You know what's great about music?  There's so damn much of it to explore.  Despite being a major hard rock and occasional metal aficionado, I hadn't heard Overkill until this year.  And they're not exactly spring chickens either, having been around since the heyday of thrash metal in the mid-80's.  But The Electric Age sounds exactly like a band that knows what they are about, and are proud of it - and they sure aren't gonna change that for anyone.  Thrashy, energetic and, well, electric

5. Mark Tremonti - All I Was

He was in Creed, then he was in Alter Bridge, and I'll be honest, I never really rated the guy as a guitarist until I saw Alter Bridge live earlier this year.  Turns out he is actually quite a phenomenal player, and as his debut album shows, he is no slouch as a solo artist either.  There's no amazing innovation, but the songs are well-crafted hard rock and unsurprisingly some of the solo work is pretty majestic.  Tremonti also handles lead vocal duties throughout and is pretty solid there too.  AND THE RIFFS!

You may well be totally sold on the album from the chorus of opener Leave It Alone - I certainly was.  Big thanks to my friends Amy and Antony who introduced me to this album - I may well have missed it otherwise.

4. Call Me No One - Last Parade

Clint Lowery and Morgan Rose, I salute you.  Not content with producing consistently excellent material with Sevendust (NEW ALBUM OUT NEXT YEAR!!!!), they decided to do a side project together, which is somewhat different but also excellent.  It's a little hard to pigeonhole, but it combines the edginess of Sevendust with the melody and hooks of, say, something like Foo Fighters.  I wrote a full review here, so suffice to say that this is a great album, an engaging listen across all of its 12 tracks, and a showcase of great rock songwriting and musicianship from two of the hardest-working guys in the game.

3. Soundgarden - King Animal

The biggest mistake a lot of people seem to be making with King Animal is expecting and wanting Soundgarden, version 2012, to sound like they did on Badmotorfinger.  They aren't that band now, and they weren't even that band when the mighty Superunknown came out.  King Animal is clever, and refined, and a bit more worldly, and all the things you'd probably expect now that the band is 15 years older than when they split up and most of them have kids.  And crucially, some of the best tracks on this album - Non State Actor, Black Saturday and Rowing are tracks that they never could have written in their earlier incarnation.  Which is why I think this album is one of the best of the year - a comeback album from a band that are clearly not resting their laurels.  There's a helluva lot of hidden detail here - things that only fully reveal themselves on repeat listens, like the extent of the layering on the chorus of Eyelid's Mouth.  Like I said here, they took a real risk with this album - and it paid off.

2. Deftones - Koi No Yokan

I liked Deftones' last album, Diamond Eyes, a lot.  I went back to it the other day after listening to Koi No Yokan a lot lately, and it didn't sound quite the same.  Not because it's changed, but because the Deftones have found a whole new level with Koi No Yokan.  It's still quintessentially Deftones, it's just that almost everything about it sounds like a massive step forward.  The hallmarks of their sound are unchanged - the haunting, eerie atmosphere, the gruff 8-string riffs, Chino Moreno's intense and varied vocals - but every aspect of their sound is more detailed and refined.  Songs - and in fact, the entire album - gradually unfold through various twists and turns and never disappoint. Rosemary is a particularly good example, a brilliant atmospheric build-up to a huge finale (reminiscent of Tool's Forty Six and Two), but their are plenty of other highlights.  Probably their best album yet.

(I said all that WITHOUT mentioning White Pony, too)

1. Testament - Dark Roots of Earth

Between this, and Overkill, you could be forgiven for thinking I'm an 80's thrash metal revivalist.  I'm not - although I am increasingly of the view that the 'Big Four' were certainly not the 'Best Four' when it comes to that genre.  I only discovered Testament this year as well, which was mainly thanks to inadvertently stumbling across a review of this album. And what an album it is - a consistently brilliant listen across its 9 tracks; a true masterclass in metal from one of the legendary acts.  Considering how great I think it is, it's surprising I never actually got around to writing a review - but I think I was just too busy listening to it, enjoying it.

And there is an awful lot to enjoy here.  Whereas previous album The Formation of Damnation took a very aggressive, direct approach, this time Testament vary it up a lot more, both in terms of tempo and dynamics.  Dark Roots of Earth starts with all guns blazing - opener Rise Up is a huge call to arms, with its main refrain of "When I say rise up, you say war", and its followed up with Chuck Billy's nod to his native American roots on Native Blood.  Balancing out tracks like this - and the utterly brilliant and brutal True American Hate (best intro EVER!) - are epics like Cold Embrace and the outstanding Throne of Thorns, which steadily crescendoes to a stunner of a solo from Alex Skolnick.  No doubt Skolnick can shred with the best of them - but what really shines about this solo is the sheer feel that he plays it with.  But that's just one of a number of stunning moments, not just from the dual guitar attack of Skolnick and Eric Peterson either - vocalist Chuck Billy is a regular menace, and the rhythm section of Greg Christian and Gene Hoglan are outstanding.  Hell, sometimes Hoglan is playing a whole counter-melody on the kick-drum. 

If this wasn't enough, the extended version features some pretty cool bonus tracks, including covers of Queen's Dragon Attack, the Scorpions' Animal Magnetism and Iron Maiden's Powerslave.  The first, in particular, is quite something to behold - as is the way Chuck Billy does Powerslave justice despite probably being a few octaves short of Bruce Dickinson's considerable vocal range.

Testament have one helluva musical pedigree, and they really bring their considerable experience, talent and power to bear on this album.  Great stuff - an album that just keeps me coming back for more.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The best of 2012, Part 1...

It's approaching that time of the year where music critics and fans pick some arbitrary number of their favourite albums over the last arbitrary 365 (or 366) day period.  I'll do that too, because lists are fun (lists of that kind, anyway.  Lists of chores = not so fun).  But in the meantime, as a sort of a predecessor and whilst I figure out exactly where the excellent new Deftones album slots in to my arbitrary list, I've instead got another list... this one of arbitrary musical things that I thought were worthy of mention, or recognition.

Best Live Album and Best Live Band
Machine Head - Machine F**king Head Live
Too easy, really.  Iron Maiden's En Vivo isn't half bad but it isn't Flight 666 and it certainly isn't Live After Death.  Alter Bridge's Live at Wembley is pretty decent without ever completely knocking it out of the park.  But you know what? Even if those two albums were mind-bogglingly awesome, they would still not come close to topping Machine F**king Head Live.  This album is everything a live album should be.  The setlist is near-perfect... leaning heavily on their excellent last two albums whilst also having the best of the older stuff.  The performances are intense, spirited, powerful - great renditions of some great songs.  And crucially, this live album captures exactly what a good Machine Head gig is like - a savage, beautiful maelstrom.

I was lucky enough to see them in February - they were astonishingly good.  And this album reminds me exactly how astonishingly good they were, live.  If you are a metal or hard rock fan and you have not seen this band live, you need to sort that (do not settle for just buying this admittedly excellent live album).
Best EP
Down - Down IV: The Purple EP
Does anyone remember all that talk a few years ago about how digital EP's were going to replace CD albums as the prevalent form of music distribution?  That sure never happened.  The EP is actually getting to be almost a lost art-form, which is a damned shame (according to iTunes, a single with two live b-sides constitutes an EP now, sadly).  Despite that, this was not as much of a one horse race as you might expect - the Company Band's Pros and Cons EP was also pretty solid.  But Down's latest was a sludgy, thick beast of a thing, a big return to form after their slightly hit-or-miss third album.  Oh, and Phil Anselmo also gave one of the best interviews I've ever read.

Best Music Video
I didn't really watch many music videos this year, to be honest.  Seems slightly odd in the YouTube era, but anyway.  Testament's video for Native Blood was pretty cool.  But in the end, El-P produced not one but two standout music videos, for a couple of tracks from Cancer 4 Cure: The Full Retard and Stay Down.  So I'm just going to give the award to El-P and then not have to figure out which is the better video.  It probably comes down to whether you have a bigger thing for inappropriate puppets or 80's schtick.

Best reissue
[still to be decided]
Before I start on this, whoever is is responsible for setting local pricing of some of the reissue box sets is ABSOLUTELY GOUGING.  Both the Rage Against the Machine XX reissue (2CD/2DVD/LP) and the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie reissue (5CD/1DVD) are getting local pricing which is ridiculously out of kilter with US pricing.  The flash version of RATM will set you back US$75 on Amazon... or NZ$225 from a number of local retailers. After accounting for currency conversion and shipping, the price difference is circa NZ$100 more if you buy locally.  That's completely ridiculous.  Not quite as bad in the case of Mellon Collie (US$128 versus NZ$225, and arguably still overpriced in USD terms!), but still material.  I suspect it's the local distributors trying to extract the best they can out of the small NZ market - but screw that.  I buy plenty of my music off Amazon now anyway and this will only reaffirm my commitment to do that.  This is only going to hurt NZ retailers when consumers switch to ordering online internationally, so the distributors are probably shooting themselves in the foot.

Anyway, after that little rant, the contenders (subject to me ACTUALLY BEING ABLE TO AFFORD THEM) are:
Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction 20th Anniversary
Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine XX (20th Anniversary)
Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Best album released 10 years ago
Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf
2002 seemed like a great year for music at the time, and looking back I think it still holds up pretty well.  But nothing from that year has held up as well as the remarkable Songs for the Deaf, the third - and best - QOTSA album.  It's an album I always seem to return to regularly, a fantastic hard rock record which has that timeless quality to it that all really great albums have.  It sounded unique and original then, and it still does.  QOTSA took everything they did so well on Rated R - great hooks and catchy melodies - added a whole lot more raw energy and edginess (largely thanks to Nick Oliveri, who left not long after), and produced a hard album that brilliantly straddles heavy and melodic. 

Coincidentally, ten years since he last drummed for them, Dave Grohl is back behind the kit for QOTSA during recording sessions for their new album following the abrupt departure of Joey Castillo.  I'm pretty excited about this because Grohl's drumming was a big highlight of Songs for the Deaf - maybe it'll add that extra edge that they've missed since Oliveri left (it certainly worked for Them Crooked Vultures).

It's always a great track live - but this performance with occasional contributor Mark Lanegan on vocals and Grohl on the kit is one of my favourites:

Best weird obscure limited-edition singleClutch - Pigtown Blues
This is really just an excuse for me to mention this song, which is excellent.  It took a while to grow on me but once it took hold there was no letting go.  It's hard to imagine this on any Clutch album as it is a slightly quirky (albeit groovy) number, so I can understand the logic for the single release.  Did I mention they have a new album coming next year?

Anyway, the top albums of the year will follow in the not-too-distant future...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

League vs. Rugby, are we still on about that?

With the ARLC recommending that the shoulder charge be banned this week for the 2013 NRL season, the league versus rugby debate seems to have been (unfortunately) reignited on comment threads.  Again.  This blog was always intended to be primarily a music blog but I am so honest-to-god sick of seeing the rugby-head (league is an inferior imitation) mentality on display that I couldn't not write something.

So here we go, a bunch of myths that rugby-heads try to perpetuate about rugby league, and why they are wrong (or in some cases, entirely hypocritical).

I should preface all of this by saying that I am a league fan.  I am also a hockey player and umpire.  I occasionally watch rugby, but not very often, and not as much as I used to (some of the reasons why may be evident below).  I don't think union sucks.  I just prefer league, and other sports.

1. "League is just 5 tackles then kick it"
Wrong.  Ever seen Ben Barba or Greg Inglis on a kick-return?  Nothing predictable about that.  Even in 'regular play' teams will have specific plans for the tackle count, typically working it either straight up the middle, or to one side and then the other.  By the 4th tackle, the backs will be involved and then all sorts of options come into play.  Sometimes there's a kick on the fifth.  Sometimes there isn't.  Some of league's most memorable tries have been scored when teams didn't kick it on the last and were deep inside their own territory.

League's structure provides a lot of opportunity for backline moves too.  In rugby, this would typically only happen from a set-piece.  In league, it's a possibility every time a team is inside the opposition's half.  Watching the Storm or Bulldogs backlines in action, running second man plays or whatever else, is pretty impressive stuff.

2. "League is a joke as an international sport"
True, but hypocritical and pointless.  Rugby union is only slightly better, really.  In league there are only three teams with a serious crack at the World Cup - NZ, Australia and England.  In rugby union there's also a clear top tier (NZ, Australia, South Africa), but there's also a pretty reasonable second tier from Europe (plus Argentina).  But this is a silly point for league-haters to make for several reasons.

Firstly, both are completely crap as so-called 'international' sports - comparable to ice hockey, arguably behind cricket, and certainly nothing compared to genuine global sports like football, basketball and field hockey.

Secondly, it's a mistake to assume that international competition is the pinnacle of league, or any sport.  Many would say State of Origin is, for league.  However, international competition fits into the league calendar around the NRL (and Super League) club season.  The club season is what the fans primarily get excited about.  And there's a good reason why - the NRL is a well-organised, well-structured competition.  It's competitive - on a given day, any team can beat any other team (and upsets do happen) - this is thanks partly to the salary cap and partly because the current NRL is well aware of the dangers of over-expansion, thanks to the disaster of the mid-1990's (anyone remember the South Queensland Crushers?!).  Super Rugby doesn't seem to have figured this out yet.

Anyway, in league, test matches are something of a cherry on top of the season.  There's nothing that says sport has to revolve around international matches - basketball and the NBA are a good example here.  The AFL is an even more extreme case - Collingwood's average home crowd in the AFL was 56,000 in 2012, and I doubt any of those fans care that the sport is almost unknown outside of Australia.

3.  "Union provides for a more diverse range of players"
This is true, but pointless.  Between locks, props, loose forward, halves and outside backs, union does have a broader range of player sizes.  You can generally figure out who the halves are on a league team; beyond that it can get hard.  But so what?  This is elite level sport.  Most soccer players have a similar build.  So do most hockey players.  It's nothing to do with body shape and all about skills, attitude and athletic ability.

I'd also suggest league's structure creates more scope for the smaller players to use their speed and agility.  Someone like Robbie Farah can cause absolute havoc out of dummy half against a tired opposition forward pack.

4. "League players (and fans) are dumb and/or thugs"
This is wrong, and a stupid thing to say.  The suggestion here is "your sport sucks or is somehow less worthy because the average IQ of the players and fans is lower".  Take this to its logical conclusion, and the pinnacle of sport would involve some sort of battle between Einstein and Stephen Hawking, watched by the members of MENSA.

Like any sport, some league players are smart and others are not so smart.  But they're on a sports field, not working at NASA, right? They are there to be good at the game, not to be rocket scientists.

At least league players have got a bit of personality too.  James Maloney has made some great quips on Twitter, as have others.  I'm sure the NZRU would be pretty quick to squash any similar banter if it came from contracted union players.

Anyway, the same point also applies to allegations of thuggery.  Yes, league has players like Steve Matai who keep the judiciary productively employed.  But it's pretty farcical for rugbyheads to throw stones of this nature when they live in glass houses - look at the sort of silly, dangerous acts we've seen this season from Dean Greyling, Adam Thomson, Rob Simmons and others.

As to the fans, it's no different.  Some league fans are smart and others are not so smart.  I know passionate league fans who are CEO's, teachers, builders, and accountants.  The fan base is as diverse as any other sport.  Let's not forget also that a lot of NZers are both rugby and league fans - so there can't be that much difference in a small place like New Zealand.

I will also add that I have heard far more creative, clever and downright hilarious sledging (of the opposition, referee, and occasionally the home team) at Mt. Smart than I've ever heard at Eden Park.  I've witnessed the odd person do something a bit dumb, or who was a bit too wasted, but I've never seen any fights.  I'd probably liken the camaraderie between league fans to a bit like what you get at a metal concert.  People are passionate, and not afraid to show it - but you rarely see them getting stuck into each other.  Maybe they drink Lion Red instead of Steinlager.  So what?

5. "League is simple.  Union is far more complex"
True - if we're talking just about the rules. 

But is that actually a bad thing, having simple rules?  I know from playing and umpiring sport myself that confusion over rules or interpretations is probably the single most frustrating thing there is for players and fans.  About the only thing worse is when the referee makes an absolute howler of a decision.  Clear rules mean that players know exactly how far they can push it, what they can and can't do - this is totally crucial at the elite level where the best players are experts at pushing it to the absolute limit.  There's nothing good about a penalty being awarded for reasons that neither players nor fans can understand.

And the trouble with union's complex rules - and rule interpretations - is that this does happen, and it influences the outcome of games.  Scrums in union can be a total lottery and the ruck situation is not always much better.  Confusion over which team collapsed the scrum can (and does) lead to one side getting a points-scoring opportunity that they should not have had.

As for the gameplay itself, I appreciate that there is considerable depth to rugby, and I've already explained above why league also has a lot more depth to it than than non-fans might realise at first glance. 

6. "League is very stop start.  Union is always a flowing game"
False.  Yes, league has regular tackles and play-the-balls.  These are no more disruptive to the flow of the game than a ruck in a union match.  There are far fewer stoppages in a league match - no lineouts, de-powered scrums (which are, admittedly, a bit of a joke), and less injury stoppages (given the interchange rules).  Consequently, the actual time the ball is in play is quite a lot higher.  About the only time there is a break in play of more than 20-30 seconds is when a try is scored, or there is a referral to the video referee.  Aside from that - it's all on.

Finally, I would add that I don't really care too much that rugbyheads perpetuate these myths.  What bugs me is that they are either wrong or irrelevant.  If you're going to start slagging off other sports - especially rival codes - at least say something sensible.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Soundgarden - King Animal

Soundgarden aren't the only band from the late 80's / early 90's Seattle era on the comeback trail, but personally, I think they had the biggest obstacles in their way.

There's a real art to finishing on a high, you see, and Soundgarden managed this when they split in 1997.  They pulled the plug on the back of Down on the Upside, a good album which followed two legendary albums in Badmotorfinger and the exceptional Superunknown.  Things were starting to get messy internally, so they parted ways before creative or musical decay set in, before it could get to the stage where they were just phoning it in.  I've always thought they were posthumously accorded a certain reverence as a band for this exact reason - they called it quits at the right time and left a great legacy.

The other thing making it tough for them is that their contemporaries have set the bar quite high.  Pearl Jam have put out consistently good albums - and have garnered a deserved reputation as one of the greatest live acts in the world (not to mention that they change the setlist up practically every night).  Alice in Chains put out a great comeback album, Black Gives Way to Blue, and proved that despite losing legendary singer Layne Staley, they were still a major musical force to be reckoned with.  Nirvana, well, they continue to maintain demi-god status but I'd maintain that's got more to do with Kurt Cobain's face being on a lot of t-shirts and Dave Grohl's subsequent antics than it does with Nirvana's actual recorded output (better I don't get started on that).

And now here we are, in 2012, with a new Soundgarden album.  Frankly, for a while, there were pretty long odds on that ever happening.  Singer Chris Cornell spent time with Audioslave, and seemed pretty happy doing his own thing and putting out solo material (I'm going to resist the opportunity for another potshot at Scream).  Drummer Matt Cameron linked up with Pearl Jam, and proved to be a great - and permanent - solution to their revolving door line-up of drummers.  Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd did various things that no-one really paid that much attention to (which is a shame, really, because they are both excellent musicians).

Putting all this together, I think Soundgarden had more to lose than to gain with this album - collectively, at least.  Hearing their first 'post-reunion' track Live to Rise, from The Avengers, only fuelled that view - it's pretty by-the-numbers for a band who generally excelled at anything but that.

Nor was I any more hopeful after opening track Been Away Too Long.  It's a decent enough rock song, I guess I just didn't expect a reasonably straightforward straight with a reasonably obvious message. 

But oh my does it ever improve from there.  Second track Non State Actor is an absolute gem, with a glorious opening groove from the band that shifts and segues through the verse, before hitting a great chorus, simultaneously psychedelic and melodic.  It's a song that steadily unfolds, that demands your attention, and never settles for second place - there are subtle twists and turns throughout.  When I listen to this track, it feels like the band started with a good idea, and then threw absolutely everything they could at it to make it even better (whilst individually performing at the top of their respective games).  It's so good, that it convinced me the reunion was worth it just for this one song.

It's followed up with By Crooked Steps, an aptly-titled continuation of Soundgarden's Wacky Adventures in Weird Time Signatures.  Not content with accidentally writing songs in odd meters (example: Spoonman), this time they've excelled themselves by pairing a fairly straight riff (seemingly 4/4) with a series of weird and wandering time signatures.  But, music geekery aside, it's a interesting, catchy track.

There's a couple of head-nods to major influences on the next couple of tracks - the eastern-tinged A Thousand Days Before recalls classic Led Zeppelin (partly thanks to Kim Thayil sounding particularly mystic), whilst the doomy, sludgy Blood on the Valley Floor has a distinct Black Sabbath flavour to it.

Bones of Birds and Taree are both steady, mid-tempo numbers.  The former is a big highlight - intricately detailed with layered guitars and vocals, whilst maintaining an effortless catchiness to it as well.

Attrition is essentially Kickstand 2012 - a fairly straight-ahead punkish track, although it's a welcome change of tempo ahead of the winding acoustic groover Black Saturday - which will make you wonder why Messrs. Cornell and Thayil never pulled out the acoustic guitars a little more frequently on Soundgarden records (I suspect Cornell's Songbook tour was a formative influence on this track).

Cornell is also a clear influence on Halfway There, which almost sounds like it might have fit better on a Cornell solo record.  It's more of a pop song - not a bad one - but it almost sounds a little too, well, happy, to be Soundgarden.

Worse Dreams and Eyelid's Mouth are both classic Soundgarden - heavy, thick but infernally catchy - and the album finishes with the experimental, sparse, Rowing.

All told, King Animal has more than enough moments of sheer excellence from Soundgarden - both collectively and individually - to hold its head high amongst their impressive back catalogue.  It'd be easy to criticise the inclusion of Been Away Too Long and Halfway There as obvious singles, but I'm happy to overlook that when they're sitting alongside tracks where the band takes big risks (with big payoffs), like Black Saturday, Non State Actor and By Crooked Steps.

History is littered with bands who have cast a poor light on their legacy by either flogging a dead horse, or making an ill-advised 'comeback'.  King Animal is neither of these things, and a very clear reminder that Soundgarden are as unique - and relevant - today as they were 15 years ago.  Welcome back, guys.

edit: A mate (cheers John!) has just drawn my attention to this recent live performance of By Crooked Steps.  Well worth a watch.  I never really spent a lot of time talking about Matt Cameron in my original review, but this reminded me of his ability.  He always seems to play with a great feel for the song - even when it's in some weird-ass time signature - but never overly flashy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Unexpected surprises...

A couple of unexpected musical surprises have infiltrated my iPod in the last week.

The first was the new album from ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, entitled Lost Songs

One never knows quite what to expect with Trail of Dead.  Ten years ago, they released the universally acclaimed Source Tags and Codes, which followed the also-pretty-decent Madonna.  It was a great album in a year of excellent releases off the beaten track - that year we also had The Music's self-titled debut (a peak they sadly never managed to repeat), Down's outstanding second album, and the mighty Songs for the Deaf (ironically, ten years later, Dave Grohl is now back playing drums for Queens of the Stone Age on their new album following Joey Castillo's departure).  Anyway, one of the many great things about ST&C is that Trail of Dead struck an exceptional balance between hard hitting and wistful, energetic and restrained, tight and sprawling.

It sort of went downhill from Trail of Dead after that though.  Follow-up album Worlds Apart started with a hiss and a roar with the brilliant Will You Smile Again? (bonus points for the stupendously good intro in 5/4 time) but from that point on Trail of Dead started a downward tilt, with nothing to write home about on the rest of that album or the next two.

So I was caught a little off guard by last year's Tao of the Dead.  Having essentially written this band off, an 'epic prog rock concept album' had 'potential disaster' written all over it.  Except it actually turned out to be very good.  Colour me once again a Trail of Dead fan, albeit tentative.  And it was in that frame of mind that I approached Lost Songs.

One thing you can never accuse Trail of Dead of is being lazy or afraid to experiment.  ST&C and Tao were good for exactly the same reasons that some of their other material was forgettable - some experiments turn out great and others inevitably flop. 

It's probably no real surprise then that Lost Songs sounds almost entirely different to its direct predecessor.  In fact, Lost Songs largely eschews the sprawling, progressive aesthetic in favour of an unashamedly direct, almost punk approach.  And it's really, really good.  From the outset, there's considerably more emphasis on riffs, shouting, distortion and crash cymbals than we've heard from this band in quite some time, but it's balanced out well by the occasional mid-song wistful meander. 

There's still hints of prog, most notably on the mid-album melancholic groove of Flower Card Games.  But in general, the riffs are big, the drumming is fast with plenty of tom rolls and rapid-fire snare, and the choruses are best shouted.  It never really feels unrelenting or repetitive though, thanks to the occasional atmospheric diversion.  And there's a few huge euphoric moments too that recall tracks like Days of Being Wild - most notably Bright Young Things.

Overall, a very enjoyable album and I'd almost go so far as to call myself a Trail of Dead fan once again.

Moving along, the second unexpected surprise is the new P.O.S. album, We Don't Even Live Here.  To be clear, this was unexpected purely because I forgot it was coming out and I'd preordered it from Amazon.  I had few doubts that it was going to be a good listen though - Never Better was one of my favourite albums of 2009, and last year's Doomtree album (of which P.O.S. is a member) was also very good. 

There's definitely a strong electro influence evident here in terms of production, but equally P.O.S. and the various other producers continue to layer in actual instruments to give a slightly more organic sound.  P.O.S. still maintains his trademark excellent delivery and flow - he's sonically direct but lyrically abstract, if that makes any sense. 

As an album it's well put together, with an easy flow from one track to the next and no weak moments.  There's nothing perhaps as instantly stand-out as Drumroll (We're All Thirsty) from Never Better, but the album as a whole is a real grower and there are still some pretty exceptional tracks - most notably Lock-picks, Knives, Bricks and Bats, and the propulsive Weird Friends (We Don't Even Live Here).

I don't listen to a lot of hip-hop these days but I still can't help but feel that P.O.S. doesn't seem to get the props that his music deserves.  We Don't Even Live Here sees P.O.S. consistently delivering some clever, insightful lyrics combined with some great and often unique production. 

When it comes to hip-hop in 2012, We Don't Even Live Here is right up there for me with El-P's Cancer 4 Cure.  Intelligent, different and consistently good.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

2012: The Year of the Side Project?

Side projects are always a bit hit-or-miss, especially when people start throwing the dreaded 'supergroup' tag around, but it's incredible how much side project gold we've seen so far this year.

As it stands, four of my top five albums so far this year** could be labelled 'side projects', and there's still more to come.

First up was Adrenaline Mob's Omerta.  From a group comprising Russel Allen (vocalist for Symphony X), Mike Portnoy (former Dream Theater drummer) and guitarist Mike Orlando, I probably would have expected some hard-edged progressive metal.  What they actually produced was an album of surprisingly direct, kick-ass hard rock / groove metal.  Admittedly there was one wildcard in there - a really good cover of Duran Duran's Come Undone.  But mostly the Mob just rocks, and rocks hard. 

Next was the second solo album from former Nevermore guitarist Jeff Loomis, Plains of Oblivion.  I was pretty late to the party with Nevermore (blog on that pending), but they've rapidly became one of my most loved groups.  Anyway, all was not well in the Nevermore camp in 2011 with Loomis and drummer Van Williams leaving, and things have been in limbo since, although recently there have been some suggestions of a thawing of relationships between Loomis and singer Warrel Dane.  That aside, Loomis' second album is a good listen, with a bit more structure to it than the first, as well as some great guest spots from Ihsahn, Chris Poland (ex-Megadeth), Marty Friedman (also ex-Megadeth), and others.  I'm not quite as wild about the tracks with Christine Rhoads, but there's certainly a lot to enjoy here, particularly for Nevermore fans.

I've already written a review of Call Me No One's Last Parade, which still stands as my favourite album of the year to date, and comes courtesy of Clint Lowery and Morgan Rose of Sevendust heading in a slightly different direction.  It's a great collection of well-written, cleverly-detailed hard rock songs and a real showcase of the musicianship of Lowery and Rose.

More recently, some friends introduced me to All I Was by Alter Bridge and Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti.  I've seen Alter Bridge live a couple of times and it's readily apparent that Tremonti has some insane guitar skills, as well as a fantastic ear for a good riff.  Well, All I Was comprises a bunch of great material Tremonti put together that didn't really fit either the Creed or Alter Bridge canon.  Best described as hard rock, bordering on metal, it's a very strong album which has moments of total brilliance.  My personal favourite is the album opener, Leave It Alone - there's something about the chord progression in the main chorus that just hits me every single time.  Turns out Tremonti is a pretty solid singer and a very accomplished songwriter too - yes there are predictably some (enjoyable) moments of guitar showboating here, but they never overpower the songs. 

And in the 'still to come' category, is the debut album Human from Projected, featuring John Connolly (Sevendust guitarist), Vinnie Hornsby (Sevendust bassist), Scott Phillips (Creed / Alter Bridge drummer) and Eric Friedman (current Creed touring guitarist).  I have pretty high hopes for this one because anyone who has seen Sevendust live will be aware of the energy that Connolly and Hornsby bring to the party, not to mention their ear for a good hard rock groove.  And some of the early reviews are promising indeed.  It's out pretty soon, but here's a little taste:

** Incidentally, the fifth is El-P's Cancer for Cure.  Can't really pass that off as a side project, although Jaime Meline does have many fingers in many pies.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Call Me No One - Last Parade

I love Sevendust.  I mean, I really, really love them.  I consider them to be massively under-rated, which I attribute to them being lumped in with the nu-metal crowd when they emerged in the late '90's/early '00's.  But hey, people called Deftones nu-metal as well.  All I know is that I associate that particular genre tag with a certain pretty terrible band whose lead singer (if you can call it that) spazzes out when someone touches his hat.  Anyway, Sevendust are a hard / rock / metal band, and a very good one at that.

However, Last Parade is not a Sevendust album, and possibly it's unfair that I've begun this review with a spiel about how great Sevendust are.  But, if not for my love of Sevendust, I'm not sure I would've discovered this particular gem.  You see, Call Me No One is the lovechild of 7D guitarist Clint Lowery and 7D drummer Morgan Rose.  Lowery released a couple of solo acoustic EPs under the guise of Hello Demons Meet Skeletons, and this was originally envisaged as a more electric version of that, with Morgan on board.

Reading between the lines conveyed on social media, at some point fairly early in the creative process the project seems to have taken on a life of its own, and the end result was that Clint and Morgan wrote, recorded, produced and mixed an album's worth of material in a very short period of time - under a month.

My initial reaction to trying to get an album done in that sort of window was, oh god, I hope it doesn't turn out like One By One, which the Foo Fighters mostly recorded in two weeks, and which was mostly filler.

Thankfully, I was way off the mark there.  Not even close.

Last Parade is a very finely-crafted piece of hard rock, and the best album I've heard so far this year.  It's melodic, accessible and catchy, but still quite clearly hard rock.  To put it simply, 7D fans will enjoy it, but at its core this is a great rock album irrespective of the other band the members happen to be in, and it's got a huge amount of crossover appeal.  I guess a potential analogy here is that CMNO is the Queens of the Stone Age to 7D's Kyuss. 

What really sets this record apart isn't Morgan's drumming (outstanding), or Clint's guitar work (ditto... and some great solos too), or even Clint's vocal work (which was largely unheralded and fits the songs extremely well) - it's the quality and variation of the songwriting.  And maybe we should've expected that from a pair who have combined on many of 7D's greatest moments, but the songwriting here is a noticeably different beast.

Many of the songs here have an instant infectiousness to them - they catch your ear and refuse to let go.  But when you look past that immediacy and listen a bit more carefully, you notice all sorts of clever things happening, like the vocal harmonisation in The World is Dead, the guitar layering in Thunderbird, the way the groove in Pleased to Meet You is so effortless because of the notes that Morgan Rose isn't playing, the way guitar and drums dance around the vocals to emphasise the post-intro build in closing track Last Parade.

And that neat balance and attention to detail isn't just on individual songs - it's also true of the album as a whole.  There are direct, 'fuck yeah!' rock moments like Biggest Fan and Hillbilly, but they're balanced with more introspective moments like Broken Record.  There are some sweeping, massive-sounding songs like All's Well, Soapbox and Last Parade which unfold beautifully, but also enhance the immediacy of the more catchy songs that they sit alongside.

2012 is only half done, but it's going to take something pretty special to dislodge Last Parade from the top of my charts.  Great stuff.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Clutch road-testing new material...

So, Clutch have just finished touring the US with Hellyeah.  Seemed like a really odd combination of bands to me - Clutch are certainly a thinking man's hard-rock band, whereas Hellyeah are more of the beer-drinking and hell-raising variety.  Don't get me wrong - I enjoy them both, but it's an odd combination.  Even odder is the fact it's a co-headline tour... Hellyeah have barely 5 years on the clock and 2 albums to their name (with a third pending), whereas Clutch have over 20 years and a pretty impressive back catalogue.

I mean, of course I'd go if they toured it down here, but I doubt that's going to happen.

Grumbles aside, one highlight of the tour - from what I've read - is the fact that Clutch have debuted a bunch of new songs and used the tour as a chance to road-test and fine tune them, in advance of a possible new album release later this year.

From what I've heard so far on YouTube, all the signs are pointing towards this being a ripper of an album.
(credit to the diligent posters on Clutch's official message board Sassafras Cove for tracking all of the videos down and of course thanks to the good folks who posted them in the first place)

Newt Gingrich was one of the first tracks to be performed - as early as last year.  The main riff is huge, but equally impressive is the way bassist Dan Maines anchors this track brilliantly.  It combines the up-tempo vibe of Freakonomics with the more hard-rock attitude of the Blast Tyrant era.  Great chorus too: "Mind yourself as you walk out the door... the wolfman is coming out".  Could potentially be as huge for them as The Mob Goes Wild (and not dissimilar either).

Pigtown Blues debuted in mid-2011 as well and is soon to get a limited vinyl-only release - so it's not clear whether or not this will appear on the new album or whether it's just some special rare thingamabob.  It sounds like this was written around the time the band were putting together Basket of Eggs for the Blast Tyrant reissue - there's a real Southern vibe to it which also recalls Steve Doocy and Box Car Shorty's Confession

Crucial Velocity starts out reeeeallllly doomy - the guitar tones recall Clutch's very earliest material, before some great tempo changes - shades of the up-tempo aggression of Burning Beard and the stomp-rock of Promoter (Of Earthbound Causes) are both recalled at times.  Possibly my favourite of the new material thus far.

Cyborg Betty has a real up-tempo boogie vibe to it and one has to wonder if this track was originally conceived alongside some of the Beale Street material given it also comes with a healthy dollop of blues.  Really nice guitar work and a great solo from Tim Sult here.

Rush the Face's initial segment is a bit sparse although I think this is partly to allow Neil's lyrics to come to the fore... he clearly hasn't lost his knack for fantastic, cryptic lyrics with gems like "1000 chessmasters thrown into the sea... religion and liquor, they lost their minds". Which then later evolves to said chessmasters rising up from the sea.  How does he come up with this stuff?  Anyway, there is a pretty sweet riff a bit further along.  This one feels like it might still be slightly unfinished, but the alternative explanation is that the band are planning a concept album a la Blast Tyrant and that this track is intended to serve more of a lyrical than a musical purpose in that regard. 

There's always some guy yelling 'Spacegrass'.  Fortunately, on the live video below, the band instead play Earth Rocker which is jagged and impetuous and a little bit Steppenwolf.  The audio quality isn't great but initial indications are that the chorus is of Electric Worry-like proportions. 
"Come on, rock on! Everybody hear me now
Come on, rock on!  Everybody get the message

British Intelligence comes complete with MOAR COWBELL!  This one is a hard-rocking track that really has Neil to the fore with an aggressive vocal delivery a la Cypress Grove

Night Hag originally didn't grab me - good, but not amazing - but there is a pretty cool solo from Tim about halfway through. 

Last, but by no means least, is Puerta Abierta.  A serious ass-kicker of a track this one - the whole band is really in full flight here with each member neatly showcased around a scorching main riff and a great solo section.

This isn't all either - other tracks to have reportedly surfaced include Nuevo Doom and Brass Tacks.  By my count that's a total of 11 tracks - and who knows what other demos or partly finished tracks might be lurking.  Between European festival dates and some US headline dates, they're unlikely to be back in the studio for a while.  We might be waiting a little longer for studio album #9 but I suspect it will be well worth it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Shihad: The Albums

Ah blog, I've neglected you of late.  I must have been too busy working or something.  Sorry about that.  Time to refocus.

And with the Shihad documentary coming out this weekend, that seems like an ideal topic starter.  Unfortunately a fair chunk of the headlines have centred around the scraps between directors and producer.  I think that's a bit of a disservice to a band who have so consistently demonstrated an ability to rise above that sort of thing, but anyway.  It makes good news, I guess.

I can vividly remember the first Shihad song I heard - it was Factory.  I heard it on bfm... no idea who it was by but I had it dubbed to cassette, as was the style of the time, and I played it a lot.  I loved the way the industrial feel of the song perfectly matched the chorus... "stuck... stuck... stuck in a factory stuck".  Not the most eloquent lyric Jon Toogood ever wrote, but it worked.

I figured out it was Shihad when I heard Bitter, maybe a year or so later, and put two and two together.  That was the song that really got me into the band.  The urgency, the way it grooved along without ever falling into any sort of standard verse-chorus-verse, that catchy main hook: "you're so bitter inside", the distinctive buzzsaw guitar tones, and above all, those huge chords in the bridge.  Fantastic song.

Since then, I've picked up pretty much every Shihad album at, or close to, release.  It's fair to say that I like their old stuff better than their new stuff, but the contribution of this band to my life, to New Zealand music, has earned them my loyalty.  Above all, though, their live shows are what commands the most respect.  I've seen this band live countless times, and they never, ever disappoint.  They've even figured out how to use festival sets effectively, which remains a mystery to many bands.  They can play a "regular" concert, and it's always great.  They can play an old album in its entirety, and throw in a couple of obscure old tracks as an encore, and it's amazing.  They can play a chronological 'greatest hits' type set, and it's brilliant.  Maybe they never figured out quite how to make that work in the US, but well, timing (or lack of) was everything there unfortunately.  But if you are a New Zealander aged between 25-40 and you have not seen this band live, you need to fix that.

So anyway, my tribute to Shihad will be in the form of a list - my favourite Shihad albums, starting from the bottom and working to the top.  Studio albums only - the live album is brilliant in its own right though, and essential.  Here goes.

#8. Beautiful Machine (2008)

I was nervous when the promo material for this album talked about every Shihad album being a dramatic departure from its predecessor - like the self-titled album was with respect to Killjoy.  I liked Killjoy a lot.  I also liked Beautiful Machine's predecessor Love is the New Hate a lot.  And unfortunately that 'dramatic departure' didn't win me over.  The album is for the most part much more catchy and accessible and "radio-friendly".  It's just that isn't the Shihad that I really love.  Aside from Rule the World and Vampires, this album just doesn't do it for me - it's just not very interesting.  Also I hate the way Tom Larkin's snare sounds on this album - it's a nasty, shallow, synthetic sound which unfortunately seemed to be really popular at the time. 

#7. Shihad (1996)
Some really good moments on this, their self-titled album AKA The Fish AlbumHome Again deservedly became one of their biggest hits, while Ghost from the Past and La La Land saw them marry the heavy crunch of their earlier material with tight songwriting.  But beyond the good moments there is certainly some filler... although melancholic closing track Boat Song almost manages to redeem these.

#6. Ignite (2010)
After hearing the first half of this album, I was convinced this was potentially on track to be one of their best.  Opening track Final Year of the Universe is an absolute revelation, a very clever marriage of industrial grind and just enough sun peeking in the corners.  Certainly one of the most unique songs the band have written and 20 years in, that isn't to be taken lightly.  And then it's followed with the hydraulically grunty and exceptionally well-constructed Lead or Follow - which tips its hat to Factory whilst adding a scorching chorus and 'that' bridge at 2:52 (which is a serious HOLY S%$T moment).  Followed by I'm A Void, In the Future and Sleepeater - this is an exceptional start to an album.  It sort of peters out a bit after that though and loses its balance - Nemesis (Dark Star) is one of the most punkish tracks they've written but feels a bit odd coming after slower, moodier numbers like Ignite and Engage.  Closing track Cold Heart is a winner, but ultimately this album falls into the 'almost great' category thanks to its meandering middle.

Of course it could have been fixed if they'd included the propulsive, snarly Beatlab (a bonus track on some versions) somewhere in the middle - bit of an unfortunate omission, that.

#5. Pacifier (2003)

Forget all the bullshit that surrounded it... this is a good album.  At this point in time, the band had demonstrated they could rock hard, and they'd also demonstrated they could write pretty catchy, accessible songs.  This album is really where they put those two elements together to good effect.  Tracks like Semi-Normal, Bullitproof, Trademark and Comfort Me hit hard but balance that with some great harmonies and sing-along choruses.  Then there are a few acoustically led tracks like Home and closing track Coming Down which provide a good (probably essential) counterpoint without stalling the album's momentum at all.  After quickly revisiting this album for the purposes of blog, I've concluded I need to listen to it more often - it's certainly unfairly overlooked.

And for the record, once again one of my favourite Shihad songs from the respective era unfortunately isn't on it - in this case the mighty Toxic Shock.

#4. The General Electric (1999)
This was the album that took Shihad from student radio favourite to huge drawcard, and for good reason - it's a good album with some great songs.  Most notably the title track, which from a songwriting perspective was easily Shihad's crowning accomplishment at that time - it's an absolute monster of a song.  From an album perspective it's really a group of quite different songs that the band have magically hung together in a way that somehow works - the punkish My Mind's Sedate, the bouncy Wait and See, the singalong of Pacifier, the slow-building Spacing, the aggressive-passive-aggressive of The Metal Song, and a personal favourite - the often overlooked mid-tempo groove of Life in Cars.  It isn't perfect but it's still pretty damn good.

#3. Churn (1993)
The album that started it all (although it was preceded by the Devolve EP).   Savage, uncompromising and occasionally beautiful.  Even in the early days it was pretty obvious that Shihad had an innate sense of melody and some great songwriting chops as well as a strong love of metal.  And yeah, this album is largely about the metal, thanks to the powerful industrial crunch of Factory and Derail, and the thrash-influenced Screwtop - all of which remain live favourites to this day.  But let's not forget about I Only Said, which bristles and broods for three minutes before the Big Metal Outro.  Or the mighty Stations for that matter.

#2. Love is the New Hate (2005)
Well, this was unexpected.  After a multi-album trend towards tighter, hookier songs, Shihad throw that particular book out in favour of a particularly metal approach.  It might be bookended by the pensive None of the Above and the wistful Guts and the Glory, but in between those two tracks Love is the New Hate is one hard, aggressive piece of work.  It almost sounds like the band has ignored ten years of their own history and produced an album that sounds more like a logical successor to Churn and Killjoy - because it sure doesn't sound like Pacifier.  On first listen, this album completely blew me away - particularly tracks like Big Future, All the Young Fascists, Day Will Come and Alive which were like nothing I'd ever heard from Shihad before.  There's a little filler, but when this album is good, it's just so very, very good.

#1. Killjoy (1995)
Ah, that old chestnut.  Band produces astoundingly good album early in their career that then becomes the yardstick by which all subsequent albums are judged.  I think Shihad have sort of escaped this to some extent by being such musical chameleons at times, but Killjoy is still their gold standard, their 5-star moment of brilliance.  I was lucky enough to hear them perform the album in its entirety last year - which really only entrenched my views, because genuinely great albums still have a knack of sounding fresh, even 15 years or more down the track.  The crunch of You Again, the adrenaline of Bitter, the stand-offishness of The Call, the call-to-arms of closing track Get Up... this is one consistently outstanding album from start to finish.  Undoubtedly a desert island disc for me.

So there you have it - my views on Shihad's recorded catalogue.  Perhaps you agree - or perhaps you don't.  Are you planning to see the documentary?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Songs to ride to...

So, last year I was introduced to the joys of snowboarding.  Or, more correctly, I spent a couple of days learning how not to fall over, and THEN I discovered the joys of snowboarding.

Anyway, following a couple of awesome weeks up at Sun Peaks in Canada in January, I am now completely addicted (and, importantly, not completely useless) and we're already planning our next snow adventures.  Frankly, there is not much that compares to being up on the mountain... the fresh cold air, the vast expanses of white snow, the peacefulness punctuated only by an occasional 'swoosh' of edge on snow, and the feeling of thinking only about what is in front of you, what line you could take down that hill, how you could cut through that glade or trick off that feature - the possibilities!  Frankly - at least on what little I've seen - Canada fully has it over NZ in this regard, but snow is still better than no snow.

But this blog is not about snowboarding, this blog is about music.  See, initially, I never would've considered putting a pair of headphones on while snowboarding.  Music would have been another distraction from the crucial task of not-falling-over while making one's way down a run.  But the other day, I had the iPod on shuffle, and I was struck by the thought of how kick-ass it would be to crank Space Hoes by Dangerdoom while riding down the mountain. 

This was always one of my favourite MF Doom tracks - Doom's usual brilliant flow, over a particularly groovy (and insanely catchy) Danger Mouse beat.  But considered as a track to ride to, it took on a whole new dimension.  Relaxed and laidback but with an irrepressible - and FUN - groove, I can't imagine many songs better to listen to while cruising down a run.

So then, of course, the challenge was to construct a whole playlist of songs that might be similarly excellent to ride to - noting of course that firstly I can't roadtest this until August, and secondly, I doubt my current headphones would fit on under my helmet.  But still, definitely worth thinking about.

And one thing that occurred to me very early on was that - as much as I love hard rock and metal - it's generally not a great snowboarding soundtrack.  It's a bit too aggressive for cruising to (unless you're doing hardcore speed runs, I guess), and in the case of metal the complexity tends to hinder the all-important flow.  Not to mention that listening to, say, Trapped Under Ice or Headcrusher might be tempting fate just a tad. 

There's something about hip-hop - like Space Hoes - and electronica with a nice, balanced groove that just seems to me to fundamentally suit that sort of setting.  Maybe this is partly because back in the day I spent WAY too much time playing SSX Tricky and SSX 3, and consequently, tracks like Slayboarder, Like This and the UNKLE remix of No One Knows are unavoidably associated with snow.  Even if it is considerably easier to pull a 5x Backflip Frontside 1080 Stalefish from the comfort and safety of one's couch. With a controller.  And not an actual snowboard.  Anyway.

So, the playlist.  It needs to be sufficiently long that it could last for half a day - maybe even a full day, if I can find enough.  And I suspect it will be a great chance to revisit a lot of hip-hop and electronica that I haven't listened to in quite some time.  And maybe some more mid-tempo, groovin' rock - seems like Fu Manchu might not be a bad bet.

Anyway, I'll post the results when I get there... it might be a while!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Machine Head... kings of SW12!

One of the (many) things that I love about Soundwave festival is that every year, it seems to produce (at least) one genuinely mindblowing set that stands above the many other highlights of the day.

In 2009, it was Alice in Chains' early evening set on the main stage - a great opportunity to hear some classic material performed by a band I never thought I would have the chance to see live.

In 2010, it was Faith No More's gloriously manic headline set on the main stage.  It was Mike Patton doing what only Mike Patton can do, and a fantastic set to close the day - We Care A Lot was a huge highlight near the end.  And again, FNM had the theme of 'bands I never thought I would have the chance to see live'.

In 2011, it was Sevendust's early afternoon set on the metal stage.  Brutal, uncompromising, and packing more energy and intensity into a 30-minute set than most bands could manage in two hours.  It might also have been Iron Maiden's set, had we not already seen them two days earlier.

And in 2012, it was Machine Head's closing set on the metal stage.

This is not to suggest that there were not other highlights throughout the day.  There were many - Hellyeah were beer-drinking and hell-raising on the metal stage early in the afternoon, Alter Bridge brought Slash out as a guest during their set, Mastodon played an action-packed set including almost all my personal favourites, and Black Label Society were a bit of an unexpected highlight.

But the truth is that none of these came close to the crushingly heavy, melodic assault that Machine Head inflicted upon the metal stage at the end of the day.

The ingredients were all there - last act of the day, a major drawcard, a fearsome live reputation.  And importantly, they were also playing at the same time as the major headliner on the main stage.  Now, I don't mind System of a Down, but I consider Machine Head to be an infinitely better band, and I was perfectly happy about this particular clash.  The great thing about seeing a band that's clashing with a headliner is that you know you are going to get a dedicated hardcore crowd there.  Which is exactly what happened.

MH took the stage to a raucous chant of "Machine Fucking Head" and opened with the thrash-metal-vs-neoclassical-guitar of I Am Hell (Sonata in C#), and it was clear that this set was going to be one for the ages.  I can think of few other bands that manage to simultaneously be so thunderously heavy and melodic at the same time - but it's a thing to behold on their albums and live it takes on an entirely new dimension.  There was moshing, there was headbanging, there were circle pits (for better or worse) during the heavy parts... but during the quiet parts the crowd displayed a sense of what could best be described as awestruck respect.  That or they were just using the chance to catch their breath.  And that was pretty much how it panned out for the next 60 minutes - a band with great songs, who clearly know their stuff and have some pretty phenomenal musical chops, and an audience who were 100% up for it. 

Their set traversed mostly newer material - because let's be honest, The Blackening and Unto the Locust are both absurdly good albums - whilst throwing in a few older gems too.  We didn't get Bulldozer or Ten Ton Hammer, but Old was a major highlight.  Although even that didn't perhaps quite hit the heights of recent single Locust which dropped mid-set to a fanatical crowd response.

They closed with old-school track Davidian and the crowd sing along to the main refrain ("Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast!") was a pretty fitting finale.  The footage below is from Wacken a few years ago, but you get the idea.

Personally, I've always taken festival sets as a necessary evil - you know you're going to hear less songs than you want, but that's the price you pay for getting to see a bunch of great bands on a particular day.  There's a few bands however, that have figured out how to transcend the boundaries of those shorter sets by putting on a truly memorable performance.  Machine Head are clearly one of those bands - and as much as I enjoyed a lot of bands at SW12, when I'm reflecting on it in the future I know that SW12 will be forever remembered as 'the Soundwave at which Machine Head thoroughly kicked ass".

And of course the great thing about Soundwave, and it's consistently awesome line-ups, is that we can now spend the next six months or so puzzling about who will be there next year...

Monday, January 9, 2012

A few things to look forward to...

It's early days yet, but 2012 is already shaping up pretty nicely on the concert front.  So far, I've got the following lined up.

Seether, Logan Campell Centre, Auckland, 10/2/12
I can't name any of their songs, though no doubt I'd probably recognize some of their singles if I heard them.  But, I'm looking forward to checking out this show with the Epitomy of Culture, because it should make for a good start to a Friday night, plus I think the experience of hearing an unfamiliar band play unfamiliar songs will be interesting.  Maybe I'll like them, maybe not.  But still, it should be fun either way.

Rogers Waters, The Wall Live, Vector Arena, Auckland, 22/2/12
The Wall is certainly not my favorite Floyd album, but this promises to be a pretty impressive live spectacle all the same.  30-odd years and modern technology have arguably given Waters the ability and experience to perform this show to the standard he originally envisaged.  It's sparked an unprecedented level of interest here too - selling out four nights at Vector Arena which is certainly a record locally and matched only on the current tour by Madison Square Garden.  Guess we New Zealanders like our Pink Floyd then?  If it's half as good as the Dark Side of the Moon tour in 2007 was, I'll be happy.

Soundwave Festival, Sydney Showgrounds, Sydney, 26/2/12
The annual Silly Club trip to Soundwave Festival this year threatens to be the most action-packed yet.  That this festival can consistently pull such massive line-ups is a huge credit to the promoters, and a reminder that good music festivals are about one basic thing: figure out what you're going to do, and do it really fucking well.  Take note, BDO, and your weak attempts to appeal to everyone.  Anyway, this year I hope to see (if the timetable permits, and this is a big IF): Hellyeah, Dragonforce, CKY, Meshuggah, Black Label Society, Devin Townsend Project, Staind, Trivium, Lamb of God, Bush and Slipknot, although the biggest highlights for me will probably be Alter Bridge, Mastodon, and Machine Head.  Here's why:
1. Alter Bridge are a hugely under-rated and talented hard-rock band that I made the enormous mistake of initially overlooking because three quarters of the band was (is) in Creed.  Understandable, maybe, but near-unforgivable considering it meant I almost missed out on a band that has written some astoundingly good hard rock tracks - check out Ties that Bind or Metalingus.  Plus Myles Kennedy is one of the best rock front-men to emerge in ages.
2. Mastodon are kick-ass.  Progressive metal, hard rock, call them what you will, but they can't seem to do a lot wrong.  I am immensely excited about hearing great new tracks like Black Tongue, Blasteroid and Spectrelight alongside classics like Blood and Thunder, Crystal Skull and I Am Ahab.  Undoubtedly one of the standard-bearers of modern metal.
3. Machine Head threaten to be a thrilling, punishing live act.  Their last few albums have all been brutal, uncompromising slabs of metal - take some of this and put it alongside classics like The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears and they could absolutely tear it up.
Regardless, it could easily be the most jam-packed Soundwave yet.

Bush and Staind, Enmore Theater, Sydney, 27/2/12
The other great thing about Soundwave is the proliferation of sideshows it tends to propagate.  Why make a trip to Sydney for one festival when you can add in a bunch of other shows too!  Anyway, this is arguably the '90s nostalgia sideshow'... both bands have probably just enough good songs to put on decent live sets.  If you ask me, Staind are immeasurably better when they go for harder rocking numbers (example: Mudshovel and most of their self-titled album from last year) as opposed to Aaron Lewis' penchant for acoustic ditties.  As for Bush, well it's really only half of the original line-up, but they put out some decent tracks back in the day so maybe Gavin Rossdale still has something positive to contribute to modern music.

Alter Bridge, Enmore Theater, Sydney, 28/2/12
The third night of a triple-header... actually this is a double-bill with Steel Panther but I dislike 80's hair metal enough without needing that dislike to be reinforced by 80's hair metal imitators.  Anyway, I already raved on about Alter Bridge... somewhere I have a half-finished blog post dedicated to them.  This should be a really good show, and one of the last chances to see them for quite a while.

But for holiday plans, I would have also gone and seen the mighty Soundgarden and supporting acts of variable (mostly shit) quality at Mt Smart (this I believe is referred to as the Big Day Out) - I shall have to settle for a Soundgarden t-shirt instead.