Friday, December 20, 2013

The Top XIII of 2013 (plus a few honourable and dishonourable mentions)

I've been a bit lax on the blog posts this year.  I blame this squarely on my employer, for reasons I've previously explained.  The 'best of 2013' list was always going to happen, though.  And here it is!

Seriously, there was a lot of great music released this year.  2011 was marginal, 2012 was very good, and 2013 was even better.  Most of my favourite bands released albums - if I was to make a list of my 15 favourite bands I think the only ones that didn't put anything new out from the studio this year would be Nevermore (who are now defunct), Testament (who released a live album), Overkill (who have announced a new album for next year), Foo Fighters, Iron Maiden and Metallica.

On that note, 2014 is already shaping up well with Sevendust set to release a new acoustic record, Testament and Overkill also set to drop new studio albums, Metallica also rumoured, and Foo Fighters recording a new one with Butch Vig at the controls (for god's sake boys, just for once make an album where the second half is as good as the first half!).

But before we get into the good stuff, here's a few disappointments:
Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt
Some great tracks (Sirens, in particular), but overall it's an album that struggles to hold my attention.  After Backspacer, I'm getting close to viewing Pearl Jam as a band with their best days behind them.  Still look to be a real force live though.

Megadeth - Supercollider
It's not as horrible as a lot of fans say.  It's just not particularly good, other than opening track Kingmaker, and it's a bit bland in a very un-Megadeth way (particularly given the talent of their current line-up).  Megadeth showed on Endgame that even this far into their career, they can still produce stunning thrash metal albums.  This is not one such album.

Dream Theater - Dream Theater
I really wanted to believe this band could still be a force without Mike Portnoy.  Unfortunately this album marries technical proficiency with approximately none of the melody and hooks that held it all together on their great albums.  Listen to the album-closing epic Illumination Theory, and it sounds fairly good, if a bit unremarkable.  Now listen to a Portnoy-era track like The Count of Tuscany, or Octavarium, or A Change of Seasons - and realise that this band used to be so much better, that they could string amazing epics together with great hooks that kept you completely hooked (excuse the pun) for 20+ minutes.  Sorry guys, time for you to call it a day.

On a slightly more cheerful note, a few honourable mentions that just missed the cut in a very good year:
Rob Zombie - Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor
The best album he's recorded in a long time - heavy, catchy, and quirky.

Airbourne - Black Dog Barking
OK so they're basically an imitation of AC/DC.  But they do it so well!

Monster Magnet - Last Patrol
Back to the future as Dave Wyndorf and co. produce an intriguing, psychedelic-tinged record that sounds more like what they did 20 years ago than what they've done more recently.

The Winery Dogs - The Winery Dogs
Great debut album from Mike Portnoy's new project with Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan.  Strong classic rock influences, great interplay between the musicians, a good listen.

And without further ado, the Top XIII of 2013...

13. Five Finger Death Punch - The Wrong Side of Heaven and The Righteous Side of Hell Vols 1 & 2

So this band seems to get hated on in some quarters because they're something like the current generation's equivalent of nu-metal and they lack real credibility.  OK, so how many metal acts get guest spots from both Rob Halford and Max Cavalera?  Pretty sure that's credibility, right there.  Personally I prefer Volume 2 over Volume 1 - the former is generally more hard rocking and direct, but occasionally a little repetitive, whereas Volume 2 is a great listen throughout - better paced and balanced.

12. Endless Boogie - Long Island
I don't think there's another band around that can craft extended meandering rock jams like Endless Boogie.  Truly the foundation of this band is in the chops of steel possessed by their rhythm section who lay down unbelievably tight grooves throughout - only two tracks clock in at under nine minutes - for the guitars to layer over the top in all sorts of weird and wandering ways.  How a band can consistently write such long songs without ever getting boring is a source of marvel in itself.  And then just to break things up you have Taking Out the Trash and General Admission, which at a meagre 6 minutes each, and with plenty of fun shout-alongs, are probably the closest this band is ever likely to come to 'radio friendly' (i.e. not very).

11. Death Angel - The Dream Calls For Blood
Seminal thrash metal act releases classic record, disbands, then reforms 11 years later and produces a series of increasingly good albums.  Sounds unlikely.  But it is in fact true.  The Dream Calls for Blood sees Death Angel continuing a series of good albums with a further step up.  Aggressive, unrelenting and very much in the classic thrash metal vein.  To be blunt, on the strength of recent output in the last 5 years, the Big 4 of classic thrash metal should now be Testament, Overkill, Death Angel and Anthrax.  Metallica haven't put anything new out, Megadeth have been pretty uneven since the brilliant Endgame, and Slayer have not only not done much, they fired Dave Lombardo.  Enough said.

10. Deltron 3030 - Event 2
Dan the Automator and Del tha Funkee Homosapien reconvene 13 years on for a follow-up to 2000's cult classic Deltron 3030.  Of course it was never going to be quite the left-field, ground-breaking album that was.  But it's still a great listen, and opening track The Return alone justifies its existence.  No-one else around is producing quality hip-hop that sounds quite like this.

9. Vista Chino - Peace
After some tours as Kyuss Lives and some fights with people about names, John Garcia, Brant Bjork, Bruno Fevery and various bassists (including Nick Oliveri when he isn't having SWAT called out to his house for drug and gun benders) recorded an album called Peace and released it under the Vista Chino moniker.  With Garcia, in my opinion of the greatest rock vocalists of his generation, and Bjork in the fold it was always going to be worth checking out.  Solid stoner rock throughout, but the band takes things up a notch to awesome on Mas Vino, Dark and Lovely, and best of all, closing track Acidize... The Gambling Moose.

8. Sevendust - Black Out the Sun
This is a really good album, although I have to concede that a really good 13-track album could've been an amazing 11-track album.  Sevendust always deliver some gems on every record - in this case Mountain, Murder Bar, Decay, and Til Death.  And of course Faithless, which has one of the most stunning riffs this band has produced - and this is from a band responsible for countless great riffs.  There's a couple of filler tracks but I guess when there's this much quality on offer that's a small (and probably unfair) gripe.

7. Alter Bridge - Fortress
Ironically, the quietest 30 seconds of this album is the first 30 seconds, with a classical guitar introduction leading into the explosive Cry of Achilles (I dare you not to sing along with the chorus!).  The rest of that song really sets the tone for the album - bombastic, dialed to 11, and featuring some big hooks and stunning guitar solos. Although it's probably AB's hardest record yet, there are enough slower, melodic tracks like All Ends Well and Lover to provide a good balance.  Myles Kennedy confirms his reputation as about the only decent rock front man to emerge this century, and Mark Tremonti shreds like a beast.

6. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
Pretty exciting news when Trent Reznor came out earlier in the year and said that not only had NIN been 'reactivated', but also that a new NIN album was finished and would be released in September.  It's definitely a change from the tight verse/big chorus approach that NIN adopted on Year Zero and to a lesser extent The Slip.  Skittery, sparse and with barely a shouted word, it almost owes more to Pretty Hate Machine than it does to its recent predecessors.  It's hard not to be excited when it provides moments like Copy of A and All Time Low which sound like Mr. Reznor is very reinvigorated indeed.  There's a couple of dud tracks but overall a worthy addition to the NIN discography.

5. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
With Josh Homme fresh after a long layoff, and Dave Grohl back on the kit for the first time since 2002's brilliant Songs for the Deaf, I expected a hard-rocking QOTSA album.  This is not what we got.  Instead we got a brooding, melodic, moody thing which sounds almost nothing like their earlier material.  But there's something so darkly infectious about this album that it's impossible not to be sucked in.  It's a very hard album to put down.

4. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
This, people, is hip-hop.  You can forget all your deluded, big-ego high-rollers like Kanye and Jay-Z.  El-P and Killer Mike are generally snarling, occasionally absurd and consistently excellent throughout Run the Jewels' lean, mean 10 tracks and 33 minutes.  This is the sound of two talented guys, both at the top of their game, joining forces to create something even better (also it's the only album on Pitchfork's Top 50 of 2013 I own, which is most definitely a good thing).

3. Alice in Chains - The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
A worthy follow-up to the band's outstanding re-introduction on Black Gives Way to Blue.  It's not always an easy listen (12 tracks spanning 67 minutes should give you some idea) although admittedly AIC and 'easy listening' are somewhat foreign concepts.  But it winds its way through a lot of territory with a great deal of finesse: fairly direct rockers (Hollow, and the huge Stone), snarling, swirling numbers (Pretty Done, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, Hung On A Hook), acoustic groovers (Voices, Scalpel), and best of all, the huge epic Phantom Limb, one of the best tracks AIC have written.  As a start to finish listen, it's hard work, but a great journey.

2. Testament - Dark Roots of Thrash
OK, so it's a live album and not a studio album, but it is extremely good.  Testament have already produced two very good live albums - this one is better.  Individually and as a unit, this band is better than they've ever been - I said earlier their recent studio output is better than most of the so-called Big 4 and this is the evidence that the same is true of them as a live band.  The setlist is almost perfect too - there are great performances of great songs spanning Testament's entire career from The Legacy through to Dark Roots of Earth.  About the only complaint is the absence of Electric Crown, but that's a minor gripe.  I cannot wait to catch these guys at Soundwave in February.

1. Clutch - Earth Rocker
Don't even pretend this was a surprise.  Everyone knows I am an enormous fan of Maryland's finest.  Anyway Metal Hammer (UK) thought so too, so it isn't just me.  Drawing upon classic rock and roll influences, Clutch have crafted an album that is great even by their own discography's consistently high standards.  Earth Rocker sees them in full throttle rock mode, eschewing the (intriguing) quirkiness of Strange Cousins for the West and the blues influences of From Beale Street to Oblivion.  Whether it's the harmonica-led grooves of DC Sound Attack, the vivid lyricism of The Face, the brilliant chorus of Earth Rocker,  or the imposing closing track The Wolfman Kindly Requests, Clutch absolutely nail it on every song on this record.  Singer and lyricist Neil Fallon is in typically fine form, producing gems such as:

"You wanna know my political persuasion? Well sugar, I howl at the moon."  

As you'd expect there's plenty of subtle musical detail throughout, particularly from drummer JP Gaster, but one of the album's cleverest touches is placing the slow bluesy, groover Gone Cold at the halfway point - which is the perfect time to catch one's aural breath between the thunderous bursts of rock that occupy the rest of the album.  Overall, a fantastic record from a fantastic band.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A few months of musings...

So, I realised that I've been horrendously lax writing the blog lately.  It's not for lack of ideas (I have pages of them on a USB stick...), more because my work uses gmail and attempts to sign in to the blog with my personal account just get auto-redirected to the work login page.  First world problems.

Anyway, here is a random and disordered summary of the last few months' musical musings...

  1. I didn't quite "get" the new Nine Inch Nails album at first but it grew on me a lot.  Enough really good songs and moments to make it worthwhile (the highlights are Copy of A, All Time Low, Various Methods of Escape and Black Noise).
  2. The footage from their tour looks phenomenal - Trent has taken the stage performance to a whole new level.  Super-excited for the NIN/Queens of the Stone Age show down here in March.
  3. The Sound City documentary was a pretty interesting watch and the soundtrack is a worthwhile listen.  I think the track Mantra, featuring Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor is the first time they've all been on a song together, despite the fact they've individually paired up with each other on numerous occasions over the past decade.  Anyway it's a pretty sweet track and it really makes me wish they'd do more stuff together.  But I also want more Them Crooked Vultures so you can't really have everything.
  4. I liked the new Queens of the Stone Age album a lot more than I expected to, considering it is the exact opposite of what I thought it would be.  I was expecting a hard, aggressive record and it's a weird, broody, trippy thing.  But it is catchy, and engaging, and also that artwork that random guy did for it is freaky and very fitting.  Well done Mr. Homme.
  5. Earth Rocker is still the best album of the year.  However there has been a ton of great stuff, including Deltron 3030's Event 2, Run the Jewels, Vista Chino's Peace, Alter Bridge's Fortress, and definitely not Megadeth's Super Collider.
  6. Alter Bridge's Fortress is a pretty heavy album by their standards.  The opening and closing tracks are both brilliant and there's a lot to enjoy in between.
  7. The Soundwave line-up has some amazing stuff - most notably Testament, Down, Alter Bridge, Megadeth, Alice in Chains and Rob Zombie.  The headliners suck (sorry, but Green Day and Avenged Sevenfold just don't cut it), but it doesn't really matter given how the rest of the bill is shaping up.
  8. I like Testament more and more as time goes on.  Their latest live album, Dark Roots of Thrash is a stunner.  These guys are like a really good red wine that just gets better with age.  A very thrash metal red wine, that is.
  9. I had a random urge to listen to Type O Negative the other day.  They are still highly entertaining and a solid listen.  RIP Peter Steele.
  10. The new Monster Magnet album sounded pretty good on the pre-release stream.  Dave Wyndorf has been very hit or miss over their career but when he produces a good album, it's generally very good (Dopes to Infinity, Powertrip, Mastermind...).
  11. Lemmy is hilarious.  When asked what was different about the new Motorhead album from its 20 predecessors, he responded with "it's more recent and we stood in different positions when we played it".
Anyway that's enough for now...

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Busted knees and Alter Bridge

The last couple of weeks haven’t exactly been super fun.  After picking up a compound fracture of my kneecap in a hockey match a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been laid up at home with my leg in a splint.  For someone as physically active as me, this has been pretty tough going.  On the bright side, two weeks down, four weeks to go on the splint front.

You would think that would have meant I would’ve played a bunch of music, but actually I haven’t, not nearly as much as I thought.  I’ve done a bit of work from home, played some video games, messed around on the ipad, but I haven’t listened to a lot of music.  The stuff I have played has been somewhat half-hearted background listens to albums that probably deserved better – the new Run the Jewels collaboration, Testament’s Souls of Black, a slightly obscure DJ Shadow mix.

Anyway for no reason in particular this morning I put on Alter Bridge’s Blackbird with breakfast.  I’ve mentioned before that I consider Alter Bridge to be almost criminally under-rated – they’re one of the few genuinely excellent hard rock bands to have emerged post-2000.  Great songs, great musicians, and one of the few genuine front men of the current generation in Myles Kennedy.  I was lucky enough to catch them in Sydney last February at the Metro and they were outstanding live as well (putting aside the fact that the gig actually buggered the humidity sensor on my iphone and for some reason it spent the next two weeks thinking it was connected to a dock!).

It started out pretty well – it is a very good album – but there were a couple of particular moments that just lifted my mood immeasurably and I realised what a grumpy shit I had probably been for a couple of weeks (but hey, missing out on an entire snowboarding season and most of a hockey season will do that to you…).

First, Buried Alive.  The first three chords of this song made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  It’s one of my favourite AB songs, but more than that, it was on my snowboarding playlist when we were at Whistler in January.  Now, there are a lot of songs on that playlist, but Buried Alive always seemed to come on at just the right moment.  One day in particular, I remember being particularly pissed off because I’d managed to lose my phone in a snow drift and after an unsuccessful couple of hours digging around for it we gave up and went home.  But then I decided to go back out and go riding that afternoon and had a great afternoon doing laps of Glacier Express, through Crystal and back up via Excelerator or Solar Coaster, on a beautiful sunny day where there was still some great snow around from a big fall 3 days earlier.  And I remember Buried Alive came on just when I was having a great run around the back of Crystal zone, actually managing to do jumps and stuff off the natural features on the side of the trail up there, which I’d only learnt the day before.  It was one of those ‘fuck yeah!’ moments and hearing the song again this morning made me think, there’s a helluva lot more snowboarding to be done beyond this year, and this song will be cranking when I do it.

And no, the irony of a track like Buried Alive on a snowboarding playlist (particularly when there is a ton of fresh powder around) is not lost on me.

Secondly, Rise Today.  Not my favourite Alter Bridge song, but undeniably an uplifting number and a decent, catchy rock song.  Also, excellent live.

Anyway, it’s amazing how a couple of tracks, or even just one, can pull you out of a really major funk.  Cheers, Alter Bridge.  Looking forward to your new album later this year.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Alice in Chains - The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here... reviewed!

2009's Black Gives Way to Blue was one of the greatest against-the-odds comeback records of all time. Few bands could regroup and recover after losing a singer of Layne Staley's calibre.  But Alice in Chains did, and the results were stunning.

The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is the second outing of the post-Staley era, and I had pretty high expectations.  Not just because it's immediate predecessor was so good, but also because all the press I read around this album just got me even more excited.  Sure, most albums from big-name bands get plenty of pre-release hype from the mags, but the write-ups in Metal Hammer and Revolver were loaded with wry and incisive quips from guitarist/songwriter/singer Jerry Cantrell and the band spent little time on self promotion.

Those stories also reveal the source of the album's cryptic title.  A fairly mad theory from certain branches of Christianity states that dinosaur bones and fossils were planted on the earth by the devil to make us all believe in the theory of evolution and so on.  Cantrell is quick to point out that most religions have a pretty sensible and decent moral core, but somehow most religions also seem to end up with people doing and saying some fairly crazy and sometimes horrible things in the name of religion.

While the social outlook is interesting, it's even more interesting coming from a band like Alice in Chains whose songs to date have been almost exclusively founded in their own personal and collective struggles.  So, between the band's change in perspective, the interesting things they all had to say, and the momentum they've had since their reformation, you could colour me pretty excited for this one.

The album's opening three tracks are a pretty clear reminder that few bands do heavy, sludgy rock as well as AiC.  Hollow's catchy opening riff grinds along like a bulldozer in 6/4 time, with the chorus providing melodic relief.  Pretty Done recaptures the particularly eerie sound of tracks like Brush Away and Head Creeps with the trademark dual vocals of William DuVall and Cantrell laid over a swirling, droning refrain - the result sounding like the soundtrack to being trapped in a sandstorm.  Stone opens with an ominous bassline, adding a wonderfully bent guitar lick over the top for one of the album's highlights.

Things then take a slightly different turn with Voices, an acoustically-led, seemingly upbeat and cheerful number juxtaposed with some altogether more sinister lyrics:
"Everybody listen
Voices in my head
Everybody listen
Does yours say what mine says?"

After a fairly broody sort of an intro and verse, the title track is where Cantrell really starts pulling the lyrical punches he hinted at:

"The devil put dinosaurs here
Jesus don't like a queer
The devil put dinosaurs here
No problem with faith just fear"
It's a good listen, but it feels an idea or two short of its 6:39 length.

Lab Monkey meanders along at a similar tempo initially, but takes things up a step when it unleashes itself in the chorus and bridge, and also features a great talk-box guitar solo.  Somehow it also manages to sounds like it's in a weirder time signature than what it actually is.

Low Ceiling is a mid-tempo groover with a very catchy chorus, while Breath On a Window is one of the album's highlights.  It starts as an uptempo, positive number, but changes tack dramatically through a rather uneasy-sounding bridge, before another tempo change lurches us into an outro that manages to be simultaneously grooving and melancholic, with another classic Cantrell lyric - "I'd let you go, but you're always in the way".

Following that is another great track - Scalpel - which has a sense of melody reminiscent of the exceptional Lesson Learned and is another reminder of just how good a songwriter Jerry Cantrell is.

The album hits an undisputed peak with Phantom Limb, a 7-minute epic which features essentially everything we love about AIC.  A jackhammer main riff and eerie dual vocals power the verses, building to a cleverly-constructed two-part chorus - initially explosive and soaring, before shifting to brooding and withdrawn, with DuVall taking the vocal lead and perfectly delivering the line "I'll just haunt you like a phantom limb...".  It's a brilliant track which never ceases to send chills down my spine during the chorus as well as during Cantrell's well-crafted solo.  It ends with a fitting outro - guitar drone and buzz over the top of a repeated kick-drum designed to mimic a heartbeat.

In my opinion that was exactly the point to end the album - it's such a brilliant way to close a brilliant track which the album has built towards.  The final two tracks Hung On A Hook and Choke are competent but don't really offer anything different to the rest of the album and feel a little anti-climactic after Phantom Limb.  The only sort of track that probably would've worked there would've been something really mellow that offered a major contrast - like the title track which closes Black Gives Way to Blue or Gone, which closes the first disc to Cantrell's criminally-overlooked solo record Degradation Trip.

Overall the album is a lot denser than Black Gives Way to Blue was and doesn't feature the same sort of overt cathartic moments like the dramatic about-face of Acid Bubble.  It's probably not as immediately accessible, but it's certainly a grower with some great details and subtle touches once you're past the in-your-face hit of the first three tracks.

The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is another reminder that Alice in Chains is really the only band that sounds like Alice in Chains, and that rock fans are damn lucky these guys gave it a second go.  It's not perfect, but it's still a fine listen.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Alice in Chains v. the haters

Almost every new Alice in Chains video that goes up on YouTube seems to elicit a few comments along the lines of “Alice in Chains died with Layne Staley” with monotonous regularity.  Add to that a number of (relatively popular) pages such as this and it’s clear there’s a reasonable cross section of rock fans out there that hold the view “No Layne, No Chains”.

Nothing that follows should be taken as suggesting Layne was anything other than one of the most unique and talented vocalists of his era.  But that doesn't mean the band can't move on without him.  Personally, I’m pretty tired of hearing the haters who totally discount the post-Layne era of AiC for a number of reasons.  

Firstly, that view totally ignores the quality of AiC’s output since they’ve reformed.  Black Gives Way to Blue is actually a really strong album, and probably second only to Dirt in terms of AiC’s studio albums.  It doesn't have the raw edge of Dirt, but that's because they're not taking ridiculous quantities of drugs these days.  Equally, there's a level of craftsmanship and texture on tracks like Lesson Learned and Private Hell that wasn't present on the earlier material.  Cover to cover, BGWTB is a quality listen and certainly worthy of sitting in the AiC discography alongside the three earlier studio albums.  If anyone writes off that album because Layne isn't on it, it's really their loss.  And, for what little it's worth, I should add that BGWTB received almost universal critical acclaim - including maximum ratings from both Kerrang! and Metal Hammer.

Secondly, Jerry Cantrell has always contributed almost all of AiC’s songwriting.  Initially he also wrote almost all of the vocals, although Layne played an increasing major lyrical role (the self-titled studio album, and the last to feature Layne, is roughly 50/50 Cantrell/Staley).   However, you can count Layne’s primary songwriting credits on less than one hand (Angry Chair is the only song of particular note).  When Layne died, the band (on hiatus at that time) undoubtedly lost a uniquely gifted and talented vocalist, who was an important element of their sound.  However, while they lost the singer, they didn’t lose the songs – or the guy who wrote most of them (and continues to do so).  There are plenty of examples of bands who lost (or replaced) a vocalist, but were able to successfully continue because their songwriting and musical core was still intact – Deep Purple, Black Sabbath (when Dio replaced Osbourne… some of the subsequent examples don’t work so well!) and probably biggest of all, Iron Maiden after replacing Paul Di’Anno with Bruce Dickinson.  Ironically, in the case of Maiden, there is still a (small and insane) subset of fans who insist that the real Iron Maiden ended with Killers in 1981.

Thirdly, although Layne’s vocals were an unmistakable element of the classic-era AiC material, the vocal harmonies between him and Jerry Cantrell were equally unmistakable.  Go back and listen to Dirt – harmonized vocals appear on almost every song.  They’re more prominent on some songs than others, but that quintessential eerie AiC vocal tone that pervades throughout that album, as well as on the self-titled album, is thanks largely to the use of vocal harmonies between the two singers.  AiC's approach to vocals is actually a lot closer to the way many bands approach a two-guitar setup - there's a lead player (Layne), and a "rhythm" player (Jerry) who adds texture.  And sometimes the rhythm player takes the lead as well.  But it's a two-pronged attack - rather than a solo effort.  And I think that sometimes people assume AiC's vocals on the older material were all Layne.  Which they weren't.

Fourthly, new vocalist/guitarist William DuVall has filled some enormous shoes in admirable fashion.  I saw AiC live at Soundwave a few years ago, prior to the release of BGWTB.  They were playing only the old stuff, at that stage.  And they carried it off extremely well.  DuVall never appeared to be trying to emulate Layne - he was playing to his own (considerable) strengths whilst being as faithful to the songs as possible.  Cantrell picked up a few of Layne's vocal parts too, and overall it came across like having a dual vocal/guitar attack.  And they did a great job of delivering the classic songs within that new dynamic.  And frankly, just straight up credit to the guy as well for delivering on a very tough assignment.  What he's doing is essentially like asking someone to replace Chris Cornell in Soundgarden, to replace Eddie Vedder in Pearl Jam, or to replace Maynard James Keenan in Tool.  And he's doing a great job of it thus far.

Fifthly, given time I think the new approach is going to allow AiC to expand their sonic palette.  The improved craftsmanship and texture on BGWTB that I mentioned earlier is largely due to Jerry's songwriting maturing - he's still the primary songwriter (albeit DuVall picked up almost as many songwriting credits on that one album as Layne did in his entire tenure with AiC).  Having two very capable singer/guitarists gives them a lot of opportunities to explore, as opposed to being confined to the usual four-piece dynamic.  Last of My Kind hinted at some of the possibilities, and given it was one of my favourite tracks off BGWTB, those possibilities are pretty exciting.  Wikipedia currently seems to be crediting both DuVall and Cantrell as vocalists, lead and rhythm guitarists on the forthcoming album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here which hopefully means I might not be too far off on this one.

And finally, some of the creative direction behind The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here has me somewhat intrigued.  The press I've read indicates that the band landed upon this title as a criticism of religion's ongoing denial of some fairly basic scientific evidence and that this theme is reflected in some of the album's lyrical content (for those who don't know, the title refers to a religious contention that dinosaur bones were put on the earth by the devil to convince us that the Earth was actually older than the 6,000 years that Christianity would generally like to have you believe.  So yes, the devil made up all that big bang and evolution stuff).  It's an interesting, critical perspective that the older AiC probably never could have taken because, let's face it, all those drugs were bound to muddle the brain somewhat.

In summary, Layne was awesome (RIP), but subsequently AiC have (remarkably) continued to be excellent, and haters gonna hate.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Clutch - Earth Rocker

High expectations inevitably accompany every new Clutch album.   But that's what you get when you're sitting on probably the longest active streak of excellent albums amongst modern hard rock bands.  And when you've built one of the most dedicated fanbases in said genre through touring relentlessly, and putting on quality shows night after night after night.

And by Clutch's standards, it's been a fair while between drinks, with their last studio outing being 2009's Strange Cousins from the West.  So yes, expectations were riding pretty high for Earth Rocker.

And you know what? It delivers on every count.  This isn't just a good album, it's another great Clutch album - an album that gets me excited about this band, excited about their back catalogue, just excited about music in general.

Earth Rocker kicks off with a title track that really sets the tone for the rest of the album.  "What's this about some dB limit? Sorry, I can't hear none" muses singer Neil Fallon.  It's essentially a declaration of hard rock warfare - this album is the most straight-up, ass-kicking rock and roll record that the band have produced in their two-plus decades to date.

At it's simplest, Earth Rocker is five excellent, fast hard rock tracks, followed by a slow, groovy one, followed by five more excellent, fast hard rock tracks.

That might be something to do with recent tours with the likes of Motorhead and Thin Lizzy, but equally, this is a band who have proven they are unafraid to head off in whatever creative direction they damn well feel like.  Up to and including songs about kraken, John Wilkes Booth (and, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln), festive meals, burning beards and so forth.

On that note, the lyrical content this time around is somewhat less cryptic for the most part, though certainly no less intriguing.  The Face sees some of the most vivid imagery Clutch has ever created - lines like "1000 Les Pauls burning in a field, what rabid religion poisons their minds?".

For the most part, the quirkiness and density that pervaded the aptly titled Strange Cousins has been replaced by catchiness.  It's something the band have flirted with previously on tracks like The Mob Goes Wild and 50,000 Unstoppable Watts - this time around it's in full effect, with most of the songs bearing a massive payload of a chorus.  My personal favourites in that regard would have to be The Wolfman Kindly Requests ("Party's over you've all go to go... the wolf man is coming out!") and DC Sound Attack ("I'm a warmonger, baby... I've got blood in my eyes and I'm looking at you").

The sheer musical chops of this band are by now very well-established, so it will suffice to say that musically, the performances are all excellent even by Clutch's own lofty standards.  There are very few bands who could maintain such a combination of speed, power and precision throughout - whilst also adding in plenty of clever details (personal favourite: JP's ride and hi hat cymbal work on Wolfman).  And Neil has a ton of presence throughout, delivering every line with force and venom.

It's a very consistent record throughout - possibly the most consistent of their career and flows well over its 44 minutes.  Opening with a couple of fierce numbers in Earth Rocker, and Crucial Velocity, before settling into more of a groove on Mr. Freedom and the outstanding DC Sound Attack.  Unto the Breach  closes the opening salvo in exactly the sort of way you would expect it to with a title like that.

Gone Cold provides a moment of considered respite and quiet contemplation, before The Face launches us into side B with a kaleidoscope of metaphors and power chords.  The tempo is firmly increased once more on Book, Saddle and Go and Cyborg Bette - an ode to the perils of robotic love.

The album closes with a brilliant one-two punch.  Firstly Oh, Isabella, which - if not a direct sequel to (Notes from the Trial of) La Curandera from Blast Tyrant - is certainly a spiritual and melodic successor.  For all the talk in this song of ships running aground, it's amazing they didn't think to use Dan Maines' basslines just to get said vessel afloat - because he sounds like he could power an entire navy.  Pair that with a typically tasteful extended solo from guitarist Tim Sult, and some powerhouse work from drummer JP Gaster throughout, and this is probably the musical high-point of the album.

The second half of the closing double act is The Wolfman Kindly Requests... (working title: Newt Gingrich).  Although the track sonically grooves, twists and contorts through its five minutes, there's no mistake from the opening lyrical salvo that Neil is the star on this one: "You wanna know my political persuasion? Well, sugar, I howl at the moon".  It is exactly the sort of closing track that makes you want to go back to the beginning and press play once again.

All said, albums like this don't come along very often and Earth Rocker is certainly an early contender for album of the year.  If this album doesn't get you excited about music, about this band, well you are missing out.  Big time.