Saturday, October 21, 2006

with wings

falconer - 'northwind'

released: october 2006
metal blade records

1. northwind 2. waltz with the dead 3. spirit of the hawk 4. legend and the lore 5. catch the shadows 6. tower of the queen 7. long gone by 8. perjury and sanctity 9. fairyland fanfare 10. himmel så trind 11. blinded 12. delusion 13. home of the knave 14. black tarn

bonus cd:
1. kristallen den finda 2. ridom, ridom 3. liten vätte 4. värfindar riska

Falconer is one of those permanently underrated bands that make their fans wonder what more will it take to get them more noticed by the metal-or-otherwise musical communities. Their self-titled debut album was a surprisingly brilliant effort (especially considering the very different, more musically extreme past of composer/guitarist/leader Stefan Weinerhall in Mithotyn), and they have followed it with strong and consistent successors.

'Northwind' is the fifth album by these Swedes and nothing better to start off this little analysis of it than claiming straight away that this is their best album yet.

The most important boost is that it features once again the vocal talents of Mathias Blad, who left the band after the second album. Despite having been well replaced by Kristoffer Göbel on 'The Sceptre Of Deception' and 'Grime Vs. Grandeur', there really is no substitute for Mathias.
He is the final piece in the puzzle that sets Falconer apart within the power/classic metal world - his voice is not the traditional high pitch of the genre, he performs in a rich, full and beautiful low register which fits the compositions in a perfect manner. Falconer's particular brand of classic metal simply oozes class and avoids many of the pitfalls of the genre, getting close to the best quality hard rock sometimes, such is the melodic richness.

The songs are soberly played, almost understated in places, so everything sounds serious and meaningful. The folk elements are very well blended in and could in fact be more used, because they would add even more distinction to the songs, and they would be appropriate given the overall mood of the lyrics, which draw heavily on traditional themes. The guitar leads are another of the record's strong points, they soar, shred and enchant in equal measure as if they were the very wings of the animal that names the band.

'Northwind' is not, like many albums of the genre, immediate - it might sound a bit samey on first spins, but give it time and the subtle songs will unfurl and will reveal themselves as the true epics they are, and with splendid dynamics too, from the quiet melancholy of 'Long Gone By' to the charging 'Perjury And Sanctity'. Not that there's much filler, but a little less than 14 songs might have helped in the solidifying of the moods within the listener's mind. The patient will be rewarded, however.

Last but by no means least, make absolutely sure that you get the double-CD digipak version of 'Northwind'. The bonus CD consists of four traditional songs, in Swedish, and show a different and fascinating side to the band, finally using the folk elements to great effect. If you know the first record, imagine four worthy follow-ups to 'Per Turssons Döttrar I Vänge' from there.

Classy, consistent and passionately put together - this band should be playing stadiums.

the good: the return of the unique mathias blad, compositions that show the maturing of the band, great bonus cd with traditional songs
the bad: folk elements could be more explored, perhaps a tad too long

Thursday, October 05, 2006

...and a bottle of rum!

various artists - 'rogue's gallery - pirate ballads, sea songs & chanteys'

released: august 22, 2006

disc 1
1. baby gramps - cape cod girls 2.
richard thompson - mingulay boat song 3. john c. reilly - my son john 4. nick cave - fire down below 5. loudon wainwright iii - turkish revelry 6. three pruned men - bully in the alley 7. bryan ferry - the cruel ship's captain 8. robin holcomb - dead horse 9. bill frisell - spanish ladies 10. joseph arthur - coast of high barbary 11. mark anthony thompson - haul away joe 12. david thomas - dan dan 13. sting - blood red roses 14. teddy thompson - sally brown 15. rufus wainwright & kate mcgarrigle - lowlands away 16. gavin friday - baltimore whores 17. eliza carthy - rolling sea 18. martin carthy & the uk group - the mermaid 19. bob neuwirth - haul on the bowline 20. bono - a dying sailor to his shipmates 21. lucinda williams - bonnie portmore 22. richard greene & jack shit - shenandoah 23. mary margaret o'hara - the cry of man

disc 2
1. jack shit - boney was a warrior 2.
loudon wainwright iii - good ship venus 3. white magic - long time ago 4. nick cave - pinery boy 5. bryan ferry & antony - lowlands low 6. akron/family - one spring morning 7. martin carthy & family - hog-eye man 8. ricky jay & richard greene - the fiddler 9. andrea corr - caroline and her young sailor bold 10. john c. reilly - fathom the bowl 11. david thomas - what do we do with a drunken sailor 12. ed harcourt - farewell nancy 13. stan ridgway - hanging johnny 14. baby gramps - old man of the sea 15. van dyke parks - greenland whale fisheries 16. sting - shallow brown 17. jolie holland - the grey funnel line 18. jarvis cocker - a drop of nelson's blood 19. lou reed - leave her johnny 20. ralph steadman - little boy billee

I must admit I have a thing for pirates. Maybe it's cheesy, but I do love all the harrrr-ing and the bottles of rum-ing and whatnot. Therefore, it was with great excitement that I received this tip from Aino, who has already contributed some spiffing recommendations to this blog before (and while we're on recommendations, she also had this wonderful thing to share, which totally goes with the spirit of this review), and went and got the thing.

First of all, it has to be said that 'Rogue's Gallery' is not entirely constituted of 'pirate' songs. It is indeed the main focus of the 43 songs spread over the two CDs, but there are also other not-really-piratey sea chanteys that nevertheless fit the overall feel of the record. That's an important thing - the overall feel. It would be quite easy for this to not have one. 'Rogue's Gallery' is a huge mix of contributions ranging from very big names (Bono, Sting, Lou Reed, NickCave) to more cult names (Antony, Ed Harcourt, Akron/Family), to oddball names (Baby Gramps) to the downright unthinkable (John C. Reilly, the actor!). Add to that the fact that this is a Hal Willner production and you've got all the ingredients for haphazard cake. Yet, strangely, despite some slight inconsistencies that are usual on a 43-song record, it's not, and don't think that it's because the interpretations are in some way standartized, on the contrary.

From the sweet to the furious to the raging drunk, there's all sorts of moods here. The glue holding all this together is the best one there is - quality. The quality in the songs chosen, the quality in the nearly spontaneous, relaxed, natural way in which this was put together, and most of all the quality of the musicians themselves. This quality is visible in the fact that that no one tried to fake things that would not be natural to them. Depending on how you want to take this record, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. If you'd like everyone to sing coarsely going harrr!, you'll be sorely disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to see a bunch of great musicians taking several traditional sea songs and making them their own, in their own style and interpretation (the correct way to do a cover song, in my humble opinion), then this is the record for you.

That said, nothing like a little bit of contradiction on my part - the best, most rousing songs are indeed the more piratey ones, maybe because they capture better the rowdy image we have of seamen in general, and pirates in particular. Baby Gramps is the absolute highlight, his unique modulations of voice are perfect for his two songs, especially the opener 'Cape Cod Girls', go check out his own records if you don't know him. Incidentally, his name really is Baby Gramps. Then there are the Three Pruned Men (which are members of the Virgin Prunes, surprisingly enough) with a contender for drunk-song-of-the-year in 'Bully In The Alley'. Nick Cave is his usual genius self with an intense 'Fire Down Below', while Loudon Wainwright III puts in the surprise performance with the utterly filthy 'Good Ship Venus' (google for the lyrics, I'm trying to keep this a vaguely family-friendly blog). Also surprisingly, John C. Reilly putting in two great performances with 'My Son John' (which Bruce Springsteen also did a version of on his last album) and 'Fathom The Bowl'.

The calmer songs, or the ones with a calmer interpretation, feel less like what one would expect of a sea song, but nevertheless still manage to work very well. Sting and Bono, think what you might of them otherwise (and I do think some things), do a fine job of their songs, apart from Sting's 'Blood Red Roses' which could have remained hidden, while Andrea Corr, of all people, has a lovely 'Caroline And Her Young Sailor Bold', as does Richard Thompson with an eye-watering 'Mingulay Boat Song'.

Complaints? Well, a few. Most glaringly, this being on the label Anti- and everything, WHERE THE HELL IS TOM WAITS? Also, being a huge fan of Antony And The Johnsons, I was expecting a bit more of him than just singing (beautifully, granted) the words 'lowlands low' over Bryan Ferry's verses on the song of the same name. There will be, however, a volume two sometime in 2007 on which Antony is said to have a proper song, so there is hope there.

More consistent than your usual compilation and with an unbeatably cool concept, 'Rogue's Gallery' is highly recommended for the more pirate-minded among you. Shiver me timbers!

the good: great idea, stellar cast of musicians with a few good surprises, good personal interpretations, a good way to start your discovery of ancient sea music and have lots of fun at the same time
the bad: some musicians could have been better 'used', while a few perfect-for-the-job ones are missing, some of the calmer songs don't feel so much in place as the others

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

the main character

dark tranquillity - 'character'

released: january 25, 2005
century media

songs: 1. the new build 2. through smudged lenses 3. out of nothing 4. the endless feed 5. lost to apathy 6. mind matters 7. one thought 8. dry run 9. am i 1? 10. senses tied 11. my negation

If you want to quickly define this band, you could do far worse than calling them the thinking man's quintessential metal band. In the last decade they have proven themselves to be quite far ahead of mostly everyone else, and consistently so. There is a sense of purpose, of meaning, at every Dark Tranquillity release. Not that there's anything (thematically) wrong with demons or drugs or death, to namecheck just a few examples of overused topics, but Dark Tranquillity go at it the hard way, and you get chaos theory, philosophy, art, psychology and if you read one of their obviously fascinated-with-language-like lyric sheets you will get an idea without me going on about it. The hardest thing about this approach is that you come across as horribly po-faced if the music itself doesn't match up to it.

It should come as no surprise, if you have paid attention these last few years, that 'Character', once again, more than matches the quality of their lyrical concept. More like another refining step than a departure from 'Damage Done', the album's main change is in the sound itself - it's huge. So huge you get the feeling Niklas Sundin and Martin Henriksson have made a few clones of themselves to help out with the guitarwork. Martin Brändström's electronic work is also remarkable and much more present than before, giving highlight songs like 'Lost To Apathy' or 'The New Build' a whole new dimension. Finally there is that roar, that unmistakable vocal presence of the great Mikael Stanne.

Powerful, amazingly written and produced, oozing class from every pore, the only niggle that you can pick at 'Character' is that Dark Tranquillity haven't really done that quantum leap in evolution that 'Projector' hinted at. For all the greatness of 'Character', there is the feeling that, given the skyrocketing talent available here, they could go a bit further. Despite the more proeminent use of electronics, it's pretty much a Dark Tranquillity album still. by no means stagnating (not by a long shot), the Swedes have nevertheless towering standards to meet. Still, 'Character' has just what its title suggests and it is obviously essential.

the good: huge sound, powerful compositions, untouchable musicianship on every level
the bad: given the talent involved, it could be more adventurous

Monday, September 18, 2006


sentenced - 'the funeral album'

released: april 2003
century media

songs: 1. may today become the day 2. ever-frost 3. we are but falling leaves 4. her last 5 minutes 5. where waters fall frozen 6. despair-ridden hearts 7. vengeance is mine 8. a long way to nowhere 9. consider us dead 10. lower the flags 11. drain me 12. karu 13. end of the road

Now that the long-awaited DVD 'Buried Alive', containing a host of extras and the entire farewell concert of this illustrious Finnish band (on which, according to reports, there are several shots of yours truly in the front row...), is finally upon us, it's worth remembering their final album, relevant in the context of their influential career.

The two short instrumentals present in this record, the savage 'Where Waters Fall Frozen' and the soft acoustic 'Karu', are perhaps the best symbolic summary of Sentenced's musical career, particularly after the change of vocalist, after the album 'Amok'. Since then, their tales of sadness, sorrow and bitterness bled out through a dynamic and modern rock/metal framework, filled with harmonies but also brutal riffs, a duality that has maintained the levels of intensity and depth very high for a decade now, particularly for those lucky enough to have seen them live.

Sentenced are also, and most essentially, one of the very few bands of the last few years able to not take themselves too seriously, something that is crucial within a genre that can easily fall into silly melodrama. For each suicidal line, there is always a dab of self-deprecating black humour to spice things up. In this final album, their integrity shines through - realizing this musical format could hardly be further developed without going into a repetition of what has already been done, the five members have decided to end the band, calmly and sensibly, giving it the right to a worthy funeral.

Of course, all this 'final' ambient around the album doesn't hurt its promotion at all. But one listen is enough to understand that this isn't a gimmick. The five Finns left their souls in these thirteen songs, down to the the smallest details, like the elegant design of the booklet, consisting of quotes from Finnish poets accompanied by staggeringly beautiful photographs. The music itself shows that, from the more immediately memorable songs like 'May Today Become The Day' or the first single 'Ever-Frost', to the usual hate manifestos like 'Vengeance Is Mine' (a sort of 21st century version of 'I'll Throw The First Rock'), this is the most balanced and complete album of their career. the touch of genius comes from the profoundly touching 'Her Last 5 Minutes' and 'We Are But Fallen Leaves', which are sung and played with a conviction that goes as far as making you worry about the actual possibility of any of those lyrics having a background of truth.

Being Sentenced, the end, in whatever form, has always been the main theme, but the last songs of this record seem to allude even more clearly to the end of the band, particularly 'Consider Us Dead' or the song that closes in the best possible way the recording career of a band that will not be forgotten easily - there really is no better way to say goodbye than with 'End Of The Road', the best song the band has ever written, with church bells, choirs and a downward spiral of melancholy-dripping guitars finishing it all, a chilling mix of bitterness and hope, in which Ville Laihiala asks it wasn't all that bad, was it now?.

No, no it wasn't. It was some of the best things we've had in our stereos in the last decade, and we only have to thank them for that.

May they rest in peace.

the good: a true goodbye record, with heart, soul and memorable, varied songs

the bad: it's the end

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the crack of doom

yob - 'the illusion of motion'

released: october 19th, 2004
running time: 50'00"
metal blade records

songs: 1.ball of molten lead 2.exorcism of the host 3.doom #2 4.the illusion of motion

Under this mysterious three letter name resided one of the brightest prospects of doom metal, a band that had slowly but surely captivating several factions of the more unconventional musical circles. 'The Illusion Of Motion' is their third album, released in 2004.

What is great about Yob is that they manage to create something new out of a concatenation of clear influences. The development and dynamics of the huge songs (the last track clocks in at 26 minutes) bring to mind, if you can quite imagine that, Neurosis jamming with Sleep. There are hazier, more stoner parts in the vein of Electric Wizard or Burning witch, and the rockier moments owe some dues to Black Sabbath and, more contemporarily, to High On Fire. If you're at all into this kind of music, I expect you to be drooling already, and for good measure.

When a lot of bands struggle to write consistently interesting songs over the 4 minute mark, Yob effortlessly build 15 minute and more monoliths during which never once the idea of skipping crosses your mind. There is indeed some Sleep-like repetition of riffs, but the alternation of clean (sounding like, erm, Dave Mustaine, but trust me, it works) and gruff vocals sets the tone for the tempo changes as well. Even if they never turn into a speed metal band, they do go from crawling slow doooooom to rockier moments, without ever losing the almighty crushing power.

Unlike many other doom bands, they don't just rely on the humming heaviness. Even on the first listens, the remarkable simple-sounding complexity will be apparent - on opener 'Ball Of Molten Lead' they sound like Pink Floyd circa 'Dark Side Of The Moon' mixed with Rush and, again, Neurosis. This, coupled with the very long songs and drawn out compositions, makes it a rather hard album to get into. But if you stick with it the rewards are immense. Since then, Yob have released their fourth album 'The Unreal Never Lived', which manages to top this one, and tragically disbanded.

Prog doom, anyone? whatever you call it, it rocks.

the good: it's doom, jim, but not as we know it - a surprisingly fresh take on a rather limiting genre, mixing crushing-but-grooving slow heaviness with prog rock techicalities
the bad: 4 songs in 50 minutes require a stern attention span and it's everything but an immediate record

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

do the black stomp

ajattara - 'kuolema'

released: may 2003
playing time: 33'43"

songs: 1.antakaa elää 2.surman henki 3.haureus 4.huoran alla 5.ikiyössä 6.musta leski 7.sielun särkijä 8.kituvan kiitos 9.helvetissä on syntisen taivas 10.rauhassa

Their new album 'Äpäre' is just out, but before I review it in a couple of weeks I think it's worth it to look back to 'Kuolema', this Finnish band's finest hour so far. Ajattara were originally a side project of Pasi Koskinen, the former vocalist for Amorphis. Before you draw any conclusions, the sole similarity between the two bands (including Pasi's vocal performance) is the usage of ancient Finnish history as their lyrical theme. Even so, the focus here is on much darker topics thereof.

Ajattara is a bit like Pasi's evil twin spewing out all the bad blood. Although Pasi (who goes by the name of Ruoja here) was still in Amorphis when this came out, it's understandable why he felt safe enough to dedicate himself 100% to Ajattara shortly after. Initially a very basic band, the sophistication both in composition and sound has grown over the years, and 'Kuolema' is a mighty slab of heaviness that stands very well on its own merits.

The title means 'death', in case you were wondering, and it quite fits the overall feel. The mid-tempo black/death stomp lends itself well to the general malaise fumes hovering around these compositions - Pasi knows well that you don't have to speed up all the time. Aided by the excellent near-military drumming, most of the time he's happy to grind your face into the ground with sheer weight, like the crushing 'Huoran Alla' (erm, 'Under The Whore'). A song like 'Ikiyössä' is as fast as it gets, really. The sick feel is enriched by the hatred with which Pasi spits his vocals out. Forget anything he's done in Amorphis - here it's either near-black vocals or creepy chanting, and the lyrics are as nasty as they can get. They're all in Finnish, so either you understand the language and get creeped out by their content, or you don't and the alien feel creeps you out anyway. A special word of note for the keyboards - despite only being at the forefront in opener 'Antakaa Elää', they're used splendidly for atmosphere throughout, and would constitute a good example for some of the cheesier black metal bands on how to use this instrument properly.

Comparable to the more grinding moments of Aura Noir or to a darker, less folk version of Finntroll, 'Kuolema' is a great underrated gem. Despite its lack of tempo changes, it'll appeal to those who like the blacker side of metal.

the good: pounding mid-tempo songs, truly evil feel, great use of keyboards
the bad: lack of tempo changes

Monday, September 04, 2006

the last highway

johnny cash - 'american v - a hundred highways'

released: july 4, 2006
running time: 42'53"
american recordings

songs: 1. help me 2. god's gonna cut you down 3. like the 309 4. if you could read my mind 5. further on up the road 6. on the evening train 7. i came to believe 8. love's been good to me 9. a legend in my time 10. rose of my heart 11. four strong winds 12. i'm free from the chain gang now

For all the musically questionable projects which he has been involved with, for at least one thing Rick Rubin must be given an enormous amount of credit for, and that is the revitalization of Johnny Cash. Rubin picked up a rather forgotten and time-misplaced Cash and helped him forge what are arguably the best albums of his career. For someone with Johnny Cash's historical musical past, this re-invention, this diving deep into americana and traditional music, speckled with some impeccably chosen rock covers that exposed cash to an entirely new audience and made him almost universal, is a monumental task worthy of only the greatest musicians ever. 'A Hundred Highways' is the final chapter in this 5-album (plus one boxset) saga, and it arrives posthumously after the sad passing of the great man in black.

First of all, dispel any of the habitual cashing in notions usually associated with posthumous records. Particularly after the passing of his wife, June Carter, this music was all Cash lived for, and he started recording 'A Hundred Highways' the very day after finishing 'American IV - The Man Comes Around'. His special friendship with Rubin is also more than evident to avoid any stupid remark about this release. True, Cash did not live long enough to oversee the final production of the record, but it's not like there was much to add or strip away anyway.

'A Hundred Highways' is the less flashy album of Johnny Cash's career. It's not like the american recordings albums have been huge fireworks and circus displays anyway, but there's no Soundgarden or Nine Inch Nails cover, no Fiona Apple or Bonnie 'Prince' Billy guesting, no frills. The covers are mostly traditional and/or spiritual songs, as well as a Gordon Lightfoot and a Bruce Springsteen number. The overall tone is of confession and rest, of a man trying to come to peace with his life, his close mortality, his losses and mistakes. Cash's failing health is very clear here - you can hear his breath going out on him on several occasions. However, and unlike what could be expected, this does not inspire a weak image. On the contrary. Take 'God's Gonna Cut You Down', where he alternates between a failing voice and sometimes goes back to his booming of old - the effect is deeply impressive, as Cash seems to incarnate that very same wrathful god he sings about.

Despite the general final-sounding feel of this record, easy also to interpret from most of the songs (the last song he ever wrote, 'Like The 309', talks about loading his coffin on the train - my box on the 309, a similar theme to the Hank Williams cover 'On The Evening Train', where it's the wife's coffin), some of the songs are genuinely moving and hopeful, as if Johnny is giving us a final wink, like the aforementioned Gordon Lightfoot song, 'If You Could Read My Mind', Springsteen's 'Further On (Up The Road)', with the line one sunny morning we'll rise, i know, and i'll meet you further on up the road, 'Love's Been Good To Me' as a clear allusion to June, or the closing 'I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now', where Johnny echoes for one final time the words like a bird in a tree i got my liberty.

I hope he did.

the good: an elegiac, confessional and very human ending to one of the most important musicians of the 20th century
the bad: the occasional quavering and overall voice/guitar minimalism will not appeal to everyone, even johnny's fans

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

grey is the way

harmaa - 'airut:aamujen'

released: december 2004

songs: 1.saapuminen 2.seitsensarvi 3.lävitseni kaikkeen 4.luopumisen laulu 5.kuvajainen 6.oikea sointi 7.kahluu 8.hiensynty 9.läheltä

Harmaa (which, in Finnish, means 'Grey') is an offshot of the better known Finnish band Tenhi. In fact, 'Airut:aamujen' is the follow-up to a saga first started on a Tenhi record, 'Airut:ciwi'. Therefore, the music is not a million miles away from The tenhi sound, the contemplative, quiet melancholy being the prevalent norm in these compositions.

However, Harmaa strips that whole sound to its bare minimum. The 9 songs on this record are a sparse tapestry of piano as the main composition vehicle, accompanied by soft acoustic guitars, vocals and percussion. Unlike Tenhi, the guitars are mainly used for texture, while the vocals (apart from the wonderful male/female duet 'Luopumisen Laulu', the only half-upbeat song of the record) are mostly neutral and monotone, like an emotion-less version of Michael Gira. They fit the music perfectly, because they seem to blend into the background and become just another part of the nature that envelops these sounds.

That is the main merit of this record, the way it makes you feel in the middle of a white Finnish forest, overlooking a frozen lake and pondering life. Ambiance is the word, and in that aspect the record is a very tight package, not only musically but also in the lyrics (in Finnish, but with translations provided) and the sublime artwork.

Despite some minor pace changes, like the more dramatic 'Seitsensarvi' or the gorgeously beautiful 'Oikea Sointi', most of 'Airut:aamujen' follows the same thread, and unless you're in a particular kind of mood, your attention might start to wander.

If you are in that kind of contemplative mood, though, it's an extremely rewarding record with the capacity to drawn you in and lose you among its subtle, fragile beauty.

the good: beautiful sparse compositions, an enveloping experience
the bad: requires undivided attention and a particular mood, might be too monotonous otherwise

Friday, August 25, 2006


the black heart procession - 'the spell'

released: may 8, 2006
touch & go

songs: 1. tangled 2. the spell 3. not just words 4. the letter 5. the replacement 6. return to burn 7. gps 8. the waiter #5 9. places 10. the fix 11. to bring you back

Even for indie rock standards, The Black Heart Procession are very unusual. Ever since their mysteriously-titled (just numbers) first albums they have set themselves apart from the norm. Opearating within a very gloomy musical framework, their oddball concept albums have displayed labyrinthine songs that are a mixture of desolation, bitterness but also orchestration and cheeky sense of humour at the same time.

With a clear side-stepping evolution process so far, never really rehashing ideas while still maintaining a clear band identity, there was some curiosity to see what they would come up with to follow up the eerily latin-tinged 'Amore Del Tropico', after a worrying silence of four years. In another side-step, they have opted to do slightly more straightforward songs, without so many orchestral meanderings, bringing to mind some Richard Buckner in style. Which is a challenge - those passages, while still present here, don't help so much with the typically gloomy atmosphere as before, a role that is left mainly to the vocals and the fantastic string arrangements. It must be said that The Black Heart Procession use strings like no other band these days. Their wide range of instrumentation used sets each song in its own creepy world - be it the gypsy-feeling 'Not Just Words', the near-metal rumbling of 'Return To Burn' or the warped cabaret of 'The Waiter #5', a sort of serious version of the bar scene in Tim Burton's 'Corpse Bride'.

Paul Jenkins' vocals complete the package fittingly. Jenkins' sobbing, fragile but constant voice is the perfect topping for these hymns of sadness. The cryptic, sparse, sombre lyrics, full of imagery (the cold wind, the bones) and literary references have become a staple in The Black Heart Procession music, and Jenkins is similarly inspired here.

Overall, Nick Cave might be the closest reference point, mixed conceptual-wise with Tom Waits and musical-wise with Danny Elfman's soundtracks. The linearity of the concept is again very present, so the album might not make all that much sense, or have the same impact, when taken individually.

The Black Heart Procession are one of the most interesting and musically rich bands in indie rock circles, and this album is a creepy journey that fans of all genres should not miss.

the good: very atmospheric, fantastic string arrangements, genuinely creepy
the bad: yet another story-like album that's hard to take in individual songs

Thursday, August 24, 2006

the devil has all the best songs

deicide - 'the stench of redemption'

released: august 21, 2006

1. the stench of redemption 2. death to jesus 3. desecration 4. crucified for the innocence 5. walk with the devil in dreams you behold 6. homage for satan 7. not of this earth 8. never to be seen again 9. the lord's sedition 10. black night

Another day, another ass-kicking return from an extreme metal leading name! With Slayer (see previous post), Mastodon and Deicide, August 2006 is shaping up as a metalhead's dream. As you might have guessed by that, much like Slayer's new album, 'The Stench Of Redemption' is the best thing the veteran Florida death metal outfit has done in many a year.

Turns out that kicking out the Hoffman brothers was the creative whipping the band needed. Jack Owen and Ralph Santolla picked up the guitars and, quite frankly, they proceed to shred all over the place on this record. There's no two ways about it - the Owen/Santolla pair deliver the finest riff-fest we've heard since last year's Exodus album, and plainly revitalize Glen Benton's crew in the process. Unlike Deicide's latest efforts which rather sounded death-metal-by-numbers, 'The Stench Of Redemption' sounds fresh, brutal and even dangerous. If you've been there, the blasphemous feeling of being a teenager and listening to 'Amon: Feasting The Beast' for the first time cannot be beat. But instead of a character in some half-arsed horror movie, Glen Benton sounds serious again. His vocals aren't even confined to the low growl anymore, some chilling high-pitched black metal screams have been added to his arsenal and they enrich the eerie feeling of the songs quite a lot.

Ah, the songs. No predictable chugga-chugga verse-chorus-verse easiness here anymore - Owen and Santolla squeal their way through crushing, exhilarating solos and brutal rhythms, injecting a newfound sense of melody that sharpens the whole sound and breathing life (death?) into compositions that acquire immense replaying value. The production is also much more adequate than the grain of before, the instruments are much clearer while maintaning a hefty dose of bite. To top it all off, as if it wasn't enough, they out-Slayer Slayer with 'The Lord's Sedition', a fiery slab of thrash that hits you when you thought you were safe and leaves you drooling for more, just before closing it off with an undescribable cover of Deep Purple's 'Black Night' that must be heard to be believed.

Fucking hell.

the good: incredible guitarwork, rejuvenated benton vocals - a demonic, venomous blast of brutality that reinstates deicide at the top of the death metal pile
the bad: you'll go to hell for listening to it! (which might actually be a good thing...)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

old skull

slayer - 'christ illusion'

released: august 8, 2006
american recordings

songs: 1. flesh storm 2. catalyst 3. eyes of the insane 4. jihad 5. skeleton christ 6. consfearacy 7. catatonic 8. black serenade 9. cult 10. supremist

The trouble with redefining any musical genre, and one with such demanding and involved fans such as metal in particular, is that you'll forever be living under the weight of what you've done. It's hard to think of a band more burdened with history than Slayer. yes, there are other bands with a bigger and, arguably, more significant history within metal (not many, though), but the sheer fanaticism of the longtime Slayer afficionados ensures that they get no forgiveness whatsoever for anything less than the utter brilliance of their holy trinity, 'Reign In Blood', 'South Of Heaven' and 'Seasons In The Abyss'. Ever since then (and 'Seasons' is already 16 years old, in case you're forgetting how time flies!), the reaction to every slayer record has been more or less the same - good record, a couple of really great songs that make it into the live set, but it's no -insert your past fave here-.

Well, there's precious little that can be done to change that default reaction now, but 'Christ Illusion' goes a good step further to making everyone a bit happier. Personally, I have quite enjoyed 'God Hates Us All', but after repeated listenes the idea starts to emerge that 'Christ Illusion' is the best thing slayer have done since, well, you know, those. It has become usual to associate Slayer's not-as-good-as period with the absence of drummer Dave Lombardo. While it's unfair to place all the pressure on him to make Slayer different, the fact is that his return does lend a new punch to some compositions. Dave is the best drummer in the world, and the blitzkrieg beat of 'Cult' or the cascading rhythm of 'Skeleton Christ', to cite but two examples, have his signature all over it.

There is also much less filler. Most bands would sell their grannies for Slayer's filler, but 'Christ Illusion' is the most consistent, varied record in many years from them. It storms off the gates with a song that will surely wreak havoc on many a moshpit in future tours, 'Flesh Storm', which leads into the equally fast and furious 'Catalyst'. It harks back to the perfect 'War Ensemble'/'Blood Red' opening of 'Seasons', both in speed and in energy. From then on, it's a rollercoaster ride of crushing riffs and some unexpected tempo changes, like the unusual 'Jihad' or the catchy 'Consfearacy'. Tom Araya's vocals are also much improved over the last few records, where he strangely turned to a repetitive screaming. He now provides a very strong vocal delivery to some of the best Slayer lyrics ever. Kerry King in particular has dropped a bit of the dumb-jock feel of late and seems to be full of anti-religious bile, which is a good thing. The thoughtful war considerations on 'Eyes Of The Insane' are also a highlight in that department.

So if you're still hung on those old records, lighten up and give 'Christ Illusion' a chance. It's fast, it's brutal, most songs are memorable, Dave's back and the artwork has even been banned in some places. It's like metal is dangerous all over again.

The best mix of old and new (the good new) slayer you could wish for.

the good: best slayer album in 16 years, storming opening pair of songs, dave's back
the bad: okay, okay, still not as good as the classics, and some songs like 'flesh storm' clearly stand out from the rest

Friday, August 18, 2006

pleasure and pain

joy division - 'unknown pleasures'

released: june 1st, 1979
running time: 38'21"
Factory Records

suggested for review by aida

songs: 1. disorder 2. day of the lords 3. candidate 4. insight 5. new dawn fades 6. she's lost control 7. shadowplay 8. wilderness 9. interzone 10. i remember nothing

Joy Division are a sort of missing link, the connecting piece between 70s punk, 80s goth rock and 90s shoegazing. Their often forgotten long reach of influence is such that even metal owes quite a debt to them - within all the realms of darker music, with the possible exception of the Swans, you will find very few records as hypnotically sombre as 'Unknown Pleasures'.

This historical debut floored an unsuspecting public not only with Ian Curtis' instantly recognizable drone vocals, apparently monotone but with an ocean of depth, but also with a very different approach to rock songwriting. On 'Unknown Pleasures', the guitar is not the main vehicle to carry the melody. It's usually the rhythm section that provides the backbone of the songs, with the guitar being used superbly for atmospherics and textures. Take 'Shadowplay', for example, perhaps the record's best song - it's almost as if the guitar and drums switch roles, with the guitar being the percussive drive of the song.

It is, although, hard to generalize anything about this record. Despite the constant thread that runs through it, with each song unmistakably belonging here, the moods twist and turn, as if in an epiletic fit like the ones that troubled Ian Curtis himself. From the haunting echoed emptiness of 'Candidate' to the strangely uplifting beat of 'She's Lost Control', not forgetting the heaviness of 'New Dawn Fades' and the frankly scary drawn-out desolation of closer 'I Remember Nothing', it seems misery was a multi-faceted beast to be approached in several different ways for these young musicians. The songwriting is so good that you can even take it on a purely musical level and enjoy it as a simple rock record, if you can.

Musicians and, in the case of Curtis, writers. Take music lyrics alone and they'll often disappoint, without the weight of the sounds to back them up. Curtis' words stand on their own, however. It's frightening to think what this man could have done, had the sorrow in his life not led him to suicide some months later. That is probably the most harrowing side to this record - you know that none of it is fake. When you hear a man breaking on this record, it's true. Which makes everything here timeless. These feelings and these expressions were as valid in 1979 as they were yesterday.

With their short but decisively essential career, Joy Division have influenced a whole generation of musicians and listeners, and 'Unknown Pleasures' remains one of the most accomplished debut albums of the last decades.

the good: a unique display of sadness and desperation with a stinging value of truth to it, innovative songwriting, fabulous atmosphere
the bad: nothing, really, unless your mood is severely affected by the music you hear and you put this on when you're particularly happy

Monday, August 14, 2006

catch them if you can

meshuggah - 'catch thirtythree'

released: may 23rd, 2005
running time: 47'15"
nuclear blast

suggested for review by adi

songs: 1. autonomy lost 2. imprint of the un-saved 3. disenchantment 4. the paradoxical spiral 5. re-inanimate 6. entrapment 7. mind's mirrors 8. in death - is life 9. in death - is death 10. shed 11. personae non gratae 12. dehumanization 13. sum

As my more regular readers (whom I take the opportunity to thank profusely) might have noticed, I tend to value originality and creativity in the music I listen to. It's not too wrong to say that for me oddball is the new cool. I was therefore quite happy when adi suggested Meshuggah's latest for me to talk about.

Throughout their career, these Swedes have always exhibited an almost frantic need to experiment, to mutate and to stray from the regular path. For that alone they deserve high accolades. The fact that they've created some metallic masterpieces along the way is obviously very important too. No use trying to be 'experimental' just for the heck of it if the results aren't actually good.

This experimentation has, however, made Meshuggah a very difficult band to approach. Both 'Chaosphere' and 'Nothing' have been super-dense, impenetrable records (or 'boring', for the disgruntled fans who prefered the earlier releases) that require several listens to get all those trademark Fredrik Thornendal twisty riffs and the insane drum patterns of Tomas Haake. Perhaps trying to get away from this, Meshuggah went one step further in the 'I' ep, a blistering 21-minute song that was diamond-hard perfection all the way. Even if the band define this record as a musical opposite of 'I', 'Catch Thirtythree' is, essentially, 'I's bigger brother, which can be seen as both a good and a bad thing.

A good thing, because 'I's brilliance really left you hungry for more. A bad thing, because this kind of conceptual one-track composition is really hard to follow all the way through, and while it worked perfectly during 21 minutes, 47 minutes is a steep challenge. I called it one-track, because despite the 13 'songs', 'Catch Thirtythree' is really one composition divided in several movements. It blasts off from the gates - the first three songs make up one neat introduction, and a raging syncopated riff-fest it is, almost a statement of intent in reaction to the monotonous mid-pace of 'Nothing'. From then on, the rollercoaster begins - there's the rumbling low-end heaviness of songs 4 to 6, some creepy vocoder vocals with 'Mind's Mirrors', and the best part of the album, the two 'In Death' tracks. Probably the best thing they've done since 'Destroy, Erase, Improve', it's Meshuggah at their rule-bending best. The free-jazz influences they hint at during the record really show clearly here - it feels loose, frenetic and utterly addictive. The remainder of the album is made of 'Chaosphere'-like dense riffing, with another standout in the brutal closer 'Sum'.

One major let-down of 'Catch Thirtythree' is the absence of Tomas Haake. all the drums are programmed, and while that robotic feel you get from programmed drums actually fits most of the compositions, it's nevertheless a shame to not get Haake's familiar, twisted drumming driving these compositions along. Also, the more cosmic bits don't really have much going for them, except as short interludes in between the bouts of devastation.

While there is enough variation and quality all through the 47 minutes, 'Catch Thirtythree' still struggles a bit to maintain meshuggah's high standards for the whole duration, especially in some transitions that feel slightly forced. But even if the consistency isn't 100% steady (it's humanly impossible to maintain the degree of metallic excellence of 'In Death - Is Death'), this is still a bomb of a record. The aforementioned variation ensures that you won't get bored or simply overwhelmed, like on 'Nothing' or 'Chaosphere', and actually makes the heavy parts hit you an extra bit harder.

The band members have said 'I' and this record are part of an experimenting phase that's now over, so bets are on to figure out where they go next. Wherever it is, you can bet it'll be heavy.

the good: the usual high technical level, more variation in the composition ensures better dynamics, some truly fabulous 'songs'
the bad: basically a one-tracker that's not easy to sit through all the way and makes little sense with the parts taken individually, 100% programmed drums, some filler in the atmospheric bits

Friday, August 11, 2006

heaven can wait

babylon whores - 'cold heaven'

released: august 11th, 1997
running time: 36'36"
misanthropy records

songs: 1. deviltry 2. omega therion 3. beyond the sun 4. metatron 5. enchiridion for a common man 6. in arcadia ego 7. babylon astronaut 8. flesh of a swine 9. cold heaven

The Babylon Whores are (were? We'll get to that in a minute) a very unique band, springing from the black metal-dominated Northern European underground of the mid-90s. Perhaps as a reaction to that, they have proudly slapped on the back cover of this debut record the term 'death rock'.While uncharacteristic for a band to label themselves like that, especially for an intelligent band such as this, that statement of intent does make sense. Even if the sly, caustic sense of humour of these Finns makes it impossible to know how tongue-in-cheek this labeling really was, the fact is that 'Cold Heaven' holds the true spirit of rock, somewhat lost in the decade in which it was released. Vocalist/founder Ike Vil is, appropriately enough, with his frankly brilliant dense croon, a sort of Elvis gone demonic or Jim Morrison gone metal. Throughout these 9 songs (8, really, because the title track is a creepy keyboard-only epilogue), Ike and the rest of the band touch Samhain/Danzig, MC5 and The Sisters Of Mercy while building their own distinctive, punked up sound.

The songs will seem simple at first, but after several repeated listens (which will come at no effort at all, so catchy the hooks manage to be) all the subtleties will begin to surface. The meaty riffs, the creative bass lines, the aforementioned singing, all sitting on a solid production, all of it helps to bring out the fabulous, cohesive and addictive songwriting. While the album is consistent in style, there is some variation too. 'Deviltry' is thrashy and rough, a perfect opener, In Arcadia Ego' is slow and melodic, while 'Enchiridion For A Common Man' is just plain sticky with its great chorus.

And then, the lyrics. Littered with philosophical and occult references, it would take several posts (and some years of study) to go through all that's touched upon here, but the seriousness with which the pagan ideology is put across makes the album undismissable in that respect. Yet, despite their obvious knowledge of such issues, they never cross the line of pretentiousness, bringing everything back to the dirt of death rock, like in 'Metatron', for example: given to waning moon / septuagint whispers of impending doom / cautes and cautopates / a shit load of bad ass deities. Apparently, this interest in the occult was present during the writing process. There are rumors bass lines being recorded without knowing the guitar lines, of the numbers (sound output values and whatnot) involved in the mixing process being chosen by their numerology meaning, and of course the total length of the album, 36 minutes and 36 seconds.

As you can see, there is much more to 'Cold Heaven' than might meet the eye at first. This also applies to the band itself, their cloak of mystery was never really truly lifted. On the contrary, after two more equally brilliant records, 'King Fear' and 'Death Of The West', the Babylon Whores vanished. The end of the band was never officially proclaimed, but recent attempts on my part to reach any of the members for an interview have been met with polite declining. The last known public announcement by the band was made sometime in late 2003 on their now-offline website, on which it read, after some vaguely incomprehensible lines, we'll meet again some sunny day.

Well, I sure hope so.

the good: brilliant songwriting - incredibly complex songs that sound very simple, profound lyrics injected with a subtle sense of humour, the whole aura of mystery around the record
the bad: we might never hear from them again

Thursday, August 10, 2006

film noir

callisto - 'noir'

released: may 10th, 2006
fullsteam records

songs: 1. wormwood 2. latterday saints 3. the fugitive 4. backwoods 5. a close encounter 6. pathos 7. folkslave 8. woven hands

Callisto is a young Finnish band that first caught my interest when I watched them at a festival and was downright impressed by their take on the Neurosis post-rock template. Despite their obvious young age, there they were on stage crunching out mammoth riffs worthy of the great Oakland band's best moments. I got hold of 'True Nature Unfolds', their first album, shortly after, and remained duly impressed. With other spiritual children of Neurosis like Isis and Cult Of Luna stealing the whole show, here was Callisto doing it with poise, class and maturity without many people noticing. Since then, their stature has grown somewhat, but they still remain rather underrated.

So here we have the new follow-up (the may release date was only for Finland, us non-Finnish got it a bit later) to that great record which I hope will change that. The question in bands of this kind is usually how to do follow-ups. Such is the totality and apocalyptic nature of every Neurosis, Isis, Cult Of Luna or Pelican record that you always wonder what can possibly come next. Well, the boys from Turku have decided to sidestep that problem by adding certain new elements to their sound.

'True Nature Unfolds' already had some variation and some quieter moments, but that aspect is totally let loose on 'Noir', to the point the closest comparison point now being the equally amazing Explosions In The Sky, particularly their 'The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place' record.

Life is all dynamics, goes a song by Devin Townsend, and so is 'Noir'. the record is, strangely enough, both chilled out and brutal. The meandering, relaxed instrumental passages slowly build and grow great crescendos, and when you notice it (in the best 'Through Silver In Blood' fashion) a twinkly guitar line has turned into a monster riff with Markus Myllykangas' mighty hardcore-ish throat bellowing all over it. In fact, such is the dynamic quality of the songs, that some clean vocals now and then (apart from the spoken bit in 'Backwoods') wouldn't go totally amiss for extra atmosphere. The roaring can turn slightly repetitive after a while, especially when compared with everything else that's going on in the songs.

This rise and fall style of composition lends itself well to epic songs, and most of them go over the 8 minute mark here. However, some of them feel like they could be trimmed down slightly, especially in those more spaced out parts. Some of those parts are fabulously written and feel even jazz-like in their looseness (there's even a saxophone in 'Latterday Saints'), but in some the listener can get 'lost' while waiting for them to get to the point.

Pick of the bunch is 'The Fugitive', a rollercoaster ride of a song with a hypnotic riff that won't leave your head anytime soon.

All in all, a record with its own personality, showing a band with fresh ideas and no desire to repeat itself. Callisto overcome the 'difficult second album' hurdle with style and leave one to wonder what they will come up with for the next one.

the good: great dynamics, epic songs that build up from quietness to moments of great fury, originality and freshness of ideas
the bad: the jazzier, quieter moments can drag on a bit too long, some lack of variety in the vocal department

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

hey ho, let's go!

ramones - 'ramones'

released: april 23, 1976
sire records

songs: 1. blitzkrieg bop 2. beat on the brat 3. judy is a punk 4. i wanna be your boyfriend 5. chain saw 6. now i wanna sniff some glue 7. i don't wanna go down to the basement 8. loudmouth 9. havana affair 10. listen to my heart 11. 53rd & 3rd 12. let's dance 12. i don't wanna walk around with you 14. today your love, tomorrow the world

The Ramones did everything quick. Johnny once famously said that 'our songs aren't short, we just play 'em really fast'. And so it was with the recording of their first album. In 17 days, for $6200 (unbelievably cheap, even for 1976 standards), Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone cranked out one of the most significant records in rock music history.

And who would have known? In those first, now legendary, CBGB live appearances, the general opinion was more or less 'they're crap'. It took time to get used to the Ramones, because they were very different from everyone else. Yes, the punk foundations had been laid down by bands like MC5 and The Stooges, but it were the Ramones who shaped the definitive outline of the then proto-genre. and they did so the simplest way possible - by stripping rock music down to its most essential core.

Note that I've been using 'rock music' when affirming the significance of this record, and I do that because I think it's wrong to look at it as punk (or metal, as some defend) or any other genre. The main point about this record is precisely its universal appeal, based on the deceptive simplicity. Four guys in leather jackets, playing frantic two and a half minute songs about girlfriends, horror movies, sniffing glue and beating rich kids up? It doesn't get any rockier than that. But look a bit further than the comic-book bizarre lyrics and apparently clumsy playing and you'll find incredible depth too.

For starters, strictly musically speaking, 'Ramones' has stood the test of time with brilliance, 30 years later those bubblegum choruses still maintain all their joviality and energy intact. Thematically, even if the lyrics mostly consist of 3 or 4 lines repeated through the song, you will find they're brimming with oblique references to all the troubles, doubts and joys of urban humanity, surprisingly up to date. Some of the clearer examples are '53rd & 3rd', about Dee Dee's drug habit and the street corner where he satisfied it, or 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue', about bored teenagers (of Forest Hills) seeking cheap thrills.

'Ramones' is also a rather cruel reminder of a certain childish innocence the world has progressively lost. Not only Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee are not with us anymore, but the days of comic books and bubble gum and silly haircuts (and even glue-sniffing) are mostly a distant memory that has been replaced by mostly much worse things.

Songwise, it's hard to find highlights, such is the consistency of the record, but the infectious 'Blitzkrieg Bop' with its immortal opening 'Hey ho, let's go!', a rallying cry for rock if there ever was one, the endearingly sweet 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend' and the surprising Chris Montez cover 'Let's Dance', where they showed they could also do something a bit different, are probably the ones I'd pick.

Even if the Ramones never really hit it big in the charts like their current legendary status might lead to think, 'Ramones' is a landmark in every way, musically and socially. With simplicity, vitality and a little bit of healthy innocence, these four guys paved the way for countless bands and artists.

One of the very few perfect 10 records of the last 30 years.

the good: everything - from the oddball but strangely affecting lyrics to the eternally catchy simple songs, 'ramones' is rock music stripped to its essential core
the bad: nothing, apart from the stinging nostalgia long-time fans might get from it

Friday, August 04, 2006


abigail's mercy - 'salvation'

released: july 2006
running time: 51'49"
casket music

songs: 1. to hell with angels 2. just for you 3. meaningless 4. sarah 5. keep me coming 6. ashes 7. salvation 8. the sky begins to cry 9. cloud dancer 10. the truth

I received this promo a couple of weeks ago, and having reviewed it for the several magazines I work for, I decided to post it here, since too.many.records. hasn't really catered for the gothier crowd yet.

Yes, goth. So let's get it out of the way quickly: Abigail's Mercy, despite the frequent unfairness with which some of these comparisons are handed out, do sound like several other bands you probably know that play goth rock with a duet of grainy male and operatic female vocals. Before you leap quickly to the next review or, heaven (and hell) forbid, the next blog, in disgust, it should be stated that some of the songwriting on 'Salvation' is not entirely bad. The talent to write sticky vocal lines is quite evident. I dare you to not hum opener 'To Hell With Angels' all day after just one listen to that chorus. If perfected (and, above all, marketed) well, this might make them the next big thing in some circles. They are certainly presented that way in the press release. However, the amateur feel to it all is undisguisable and provides the record's downfall.

Get past those ear-candy vocal harmonies and you'll be left with nothing really adventurous in any area. Most of the guitarwork is fairly forgettable and unchallenging. Elsewhere, the lyrics and the band's look (instant example - album cover) positively reek of adolescence. Female vocalist Lindsey is the band's weakest link – she'd do for some choruses and backup vocals, but she's unfortunately not nearly enough to take the lead of a song.

It might not take much more than this to stir waves among the less knowledgeable public (re: Evanescence), but Abigail's Mercy are still a long way away from true quality.

the good: interesting vocal harmonies, a couple of sticky songs
the bad: feels and sounds amateur (in a bad, not endearing way), unoriginal, weak female vocals

Thursday, August 03, 2006

raising the flag

stiff little fingers - 'flags & emblems'

released: 1991
running time: 35'48"
castle communications

suggested for review by aino

songs: 1. (it's a) long way to paradise (from here) 2. stand up and shout 3. each dollar a bullet 4. the cosh 5. beirut moon 6. the game of life 7. human shield 8. johnny 7 9. die and burn 10. no surrender

In face of recent events, it's sadly appropriate that Aino suggested this record for me to talk about, a record that had the song 'Beirut Moon' as a first single. There was controversy at the time, with the single being banned for the attacks it contained on the British government regarding its action (or lack thereof) in the John McCarthy hostage situation. This might have given Stiff Little Fingers a much needed boost of credibility they desperately needed at the time. 'Flags & Emblems' came out at a difficult time in the life of the Northern Irish band - generally considered to be washed up and way past their prime, reforming after five years of inactivity with the purpose of 'making a bit of cash to get back to Ireland for Christmas', the excitement wasn't high.

'Flags & Emblems' was a good reaction to all that. No, it's not as good as those legendary first 80s John Peel-approved records, especially 'Go For It!', but it doesn't mean to be, either. While those were pure go-ahead punk records, 'Flags & Emblems' incorporates all the things they had tried to bring into their sound and had failed miserably at and ultimately led to their break-up. Jake Burns' sung-not-screamed vocals, the poppier hooks, the vague reggae influences, basically a process of Clash-ization. I don't know if they spent those five years thinking of how to do it, but here it all works fine. 'Beirut Moon' is actually one of the weakest tracks here, despite the importance of the message. It's the Clash-y songs like 'Stand Up And Shout' and 'Die And Burn' that will really get you moving about. Their politically charged lyrics aren't smashed across with the same abandon as before, but their strength and weight is maintained by good musicianship and memorable choruses and guitar leads. Some of the songs will probably pass you by without great excitement, but the record as a whole is very listenable and the repeat play potential is great after you start picking your favourites. The sound does lack a bit of aggressive bite, which was the main gripe for the hardcore punks that couldn't forget their blazing earlier records.

On the other hand, the best thing about 'Flags & Emblems' might just be its accessibility. Lots of people who won't give political HC punk a second listen might be lured in by these songs. When a band actually is able to reflect and stand up (and shout?) about important issues, the more people listening the better.

The Stiff Little Fingers more or less faded away after this, with a couple of forgettable releases to their credit, but as you can hear in the pop-punk wave that followed it, 'Flags & Emblems' still remains an important, valid and influential record today.

the good: catchy clash-like punk songs, serious political lyrics
the bad: not a match for the earlier records, too poppy for the hardcore punks

Monday, July 31, 2006

dynamic duo

richard buckner & jon langford - 'sir dark invader vs. the fanglord'

released: may 31, 2005
running time: 30'43"
buried treasure

songs: 1. rolling of the eyes 2. nothing to show 3. sweet anybody 4. from attic to basement 5. torn apart 6. stayed 7. the inca princess 8. no tears tonight 9. do you wanna go somewhere?

This record could not have been released on a better titled label for it than Buried Treasure Records. This collaboration is indeed a treasure, and one that could have easily remained buried, having been shelved for almost three years before its release. A treasure, mostly because of its uniqueness and improbability. You'd be hard pushed to find less likely indie musicians to hook up and make a record than introspective Richard Buckner (the dark invader, in case you were wondering) and expansive Jon Langford (yes, the fanglord), well known for his work in punk pioneers The Mekons and in country-punks Waco Brothers. Yet hook up they did, in a Chicago apartment where they hung out together for a week in 2002 and came up with these nine songs.

It all seems to indicate a disjointed effort, and it is, in a way, but not in a bad way. You have back-to-back songs like 'Rolling Of The Eyes', a catchy, lively rocker, and 'Nothing To Show', a rather mournful lament of emptiness, that somehow seem to fit together perfectly. This happens because, unlike what could be expected (and what they jokingly try to make you expect with the confrontational title and cover), it's not rocker Jon doing the uptempo ones and alt-country gloomer Richard doing the slow ones. The pair trade vocal harmonies and instrumentation (not to mention lyrics and writing duties as well) seemingly at will, and they end up sounding like old collaborators who know each other inside out. That's talent for you.

The best thing about this record is the various levels on which it might be taken. On a more superficial level, with that silly cover (and whole booklet artwork) and the more upbeat songs like 'The Inca Princess' and 'Torn Apart', you have a cool collection of songs that you can play, say, while you drive, and have good fun with. Look deeper though, and you'll find real depth to the songs and the lyrics, along with a very truthful world-weariness in lines like nothing to show for the things that i've done / there were places to go and i had to choose this one / i had some dreams in my head, had some tricks up my sleeve / but i'll be lucky to leave with my life, which opens the aforementioned 'Nothing To Show'. This kind of hurt sincerity is also very present in the way the album ends, with the beautiful 'Do You Wanna Go Somewhere?' apparently being left halfway through, both men stopping their instruments and leaving you hanging, wondering.

Since this is a very clear one-off, it's likely that we'll hang forever. At least, and unlike that lyric states, these guys really left something to show for what they did that week in Chicago.

the good: surprisingly good result for an unlikely pairing, authentic, lasting collection of songs spanning several moods
the bad: understandably not as cohesive as each man's individual work, a one-off we'll probably won't hear again

Saturday, July 29, 2006

finnish soul

amorphis - 'eclipse'

released: february 20, 2006
running time: 45'28"
nuclear blast

songs: 1. two moons 2. house of sleep 3. leaves scar 4. born from fire 5. under a soil and black stone 6. perkele (the god of fire) 7. the smoke 8. same flesh 9. brother moon 10. empty opening 11. stone woman

'Eclipse' only clicked totally for me when I watched Amorphis performing live at this year's tuska festival. On one hand, hearing these new songs effortlessly rub shoulders with the older classics and, on the other hand, witnessing the surprising confidence of new frontman Tomi Joutsen in tackling songs from every period of the band made me want to go home and listen to 'Eclipse' with doubled attention.

It paid off - 'Eclipse' is one of those records that demands a little extra attention, especially if you're already a fan of the band. Even if Joutsen's vocals aren't a million miles away from former vocalist Pasi Koskinen (who, incidentally, is now focusing solely on Ajattara, highly recommended for fans of black metal), they do take a bit of getting used to, as they are more gruff and dense. Joutsen is more versatile, though - his voice reshapes itself all over the songs looking for the best fit to the compositions, with general success. There are hints of both Nick Holmes (Paradise Lost) and Kjetil Nordhus (Green Carnation).

The songwriting is equally very good. After two not really bad but slightly disappointing records ('Am Universum' and 'Far From The Sun'), you could look at 'Eclipse' as the proverbial return to form for these Finns. Not to say that this has much to do with their early death metal days, but it's a modernized halfway point between 'Elegy' and 'Tuonela'. I classified Tomi Joutsen's vocals as 'dense' up there, and the same can be applied to the overall feel of the album's sound. The strong rhythm section lays a strong foundation for the guitar melodies to flourish, and flourish they do - check out the incredibly addictive riff from 'Brother Moon' or the already live classic 'House Of Sleep' as perfect examples. The keyboard arrangements are equally well done, and very important in the atmospheres created by each song. Thematically, they once again dig into the rich world of Finnish folk lore. 'Eclipse' is a concept album of sorts, based on a tale from the Kalevala, called Kullervo's story, which i urge you to find out more about.

If a criticism has to be made, it could be the fact that the record lacks a true centerpiece. A storytelling effort such as this could benefit from an 'epic' song that would constitute the core of the song allignment. But that's mostly nitpicking. 'Eclipse' is the best Amorphis album in many years, probably since 'Elegy', and it sounds fresh, exciting and like a whole new beginning for an already historical band. The final verdict isn't higher simply because I'm still expecting them to improve more and more on this promising effort.

the good: impressive new vocalist, strong songwriting, gripping lyrical concept
the bad: lacks a true centerpiece song, important in a storytelling kind of record

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

allez la france!

les sans culottes - 'fixation orale'

released: may 18, 2004
aeronaut records

suggested for review by 'the queen of everything'

songs: 1. toxico 2. allô allô 3. garçon culotté 4. tout va bien 5. train à grande vitesse 6. li kantu 7. téléphone douche 8. ménage à toi 9. la radio 10. poupée de cire 11. deux boules de glace 12. voyage au bout de l'ennui

Les Sans Culottes play boppy, raunchy, 60s yeh-yeh-influenced pop-rock songs in French (apart from a song in, erm, Esperanto), with such profound themes as ice cream. Oh, and they're from new york.

Are you scared? You shouldn't be. The faux-french bop of these crazy Americans (apart from the one genuinely French member, singer Celine Dijon) is actually quite compelling, and taken on a purely musical level, they're a sort of mix of the B-52's and bits of Le Tigre with Serge Gainsbourg, whose hit 'Poupée de Cire' is very amusingly covered here.

There's much more to them than that, though. one you get past the joke-band idea, you'll find they have proper songs to back all the craziness up, with plenty of variety to keep things interesting. 'Toxico' is one of the rockier songs, 'allô allô' showcases one of their main strengths, the male-female vocal duets, 'Tout Va Bien' is a dreamy ballad with swirling keyboards and harpsichord, while the singalong of that Esperanto song, 'Li Kantu', will glue itself to your brain for days.

Sure, it's all very camp and not very meaningful, but that's more or less the point. The childlike vitality of the melodies, a sort of The Magnetic Fields on prozac, will work like a charm whenever you play this for friends. If only for the conversation-piece effect of the quirky lyrics.
I won't even mention the possibilities of 'Ménage à Toi', but it's not every day that you can engage someone in conversation at a party with the line 'so do you know what a téléphone douche is?'.

the good: a silly bout of great faux-french fun with wonderfully witty lyrics and proper songs to back it up
the bad: will be too camp for some, the joke-band tag might be hard to dispel when trying to take their music seriously