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