Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Steelhouse Lane, Slaves of the New World CD review

Here are just a few highlights from this stellar disc:

"Give It All Me"
A heavy blues-rock opener that's fairly predictable until the 2:30 minute mark. That's when you get a little taste of the band's unconventional flare for the dramatic with singer Keith Slack's wordless syllables echoing while guitarist Mike Slamer coaxes interesting tones out of his axe. It's just for a moment, but it's a preview of more of the band's experimental side to come later on this record.

"Find What We're Lookin' For"
Instantly the most catchy track on the entire album. The combo of Slack's voice and Slamer's fretwork call to mind Don Dokken and George Lynch, with the song sounding at moments like Dokken's "Burning Like a Flame."

A dramatic pre-chorus about a soul-searcher sung over piercing razor-sharp arpeggios and some cool keyboards resolves with a feel-good refrain with choir-like layered vocals.

When Slack pleads "We've come too far / We ride too long / One love, one heart / Deep inside / we'll find what we've been / looking for," well, Steelhouse Lane will make you a believer. This is music that will make you hopeful again.

Simply put, a masterpiece.

"Son of a Loaded Gun"
A bit too imitative of the "Wanted Dead or Alive"/Blaze of Glory vibe and about a decade too late at that. But this does help fulfill the minimum requirement that every good AOR album have at least one acoustic-based track.

"Turn Around"
Opens with unique echo-laden guitar work that has a mysterious air to it. Later, Slamer's singular fretwork has flashes of inspiration that meld the finger tapping and harmonics of Eddie Van Halen with the fusion sensibility of Allan Holdsworth. Best of all, it all gives way to a radio-friendly hook that perfectly showcases the band's knack for combining woodshed musicianship
with commercial instincts.

"Slaves of the New World"
Heavily percussive guitar percolations ushers in a wild romp à la the abandon of Van Halen's "Tora Tora." Definitely the most unique on the album and a cool focal point as the disc's title track. We also get a hint of social consciousness with lyrics that survey the last several hundred years of history. Slack begins by decrying the loss of the plight of native American Indians and then likens their enslavement to that of the modern person at the hands of technology...unless I'm reading too deeply into this song!

And who's that making a cameo at the 3:00 minute mark? Why, it's that familiar opening voice from the Scorpions' Humanity Hour 1!

"All I Believe In"
This is Slamer's moment to shine, with an extended solo intro against a lush backdrop of heaven-drenched keyboards that lasts for more than a minute. His playing his a beautiful yet mournful tone that I can only liken to "Rain" -- Jason Becker's amazing solo guitar piece.

What follows after the intro is a true ballad for the romantics among you with a strong sense of melody and an even stronger vocal presence.

"In Too Deep"
A fun rocker with a chunky mid-tempo riff that recalls Loudness' "Let It Go." A nice companion piece to the go-for-the-throat melodic energy of "Find What We're Lookin' For," albeit a little more sedate than that gem.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Spiders & Snakes' Arachnomania CD review

This 1991 dark glam release from the Los Angeles-based Spiders & Snakes was perhaps a day late and a dollar short for its time, but it's still a fun listen regardless. Below is a track-by-track review of this five-song disc.

"California Slide"

Starts out with a strong opening riff that has hints of Ratt's "You're In Love" with several whammy bar workouts in under a minute. The hook, however, is extremely obnoxious with singer-guitarist Lizzie Grey's incessant shrieking -- Ya sliddddeee...sliddddeee! Strong musicianship, but the vocals are a definite acquired taste. Fortunately, Grey's vocals are never quite this annoying again on Arachnomania.

Lyrically, you have the typical tales of gutter and glam: "It's getting so that nobody can think anymore / and everybody likes it that way / How you gonna run away leave your small town behind / when you're born in L.A."

"Captain Tripps"

Taking a cue from Operation:Mindcrime, this track opens with a news snippet about the threat of Mexican prostitutes spreading AIDS to American men. Nice to see a burgeoning social conscience!

This track builds from power ballad arpeggios with touches of layered lead guitar during the verses to a chorus that's all NWOBHM double-paced hooks.

The Captain Tripps of the title is a menacing Twister Sister-like protagonist ("Captain Howdy," anyone?) and there's probably some connection between his misdeeds and the Mexican prostitutes, but it's eluding me at this point.

"The End of Marylou"

Lest Spiders & Snakes be branded a bunch of misogynists, the next track bounces back with a very sensitive story of a woman who wants out of a neglectful marriage. She dreams of going to school, and the lyrics show a deep empathy that lets belies the band's party hardy facade. It's the kind of populist songwriting you might hear from Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp.

The music is propulsive with possible hints of keyboard seemingly buried deep in the mix. It's almost Dio-esque in its momentum, in the way "We Rock" is a full-steam ahead chugger.

"Little Willie"

It's good to hear somebody picking up on this Sweet classic, joining the likes of Krokus with their classic cover of Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz."

Too often it seems like hair metal bands were only fixated on the equally talented Slade when it came to their choice of covers. Recall Quiet Riot with "Cum on Feel the Noize" and "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" and Britny Fox with "Gudbuy T'Jane."

Unfortunately, Grey's delivery sounds like he's Ric Ocasek of the Cars.

"Billion Dollar Babies"

Grey does a great Alice Cooper, mimicking every vocal nuance of Alice Cooper, right down to the double-tracked vocals of talking and singing during the verses.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Overkill's Ironbound CD review

In tribute to their native New Jersey, Overkill have unleashed their 16th studio album, Ironbound, which takes its name from an industrial neighborhood in the city of Newark.

Ironbound has been called a "thrash metal masterpiece" in promotional materials. But that's probably more hyperbole than anything -- in the end, what you have is really just another solid, if occasionally above average, album from the Garden State metal veterans.

With Ironbound, frontman Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth & Co. have delivered a record steeped in thrash history -- both the history of the band itself and the history of the genre as a whole.

Need proof?

• "Killing for a Living" opens with a D.D. Verni bass line that has shades of the late Cliff Burton's haunting, impressionistic "Damage, Inc." intro.
• The disc's first single, "Bring Me the Night," is built on a riff that clearly borrows from Diamond Head's "Helpless."
• The blood-pumping build up of "The Green and Black" around 2:35 is actually a case of Overkill plagiarizing themselves. Listen to the ascending riff madness of "Charlie Get Your Gun" off 2007's Immortalis from about 1:55 as a comparison and see if you don't agree.

This is not to say that Overkill -- rounded out by relative newbies drummer Ron Lipnicki and guitarists Derek Tailer and Dave Linsk -- sound tired or unimaginative on Ironbound. In fact, the core songwriting team of Blitz and Verni sounds more invigorated than most guys in their early 50s could ever hope to be.

But it's important to note the historical context for their latest music, especially as Overkill gain younger fans who may not be aware of the legacy this band has.

"Give a Little" is one of the most interesting tracks on Ironbound, and it offers a hodge-podge of a few different elements from the band's 1989 classic The Years of Decay. Its bitter lyrical tone calls to mind "Elimination", while the slow build-up section nicks the breakdown riff from "E.vil N.ever D.ies." But the track's truly standout moment comes during the pin-drop quiet breakdown at 3:40 when you can hear unique, almost bluesy timbres in Blitz's throat.

If you think you know the entire spectrum of this legendary screamer's voice, well, think again.

"Bring Me the Night," Ironbound's first single, is absolutely riveting and relentless go-for-the-throat thrash. One of its main riffs also happens to be a near carbon copy of the aforementioned Diamond Head track. Listen to Metallica's cover of "Helpless" to hear for yourself.

This, ultimately, is all a testament to Overkill's continuing tradition of fine metal craftsmanship. Any good album should hit on some familiar sonic touchstones and use them as a departure point to explore new horizons. And that's exactly what Ironbound does.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Blackeyed Susan's Electric Rattlebone CD review

After parting company with Britny Fox, frontman Dean Davidson launched his solo career with this 1991 effort. Electric Rattlebone was an homage to the Americana roots of rock & roll that aimed for a Black Crowes/vintage Rolling Stones kind of appeal. Below are just a few highlights of this unique album.


After the juke joint jam of the album's self-titled intro, the first proper song we get is an E Street Band-like jubilee with horns, parlor piano and plenty of backbeat attitude.

Gone are the throat-straining vocals of the Britny Fox days. Davidson shows off a more realistic vocal style that doesn't sound like he's trying to achieve any sound other than his own natural timbre.

"None of It Matters"

This is by far the most unique track on Electric Rattlebone with Indian influences like that opening sitar riff, the guru chants peppered throughout and some orchestral overtones on the outro.

Fortunately, Davidson never loses sight of catchy pop hooks. Think of it as the Sgt. Pepper's moment of Electric Rattlebone. Also notable is a brief return of Davidson's over-driven Britny-style vocals at around 3:25 and elsewhere in the track.

"Ride With Me"

Here's a song that was, in a sense, ahead of its time. Pedal steel guitar mixed into the power ballad format predates the hair metal-country crossover by what, 10 years at least? "Ride With Me" is the most beautiful ballad on the album, and it wouldn't be out of place on commercial country radio in 2010.

"Best of Friends"

Almost like a companion piece to "Ride With Me," "Best of Friends" opens with a familiar sounding arpeggio that has definite shades of Cinderella. Beautifully moving piano lines, strong backing gospel-style vocals and a dedication to late founding Britny Fox drummer Tony "Stix" Destra makes this the most poignant track on the record.

"Heart of the City"

Davidson's tribute to his beloved Philadelphia. Heavily electrified slide guitar, clinking cowbell and an instantaneous groove that could make the most leaden footed among us move. Again, a touch of the rough-and-tough Britny-sounding vocals are punctuated throughout for added emphasis. A perfect end to an often overlooked album.