Love/Hate – Blackout In The Red Room

lovehateBack in the late eighties hard rock was fast disappearing up its own rectum; the proliferation of hair metal bands had reached epidemic proportions and each and every one of them was following the same formula of massive choruses, massive heels and at least one massive power ballad. Quality hard rock was hard to come by, except, of course, in the form of Guns n Roses, who totally dominated the HR/HM scene, and to a lesser extent Skid Row, who were somewhat unfairly lumped in with the sunset strip wannabes, when in fact they were substantially heavier and had a lot more going on in the songwriting department, especially on ‘Slave To The Grind’. Anyway, in the midst of all this a band that had been struggling to be heard and get a record deal finally got signed and delivered a quality slice of hard rocking, Jack soaked tunes with barely an eye liner in sight.

In simple terms ‘Blackout In The Red Room’ rocks, and hard. The refreshing thing about the album was that it wasn’t just copying GnR, it wasn’t just following the formula of all the hair bands and although there are a few clichés, it wasn’t all high hats, cow bells and radio friendly harmonies. Instead, what you get is a bunch of dirty sounding riffs, abrasive vocals and some coolly arranged tracks largely about getting wasted. Oh yeah, and no power ballad.

The title track sets the pace with a mid tempo swagger and some serious groove; it may be a true headbanger, but in rock clubs it was a surefire floor filler. ‘Rock Queen’ is a stylish second track featuring a stack of hooks and the wonderfully bizarre line of “Let me touch your cookies/Let me eat your cookies”!

The album continues in a flurry of hard riffs and well worked tunes, with highlights like ‘Fuel to Run’ and ‘Tumbleweed, which are good hard rockers and the frantic old school finale ‘Hell, Ca., Pop.4’. Although ‘She’s an Angel’ borrows heavily from the book of hard rock clichés for its more serious tone, it is as quality a slice of metal lite as you’re likely to hear.

Ok, so one track or another doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, i.e ‘Slutsy Tipsy’ and ‘Slave Girl’, but in general the standard is high. For example, the ode to weed that is ‘Mary Jane’ is a nicely arranged number with some cool twists to the tempo and more great guitar work. The standout track though, is the song which got heavy rotation on MTV, ‘Why Do You Think They Call It Dope, a killer tune with a great hook and some funky assed bass.

On the whole ‘Blackout…’ stands up as a damn good record that was a cut above a lot of what was coming out of sunset strip at the time. They may not have been PC or had the general appeal of a GnR or a Skid Row, but there was some serious talent in the band and some hard rocking bangers on this record. If dirty riffs, blazing solos and raspy vocals are your thing, it’s well worth revisiting.

8/10

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Ben Watt – Hendra

Ben WattBen Watt‘s ‘Hendra’ is not exactly old but no doubt slipped under a lot of people’s radars, including mine. I actually discovered it a few months back after an Amazon browse when I stumbled across Ben’s highly rated books, Patient and the memoir of his parents’ marriage ‘Romany and Tom’. Anyway, something drew me to his first solo outing in 31 years, which is quite removed from the sophisticated pop of Everything But The Girl and even further away from his electronic stuff, but these beautifully crafted songs make for a compelling listen nonetheless.

There is a lot to like about ‘Hendra’ even if you are not battling with the (not so) mundane difficulties of mid-life. The laid back feel to these acoustic/piano songs tackling issues such as loss, regret, break ups and aging are imbued with the richness of some sublime guitar strokes from Bernard Butler. Also, there is a likeable honesty to Watt’s voice and his lyrics, which focus on the minor details of everyday life, and succeed in evoking vivid tapestries we can all identify with; the awkwardness of the ordinary and the snapshots of emotive scenes adding such a strong touch of reality to these heartfelt tales that it’s impossible not to empathise.

Title track ‘Hendra’ provides a downbeat introduction with some subtle touches from Butler and light orchestration, whereas ‘Forget’ is contrastingly upbeat with an easy keyboard melody and understated guitar lines. Butler puts in some fine work and Watt delivers a great hook in the chorus; good straightforward songwriting.

Although it is a very chilled out record, it has plenty to keep it interesting, exploring all kinds of melodies. There’s the lazy piano and bluesy guitar licks making ‘Spring’ such an emotional track while the vaguely tropicalia feel to the laid back celebration of life on ‘Golden Ratio’ is reminiscent of John Martyn. The melancholic meanderings of ‘Matthew Arnold’s Field’, where Ben scatters his father’s ashes “beside a couple with sandwiches and tea”, provides a contrastingly bare prelude to the edgy guitar lines of ‘The Gun’. Here, Watt wades into the gun debate accompanied by sweeping organ chords and subtly intelligent lyrics.

In fact, death is an oft returned to subject whether it’s on the upbeat Americana tinged
‘Nathaniel’, or the haunting ‘The Levels’, featuring Dave Gilmour playing an atmospheric lap steel in this song written after the unexpected loss of Watt’s sister.

‘Young Man’s Game’ is very much about life though, and there’s a lovely vibe to this lament on aging. ‘The Heart is a Mirror’ then closes the record to an acoustic strum over a discordant synth line and a rich double bass sound; it’s a poignant note on which things shuffle to a stop.

While ‘Hendra’ may not exactly be overflowing with pop classics, it is a master class in quality songwriting and features plenty of sublime moments; well worth sitting back and immersing yourself in these emotional slices of life.

Check out the sublime new track, Gradually, from the forthcoming album Fever Dream, out next month.

The Cult – The Cult

The_Cult_(ovelha_negra)_coverThe recent success of ‘Hidden City’, the excellent new album by The Cult, has prompted a revisit to their back catalogue for the second in the series of Overlooked or Underrated. Most of The Cult’s work has got the treatment and reviews that it deserved, but their self-titled sixth studio album, also known as the ‘Black Sheep’ album due to the cover art, is the one from their back catalogue that is constantly overlooked, even by the band themselves. Only two songs, ‘Gone’ and ‘Star’ have been featured with any regularity in their live set and only the much maligned ‘Ceremony’ album has been ignored on a similar scale. ‘The Cult’ was released to almost universal indifference back in October 1994, so what went wrong?

The relative failure and black sheep status of the album can be summed up in two words – Grunge and Britpop, which is pretty ironic considering their oft cited influence on grunge. Even so, Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury had never really fit into a scene, though they’d garnered their audience from the Goth rock crowd and had achieved notable success with their own brand of hard rock; total album sales running into the millions. However, with the reshaped musical landscape they basically became a band adrift, their sound not really striking a chord with anyone outside of their own fanbase and their creative direction moving away from more traditional rock influences not being well received by die-hard fans. They weren’t grunge, they definitely weren’t Britpop and now they weren’t even metal anymore, but when you listen back to the album it really does rock and there is a lot of really accomplished work on offer, it just didn’t exactly fit the time. It is telling that Hidden City probably has more in common with this record than any other releases in the Cult’s extensive catalogue, being that both find the band writing meaningful songs that push them out of their musical comfort zone.

The songs on ‘The Cult’ are among the most personal the duo has ever penned, covering issues like Astbury’s experience of sexual abuse, the death of their contemporaries and sobriety. Lyrically speaking, they are at their most sincere and their most offensive, so, maybe, way back in 1994, it was just not the right climate for the record. It seems strange, however, that the band should distance themselves so much from such a brutally honest record – there are several quality tracks here that have never been played live. Ok, it is by no means a perfect album, but there is plenty of quality material and repeated listens reveal it to be a record of depth and intensity with some genuinely killer moments; Bob Rock‘s crisp production as impeccable as ever.

‘Gone’ opens the album to a bass riff and touches of piano, before exploding in uncharacteristically angry fashion, immediately showing a different side to the band. Damn this song burns! Surely rating among their finest, it is the one track still getting regular live outings. The following track, ‘Coming Down’, is much more disposable but it’s got groove and a killer hook to the tambourine fueled chorus. It is in similar vein to ‘Star’, a track left unfinished from the ‘Sonic Temple’ sessions, which also explores an industrial dance groove, a sound they’d flirted with on ‘The Witch’ on ‘Pure Cult’, but never quite managed to fit. Nevertheless, it’s a good tune with a wonderfully rough edged vocal and is the only other song on the album to have graced repeated set lists.

The first half of the album is probably the stronger, the seriously underrated ‘Real Grrrl’ boasting an emotionally charged performance from Astbury, while the guitar lines have more than a taste of early era Cult. Then there’s the brooding ‘Black Sun’ and the slick bass groove to ‘Naturally High’ featuring some lovely understated guitar from Duffy. It is ‘Joy’ however, which ranks as one of The Cult’s most criminally overlooked songs. It has a dark energy in the abrasive riffing and a powerful intensity to the bridge/chorus, while the organ riff lends an air of modern day Doors; killer.

The second half features some of the more throwaway songs, like the straight up rock n roll of ‘Be Free, which doesn’t really fit with the vibe of the record, and the grungy ‘Universal You’, co-written with The Mission‘s Craig Adams to the loud-quiet-loud formula, though not quite nailing it. It’s not that either of these tracks are bad, they just fall a little short and maybe could’ve been saved for b-sides.‘Emperor’s New Horse’ is another that starts out not really firing on all cylinders, but it’s saved by a killer hook and works within the context of the record.

‘Sacred Life’ and ‘The Saints Are Down’ however, count among Astbury/Duffy’s most atmospherically reflective work. The former, is a sincere tribute to souls the world has lost, and is easy on the ear, while the latter is a slow burning ballad with a heavy dose of hard rock intensity. I love tracks like these and at a different time and in a different context they could’ve become Cult classics.

All told ‘The Cult’ is a vastly underrated album, which today would easily be an eight out of ten and even the band themselves should maybe give a second chance. Astbury is on fine vocal form throughout, stretching his voice way beyond the norm, while Duffy`s guitar playing is sublime as he shows off the versatility that gives them so much depth. There is more than enough killer material on this record to keep any fan of quality rock happy; definitely worth another listen.

Overlooked or Underrated: Lights…Camera…Revolution

I strongly believe that music is very contextual and is highly indicative of the moment in which it was recorded or released. However, not everyone will have been around at said moment, or maybe a record or artist only strikes a chord years later when circumstances have changed – never hear the expression “ahead of his time”? – or maybe a record was just kind of missed through poor marketing. Sometimes an album is just very good and maybe in retrospect deserves another chance. Whatever the case may be, this section of “Overlooked or Underrated” aims to retrospectively examine albums that are worth going back to or maybe you just missed them first time round. Lets go to 1990…

lightscamerarevolution
When people think of the great Thrash Metal albums they tend to remember records like ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘Reign in Blood’, ‘Rust in Peace’, ‘Among The Living’ or any of the other classics from the big four. Sepultura may also get a mention for ‘Beneath the Remains’ or ‘Arise’ along with Bay Area bands like Exodus or Testament or nu-thrash classics from Slipknot or System of a Down. One band which tends to get overlooked, partly because they came in through the back door of California hard core and skate music, is Suicidal Tendencies.

Probably as a result of the band’s punk roots, Suicidal Tendencies were blessed with a sense of melody, whilst eschewing traditional Metal symbolism, both lyrically and stylistically, often singing about more personal issues such as anxiety and depression. The fiercely intelligent Mike Muir proved himself an astute lyricist and with the addition of future Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who brought a funk influence to compliment the more traditional metal of guitarist Rocky George, Suicidal’s sound found its tropes on the superb ‘Lights…Camera…Revolution’.

“Lights” is most definitely the sound of a band reaching its peak and is surely a forgotten classic of the thrash genre. From the ragingly defiant opener, ‘You Can’t Bring Me Down’, through to closing track ‘Go’n Breakdown’ you get ten perfectly balanced tracks of melodic yet furiously fast heavy assed thrash.

The opening track is a masterpiece in itself, super fast riffing with high octane solos blazing away, before the mid-section time changes and Muir’s quasi-rap of home truths – it’s breathtaking stuff. The album then works through a selection of quality numbers like the brooding ‘Lost Again’, the conversely upbeat ‘Alone’ and the funky ‘Lovely’, each one incorporating the Suicidal’s style while retaining individuality in terms of rhythms and arrangements.

Besides the obvious instrumental depth and quality, one of the most striking things about the record is the versatility of Mike Muir’s vocal performance. He can sing slow, aggressive, tongue twistingly fast or even incorporate elements of rap or punk; whatever the situation though, the vocal is never overpowering, always neatly complimenting the band’s musicality. ‘Give it Revolution’ is a prime example, whilst ‘Send Me Your Money’, tackling the issue of TV evangelists, is a superbly catchy, ultra-funky thrash around.

In fact there are plenty of hooks throughout and it’s a very easy record to sing along to, with plenty of earworms; be it the intense ‘Emotion No.13’, the punky hard core of ‘Disco’s Out, Murder’s In’ or the superbly constructed finale of ‘Go’n Breakdown’. Basically, it’s all killer, no filler, even the seemingly throwaway ‘Get Whacked’ rocking hard.

All in all, 1990’s ‘Lights…Camera…Revolution’ is the sound of a versatile band at its best and is an album that successfully challenged the conventions of thrash and brought a lot to the genre in highly listenable fashion. By embracing different styles and playing to their strengths, Suicidal Tendencies came up with one of the most likeable albums of the era that has stood the test of time.

Check out http://www.suicidaltendencies.com/ for more information on the band and upcoming tour dates.