Thursday, February 19, 2009

ZZ Top "Fandango"

When I tell people that I’m a huge ZZ Top fan, they usually groan and have a chortle but long before ZZ Top became a top 40 band in the eighties with hits like “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Legs” and “Rough Boy,” they were known as “that L’il ‘Ol Band from Texas.” And let me tell you that they were a band that could lay the shit down bar-b-queue style. There weren’t many bands that could compete live with ZZ Top in their prime. That’s not to say that they didn’t have some interesting material later on in their career but the first five or six albums will kick your ass in a serious way.

Today I’m going to discuss their 1975 half live album, “Fandango.” This album is brilliant for so many reasons. Firstly, the cover. A simple live shot showing the band in full flight rocking out in their super-snappy Nudie suits and totally bitchin’ Texas size cowboy hats, Billy Gibbons upping the cool factor to a whole other level by sporting a Gibson Flying V. Now that’s bad-ass.

Side one is the live side and it blasts off from beat one into a hyper speed southern boogie called “Thunderbird” full of their usual filthy dirty guitar tones and tasty licks. Short, sweet and to the point. The second track is a cover of the classic “Jailhouse Rock” but with a sleazy swing to it. Even Elvis the Pelvis would need to take a shower after hearing this version. At this point the band kicks into a medley including a ‘bringin’ it down’ part that’s more like bringin’ it up. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill spewing out a vocal scat section at a million miles an hour that sounds more like a helicopter than humans, leaving poor Frank Beard for what seems like an eternity to pound out lightning fast triplets on his kick drum while the boys lament on rabble rousing in New Orleans. Side one…done. Total schlock, and why not?

Side two pretty much sums up all that is glorious about the early years of ZZ Top. “Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings” is just about the coolest song ever written. Full of the funkiest deep fried riffs that you’ve ever heard with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard sitting in a rhythm pocket so deep there is no sun. The riff cup over-floweth on this song. As always, Billy Gibbons’ guitar tones are unsurpassed by any in the genre or perhaps even all of rock itself. My only complaint about this track is that it’s only two and a half minutes long.

Next is the beautiful “Blue Jean Blues” with its mournful guitar leads and tortured vocals. A song of lost love executed to perfection by a band steeped in blues history.

“Balinese” is a mid-tempo rocker reminiscing about a bar in the Gulf of Mexico. The song jerks along with a southern swing until yet another tasty guitar solo falls from the heavens.

My favourite song on the album comes next. “Mexican Blackbird” is classic blues rock with some very tastefully played slide guitar rolling around on top. ZZ Top really hit the mark here with a super catchy song that makes you smirk the whole way through. The Texas drawl seems almost cartoonish on this little number about a lovely lady from a whorehouse in Mexico. You can almost taste the Corona as the solo section slides on home.

“Heard It On the X” is an up-tempo history lesson about a radio station called the X. Frank Beard lays down some exciting drums all the way through, never once giving in to the standard ‘four on the floor.’

The album finishes off far too soon with another deep fried romp by the name of “Tush.” No explanation necessary on the topic. ZZ Top doesn’t re-invent the wheel on “Fandango” but they sure as hell do light it on fire. A rock solid rhythm section with a deep understanding of the blues leave all the space in the world for one of rock’s greatest guitarists to shine. Witty lyrics and blazing solos make this album undeniably fun and musically stunning. So if you’ve only ever heard “Sharp Dressed Man” and wanted to know what ZZ Top was in the seventies, “Fandango” is a great place to start. Mike Maggot.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Van Halen "Fair Warning"

Never mind the gazillion selling “1984” step back to 1980 when Van Halen really hit their stride with their finest hour, “Fair Warning.” This is Van Halen at their absolute best. Many will say “Van Halen 1” is the top dog and it does indeed rank very high with skilled composition and masterful musicianship, but in my eyes, and I am the one writing this, “Fair Warning” is the hands down winner. If there was a contest that is.

Eddie Van Halen manages to infuse his wit and sense of humour into almost every mind-blowing guitar solo, challenging an entire generation of young guitar players to try a lot harder. Alex Van Halen fills the album with drumming that is instantly recognizable as only him. Michael Anthony continuing to play just what is needed on the bass to fill up the low end and give Eddie all of the space he needs to soar. That in itself is a philosophy and skill that takes years to understand and appreciate. Thanks Michael for allowing Eddie to be the King. And Diamond Dave, well what can you say? David Lee Roth may just be the world’s greatest front man ever. Even though he’s not a technically great singer, he is the Grand Poobah of style and entertainment, and charisma outweighs ability any day. Sorry Jim Gillette.

“Fair Warning” opens up with an impossible guitar intro by Eddie full of squeaky harmonics and tremolo bar drops. “Mean Street” kicks in with an undeniably punchy groove that really shows where this band is at. As with all of the songs on this album there is at least one wicked guitar solo. The “breaking it down” part of this song is lyrically a little heavier than most of the fun loving Van Halen songs that we all know and love.

“Dirty Movies” eases in with another punchy groove with odd guitar noise all over which eventually flows seamlessly into a super heavy riff for the verse. Michael Anthony lays down some serious low end bass thump throughout the entire song while Eddie effortlessly rolls out a barrage of sweet licks. “Dirty Movies” somehow makes you wish that your high school girlfriend got into the porn business.

“Sinner’s Swing” is another in a long line of classic Van Halen dirty boogie shuffle rockers. As expected, Eddie rifles off a speedy lesson in lead guitar technique that none of the rest of us will ever achieve, only to finish the lead with an aloof, “I was only fuckin’ around” run. David Lee Roth relaying the tale of an unsuccessful rapid courtship is most amusing.

The next song again displays brilliant guitar work from Eddie full of flangers and strange arpeggios. “Hear About It Later” has a very odd solo section that features not only Eddie but a punishing cow bell and way low bass from Michael Anthony. There is a slight sadness about this song that is so alluring.

Now for the greatest song in the entire Van Halen catalogue. A song that represents Van Halen perfectly. “Unchained” is the first Van Halen song that I ever heard and it got its hooks in me instantly. Both heavy and playful, “Unchained” pounds along and has the classic break-down that Van Halen uses so well. All I can say is put this on your turntable, crank it right up, and understand all that is Van Halen on fire.

“Push Comes To Shove” is a sexy little number that reeks of whiskey, hotel rooms, and regrets. An almost disco bass line slowly permeates the atmosphere like cheap perfume while Diamond Dave teaches us all a lesson about lost love. Dave really shines on this track. The song seems custom built for his oozing charisma and subtle sensitivity. Not to be outdone, Eddie plays some fantastically inventive guitar texturing and then finishes off with some neck bending soloing.

“So This Is Love” is more classic Van Halen in their usual fun-loving bashing way. For some reason, my favourite part of the song is the last note.

In the next track, Van Halen show off their willingness to do something strange, and strange it is. Alex Van Halen awkwardly pounds away slowly on his kit while some low toned space invader sound that I think is a keyboard proceeds to send Gary Numan all the way to Hell. I think the title “Sunday Afternoon In the Park” is strictly there to make the song even more uncomfortable.

“One Foot Out The Door” is a short little ditty that seems to just ooze out of the previous track. It pounds along with that same weird keyboard noise while Dave sings about darting out the back door narrowly escaping a right thrashing by a rather pissed off husband. One verse, one chorus, and one mother fucker of a guitar solo end this brilliant album by a band that has arrived with a vengeance. Few bands would stand a chance going up against Van Halen in 1980. “Fair Warning” has a darker side to it that only reared its head on this particular album. It sounds like a band that got to the top and saw a little too much and innocence was lost forever. Perhaps that’s just me being somewhat romantic.

If “Van Halen 1” was a brilliant youthful debut album, and “VH 2” and “Women and Children First” were a band trying to find their niche, “Fair Warning” is an aptly titled album from a band that is at the top of their game. Everything else is just gravy, great thick, rich, lumpy gravy. Mike Maggot.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rush "Signals"

Rush is a band that is to Canada, what apple pie is to the United States. Rush is hockey, toques, canoes, and Bob and Doug McKenzie. (our ambassadors to the world) Rush is also a musically and lyrically complex band that remind us what can be done with an instrument and an imagination.

Rush released their first album in 1974 and has continued releasing albums ever since. When one discusses Rush, they generally describe them in one of three eras. The ‘early’ era, the ‘eighties,’ and the ‘new’ or ‘current’ era. All of which are distinguishably unique. There is no weak era for Rush, just sonically different from the last.

The early era consists of massive song suites arranged not unlike classical music with bombastic guitars and drums. This time-frame is generally accompanied by the screeching vocals of Geddy Lee and very fantasy oriented lyrics about futuristic races of people, great battles, mythology, and anything else that a fan of “Dungeons and Dragons” would be thinking about.

The ‘eighties’ era became a much softer Rush with the inclusion of keyboards and a less guitar heavy approach. Another key difference is the seemingly puberty linked drop of Geddy Lee’s vocals. No longer was the neighbourhood canine hiding under the couch. While still musically complex, the ‘eighties’ saw less of the obvious ‘guitar hero’ action from Alex Lifeson, who opted to become more of a texture player than a shredder. The songs developed a poppy edge while maintaining their thought provoking topics.

The album that I’m going to discuss today is, “Signals,” an album often forgotten in Rush’s massive catalogue, partly due to the fact that it followed their biggest commercial success, “Moving Pictures.”

“Signals” was released in 1982 and like “Moving Pictures” it continued in a more synthesizer oriented approach rather than their harder rocking earlier albums. While some fans started to drift away from Rush at this point due to their stylistic changes, it was perhaps their most commercially successful period. Long, extended guitar solos and drum interludes gave way to rich textured chordal arpeggios and dense keyboard passages creating a wall of sound filling up shorter catchy songs, still rife with lyrical wonderment and lofty thoughts.

The album opens with the ominous robotic keyboards of “Subdivisions,” the song embodying the whole idea of an electronic and stiff new world. While initially it drifts along with floaty keyboard parts and less than aggressive vocals, the song carries an uncomfortable weight.

Next, “The Analog Kid” kicks in with standard issue ‘impossible to play’ Rush riffage. The difference now being that the band manages to be easy to listen to even though the music is very challenging. True genius. This song is more of a solid rocker than some of the album’s other material, complete with a blistering guitar solo.

“Chemistry” continues with the ‘futuristic’ feel of the album yet lyrically explores questions of a very organic nature. “Chemistry” is full of interesting musical breaks and odd timings and turn-arounds, drummer Neil Peart reminding us that he is super human.

Geddy Lee proves once again that he is one of the top bass players on Earth the second that “Digital Man” kicks in. What is so impressive though is his ability to not sound like he’s over-playing.

“The Weapon” is a synth driven pulsing track that has some fantastic ‘not-guitar solo sections’ where Alex Lifeson really shines with the textural playing that he’s mastered over the last few albums. The song feels like an entire science fiction novel in a six minute song.

The next track, “New World Man” starts out sounding like it could be on a Bruce Cockburn album but then comes out swinging in the choruses.

“Losing It” is a fascinating song that lilts along gently with captivating electric violins throughout. The middle section is a tension building space journey that ends with some distinguishable precision playing and then an accepting realization of what could have been.

“Signals” closes with a rocking song about space travel called “Countdown.” Somehow Rush manages to not go over the top in the cheese factor with a topic that could easily be silly if not well thought out. Fantastic songwriting and a willingness to try new things has kept Rush exciting and fresh through four decades and “Signals” is an album that showcases that spirit. Mike Maggot.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Scorpions "Lonesome Crow"

The Scorpions, ah yes, the Scorpions. This is a band that I regularly argue about. The majority of musical tourists will assume that the Scorpions didn’t exist before “Love At First Sting,” the album that produced “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” but in my humble opinion, that was the end of the Scorpions. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a big fan of glistening, slick, pop-metal.

In the early days, 1972-78, the Scorpions were a hard rocking quintet with soaring, German accent soaked vocals and some of the hottest guitar playing on the planet thanks to Uli Roth. The album that I’m going to unearth in this edition of “Classic Rock Review” is “Lonesome Crow.” The band’s first, and I believe, best album.

“Lonesome Crow,” released in 1972, that’s right, 1972, was a very unique version of the Scorpions as it was the only album to fully feature Michael Schenker on lead guitar, a very young, teenage, Michael Scenker at that. What he didn’t have in stubble on his chin, he definitely had in guitar chops. In 1973 Michael left to join UFO who at that time was a huge European rock band. He briefly returned to play guitar on a few songs on the Scorpions’ 1979 release, “Love Drive.” What also makes this album stand out is its very psychedelic hippie-ish approach. Long songs full of extended spacey jams more akin to the Grateful Dead than the Scorpions. Although it did maintain a lot of the Les Paul/Marshall stack attack that you would expect making it a true delight for those of you who like jam bands but wish they would grow a pair.

The first track, “I’m Going Mad” starts out with a very cool rhythmic vamp revolving around great rhythm guitar tones by older brother Rudy Schenker. The song is really little more than a five minute guitar solo with the occasional vocal harmony by Klaus Meine. Michael Schenker shines on this song, laying down some amazing guitar work with very memorable melodies while mastering the forgotten art of guitar tone.

“It All Depends” pretty much follows suit with a scattering of screechy vocals and then a long winded solo section. Jam band heaven.

“Leave Me” begins as a very German sounding love song that has psychedelic guitar noise throughout until Michael Schenker decides once again to let that Les Paul sing with some very nice melodic passages and a rather creamy tone. I can’t make out what the lyrics are but it does sound like Klaus is feeling a bit sensitive. But just before you get all weepy, yep, you guessed it, full shred guitar jam. Nothing heals the heart like a 100 watt Marshall stack.

The next track is a true slice of Krautrock flavoured psychedelia filled with more blazing guitar work. Opening up with acoustic guitars, the song floats through many changes and emotions, Klaus Meine switching back and forth between high screeching vocals and a wonderful vibrato.

Side two continues the formula of short vocal passages with heaps of guitar solos, walking bass lines and solid band jamming. The album finishes off with the title track, which is a massive thirteen minute journey full of extensive jamming soaked with reverb and delay. There is a very strange middle section featuring only a sparse backwards drum beat and an odd ascending vocal line with no actual lyrics. Of course this section eventually winds into more classic Michael Schenker noodling and blasts off into outer-space.

All in all, a primitive, yet brilliant first step for a band that would go on to dominate a musical genre for many years. My only complaint, and this is a heavy bone of contention, is that the Scorpions didn’t continue in this vein. The Uli Roth years following started out in a similar fashion, but the days of epic songs packed with improvisation were gone. “Lonesome Crow” is an album that captures a young band, not so much concerned with structure and song writing but knowing that they were hot players and exploring the glorious heights that only improvisation can deliver. When you listen to this album, you can really feel the electricity and excitement of a band in a room playing together which is a refreshing change from the modern cut and paste perfect studio albums that glut the rock’n’roll market today. Mike Maggot.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pink Floyd "Meddle"

In this edition of “Mike Maggot’s Classic Rock Album Reviews” I’m going to tell you about one of my favourite albums. Pink Floyd’s classic album, “Meddle”.

Now to the average classic rock radio listener, Pink Floyd is “The Wall” or “Dark Side of the Moon”. But to anyone who is a true hardcore Floyd fan, “Meddle” is Pink Floyd.

Don’t get me wrong. “The Wall” is a good album…if you like four sides of thoroughly depressing post war psychosis. Me personally, I never listen to it. When I was a teenager, all of the kids that smoked said that you just had to take acid and watch the movie. I guess that’s fun if you’re already suicidal.

“Dark Side of the Moon” is definitely a must when it comes to Pink Floyd. Although, if I have to sit through “Money” one more time on the radio, there could be a hostage situation.

Now then, back to the issue at hand. “Meddle”. Recorded in 1972, this album was an obvious point of cohesion for the band. Everything finally worked. The last few albums leading up to this point were searching for their place and looking for a direction. When you take four young lads from art and architecture school, add in vast quantities of LSD, and a very liberal musical landscape, you get a rather chaotic blend of audio painting. By 1972 the Floyd had finally achieved the perfect balance of floaty and experimental music with distinct structure.

The first track, “One of These Days”, is a frightening soundscape that starts out sounding like a rather sinister episode of Doctor Who. Then the terrifying voice that informs the listener that, “one of these days I’m going to chop you into little pieces”. That’s not very positive now is it? For the rest of the song, we are treated to some serious guitar shredding hard rock. Nick Mason is literally beating the shit out of his cymbals. Not very Pink Floydy at all.

Track two is the beautiful yet haunting, “A Pillow Of Winds”. An acoustic number that just seems to drift on by. Like a warm cup of tea on a crisp sunny day. This song is about as mellow as a song can be without stopping.

The next track is titled, “Fearless” Another lilting semi-acoustic number that seems to carry on where “A Pillow of Winds” leaves off. For some reason this song has always made me think of a gladiator about to fight to his death. The song ends with a strangely spliced in English soccer chant. How odd. But quite fitting.

“SanTropez” follows in a much more jovial vein. An almost “lying in a hammock drinking margaritas” sort of feel.

Side One ends with “Seamus.” A blues number where the lads decide to use a howling dog for the lead vocals. What more can I say?

The true beauty of “Meddle” comes in the form of “Echoes” which is a 23 minute epic that displays all of what Pink Floyd can be. An entire album side of dark, brooding melody that is somehow both eerie and calming at the same time.

The track starts with a reverb soaked “ping”. Over and over. Drawing you in. Slowly the other instruments quietly join in. So subtly that you don’t even notice until the vocals start that the “ping” that caught your attention stopped over two minutes ago. The vocals are so gentle. This whole section of lyrics seems so effortless and calm. Gradually the guitar brings in a more tense atmosphere culminating in a tension building climax to the middle break. This is where things really change. Out of nowhere the bands drops into one of the coolest vamps in rock. Four minutes of slow, thumping rock with whirling, screeching guitar over top. Miles Davis would be proud.

Just when you think you’re at a Zeppelin concert, Pink Floyd reminds you who you’re listening to. The next four minutes are possibly the scariest sounds ever to hit vinyl. A murder of crows and howling wind. Yikes. But never fear, Pink Floyd likes a happy ending. With a Herculean build up, the listener is carried back to the ever so soothing verses, eventually closing out perhaps, the, finest album side of their career.

If you like Pink Floyd, do yourself a favour and pick up this album. While you’re at it, buy a copy of “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” too. All three are brilliant albums from the most creative period of a band of artists. Mike Maggot.

XTC "Black Sea"

For those of you who know me, you will attest to the fact that I am the anti-pop. And when it comes to anything that resembles danceable happy music, you’ll know I‘m plugging my ears. I am so white Anglo-Saxon that I think funk is when Black Sabbath plays fast. In fact, my wife and I recently went to Shambhala, a “techno?” festival in the woods where some of the world’s best DJs perform to thousands of people for three days. While the masses danced around me into the wee hours, I stood motionless, confused, wondering why people are dancing and cheering for the guy who is playing the records. There weren’t even guitar players on the stage.

So why, you may ask, would I be reviewing Britain’s XTC? That quirky, cheery, danceable band from the late seventies, eighties and onward. Well…because they are different. They are far smarter than you and I. Well, me anyway. In a time of punk rock nihilism and social hopelessness, XTC managed to deliver thought provoking, intelligent music that you could dance to. Blending punk politics with pop, ska, and perhaps art rock, you found yourself whistling along to songs about social unrest and disenfranchised youth. Bloody brilliant.
“Black Sea” is to me, their crowning achievement. Most likely you’ve only ever heard XTC’s minor hit, “Making Plans For Nigel”. That is one odd song. But only one element of a band thick with creativity. “Black Sea” was released in 1980. Their fourth full length album making only a small dent on the charts.

The first track, "Respectable Street” is a bouncy little number that takes a sarcastic look at the stuffy world of upper middle class England. Rather than spew moronic hate at the issue like some of their peers at that time, XTC choose wit.
Next we have another pop anthem riddled with melody and poignant anti-war lyrics. “Generals and Majors” is a prime example of how the band has you dancing to their political offerings.
“Living Through Another Cuba” is my personal favourite song on the album. It leans on a ska feel while hopping along to the dark “cold war” theme of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Full of fantastic lyrical play, and as usual, genius pop melodies, you can’t help but dance along happily while thinking of an event that nearly cost us man-kind as a whole.

The next two tracks, “Love At First Sight” and “Rocket From A Bottle” are simply two catchy love songs that manage to not use the old standard, “oooohh baby, I love you”. A refreshing change indeed from the sappy turds that tended to ooze from the radio both then and now.
“No language In Our Lungs” is a slow dirge full of colour that musically mirrors the topic of a generation that doesn’t know what to say or where to start.
“Towers Of London” was an almost hit. Perhaps the lyrical content was a little too much for the staunch folk who hold proudly the vision of the British Empire. A song about the people crushed underfoot of a vision too blinding.
“Paper and Iron” is the next track on the album. It is another song about the downtrodden working class in England. Combining all of their usual musical charm with gloomy lyrics of factories, churches, and poverty stricken families. Don’t stop dancin’ now!!!
Just when you thought this album couldn’t possibly have another danceable pop masterpiece, BLAMMO, there’s another. “Burning With Optimism’s Flame” lightens the mood a bit after the doom and gloom of the last few songs. Not like you would notice though, as you’ve probably been whistling and skipping through most of it already. “Sgt. Rock” is also a lighter topic, still rife with quirky and even giddy interludes of sound. Equating a woman’s love with a battle field that can be won through the help of “Sgt Rock’s” strategy is most amusing.
Finally we come to the end of an album that sounds more like a greatest hits package from a band that you’ve never heard than just another release from XTC. And what a twisted tale of change it is. “Travels In Nihilon” sounds more like a Killing Joke song than XTC. But then again, XTC throws so many curve balls that you can never really guage their middle ground. Dark, brooding, and oh so smart. A perfect climax to an album of very enjoyable music whether you are listening to the lyrics or just caught in the wave of happy, well-written pop.
XTC are unique. “Black Sea” is perfect. But don’t just believe me. Go and find it and put it in your collection. Mike Maggot.

Black Sabbath "Vol 4"

My first review is going to be a Black Sabbath album. But not Paranoid. Hell no! The album which I am about to force upon you is Volume 4!!! My absolute favourite album of all time.

Raw production and molasses thick guitar makes this album as heavy as a sandbag to the chest. Recorded in 1972, a pivotal time for the group, Volume Four was a stepping stone from the ultra sludgy and heavy Master of Reality to the complex and textured Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

The opening track, "Wheels of Confusion", may well be perfection, showing off the band’s ability to jam as well as stay focused on the direction of the song. Iommi’s guitar playing on the song is perhaps his finest work. The next track, "Tomorrow’s Dream", is the exact opposite of "Wheels of Confusion". Short, up-tempo, heavy and to the point. A song that would have fit in nicely on "Master of Reality". After the onslaught of the first two tracks we have the ultimate “Waa Boo Hoo” song of Ozzy’s career. "Changes". It always makes me weep uncontrollably. How can you not feel sympathetic for a guy who’s opening line is “I feel unhappy”.
"Supernaut" sounds like a trip to a Satanic hippie dance party complete with a fiendish Ricky Arnez Latin side track. "Snowblind" is the classic 70’s “cocaine is still fun song”. "Cornucopia", "St. Vitus’ Dance", and "Under the Sun" each serve up heaping buffets of riffomania. Iommi and Butler laying down enough fatness to sink Jenny Craig’s yacht.

"Laguna Sunrise" is squeezed deep between these masterworks of riffage. Sounding more like an instrumental cut from a Windham Hill Sampler than a Sabbath song. The only real odd ball here, though, is "FX". Which is just that. Two minutes of Tony tapping his pick-ups with his giant metal cross through a delay effect. No doubt a four AM studio trip-out fuelled by copious amounts of drugs and booze. Effective only as an annoying piece of audio art that forces me to wait two more minutes until I can get pounded in the ear-holes by another greasy slab o’ rock.

Few albums kicked my ass like this one did, does, and will continue to. If you have ever wanted to delve into Black Sabbath then this is the place to start. Mike Maggot.