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Archive for the ‘Hard Rock’ Category

TRACKLISTING:
1. Overture (8:09)
2. Daddy’s Gone (5:56)
3. Whosit, Whatsit and Which (6:33)
4. Make Way for the Big Show (8:42)
5. Tesseract (5:20)
6. Uriel (5:50)
7. Camazotz (6:22)
8. Ixchel (4:39)
9. The Battle for Charles Wallace (7:00)

LINEUP:
David Bobick – lead vocals
Jason Brower – drums, percussion, backing vocals
John Fontana – guitar, orchestral and incidental keyboards, keyboards (8)
Matt Masek – bass, cellos, backing vocals, 12-string guitar (2), nylon string guitar (8)
David Silver – keyboards

With:
Roo Brower – vocals (7, 8, 9)

Formed in 2006 in the New York/New Jersey area by guitarist/keyboardist John Fontana and vocalist David Bobick, Shadow Circus might have ended up as one of the many progressive rock projects limited to the four walls of a recording studio. Instead, right from day one, Fontana and Bobick’s vision involved a full-fledged band that would perform on stage as often as possible, emphasizing the theatrical component introduced in prog by Peter Gabriel-era Genesis (as well as some lesser-known outfits). Though not without hiccups (i.e. frequent lineup changes), the band have managed to hold to their initial aim, perfecting their stage craft whenever given the opportunity to play live.

Although often tagged as “retro-prog”, Shadow Circus are quite unlike the many outfits that sound like a tired retread of Seventies – albeit with a modern veneer. While their debut album, Welcome to the Freakroom, took an eclectic yet accessible approach, Whispers and Screams upped the ante in terms of “prog quotient”, half of it dedicated to the seven-part suite “Project Blue”, which, in its 34 minutes, summed up the band’s musical vision. On a Dark and Stormy Night (released on Georgia-based label 10T Records) takes up where “Project Blue” left off, expanding and developing the format in a compact 58 minutes, each track flowing organically into the other without any noticeable breaks, in classic “rock opera” style. Indeed, this is the first time  that the band have taken the “concept album” route, basing their third recording effort on Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time – a fitting tribute on the book’s 50th anniversary. Literary inspiration is a fil rouge that runs through Shadow Circus’ six-year history– starting with  the band’s own name, which references Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes; additionally, “Project Blue” and “Journey of Everyman” (the 12-minute epic included on their debut album) are based on Stephen King’s The Stand and The Talisman.

Though concept albums as a whole, in spite of their enduring popularity with prog fans, can easily result in an overblown mess, Shadow Circus have navigated the potential pitfalls with admirable skill. The finished product is solid and cohesive, striking a fine balance between engaging melodies, fiery instrumental cavalcades and atmospheric, meditative moments. While a good proportion of the album is instrumental, the contrast with the generally catchier vocal parts is handled with a light touch, without creating the dreaded “patchwork” effect that mars many overly ambitious efforts.

Though Shadow Circus’ previous releases have often elicited comparisons to the obligatory Yes, Genesis and ELP (as well as more radio-friendly bands such as Kansas or Styx), On a Dark and Stormy Night develops the strong hard rock vein openly displayed on Whispers and Screams by tracks such as “Captain Trips” and “The Seduction of Harold Lauder”. In fact, the album’s core lies in remarkable synergy between John Fontana’s guitar – capable of sharpness, yet consistently melodic – and David Silver’s commanding keyboards, reminiscent of the epic duels between Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord immortalized by Deep Purple’s In Rock and Machine Head.

On a Dark and Stormy Night is bookended by two longish tracks with a deeply cinematic sweep, both of them referencing some of the main themes of the album. Introduced by ominous sounds of rain and thunder, “Overture” builds up slowly with orchestral grandeur and soaring guitar until it erupts in a wild guitar-organ ride in Deep Purple/Uriah Heep style. The following trio of songs showcase David Bobick’s confident delivery, rooted in AOR and classic rock rather than traditional prog. “Daddy’s Gone” juxtaposes a catchy, almost radio-friendly vein with a wistful note, enhanced by elegant piano and an emotional guitar solo at the end; while the jaunty pace and infectious chorus of “Whatsit, Whosit and Which” lead the way to a powerful Hammond solo. The longest track at over 8 minutes, “Make Way for the Big  Show”- based on a theme composed by drummer Jason Brower – is a stately, melodic piece that combines an almost classical feel with suggestions of vintage Kansas and Supertramp, dominated by Silver’s splendidly flowing piano and Bobick’s soaring vocals.

The 5-minute rollercoaster ride of “Tesseract” is strategically placed in the middle of the album, signaling a shift  into decidedly more adventurous territory. Eerie electronic effects complement echoing, chiming guitar lines that recall Porcupine Tree’s iconic style, then the Deep Purple vibe resurfaces for a fiery guitar-organ duel, adding a hint of Iron Maiden along the way. “Uriel” provides a momentary respite with the lyrical cello and piano at the beginning, then swiftly turns into an upbeat, dance-like tune enlivened by a great vocal performance by Bobick; while the martial, menacing pace of the über-eclectic “Camazotz” morphs first  into a soulful, bluesy chorus, then into a space-rock workout that pushes Matt Masek’s powerful, dynamic bass into the spotlight together with the guitar and keyboards. The lovely “Ixchel” – a soothing moment with a haunting Celtic tinge – wordlessly conveys the healing atmosphere of the titular planet through gentle acoustic guitar, sparse piano and Roo Brower’s ethereal vocalizing. In sharp contrast, closing track “The Battle for Charles Wallace” surges along like a triumphant sci-fi soundtrack, spotlighting the intense keyboard-guitar interplay, while Brower’s imperious drums set the pace; then vocals return, reprising the “Big Show” theme, and an expressive guitar solo wraps up the album.

By an interesting coincidence, On a Dark and Stormy Night’s official release is scheduled just a few days before another adaptation of a well-known young adult novel – J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Though Shadow Circus’ third album will probably not meet with same worldwide success as Peter Jackson’s film, it will probably feature in quite a few “best of 2012” retrospectives. Impressively well-structured and cohesive from both a musical and lyrical point of view, the album shows a band that have finally attained full maturity. Although On a Dark and Stormy Night is quite unlikely to please everyone in the increasingly fragmented prog community – and those of an elitist bent would be well advised to handle with care – those who approve of paying homage to the golden age of prog without sounding like a carbon copy of those modes will find a lot to appreciate. This is also a good “gateway” album for fans of classic and hard rock, and obviously recommended to those who like musical adaptations of literary material.

Links:
http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com/

http://10trecords.com/

http://www.madeleinelengle.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
Now I Know:
1. Fateful Days (7:37)
2. Grounded (5:29)
3. Kites (3:19)
4.  Flight (6:36)

5. Current Events (5:24)
Winds of Change
Heirs
Winds of Change II
Errs

Book of Airs:
6. History (instrumental) (1:22)
7. Heritage (4:39)
8. Experiments (3:12)
9. Floating (instrumental) (1:34)

The Flyer:
10. Annabelle (5:02)
11. The Center (4:39)
12. Fateful Days II (1:16)
13. Hannah (4:00)

Airs:
14. The Great Salt Pond (5:53)
15. Grounded II (5.11)
16. Kites II (2:14)
17. Flight II (5:00)
18. Owen (1:33)

LINEUP:
The Singing Cast:
Paul Adrian Villareal – Owen (1, 18)
Gordon Tittsworth – Owen (2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 15), Derrick (2), The Narrator (7)
Cornelius Kappabani – Owen (4, 13, 17) Craig (4, 5), The Islanders (5)
Tilman Eckelt – Owen (3)
Jan Oving – Owen (10)
Antila Thomsen – Hannah (12, 13, 17)
Floor Kraaijvanger –Annabelle (11, 17), The Narrator (14)

The Spoken Cast:
George Andrade – Owen
Seann Jackson – Craig
Leigh Andrade  – Rachel
Nicolette Collard-Andrade – Annabelle
Tony Kost  – Coleman Burke

The Band:
Steve Brockmann – guitars, bass, keyboards
Jochen Ohl – drums
Dave Meros – bass (10, 17)
Alan Morse – guitar (17)
Christoph “Luppi” Brockmann – bass (14)
Phil Robertson – drums (15)

In spite of a venerable tradition stretching back to the glory days of the late Sixties and early Seventies that gave us iconic works like The Who’s Tommy or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, rock operas seem to have lost quite a bit of their luster in recent times, and acquired instead a rather embarrassing aura of cheesiness. On the other hand, while rock operas may be pretentious by definition, this is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as it is not overdone.

For New England writer George Andrade (who is also the author of the lyrics of The Anabasis’ debut album Back from Being Gone), AIRS – A Rock Opera was the proverbial labour of love, developed over the years, with a storyline (based on the subplot of one of his novels) that dealt with a forgotten episode in the history of his native Rhode Island. The historical fact, however, became a deeply personal story of guilt, loss and ultimate redemption, focused upon the character of Owen Deane and his complex relationship with his family and his troubled past. It was only when, in 2008, George met German multi-instrumentalist and composer Steve Brockmann on a music discussion board, that his dream of turning the story into a full-fledged rock opera became reality.  In the intervening years, Brockmann and Andrade drafted in a number of distinguished musicians and vocalists (as well as family members) to give voice to the various characters. The completed album finally saw the light in the early months of 2012.

The project’s structure, in five movements conceived like the chapters in a novel or the acts in a play, reveals Andrade’s literary background. The story moves from Owen’s return to his island home after six years in prison to his final liberation – symbolized by being lifted high up into the air by the biggest of his father’s kites, made of sails. The Doane family had gathered their knowledge  of wind currents in a book, called the Book of Airs (hence the title), handed down through the generations, and found by Owen in an attic after years of neglect. Andrade’s approach remains endearingly humble, focusing on the characters’ often flawed humanity rather than adopting the grandiose approach of much-touted efforts like Ayreon’s The Human Equation, and avoiding those often badly handled fantasy/supernatural overtones that invariably spell cheesiness.

In order to convey all the different facets of Owen’s personality and his emotional journey, Brockmann and Andrade decided to recruit a range of singers with different vocal characteristics  instead of just one – a choice that, though it might come across at somewhat odd, works surprisingly well. The music is mostly performed by Brockmann himself with the help of drummer Jochen Ohl, though a couple of songs feature contributions from Dave Meros and Alan Morse of Spock’s Beard – not surprisingly, since their shared love for the influential Los Angeles band was the catalyst for Brockmann and Andrade’s meeting.

Like the best rock operas of the past, AIRS encompasses a wide range of musical influences, though it is more of a song-based, AOR/classic rock effort with prog overtones than a full-fledged prog album. The occasional spoken parts inject a dramatic dimension, complemented by the thorough booklet illustrating the story. From the point of view of the average prog listener, the first half of the album is definitely the most interesting, while the second half emphasizes the catchier, airplay-worthy side of the project. Prog-metal fans will surely appreciate the epic sweep and intensity of the Iron Maiden-tinged “Grounded” and “Grounded II”, as well as the heady tempo changes of “Heritage” – all masterfully interpreted by Gordon Tittsworth , vocalist with US band Images of Eden (who also appeared on The Anabasis’ debut). The lovely power ballad “Fateful Days” (later reprised as short instrumental, and as “Owen” at the very close of the album) showcases Paul Adrian Villareal’s confident, melodic tenor, already appreciated in Sun Caged’s The Lotus Effect, further enhanced by Brockmann’s splendid guitar and keyboard work.

Singing is of crucial importance for any rock opera, and on AIRS instrumental tracks only appear in the form of short interludes between the narrative parts. Though the overall quality of the singing is quite high, two vocal performances stand out from the rest. Cornelius Kappabani’s poignant turn as Owen in “Flight” spotlights his rugged baritone, oddly reminiscent of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (and the musical accompaniment also suggests some of the songs on the Seattle band’s debut Ten); while his sinister, menacing Craig in “Current Events” hints at a typical extreme metal growl, and pinpoints the character’s rather unpleasant nature. On the other hand, Floor Kraaijvanger’s stunning, soulful contralto renders Annabelle’s mix of strength and vulnerability in impressive fashion. How refreshing to hear a vocalist that sounds more like Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner than the umpteenth Annie Haslam clone! Finally, young Antila Thomsen’s pure, sweet voice is a perfect fit for Hannah’s wounded innocence.

Clocking in at around 74 minutes, AIRS is definitely not a short album – though, being essentially narrative in nature,  its length can be readily justified. As hinted in the previous paragraphs, it is not an album for those who are looking for cutting-edge material, nor does it pretend to offer anything other than well-executed music with plenty of melody and catchy hooks and choruses, performed by a group of outstanding artists. Indeed, even though the mainstream component is more in evidence than the progressive one, AIRS is a very pleasing listen – especially for those times when more complicated, demanding fare sounds like a slightly exhausting prospect. The genuinely moving storyline is also masterfully conveyed by Andrade’s keen sensibility and skill with words. While AIRS is probably not the right choice for prog elitists and anyone who resents mainstream influences, I can think of much worse ways to spend 74 minutes.

Links:
http://www.airs-arockopera.com/

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Even though it comes slightly late in comparison to other blogs and websites, this retrospective of the past year has been in the pipeline for a while. It is a first time for me, though obviously I have participated in quite a few surveys of this kind in my time as a collaborator of various music sites. However, the year 2011 has been uncommonly rich in excellent releases covering the whole of the progressive rock spectrum – similar in this to 2009 rather than the somewhat lackluster 2010.

My activity as a reviewer has also reached an unprecedented level in the past 12 months, and this (as well as other factors) have allowed me to listen to a wider range and number of new albums than in previous years – though not all of the albums I will be mentioning in the following paragraphs have been the object of a review. I have also been actively involved on the prog scene, attending festivals and gigs and keeping up a steady network of contacts with artists, label owners and fellow reviewers and fans. As the end-of-year statistics point out, the total number of views received by this blog in 2011 exceeded any of the expectations I had at the start of this venture, one and a half years ago.

Obviously, I cannot claim to have heard each and every prog (and related) album released in 2011, and quite of few of the big-name releases of the past year will be conspicuously absent from this overview. I will also refrain from using the usual list format, let alone a “Top 10/20/100” one, in spite of its undeniable popularity with music fans. While I am sure that everyone will be very curious to learn about my # 1 album of 2011,  this curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, because I hardly ever think in terms of “absolute favourites”, and would be hard put to name my favourite band or artist (or literary author, for that matter). Although most “year in review” pieces do contain a measure of narcissism, the main aim of this post is to stimulate people’s curiosity, as well as debate, rather than turning it into a pointless competition of the “my list is better than yours” sort. We are all adult enough to be aware of the mostly subjective nature of lists, overviews, retrospectives and the like, and hopefully no one here is out to change other people’s minds.

In 2011, the prog “revival” reached unparalleled proportions, bolstered by the many opportunities offered by the Internet. In spite of the loud cries of woe about a supposed “death of the CD”, the number of acts that keep releasing their material in physical format is still quite high, and many of them still choose to put extra care in the artwork and liner notes, with often remarkable results. While the oversaturation of what remains very much a niche market cannot be denied, it is also true that high-quality productions are far from scarce, and the advent of legal streaming sites like the excellent Progstreaming has made it possible for everyone to sample an album before taking the plunge. Unfortunately, the wealth of music available either in digital or physical form does not correspond to higher availability of performing opportunities for those acts who still believe in the power of live performances. The shocking announcement of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, at the end of March, rocked the prog fandom for months, and even the subsequent announcement of NEARfest Apocalypse for June 2012 did not allay many people’s fears concerning the dwindling range of gigging opportunities, especially here in the US (Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, seems to be doing much better in this respect). The prog community is also splintering in a way that, coupled with a worryingly nostalgic attitude and increasing reluctance to leave one’s own comfort zone, might spell disaster for the future.

2011 marked not only the return of a number of high-profile acts, but also some outstanding recording debuts. If I was forced at gunpoint to choose a favourite, this award would probably go to Texas-based trio Herd of Instinct’s self-titled debut, the first album released on Firepool Records, legendary Californian band Djam Karet’s own label. An almost entirely instrumental effort with the exception of one (gorgeous) song, the Herd’s debut shares this format with another of the year’s milestones, Accordo dei Contrari’s Kublai (whose only song features the incomparable vocals of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair). These two albums, as well as Marbin’s classy Breaking the Cycle and Dialeto’s intriguing Chromatic Freedom, illustrate how the song form can be reinvented in such a way as not to disrupt the flow of the music, incorporating the vocals into a fabric that hinges on complex instrumental interplay.

In the realm of the purely instrumental releases, top marks go to Gösta Berlings Saga’s stunning third album, Glue Works (“Island” alone is worth the price of admission), alongside a trio of AltrOck Productions releases – Ske’s elegant 1000 Autunni (the first solo project by Yugen keyboardist Paolo Botta), Calomito’s intense Cane di Schiena and Camembert’s ebullient Schnörgl Attack – and a couple of outstanding offers from the ever-reliable MoonJune Records, the world-jazz of Slivovitz’s Bani Ahead and the superb testimony of Moraine’s NEARfest 2010 set, Metamorphic Rock. Lovers of creative percussion will surely enjoy Knitting By Twilight’s enchanting Weathering (and possibly check out the Providence collective’s previous releases); while Lunatic Soul’s Impressions (the third solo album by Riverside’s Mariusz Duda) will satisfy those addicted to haunting, ethnic-tinged soundscapes. On a more traditional note, Derek Sherinian’s Oceana presents a solid example of guitar- and keyboard-based progressive fusion, which spotlights ensemble playing rather than individual displays of technical fireworks.

The 2011 releases that feature vocals as an essential part run the gamut from experimental to melody- and song-oriented. Big Block 454’s quirky Bells and Proclamations, and another couple of AltrOck releases – The Nerve Institute’s multifaceted Architect of Flesh-Density, and Dave Willey and Friends’ moving homage to Willey’s father, the beautiful Immeasurable Currents (review forthcoming) – are outstanding instances of the first category. More in a jazz than a rock vein, Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan showcases the Italian artist’s superlative vocal technique, all the while offering music that is eminently listenable and upbeat. The ultra-eclectic Zappa homage that is Electric Sorcery’s Believe in Your Own Best Friend throws a lot of diverse influences into its heady mix of outrageous storyline and constantly challenging music. On the other hand, Man On Fire’s Chrysalis is a blueprint for modern “crossover prog”, seamlessly blending the accessibility of Eighties-style quality pop with some seriously intricate instrumental work; while fellow 10T Records band Mars Hollow make a true quantum leap with their second album, World in Front of Me, which follows in the footsteps of early Yes in terms of successfully marrying gorgeous pop melodies with instrumental flights of fancy. However, the crown for 2011 in the realm of “mainstream” progressive rock goes to Phideaux’s magnificent Snowtorch, an incredibly dense concentrate of haunting vocals, memorable tunes and thought-provoking lyrical content.

Some landmark albums released during the past year are at least tangentially related to progressive rock. In all probability, my personal award of most played album of the year should go to Black Country Communion’s 2, a more mature, well-rounded effort than its barnstorming predecessor. Thanks to the Glenn Hughes-led quartet, classic hard rock is undergoing a renaissance, with a recognizable yet subtly updated sound. BCC guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s latest opus, Dust Bowl, while not revolutionary in any sense, features scintillating guitar and soulful vocals in its modern treatment of time-honoured blues modes. In a completely different vein, Kate Bush’s ninth studio album (not counting the rather controversial Director’s Cut, released a few months earlier), 50 Words for Snow, shows an artist that still possesses the ability and the power to surprise her followers. English contemporary classical ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra’s I A Moon (one of the year’s biggest discoveries for me, thanks to a friend’s recommendation) offer a mesmerizing blend of Old-World folk, avant-garde and academic chamber music that is, in many ways, much more progressive than the slew of cookie-cutter acts so revered in prog circles.

Some other albums, while not quite making the cut, have attracted enough of my interest, and are very much worth checking out: AltrOck releases Sanhedrin’s Ever After, Abrete Gandul’s Enjambre Sismico, Humble Grumble’s Flanders Fields, Factor Burzaco’s II and October EquusSaturnal, Ozric TentaclesPaper Monkeys, CopernicusCipher and Decipher, and From.uz’s Quartus Artifactus; for the more conservatively-minded listeners, The AnabasisBack From Being Gone, La Coscienza di Zeno’s self-titled debut, and TCP’s Fantastic Dreamer also deserve a mention. There have also been a number of albums that, even though heard superficially, and mainly in the final weeks of the year, have left enough of an impression to make me want to write about them at some point – chief among those, Discipline’s To Shatter All Accord.

As I anticipated at the opening of this essay, my readers will be sure to notice some glaring omissions from this overview. The most noticeable ones  are probably Jakszyk Fripp CollinsA Scarcity of Miracles and Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning – undoubtedly two of the most highly rated releases of the year. Unfortunately, in spite of repeated listens, neither album has yet clicked with me, even if I clearly perceive their very high standard of quality. Though I hesitate to use the term “disappointment”, The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead did not resonate with me in the same way as its predecessors; its songs, however, acquired a new dimension when performed live.

Some other high-profile 2011 releases have failed to register on my personal meter. Such is the case of Opeth’s Heritage, Karmakanic’s In a Perfect World, and White Willow’s Terminal Twilight – all excellent albums, but lacking in that undefinable “something” that would kindle my enthusiasm. Others (such as Wobbler’s acclaimed Rites at Dawn or Glass Hammer’s Cor Cordium), though in no way displeasing to the ear, are too staunchly, unabashedly retro to truly impress,. As to YesFly from Here (possibly the year’s most eagerly awaited release), I am not ashamed to admit that I have refused to listen to it – even though I own most of the band’s back catalogue, and their earlier albums get regular spins in my player. With up-and-coming acts struggling to get their music across, I believe that spending too much time on the interpersonal dynamics of a band that do not particularly need to be supported is quite detrimental to the scene as a whole.

Some other albums that have been very positively received (at least by part of the fandom) have escaped my attention completely, in some cases for lack of interest (Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events), or simply for lack of listening opportunities (Agents of Mercy’s The Black Forest, Mastodon’s The Hunter, Van Der Graaf Generator’s A Grounding in Numbers, The Tangent’s COMM, among others). Hopefully I will manage to hear at least some of those discs in the near future, and possibly write reviews of them. With the overwhelming quantity of music released in the past year, the very concrete danger of getting burned out (and therefore becoming unable to appreciate anything at all) is always lurking around the corner.

2011 has also been an outstanding year for concerts, as witnessed by the live reviews I have published in these pages. Besides seeing my beloved Blue Oyster Cult not once but twice (after a 25-year wait), I was treated to an outstanding edition of ProgDay, a stunning “goodbye” performance by Phideaux at the Orion Studios, the electrifying Two of a Perfect Trio tour, and the highly successful one-off CuneiFest (to name but a few). While the NEARfest cancellation cast a pall on the prog scene for some time, bands and artists are still doing their best to bring their music on stage for the benefits of those fans who still love to attend live shows.

Unlike other sites, I will refrain from mentioning “prog personalities”, or awarding any other such dubious prizes. As I previously stated, the whole point of this piece is to encourage people to delve into the abundant musical output of the past year, especially in regard to those lesser-known acts that deserve more exposure. With a few highly-awaited releases already in the pipeline for the coming months, it remains to be seen if 2012 will be able to keep up with its predecessor. On behalf of the survival of non-mainstream music, we all hope this will be the case.

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SETLIST:
The Red and the Black
The Golden Age of Leather
ME 262
Burnin’ for You
Cities on Flame
Harvest Moon
Black Blade
The Vigil
Buck’s Boogie
Last Days of May
Godzilla
Don’t Fear the Reaper

Encore:
Hot Rails to Hell

The saying “feast or famine” comes to mind when referring to Blue Öyster Cult live appearances, at least in my particular case. After having missed the band countless times in the past few years, finally in 2011 I had the opportunity to see them not once, but twice – a rare occurrence indeed.  The 25-year wait had wetted my appetite, and, not surprisingly, my review of their February 12 gig at Baltimore’s Bourbon Street was coached in glowing terms. In spite of  the loss of their status as one of the biggest draws in the world of “stadium rock”, accompanied by constant line-up changes,  the legendary outfit could still deliver the goods – and then some.

This time around, the concert was scheduled to take place in a real, old-fashioned theatre, one of the most popular institutions in the Washington DC metro area – a handsome Art Deco building that has been providing musical entertainment to capital dwellers for over 70 years. While the State Theatre has frequently hosted BÖC performances in the past, their last appearance there dated back from early 2008 – meaning that those who had not wanted to travel to Maryland to catch them in the past three years were definitely chomping at the bit. The theatre – a roomy, white-walled, high-ceilinged space with about 200 comfortable seats in the balcony, a small standing area in front of the stage, and a number of dining tables at the main level for those who want to combine the pleasures of music with those of food. Indeed, the smell of chili wafting upwards from the dining area and the happy noise of the diners made for a rather distinctive experience. With well-stocked bars and spacious common areas, the theatre allows for social interaction – unlike the average music club, where the dim lighting and loud volume of the background music often get in the way of conversation.

Even if for BÖC the days of  massive, state-of-the-art light shows and special effects are gone, to paraphrase one of their songs they certainly do not go through the motions whenever they are on stage. The attendance reflected their reputation as one of their best live acts around – even if  the lack of a record deal has prevented them from releasing any new material following 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror. For a long-time BÖC fan like me, it was heartwarming to see people of all ages flock to the State Theatre. A guy sitting in the balcony, not far from us, had brought his young son (a boy of around 7-8 years of age), and there were also a lot of women – many more that at the average progressive rock concert. Anticipation ran high among the crowd, and the short opening set by six-piece Midnight Hike – an enthusiastic though not particularly impressive local outfit, very much in the alt-rock vein – was greeted with polite indifference. I could not help being a bit jealous of the lucky denizens of the New York area that, the night before, had been able to witness a double bill that also involved Uriah Heep, another legendary band that can still deliver in spades.

After the opening set, the stage was rearranged in short order, and at around 9 p.m. a volley of rather scary electronics (referencing some of the band’s best-known material) signaled the entrance of the long-awaited heroes of the evening. This time, charismatic frontman Eric Bloom was very much on board – relieving the burden that had been placed on Buck Dharma on the Baltimore date – and in fine shape, his witty banter (which included a couple of fleeting but rather barbed political references) adding spice to the musical offer. Bassist Rudy Sarzo, on the other hand, was engaged with Dio Disciples (who were playing the last date of their US tour), and was replaced by an old acquaintance of BÖC fans, Emmy winner Jon Rogers, who cut a dashing figure with his bobbed silver hair, dark shades and bright red bass guitar.

The almost 90-minute set included the inevitable “Godzilla”, “Hot Rails to Hell” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, which are always great to hear in a live setting. However, as much as I love BÖC’s out-and-out rockers, I found the central part of the concert, dedicated to some of their longer, more complex songs, especially satisfying. Besides the UFO-themed “The Vigil”, with its enthralling blend of the melodic and the sinister, and the deceptively catchy “Harvest Moon”, with its suggestion of disturbing Stephen King-like happenings in a quiet country town (perfectly rendered by the intense guitar bridge), we were treated to rousing versions of the towering biker epic “The Golden Age of Leather” and the BÖC-meets-Hawkwind space saga “Black Blade” – inspired by the Elric of Melniboné tales by British fantasy/sci-fi author Michael Moorcock.

Though, the set was not as Buck-centric as in Baltimore, when the guitarist had had to perform Eric Bloom’s role as well as his own, the pocket-sized six-stringer delighted the audience with his stunning, yet remarkably understated skills. The magnificent coda to “Cities on Flame” erupted after the audience had been teased with a series false starts; while the heart-stopping second half of the solo of “Last Days of May” – played at almost impossible speed – contrasted Buck Dharma’s cool, collected approach with Richie Castellano’s textbook-shredder performance (announced by Bloom with his customary deadpan humour). After Castellano had thrown the expected guitar-hero shapes and extracted all sorts of wailing sounds from his guitar, Buck unleashed his full firepower with effortless grace. Bloom and Castellano alternated behind the keyboard rig, with a particularly impressive organ run bolstering Buck’s guitar exertions in the splendid instrumental tour de force of “Buck’s Boogie”. While Buck’s politely melodic voice is still perfectly in command, Bloom’s gruff bellow has lost a bit of his edge: however, his delivery on the dramatic “Black Blade” was as effective as ever.

Though BÖC delivered a top-notch performance, the quality of the sound was somewhat disappointing, and took some of the punch out of the guitar-based songs, such as opener “The Red and The Black”, while the drums were occasionally too loud in the mix. Though I was elated by the inclusion of some of my personal favourites, I agreed with my husband when he stated that he had found the Baltimore gig more involving. I would also be happy if the band considered delving deeper into their peerless back catalogue, including some of their more complex, multilayered songs in their sets and retiring the likes of “Godzilla” or “Burnin’ for You” at least for a while. On the whole, however, in spite of this minor quibbling, it was an evening of great music from one of the greatest bands in the history of rock. It is to be hoped that their recording deal woes will end as soon as possible, allowing them to release some long-overdue new material.

Links:
http://www.blueoystercult.com

 


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SETLIST:
Black Country
One Last Soul
Crossfire
Save Me
The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall
Beggarman
Faithless
Song of Yesterday
The Outsider
Cold
The Ballad of John Henry
I Can See Your Spirit
Sista Jane

————–

Man In the Middle
Burn

Even though this blog is mostly focused on progressive rock in all its forms, I am, and always have been, a fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock. As much as I love the sophistication and intellectual appeal of prog, there is something about the powerful wail of a cranked-up electric guitar, or the equally powerful roar of an iron-lunged vocalist that appeals to both the physical and the emotional side of my nature. It is no wonder, then, to find an album like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell in my personal Top 10 – and no wonder either that a band like Black Country Communion, in the ten months since the release of their debut album, has immediately become such a firm favourite that both their CDs get almost daily spins in our player.

When the band’s formation was first announced, the presence of Glenn Hughes alone would have been enough to attract my interest, as he has been my favourite vocalist for the past ten years or so, even over such luminaries as Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. The first time I saw him perform live, at London’s Mean Fiddler club in October 2003, as soon as he started to sing my jaw dropped on the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the concert. I have also been following his career closely, and acquired quite a few of the numerous albums he has released over the years – including the near-legendary Hughes-Thrall album (originally released in 1982), and his collaborations with another rock legend, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence that is Black Country Communion.  Even though supergroups can often be rather hit-and-miss affairs that hardly ever last beyond one album, scuppered by ego clashes or by just failing to deliver the musical goods, BCC are all set to become the glaring exception to the rule. While snobs might superciliously label them as a retro or nostalgia act, accusing them of rehashing old modes of musical expression, or cashing in on some members’ erstwhile fame, in my humble view they possess the same classic, timeless quality of those dishes or items of clothing that never go out of fashion. There is something deeply comforting in the knowledge that, on a music scene all too often dominated by fads, where most of the offer seems to be little more than a triumph of style over substance, there are still artists that choose to play the music they want, and use the same strategies as the trailblazers of the late Sixties – writing brilliant material, releasing albums every few months or so (instead of keeping fans waiting for years), and – most importantly – performing their music on stage, where it really belongs.

Indeed, while  probably a good half of current prog releases are studio-only projects (sometimes carried out through the Internet), Black Country Communion’s music begs to be played in front of an audience. While each of the four members could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having ever to tread the boards of a stage again, seeing them perform on the evening of June 19  confirmed that this is an outfit tailor-made for raising hell in a live setting. The 9.30 Club – a no-frills venue situated in a slightly seedy (though full of character) neighbourhood of Washington DC, with no seating except for a handful of bar stools, a balcony and a stage raised high enough to make it visible even to small people like me – provided the perfect locale for a profoundly satisfying evening of loud, passionate, flawlessly performed, bluesy hard rock – the kind of entertainment that leaves you physically drained because you have been standing up for over three hours in close proximity to other equally excited fans, dancing, yelling, singing along and pumping your fists in the air, while being hit by the full force of the sound blasting out of a stack of Marshall amps. Indeed, quite a change from being comfortably seated in a theatre, listening intently to the elaborate musical concoctions of your average prog band…

The sizable crowd was a mix of the older and the younger generations; some audience members had brought their children with them, as living proof of BCC’s timeless appeal – unlike, I am sorry to say, far too many stuck-in-a-time-warp progressive rock acts. I had noticed the same thing at the Blue Oyster Cult show in Baltimore, back in February – there is a reason why such bands are often  called ‘classic rock’. When we got in, securing a nice position a few feet from the stage, the anticipation was palpable. At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” started blaring from the PA, eliciting a round of excited yells from the audience. A bit clichéd maybe, but a fitting introduction to one of the very best concerts I have been fortunate to attend.

The concert was the last date of the band’s first US tour – expected, as Glenn Hughes repeated on several occasions, to ‘build a foundation’ for a band that aims to fill a void in the current music market – judging from the comments gathered around the Web, an unqualified success in spite of its short duration. With no opening act, the audience was allowed to concentrate completely on BCC’s show, introduced by the formidable one-two punch of “Black Country” and “One Last Soul” (from the band’s debut album). As expected, Glenn Hughes totally owned the stage, wielding a nicely battered, vintage red and white bass, and displaying a level of energy that many people half his age (he will turn 60 at the end of August)  would kill for. As soon as he opened his mouth to belt out the first lines of the pulsating anthem “Black Country”, there was no doubt that he amply deserved his nickname of ‘The Voice of Rock”.  Most of those who have been lucky to see him live will wonder how those golden pipes of his can withstand the strain of singing with that kind of intensity night after night. Though some people cannot warm to his voice, and are annoyed by what they perceive as over-the-top vocal acrobatics, I am happy to report that he has toned things down considerably, his voice adapting to the music rather than the other way around.

Indeed, BCC is not a Glenn Hughes vehicle, but very much of a tight unit in which everyone works towards the final result. No one with a large ego would share vocal duties with someone as gifted as Joe Bonamassa (whose voice sounds at times like a higher-pitched version of Paul Rodgers). Glenn is also a fine lyricist, capable of penning standard rock anthems as well as deeply emotional pieces, such as the ones dealing with those dark years when he came very close to self-destruction. For somebody who has stared in the face of death, and lost many a good friend in recent years (including his childhood friend and fellow Trapeze member, Mel Galley), he is in superb shape, and his positive attitude  to life is to be commended in an age when people seem to enjoy wallowing in negativity. He is also one of those rare singers whose voice has actually improved with age, in spite of his struggle with various addictions. While in his Trapeze and Deep Purple days Glenn’s voice had occasionally sounded a tad shrill, now it has acquired a depth and versatility that, coupled with his awesome range, allow him to sing just about anything with stunning results.

Though they have been jokingly called “Purple Led” or “Deep Zeppelin”, BCC actually do not sound anything like Hughes’ former band. On the other hand, the Led Zeppelin comparisons are certainly more appropriate: Joe Bonamassa is the 21st century’s answer to Jimmy Page, and has also stepped into the void left by Gary Moore’s unexpected passing in February 2011. In a scene riddled with shredders, Bonamassa’s brilliantly emotional playing and considerable songwriting skills (as shown by “The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall” and “Song of Yesterday”, the latter possibly the highlight of the whole set) are a breath of fresh air, proving once again that great music does not necessarily have to break new ground each and every time. On stage he employed a nice array of guitars, including a double-necked one for the wistful, folk-tinged “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” (stirring memories of the immortal “The Battle of Evermore”), and a Flying V for the two encores – as well as a spot of Theremin towards the end of the set.

Keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian plays an even larger role on stage than he does on record, putting to rest any allegations of BCC being a power trio with just a token helping of keyboards. His maple-encased Hammond B-3 provided that indispensable background rumble (though at times it tended to overwhelm the vocals); he also performed the only solo spot of the evening. Jason Bonham pounded away at his rather understated kit (especially if you are used to the likes of Mike Portnoy) with enthusiasm and precision – clearly a very capable drummer in the no-nonsense mould of his father or Cozy Powell, and perfectly suited to the band’s sound, which does not need fancy flourishes, but rather solid, powerful time-keeping. Until halfway through the set, both him and Sherinian looked dead serious, almost grim – but then both of their faces lit up when Hughes heaped lavish (and clearly heartfelt) praise on his fellow band members. The deep personal bond between the four players is clearly the secret to BCC’s success, and bodes very well for the band’s future endeavours.

Besides 8 out of 11 tracks from the band’s second album (released only a few days before the gig),  the stunning two-hour set featured a selection of songs from their debut, the gorgeous, slow-burning Bonamassa composition “The Ballad of John Henry” (from his 2009 album of the same title), and a blistering rendition of Deep Purple’s “Burn” as a final encore, with its iconic Hammond riff and Hughes screaming his heart out as he did almost 40 years ago at the legendary California Jam. Though I was a bit disappointed about the absence of personal favourites such as “Medusa” or “Down Again”, BCC’s performance was so exhilarating that it left no room for minor quibbles. In spite of the feeling of physical exhaustion and the ringing in our ears, we were left wanting more, and the promise of another US tour next year filled us with joy and anticipation. Clichéd as it may sound, Black Country Communion have really put the “super” back in “supergroup”. Long may they reign!

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Neon Knights (3:54)
2. Children of the Sea (5:35)
3. Lady Evil (4:26)
4. Heaven and Hell (6.59)
5. Wishing Well (4.08)
6. Die Young (4:46)
7. Walk Away (4:26)
8. Lonely Is the Word (5:53)

LINEUP:
Ronnie James Dio – vocals
Tony Iommi – guitar
Geezer Butler – bass
Bill Ward – drums
Geoff Nichols – keyboards

Though I generally try to be as unbiased as possible in my reviews, in this particular occasion I will have to let objectivity take a back seat, because Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath’s ninth album, is one of my top 10 albums of all time. As my faithful readers should know by now, even if the majority of the music I review can be placed under the extensive ‘progressive rock’ umbrella, my listening tastes are quite eclectic, and I do have quite a soft spot for what might be termed ‘classic heavy metal’. Indeed, Heaven and Hell is a masterpiece of the genre, signaling the band’s return to sparkling form after the severe decline shown by their late Seventies albums

At the beginning of the new decade, Sabbath underwent what could be called a total makeover. Gone was the muddy, uncertain sound a of their earlier albums, to be replaced by Martin Birch’s state-of-the-art, crystal-clear production, which allowed every instrument to shine – not just Geezer Butler’s and Bill Ward’s thunderous rhythm section or Tony Iommi’s legendary riffing, but especially new guy Ronnie James Dio’s awe-inspiring roar. The latter’s addition  made the real difference in the band’s performance: though Ozzy’s distinctive, eerie wail had been Black Sabbath’s trademark  since the beginning of their career, Dio (who had left Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow to join the band) was something else completely. Such changes obviously altered the band’s sound in a rather substantial way, so that  Heaven and Hell sounds quite unlike their Seventies output – less chillingly menacing, more crushingly powerful, yet also more accessible.

The hard-driving “Neon Knights” (one of the strongest opening tracks ever) sounds like a statement of intent right from the start, brimming with Iommi’s towering guitar riffs and Dio’s soaring bellow. Things slow down for the following number, the epic, doom-laden “Children of the Sea” – one of Dio’s career-defining vocal performances together with Rainbow’s “Stargazer”.  On the other hand, “Lady Evil” is a catchy, uptempo song, punctuated by Butler’s booming, dynamic bass lines, which provides a respite of sorts before the monumental title-track – strategically placed at the end of Side A when the album was originally released.

A concert classic for both Dio-era Black Sabbath and its unfortunately short-lived, eponymous band, “Heaven and Hell” is a crushingly heavy cavalcade bolstered by Butler’s thundering bass and Iommi’s manic riffing, with Dio’s voice soaring and swooping above the din in true epic style. As a sort of release of tension, another catchy tune follows, the almost poppy “Wishing Well” (no relation to the Free song of the same title).   “Die Young” can instead be counted as another of the album’s highlights – a powerful, keyboard-laden hard rocker, it sees another cracking vocal performance from Dio, enhanced by Iommi’s  sterling guitar work.

While the slightly nondescript “Walk Away” is, in my view, the only track   that approaches filler status, the album is wrapped up by another memorable number.  “Lonely Is the Word” most closely resembles Sabbath’s earlier output with Ozzy – a sinister slice of doom driven by Iommi’s iconic riffing,  while Dio’s vocals sound pleading and commanding in turn. The wistful yet intense guitar solo at the end of the song is undoubtedly one of Iommi’s finest moments.

Originally released on April 25, 1980, Heaven and Hell  is still revered by rock fans, even though the younger generations of metal fans may find it  somewhat lightweight if compared with the output of the countless extreme metal acts flooding the current scene.  While it  does contain occasional progressive touches, it  was never as influential to the development of prog-metal as Black Sabbath’s Ozzy-era offerings. The presence of a few catchy tunes might also put off some purists, who might find the likes of  “Lady Evil” o “Wishing Well” too close to AOR for comfort.

All this criticism notwithstanding, Heaven and Hell is one of the milestone releases of the past 40 years, and one of the greatest vocal albums in the history of rock. As well as being a celebration of the album’s 31st anniversary, this review is meant as a homage to Ronnie James Dio, who passed away almost a year ago, on May 16, 2010. Together with Rainbow’s Rising, this album was possibly Ronnie’s finest hour.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Death Walks Behind You (7:24)
2. VUG  (5:03)
3. Tomorrow Night (4:02)
4. 7 Streets (6:47)
5. Sleeping For Years (5:30)
6. I Can’t Take No More (3:36)
7. Nobody Else (5:04)
8. Gershatzer (8:01)

LINEUP:
Vincent Crane – piano, keyboards, Hammond organ, vocals
John DuCann – guitar, vocals
Paul Hammond – drums, percussion

In the progressive rock community there is some controversy regarding the status of Atomic Rooster as a full-fledged prog band.  Like many Seventies acts often placed under the ‘heavy prog’ umbrella (Captain Beyond and High Tide to name but two), in the eyes of purists they are little more than glorified hard rock combos with some hints of something more complex, yet more akin to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath than Genesis or Yes. In recent times I have happened to see Atomic Rooster labeled as a ‘dark’ band – a definition that made me think of the likes of The Cure or Siouxsie and the Banshees rather than any of the classic bands of the Seventies.

On the other hand, as both the brilliant title and the iconic cover (depicting William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar” on a simple black background) suggest, Death Walks Behind You is a very dark album – a haunting, Hammond-drenched effort which sounds like a encounter between Black Sabbath and Deep Purple with ELP writing the soundtrack. In many ways, it can be seen as the blueprint for the heavier side of prog, a lavish feast for any self-respecting fan of the mighty Hammond organ, and a welcome respite from the pastoral soundscapes of  Camel or Genesis, or the mind-boggling intricacy of Yes. Definitely hard-edged, occasionally oppressive, undeniably raw and unpolished, it possesses the kind of power that many more recent albums strive in vain to achieve.

This is one of the rare albums that captured my attention right from the first listen. True, Death Walks Behind You is not perfect, but then very few albums are, even those normally hailed as masterpieces. Vincent Crane’s highly effective, aggressive playing style, perfectly complemented by the expressive voice and blistering guitar lines of John DuCann (formerly with proto-prog outfit Andromeda), is a real treat for the ears of every Hammond lover. The third band member, drummer Paul Hammond (who replaced co-founder Carl Palmer when the latter joined ELP), lays down a powerful backbeat, assisted by Crane’s skillful use of both keyboard and foot pedals to replace the missing bass lines. This idiosyncratic take on the classic power trio unleashes a massive volume of music that, while not as technically impeccable as what ELP or Deep Purple were producing at the time, is brimming with sheer intensity.

A couple of tracks relieve the tension and overall dark mood of the album – namely the catchy, almost upbeat “Tomorrow Night” (originally released as a single), and the heavy rock-goes-commercial “I Can’t Take No More”. Neither are personal favourites: in my view, especially the latter could be scrapped from the album without doing a whole lot of damage. On the other hand, the slow, melancholy number “Nobody Else”, dominated by Crane’s piano, sees a remarkably emotional vocal performance by DuCann, providing a perfect foil for Crane’s despondent, foreboding lyrics (he suffered from mental problems and ended up committing suicide, as did Hammond).

The real highlights of the album, however, are to be found elsewhere. The title-track is introduced by dissonant, menacing piano, then explodes into a memorably hypnotic organ riff punctuated by the obsessive repetition of the title, “Death Walks Behind You”.  “7 Streets” is a more structured composition, based on the interplay between organ and guitar, while “Sleeping for Years” is in a similar vein, though with a slightly darker tone – both excellent examples of vintage heavy prog, somewhat influenced by Black Sabbath, but with better vocals and lashings of keyboards replacing Tony Iommi’s monstrous riffing. The two instrumentals, “VUG” and “Gershatzer”, are probably the most progressive offerings on the album, showcasing Crane’s skills as a Hammond player; the latter, which is almost 8 minutes long, has the slightly loose feel of a jam session, intensified by the presence of a short drum solo.

Though not exactly flawless, Death Walks Behind You is an impressive offering  that is  almost a must-listen for Hammond fans and anyone who likes their prog with a harder edge (though not necessarily metal). A fascinating, almost addictive album by an underrated band, whose long but chequered career ended tragically with Vincent Crane’s death in 1989.

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