Monday, May 31, 2010
Picture a great storm passing over a patch of ocean water thousands of miles away. Suddenly, two or more waves recombine to form a large swell that travels over a great expanse to come crashing into your local coastline. The well crafted, instrumental stylings of UK artist Matt Stevens have been unleashed in similar fashion, with his latest disc, Ghost, headed this way.
Official release is June 1st, though I have had this album in my head for a few days now. You can do yourself a favor by adding this phenomenal set to your collection
Stevens utilizes his formidable acoustic guitar skills to great effect, conjuring up inspiring themes that instantly lodge themselves firmly in your consciousness. Once you think you have it figured out, he deftly shifts the creative goal posts, thereby ensuring that the listener's attention is maintained throughout. Layering his motifs intelligently, there are many subtle, moving parts within these compositions that demand repeated listening.
The best part? Human hands play an integral role in 99 percent of everything you hear on Ghost. Technology is only employed to enhance the material, not to create or overpower it. Great care has been taken with the arrangements and every note is executed tastefully
Standout tracks are "Into the Sea", "Eleven" "8:19" and "Ghost", though this is merely a matter of preference as all that you encounter here is brimming with melody and invention. Truly enjoyable in every aspect.
Find out more about the artist right here
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Did you ever have one of those little daydreams where you try to trace a series of events/decisions that led you to your present position in life?
Of course you have!
You wouldn't be human if you didn't take time to ponder your place in the cosmos. Happenstance, luck or just deviating from your usual weekend routine can sometimes alter the course of your existence.
For John Osbourne (Ozzy to his friends), 1979 was a pivotal year. Black Sabbath spent the latter part of the 70s in decline. Their last two releases (Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die) had a soporific effect on the hardcore element of their fan base and rehearsals for the next project with Ozzy fell apart quickly. The ax was bound to fall. Fired from his gig fronting Sabbath after ten years and eight albums, Osbourne was in sorry shape. The decision to let him go on the grounds that his substance abuse and drinking were out of control could be viewed as a bit hypocritical, in light of the fact that the others were not exactly model candidates for membership in the temperance society themselves. Worse yet, drummer Bill Ward, one of his closest friends, was chosen to be the bearer of bad tidings
Ward was so out of it during this time that he does not recall the recording sessions for Heaven and Hell.
Making the story even more interesting is the fact that Sharon Arden (daughter of Don Arden, who managed Sabbath at that point) recommended Ronnie James Dio as Ozzy's replacement. Sharon would go on to manage and marry Ozzy, steering him through a very successful solo career.
With Dio on board, the Sabbath machine once again started up in earnest, though bassist Geezer Butler quit for a period of time and was replaced by Craig Gruber (another former Rainbow member). Geoff Nichols also moved in to augment the band with keyboards. Work started on what would become the Heaven and Hell album. Butler returned early in 1980, carrying on with tracking as the new songs came together. Nichols remained, though Gruber was again out of a gig.
Gone were the transitory experiments with strings, brass and jazz stylings that had crept into parts of their previous two discs. Combining the traditional, bass-heavy attack with a slightly more sophisticated approach in the vocal department served to revitalize their sound. The relative excellence and consistency of these new compositions added up to a very satisfying listening experience, with Iommi stripping things back to basics. He proceeded to turn in his most impressive set of guitar figures in quite some time.
The Dio/Sabbath marriage rejuvenated interest in the group, though, clearly, an altogether different style was presented to listeners. "Neon Knights" kicks down the door at full speed, with an intensity that doesn't let up until the quick break before the solo. Fantasy imagery mixes with a tearing riff and Dio's peerless vocals. Instantly, they shred just about everything in the Rainbow discography in just under four minutes of metal. "Children of the Sea", a thinly disguised cautionary tale about poisoning the environment, opens softly before kicking into the sludgy mid-tempo riff that winds through a few tricky changes, including a great turnaround that supports Iommi's tasteful lead break. This passage breaks down with a mild chant in the background as we loop back to the introductory passage. Brilliant on all fronts, both of these tracks would soon be staples of the live set.
"Lady Evil" is notable for a little joke inserted close to the end of the tune. Singing of a woman who resides in Witches Valley and hand feeds the darkness itself, Dio seems to have no trouble with his new bandmates trying to steer him away from his natural writing style. In turn, after a breakdown with some tasty wah-wah pedal-driven lines, Iommi breaks into the riff from Cliff Richard's 1976 hit, "Devil Woman", before wrapping back into the outro verse.
You can almost imagine him flashing a subversive smile while doing so. There is confidence exuded in every aspect of the playing, none more so than on the astounding, multi-part title track.
"The closer you get to the meaning, the sooner you'll know that you're dreaming
And it's on and on and on, it's Heaven and Hell"
Heralded by a signature riff from Iommi, the distorted intro dissipates, leaving a sparse, insistent bass and drum foundation over which Ronnie powerfully delivers his lyric. Almost hypnotic in structure, the song shifts gears several times with a wealth of changes that could have been used to drive several different compositions. Nichols provides atmospheric coloring on keys throughout. Resolving on what seems to be an abrupt conclusion, Ward kicks in double time, with a perfectly controlled, yet frenetic sounding beat upon which the others jump on furiously.
"They say that life's a carousel, spinning fast you've got to ride it well, the world is full of kings and queens, who'll blind your eyes and steal your dreams it's Heaven and Hell"
Breathlessly racing to the finish, there is passion in every pore of this music, by far the best out of everything on this disc, which is saying something.
As a teenager, I used to listen to side two of this record in headphones many a night while in that twilight space between consciousness and sleep. It's a phenomenal stretch of music that walks a fine line between aggressive playing and lighter moments. Dio's range is on full display as he handles both moods with ease, often within the same track. ("Wishing Well and "Die Young" being perfect examples)
Closing with one of their most underrated pieces ("Lonely Is the Word") Iommi works in some jazzy licks, finally incorporating this side of his playing quite successfully in the context of what begins as a lugubrious, slogging riff that lightens in tone toward the end. Dio is particularly inspired and through the long fade, Nichols quotes from the Jimmy Page playbook with a repeated, short burst of notes (on keyboard) straight out of the final moments of the "Stairway to Heaven" solo. I'm not sure if it was done intentionally or not, though it's certainly apropos, considering the album's cornerstone title track.
Perhaps done as a jibe in the direction of his former band, the back cover artwork is a carbon copy of the last Rainbow LP to feature Dio. Speculatively, this had to have been his idea, or at least an extension of his sense of humor.
Heaven and Hell stands as one of their masterworks, bar none.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
LONG LIVE ROCK 'N' ROLL
Personnel changes would be the only constant during the period that Rainbow was active. Following the Rising tour, it was three up, two down.
Jimmy Bain: gone.
Tony Carey: gone.
Enter keyboardist David Stone and bassist Mark Clarke.
Well lads, let's get to work on the new album. Uhhh, except you, Mark. You're fired!
Blackmore decided to handle the bass parts himself, for the most part, with Bob Daisley called in to take the honors on three tunes ("Kill the King", "Sensitive to Light" and "Gates of Babylon"). When the dust settled, the finished product fell a bit short of their last studio effort. Indeed, there is an overall sense that the creative interplay between Dio and Blackmore is on the wane, the result being workmanlike.
A lesser opus, if you will.
Containing a mix of the very fine ("Kill the King" "Gates of Babylon") and play by the numbers ("Lady of the Lake" "LA Connection") Long Live Rock 'n' Roll is a bit too uneven to earn the "classic" stamp. Dio turns in his usual spotless vocal performance, though Blackmore's playing doesn't have the fire he had previously displayed and many of the riffs come off as fairly generic. Disappointing for someone of his capabilities. The signature, mystical quality of the lyrics seems to be submerged in favor of more mundane fare. "Sensitive to Light" sounds as if it could slot in comfortably on a Nazareth LP, with the exception of the lead vocals.
The Devil makes an appearance, as per usual, though the Goat-Footed One's presence is fleeting as are the themes that evoke mist, swords and sorcery. Dio's natural affinity for such subject matter was now at odds with Blackmore's desire to lean in a more mainstream direction. This rift would widen, leading to RJD's depature from the Rainbow fold in 1979. The revolving cast of musicians would render the band unrecognizable as they soldiered on into the eighties.
"Rainbow Eyes" closes out this set in curious fashion. The execution, structure and pace are undeniably pretty, though this track really belongs at some second rate Renaissance Fair, being woefully out of step with everything else here.
Far too medieval and not enough evil.
No wonder Dio bolted.
The next move for this powerful singer would surprise many and forge another winning, albeit short-lived, writing partnership.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Looking to capitalize on their strengths, live recordings of Rainbow in full flight were made at stops in Germany and Japan on the tour to support Rising. Cherry picking the best versions of songs from their sets, Martin Birch was tasked with pulling together the finished product for release in 1977.
It has been said of Blackmore that he's always been much more comfortable playing live than in the confines of the studio and certainly much more inventive when walking the tightrope in front of an audience. Dio had the range and power to easily carry off everything he did on record, often surpassing those versions. Add the powerhouse rhythm section with a versatile keyboardist to tastefully fill the spaces and you have the recipe for an incredibly exciting live experience.
That it is.
On Stage documents a band that's firing on all cylinders. It would also represent the beginning of the end for this lineup.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Forging ahead in grand style, the two principal members of Rainbow wrote six new songs together and as the calendar page flipped over to usher in 1976, Ronnie and Ritchie had fired the rest of the band.
When the magicians clapped their hands, not only did a dove materialize but also three new hired guns: Cozy Powell, Jimmy Bain and Tony Carey now filled the drum, bass and keyboard slots. Dream lineup in place, they recorded the Rising album in just one month. As with the first disc, the legendary Martin Birch handled production/engineering duties and the final product clocked in at just 33 minutes.
This is where the similarities end.
Lauded as one of the finest works of the heavy metal genre, there is zero filler in this most impressive set.
Rock was starting to show some bloat by this stage. The advent of the power trio in the late sixties saw the role of the rhythm guitarist vanish through the magic of signal phase distortion, walls of amplifiers and PA systems designed to blast the eardrums of thousands. The early seventies gave rise to acts who invented LOUD. Sabbath, Purple, Zeppelin... all delivered volume by the truckload. As the decade wore on, these groups would move away from the sonic styles that made them famous. With "heavy" giving way to soft rock, disco and homogenous, corporate, soulless garbage, there had to be a successor to the recently abdicated metal throne.
This incarnation of Rainbow would not disappoint.
Built on the sheer strength of the players involved, the opener ("Tarot Woman") is prefaced by over a minute of synth noodling with Blackmore's intro riff faded up into the mix as everyone kicks in hard.
"Beware of a place, a smile on a bright shiny face. I'll never return, how do you know? Tarot woman"
Ritchie's solos are tasteful and Dio provides his own harmony vocal to punch home the chorus. It's a mesmerizing performance all around. The remainder of the first side is no less gripping, with every measure taken to keep the arrangements tight, yet each musician has room to showcase their talents. The drum fills in "Run With the Wolf" are plentiful, inventive, though they do not overpower the song. Even better, the running time of each selection is quite economical. Business is stated quickly, with a hard edge to balance the near pop format, replete with extremely effective hooks.
Epic pieces are saved for the mighty second side.
"Stargazer" gets the full orchestral treatment, drifting close to Zep's "Kashmir" in places (you'll hear it) and prefigures the territory that Iron Maiden would later explore further ("To Tame A Land" and "Powerslave" ) with guitar parts that have a middle eastern flavor.
Closing with the supercharged "A Light in the Black", each instrumentalist really gets to stretch out, with dextrous, flame-thrower solos tossed out by both Carey and Blackmore.
It really doesn't get much better than this. Dio hurls vocal Molotov cocktails, making the most of every syllable, wasting not a word. Rising is clearly the very best LP to be issued in the Dio-era of Rainbow and this line-up is the main reason for that. Jimmy Bain would soon be dumped from the band by the ever mercurial Blackmore, though he would be again recruited by Dio in the early 80s when the singer formed his own group.
The next item on the Rainbow project list involved capturing their live show for release.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
RITCHIE BLACKMORE'S RAINBOW
Though he had been fronting bands since his teen years (in the late 1950s), Ronnie James Dio did so in relative obscurity until 1975. He had caught the ear of Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore while singing for a group called Elf. Due largely to his prodigious vocal talent, the band was invited to tour with Purple. He caught a further break when Blackmore, pissed with the direction that DP Mach III was moving in, recruited Ronnie and his Elf-mates to make an album.
This is where the Dio legend begins.
Hurriedly recorded, the debut disc has its moments, though suffers from being somewhat underwritten. Containing the very fine "Man On The Silver Mountain" and stellar cuts like "Catch the Rainbow", this is by no means a bad record. The highlights make it worthwhile, though it is not consistently brilliant. What really counts is RJD's peerless voice, which lifts everything he touches. There would be no conventional "you know I love ya baby" couplets tossed out as an afterthought, as he worked to craft lyrics that suggest fantastic realms, occupied by otherworldly characters. This would become his signature, garnering as much attention as his operatic delivery.
Clocking in at just over a half hour in total, padded by two covers, it only provides a glimpse of the potential that the Blackmore/Dio partnership had to offer. Their follow up would be far superior.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Long before their ascent to fame, Hall and Oates were fixtures on the Philadelphia scene, toiling away in separate groups. Even after cementing their creative partnership, they wrote and performed in relative anonymity for quite some time before they took the first steps toward wider recognition and eventual superstardom. Their first release as a duo (Whole Oats) in 1972 was roundly ignored.
Undeterred, the pair went about the process of writing songs for their next full length disc, Abandoned Luncheonette.
It would be nice to report that this record was a monster hit, though, sadly, it met with the same fate as their first LP. Critical raves across the board did not translate to commercial success. Truly a shame that the record buying public let this one slip by on first appearance, as it is melodically strong, cleverly arranged and extremely engaging.
To their credit, they pressed on.
For those who have a nodding acquaintance with Hall and Oates, the work found here does not bear any resemblance to the material that struck gold for them in the eighties. That's not a criticism; merely a friendly setting of expectation for those who want to delve into this record. Your curiosity will be rewarded as their estimable talents as writers/performers coalesce on a number of very inventive selections. It is the pairing of voices that really puts the material across. Abandoned Luncheonette also proved to be a proverbial Trojan Horse, concealing a potent weapon that would go unnoticed on the first pass.
Ultimately, fellow R & B soulsters (The Tavares) would record "She's Gone" and hit number 1 in 1974. The original version found here on this disc didn't score for its composers until 1976. Still holds up as one of their finest creations. Elsewhere, the adventurous. multi-part title track would spin a tale that Billy Joel would take more than a few cues from when constructing "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" four years later.
Highlights here are "Had I Known You Better Then", "Las Vegas Turnaround" and the very fine "I'm Just a Kid (Don't Make Me Feel Like a Man)". Production is slick, quarterbacked by the late Arif Mardin. Despite the instrumental layering present, he does not forget to accentuate the harmonies that the pair hit so effortlessly throughout. Intimacy is maintained, despite the long list of musicians that contribute to the mix. These tunes stand, never overwhelmed by the augmentation, all boasting merit and melody. The duo has always excelled in live performance (as the clips posted here demonstrate). Arrangements of these songs for the stage were grittier and they had the chops (with a stellar supporting cast) to pull it all off with ease.
With so much going for it, there is really no reason why this set shouldn't have been a hit. The cover choice was certainly an artsy decision, though it probably didn't help to market the LP in any tangible way. With "glitter rock" all the rage during the early 70s, a record sleeve depicting a crumbling cafe really couldn't compete with androgynous, space alien singers.
Easily the best representation of their early work.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
One of rock and roll's best friends, Joe Heuer, has written a brand new book called "The Rock and Roll Guide to Customer Loyalty"
Finally, a guide that makes perfect sense! Insightful, humorous and well worth your time, this is highly recommended reading. There is a sharp wit mingled with very positive messages on every page.
Follow the link to grab a copy for yourself and find out why Joe is The Rock and Roll Guru.