What makes a great cover version? There’s only one question you have to ask: does the band covering the song make it their own? Skyclad’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s Emerald is excellent. It’s faithful to the original song but the more metallic, aggressive and threatening delivery along with the clever use of violin to handle the chorus riff and bridge ensures the song fits perfectly in Skyclad’s folk metal oeuvre. Extra points awarded for guest guitar from Lizzy’s ‘Robbo’ Robertson and the fact that this version is responsible for me getting into Thin Lizzy in the first place! Even if I (and probably you) ultimately prefer the original there is no denying this is an inspired and enjoyable cover version.
Emerald opens their 1992 EP Tracks From the Wilderness and is followed by two studio cuts that sadly don’t keep up the standard it sets. A Room Next Door is a decent ballad with beautiful, rustic acoustic guitars but When All Else Fails is forgettable thrash. Neither are in the same league as the Lizzy cover or up to the quality of the tracks on the band’s previous two albums. The lack of Fritha Jenkins’ violin on these suggests they were probably off-cuts from the band’s debut album. The EP closes out with three energetic and endearing live tracks from the Dynamo festival. The band are tight and Martin Walkyier delivers each song with zeal. These excellent performances round out a worthwhile stop-gap release but there’s no denying this is mainly worth buying for Emerald. For fans only.
I bought a veritable shit-ton of Virgin Steele albums at Xmas. I’m still working my way through them all but I’ve already got a good few new favourite albums of all time out of them. Yes, they’re that good. The standout album so far is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part One. This is a band firing on all cylinders, veering boldly from strident warrior metal to heartfelt balladry and epic classical pomp without a dull moment. The band describe their music as barbaric romanticism and it’s a great description because, for all the chest beating and sword waving, this is a band unafraid to employ sensitivity and romance, usually via the emotive delivery and passionate lyrics of vocalist/composer David DeFeis. He has a remarkable gift for vocal melodies that lifts songs like I Will Come For You, Trail of Tears, Life Among the Ruins and Blood and Gasoline (one of the best songs I have ever heard in my puff) to the sublime level of the godly. Essential.
Rock the Nations was an encouraging but not entirely convincing return to the classic Saxon sound. With EMI breathing down their necks, Saxon made a last-ditch bid for stardom with 1988`s Destiny. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Destiny was the first (and only) Saxon studio album to feature the new rhythm section of bassist Paul Johnson and drummer Nigel Durham. Saxon were at a low ebb in their confidence and creativity, papering over the cracks with all sorts of formulaic 80s pop rock moves and an over-egged pudding of a production. Uninspiring songs like I Can’t Wait Anymore, We Are Strong and Song For Emma rely on stock pop rock moves and limp anthemry. And more promising numbers like Calm Before the Storm and S.O.S. struggle under layers of keyboards and backing vocals.
However, the band recaptures some of their classic might with For Whom the Bell Tolls and Red Alert. More dynamic, riff-heavy and fully-realised, it’s telling that these tracks rely less on the production bells and whistles. The album’s one true classic and standout track is Ride Like the Wind, a driving and charismatic power ballad reinvention of the Christopher Cross tune. It’s a brilliant cover and a should-have-been hit. It’s the only Destiny-era tune to endure in the band’s career and live repertoire. But even then, it’s no Broken Heroes, Battle Cry or Crusader.
Overall, Destiny is likely to be too syrupy for many fans of traditional Saxon and, even judged on its own merits as an AOR album (against, say, Magnum’s Wings of Heaven), it’s unconvincing. In fact, it’s one of Saxon’s worst albums. As worst albums go, it’s not a total disaster. There’s good stuff here and in the right mood even some of the ropier tunes can connect. But the patchiness, dissipating credibility and perceived commercial desperation of Saxon’s EMI years came to a head here. Before long the band were dropped from EMI, had fired their management and were taking time out to rethink and recharge. It would take years for the one-time champions of NWOBHM to fully recover.
Allow me to indulge in a bit of heresy. I’m all about the sacred album format. I don’t like tinkering with track-listings, running orders and I don’t shuffle. If I’m in a social situation I’ll pick out favourite tracks to play but that’s about it. But here we have Jimi Hendrix’ First Rays of the New Rising Sun. It’s one of many posthumous collections of Hendrix’s final recordings but it’s an important one. Assembled by Hendrix associate/producer/engineer Eddie Kramer, it purports to be as close to the double album Hendrix was planning as is possible, based on Eddie’s insider knowledge, Jimi’s notes and the like.
But it’s a frustrating album.
Heresy No. 1: there are quite a few songs on this that are guff. Sleepy workouts like Izabella and goofy twaddle like Astro Man. It was a fun album when I first picked it up in the late 90s but over time the gulf between the great tracks and the ropey ones has only grown and it’s hard for me to listen to this front to back. I usually end up giving up. Which means killer tracks from the album’s latter half (like In From the Storm) have not reached my ears for too many years.
Heresy No. 2: this album works much better with a bit of pruning. And on Friday I did just that. Kramer and Hendrix… move over and let HMO take over! My reimagined First Rays of the New Rising Sun now goes:
Freedom/Night Bird Flying/Angel/Room Full of Mirrors/Ezy Ryder/Drifting/Stepping Stone/Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)/In From the Storm
Nine tracks. Thirty-six minutes. Sounds like a full album to me. And… it’s divine. I loved every second of it and it made me feel like I was listening to Jimi for the first time. No mean feat considering I’ve felt some very real Hendrix-fatigue in recent years. As Little Richard would say, it made my big toe shoot up in my boot! And the best of it is, I just wanted to go right back to the start and play it all again.
Ultimately, this is a bunch of my very favourite Hendrix tunes, finally liberated from the shackles of dull and sleepy filler tracks.
It’s been an interesting, enjoyable departure from my usual worship of the album form. What do you think? Ever had any albums you’ve needed to prune like this or is the very idea unthinkable?
Do you ever want to write about or review an album and just feel unequal to the task? I feel that way about The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! The New Yorkers’ 1975 debut album has got so much going on. It was a critical success and commercial failure and manages to be classic and overlooked at the same time.
I’m not really comfortable talking about its supposed punk influence either, given I’m not a big punk fan. This always just sounded like fun, back-to-basics rock n’ roll to me: Louie Louie riffs, The Who and The Beach Boys with teenage, street level attitude and a ton of pop culture references thrown in. It’s an album that I love but I’m reluctant to recommend. Especially if, like me, you came at this from a Manowar direction and want to hear where guitarist Ross the Boss started out. After hearing the lamentable cover of I Got You Babe and the silly Back to Africa you’re going to wonder what the hell is going on. (Anyone reading this for Manoreasons should probably check out The Dictators’ third album Bloodbrothers first. It’s quality muscle rock!)
But from the “let’s go” of the fourth track Master Race Rock on, this album is a veritable blast. Two Tub Man, (I Live For) Cars and Girls and Weekend all put such a joyous spring in your step that you wish every rock album was like this. It’s so quirky, arch and fresh. The occasional vocal interjections of “secret weapon” Handsome Dick Manitoba add to the fun too. The album’s second side is so perfect it makes you forget the first one ever happened.
And… Ross the Boss. Fingers and steel, baby! The man is a legend.
So, like I said. I’m not equal to the task of covering this great and weird album. But never mind… with my financial holdings I could be basking in the sun in Florida. This music-writing lark is just a hobby for me! Nothing, ya hear? A HOBBY!
Guitar magazines would have you believe that Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force was THE ONE, which is fair enough given its classic feats of guitar mastery like Black Star and Icarus Dream Suite Op. 4. Those are rightfully legendary instrumentals and justify the album’s status as a guitar classic. But Yngwie’s debut fell down a bit on the actual song front and the band’s stiff delivery of the vocal numbers. If you’re actually just wanting a fuck-off classic METAL record, follow-up Marching Out is the music of the Gods.
Guitar fanatics needn’t worry, there’s still plenty of heroic guitar acrobatics from Yngwie but the whole band ups their game here. Fleet-fingered keyboardist Jens Johansson gives God’s guitar teacher a right run for his money on the widdle front and the whole band is more driving, less ploddy than on the debut. But the star here is Jeff Scott Soto. He totally finds his voice on this. His passionate delivery on tracks like Soldier Without Faith and I Am a Viking is absolutely infectious. Try not to join in, tankard raised, with the chorus to Anguish and Fear. You can’t. Not if you’ve got blood in your veins. I am a Viking, I’ll walk all over you. Triumphant, warfaring power metal. That’s what I’m talking about!
HMO Rating: 4.5 out of 5
[Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force – Anguish and Fear]
I’ve been getting into this album way more now than I did when it came out. There were loads of great albums out in 2013 and this one just got lost in the stampede. I’d have rated a good 5 or 6 albums above this back then but I’ve not gone back to any of that year’s albums as much as this one. I attribute its staying power to its classic none-more-metal power. I did think some of Fenriz’s tracks were a bit cartoonish when I first got it but really he’s just going for broke in a way too few metal acts do anymore. Endearing enthusiasm and naivety. His three songs here are just an absolute hoot. And on the remaining three, Nocturno Culto delivers the type of frosty misanthropy that he is still the master of. Genius, biting riffs and his incredible decayed growl. Darkthrone totally understand the execution and the spirit of 80s metal. NWOBHM, speed, 1st wave black… the kind of stuff that never gets old. And if it’s not totally perfect? Who needs perfect when you can have awesome?
[Darkthrone – The Ones You Left Behind]
Here’s the best, and most fun, song on The Underground Resistance. Totally boisterous, simple and… check out that bridge riff.