Following their 2014 masterpiece London was bound to be a daunting prospect but, despite what the title might suggest, with 2018’s Frightened Voices responded fearlessly. The UK devils cannily rising to the challenge by simultaneously taking their music in a brave new direction while retaining their core character. The viciousness of their debut and the neurotic extremity of London toned down to a dark and gothic mix of post-metal, prog and pop. Songs like Unknown,IWSYA and the wonderful closing track Footsteps have a dreamy Anathema-like quality and their music breathes like never before with a diverse range of tones and instruments. But the band’s patented blasting urbanity remains. The primal Dead Feelings and marauding Manipulator have all the nightmarish obsession, paranioa and eroticism of previous releases. The album’s experimentation brings some inevitable mis-steps: there are some hollow lyrics, occasional forays into shouty metalcore and the off-kilter Rabbit’s Curse places a hurdle in the album’s early stages. But the restless hustle and bustle of the band’s arrangements mean even the tracks that misfire have moments of wonder. Take Funeral Day‘s shift from grimy groove to shimmering mellotron beauty. Frightened is a bold and captivating new chapter in the band’s story but also feels like it’s leading somewhere… Voices investigating new and dark back-alleys that will very likely lead to another masterpiece.
Following short-lived but inspired stints with both the volatile Ritchie Blackmore and the mad axeman Michael Schenker, vocalist Graham Bonnet decided to form his own band, Alcatrazz, with hot, upcoming guitarist… Yngwie M. F. Malmsteen. Talk about “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. Unsurprisingly this pairing proved just as short-lived, ending in a blaze of egos and fisticuffs, but it also proved equally inspired with both musicians delivering at their peak on Alcatrazz’s superb debut album, 1983’s No Parole From Rock N’ Roll.
Alcatrazz was conceived as a Rainbow-style outfit. And with songs like the parpy AOR opener Island In The Sun and the Spotlight Kid rerun Jet To Jet, their debut definitely fits the bill. But there’s something more sophisticated at work here. Yngwie’s neo-classical riffing adds an intricate, frosty edge and his soloing on tracks like Kree Nakoorie is impossibly exciting. And Bonnet responds with a forceful and acrobatic vocal performance that thrills on tracks like General Hospital as well as contributing to the album’s cerebral edge with intelligent, quirky lyrics on tracks like the phenomenal Hiroshima Mon Amour (“the fireball that shamed the sun”). The languid Big Foot drags a bit and the bluesy Suffer Me is a little anti-climatic but there is no escaping the fact that No Parole From Rock N’ Roll is a dazzling, state-of-the-art, riot in the dungeon.
The acrimonious split with original drummer Bun E. Carlos in 2010 was a disappointingly sour turn of events in the 27-year saga of Cheap Trick. But on 2016’s Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello, their first release without him, his absence isn’t felt too keenly. The album rocks and pops with a warm, vintage sound and Robin Zander’s wonderful voice seems impervious to the passage of time. But the chemistry is undeniably altered. Their old biting quirkiness is missing and this is fairly slick stuff, like a souped-up version of the poppier Lap Of Luxury/Busted era, with by-the-numbers lyrics and happy strumming in place of decent riffs. That said, it’s a fun album with a perky spirit and, although the ideas gradually dry up as the album progresses, there are a few songs that fans will enjoy: driving opener Heart On The Line, the sparkling No Direction Home, glammy stomper Blood Red Lips and jangly ballad Sing My Blues Away. But the album’s saving grace, and the song that keeps me coming back for more, is the ghostly When I Wake Up Tomorrow. Overall, it’s not destined to go down in history as a classic, but its definitely one of their more enjoyable modern releases. And the band do sound like they’re having a good time. They don’t seem to miss Bun E., and this is solid enough that you probably won’t either. But he must have been the guy coming up with the album titles because Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello?
Secret Treaties is the last and best of the so-called “black-and-white” trilogy of albums that kicked off Blue Öyster Cult’s career: a trio of mysterious, monochrome-covered rock albums that peaked with this 1974 release. It’s dark, esoteric and also a bit of a hoot. It’s an album of parodic garage-rock horror reminiscent of Alice Cooper’s Killer, full of psychedelic monster mashes like Career Of Evil, the oddly cute Cagey Cretins and the seismic, psychotic Harvester Of Eyes. And those aren’t even the best tracks. Overdriven boogie rocker ME262 puts you in the pilot’s seat of a Junkers Jumo 004 (“Hitler’s on the phone from Berlin, he’s gonna make you a star”) and Dominance And Submission has a superb, swinging groove, an unforgettable climax (“radios appear”) and some creepy interjections from Charles The Grinning Boy… “it will be time”. But the album truly peaks with its closing tracks, Flaming Telepaths and Astronomy. Both are grand, magnificent masterpieces with affecting muscianship and beautifully cryptic imagery. Astronomy in particular is a complete head-scratcher. I’d love to know what “the nexus of the crisis, the origin of storms” really means but then… I feel like not knowing is kind of the point. And the reason Secret Treaties remains so eternally fascinating and alluring.
After the U.S. the most important country in the story of thrash metal has to be Germany. And in Germany it all started with the debut EP from Sodom. Where German thrash initially differentiated itself from its American counterpart was in crude, primitive blackness. And it doesn’t get much cruder, blacker or more primitive than 1985’s In The Sign Of Evil. It’s all very Venom-inspired with similar levels of punkish ineptitude. Most songs alternate between two caveman riffs and the performance, even on stupidly basic riffs like those in Sepulchral Voice, often unravels. But it was all chaotically evil enough to ensure that Sodom played a crucial role in the “first wave” of black metal and countless black metal bands still draw from this well. Outbreak Of Evil and Witching Metal are catchy-as-hell bruisers, Burst Command ‘Til War predates war metal with its howling pack of dogs chaos and Blasphemer ramps up the evil with Vincent Price laughs and entertainingly crap satanic lyrics… “masturbate to kill myself”. It’s the kind of entry-level simplicity that means new bands still fancy their chances at emulating it. But few have. In The Sign Of Evil is still a cut above with songs that live in the memory and in the band’s set-list to this day.
Blitzkrieg only managed to release one official 7″ single before splitting up in late 1981. Otherwise, they had some demos in circulation and a song Inferno on the Lead Weight compilation. Luckily for Blitzkrieg, their solitary release was impressive enough that Metallica ended up covering its eponymous B-side. This bestowed infamy and cult credibility to the defunct band and ensured their return in 1985.
But luck didn’t really have much to do with it cause Blitzkrieg is superb. The unforgettable opening riff might have been purloined from the Focus classic Hocus Pocus but it doesn’t matter because Blitzkrieg conjure up their own metal magic here. The mega-chunk guitars, deadly hooks (“let us have peace, let us have life”) and a dynamic rifferama climax make this mandatory listening. And the less-famous A-side Buried Alive isn’t too shabby either. Stark, driving metal with a piercingly catchy chorus. Just ignore the Bolanesque nonsense lyrics “the Leather Prince, turned to mince”… I can see why Metallica steered clear of that one.
Basking in the incredible success of their 1996 reunion tour, the four original members of KISS headed back into the studio to pick up where they left off: completely unable to work together. In fact, the entire band only appear together twice on 1998’s so-called reunion album Psycho Circus. The whole band performs Ace Frehley’s Into The Void (which, surprise surprise, is the only track here that sounds anything like classic KISS) and they all sing together on the fairly average You Wanted The Best. In truth, however, this is the Paul n’ Gene show. Which would be fine if the album was actually any good, but it’s a muddled, mediocre effort. Stanley exerts a bit of quality control with the anthemic, stomping title track and Gene offers up the suprisingly good closer Journey Of 1,000 Years but both performers have seen better days. Within is terrible alterna-metal, Finally Found My Way is a limp and dated ballad and the album is loaded with empty and charmless statements of unity. Doing a greatest hits nostalgia trek is one thing, moving forward as a creative unit is another entirely. KISS would have been better settling for the nostalgia because Psycho Circus left the inimitable rock legends looking like nothing but a bunch of clowns.