Much as I enjoyed it, I was frustrated by how polite Grand Magus’ last album Triumph and Power was. Their brand of strutting, Manowar-ish, mid-tempo trad metal was charming, hooky and personable but it was too nice. I wanted them to get more bloodthirsty. I’m pleased to report that their latest album Sword Songs is a definite improvement. The drumming is forceful, the riffs are more earth-shaking and the guitar solos are bolder. But the sense of urbanity remains: mainly due to the persistent mid-tempos and JB’s vocal delivery. He’s got a soulful voice full of grit and character but I really want to hear him bust his lungs for the cause. It’s more a frustration than a criticism. If they gave it up more this band would be godly. And I want that for them. Sword Songs is a decisive manoeuvre but it’s not the stuff of legend. You don’t get into Valhalla without cracking a few skulls.
I wish I’d heard HEart of the Ages when it was released. Mixing extreme metal with prog and folk hardly seems all that audacious now but when In the Woods…’ debut album came out in 1995 this was a leap forward for black metal. There were similar attempts from Ulver and Primordial in the same year but, even compared to those great albums, HEart of the Ages sounds more forward-thinking and groundbreaking. 21 years later their style might not seem as startling but the music still has a fresh zing of originality and there’s plenty to love in its combination of Burzumic shrieking, melancholic doom, heathen folk and Floyd/Crimson soundscapes. Latecomers should buy the recent Heart of the Woods box set for a particularly plush version of the album. The Norwegians are also due to return later in 2016 with their reunion album Pure. If like me, you’ve missed out on In the Woods…, now is a great time to get involved.
Chase the Dragon and On a Storyteller’s Night are the sturdier, rockier picks of the Magnum back catalogue but they reached their peak of life-affirming, pop rock joy with Wings of Heaven: one of the most feelgood albums ever created. Tony Clarkin writing simple, catchy AOR rockers par excellence delivered with winning passion and panache by the ever-lovable Bob Catley. Boaby sings like he would take bullets for Magnum. “It’s a flame that keeps burning… everLASTing torrrchhhh!”, “Too old to die young, too big to cry… MAMA!” The guy’s a total hero. As soon as he chimes in on genius opener Days of No Trust (“Pray to the future…”) you are on your feet. The album continues with the vista of Wild Swan and the sublime power pop of Start Talking Love. Classics all. Different Worlds is a mid-album lull but Pray for the Day and the WWI epic Don’t Wake the Lion (Too Old to Die Young) end the album with weight and compassion: breathtaking, heartrending but still triumphant, mighty and melodic. It’s a colossal climax to an excellent album. File this in your collection alongside your Jovi, Lep and Whitesnake and it won’t be long before it steals your heart. A heavenly magnum opus.
Bergtatt, the title of Ulver’s 1995 debut, doesn’t seem to have an exact translation to English. In the album’s liner notes it’s translated as both “Spellbound” and “Mountain-taken” which is the literal translation*. It’s a Norwegian term for people (usually maidens I imagine) that have been lured into the hills by particularly alluring trolls and other assorted faerie folk, never to return! The music is appropriately seductive, alluring and magical: the album is laden with dreamy acoustic guitars, flutes and soothing Gregorian chant singing. There’s excellent, raw black metal throughout as well but, even then, the orchestrated layers of guitar don’t shatter the dreamy allure: Ulver aiming for a panoramic, classical vibe rather than the usual evil aggression. It’s a debut so fully realised that the band immediately moved on from the style but Bergtatt has proven to be inescapably influential. In 1995 this was a unique album but so many bands have followed in its dreamy, progressive footsteps since that, if it was released today, it would be more relevant than ever. It’s ageless rock n troll.
*In English the full album title is Mountain-taken: A Fairy Tale in 5 Chapters
Many of the great live albums functioned as “end of an era” releases. They documented a period of a band’s career and placed a full-stop on it before evolving into something new.
Ever since the release of their debut single (Animal) Fuck Like a Beast, controversy had dogged W.A.S.P. and they soon became a prime target for the PMRC, while also experiencing death threats and even assassination attempts. The stress had tired the band, causing tensions in the ranks but also galvanising band leader Blackie Lawless who felt that the focus on the band’s image and antics had meant their musical merits were under-estimated.
Live… in the Raw was recorded over three dates on their successful world tour promoting their third album, Inside The Electric Circus. Opener Inside The Electric Circus is thrilling and has some great sawing guitar riffs. The band proceeds to tear through a taut, muscular set that mixes classics and new tracks alike. In fact there are three tracks on here that would have previously been unavailable: two excellent live tracks Harder Faster and The Manimal and one studio track Scream Until You Like It recorded to promote the Horror sequel Ghoulies II.
Like many of the best live albums, some of the songs here enjoy their definitive performances on this album. Inside The Electric Circus, L.O.V.E Machine, Wild Child and 9.5.-N.A.S.T.Y. are all superb. The only thing that stops Live… in the Raw being all the W.A.S.P. you’ll ever need is the notable omission of (Animal) Fuck Like a Beast (although they would atone for this with the release, in 1988, of the Live Animal EP).
Live… in the Raw would prove pivotal to the band’s career. It boosted the profile and legitimacy of their catalogue and functioned as a historically important “end of an era” release. The album would provide a full-stop on the sex, parties and gore period of their career. From now on, W.A.S.P. were going to get serious!