You can’t go wrong picking up albums that have sword-waving maniacs on the cover (especially one that looks a wee bit like Slade’s Don Powell) and that rule holds true for Saxon’s 1979 debut. Although it’s slightly too patchy and derivative to merit the full-on game-changer status of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Venom’s (yes, Venom’s) first albums it’s still an intriguing first attempt with strong hints of the band’s promise and ability.
Yorkshire’s Saxon formed out of two bands, Coast and S.O.B. (with former Glitter Band drummer Pete Gill thrown in for good measure) and seemingly hadn’t quite reconciled the directions of the two previous bands into a seamless whole. Saxon is bookended with excellent prog-flavoured epics (the astounding, glacial Frozen Rainbow and the bugle-call of Militia Guard) but a couple of songs veer into so-so brickie glam along the lines of The Sweet. Of these Big Teaser has an enjoyably snotty vocal performance from Biff Byford but reeks disappointingly of pubs after the fantasy splendour of the opening track. Three tracks bode best for the band’s future. Judgement Day and Backs to the Wall have raging vocals from Biff and the mix of muscle and melody is starting to sound like the real Saxon. Biker classic Stallions of the Highway is the genuine album highlight. Featuring revved-up, gear-shifting guitars from the under-rated Paul Quinn/Graham Oliver axe duo and bolstered with Steve Dawson and Pete Gill’s pumping rhythm section it lays down the template for the band’s future direction.
Saxon would iron out their sound and identity along the lines of Stallions of the Highway. Their next two albums would have a huge impact, resulting in their first effort being largely overlooked. But despite falling short of being a truly classic debut, Saxon has a rich variety and innocent charm that rewards repeated listens. A genuine meeting point of 70s and 80s Metal styles. It isn’t the best or the most representative album Saxon put out but it’s one I return to a lot and a bold opening move in Saxon’s 35+ year campaign.
It’s 2014 and the Priest is back! Normally a phrase that would generate considerable excitement at HMO Mission Control but following the disappointing Nostradamus, the departure of the legendary KK Downing and a few uninspiring advance tracks I couldn’t help but feel sceptical about their return. But I was kidding myself. On the day of release I headed straight to Fopp to get my hands on it.
Despite my renewed enthusiasm for their return, on my initial spin I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that I shouldn’t have bothered. Dragonaut and the title track kick off Redeemer of Souls in a fairly routine manner. Both are enjoyable enough but a touch flat. It’s not until Halford screams his way into Halls of Valhalla that the album hits its stride. From here on it’s a long set of varied and solid Metal with the boat pushed out just enough to keep things moving forward without losing the trademark Priest identity. Sword of Damocles introduces a Maidenesque rhythm and its slashing climax is one of the album’s highlights. Cold Blooded is tightly coiled, moody and intricate and Crossfire’s bluesy riff works as a nice change of pace even if it’s a bit unimaginative. The Metal God delivers the goods on every song: he’s unable to shatter the windows like he used to but he always had more strings to his bow than that and any singer of any age would be proud to sing like Rob does in his sixties.
The main album climaxes with Battle Cry, a charging riff-fest with rousing, soaring vocals before it finally cools down with Beginning of the End, an atmospheric and sombre ballad. And, barring the very last song Never Forget (an uncomfortably twee last-dance number), the bonus disc is impressively strong too. I can understand why the bonus tunes didn’t fit stylistically on the main album but they are great songs: tough, dynamic and catchy and pleasingly redolent of the bands early-80s output.
It’s a lot to take in and it’s not without its faults. New guitarist Richie Faulkner plays well but I don’t feel either his or Glenn Tipton’s solos push the excitement levels like they should. The length and muddy sound also make it a tough album to absorb. Many songs like March of the Damned and the title-track have stock riffs and lyrics and are too reined in for their own good, creating a worry that the album might prove to be a little disposable. But after repeated listens and dividing the album into manageable chunks I find it growing on me listen by listen.
Ultimately, Priest have delivered a strong album for this era and held their own in a competitive climate of strong releases. And, more importantly, it sounds like they have enough gas in their tank to suggest there could be more and better yet to come.
I’m going to call this Cheap Trick live album “unofficial” rather than a “bootleg”. Bootlegs tend not to be stocked in Amazon, HMV etc… whereas this one is. There have been quite a lot of these radio broadcast releases lately and, while the recordings will have been floating around as bootlegs for years, they seem to have found a legal route to the shops. I’m guessing there is some loophole regarding the ownership rights to broadcast recordings and these labels are tellingly keeping themselves on the right side of the law by not using the copyrighted band logos. Bootleggers aren’t that shy about stuff like that are they? So… “unofficial” it is.
Recorded in December 1978, the band really were on top of the world: riding high between the release of their successful Heaven Tonight album and the domestic US release of the classic At Budokan. There’s a good deal of crossover between this and the Budokan release but the Passaic audience sounds way rowdier than the Japanese crowd. There are no high-pitched squeals of “Robin!” here. As a result the band performance feels more raucous and less mannered. This is Cheap Trick going for the throat and it puts a fresh, biting spin on the familiar Budokan tracks as well as offering up a couple of lesser-heard tunes too.
The highlights of the set-list prove to be these less familiar tracks. Stiff Competition is absolutely savage with a shredding Robin Zander vocal. I’m also especially blown away by the rendition of Heaven Tonight. It’s not a track I was ever particularly excited about but here it is thrillingly menacing. Another highlight is Big Eyes, opened with an immensely entertaining guitar solo from Rick Nielsen during which he proclaims himself “100,000 times better than Fred Nugent will ever be!” to huge roars of approval. The scamp.
In general, the sound quality is very good: rough and raw but more evocative of the live atmosphere and excitement than many official live albums. Only Tom Peterson’s bass struggles to be heard on most tracks but makes up for it during Need Your Love, the intro of which sounds like it might have caused structural damage to the venue.
All in all, a great use of £8 and a great live album to add to the collection. I find it thoroughly inspiring hearing such classic acts in the raw and in the case of this and last year’s KISS release, The Ritz on Fire, it feels like I’m discovering the bands for the first time. Again!
As Henry Rollins would say, hearing a band live is the only way to know for sure, and on this evidence you can be very sure of Cheap Trick.
Super Duper Alice Cooper (2DVD/BR/CD – £37 Love Music Glasgow)
I do love a good music documentary, which is probably just as well as they seem to be coming down the pipeline at an impressive rate these days. I blame Anvil. But few musicians warrant a film biog more than Alice Cooper. And when the film, Super Duper Alice Cooper, comes courtesy of Banger Productions (Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, VH1’s Metal Evolution and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage) then the prospects are very promising indeed. Hot on the heels of a limited cinema run comes the release on DVD and Blu Ray. I hadn’t expected this to come out until later in 2014 so it’s a nice surprise to have a copy so soon but does it live up to its promise?
Unexpectedly, the film takes the form of an extended montage. There is no footage of the interviewees as they are now, Alice and co-stars providing only voice-overs to the stream of archive footage and images. The 87min running time is a bit miserly for such a huge and important story so the film focuses squarely on Alice the man and performer with little discussion of the music or discography. And even then it all feels a bit breathless. The movie hurtles from anecdote to anecdote faster than you can say “Michael Bruce”. Which no-one here does. Not even once. The pace and the effect of only hearing the protagonists’ voices renders the whole thing strangely flat. And as the film progresses it is rarely as exciting or as moving as it should be.
On the plus side, the film is a veritable treasure trove of visual material and, by cutting out the modern-day talking heads, a lot of this good stuff is crammed into the brief running time. I can understand the impulse to prioritise the historical footage but the filmmakers haven’t employed it with the dramatic and powerful effect of a film like Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury which took a similar approach. For long-time fans there are interesting and fresh insights into Alice’s life. Without spoiling too much, Dennis Dunaway’s recollections as the original band drift apart are sad and surprising and there is fascinating new light shed on Cooper’s addictions. The portrayal of the singer’s descent is harrowing enough to set-up a satisfying feel-good ending, as a healthier, happier Alice bounces back into action in the 80s with support from guitar-gunslinger (literally!) Kane “Rambo” Roberts. Nothing is said of his later career which seems strange as I felt that the reunion of the remaining original members with producer Bob Ezrin for Welcome 2 My Nightmare would have been a satisfying way to bring the story up to date and also full circle.
THE BOX SET
The individual DVD and Blu-Ray editions come with some extra archive footage, deleted scenes and extra interviews that were filmed for the Metal Evolution series. This deluxe version has even more extras that may prove very tempting for Coop fans. The LP-sized hardcover book has some great photos and some interesting insights from the film-makers which explain why they decided, rightly or wrongly, what approach to take with the documentary. And in addition to the DVD and Blu-Ray of the movie there is two bonus discs. The first is a DVD of footage shot from the 1972 Killer tour in Montreal. Any classic Alice Cooper concert footage is like gold-dust and I can imagine many fans buying this set for this disc alone. Sadly, the footage is very incomplete and the existing visual and audio components cut and pasted together to make as much out of it as possible. As a result the sound is often out of sync with the action and portions of the songs are missing. It’s a touch disappointing that the show is so incomplete but it is still a rare treat to the see the band in action at this point in their career. A fourth disc contains an energetic live performance from 2009’s Along Came a Spider tour at Montreaux which features some great classic material and great sound. It’s only slightly marred by some audible mic problems towards the end. I think all of the tracks here have been performed on other live releases so it’s fairly inessential in that respect but it’s a lean and rocking set and a nice bonus for any completists out there.
Taken individually the disappointing movie and patchy concert footage leave you wanting slightly more. But viewed together with the book and CD for bonus reading and listening, there’s an enjoyable evening of Cooper fun to be had here. And more archive Alice than you can shake a snake at! I still feel like the ultimate Cooper visual retrospective is still out there, waiting to be made, but this is still a welcome addition to the collection alongside Prime Cuts, Good to See You Again Alice Cooper and the many other Coop DVDs out there.
Say hello to Metal’s other Orange Demon Dude – the Abominog! If he’s a bit chirpy looking, it’s maybe because he’s gracing the cover of the comeback album of much-loved Rockers Uriah Heep. A decline in fortunes had led to the poorly received Conquest album and the group falling apart in 1980. Only guitarist Mick Box returned for this album, recruiting vocalist Pete Goalby and keyboardist John Sinclair. Bassist Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake joined fresh from a stint in Ozzy’s Blizzard but this also marked Kerslake’s return to the band after quitting in 1979, providing welcome continuity with the band’s classic era. The line-up’s first album Abominog hit the shelves in 1982.
For all the great songs dotted around their discography, I’ve never found a Uriah Heep album that has totally blown me away (and not for want of trying either – aided by Fopp consistently punting their back catalogue for £3 a disc). And unfortunately, although Abominog is probably my favourite Heep album, it’s still not quite the full package. The opening track Too Scared to Run is classic Heep with its stomping rhythm, raging guitar, and a leather-lunged performance from Goalby but the rest of the album veers into unexpectedly Poppy territory. By the time the disco dad-dancer (and Russ Ballard cover) On the Rebound starts pumping out the stereo, anyone who bought the album based on the allure of the Orange Demon Dude may well be wondering what the hell is going on. On the Rebound is not the only cover version here. It’s followed by Hot Night in a Cold Town, which sounds like a UFO cast-off and then there’s a Lion song, with added Heep writing credits, Running All Night (With the Lion) which adds some welcome energy but has dodgy sub-All Right Now lyrics and a lame chorus that just makes me think of Monty Python’s “I get ta fight da lion! I gotta fight da lion!” The band performs these numbers with conviction but the material sounds dated and cheesy in comparison to the two band-penned tunes that kicked the album off.
However, although another cover kicks off Side 2, it’s a vast improvement on what came before. That’s The Way That It Is, previously recorded by the Bliss Band and also Graham Bonnet, is superb and a highlight of the album (as well as scoring a minor hit in the US.) A moodier song than the “lads out on the tiles” filler that preceded it, it’s enigmatic, classy and deserves the powerful delivery the band give it. It seems like the band are finding their sound and Prisoner (another cover!) maintains the mood and the upturn in quality before two originals Hot Persuasion and the anthemic Sell Your Soul ramp up the riffage and find the band increasingly opening out with fantastic instrumental breaks. The guitar and keyboards trade off each other brilliantly on these with Mick Box contributing particularly impressive and blistering playing. Think It Over (an song re-recorded from the Conquest era) ends the album on dramatic and anthemic note and the first side’s cringe-inducing pomp and peacock-strutting becomes a distant memory.
Few albums deserve mention of their artwork quite as much as this one. There’s no doubt that this cover was aimed to lure fans of the booming early 80s Metal scene and it’s fair to say many would have been thrown by the slick, mature Rock contained within. But I believe there was enough of a Metal/AOR crossover back then for this not to have been too big a deal. Abominog’s problem isn’t a lack of heaviness, it’s the patchy quality. The band were not short of songwriting chops and their original material provides the majority of the album’s standout moments. I don’t know if the paucity of original compositions was due to time constraints or if they were aiming for a big hit. Regardless, the result is a frustratingly flawed album which is a shame as the lion’s share of it is well worth investigating if you’re a fan of bands like Foreigner, Rainbow (post-Dio) or Magnum. If only the band had managed to contribute a few more killer tunes then it could have been the one. Then the Orange Demon Dude really would have had something to smile about.
The 1986 debut record of Sweden’s Candlemass casts the kind of pure Heavy Metal spell you’d expect to find scrawled in some dusty old grimoire found in a subterranean chamber. As well as giving the Doom Metal genre its name, the album’s title also describes its contents perfectly. Six ancient tales of myth, legend and tragedy told through Metal of portentous and quaking heaviness.
On Epicus… bassist and songwriter, Leif Edling, offers up a treasure-trove of timeless riffs, all heftily delivered by rhythm guitarist Mats “Mappe” Bjorkman, from the snaky, neoclassical riffs in Demons Gate and Crystal Ball, to the windswept bludgeon that opens Black Stone Wielder and the Am I Evil-esque riff that fires up Under the Oak. In addition to the lumbering guitars, the album’s acoustic passages and doleful harmonies add a bleak, gothic atmosphere.
Vocalist Johan Längqvist’s baritone is sincerely and chillingly emotive: anguished in funereal opener Solitude and channelling some arcane evil in Crystal Ball. He tells all of Epicus’ tales with theatrical flair and melodrama. Lead guitarist Klas Bergwall provides chinks of light and a very European flavour with his lyrical, neo-classical leads and drummer Matz Ekström proves to be the album’s secret weapon, filling the gaps between snail-paced chords with massive fills that sound like the raging elements.
It’s surprising, considering the musical chemistry and cohesiveness, that Candlemass wasn’t really a band at this point. They had been signed to France’s Black Dragon label on the strength of Edling, Bjorkman and Ekström’s demos. Längqvist and Bergwall were hurriedly drafted in for the album’s recording sessions but were uninterested in joining the band on a more permanent basis and after the recording finished, Ekström left the band too. Despite a positive critical reception, Epicus… sold poorly but the next line-up of Candlemass would record another masterpiece that helped boost the reputation of the band, sending many back to the debut.
The legend of Epicus… would grow in stature over time, becoming a mainstay of best-album polls and increasingly cited as an important influence by other bands. While forever associated with its titular sub-genre, it’s a timeless, magical classic for Metal fans of all stripes and still casts a powerful spell to this day.
I was initially disappointed when this hardback turned up in the post. I wasn’t convinced a book crammed with photos of young, sweaty guys gurning and flipping their middle fingers was something I’d want to look at very often. But I was missing the point. Bazillion Points are doing a great service to Metal with books like this. Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew were part of the Bay Area Thrash scene from the very beginning and Murder in the Front Row is a beautifully put together documentation of the movement as seen through their lenses.
Oimoen and Lew contribute written recollections of their involvement with the genre, along with contributions from Ron Quintana, Gary Holt, Alex Skolnick and Robb Flynn, but the main attraction is the atmospheric photography. Many historic moments and formative band line-ups are captured here. Metallica feature heavily. There are great shots of the Mustaine/McGovney line-up as well as the very first photos of the band with legendary bassist Cliff Burton. While Exodus’ importance in the scene is often overlooked, they are given the profile they deserve here and, mainly due the larger-than-life presence of frontman Paul Baloff, they embody the wild and chaotic vibe of the movement. They also provide the book’s title via the lyrics of their classic Bonded by Blood.
Being an LA band, Slayer’s earliest eye-liner days aren’t included but by the time they hit the Bay Area they were already a darker and more visually striking prospect. The images of their first Bay Area shows seem to leap out of the book and Oimoen was on hand to capture Kerry King’s short-lived stint as guitarist in Megadeth. His spike-wristed appearances in early ‘Deth shows provide some of most fascinating sights in the book. The early Megadeth shows also illustrate the changed attitude of Dave Mustaine: his determined, sneering demeanour speaking volumes about his intent following his dismissal from Metallica.
Alongside the obvious main players, the grassroots moments of many other crucial bands are also included along with plenty of backstage meetings, drunken antics and – a crucial element often overlooked by professional Rock photographers – fans like Toby Rage who illustrate (often in mid-air) the audience mayhem these bands became notorious for.
So, although on first glance this is a book of photos of young sweaty guys, the authors’ dedication to the genre and their candid amateur photography turns it into something more: a brilliant evocation of the blood, sweat and beers of a unique and vibrant scene. Murder in the Front Row is essential for fans of the genre: it tells the story of Bay Area Thrash Metal more effectively and honestly than a bazillion words ever could and is the next best thing to having actually been there.
For many years I knew Trapeze as a historical footnote and not much else. Usually prefixed with “ex-” as former members Glenn Hughes (bassist and “Voice of Rock”), the late Mel Galley (guitar/vocals) and Dave Holland (drums) all moved on to higher profile gigs with other bands. Hughes joined Deep Purple, Galley appeared in Whitesnake and Holland served time in Judas Priest before… well… serving time.
In the early ’00s, a run of brilliant Glenn Hughes solo albums finally inspired me to investigate his old band. Medusa was Trapeze’s second album but the first to feature its most famous power trio line-up of Hughes/Galley/Holland. It was released in late 1970 and, as was often the case with the era’s Hard Rockers, it’s an album of light and shade. This means Led Zep often come up as a comparison but I hear more of a Free influence, especially in groovy Rockers like Black Cloud and Touch My Life. Although the funky, stop-start rhythms of Your Love is Alright get a little bit frustrating the band sound tight and confident, leaving plenty of space for everyone’s contributions to be heard. And with the tasteful exception of Mel Galley’s guitar jamming on Makes You Wanna Cry, there is very little instrumental showboating on Medusa which leaves the focus squarely on Glenn’s superb voice.
It’s fascinating to hear him at this early stage, with a rawer tone and delivery that brings to mind Paul Rodgers and Steve Marriott. And his voice is even more remarkable in the album’s longer tracks. Jury, Seafull and the title-track have a more progressive feel. Pastoral acoustic passages build up to intense, heavy climaxes that would appeal to fans of Uriah Heep or early Judas Priest. When Glenn employs his full vocal range at the climax of Jury the results are spine-chilling.
Medusa is an album of real maturity and depth from a group with tangible chemistry. Before going their separate ways, Trapeze would record one more excellent studio album and enjoy some live success in the US but it’s a shame their recorded output didn’t achieve more success or recognition. While it’s unsurprising that the musicians involved went on to bigger things, together they deserved way more than footnote status.
Extreme Metal pioneers Venom waged war from the very depths of Hell, raging against the early-80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands they considered tame and the heroes that they felt had pulled their punches.
They combined the filth and fury of Punk and Motörhead with the larger-than-life images of KISS and Priest and the kind of Devilish allegiance that would have Sabbath crying “Please God help me!” Conrad, Tony and Jeff became the far more demonic-sounding Cronos, Abaddon and Mantas and their classic album cover set out their allegiance to Beelzebub in black and gold. And they had the sound to match their demonic image.
The band used demo sessions for the final album, signalling their primitive purity and honesty. Welcome to Hell sounded under-produced and unholy. The Motörhead influences are obvious, especially in the opening tracks Sons of Satan and Welcome to Hell, but the brio with which they mangle these rockers is thrillingly rudimentary. Cronos’ appropriately named “Bulldozer” bass piles over everything, Mantas peels off some fun wild solos and Abaddon’s caveman drumming tries to keep up. The sense of limits being pushed gives the performance a chaotic edge, especially during the lurching changes of pace. The debauchery of tracks like Poison and Red Light Fever is often criticized but really it all just adds to the shock factor and what’s the point of being one of the Great Horned One’s Legion if you can’t indulge in a bit of hellraising hedonism?
On Side 2 the band enter more original and scarier territory. Witching Hour is seminal proto-Thrash, Angel Dust is face-ripping and In League with Satan is addictively catchy while still sounding ominous and threatening. The band tightens their Metal grip as the album progresses and the most influential musical moments come from the record’s second half. Welcome to Hell has many elements of the Heavy music that preceded it and its fast pace, growled vocals and evil vibe can be heard in so much Metal that came after. But it remains unique and divisive. In fact, it’s a hellish maelstrom of just about everything I love about Heavy Metal while also embodying everything the genre is criticised for.
Venom’s raw, no-holds barred approach would prove to be massively influential on Thrash, Death and particularly Black Metal. Although Venom hadn’t gotten around to christening it yet, many key components of BM began here: particularly the occult, evil atmosphere and rotten production values but also the iconography, aliases and instrument descriptions (Bulldozer Bass, Chainsaw Guitars and Nuclear Warheads!)
But most importantly, Venom’s greatest legacy was their harder/faster/scarier mind-set which became the ethos of much of the Metal that followed. With Welcome to Hell Metal became Extreme and for that we should all praise Satan.
Swansong was released in 1996 after Extreme Metal pioneers Carcass had an unlikely stint as a major-label act in the US. With Columbia unwilling to release the album it was given back to the band and their UK indie label Earache to release, by which time the band had already split up (hence the title). The album met with a muted reception. While the diehard Metal underground felt it was too watered-down it was also way too extreme for mainstream acceptance.
This is Carcass’ “Rot n’ Roll” album. The groovy, stripped-down feel of the performance gives the album a Classic Rock vibe but the up-front delivery is defiantly Metallic with speaker-rattling production from Colin Richardson. Meaty and sophisticated guitar riffs are topped with deft, melodic solos and underpinned with a powerful bass sound. Ken Owen’s drumming is sublime and Jeff Walker’s exasperated snarl and nihilistic lyrics offer the album’s most extreme components. In many ways, the qualities Carcass exhibits on Swansong are very similar to those of Megadeth’s 90s output, albeit a Death Metal equivalent.
Opener Keep on Rotting in the Free World’s rumination on the Western economy still sounds relevant and, as the seriously weighty guitars open up into the harmonised chorus riff, it’s a truly exciting way to kick off an album. Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody’s opening riff salvo is just about the best HM riffing you’ll ever hear and the arpeggios of Child’s Play offer the album’s uplifting lighter-waving moment.
However, Swansong suffers from a mid-album lull that it struggles to recover from, largely due to the lack of variation in tempo. The album regains its footing in the second half with Generation Hexed, Firm Hand and the Thin Lizzy-esque R**k the Vote standing out as album highlights.
Although flawed, Swansong’s enthralling blend of power and flair has a strong appeal. The combination of Classic Metal sensibility and grinding delivery make this an ideal starting point for anyone interested in exploring heavier terrain and there is enough depth to reward repeated listens. On the eve of their comeback album Surgical Steel there is no better time to revisit their great underdog album.