Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Five-Minute Music Reviews

Couple of newer releases, and a few from earlier in the year:

Aerosmith - Music From Another Dimension!  Aerosmith is one of the truly great American hard rock bands. Whatever else they've done over their extensive history, the early trifecta of Get Your Wings / Toys in the Attic / Rocks took the Stones' energy and angst and brought it home in spades. Of course, since that time, their track record has varied some. Most notably, since their resurgence in the late '80s with Permanent Vacation and Pump, the band has shamelessly incorporated a level of song-doctoring and outside songwriting that would put a slew of hacky pop bands to shame. The saving grace is that they still have Joe Perry, and really the entire band is effective at putting their own stamp on pretty much anything (as anyone who's ever heard the old Live Bootleg version of James Brown's Mother Popcorn can attest).

The problem here is twofold:   one is that rock has been pretty much pushed out of the mainstream of what passes for pop culture these days, making any album an uphill struggle even for well-established acts; and two, while Steven Tyler may have parlayed his American Idol stint into a prime pop presence, with that comes the burden of maintaining that profile for that particular audience, most of whom probably had to consult Wikipedia to figure out who Tyler was in the first place.

It's not that Dimension! is terrible; it does serve as a document of the band's evolution, and there are plenty of catchy tunes in a variety of styles. But aside from Perry's reliably raunchy lead work, it's mostly polished, pretty, and predictable. There are some nice old-school moments in Out Go the Lights, Freedom Fighter, and Street Jesus,. And hell, it's Aerosmith. But by the time you get to the obligatory duet with, um, Carrie Underwood (she's 29, Tyler is 64, just sayin'), you almost expect a cameo from J-Lo.

Like their heroes the Stones, Aerosmith have by and large joined up with the establishment they avoided in their misspent youth. That's okay; probably the only person on the planet in their mid-sixties who can convincingly flip off The Man without looking like a schmuck is Lemmy. But one is reminded of Wayne Campbell's poetic admonition to Garth Elgar:  "Led Zeppelin didn't write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees."

Black Country Communion - Afterglow  For those not familiar, Black Country Communion (BCC) are one o' them dreaded "supergroups", the term generally associated with those plodding entities from the '70s, that seemed to begin with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and end with, well, Asia, which boasted Palmer as a member.

But BCC, comprised of Deep Purple Mark 3 bassist/singer Glenn Hughes, hard-blues shredder Joe Bonamassa, keyboard virtuoso Derek Sherinian, and drum legacy Jason Bonham, won't be mistaken for ELP or Asia anytime soon. Sixties and Seventies style "retro rock" is bouncing back big, mostly with bands like the Black Keys, but also with lesser-known bands such as Rival Sons and The Answer, both of whom feature classic Robert Plant/Stevie Marriott-type blues belters.

BCC are very much in that mold, pushing their Purple/Zeppelin roots for all they're worth, cranking out riffs by the truckload. Hughes, at age 61, sings balls-out like someone half his age, as if still doing tracks for Burn. Sherinian is in full Jon Lord mode, in the best sense of the word -- he combines the late great Lord's impeccable Hammond B3 chops with a sense of restraint, as much or more of an accompanist than a pure soloist. Bonham lives up to the family name and does his old man proud.

Bonamassa may have the toughest line to tread here, to not come off sounding too much like either Jimmy Page or Ritchie Blackmore, and in this he succeeds admirably, by finding the English guitar icon that fits both sensibilities perfectly -- Jeff Beck. The mercurial Beck was always far and away the most imaginative and technically accomplished of any of the British guitarists of that era, and even his more recent work sounds fresh and current. Bonamassa shows that kind of fire and spirit in his playing, with some sweet cascading runs in the romping Confessor, some great Beck-type whammy-bar fluttering in the title track, and ripping blues bursts throughout. The Zeppelin-esque stomp Crawl is nice closer to a solid, tight, old-school effort.

22 - Flux/The Pool Sessions  This one came out during the summer, and it's too bad it didn't get more attention. The easy genre description would be something along the lines of "pop-mathcore", but those sorts of hybrid generalizations tend to shortchange the parts they attempt to cobble together. 22, hailing from Norway, have recognizable elements, but combine them well in their own way. Certainly the busy mathcore/djent components are there throughout, especially on tracks such as Gotodo and Disconnected from the Grid, and there's even some (almost) metallic atonal rhythmic chugging kicking off Oxygen.

But what separates these guys from the trap of easy categorization is how melodic and catchy the choruses are, no matter how busy the verses tend to be. It's as if Animals as Leaders or Scale the Summit borrowed Matthew Bellamy for vocal work, with Muse's more Queen-style melodies anchoring the songs, with a little Mars Volta thrown in for good measure. Indeed, songs such as Kneel Estate and Susurrus sound straight out of the Muse hymnal, more Absolution or Black Holes and Revelations than their last two more orchestrated efforts.

This is one of the coolest things I've heard all year -- weird, catchy, dense, virtuosic, interesting, unabashedly both poppy and nerdy. One of those albums that gets better with each listen.

Meshuggah - Koloss -- Meshuggah are a great band -- though really, they're more a force of nature than a mere "band" -- but listening to one of their albums front to back is what getting thrown in the octagon with a UFC champion must be like. It's a full-on pummeling, a sonic ass-kicking that leaves one exhausted, but also strangely exhilarated. Koloss, which came out back in the early spring of this year, continues the dense, sometimes atmospheric path they went down with Catch Thirty-Three and ObZen. Jens Kidman's Drano-gargling, paint-peeling vocals are as bloody-throated as ever, but match up well to the syncopated juggernaut pulse that underpins Meshuggah's entire catalog.

As one might guess from song titles such as I Am Colossus and The Demon's Name Is Surveillance, the main lyrical theme here is the technologial overstepping of the all-powerful state. Do Not Look Down, to the extent that Meshuggah is "accessible", is probably the most accessible of the bunch, an unstoppable groove with scathing lyrics on the vicissitudes of blind ambition. When Kidman roars "Who will you betray to secure your dream?", there's no shortage of targets to consider. There is not much in the way of guitar wankery, per usual, though Marrow does feature some nice atonal/whole-tone weirdness, and the aforementioned Surveillance is a full-on assault, a veritable freight train of a track. The closer, The Last Vigil, is a good palate cleanser after fifty minutes of Category 6 pounding, a pensive instrumental straight out of Catch Thirty-Three.

I imagine Meshuggah are at this point a lot like, say, Rush or Motorhead, in that they've probably already reached most of the folks who are likely to enjoy them, and as such are unlikely to increase their audience. And like those bands, they know how to play to their considerable strengths, and come back sounding fresh and energetic without working too far out of their (or their audience's) comfort zone. Love 'em or hate 'em, these guys do not screw around, and it is not for the faint of heart. But with their oddly-accented grooves and unstoppable rhythm section, no one quite sounds like them. A worthy continuation of an impressive legacy.

Testament - Dark Roots of Earth  Testament is one of those bands that came in on the post-Metallica thrash wave of the late '80s, but could never quite get out from under that band's shadow. It wasn't their fault; a lot of bands met that fate, primarily because record companies didn't know what to do with that kind of music, as radio play was practically impossible, and MTV ghettoized it from the outset. But Testament really had something to offer -- as good as Kirk Hammett was in Metallica's prime, Alex Skolnick was even better, and Testament vocalist Chuck Billy could belt it at least as well as Hetfield, and had a much more imposing stage presence to boot. Still, it kind of petered out for them after a brief flirt with success with 1990's Souls of Black.

So after some years, lineup changes, and health scares for Billy, Skolnick is back in the fold, Billy is healthy again, and the nucleus of the band has regrouped with drumming monster Gene Hoglan (Death, Strapping Young Lad, Dethklok, Opeth, and many others -- in fact Hoglan plays on five albums released this year alone). Hoglan is a beast right out of the gate, punctuating the leadoff track, Rise Up, with plenty of imaginative high-speed rhythms and "how'd he do that" fills. Skolnick keeps up his end of the heavy lifting as well, alternating between tight riffage and flurries of legato runs with ease.

Billy has a solid, strong voice, neither a screamer nor a growler, more of a Hetfield/Lemmy type, and conveys his tales of apocalyptic mayhem and social injustice with conviction. With Hoglan and Skolnick on board, right now Testament have two of the more technically accomplished practitioners of their respective instruments, but it's Billy that's driving this bus, and his Pomo heritage comes out strong in Native Blood and True American Hate. The album winds up with decent covers of Queen, Scorpions, and Iron Maiden, but it's really their own set of new stuff that shines in this collection.

Adrenaline Mob - Omerta -- Another "supergroup" of sorts, but only in part, and only in a niche sense -- the only really well-known player here is ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, who has barely rested since leaving DT. Symphony X vocalist Russell Allen might be known to some, but probably not outside the prog-metal crowd (which is unfortunate, as Symphony X are excellent representatives of that post-DT genre, able to play pretty much anything). The rest of the band are sidemen from Fozzy and a relatively unknown lead guitarist, Mike Orlando.

Portnoy is basically the bacon of prog metal -- pretty much everything he plays on is improved by his presence. And it's good to hear him play in something as straightforward as Adrenaline Mob. An irony of the "progressive" genre is that its free-form symphonic ambitions can frequently be as constraining as the formatting of the four-minute radio hit; if a song clocks in at under nine minutes, for whatever reason, prog fans can be somewhat irritated by the "sellout". And between DT and Portnoy's other main project, the early-'70s Yes homage Transatlantic (yet another supergroup), again it's nice to hear what Portnoy can do within the self-imposed conventions of a "regular" song.

He's certainly up to the challenge, pounding and flying with his trademark imaginative, restless fills and double-kick work. And Allen is an outstanding hard-rock vocalist with great range, mostly staying in the Dio pocket here, which is still a pretty damn good pocket. Orlando's playing is a pleasant surprise, spitting gonzo palm-muted flurries with wild abandon. Rather than the typical neo-classical peak-and-valley modal shredding one might expect from a DT or SX, Orlando's trebly open-wah tone and pattern-based scrambling is more evocative of the late great Dimebag Darrell's style of playing, well-suited to full-frontal riffage like Indifferent and Hit the Wall.

Lyrically it's no-frills meathead stuff, characterized by the chest-thumping of tracks such as Undaunted and Feelin' Me. And overall, they're not reinventing the wheel here, but then they're not trying to. Even when it gets cheesy at times, things don't quite get bogged down. Simple, effective, and well played and produced, Omerta is a solid B-plus effort that shows potential for more.


TVS said...

Speaking of Lemmy/Motorhead...

Heywood J. said...

That is awesome. As the first commenter says, Ace of Spuds. I bet 50% of the people who saw that (including me) thought, "I need to get me one of those."