The Vinyl Revival
Over christmas, whilst browsing in HMV in Milton Keynes, I was taken aback how much vinyl was now available to buy, compared to 6 months ago. A number of friends and colleagues were also lucky to get new turntables as gifts too to play existing LPs but who were now buying new albums on 12" format. Brilliant. I have a been a vinyl buff since the age of about 10 and have collected a vast array, ranging from old glam, 70s rock, New Wave, punk and specifically rock. I have dived into charity shops, been to boot sales and dipped into eBay too. Old work colleagues have given me their old collections so I have most of Bowie, all of Zeppelin, depths of Deep Purple and stuff I have yet to listen to, from Cat Stevens to Caravan, Donovan to the Doobie Brothers and April Wine to the Average White Band. I haven't counted them all but its pretty large - probably well over 1,500 and some classics within.
I have books on them and have the obligatory 1001 Albums to listen to before you die volume - yes I have many of them. I have 3 turntables including an old Bang & Olufsen Beomaster deck I paid £1-00 for at an auction, it rattles a bit but has a very smooth sound - to the Rotel RP180 I bought in Sheffield for myself as my 21st birthday present - still going strong (I am 50 now). However, took the plunge and bought a rather lovely Teac Turntable as decided technology had moved on. What a difference.
Anyway I thought it would be fun to start a page with my tributes and thoughts on albums I have in my collection, starting with the first 12" LP I bought.
The Boomtown Rats - A Tonic for the Troops (1978)
A Tonic for the Troops is the second album by The Boomtown Rats . It was released in 1978 and included the the hits "She's so Modern", "Like Clockwork" and "Rat Trap".The album peaked at No. 8 in the album charts in 1978.
The album featured dark themes in an often upbeat, pop-punk style. One of the album's tracks, "(I Never Loved) Eva Braun", was described by one critic as "the happiest, cheeriest, best upbeat song about Hitler ever written." The lyrics of other songs discussed suicide ("Living in an Island") and euthanasia ("Can't Stop").
"She's So Modern" reached number 12 on the UK singles chart . The album's title was taken from a line in this song: "And Charlie ain't no Nazi / she likes to wear her leather boots/ 'cuz it's exciting for the veterans and it's a tonic for the troops."
The most commercially successful track on the album is "Rat Trap", which made it to Number 1 on the UK Singles Chart."Rat Trap" was the final cut on the UK version of the album but the opening track on the US version.
I bought it on the back of getting out of glam and Gary Glitter - incidentally the first album I owned was "Always Yours" by Gary Glitter, but was bought for me. I still have it too and refuse to destroy it. But there was something about the snarl of the Rats and New Wave. I moved into Blondie, and the Police. Rat Trap has to be one of the lyrically best songs ever written though.
Motorhead - Bad Magic (2015)
Easy as it is to smirk at Lemmy's decision to swap bourbon for vodka (with extra ice) in response to what were his recent health woes, anything that keeps the old reprobate on the road and raging imperiously should be welcomed. His band’s 22nd studio album, Bad Magic, sustains and emboldens the run of tremendous form that began as far back as 2004’s Inferno. Sounding more like a turbocharged punk band than at any time since their early 80s heyday, Lemmy (who turned 70 on Christmas Eve) and his gnarly comrades tear into short, sharp bursts of incendiary rock’n’roll like Victory Or Die, Electricity and Tell Me Who to Kill with the venomous abandon of delinquent teenagers. For most of its duration, Bad Magic is indecently thrilling and imbued with a sense of vitality and danger that most bands of this – or, indeed, any – vintage can only dream about. Even a thunderous closing cover of the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil hits the mark, Lemmy delivering Jagger’s ageless lyrics with a mixture of scowling conviction and mischievous twinkle. (Guardian review August 2015)
Sadly, Bad Magic was to prove Lemmy's swansong. He died on 28th December 2015. I have every Motorhead album, mostly on vinyl and CD as well as a lovely version of Ace of Spades on 180gm vinyl bought in the States. There have been a few duff albums (Snakebite Love and Sacrifice being two of them) but have to admit, there will never be another Motorhead and certainly never be another Lemmy.
Reviewing his career after his death, The Daily Telegraph said:
"Over the years as guitarists and drummers passed through Motörhead’s lineup, Lemmy remained the grizzled heart of the machine. His bronchial rasp—directed into a towering microphone tilted down into his weather-beaten face—was one of the most recognisable voices in rock, while his Rickenbacker guitar recast the bass as an overpowered, distorted rhythmic rumble."
Guns N' Roses - Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Guns N' Roses debut, Appetite for Destruction was a turning point for hard rock in the late '80s -- it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time. On the surface, Guns N' Roses may appear to celebrate the same things as their peers -- namely, sex, liquor, drugs, and rock & roll -- but there is a nasty edge to their songs, since Axl Rose doesn't see much fun in the urban sprawl of L.A. and its parade of heavy metal thugs, cheap women, booze, and crime. The music is as nasty as the lyrics, wallowing in a bluesy, metallic hard rock borrowed from Aerosmith, AC/DC, and countless faceless hard rock bands of the early '80s. It's a primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales. It also makes Rose's misogyny, fear, and anger hard to dismiss as merely an artistic statement; this is music that sounds lived-in. And that's exactly why Appetite for Destruction is such a powerful record -- not only does Axl Rose have fears, but he also is vulnerable, particularly on the power ballad "Sweet Child O' Mine." He also has a talent for conveying the fears and horrors of the decaying inner city, whether it's on the charging "Welcome to the Jungle," the heroin ode "Mr. Brownstone," or "Paradise City," which simply wants out. But as good as Axl's lyrics and screeching vocals are, they wouldn't be nearly as effective without the twin-guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin, who spit out riffs and solos better than any band since the Stones and that's what makes Appetite for Destruction the best metal record of the late '80s..... and in my view... ever.
Iron Maiden - Killers (1981)
Iron Maiden's sophomore effort, Killers, is mostly composed of pre-existing material that had been left off the debut, with just a few new additions. It's certainly a better-sounding release than the debut, with new producer Martin Birch beefing up the band's studio presence and lending their instrumental attack a newfound clarity that throws their considerable skills into sharp relief. In fact, this helps mask the fact that the songwriting isn't quite as strong overall as it was on the debut. But the teaming of new guitarist Adrian Smith with Dave Murray forms the most formidable twin-guitar attack in heavy metal. Plus, bassist Steve Harris' busy, driving lines are now consistently audible in the mix. The resulting instrumental fireworks are what truly make the album tick. That said, there's a much smaller percentage of catalog standards here than on the previous album. "Wrathchild" is the standout, re-recorded here with Smith on guitar from an earlier version for the Metal for Muthas compilation. There's a fair bit of unity in the lyrical themes, with a parade of murderers, fugitives, and characters otherwise torn from their roots. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a first-person retelling of the Poe short story, and the title track is another highlight, with Paul Di'Anno turning in an especially menacing performance. The single "Purgatory" has a catchy singalong chorus and a tempo worthy of Motorhead while "Twilight Zone" (not included on the U.K. issue, but added to subsequent releases) scraped the bottom of the British charts. The biggest departure here is the almost Supertramp like prog-pop of "Prodigal Son," a melodic, uptempo offering with an arrangement based around acoustic guitars. Despite some inconsistency in the material, Killers is clearly the work of a top-notch ensemble, and in order to take the next step forward, their musical ambitions were clearly going to require a vocalist as technically accomplished as the band. It's worth noting that some Maiden fans actually prefer the rawness of the Di'Anno years to the polish of the Bruce Dickinson era (though, it should also be noted, they're in the minority). I myself was always a fan of the rasp and growl of Di'Anno. Memories of this album are also connected to the following album - Saxon's epic Wheels of Steel. My dear mother was heading into Darlington to do a 'big shop' and asked her to get me an album - so asked for Killers or Wheels of Steel - she bought me both.
Saxon - Wheels of Steel (1980)
After finding themselves a qualified heavy metal producer in Pete Hinton, the members of Saxon recovered from their disappointing debut in fine form with 1980's career-defining Wheels of Steel. As well as effectively setting the template for the band's most successful efforts, the album's songs positively gleamed with a bright, metallic sheen similar to that exhibited by the chrome eagle hoisting a motorcycle wheel on its iconic cover. Wasting no time with niceties, Wheels of Steel kicked straight into fifth gear with one of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal's signature anthems, "Motorcycle Man." A proto-speed metal classic, the song also reintroduced the oft-recurring biker themes that would rear up again on the even more frenzied "Freeway Mad" and the album's epic title track (as well as on many future tracks). Another song joining "Wheels of Steel" in Saxon's career roll of honour was the dramatic, lyrically unique "747 (Strangers in the Night)" (which described an airplane's emergency landing), but a slew of additional standouts like "Street Fighting Gang," "See the Light Shining," the furious "Machine Gun," and the contrastingly romantic "Suzie Hold On" (perhaps the band's finest early ballad) rounded out the album in style. Really, only "Stand Up and Be Counted" hasn't aged all that impressively, but it alone can't hold back Wheels of Steel from topping the heap of essential Saxon albums, pretty much hand in hand with its immediate successors, Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather.
Stiff Little Fingers - Inflammable Material (1979)
Originally released in 1979, Stiff Little Fingers were Ireland's answer to both the Clash and the Sex Pistols. They had the personal and political stance of the former, and the noisy, pissed off, slash-and-burn musical aesthetic as the latter. Fronted by guitarist and songwriter Jake Burns, SLF took off with their two singles "Alternative Ulster," and, for that time, the utterly out of control screaming that was "Suspect Device." These two singles make the purchase price of the album a priority. They represent barely contained youthful anger at social and political mores as righteous, utterly devoid of posturing or falsity and raging to break out. "Alternative Ulster" decries the Irish political sides in the Northern Ireland controversy -- the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Irish Republican Army -- holding them both accountable for bloodshed and social and economic stasis furthering nothing but their own interests. "Suspect Device" which opens the set, screams at the heart of the conflict, that neither side can be believed as both reduce freedom to a buzzword while wielding guns. Both tracks are calls to arms, but of a different sort -- the arms of dialogue and intelligence in the midst of idiocy and murder. Punk rock never sounded so brutal or positive in one band. There are other fine cuts here as well, such as the Bob Marley cover "Johnny Was," reinvented for the times in Northern Ireland; "Wasted Life," another paean to drop out of a society that breeds death and acquiescence for its own sake, and the scathing indictment of the record company that released the album, "Rough Trade." If you've been trying to dig through the morass into the heart of punk's original fire, this one's for you.
Reminds me also of 2 amazing gigs at Glasgow Barrowlands in 1988 where I saw them. Wasn't keen on the spitting but it was intense.
Big Country - The Crossing (1983)
Big guitars, big drums, big checks on their shirts, Big Country were well named. This is big music produced for the back-row by Steve Lillywhite and to be fair a little less sonic-attack might have created more balance, but there's no denying the excitement of much of the music presented here. The riffs are...big, Adamson's singing committed and his lyrics are worth listening to as well.
He peoples his songs with credible characters fighting their ways through life's travails, past and present, imbuing his songs with a sense of history and nobility as well as presence and dignity.
There's almost no filler, most prominent amongst the consistently good track listing being the two careering and career-defining singles "In A Big Country" and "Fields Of Fire", not far behind them running a third single, their debut minor hit "Harvest Home". There are also two +6 minute epics "The Storm" and especially "Porrohman" with its grinding, almost gruelling extended intro.
There aren't too many changes of pace, but when they do decide to slow things down they accomplish something pretty special in the tough but beautiful "Chance". Otherwise there are big-riffs a-plenty, as well as lots of fist-punching pauses for breath and the obligatory "Hah's", "Cha's" and all manner of blood-curdling roars from Adamson on lead vocal. Successful here and in the US, it was a pity that the band couldn't keep up the high quality of material here and in the end saw the likes of U2 steal their clothes and crack America.
If he never bettered the standard of his work here and struggled to hit the same heights in future work, with "The Crossing", he and his group left an enduring legacy.
Blondie - Parallel Lines (1978)
Blondie turned to British pop producer Mike Chapman for their third album, on which they abandoned any pretensions to new wave legitimacy (just in time, given the decline of the new wave) and emerged as a pure pop band. But it wasn't just Chapman that made Parallel Lines Blondie's best album; it was the band's own songwriting, including Deborah Harry, Chris Stein's and James Destri's "Picture This," and Harry and Stein's "Heart of Glass," and Harry and new bass player Nigel Harrison's "One Way or Another," plus two contributions from non-band member Jack Lee, "Will Anything Happen?" and "Hanging on the Telephone." That was enough to give Blondie a number one on both sides of the Atlantic with "Heart of Glass" and three more U.K. hits, but what impresses is the album's depth and consistency -- album tracks like "Fade Away and Radiate" and "Just Go Away" are as impressive as the songs pulled for singles. The result is state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978, with Harry's tough-girl glamour setting the pattern that would be exploited over the next decade by a host of successors led by Madonna.
Deep Purple - Machine Head (1971)
Led Zeppelin's fourth album, Black Sabbath's Paranoid and Deep Purple's Machine Head have stood the test of time as the Holy Trinity of English hard rock and heavy metal, serving as the fundamental blueprints followed by virtually every heavy rock & roll band since the early '70s. And, though it is probably the least celebrated of the three, Machine Head contains the "mother of all guitar riffs" -- and one of the first learned by every beginning guitarist -- in "Smoke on the Water." Inspired by real-life events in Montreux, Switzerland, where Deep Purple were recording the album when the Montreux Casino was burned to the ground during a Frank Zappa concert, neither the song, nor its timeless riff, should need any further description. However, Machine Head was anything but a one-trick pony, introducing the bona fide classic opener "Highway Star," which epitomized all of Deep Purple's intensity and versatility while featuring perhaps the greatest soloing duel ever between guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and organist Jon Lord. Also in top form was singer Ian Gillan who crooned and exploded with amazing power and range throughout to establish himself once and for all as one of the finest voices of his generation, bar none. Yes, the plodding shuffle of "Maybe I'm a Leo" shows some signs of age, but punchy singles "Pictures of Home" and "Never Before" remain as vital as ever, displaying Purple at their melodic best. And finally, the spectacular "Space Truckin'" drove Machine Head home with yet another tremendous Blackmore riff, providing a fitting conclusion to one of the essential hard rock albums of all time.
Scorpions - Lovedrive (1979)
Prior to Lovedrive's recording, the Scorpion's lineup had a major change when their lead guitarist, Uli Jon Roth quit the group (not to mention, the rock genre was rapidly changing). With this in mind, the band not only highlighted the album with the licks and riffs of three guitarists (Rudolf Schenker, Michael Schenker Matthias Jabs), but they also dramatically changed their style to sound more like that of Van Halen. This change is quite welcome; not only are the performances more unpredictable, but the lyrics and melodies are better written. In fact, some of the Scorpions' best songs, such as "Loving You Sunday Morning," "Holiday," and "Coast to Coast" are found here, making it one of their finest. And a great album cover too.
The Cult - Hidden City (2016)
When Rolling Stone hailed The Cult as the Messianic moment of Coachella in 2014, few knew that their next release would be unveiled on February 5, 2016 in the form of "Hidden City", their tenth studio album (and second for Cooking Vinyl). The follow-up to 2012's "Choice Of Weapon" was written by singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy and was produced by Bob Rock, who has previously worked with Metallica and Motley Crue.
The final installment in a trilogy of recordings, completing 2007's "Born Into This" ("The Fall") and 2012's "Choice Of Weapon" ("Dark Night of the Soul"), "Hidden City" is a tightly woven series of experience and visions with underlying themes of redemption and rebirth threaded through The Cult's visceral music. Astbury's signature baritone and blood-soaked lyrics paired with Duffy's smouldering, textured guitar tones, create a musical environment that is fearless and peerless.
From the sonic assault of the opening track "Dark Energy", "Hidden City" launches quickly into the dark underbelly of its subject matter. Stemming from the Spanish phrase "La Ciudad Oculta" or "hidden city," the album reflects an awakening of consciousness through its tone and complexity.
"Hidden City is a metaphor for our spiritual lives, our intimate interior lives," explains Astbury. "I find today's gurus are trying to peddle some cure, product or insight as if it's a new phenomenon. My place is to respond, not react, to observe, participate and share through words and music. There is no higher authority than the heart."
The Cult - Electric (1987)
The roots of Electric lay in another album entirely, Peace, which was recorded with Love producer Steve Brown in a series of sessions that the band found increasingly pressure-filled and fraught with tension. A chance meeting with Def Jam supremo Rick Rubin at an American awards ceremony turned out to be the charm, resulting in the saucy chest-baring stomp of Electric. Rubin chucked all the old recordings for a series of new sessions, stripping everything down and essentially transforming Billy Duffy into the logical successor to AC/DC's Angus Young. Thankfully Ian Astbury decided not to become Brian Johnson and while his macho yells can't help being cartoonish, he's clearly having fun throughout. Though both band and album caught a lot of flak for their perceived wallowing in dinosaur sounds and styles, the end result is still a fist-punching yelp of energy that demands to be heard at maximum volume in arenas, with a brusque punch in Les Warner's drums to match Duffy's power-chord action. "Love Removal Machine" is still the album's calling card, another in the series of instantly catchy Cult singles. "Li'l Devil" is almost as worthy, while other cuts like "Wild Flower" and "King Contrary Man" would have sounded good in 1973 and sound just as good in a new century. There are a couple of missteps -- "Peace Dog" starts good but ends up being what happens when the Doors are used as a model in the wrong way, while the version of the Steppenwolf classic "Born to Be Wild" should be taken out and shot. Otherwise, an enjoyable pleasure from start to finish -- even if Astbury sings "plastic fantastic lobster telephone" at one point.
Level 42 - Running in the Family (1987)
By Running in the Family, Level 42 had almost completely thinned out their early jazz-funk and soul roots in favour of a radio-friendly keyboard pop with a light R&B vibe. The sound lies somewhere between Kool and the Gang and early Tears for Fears. But if early fans might have felt betrayed by the new direction, the band's newfound aptitude for attention-grabbing hooks and airtight instrumental polish attracted more than enough new fans to replace them.
Running in the Family included the band's sole number one hit in the U.K. charts, "Lessons in Love." It also featured a handful of other respectable pop nuggets including "Children Say" and "Fashion Fever." The record is a little uneven, faltering especially when the band indulges its taste for sappy ballads like "It's Over."
But for the most part, Level 42 was extremely successful in its attempt to create something that would strike a chord with mainstream pop audiences. And they manage to do it without being obnoxiously derivative. Of course, the whole project reeks of 1987.
But the solid craftsmanship of the writing as well as the group's ability to adapt to the popular tastes of the time helped them survive the '80s and become one of the more durable bands to have arisen in that era.
AC/DC - Back in Black (1980)
The first sound on Back in Black is the deep, ominous drone of church bells -- or "Hell's Bells," as it were, opening the album and AC/DC's next era with a fanfare while ringing a fond farewell to Bon Scott, their late lead singer who partied himself straight to hell. But this implies that Back in Black is some kind of tribute to Scott, which may be true on a superficial level -- black is a funeral cover, hell's bells certainly signify death -- but this isn't filled with mournful songs about the departed. It's a more fitting tribute, actually, since AC/DC not only carried on without him, but they delivered a record that to the casual ear sounds like the seamless successor to Highway to Hell right down to how Brian Johnson's screech is a dead ringer for Scott's growl. Most listeners could be forgiven for thinking that Johnson was Scott, but Johnson is different than Bon. He's driven by the same obsessions -- sex and drink and rock & roll, basically -- but there isn't nearly as much malevolence in his words or attitude as there was with Scott. Bon sounded like a criminal, Brian sounds like a rowdy scamp throughout Back in Black, which helps give it a real party atmosphere. Of course, Johnson shouldn't be given all the credit for Back in Black, since Angus and Malcolm carry on with the song-oriented riffing that made Highway to Hell close to divine. Song for song, they deliver not just mammoth riffs but songs that are anthems, from the greasy "Shoot to Thrill" to the pummeling "Back in Black," which pales only next to "You Shook Me All Night Long," the greatest one-night-stand anthem in rock history. That tawdry celebration of sex is what made AC/DC different from all other metal bands -- there was no sword & sorcery, no darkness, just a rowdy party, and they never held a bigger, better party than they did on Back in Black.
Tracy Chapman - Tracy Chapman (1988)
Arriving with little fanfare in the spring of 1988, Tracy Chapman's eponymous debut album became one of the key records of the Bush era, providing a touchstone for the entire PC movement while reviving the singer/songwriter tradition. And Tracy Chapman is firmly within the classic singer/songwriter tradition, sounding for all the world as if it was recorded in the early '70s -- that is, if all you paid attention to were the sonics, since Chapman's songs are clearly a result of the Reagan revolution. Even the love songs and laments are underscored by a realized vision of trickle-down modern life -- listen to the lyrical details of "Fast Car" for proof. Chapman's impassioned liberal activism and emotional resonance enlivens her music, breathing life into her songs even when the production is a little bit too clean. Still, the juxtaposition of contemporary themes and classic production precisely is what makes the album distinctive -- it brings the traditions into the present. At the time, it revitalized traditional folk ideals of social activism and the like, kick starting the PC revolution in the process, but if those were its only merits, Tracy Chapman's would sound dated. The record continues to sound fresh because Chapman's writing is so keenly observed and her strong, gutsy singing makes each song sound intimate and immediate.
Status Quo - Never too Late (1981)
Never too Late is best remembered today as drummer John Coghlan's final album with the band he'd served since the early '60s. The bulk of the set, however, was actually cut during the same sessions that produced the previous year's Just Supposin' although it's a struggle to say which of the two came out with the better songs. Neither is what one would describe as a classic Quo disc, but nor are they as disposable as some of the band's later releases. Indeed, any record that includes the bright bonhomie of "Something 'Bout You Baby I Like," the new album's biggest hit, is sure to have a few things to recommend it. And so it does. Indeed, "Take Me Away" digs deep into the band's past resources to recapture the sound of the full boogie flight, while both "Don't Stop Me Now," and the circuitous mantra of "Riverside" are both standouts. Excellent, too, is a cover of "Oh Carol," all the more so since it matches blow for blow the band's last dip into the Chuck Berry songbook, On the Level's "Bye Bye Johnny." Indeed, if Never too Late has any major problem, it lies in the decision to shove the keyboards so high into the mix. Status Quo were, and are, one of Britain's finest guitar bands. Any attempt to prove otherwise is doomed to failure.
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti (1975)
By 1975 no one was bigger or heavier than Zeppelin. America was punch drunk after the quadruple whammy of their first four albums, each supported by tours that went from scene-stealing support slots to stadium-filling three-hour marathons, almost overnight. Even the slightly below average (ie: one or two sub-par tracks) Houses Of The Holy(1973) hadn’t dented their reputation one jot. The world, and its attendant pleasures, was theirs for the taking. At this point most modern bands would take 5 years off and forget each others' names. What did Robert, Jimmy, John Paul and Bonzo do? Produced a double album that some still hold to be their best of all time.
Admittedly, a fair amount of Physical Graffiti was composed of offcuts and work-in-progress from their previous two albums (cf “Houses Of The Holy”) though these were offcuts startling quality. But what really shines out is the sheer genre-defying eclecticism of it all. Far more than just a crowd-pummelling hard rock act with the world’s beefiest rhythm section, these boys were able to do everything from folk (''Bron Y Aur'') and blues ("In My Time Of Dying") to country rock ("Down By The Seaside") and barrelhouse rock 'n' roll ("Boogie With Stu"). In factGraffiti serves pretty much as a primer of the band’s entire oeuvre.
And amongst these flights of dexterity we get some of the band’s best-loved numbers of all-time. "Trampled Underfoot", driven by Jones’ stomping Fender Rhodes pulls off the remarkable trick of being both heavy AND funky as hell. "Custard Pie" and "The Rover" are monster axe workouts, and of course "Kashmir" is still a juggernaut of incredible power: a blend of east and west inspired by Page and Plant’s mystical wanderings and underpinned by Bonham’s legendary rumble, famously captured in all its ambient glory in the huge hallway of Headley Grange Manor. And it all came wrapped in one of those fabulously intricate die-cut sleeves that make all people of a certain age long for a return to the glory days of vinyl.
Nick Kent’s review in the NME casually mentioned that by this point Zep could seemingly turn this stuff out in their sleep. He was right. Six years of touring and recording had honed them into an unstoppable force, but tragedy lay in wait around the corner in the form of death, drug abuse and changing tastes. But Physical Graffiti remains a towering monument to the glory of Zeppelin in their high-flying heyday.
Rush - 2112 (1976)
Whereas Rush's first two releases, their self-titled debut and Fly by Night helped create a buzz among hard rock fans worldwide, the more progressive third release, Caress of Steel, confused many of their supporters. Rush knew it was now or never with their fourth release, and they delivered just in time -- 1976's 2112 proved to be their much sought-after commercial breakthrough and remains one of their most popular albums. Instead of choosing between prog rock and heavy rock, both styles are merged together to create an interesting and original approach. The entire first side is comprised of the classic title track, which paints a chilling picture of a future world where technology is in control (Peart's lyrics for the piece being influenced by Ayn Rand). Comprised of seven "sections," the track proved that the trio members were fast becoming rock's most accomplished instrumentalists. The second side contains shorter selections, such as the Middle Eastern-flavored "A Passage to Bangkok" and the album-closing rocker "Something for Nothing." 2112 is widely considered by Rush fans as their first true "classic" album, the first in a string of similarly high-quality albums.
Electric Light Orchestra - Out of the Blue (1977)
Here is a shocking fact: 2007 marks the 25th anniversary of the compact disc. Considering how record companies love to sell you the same album multiple times, that's a bizarrely long tenure for the newest music industry-approved technology. Because the CD refuses to yield the throne to any other physical formats (DVDs? Minidiscs?), labels have long been forced to find other ways to repeatedly plunder their catalogs, most notably by releasing remastered and expanded versions of any album that was reasonably successful. In some cases, the cleaned-up sound and snazzier packaging of these records corrects lazy, negligent editions released in the CD's early days, but more often it's just a case of shaking loose change out of the couch cushions.
That's not the case with Electric Light Orchestra, subjects of a lengthy restoration project that has reached Out of the Blue in time for its 30th anniversary. ELO may not immediately seem like an essential part of music history, but there's no denying they're a band well served by the fancy frills that accompany a reissue. For starters, ELO records hearken back to an era where album art meant Awesome Fucking Spaceships, and Out of the Blue has an especially fine one that resembles a cross between a jukebox and the old Simon games. It's a disservice to shrink such a cover down to CD-size packaging, but the reissue compensates by including a build-it-yourself punch-out space needle thingy and pictures of the band's ridiculous spaceship stage-set.
More importantly, ELO records respond well to remastered sound, due to the band's entire aesthetic being based upon Jeff Lynne using approximately 250 tracks of instruments and vocals in every song.Out of the Blue is often thought to be the band's high water mark because, in many ways, it was the culmination of Lynne's ambitious original mission to blend rock'n'roll with orchestral flourishes, his presumptuous effort to "pick up where the Beatles left off." By this, his seventh album, Lynne had developed the idea far beyond the cheesy primordial mashups like his "Roll Over Beethoven" cover (excepting the silly throwback "Birmingham Blues"), and had even reached past the increasingly restrictive borders of 70s rock to embrace treble-heavy elements of the rising disco sound like liberal uses of falsetto, arcade synths, and melodramatic strings.
Prophetic anticipation or dumb luck, Out of the Blue hit the zeitgeist jackpot in 1977, coming out within a month of Saturday Night Feverand reflecting, if not true disco, a perfect crossover gateway-drug to piggyback on the explosion of their fellow rock defectors, the Bee Gees. Though ELO's finest singles may have appeared on the two prior albums (can you argue with "Evil Woman" or "Livin' Thing"?),Out of the Blue has its share of greatest hits regulars sprinkled across its four vinyl sides: "Turn to Stone", "Sweet Talkin' Woman", "Wild West Hero". The side C four-song suite "Concerto for a Rainy Day" (god bless the 70s) even includes the triumphant "Mr. Blue Sky", deservedly exhumed in the past few years by the hipster cognoscenti as a perfectly weird slice of gaudy, over-the-top FM-dial pop.
The deep cuts on Out of the Blue also hold their own alongside the hits, enough so to justify the double-album expanse (though its 70 minutes are routine by today's CD-enabled standards). "Across the Border" finds a way to cram mariachi horns into Lynne's already packed palette, and most of "Concerto for a Rainy Day" is an argument for art-rock excess, from the Boston-esque organ arpeggios of "Standin' in the Rain" to the army-of-Lynne choir that marks the balladic "Summer and Lightning". Lynne's symphonic addiction may be the kind of bloat punk was meant to eradicate, but it's hard not to appreciate his compositional skill, the ability to arrange string parts that do much more than merely play the song's chord progression, instead offering rich melodic counterpoints.
This sharp learning curve makes it difficult for too many indie artists to draw lessons from ELO's successes; even if a songwriter possesses Lynne's orchestral skills, it's a pretty cost-prohibitive embellishment for most small-time acts. But other elements of the ELO sound are ripe for harvest, as shown by the Lynne-esque overdub-crazy vocal methods used on recent records from Of Montreal and Scissor Sisters. Maybe the best lesson from ELO's career is a more general advisory to let your ambition run wild, a topical piece of advice when everyone from My Chemical Romance to the Arcade Fire are currently aiming for stadium-size grandiosity with their own records. Calling in the string section and commissioning the spaceship cover-art may be a big gamble, but Out of the Blue is proof of how good it can sound when the grand approach works-- and gets the loving audio quality makeover it deserves.
Nightwish - Once (2004)
A direct descendant of the power metal pioneered by Eighties heavyweights Helloween, Savatage and Blind Guardian, the subgenre of symphonic metal juxtaposed explosive sing-along hooks with lavish orchestration, whether produced via synthesizer or, in the case of a lucky few like Nightwish, full-scale orchestras. Fronted by classically trained soprano Tarja Turunen, the Finnish band embraced metal's operatic side, and their contrast of arias and power chords turned out to be a popular one. But on their fifth album, Once, the band achieved their most pristinely balanced blend of force and melody. Backed by a full symphony, Turunen and lead songwriter and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen indulged their classical and pop sides with equal success: "The Siren" and "Ghost Love Score" soar with Wagnerian power, while the gorgeous "Nemo" shows how accessible this music could be in expert hands. "I have obviously listened to my Panteras and Metallicas and you can hear it in the riffs of Once," Holopainen stated in the band's official biography, Once Upon a Nightwish, "but it wasn't premeditated. The album is simply a stunning masterpiece of symphonic heavy metal.
Europe - Last Look at Eden (2009)
Well it certainly warranted checking out this iconic 80’s band again. Well, after hearing the full version of their new album, I definitely recommend it for anyone who likes heavy rock and 80’s fashioned mainstream metal. This is not the Europe you grew up on, and though some of us throwbacks liked their distinctive sound of old, this new version of Europe definitely proves that some things grow better with age.
The album opens with a dark, stormy symphonic piece that will have some wondering if this really is a Europe CD. In a small way it reminds me of a death march, but then a violin enters the scene, lifting the tune out of this dark place, and providing the perfect segue into the title song.
"Last Look At Eden" probably is the best choice for title track, because it’s more traditional Europe sounding, but for those who aren’t hair metal fans, the rest of the album has lots of other elements to offer too, so even if this song isn’t your style, don’t dismiss it just yet. There’s also plenty of funk and blues, a bit of southern rock, and even some very Slash-like guitar work in "Gonna Get Ready," which was a pleasant surprise and definitely something new.
Sure, there are still some 80’s elements in the album, with some formulaic melodies and more than one monster ballad sounding track, but the real appeal is the dirty, funky southern rock sound Europe has added to their resume. "Run With The Angels" is a particularly great sampling of this added dimension, and the guitar ending is quality work not previously found in Europe’s songs.
Also noteworthy is the closer, "In My Time," because though it’s a slow ballad, the acoustic work and Santana-ish sound shows yet another facet to this new and improved band. It’s a beautiful piece, and provides a mellow ending to an album that keeps you second-guessing all the way through.
With "Last Look At Eden," Europe has managed to keep some of their roots that made them one of the 80’s iconic bands, but they’ve also added many new dimensions that will pleasantly surprise those who chalked them up as another one of those over-the-top glam bands.
Tarja is a very diverse and charismatic singer, with a voice that’s absolutely one of a kind. Her dynamic and far-reaching vocal sound is inspired by classical music and opera, while her music is also rooted in hard rock and metal. Her most recent release, Act II, is particularly striking. On the one hand, this release feels like a step forward, but it is also a retrospective, looking back on Tarja's lengthy career and extensive background. This record is a great follow-up to – you guessed it – “Act I,” which was received really well with critics and fans throughout the world. Released across multiple media (such as CD and vinyl), the project features a collection of amazing live recordings, specifically featuring performances recorded in Italy at the charming Teatro Della Luna in Milan.
Her soprano voice has a vast dynamic range, and she never fails to create a very ethereal and dreamlike atmosphere with her music, in conjunction with the stark cinematic vibes of her song arrangements. From heavy rock tracks to somber gothic-influenced tunes with a neoclassical edge, Tarja has a very unique way to combine various genre into a style that feels very much like “her own language.” These performances are extraordinarily consistent, as Tarja seems to be able to fill every single note with drama, pathos, and emotion.
The listening experience is absolutely amazing, and the show offers a very diverse and engaging scenario, making for a rollercoaster of a performance. This isn’t the kind of act featuring the same type of songs throughout the entire setlist: she carefully builds the playlist of each show as to enhance the flow of the performance, much like a theatrical piece that climaxes to its most dramatic scene. Stand-out moments such as “Lucid Dreamer” really highlight the most emotional side of Tarja's singing, while other tracks, such as “Love To Hate” explore the singer’s darkest and most unapologetic tone. “Demons In You” is probably my favourite track on this release, and it stands out with its unique arrangement and intense song structure.
The setlist is filled with many beautiful moments, which will undoubtedly please all of her fans, whether they have been following her since her early days, or they just discovered their music. In addition to the outstanding performances and Tarja's amazing skills (and the talent of her bandmates, of course), the recording and production of this release are also fantastic. The concert recordings are really well-executed and expertly mixed. If you know anything about audio production, you probably know that it is not an easy to ask to let a live recording shine through and represent the fullness of a show. In this case, it feels like being there, if you have the luxury of listening to this on a pair of great headphones or a great system.
Tarja is a one-of-a-kind artist. There is something special about a performer who can combine her excellent classical training with her love for metal and rock music, without really compromising her artistic vision and integrity. She shines in a live setting, and “Act II” is a perfect example of her prowess and ability to deliver an emotionally charged, charismatic show. She knows when to make it atmospheric and sultry, but she also knows when to let the rock riffs do the talking!
Styx - This Mission (2017)
The good news: this is not a Wayne Hussey tribute record. The even better news: this is in fact a good old-fashioned concept album, seemingly exhumed from a dusty attic by a doddery duffer for examination by a tweed-jacketed scholar on rock’s very own Antiques Roadshow. “Ah yes, this appears to have been released in 1972 on the Wooden Nickel label; I detect the unmistakable tones of John Curulewski’s guitar.” Wrong, Mr (so-called) Expert! The Mission ain’t no arthritic artefact – it’s brand spanking new and represents a colossal, and wholly unpredicted, return to form for Styx.
The Chicago pomp-rock pioneers have made their fair share of concept album faux pas in the past. Despite its immense US chart success, Paradise Theater (1981) was anything but paradisiacal, and Kilroy Was Here (1983) was, frankly, the work of madmen.
But The Mission is right up there with the very best of Styx, a remarkable achievement considering it’s 45 years since they signed their first recording contract. No wonder guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw describes it as the band’s “boldest, most emblematic album since [1978’s] Pieces Of Eight”.
Taking its cue, kind of, from the Rush opus Cygnus X-1, The Mission chronicles the trials, tribulations and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. But this is no sprawling, bloated offering: the album’s running time is a shade over 40 minutes and begins, with pleasing inevitability, with a track called Overture. From there, the various songs reflect the viewpoints of the six-person crew enlisted for the maiden voyage of the interplanetary spacecraft Khedrive.
Keysman/vocalist Lawrence Gowan lays the ghost of his predecessor Dennis DeYoung firmly to rest with a ridiculously flamboyant display, but the stars of the show are, as ever, Shaw and fellow guitarist/vocalist James ‘JY’ Young. The best bits of Styx have always been when JY’s guitar cuts through the cloying sentimentality with insensitive bludgeon – check out his wah-wah heroics on Trouble At The Big Show for proof.
Elsewhere, the serene Locomotive has hints of Styx classic Boat On The River; Khedrive is a prime time example of cosmic classicism; The Red Storm shows Styx can do meandering prog with the best of them; and Gone Gone Gone is reminiscent of a preening Deep Purple.
What more is there to say, except the serpent has risen. Again.