It’s funny how stubborn some folks can be about their music. As long as I’ve been writing about bands and artists of yore in this and other columns, I’ve occasionally received notes from readers who think that I should only be covering one style or genre. I know, it’s weird, and I don’t exactly understand why someone would even care enough to write me about it. But I think that it has something to do with the notion that only a dyed-in-the-leather zealot can talk about metal, or a street urchin living in a dumpster can write about punk. Personally, I thought we’d evolved since the 1980s, but go figure. This month’s installment covers both metal and punk—and practically everything in between. And there’s literally something for everyone, so enjoy the ride as we delve into a few recent releases from bands of yore.
Redeemer of Souls
I have to say that I was a tad skeptical upon hearing news of this pending release. After the debacle that was Priest’s last album Nostradamus and the exit of KK Downing from the core ranks, I figured the band had run its course. But amazingly, they’ve pulled it off with a big, brash statement of intent in Redeemer of Souls.
In dramatic, high-concept fashion that we all know and love Priest for, the album features a collection of barnstormers as in the opener “Dragonaut” and the appropriately named “Metalizer,” plus solemn slow-burners like the excellent lead single “March of the Damned.” While it’s a step in the right direction, Redeemer is definitely no British Steel or Painkiller. And it’s fantastical themes and grandiose presentation may be a little much for today’s hessians, but there’s something special about hearing Rob Halford’s banshee wallops and Glenn Tipton’s expert axe work in this day and age, some 40 years after the fact. Long live the Priest! (Epic)
Under The Big Black Sun
I’m a firm believer that X is LA’s most important contribution to punk rock. Wholly original sounding, with enough musical chops to back it up, the band created something that was far beyond the sum of its parts—a style that still sounds fresh some three decades later.
Released in 1982, the album was produced by Ray Manzarek of The Doors, and served as the band’s major-label debut. Although Manzarek gives the set a slick studio sheen, the performances are forthright and electric, as evidenced on the terse opener “The Hungry Wolf” with its heavy riffs and frantic harmony vocals. With the recent death of her sister, Exene Cervenka’s performance is emotionally raw, adding an uneasy edge on songs like the fantastic piano-laden, punk romp “Riding With Mary” and the ‘50s-injected “Come Back To Me.” The title track and “Motel Room In My Bed” are rockers par excellence, adding substance and structure to the LA punk blueprint.
This latest reissues comes with loads of bonus tracks and expanded artwork, a fitting tribute to an often undervalued band. (Real Gone)
Builders of The Future
With its techy, nu metal sounds, there was a brief buzz about this band in late ‘90s when nu-metal, rap rock and pop-industrial were all the rage. Now, some 15 years later, little seems to have changed with the band on this latest release. Front man Spider chants and rants over the highly stylized, industrial rock music beds. It’s absolutely nothing you haven’t heard before—there are heaping doses of Marilyn Manson, Korn, Garbage and Orgy among others—but Spider does have a way with an anthem, and this album has loads of ‘em, including “Invade, Destroy, Repeat” and “We Want It All.” (UMe)
For the uninitiated, Laibach has been playing its brand of homoerotic industrial dance music since Rammstein was in diapers and Ministry was a twee pop band singing about the horrors of Halloween. Known for its guttural spoken vocals, political commentary and Fascist imagery, the Slovenian band has never been short on controversy. But some 35 years after the fact, can they still pull it off?
These days, Laibach perseveres with a revolving lineup and an even more fervent chip on its shoulder, embracing most all major topical political causes. And by now, the formula has gotten a bit tired. But, there are a few clever twists here, as in “The Whistleblowers” with its whimsical marching band intro, complete with orchestrated whistle arrangements. But things quickly descend into to Euro-dance territory with lead grumbler Milan Fras dishing out more political tirades on the likes of “No History” and “Resistance is Futile.” In spite of a few bright spots, there’s nothing new or particularly distinguishable about Spectre; it retreads past glories without breaking any new ground. (Mute)
While Midge Ure will always be most identifiable for his tenure in the new wave band Ultravox, the man has also been known to kick out the jams on occasion. It’s not widely talked about, but Mr. Ure has also done some time cranking out punk, hard rock and glam, with stints in The Rich Kids (with Glenn Matlock of the Sex Pitols), Thin Lizzy, and bubble-gum glamsters Slik respectively.
This latest offering keeps with his artier work. Wispy, atmospheric and highly personal, Fragile is a true solo effort—written, performed, recorded and produced by Ure himself. Styles range from adult contemporary (“I Survived”) to electronic (“Become’ and ‘Dark, Dark Night”—the latter featuring guest star Moby) and atmospheric with the proggish “Fragile” and “Star Crossed.” For fans of Ultravox and Ure’s more sophisticated solo work, this is a solid offering, even if he’s no longer treading new ground. (Hypertension)
The Psycho Sisters
Up On The Chair, Beatrice
The Psycho Sisters is a long-standing musical combo comprised of Vicki Peterson (guitarist, The Bangles) and Susan Cowsill, the youngest member of the singing Cowsill family, who cranked out a few hits during the 1960s and were the inspiration for the Partridge Family TV show.
Rootsy, organic and twisted are three adjectives that immediately come to mind upon first hearing the new album, the cleverly titled Up On The Chair, Beatrice. With eerie harmonies and skewed arrangements, songs like “Heather Says” and “Timberline” have a somber, unnerving quality within the acoustic grooves, leading one to believe that there’s something far more ominous bubbling just beneath the surface. But The Psycho Sisters aren’t just about the dark stuff; the sprite power pop of “Never Never Boys” injects some light into shade, making Beatrice a well-rounded affair from start to finish. (RockBeat Records)
A Fistful of Statins
The strangest release on this list is actually the pet project of one Paul Young, former new wave star, who went on to score some major ‘80s mainstream hits that you’re still likely to hear in any random office elevator.
A Fistful of Statins is about as far as you can get from mainstream elevator music. What we have here is authentic sounding Tex-Mex, Americana and mariachi, with a slightly modern twist. Young’s soulful croon comes across well on tracks like “Jump Back Baby” and “The Girl from Tennessee.” Fans of vintage LA Latin rockers like Los Lobos or Cruzados (both with serious connections to the OG punk scene) may find this to be almost too traditional. But for Los Pacaminos, this is as real as it gets—especially for a band led by an Anglo-Saxon new wave poster boy from the ‘80s. (Cherry Red)
The Ceaseless Sight
The first couple Black Crows records were a breath of fresh air when they first hit, infusing a healthy dose of honest rock ‘n roll into a scene dominated by rehashed party rock. But over time, The Crows’ catalog became more jam-oriented and less accessible. Add to that the internal flux of the brothers Robinson, and it was clear that a much-needed break was in order.
The Ceaseless Sight is guitarist Rich Robinson’s third solo outing, and possibly his best. Blues, psychedlia and country rock mingle in an album that’s rich in feel and texture. Tracks like “I Know You” and “The Unfortunate Show” also do well to showcase Robinson’s vocal chops, which come across with assurance and authenticity. (The End)
The Auteurs were a UK band that played guitar-pop with all-too-witty lyrics and a melancholy edge. The band’s first and best album New Wave was released in 1993. While critically acclaimed, the British press often tried to lump the band in with the burgeoning Brit Pop scene of the day, which was something it resented. In truth, The Auteurs were out of step with the times, sharing more in common with idiosyncratic British vets like The Smiths and The Kinks than slick young deviants such as Suede, Oasis and Pulp.
New Wave is The Auteurs’ best work, playing to the band’s strengths in numbers like the wispy, melodic “Show Girl” and the hazy, introspective “Junk Shop Clothes.” After a few more albums, leader Luke Haines would go on to a colorful career as a songwriter, with several releases and collaborations under his belt. This plush reissue comes complete with a second disc of bonus material and a deluxe expanded packaging, courtesy of the Cherry Red label. Also check out the label’s reissues of subsequent Auteurs outings Now I’m a Cowboy, After Murder Park and How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, all in impressive packages. (Cherry Red)
For fans of CDs—and yes, there are a lot of more of you out there than you might think—nothing beats a new reissue from Culture Factory. This boutique label from NYC does an amazing job at unearthing and reissuing classics of yore, in not only remastered sound, but pristine mini-LP packaging that replicates the original album artwork. The latest batch of CF titles includes three from Iggy Pop.
During the early ‘80s, Iggy Pop was at a bit of a crossroads. Having resurrected himself after the Stooges with two accomplished offerings—in large part due to David Bowie’s guidance—he now found himself struggling to forge a direction, issuing a trio of albums for a new label (Arista) that very much tried to fit in with the new wave times. The best of this batch is New Values (1979), featuring some work by latter Stooges Scott Williamson (production) and Scott Thurston (guitar and other duties). While elements harken back to the past with some driven guitars, by today’s standards, it sounds dated with some clumsy synths and electronic drum accents. But tracks like “I’m Bored and “Girls” do still sound good.
For Soldier (1980), Iggy enlisted the help of a few seasoned punk and post-punk vets—Glenn Matlock (Sex Pistols), Steve New and Ivan Kral of the Patti Smith group and Barry Andrews of XTC. But, problems behind the scenes and some patchy production prevented it from fully taking shape. But, there are a few standouts, including “Ambition” and “Loco Mosquito.”
Party (1981) is by far one of Pop’s weakest offerings. Obviously pandering to label execs hungry for hits, Party misguidedly tries to position Pop as an elder statesman boldly branching out into edgier new territory. But the results are far different. What we get is a series of goofy, dance pop numbers like “Rock and Roll Party” and “Pumpin’ For Jill,” that do nothing but make Iggy sound silly. But per that, “Bang Bang” does have a certain awkward charm to it, sounding like a B-side Cars single remixed for Studio 54—which notably features Monkees songwriter Tommy Boyce handling production duties. (Culture Factory)
Only The Strong
Years before Manowar and black metal, Thor was doing his macho-metal shtick for a loyal cult following hell bent on Norse mythology and baby oil. Jon Mikl Thor is actually a Canadian body builder, actor and musician. He got into music in the early ‘70s and released his best album Keep The Dogs Away before taking a break and re-emerging in the mid ‘80s.
Only The Strong was released here and abroad in 1985. Sounding like a cross between Screaming For Vengeance-era Judas Priest and WASP, the album is rife with fantastical lyrics, fast riffs and loads of chain-gang choruses. Coupled with Thor’s larger-than-life image, it should’ve been big in these parts, but such was not to be.
Songs like ‘Only The Strong” and “Thunder on the Tundra” are not without their merits, but lack the nuance and polish of the bigger bands of the era such as the aforementioned Priest and Iron Maiden. Add to that the muddy production and challenges of a smaller label and it’s no wonder it wasn’t bigger than it was, even though it was the perfect assemblage of the trendy times. This massive reissue package offers the entire album remastered, with a slew of bonus tracks and a DVD with loads of live footage from the era. For Thor collectors (and yes, they actually are out there), it’s a treat, and one of the better reissues to surface this year. (Deadline)
Pretty Boy Floyd
Taking their cues from early Mötley Crüe and KISS, Hollywood’s Pretty Boy Floyd attempted to bring the over-the-top Aqua Net antics of said innovators back—at a time when it was starting to lose a bit of steam. Even the forerunners had toned it down—most emulating the street-rock style of Guns N’ Roses—by the time Pretty Boy Floyd released its debut in 1989. Still, it sold decently, but sensing that this more animated style of pop metal was becoming passé, the label dropped the band after just one album.
Aside from its primitive approach, Pretty Boy Floyd had lots of personality, which came across loud and clear in its anthemic grooves. In true punk rock fashion, the album had a demo-ish quality to it, with loads of loud guitars and fist-pumping anthems. This comp features several songs from the debut, plus demos, cover songs and some unreleased tracks. The demos sound even more slapdash than the album versions, but it kind of adds to the charm. Songs like “Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz” and “Set The Night On Fire” sound kind of refreshing today, some 25 years after the fact, making it truly alternative in this day and age. Ironic, huh? (Cherry Red)
Black and White
Although they appeared on the scene during the hubbub of the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), pop-rock merchants Terraplane had more in common with Duran Duran than Diamond Head. That said, the band’s keyboard-laden, radio-friendly sound resonated with some of the top British rock journalists of the time, cementing their place in the scene. Black and White was the band’s major-label debut (1985).
Metal purists will surely wince at syrupy numbers like “Couldn’t Handle The Tears” and “I’m The One,” but upon repeated listenings, it’s evident that there’s some serious song craft at play. The band would stick around for a couple more albums before its core members would form the much preferable Thunder and score a sizable cult following in the process.
This reissue boasts a batch of bonus tracks and a booklet. For fans of this obscure AOR stuff, also check out the label’s Terraplane comp, The Singles Collection. (Cherry Red)
The Empty Hearts
The Empty Hearts are a power pop lover’s wet dream. This super group of sorts is comprised of Elliot Easton of The Cars on guitar, Clem Burke of Blondie on drums, Wally Palmar of The Romantics on lead vocals and guitar, Andy Babiuk from The Chesterfield Kings on bass. With such a solid pop-punk pedigree in place, I was worried at first about being let down, as so many all-star bands are wont to do. Not so with this lot.
From start to finish, this self-titled debut brims with punchy, hook-laden rock ‘n’ roll songs that bustle with energy and enthusiasm. Opener “90 Miles An Hour Down A Dead End Street” kicks things off in high style with crunchy guitars, big harmonies and a lyrical nod to AC/DC. “I Don’t Want Your Love (If You Don’t Want Me)” is a slow-building earth shaker with an anthemic refrain, while “Soul Deep” thrives on the Easton’s big riffs and Burke’s swinging groove, and “Drop Me Off At Home” and “I Found You Again” have the Stone’s cocaine country antics down pat, and it works a charm in this setting.
What further sets The Empty Hearts apart are Palmar’s burly vocals, which could easily be at home in Southern Rock band Molly Hatchet (Funny, I don’t remember him sounding that way in the Romantics!). (429 Records)
Hollywood Monsters is a super group of sorts comprised of drummer Vinnie Appice (Black Sabbath, Dio, Heaven & Hell), bassist Tim Bogert (Vanilla Fudge, Cactus) and keyboardist Don Airey (Deep Purple, Rainbow) along with French singer/guitarist Stéphane Honde.
With a classic rock and metal pedigree that reaches back to the 1960s with Bogert’s stint with psychedelic heavies Vanilla Fudge, the band plays heavy, blues-flavored rock with an organic flair. Ironically, the timing couldn’t be better—songs like “Move On” and the title track have plenty of arena-rock swagger and are right in line with the retro rock of late. Also, keep a look out for a scant appearance by former Iron Maiden crooner Paul Di’Anno, sounding as brutish and glorious as ever. (MVD)
Although one of the great original heavy metal bands, Deep Purple’s aural output has been both challenging to say the least, over the years. Purpendicular is the perfect example of this. First off, it was the band’s first album with guitarist Steve Morse on board, after an acrimonious split with key axe man Ritchie Blackmore. But while Blackmore is a true deity of the six-string, Morse is certainly no slouch, and it’s his playing that helps deter the band from veering too far a field.
As with many latter-day Purple releases, what we get is a mix of hard rockers, offbeat proggy jams and a few lazy, esoteric numbers that serve to annoy and confuse. Per this, Purpendicular can be a challenge, but one that pays dividends if given a few listens. “Soon Forgotten” is strange, offbeat and heavy at once, with some haunting vocals and eerie spidery guitars, while “Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming” is a slower haunting burner with more great licks, courtesy of Morse. The album does veer here and there with songs like “Vavoom: Ted the Mechanic” and “Loosen My Strings,” but Morse’s playing keeps things interesting in a pinch.
Purpendicular turned out to be a major statement of intent by a band looking to distinguish itself after losing a key member. And upon further discovery, it mostly does the trick. This reissue comes complete in remastered sound with to bonus tracks and expanded packaging. (Cherry Red)
Long Stick Goes Boom: Live From Da House of Rust
No matter the era, there will always be those who innovate and those who steal. We’ve seen it a million times in rock ‘n’ roll—Oasis copying the Beatles, Kingdom Come pilfering from Led Zeppelin and Duran Duran taking a few choice cues from the band Japan. While most of these bands would eventually distinguish themselves somewhat on their own merits, initial comparisons were undeniable.
Enter Krokus. This Swiss outfit had the riffs and vocal stylings of vintage AC/DC down to a tee. All they lacked were the subtleties and nuance of Bon Scott’s brilliant working-class lyrics and his sardonic flair. Such lyrical missteps are especially evident in the evergreen Krokus standard “Long Stick Goes Boom,” for which this new live set is named. But it must be said that for all of the band’s AC/DC-isms, it has been known to kick out a few classics on its own, and its live enthusiasm has always been ironclad.
This live set captures the band in top form and culls a slew of numbers from the its early days—“Long Stick,” “Fire” and “Tokyo Nights”—as well as a few newer numbers like “Hallelujah Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Hoodoo Woman.” Surprisingly, there’s not much from the band’s mid-‘80s commercial peak when it had finally begun to find its own voice and actually score a few hits in the process. Per that, the only song from the era is the epic “Screaming in the Night,” which sounds vibrant and alive here. (The End)
For the uninitiated, Robin George was an ace guitar player, songwriter and producer from the UK during the 1980s. Despite having a knack for crafting big hooks and searing licks, he never took off in a big way, especially in these parts. The answer to that could be the fact that George’s music had far more in common with commercial US radio rock then the burgeoning UK metal scene that was exploding at the time.
This new release unearths a body of work recorded some 30 years ago that until now had never seen the light of day. The album mixes rock, pop, funk, reggae for an experience that would’ve been right at home somewhere in between the radio rock of Foreigner and stadium-pop reggae of UB40 in 1980. While this may not exactly sit well with metal or reggae traditionalists, there’s no denying the craftsmanship and guitar work on numbers like “Go Down Fighting” and “She Really Blew My Mind.” (Angel Air)
Peter Murphy returns, giving fans a much closer approximation of what they really want—danceable gothic rock with an industrial tinge. Enlisting Killing Joke’s Martin Glover (aka “Youth”) for production duties, the ex-Bauhaus front man has ditched his esoteric leanings of recent years for a more predictable path, and it works.
Tracks like the throbbing “I Am My Own Name” and the densely packed “Hang Up” should do well to please fans of Murphy’s classic works, and Lion is a welcome return to form, even if it sometimes feels like he’s pandering to purists just a wee bit. (Nettwerk)
As one of the original first-wave UK punk bands, The Stranglers often get overlooked in favor of their more bombastic cohorts (The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Damned). It’s not that the band were meek or weak by any stretch. In actuality, their early material was often laden with both subtle and overt innuendo of a tawdry nature. The fact is that the band played with an artier approach that was more Television than say, Sid Vicious. And as time progressed, The Stranglers would veer even more strongly into pop territory, all while keeping its quirky edge.
These four new reissues cover the band’s mid-period during the 1980s, where it further distanced itself from its punk roots. The batch begins with Feline (1983), which sees the band expanding its sound a bit with a rustic country-ish feel, whereas 1984’s Aural Sculpture shows the band maturing, with a dreamy pop sound as evident on “Let Me Down Easy” and “Skin Deep.” Dreamtime (1986) was a bit of a misfire, with the band taking on world music, but does feature a great, new wave single in the form of the melancholy ‘Always The Sun.” All Live and All of the Night sees a return to form with a rousing set including The Kinks cover “All Day and All of the Night,” in which the band gets its guitars back on in this explosive live set.
Each reissue comes complete in pristine cardboard sleeves that duplicate the original albums. (Culture Factory)
The Complete Studio Recordings
Artist, multi-instrumentalist and guitar hero writ large, Joe Statriani is a player’s player, having influenced, instructed and played with a who’s who of rock royalty. But, you’d never know it, as the guy is as humble and unassuming as they come. Even better yet, his story is a special one.
Setting up shop in the Bay Area as a guitar teacher, his student roster would soon grown to include the like of Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai, plus future members of Testament, Exodus, Counting Crows and Third Eye Blind among others. When some of his pupils began to achieve stardom, they started dropping his name and eventually it paid off in the form of a record contract of his own.
Now some dozen+ albums later, the man’s got his own box set containing his entire output for Sony. This mammoth set includes all 14 of his studio outings for the label, plus an extra disc of rarities—Added Creations and Bonus Tracks—which features a treasure trove of rare recordings and performances for the true collector. Out of all the albums included here, I still always go back to 1987’s Surfing With the Alien, which balances Satriani’s soaring technique with his animated sense of melody and nuance. (Sony Legacy)
It’s funny how fickle this business can be. Progressive rock had hit an all-time high during the 1970s, which many contend was the catalyst for the launch of punk—its complex arrangements, long songs and overall pretention being major factors in punk’s three-chord appeal. Then in the ’80s, is saw a mainstream resurgence with the likes of Rush, Yes and Genesis all doing poppier versions of the original template. Over the past few years, we’ve seen prog embraced by more discerning metal musicians, the likes of Opeth and Dream Theatre leading the charge. But prog is not mainstream these days; it’s underground and dare I say, “alternative.”
U K band Curved Air inhabited the artier side of prog during the early ’70s. With a style that veered into folk, psych and classical, the band turned more than a few heads with its first few albums (the presence of dishy front woman Sonja Kristina certainly didn’t hurt the cause.) now, some 40 years after the fact, the band has returned with an album comprised of partially new material.
This recent release features re-recorded Curved Air classics like “Situations” and “Young Mother,” plus covers from The Beatles, The Police and Snow Patrol, along with a clutch of new tracks like ‘Stay Human” and the ace instrumental “Spider” that take the spacious Curved Air sound into current times. And oddly, it sounds quite timely, especially with the resurgence of prog over the past few years. (Cherry Red)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, JK