Month: August 2015

Pop Song Review: Demi Lovato, “Cool for the Summer”

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in terms of British weather this has to go down as one of the weirder summers of recent memory. I expected to be paralysed by August heat and yet I spent most of the month with my nose pressed to the window watching the rain. But anyway, enough about my sad life. Today’s pop song review is “Cool for the Summer” by Demi Lovato.

First impressions: My gut is telling me that I should dislike this song intensely, and yet I don’t. What could it be? The bizarre vocal inflections in the verses? The aggressive synths in the chorus? The fact that Ms Lovato looks really rather fine in that outfit? Could be anything, I suppose.

The music: I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed a Demi Lovato song since “La La Land” back in 2008, and I especially don’t like that she’s jumped on the EDM bandwagon when her earlier guitar pop sound was far more interesting, but “Cool for the Summer” is easily among the better efforts she’s put out recently.

The song takes, for the most part, a very typical dance-pop route from a performer not exactly known for stretching the envelope, even for former Disney wunderkind, but in a lot of ways, though, it’s also quite atypical. It starts out generically enough with the piano line establishing the motif before we sink into a plastic, sticky clomp of a beat with a very faint New Wave influence in the moody synths. With atmosphere and the beat established it’s up to the melody to carry the actual “music” quotient, and it’s here where the song starts taking a couple of intriguing turns. The way Lovato intones the words in that breathy voice… okay, it’s not exactly original, but it’s different enough to make an effect on me, especially that strange way she flattens the note at the end of each line.

Then we get to the bridge, which drops the beat briefly as the melody repeats the motif, eventually crashing right into the chorus where that same motif is transformed into an explosive, abrasive synth riff that borders on being some sort of dance metal (and don’t laugh – tell me you couldn’t headbang to that chorus) – and I really like it. Seriously, as out-of-place as it is with those verses, I do like it. In fact, maybe that’s why I like it, the fact that it’s just so odd for a song like this. I mean, name another song this summer that just goes for it in the chorus the same way this song does. I even like the second part of the chorus where the music mellows out a bit and Lovato cries out the melody the way she does. It’s catchy, it’s different, it’s… it’s downright likeable.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, though. I may have praised this song for taking a few more risks than others in its genre, but it almost certainly wasn’t written with that in mind. The likelihood is that this song was churned out, just the way all EDM pop songs are, to fill dancefloors, executive wallets and the heads of exhausted parents whose kids insist on playing Capital FM in the car on their drives to the beach. But there is enough going for “Cool for the Summer” that makes it stand out from the pack in my opinion, and if it weren’t for the fact that it’s nearly September I could easily see myself listening to this more often.

Mind you, summer doesn’t officially end until the autumn equinox on September 23rd, so this song’s still good for another month or so if you choose to see it that way.

The lyrics: I just realised that Demi Lovato is only a month older than me. That’s weird. That’s pretty weird, guys. I could’ve sworn she was about 26 or 27, which admittedly isn’t that much older than 23, but still, that means I was about 16 when she first broke out. I’m getting old. Bones are creaking, the hair’s getting all grey and wispy, it’s taking longer than ever for me to complete a sudoku, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all downhill from here. We make our own ghosts, people, and mine is slowly taking its ghoulish shape, reminding me of who I am and how fragile it all really is, this strange obligation we call existence. There’s nowhere to run to, either, and nowhere to hide when the thing you’re running from, the thing you’re trying to escape, is the very thing you’re so desperate to hang on to: yourself. It makes you think.

…Hm? The lyrics? Oh, they’re about love or something.

“Got my mind on your body and your body on my mind / Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite.” The cherry… hm. Okay, I know what the traditional metaphorical meaning of “the cherry” is, but what’s it alluding to in this lyric? If we’re talking about sexual temptation then surely “the apple” would have been a better choice of imagery. You could’ve gone with “the peaches” as well – you know, in the Stranglers sense – but I don’t think she swings that way. Unless she does and the other, traditional meaning is what she’s talking about, in which case, for the love of all that’s good and pure, Ms Lovato, reconsider the biting part of your plan.

“Take me down into your paradise / Don’t be scared ’cause I’m your body type.” Down into paradise? Wrong direction, surely, unless Lovato is also coming out as a Satanist (which, let’s be honest, is probably the crux of at least a couple of conspiracy theory websites out there). Also, I have a body type now, it seems, and if Lovato is anybody to go by my type is apparently “physically fit and highly appealing.” That’s, ah, that’s probably a few peoples’ body type, come to think of it. I’m beginning to think this song isn’t addressing me personally.

“Don’t tell your mother / Kiss one another / Die for each other / We’re cool for the summer.” It’s like Romeo and Juliet summarised in one pop song lyric. Well, the first three parts, anyway, unless there was an epilogue where Friar Laurence discussed his holiday plans.

Also, curious phrase, that, when you think about it. “Cool for the summer.” Does she mean a bodily coolness or an acceptance/preparedness of the situation? You know, when you’re cool about something, like you’re not massively fussed about it but you dig it nonetheless? A little like me and this song, actually. Wait, does that mean I’m cool for “Cool for the Summer”?

Verdict: I really don’t mind “Cool for the Summer” too much. I mean, sure, there’s nothing great about it exactly, but if you had to go with one EDM-pop song to soundtrack your summer this was about as good as it got. 3 out of 5.

Today’s double-up is “Summer’s Almost Gone” by The Doors, because this is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end. Of summer.

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Album Review: Vintage Trouble, 1 Hopeful Rd.

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Calling Vintage Trouble a ‘retro’ band is redundant at this point – the word “vintage” is right there in the band’s name – so it’s no surprise that these Los Angeles soul-rockers once again return to the classic blues, soul and R&B that have influenced them from the off on second album, 1 Hopeful Rd, released shortly after a major support stint with AC/DC. I find that last detail quite interesting, actually, because on this new release Vintage Trouble seem to have dialled back a touch on the ‘rock’ quotient of their sound, or at least given more attention to their mellower side with a greater emphasis on husky blues and soul.

It certainly doesn’t start that way, though. “Run Like the River” (originally released as a bonus track on the Encore Edition rerelease of debut album The Bomb Shelter Sessions a few years back) is a firecracker of an opening track: a clattering surge of handclaps, pounding drums and soulful cheering, and despite being a minute longer than its predecessor retains its visceral charm while opening the album in fine fashion.

The album soon settles into a smoother groove, and by ‘settles’ I mean ‘jackknifes’. The opener is followed by “From My Arms” a sensual slow jam whose subdued crooning and gentler instrumental performances, though impressive, risk diffusing the album’s momentum too early. “Doin’ What You Were Doin'” is better, personally speaking anyway, a head-bobbing strut with a wonderful guitar line resting on some terrific syncopated rhythms, capped off with a lovely uplifting melody.

The opening triplet, you find, comes to define the record as a whole: mellower numbers punctuated by an occasional explosion of energy. I’m not sure how I feel about this, to be perfectly honest. While Vintage Trouble’s soulful vibes only previously accented their sound, adding texture and depth, on 1 Hopeful Rd. they come close to defining it, which is a problem because these guys have always worked best when they sound like they’re about to break into some of that trouble their name promises. Unlike The Bomb Shelter Sessions, too, which generally found a neat balance between hard and soft, the tracks on 1 Hopeful Rd. almost universally have one foot very much in one camp or the other, and as a result this constant switching between sounds can make for an inconsistent, even jarring listening experience.

That’s as an album, though. Song for song 1 Hopeful Rd. is still pretty great, and when they do get some fire under their feet they really do cook, as proven by the hip-swinging, high-kicking soul-splosion of “Strike Your Light”, an early standout ever since they performed it on The Tonight Show back in 2013. And though the album is, for the most part, a holding pattern for their sound, they do take the time to play with some, if not “new” as such, then certainly different influences, summoning the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the Southern stomp of “Angel City, California”, whose lyrics take a refreshingly rosy-eyed look at L.A. (an anomalous approach in rock music, for sure). “Before the Tear Drops” is also great, hearkening back to Fifties doo-wop with a modern polish, while “Soul Serenity” closes the album with a nice acoustic flourish, though with the wealth of ballads the album has already laid on us at this point it doesn’t come off as the breather it should.

Typical of this band there’s nothing wrong with the performances either. Vintage Trouble are renowned for being a merciless live presence, and while that force doesn’t quite translate to plastic they still pack a fair punch. Ty Taylor’s vocals are as jointly nuanced and powerful as ever, while the band provides a tight sonic backdrop that impresses without ever showing off or trampling over the music. The Don Was production is clean and punchy while being just spacious enough to lend the songs a real depth and atmosphere: there’s a wonderful snap to the drums, while the guitar is given the room it needs to cut, crackle or croon however it needs without ceding any ground to the other instruments.

Ultimately 1 Hopeful Rd. is a rewarding listen, and even if it is ‘more of the same’, when the same is this good it’s hard to quibble. To me, it just feels less like a coherent album and more like one of those singles compilation that passed for LPs back in the Fifties – which, given the band’s vintage approach, may actually be quite fitting.

Favourites: “Run Like the River”, “Angel City, California”, “Strike Your Light”, “Before the Tear Drops”

Pop Song Review: Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye” (feat. Meghan Trainor)

Piggy-backing on more popular artists: like snail gel masks and proper bantz, it’s what all the hip young kids are into these days, specifically hip young pop artists looking for an easy road to a wider audience. Case in point, today’s pop song review is “Marvin Gaye” by professional hang-on-wasn’t-he-the-one-playing-piano-in-that-Fast-&-Furious-7-song-yes-I-think-he-was, Charlie Puth, featuring Meghan Trainor who, as far as I’m aware, has not sung for any car movies to date. But the century is young.

First impressions: Oh, it’s that song. You know the one.

The music: Like a lot of Meghan Trainor’s music, “Marvin Gaye” is an upbeat, midtempo pop song whose retro-Fifties sound and aesthetic fits in well with her catalogue so far. The problem: this isn’t a Meghan Trainor song, or not technically at least. No, this is a Charlie Puth song, a performer you know so little about you’re not even sure how to pronounce his last name.

What I’m getting at here is that Mr. Puth (Mr. Pooth?) doesn’t have much of a musical personality or resumé beyond being the chorus guy on Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again.” Now admittedly that song did do very well in the charts, so on achievements alone he’s doing okay for himself, but it’s still only one song in which his contribution basically amounted to plonking out a few piano chords while doing a passable Sam Smith impression.

Speaking of that impression, I can’t say it fits the music too well here. You can tell Puth is doing his best to rein in his vocals, presumably so as not to overpower the melody, but as a result he never sounds like he’s particularly enjoying himself, which you kinda need to in order for a song this exuberant to really work. Instead he goes for this husky, yearning baritone (is it a baritone? Sounds like a baritone) that’s all out of place. He does at least employ a higher register for the chorus, but it still sounds like he’s being coerced into his performance by a hefty-sized producer with a knuckle-duster.

Is it me or is the beat really askew in Trainor’s verse, too? Puth’s verse has a decent plod to it that, while not too exciting, is at least consistent. I can nod my head to it. But then Trainor’s verse comes in and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, sure, her voice fits the music more than Puth’s does, but for a woman who sang that she was “all about that bass” there sure isn’t much of it around when she’s taking her turn at the mike.

So, some positives? Well, the chorus hook is memorable, if not terribly catchy, and the production is generally quite smooth. And, er, the video has some pretty people in it. I… look, I’m sorry, guys, but this sounds like something that was written for a Disney movie. It’s simplistic, competently produced and just pleasing enough to the ears that you won’t even realise you’re sick of it until it’s lodged in your brain like an ice pick.

And by the way, if this is supposed to be some sort of tribute to the man, it’s a weird one. I haven’t actually heard a lot of Marvin Gaye’s music beyond the hits, but the little I have heard this doesn’t sound anything like. Marvin Gaye sang sensual R&B slow jams, not bouncy bubblegum pop with a vague whiff of doo-wop.

The lyrics: “You got the healing that I want.” Oh jeez, is that what this song’s going to be? A series of Marvin Gaye puns? If it is, I’m out. I’m out, people. There’s the door, right over there, and these boots? Pfft, well, they’re just doin’ what they do. Bootz, start a-walkin’! I’m-a coming, door! I’m-a… okay, fine, let’s give it a chance.

“We got this king size to ourselves / Don’t have to share with no one else.” I… that… what does this mean? “Don’t have to share with no one else”? Was that ever a possibility? What couple shares their bed with… I’m overthinking this, aren’t I?

“Don’t keep your secrets to yourself / It’s kama sutra show and tell.” Show and tell: a school exercise, common at elementary level, in which one pupil presents a personal item to their class and discusses it for a few minutes. The Kama Sutra: a popular ancient Hindu book of sex positions popular with married couples looking to spice up their love lives. These two things are a lot like sushi and ice cream: separately, fine enough, but put them together and you create something… unspeakable.

“And when you leave me all alone / I’m like a stray without a home / I’m like a dog without a bone / I just want you for my own.” Bet you really burnt the midnight oil on that one, didn’t you, guys?

“Just like they say it in the song / Until the dawn, let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.”

Geddit? Because Marvin Gaye sang “Let’s Get It On.”

So yes, this might just top Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” for Dumbest Pop Song Lyrics of 2015, but is there really any point in analysing it further? It’s a doofy line in a doofy song. But let’s poke it a little bit. This line is the chorus hook of the song. It’s where the perfect cadence – you know, that bit at the end of the chorus where it sounds really good and satisfying – is created by the final two notes. This is the part of the song that your ears are waiting for, the part that makes the build-up of the verse and chorus worthwhile for them, and it’s hinged on a reference to another, better song. A gold star for anyone who can point out why this might not have been a great idea.

So from what I can see, the songwriters came up with one bad joke and built a song about it. How much money did they funnel into this? That much, huh? Jeez, that’s depressing. And how much did it make back? That much? Seriously? Where’s that door again?

Also, “just like they say it in the song” is a weird line. It’s just clunky and awkward to say, let alone sing. So… yeah. Let that one sink in.

Verdict: Again, here’s another song that isn’t overly good or overly bad but is more or less just there. It’s catchy enough but you wouldn’t miss it if they took it off the radio tomorrow, and while it might have a small nostalgic following years down the line I think even Heart FM might find it a little too sugary for their future playlist. The healthiest afterlife this song can have is as “that song that tried to make Marvin Gaye into a verb and failed.” A meh out of 5.

Today’s double-up would logically be some Marvin Gaye, but instead I’m going to go for a song that has about as much to do with the man as this song does: “Vincent Price” by Deep Purple, which at least makes the most of its own tongue-in-cheek premise. It also has a sexy nun doing a pole dance, so top that, Charlie Puth.

Pop Song Review: Little Mix, “Black Magic”

It’s August 2015, and at time of writing I’m about to reveal some astonishing information: I don’t know what a “little mix” is supposed to be. It’s just… it seems like a pointless name to me. Their former name, Rhythmix, was at least a spin on the word “rhythm”. I get that. But a Little Mix? Like a… like a smaller mix than a regular-sized… mix? Do mixes even come in sizes? Who can say. Well, maybe the person who came up with the name. They might be worth asking.

So to sum up, Little Mix is a weird name. I’m glad we could come to that conclusion. And what was the point of me saying all that? There wasn’t one, but hey, it got the review started, so who’s complaining? Anyway, today’s pop song review is “Black Magic” by Little Mix.

First impressions: Huh. For a song that, by its very name, evokes the dark arts, it’s awfully cute.

The music: So after listening to this a few times, what do I have to say about it? Well, the music is mostly forgettable, assuming you realised it was even there in the first place. There’s a strong Eighties influence, if I’m not mistaken: the song is fairly standard, synth-structured candy-pop with a whiff of Cyndi Lauper in the melody, if I’m not mistaken (though i probably am), while the ska-styled bass line in the verses is a near-blatant rip-off of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”. I feel like I’m the only person who’s noticed that, too. I don’t know how to feel about that.

The song kicks off with another barrage of stomping beats and chanted vocals that I’m sure I’ve heard before in another Little Mix song, if not all of them, heralding another round of finger-wagging female empowerment ahead. For me it outstays its welcome pretty quickly but if they had to have a musical calling card it’s not a bad one to go with. This time around, though, even they don’t really sound all that into it, and given how much force and pep they usually put into their performances, yes, it is noticeable. I get that there’s a posturing sense of girl power to this music, but they could at least make it sound a little more fun. When Cyndi Lauper sings that girls just want to have fun, I believe her. When this lot sing about the girls knocking on their door, I’m wondering if it’s because they haven’t been out in a couple of weeks and their friends are calling to make sure they aren’t dead.

(And yes, I’ve referenced Cyndi Lauper twice in this review. Three times if you count that namedrop right there. And yes again, it’s also the first time I’ve ever mentioned her on this blog. Like buses, they say. Well, I say. Anyway, pointless digression aside…)

And here’s another problem I have with the singers in Little Mix, because ragging on young women is what blogging was designed for, apparently: technically, they’re all good vocalists. They hit the notes fine, they blend well into a nice chorus, and they can even throw off a few acrobatic moves without much effort. The problem is twofold: one, their voices still have that “stagey” quality typical of reality show singers, like they don’t actually care what the words are coming out of their mouth because they’re too busy trying to force the notes out with “feeling”; and two, none of their voices have any individual character. I can’t tell a single one of these women’s vocal styles apart from the others apart from the fact that one’s is a little squeakier than the others. They don’t even harmonise for the chorus: they just sing the same note, so my brain doesn’t believe me when I tell it that that actually is four women singing now instead of the same woman who’s been singing all along, except it wasn’t one woman all along either, and then my brain gives me a migraine because it hates me.

The lyrics: Well, the song is called “Black Magic”, so I’m guessing it deals with the allure of love in a symbolically dark, mystical way, possibly leaning on Gothic influences and the writings of Alesteir Crowley to create a foreboding aura of oh who am I kidding here it’s freaking Little Mix.

“All the girls on the block knocking at my door / Wanna know what it is make the boys want more.” Oh boy, I’m getting “Milkshake” flashbacks. No, 2004, you stay where you are. You were fun while you lasted but I have no intention of reliving you again. Actually, BIONICLE had a pretty great story that year and.. no! No, stay where you are. Stay.

“Is your lover playing on your side?” Sorry, what are you asking me here again? Are you suggesting my lover plays for the other team? What do you know that I don’t?

“Take a sip of my secret potion / I’ll make you fall in love.” Oh boy. Right, okay. I think you know what’s wrong with this line, don’t you? Now, I’m not one of these people who go looking for problematics, as the Everything’s a Problem Tumblr might put it, in everything I see, hear and read, but this lyric still gives me a bad feeling in my stomach, especially when coupled with lines in the chorus such as “get your boy on his knees” and “if you’re looking for Mr Right / need that magic to change him overnight.” And while I’d like to think that the song’s younger audience probably wouldn’t even realise the darker connotations a lyric like this might give off, with the access to the internet and social media young adolescents have these days I can’t convince myself of that.

Let me give you a firmer idea of why this is bothering me so much. I know swapping the gender is a pretty lazy way of pointing out this king of thing, but here goes anyway: just imagine a man singing these lyrics about a woman. In fact, let me do it for you:

“Full of honey just to make her sweet / Crystal balling just to help her see / What she’s been missing.”

Creeped out yet? Here’s some more:

“If you’re looking for Mrs Right / Need that magic to change her overnight.”

One more?

“Get your girl on her knees / and repeat after me.”

Sounds more like a fraternity kegger gone way out of control, doesn’t it? “But hang on,” you say, “didn’t you say you’ve been getting into the band W.A.S.P. recently? And didn’t they have a song called “On Your Knees“? Double standards much?” True, true, but there’s a crucial difference here: W.A.S.P. were actually trying to be offensive. The blatant chauvinism wasn’t an overt display of masculinity, it was an effort to peeve off your parents. Also, they weren’t singing to teenage girls. At least, I hope they weren’t.

Look, I don’t actually believe that young girls en masse are suddenly going to start drugging boys in school because of this song. That’s PMRC-level logic. Plus, the love potion angle has been used in countless pieces of entertainment going back to Medieval storytelling, probably even further. A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind, but at least there was a sense of flawed motivation and consequence there. This song and this band are just a bit too squeaky clean to pull off something like this.

The thing is, this could actually have worked out all right, which I know because it’s been done before. You might remember a Leiber/Stoller song from the Fifties called “Love Potion No. 9“, a neat little pop rock number in which the protagonist tries to procure a love potion from a gypsy. Not only is that song actually about black magic, with much smarter and more in-depth lyrics, but it also has a funny twist at the end that gives the song a wicked punch that leaves the protagonist the same desperate yearning fool he was at the beginning. There’s an actual story told here, and it’s told in half the time taken for “Black Magic” to repeat the same sentiment over and over again: you’re going to fall in love with her. That’s it.

Also I now wish it was 1959 and I was reviewing that song.

Verdict: This wasn’t a great review for me, I’ll admit, but to be fair I’m a little out of practice. For all my complaints the song is… well, it’s not good, but it’s not really bad either. It’s just there, you know? It exists and has continued to exist since its release, which is about as high praise as I can give it. So, 2 or 3 out of 5. You pick.

Today’s double-up is, obviously, “Love Potion No. 9”, here performed by Ronnie Dio and the Prophets (yes, that Ronnie Dio).

Playlist: July 2015

ORCHID, “Sign of the Witch” (2015)

If you thought the last Black Sabbath album didn’t sound Sabbath-y enough for your tastes, you should really check out Orchid, who are basically Black Sabbath if the synth-speriments of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and everything that came afterwards never happened. This is the title track from their latest EP, another snaking beast of doomy blues metal with your typical raw riffage and squealing soloing, not to mention some cracking vocals from frontman Theo Mindell. It’s all quite evil and very tasty indeed.

Now, Orchid have had a fairly steady release cycle of alternating EPs and albums for several years now, so the release of Sign of the Witch could indicate a new full studio record for 2016. I hope it does. I didn’t care too much for debut album Capricorn, save a few tracks, but their last LP The Mouths of Madness was really rather great, so even if the formula doesn’t change much their songwriting does seem to be improving with each release, so the next album, should it surface, could be something really rather special.

BLACKWOLF, “Kiss the Fire” (2014)

Hard rockers BlackWolf recently kicked off a PledgeMusic campaign for their second album which I think is actually about done being recorded. This song, however, was released as a standalone single last October, and at present I’ve no idea if there are any plans to include it on the new record. I hope they do, though, because it’s an absolute stonker of a song. I don’t know if you can describe a riff as both “grinding” and “sticky”, but I like to think they apply to “Kiss the Fire” and its danceable, hummable grooves. In fact it’s always a sign of a good song when you don’t know whether to hum the melody or the guitar. For a three minute rock song there’s a surprising amount going on in here, from the softer bridges to the tambourine touches in the verses to the jazzy break towards the end, but it’s all very good indeed.

If you like what you hear, please consider supporting BlackWolf’s PledgeMusic campaign here and get yourself some goodies.

ARMORED SAINT, “Can U Deliver” (1984)

I meant to include this one in last month’s Eighties Metal Binge edition but it slipped my mind during the writing process. It doesn’t help that WordPress has a nasty habit of forgetting to save your drafts if you’re not careful. But it’s a shame I forgot to include this song because it was actually the song that made me decide I should put that playlist together in the first place. Weird how things work out sometimes.

I mean, come on. Bizarre replacement of “you” with that big dumb “U” aside (which somehow predates the Nineties pop craze of substituting words with letters and numbers by a good ten years, not to mention from an entirely freaking different genre), this song just is Eighties metal, from the lusty themes to the tough guitar sound and John Bush’s wailing vocals, and it’s all so, so much fun. For some reason the video version starts with a fifty second instrumental that isn’t on the record, but once you get past that and into the huge crunching riff it’s nothing but pure New Wave of British Heavy Metal bliss from there on in. Does it matter that Armored Saint are actually American? Probably, but let’s pretend it doesn’t.

THE STRYPES, “Get Into It” (2015)

Now this is more like it. In May’s playlist I mentioned my fears at The Strypes diluting their sound to appeal to a wider indie rock/mainstream market, and while I can’t say recent single “A Good Night’s Sleep and a Cab Fare Home” has done anything to assuage those concerns with its mellower sound and generic, teen-pleasing “one night stand” theme, “Get Into It” is a more promising offering, its coarse guitar tone, syncopated bass and strutting melody finding a neat middle ground between the throwback R&B of their first album, Snapshot, and the indie rock direction they seem to be pushing towards.

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing them live yet but apparently they’re a ferocious stage presence, and you can tell from these videos of theirs that these guys have serious musical chops that deserve to be shown off. Why on earth Catfish and the Bottlemen are getting so much attention when these guys are out there ripping it up is completely beyond me.

SHINEDOWN, “Cut the Cord” (2015)

And of course, in keeping with the need for balance that permeates the very fabric of our existence, as the lessening of my anxiety for the future musical direction of one artist alleviates, so must it intensify on another. I should first make it clear that I actually do like this song a lot – it has some great vocal and guitar work, a sick groove, and the message is a welcome one – and it isn’t as though Shinedown haven’t flirted with this sort of quasi-rap rock before (“Sound of Madness“, anyone?).

It’s just… I don’t know. I guess I feel that rock has already had to cede so much ground to rap already over the past couple of decades that the few bands that do enjoy that wider audience, like Shinedown, should be fighting to preserve its identity rather than blurring the lines further. The world left nu-metal behind for a reason, after all. I mean, “I’m gonna make it rain?” Really? And what’s with those hand gestures Brent Smith throws out at about 1:46? (Though I suppose you could write a small book on the weird stuff Smith does in this video.) As a one-off on the album I can take this gladly. If the whole record ends up sounding like this, though… hm.

SPIDERS, “Shake Electric” (2014)

Have I mentioned how healthy the European rock scene is right now before? I could write an entire Playlist based on bands solely from that scene (and I might just do so) because I’m constantly discovering new and awesome bands from the continent. Case in point, Sweden’s Spiders, whose single and title track from their second album, “Shake Electric”, is a wonderful little slice of candied scuzz rock, like a less bluesy Blues Pills.

Like a lot of the bands from this scene it’s very retro – there’s a touch of that yearning Sixties baroque pop sound to the riff and melody, while the harmonica solo at the end is pure Dylan – but there’s something about the sheer, youthful vibe of the thing that, for me, brings it right into the twenty-first century. I will admit that Ann-Sophie Hoyles’s vocals took a little bit of time to grow on me, as strong as her voice is, for the way she intones some of the words, but after a few listens they bed in perfectly to the sound. Great stuff.

DIAMOND HEAD, “Helpless” (1980)

I had the opportunity to see Diamond Head at the Chester Live Rooms back in June with their new frontman, Rasmus Bom Anderson. I can’t say I was ever too bothered about “Helpless” but they played it as an encore at the show and, somewhere in that performance, I found a love for the song that I’d never felt before. From that initial riff to the little bass lick halfway through to the shifting time signatures and constant sense of propulsion, you can hear thrash metal being born in seven glorious minutes. I got into Diamond Head the way I imagine most people did, through Metallica’s cover versions, but I can honestly say I prefer the originals. They might not have the sheer heaviness of Metallica’s recordings but they do have Sean Harris’s vocals, and you can’t fault those.

In some surprising news, too, it’s been announced that Diamond Head are recording a new album after years of stating explicitly that they weren’t going to do that. Obviously I’m thrilled, especially as I got to hear two of the new songs at the gig (spoiler alert: they’re great), but I’m also a little concerned about how former frontman Nick Tart must have taken that news, given that the very reason he left the band (back in 2014) was that he wanted to record a new album and the other members didn’t.

JACKAMAN, “You Can’t Take Back” (2015)

I don’t suppose you remember Saint Jude, this bluesy soul rock band that Classic Rock Magazine were pushing intensely around 2010-11? I couldn’t tell you what the current state of the band is. Their guitarist Adam Green passed away in 2012, and though they released a new EP in 2013 it doesn’t seem like anything else is happening on that front. In fact according to Wikipedia the band broke up last year, though there’s no source cited to back that up, natch.

Singer and frontwoman Lynne Jackaman (who you might also remember from her co-lead vocal spot on The Answer’s “Nowhere Freeway“) has been very busy indeed, however, performing gigs and releasing a new EP, No Halo, under her own name. “You Can’t Take Back” is the closing track (which was also released as a single earlier this year) and it’s fantastic. Not just Jackaman’s vocals, which are amazing, but everything from the melody to the groove to the atmosphere of the thing… I’m not going to say too much else in case I start embarrassing myself. Just know that this is probably my favourite song of 2015 so far, and it’s going to take something extraordinary to take its place.

OPERATION: MINDCRIME, “Re-Inventing the Future” (2015)

Ever since the whole Queensrÿche v Geoff Tate soap opera came to an end last year, with the Wilton-Rockenfield-Jackson-etc. line-up getting to keep the name and Tate getting… some other stuff that I forget, the latter’s been working hard on a conceptual trilogy of albums, the first of which, The Key, is set to be released 18th September. Geoff Tate’s telling stories again? I’m game.

Frontiers Records released an album teaser to YouTube a little while ago with snippets of four songs from the album and the reaction was pretty divisive, at least going by the comments and rating the video received. However the video for new single “Re-Inventing the Future”, while still not overwhelmingly positive, does seem to be getting a better reception. Turns out it’s a pretty good song and, as I pointed out in my “Albums I’m Looking Forward To in 2015” list, more reminiscent of the classic Queensrÿche sound than anything Tate put out with the band since at least Promised Land. I’m even getting a whiff of “The Mission” in that riff.

I’m not sure about Tate’s vocals, though. I appreciate his voice isn’t what it used to be, but couldn’t it have been given a bit of a punch-up in the mix? I feel as if it just disappears into the noise when the chorus kicks in. Then again, this is only a YouTube video played through my cheap PC speakers, so hopefully the album played through a set of decent headphones will have that missing boost.

RUSH, “One Little Victory” (2002)

I’ve been giving Rush’s back catalogue a bit of a closer look recently and… actually, you know what? Sometimes words just won’t do it. Sometimes you just need to sit back, press play and enjoy.

Albums I’m Looking Forward To in 2015 (Part 2 of 1)

Right. So, brief update before we get started: there’s another Playlist coming on Monday with some newer songs, as opposed to last month’s Eightes Metal Binge edition, and I’m hoping to get the pop and rock single reviews back in action sometime in August as well, with possibly a playlist of songs I missed out on while I was writing this dissertation of mine – you know, “Bad Blood”, “Cheerleader”, “Want to Want Me”, stuff like that. I’ve also got a few ideas rattling around for some new features I can work on, as well as new editions of Cover-parisons (jeez, one year on and that name is still a howler) and Second Spin. As for the Red Dwarf reviews? They’ll arrive when they arrive, I keep telling myself, but with series 11 and 12 coming up in 2016 and 2017 respectively it might be worth me revisiting that philosophy.

One thing that has become apparent to me, though, is the sheer groundswell of new albums arriving in the second half of 2015. Seriously, there’s a whole load of them, a lot coming out on the same day (21st August, in particular, is a very busy day for yours truly, with new LPs from The Strypes, Buckcherry, The Sword and Kadavar all seeing release at once). I did say last year that there wasn’t much point in me reviewing albums because, well, reasons explained here, but as I’m so excited about these new releases coming out I might actually have to find a method of talking about them that gives my informed, honest opinions in an informal manner without feigning any sort of critical authority. G’luck with that, right?

So to get ready for that potential swell I decided to come with this, a list of albums I’m looking forward to in the second half of 2015. There’s a bunch of them as well, but I’m keeping it to ten because it’s a nice, round number. As for the 2 of 1 part up there, that’s a reference to the fact that there really should have been another of these earlier in the year; and in fact, at one point, I think there was. So this is a part 2 despite there only being one of them. But what can you do? Go back in a time machine and make me write the first part? I’d like to see you try.

No, really, I would. That would just be impressive.

Note: though it should be fairly obvious, just to cover my back I’d like to point out that I don’t hold copyright on any of the images in this post – only the words are mine. I use the imagery purely for noncommercial, illustrative purposes. To make the post look a bit nicer, basically.

1. Megadeth, TBA (expected late 2015/early 2016)

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Image “borrowed” from Blabbermouth.

This is a no-brainer. Megadeth are one of my favourite metal bands of all time, so almost anything they put out is an instant purchase for me. The more melodic hard rock sound of their last album, 2013’s Super Collider, received what could kindly be called a mixed reception from fans and critics, and while it took a while to grow on me I ended up really enjoying it in the end. That might be because when I got into them their new album out at the time was Th1rt3en, which had a greater focus on melody and cohesive songs rather than the aggressive technical thrash they’re best known for.

They’ve apparently gone back to that aggression for the new record, and while I’m quite glad to hear that I do hope they haven’t done a pendulum swing away from the songcraft. In my opinion Megadeth were always the best songwriters of the Big Four and it’d be a shame for them to lose sight of their strengths for the sake of appeasing a metal crowd who aren’t exactly easy to please as it is. I’m also excited to hear how new guitarist Kiko Loureiro (of Angra) and session drummer Chris Adler (of Lamb of God) add to the Megadeth sound.

Also, they’re doing a cover of Budgie’s “Melt the Ice Away.” Budgie being another of my favourite bands, I’m understandably quite psyched.

2. Vintage Trouble, 1 Hopeful Rd (released 14th August)

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Image “borrowed” from Rock ‘n’ Reel Reviews.

I don’t know if there’s a band I love for their aesthetic as much as their music as I do Vintage Trouble. The music is great enough – a blend of rock, soul, blues and classic R&B – but their look is just fantastic: that classy Forties/Fifties style that makes me want to go play L.A. Noire again. If I thought I could pull off that look I’d never wear anything else.

They released their debut record, The Bomb Shelter Sessions, back in 2011, and it was really rather good. Aside from producing music videos for all ten songs from their debut (no, seriously, even the ones that weren’t singles, and I’m not sure if they’ve even finished) and touring relentlessly with the likes of Paloma Faith and AC/DC they have been gradually working on new music, firstly with last year’s very decent Swing House Acoustic Sessions EP and now with their second album, 1 Hopeful Rd.

Strangely enough the record is set to open with “Run Like the River“, a song that’s been around since 2012 and actually first appeared on an expanded version of The Bomb Shelter Sessions. It’s a great song, don’t get me wrong, and if you like that one you’re bound to love the rest of their stuff, so maybe this is just a case of being unable to keep a good song hidden in the shadows – a bit like how the new Eagles of Death Metal album opens with a rerecorded version of a solo track the frontman released four years ago.

3. Graveyard, Innocence and Decadence (released 25th September)

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Image “borrowed” from The Obelisk.

If you haven’t been paying attention to Graveyard these past few years, you really should be. The mid-European/Scandinavian “retro-rock” scene is really ablaze right now with bands like Kadavar, Blues Pills, Horisont, Spiders, The Vintage Caravan and Witchcraft all leading the crowd for well-crafted songwriting with a classic rock vibe, and Graveyard are definitely leaders in this field of… leaders. I didn’t care much for their debut album but the follow-up, 2011’s Hisingen Blues, is up there with my favourite records of the past decade, while 2012’s Lights Out was also very good indeed.

At the time of writing no music has yet been released from forthcoming fourth record, Innocence and Decadence, so we only really have the head-bending artwork to go on for now. We do also have the track listing, which tells me that I’ll soon have a song called “Magnetic Shunk” in my music library. I can’t wait.

4. Buffalo Summer, TBA (expected mid to late 2015)

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Image “borrowed” from the Buffalo Summer website.

Countrified blues-tinged rockers Buffalo Summer released their debut self-titled album in 2013, and if I’d put together a Best Albums list for that year it almost certainly would have topped it. It’s a great album, top notch. Here, go buy yourself a copy. Go do that now. Done that? Good.

Anyway, they’ve now finished recording their second album, produced by none other than Barrett Martin (former drummer for Screaming Trees and Mad Season). Funny thing is I saw them back in October last year, when they were supporting The Treatment, and they said then the album was finished for an early 2015 release, so presumably they weren’t quite as finished as they thought they were. I recall a tweet around January or February mentioning that they were recording a cello part, so maybe they were just throwing in some spices while the broth was still simmering. Or something.

That said the band do seem to be absolutely positively finished with the record, and by all accounts it just needs a record label to distribute it through (the first album was released on their own label, Retrobution Records, and presumably they don’t want to go that route again). Now, I can only speculate, but they’re touring the UK and Europe later this year with Crobot and Scorpion Child who are both Nuclear Blast signings, and given how that label’s been snapping up promising new bands recently I wouldn’t be surprised if Buffalo Summer were brought on as well. Earache and Napalm would also be decent labels to sign to, but again until there’s an announcement made we can only speculate, and speculate I shall.

5. Diamond Head, TBA (expected late 2015)

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Image “borrowed” from Blabbermouth.

Another of my all-time favourite bands, Diamond Head were hyped for huge things back in the early Eighties but somehow never made the break through to the big time, and to date they are best known for being one of the primary influences behind Metallica and the thrash metal scene. Their most recent album, What’s in Your Head?, came out in 2007 and for a while it seemed that the band was done with releasing new music, but a post on their website back in June stated they were “midway” through writing sessions while another in July confirmed that they had started recording.

I mentioned in my last playlist that long-time frontman Nick Tart recently left the band because he wanted to make a new album but the rest of the guys didn’t, and the fact that now he’s gone they jump into album sessions still strikes me as a little strange. If I wasn’t so happy that we’re getting new Diamond Head music I’d call shenanigans. I also mentioned last time that they played some new songs at the gig I went to that month. What I didn’t mention is that they actually opened with one as well, a ballsy move for a band that, until a few months ago, had seemingly resigned themselves to a legacy act. The new songs are good, too, and much more reminiscent of their Lightning to the Nations/Borrowed Time sound than anything else they’ve done in quite some time.

So yeah, I’m hyped for this. A late 2015 release has been mentioned but, given that they’ve only been recording for a few weeks now, I imagine that could change.

6. Cheap Trick, TBA (expected mid to late 2015)

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Image “borrowed” from Billboard.

The most recent Cheap Trick album, aptly titled (at least for now) The Latest, came out in 2009. Although it lacks the harder edge of their earlier sound, I really love that album – to me it might be the best thing they’ve done since One on One, or at least Standing on the Edge. The six years that have passed since its release haven’t been without incident, the most notable and infamous of these being a legal feud between the band and drummer Bun E. Carlos, a feud that has since been resolved with Carlos’s status as an official bandmember intact despite him not touring or recording with them. The law is weird.

Anyway, a new album has been mentioned several times in those seventy-two-odd months. Robin Zander mentioned in his interview with Eddie Trunk for the latter’s podcast (which, if you have any vested interest in classic hard rock and heavy metal, you should really consider subscribing to) that the record was about half-done (this was back in February, so I assume more work has been done on it since then) and that they expected it to be released around late summer/early autumn. In fact the band’s management cancelled an appearance that had been planned for Zander on Trunk’s VH1 Classic series That Metal Show back in the spring because they wanted to reschedule and time it for around the album’s release. No news has emerged since, but given that new That Metal Show episodes are currently being optioned for “the fall”, as the Yanks put it, I choose to remain optimistic.

7. Living Colour, Shade (expected late 2015)

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Image “borrowed” from Karsten Staiger and USA Today.

Definitely one of the most underrated heavy metal bands of all time, since their reunion in the early 2000s Living Colour have only put out two new studio records: 2003’s Collideoscope, a weird record marked by one of the best, prettiest and downright darkest songs the band ever wrote, “Flying” (about the 9/11 attacks); and 2009’s The Chair in the Doorway which, though not bad at all, felt a little cold and uninspired to me in its sound.

So I’m curious to hear what they’ve come up with for their sixth studio album, Shade, which was supposed to be released last autumn but has since been pushed back to this year (and could easily be pushed back again, though they did finish recording the album some time ago so hopefully an official announcement is imminent). Living Colour were always a socially-conscious band, especially when it came to black issues, and recent events in America will no doubt have given them plenty to talk about. There are at least two covers to be expected as well: Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?”, both of which the band have been performing live for some time now.

8. Gentlemans Pistols, Hustler’s Row (expected later this year)

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Image “borrowed” from Metal Blade.

Every music fan has at least one artist or band where it seems unfathomable, almost cruel, that they don’t have a wider audience. I have a list of about eight or nine or those, and while I can’t say Gentlemans Pistols are actually at the top of that list they’re pretty freaking close. A Leeds based band who count Carcass guitarist Bill Steer among their number, they’ve only released two albums since 2007 but they’re both well worth a listen: cracking slabs of bawdy, swaggering blues-tinged rock and roll.

The band have been performing new songs live for a couple of years now and a spurt of tweeting back in January confirmed the album was about done. Now a recent press release confirms the band have signed to Nuclear Blast (after spending many years on Rise Above) for their new album Hustler’s Row, joining a healthy roster that includes Anthrax, Crobot, Death Angel, Scorpion Child, Orchid, Blues Pills and Graveyard. With the sort of profile this deal can offer them, who knows? They might just get that wider audience they deserve.

9. Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls (released 4th September)

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Image “borrowed” from Consequence of Sound.

News of a new Iron Maiden album is a bit like news about Bigfoot: even if you want to believe it you can’t really bring yourself to until the thing’s sat in front of you. Is that right? I don’t know. Point is, even a serious health scare for frontman Bruce Dickinson couldn’t fell these titans, and now we have a new Iron Maiden record stampeding towards us this September, one which is looking to be a doozy. Not only is this their longest LP, a double-album clocking in at 92 minutes, but it also features their longest song yet, “Empire of the Clouds”, a whopping eighteen minute long epic to close the album out (beating previous record holder, 1984’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, by a good four-and-a-half minutes). That’s a lot of new Iron Maiden to digest and I personally cannot wait.

(Also, am I the only person who’s noticed that they’ve brought back the “classic” font with the pointed R, Ns and M for the album cover? That would make The Book of Souls the first studio album to feature it since The X Factor back in 1995. I think that’s pretty cool.)

10. Queensrÿche, Condition Hüman/Operation: Mindcrime, The Key (released 2nd October and 18th September respectively)

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Image “borrowed” from Bravewords.

This is a two-fer. Queensrÿche’s self-titled 2013 album, the first with new frontman Todd La Torre, was a good album in many ways – “In This Light” possibly being one of my all-time favourite Rÿche songs, it’s that good – but its kinda-rushed delivery (in the context of a legal battle with former frontman Geoff Tate over the band name) and relatively brief running time made it feel more like a primer for greater things to come. Now that La Torre is fully bedded into the band mechanic those greater things are beginning to surface. Condition Hüman, the band’s fourteenth studio album (fifteenth if you count Frequency Unknown, which I’m sure many Rÿche fans would rather not) is set to be released 2nd October, while new song and album opener “Arrow of Time” can be streamed here, and it’s very good indeed.

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Image “borrowed” from Music Enthusiast.

On the other hand, Tate has been working on a trilogy of records with his new project, Operation: Mindcrime (named after the classic Queensrÿche album), the first part of which, The Key, is set to be released 18th September. It’s a conceptual piece with what so far sounds like a pretty intriguing story, while an official teaser (see below) released to YouTube a while back suggests a heavier, more progressive sound than the material Tate was making with Queensrÿche shortly before he was fired. Though it’s had, to put it kindly, a mixed reaction on YouTube, I’m actually digging some of the stuff in that teaser. It’s certainly closer to the classic Queensrÿche sound than anything they put out with Tate in the last twenty years or so.

Obviously the close proximity of these two released will probably have some people trying to make some sort of contest out of it all. For the rest of us there are two promising sounding prog-metal albums coming our way this autumn.