album review

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”

Album Review: The Treatment – “Running with the Dogs”

“What a rip-off! These dogs aren’t even running!” – Annie Diot

I think the heavens actually opened up the first time I heard The Treatment’s debut record, This Might Hurt. It was everything I could have asked for in a modern rock record: rowdy, tight, melodic, powerful and just downright catchy. And now, after four… has it really been four years since that album first came out? Blimey. Anyway, they’re back with their second album, Running with the Dogs, and because I’m such a gent I’ve drummed up a little review for you all. After my track-by-track review of Red Dragon Cartel I’m going to try and write a briefer, more cohesive piece for this one, but as always I can’t tell you if you like something or not, so if I peak your interest check out some samples or videos and decide for yourself.

I’ve listened to this record a few times now, and I’ll be blunt: if you’re looking for an album exactly like This Might Hurt… this isn’t it. It’s a tougher, leaner, faster album than their debut, and that’s evident right from track one, “I Bleed Rock + Roll”: it’s just as raucous as any of their earlier material, but (here we go, AS-level Music Theory coming into action), the riff is tighter and more streamlined, with some vicious licks accenting the verse melody (I got an E). The Eighties glam touches that made This Might Hurt all polished and shiny are largely gone – it’s more Slave to the Grind than Skid Row. But you know what? As much as I liked their first album, I think this one ups the ante. There are two things The Treatment do well – riffs and melodies – and they’re on fine form here. What these guys did need were some harder-hitting songs and, fortunately, Running with the Dogs has them all over the place.

There are, however, a few acoustic touches here and there across the record, from the little intro that opens the superb “Outlaw” to the ballads, “Unchain My World and “Cloud Across the Sun” – two light reprieves from the fast rockers, both more contemplative and reined-in than anything on the previous record. In fact, the raise-the-roof love songs are pretty much gone, more evidence that the band are streamlining their approach. “Emergency” is the closest we have on this album to a sing-yer-head-off ballad in the vein of “Just Tell Me Why” or “Nothing to Lose But Our Minds,” but even then it’s a tougher, less romantic song than those two. They even go in for some harmonic backing vocals on the chorus, and it’s a nice, unconventional touch for these guys. Scratch that, there’s three things The Treatment does very well: riffs, melodies and choruses.*

But really, all jargon and piffle aside, it’s another Treatment album – put simply, it rocks from start to end, and at a slim 48-odd minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. As for personal highlights? Well, “I Bleed Rock + Roll” is a blast; the title track has a great, anthemic feel that doesn’t stray into bombast; “Emergency” has some wonderful melodic moments; but my favourite song has to be the final track, “Don’t Get Mad Get Evil.” I can’t quite get out how much I love this song: the mangled verse-riff, the sinister, slithering chorus,** the solo, the sheer catchiness of it all (I swear, this is the catchiest freaking thing you’ll hear all month)… everything works here. “Don’t Get Mad Get Evil” might just top “Shake the Mountain” for my favourite Treatment song, and if they don’t play this at every concert until the day they die in a fiery rooftop explosion saving London from the lizard-people who threaten our precious sugar (could happen), I am going to be seriously peeved.

VERDICT: Highly recommended. It’s a different animal to This Might Hurt: the songwriting is more mature, the production is drier and leaner, Jones’ vocals are reined in a little more and the overall package delivers a more cohesive listen. Funnily enough, it’s not as immediate as its predecessor and might take a few more listens for things to really click (it did for me), but overall this is a step forward from This Might Hurt in all the right directions. At the end of the day, though, it’s The Treatment through and through, and they’re writing some of the best modern hard rock songs out there.

FAVOURITES: “I Bleed Rock + Roll;” “The Outlaw;” “She’s Too Much;” “World on Fire;” “Don’t Get Mad Get Evil”

P.S. What’s weird is that these songs have just the right balance of melody and riffage for the band to potentially break through on mainstream radio without losing their rock credibility – so why don’t they get more public exposure? Are the executives worried something like this might hit it big and their ten-a-penny songwriters would have to put some actual effort into their dreck for a change? Even Heaven’s Basement made it to the Radio 1 C-list last year. Songs like “Emergency” or “World on Fire” could do quite well on the charts if given a bit more of a push.

P.P.S. By the way, the deluxe edition comes with six bonus tracks: four covers and two acoustic renditions, one of the title track and one of “I Bleed Rock + Roll.” The covers don’t sound too dissimilar to the originals, which is hardly a criticism, but they serve more as a digestif than dessert (that might be the most pretentious thing I’ve ever written, and I still had to look up digestif) – though they did remind me how good Status Quo’s “In My Chair” is. Thanks for that, lads. There’s also a bonus track, “Way of the World,” on the iTunes deluxe edition which I haven’t checked out yet, but if it’s anything like the rest of the album it should be good.

*I will point out, though – and I’m probably not the first – that the descending riff sounds suspiciously similar to Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing.” Then again, “Sex Type Thing” sounded suspiciously similar to KISS’ “War Machine,” so there’s obviously something to that rhythm that just works.

**As opposed to the Slytherin chorus, which is when evil wizards go caroling.

Running with the Dogs is out now on Spinefarm Records.

Album Review: Red Dragon Cartel – Red Dragon Cartel

Red Dragon Cartel – Red Dragon Cartel (Frontiers, 2014)

So here we go: my first new album purchase of 2014 and my first album review for this blog, and we’re starting on a very promising note: Jake E. Lee, former Ozzy Osbourne and Badlands guitarist, has emerged from the fog with his first new band in what must be at least twenty years, Red Dragon Cartel, and they’ve brought out a self-titled debut album for the new year. I’ve listened to it a couple of times now (third time coming up soon) and… actually, I’d first like to thank Amazon for actually getting a CD order to me on its release date for once. Cheers for that. Anyway, I’ve listened to it twice and drummed up my thoughts on it, which you are invited to read below. Obviously this is no substitute for listening to the actual music, so if I do peak your interest go listen to some samples on iTunes or wherever and see if you want to get it yourself.

Little disclaimer before we start: I won’t be ranking my review with a number as many reviewers do (though there will be a final verdict), so no scrolling down to the bottom and hurrying off to whatever it is you plan to do with your day (unless it’s putting out fires, in which case I’m cool with you speeding through, but it’d still have to be quite a lot of them). I worked hard on this. Well, I worked on it, anyway, so do please read at your own leisure. Additionally, I know some people don’t like the track-by-track format, but I find it a handy way of organising my observations and opinions while preventing me from drifting off into waffle-y, self-important prose. Plus, it’s how you listen to an album, y’know? I mean, come on.

1. Deceived

A speedy, choppy riff opens up the album: if we’re playing the Comparisons Game it sounds a lot like “Bark at the Moon,” which may or may not have been intentional. Anyway, Jake E. Lee’s back and this song does a great job of signalling that. It’s simple, sure, but it’s fast and it rocks, with a decent chorus to punctuate the verses (I quite like the bridge as well), which is all I’m asking for to kick things off. As for the soloing? Pretty brilliant: you just know we’re in for a good time here. Overall a promising start.

2. Shout It Out

Slight change of pace with this one, which is always welcome: a heavier, slower, groovier riff, verging on industrial metal. Actually, the quiet verse-loud chorus contrast is very industrial. You could even call it nu-metal: it’s certainly got that boisterous, us-against-the-world attitude to it, especially when it comes to the take-no-prisoners chorus (were you expecting something more subdued from a song called “Shout It Out”?) that sounds a bit like John Bush-era Anthrax. Smith’s singing is also given more room to experiment, taking on some quieter passages as well as some higher notes – I’m expecting good things from him. Early favourite for me: lots of attitude with a great riff for headbanging.

3. Feeder (feat. Robin Zander)

This was the first track released from Red Dragon Cartel and, to be honest, it took a little while to grow on me; but when it finally clicked, my finger didn’t leave the repeat button for a week. I love that crunching guitar sound, playing what could almost be a funk-metal riff; contrasted against the psychedelic melody it makes for a great listening experience. It’s always good to hear Robin Zander’s vocals, too, especially as we haven’t had a new Cheap Trick record in nearly five years (as it turns out, Tom Petersson also plays bass on the track – didn’t see that one coming). As much as I like Smith’s style, I would love to hear more collaborations with Zander in the future. A very early favourite for me and still possibly my favourite track on the album.

4. Fall from the Sky (Seagull)

A ballad, you say? Sure, why not? Typically, things slow down and stretch out for a while here. It’s quite a sad song, but quite nice as well, to be honest, and relaxing too: I could picture myself sitting on the deck of a beach-house, looking out at the sun disappearing behind the ocean, the last traces of its orange glow fading to brown, then to black, as seagulls fall from the sky… actually, that last bit isn’t quite so tranquil, is it? It’s passionate, but relaxing all the same. Lee gets a wonderful solo towards the end as well, briefly mimicking a seagull’s cry, something I always like to hear on guitar (though the only other place I’ve heard it done is Budgie’s “Parents”). A nice break from all the heavy rock…

5. Wasted (feat. Paul Di’Anno)

…and we’re right back in again: the band tighten up for another tough, fast rocker, this time with former Iron Maiden vocalist Paul Di’Anno. Got to say, I really like the riff here: it’s not a particularly complex or noteworthy riff, but it’s got this biker-rock punch to it that I really like. As for the vocals, I haven’t listened to anything Di’Anno’s done since Maiden’s Killers from 1981, so it’s nice to hear from his gravelly voice again; and it has to be said that, his more recent troubles aside, the guy’s still got something. I love that tremolo in his vocals during the verses, though I could have done without the brief talk-box effect at the end there. Still, great, great track.

6. Slave

I’ll admit, this one sorta passed me by on first listen. Not sure why, because it’s actually a pretty good song. The speed keeps up with another buzz-saw riff, backing another psychedelic melody with very slight Eastern tinges in the bridge. It’s got probably one of the best choruses on the album, as well: that brief, descending chant they put in there is a nice touch, and the melody clicks with the riff nicely. Not a standout for me, personally, but a good listen nonetheless.

7. Big Mouth (feat. Maria Brink)

Things slow riiiiiiiight down for “Big Mouth,” featuring In This Moment’s Maria Brink. I hadn’t heard very good things about this song beforehand, so I approached it with trepidation and… it’s not that bad at all. Okay, it’s a little plodding, the riff isn’t really there and the melody could have used a few more hooks, but I enjoyed it all the same: it’s got this twitchy, bottom-heavy alt-metal style to it that I don’t mind at all – think the Black Keys played by Ripper-era Judas Priest, sorta. As for the vocals, I haven’t really listened to much In This Moment so I can’t draw comparisons there, but Brink does a decent job, even if she gets a bit scream-y at times. Not the best track on the album, but better than I’d been led to believe, so I’m quite happy about that. Check out that solo towards the end as well. Nice.

8. War Machine

Another heavy, snarling beast of a tune, “War Machine” has a marching riff that might just remind you of a certain Black Sabbath song, but the music soon takes on its own identity. Again, it’s the little touches that make it work for me – the little swaggering shifts in the riff, those ‘ooh-ah-oohs’ in the chorus – but overall it’s a brute of a song, bristling with heavy rock attitude and grit. If I have one criticism, it’s that there’s not quite enough distinction between the verse and the chorus, so they kinda blend together if you’re not listening carefully, but that’s a minor quibble. Definitely a personal highlight for me.

9. Redeem Me (feat. Sass Jordan)

A lighter, more melodic offering to start winding down the album, with vocalist Sass Jordan taking the reins. I can’t honestly say I’d heard of Sass Jordan before now, but  I must say I like her style. The song itself didn’t do much for me on first listen, but the second’s doing a fair bit: slight touches of soul and AOR in the chorus which remind me of Snakecharmer or The Union, and I do like being reminded of those bands. It gets heavier towards the end, with another great, groove-riding riff and some terrific soloing, but otherwise it’s easily the most melodic track on the album. Not a problem at all – this is a dragon with many faces, it seems.

10. Exquisite Tenderness

Now isn’t that just a lovely name for a closing track? Funnily enough, it’s a piano instrumental, which the liner notes tell me is “the first song Jake ever wrote in his life.” It might not be what you’d expect from such a hard rocking album, but it’s actually very nice: short, sweet and closes the album on a lovely note.

VERDICT: Recommended. Some critics might find it too basic or whatever, but for a debut album from Jake E. Lee’s first band in I-don’t-even-want-to-consider-how-many years it’s all we could have asked for: a solid, highly enjoyable hard rock album with some great riffs and songs that improve with each listen. Is it any different from any other rock record you’ll hear this year? Probably not, but it has enough great moments and surprises to kick off your 2014 in the right way (as it has for me). The multiple-singers concept holds together better than I would have thought, too, although I would have liked to hear more from Darren James Smith: if a Red Dragon Cartel II ever emerges (and I hope it does) it’d be nice to have him perform all the vocals, with maybe one more song with Robin Zander.

PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS: “Shout It Out;” “Feeder;” “Wasted;” “War Machine”

Red Dragon Cartel is out now on Frontiers.