Sunday, May 22, 2022

Billy Mackenzie - Satellite Life Recordings 1995-1996

Although he is best known as the co-founder and frontman of the Associates, Billy Mackenzie also had a short solo career with several outstanding releases, but unfortunately most were released after his death in 1997.  Now, coinciding with the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, Cherry Red Records has released the excellent three disc box set Satellite Life, which was curated by Steve Augle from sessions he and Billy recorded, and is comprised of thirty-nine tracks, sixteen of which are previously unreleased.  Augle says he was never happy with the way the songs were originally presented, so he has resequenced them more cohesively with each disc having it’s own theme.  

The first disc is titled Winter Academy and contains the ballads.   Most of the tunes here are stripped down with him accompanied by some combination of piano or keys and violin with guitar or a string section on a few.  Opening things are "Sing That Song Again", a gorgeous torch song, and "Winter Academy", which has an insanely emotional and expressive vocal performance.  Next up is "Wild Is The Wind", the first of three covers on disc one and a song that has been covered by many other artists, most notably Bowie, Nina Simone and Johnny Mathis.  In Mackenzie's hands it sounds like it written for him.  The other covers are the Sparks tune "Mother Earth", which is more stripped down than the original, but has a similar vibe, and Randy Newman’s "Baltimore", a haunting version with vocals that border on spoken word, except in the chorus, with Dennis Wheatley’s keys swirling around them.  "The Soul That Sighs" is a subdued atmospheric ballad with subtle electronic elements, while "And This She Knows" contains another haunting vocal performance and also includes a little guitar accompaniment.  "When The World Was Young" is slightly more upbeat than the rest of the songs on disc one and contains some gorgeous harmonies with his voice layered over itself.  On the slow, dreamy sounding "Beyond The Sun", he shows just how incredible his vocals are with a delivery that sounds like he is using his last breath, while “Return To Love” is a slower, hypnotic track with a hint of electronica.  Quite possibly the high point on disc one, and one that is definitely unlike anything else here, is the previously unreleased “Tallahachie Pass”.  With new music added by Aungle, Tom Doyle and Anth Brown, the gorgeous acoustic guitar, subtle drumming and keys come together to create a country flavored tune reminiscent of Glenn Campbell or Jimmy Webb. 

Disc two, titled Consenting Holograms, collects his electronic and more dance oriented songs.  After kicking off with some nightclub ready dance tunes including “3 Gypsies In A Restaurant”, with it’s techno beat and middle eastern flourishes and “Falling Out With The Future”, things move in a more experimental direction.  High points here include “Hornophobic”, an aggressive drum ‘n’ bass tune with some melodic, almost industrial elements, that comes off a little Bowie-ish, “14th Century Nightlife”, a hard driving industrial soundscape that is definitely unlike anything else here, and the high energy electronica instrumental “Consenting Holograms Have More Fun”.  Next is the upbeat “Fear Is My Bride”, which has a really strong vocal performance and is closer to a more traditional Mackenzie sounding track, a solid electronic dance cover of Eurythmics’ “Here Comes The Rain Again”, and “Mysterious Lover”, an upbeat track with a driving beat that takes you back to the clubs.  Other highlights here are the beautiful, dreamlike version of “Return To Love” that has a bit more of an electronica sound than the version on disc one, and a subdued, nine minute remix of “Give Me Time”. 

The final disc is titled Liberty Lounge and is primarily band oriented songs, many of which had the potential to be hits if given the chance. The disc opens really strong with “Tomorrow People”, an extremely catchy pop tune.  Next up is the gorgeous sixties sounding ballad “The Mountains That You Climb”, a tune that would fit perfectly on disc one, with a vocal performance that is one of the best in the box, and superb musical accompaniment including organ, which is a brilliant touch.  “MacArthur’s Son” has a nice soul pop vibe with another of his strongest vocal performances.  The next two tracks move in more of a rock direction with “Liberty Lounge” being a slower tune complete with electric guitar and an everpresent organ, while “Sour Jewel” has a bit of a glam Roxy Music feel.  Things are a bit more pop again with the laid-back “14 Mirrors”, a tune that shows up again a few songs later, with a previously unreleased version that is stripped down to just piano and vocals.  The pace slows down on the next couple of tracks with the original version of “Give Me Time”, which draws you in with it’s synth blasts and slow burning beat, and “At The Edge Of The World”, a moody trip hop tune that was produced by Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins fame and sounds like a lost James Bond theme song.  “Satellite Love” is a very captivating tune, again stripped down to vocals and keys, that has an air of mystery about it.  For “Your Own Fire” Mackenzie collaborated with Stiv Lester to create a strange tune that is raw and edgy with a bit of a garage rock feel complete with a ragged honky tonk piano rattling in the background, and is quite unlike anything else here.  Closing out the box is “Van Hamburg”, a nice little piano and violin instrumental.  Rounded out with a twenty four page booklet containing notes from Augle and a couple other collaborators this is an outstanding, highly recommended collection that shows just what a talent Mackenzie was.  

(Cherry Red Records)

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Prowler - Reactivate

Formed in Basildon, Essex in 1975, during the early days of NWOBHM, Prowler steadily built a fanbase playing live shows and opening for bands like Budgie and Atomic Rooster.  At a gig in 1980 they met the legendary producer Chris Tsangarides, who after hearing one of their demos, recorded “Gotta Get Back To You” for the compilation Brute Force, an album that would end up becoming a NWOBHM classic and also included tracks from Fist, Diamond Head and Raven amongst others.  That song, “Gotta Get Back To You” is a gritty NWOBHM styled rocker that has some killer guitar work that even includes a bit of “Hava Nagila”.  A few months later the band recorded three more demos with Tsangarides, all of which are also found here along with a live track recorded at The Marquee Club in London in December 1980.  At the urging of Bronze Records, 1981 found the band changing their name to Samurai.  While the name change was short lived as the band went back to Prowler later in the year before actually calling it a day in 1982, there are two tracks here under the Samurai name, one a studio recording and one recorded live.  For the most part the rest of the songs are really solid twin guitar rockers that are often reminiscent of Judas Priest and Saxon, and in the case of the live version of “Samurai” there’s a little Maiden thrown in for good measure  Having said that they still manage to maintain their own identity.  In 2010 and 2020 the band reunited, first to record a 30th Anniversary version of “Gotta Get Back To You” and then to record a 40th Anniversary version of“Heavy Metal Hero”, which has a Deep Purple vibe to it.  While they are a little more polished and the vocals are a little rougher on the 2020 cut, both tracks stand up to what they did decades earlier.  It's a shame the recognition didn't come back in the day, but it's nice to see Prowler get the album they deserve. 

(HNE Recordings)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Flush - Conspiracies, Threats and Chaos

After releasing their debut album in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Helsinki, Finland’s Flush was of course unable to perform live, so they headed into a shipping container studio, and over two days self-produced and recorded the EP, Conspiracies, Threats and Chaos.  With a sound that’s largely rooted in hard rock, the four songs they have produced make for a fairly diverse EP.  Kicking things off is “Kings and Queens” which starts with a loose, rattling bassline and crunching guitar before shifting into a solid rocker that balances a melodic side with a raw edginess.  “Weak and Wrong” moves in more of an aggressive and dirty punk direction and at instances is a bit reminiscent of Bad Religion, but with more of a garage rock vibe, while “Cut Me Open” has a more dynamic, laid-back groove and borders on being a bit grungy.  Closing things out is “Entertainment”, a pub rock singalong with a straight-ahead hard rock bite.  This is a very impressive EP that really has me looking forward to hearing what they have up their sleeves next.

(WormHoleDeath / Flush - Facebook)



Thursday, May 05, 2022

Harry Chapin - Story Book: The Elektra Albums (1972-1978)

Although his initial foray into music was in his teens with his two brothers as The Chapin Brothers (they released an album called Chapin Music! in 1966 and also occasionally performed with their father Jim, who was considered a legendary percussionist), Harry Chapin intended on being a documentary filmmaker and was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1968 for the boxing doc Legendary Champions.  After shifting his focus to music and playing New York City nightclubs, there ended up being a bidding war between Columbia and Elektra before he signed a multi-million dollar deal with Elektra (considered one of the biggest at that time) and releasing his debut Heads And Tales in 1972.  Story Book: The Elektra Albums (1972-1978) is an outstanding new six CD box set that starts with that debut and covers his nine Elektra releases from that time period, all newly remastered in 2022.  He did release one last album on Elektra, 1979’s Legends Of The Lost And Found, which was a combination of some live and studio tracks, and is owned by the Chapin Family and not included here. 

Produced by label head Jac Holzman, Head And Tales is a beautifully arranged collection of tunes with Chapin's warm, relaxed vocals accompanied by his core band and the subtle use of cello and recorder. Chapin had an incredible way with telling stories through his lyrics which was evident from the start with the album’s biggest hit and one of his best known songs “Taxi”.  Hitting number 24 on the US charts, the semi-autobiographical tale of a taxi driver picking up a former lover and addressing their reflections of the past and present does a brilliant job of painting a picture of the taxi ride and the emptiness of their lives.  Both “Taxi” and the album sold over one million copies within the first six months of the album’s release. 

While the follow-up Sniper And Other Love Songs wasn’t as successful as his debut, overall it is really a stronger and more diverse release. Album highlight “Sniper” is one of the most powerful storytelling songs he ever wrote.  Written about a real-life mass shooting in Texas, the song is an almost ten minute musical movie.  Many of the other songs continue to show just how good a storyteller he is.  “Burning Herself” is an intense tune addressing self-mutilation and punctuated with some hard rock like guitar riffs, musically “Better Place To Be” is somewhat reminiscent of “Taxi” and basically tells the story of someone who feels being with anyone is better than being alone, and “Woman Child” tackles teenage pregnancy and abortion.  Another notable song here is “Circle”, an infectious tune that was covered by The New Seekers the same year the album was released and became their biggest hit.

With Short Stories Chapin once again found himself on the charts with “W.O.L.D” hitting 36 in Billboard.  The song is basically a bittersweet conversation between an aging DJ and his ex-wife as he realizes his life has passed him by as he chased his dreams of being a DJ around the country.  “Mr Tanner”, another movie like song about a dry cleaner who is encouraged by friends to go to New York to sing in a show because of his beautiful voice, but gets panned when he gets there and never sings again except by himself at night (one of Chapin’s backup singers “Big” John Wallace is featured as Mr Tanner), “Mail Order Annie”, a beautiful, laid-back tune that’s basically a love letter of sorts from a North Dakota farmer to his mail order bride, and “They Call Her Easy” are amongst several other songs here that became crowd favorites.

Opening with “Cat’s In The Cradle”, his only song to hit number one, Chapin’s next album Verities & Balderdash sold over two million copies.  The song started as a poem written by his wife and today has become a part of pop culture (there’s a segment in the Chapin documentary When In Doubt, Do Something where they show clips of the song being referenced in many TV shows including The Simpsons, Friends, Modern Family, Blackish, Stephen Colbert, The Goldbergs, Two and A Half Man and The Office along with Shrek and being covered by both Johnny Cash and DMC with Sarah McLachlan).  The album also contained a couple more singles that charted in “I Wanna Learn A Love Song” and “What Made America Famous”.  “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” and “Six String Symphony” are lighthearted tunes that showed his sense of humor, while “Shooting Star” is another gorgeous movie-like story song. 

Even though Portrait Gallery ended up being one of his least popular albums it still has plenty of great songs and the overall sound of the album harkens back to his earlier releases.  Along with “Bummer”, an epic nearly ten minute track with an outstanding orchestrated arrangement full of horns and even utilizing backing vocalists, some of the other highlights are “Dreams Go By”, a bouncy tune that’s upbeat musically, but very bittersweet lyrically, and “Someone Keeps Calling My Name”, which was originally on The Chapin Brothers release and has been rerecorded here.  

Compiled from shows recorded over three nights in San Diego, Santa Monica and Berkeley, Greatest Hits Live is largely just that, live versions of his biggest hits and most popular songs along with a song apiece written by his brothers Tom and Steve.  Chapin always shined live and had a great rapport with the crowd and it really shows here.  Along with the eleven live songs are three new studio tracks, “She Is Always Seventeen” “Love Is Just Another Word” and “The Shortest Story” (while these songs were on the original vinyl version of the album, they were removed from past CD versions and have once again been included here). 

For On The Road To Kingdom Come, Chapin turned to his brother Stephen to handle the production.  The resulting album contains the most elaborate production to that point in his career with electric guitars, horns, keys and even some sound effects.  At times this gave the album a little more of a rock sound and on the opening title track there is even a hint of a reggae beat at times.  Some of the highlights include the beautiful “Corey’s Coming”, “Caroline” and “If My Mary Were Here”, all of which are a little more reminiscent of his earlier stuff, along with twisted tale “The Mayor Of Candor Lied”.

With his brother Stephen at the production helm once again, the double album Dance Band On The Titanic is his most ambitious sounding disc.  The production is outstanding as it expands even further than it’s predecessor and the diversity of his songs are at their peak as evidenced by the opening title track, a tune with an earwormy dance beat that breaks out into an all out rocker complete with screaming electric guitars.   Along with a couple of standout ballads in “Mismatch” and “I Do It For You Jane”, other standout tracks include “We Grew Up A Little Bit”, “Country Dreams” and the humorous bluesy “Bluesman”.   Another track of note is the fourteen plus minute closer “There Was Only One Choice”, an absolute brilliant conceptual piece. 

Living Room Suite is the last album from this period and found him shifting back to the more stripped down singer/songwriter style.  While the album is still full of classic “Harry Chapin” songs, most notably “Flowers Are Red”, a really catchy upbeat tune that deals with conformity in schools and was apparently quite popular in Ireland, the record buying public’s tastes had shifted and the sales weren’t very good.  Songs like “Poor Damned Fool” and “Jenny" are great ballads, and others like “Dancin’ Boy” and “I Wonder What Will Happen To This World” find him dabbling in a bluesy gospel direction.  Chapin did go on to release a couple more albums before his untimely death in a car accident in 1981.   Cherry Red/Strawberry has done an outstanding job with this collection.  The CD’s sound great and the enclosed booklet contains a detailed bio as well as a rundown on each album and credits.  This is a highly recommended collection. 

(Strawberry)

Monday, May 02, 2022

Dramatis - Dramatis

In late April 1981, Gary Numan performed three shows at Wembley Arena that signaled his retirement from live performances.  At this point, his band, RRussell Bell (guitars, keyboards), Chris Payne (vocals, keyboards) and Ced Sharpley (drums), along with Gary’s extra keyboard player, Denis Haines, decided to form their own band Dramatis (bassist Paul Gardiner wanted to start a solo career).  A few days after those shows the band was signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records and over the next few months they released three singles, “Ex Lunia Scientia”, “Oh! Twenty Twenty-Five” and “No-One Lives Forever”, then in September they released their debut album For Future Reference, which is where this new two-disc deluxe version kicks off. 

Opening things is the album version and differently spelled “Oh! 2025” a catchy synth rock tune with a hint of Devo in the vocal delivery.  On “Human Sacrifice” they go in a bit of a colder, darker direction with some tribal percussion, viola and jolting synths.  This darker sound continues on the next track “I Only Find Rewind”, which at first reminds me of Berlin’s “Metro” (ironically also released in 1981) with vocals that are sung lower than the prior songs, and a really nice upbeat melodic break towards the middle.  "No-One Lives Forever" is another bouncy, upbeat catchy synth tune with some really good guitar work setting it apart.  This brings us to “Love Needs No Disguise”, which largely due to the contribution of Numan on vocals was their biggest hit.  The lyrics are about their time in the Gary Numan band and it just so happened that he had stopped by the studio the day they were recording it.  He liked the song and asked if he could sing on it and it ended up reaching 33 on the UK charts (it also ended up being released on Numan’s label Beggars Banquet and was credited to Gary Numan and Dramatis).  The song itself is without a doubt the album’s high point, a very captivating tune, again kind of darker and with a very hypnotic, atmospheric sound full of swirling synths, viola and piano.  Starting with a very beautiful classical sounding section of piano, viola and keys “Turn”, another standout track, evolves into a very upbeat song meshing synth heavy dance beats with very dynamic prog instrumental passages.  “Take Me Home” is a hauntingly beautiful, somewhat distorted, piano piece accompanied by viola and pleading vocals repeating the title, while “On Reflection” is a bright, pop tinged tune that brings to mind Ultravox.  Closing things out is “Ex Luna Scienta”, which was initially their first single and the first song they recorded as Dramatis, and sounds like Visage meshed with ELO, thanks to their use of vocoder.  Disc one also contains eight bonus songs consisting of three single tracks and five twelve inch mixes.  The single tracks here are “The Curtain” (b-side of “Oh! Twenty Twenty-Five), a very captivating piano/synth instrumental, “Face On The Wall”, a hook heavy synth driven pop tune and “Pomp And Stompandstamp”, an edgy instrumental with modern day classical and prog synth runs twisting and turning around the occasional crunching guitar licks (these last two were non-album tracks released after the album. 

Following the opening cut on disc two, which is a medley of four album tracks stitched together as a sales sampler and included on the flipside of “No One Lives Forever”, are six seven inch single tracks.  Included in these are “Lady DJ”, which is driven by a really cool funky synth beat and finds them using vocoder in the chorus, and was released as the b-side to “Ex Luna Scientia”, and “The Shame”, an epic song, where all the pieces really come together and was released as a single after the album was released.  Their final release was the single “I Can See Her Now”, a really pretty pop tune that saw them hitting the charts again peaking at 57 on the UK charts.  “One Step ahead, which was the single’s flipside, is a spritely synthpop instrumental.  Closing out disc two is a previously unreleased BBC in Concert performance from the Paris Theatre in May 1982.  Opening the show is the previously unreleased “Sand and Stone”, a fairly taut tune that leads into “I Only Find Rewind”, which has a rawer, almost punk energy not present on the album version.  The performance of “Face On The Wall” maintains all the hook heavy catchiness here and “I Can See Her Now” is heavier than the studio version with more of a rock edge.  While the playful, more dynamic sounds of “Turn” and “Pomp and Stompandstomp” showcase their musicianship, their take on “Love Needs No Disguise” is outstanding with Chris Payne handling the vocals just as well as Numan.  “The Shame” then closes the show out brilliantly.  The CD also comes with a booklet containing a really good band history, an interview with RRussell Bell and recollections on all of the songs. 

As the band were working on songs for a second album they received a call from Numan asking if they would consider returning for both recording and touring (at this point Denis Haines had left the band and joined The Hollies), which they decided to do.  Around 2012 they had plans to reunite, but those plans failed to materialize after the passing of Ced Sharpley.  After several more years of uncertainty, 2020 saw the release of a new Dramatis single “A Torment of Angels”, which can be found on their bandcamp page (Dramatis).   Since then they have also played some live shows and have plans for a new album. 

(Cherry Red Records)


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Gadgets Sons - Gadgets Sons

The moment this self-titled debut from Oklahoma two-piece Gadgets Sons starts it’s complete in your face brutality.  For the most part, the songs are aggressive extreme/death metal, but if you dig a little deeper there are a lot of dynamics with elements of stoner, groove and hardcore coming through.  The guitar work from Charles Ian Ireland is very impressive, aggressive and heavy, but with a lot of little nuances throughout like the shredding that pops up for a moment in “Perrika”, which at times musically reminds me of Fear Factory, and his acoustic playing on the gorgeous, atmospheric instrumental “You and I”, a song that gives you a quick reprieve halfway through the EP.  In the vocal department Ireland largely shifts deftly from a death metal growl to a scream. Phillip Eyad Mofadi’s drumming is for the most part brutal and precise, but there are also times like on “Song One”, which is a thrashier groove metal song that’s a touch more on the melodic side (I say that lightly) and “IWBY”, which is a little doomier, where he does a great job of falling back a little in the groove.  This is quite an impressive debut, made even more impressive by the fact that it sounds like a full band and not two people.  Looking forward to hearing where they go from here. 

(WormHoleDeath)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Michael Weston King - The Struggle

For over thirty years UK singer-songwriter Michael Weston King has had a very successful music career, initially as a member of the bands Fragile Friends, Gary Hall and the Stormkeepers and The Good Sons, followed by a solo career and then for the past ten years as half the duo My Darling Clementine with his wife Lou Dalgleish.
  Now he is back with The Struggle, his first solo album in ten years, which was 
recorded in a rural studio in Wales and features guest appearances from Elvis Costello’s long-standing keyboard player Steve Nieve, Jeb Loy Nichols, his wife Lou, his daughter Mabel Dalgleish-King and others. The resulting album is a gorgeous set of tunes rooted in the sounds of late 60’s and early 70’s singer songwriters with a bit of country and folk added to the mix, at times bringing to mind artists from John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Jesse Winchester to Van Morrison, Harry Chapin and even Scott Walker.  Lyrically King does an outstanding job of tackling subjects as a storyteller and paints a very visual picture with his words.  Several of the songs tackle the struggles of life and getting older.  “The Hardest Thing Of All”, details battling depression and just getting through the day, “Valerie’s Coming Home” is a heartbreaking song about packing up everything after the passing of his mother-in-law and “Another Dying Day” is about the despair of being alone after a relationship ends.  While “Weight of the World” finds him displaying his disgust with Trump’s march to St. Johns Church to deal with Black Live Matters protestors by looking at it from the view of a policeman who voted for him but now sees who he really is, “Sugar”, co-written with Peter Case, shows how quickly love can get it grips in you and “Me And Frank” is a buddy song with hints of “Pancho and Lefty”.  King's rich, soulful vocals along with the musicianship and arrangements are top notch throughout and the added touches in the instrumentation like the slide guitar and mandolin on “Sugar”, the organ on “The Hardest Thing Of All”, the string arrangements on “Another Dying Day” and trombone on “Old Soft Shoe” really enhance them.  Another track of note is “Theory Of Truthmakers”, which contains unused lyrics from Michael’s late friend and collaborator Jackie Leven that were passed on to him by a mutual friend, and is somewhat reminiscent of Scott Walker, fleshed out beautifully with mandolin, keyboards, strings, piano and has his wife Lou sharing vocals with him.  The Struggle is definitely a welcome return to the solo world of Michael Weston King.   

(Cherry Red Records)