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Westside Weekend Festival 2017: Grand Rapids, Mich.

•August 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Westside Weekend Poster

–Westside Weekend Festival: Aug. 11th-14th, 2017. Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill, Grand Rapids, Mich.  

There’s something innately special about local music. Whether it’s feeling the excitement of seeing your friends and neighbors performing live, or experiencing the adrenaline surge while playing onstage with your own band, local music enriches our lives tenfold. The musicians shed their blood, sweat, and (likely) many beers in the practice rooms, bars and clubs for little of the glory and a fraction of the pay of national acts. Yet, the musicians, promoters, club owners, and listeners do what they do because they enjoy it, and this pursuit is noble. Now, obviously every major city has its own unique music scene, and one scene is not inherently better or worse than another. But Grand Rapids is my hometown, and local West Michigan music is therefore what I’ll intermittently be choosing to focus on for Kollnot Rock’n’Metal Reviews.

Now that I’ve already overused the phrase “local music scene,” let’s dive right into the Westside Weekend 2017. This festival is the brainchild of Grand Rapids-based musician Joe Henry, vocalist/guitarist for several bands, including The Holy Warheads, The Westside Rebellion, and American Zombie Inquisition. Henry has teamed up with Ted Smith of the Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill to create the inaugural four-day music festival. Westside Weekend showcases music from a diverse array of genres, but the overarching focus is on bands from West Michigan. That said, Henry also invited a few out-of-town bands to represent different regions, such as Red Stone Souls out of Detroit, Kalamazoo’s Drugs in the Carpet, and Tail Light Rebellion from Nashville, Tennesee. Westside Weekend also is geared especially towards blue-collar music fans, so cover charge was kept at a very reasonable $5-per-night, with the Monday Wrap-Up show being free.

Disclaimer: given that I couldn’t attend all four nights, and that my primary musical interest and focus is rock and metal music, unfortunately I’m unable to review every band that performed over the course of the weekend. I only will be reviewing Day 2: Saturday, August 12th, as well as the Monday finale show. However, I will be including Facebook/web links for all the bands I missed at the end of this review.

Westside Weekend Day 2

-Day 2: Saturday, August 12th, 2017: Vox Concussio/ The Alien Dogs/ Lucy Ernst of the Truffle Pigs/ The Holy Warheads/ Red Stone Souls/ Slumlord Radio.

It’s not exactly a secret that the heavy rock/metal scene here in Grand Rapids has been seriously hurting the last few years. With the demise of WGRD’s “Heavyweights,” competition, the relative dearth of rock-oriented venues, a reduction in the number and quality of national acts passing through, and top bands breaking up or relocating, finding good head-banging music in Beer City U.S.A. can be challenging. That’s not to imply that the scene is dead; in fact, many great bands are still jamming — and fighting valiantly for survival — beneath the surface. Westside Weekend gathered some of the area’s best punk and hard rock bands at the Tip Top for Day 2, and the billing proved to be an invigorating shot of sheer rock-and-roll power.

Kicking off the festivities at 8:35 p.m., local punk-rock quartet Vox Concussio played a short 20 minutes (tops) set. These guys (and gal singer) play a mostly mid-tempo brand of punk that is catchy enough, if a bit rough around the edges. But with more practice and live experience, Vox Concussio should make an impact with punk fans.

Up next was The Alien Dogs, a great band name if I’ve ever heard one. This trio of very young musicians warmed up the growing Tip Top crowd with an exuberant set of high-energy punk. Their sound was rugged and pristine, the tempos brisk but always controlled. As for well-known references in their music, I am no punk expert, but I hear a blend of Pennywise, early Offspring, Green Day, Sex Pistols, and yes, the almighty godfathers, the Ramones. The Alien Dogs are a fun time, as one might expect canines of the alien persuasion to be.

The music of Lucy Ernst is a bit enigmatic. Ernst, singer and guitarist of local rockers Truffle Pigs, teamed up with drummer Brent Riva of The Holy Warheads to form Truffle Sandwich for a special one-off appearance at Westside Weekend. Ernst’s music defies categorization: her guitar riffs are jagged and quirky, yet undeniably rocking; her voice blending the snarly grit of a Joan Jett with the introspective melody of a Chrissie Hynde. Song-wise, while the angst-fueled attitude of classic punk is certainly present, there’s also a nod to the hard-rocking grit of British Invasion bands, Motörhead, and perhaps even Crazy Horse-era Neil Young. Truffle Sandwich didn’t seem to lose any power due to the lack of a bass player, and Ernst’s smiling, gracious stage demeanor belied the irreverent rebelliousness of her music. She made an instant fan out of me and many others crowding the Tip Top stage this night.

One of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, fest organizer Joe Henry’s band The Holy Warheads always pack a nuclear-scale wallop. The band plays groove-based hard rock with a strong, gritty grunge influence. These guys sound like a blast from the early ‘90s Seattle scene, as if Soundgarden married Black Sabbath and then gave birth to some Dio-esque vocal melodies. Henry, with his long, blond deadlocks and serpent-like stage movements, is clearly the focal point of the Warheads’ shows. His unique voice captivates with his resonant, low-register tones and fantastic vibrato. Bassist Kevin Keefer, also of the outstanding instrumental trio Knives Are Quiet, lays down the straight-ahead grooves with confidence; he also possesses the most powerful and dirty bass tone in the area (see Dug Pinnick of King’s X for reference). Guitarist Ivan Hannah’s riffs sweeping riffs are a bit dissonant without sounding discordant; it all contributes to a mesmerizing atmosphere of equal parts aggression and melodic hypnosis on songs like “Telling Me Nothing” and “Slaves Unto the Master.” Judging by the energetic reaction of my fellow fans upfront, The Holy Warheads are gaining a holy following indeed.

Bands that plow the stoner rock/metal fields nationwide seem to be a dime a dozen. That is, discovering the best bands in that genre can be like finding the proverbial needle in that haystack (not to imply those bands are farmers, though there obviously would be nothing wrong with it if there were). Thankfully for Michiganders, we have one of the best stoner-metal bands around in Red Stone Souls. Months back I saw the Detroit quartet perform at Mulligan’s down the road in Eastown, and they blew me away. Saturday night’s show was no different; just after 11 p.m., we fans were greeted by a wall of sonic power and flying, head-banging hair. Red Stone Souls feature the weighty, blues-soaked, Sabbath-like guitar riffs and soulful vocals (of typical of the genre; what’s not so typical is the sheer quality and memorability of their songs. The harmonized guitar interplay and dynamic contrasts in the songs only contribute to the intensity of their performance. Their seamless, professional performance clearly earned them more fans this night, and deservedly so. Red Stone Souls are the real (full-meal) deal.

Finally, well after midnight and with endurance levels reaching their bending points, the mighty Slumlord Radio took the stage. This quirky and highly-entertaining heavy rock quartet always presents a fun show, with plenty of smiles and a few good laughs on hand. Introducing themselves, as usual, as “We’re Slumlord Radio from Stockholm Sweden,” by vocalist/guitarist Tommy “Capt. Hollywood” Erickson, this Grand Rapids-based band promptly launched into their inimitable brand of heavy punk/metal/power rock, er, whatever. If there is a band out there that sounds exactly like Slumlord Radio, then I promise to get my hearing aids switched out. These guys have the bludgeoning heaviness of Sabbath (another theme this weekend), the exuberant speed and catchiness of punk, and the tasty guitar wizardry of classic metal. They also know how to vary a setlist via an enjoyable mix of originals and covers. For example, when they brought a female fan onstage to sing Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the whole floor of the Tip Top was head-boppin’ and rolling. Likewise, when they played a rousing, audience-enhanced version of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right to Party,” for the penultimate song of the night, there was nary a non-singing pair of lungs in the place. Don’t miss seeing Slumlord Radio if you get the chance. They’re the best Swedish band not from Sweden you’ll ever get to hear.

Whew, what a night! When the ears are still ringing afterwards despite the earplugs, it’s a successful night of LOUD, heavy rock. But there would be more to come for Westside Weekend.

-Monday, August 14th, 2017. Westside Weekend Wrap-Up Show: Rust Bucket/Abram Gunther and The Bear-a-Tones/ Emma Loo/ JOE.

By the time Monday night rolled around, the Westside Weekend had already had nearly 15 bands hit the Tip Top’s stage. Those devoted faithful who stuck around for all of the first three days deserve some props and envy. Unfortunately, this fan needed some recovery time from Saturday night’s debauchery. So, trying to make Sunday’s matinee show featuring another of Henry’s bands, The Westside Rebellion, was not in the cards for me. Thankfully, we were given one more chance to celebrate with the Wrap-Up show on Monday evening. Many of us fellow musicians, fans, and open-mic family members were there to relax and see out what was a successful inaugural Westside Weekend.

Musical diversity was the unofficial theme for this show, beginning with the alternative-folk duo known as Rust Bucket. Rust Bucket is led by the singer/songwriter Acid Wizard on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, along with another young man accompanying him on banjo. Dubbing Acid Wizard’s music as “eccentric” would be the understatement of the year; he sings with an extremely nasally tone, his songs are simple to the extreme of including only one or two chords (I think I counted five chords as a maximum in one song), and his lyrics deal with zany reckneck sort of themes such as wrecking cars, as well as superheroes, riding bicycles, future societies, etc. Yes, Rust Bucket’s music may be unique, bizarre even. But it certainly is entertaining in the live context.

Abram Gunther has been steadily making an impact on the G.R. scene over the course of the last few years, including a recent stint as the Monday house band at the Tip Top. I had seen him and his band the Bear-a-Tones several times in recent months, and each time his music grows on me more and more. Generally speaking, Gunther’s mellow brand of bluesy, soulful rock (or rocking soul) is a bit too low-key for this angst-ridden, humming-bird heart-rated crusty rocker. But his beautiful songwriting and soul-fueled, Joe Cocker-like voice can melt the musical heart of any skeptics. Like always, the Bear-a-Tones — drummer Brad Golden, bassist Tyler Harry, and guitarist Eric Yoder — were joined by onstage by multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Sam Kenny on violin, trumpet, and backing vocals; their performances of the original material as well as their slow funk version of Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America” were rousing and locked-down tight.

Emma Loo Ancient

Those who have been paying attention to G.R. music in the slightest over the last few years should know about Emma Loo. Not only did she win two local Jammie awards this year, she and her boyfriend/musical partner-in-crime Sam Kenny perform frequently, not only in West Michigan, but on tour across the country. The lovely and talented keyboardist and singer/songwriter possesses an incredible voice with a powerful range, but that’s just the tip of her musical iceberg. Her style is unique, eccentric, and otherwise undefinable, though avante-garde rock/pop may best fit the bill; her lyrics and life philosophies and fashion are creative and mind-expanding. In short, Emma Loo is a one-of a-kind artist.

On this night Emma Loo was performing as her solo project, as opposed to her more folk/Americana-based project with Kenny, Emma Loo and Sam. Still, as always Kenny lent his sundry talents to many of the songs, alongside DJ and frequent Emma Loo contributor Dan Wall. Supporting Emma’s excellent 2016 debut album, Ancient, the trio provided an extra lushness and depth to such album standouts as “Cocaine in My Boots” “Poison,” and “Abduction.” Other tunes, such as the emotive new anthem “Westside Angels,” thrive alone on the strength of Emma’s plaintive synthesizer chords and gorgeous vocal melodies.

In a humorous moment later in the set, Kenny and Wall drew a curtain/blanket across the stage so Emma could make a costume change from her white dress. She emerged wearing a black one-piece outfit with a hood; more notably, she had fake blood dripping from her mouth and neck, Gene Simmons-style. She then launched solo into her 10-minute-plus, improvisational epic, “Bitch Ho,” which is always hilarious  and thought-provoking, in equal measures. The set concluded with Emma rapping over Kenny’s incredibly accurate beat boxing, all the while with Kenny, ever the proverbial Energizer Bunny, ducking back and forth behind Emma, then sidestepping rapidly across the back of the stage like a sixth grader who had consumed a few too many Pixie Stix. It was a phenomenal end to an absolute highlight set for the Westside Weekend.

JOE, the band formed by singer/songwriter Joe Rodriguez, appropriately wound down the fest with a literally winding down in a musical sense. A veteran of the open-mic scene, Rodriguez formed JOE back in 2014 as a full-band showcase for his plaintive and often somber songs. His voice is rich and full of vibrato, similar to a higher-ranging Eddie Vedder; his songs revolve around a simple-yet-catchy structure, with lyrics often dealing with lost relationships, emotional pain, regret, and also small peeks at hope: “What it means to be a kid/what it means to be a kid/to play in the rain” is one of my favorite lines and vocal melodies from his songs. JOE’s set was, as expected, mellow and melancholy, but it also was pleasant and necessarily relaxing after a long weekend of energetic and flamboyant music.

That’s it for Westside Weekend 2017. By all accounts, it was a rousing success for an inaugural festival, and Henry said that so far he is optimistic about his chances for putting it on again next year. It certainly featured the musical diversity and quality that appeals to a wider audience, but also had the concentration of heavier rock bands that this city so desperately needs. The good sound at the Tip Top and affordable cover charge, as well as the overarching theme of inclusion and tolerance in these incendiary times, really made the Westside Weekend a worthwhile festival. Here’s to all the Westside memories, and (hopefully) more to come soon.–Jonathan Kollnot

–WW Day 1 Bands: Head, EPCYA, Drugs In The Carpet, The Bitters, All Night Tigers.

–WW Day 3 Bands: The Westside Rebellion, 78 RevolutionsPerMinute, Bet On Rats, Tail Light Rebellion.

 

 

 

 

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The Rose of Lilith: Soulless (2017)

•August 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Rose of Lilith Soulless

Hey all, I hope you all have been relishing a fun and pleasant summer. I’m breaking my absurdly long silence to gear myself up for another busy fall in music, but I also want to take some time to recommend a compelling new artist. The band is The Rose of Lilith from Florida, and their recent single is entitled “Soulless.”

Comprised primarily of the duo of Jack Hernandez and Josue Fernandez, The Rose of Lilith play what they refer to as experimental/symphonic metal. That descriptor is not inaccurate, though their sound is difficult to label or pigeonhole into a specific sub-genre — which is always a good thing, folks. On “Soulless,” elements of symphonic metal, extreme metal, power, progressive, and some avant-garde rock are fused together in a seamless stew. Reference-wise, I hear influence from bands such as Nightwish, Moonspell, Therion, Dream Theater, and some hints of Devin Townsend (Hevy Devy!)’s atmospheric weirdness. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this song features notable guest vocals from Lance King (ex-Balance of Power, ex-Pyramaze, Nightmare Records) and Ralf Scheepers (ex-Gamma Ray, Primal Fear), among others.

What first struck me about “Soulless” are the impressive production values; this sounds as if it could have been released on a small indie label like Napalm as opposed to being self-produced. My only constructive criticism on that front is the rhythm guitars could have been pushed louder in the mix in relation to the drums and the orchestral synths. Indeed, I like my guitars loud and crunchy. As for the song itself, The Rose of Lilith have created extra intrigue by juxtaposing clean and extreme vocals in an interesting manner. This mid-tempo tune opens with a simple-yet-effective lead guitar motif, followed quickly by death metal growls over deliberate and staccato thrash riffing. The rather catchy choruses, by contrast, showcase soaring and emotive clean vocals over a lush and symphonic instrumental base.

“Soulless” may not be the fastest or most aggressive new metal single out there, but the infectious vocal melodies and unique stylistic approach make it a worthwhile listen. Check out The Rose of Lilith on Facebook or give it a whirl on Youtube. Until next time, keep it blasting loud and proud.–Jonathan Kollnot

Hey 2017 — Art is All (that is all)!

•March 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Hey 2017! Yeah, I am talking to you, this unpredictable and turbulent year that has found us all rushing to redefine what it means to be a free citizen — and free and unfettered artist. Regardless of one’s race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic class, and political persuasion, no one can deny that these are inchoate and uncertain times. Speaking from personal experience alone, this omnipresent anxiety can do real harm to any sort of creative motivations whatsoever. And yes, right now I am trying to (once again) work through a major bout of writer’s block by posting more incoherent writings in my blog. My apologies.

Actually, sorry, not sorry. What I am finally starting to learn, and relearn, and internalize in my advancing middle age is that creating something new conquers all ails. I’ve found that most of my moods of melancholy, loneliness, anxiety, and a general sense of malaise can be, at least temporarily, alleviated by being creative. Whether it’s tickling the ivories or practicing my bass, writing a new poem or music review, tinkering with a new Lego creation or set, going to a concert, reading something for a good hour or so, or even watching an interesting new show on Netflix, being active in my artistic life always makes my day exponentially better.

So, whatever it is you like to do, or excel at, or simply appreciate passionately, I urge you all to just go out there (or stay home, if the case may be) and do it. And yes, while I believe it certainly is great to stay active in the community and work to make the world a better place, those important — indeed, necessary– altruistic activities are impossible without self care. After all, any individual’s life is kind of meaningless without the drive of creative passions that make it worth waking up each morning. Every song, book, movie, television show, painting, craft, sculpture, home-improvement project, etc. has the potential to enrich the lives of the enthusiast as well as the creator. Hell, even listening to a fantastic album (Riot: The Privilege of Power at the moment) at ridiculous volumes can brighten a frigid, frost-bitten afternoon.

All this serves as my wind-blown attempt at saying that it’s well-past time for me to get writing again. I’m feeling the inspiration, and I hope you are too in some way. Look for some new featured music reviews soon on this site, as well as more frequent missives on a sundry array of rock and metal-related topics soon. Cheers and best wishes to all!–Jonathan Kollnot

 

–Atomic Rooster: Death Walks Behind You (1971)

•October 27, 2016 • Leave a Comment

death-walks-behind

–Atomic Rooster: Death Walks Behind You (1971)

Remember the British pop band, Dexys Midnight Runners? If you’re anything like me, you may know them for one early-‘80s single, “Come On Eileen,” if you know them at all. But a casual search through their band-lineup history reveals an intriguing anomaly. During a brief period in 1985, a certain Vincent Crane became the piano player for Dexys Midnight Runners. I learned this information recently, and admittedly I was a bit flabbergasted. So, THE Vincent Crane, the iconic mad-genius organist and songwriter behind Atomic Rooster, the master of melancholy lyricism and avant-garde hard rock, was reduced to session-musician status? This factoid was a bit hard to swallow, but I also felt a twinge of pride in knowing that one of my musical idols was associated with an internationally-known pop act; also, it is personally heart-warming to know that the ultimately doomed Crane never quite gave up on his musical career during his dark end times.

Atomic Rooster is an oddly appropriate sort of band name for a uniquely brilliant and talented musician. Vincent Crane was one of the greatest keyboard players of the nascent hard rock, prog, and acid-rock scenes of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Somehow he managed to fuse the aforementioned genres and more (funk, blues, jazz) into the distinct and exciting musical statement that was Atomic Rooster. The Rooster was Crane’s baby, alongside his numerous house cats that he adored, but his internal demons were his overlords. Crane was described as a soft-spoken, sensitive soul who suffered from the same clichéd-sounding, self-destructive melancholy that dominated all the Keats, Poes, and Morrisons of the art world. But his internal torment was real, and naturally it shaped his music, lyrics, and personal life in ways that fans and outsiders can only speculate upon. He may have lost his battle to bi-polar depression, but the music he created on albums like Death Walks Behind You remains vital and very much alive.

Before delving into the album, a bit of background exposition is necessary. Crane first received some international recognition for his keyboard playing as a member of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown from 1967 to 1969. While with Brown, Crane met and was joined in the band by Carl Palmer; yes, THAT Carl Palmer, the legendary uber-virtuoso drummer, later of ELP and Asia fame. The band gained some attention due to Brown’s operatic, high-range vocals, and wildly eccentric and (literally) incendiary stage shows. Unfortunately for the Brown band, Crane had to be hospitalized after suffering a severe bi-polar episode, resulting in the cancellation of the band’s second U.S. tour. After having recovered, Crane left The Crazy World of Arthur Brown for greener (rooster-feeding) pastures, taking Palmer with him to form the first of many incarnations of the mighty Atomic Rooster. Bassist and vocalist Nick Graham joined them, solidifying the drums/organ/bass/vocals instrumentation for their debut, almost self-titled record, Atomic Ro-o-oster.

While not quite a commercial success in their native Britain, Atomic Rooster’s debut solidified the band as a leader in quirky, avant-garde progressive hard rock. The album featured the haunting single “Friday The 13th,” which included a lyrical theme of helplessness amidst a creepy stalker/killer scenario; the album also boasted the brooding ballad, “Winter,” an early glimpse of Crane’s autobiographical forays in melancholia. Crane, feeling the band needed a guitarist to fill out their sound, added Andromeda’s John Du Cann for the Rooster’s next album. Lineup stability wasn’t in the cards, however; Graham nearly simultaneously quit the band, leaving the band this time with a new guitarist but without a bass player. No matter, the ever-resourceful Crane solved the problem by overdubbing the basslines on his Hammond B3 organ via a combination of his left hand and foot pedals. Then in June 1970, Palmer left the drum stool to play with ELP. He ultimately was replaced by the very capable Paul Hammond. Du Cann promptly added vocals to his duties, and the personnel was set for one of the greatest hard rock albums of the 1970s.

Death Walks Behind You possesses that intangible sort of magic that only those rare albums ever attain. Perhaps the trite old adage about the stars (or chicken coops?) aligning perfectly applies in this case; or, maybe it’s just one over-zealous writer’s diarrhea-bran attack of hyperbole. Either way, the album is a bona-fide masterpiece of avant-garde hard rock/prog/acid, the kind of real-life musical trip that rings eternally in one’s mind. Not to imply that there’s anything at all wrong with either Atomic Rooster’s debut or Death’s excellent follow-up, In Hearing of Atomic Rooster. There’s not, but that doesn’t change the fact that Death Walks Behind You is considered the definitive Rooster album. These songs overflow with technicality and innovation but never lose their focus on memorable song structure – and catchy melodies. This equilibrium between prog self-indulgence and pop sensibility never waivers here, and the listener’s experience is made all the sweeter for it.

Take, for instance, the title track, which serves as both the album’s opener and “hit single.” Crane and Du Cann’s bouncy, syncopated main riff is simultaneously heavy and funky, a unique combination, to say the least. Du Cann’s cascading and galloping verse riff sounds aggressive and slightly jarring, which, coupled with the morbid lyrics, serves to make the quasi-funky chorus riff seem almost uplifting. “VUG,” by contrast, is a twisting, turning, noodling blast of a prog-rock workout. This instrumental sounds like the musical equivalent of a good old-fashioned wooden roller coaster; Crane and Du Cann’s frenetic riffs and solos intertwine in a seamless and hyper-melodic fashion. Bravo! “Tomorrow Night” features another deliberate and syncopated piano riff from Crane, though this time the band sounds even more unabashedly funky in a dark manner; Du Cann’s pristine mid-range vocals ooze with soul-drenched passion. On “Streets,” perhaps the Rooster best encapsulates their unique blend of heavy-yet funk-a-delicious riffs, proggy instrumental excursions, and infectious vocal melodies.

Side Two begins with the more straight-ahead Du Cann-penned hard rocker, “Sleeping for Years.” This reminds one a bit of what Steppenwolf might have sounded like if they took a few more years of piano lessons and practiced 10 hours a day. Next up is another song written by Du Cann, Can’t Take No More; and it, not coincidentally is another driving hard rocker. It brilliantly juxtaposes the straight-forward verse riff with some fleet-fingered harmonies and melodies from Crane and Du Cann. Crane also exemplifies his uncanny ability to play technical and progressive lines without sounding meandering or self-indulgent. That serves as a perfect segue into “Nobody Else,” a melancholy godfather of all future melancholy metal ballads. Crane’s minor jazz chords serve as the perfect underscore to his hopelessly depressed lyrical sentiments. “My whole world is falling down/my whole world is fallen down/couldn’t see/you’re only me/nobody else to blame/my whole world is gone away.” Chipper, that one. Then the track suddenly morphs into an up-tempo prog instrumental breakdown before returning to the ultra-dismal, though beautiful, main vocal melodies.

Then there’s “Gershatzer.” Really, what other way could Death Walks Behind You close than with a super-technical prog instrumental? The main riff, anchored by Crane’s distorted Hammond B3, sounds like a triumphant renaissance fanfare that is also very hard-rocking. In addition to the memorable main riff, the songs feature some of Crane’s most tasty and melodic piano and organ melodies, as well as some truly bizarre-sounding licks and special effects. Hammond also contributes a spectacular drum solo to this Roosterific extravaganza. It’s the perfect way to end a flawless album, and I believe Vincent Crane still would smile in its appreciation. R.I.P. Mr. Crane, you brilliant, mad keyboard genius. Your tortured struggles ultimately were not made in vain.—Jonathan Kollnot

–Blue Oyster Cult: Heaven Forbid (1998)

•June 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

BOC Heaven Forbid

–BLUE OYSTER CULT: Heaven Forbid (1998)

“I’d like to see you in black/It’d make me feel like your husband’s dead/I’d like to see you in black/We could make him suffer instead.”

Just ponder on that thought for a while. On “See You in Black,” the opening track to Heaven Forbid, the narrator expresses his not-so-subtle wishes for the death of a woman’s abusive husband. Is this narrator the woman’s prospective paramour, is he some sort of morbidly altruistic benefactor, or both? One fact is certain here: B.O.C’s lyrics always inspire reflective cognition, despite, or perhaps due to, their bizarreness. Their fans wouldn’t want it any other way.

Let’s face it, many of us longtime Blue Oyster Cult fanatics initially were magnetically drawn to bizarre song titles such as “She’s As Beautiful As a Foot,” “I’m On the Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep,” “7 Screaming Diz-Busters,” and “Harvester of Eyes.” Upon delving deeper into the band’s lyrical themes, we discovered challenging stories and riddles; poetic mysteries gilded in coats of esoteric quirkiness. One may have often had no clue what B.O.C. was getting at, but that never stopped us from trying to figure it out. Musically, the band was equally enigmatic and unpredictable. Whether they were bludgeoning us beneath the hard-rock stomping foot of “Godzilla,” or soothing us with the gorgeous pastoral mellowness of “Then Came the Last Days of May,” or making us pound our rocking chests in the triumphant glory of “The Marshall Plan,” B.O.C. was impossible to pigeonhole. Yet their music was always immediately recognizable as the inimitable and brilliant Blue Oyster Cult. It’s like an amorphous blob of sound that frequently changes form but somehow retains the same genetic structure.

Of course, by the late ‘90s the rock scene had transformed drastically multiple times, and B.O.C. was no longer a household name in hard rock and heavy metal. If anything, popular culture and classic-rock radio had relegated them to cult (not an intended pun) status or as a “few-hits wonder.” Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom’s cameo in the terrible/awesome B stoner flick The Stoned Age was a hoot, if an obscure anomaly. By 1998, key band members and songwriting contributors Joe Bouchard (bass) and Albert Bouchard (drums) were long gone, and the days of loyal support from major labels such as Columbia (their erstwhile home) were history. That said, these flaming telepaths still had a bit of creative fuel left in their wetted-down wings.

Enter CMC International Records, a new independent player on the hard rock/metal scene, to help resuscitate B.O.C.’s career. The label had become the standard bearer for once-popular hard rock and metal bands that had fallen into the dark nadir of the alternative ‘90s. For Heaven Forbid, their first studio album in 10 years, B.O.C. joined storied bands such as Dokken, Warrant, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pat Benatar, and Iron Maiden on CMC’s roster. The remaining creative core of Bloom, Dharma, and keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Allen Lanier turned their energies toward making an inspired B.O.C. record. Whether it came as the result of the change of label scenery, or a resurgence in personal inspiration as musicians, Heaven Forbid is a fantastic though unsung benchmark in the B.O.C. catalog.

While Heaven Forbid may not feature the high-minded fantasy lyrics of a Michael Moorcock, or the hauntingly esoteric mysticism of an “Astronomy,” it does contain 11 solid, entertaining, and pretty damn inspired hard-rock tunes. One would be remiss to review this album without focusing on its second track, and masterpiece, “Harvest Moon.” The tune is a pristine and mellow trip through the figurative peaks and valleys of a bucolic landscape; it also remains the lone “hit” from the album and a returning staple of their live performances. Buck Dharma, who also sings lead on the track, opens the track with a contemplative clean-guitar arpeggio atop a driving mid-paced rhythm. The vocal melodies and harmonies are gorgeous throughout, yet the music and lyrics co-mingle to create a singularly melancholic slice of nostalgia. At the instrumental break, the band launches into a double-time rhythm before Dharma unleashes a typically fluid and memorable solo, not so dissimilar to the iconic lead section in “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” Then, it’s a return to the beautiful tale of a historic family farm that has seen the passing of generations, wars, and ghosts of murdered souls. Yes, this tune is more dramatic than meets the ears. The final result is one of the best B.O.C. songs to come about in at least a decade.

“Heaven Forbid” the rest of the album was a letdown, but thankfully that is not the case. O contraire, the disc kick starts with the straight-ahead groove rocker, “See You in Black.” The palm-muted guitar chug and catchy chorus open this new B.O.C. chapter nicely. A slow, bluesy groove carries the verses and pre choruses of “Power Underneath Despair” until a brisk-double time beat lends some urgency to the chorus. As has been the case throughout the band’s career, well-placed diversity is Heaven Forbid’s hallmark; “X-Ray Eyes” is a fairly typical bluesy hard rocker, lifted by a tasty guitar solo and great vocal harmonies, while “Hammer Back” increases the heaviness factor in a “Godzilla”-style hard rocker sang by Eric Bloom. “Damaged,” with its galloping, slightly funky riffs and inspirational lyrics, stands tall as one of the highlights. “Cold Gray Light of Dawn” evokes the bluesy, somber mood of a Robin Trower, albeit wrapped within trademark B.O.C. mysticism. “Live For Me,” another of the album’s mellower tunes, is almost good as “Harvest Moon.” Featuring Dharma’s inimitable smooth vocals and plaintive lyrics, “Live For Me” soars with searing leads and an uplifting atmosphere. This is music reigning supreme in the spiritual realm.

On Heaven Forbid, B.O.C. proved they were “Still Burnin’” for us all. Dig this one out sometime and give it another spin, won’t you? —Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1). See You In Black 2.) Harvest Moon 3.) Power Underneath Despair 4.) X-Ray Eyes 5.) Hammer Back 6.) Damaged 7.) Cold Gray Light of Dawn 8.) Real World 9.) Live For Me 10.) Still Burnin’ 11.) In Thee

–Ani DiFranco/Chastity Brown: Live at The Intersection, Grand Rapids, Mich., 04-03-16

•April 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Ani DiFranco

–Ani DiFranco/Chastity Brown: Live at The Intersection, Grand Rapids, Mich., 04-03-16

Some musicians set out solely to entertain their audiences. Others are more focused on creating authentic and poignant art, while still others seem more concerned about advancing a political or personal agenda than being particularly creative or entertaining. It takes a rare sort of talent to be able to seamlessly combine all these elements into his/her concerts. Ani DiFranco falls into this latter category – big time.

Indie folk-rock is a relatively new addition to my listening tastes. I’ve always been a huge fan of great singer/songwriters such as Billy Joel, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, Elton John, etc. But the alternative folk-rock, socially-conscious, left-wing artists mostly eluded my radar for the better part of 30 years. That all changed four-to-five years ago when I accidentally ran into a Youtube video of a young woman singing and playing acoustic guitar. She sang beautifully, but what really intrigued me immediately was her guitar playing. Her-right hand picking technique was extremely precise and aggressive, her rhythms intricate and staccato. Her dynamic guitar playing appealed to my hard-rocking soul, as if she were thrashing out some, well, thrash metal on her acoustic guitar. The song was “Swan Dive,” and I was promptly hooked, lined, and sunk in her “shark-infested waters” – though I didn’t/don’t exactly have a bloody tampon with which to splash about. No matter, I quickly became a huge fan of Ani DiFranco’s songs and incredibly poetic lyrics. I knew that someday seeing her live would be a dream come true. So, when it was announced back in December that she would be heading to Grand Rapids on her Allergic to Water tour, I was all over that immediately.

My expectations were not to be disappointed. At about 10 minutes to six, I arrived at The Intersection to find an ever-increasing line snaking along the block. It was clear that this show’s demographics were comprised of at least 90 percent women, which made for a refreshing change of pace from the typical rock and metal shows I attend. Judging by the many friendly and welcoming people I met while waiting in line, acceptance and understanding would be prominent themes for this show.

I made my way near the front of the stage and held my position about five rows back during the monotonous hour-long, pre-show wait. Finally, Chastity Brown took the stage, along with her lone bandmate, guitarist Luke Enyeart. Sporting just an acoustic guitar and a beautiful, plaintive voice, Brown delivered an entertaining, if mellow, 40-minute set. Her songs are contemplative and somewhat melancholic in the singer-songwriter vein, sprinkling in a bit of soul and R&B for good measure. Brown exhibits a good deal of charisma as well, evidenced by some of her between-song storytelling. At one point she said she spent part of the afternoon enjoying a pleasant nature walk along the Grand River, also noting the disgusting sludge and trash floating along its banks. Her set left me wanting more, and I’ll be looking out for her CDs soon.

When I imagined the experience of going to an Ani DiFranco concert, I envisioned a sort of spirited socio-political, LGBT revival meeting set to music. Oh, yes, it was all that and more. Ani, dressed in trademark grey cargo pants and white tank top, stormed the stage with her acoustic guitar and two-piece band in tow.  Her band circa 2016 features Todd Stickafoose on upright bass and drummer Terence Higgins; this dynamic duo deftly provided the lock-tight rhythms and bottom-end oomph all night long. DiFranco performed some of her most favored hits and deep cuts with conviction and enthusiasm, her fiery smile rarely wavering. Her uniquely powerful sing-talky voice sounded pristine, and her vocal delivery was impeccable. As I already mentioned, her acoustic guitar playing is unreal, and she fulfilled all my thrashing air-guitar expectations on tunes such as “Swan Dive” (my absolute Ani favorite), and the rousingly danceable “Shameless.” DiFranco and co. barreled through many of her best anthems while barely allowing the ecstatic audience room for air. Unlike many other touring artists, DiFranco mixes up her setlist greatly each night. Therefore, I felt privileged to hear so many of my beloved and poetic Ani favorites: “Dithering,” “Gravel,” “Napoleon,” “Untouchable Face,” “As Is,” “Woe Be Gone,” “Swan Dive,” “Shameless,” etc.

For the encore, DiFranco brought Brown and Enyeart back onstage for a sing-along version of the worker-rights anthem, “Which Side Are You On?” When she closed with “32 Flavors,” her timeless ode to individuality and self-pride, I was in musical heaven. Judging by the reaction of the jam-packed Intersection crowd, I was far from alone.

Which side am I on? Ani’s side.—Jonathan Kollnot

–COLD RAVEN: Equilibrium and Chaos (Sliptrick Records, 2015)

•March 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Cold Raven Equilibrium cover

–COLD RAVEN: Equilibrium and Chaos (Sliptrick Records, 2015)

Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of black metal. Let’s just get that out on the table up front. I intend no disrespect to musicians and fans of that genre; it’s just not my cup of tea. But setting aside sub-genre labels, which tend to be too limiting and confusing anyway, I champion a wide variety of rock and metal music on this site. It doesn’t matter if it’s old or new, underground or mainstream, if it sounds good to me, I’m going to embrace it.

Enter: Cold Raven, a new and mysterious black-metal trio evoking sonic images of frosty Northern winter lands, ancient pagan rituals, black-and-white corpse paint, and controlled anarchy. These stereotypical black-metal themes might seem contrived and irritating to the unconverted, except for one crucial factor: Cold Raven’s music is good. Damn good, in fact. These Italian metallians (sorry, I couldn’t resist) know how to weave catchy riffs and beautiful melodies within the general framework of black metal, resulting in a thoroughly melodic and entertaining record.

Formed in January 2013 by vocalist UrielRaka and guitarist Haures, and later adding second guitarist Vuall, Cold Raven, quickly went to work writing and recording songs for their debut full-length album, Equilibrium and Chaos. Equilibrium… was released in spring 2015 to numerous accolades by the international press, and they have performed with black-metal stalwarts such as Nargaroth, Dark Funeral, God Dethroned, and Belphegor. Judging by the quality of the compositions on Equilibrium…, Cold Raven’s early success is no product of mere hype.

Fans of traditional black metal should love this record, naturally, but its style also should appeal to a wider range of metal fans. My novice ears hear obvious references to BM giants such as Immortal and Emperor, but I also hear possible influences from the early ‘90s Scandinavian death-metal scene. When I hear the swirling, speedy, and hyper-melodious riffs on a song like “In Worship with My Inner Darkness,” I am harkened back to the exhilarating speed-metal and omnipresent melody of early ‘90s Sentenced (circa North From Here) and In Flames (Lunar Strain). There is also a doomy, atmospheric quality to some of the riffs, hence their use of the self-descriptor, “doomed black metal.”

There is plenty to like about Cold Raven. Their music is as melodic and atmospheric as it is aggressive, successfully transcending artificial sub-genre barriers. Guitarists Haures and Vuall employ a plethora of styles of extreme riffing, from crunchy gallops, to circular bursts of speed, to infectious doom-like grooves. The riffs are chock full of irresistible harmonies and countermelodies; in fact, the guitar work on display here is beyond critique. Haures and Vuall pepper Equilibrium… with plenty of fluid neo-baroque leads and solos. But the lead work is always in service to creating beautiful melodies, not in showy self-indulgence. The album’s pacing mostly falls into the mid-tempo category, but Cold Raven mix it up with the occasional half-time groove, alongside brief explosions of double-bass drum/blast beats. This complex interplay of intricate riffs, harmonies, melodies, and odd time signatures manage to engage and entertain the listener for Equilibrium’s… seven tracks and 40 minutes of running time.

UrielRaka’s vocals are an acquired taste, as might be imagined. His vocals fall within the mid-range of a BM raspy growl, and they are mostly decipherable. The production on Equilibrium… is crisp and clear without causing ear fatigue. Really, the only significant critique I could offer Cold Raven is that their music is more riff-oriented than song-oriented. A plethora of musical ideas are presented in these tracks, sometimes without enough refrains or hooks to cement individual songs in the listener’s mind. That said, songs such as “No Mercy,” “In Worship with My Inner Darkness,” and the title track are plenty memorable.

Cold Raven have successfully warmed my heart again to some tasty melodic extreme metal. Please give them a listen on Facebook and feel the frostbite.—Jonathan Kollnot

 
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