EMPEROR OF SAND Mastadon (Warner Music) *** ½
This Grammy Award-nominated metal band is contemplating the nature of time on this, their 8th full length album- it’s the thread that holds these 11 songs together. “Emperor of Sand is like the grim reaper” says Brann Dailor, drummer for this Atlanta based outfit. “Sand represents time- if you or anyone you know has ever received a terminal diagnosis, the first thought is about time. Invariably, you ask ‘how much time is left?’” It’s a heavy concept for a heavy album.
You could fairly say that Emperor Of Time was inspired by death; as Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher began writing music for this record, Brian received news of his mother’s brain cancer diagnosis in May of last year. He spent the next six months making regular trips to Rochester, NY before her passing in September. Dailor notes that “Writing was like a distraction to give Bill a release. There’s nothing you can do, but you can say ‘let’s go to the basement and see if there are any riffs.”
The result is a suite of dark, heavy songs that fans are embracing. Produced by Brendan O’Brien the playing is fierce and the sound is dense, almost physical. The narrative for Emperor Of Sand borders on the exotic- Brann says the story is “A Sultan in the desert hands down a death sentence to this guy. He’s running from that. He gets lost, and the sun is zapping all of his energy akin to radiation. So he’s trying to telepathically communicate with these African and Native American tribes to get rain to pour down and kill it.” Okay, so that might be a bit fantastical, but knowing that going in will help you open up to the album all the more.
Emperor Of Sand is a pounding, dramatic album and the prog nature of the band is something to behold. If you’re up for that cool, but this week it seems that I like my rock & roll a little more straightforward. Got a long road trip coming up next month, so I’ll take this with me and see how it feels, turned up to the threshold of distortion while I weave my way through the mountains of BC toward the Okanagan- should be fun.
ESSENTIALS: Sultan’s Curse, Steambreather, Jaguar God
HARD TRUTH Coco Montoya (Alligator) *****
Former Bluesbreakers guitarist Coco Montoya has just returned to Alligator with what may be THE album of his amazing career. Hard Truth is a disc that’s likely to show up this year on every blues lover’s playlist, and I mean ALL of them.
Though he started out as a drummer, Coco has played guitar since the age of 13. He was on his way to a career on the skins before a concert in 1969, watching Albert King open for CCR, changed his mind. “After Albert got done playing, my life was changed” Montoya says. “When he played, the music went right into my soul. It grabbed me so emotionally that I had tears welling up in my eyes. He showed me what music and playing the blues were all about… I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
After playing with Albert Collins (first as a drummer) then John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Coco went out on his own in 1993- and 8 records later we arrive at Hard Truth. His guitar playing bears a striking resemblance to Albert Collins, who taught him so much about the instrument… as the bio says in a quote from Living Blues, ”He swings like a jazz man and stings like The Ice Man.” As a singer he’s got a voice that was born to sing the blues, gruff in just the right way and as powerful as a locomotive when it needs to be- when he sings it, you believe he means it.
Hard Truth is a blues record that rocks, with killer slide work on the over the top Lost In The Bottle and a gorgeous, deliciously painful slow blues in Where Can A Man Go From Here? From muscular funk to silky bitter-sweetness, this one really has it all.
ESSENTIALS: Before The Bullets Fly, Lost In The Bottle, Where Can A Man Go From Here
BLUE ROOM Jon Zeeman (Membrane Records) *****
Man, this is some heavy blues. Zeeman’s latest features 8 originals plus covers of Robert Johnson’s Love In Vain and Hendrix’s Still Rainin’, Still Dreamin’, a collection of songs guaranteed to hit you right in the feels.
As a guitarist Zeeman reminds me somewhat of SRV in that he doesn’t just play the notes, he digs into those six strings and pulls them out. As a vocalist, he reminds me a lot of Powder Blues’ Tom Lavin. Blue Room is a disc that unabashedly shows off Zeeman’s inspirations, particularly Clapton, BB King, Johnny Winter and The Allman Brothers Band. His connection with ABB runs deep, having played in drummer Butch Trucks’ Freight Train Band and being invited to join ABB at one of their multi night stands at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Trucks plays drums on two cuts here- All I Want Is You and Next To You- likely the last things he recorded before his suicide in January.
While Jon’s guitar playing is unquestionably the star of Blue Room, you gotta give it up for Phil MacArthur and his exceptionally nimble bass lines, particularly on the track Talking ‘Bout My Baby and the brief but dazzling solo in the middle of the track. This is a band made up of top south Florida guys including Tom Regis and Bob Taylor on keys and George Lilly on drums, playing straight up blues with a southern flair that boasts funk and jazz on the side, almost Hornsby-ish.
Blue Room’s musicality and virtuoso playing will be apparent immediately, but give it a few spins to really feel the music… you’ll go from “hey, this is pretty good” to “Oh WOW…” at least that’s the way it happened for me. Some of these songs cut deep, like the best blues so often does- enjoy.
ESSENTIAL: All I Want Is You, Love In Vain, If I Could Make You Love Me
10,000 FEET BELOW Eliza Neals (EH Records) *****+
Stunning. I’ve had this on the pile for a few weeks now and finally got around to throwing it in the CD player. 10,000 Feet Below is mean, greasy and nasty, as blue as the blues can get- and it’s one of my favourite records of 2017 so far.
Eliza and her band The Narcotics hail from Detroit, which at least partly explains the grit in their particular brand of blues/rock. Her voice is sultry and lived in- perfect for this sort of thing- a voice that, in 2015, American blues Scene praised as having “the power of Beth Hart, the emotion of Janis Joplin, yet the voice is still her own.” Guests on guitar include Paul Nelson (Johnny Winter) and Billy Davis (Jimi Hendrix) for this subterranean exploration of the blues and the dark power that thunders and groans just below the surface.
Even on first listen, 10,000 Feet Below made me feel a bit drunk. The cover photo is of Neals climbing down a ladder into an open manhole, and the record itself follows that emotional arc. Each song takes your further down into the darkness, making you feel disoriented yet at home too. Surely this is thanks not only to the musicians involved, but to the songs Ms. Neals has written; 10 of these are originals, with the exception being an effective reading of Skip James’s Hard Killing Floor. More than just a collection of really cool songs, these 11 tracks create a feeling and vibe that only these particular songs in this particular order could possibly create. It was also produced by Eliza herself- and who else would know better how she wants this album to make people feel?
Even after a single spin, 10,000 Feet Below left me bowled over and emotionally spent. It takes you on a wild journey, but when you come out the other side you’re ready to do it again. Not many records have that kind of juju, but this one sure as hell does.
ESSENTIALS: Cleotus, Cold Cold Night, At The Crossroads
MAN ON FIRE Boogie Patrol (independent) *** ½
Jeez, does this band ever have the right name! High energy soulful blues is their stock in trade, and an energizing elixir it is. If you enjoy Joe Cocker, Wilson Pickett, Downchild or Powder Blues, Edmonton’s Boogie Patrol is singing your song.
If The Blues Brothers were still making music, I imagine it would sound something like this- the musicianship is wonderfully tight, and on cut cuts like Got One On Ya, there’s a distinctly James Brown kind of energy at work. Rott’n Dan Shinnan’s gruff, whiskey-soaked vocals (not unlike Elvin Bishop) are perfect for this kind of stuff and, together with his band mates, they dance on the line between blues and soul to rock & roll.
I don’t think there are too many groups around that lean into it the way these guys do. Man On Fire is what the best Friday night parties sound like, and Boogie Patrol are the guys to lift you from another soul-grinding week in the teeth of the machine and throw you into the night, waving your arms in the air like you just don’t care. Think The Commitments on steroids here and you’re probably in the right ballpark.
Sometimes with a record you want to dig deep and figure out what’s really going on and what they’re trying to say. With Man On Fire I don’t get that urge. Instead, I’m getting off on the infectious energy, the punchy horn charts and the tight n funky musicianship, such an upbeat vibe that it’s almost ridiculous. This disc feels good, and that’s all we really need to know.
ESSENTIALS: Players Blues, Just Wanna, Man On Fire