IS THIS THE LIFE WE REALLY WANT? Roger Waters (Columbia) *****
Only a fool would expect Roger Waters to mellow with age. At 73 he’s more pissed off than ever, and who can blame him? Is This The Life We Really Want, his first rock album of original material since Amused To Death in 1992, addresses the unhinged times we live in. When he sings “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains/ picture a leader with no fucking brains”, there’s no doubt about who or what he’s talking about.
The title comes from a rant Waters wrote in 2008 about George W., Dick Cheney and the other nut jobs in the White House. He then started writing songs during The Wall tour in 2010-2013. “I guess there comes a time when, if you criticize or if you’re upset by some of the ways that the human race is organizing itself- which causes pain and misery to lots of people- then you could be forgiven the conceit of thinking well, if I had any power, what would I do?” he recently told People Magazine. In the same article he also observed that “it is very problematic that the power resides in the hands of the very few, very greedy, very, very wealthy men. And the wealthier they get, the more important and self-important they feel.”
Waters has railed against such things his entire musical life and it feels right that the current political climate, both in the U.S. and across the world, would elicit such an epic and literate response. Like anything he has done or will do, Is This The Life We Really Want lives in the shadow of Pink Floyd, and his liberal use of profanity means that he doesn’t particularly care if any of these tracks get to radio or not. “We seem to be living more and more in a world where propaganda is hugely important, and there’s no longer any real attempt to distinguish what might be the reality of anything” he noted in that same People interview, and this is a central theme throughout.
This may not be a Pink Floyd album, but it feels more like one than his previous solo albums, particularly the aforementioned Amused To Death. Is This The Life We Really Want poses important questions and the songs are vignettes that will totally draw you in- at least they did me. Lots to absorb here- excuse me while I go for another spin.
ESSENTIALS: Déjà vu, Broken Bones, The Most Beautiful Girl
SGT. PEPPERS LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND The Beatles (Parlophone) *****
It’s hard to judge a 50 year old album that is routinely hailed as the greatest rock album of all time but I’ll try. The praise heaped on this strange record is not unwarranted.
The 50th anniversary edition of this legendary record has been released in several configurations- I’ve chosen the 2 CD set for today’s purposes. While I’m not immune to the charms of endless bonus tracks and demos, buying the Immersion box sets for Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Wish You Were Here taught me a valuable lesson. With each of those I listened to the bonus discs exactly once to write my reviews. I have not revisited them since, preferring to listen to the albums as I’ve always known them albeit with much improved sonics. With Sgt. Pepper, the 2 CD version seemed a good compromise, allowing me to check out some of the bonus material.
First thing to note here is the marvelous job done on the stereo mix by producer Giles Martin (son of original producer George) and the Abbey Road engineers, who took Sarge all the way back to the original tracks to rebuild them. The sound is crisp, clean and full with the instruments well placed across the stereo spectrum, leading me to retire my current version from 2007/ 2008.
The second disc here is fun to listen to- songs we already know well in various stages of completion, some instrumental versions, and studio chatter is involved. Different takes of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane are included too, along with new stereo remixes. But, like the Pink Floyd sets mentioned above, it seems unlikely I’ll return to this disc very often for a re-listen, preferring the finished product on disc one instead.
What Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band represents, and in stunning clarity with this new remix, is a turning point both in The Beatles’ career and in record making itself. It was unheard of in 1967 for a band to afford itself this level of creative freedom, and it proves that anything can be accomplished if you don’t care what other people think. Without question The Beatles changed rock & roll forever, and if you’re a casual fan the single disc version is all you need. If like me you’re mildly curious about the bonus stuff, this 2 disc edition is perfect. If you’re a total Beatles freak with deeper pockets, by all means go whole hog for the mondo deluxe edition. Sgt. Peppers is one legendary album that lives up to the hype, no matter which version you choose.
ESSENTIALS: DISC ONE: title track, Getting Better, A Day In The Life
DISC TWO: Within You Without You (Indian instrumental), Strawberry Fields Forever (stereo mix-2015), Penny Lane (stereo mix, 2017)
TRACES & SCARS Guy Belanger (Bros Records) ****+
This is Belanger’s 7th release, and I wish I’d heard of him sooner. Powered by excellent musicianship, Traces & Scars is a soulful journey down some dark and lonesome roads.
Traces & Scars is 12 cuts, 10 instrumental and 2 vocal. The band is Guy on harp, Andre Lachance on guitars, Marc-Andre Droulin on bass, guitars and piano, and Michel Roy on drums, with one of the vocal tracks being sung by Luce Dufault. Several other musicians pitched in on the sessions too, too many to list here.
Traces & Scars was created when Belanger celebrated some great personal victories, even as he lived through deep mourning. “This title clearly reflects the exercise that I lent myself to” he says, “to face, to assume and to find my tracks. The scars are the signature of the fights carried out and etched forever”. Even though this is a mainly instrumental album, the feeling and message behind songs like the title cut are crystal clear.
The inner sleeve of Traces & Scars contains brief descriptions of each track in French and English, giving you a nice jumping off point as you dive into each song. The disc was produced by Belanger himself and is one of the best sounding albums I’ve heard in quite some time. The musicianship is deft, assured and masterful, with Guy’s harp work being the star followed closely by the clearly inspired guitar work. Yeah- Traces & Scars will be spending some serious time in my CD player.
ESSENTIALS: Traces & Scars, Better Days, Common Ground
APPROVED BY SNAKES Jason Ricci & The Bad Kind (Eller Soul Records) *** ½
Greasiness, a sense of humour and occasional spookiness- Approved By Snakes has it all, even an ‘explicit lyrics’ warning on the back cover. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but this disc is very much what I imagine it to feel and sound like.
The sound here is fairly low-fi and overdriven, but what Jason Ricci loses in exactness he gains back ten-fold in heart and groove. It’s easy to imagine suddenly finding yourself in a smoky club on the wrong side of the tracks with these guys on stage- you can feel the danger in the room, but you don’t want to leave. Occasionally explicit lyrics aside, this is a dirty album in all the very best ways. Ricci isn’t the best singer I’ve ever heard, but he has an expressive voice and really throws himself into a lyric- I love his commitment.
Approved By Snakes is a loud, brash record with the heart of New Orleans that eats rock and blues for breakfast. Not for the faint of heart, Jason Ricci & The Bad Kind play it the way they see it, and it ain’t always purdy. It’s one of those discs that will sound and feel better with a couple beers in your belly- trust me.
ESSENTIALS: My True Love Is A Dope Whore, My Mom’s Gonna Yell At You, Listen Here
2016 Royal Hunt (Frontiers) ***
This Danish progressive metal outfit celebrates their 25th anniversary with 2016, recorded live during last year’s tour stop at Isvestiya Hall in Moscow. Playing fan favourites in front of a clearly enthusiastic crowd, this is a good sounding album.
2016 is a 2CD package and is available on DVD/Blu-Ray as well, but all I have to judge them by is an audio download. Despite having been through several line up changes over the years vocalist D.C. Cooper, known for classic Royal Hunt records like Moving Target and Paradox is at the mic for this lively set. The band plays melodic progressive metal with a symphonic flair- an exciting proposition for some, and perhaps a yawn for others who feel such an amalgam of styles to be pompous and turgid.
What 2016 shows, other than the breadth of the band’s catalogue and masterful musicianship, is the close relationship between metal and classical music. I can’t help feel that if Wagner were still around, that he would thoroughly enjoy the bombast and drama of what Royal Hunt is achieving with this new live set. The symphonic underpinning comes from keyboardist Andre Andersen, but the effect is no less potent than if they were working with an actual orchestra.
Royal Hunt feels and sounds like what would happen if Asia and Whitesnake got together. My taste in hard rock tends to be simpler- Sabbath, Kiss, Priest- but 2016, while perhaps a bit pompous, is still one hell of a live album.
ESSENTIALS: Army Of Slaves, Message To God, Flight