FIREWIND Firewind (AFM) ****
In a 20 year career this is the band’s 9th studio album, and Firewind introduces new vocalist Herbie Langhan to the masses. Insistent riff-powered metal with powerful vocals, this is a sledgehammer that will slake the thirst of metal fans old and new.
In giving Firewind a spin you’ll hear why Ozzy picked guitarist Gus G. to replace Zakk Wylde for a number of years. Gus’s playing style is anchored in classic metal traditions, yet he has the speed and agility to play breakneck leads without difficulty. This far along in the band’s history, Gus is clearly happy with his new singer. “With Herbie I feel like we’re doing a re-launch of the original Firewind cast (perhaps explaining the album title) because his singing style bears a certain resemblance to that of Stephen Federick, our first vocalist” Gus says. I’m not familiar with the band’s early stuff but I will say Herbie sounds a lot like Mark Tornillo, the singer for Accept since 2010.
While some forms of metal depend on brute strength and others favour the melodic, here Firewind (band and album) call on both. “The new album is an exciting mix of hard rock and power metal” G says, and that pretty much sums it up. Songs like Overdrive echo Dio-era Sabbath, while Space Cowboy, Orbital Sunrise and Longing To Know You are “a sort of sci-fi story about the overexploitation of nature as seen through the eyes of a lonely astronaut, orbiting earth in his space capsule”, according to Gus. From intriguing lyrical themes to powerful musicianship, this is an album to take seriously.
KEY CUTS: Overdrive, Welcome To The Empire, Space Cowboy
BLACK CROW MOAN Eliza Neals (E-H Records) *****
If you like the blues, you’re going to love the latest from Eliza Neals. Black Crow Moan is a greasy, nasty, joyous blues explosion that just never, ever lets you down.
As a singer, this Detroit girl sounds like a cross between Alannah Myles and Sass Jordan, but I like what Blues Scene said about her last year even better; “Trained in opera but with the grit of Koko Taylor, Neals’ voice is like sand in a velvet bag, fired from a shotgun.” A more accurate description has never been offered in the 30+ years I’ve been writing album reviews. Lots of great guests helped Eliza realize this particular vision, this blues storm washed up on golden grotto beaches in times of rage including guitarist Joe Louis Walker, and Derek St. Holmes from Ted Nugent’s band. Eliza, coupled with Joe & Derek and all the others involved in the making of Black Crow Moan, are sitting on a keg of dynamite, and they know it.
The promo info I got with this refers to this disc as “blues/rock”, but I think of it more as lowdown blues with big, hairy rock & roll testicles. Eliza is a fiercely gifted singer with an insanely talented posse grooving madly behind her with as much mojo as any blues band you’ve ever heard. Whether she’s lighting the place up, or bringing it down on the fantastically cool Ball And Chain (featuring Derek St. Holmes) the band handles what she’s throwing down as they spur and cajole each other on to even greater heights of performance and delivery.
Just had an interesting mental image flash; if they ever decide to re-make the Patrick Swayze cheese-classic Roadhouse, Eliza Neals should front the house band at The Double Deuce. Being out of work and essentially confined to the house has been wearing me down as I’m sure it has you too; but listening to great albums like Eliza Neal’s Black Crow Moan gives me hope and makes me glad to be alive. This is just fuckin’ great.
KEY CUTS: Ball And Chain, Why You Ooglin’ Me, Black Crow Moan
BLUES IN A BUCKET Forrest McDonald (World Talent Records) ****
Even if you don’t recognize the name, it’s a safe bet you’ve heard McDonald’s guitar playing. You know the Bob Seger classic Old Time Rock & Roll? That’s Forrest playing the solo. Blues In A Bucket came out in February, and it’s delicious.
Leaning on the soulful, expressive voice of Andrew Black, McDonald’s guitar playing is impeccable and full of feeling. “This is actually my 15th release” Forrest says. “I will turn 70 this year and feel 2020 will be a big year for me and this recording.” Of course with Covid-19 cancelling touring plans for everyone it might take a bit more effort for you to find these songs, but it is very much worth that effort.
I enjoy a tall tale as much as anyone, but the blues that works best for me is rooted in the truth. “I’ve dedicated this CD to my brother Steve, who I lost (last year) to cancer, and to anyone who has lost a loved one to this terrible disease. The song Blue Morning Sun is about that journey.” Boogie Me Til I Drop is a right rave-up and a terrific way to start the album, and a few songs down the line you’ll find the slow burning Windy City Blues. “I was in China a few years ago and feeling lonely for the USA. I thought about two great blues towns- Memphis and Chicago- and that led me to write (the song).”
Forrest McDonald is a guitar player’s guitar player, having swapped licks with Duane Allman, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, Bob Margolin, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and Roy Gaines. That’s a pretty good indication that whatever he has to say with six strings is worth listening to- judge people by the company they keep and all that. If you’re serious about the blues, Blues In A Bucket should be in your collection; ‘nuff said.
KEY CUTS: Windy City Blues, Boogie Me Till I Drop, Blues In A Bucket
MASTER OF ILLUSIONS Khymera (Frontiers) *** ½
This is the first album for these European melodic rockers since 2015. Originally formed by Italian producer/ musician Daniele Liverani and Kansas singer Steve Walsh, the band now includes bassist/ singer/ producer Dennis Ward (current Magnum, ex-Pink Cream 69), and Master Of Illusions is fist-pumping, hummable rock & roll.
80’s metal never died, it just moved to Europe. That’s where you’ll find great bands like Khymera today. Ward is a talented songwriter and a damn good hard rock singer, and it took him awhile to put Master of Illusions together. “I started writing in 2017” says Dennis, “but it was a slow process. I was actually having a very hard time trying to write the songs. After collaborating with Michael Klein (guitars), Eric Ragno (keyboards), Pete Newdeck (drums) and Jean Funes (of Silent Tiger), everything then fell into place quickly and I was able to finalize melodies and lyrics and complete the recordings.”
How Master Of Illusions will feel to you depends on how 80’s hard rock makes you feel, but I can tell you this; the musicianship is inspired and the songs have a way of sticking with you. Ward is one hell of a producer on top of everything else, and this disc has a density and heft that feel really good blasting out of my speakers- just ask Darlene next door. I know that much of 80’s rock was too mannered and perfect for some, and that case can be argued here too. Dennis Ward’s vocals are just right for the job at hand, the rhythm guitars thick without being overbearing, and the melodies are buoyant. It’s like Night Ranger meets early Bon Jovi, and I won’t argue with that combo. I’m liking it.
Master Of Illusions won’t change the world, but it will show you a damn good time. Street date is June 3rd.
KEY CUTS: After All This Time, The Rhythm Of My Life, Victim Of Your Love
MAGNIFICENT HEART Peter Karp (Rose Cottage Records) ****+
Another sweet record from Peter Karp. Combining blues, Americana and rock & roll, Magnificent Heart is a casually deep and quietly urgent album that makes for exceptional company. Those muscular slide guitar solos don’t hurt either.
With Peter Karp and Magnificent Heart, what you see is what you get. “What turns me on is absolute honesty” Karp says, “You have to take it seriously to stay committed to who you are and where you’re coming from. That’s the way I connect to my audience. You can’t BS people- it’s always about honesty.” The title of this record is entirely appropriate, a tip of the hat to the heart of these songs and the truths that they convey.
Born in New Jersey, Peter’s mom and sister would take him to English Invasion shows put on by Murray The K in NYC. His love of music was accelerated when he went to live with his dad in a trailer park in rural Alabama. It was there that he fell in love with the blues of Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Wasters, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. Then he went on to find those that had picked up the gauntlet and run with it early like Cash, Dylan, Hendrix and Jerry Lee.
Peter Karp’s musical upbringing is something you’ll feel in the dozen songs that make up Magnificent Heart, that history and depth of feeling and expression. He calls these songs stories about people he has met along the way, for those he describes as “either doomed or redeemed”, and that’s where the album title comes in too. “(It’s about) the triumphs and tragedies that you leave behind and await you as you move ahead” he explains. “Only love, faith and a magnificent heart will see you through.”
Magnificent Heart is a sweet experience that swings, moans and grooves in all the right places. Not strictly blues but blues in intent, this is one that’ll stay with you for a a very long time.
KEY CUTS: Sitting On The Edge of The World, The Grave, The Last Heartbeat
MEMPHIS LOUD Victor Wainwright & The Train (Ruf Records) *****++
Known for twisting music into bold new shapes, Victor Wainwright & The Train are back once again to delightfully stun music fans everywhere. Memphis Loud is piano powered roots, blues ‘n’ boogie so full of heart and soul you just might weep.
Wainwright, a transplant from Savannah, Georgia that now calls Memphis home, comes by his musical talent and curiosity honestly. “I carry with me the lessons from my grandfather, who taught me piano, and countless hours studying the roots of blues, genuine rock & roll, jazz, boogie-woogie and honky-tonk” he says, “all the while honestly developing that into something modern, fun, unique, emotional and truthful.” Memphis Loud is a snapshot of America’s great cities and genres, embodying a connection between exciting and unseen places that many of us out here on the perimeter have never experienced.
There’s a New Orleans sense of awe, wonder and joi de vivre in Memphis Loud that goes right down to its bones. How the blues bible No Depression describes this record is perfect- they call it “electrifyin’ boogie-woogie at warp speed, a piano-pounding ministry powerful enough to raise the dead and scald the living with righteous piano fervor. Wainwright’s roaring like a conductor with a snootful of cinders, his piano rocking so hard it’s about to knock the train off its tracks.” I know that sounds like exaggerated hyperbole or that they’re overstating the case, but once you give this a spin you’ll discover that those comments are right on the money.
So many southern musical traditions come together on Memphis Loud, it feels like something John Fogerty would love to have in his own musical collection. The attention to detail and craft on each track is bracing and the album was tracked live, leaving the vocal ad-libs and chemistry intact for us to enjoy too as we get immersed in a live musical experience. Throwing Memphis Loud in your CD player or on your turntable quickly turns into more than just listening to another record; it’s very nearly a religious experience. Street date is May 22nd.
KEY CUTS: Mississippi, Creek Don’t Rise, Reconcile
FORCED COMMANDMENTS Oz (Massacre Records) ****
Oh baby is this ever cool. Forced Commandments, Oz’s 8th album, is 4-on-the-floor rock & roll powered by lockstep riffs and sweet guitar solos, the kind of music that makes speeding not just a suggestion, but an absolutely necessity.
Oz was formed in the town of Nakkila, Finland in the late 70’s and, to my delight, they sound like a band from that era. Several line-up changes later the band now includes Vince Koivula on vocals, Juzzy Kangas on guitars & vocals, Johnny Cross on guitars & vocals, Pepi Peltola on bass & vocals, and Mark Ruffneck on drums. Forced Commandments isn’t speed metal, more like classic hard rock, but razor sharp and phenomenally well done. As great as the guitar playing from Juzzy and Johnny is, very much a tandem in the same sense as Downing and Tipton were in Judas Priest, much of the magic here is in the rhythm section- driving, relentless and rock steady.
Produced by the band along with Mika Borgerson, Forced Commandments is a perfect sounding metal record. This Vince sounds like Motley Crue’s Vince (Neil) would if he could really sing- he has quite a range and he’s not afraid to use it. There’s a physical, almost hedonistic feel to many of these 11 songs that seems all too rare in guitar driven rock & roll in the new millennium, and I salute Oz’s commitment to the cause. Love the harmonic lead guitar soloing on a track like Spiders, and on the very next track they pull it down for the ballad Long And Lonely Road. Some tasty acoustic guitar work on this one… if it doesn’t break your heart then maybe you don’t have one.
Oz aren’t Zeppelin or Sabbath, but if they can put out material as strong as Forced Commandments this far into their career, they get my vote. I don’t know their other albums or line-ups, this is where Oz starts for me- and I am well pleased. Due May 22nd.
KEY CUTS: Goin’ Down, Spiders, Long And Lonely Road
ELMORE’S BLUES Wayne Nicholson & John Campbeljohn (independent) *****
When you come across a tribute album, it’s a given that the songs will be excellent. The two questions you need to ask, if you’re familiar with the originals- Elmore James in this case- is do they do the material justice, and do they bring something new to the table? In the case of Elmore’s Blues Wayne Nicholson & John Campbelljohn pay respect to the originals and their reinterpretations will show you a fine time.
John Campbelljohn is an outstanding guitar player and Wayne Nicholson is a powerful blues singer with a 5 decades long career, so with a mutual love of the blues it makes sense that they would get together for a project like this. “Wayne called me up and said John, we need to talk” remembers Campbelljohn. “I want to do an album of Elmore James songs and you are the slide guy! I said ‘Wayne, you’ve got one of the biggest blues rock voices in the Maritimes- I’m in!’”
Elmore’s Blues is a spirited and loving tribute to the slide master, featuring a dozen of James’s greatest released songs plus two originals. “Wayne and I have been song writers all of our musical lives, so it made sense to include a couple of originals” says John. Those two, in case you were wondering, are If I Was Blue and Dancin’ With The Blues.
A rudimentary familiarity with Elmore James’s catalogue makes Elmore’s Blues that much more fun to listen to, but it’s not a requirement to enjoy this music. The disc has a sort of rustic, rugged feel to it, and I’d even go as far as to say Elmore himself would approve of how they’ve handled his legacy. Records like this are a good way to unearth the music of the masters and present it anew for younger generations to discover and enjoy, and it’s fun for old buggers like me too! This one comes out May 15th.
KEY CUTS: Rollin’ & Tumblin’, Standing At The Crossroads, Sinful Woman, If I Was Blue
GHOSTS OF WEST VIRGINIA Steve Earle & The Dukes (New West Records) *****
Steve Earle’s new album, his 20th, is deep and hard. Ghosts Of West Virginia is tied directly to the play Coal Country, inspired by the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 people. It’s a record of both bitterness and hope with a sort of Cold Mountain soul- emotional, profound and affecting.
Steve started working on this album after being approached by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the playwrights behind Coal Country. They interviewed the surviving West Virginia miners along with the families of those who died. Working closely with the public theatre’s artistic director, they workshopped songs and text for nearly 4 years. On stage for the entire play, Earle describes himself as “a Greek chorus with a guitar.” As a result the songs provide personal, historical and social context for the testimony of the play’s characters, all of which makes Ghosts a theatrical concept album.
The musical structure is what you’d expect in a record about the region and an event like this, country in flavour with lots of fiddles, pedal steel and acoustic guitars. With his storytelling skills, Earle sees a larger purpose in Ghosts Of West Virginia too. “I thought that given the way things are now, it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke for and to people who didn’t vote the way that I did” he says. “If people like me keep thinking that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or an asshole then we’re fucked, because it’s simply not true. So this is one move toward something that might take a generation to change. I wanted to do something where that dialogue could begin.”
Ghosts Of West Virginia is a profoundly heavy album with an old timey country sound to help tell stories rich, heartbreaking and worth hearing. After the explosion, investigations revealed hundreds of safety violations as well as attempts to cover them up, an all too familiar tale of industrial avarice. This album honours the miners’ memories, and it does what a good record should do… move you. Due out May 22nd.
KEY CUTS: It’s About Blood, The Mine, If I Could See Your Face Again
DANSE DE NOIR Lord Vigo (High Roller Records) ** ½
German concept metal- are you ready for this? Danse De Noir is Lord Vigo’s 4th album, switching from their usual tales of sword and sorcery lyrics to retro science fiction with a film noir edge. How much you enjoy this will depend on how that description makes you feel, along with whether or not you like a healthy dose of sludge in your metal too.
Danse De Noir is a true concept album, with narrative segments and interludes between songs that each represent “a memory implanted into the mind of our female protagonist Nihlai, a replicant within the Blade Runner universe” says singer/ drummer Vince Clortho. “In a way, one can interpret these tunes as episodes comprising one season of a television series. We generally follow a cinematic approach regarding our music.”
Does all of that make Danse De Noir sound cheesy? After all this is a band that took their name directly from Lord Vigo von Homburg Deutschendorf, the bad guy in Ghostbusters II. This disc is hitting me just like Judas Priest’s Nostradamus did in 2008… reasonably well done, but will anyone give a shit? I have that Priest record in my collection for the same reason I own Kiss’s Music From The Elder; as a fan of the band overall, my collection wouldn’t be complete without it, even if I don’t like it.
I enjoy the construction of Danse De Noir well enough, particularly the interludes that bridge one tune to the next, but when you get into it the songs starts sounding the same. Also, while the instruments are fairly well recorded, the echo on Vince’s vocals is constant. I’m sure they were going for a dramatic effect there, but it’s just fucking irritating. I applaud the ambition and the vision, but as a listening experience Danse De Noir falls considerably short for me. Most of the other European metal records I’ve reviewed recently have made me want to dig deeper in the band’s back catalogue, but this disc did not have that effect on me. Sorry, guys.
KEY CUTS: Between Despair and Ecstasy, Shoulder Of Orion