ALBUM REVIEWS FOR APRIL 9TH, 2016 by John The Rock Doctor

BATTLE CRY Judas Priest (Epic Blu-Ray)This, a visual document of Judas Priest’s appearance at the Open Air Festival in Wacken, Germany last summer, shows the kids exactly how it’s done.  When it comes to traditional heavy metal, Judas Priest stands alone at the top of the mountain.Battle Cry the Blu-Ray (there is a companion CD, don’t have it yet) is a set of 17 songs over about an hour and a half, a mix of Priest classics that includes 3 tracks from their then-current record Redeemer Of Souls, performed in front of a clearly appreciative (and HUGE) crowd at night, under August skies, at one of the world’s most famous metal festivals.  In a bold move the band opens with Dragonaut from the new record- who has the nards to do that except Judas Priest?!? Several classic ensue, most of which you would expect- this is one band that gives the fans what they want.The audio was produced by Tom Allom who helmed their most successful albums in the 80’s, and it sounds excellent.  Camera work on this Blu-Ray was pretty good too- not faultless, but not nearly as jumpy as many modern productions tend to be.  Lots of close-ups of Rob Halford as he sings, Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner when they play big riffs and solos, plus glimpses of bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis in action too.  I enjoyed the visuals, mostly done on video screens- they largely stay out of the way of the performances and let the band get on with their job.Complaints?  Mere quibbles, really- Rob doesn’t seem as engaged with the audience as he usually does, but then he does have the hardest job.  Usual cliché stuff there, shouts of “Are you ready for some Priest-style heavy metal?”, audience sing-alongs on the choruses (they’re only too happy to oblige), and the only stand-out moment for me was when he sat on a riser and did a surprisingly wonderful introduction before the band launched into Beyond The Realms Of Death. Halford changed the vocal melody somewhat in the song, which I didn’t particularly dig but hey, he’s been singing the song since ’78 or so, so who can blame him for wanting to screw with it just a little bit?  Perhaps a few more views and listens and I’ll be more comfortable with it.The band itself is on fire- Richie Faulkner on guitar is a kick up the arse the band clearly needs, and Glenn Tipton remains a great guitarist.  Ian Hill is Ian Hill, playing simple bass lines and swinging his axe around to make it look like he’s doing more than he really is, and drummer Scott Travis is a machine, making it all look so easy- wish I had half the chops he does!Singer Rob Halford is still The Metal God and he can still hit the high notes but, at age 65, doesn’t really nail them with the authority he used to.  Having said that, his performance throughout the show is mostly excellent- but when he holds one of his high pitched screams I found myself thinking “Jeez, how much longer can he keep doing this?”  He must be completely shattered by the end of each performance, athletic vocals like that have to be draining- but overall he deserves congrats for a job well done.Battle Cry also contains bonus tracks, 3 songs recorded live in Gdansk 4 months after the Wacken gig… solid performances of Screaming For Vengeance, The Rage and Desert Plains but the camerawork is occasionally shaky and a bit off, so they aren’t as good or enjoyable as the main show- but, for fans, they’re still worth seeing.  As bonus features, some interview stuff with some of the guys or some backstage footage would’ve been better.I’ve seen several Judas Priest concerts on DVD and even caught them live on the Epitaph tour in Edmonton a few years back and, as Priest concerts go, I’d place this somewhere in the middle of the pack.  Word is they’re gearing up to head into the studio for another album, so let’s hope that’s true- in the meantime, Battle Cry ought to hold all us metal maniacs for awhile.ESSENTIAL: Beyond The Realms Of Death, Painkiller, Turbo Lover ANGEL’S 11 Angel Forrest (Ad Litteram/ Select)With a career spanning 27 years, 9 albums and the winner of the Maple Blues Award for female vocalist of the year in 2013, ’14 and ’15, Quebec blues belter Angel Forrest is very worthy of our attention.  The title of this disc refers to the 11 different guitarists featured, and (for me) how good this is on a scale of 1 to 10.Though primarily a blues record, Angel’s 11 embraces jazz and rock expression, and she really does use 11 different guitarists on these 11 tracks, some of whom I’ve reviewed in this space before including Steve Strongman, Paul Deslauriers and Steve Hill. Angel wrote the songs on this record with her partner Denis Coulombe with that idea in mind, imagining the guitarist that would put their own musical touch and expertise to each track.  There’s some tasty electric work on some of these, but it’s the acoustic guitar on songs like Goodbye that’s making the hair on my arms stand up.Angel Forrest’s voice is a powerful,  expressive marvel in and of itself- dirty in all the right places, kind of like Janis Joplin meets Melissa Etheridge, a voice that has carried her a long way from her 1996 debut Secondhand Blues.  The songs on Angel’s 11 are ridiculously well played, and her voice will get you right where you live.  This disc not only sounds good, it feels good too.  She’s shared the stage with artists like Burton Cummings, Shawn Phillips and Eric Burdon, and while I haven’t been witness to any of these events, I have no trouble imagining that she held her own with room to spare.From the slow, lonesome blues stuff to a rowdy party song like Wildflower, Angel’s 11 is an endlessly fascinating disc.  Even if you’re just into great guitar playing this album will float your boat- but if you enjoy an excellent blues singer, I have a sneaking suspicion that this baby is about to become your best friend- this is seriously excellent!ESSENTIALS:  Goodbye, Touch Of My Hand, Wildflower HAPPY BASTARDS Andy Frasco & The U.N.  (Ruf)This will probably be the most fun I have with a new album all year. An adrenaline shot of pure escapism and solid musical talent with occasional Caribbean overtones, Happy Bastards sounds exactly an album with a title like that SHOULD sound.“We want people to be happy” explains Andy, “to smile at their faults, love life for what it is, and to follow the beat of their own drum.”  Happy Bastards is pure escapism, the sort of album that can’t help but lift you up no matter how you’re feeling.  There is an element of blues in some of these songs, but Frasco says “I’m trying to bring a different interpretation of what people think the blues is… not all blues needs to sad and lonesome.”Taking influences from artists as diverse as Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Buddy Guy, The Band and Samantha Fish,  Frasco really has the art of good time music down pat. He started as a manager/ promoter on the West coast at the age of 16, and that bravado serves him well today. “It brought me the foundation to eventually book myself for the first five years of my career when nobody really gave a shit about me” he says.  “I told myself I’m not going to stop until I see my dreams come true. I’ve been on the road for over 10 years straight, playing 250 shows a year through six countries, basically living in a van.” How can you not admire that kind of determination?Music is the universal language, and the same can be said of these songs too as everyday worries and dreams fuel everyman anthems.  There’s a kind of reckless joi de vivre that really lifts Happy Bastards above the fray, making it something more than just a gathering of upbeat toe-tappers.  “I Wanted to make an album that celebrates life, and I think we accomplished that” Andy concludes, and who are we to disagree?  Whether you have people over or not when you throw Happy Bastards on the stereo, a party is bound to break out- trust me.ESSENTIALS:  You’re The Kind Of Crazy I Like, Mature As Fuck, When You’re Lonely WEEZER Weezer (Crush Music/ Warner Music Group)This self-titled disc, referred to by the band as ‘The White Album’, is their tenth studio record and, as you would expect, it’s jammed to the gunwales with insanely catchy pop/rock songs.This is the group that, over the last 20 years, has engineered some incredible ear worms (songs that you can’t get out of your head) like Buddy Holly, Hash Pipe and Beverly Hills, the mere mention of which makes me want to hear them again. I didn’t realize I missed these guys until I heard Weezer, reminding me what crafty song smiths they are. Just 10 songs, maybe half an hour all told, only one song a hair over 4 minutes- they get in, they get out, and nobody gets hurt.Weezer, as you would know if you’re a fan, is Rivers Cuomo (vocals/ guitar), Brian Bell (guitar), Scott Shriner (bass) and Patrick Wilson (drums). Like The Beach Boys decades before them, their music literally sounds like California, particularly on those vocal harmonies. There’s a darkness to Cuomo’s lyrics in songs like Thanks God For Girls (called an “insanely catchy new single” by NPR) that provides a delightful counterpoint to the buoyant melodies, a kind of duality that makes this song nigh on irresistible, and that goes for the whole record.Weezer, as with so many of the band’s albums before this, is a successful alchemy of the 60’s and the Y2K’s. Decipher and interpret the lyrics if you like- one of my favorite things to do- or just throw this on and enjoy… I expect Rivers Cuomo is fine with either. This is one of those records that you’ll enjoy immensely, and it makes you feel like digging back into of the band’s older stuff too- the sign of a really solid piece of work.ESSENTIALS: Thank God For Girls, Endless Bummer, Do You Wanna Get High?FIRE AND GASOLINE Lee Aaron (Big Sister)This is Lee’s 10th album overall, and her first record after a couple of forays into jazz singing- and it’s one of the most fun, enjoyable rock discs to come along in quite some time.I had no idea Ms. Aaron was ready to rock again. Just last week I came across the video for the title track on Facebook and enjoyed it so much I picked up the album at HMV the following day- haven’t been able to listen to much else since. The short description is that this is a true rock & roll record that isn’t afraid to show you a good time.Recorded in Vancouver and Portland and produced by Lee, this is the best thing she’s done in some time. Older records like Metal Queen and Bodyrock feel skeevy. I’m not faulting her performance as a singer, that’s always been solid, but those always felt like calculated image construction, some label cabal’s idea of what a hot rock chick should be, where faux sluttiness was more important than the talent. The music was always well played but felt- false somehow.Fire And Gasoline feels more like the real Lee Aaron to me, if that makes sense. She’s got a great band with her here; Sean Kelly on guitars, Dave Reimer on bass and vocals, John Cody on drums and John Webster on keyboards, with their performances having a kind locked in looseness that serves the songs extremely well, allowing them to breathe, move and groove in a much more organic way than the older stuff. There is more than one side to everyone, and that certainly goes for Lee too… I like to think that her interest and abilities in singing jazz for her last couple of records is part of why this is such an unexpectedly awesome disc.Fire And Gasoline is the right album at the right time in Lee Aaron’s career. It’s great to hear her rocking out in a more authentic way, but I hope she can find time to continue with the jazz stuff too. While I enjoy the older rock songs a great deal, it was always easy to dismiss the chick that sang Whatcha Do To My Body– but now, with this new album as exhibit A, a solid case is being made for her talent as a writer and singer worth taking seriously. GREAT stuff.ESSENTIALS: Fire And Gasoline, Tom Boy, 50 MilesBLUES OF DESPERATION Joe Bonamassa (J&R Adventures)Picking this up was one of my payday treats this week and might possibly be the best $14 I’ve ever spent. From the cover art to the songs themselves, Blues of Desperation is one hellaciously fine album as Joe dives deep into some serious blues. I’ve always enjoyed his playing, but this takes things to a whole new level.Bonamassa’s career began in 1969 when, at the age of 12, he shared the stage with BB King. He’s released 15 solo albums in the last 13 years and they’ve all been leading to this. Blues Of Desperation finds Joe working once again with producer Kevin Shirley, the guy behind my favorite Rush album (Counterparts),Led Zeppelin’s How The West Was Won and, of course, Bonamassa’s relatively short lived stint in the ‘super group’ Black Country Communion. Shirley pulls latter day Jimmy Page-style performances out of Joe, making this album heavy and hard blues yet full of light and shade at the same time. In the booklet essay he says “Kevin again has brought out the best in me with his vision and ability to assemble a crack team of blues and rock scientists, jumping at the chance to make wine out of well water.”From the hard charging blues/rock of This Train that opens the disc to the laid back gospel-tinged groove of a track like The Valley Runs Low, history may very well prove this to be the masterpiece of Joe Bonamassa’s career. His playing is right in the pocket, full of the history of the blues, as he sails on grooves laid down by drummer Anton Fig (The Paul Shafer Band, Ace Frehley). Lots of fuss is made about Joe’s playing and rightfully so, but let’s not forget too about his singing. He has a sort of dusky voice that reminds me of West Coast bluesman Harry Manx, and it serves the songs extremely well.There’s a palpable excitement in Blues Of Desperation that can only come from solid songs extremely well played. In the aforementioned booklet essay Bonamassa says “I am honored that you have chosen my new album” but trust me, Joe, when I say that the honor and privilege is ours. This is a disc that will be sticking with me for a VERY long time.ESSENTIALS: Drive, Distant Lonesome Train, The Valley Runs LowORIGINS VOL. I Ace Frehley (eOne Music)He’s been talking about this since last year and I wondered if he was just blowing smoke like one of his old Les Pauls- but Ace’s covers album will be on store shelves and at I-Tunes on April 15th. This disc holds 9 of the songs that influenced Frehley as a young musician, along with 3 Kiss classics. If it perfect? No. Should Steve Vai and Joe Satriani be worried? No. Does Origins Vol. I a ton of fun? Oh HELLS yeah!On most of his solo albums, even the one he put out in ’78 while still a member of Kiss, Ace has included at least one cover tune. There’s a fine line to walk when covering someone else’s material- if you cut a song too close to the original then the question is “why bother?” But if you go too far out there then fans of the original material will hate it. On Origins Vol. 1(he says if this does well, there’ll be another one) Frehley manages to entertain without straying too far. “I’m really thrilled with the whole thing” he says. “I’m excited about it, and I think there’s a song on here for everyone.”Guests on Origins Vol.1 include John 5, Paul Stanley, Slash, Lita Ford and Mike McCready as they tackle songs by Clapton, Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Thin Lizzy and more, plus 3 Kiss tunes; Parasite and Cold Gin which Ace wrote but did not sing lead on, and the song Rock & Roll Hell off of Creatures of The Night; he appears on the cover but does not play on the album, or so Gene Simmons told me. The playing on this disc has a swagger to it, somewhere between The Stones and Aerosmith, and overall the sound has a muscular looseness that I absolutely love.As you might expect, especially if you’ve heard any of his other stuff, if there’s a weakness here it’s the vocals. Ace has never been a great singer and I’m sure he’d be the first to admit it, but like it or not that’s a part of his sound. His performance in that regard is serviceable but here, as with all those Kiss records he played on and even his post Kiss solo stuff, I’m in it for the guitar, and on that score this gets two definite thumbs up. Though he’s no Eddie Van Halen, Ace still inspired a generation of players to pick up the instrument, like the late, great Dimebag Darrel, and it’s no wonder- who wouldn’t want to sound this fuckin’ COOL?ESSENTIALS: Fire & Water (with Paul Stanley), Emerald (with Slash), Cold Gin (with Mike McCready)BOOK OF SHADOWS II Zakk Wylde (eOne Music)Has it really been 20 years since Wylde’s last solo album? A pillar of the hard rock community through numerous albums with Ozzy Osbourne and 9 with his own band Black Label Society, Zakk shows a completely different side on the largely mellow and acoustic Book Of Shadows II. If you’re not familiar with this side of his musical personality you’ll find this takes some getting used to!1996’s original Book Of Shadows volume is referred to as “fiercely introspective (and) melancholy”, and I daresay the same can be said of II. I often start writing album reviews on the first spin, jotting down impressions and observations as they occur to me, but this required 3 or 4 listens before I could even begin to decide how it felt. The first time I just felt vaguely bummed out, but then I started keying in on the playing and the lyrics and knew everything would be okay.Book II feels like an album of southern rock ballads and, lyrically, I find a lot of the tunes to be downers. This disc showcases another side of Wylde’s guitar virtuosity as he gently picks and strums his way through heartfelt songs like Yesterday’s Tears and his singing voice, a warm baritone on slow stuff like this, is kind of reassuring. Produced, I would assume, by Wylde himself at his own Black Vatican recording studio the sound here is warm, gentle, unhurried- and his annoying pinched harmonic squeal has no place in these songs.Being familiar with all of Zakk Wylde’s work with Ozzy and some of his Black Label Society stuff (I saw them open for Judas Priest on that Epitaph tour), it’s a real treat to hear a completely different side of this talented guitarist. HOWEVER- an album made entirely of ballads is almost too much to take. Some good songs and fine playing here, but who says an acoustic rock song has to be a weepy ballad? You’ll find after a few songs that it starts to get you down, like listening to a pile of Allman/ Skynyrd ballads all in a row. With a Motorhead album, I often find it takes a couple of shots to get all the way through because their songs are intense and mostly played at the same energy level and, weirdly, it’s the same for Book Of Shadows II– I get full pretty quick and have to leave it aside for a while before I can come back to it.Some good song writing and great playing on Book Of Shadows II, but other than on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you’re drinking a cup of coffee and staring out the window, this one is best handled in smaller doses instead of all at once.ESSENTIALS: Sorrowed Regret, Darkest Hour, Sleeping Dogs HONEY FOR THE BISCUIT Tasha Taylor (Ruf)Ms. Taylor’s third album is a dazzling soul ‘n’ blues collection that I can’t get enough of. “I’m carrying on the next generation of rhythm, blues & soul” she says, unlike those karaoke singers on shows like American Idol and The Voice. “(I’m) bridging the gap between one generation and another- it’s my family business as well as my passion.”  And how!Honey For Biscuit is a thrilling reboot of great American genres, taking in soul, funk and every shade of blue.  In most respects, this feels and sounds like a classic soul album- flexible grooves, stabbing horn charts for emphasis, and Tasha’s smoky, powerful voice bringing it all together.  The musicianship is exquisitely funkalicious, and the lyrics read like a diary of a tumultuous romantic life. “There’s a lot of testimonials about dealing with and searching for stuff, about love, lust and life” she agrees. “I think I’ve come through a lot of stuff when I hear this record, and I’m glad to have those lessons in my pocket.”Honey For Biscuit is all about the grooves- from romps like How Long to the romance of One And Only, a song I can imagine Gladys Knight singing, Tasha lives up to the legacy started by her father, R&B trailblazer and Stax giant Johnnie Taylor.  Special guests on her 3rd record include Keb Mo`, Robert Randolph, Samantha Fish and Tommy Castro.  “Ì got very lucky And got some great friends to play” she says with a smile, “nice honey for my record.”This disc is long on groove and deep on emotion, a winning combination if there ever was one, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of these tracks on my radio show.ESSENTIALS:  That Man, One And Only, How Long INA FORSMAN Ina Forsman (Ruf)I wasn’t going to review this just yet because the record isn’t out until July, but I’m enjoying it so damn much I can’t wait.  It’s entirely possible that, with her debut set, this Finnish singer may have invented a new genre in cabaret blues, and it’s a certainty that this will prove to be one of my favourite albums of 2016.When I first saw the cover photo I though “Oh no, another Lana Del Rey”, whom I can’t stand, but no. Ina Forman is everything great music used to be; real, raw songs from the heart and shot from the hip.  As a singer she’s a volatile combination of blues belter and speakeasy chanteuse.  Music has been her life since as far back as she can remember. “I was six years old when I first said out loud that I wanted to be a singer” she recalls.  “My influences go back to the time when my aunt gave me my first Christina Aguilera album when I was seven.  For me, a great singer is someone who has power in their voice and isn’t afraid to use it, in all its colors and shades.”  And that’s exactly what Ina does.For her debut album, Ms. Forsman penned all the lyrics and co-wrote the music with principal collaborator  Tomi Leino, except for the smoking cover of Nina Simone’s I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl that closes out the record. “All the songs are about love and its ups and downs” she says, noting that “Pretty Messed Up is a last love-letter to my ex-boyfriend, and Bubbly Kisses is about drunk sex.”Ina Forsman has assembled a crack backing band here on her debut and the disc is extremely well produced- it sounds good, and it feels good too.  From top to bottom, I can’t think of a single thing about Ina Forsman that I don’t enjoy immensely, from expertly crafted songs to rollicking performances and a type of music that seems to transcend generational boundaries.  Someone so young finding themselves digging this deep instead of going for the disposable plastic stuff that dominates the pop landscape is a thrill too.  Without a doubt, this will prove to be one of the very best albums of 2016.ESSENTIALS: Pretty Messed Up, Devil May Dance Tonight, A Little Sugar In My Bowl


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