TESTIFY X (Frontiers) ****
This is the third album for these melodic hard rockers out of Norway, following 2014’s Wintersleep, plus 2018’s Big City Life, and it’s their first for this label. Testify was put together by songwriter/ guitarist Daniel Olaisen, drawing no doubt from the same 80’s-style metal riffs he had stockpiled over the years and used for the first two records. If you’re a fan of Europe, Fair Warning, Firewind and Queensryche, you’ll dig this- a lot.
After the first two albums, Big City began working up demos for the next record in 2019, and they also brought in a new singer in Jergen Bergersen, who is well suited to this kind of rock & roll. The demos got to Frontiers, who quickly signed the band to a multi album deal. There’s quite a range of material on this record, from chilled out ballads to turbo-charged heaviness and even light progressive tunes. Olaisen, for one, is thrilled with the results. “Melodies are still in focus and there’s plenty of that” he notes. “This is the best Big City album so far… it will introduce our new singer (who’s) done an incredible job, there’s more punch and heaviness in his voice.” You might be interested to note that Bergersen, the singer, was in Rock The Night, a Europe cover band, so yeah- solid pipes.
I won’t go through the band’s roster past or present here; unless you’re well versed in the European metal scene you won’t likely be aware of the players, even the two I’ve already mentioned. What matters is the music, and Testify recalls the glory days of 80’s hard rock- hard charging riffs with acrobatic guitar soloing and a thundering rhythm section that makes turning it up loud and driving too fast practically mandatory. Trust me, I’ve done the research… in the car on the highway is the best place to test new rock & roll; even in a Ford Escape!
Testify X makes me want to backtrack and find Big City’s first couple of albums, much like Thundermother’s Heat Wave did for me with their stuff, and that’s an excellent sign. I love how some of the tunes start with a nice, quiet guitar section before kicking into gear. Big City is just the kind of rock & roll I need in my life, so let’s hit the road!
KEY CUTS: The Rush, Graveyard Love, Winds Of The Road
DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND Mike Clark (independent) ****
This Calgary-based sax man has played with some of the greats, and he’s blowing his own horn by saying Devil’s Playground, his 4th solo album, is some of his best work to date. While I’m not familiar with his history, I can say that this disc is one heck of a ride.
Clark has been blowing horn across Canada for more than 35 years, and his talent has put him on stages over the years with Albert Collins, Son Seals and Amos Garrett. He’s a busy dude- when he’s not performing he runs a club called Mikey’s on Twelfth in Calgary, a favorite amongst musicians for it’s ambience, music and food. Devil’s Playground is a reminder of the finer things in life; the gift of music, the joy of dancing, the connection of hearts, and the celebration of a return to better days.
Devil’s Playground is a jazz and funk flavored blues gem, a sweet mix of Clark originals and some of his favorite tunes by some of his favorite writers. His funkified take on Allen Touissant’s Sneaking Sally Through The Alley is big fun and worth the price of admission all by its lonesome. There’s also a tasty take on Mark Knopfler’s Fade To Black, and Tommy Castro lent his tune Soul Shaker to this record, and does a guest spot on it too as the song grooves along mightily.
Mike Clark’s band includes himself on vocals and sax, John Thiel on guitars, Danny Patton on bass, and Joey MacIntyre on drums. I don’t have any production notes with this, so I gotta assume that a guy with Mike’s musical mileage would’ve produced this himself. Devil’s Playground sounds meaty yet high and clean, with every note exactly where it should be. Its mix of blues and jazz motifs tied together with a hint of early 60’s rock and doo-wop grooviness is quite a kick, nostalgic and timeless at the same time.
If the soul of this disc can be summed up in one song it would have to be his own When This Is Over, a reminder to hold each other tight through the storm and that there’s sunshine on the horizon. Devil’s Playground is more than just a summation of what we’ve been through over the last year or so; it’s also a reminder that life is good, and to savor each moment as it comes… and I’m savoring this disc.
KEY CUTS: When This Is Over, Sneaking Sally Through The Alley, Devil’s Playground
WASTED YOUTH Mick Kolassa (Endless Blues Records) ****
Any day a new Mick Kolassa CD shows up in my mailbox is a very good day, because I know I‘m in for a deep and tasty dive into the blues. I picked this up on my way to work this morning, but had to wait till after supper to give a spin- well, 3 or 4 to be honest. Wasted Youth is a spirited collection tunes that are bound to make you feel good.
2020 was a very heavy year for Mick with the loss of his wife and several friends, inspiring many of the songs on this disc. He kicks off Wasted Youth with the ebullient Throwing Away These Blues, an upbeat toe-tapper about not letting life get you down, and the title track is about how youth isn’t truly appreciated until it’s gone. Feeling Sorry For Myself is about all the things that happened to him last year, but there’s lots of upbeat stuff to be had too. Kolassa isn’t wallowing, he’s just using the blues to express himself.
One of the highlights of Wasted Youth is Darkness To Light, a medley of 3 of Mick’s favorite tunes; War’s Slipping Into Darkness, The Youngbloods’ Darkness, Darkness, and the old spiritual Wayfaring Stranger. Mick and the band approach them with a reggae feel, which highlights the similarities and differences in the songs. The violin solos from Alice Hansen are quite arresting too.
If you’re not familiar with Mick Kolassa and his music (shame on you), I’d say the most direct comparison might be made to the late, great Long John Baldry as both have a similar vocal style, and their music includes some gentle humor and a pretty hefty amount of humanity and understanding. I know what Mick’s been through in the last year or so because I have a bio sheet to read, but you can feel the pain and the joy of life he’s experienced just by listening to the songs on Wasted Youth.
This is a well crafted album filled with tasty playing from a man that’s aware the clock is ticking, and yet he’s determined to make the most of what he has left. While Mick might be addressing his own experiences as he sings, I can feel myself in many of these songs too, and I bet you’ll have a similar experience as well. Plus, as with past albums, 100% of the proceeds will go to The Blues Foundation; great music for a fine cause.
KEY CUTS: It Hurts To Let You Go, Darkness To Light, Throwing Away These Blues
V Heaven & Earth (Frontiers) **** ½
As you may have guessed from the title, this is the international band’s 5th album, having released their debut in Y2K. V is muscular, bluesy riff-based rock & roll. If you’re a fan of early Whitesnake, Rainbow and Bad Company, Heaven & Earth is singing your songs.
Members of H & E include singer Gianluca Petralia (sounding not unlike Accept’s Mark Tornillo), Stuart Smith on guitars (clearly a Richie Blackmore fan), Lynn Sorensen on bass, George Barabas on keys, and former AC/DC and Dio member Simon Wright on the skins. What makes them international is having an Italian singer and a Turkish keyboard player with the other two guys being British transplants living in America. Wright and Sorensen are an exceptional rhythm section with a smoothness you might not necessarily expect with hard rock, and Smith is a pretty damn good guitar player that can turn on the afterburners- but only if and when a song calls for it. There are lots of showboats in this type of music, but Stuart isn’t one of them.
Pertalia’s throaty growl is what really pulls V together and let’s face it; music like this or a record like this wouldn’t fly with an ‘average’ singer. Heaven & Earth has an energy when they play with flashes of prog that harkens back to Deep Purple’s classic Mark II lineup at the height of their powers; give Ship Of Fools a spin and you’ll see what I mean. Go ahead, find it on Spotify or I Tunes; I’ll wait.
As the world lurches back into the sun after 18 months in the shadows, I think this kind of rock & roll is more important than ever. Heaven & Earth’s V is a rock solid reminder that life is good; and with the right kind of music at appropriate volumes, it can be excellent. This is my first Heaven & Earth album, so it looks like I have some exploring and purchasing to do. In the meantime, good luck prying this out of my cd player.
KEY CUTS: Never Dream Of Dying, Ship Of Fools, Flim Flam Man
Pure Robben Ford (E.A.R. Music/The Orchard) *** ½
This new record from Robben Ford is cause for guitar freaks to salivate, Pure is his first all instrumental studio album since 1997’s Tiger Walk. Once again Robben’s musical vocabulary is on full display; jazz, blues and rock, a seamless blend of soulful west coast vibes with bluesy rock stylings, perhaps a George Benson for a new generation.
I first became aware of Robben when I found out he played the solos on Kiss’s Creatures Of The Night, on the ballad I Still Love You. Several guitarists I’ve interviewed over the years have mentioned him as an influence, and I check out his stuff from time to time- Pure is the 5th Robben Ford album to make it into my collection. He started out in the usual way; gathering a great band, tracking some songs to overdub, but the other musicians were influencing the music and it was throwing him off. Robben elected to build this disc from the ground up with the help of engineer Casey Wasner. “Most of the music you’ll hear in this recording was accomplished by the two of us working together in his studio, getting the right shape and feel to the music, then adding bass and drums after the fact” Ford says. “Having worked this way, I feel that Pure is perhaps the most complete representation of my music… it’s been very satisfying.”
Aside from Kiss Robben has also played with Joni Mitchell, George Harrison, Miles Davis, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan to name just a very few. That covers a broad range of styles and I don’t imagine he had much trouble rising to the occasion for each. So why don’t I like Pure more than I do? A couple of things; one is that I find all instrumental albums of any kind curiously fatiguing, no matter how excellent the playing is- and here, it’s exemplary. The other is a sense of insecurity, that music this lithe and sophisticated can easily go over my head and if I don’t fully grasp what’s going, I feel stupid.
One of the things I enjoy very much about Pure is the variety of grooves, that the songs or their structures aren’t necessarily what you might be expecting, though overall the disc has a definite vibe to it. With Pure Robben Ford speaks to us without saying a word, and that’s kind of cool. Street date is August 27th.
KEY CUTS: If You Want Me To, Blues For Lonnie Johnson, A Dragon’s Tail
PLUG IN & PLAY Tommy Z (South Blossom Records) *****+
It’s not often you put a new album on and go “WHOA!!!” from the opening notes, but that’s what happened here. Plug In & Play from Buffalo’s Tommy Z is some of the hardest, most dynamic rockin’ blues I’ve heard since first coming across SRV’s In Step. You want to hear some great, hard charging guitar driven blues? Baby, this is IT.
Guitar legend Tinsley Ellis says “Tommy is a triple threat on guitar, vocals and also songwriting. His new album will easily be one of the best roots rock albums of 2021”, and that feels about right… I’ve heard the disc a few times and I know exactly what Tinsley means. Plug In & Play includes songs produced and co-written by 3-time Grammy winner Tom Hambridge in Nashville and Buffalo, and this thing is almost too hot to handle. I definitely hear some Stevie Ray in the way Tommy attacks the notes, leaning into every string bend as if his life depends on it, and when he backs off and settles into the pocket, there’s a fluidity in his playing that just carries you away.
Too many people involved to list band credits here, but suffice to say Tommy Z has an incredible band with him on PnP. This combination of straight Chicago blues, rockin’ blues and the occasional jazz excursion make this one of the most exciting albums of the year. If you’re in the market for a new guitar hero to follow, Tommy Z is your guy. Tinsley Ellis was right in his assessment of this record, and Sarah French is too when she calls him “one of Western New York’s best kept secrets… an exceptional guitarist and vocalist.” Plug In & Play is right up there with Christone Kingfish Ingram’s new album 662, it’s THAT stunning. Time for the rest of the world to find out about Tommy Z..
KEY CUTS: Pumpin’ (Let’s Have Some Fun), Please Come Back To Me, Scowler