Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR – July 27, 2023

IN BLOOM Kris Gruen (Mother West) ****

In times of stress the right music can help cool you out.  As my wife & I ramp up preparations for a permanent move to Victoria, BC this fall, Kris Gruen’s latest album is just what the doctor ordered. In Bloom, his 6th release, is a gentle, melodic and deeply touching blend of Americana and the whisper-folk that we get from Iron & Wine… very moving.

“Marriage, new life, loss- big themes of family are really where I revolve,” says Kris, the son of rock photographer Bob Gruen. “and nature… a lot of nature. We live on an organic hillside farm in mountainous wilderness in Vermont, and we love that life.”  These are things you will feel, directly or innately, as you give In Bloom a spin.  Nowhere is this more evident than on You’re The One I’m Looking For, a duet with his daughter Jasmine that adds the line “to keep me safe and warm” in the chorus… that’s kind what this album does, where its magic is.

In Bloom was produced by collaborator Charles Newman using marvelously sparse treatments, the songs often recorded in single takes.  Gruen has a somewhat unusual and deliberately specific approach to the music he creates. “It feels very sculptural to me, the art of putting together a song” he says, “because of the perfect Tetris fit I’m always looking for between lyric, melody and rhythm.”  It’s hard to miss that attention to detail, to the way everything fits together so snugly and naturally- a big part of what makes listening to In Bloom so satisfying.

There’s some cool upbeat stuff here like a reggae-fied take on The Clash’s Bankrobber, but it’s the quiet moments on In Bloom that speak loudest. “(This) is just really my cure for a lot of the struggle and sorrow we see on the world stage” Kris says in summing up his new disc, “making change where you can at home and just feeling connected to what’s right in front of you in the present moment rather than some distant threat.”  That’s something for all of us to think about, and In Bloom is the right record to help you do just that.

HOT TRACKS:  You’re The One I’m Looking For, Heaven On A Car Ride, Leaving Light

MARCH FOURTH Kaiser Cartel (Mother West) ***+

These indie darlings are celebrating the 15th anniversary of their critically acclaimed debut with a re-imagined stripped down version.  March Forth, released in ’08, was an intricate weave of heartfelt narratives and infectious melodies.  March Fourth takes those songs and burrows them even deeper into your psyche.  This is high quality “thinking about stuff” music.

Kaiser Cartel are a folk/pop duo from Brooklyn (Courtney Kaiser, Benjamin Cartel) who, to my ears, rival the classic Simon & Garfunkel sound with melodies and lyrical observations that can only be described here as delicate, intimate and persuasive. As with Kris Gruen’s album this was produced by Charles Newman. Recording at his LA-based Cottage Sounds studio, the three created simple, soaring arrangements powered by shimmering acoustic guitars and sparse percussion for the most part, framing and highlighting the duo’s breathtaking harmonies.

But was calling this remake March Fourth the right move? Benjamin thinks so. “When it came time to find a title for the album, March Fourth was a perfect fit” he says.  “It’s not a March Forth copy; the songs are the same but we’ve approached them differently. We’ve stripped down the sounds, highlighting our melodies and harmonies even more.” In conclusion he notes that “we hope that fans of Kaiser Cartel and our original album enjoy these new renditions of the melodies and words they already know so well. We’ve always been intentionally minimalist, and this new take on our album maximizes our minimalism in the best possible way.”

I confess that I am NOT familiar with Kaiser Cartel’s debut, but after giving March Fourth a couple of spins I feel the need to track down that album to compare and contrast with the simple beauty of  this disc.  I’ve got lots to think about in the days, weeks and months ahead, and I can’t help but think this music is just the right thing to put on while sorting things out.

HOT TRACKS:  Dog Stars, Traveling Feet, Okay

KILL THE WITCH Arch Blade (Rockshots Records) ****+

Maximum heaviosty from The City Of Angels. Kill The Witch explodes out of the gate at breakneck speed with a kind of energy that feels like Judas Priest meets vintage Iron Maiden.  This is Arch Blade’s debut and it points to a bright and intense future.  This album is so together it’s hard to believe it’s their first.

Arch Blade was founded in 2019 by the father and son guitar duo of Rob V and Big Rob with Nigel Caicedo on bass, drummer Al Mendez and Ukrainian transplant Denys Podmazko on vocals. Fans of the early 80’s NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) will feel an instant kinship with Kill The Witch, although the band hails from Los Angeles. Mendez’s propulsive drumming and double kick attack give the tunes real oomph, and lyrically they’re based on singer Podmazko’s dreams and nightmares along with his interest in comic books, sci-fi, horror movies and documentaries.  Musically this is a potent mix of classic metal, NWOBHM, thrash and power metal with an engaging combination of tempos and grooves.

Arch blade boasts a thundering rhythm section, but the versatility of Podmazko’s voice is a powerful weapon.  I’m not a fan of death metal growlers and while he does pull that out on tracks like Break The Silence it’s far from the only weapon in his arsenal.  The twin guitar of Big Rob and Rob V echoes the tandem relationship of Tipton & Downing in Priest as well as Maiden’s Di’Anno-era guitarists.  The band knows you only have one chance to make a first impression and are they ever making this one count. “We picked the best songs that we had and focused on them” they say in the press release.  “We passed on a couple that were not right for the narrative of this album.  We are already working on the second album; we feel like it will be even more composed and catchy, so to speak.  We want to get back in the studio ASAP.”

Bridging the gap between classic and thrash metal, Kill The Witch is brutally impressive.

HOT TRACKS:  Nightbreed, Touched By Death, Queen Of The Damned

HIS-STORY Greg Sover (independent) *****

If you’re in the mood for shit-hot guitar playing, listen up- Greg Sover is your man, and His-Story is the album you need to crank right now.  Face-melting, blues powered Jimi-meets-SRV guitar weight lifting and brawn is happening here, bold and fearless enough to delight anyone that’s ever even looked at a Stratocaster.

Sover comes from Philadelphia  and his band of heavyweights have an impressive track record… hell, bassist Kenny Aaronson alone has played with people like Bob Dylan, Rick Derringer, Joan Jett and Sammy Hagar.  The playing on this disc is superb and Sover is a solid songwriter- all but 2 of the songs are originals and the 2 covers are Hendrix numbers in Manic Depression and Remember, a song originally recorded for the international version of Are You Experienced, and he’s joined on those by Band Of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox who told him Jimi would’ve been impressed with his playing.

His-Story was co-produced by Jim Salamone and Greg Sover with real punch-between-the-eyes heft.  Greg has a soulful voice and the musicianship is deliciously aggressive, except when they pull it down on a ballad like Tonight.  The disc is blues powered but, like Hendrix before him, there’s so much more going on here. “It’s all about crossing these boundaries and bringing everyone together, whatever your race, religion or nationality” Sover observes. “As for me, I’ve been through it all; it’s too late to stop now.  Just go for it… the show must go on!”

What he and his band are doing here is akin to Jimi’s psychedelic blues, particularly on Song 28, and I don’t think he’d mind that comparison.  As a songwriter Greg Sover also displays a talent for melody and hooks in a pop tunesmith’s sort of way, but not cheesy or overdone.  The blue note is at the root of everything played on His-Story, and Greg’s guitar solos get pretty wild but never truly out of control… full of passion and fire, with his steps on that high wire firm and sure.  His-Story may very well live up to its name and prove to be a career-defining record.

HOT TRACKS:  Song 28, Freedom Part 2, One Way Train

NO RESTRAINT Season Ammons (independent) *****+

This new album from Ammons, her 3rd, is an emotional revelation.  Deep and thoughtful, No Restraint boasts country accents, Motown-style soul and rootsy blues.  This disc was recorded during the pandemic and is fueled in part by the restraint of those times and some personal upheaval too, all of which makes for a powerful and intense listen.

“Having no restraint has been my biggest asset and also my biggest downfall” Season says.  “It all came together for me during the pandemic when it felt like I went through a full spectrum of a mental breakdown but also a breakthrough.”  Ammons returned to the comfortably familiar environment of longtime producer David Percefull’s Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberly, Texas to record No Restraint.   Since Covid kept her (and everyone else) off the road, she was able to take her time and some creative chances too.  Thanks to social distancing Ammons and Percefull played most of the instruments themselves, with help from a few friends and orchestrations being recorded at Abbey Road, as had been done on her previous albums, before the world shut down.  “We had no expectations and just wanted the songs to lead us” she says.  “With lots of time to play in the studio, David and I just got creative and had some fun.”

Season Ammons has a voice with emotional strength and intimacy, one I’d compare to Melissa Etheridge, Susan Tedeschi and Michelle Malone.  No Restraint deals with some serious subjects; heartache, addiction, self-actualization and mental health, with a unique wide-eyed playfulness.  “No Restraint is about showing up as I am, unapologetically, and owning the restraints and shadow sides of myself” she notes, “creating space for vulnerability, authenticity and a sense of empowerment.”  She isn’t writing and playing these songs to be another pop princess; she’s expressing her truths and observes that “as much as I write for my own healing and understanding, I feel like this new album has universal themes.  I want there to be that sense of relatability, authenticity, empowerment… and enjoyment!”  Mission accomplished, Ms. Ammons; No Restraint is one of the best records of the year.

HOT TRACKS:  Different Drum, I Still Love You, Don’t Break My Heart

STAR FLEET SESSIONS Brian May & Friends (Universal) ****

Killing 2 birds with one stone here; a ‘classic album review’ of a deluxe re-release of an EP that came out in 1983.  Inspired by May’s 5 year old son Jimmy’s love of a British marionette sci-fi show, Brian decided that a hard rock version of the show’s theme was the thing to do.  A 3 song EP originally came out on vinyl; I still have the copy I lifted from a Kamloops rock station I worked at in the early 90’s, but don’t tell!  This is a two cd edition with beaucoup de goodies including outtakes, studio chatter, a couple of radio interviews and some live cuts.

May gathered Eddie Van Halen, Phil Chen, keyboardist Fred Mandel and REO Speedwagon drummer Alan Gratzer in an LA recording studio.  With a couple of days booked they recorded a pile of stuff including some jams plus, aside from the title track a couple of long blues numbers; Let Me Out and Blues Breaker. Star Fleet Sessions contains 2023 remixes of those three songs plus live versions of Let Me Out, Queen’s We Will Rock You (recorded by Brian’s solo band, I assume) plus radio interviews with Brian conducted by LA deejay Cynthia Fox and a clip from an appearance on Bob Coburn’s syndicated “Rockline” radio show- and that’s just disc one.

Disc two has 11 different takes of Star Fleet, 6 takes (including rehearsals) of Let Me Out plus incidental jams. While Star Fleet wasn’t a big deal when originally issued, nothing more than some friends getting together ‘just to see what might happen’, its legend and cult status has grown.  Much better production sound here, the new mixes are terrific, and this little known side chapter of Queen history is finally seeing the light of day in a significant way.

I can’t imagine Star Fleet Sessions selling a zillion copies and it was never meant to, but it does offer something priceless that you won’t find anywhere else; the chance to listen to Brian May and Eddie Van Halen dicking around in the studio and having some fun- along with the other guys, of course.  Pretty fuckin’ cool if you ask me.

HOT TRACKS:  Star Fleet (2023 mix complete), Let Me Out (2023 mix), Funky Jam

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