SECOND SKIN Iconic (Frontiers) ****
This is one hell of an exciting hard rock super group. Made up of members and/or former members of Whitesnake, Black Oak Arkansas, Ozzy, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Stryper and The Dead Daisies, Iconic has the pedigree and delivers the goods. Second Skin is hard charging and deadly.
Iconic includes drummer Tommy Aldridge and guitarist Joel Hoekstra (also of Trans-Siberian Orchestra) from Whitesnake, Michael Sweet from Stryper on guitar and vocals, singer Nathan James (Inglorious) and bassist Marco Mendoza (Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders, The Dead Daisies, Journey). The band was initially put together on paper by Frontiers president Serafino Perugino, a project to surround Nathan James with rock and metal musicians to play in a similar style to Whitesnake; urgent, melodic, bombastic.
So called super groups when put together by record labels seldom live up to the hype. , but, but Iconic is an exception. The bulk of the songwriting for Second Skin was handled by Hoekstra and Sweet, with some contributions from producer Alessandro Del Vecchio and vocalist James, production by Sweet and Del Vecchio. That the guys involved knew of each other and, in some cases (like Michael & Joel in TSO, or Joel & Tommy in ‘Snake) had worked together, was helpful in getting this thing off the drawing board and into the grooves. These guys get the opportunity to create music outside of their ‘day jobs’, and us fans get to hear the fruits of those labors.
One of the benefits of Second Skin is the diversity of having 2 capable lead singers in Sweet and James, although the latter does most of the heavy lifting in that department. I’ve been a Whitesnake fan for over 40 years and so am digging what Hoekstra and Aldridge bring to the group, Tommy in particular; I’ve been a fan of his drumming since first hearing Black Oak Arkansas in high school.
Super groups aren’t typically built to last and I’d guess Iconic is no exception. The musicians all have busy careers outside of Iconic, so chances of mounting a tour or building a catalog of albums to get behind and get thrilled about is remote; but you know what? That’s okay. Second Skin is a record worth getting excited about, so play it as many times as you want and as loud as you can.
HOT TRACKS: Run (As Fast As You Can), Second Skin, Enough Of Your Love
EMERGE Chaos Magic (Frontiers ****+
Symphonic metal from South America, anyone? Emerge is the latest disc from Chilean singer Caterina Nix and musician/ singer/ producer Nasson. It’s a meeting of two dramatic forms; heavy metal and the symphony, with touches of modern metal heaviosity throughout. Emerge is as mesmerizing as it is theatrical, and quite satisfying.
The music on Emerge is catchy an d heavy, led by Caterina’s stunning voice. The familiarity that Nix and Nassan enjoy, having worked together for a few years now, is paying off big time on the new album. While the heavy guitars and low end bass contribute much to this musical blend, I’d say the drumming of Carlos Hernandez is key to the overall feel as he shifts effortlessly from 4-on-the-floor rock grooves to more complicated double kick work that give much of the album a ‘modern metal’ feel.
Caterina Nix was ‘discovered’ by ex-Stratovarius composer and guitarist Timo Tolkki during one of his South American tours. Timo was so impressed with the singer that he wrote and produced the first Chaos Magic album for her. She returned the favor by singing on Tolkki’s rock opera album Angels of The Apocalypse; both of which were her ticket to the international stage from the band Aghonya. While her voice is clearly the draw when it comes to Chaos Magic, bassist Nasson and guitarist Mario Torres are essential to this sonic chemistry, along with aforementioned drummer Hernandez and keyboard player Mistheria. Without any single one of them, this disc would be less.
I’ve long believed that heavy metal and classical are not all that different, and with Emerge Chaos Magic effortlessly proves that point. Their combined power rivals the drama of any opera, with the difference being that I can listen to Chaos Magic all day. You know what? I think I will… this is proving to be very enjoyable.
HOT TRACKS: Beneath Your Skin, Days of Lions, Victims Of Our Heaven
CHARLOTTE Charlotte (Eonian) ***
Much like my favorite blues, the kind of rock & roll I really enjoy is dirty, scruffy around the edges and sometimes ill-mannered or snotty. That’s what Charlotte plays; like a combination of The Cult, Motley Crue and Ratt. This rotten, filthy, dirty lewd lascivious junk called rock & roll. This includes their 2010 album Medusa Groove plus 7 never before released tracks.
The band’s story begins in upstate New York circa 1984, when singer Eric Ganz formed the band with some chums right out of high school. Some discussion about the so-called “sins of mankind” led to them considering “Charlotte The Harlot” as the band name which, of course, became simply “Charlotte”. Initially their sound was heavily influenced by Judas Priest, Motley Crue and Ratt, but by 1990 things took a bluesy turn in the direction of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, The Doors, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. “We weren’t afraid to go out and play a ten-minute song at a time when three-minutes was not only the fashion but almost mandatory” Ganz says today.
When Charlotte came up glam rock was all the rage, the so-called ‘Sunset Strip Scene’, but the band was intent on achieving success on their own terms. Their style was an amalgam of the influences mentioned above as they refused to cram themselves into an easy to categorize mold. Even though they weren’t a glam act, Charlotte considered The Whisky A Go-Go their second home. “We played there more often than (the other clubs)” Eric says. We felt at home there. Dark and raw, it has such a great history and it reeked of rock ‘n’ roll. Although we did get banned a few times due to drinking, fighting, starting a fire and a few broken mirrors!”
The best rock & roll smells like leather, stale beer and vomit, comes with a punk attitude and a willingness to throw down anywhere, anytime. That, in essence, is Charlotte; after all, they’re named after one of the most famous whores of all time. There is nothing fancy about the rock & roll they made- if there was, I wouldn’t like it nearly as much as I do. Charlotte dared to chart their own course and make the music that turned them on… a priceless gift to the rest of us. Charlotte is a combination of their 2010 album plus some unearthed tunes they hadn’t heard in 30 years, 17 songs in all. As old as this music might be, it’s never to late to crack some beers, dig in, and turn this motherfucker UP.
HOT TRACKS: Medusa Groove, Miss Necrophilia, She Get It Up
DRIED UP DREAMS Jay & The Cooks (Socadisc/ The Orchard) *****+
If time and reality were no obstacle imagine, if you will, a record made by Neil Young, Webb Wilder and Tom Waits. Dried Up Dreams, the 5th album in the past decade from Jay & The Cooks, gives the idea a pretty good go. Ramshackle in a Crazy Horse sort of way and a facility with words that sounds like Neil, Webb & Tom put their heads together over a bottle of whiskey. This is one of my favorite albums of the year.
Jay, like most of the guys in his band, is an expat that now calls France home. Dried Up Dreams came from his idea of wanting to talk about his experience as an immigrant. Jay Ryan sings about simple pleasures like reading, cuisine, politics, and the lives of the people around him. Stylistically the record is a mix of country and blues with a 70’s rock vibe provided by the heavy, overdriven sound of bass and drums. Jay is not a great singer, maybe along the lines of Leonard Cohen even, but when he’s telling you a story in a song line Empty Glass Of Love you buy every line as the band lays down a Door-ish Riders On The Storm vibe- it’s hypnotic.
Dried Up Dreams is neither refined or tight- almost sloppy, perhaps- and many people won’t like it because of that. But the attitude along with the adventurous and truthful lyrics are why this hit me so deeply. D.U.D. isn’t layered in overdubbed guitars or background vocals, it sounds like 6 guys hangin’ out in the studio and bashing out a bunch of songs and some of them might be a little drunk. The subjects are simple and direct on tracks like Poor Everybody and Dried Up Hearts. The song Alton McCarver, which opens the record, is about a black guy Jay worked with on a construction site in Austin in the 70’s. The best line on the whole album comes from Chew The Cud: “some like The Beatles, I like The Stones/ I like Porter Waggoner’s… hairstyle”. The songs are honest in intent, and they groove like crazy.
HOT TRACKS: Alton McCarver, Chew The Cud, Dried Up Hearts
SO FAR Bob Margolin & Bob Corritore (Vizztone) *** ¾
Two legendary bluesmen have collaborated on a terrific new acoustic blues album. So Far is a relaxed back-porch affair with Margolin, Muddy Waters’ former guitarist, and harp legend Bob Corritore, who’s been busy releasing some tasty archive stuff in recent years. As you spin this you’ll likely think the same thing I did; why did it take these two guys so long to get together and do a tasty album like this??
So Far includes 7 new originals from Margolin, an original instrumental from Corritore, plus covers of some of their favorite blues classics. The intimate sound is due mainly to Bob M’s 1935 acoustic guitar and Bob C’s un-amped harmonica. Another factor that plays into these performances is a decades-long friendship that began when Corritore saw Bob Margolin playing in Muddy Waters’ band at his high school in 1974. It brings an ease and comfort to their playing, not unlike two old friends having a conversation about their favorite subject; the blues.
While So Far is 98% the two Bobs, guitarist Jimmy Vivino participates in two tracks; Running Through High Water and It Makes No Difference. Produced by Margolin, the sparse sound of the disc serves the songs well. It reminds me somewhat of Matt Andersen & Mike Stevens’ The Banff Sessions from 2011; confident musicians letting their hair down and just doing what they do best. In many ways you could say this is old school blues with Margolin’s acoustic guitar providing the locomotion while Corritore solos on harmonica when he isn’t decorating the songs with irresistible accents.
So Far is a solid album, yet… it’s not that Margolin is a bad singer, but I find him overly melodramatic from time to time. Having said that, there’s a feel and atmosphere to this bunch of songs that any fan of acoustic blues will embrace. Two masters of these essential blues instruments- acoustic guitar and harp- playing together as we literally feel their friendship in the playing is not something to take for granted.
HOT TRACKS: What If?, It Makes No Difference (with Jimmy Vivino), Salt River Stomp
BACK IN BUSINESS The Dave Goddess Group (independent) ****
Some fine roots rockin’ here on Dave Goddess’s 5th release. On Back In Business his inspirations are showing; The Band, CCR, The Byrds, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Consider the truth and honestly evident in their music, wrap it in a sound I’d describe as Tom Petty meets Barney Bentall, and you’ve got a record that’s darn fine company.
A quote from The Alternative Root on Dave’s website feels right on, calling the band “torch bearers for the three-chords-and-the-truth golden ring… building a following one true believer at a time.” To Goddess, for music to truly matter it should express passion and truth, not unlike those artists he mentions as influences. “Making music is a voluntary act” he says on his website, “ I don’t even know why I do it other than to please myself, and that’s pretty hard to do. Hopefully an audience can connect with the things that matter to me and hear something that matters to them.” In that same interview he describes the songs on Back In Business as being about “rebirth, religion, time, freedom and gratitude with a healthy dose of fun thrown in”, and “open ended storytelling.”
There’s a casual mid-tempo energy to the disc overall that really warms the heart, leaving you open to the yarns he’s spinning in such a casual way. As a singer Dave sounds like Tom Petty, and lyrically I’m feeling a connection to Barney Bentall’s post-Legendary Hearts solo stuff. Songs like Buyer’s Remorse rock, but not obnoxiously so. The use of fiddles and pedal steel here and there give Back In Business a country feel in places, but the album is delightfully a bit all over the place without ever sounding forced.
Aside from joyful rhythms and melodies with intriguing lyrics, a key ingredient with Back In Business is its intention. “We want to lift people up with our music” Goddess says when considering the future, “make them think and feel. We want them to have fun and be inspired. We give it our all; if we continue to do that, I think there will always be an audience that will be eager to follow.” Amen to that, Dave… amen to that.
HOT TRACKS: Back In Business, Buyers Remorse, One Way Ticket