ROCK BELIEVER Scorpions (Vertigo Berlin) ****
50 years after their debut and 12 years after their first farewell tour, Scorpions are back with their 19th album, their first since 2015’s Return To Forever. With such a back catalogue they hardly need to make new music, yet Rock Believer is their strongest record since Blackout in 1982. Scorpions have nothing left to prove, but they play here like their lives depend on it.
“We were not thinking about making a new album at all” singer Klaus Meine says in the write up on I Tunes where I purchased the album. Then in 2018 a long time friend and Scorps fan from Athens suggested they do just that, in the style of albums like Blackout and Love At First Sting. “He said this is what the fans want to hear from us” Klaus remembers. “We thought well that’s 40 years ago- come on! But he threw this challenge at us and we decided okay, let’s go for it.”
Riff for riff and song for song, Rock Believer stands tall when considered amongst Scorpions’ other records. It also marks their first disc with ex- Motorhead drummer Mikki Dee, who replaced James Kottak in 2016. With a band like this that’s been around for decades new blood can be a real kick in the ass, as we saw with Judas Priest when guitarist Richie Faulkner replaced KK Downing. “Having Mikki in the band was really like a shot of fresh energy and great fun” Meine notes. All of the basic tracks were recorded together in one room, and that’s reflected in the energy of the performances.
Rock Believer is an impressive achievement in a career full of them. Klaus Meine’s pipes haven’t lost a step, the guitar playing of Rudolph Schenker and Mathias Jabs is nothing short of inspired, and drummer Dee along with bassist Pawel Maciwoda are relentless in the engine room. I’m 100% confident in saying that history will judge this record amongst Scorpions very best work- it’s far, far better than I dared hope. www.the-scorpions.com
HOT TRACKS: Call Of The Wild, Gas In The Tank, Rock Believer
HOUSE TO HOUSE Matt Andersen (Sonic Records) ****
I’ve been a Matt Andersen fan since 2011, he’s a big man from the east coast who has a way with words and a voice that can break your heart in a way that will have you saying “thank you”. House To House is a collection of songs informed by the difficulties of our times and performed mostly by just Andersen and his acoustic guitar. Even when occasional guests appear, they’re in the background. HTH gives us lots to think about.
House To House, produced by Andersen himself, is Matt’s voice and his wonderfully delicate finger picking. 5 of the 12 tracks feature background vocals, and this disc also includes a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready. As much as I love his full band records (I have 7 of them), the direct intimacy experienced on this record is just wonderful. In an article for Canadian Beats, when talking about the nature of his new album Andersen said “songs that are as much about space as they are about what happens between the spaces. I’ve learned those moments need to be there in a show. Big and strong isn’t big and strong if you don’t have a quiet moment to compare it to. This album is pretty much all about those types of songs.” Though he has those kind of songs throughout his catalogue, House To House is different from the thumping blues he’s rightly acclaimed for.
The sparse intimacy of these performances and the songs themselves makes listening to House To House a quite personal experience. Thoughtful ballads and gospel infused numbers fill the album, recorded live off the floor at his home studio in rural Nova Scotia with no overdubs. That grand voice of his rears its head from time to time, on numbers like Coal Mining Blues, originally heard on his 2011 disc of the same name, but more often than not these tunes feel like late night conversation. The lyrics are deep, thoughtful and emotionally provocative, but I would expect no less from Matt.
If ever there was an album written for quiet, late night contemplation, it’s House To House. This is a disc I will be listening to often. www.stubbyfingers.ca
HOT TRACKS: Time For The Wicked To Rest, Other Side of Goodbye, Coal Mining Blues
GOOD THINGS Wild Ride (Wild Ride Records International) **
Some rock & roll here by Wild Ride, a fixture on the Santa Monica Pier. 9 heartfelt songs delivered by singer/ guitarist Marek Lisiak with his wife Kerri. Lyrically a decent record, Good Things is hamstrung by atrocious production.
Once upon a time Marek was a member of the EMI signed French rock band Tipsy Wit, whose sole release was Songs & Dreams, and they opened once upon a time for Iron Maiden. Marek lists AC/DC, Kiss, UFO, Iron Maiden and Jimi Hendrix as early influences, while Kerri sites Bob Marley as UB40 initial influences before being exposed to London’s vibrant live music scene with the likes of Boy George, Eddie Grant, Maxi Priest and Diana Ross; none of which are particularly noticeable here.
On a song like I’m Still Alive Marek’s soloing is pretty cool, but overall the riffs sound like beginner rock & roll- not what you’d expect from someone with miles of experience, although I confess Power Machine is kind of catchy. The press material I received with Good Things says this album is “a new presentation of largely previously released material”, so Wild Ride has had these songs kicking around for awhile. A song like I’m Still Alive really hits home, inspired by Marek working his ass off to make a living as a musician. It’s also inspired by Kerri who survived a stroke, with the message of the song being to overcome your obstacles and reach for your dreams.
In Good Things I hear some potential but Wild Ride need to work with a producer that really gets them and what they’re trying to do to get anywhere. This album sounds like a home made project, and if they want attention beyond the people that have seen them play in bars around LA, they need to step up their game. This sounds like it could have been produced by Tommy Wiseau. Sorry guys. www.wildriderocks.com
HOT TRACKS: Power Machine, I’m Still Alive
HERE THERE BE MONSTERS Ten (Frontiers) *** ½
This is the latest from UK hard rockers Ten. Singer Gary Hughes has gathered the usual crew around him for Here There Be Monsters, guitar based rock & roll with rich keyboard parts abounding that raises the bar as they seem to do from album to album. The sound and vibe will remind you of a bygone era- but that’s not always a bad thing.
The band was built around singer/ songwriter Gary Hughes. Ten found their audience by creating a rock sound influenced by bands like UFO, Thin Lizzy, Giant, Magnum and Whitesnake when they formed in 1995. That was a time when playing this kind of stuff was considered career suicide, but you gotta play what you love. 26 years and 14 albums is impressive for any band, and sticking to their guns has proven to be the right move.
The guitar work of Dann Rosingana and Steve Grocott are a definite highlight of Monsters, these guys can shred and wail when the occasion calls for it. Gary is a solid singer, and the rhythm section of bassist Steve McKenna and drummer Markus Kullman (Sinner, Glenn Hughes, Voodoo Circle) lay down a solid foundation. Ten used the pandemic downtime well, coming up with two new albums. Here There Be Monsters is the first, but the band say it’s not part one of anything, that both records stand apart as separate creations. No word on when that second one will drop, but I’ll keep you posted.
The prominence of keyboards in Ten’s sound softens their hard rock attack somewhat, rounding off some of the sharp edges that can make rock & roll exciting, but when you hear things like the twin lead guitar solo in The Dream That Fell To Earth and the voiceover part, it buys them extra cred. The record was produced by Gary Hughes and mixed & mastered by Dennis Ward, a creative and professional relationship that started with 2011’s Stormwarning and continues to work rather well.
When it comes to the nasty sort of rock & roll I prefer Here There Be Monsters is a tad lightweight, but the musicianship is excellent and the overall sound of the record is pretty much faultless. All in all, Ten’s new record is agreeable company. www.tenofficial.com
HOT TRACKS: The Dream That Fell To Earth, Hurricane, Immaculate Friends
CONSTELLATION Mercedes Nicole (independent) *****
Oh wow. Apparently there’s a lot more to the Seattle music scene than you or I ever suspected. From that city on the ‘wet coast’ comes this beguiling singer with Constellation, a disc of swanky jazz that evokes visions of a world of cabarets and cocktail gowns. To say I was immediately smitten is an understatement.
Mercedes’ voice will remind you of legendary singers of the past like Sarah Vaughan or Dinah Washington, her voice a melodic purr that wraps itself around you as the rest of the world just kind of melts away. Constellation is her 4th album, the disc a blues powered rich exploration of noir jazz with an easy swing that makes it impossible not to love. The album features some of the best artists of Seattle’s formidable blues & jazz scene, impossible to name them all here, and was produced by Ms. Nicole herself. She chose some great songs to showcase her voice as well as the musicians too with Stormy Monday, The Thrill Is Gone and There Is Something On Your Mind among them. And she doesn’t just recreate those numbers as we know them, she makes them her own.
It feels like a cheat to use someone else’s words, but I love and agree with what Rick Jamm of jamsphire.com says about Mercedes, calling her “the real deal with her own voice, which is as smooth and rich as aged single-malt scotch over ice. Her phrasing is dead on- and there isn’t a single clinker.” I haven’t been quite this captivated by a singer since I first heard Sade in 1984. This album is well named too; a constellation of talent and brilliant songs, sung from the heart. This style of music isn’t considered for playlists on your average radio station, but it should be. That fabulous voice and these wonderful musicians have a feel for the groove that Pro Tools will never be able to match.
Mercedes Nicole is regionally well known in the Pacific North West but Constellation should be the record to put her in the hearts and minds of serious music fans the world over. This is music to dream by, to float away with and forget your troubles, if only for a little while. Simply beautiful. www.mercedesnicolejazz.com
HOT TRACKS: There is Something On Your Mind, I Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues, The Thrill Is Gone
IN TOO DEEP Sugaray Rayford (Forty Below Records) ****
What a lively breath of fresh air and a funky way to end today’s column. In Too Deep is a collection deep soul grooves with gritty lyrics that take you well beyond the dance floor, its pulsing rhythms underpinning Sugarray’s gospel and blues influences to deliver a funk baptism with deep messages that will stay with you.
In Too Deep marks Sugaray’s second collaboration with songwriter/ producer Eric Corne. They’ve come up with a record to keep you on your toes with abrupt feel and style changes, not unlike the soul and funk explosion of the 70’s. Some of the songs here have already been heard on BBC6 shows, and they’re showing up on several Spotify playlists too. It’s a combination of Rayford’s rich vocals, irresistibly catchy songs and some of the heavy messages, apparent when you zero in on the lyrics. Invisible Soldier, the album opener, is about the battles that American troops fight long after they’ve come home, Please Take My Hand raises the voices of generations who’ve struggled and persevered with love in the face of oppression, and Miss Information is about the world we live in. Lots to think about while you’re busting a move.
In Too Deep is the kind of album that makes an impression right away. As you taste the different grooves and vibes, the constant shifting of the musical landscape in a blues/ funk environment keep you engaged. Even if you’re not listening closely to what Sugaray is singing you can feel it, and the music will pull you into a place where you’ll want to find out what he’s trying to say. Blues Blast calls him “a force of nature singer who is equal parts showman, preacher and serious thinker”, and they’re right. Framing modern concerns in a sort of vintage funk/ soul context works like gangbusters, harkening back to a time when popular music had a real social conscience; if you’re anywhere near as old as I am, you’ll remember those days well.
All of the above just goes to say that In Too Deep is a terrific album. Tomorrow happens to be my day of from work, so I’m going to spin this one more time before I hit the sack. www.sugarayraford.com
HOT TRACKS: Invisible Soldier, Miss Information, Gonna Lift You Up