Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor: FIRST ALBUM REVIEW OF 2020
By John Kereiff.
NINTH STAR Emerald Sabbath (independent) ****
This has been out for a year, to Black Sabbath that, from song selection to performance, stands apart. Classical elements mixed with straight up rockers make it unforgettable.
Ninth Star is the brainchild of Michael Suilleabhain Bundade of West Cork, Ireland who, after watching a performance of Swan Lake in January of 2015, wanted to try a project of Black Sabbath’s music in classical form. It started with Changes, then grew to the 11 songs the CD now includes. Contributing musicians include several former members of Sabbath; Adam Wakeman (keyboards), Bev Bevan (drums), Neil Murray (bass), Terry Chimes (drums), Laurence Cottle (bass- he played on the Headless Cross record), Ron Keel (vocals), Vinnie Appice (drums), Bobby Rondinelli (drums), Rudy Sarzo (bass), Tony Martin (vocals on In For The Kill). There’s a ton of people behind the scenes too.
Before hearing a note, the song selection intrigued me. Whereas other Sabbath tributes focus on well known numbers like Paranoid and War Pigs, Ninth Star pays tribute with album and instrumentals wouldn’t normally occur to a ‘tributist’. It was seeing the video for She’s Gone on Facebook with Dave Walker on vocals just before Christmas that got my attention, and the rest is a revelation. While the original version is sad and mournful, Walker’s vocal gives it a whole new level of linesomeness, Rockers like Die Young, Hole In The Sky, Trashed and In For The Kill stick close to the originals and were no doubt fun to play, but arranging the already delicate instrumental Fluff for string quartet was a masterstroke, and the flute solo throughout Stonehenge makes an otherwise entirely forgettable transition piece from 83’s Born Again fresh and interesdting.
I’ve been a Black Sabbath fan since 1971 and Emerald Sabbath’s Ninth Star has given me new appreciation for the depth of their work, particularly the classical reinterpretation of the instrumental pieces included here. The album as well as the singles are available on digital platforms like I Tunes with only 1,000 physical copies printed up. www.emeraldsabbath.com
KEY CUTS: She’s Gone (Dave Walker, vocals), Fluff, In For The Kill (Tony Martin, vocals), Stonehenge
A MONTH OF SUNDAYS Jim Roberts & The Resonants (independent) *****
With his elegant yet tastefully dirty slide work, Jim Roberts takes us out on the highway from Detroit straight down south to Mississippi on A Month Of Sundays, his 3rd album. Solid songs and fine musicianship make this a terrific listen.
Backed by LA studio musicians The Resonants, Roberts has come up with a hypnotic, invigorating record that wanders from contemporary urban blues to smooth jazz elements to cigar box guitar blues. You can feel the mileage when he sings Miss Motor City 1963, the southern ballad Made A Promise really hits you in the feels, and What Her Evil Do is an arresting example of classic blues, a standard 12 bar number that demonstrates how deer-in-the-headlights-helpless a man can be at the hands of a vixen. Jim knows his blues.
Recorded in LA and France, A Month Of Sundays is a great sounding disc steeped in Roberts’ sometimes subtle/ sometimes raucous slide work that hypnotizes in the best possible way. Cashbox Magazine touts him as “a wizard who switches effortlessly between resonator, electric and cigar box guitars with ease and ability”, and they call this disc “an excellent album full of top-dollar playing, writing and delivery.” To me Jim Roberts is like a well-seasoned painter whose life experiences show in his work. He ‘paints’ in blue, but using various shades quite expressively. You’ll find yourself being drawn helplessly into each tune and reaching for the ‘repeat’ button throughout.
Roberts had a hand in writing all of these songs, with bassist Rick Hollander pitching in on half of them, and playing some mandolin and banjolele too; Slide guitarist Grant Cihlar co-wrote and plays on Miss Motor City 1963, there’s some nice harp work from Joey Gomez on What Her Evil Do and of course we’ve got sax and drums in the mix too. If A Month Of Sundays is any indication, this is going to be a great year for the blues.
KEY CUTS: What Her Evil Do, Miss Her Love, Miss Motor City 1963
COLORS Sugar Blue (Beeble) ****
I’ve always liked harmonica-based blues, developing a real taste for it in recent years. Sugar Blue, called “the foremost harmonica blower of our time” by Rolling Stone, brings the blues and the funk on Colors. Equal parts James Cotton, Junior Wells and John Popper, Sugar’s playing is virtuosic grooviness.
Looking at the cover I expected great blues, but Colors is so much more than that. So many cool things to dive into here, including a Chicago blues version of the Beatles’ classic Day Tripper and the song Bass Reeves, the tale of the lone Ranger from the old TV series- a liberated slave turned US Marshall. The opening track, And The Devil Too, is a tribute to Bo Diddley that makes sitting still virtually impossible. Overall the songs are diverse in concept and eclectic in delivery, as the best records almost always are.
Colors is mostly blues and funk, but We’ll Be All Right featuring Afrika Riz, a youth choir from Soweto, really stood out from the first pass. Mournful and hopeful at the same time, what sounds like a Fender Rhodes run through a Leslie cabinet creates a swirling and emotional bed that, with a lonesome and stark harmonica creates a spiritual song that lifts you up- feels similar to Warren Zevon’s final single Keep Me In Your Heart. Want some classic blues? Check out Dirty Ole Man– it will feel familiar musically, but it’s a rebuttal of toxic masculinity.
Colors was recorded mainly in Chicago with elements coming in from Shanghai, Milan and Johannesburg, so I suppose you could calls this “worldwide blues” with a dash of funk and a side of gospel- but mostly blues. Blues, like rock & roll, has been declared on its deathbed more than once… but in the hands of artists like Sugar Blue, it’s going to be around for a very long time. You’ll feel that too when you give it a listen.
KEY CUTS: Dirty Old Man, And The Devil Too, We’ll Be All Right
UNDRESS YOUR MADNESS Pretty Maids (Frontiers) ****
Following up 2016’s critically and commercially successful Kingmaker wasn’t a problem for Pretty Maids. These Danish heavy metallers unleashed Undress Your Madness in November, combining irresistible hooks and dense walls of guitar that practically demand you turn your stereo up to 11.
From face-melting barn burners to epic power ballads, Pretty Maids leave no stone (or is that rock?) unturned. Once again singer Ronnie Atkins and guitarist Ken Hammer prove themselves a formidable writing team. If you’re not familiar with their sound, think Accept crossed with Judas Priest with a side of AC/DC’s simple yet catchy as hell melodies. Atkins is an impressive singer, menacing and vicious one moment, melodic and surprisingly tuneful the next. The pulverizing sound of this disc overall is thanks in large part to the work of producer Jacob Hansen (Volbeat), who manages to invigorate their sound while touching on past thunder that made them who they are.
Many might not be aware of Pretty Maids in north America, but they started putting out records in 1984 with Red Hot And Heavy, and have been enjoying something of a resurgence since 2010’s Pandemonium, releasing a series of vital albums in the meantime. Madness has the feel of early to mid-80’s metal; energetic, charging riffery that will have you pumping fists and throwing the horns, lyrics that take you on a journey, and a variety of textures to keep you engaged as the disc plays. It’s the kind of record that makes you want to get off your ass and get shit done!
Undress Your Madness is a dense, forceful shot of energy that cannot be ignored. Prog metal, classic metal, call it what you will… 16 albums in Pretty Maids are still very much a force to be reckoned with. www.prettymaids.dk
KEY CUTS: Undress Your Madness, Firesoul Fly, Shadowlands
TATTERED & TORN Black Cat Bones (independent) *** ½
I guess there’s no escaping the blues- they even get it in Tucson, Arizona. Tattered & Torn, the new CD from Black Cat Bones, is full of fine playing, blues with a bit of a soulful jazz ‘n’ rock edge. I could get real used to this.
Singer Charles Pitts and bassist Jeff Daniels are the core members, with the line-up rounded out by guitarist Richard Rivera, guitarist Gary David and drummer Jerry Sommers. On their website they list BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Savoy Brown and ZZ Top as influences- as far as the blues go, that covers an awful lot of ground. Tattered & Torn isn’t as hot and greasy as that list might suggest, but the playing by all involved here is still a delight. Produced by Daniels and a guy named Duncan Stitt the sound is a little on the homemade side yet quite articulate, with the drums being recorded particularly well.
Tattered & Torn combines classic blues themes with a modern edge in the lyrics and musicianship. The rhythm section of Daniels and Sommers keeps things tight, but they leave enough breathing room for things to swing as needs be. Some harp might’ve added a nice coloring to these tunes, but the guitar work of Rivera and David is the main attraction. Pitts and Daniels wrote most of the songs but the laid back treasure Lone Lobo is credited to Gary David alone; nicely done, and a centrepiece of the disc.
Tattered & Torn isn’t dirty, shit-kicking blues but Black Cat Bones have still delivered a tasty bit of work here. This is either their 4th or 5th album- I’m not sure which- and I gotta admit they have pretty impeccable sense of groove. I’m really looking forward to spinning some of these tunes on my UDJ radio show. www.blackcatbones.net
KEY CUTS: Lone Lobo, Dead Broke Blues, I Don’t Care
WAYBACK MACHINE Mark Hummel (Electro-Fi Records) *****
Authenticity is important in blues records and it’s unlikely you’ll find it in more abundance than here on Mark Hummel’s new disc. A generous mix of blues classics with some new tracks mixed in, this baby really takes you back home.
Hummel has picked a sweet spot in blues history to explore, the glorious Bluebirds Records sound of the 30’s and 40’s. Hummel on vocals and harp is joined by Chicago first call guitarist Billy Flynn, Mississippi Bluesmaster Joe Beard and West Coast duo The Deep Basement Shakers. Recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios, Wayback Machine feels much like Maria Muldaur’s exploration of jug band blues with a natural sound and feel unburdened by production room trickery.
Wayback Machine, at first glance, appears overly generous at 16 tracks but once I listened all the way through I couldn’t wait to hear it again. Blues fans will know songs like Play With Your Poodle and Mean Old Frisco, and also appreciate that Mark didn’t screw around with the arrangements to ‘make them his own’. He and the various musicians that pop up throughout the disc play the songs exactly the way you would want to hear them… at least that’s how it is for me.
As a harp player Hummel has been featured on over 30 recordings since 1985 and is a master of what the instrument is capable of in the right hands, discovering blues harp and rock/blues while still in high school. Soon after getting into the hard blues by Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter, he began frequenting a club in LA where he saw Charlie Musselwhite, Brownie McGee & Sonny Terry and James Cotton, all of whom he would work with later on a regular basis. I mention that here only because you can feel and hear all of that in The Wayback Machine.
When it comes to harp-centric blues, especially in 2020, you’re not going to find any better than Mark Hummel’s The Wayback Machine… good luck trying. www.markhummel.com
KEY CUTS: Mean Old Frisco, So Much Trouble, Reefer Head Woman
RADIOCARBON House Of Shakira (Frontiers) *****
This has nothing to do with the Colombian singer you’re probably thinking of. House Of Shakira is a Swedish melodic hard rock band and Radiocarbon, their new and ninth album out just last month, is really good. I take that back- it’s sensational.
Originally forming in Stockholm in 1991, House Of Shakira recalls mid to latter day Def Leppard. The new album boasts a rare combination of melodic hooks and guitar muscle with hard driving (but not overpowering) beats that make for aural thrills. This has a real 80’s feel to it; solid, layered guitars, tight soloing, melodic and to the point, and Andreas Novak has the kind of voice that was born to sing just this kind of music. It’s metal but not the brutish sludge stuff usually associated with that- I get a positive buzz from this.
It seems odd that the European metal scene should be separate from the Americas. In light of what ‘metal’ means today, it’s more appropriate to call this ‘melodic hard rock’. Radiocarbon is full of charging riffs and changeups, the sort of album that would sound great blasting from my car stereo with the windows rolled down if it wasn’t -30 where I live right now. As this plays on my trusty basement stereo I marvel that HoS aren’t a planet-wide sensation; aside from Novak’s rock-solid vocals the combined guitars of Mats Hallstensson and Anders Lundstrom are catchy as hell, and the rhythm section of bassist Per Schelander and drummer Martin Larsson are straight forward and direct 4-on-the-floor rock and fuckin’ roll.
Over the years, aside from meatballs and build it yourself furniture Sweden has given us Abba, Roxette and Ace Of Base, as well as ‘The Swedish Mafia’ which appears to write 99% of today’s hit songs. Granted those are pop music concerns, but the country’s hard rock scene obviously requires closer scrutiny. Muscular and direct, Radiocarbon is going to stay with me for a very long time. www.frontiers.it/album/5571
KEY CUTS: Radiocarbon, One Circumstance, Sweet Revenge
GREENVILLE, MS …WHAT ABOUT YOU? Kern Pratt (Endless Blues Records) ****
When someone has grown up with the blues you can feel it, see it, hear it and taste it. That’s the case with Kern Pratt and his new album What About You? A smattering of originals alongside some classics and tributes, this is real sweet stuff.
The first part of the album title, Greenville, MS refers to the Mississippi town where Pratt grew up, a tip of the hat to his home and the music that he clearly loves. Every note he sings and plays is drenched in the blues, occasionally delivered with funk attitude. As you would hope he covers the gamut on blues subject matter, from the good times of the opening track Loving That Feeling to Something’s Gone Wrong, written after a spat with his lady. There were no less than 16 musicians involved in the making of Greenville, MS… What About You? So I won’t name them all here, but I know you’ll enjoy the quality of the musicianship throughout.
I love the variety of moods and tempos here, and as a sucker for a good slow blues Baby’s Got Another Lover, a song about a partner’s addiction, gave me the goose bumps. If it doesn’t do that for you, better check your pulse. What About You was produced by Bob Dowell, executive producer is bluesman Mick Kolassa, and together they have pulled the performance of a lifetime out of Pratt and his compatriots. I love the sound of this disc, from subtly bent guitar notes to a nice thick bottom end, drums that are never too busy to the sweet use of Hammond B3, everything sounds right and in its place.
The blues is in air Kern breathes and the water he drinks, and his new disc is drenched- beautifully soaking wet. This type of music is simple, honest and straightforward, and that’s the appeal of this record. In the songs of Greenville, MS… What About You? We see ourselves reflected back, making it the sweetest music of all. LOVE this. www.endlessblues.com
KEY CUTS: Something’s Gone Wrong, Loving That Feeling, Baby’s Got Another Lover