CD Review: Raven – ExtermiNation

CD Review: Raven – ExtermiNation
All Access Rating: A-

Raven - ExtermiNation 2015
True survivors in a business that relishes eating its young, Raven have endured, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal veterans staying the course with a lineup that's been together for going on three decades now.

As recently as 2014, the trio of Mark Gallagher (guitars), John Gallagher (bass and vocals) and Joe Hasselvander (drums) gave Metallica a run for its money in concert, opening up for the thrash-metal titans in Sao Paulo. Those who know their NWOBHM history will recall that it was Raven who took Metallica out in 1983 on their first U.S. tour as a support act on the legendary "Kill 'Em All For One" campaign – they would also do the same for Anthrax, before going through major-label hell and living through a life-threatening accident to one of its members.

Obliged to return the favor, Metallica might not even exist if it weren't for Raven, their tumultuous, hard-hitting attack having inspired the thrash/speed metal movement that spawned the famed Bay Area scene and its most famous progeny. All these years later, Raven's crazed sonic fury hasn't abated, the brawling, dizzying delirium of "Destroy All Monsters," the opening track to the Steamhammer/SPV release ExtermiNation, setting the tone for the attention-grabbing and brutally unpredictable insanity that follows.

Powered by boisterous vocals, rugged rhythms and muscular riffs – all of it taking cover from a bombardment of screaming guitar leads flying overhead – ExtermiNation is a slug fest, the heavy, menacing, brawny grooves and captivating pull of "Tomorrow," "Battle March Tank Treads (The Blood Runs Red)," a venomous "Thunder Down Under" and "Fire Burns Within" forcefully roughing up any doubters that would dare question why they haven't yet given up the ghost. Even more satisfying is "One More Day," with its insidious, strong hooks and a full-bodied chorus that bleeds '70s classic-rock soul. And if it's sophisticated artistry you want, the melodic prog-metal movements of "It's Not What You Got" are captivating, reminiscent of Empire-era Queensryche.

On a chaotic "Feeding the Monster" and "Scream," Raven go on a rampage, defiant to the very end throughout ExtermiNation and driving these vehicles like they stole them, pedal to the floor until there's no more road. And when ExtermiNation does end, and Raven gets pulled over for going over 100 miles per hour and doing so with wild, reckless abandon, let the authorities throw the book at these Geordies from Newcastle Upon Tyne in the north of England. Given the reverence for their classic first three albums, as well as their latest metal romp, Raven will have plenty of witnesses to testify to their character.
– Peter Lindblad

Helmet's 'Betty' is still a bombshell

A conversation with Page Hamilton about band's classic third LP
By Peter Lindblad

The Helmet lineup in 2015 that's
playing 'Betty' in its entirety.
The record-buying public doesn't always take kindly to so-called "experimental" records. Helmet's Betty has taken its fair share of pot shots from detractors.

Relaxing in a black RV parked outside of the High Noon Saloon in Madison, Wis., back in March, Page Hamilton, one of the true architects of alternative-metal, is fighting a cough just hours before gig No. 61 of Helmet's recent tour, one in which the landmark Betty album was to be played in its entirety, with a second set chock full of favorites from other Helmet albums thrown in for good measure.

Helmet - Betty
The show will go on, road fatigue or no road fatigue, because Betty deserves it. And with miles to go before he sleeps – Helmet had 20 more shows to go on this victory lap for perhaps the most confounding record in the band's catalog – Hamilton couldn't be happier with the reception the tour's received.

"Amazing, yeah it's been great," said Hamilton, joined in Helmet nowadays by Dan Beeman, Kyle Stephenson and Dave Case. "We're sold out tonight, sold out tomorrow in Chicago, sold out in Cleveland. Last night in Minneapolis was 550, so that was a packed house. It's been good, really good. I love seeing packed houses, and the band is playing really well, so that's all you can hope for."

In 1994, anticipation for the follow-up to the monstrous sonic earthquake that was Meantime, Helmet's 1992 major label debut on Interscope Records, was feverish. An almost militaristic march of heavy, disciplined riffs and infectious grooves as high and tight as a Marine's crew cut, the groundbreaking post-metal masterpiece Meantime breathed fresh air into a scene that had long grown weary of the excesses of '80s glam and was mighty suspicious of grunge. What would Helmet do for an encore?

Along came Betty, an ambitious bombshell of thick, pummeling aural punishment that sent shrapnel flying in every direction, some of it landing in the disparate camps of jazz and blues. Although it wasn't the commercial smash everyone was hoping for, critics generally took a liking to it and over time, it's come to be appreciated as one of Helmet's finest.

Still, even as tracks like "Biscuits for Smut," "Milquetoast" (see the video below) and "I Know" retained the crunch of Meantime, more offbeat fare such as "The Silver Hawaiian," the jazz standard "Beautiful Love" and the demented lap-steel weirdness of "Sam Hell" led to lots of head scratching.

However, if this tour is any indication, Betty, Helmet's third record, has aged well. 

"Both albums seem to have survived the test of time, 20 years for Betty and 23 years for Meantime," said Hamilton. "And we play songs from both those albums, as well as Aftertaste. In London, after we did Betty, we did the second half of Meantime and the first half of Aftertaste for the second set and they went more crazy than they did for Betty, which pissed me off, because I thought, 'There goes my Aftertaste idea (laughs).' It's good to see that sometimes when you get flak when an album comes out because it's not like the previous album, that 20 years later you can see you did things right. That's what it's all about, because we're not trying to win any pop music competitions. We're not a mainstream band and never have been. Helmet fans are very loyal, and they know we're not going to come out with a disco record, or techno or whatever's the flavor of the month. We'll never sound like Katy Perry or Maroon 5."

Upon Betty's release, though, some were wondering if Helmet had lost its edge.

"I remember that day we did Flipside magazine, which was a cool magazine back in the late '80s, early '90s," related Hamilton. "It was Helmet mania, and they just loved Helmet. When Meantime came out, he came out to see a show in Long Beach, Kirk (or KRK Dominquez) from Flipside said, 'I wanted Helmet and I got a bonnet.' He thought we'd gotten soft after Strap It On and didn't like it at all."

Taking the sardonic criticism in stride, Hamilton vowed not to let it influence his artistic vision.

"I learned then that it doesn't matter what you do – somebody's a fan of what you do today, tomorrow they may be disappointed because you're not doing what you did yesterday," explained Hamilton. "So you have to stick to your guns and have a thick skin. You have to do make music for yourself and make music you know is good, and not try to please anybody else. I'm not worried about what critics say, or even fans. It could be disheartening at the time, but I have to know it's good. I have to study my craft and continue to move forward without throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Hamilton has a good sense of what Helmet's identity is, and although they may take the occasionally unexpected detour, he makes sure they never lose sight of who they are as a band.

"We're not Marilyn Manson," said Hamilton. "I'm not going to grow tits and change outfits. That's not what Helmet's thing is about. It's four guys in street clothes standing up there and trying to make music. It's strictly drop the needle. That's what it's about. That's what my heroes were for me – John Coltrane, Charlie Parker. They had cool suits in the '40s and '50s and '60s, whatever, but they just played music. It was just about the music, and that's what turned me on, that's what got me excited. Sure, I thought Jimmy Page looked cool in his dragon pants, in his penny loafers and whatever, and Robert Plant in ladies' blouses, but it was all about dropping the needle and listening to them singing and playing – that's what it's always been for Helmet. Some people hate that. They don't like me because I don't do that. They don't like us because we don't do that, and that's their prerogative. They can't say that we're not honest or we aren't good. They're saying they don't like us."

Helmet dropped the needle and then some when Hamilton, drummer John Stanier, bassist Henry Bogdan and guitarist Rob Echeverria – the replacement for Peter Mengede – entered the studio in the fall of 1993 to begin work on Betty, with writing and recording sessions at Soundtrack, Power Station and Sound on Sound in New York City.

Helmet - Meantime
While touring in support of Meantime, there were reports of internal tensions, and Mengede allegedly did not leave on the best of terms in early 1993. Still, Hamilton doesn't recall the sessions for Betty as being overly stressful, although there was pressure from outside influences.

"Yeah, it was a little bit, I suppose, but every album there's some stress involved," said Hamilton. "Strap It On, it was my bartending tips that paid for it, so we're like, 'Okay, that mix sounds good,' and I had to stand there with my hand on two faders, and Bogdan on one; they had two faders, so we're mixing manually on the board, and it was like, 'Okay, I think we're set up now. Push that up a little bit. Now go back.' So that's stressful. With Meantime, we'd signed a big record deal, and we had people from the record company coming in and listening, so we're like, this is weird, you know? And with Betty, after a gold record and a Grammy nomination for Meantime, everybody wanted to make it Nirvana. We're like, 'We're not anything like Nirvana,' nothing like Nirvana. And Aftertaste … well, 'Betty didn't do as well as Meantime, so Aftertaste has to be like this and that,' and I was like, 'All I can do is write the songs and record them and sing them to the best of my ability.' And that's what it is. It should be fun. The process has always been fun and enjoyable for me, and it's simply about music."

When it came to Betty, Hamilton and company had aspirations of expanding Helmet's sound to incorporate other genres, as other voices within the band begged to be heard.

"Yeah, that was what was fun about it," said Hamilton. "We wrote some songs … I guess it started with, 'Well, man, what more can we do?' Strap It On morphed into Meantime, which morphed into Betty and there were other elements. Henry had an interest in lap steel guitar, and other things he was writing. He was listening to the Beatles I think when he came up with the riffs for 'Silver Hawaiian.' And I wanted the whole band to feel more included, because I think they saw that when there was a clear leader in the band after a couple of years, there's a leader and I think that makes guys uncomfortable. I just wanted make sure that everybody knew it was a band, that I'm the singer, the writer and essentially the producer, but without a great band, you're shit. I'm not Trent Reznor, where I've got the genius technological ability … that guy's amazing in the studio. I don't know if he can play guitar as well as I can, but he's a genius in the studio, so he doesn't necessarily need a band to make a record. I do."

Like all Helmet records, Betty grooves ... relentlessly. Hamilton feels that comes naturally for Helmet, that it's not something they ever have to think about.

"I think every record grooves. We never consciously said we've got to groove or we've got to be groovier or whatever," said Hamilton. "John Stanier was listening to a lot of hip-hop and a lot of drum and bass. Henry was listening to country and western and Hawaiian music, and I was listening to my usual jazz, which is all about groove and feel and swing, as well as classical things, expanding my understanding of harmonic knowledge. But we never consciously said, 'God, We're so funky.' AC/DC is a different kind of funky from Rage Against The Machine or Red Hot Chili Peppers. To me, those bands are more trying to incorporate that thing in their sound, and I like AC/DC, that sound. That's my band. I thought the Beatles grooved. The Stones, in their sloppy way, kind of grooved, so it's not like we're trying to play white-boy funk or anything."

While the notion of whether a record grooves or not may be a nebulous concept, song composition is not, and while more well-known tracks off Betty might garner more attention, Hamilton is sweet on another.

"Somebody asked me that last night after the show," said Hamilton, responding to a question about which song on Betty is his favorite. "It's hard for me to say, but I'd probably have to say 'Overrated.' I've always liked the structure. I just found this cool chord progression of things that I thought of at the time. There was a cool tension release in the song; it's an interesting structure. It's not really supposed work at all."

Hamilton admits, "I've always experimented with structures, that's kind of what I'm known for." On "Wilma's Rainbow," Hamilton used another Helmet classic as the foundation for what that track would become.

"I like that song," said Hamilton. "That's the structure that I came up with for 'Unsung.' That's a different structure, too. It's got a verse and chorus, but it's also got a developing section in the outro, and a song like 'Pure' from Aftertaste,  it's got a different structure."

Construction of Betty was completed by Helmet, along with Andy Wallace on mixing, Howie Weinberg on mastering and Martin Bisi, known also for his work with Sonic Youth, Swans and White Zombie, handling the engineering. Bisi was a late arrival, coming in midway through the proceedings to record Echeverria's guitar parts and additional overdubs.

Finally, on June 21, 1994, Betty had its coming-out party, settling in at No. 45 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart, Helmet's best chart performance ever. Alas, it was not the commercial success Meantime was, and in the aftermath, Echeverria departed to join Biohazard, leaving Helmet a trio. 1997 brought Aftertaste, and later, a new guitarist in Chris Traynor, formerly of Orange 9mm. That record spent very little time on the charts, and sales were disappointing. The 1997-98 "Aftertaste" tour was the band's swan song – that is, until Hamilton revived Helmet in 2004.

If he has any regrets about any of it, Hamilton isn't sharing them.

"There's so many events that happened over the life of the band," said Hamilton. "It was roughly 10 years, and now I've got eight-plus years with Kyle, so he and I are the core of the band at this point, but we've got two guys who are amazing players, Danny and Dave. So it feels like a real band to me, as much as the original lineup did for the first five years. Unfortunately, people grow … not unfortunately, but people grow apart, and it happens and you can't control what other people want to do. They decided it was their time to move on, and I said to them early on when we were about to sign a record deal, to Peter, John and Henry, 'I'm not putting your kids through college just because we were in a band together. I don't owe you anything, and you don't owe me anything.' They were clear that it was my band, it's just sometimes shit happens."

Check out this Helmet performance on KXEP to get a taste of what they're like live nowadays.

CD Review: Jonathan Rundman – Look Up

CD Review: Jonathan Rundman  Look Up
Salt Lady Records
All Access Rating: A-

Jonathan Rundman - Look Up 2015
Absence has only made the heart grow fonder for Jonathan Rundman's brand of intelligently designed and altogether charming power-pop. His first album in a decade, Look Up will make you wish he'd come around more often.

A native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula now based in Minneapolis, the multi-instrumentalist has assembled a who's who of the Twin Cities' finest musicians to help him realize his vision of a lush, warmly modern world of sound with plenty of room at the inn for traditional folk sketches such as the spare, haunting "Home Unknown." All of it holds the wonderfully told tales of Look Up in a loving and empathetic embrace, Rundman's easy grace and search for simple, lasting truths born of a hopeful theology and the inexplicable wonders of art and science.

Providing most of the instrumental support are Owl City guitarist Jasper Nephew, Sara Bareilles drummer Steve Goold, bassist Ian Allison (Jeremy Messersmith), and Leagues guitarist Tyler Burkum. Other guests include frequent collaborator Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos, as well as guitarist Parthenon Huxley of Eels and ELO, and vocalist Brent Bourgeois of Bourgeois Tagg and Todd Rundgren, among others. And while the cast is, indeed, impressive, it's Rundman's evocative lyrics, his deep sincerity, his brainy curiosity about the world and its unknowable secrets, and gift for penning affecting, indelible melodies that make Look Up absolutely sparkle.

Released this past winter but made for long summer drives with no particular destination, although the icy waters of "The Ballad of Nikolaus Rungius" – the beautifully rendered, multi-layered history of a beloved vicar, the hardships of his parish and a "holy mystery" – could bring on hypothermia, Look Up pops the top on fizzy, electric rushes like "Flying On A Plane," "Helicopters of Love," "The Science of Rockets" and "Prioritize Us" that bubble up like a shaken bottle of soda.

Comparisons to Fountains Of Wayne are inevitable, but a lot of Look Up seems to have distant relations to the music of John Vanderslice, his intimate, space-age production values, flowing melodies and ability to spin compelling yarns born again in Rundman's work. When the spirit moves him, however, as it does in "Painter" and the autumnal "Second Shelf Down," Rundman seems naturally inclined to wander purposefully in the cloudy harmonies and gossamer acoustic sweeps of Simon & Garfunkel, and on "Home Unknown," he plays all the instruments, from harmonium to banjo and mandola and probably 12 more that aren't even listed.

Don't be such a stranger, Jonathan. You're welcome here any time.
– Peter Lindblad

Rex Brown Opens His Personal Pantera Vault for Historic Auction

Auction Featuring Items from the Pantera Years

Preview the Auction Now! 

Backstage Auctions is proud to present one of the most anticipated auction events of the year featuring  the private collection of Rex Brown. As one of the driving forces behind 'Groove Metal', Rex Brown is globally known as the bassist for Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling band Pantera.

The auction will feature an impressive array of personal items from his Pantera years and is a rare opportunity for fans and collectors around the world to own a piece of exclusive Pantera memorabilia. Die-hard Pantera fans will not want to miss this event!  “Never before has there been any Pantera memorabilia offered in a single auction by one of the original members. This is going to be a hugely exciting event and we are honored to host the auction for Rex," comments Backstage Auctions founder Jacques van Gool.

Rex has amassed a remarkable collection of gear and equipment during his nearly 20 years in
Pantera.  Since he returned home from Pantera’s final tour in 2001, most of it has been sitting in a storage facility.  Now - after fourteen years in storage - Rex believes there is a better purpose for all his stuff.  “I took a look at all of my old Pantera gear.  I realized I had a ton of bass guitars, amps, cabinets, road cases and other great stuff just sitting in storage collecting dust.  I felt they really should be in the hands of the fans who would love to own a piece of Pantera history. I have all my Pantera love and memories in my heart and soul.  Of course, I am keeping the things that are important to me, but there are a lot of treasured items here and it’s time for the next generation to care for them".

The guitar collection will take your breath away. From his first bass guitar, a 1981 Ibanez, RS-824 Roadster Bass, that he used during Pantera’s early club days, to the bass guitars that he recorded all the iconic albums with such classics as Cowboys From Hell thru Reinventing the Steel and toured the world countless times over, it's all there.

The auction will also feature his 1996 Stuart Spector Design LTD NS-5 #170 bass or otherwise known as “Brownie”, which was one of his most frequently used and photographed bass guitars.

Together with really cool stuff such stage worn shirts, picks, bass strings, posters, guitar straps, promo items, record awards, amps, cabinets and road cases, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime auction.

You can preview the entire auction catalog now and the bidding will start April 18 and will run through April 26, 2015.

For more information and to register for a VIP All Access Pass for the auction event visit: The Rex Brown Collection 

REX BROWN - As one of the original members and  bassist for Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling band Pantera,  Rex co-wrote classics such as 'Cowboys From Hell', 'Walk', '5 Minutes Alone', 'Respect' and 'I'm Broken'. The band's 1994 'Far Beyond Driven' album was the first 'extreme metal' album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. After the band's break-up in 2003, Rex continued his career in bands such as Down and currently Kill Devil Hill. He is a member of the Metal Allegiance and recently authored a book titled 'Official Truth 101 Proof'.

Celebration of sleaze: Aerosmith's 'Toys in the Attic' hits 40

True tales behind one of rock's greatest albums
By Peter Lindblad

A photo of Aerosmith, credited to
Ross Halfin
Music writer Gordon Fletcher didn't exactly fawn over Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic in his original review for Rolling Stone magazine in 1975.

Damning the record with faint praise, Fletcher argued, "Aerosmith can be very good ... and material like 'Walk This Way,' 'Sweet Emotion' and the title cut adequately proves this."

Toys in the Attic wasn't just "very good." It's the archetypal sleaze-rock record, a timeless classic that had only one thing on its mind: Sex. It should have come with a used condom in the sleeve, as the dirty blues-rock of the Rolling Stones copulated with heavy, tumescent Led Zeppelin power all over it. Aerosmith had perfected its formula, and in so doing, stuffed a ball gag in the mouths of critics who figured they were merely counterfeits, aping everything they'd worshipped. The songs cited by Fletcher, however, gave Aerosmith its own identity, with one foot stuck in the mud of rock 'n' roll's gloriously rebellious past and the other stepping bravely into the future.

Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
A couple of days ago, Toys in the Attic, released on April 8, 1975, turned 40, which makes it a horny cougar of an album. Aerosmith's third release, it has outsold every other studio record by the band in the U.S., going platinum eight times over in the States.

And while those kind of sales figures boggle the mind, there are a myriad of other facts and tales related to Toys in the Attic that are far more interesting. We've collected a few here:

Watch it Teddy, he's got a knife!: An open, overflowing chest full of toys and stuffed animals makes for a harmless, innocuous cover that the executives at Columbia Records must have found adorable. The original album art for Toys in the Attic was somewhat more disturbing, however. It featured a teddy bear with its wrist slashed, bleeding stuffing out all over the floor, while the other toys just stood there and looked at him, according to Steven Tyler.

Naming rights: As hard as it to believe, Toys in the Attic was almost christened as either Love at First Bite (groan) or Rocks.

Cocaine is a powerful drug: In a 2013 interview with NME, Tyler recounted how in 1975 he and the band was anxious to get their hands on a rather sizable delivery of cocaine. Joe Perry was onstage, and Tyler ran up to join him, starting a jam session between the two that resulted in "Walk This Way." You can all guess what happened to the coke.

"It's pronounced 'Fronkensteen': It was early 1975, and Aerosmith was at the Record Plant in New York City suffering from a collective case of "writer's block." They'd written three to four songs prior to heading into the studio, where they figured they'd write the rest of Toys in the Attic.

Ideas were in short supply, but they had a song that Perry had worked up in Hawaii. Trouble was, it was missing lyrics and a title. Needing a break, the boys and producer Jack Douglas went to see Mel Brooks' hit comedy "Young Frankenstein." Anybody who's seen it will readily recall the famous Marty Feldman line "walk this way," with Feldman playing a hunched over servant to Gene Wilder's Dr. Frankenstein character. Douglas reportedly thought it'd make a great title, and Tyler, upon returning to the hotel, went to work feverishly writing the lyrics, which he supposedly left in a cab the next day and lost. His bandmates were understandably suspicious, thinking Tyler hadn't actually written anything.

So, Tyler went out into a stairwell with a tape player and headphones, and pencils, but no paper. So he wrote the lyrics for "Walk This Way" on the wall at the Record Plant's top floor and down the stairway, later going back with a legal pad to copy them down.

The fast and the furious: Few guitar riffs in rock 'n' roll history are as iconic as those written by Joe Perry for "Walk This Way." It's been said that Perry knocked out the intro riff and the verse riff in five short minutes.

Under the covers: Down through the years, various songs off Toys in the Attic have been covered by other artists. One of the most surprising was R.E.M.'s 1986 rendition of the title track, used as the B-side for "Fall on Me" and then later thrown in amongst the ephemera of the alternative band's Dead Letter Office and tacked on to the 1993 reissue of Life's Rich Pageant. Metal Church also did a version for its album Masterpeace.

Others included the String Cheese Incident's version of "Walk This Way" on the jam band's eponymous 1997 live album and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones doing "Sweet Emotion" for their Where'd You Go? EP. "Sweet Emotion" has also been covered by Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon, Warrant, Ratt and The Answer, while Velvet Revolver remade "No More No More" and Sum 41 joined forces with rappers Ja Rule and Nelly to do "Walk This Way."

By the numbers: Deemed a stone-cold classic by all right-thinking people, Toys in the Attic did not rise to No. 1 on the Billboard album charts; instead, it stalled at No. 11.

"Sweet Emotion" became the band's first Top 40 single, which led to the re-release of "Dream On," from Aerosmith's self-titled debut LP. Flying up to No. 6, "Dream On" became Aerosmith's top charting song of the '70s, setting the stage for a reissue of "Walk This Way" in 1976 that sent the song into the Top 10 in early 1977.

By the mid-1980s, Aerosmith was in decline, drugs being responsible for much of the damage. Then, along came Run-D.M.C., who initially weren't keen on any sort of collaboration. Their producer, Rick Rubin, wanted it, however, and his matchmaking led to perhaps the greatest rap-rock recording in history, as their re-imagining of "Walk This Way" became a Top 4 single, earning them both a Soul Train Music Award.

Easily one of Aerosmith's most beloved songs, "Walk This Way" has been listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll," Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" twice – the original version checking in at No. 346 and the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith take at No. 293 – and VH1's "100 Greatest Rock Songs," where it landed at No. 35. Rolling Stone also ranked the original "Walk This Way" at No. 34 on its list of the "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time."

And there's more, but you get the gist.

The housewives of Aerosmith: "Walk This Way," the Aerosmith autobiography, spilled the dirt on tension between the wives of different band members, as did a "Behind the Music" piece on Aerosmith. Tyler has said the some of the lyrics for "Sweet Emotion" were inspired by Perry's wife.

Aerosmith is gearing up to hit the road for the "Blue Army Tour 2015," which begins June 13. All original members are onboard for the 15-city jaunt, which ends in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Aug. 4. After the tour, Aerosmith will perform Aug. 7 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's first-ever "Concert for Legends."

CD Review: Prong – Songs From The Black Hole

CD Review: Prong – Songs From The Black Hole
eOne Music
All Access Rating: A-

Prong - Songs From The
Black Hole 2015
Question Tommy Victor's punk credentials at your own risk. It may lead to a "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck" type of situation.

Once a sound man at New York City's legendary CBGBs in the late 1980s, Victor, the linchpin for the always incendiary alternative-metal device Prong, was practically embedded in what was a wildly combustible and intensely creative scene.

With a blistering new album of covers entitled Songs From The Black Hole, out via eOne Music, Victor and Prong revisit their punk roots, offering their own taut, high-speed renditions of songs from underground rabble-rousers Black Flag, Husker Du, Killing Joke, The Adolescents, Bad Brains and Fugazi, among others.

By turning the screws on these blasts of barely harnessed fury, Prong magnifies the propulsion and raging energy of Discharge's "Doomsday," Husker Du's "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" and Bad Brains' "Banned in D.C.," while the pulse of Fugazi's slow-burning meditation on dying "Give Me The Cure" quickens, as Prong elevates its heart rate in a vigorous workout.

It's impossible not to notice the spotless production of Songs From the Black Hole, suggesting that Prong is somehow indulging in a sonic ritual purification of what is a surprisingly wide-ranging set of choice selections. The Morse-code guitars and chilly echo of Killing Joke's "Seeing Red" create an almost antiseptic environment, but in a remake of Black Flag's "The Bars," Prong takes great pains to restore all of the grit and unbearable tension of the original.

And although the disjointed version of the Butthole Surfers' "Goofy's Concern" is a slight misstep and their lukewarm rehashing of Neil Young's classic "Cortez The Killer" seems out of place, the mean grooves and tight riffs of Sisters of Mercy's "Vision Thing" – devoid of gothic blackness – are ruthlessly compelling. As is Songs From the Black Hole as a whole.
– Peter Lindblad

Turn the radio to FM

Melodic hard-rock favorites return with 'Heroes and Villains'
By Peter Lindblad

FM is Steve Overland, Pete Jupp,
Merv Goldsworthy, Jem Davis
and Jim Kirkpatrick
A band like FM was never going to survive the grunge revolution. They could see the writing on the wall in the mid-1990s and decided they weren't going to swim against a rising tide of record label indifference.

"We, or should I say our whole genre of music, became very unfashionable with the Grunge explosion," said Steve Overland, leader singer for the U.K. melodic hard-rock outfit. "Recording (1995's) Dead Mans Shoes was a bit of a struggle as we had limited budgets. It just seemed to be the right time. There was no animosity in the band. We all still got on. We just all felt we’d taken FM are far as we could at that time."

Formed in 1984, as ex-Samson members Merv Goldsworthy and Peter Jupp joined forces with Wildlife's Overland brothers, Steve and Chris, as well as keyboardist Philip Manchester, aka Didge Digital, FM enjoyed more than a modicum of success, especially in their native country.

They built a devoted following while touring in support of such musical giants as Meatloaf, Tina Turner, Status Quo, Gary Moore and Magnum, and there was that time they rocked the Hammersmith Odeon with REO Speedwagon. FM's big break, however, came late in 1985, when Bon Jovi brought them aboard for the U.K. leg of the "Slippery When Wet" tour.

Through changes in record labels and personnel, FM persevered, penning well-crafted, radio-friendly fare that, for whatever reason, rarely ever made the airwaves. Not even a writing summit with hit-making guru Desmond Child in the States would do the trick. And when labels went scouring the land for the next Nirvana, Soundgarden or Alice in Chains, FM knew its days were numbered.

Then, in 2007, FM returned to headline Firefest IV at Nottingham Rock City, and the crowd embraced these prodigal sons of pop-metal. The experience convinced them to carry on, leading to the recording of 2010's Metropolis LP and playing out with bands like Europe, Thin Lizzy and Foreigner and performing at high-profile events such as Graspop, Sweden Rock Festival, Loreley and Download Festival.

Five years later, FM is following up with a new Frontiers Music release dubbed Heroes and Villains, with Goldsworthy (bass), Jupp (drums), and the golden-voiced Steve Overland (lead vocals/guitar) teaming with keyboardist Jem Davis – Digital's replacement, who appeared on Dead Man's Shoes – and lead guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick.

Steve Overland talked about with All Access recently by e-mail to discuss the new record and share some memories of FM's heyday.

What’s the significance of the album title Heroes and Villains?
Steve Overland: There’s no real significance. Merv came up with the idea for the title, we thought it was great and that’s it. Nothing sinister or deep. Just all the band liked it, very simple really.

In what ways does Heroes and Villains remind you of earlier FM albums, and in what ways is it different?
SO: We’ve always been known for big choruses, huge hooks, [and] melody, but by using modern studio techniques, we’ve tried to make our sound more contemporary and modern. Whenever we record we always try and take what we consider the essence of the FM sound and bring it up to what’s happening now.

With the last record, 2010’s Metropolis, you had two songs play listed on national radio in the U.K. for the first time. How did that affect you personally and the band as a whole? Did you see it as validation that had been a long time coming?
SO: We’ve had four songs play listed on Radio 2 I think. We’re getting more play on National radio now than we ever did, which is great. It’s weird when people, or your auntie, come up to you and say they’ve heard you on Radio 2. We’re not complaining at all. It shows they think we’re still relevant. 

“You’re the Best Thing about Me” and “Life is a Highway” are just such perfectly crafted songs. Talk about the making of both and your feelings about them after hearing them on the record.
SO: Those were two of the last songs we recorded for Heroes and Villains. "Life Is A Highway" is definitely old school FM. Steve had had the idea kicking around for a while. Merv really liked the vibe, and so we went into rehearsals and arranged and finished it quite quickly. "You’re The Best Thing About Me" was another idea Steve had. We demoed it and presented it to the guys. From what I can remember the arrangement is identical to that of the demo, but everyone has put their stamp on it.

FM - Heroes and Villains 2015
Heroes and Villains does not sound like records that are out there today. Like you don’t hear a song such as “Walking With Angels” out there today. What do you think is the biggest difference between the songwriting of FM and songs mostly heard on the radio today? Are there any similarities?
SO: I think we sit perfectly on radio stations like Planet Rock, and they are very supportive, but then they’re not going to play EDM or One Direction. We’re never going to fit in with the Radio 1 demographic. It’s a million miles away from what we do. We’ve been play listed on Radio 2, so we obviously fit in there. We write rock songs, but to us, melody is king. "Walking With Angels" is maybe a departure from the norm to us, but it’s such a great song. We just wanted it to be very simple and organic, personal. It has had such a great reaction. We’re glad we believed in our convictions.

FM went out on the road with some of music’s biggest names in the ‘80s, including Bon Jovi on the U.K. leg of the “Slippery When Wet” tour. What tour did you enjoy the most and what was the worst?
SO: The Bon Jovi tour was just so good for us. It was right around the time they went global with Slippery When Wet. It was infectious to be around them with all the excitement. I think we were in Newcastle when they heard they had hit the No. 1 spot in the States. They were a great bunch of guys, great to work with. They really looked after us, and that tour took us to a whole new level in the UK.

Since getting back together, the tour we did with Foreigner last year was just as memorable. You forget how many great songs they have. It’s just hit after hit. The band are amazing, and Kelly (Hansen) is a brilliant singer and front man. And what can you say about Mick Jones? The man is a legend. What a songwriter and such a lovely guy. We’ve never been badly treated on tour, but Magnum wanted us to play in front of the fire curtain at Hammersmith Odeon, which left about 6 feet max, if that, in depth, which was impossible and very unreasonable as Hammersmith has one of the deepest stages on the theatre circuit. We had to pull out of the show literally at the last minute and left a lot of disgruntled FM fans who had bought tickets, but it was totally out of our hands. Magnum wouldn't budge. We had no room to play. It was a bad situation, but what could we do? Why they did it I have no idea. We had been doing really well on the tour, so maybe they felt threatened by us. Who knows?

You played your first show on Valentine’s Day in 1985. What do you remember most about that performance?
SO: Our first ever shows were supporting Meatloaf in Germany, but the Marquee would have been our first headline gig in our own right. To be honest, I don’t remember too much about it. I remember we got ready for the show in a hotel on Russell Square. We didn’t use the Marquee PA. We hired a state-of-the-art American system; it sounded amazing, like a huge hi-fi. Did we sell it out? I can’t remember, but I do remember it being packed. I’d headlined it a few times before with Samson, but I always enjoyed playing there.

What do you think made your debut LP Indiscreet such a good record? Was “Frozen Heart” always going to be the big single off that album?
SO: It was an album full of great songs, and although we were never really happy with the final mixes, our fans took it to their hearts and it became the soundtrack to a lot of people's lives. "Frozen Heart" was the big ballad and was actually released as a single twice, but it didn’t get on the Radio 1 playlist either time. I remember it went top 75 in the first week, but CBS had given away some “Frozen Heart” FM radios as a promo item, which was construed as hyping, and we were penalized and the following week, despite great sales, the single was moved down instead of up as a punishment and momentum was lost.

Were you surprised that Iron Maiden covered “That Girl”? What did you think of their version?
SO: Maiden did the original written version of “That Girl.” When FM got together we thought the chorus could be stronger so we rewrote it. The two bands, as are the versions, are both very different, but I like what Maiden did with the song.

You recorded Tough it Out with Neil Kernon as producer, but you had to switch labels. You also wrote with Desmond Child. How did the making of that record differ from the first album, and how did the label changes affect the band?
SO: We produced Indiscreet ourselves with our then manager Dave King. Originally we went in with producer Peter Collins and recorded two tracks, but it didn't work out. We did some initial recordings, about four tracks, for Tough It Out with a producer called Jeremy Smith, but we felt they were not representative of the band and they were scrapped. Neil came in and he’s a very good producer. He got great performances out of everybody and knew what he wanted. Nigel Green mixed the album. Steve and Chris went over to the States and wrote “Bad Luck” and “Burning My Heart Down” with Desmond. They said he was quite eccentric but great at coming up with fantastic hooks. Changing labels was meant to be advantageous to us by opening up the American market to us, but there were a lot of internal politics with the MD in the States and UK. A lot of bands unfortunately suffered because of two massive egos.

FM reformed in 2007 for Firefest IV
What was it that got the band back together, and what’s been the most enjoyable part of reviving FM?
SO: An Irish guy called Kieran Dargen ran a festival called Firefest, and he’d been pestering us for years after we split to get back together and headline the festival. We kept declining, but at the end of 2006 he asked again. We had a chat and thought it was probably now or never, so we signed up for Firefest 2007. We really had no plans past that one show. We honestly thought if 400 people turned up it will be a result, we’ll have a laugh, a few beers and go our separate ways again. We sold out Nottingham Rock City, the first Firefest sell out; it was a roller coaster ride.

Remember, we hadn't done a gig for 12 years and our contract with Firefest stated we couldn't do a warm-up, so our first gig back together was in front of 1,500 FM fanatics, and of course, you doubt yourself. When we got out there onstage I can honestly say it was one of the most emotional nights of my life. You could just feel the audience willing us to do good; it sounds corny, but you could feel the love. I’ll admit to sitting there at the back behind the kit tears welling up in my eyes on more than one occasion. I felt so proud of us and the dedication of the fans. When we came off we were dumbstruck. We never expected a retain like that. It was pretty much immediate there and then in the dressing room at Rock City that we decided to give it another go and record an album. We felt we owed it to the fans. It’s now 2015 we’re releasing our 9th studio album and everything is cool.

Since getting back together, you’ve played with Toto, Foreigner, Thin Lizzy and other contemporaries of FM. How has touring changed for FM? Do you still enjoy it? How is your material received today as opposed to back in the ‘80s?
SO: I enjoy the writing and recording process, but playing live is off the scale. You can’t beat the buzz, feeding off the energy of a live audience. I don’t think it’s changed that much from the '80s, but I think the venues are much better now, especially the clubs. The facilities are way ahead now. One huge change is now you do a show, and it’s up there on Youtube for the world to see before you’ve had time to change out of your stage gear.

Can a melodic hard-rock band like FM break through again, or is the deck stacked against bands like yours?
SO: We’re under no illusions that we’re going to suddenly become “the next big thing,” but we’re holding our own. We’re making credible, critically acclaimed albums, selling concert tickets. The very fact that Radio 2, the biggest radio station in Europe. is play listing our music must say we’re doing something right and count for something.

CD Review: Toto – Toto XIV

CD Review: Toto – Toto XIV
Frontiers Music srl
All Access Rating: B+

Toto - Toto XIV 2015
Emblazoned on the cover of Toto XIV is a neon cross, its brightness washing in white light what appears to be a darkened and foreboding, but quiet, alleyway in a crowded Japanese city.

A symbol of hope and optimism, despite all the terrible things done in the name of Christianity down through the years, that sign has taken on special significance with the recent death of former bassist Mike Porcaro, whose struggles with ALS provided the impetus for a 2010 Toto reunion.

Their first record since 2006's Falling In Between for the innovative pop-rock progressives, Toto XIV is typically lush and complex, inspiring and melodic – the rich, dramatic keyboard interplay of David Paich and Steve Porcaro building grand sonic architecture around the always fluid and artful guitar magic of Steve Lukather.

Though bereft of a signature and utterly memorable track, Toto XIV rarely fails to deliver the goods, the noisy, proggy eruptions, rushing piano and unexpected detours down different passageways making a piece like "Holy War" worth exploring again and again. So is the slightly skewed "Chinatown." Brimming with positivity and life-affirming energy, the upbeat opener "Running Out of Time" exhorts listeners to make the most of whatever time they have left on earth and the equally uplifting "Orphan" gives comfort to the lonely, while the more serious and theatrical "Unknown Soldier" argues for peace while grudgingly acknowledging humanity's propensity for war.

Another exercise in wondrous musical diversity and lyrics walking a fine line between banal sentimentality and deep meaning, Toto XIV swims in comforting pools of pop, blues, jazz and rock, getting lost in the smoky atmosphere of "21st Century Blues," letting the bittersweet "Burn" stew in smoldering regret and growing wistful in the charming "The Little Things." The sound and production of Toto XIV, out via Frontiers Music srl, are familiar, and the material is as accessible as ever, Joseph Williams' passionate singing adding conviction to Toto's lyrics. Maybe their ready to write a new chapter, but Toto seems averse to changing the formula that got them this far.
– Peter Lindblad