Saturday, 5 September 2009

Five albums that have had some vaguely profound effect on me

In a bit of a change to normal proceedings, I thought it might be worth detailing a few of my all time favourite albums so that anyone reading my reviews can better understand where my opinions might be coming from... that or quickly dismiss everything I write due to 'poor musical taste'. Either one.

System of a Down – Toxicity

I remember being given this by a friend who had grown tired of it when I was around 13. I was already a fan of System of a Down from a mixed CD someone had given me a while before, but I think this was the first proper album I’d ever had. Toxicity for me is associated with so many disparate and different memories, almost all of which were good, and consequently merely listening to the album is a huge nostalgia trip. I remember when I first got it, it didn’t leave my CD player at all for a week – it was all I listened to. System of a Down have always been a hugely energetic band and this record was probably their peak. Between Serj Tankien’s ridiculously versatile voice (frequently switching between violent shouting to wonderfully smooth and quiet in the space of a second) and Daron Malakian’s utterly bizarre and unconventional song-writing, Toxicity is certainly a unique album. Definitely not an album that would suit the taste of all, but one that really clicks when presented to the right listener.

Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

Now this was the first album I ever bought with my own money and as such, will always have a special place in my CD collection like the sentimental geek I am. The song ‘It’s So Easy’ floored me from the start, with Axl Rose’s suave low vocals promoting rebellion, drink-driving and misogyny before eventually cracking in to an obscenely high-register declaration of how “fuckin’ easy” it all is. Bolstered by the amazing guitar interplay between Slash and Izzy Stradlin – probably two of rock n’ roll’s greatest guitarists – and all locked together by great rhythm section of Duff McKagan and Steven Adler, ‘It’s So Easy’ was only the start of what was to come. Every song on Appetite is brilliantly crafted, from the scratched rhythms of Izzy to Slash’s amazing leads, to the brilliantly wild vocals, everything is perfect. The tracks had clearly been honed to perfection and emanate a dangerous brilliance that would never be as rawly presented on consequent Guns albums. From the sing-along chorus of ‘Night-Train’ to the all time classic rock ballad ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ or the rhythmically sexy riffing of ‘Rocket Queen’, this was late 80’s rock debauchery caught on record.

Megadeth – Rust In Peace

This is the best thrash metal album in existence and will never be topped. Many have come awfully close (Testament’s The Gathering, Metallica’s Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets), but they just don’t quite reach the bar set by Mustaine and co.’s masterpiece. Filled to the brim with bizarre and idiosyncratic riffs and literally face-melting solos from Marty Friedman and Dave Mustaine, this album is almost a completely perfect thrash platter. Often remembered for the singles such as ‘Holy Wars… The Punishment Due’ and ‘Hangar 18’, every track boasts some kind of accomplishment – be it in ridiculous speed and technicality of ‘Take No Prisoners’, the chilling lyrics and incredible solo of ‘Tornado of Souls’ or the utterly haunting nature of ‘Lucretia’, the album shines from start to finish. The only let down are Dave’s somewhat strained vocals, but even they are not without their charm, adding a quality of perfectly apt desperation to ‘Tornado of Souls’ or roaring like a monstrous being on both ‘Five Magics’ and more prominently so on the title track, ‘Rust In Peace’. Even weird filler track ‘Dawn Patrol’ seems to slot in rather well and provides an ominous break between the ferociousness of the rest of the album.

Andrew W.K. – The Wolf

I think my fanboyish obsession for Andrew W.K. found its feet the first I listened to his debut album proper, the beautifully titled I Get Wet. It was 35 minutes of over the top, full throttle, happy and energetic music. It was basically a party in music format with youthful enjoyment as the main subject matter of the entire record. W.K.’s second album, The Wolf, changed things a bit. Still there was the bombastic multi-layered instrumentation, the anthemic shouted vocals and the general good times of I Get Wet. But now there was some added versatility on the album, with songs ranging from surprisingly moving piano driven ballads about never giving up to raucous feel-good tracks such as ‘Long Live The Party’. As a whole, the lyrics were much less one more dimensional than on Andrew’s previous platter of music, with W.K. taking a far more introspective approach to his life. Whilst it’d be probably be an exaggeration to call them particularly deep, there was a wonderful simplicity to Andrew detailing his faults and how they made him more determined to go forth and rock hard. Whilst W.K. has been dismissed as little more than a gimmick musician to many a self-proclaimed muso, there seems to be a genuinely heartfelt and somewhat child-like passion in every one of his releases. I’ve always felt those who don’t get it really are missing out.

Devin Townsend – Synchestra

After discovering Strapping Young Lad, it only made sense to look in to the solo work of the Lad’s master-mind, Devin Townsend. My initial discovery was the single ‘Vampira’, which piqued my interest quickly with its Judas Priest-esque song-writing but I was left speechless when I listened to the album Synchestra in full. ‘Vampira’ actually seems quite atypical of the album with songs like ‘Triumph’ being versatile 7 minute romps laden with dense layers of instrumentation, ethereally harmonised vocals and completely off the wall musical changes. Bookended by the subdued acoustic opener ‘Let It Roll’ and the happy pop-rock of closer ‘Sunshine & Happiness’, this album is a brilliant exercise in musical pick ‘n’ mix. A few of the tracks aren’t so much songs as instrumental pieces with voices merely acting as another layer to the music, but this works in the album’s favour, helping to draw things together and creating an amazing flow to the album. It’s hard to describe the album to those unfamiliar with Townsend’s work as the man has a very unique sense of melody and style of musical production. That wall of sound that ‘Hevy Devy’ has become synonymous with is crafted to perfection on most of his solo albums, but somehow comes across as its best on ‘Synchestra’ with the layering on songs such as ‘Notes From Africa’ making the record utterly infectious.

Honourable Mentions;

It was extremely difficult to wittle my favourites down to merely five albums so here are a few that didn't quite make the cut but are as good as the aforementioned five.

Iced Earth – Night of the Stormrider
Furious triplets, ridiculously hell-bent concepts, a hugely ominous tone to the album and in general, just some mildly pretentious ball-busting heavy metal. This is a great album, even if not perhaps the best by Iced Earth overall. Tracks like the epic ‘Travel In Stygian’ make it a must listen for metal aficionados though.

Helloween – Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. 1 & 2
Kai Hansen and Michael Weikath basically invented power metal with these two albums. Between their ferociously melodic guitar duelling and Michael Kiske’s incredible vocals,
Keepers remains at the top of the genre it created.

Savatage – Ghost In The Ruins
Probably one of the greatest live metal albums in existence. As my first experience of Savatage, this live offering did everything right to keep me interested. Not only is every member of the band an amazing player, but this album showcases just how diverse and brilliant the song-writing of the Oliva brothers can be.

Skyclad - Prince Of The Poverty Line
Pioneers of the seemingly impossible amalgamation of folk and metal, classic-era Skyclad is fantastic not only for the Thin Lizzy meets Pentagle style music but for Martin Walkyier's insightfully bitter and cleverly written lyrics.

Extreme – Pornograffitti
Coming out at the tail-end of the glam / hair-metal insurgence of America, Extreme’s second album offered something very different to their somewhat typical hair band debut. Mixing funk rhythms with catchy hard rock and musical virtuosity resulted in one of the most danceable albums of the rock spectrum.

Steel Panther - Feel The Steel

Quickly dismissed as little more than a novelty band by some, Steel Panther have more to offer than penis jokes. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of penis jokes, but thankfully it’s backed by some genuinely enjoyable music. The album itself effectively acts as a fan-service to 80s/90s hard rock fans making constant references to glam’s hey-day. Aside from singer Michael Starr being a near dead-ringer for Van Halen’s David Lee Roth, the music itself constantly nods the band's influences without coming across as completely dated thanks to modern production and tongues being kept firmly in cheek.

From the casual racism of ‘Asian Hooker’ to the insipid claims of ‘Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’, Feel The Steel is loaded with crude and occasionally cringe-worthy humour from start to finish. Whilst some of the songs are genuinely amusing (single ‘Death To All But Metal’ will appeal to the defiant and elitist side of any classic metal fan), half the time the lyrics come off as nothing more than idiotic. Presumably, the band are poking fun at the overt sexual nature of their idols’ songs by taking it further than any of their predecessors ever did, but it often falls flat. However, when this is the case, the strong musical body ofthe tracks more than makes up for it. Steel Panther are highly proficient musicians and, more importantly, good song-writers. The album is filled to the prim with great rock riffs, brilliantly catchy vocal melodies and some truly face-melting guitar solos – the three core ingredients to any kind of good hair metal. Obligatory ballad ‘Fat Girl (Thar She Blows)’ and rocker ‘Party All Day (Fuck All Night)’ show the band wearing their influences on their sleeve, channelling their inner Bon Jovi whereas acoustic cut ‘Girl From Oklahama’ goes as far as to mimic the famous chord progression of Extreme’s ‘More than Words’. Interestingly, the album features a number of guest appearances with Justin Hawkins of The Darkness / Hot Leg fame lending his voice, further cementing Steel Panther’s message that rock doesn’t have to be completely serious to be enjoyable.

The light-hearted nature of the album seems to be both a blessing and a curse, as Steel Panther’s downfall is that they don’t take themselves seriously enough. You could be forgiven for thinking they were trying almost too hard with the amount of ridiculous sexual innuendo that engulfs the entire album. Their finer moments are when they tone down the gag-making and deliver solid rock and metal songs. Regardless of their over the top lyrical nature though, this is a very strong album throughout. The songs are all written with a brilliant sense of melody and a flare for guitar-based tomfoolery that is quite rare to find. There is a genuine appreciation for the hard rock and metal acts of old displayed throughout the album and Steel Panther do a great job of amalgamating some of the best aspects of their inspiration in to something slightly more modern.