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Wednesday 30 March 2016

Reviews: Joe Bonamassa, Almanac, The Golden Grass

Joe Bonamassa: Blues Of Desperation (Provouge)

The master of modern blues returns with his twelfth studio album, Joey Bones has managed to create twelve albums that are all a little different, while staying true to both the spirit of blues and rocks, what Heston Blumenthal does with food Bonamassa does with the blues, he coaxes it, teases it, shifts and rewires it to his own ends making all of his records have the same seam running through them but with variations every time. Blues Of Desperation comes two years after 2014's Different Shades Of Blue and unlike it's predecessor which was a paean to the old big band blues sound backed by horns throughout and full of dance ready rhythms. After seeing Joe live last year I was of the opinion that he needed to add a bit more of the hard rock grit he showed on his earlier, breakthrough records, thankfully if you love Joe when he's channelling Jimmy Page then Blues Of Desperation will be right up your street the opening duo sets the tone perfectly with This Train building on it's shuffling drumbeat, bridged with some boogie woogie piano from Reese Wynans it's a propulsive opening getting you into the groove for Mountain Climbing harking back to Zep-like riffage of John Henry which saunters before erupting into a superb chorus where Joe's rich voice is aided by his trio of backing vocalists led by Mahalia Barnes and exploding into a fret melting solo in the middle eight.

Yet again this is an album of Bonamassa originals and they stand up toe-to-toe with the covers Bonamassa has been known for. The slinky, soulful Drive has a layered acoustic approach with a smoky electric guitar cutting through when it's needed and paves the way for No Good Place For The Lonely which is modern day blues standard that could have been Clapton or Beck all over it with Jeff Bova's string arrangements all over it pushing the emotional factor to it's limit, the shadow of the blues hangs low too on You Left Me Nothin' But The Bill And The Blues. In change of style the title track has Middle Eastern flavour driven by Michael Rhodes bass and some echoed phasing on Bonamassa's voice, the track has an air of Kashmir about it and that is no bad thing. What is clear on this record as well as his previous records is the influence of Kevin Shirley in terms of both the production and indeed the inspiration on Bonamassa himself, Shirley and Bonamassa have also assembled another all-star cast with the aforementioned Rhodes, Wynans, Bova along with Anton Fig and Greg Morrow sharing drum duties.

With yet more railfandom (real word look it up) on the percussive Distant Lonesome Train and a searing guitar showcase on How Deep This River Runs Bonamassa still oozes quality on every song, especially with the rockier tracks on this record. However it's not all heaviness though the old brass section from the last album returns on the jazzy Livin' Easy which showcases the sax brilliantly and the spirit of New Orleans is for all to see on the album closer What I've Known For A Long Time which I'd guess is about a past relationship and is dealt with like a true bluesman with an aching heart and a nod to redemption. Blues Of Desperation is a great piece of work that once again shows Bonamassa's pure talent, he will never really release a bad album, but happily this brings the rock back in spades and is all the better for it. 8/10

Almanac: Tsar (Nuclear Blast)

Victor Smolski is no stranger to the metal world he was a member (and one of the primary songwriters) of German metal legends Rage from 1999 until last year, when Rage founder Peavy Wagner split the band and decided to replace the band with younger musicians. Since leaving Rage Smolski has concentrated on creating this album that obviously has elements of Rage but for the most part is more akin to Rage off shoot Lingua Mortis Orchestra as it is symphonic/neo-classical metal performance album with multiple vocalists and hand picked metal musicians playing alongside the Orquestra Barcelona Filharmonia to give this conceptual piece, based on the life of Ivan IV Vasilyevitch the first Tsar of Russia, a cinematic experience, at it's most grandiose on Self Blinded Eyes which has a massive backing choir in it's huge chorus.

Smolski naturally plays all the guitars on this record and my god can he play, his virtuoso solos and riffs are the main hook for all the songs he shreds like a demon and his fleet fingers rip up the fretboard, you just need to bear witness to the middle section of Hands Are Tied to see his supreme guitar skill. Backing him is the machine gun percussion from Michael Kolar who plays like hell from the opening title track driving the songs at a mighty pace, Armin Alic provides some booming bass keeping the tempo and directing the rhythm, add to this the stylish melodic keys of Enric Garcia and Smolski's backing band play in beautiful unison with the orchestra meaning that the scope of these songs is wider than on many albums of the same type. In my opinion no band are complete without it's vocalist and Almanac has three top quality singers at its disposal one is Jeannette Marchewka who was part of the LMO album as it's singer, she contributes lead and backing vocals to most of the tracks but they are most noticeable on Reign Of Madness.

She is aided by her two male counterparts Andy B. Franck from Brainstorm and David Readman Voodoo Circle/Pink Cream 69 who takes the lion's share of vocals. The three vocalists work in unison together giving this album a unique edge in the vocal section, Franck's grittier delivery is the great counterpoint to the incredible vocals of Readman (a man who I rate very highly) especially on the heavier tracks like Nevermore where Franck even adds some growls. This is some top quality symphonic metal based around superior musicianship and performances, if I had one gripe it would be that I would love to hear more of Jeannette Marchewka taking the lead vocals rather than just adding depth in the choruses, maybe this can be rectified on future releases but for now Tsar is a great opening gambit that picks up from where LMO left off and I hope to hear more from Smolski and this project sooner rather than later. 8/10       

The Golden Grass: Coming Back Again (Listenable)

Professor Plum Brandy, The Golden Goose and The Fireball make-up New York rockers The Golden Grass and as the band members names probably suggest they are a little odd as a group. Delving into the rich sun-drenched psychedelia of the late 60's early 70's with nods to the Southern boogie of The Allman's and Grand Funk on Shadow Traveller which has mouth harp and cowbell. Factor in a edge of the kaleidoscope of British colour that acts like The Move brought to the table evident on Reflections and add the grit of The Groundhogs and Blue Cheer on Get It Together which starts off with The Who-like flurry before slowing in the verse to a heavyweight drag. With dual vocals of guitarist Plum Brandy and drummer Golden Goose blending the more melodic with the bluesier howl the band have a sound not much heard at the moment.

They are a true power trio and create some magic on the folky Hazy DayBreak which segues into the rough and ready riff-fest Down The Line which would sound out of place on a Admiral Sir Cloudeslley Shovell album, especially when it all goes trippy in the middle section before the riff thunders back in on top of Gooses' relentless drumming and Fireball's bass. The band have progressive elements throughout meaning that they sound very much like some of the best bands of the late 60's with a Californian, Southern, psych rock sound that is rich and inviting making want to get down and just rock out. 7/10

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