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Tuesday 14 April 2020

Reviews: Joe Satriani, Calligram, Azusa, Axxis (Paul H & Alex)

Joe Satriani: Shapeshifting (Sony Music/Legacy Recordings) [Paul Hutchings]

Co-produced by Satriani and Jim Scott (Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) with long-time associate John Cuniberti on board handling the mastering duties, the guitar virtuoso shows no signs of slowing with his latest release. Following on from 2018’s What Happens Next? which I enjoyed back in 2018, Satriani has enlisted a wide range of collaborators, both old and new, to help him bring the latest batch of songs to life. Legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Fogerty), bassist Chris Chaney (Jane’s Addiction) and keyboardist Eric Caudieux were the core musicians on the new album with additional contributions coming from Lisa Coleman (The Revolution) and Christopher Guest. As usual with an album from the Satch, there is plenty of flamboyant guitar playing, but despite the temptation, he once more doesn’t overindulge, allowing his playing to go with the flow. That’s not to say that Satch doesn’t let fly, because let’s face it, even at 63, the man is an astonishing guitar player.

There’s the typical bombastic album opener of the title track, the measured space rock feel of All For Love and the industrial Eastern groove of Ali Farka, Dick Dale, An Alien And Me, possibly the most insane song title he’s done since 2008’s Professor Satchafunkilus And The Musterion Of Rock and a recognition of the African music legend, the surf rock pioneer and the ut-of-this-world collaborator. Now I’m in no way a massive Satch fan and as I said in my review of What Happens Next? I’ve merely flirted with his catalogue over the past couple of decades. Yet one doesn’t have to be a guitar player or a mega fan to appreciate the sheer quality that the man brings. He reportedly forced himself out of his comfort zone for Shapeshifting, attempting to bring a different feel to each of the 15 songs on the album and whilst there is definitive Satch on each track, you can see where he was going.

The Bluesy groove of Perfect Dust has shades of Blackmore and Morse, whilst lead single Nineteen Eighty is a clear tribute to a certain Edward Van Halen in style and flavour, the Van Halen 80’s vibe effortlessly captured. With each song kept short, it’s the penultimate reggae stomp of Here’s The Blue River which is by far the longest song on the album at just over five minutes. The acoustic Yesterday’s Yesterday which concludes the album won’t win any awards for whistling but is a lovely conclusion to another solid album from one of the most amazing guitarists the world has ever heard. Another musician to reschedule dates to next year, Satch brings his expert playing to the UK in Spring 2021. 7/10

Calligram: The Eye Is The First Circle (Prosthetic Records) [Alex Swift]

One word: Brutal. That's the only way I can truly describe Calligram. From the monolithic guitars which absorb you on Carne, they make viscerally clear where they fall in the metal section. Don’t mistake what I mean when I say brutal though, there’s a lot of intensity to be found here yet also tones of melody and astute writing. They bring a sense of verbose grandiosity to these songs – their almost the Roman Empire would have found appealing, had extreme metal existed in 27BC.

A piece in the vein of Serpe is on the surface, aggressive. Delve deeper though and you find earth-shattering melodies pouring from the vicious guitars and powerful pacing being commanded by the rhythm section – there’s even a guitar solo here which proves that they are not content with being hostile for the sake of hostility. Works such as Vivido Perire and La Cura may not stray into Deafheaven or Kvelertak when they come to masterfully bridge danceability with an assault on your eardrums – they do however manage to bring a calibre of dramatic weight to their merciful rhythm. Anedonia even takes the liberty of turning town the fuzz, to bring out the rich – and dare I say, oddly idyllic textures in the guitar work, while Pensiero Debole plays out like a Gothic interlude.

Due to my love of that theatrical style of composition, I have never been a particular fan of black metal, yet I have never shied away from allowing my tastes to stray into darker, and less ‘conventional’ territory when I’m sure I’ll find something to admire. With The Eye Is The First Circle. I certainly found that and came to savour those elements more upon each subsequent listen, having got past the initial stages of appreciating the macerating, violent and grim qualities. 7/10

Azusa: Loop Of Yesterdays (Indie Recordings) [Alex Swift]

The term avant-garde can vary wildly in the definition. I’ve turned my nose up at the description in the past only to discover the experimental qualities of the acts in question. I’ve probably even wrongly used the words before. I can describe Azusa as Avant-guard though for two reasons – the first being that they describe themselves in that way, and the second being that there is no doubt as to their unorthodox and radical qualities. Memories Of An Old Emotion jaunts wildly between raucous qualities of punk, the extreme elements of metal and the soothing bliss of ambient music. Experimentation seems to be the name of the game and despite the jarring nature, I must admit that I found the erratic randomness quite affable, in a startled sort of way. One Too Many Times is strange in the same way, except this time soothing qualities are injected into the crushing sections and vice versa. After Detach proved another variation on this idea, with innocent vocals playing out over stampeding riffs, I did begin to worry if this was the only string to their bow – or the only two, given the different combinations of styles. Seven Demons Mary vindicated that concern, as it became clear that there wasn't much to this particular gimmick. While the interlude, Support Became Resistance proved a welcome respite from the chaos, it was becoming more and more apparent by this point that Azusa did not know where they were going with the idea.

While I hesitate to call anything here formulaic, simultaneously, I can't say that I was intrigued by anything on display by the mid-point of the record. Despite not reinventing the acts sound, the title track calms the tedium somewhat with the use of strings, and the overall ethereal feel provides an eerily relaxing template. However, my hopes are short-lived as we continue on the same structureless path, in the time immediately following. The most poignant failing of this record, is that there are decent ideas sprinkled throughout the tracklisting: Destroy plays with complicated guitar palates, while Rapture Boy ends on elated harmonies – had some of these hints of brilliance been expanded on and intertwined into the recipe, then we could be looking at experimentation which is far more interesting. Despite the aura of mystery lent by the genre label, it seems the term avant-garde is not always suggestive of truly intriguing music. 5/10

Axxis: Virus Of A Modern Time (Phonotraxx) [Paul Hutchings]

Who said the Germans have no sense of humour? This is the ultimate in comedic timing. Actually, it’s not. Virus Of A Modern Time is an EP from German classic metal outfit Axxis and contains songs which are lifted from Prometheus Brain Project, a stage production for which vocalist Bernard Weiss and keyboard player Harry Oellers composed the arrangements. Watching the current global chaos as the pandemic takes hold, Weiss utilised some of the material to create this seven track EP, released between the band’s latest writing schedule. It’s been 31 years since the band’s debut Kingdom Of The Night was released, and since then they have gamely ploughed their melodic based heavy metal with regular album releases. Although only Weiss remains from the formative days, Oellers has been his right-hand man since 1990 and bassist Rob Schomaker is well into his second decade in the ranks.

So, what’s this EP like? Well, much like the last two albums I’ve reviewed by the band to be honest. Weiss has a vocal range that allows him to pitch against Jon Anderson and Geddy Lee and utilises double tracking on the vocals to hammer home the harmonies. The musical style of the band varies between Freedom Call and H.E.A.T, so you get a fusion of galloping power metal with melodic hooks that would excite the dourest AOR fan. Weiss has a habit of switching from German to English, and vice versa, and whether this is deliberate or not I’m not sure. The title track races into the Rammstein industrial tone, a pulsing bass line and thick riffs power the song and is by far the best track on the album. However, in keeping with their previous 16 albums, much of the music here is rather predictable and although the messages are definitely on point, that of humans having the information but being unable to use it, it’s an album that is steady without igniting the excitement. 6/10

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