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Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Reviews: Blackberry Smoke, Jessica Wolff, Arabs In Aspic, Thunderlight Project (Paul H & Bob)

Blackberry Smoke: Live From Capricorn Sound Studios (Capricorn Sound Studios) [Paul Hutchings]

It’s a well-established fact that Blackberry Smoke are one of our favourites. The Southern rockers have been doing their laid back Southern drenched Country Rock for over two decades, each release proving to be a little more sophisticated than their last. Whilst the band prepare for their seventh full length, they have released a six-track homage to the historic Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon, Georgia, an epicentre of the Southern Rock genre in the early Seventies. The Smoke are donating a portion of sales to the Recording Academy’s MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. This EP consists of tracks recorded earlier this year at the legendary studios – the first project cut there by a major recording act in over 40 years. It sees Blackberry Smoke take songs tied to the Capricorn’s studio and record label.

As one would expect, it’s a polished and flawless recording, with the band tackling one of their live staples, Midnight Rider by the Allman Brothers Band in typically relaxed yet flawless style. Of note on this legendary song is that Charlie Starr plays Duane Allman’s iconic Goldtop Les Paul guitar. The Marshall Tucker Band’s Take The Highway features Marcus Henderson on flute, and whilst the band are tight and capture the essence of the track superbly, the flute is a minor irritant. Two songs from Wet Willie sees guest vocals from Jimmy Hall, a member of Wet Willie during Capricorn’s heyday, with Keep On Smiling holding a nice Van Morrison vibe. The other Allman Brothers Band song featured is Revival, and there’s little to say other than that Blackberry Smoke make this music sound easy. It’s fluid, comfortable and totally enjoyable.

Whilst the band’s Spirit of the South Tour: A Celebration of Southern Rock and Roll Music is postponed (at present only until August but likely to be extended), this is a timely reminder that Blackberry Smoke are rarely inactive and that everything they do is simply fabulous. 8/10

Jessica Wolff: Para Dice (Metalapolis Records) [Bob Shoesmith]

Jessica Wolff would appear to be a very busy Finnish artist, as, according to her bio, when she isn’t writing or performing music she is acting, doing stunt work and practicing Kung Fu. This multifaceted lady is the singer for her eponymous band which were formed in 2013 who, unfortunately, apart from the odd photo don’t get much credit or be named, so it's pretty much just about her. Para Dice is the ‘band's’ third album. My initial reaction when viewing the heavily filtered promo pics and the opening bars of the first track Ella’s Song I suspected a cookie cutter, female fronted pop-metal band, muscling in on Halestorm’s territory, but Jessica has a clarity of voice in the mould of Pink, Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation, Ayreon), the clean end of Doro Pesch’s vocals and if you’re as old as me, even a hint of Pat Benatar. Jessica keeps her range away from the faux growl which some female rock singers feel is necessary to chuck in, which is to her credit and prevents stepping on any of her contemporaries’ toes. She will certainly appease rock fans (Ella’s Song, Superhero, Demons) but won’t frighten the pop princesses away with really some big hooky choruses and action-woman imagery (All The Right Things, Kill Switch, Fight Forever, Take Me Away)

Throughout the album, Wolff shows a clean set of vocal and lyrical heels and all the songs could sit in the metal or the pop charts quite comfortably. The album grows with listens and imprints on the memory. The juxtaposition of pop sensibility and melodic metal roots sit naturally enough although none of the remaining tracks quite hit the highs of the commercial metal of the opening two tracks (Ella’s Song and Perfect Kind Of Wrong) of which the former would make her a perfect, commercial crossover single. The ‘band’ are a stock Nu Metal affair who are skilled enough but are clearly a vehicle for Ms. Wolff’s ambition rather than breaking any new ground (and as a drummer I couldn’t let the jarring, Limp Bizkit snare drum sound go without a brief mention).

Overall the package being presented here is all about Jessica Wolff and her aspirations to be recognised and successful; super glossy photo shoots and the focus on being this multifaceted renaissance action-woman is all well and good and good luck to her with all that but I can’t help feeling that she has a sufficiency of songwriting talent without the added gilding of the CV. 8/10

Arabs In Aspic: Madness And Magic (Karisma Records) [Bob Shoesmith]

This Norwegian 5 piece have been knocking around for a little while having released their first full album, Progeria in 2003. Six albums later across five record labels we have their latest offering, Madness And Magic. They happily declare they are a 60’s and 70’s Prog influenced band and there is absolutely no mistaking that vibe. The album is made up of six tracks containing 45 minutes plus of genteel, organ and Mellotron washed, slightly hypnotic, hippy-ish, Paisley shirt wearing late 60’s early 70’s proggery with heavy nods to the sounds and styles of the Sgt Pepper album, Woodstock and King Crimson. Yes, I did have an initial twinge for the potential cultural insensitivity of the band name but as they’ve been using it for the last seventeen years without any issue that I’m aware of, I guess it’s ok, but these are changing times and it’s an area we are forced to consider.

On first listen I couldn’t help feeling that the album was maybe TOO derivative of those years, perhaps aping their predecessors a little too much. For example, Lullaby For Modern Kids Part 2 is essentially A Day In The Life by the Beatles and the sixteen minutes plus of Heaven In Your Eye starts out its journey as Strawberry Fields and drifts into Court Of The Crimson King before exhausting every early Prog style of the late 60’s during the remaining 14 minutes. But the one thing about the music of Arabs In Aspic and the era they’re echoing is that it is soft, pleasant, organic and soporific. They nail that style and period and none of the comparisons are criticisms.

All the tracks on Madness And Magic are well engineered and have a Summer Of Love floaty vibe with very listenable, jointly shared vocals and backing vocals and there is enough of their own individuality present in the song writing to not be mistaken for a tribute band, such as the gentle jazz funk of High-Tech Parent. There are two members of the band who are drummers and percussionists; Eskil Nyhus – Drums and cymbals and Alessandro G. Elide – Percussion and gongs and they are certainly not under-employed, as there is a vast array of whistles, bells and tippy-tappy things – literally - underpinning all of the tracks (they don’t overly intrude on the songs but once you are aware that they’re there, constantly in the background, you do wonder if they were all entirely necessary as their constant rattley presence becomes a little irritating). 

The album does travel well though and bares and improves with repeated listens whether you’re a fan of the era or an early Prog fan or not. The songs are pleasant and would be a decent addition to a warm summer festival on the West Coast. 7/10

Thunderlight Project: Metal Nation - Hail To The Steel, Pt. 1 (Self Released) [Paul Hutchings]

A solo project from multi-instrumentalist Artur Pereira, this is hopefully the only release that ever sees the light of day. Within minutes of the opening track, Beast of the Seven Seas, I was checking connections and hearing. Tinnier than the Tin Man tapping empty tins, and with vocals that had me searching for a wounded cat, this was particularly uncomfortable listening. Learn To Forgive features the vocals of Alba Karry but doesn’t improve things, the rapid fire programmed drumming continues to tap away like a furious Morse Code operator which the frenetic riffing lacked any depth or feeling. I’m loath to be critical about anyone who has invested time, energy, and their talent into a project like this, but I will also call a spade a spade. This was a poor, uninspiring release, with the inclusion of several guest vocalist helping not one jot. Carry On (featuring Susan Power & Marcos Moreira) is in the top two worst songs I’ve heard in 2020; lethargic, out of tune and utterly dreadful. Whilst I hope it brings Artur plenty of joy and plaudits, I’m afraid that after four songs I moved onto something that didn’t cause me so much aural pain. 1/10

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