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Thursday 23 July 2020

Reviews: Bush, Morse/Portnoy/George, Gaerea, Thomas V Jager (Bob, Simon, Paul S & Paul H)

Bush: The Kingdom (BMG Rights Management) [Bob Shoesmith]

With a career spanning nearly thirty years its always worth looking deeper at the journey travelled before we get to the here and now, especially if there’s a back story! Back in 1992 founder member, Pixies fan and guitar/vocalist Gavin Rossdale formed his alt.rock/grunge band Bush in London before disappearing off to the States to find their fame & fortune. It is often said, his timing was impeccable as thanks to the global phenomenon that was Nirvana preceding them, Bush’s hooky, emotional grunge and Rossdale’s chiselled frontman looks swept them to be one of the biggest selling rock bands in the States during the 90’s, largely due to their debut album Sixteen Stone going stellar in 1994, despite some critics accusing Bush of mimicking Cobain’s shtick especially after his suicide that same year.

Details that went, and still goes, largely under a lot of people’s radar in the UK, having only ever had one single in 1996 (Swallow) bother the UK charts. It was when Rossdale became Mr Gwen Stefani in 1995 his celebrity status went huge Stateside but it somewhat overshadowed Bush’s work as a band and after album number four, Golden State in 2001 the band eventually split. Rossdale pursued several solo projects and collaborations such as the very good Alt.Rock band, Institute or playing bass for indie punks Helmet, all while providing tracks for Hollywood movies and subsequently some critically acclaimed acting jobs. Bush later reformed in 2010 to far less hoopla than their first time round and The Kingdom is their fourth full release since then, having been touring the States with 90’s contemporaries like Stone Temple Pilots and The Cult.

I confess, I’ve always had a soft spot Rossdale’s musical take on post-grunge; the wall-of-guitars, the emotive sound which, while it has matured over the decades, still totally wears its heart on its sleeve. His and their career have often been dogged by the knocks of green-eyed critics over the years, claims of Cobain mimicry, being overshadowed by Gwen Stefani’s celeb status and subsequent tabloid divorce, but through it all Rossdale has always been and, given the evidence of his latest release, still is, a talented, raw, indie vocalist and songwriter that has never lost the ability to write massively catchy tunes. I have always felt they deserved better. The first few tracks on the album Flowers On A Grave the Killing Joke-esque, The Kingdom’ and Ghosts In The Machine are classic Rossdale; raw, emotional and powerful. He still has THAT voice and even in 2020, at 55 years old, Rossdale’s lyrics show no evidence of softening or easing up although musically, Bush are far closer these days to the likes of A Perfect Circle than The Pixies. 

The 90’s grunge DNA that they were founded on often makes reappearances in tracks like Bullet Holes (which has beeen used on the soundtrack to the movie John Wick III) Falling Away and Crossroads although the Cobain vocal mannerisms (that used to put some American critics into a lather) of yesteryear have long been consigned to history. The songs now often darkly detail a lot of the knocks and deep scars the band and Rossdale in particular have accrued over the last three decades and there is raw power and emotion in abundance unleashed on song after song, like the slow riff-monster of Blood River or the catharsis of pent up bad feeling behind Send In The Clowns. There is also, for me, the stand-out Undone which starts like a heartfelt ballad that while it threatens to unleash itself as a rock monster, never does. Rossdale puts it all in on the table during this track and clearly unburdens lyrically, its heartfelt and beautiful, it holds back while the vocal emotes to the max - slightly reminiscent of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars stylistically but way more in the feels than the British chart toppers effort.

Bush are a band who are now playing with complete freedom and producing some of the best and most personal music of their careers since Sixteen Stone went stratospheric in the 90’s and yet possibly to the smallest audience? They’ve quite literally been there and got the tshirt, suffered all the slings and arrows the rock n roll life can throw at you along the way and through it all, in 2020 they have released an excellent album. Definitely in my top three for 2020 so far. 10/10

Morse/Portnoy/George: Cov3r To Cov3r Anthology (InsideOut Music) [Simon Black]

Well this is a bit of a monster! The third instalment in the ongoing covers project from Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Randy George comes to a conclusion, with the third album in the series. Just in case you missed the first two volumes, they are also including a special version including the remixed (and indeed, re-sequenced) versions of the previous two instalments, giving you a whopping 2’48” run-time and 35 tracks to glut yourself on … assuming that listening to covers bands is your thing of course. It’s an odd project, compiling a number of batches of recordings made during the normal recording sessions of Morse’s band, which is prolific enough on its own. They aren’t trying to kick the door down here, just to share their love of their influences, so the material is nearly all 1970’s and earlier. But then Prog is nothing if not a self-indulgent niche and it certainly gives a different view on what these three guys are normally about, being a magical mystery tour through their joint favourite tracks and influences. Unfortunately for me, we’ve not had the opportunity here at MoM Towers to review the previous two releases, so I have no choice but to take on this beast single handed (thanks Matt). This monster is way to long for me to give you the low down on every song, so I will give you my personal highlights for your delectation and delight.

Volume One kicks off with U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name, is a gentle start to the beast and is noteworthy alone for Morse’s attempt at an Irish accent, so I hope Bono is getting double publishing royalties on that one. It’s a nice cover, but very close instrumentally to the original. A bit further on and Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed is an enjoyably energetic take on the song, helped by Portnoy’s more full on drums style which gives the song much more welly than the original. I also quite enjoyed their take on The Monkees Pleasant Valley Sunday, although how much of this was down to relief that Portnoy’s backing vocals are in key, as there’s some live Dream Theater recordings that positively chill the blood in this regard. Also unexpectedly good is The Moody Blues Tuesday Afternoon, which really suits Morse’s voice and with some well-layered use of keyboard voices to create a modern take on a band many in our bubble world would not normally listen to. It’s also refreshing to hear them take on I’m Free/Sparks from The Who, which surprises to start with, having a rougher rock’n’roll edge to it, but quickly gives us a nice prog twist with the instrumental second half. It’s an odd track, with a very rough sound mix and makes you wonder what would happen if they were free from the shackles of the genre and prepared to let a bit more rock’n’roll into the proceedings on a regular basis.

Volume Two is a much harder listen and feels a little bit like the idea had worn a bit thin by this point. The version of The Osmonds Crazy Horses (sung by Portnoy I assume) is certainly entertaining and a lot more lively than many of the tracks, proving again that when they go for a looser and more rock’n’roll approach, the concept works much better. I also enjoyed Styx’s Come Sail Away, for no other reason that it was nice to hear this bunch do what they do best – progressive and technically challenging rock music, taking the 70’s vibe and delivering a polished modern take on this classic band. The more obscure Bee Gees Lemons Never Forget also is worth a note – not a track of theirs I can say I had ever come across before, but one that had a soulful tint to it, with enough looseness to feel slightly improvised, although for a funky jazz-jam feel, Joe Cocker’s The Letter ticks boxes too. One of the more amusing aspects of this compilation is when Morse takes it upon himself to mimic the vocal style of the original artist, which when you have someone with such a distinctive nasal tone as Ian Anderson certainly raises eyebrows. With Jethro Tull’s Teacher, I feel that he should have just used his own voice, but 10 out of ten for including the instrumental flute sections.

Yes’s No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed opens up Volume 3 and also features Jon Anderson on guest vocals, proving to me for once and for all that if Yes played harder and heavier more often I would listen to them more often. It’s a fast and furious take on this band’s work and a promising start to the current volume, after the slightly average interlude that was Volume 2. That energy continues with Tull’s Hymn 43, which is a much more successful cover not that Morse has ditched trying to sing through his nose and some nice guitar and piano interplay keep the energy going nicely. Less successful is the cover of Bowie’s Life On Mars, but I suspect that’s my own personal prejudice: some songs should be just left as they are. They’ve chosen Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street as the single for the beast, and although it’s a great track this version isn’t doing anything that the original isn’t – once again if it ain’t broke, don’t fix… Tom Petty’s Runnin’ Down A Dream starts the beginning of the end, and is a lively rendition of this classic and leaves you with the feeling that in choosing better known tracks for this volume, the end result is more successful.

Any Spock’s Beard/Dream Theater completist is probably going to enjoy it and it’s certainly an easy background listen, with some unexpected gems. For me it’s a bit of a vanity project and releasing all three in one package feels like overkill. As always with these three, you cannot fault the performances, and Portnoy in particular brings some thunder and fury to a bunch of tracks that would otherwise be flat and uninteresting. It’s a bit of an eclectic mix, and the production bounces all over the shop given that it’s been recorded over a very long period of time, although the remixes of the first 2 albums allow a certain amount of consistency. The most recent volume is head and shoulders above the others however, so my advice if you’re tempted would be to start there and definitely give Volume 2 a miss. Volume 1 - 5/10, Volume 2 – 3/10, Volume 3 – 7/10

Gaerea: Limbo (Season Of Mist) [Paul Scoble]

Portuguese Black Metal troupe Gaerea have made some very impressive music in the short time they have been together. Formed in 2016 the band have released one self titled Ep and a very well received album in 2018’s Unsettling Whispers. So now the band, who are all ‘Unknown’ according to the bands biography although there appear to be 5 unknowns from the photos I’ve seen, are about to release their second album, and those “Difficult Second Album” clichés are forming in lots of reviewers minds. Unsettling Whispers was a really great debut album, it showed a band that was clearly making interesting music, and seemed happy to chart their own course. Although their sound was rooted in Black metal, they were also happy to add elements from outside the Black metal orthodoxy; there was a slight Hardcore feel to a lot of the material, and even a nod towards doomy sludge. So, have Gaerea built on this very strong debut? Have they moved from being a very promising emerging act, to creating something truly unique, distinctive and special? Have they lived up to massive amount of promise that their very strong debut hinted at?

The album opens with To Ain which has a very dissonant, doomy beginning, dark and brooding before a huge, powerful blast beat section with some savage tremolo picked riffs. Despite the ferocious nature of this section there is also a lot of melody in the blasting sections. The song goes between these two aspects before a much softer, and in many ways, uplifting feel comes in. At this point we get a very tuneful piece of Post Black Metal. Delicate tremolo picked riffs are layered to form a beautiful, affecting section that is reminiscent of bands like Alcest, Sadness or Italian band Falaise. This mix of savage and extreme with softer and more melodic material works so well, it gives the song a huge amount depth and makes the track feel cathartic.Null is a simpler track. The song vacillates between some very savage and extreme blasting sections with much slower, mid-paced and melodic parts. There is a Post Black metal feel to some of the softer sections. Glare is a very powerful, track. Again it mixes softer, slower sections with some really nasty blasting fast parts. The blasting nasty feel predominates on this track; the softer parts acting as more of a tempering of the nasty and extreme.

Conspiranoia is a big powerful song that is all about build up and waning back down. Slow, dissonant and heavy parts are juxtaposed with some very effective blast beats and tremolo picked riffs. This gives the track the cathartic feel that I mentioned earlier. The track eventually drifts off in a dissonant but melodic way. Urge is the shortest track on the album. It’s mainly about viscous blasting, with the odd heavy as it gets section. It’s beautifully direct. The album comes to an end with Mare. This track is a mix of blasting and and slow and very dissonant, until for the last few minutes we get another of the beautiful Post Black Metal sections, of brilliantly layered tremolo picked melodies. This is a great way to end the album; the cathartic nature of savage mixed with lilting beauty works so well. This is an album that is all about catharsis, so this track is the perfect way to bring the album to an end.

Limbo is a stunning album. Gaerea have definitely moved to from very good and promising, to being something very special. In many ways what Gaerea have is similar to what makes bands like Ultha or Regarde Les Hommes Tomber special, in that they have a sound that is unique. Although I’ve mentioned other bands in this review, Gaerea now have a sound that is unique to them, the mix of very savage blasting sections with delicate layered tremolo picked Post Black metal sections gives them a sound that is unique and lifts them above all the also rans in the Black Metal scene. With this album Gaerea have carved out their own place in Black metal history, and are likely to become huge in Black Metal. This will be one of the stand out albums released this year, make room in your album of the year list! 9/10

Thomas V Jager: A Solitary Plan (RidingEasy Records) [Paul Hutchings]

You may be familiar with Thomas V. Jäger from his role as vocalist/guitarist in Monolord. But if you are expecting the crushing melodic doom that his band are rightly noted for, you will be surprised to discover seven tracks of intimate and personal songs that are completely acoustic, and synth based. Described as a ‘cathartic depiction of very real and heart-wrenching situations’, Jäger tackles a central theme of coming to terms with the likelihood of not becoming a parent after so long in wanting to have a family. A massively personal and brave move, Jäger sees the album as a means of musical therapy. “This album is me venting all of this emotional energy I’ve been carrying around,” Jäger says. “Now I’m feeling more open about it, but at the start I had a hard time talking with friends and family. The record is what came out instead of talking about it.”

Other songs deal with personal challenges including health scares, existential searching and death in the family. Created organically, Jäger sketched out his ideas on acoustic guitar and the result is a melancholic but inspiring 30 minutes which see a side to the Swede, far removed from the pummelling riffs we are more used to hearing from him. A combination of acoustic guitar and synths support a fine vocal performance. The opening track A Solitary Plan gives a taste of what is to come, the simple arrangements complimenting his clean vocal lines. Emil Rolof plays a real Mellotron on the song, the only other musician to contribute to this solo outing. From The Ashes is a standout track, the subtle guitar work and lush melodies underpinned by some simple synth backing. Meanwhile Goodbye is written for Monolord bassist Mika and wife Emma after they had to put their dog Eskil to sleep. Telling them it’ll be alright; this song will strike a sentimental chord.

Whilst the subject matter may be sobering stuff, Jäger doesn’t intend for the album to be a “woe is me” exercise, but rather something constructive. “I know that music helps people,” he says. “This is without any irony, it’s therapeutic. I know fans can interpret and use the songs for their own purposes. That feels meaningful to me.” Closing with The Bitter End, you may catch a tremble in Jäger’s vocals. Something that rarely happens this heart filled baring of the soul not only surprises but connects. Gentle, deep and full of spirit you may be surprised by an album lovingly crafted. 7/10

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