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Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Reviews: Joe Bonamassa, Alcatrazz, High Spirits, Starblind (Reviews By Simon Black)

Joe Bonamassa: A New Day Now - Re-Recorded/Remastered (J&R Adventures/Provogue Records)

Originally issued with the subtly different title, A New Day Yesterday 20 years ago, this album has been given more than just a couple of tweaks, and probably qualifies as a release in its own right. For the completist collector, there’s also three bonus tracks on their which previously only existed as demos with Stevie Van Zandt for your delectation and delight. When this album was first released this legend was barely known outside of the fairly niche (and largely ageing) blues world, but since then our little metal bubble world most certainly knows his name, if not his work. This applied to me as well up to this point, as apart from remembering thinking he was clearly the best thing going happening up on stage with Black Country Communion at the sadly short lived High Voltage Festival in 2011, I had not up to this point listened to any of his recorded catalogue. So it’s nice to hear this stuff with fresh ears and with the benefit of 20 years of technical improvements on the sound, so I’m not going to bore you with a track by track review of what is an established classic.

To be fair to the original, I’ve compared this release with the original version of this on streaming platforms and for my metal spoiled ears the instrumental mix on this is much fatter and heavier, particularly in the drum department, which I guess is inevitable with someone of Kevin Shirley’s experience on the knobs. Bonamassa has also completely re-recorded the vocals, and the net effect of his more experienced and bluesier tones, which age always improves in this genre. The originals sound shouty by comparison, the new ones sound soulful and the end result is much more subtle and effective. I’m sure there’s a bit of sneaky new guitar work on there as well, as there’s a couple of moments when some of the licks differ so much in tone and depth that it’s really obvious that they’ve been overdubbed recently.

This leads to the logical conclusion of why this album has been reissued and redone, that the world deserves to hear the first Joe Bonamassa solo album afresh. That leads me to the Unique Selling Point of this album – back then the focus was far more on his talents as an axe man, but he has come so far as a singer since then that the two elements now carry equal weighting to my ears. A nice retake on a classic which improves on, rather than apologises for its predecessor. 8/10

Alcatrazz: Born Innocent (Silver Lining Music)

It’s been a while since this outfit were active properly, and Alcatrazz haven’t recorded any new studio material since 1986’s Dangerous Games so there’s a certain amount of expectation here. For those not in the know, this is what Graham Bonnet did after Rainbow, and is notable for introducing the previously unknown Yngwie Malmsteen to the world. This incarnation sees Bonnet reunited with original members Gary Shea on bass, Gary Waldo on keyboards and joined by the formidable Mark Benequechea on drums and the quite frankly incredible Joe Stump on guitar. But then when your previous six-stringers have been Malmsteen and Steve Vai, you cannot afford to let your standards drop. I’m not sure if it’s just an issue with the review copy we were sent, but the recording quality fluctuated significantly between tracks – single Polar Bear sounded completely different from the rest. I hope it’s a preview copy thing, as otherwise you have a real mixture of sound quality to contend with which rather detracts from the listening experience.

So the first observation to make – this is a far more Power Metal influenced sound than the Hard Rock/AOR one I was expecting from a band at this stage of their career. The opening title track kick drums that point home from the get go, with some seriously Power Metal double bass beats and the kind of technical blistering guitar work that makes me think Eurometal at its best. It’s a fine album opener, but the pile driving riffage of Polar Bear is much, much better and is clearly a live belter waiting to happen. Finn McCool is the kind of neo-classical metal meld that Malmsteen made famous, and it’s moments like this when you see just how good Stump is. There are peaks and troughs here – when its good it’s noteworthy, but there are the fair share of fillers in the 58 minutes of run time, but there is plenty of variety to keep you listening. There are also plenty of guest turns on here too, with the likes of Bob Kulick and Annihilator’s Jeff Waters keeping the sound fresh and the style flexible (check out Paper Flags to hear Water’s contribution, which guitar wise is one of the highlights of the record).

Bonnet’s voice remains the centrepiece here, and he’s not doing badly for a 72 year old. Sadly his voice doesn’t work so well on the slower more subtle tracks like We Still Remember and feels positively strained on London 1666. When it works well is in the aforementioned powered belters, where that voice not only carries the song, but grabs you by the throat and takes you with him. This record also makes me hungry to hear more from Stump, as this guy is really something else. This is definitely the best Alcatrazz record since the original No Parole For Rock ‘N’ Roll, and when it’s good, it’s great. The challenge is it struggles to maintain that quality consistently, otherwise I wold be a little more enthusiastic. 7/10

High Spirits: Hard To Stop (High Roller Records)

This very NWOBHM influenced bunch hail from Chicago (having relocated from Greece a decade ago), and is the first full-length album from these High Energy rockers since 2016 (although there have been a couple of EP’s in 2017). I’ve not come across them before, and in some ways it’s refreshing for a band to wear their influences on their sleeves so brazenly – echoing the influence very well, without duplicating the original too closely.

Since You’ve Been Gone is a straight up rocker, and a good introduction to this outfit, with it’s pacey beat and guitar work kicks off the tone of the disc well, with a clean but unpretentious vocal sound from former Dawnbringer frontman and only studio member Chris Black (no relation). Up next is Restless, and is pure NWOBHM, with a haunting guitar riff that could have fallen off the back of the recording sessions of Priest’s Point Of Entry album (play it back to back with Desert Plains and you will see what I mean). After the slightly average filler Face To Face, the album bounces back as Hearts To Burn which kicks off with a catchy riff straight out of Maiden’s Killers era and is one of the strongest tracks on the record. It’s infectiously carried forward with some clever and frenetic drum work that leaves the guitar very much in the background to the relentless footwork and strong vocal melody lines, before bouncing back with some spot on riffage in the middle eight.

The vocal tones changes completely with Voice In The Wind, as Black takes his sound down the registers and creates a more again 80’s indie rock sounding song, led by the guitar this time and which works well for the contrast to the more UK Hard Rock sounding tracks on the album. It’s completely unexpected, and grows on you the more you listen to it. All Night Long is back in familiar territory, and once again is saved from being average once the instrumentals kick off and the technical abilities of the band become more visible. Personally I feel that some more technical content in here would not do any harm, as sometimes the basic song structures hold the musicians back.

Midnight Sun has a very catchy riff and is the oldest track on the record, hailing from a 2013 demo and a regular in their live set, so finally gets to receive the benefit of more robust production particularly when it comes to the vocal harmonies near the end. Now I Know sounds like it owes Lemmy a couple of Jack and Cokes, with a punchy kick drum rhythm and riff straight out of the Kilminster-Philthy-Fast Eddie era, counterpointed by the more clean hard rock vocal style. It’s an effective stripped back sound and again, a high point on the record. Closer We Are Everywhere/Hard To Stop is a case of leaving the best till last, with a cracking pace and rhythm and some more variety in the pace and tone technically and structurally. When you know they can pull off tracks like this, I find myself wishing that they did so more frequently.

Overall, this is a strong and consistent record. I enjoyed the nod to the 80’s, the occasionally experimental round Robin of their influences, that perfectly captured very early 80’s production but feel that more could be achieved if the fetters were lifted on the technical side of things and the glimpses of whizzy brilliance that are occasionally hinted at were given more free reign. 7/10

Starblind: Black Bubbling Ooze (Pure Steel Records)

Choosing one of the oddest titles for an album that I’ve come across in a while, Swedish traditional metallers Starblind present us with their fourth album. Or do they? Given that it’s their first release since 2017’s Never Seen Again, it seems a bit light on new content, given that for its 35 minutes running time five of the nine tracks are re-recordings of material from their earlier albums (the lyrics of one providing that memorable title). OK, I get that you want to show what your new singer can do, and the first album may not have had the largest recording budget, but 2014 was not that long ago.

Musically this is traditional metal and pure NWOBHM influenced stuff. It’s not bad either, but the challenge they have is there are a lot of sound-alikes out there trying to recreate that look and feel, and what is more bizarre I’ve reviewed at least three this year alone from this mould from Sweden. Sound wise these guys are what early Iron Maiden would have sounded like if they had Michael Kiske behind the mike stand – Crystal Tears being the perfect example of this, and one of the better songs on the record. The galloping beat of Here I Am is pure Maiden, to the point of being an out and out tribute song, with a chorus borrowed from Helloween hit I Want Out. By the time we get to Room 101, Gamma Ray are also pulled heavily into the mix. That said this is probably the strongest track on the record.

There’s nothing bad here, but it does feel like one of those ‘let’s re-record our greatest hits with our new singer and a few bonus tracks’ moments, rather than a proper new release. I guess they can be forgiven because he has a much better voice than his predecessor, but this is not a record that feels like it’s got a strong message to deliver. The influences are shouted out loud, just avoiding being too obvious and I guess self-plagiarism is a lesser offence than borrowing too obviously from your influences. 5/10

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