Agalloch – Ashes Against The Grain

Author: BD Joyce

Agalloch – Ashes Against The Grain
  • Artist: Agalloch
  • Album: Ashes Against The Grain
  • Year of Release: 2006
  • Country: USA
  • Label: The End Records
  • Format: Digipack CD
  • Catalogue Number: TE719-2

Ashes Against The Grain is the only Agalloch album in my collection, and if Agalloch mastermind John Haughm were to be believed, I’ve chosen badly. Haughm believed it to be the band’s worst album, although his judgement could be said to have been impaired by a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the label that released it, The End. Indeed, the band’s next record was to be released on cult metal imprint Profound Lore, and evidently this relationship was more productive, at least until the eventual split of the band in 2016. Having no other point of reference, it’s impossible to confirm the veracity of Haughm’s statement, but what I can assert with certainty is that if this is indeed the band’s worst album, the rest of their discography must be magnificent, as Ashes Against The Grain is an imperfect, but largely enjoyable piece of work. It’s also pleasingly difficult to categorise, not quite sitting comfortably in any single sub-genre of metal, and while this makes it tough to get a handle on, it also imbues the music with an impermeable layer of mystery and intrigue that gives the album the kind of longevity that Haughm may not have envisaged.

The album is absolutely not a doom album, although at times it strays into the kind of despairing territory of the more overtly emotional end of the doom spectrum, but the kind of mental adjustment required to appreciate compositions that unfold almost in slow motion is similar to the mindset that one needs to adopt to really appreciate the likes of Thergothon or Evoken, where satisfaction is derived from allowing oneself to drift into the meditative space of repetition, savouring the gradual progression of small rhythmic changes, or additional layers of sound slowly building as a sun rises tentatively above a misty horizon on a winter morning. Agalloch’s music is considerably more accessible than the extremity of funeral doom, however, and the comparison that most frequently springs to mind is mid-period Katatonia. Like the downbeat Swedes, Agalloch’s brand of metal relies not on the thrill and excitement of the riff, but on the power of the fluid and insistent lead guitar melodies that sit atop surging, minor key chord progressions. Generally speaking, the most successful tracks are those in which these melodies are especially memorable, as the scarcity of the vocals provide little else for the listener to focus their attention on.

The opening track, ‘Limbs’ is not the best track on the album, nor the bearer of the most memorable melodies, but as it uncoils itself, piece by piece, it does become increasingly compelling, and works well as the entry point for the album, setting a clear template for the Agalloch sound. ‘Limbs’ emerges from the ambient static that returns as a continuous thread throughout Ashes Against The Grain, suggesting that it is permanently there, the sound of the ether, only momentarily interrupted by the intrusion of the songs themselves. ‘Limbs’ gradually builds itself from the outside in, a delicate spider’s web woven from the spectral silk of long sustained lead guitar notes, the extremely prolonged nature of which suggests the use of the e-bow listed in the liner notes. When the long-anticipated serrated guitar finally breaks the spell, the feel is unexpectedly grungy, both harmonically and sonically reminiscent of the kind of dense fuzz typified by Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Once the song transitions into more gloomy territory, however, a desolate, minor key piano line leads into the second section, which again adds layer upon layer of instrumentation, acoustic guitars and drums generating the sort of tension that one expects to be resolved by all-savagery. But, as on the rest of the album, the typical tremolo riffs and blastbeats of black metal never arrive. The harsh vocals do, but they are used as primarily as another texture to flesh out the stately onward trudge of the guitars, calling to mind Draconian Times-era Paradise Lost, stretched to breaking point, particularly when Agalloch punctuate the never-ending walls of churning chords with more staccato stabs of melody, introducing some much-needed rhythmic variety that just about prevents the nearly 10 minute opener from outstaying its bleak welcome.

Interludes, ambient or not, are a difficult thing to get right on a metal album, as the ongoing criticism of Pestilence’s landmark Testimony Of The Ancients album 30 years after its release shows. If the tone is marginally wrong, they can easily destroy the flow of an otherwise excellent album, taking the listener out of the immersive listening experience and deconstructing the suspension of disbelief that can be required to truly lose oneself in extreme sounds. Alternatively, they can feel too slight or incomplete, half-formed and poorly executed ideas used to pad out a record, or contribute the often superfluous impression of a concept or theme designed to give the album the illusion of intellectualism. It is to Agalloch’s credit that such interludes are perfectly judged here, never detracting from the atmosphere that they so assiduously construct, but acting as a pause for reflection and breath between the lengthier tracks that surround them, almost all of which run to virtually 10 minutes. ‘The White Mountain On Which You Will Die’ is one such example – a mostly ambient track incorporating the noise of a distant klaxon, which effectively evokes an image of searching aimlessly in the wilderness, an image which recurs repeatedly as we continue our journey through Ashes Against The Grain. This forms the perfect introduction to ‘Fire Above, Ice Below’, one of the twin highlights of the album, the other being the track that immediately follows it, ‘Not Unlike The Waves’. Lush, clean guitars are accompanied by a martial-sounding snare, with timpanies and chiming bells combining to briefly intimate a Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack, until the serenity is disturbed by the more conventional roiling chords, and crystalline lead guitar figures, again recalling Katatonia above anyone else. Even better are the mournful guitars of the mid-section of the track, which work wonderfully with the kind of neo-classical acoustic melodies lines that Metallica once deployed to open their classic thrash albums, and which are probably underused in modern metal, which frequently eschews the kind of light and shade that this sort of change of timbre can bring.

The aforementioned ‘Not Unlike The Waves’ is the undoubted highlight of the album though, a single track which seamlessly unites all of the disparate elements of Agalloch’s sound in a way that flows perfectly, and combines the result with superior songwriting to ensure that the result is by some distance the most memorable song on the record. A brilliantly addictive lead guitar figure is gently introduced via an lengthy introduction, as if a flurry of snow were steadily depositing layer upon layer of sound, until finally, the firmament clears, and the completed melody is now apparent, dovetailing superbly with the chugging rhythm guitars in an elite demonstration of utter metal majesty. The track moves effortlessly through a number of sections that all serve to enhance the song, fragile Opethian acoustic guitars initially picking up the thread, before the strongest clean vocals to be found on the album repurpose the kind of folk-metal harmonies that one might find on a Moonsorrow record for something approaching black metal, before concluding in a blaze of metal classicism, as a short burst of shredding lead work directly connects Agalloch to a lineage of more traditional heavy metal sounds for probably the only time on the album. As if emboldened by the sense of musical adventure on a wide-ranging composition, Haughm even lets rip with a wounded black metal scream that wouldn’t be out of place on Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, and this accentuates the extremity of a track that traverses peaks and troughs in a way that the rest of the album cannot match.

One senses that closing the album with a trilogy (‘Our Fortress Is Burning I, II and III’) was intended to be a bold and climactic statement, but as competent as this concluding trio of songs is, they cannot help but be overshadowed by the magnitude of what precedes them. In fact, strictly speaking, ‘Our Fortress Is Burning’ is really one truly substantial track, bookended at the start by a sparse guitar and piano soundscape, and at the end by an entirely ambient screed of static. In between, part two is an adequate return to the formula of ‘Limbs’ and ‘Falling Snow’, a particularly disconsolate lead guitar line lodging itself in the listener’s memory long after the conclusion of the album, but not matched for quality by the rest of the track, which at times suggests that we are going to ascend to some kind of summit, only to discover that the summit is but a plateau, a staging point on a never-ending journey.

Perhaps this is an appropriate emotional endpoint for a fundamentally despondent album though. More than anything, Ashes Against The Grain feels like a search for something that remains forever out of reach. The glacial lead guitar lines that do most of the heavy-lifting for the band, not unlike Alcest, for example, continually elicit images of searchlights, pointing uncertainly through the cold and unfathomable murk, the lack of anything solid to alight on forcing band and listener to plough on in the absence of any sanctuary to return to. Although Agalloch are successful in terms of the imagery that they are able to construct, the album is not without its flaws. The vocals, particularly the clean-singing, is diffident, and it appears that Haughm lacks belief in his own ability as a singer. Consequently, the vocals are frequently buried in the mix, and while the output is more than listenable, it means that Agalloch do not have a full palette to paint from, even if one suspects that they are perfectly happy with black and white alone. Additionally, the lengthy run time of the majority of the tracks, combined (‘Not Unlike The Waves’ apart) with fairly minimal harmonic variety and melodic development, means that there are periods during which the attention unavoidably wanders, even if unconsciously, the listener is in some ways still tuned into the meditative quality of the sometimes mesmeric guitar lines. Ashes Against The Grain is the result of a band with a grand vision aiming high and falling a little way short, but one can still discern and admire the vision, and appreciate the journey taken, even if the destination is not quite the idyll that it occasionally threatens to be.

Score: 75%

Aerosmith – Honkin’ On Bobo

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Honkin’ On Bobo
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Honkin’ On Bobo
  • Year of Release: 2004
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 515447 2

The big question provoked by Aerosmith’s previous studio album, the disappointing Just Push Play, was that of who exactly Aerosmith were making the album for? Too passé for the younger pop fans that it appeared to be designed to appeal to, and not guitar-oriented enough for the rock fans that had traditionally made up the band’s fanbase, it was instead of interest to virtually nobody, and potentially heralded the start of a permanent decline for the legendary group. Three years later, Aerosmith followed up an album made for no obvious audience, but making one for the smallest audience of all: themselves. Honkin’ On Bobo is in many ways the ‘back to the roots’ album that Aerosmith had conspicuously swerved for some time, but rather than return to the sound of Toys In The Attic or Rocks, the band instead went back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll itself, recording what is predominantly a covers album, mostly of blues standards. It’s not cutting edge, it’s not even especially exciting, but it is very much the sound of a band paying their respects to the artists on whose weary shoulders they have stood for over three decades, and the band, at least, are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. Whether the listener can get the same level of delight is debatable – one imagines that the excitement for Aerosmith was very much to be found in the process of plugging in and paying tribute to their heroes, and listening back to an album that is inevitably constrained by the self-imposed limitations of a somewhat rigid genre cannot hope to replicate the thrill of being in the room when it was recorded.

It appears that Aerosmith intuitively recognise this, and so Honkin’ On Bobo commences with the sound of a fake crowd, as if to suggest that the album is a bootleg tape of the band caught playing their own aftershow in a small bar. As the applause fades, the band kick straight into the very percussive 12-bar of Bo Diddley’s ‘Road Runner’. Much-covered, versions of this track have previously been released by The Animals, The Zombies and The Who, so it is easy to conclude that it’s a song that the band have been familiar with in its various guises for a long time. Aerosmith’s ‘Road Runner’ is a good song, although clearly nowhere near as startling as the original would have sounded in 1960 – every cutting edge sound unavoidably becomes safe eventually. What is also apparent is that, in stark contrast to the hideously over-produced Just Push Play, Honkin’ On Bobo is the warm, organic sound of a rock ‘n’ roll band, unadorned by superfluous sounds and layers. Aerosmith sound like a band again, five members all playing in the same room at the same time, something that is underscored by the short instrumental section featuring brief solos from the rhythm section as well as the expected guitars, and it is enough to make one nostalgic for the days when the band’s original compositions sounded this raw and authentic.

Perhaps unavoidably, the main drawback of the album is that much of it is too similar. The raw material of the blues structure means that songs such as ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ and ‘Temperature’ occasionally blur into one long boogie, although the sparkling piano of the former threatens to elevate it to a higher level. The best moments on the record are generally to be found when the band take the road less travelled, and happen upon a more interesting destination. ‘Never Loved A Girl’ stands out for this reason. A cover of the single that set soul legend Aretha Franklin on the road to stardom in 1967, Aerosmith transpose the electric piano refrain of Franklin’s version onto the guitars, and the slow, dragging tempo makes for a gratifying change of pace that serves as a reminder that although the band have found huge success with rather more syrupy power ballads, they are more than capable of turning their hand to a more sophisticated and measured approach to this kind of sound, which relies on the clipped rise and fall of sparse instrumentation and seductive melody. The song is mesmerising in its economic charm, and represents one of the high points of the album.

Similarly, ‘Back Back Train’, which immediately follows, also adopts a sound that Aerosmith prove themselves surprisingly proficient at recreating, given that it falls far outside of their usual narrow modes of operation. One of three tracks on the album originally composed by Mississippi Fred McDowell, ‘Back Back Train’ is true delta blues, with Tyler’s mournful harmonica figure combining with the tom-tom heavy drum part to produce a funereal sound that has as much in common with the gothic blues of The Firstborn Is Dead-era Nick Cave, as it does with the more raucous Chicago sound that is the more obvious antecedent of Aerosmith’s 1970s records. The song also benefits from Tracy Bonham’s tight vocal harmonies, interweaving throughout the track with a restrained Joe Perry lead vocal, and the haunting tone that the feminine voice brings opens a new dimension for the band that it is intriguing to hear them explore. Bonham also duets with Tyler on the closing ‘Jesus Is On The Main Line’, and the spiritual gospel of that track creates a solemn and evocative texture hugely uncharacteristic of the Aerosmith oeuvre, but which they pull off with enough style to position themselves as a contender should the Coen Brothers ever require a soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou 2 (Still Searching).

Even more successful though, is ‘I’m Ready’, a cover of a Muddy Waters single from 1954, which was released on the legendary Chess Records. Much like early Led Zeppelin did repeatedly on their first three albums, Aerosmith take the raw materials of the original and reassemble in a way that underlines the direct connection between early rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and the hard rock and metal of the 1970s. A simple harmonica line on the original becomes, with the aid of a wah pedal mysteriously rarely employed by Joe Perry, a slinky, coiling minor key blues riff, which constructs a tense, almost oppressive atmosphere balanced expertly by the more spacious mid-section of the track, which utilises a gloriously doomy descending guitar figure that is heavy enough to pass for early Black Sabbath. It’s a completely fascinating track, and opens a door to new sonic possibilities for the band, albeit perhaps later in their career than would have been ideal.

In direct contrast to these highlights, the least successful covers showcased on Honkin’ On Bobo are those that most closely resemble the originals. ‘Stop Messin’ Around’ takes the breezy British blues of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, and replicates it, but stripped of the energy and purpose of Green’s vibrant band, and ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ does something comparable to their rendition of Them’s cover of Big Joe Williams’ delta blues original, although it preserves the menacing feel of the pounding bassline, which saves the track from total ignominy. Them, of course, featured the soulful tones of a young Van Morrison, and it’s strange to hear Tyler so closely aping the quirks and idiosyncrasies of another singer, when he would usually bring so much personality of his own to bear on such a track. Perhaps the band’s reluctance to depart too far from the most well-known version of tracks that have been regularly covered since their first release is understandable though, given the confusion of ‘You Gotta Move’, another Mississippi Fred McDowell track, but better known from the Rolling Stones version included on their superlative Sticky Fingers album. Aerosmith are clearly at pains not to simply imitate the Stones’ here, but also fail to capture the quivering fragility of the primal original, falling between two stools and failing to make the song their own.

In fact, both of the aforementioned tracks raise the most obvious question that needs to be asked in relation to the album as a whole – just what is the point of it? Covers albums are not intrinsically a bad idea, but are fundamentally most interesting when they either bring previously obscure songs and artists to wider attention (see Metallica’s Garage Days series), or alternatively arrange the original components in a way that offers a completely different interpretation, which opens up new possibilities hitherto unimagined (see Johnny Cash’s later works). Aerosmith, on the other hand, tend to favour faithful recitations of songs whose definitive versions have already been recorded, and one has to question both the wisdom of this, and also the depth of their professed love for the blues, considering that they were unable to identify more esoteric and deserving options for a track-listing that could’ve been made considerably more interesting with a little more thought.

Additionally, it would be remiss not to address the complicated issue of the appropriation of the blues by white musicians, something that led to fame and fortune for Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and many more, while the original composers of the songs that they variously covered or plagiarised died unknown, unappreciated and frequently in penury. While these and many more bands undoubtedly held a sincere admiration for the music that they emulated and incorporated into their own sounds, and of course the progression of music is naturally an iterative process which inevitably synthesises the influences of other artists to produce something novel, the alacrity with which blues-derived music gained an audience in the 1960s and 1970s shorn of the (at the time) provocative images of the poor black musicians that developed the form, is an indictment of the endemic racism of the time (some of which sadly persists today), and also challenges the motivations of the white bands that failed to credit or remunerate the bluesmen and women from whom they borrowed. It is only fair to note that this is not something that Aerosmith should be found guilty of here – all of the original writers are credited as such on this album, and Honkin’ On Bobo is surely a well-intentioned tribute, not a cynical theft.

In fact, the best thing that can emerge from an often entertaining, but partially redundant album, is that it provides an impetus for anyone who hears it to seek out the original versions of the tracks that it contains, most of which are superior to the versions herein. To hear the wonderful horn arrangement and searing saxophone solo of Smiley Lewis’s original version of ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’, or the majesty of Aretha Franklin’s vocal on ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) is to discover just the tip of the iceberg of a treasure trove of blues and soul singles that are less well-known, although no lower in calibre, than the more obvious genre classics that are a standard part of the popular music canon. As Aerosmith songs, however, they may have been better utilised as B-Sides, or perhaps issued via a series of EPs. Additionally, the album would have served a greater purpose had the band learned the lessons of the more sympathetic production and instrument tones that work so well for them here, but unfortunately the band’s next effort sees something of a return to the synthetic sounds of Just Push Play, suggesting that they took nothing of lasting value from this particular trip down memory lane. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

Score: 59%

Aerosmith – Just Push Play

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Just Push Play
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Just Push Play
  • Year of Release: 2001
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 501535 2

Just Push Play is Aerosmith’s 13th studio album, and in many ways it is to their credit that it’s taken nearly 30 years for them to produce an album that for the first time results in the band sounding like something of an anachronism, a band unsuccessfully chasing the pack that they once effortlessly ran with, and even lead on occasion. In some respects, it has been to Aerosmith’s advantage that they have never really been musical innovators, in the way that many of their inspirations were. Instead, they rose to prominence by successfully synthesising the blues and rock ‘n’ roll that inspired them into a lean and energetic distillation of something that already existed, and combined this sound with an unerring ability to write enormous, memorable pop choruses. This allowed them to craftily adopt elements of the prevailing sonic trends of the 1980s and 1990s, without ever losing their essence, and importantly without their motives appearing obviously cynical. Aerosmith have always been musical magpies; unfortunately on Just Push Play, their ability to discern the treasure from the trash has deteriorated. The result is an album that is the disjointed aural equivalent of a midlife crisis, a creaking father trying out his teenage son’s clothes for size, before a night at the “discotheque”.

In some respects, the band’s continuing desire to challenge convention and expand their sound is admirable, and maybe preferable to a phoned-in and fundamentally dishonest ‘back to the roots’ effort. However, unlike some of the successful experiments found on Nine Lives, where the band branched out into Eastern atmospheres and folky singalongs, the experimentation is largely confined to the window dressing of sound design and production, applying what now sounds like horribly dated sonics to mostly pedestrian pop-rock, and the end product is an uneven and incoherent document of a band riven with confusion, driven only by a misguided wish to remain relevant. Most of the songs contained on the album exhibit the flaws outlined above, but the most egregious (albeit darkly amusing) example of everything coming together in a perfect shitstorm of incompetence is ‘Outta Your Head’, found towards the end of the album. Processed breakbeats and an unusually discordant guitar line herald a frankly bizarre foray into an approximation of rap-rock. The stabbing guitars crunch like prime Rammstein, which on many records would be a cause for celebration, but on an Aerosmith record is simply jarring and incongruous, and what could at least be a memorable chorus is cruelly marred by intrusive string and vocal loops that add absolutely nothing of value. There are a number of instances of Tyler attempting something approach rapping on this album, and the verses are delivered in this way throughout this track – one imagines that the band have been hoodwinked by the way in which Run DMC transformed Tyler’s heavily rhythmic delivery on the classic ‘Walk This Way’ into thinking that the gulf between vocalist and MC was one that could be traversed, but in fact the results here show that just because you can see the other side of the abyss, it doesn’t mean that you should jump. The song is not completely devoid of merit – the sweeping strings of the post-chorus interlude suggest an opulent vision that briefly comes into view, but any sparks of hope are extinguished by the clumsy and cack-handed execution.

Elsewhere, there are glimmers of Aerosmith’s former glory which provide moments of enjoyment less afflicted by the painful production. The brash opener, ‘Beyond Beautiful’ is powered by a propulsive, thrusting riff, the quality of which is only mildly impaired by the synthetic tone, bizarrely reminiscent in its industrial-lite stylings of moderately popular 90s rockers Filter, and although the facile lyrics are off-putting, the chorus soars in standard Aerosmith fashion. It is also blessed with an enjoyable guitar solo, Perry’s rich blues tone cutting sabre-like through the electronic muddle of the rest of track in a way that triggers a brief acid flashback of full-bore 70s Aerosmith, before the valium of mid-2000s Aerosmith gently nudges the listener back into a soporific stupor almost immediately. The first single from the album, ‘Jaded’ shows up as the third track, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen for that particular honour. It’s a conventional, well-constructed mid-tempo rocker, but on Just Push Play, a solid song with a memorable chorus and no superfluous layers of sound is riches indeed, and it’s uncomplicated elegance is a high point for the album. Another such pinnacle is ‘Under My Skin’, which sees the band come within touching distance of brilliance. Were it not for the programmed beats competing pointlessly with the kind of greasy, climbing riff that Perry and Whitford once specialised in, the infectious chorus and deceptively complex harmonic interplay of the horn accompaniment would render the song a late-period classic. As it is, it’s undoubtedly a track that would effectively occupy the band’s live set, with a little less polish and a little more heft accentuating the latent power and energy of a song that could sit fairly comfortably on Pump.

As we have already observed, originality has never been Aerosmith’s strong point, and they have rarely been afraid to plagiarise themselves. Several albums feature attempts to re-write ‘Dream On’ for example, and ‘Walk This Way’ crops up as a reference point throughout their discography, including this album’s title track. As if to emphasise the plunge in quality that Just Push Play represents though, even the songs that the band are mining this time round are hardly genre classics. ‘Fly Away From Here’ is at least catchy, but is very much a mediocre sequel to the more successful pairing of ‘Cryin” and ‘Crazy’. The minor key verse melody leads fluidly into a widescreen chorus, effectively injecting a dose of redemptive optimism into an otherwise downbeat tune, and the string arrangement is undeniably lovely, as are the perfectly judged vocal harmonies, but overall, the song just fails to traverse enough of the emotional and melodic spectrum to bring the kind of theatrical drama that is required to create a world-class power ballad, and so it remains ever so slightly dour and unremarkable. Even this is delightful compared to the horribly plodding ‘Luv Lies’, which covers similar territory and again reminds the listener not just of the Get A Grip mega-ballads, but of many similar bands of that era, albeit without seeming to directly rip off anything identifiable. This is a familiar theme throughout the album – a vocal line, or rhythmic idea often recalls another band or song, and that would suggest that there is simply not enough of Aerosmith’s own personality infusing the music, enabling it to stand alone. The same applies lyrically, where it seems that a tired Tyler has run out of ideas, and the kind of ribald, attention-grabbing turn of phrase that one can usually rely on an Aerosmith album to provide is entirely absent here. As such, Just Push Play mostly passes the listener by without making a lasting impact.

Although it reclaims a little of the lost ground with the unexpectedly wonderful light psychedelia of closing track ‘Avant Garden’, which belies the gauche pun of its title with a lightness of touch and sense of dynamics that is not found anywhere else on the album, Just Push Play is not a good album. Perhaps this verdict is partially because it’s an Aerosmith album, and therefore my own expectations of what it should sound like inevitably play into my evaluation, and this certainly raises an interesting question as to whether it is possible to judge an album entirely on its merits, when one is so familiar with the previous work of the band that has made it. Certainly there are albums that I view with a greater degree of fondness than the music might objectively deserve because of the band that produced it (a number of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest albums probably fall into the category), and similarly other albums are all the more crushingly disappointing for the same reason. After careful consideration though, I suspect I would reach the same conclusion were this album released by anyone else; it simply doesn’t maintain a high enough level of interest for long enough. The most confusing element of all, is just who the band made this album for. There seem to be some deliberate attempts to court pop fans with a production that contains surface elements of contemporary popular music, but it is simply not modern enough to reach a new audience in an extremely fast-moving scene that is largely dominated by music deriving from hip hop and electronica. Similarly, despite the occasional bursts of riffola, and the odd blazing lead that seems to be included as a sop to the more traditional tastes of Joe Perry, it is not enough of a rock album to either satisfy existing fans, or reach younger rockers newly turned on to guitar music by the tail end of nu-metal, or the fast-rising emo-punk scene of the early noughties. Just Push Play is ultimately just not enough, and at this point the worst album of the band’s career.

Score: 55%

Abdullah – Abdullah

Author: Brendan Blake

Abdullah – Abdullah
  • Artist: Abdullah
  • Album: Abdullah
  • Year of Release: 2000
  • Country: USA
  • Label: I Used To Fuck People Like You In Prison Records
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRISON 999-2

Abdullah’s debut full-length is a stratospheric bolt from virtually nowhere after their functional, but largely ignored, opening EP. I’ve seen some fairly variable reviews of this album on the internet, including Eduardo Rivadavia’s pretty indifferent take from Allmusic (and he’s generally no fool). But on this occasion I think he’s really quite wrong.

Where Rivadavia is right is that this is a blend of a bunch of styles, covering 70s hard rock, 80s doom metal, and 90s stoner rock. The overall vibe can only be described as fairly mellow. Even when things get heavy (doom metal heavy, not death metal heavy) the band are clearly taking their time, enjoying their own musical space. The obvious touchstone is of course Black Sabbath, but there are moments that absolutely invoke other heavyweights from across the spectrum, touching on guitar god solos, Vitus-style riffing (without the hardcore influence), almost grunge style vocals in places (recalling Alice in Chains), a Trouble-indebted commitment to thud, and an unescapable love of Acid Bath’s more melodic and less twisted moments.

Ex-Sloth man Jeff Shirilla, covering both vocals and drums, is revelatory. He might not display Dax Riggs’ vocal range, but his version of a US Ozzy without the apocalyptic histrionics is extraordinary. In another universe, he’d be fronting a way more commercially successful (and I guess sellable) band. But I’m glad he wasn’t because his performance here is simply stellar, and intelligent lyrics covering a range of areas familiar to doom metallers add to the excellence on display. Despite the varied texture, there is a consistency to Abdullah carried at least in large part from this stand-out vocal performance, comfortably covering the ground between the Sabbathy ‘Journey To The Orange Island’ (or maybe it’s Sheavy I’m thinking of, although they are themselves more Sabbath than Sabbath), the Lovecraft- and Trouble-influenced doom of ‘The Black Ones’, and the more balladic and acoustic closer ‘Lotus Eaters’.

The production throughout is immense, bringing to mind how those 70s classics might have sounded had they been recorded in the year 2000. Despite the retro nature of the band’s style, production clearly wasn’t part of that plan. But the feel of the 70s is all over this, and the band  have clearly taken a stance of having moved on technologically, but not aesthetically. I do not mean this in a bad way – I love this record, and find it genuinely strange that it has not achieved wider appreciation. This is a celebration of good rock music, recorded and played well.

Maybe this isn’t heavy enough for most pure doom fans. Maybe it’s too heavy for those that think stoner rock means the Black Crowes or Reef. Well, if you’re in either of those camps, that’s your loss. This is a brilliant example of a somewhat niche genre entry that arguably should have been much larger, given what I reckon is genuine mainstream appeal.

Score: 82%

AC/DC – Black Ice

Author: BD Joyce

AC/DC – Black Ice
  • Artist: AC/DC
  • Album: Black Ice
  • Year of Release: 2008
  • Country: Australia
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Digipack
  • Catalogue Number: 88697392382

In titling this album Black Ice, AC/DC are, wittingly or not, making a fairly overt reference to their 1980 classic Back In Black, and perhaps even suggesting that it bears comparison with such a landmark release. At the very least, it is inviting the comparison to be made, and therefore the question has to be asked of whether it bears the same mark of greatness as its spiritual predecessor. It’s no embarrassment for the band that of course Black Ice is not in the same league as Back In Black; few albums are. Indeed it calls to mind Joseph Heller’s response when asked, long after its publication, if he was disappointed that he hadn’t written anything to compare with the peerless Catch-22. He reputedly replied that he wasn’t, as no other author had come close either. AC/DC have thankfully had a productive enough career to not need to worry about living in the shadow of such a gigantic musical achievement, and while, like the majority of their back catalogue, this doesn’t hold a candle to that totemic release, it thankfully burns pretty bright for most of its 55 minute run time.

Like a newly struck match, Black Ice immediately catches fire and burns with white hot intensity on the first track, ‘Rock N Roll Train’. It’s possible that the sheer desire to believe that AC/DC are somehow able to recapture and reproduce their 1980 magic often tints the critical spectacles a suspicious shade of rose, but with ‘Rock N Roll Train’, the shades are off, and still the band are able to transcend such wishful thinking. This song is nothing less than the best thing the band have released since Back In Black, and is consequently a wondrous thing to behold. An effortlessly cool and memorable riff creates an irresistible economic groove, with a wonderfully unexpected chord progression and deft lead and rhythm interplay between the Young brothers laying the foundations for a classic call and response chorus. And all the while, Phil Rudd hammers a mid-tempo, unstinting beat, so simplistic that most other drummers would not even consider such rudimentary timekeeping, instead cluttering the sonic spectrum with so many unecessary rolls and fills. Rudd though has the courage and restraint to abstain from such frippery, and in so doing completes the signature sound of a singular band.

It’s surely no coincidence that in common with the band’s best work throughout their (post-Bon Scott) career, an external producer is at the helm. I have written at length about the contributions of both Mutt Lange and Rick Rubin to Back In Black and Ballbreaker previously, and the influence of Brendan O’Brien on this album is equally positive. O’Brien has a lengthy track record of helping bands make powerful, but organic sounding records, and adding a certain studio sheen to things, but not at the expense of all of the rough edges of a band’s sound, and this is a feel that suits AC/DC as it suited Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, and Rage Against The Machine before them. Black Ice sounds huge, the aural equivalent of the ‘Rock N Roll Train’ they sing about on the opening track. It’s also the most American they’ve ever sounded. This is not so pronounced that the band’s own personality and idiosyncracies are completely lost, but it does have the effect of aligning them more with the classic rock of the aforementioned Aerosmith, or even, on the mellifluous guitar refrain of ‘Big Jack’, Bruce Springsteen. Where once, DC’s fevered energy saw them taken the heart of London’s punks, recognising kindred spirits if not obvious musical bedfellows, they are now settling into a more measured and comfortable musical middle age, and it has to be said that growing old gracefully suits them.

Elsewhere, Black Ice offers virtually everything one could want from an AC/DC album. ‘She Likes Rock N Roll’ is full of smart riffing with just enough ingenuity to stand out from the crowd, and ‘Rock N Roll Dream’ is simply majestic, huge serrated slabs of guitar developing from an arpeggiated verse and exploding into an infectious chorus that is up there with the band’s best. More importantly, this is another crucial step on their journey to their inevitable destination of releasing an album on which all of the songs are simply named ‘Rock N Roll’, with identical lyrics extolling the virtues of an artform that has mutated in innumerate directions since its inception 70-odd years ago, but still thrills in its most primitive form in the hands of these Anglo-Australian masters.

AC/DC’s own mutations on this album are happily largely successful. Angus Young only very infrequently augments his riffing style with slide guitar, but it’s usually hugely effective whenever he deigns to do so, and ‘Stormy May Day’ is no exception. As good as it is though, it offers a tantalising glimpse of an even bigger departure for the band that could’ve been even more successful. The outro cleverly deconstructs the layers built up over the course of the song until the listener is left with Brian Johnson soulfully crooning over an acoustic blues for a few bars. AC/DC have stubbornly resisted the lure of the ‘unplugged’ set for their entire career, and this is something that the world should probably be grateful for, but the idea of the band taking the germ of the idea that lies in the outro and building the rest of the song like scaffolding around this central core would have been fascinating to hear.

If there’s any real criticism of Black Ice though, it’s that it’s simply too long, particularly for a band best experienced in short, sharp bursts of energy. An epic album is a perfectly viable artistic expression in the hands of bands with a more expansive sound, building progressive journeys traversing peaks and troughs, and exploring a full range of dynamics and differing levels of compositional complexity, but although AC/DC offer some variety, it is within fairly tightly defined parameters and fails to sustain the listener’s interest across 15 songs. A more ruthless band would have been brutal enough to remove, as a bare minimum, the hackneyed title track, pedestrian ‘Smash N Grab’ and desultory ‘Decibel’ from Black Ice. Had AC/DC done so, leaving a lean 10 song set, they would have been left with their best Johnson-era album after Back In Black. As it is, what we do have is a hugely impressive achievement at this stage of the band’s career, and one that continues to elevate their material way above the level of the nostalgia act that they could so easily have become.

Score: 85%