Agnostic Front – Liberty & Justice For…

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – Liberty & Justice For…
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: Liberty & Justice For…
  • Year of Release: 1987
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Century Media
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 9962252

Just 12 months after the landmark Cause For Alarm album, Agnostic Front surprisingly decided against the obvious progression into psychedelic prog-funk, and instead chose to solidify their position as leaders of the New York hardcore scene with the release of their third album, Liberty & Justice For…, curiously released in the very same year as Metallica’s similarly-titled …And Justice For All. A little like the genre in microcosm, there are no surprises here, just a slight refinement of the formula that served the band so well on their previous record. Some of the youthful exuberance and ramshackle thrill of Cause For Alarm is lost in this process, but in its place comes a greater emphasis on song-writing and vocal hooks, which means that the best songs found here are more considered and fundamentally more impressive than the standout tracks on its predecessor. This is reminiscent of the sort of development (albeit not quite the same quantum leap in quality) that many of their more conventional thrash contemporaries made between their first and second albums. Not unlike, for example, Metallica from Kill ‘Em All to Ride The Lightning, or Anthrax from Fistful Of Metal to Spreading The Disease, the impact of night after night on the stage has contributed to Agnostic Front becoming unavoidably more technically proficient, more professional, and more confident in recording a sound less derivative of their influences, instead settling on the singular and recognisable noise that they would deploy with some alterations for the remainder of their musical career.

Part of this change was perhaps down to the evolving line-up of the band. While the core of Agnostic Front (Roger Miret on vocals, and Vinnie Stigma on guitar duties) has remained unchanged throughout the now-veteran band’s career, one has to imagine that the more extensive supporting cast that have come and gone over time have profoundly impacted the band’s sound, particularly given the paucity of Stigma’s own songwriting contributions. Although he may be a totemic presence, much beloved of longtime fans of the group, and remains a key component of their live show, the composition is usually shared between Miret and whoever else happens to be swelling the Front ranks at any given moment. This time round, Louie Beatto, who was a dextrous and even quirky presence behind the kit on Cause For Alarm is supplanted by Will Shepler, who would remain Agnostic Front’s drummer until their mid-90s hiatus, during which he joined part of their literal extended family, Madball. Steve Martin (not that one) joins on lead guitar for his only studio album with the band, and the line-up is completed by Alan Peters on bass, who sadly passed away in 2020. Martin and Peters are a relatively small part of the band’s history in terms of the time that they spent as members, but their contribution to Liberty & Justice For… was significant. Between the two of them, they wrote or co-wrote the vast majority of the material, outside of a cover of ‘Crucified’, by Washington DC skinheads Iron Cross.

From almost the first notes of the almost title track ‘Liberty & Justice’, which kicks in after a sardonic intro featuring a chorus of young voices intoning their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, it is clear that this is a different album to its predecessor. If one strips away some of the punk elements of Cause For Alarm, what we are left with is often sonically indistinguishable from a thrash metal album, albeit one occupying a space at the less polished and technically proficient end of the thrash spectrum – more Overkill than Megadeth. It’s importance to the crossover thrash movement is undimmed, and the likes of D.R.I. and Corrosion Of Conformity ploughed a similar furrow to similar effect, before themselves evolving and exploring more straightforward thrash and stoner-metal territories in the late 1980s and beyond. Liberty & Justice For…, while still deploying in parts the tremolo-picked thrash riffs and punk chord sequences that defined their earlier sound, is recognisably a hardcore album, in that it more successfully synthesises these elements to create something that is both at once thrash and punk, but simultaneously something distinct from either. ‘Liberty & Justice’ demonstrates this as well as any of the other tracks on the album – an S.O.D. style thrash riff, underpinned by the rumbling double-bass attack of the drums, gives way to multiple stylistic and tempo changes, with an almost oi! punk breakdown slotting seamlessly into the mid-section of a song whose lyrics decry the state of an America divided by racial violence and inner city poverty. One imagines that the band didn’t imagine that all of society’s problems would be resolved a quarter of a century later, but it’s still disappointing that such tales of rage and hate (“Race wars fed by prejudice and hate / The love of a nation for its people burned through the night”) are still so relevant in 2021.

As Liberty & Justice For… continues to regularly disgorge its 3 minute blasts of hardcore across a run-time barely over half an hour, one of the most noticeable differences in the band’s sound, aside from the already-mentioned crystallisation of the hardcore style that the album embodies, is the increased prominence given to Roger Miret’s vocals, and also the clear shift in the style of these vocals. On Cause For Alarm, although the singing is considerably less audible, Miret deploys a rapid-fire bark; perfectly serviceable, but not terribly distinctive. Whether a conscious choice, or simply a natural evolution, Miret adopts a different approach this time round, a much more stylised delivery that sounds strangely like a more intelligible version of John Tardy’s vomiting vocals that make Obituary’s death metal so extreme. Where before, it was tough to discern Miret’s lyrics from the chaotic blur of a voice that was predominantly used as another tonal texture, his now more controlled, but idiosyncratic offering, is clearly addressing the listener, hectoring even, ensuring that his message is no longer lost in the maelstrom, like a lone voice shouting into the wind. It takes some getting used to, and it’s difficult to imagine that at some level it did not start as an affectation, an attempt to represent more realistically the street thug persona that Miret’s lyrics so clearly portray. However, for better or worse, this has become the definitive sound of Agnostic Front over time, and it undoubtedly fits well with the band’s overall sound, as well as creating a clear counter-point to the music which is particularly beneficial when the riffs stray into the kind of more mundane and generic territory that crops up a little too often in the middle third of Liberty & Justice For….

None of the tracks on the album could be characterised as poor, but the highlights generally come at the front and back ends of the record. ‘Strength’, which follows a one minute crash through the rudimentary adrenaline of ‘Crucial Moment’, shows both some musical growth in terms of its comparatively complex structure, and also an increasing ability to fashion rough-shod hooks that serve to make the stand-out tracks that much more memorable, and likely to stand the test of time. Lightspeed thrash bleeds into a mid-tempo march, which evidences tremolo-picked riffs working deftly with rhythmic variations which maintain interest throughout, and frequent modulations into different keys enable new harmonic possibilities, before the whole thing culminates in the kind of rolling riff that Sick Of It All perfected on their own seminal New York hardcore release Scratch The Surface. If ‘Strength’ provides a sonic template for the Koller brothers’ crew, the arrogantly named ‘Anthem’ does the same for another giant of the somewhat incestuous scene, Hatebreed. While it’s clear that at this point the band have found a formula that works for them, and are keen to replicate it over and over – a mid-tempo punk breakdown is bookended by two bursts of breakneck thrash – the brute force of the gang vocals working their way through a chorus which proffers the almost mafia-like importance of the kind of concepts that hardcore bands revisit repeatedly “The Blood / The Honor / The Truth” succeeds in making ‘Anthem’ one of the stand-out tracks of Liberty & Justice For…, not to mention one that cries out to be experienced in the sweaty, and possibly homoerotic, confines of a small club, with stage-divers flinging themselves from the monitors with limited regard for themselves and less for others, with older gig-goers strategically placing themselves just close enough to the surging throng to absorb the atmosphere, while at the same time minimising the considerable risk of injury.

Liberty & Justice For… loses some momentum in the middle section of the album – ‘Another Side’ grinds away rather ineffectually, and although ‘Happened Yesterday’ is an enjoyable throwback to the snotty crossover of Cause For Alarm, it fails to linger long in the memory. Thankfully, the same cannot be said for the excellent trio of tracks that follow, and which ensure that things end on a high, even if final track ‘Censored’ doesn’t quite reach the same heights. ‘Lost’ revisits the kind of downbeat hardcore that the previous album utilised more often, recalling the hopeless despair of Discharge for the only time here, and intriguingly intimating the existence of some internal conflict with respect to the unstinting tales of violence and aggression that the band generally peddle with the line “Man finds himself trapped in aggression” which sits among a set of unusually tree-hugging lyrics that pre-figure the Buddhist hardcore of Shelter by a good few years. ‘Hypocrisy’ is even better, eschewing metal altogether for bright and sparky punk rock, complete with a cathartic singalong chorus that effortlessly raises both fists and smiles. The aforementioned Iron Cross cover ‘Crucified’ is similarly melodic, and the ease with which Agnostic Front slip from metal-thrashing mad into punk rock mode and back is hugely impressive, and a great demonstration of the way in which they are able to straddle underground genres with such authority.

This album is less obviously thrilling than Cause For Alarm, and arguably less important to the development of underground music as a whole. What it does represent, however, is Agnostic Front solidifying the sound of modern hardcore, exhibiting all of the traits that are now so familiar, so well-worn, by the legions of bands that Agnostic Front and their peers inspired. A hardcore checklist including tough guy vocals, singalong choruses augmented with gang chants, weighty mid-tempo leaden (and sometimes lumpen) riffs, would find all boxes ticked in short order during any play through of Liberty & Justice For…, although it is considerably more enjoyable and less generic than that makes it sound. Song for song, with the peaks a little bit higher, it is in fact marginally the superior album, and yet another landmark moment in the development of the hardcore movement.

Score: 78%

Agnostic Front – Cause For Alarm

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – Cause For Alarm
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: Cause For Alarm
  • Year of Release: 1986
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Century Media
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 9962242

Cause For Alarm is the second full-length from New York hardcore pioneers, Agnostic Front. Although it has to be said that full-length does not quite mean the same to Agnostic Front as it might do to Iron Maiden, or Tool. The band’s first album, Victim In Pain, ripped through 11 songs in a shade over 15 minutes, and although Cause For Alarm is positively epic by comparison, it still clocks in at a Reign In Blood-beating 24 minutes. Of course, brevity is not an issue here. Short and to the point is absolutely the intention for the kind of raucous crossover thrash peddled by Agnostic Front, and what Cause For Alarm lacks in sophistication and variation, it more than makes up for in its fevered energy and totally authentic delivery. More than that, along with its predecessor, and similar albums issued by their contemporaries and fellow New Yorkers Cro-Mags, Crumbsuckers and Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front were helping to create a genre that endures to this day, and could even, in its boundary-smashing integration of punk rock with embryonic thrash metal, be said to have contributed to the later success of metalcore (in both its pre- and post-2000 senses), and even deathcore.

The musical content of Cause For Alarm is far from poor, but it’s primary value is to be found in its historical significance, having been released at a time when punk and heavy metal were both musically and socially more insular music scenes, an insularity that was occasionally transformed into outright animosity and even violence. That said, it’s important not to overplay this antipathy. The (at the time) underground metal scene of the 1980s made no secret of their love of punk, with Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth all releasing a number of covers of classic punk and hardcore tracks, and even early black metal progenitors Bathory were heavily inspired by the harder-edged sounds of GBH and The Exploited. In addition, Motörhead were of course the band that united punks and headbangers alike, with their super-charged version of rock ‘n’ roll, even if Lemmy frequently, and unsuccessfully, attempted to distance himself from the metal scene that he claimed to disdain. Still, although there was a certain amount of musical interdependence between apparently opposing musical movements, Agnostic Front were undoubtedly a prime mover in knitting together the loose strands of thrash metal and punk rock in a way that gave almost equal weight to both genres, and at the same time created something distinct from either. Cause For Alarm is consequently one of the earliest examples of the New York hardcore sound, a sound that may have been initially confined to a relatively small geographical area, exemplified by the likes of Warzone, Leeway and Sheer Terror, but eventually exploded in popularity thanks to the international success of Sick Of It All, Biohazard and Madball. Decades later, New York hardcore is essentially the recognised sound of hardcore globally, with thriving scenes in London, Belgium and Germany all adopting the aesthetic signifiers of the New York scene as their own, alongside the obvious musical similarities.

It is important to understand the context in which Cause For Alarm was released, as well as its enduring impact. This is because evaluated purely on musical merit, although more than competent, it is difficult to sustain the argument that as the thrash album that it often resembles, it can compete with the more sophisticated and grandiose classics that were released around the same time. Master Of Puppets, Reign In Blood and Darkness Descends were all released in 1986, and all are superior thrash albums. However, none of them combined the low-E chugging and double-bass drum battery of metal with the speedy major key chord sequences and vocal patterns of punk rock as Agnostic Front did, to create a brand new sub-genre, and it is for this reason that Cause For Alarm should be considered a landmark release.

Opening track, ‘The Eliminator’ very much sets the tone for the rest of the album – it’s safe to say that if your interest is not piqued by the brutish punk-thrash of this raging beast, which sounds not unlike Exodus and Minor Threat falling down a staircase together, Agnostic Front are probably not for you. This album is not a journey through changing moods and diverse textures, it is a one-paced howl of rage at society, and that pace is rarely anything lower than extreme velocity. Presumably as a consequence of their twin influences of punk and thrash, the Agnostic Front sound is highly rhythmic, and linear in its riff structures. This is not to say that there is no variation at all – ‘The Eliminator’ contrasts a pounding d-beat snare tracking the verse riff, with a short twin-guitar breakdown which sees Louie Beatto’s drums switch to a more metallic double-bass attack – but across the album as a whole, very similar-sounding riffs crop up repeatedly, and the album’s run-time works in its favour here. It is probably the most significant factor holding this album back from elevation to classic thrash status. Lacking the ability and melodic ingenuity to turn their palpable energy into the kind of unmistakeable and eternally memorable riffs that pepper the early works of Slayer, Metallica and even the slightly less-heralded likes of Testament and Dark Angel, Agnostic Front have to rely on Cause For Alarm succeeding primarily on the emotions it evokes at the time of listening, as opposed to song-writing skill. That it mostly does indeed succeed as a truly visceral experience is down to the authentic intensity that they are able to summon without apparent difficulty.

The songs that leave the biggest impression are those in which Roger Miret’s vocals, a little buried in the mix compared to their later albums, are able to generate the hook that is generally not found in the guitars. The unusual phrasing of the rapid-fire ‘Time Will Come’, which operates as a counterpoint to the simplistic Misfits-style thrashing of the rest of the band, ensures that this track stands tall as a highlight of the album, as do the menacing gang vocals of the excellent ‘Growing Concern’. The latter is something of an outlier; bearing a distinct lack of metal influence, and instead recalling the skate-punk of early Descendents, combined in the chorus with the kind of one-string descending riff that Greg Ginn frequently utilised throughout the middle part of Black Flag’s career, before he decided that utilising any notes at all was passé, and progressed to composing albums made entirely from differing tones of feedback. Similarly good are the anthemic ‘Your Mistake’, (covering this was apparently a contractual obligation for any band signed to Roadrunner Records in the 1990s) making its second recorded appearance on an Agnostic Front album, and the thrilling ‘Bomber Zee’, which recalls Discharge, with its relentless sheet-metal guitars. Discharge, in fact, are an interesting point of comparison for Agnostic Front. A UK band also inspired by punk, they combined an admittedly more primitive version of hardcore with a progressively more metallic bent, and in so doing, were a major influence on the putative thrash scene of the early 1980s, the same thrash scene which saw its chugging riffs coalesce with punk rock on this Agnostic Front record.

Of course, one of the major differences between the two bands is their political outlook. Where Discharge were unapologetic anarcho-punks, Agnostic Front (somewhat counter-intuitively) embraced a more conservative viewpoint. Cause For Alarm contains probably the most unpleasant lyrical example of this – ‘boasting’ such lines as ‘How come it’s minorities who cry / Things are too tough / On TV with their gold chains / Claim they don’t have enough / I say make them clean the sewers / Don’t take no resistance / If they don’t like it go to hell / And cut their public assistance’. Agnostic Front did not actually write these words themselves – the late Peter Steele from Type O Negative (Carnivore at the time), is unfortunately the responsible party – but they had no qualms about including it on the album, and as such they deserve the criticism that they have correctly received for the racist stereotyping and generalisation embodied by the awful lyrics. The most charitable interpretation of this song is that it represents the misplaced ire of uninformed young men, angry at society, and looking for someone to blame for their own benighted lives. That may be the case, but it is nonetheless a stain on the band’s reputation, and a long way from the kind of ‘community’ that hardcore sometimes hypocritically likes to claim it offers its adherents.

The violent, but raucously enjoyable blast of ‘Shoot His Load’ immediately follows, and closes the album in fine style, and at just the right time. Much longer, and the undoubted homogeneity of the chugging riffs would erode their effectiveness fairly quickly, and the huge impact of Cause For Alarm would dissipate. And, once more, it is worth restating that the impact of this album was and is huge. Agnostic Front successfully transferred the sound of the New York streets firstly to wax, and then took that sound to the world. Most of the characteristics of the modern sound of hardcore can be located somewhere on the record, from the dizzying speed of the high-octane punk-rock chord sequences, to the chugging thrash riffs, to the dragging breakdowns, all topped with violent lyrics and chanted gang vocals designed both to ensure that the odd memorable phrase is turned into a hook-laden chorus, and also to provide obvious opportunities for crowd participation at the legendarily chaotic live shows that have always been a huge part of hardcore culture. The songs themselves are good; frenetic slices of pure anger, albeit in a way that sounds less intimidating in the 21st century, when bands such as Converge have taken the hardcore template and twisted it into ever more horrifying shapes. But these songs, together with the knowledge that not only were Agnostic Front one of a small group of innovators, but that they laid the groundwork for any number of bands that came after them, means that it deserves a level of respect that outweighs the music alone.

Score: 77%

Abdullah / Dragonauta – Abdullah / Dragonauta

Author: Brendan Blake

Abdullah / Dragonauta – Abdullah / Dragonauta
  • Artist: Abdullah / Dragonauta
  • Album: Abdullah / Dragonauta
  • Year of Release: 2005
  • Country: USA / Argentina
  • Label: Dias de Garage
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CD 006

Inconsequential, but diverting.

Split releases continue to be a thing to this day, and can serve as a taster to encourage punters to acquire bands’ wider discographies, but rarely allow the artists to spread their wings and demonstrate what they are capable of in a way that a full-length can. At worst, they can dilute the impact of one or both bands, leading to these releases being consigned to dusty shelves to ultimately be forgotten. That is pretty much the case with this release, but that is not to say there isn’t anything worth paying attention to.

Abdullah occupy the first half of the disc and build on the strengths of their previous albums. ‘Seven Doors’ is a strong opener, recalling prior efforts with its commercial stoner riffing and well-polished vocals suggesting that this is a band that could have been bigger than they ultimately were. ‘Killing For Culture’ in particular stands out for its outstanding punky upbeat nature, and is unmistakably sipping from the well of Danzig in the chorus.

All tracks were recorded at various times throughout 2004 at Forked Tongue, aside from the finale ‘With Guilt’, recorded during 2003 at Mushroomhead’s Jam Room by Pat Lewis. This latter track is arguably the most commercial they recorded, recalling the 70s greats to which they clearly aspire, before the closing feedback drone that others have made an artform out of.

Dragonauta are a completely unknown quantity to me, and an interesting change of mood. They remind me of a slightly leery pub rock band, clearly in love with the 70s (Sabbath abounds here). I really quite like this, but it is hard not to come to the conclusion it is hugely derivative – listening to it, I’m playing spot the riff, picking up Sabbath, Motorhead, Hawkwind, and various NWOBHM bands. There is a direct Slayer lift on their second track ‘Revolución Luciferiana’. ‘Letargo Espiritual’ is probably the best thing on this album, starting as pure blues, before becoming more akin to the kind of thing you might expect from Orange Goblin (if they were fronted by a particularly raspy Spanish version of Lemmy). Production at this point is excellent, with the bass deservedly well up in the mix.

The final two tracks of the release are live Dragonauta efforts, and sadly the recording quality is pretty thin, which makes the overall recording quite uneven (in fact, I’m left wondering why they were included in the first place to be honest). It does not mean the songs themselves are terrible, and the contrast between the slick Abdullah numbers and the more ‘in your face’ Dragonauta material makes for a refreshing contrast.

By no means essential to, well, anyone really – unless you happen to be a diehard fan of either band, but a perfectly passable way to spend an afternoon.

Score: 58%

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%

Aerosmith – Rocks

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Rocks
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Rocks
  • Year of Release: 1976
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 474965 2

Aerosmith Rocks. That, clearly, could be the review, and it would arguably be no worse than the several hundred words that it will take me to reach essentially the same conclusion. Maintaining the impressive, and by this point chemically-assisted, productivity that had seen the band release three albums in as many years, Rocks was released just over 12 months on from the splendid Toys In The Attic. This time round though, and for the first time in their career, Aerosmith were releasing an album which came with a certain level of anticipation and expectation. Buoyed by the success of the classic singles ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Sweet Emotion’, that album had sold well in the US in particular, and the band’s heavy touring had seen them amass a loyal fanbase, hungry for the next chapter in the Aerosmith story. Although in many ways, quite a different record from Toys…, it is to the band’s immense credit that it is equally impressive, and stands tall today as one of the highlights of their extensive back catalogue, both continuing to find new variations on their signature raucous rock ‘n’ roll sound, but also successfully expanding and developing their sound, with some of their most overtly funky and heaviest material to date.

Over the previous albums, Aerosmith have built a tradition of opening their records with a barnstorming rocker, and ‘Back In The Saddle’ is no exception, taking the template established by ‘Make It’, ‘Same Old Song And Dance’, and ‘Toys In The Attic’, and somehow improving on all of them. Moreover though, as the haunting, fragmented intro explodes into life with one of Joe Perry’s most colossal riffs, it is clear that something has changed at the heart of the Aerosmith psyche. Where Toys In The Attic was blissful in its uncomplicated and impudent hedonism, Rocks (a triple-entendre of a title?) reveals the dark side of the band’s indulgences. It’s as if the band skipped merrily down the technicolour yellow brick road to Oz, only to cross the threshold and find themselves in the New York City of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The whole album is suffused with existential dread, a cluttered and oppressive production, and frequently bizarre guitar tones projecting a constant, creeping anxiety. Contrast one of the many available live versions of ‘Back In The Saddle’ with the murky, percussive thump of the album version, and one can envisage how thick and bright it might’ve sounded had the band not chosen to cloak Rocks in a drug-addled haze. Thankfully, the band were presumably too far gone to question such odd sonic choices though; as repeated listens allow the layers of Rocks to reveal themselves, the air of menace sets this album apart from the rest of the Aerosmith discography, adding a certain mystery that continues to intrigue decades later.

As the album progresses, the band pleasingly combine the familiar sounds that they were primarily known for with a subtle exploration of new sounds and tones. For every ‘Sick As A Dog’ or ‘Rats In The Cellar’ (a tip of the hat to ‘Toys In The Attic), the kind of ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll shitkickers that lesser bands would’ve based entire careers around, there’s a ‘Last Child’, or ‘Nobody’s Fault’. The former is deliciously funky, built on a deliberately dragging tempo and riff that is more than reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’, flowing into a more psychedelic chorus which twins angelic harmonies with a gloriously fluid and prominent bassline, before a brief burst of Allman Brothers-style twin guitar introduces a heavy riffing conclusion to an enormously satisfying track. Picking up where ‘Round And Round’ on the previous album left off, the latter is thunderously heavy, with fuzzed out, chugging guitars providing a base for an outrageous, shrieking vocal from Tyler, rightly observing that “Everything’s on fire”! Providing a lesson in heavy metal song structure for that embryonic scene, the way in which the overwhelmingly full sound of the verses gives way to the sparse, staccato guitar runs of the chorus, allowing the rhythm section to bleed through the noise, is absolutely thrilling, and the band reach a feverish level of intensity here that they have rarely, if ever, matched since.

And it’s not just the youthful metal bands that would flourish in the 1980s that the band inspired, but also the alternative rockers of the 90s, who would ultimately become their peers commercially. Despite Kurt Cobain’s public avowal of his love for Aerosmith, the musical influence on Nirvana and grunge more generally isn’t frequently apparent. ‘Nobody’s Fault’ is an exception though, its ragged metal assault providing an audible connection between 70s hard rock and the early works of Nirvana, Soundgarden and many other bands of that era. It wasn’t just the younger residents of Seattle making furious notes while spinning Rocks either. Although neither Joe Perry nor Brad Whitford can match the virtuosic guitar pyrotechnics of a certain Netherlands-born guitarist, everything else about ‘Combination’ pre-figures the sound of early Van Halen, most clearly in the deft harmonies of the chorus, which sees a melody constructed primarily from multi-part harmonies shifting around Tyler’s largely static lead vocal, a neat trick repurposed extensively by David Lee Roth and the brothers Van Halen on their own debut a few years later.

If there is any criticism to be levelled at the mostly superior Rocks, it’s that it runs out of steam a little across the final third of its run-time, and also continues to recycle the formula of placing an unpleasantly saccharine, string-laden ballad at the end of album, frittering away a small portion of the splendour that the rest of the album has so diligently created across the first 6 virtually flawless tracks. Only Tyler’s magisterial vocal comes anywhere close to saving the sub-Queen pomp of the horrible ‘Home Tonight’, wistful longing dripping from a voice that may not be technically perfect, but has soul in abundance to scythe like a speeding motorcycle through the middle of the road fare that threatens to suffocate an undeniably brilliant performance.

In the final analysis, it’s difficult to separate Rocks from Toys In The Attic, the twin classics of 1970s Aerosmith. The best songs on the latter are pure hard rock perfection, and the carefree, open sound perfectly captures a young, hungry band on the way up. Rocks though, with layers of guitars and percussion coming at the listener from all directions, combined with lyrics shot through with real-world unease as the American dream threatens to turn into a nightmare, is arguably the more interesting record, and therefore just shades its predecessor. Rocks sees Aerosmith at their most hard-edged, attacking their instruments with blistering intent, vindictively dismissing the critics that suggested they were little more than talented mimics, imitating the Stones and Led Zeppelin. Rocks is the ultimate riposte to such accusations, as the band deliver something subtly different from simply a synthesis of their influences, offering a truly great album that fascinates as much as it ever did. Aerosmith Rocks.

Score: 89%

Abdullah – Snake Lore

Author: Brendan Blake

Abdullah – Snake Lore
  • Artist: Abdullah
  • Album: Snake Lore
  • Year of Release: 1999
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Rage Of Achilles
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: ILIAD002

Taking a bit of break from the Abigor back catalogue and reaching backwards alphabetically to the debut EP from US band Abdullah…a band recommended to me by David Tyler (someone whose opinion is not to be taken lightly), Abdullah’s first is fine but little to write home about. Touted as an EP, this may as well be regarded as an album at face value. The packaging is certainly well put together, but belies the problem with much mid-90s/20s stoner/doom metal. I envisage seeing Abdullah at my old stomping ground of The Greyhound in Beeston, Nottingham or even The Portland Arms in Cambridge, and thinking this was an up-and-coming band, harking back to past masters like Black Sabbath (obviously), Candlemass (later-period), Solitude Aeturnus (again, obviously), but not really bringing anything new to the table. I get a significant whiff of Acid Bath as well, but you’d be better just buying their albums instead (although that is basically something that everyone with any interest in intelligent heavy metal should do anyway).

I would totally spend some time sitting and listening to this in the correct venue, but ultimately this is ultra-generic. Perfectly well played and performed but offering little substance or sticking power. Fans of the aforementioned doom impresarios will find much to love here, and the band would achieve greater heights latterly, but this is at best a footnote in a well-trodden furrow of stoner metal. Buy their debut instead.

Score: 50%

Abaddon – I Am Legion

Author: Brendan Blake

Abaddon – I Am Legion
  • Artist: Abaddon
  • Album: I Am Legion
  • Year of Release: 2000
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Snapper Music
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: SMACD 822

Note – Originally written some years ago, but edited to fit blog format

As I’m sure anyone reading this will know, Tony ‘Abaddon’ Bray was the original drummer with Geordie legends Venom, one of the progenitors of the entire black metal genre in the early 80s. All three of the classic line-up have had a bash at solo records over the years, including Mantas’ rather limp soft rock album Winds Of Change, and Cronos’ solid if uninspired trad metal records in the mid-90s. It took Abaddon until 2000 to get round to releasing his own effort, I Am Legion. And it is fucking horrible.

I should start by saying that I have no objection to musicians moving on, trying new things, experimenting. But if you are going to do that, please try and make sure it’s good. I Am Legion is a vile mixture of incredibly simplistic groove metal riffing, with a few effects and electronic touches so he can try and claim that his new direction is ‘industrial’ and ‘cutting edge’.

It actually quite upset me to have to go back and listen to this again in order to review it. I’m trying to think of nice things to say about it but I’m struggling… the production is probably supposed to be raw and in-your-face, but the vocals are buried in the mix and the guitar is crushed under so many effects that virtually all melody is lost. The drumming, simplistic even by Venom standards, sounds lacklustre and bored. The lyrics are juvenile at best, with opener ‘White Nigger Trash’ setting the stall out – trying to come across as edgy by using pointlessly offensive language. I’m not being prudish here, but there’s nothing shocking here, just an old man out of touch with the world, trying to sound like he has a political point to make; in reality this sounded dated in 2000, and listening at the back end of 2019 it sounds somehow even more woeful.

To add insult to injury, the track ‘Hollow Voices’ is simply a re-working of ‘Domus Mundi’ from the rather fine Venom album Cast In Stone, and ‘Holy Man’ is a re-working of an obscure Venom track of the same name that they recorded for their own tribute album(!). This leaves us with five other mediocre tracks and a closing instrumental.

As a die-hard and long-term Venom fanatic, it pains me to say this, but this is one of the worst albums I have the misfortune to have been suckered into buying. Pitiful. Don’t make the same mistake I did, and avoid this like the plague.

Score: 14% (it’s Christmas and I’m feeling generous)