Alcest – Kodama

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Kodama
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Kodama
  • Year of Release: 2016
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO 190

The obvious compromise that was Alcest’s fourth album, the mostly disappointing and rather lacklustre Shelter, betrayed a lack of conviction and confidence in the decision to take something of a sideways step in terms of both the band’s sound and aesthetic. The result was an album that, like a soporific drunk after one Scotch too many, fell awkwardly between two stools, on the one hand showcasing some of the band’s most lightweight and indie-leaning material, and on the other, quickly retreating to something approaching Neige’s comfort zone of swirling, alternative rock-influenced shoegaze. It is no surprise, therefore, to see the band immediately retrench to what they know best on the follow-up to Shelter, 2016’s Kodama. As ever with Alcest, significant attention is given not just to the musical content of the album, but also the way in which it is delivered and presented. As a chef understands that the taste of a dish can be altered in the perception of the diner by the way in which it is arranged on the plate, and indeed the colour and even texture of the plate itself, Neige intuitively recognises that an album’s packaging can be an important part of building the band’s all-important atmosphere. Kodama, therefore, is suitably adorned in a stunning Japanese-themed sleeve, which is both supremely evocative and perfectly matched with this particular iteration of the Alcest sonics. The Japanese influence here is more than just a fetishistic affectation too. Kodama is heavily influenced by Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and one can understand why Neige is so enamoured with a film that is centred around an enchanted forest, populated by anthropomorphised animals and elemental spirits. In the film, the Kodama are playful forest sprites who share an intimate connection with the gods that are responsible for ensuring that humanity achieve the mutually beneficial equilibrium with the natural world needed to sustain and enhance life. Clearly, Neige identifies some kind of kindred spirit in the Kodama, and the unifying force that this brings to the album is very welcome after the slightly scattershot Shelter.

At the risk of overstating the influence of Princess Mononoke on Kodama, as the title track introduces what is ultimately a relatively short album (something that it shares with the band’s first two efforts), the Alcest sound seems to have taken on some of the darkness of the film that so inspired them. Leaving Shelter as very much the outlier of their discography, the blackgaze atmospheres of the earlier career return, but where previously the dreamy soundscapes seemed to be imbued by an innocent euphoria, Kodama is the more morose and downbeat counterpoint to this. It is apparent now that the first three albums were an effort to recapture the ineffable essence of the journeys to the enchanted land that Neige claims to have visited during his childhood, and to re-construct that world as it was, perhaps to grasp and pull it into this realm. A decade later, however, while Neige seems as eager as ever to musically recreate the land that he is personally so nostalgic for, his songs now betray a certain futility in his chosen mission, an awareness that not only will others never see the universe in the same way in which he does, but also that for all of his efforts, the listener can only ever experience Neige’s world at one step removed, on some level aware of the artifice. And more than that, the air of despair and even despondency that inhabits the entire album seems to speak to a growing suspicion that continuing exposure to this dimension can only serve to weaken the connection to this magical world that has been so all-encompassing.

While the downbeat nature of the record is not without its drawbacks, and indeed over the course of just six songs, it does feel rather suffocating, it does add an intriguing new perspective on a now-familiar sound. Arguably that new perspective is simply the sound of Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde filtered through The Cure’s Disintegration, but at the very least, it is pleasing not to be confronted with a exact facsimile of their earlier work. Although it is frequently the more obviously mainstream album that attracts tedious ‘sell-out’ accusations (for Alcest that album is clearly Shelter, but we could of course be describing Metallica’s self-titled Black Album, Judas Priest’s Turbo, or even Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake), I would contend that in fact the listener’s ire may sometimes be better directed at the follow-up (immediate or later, depending on the duration of this period in a band’s career) to such albums, where a suitably chastened band retreats with tails firmly between legs, only to be warmly welcomed back into the metal scene like so many victorious soldiers returning from war. Metallica’s Death Magnetic for example, is a perfectly serviceable metal album, even if it is obviously devoid of the kind of magic that they conjured so easily in the mid-1980s, but in comparison to Load, Reload, or even St Anger, it was surely an easy album for the band to release, safe in the knowledge that the merest hint of a more treble-heavy guitar tone and some thrashing tempos would see fans in their droves acclaim the band’s return to heavy metal, their wanderings concluded. It should also be noted that Alcest were hardly the first metal band to so audibly incorporate The Cure’s influence into metal – despite that band historically finding greater kinship across the indie and goth scenes, the darkness that has always been a key component of their frequently haunting dreamscapes and misery-laden lyrics means that they have been comfortable bedfellows for bands across the metal spectrum, with Carpathian Forest’s version of ‘A Forest’ perhaps the most thrilling example of numerous metallic covers of their songs.

Although Alcest don’t actually cover The Cure, almost every track contains a variation on the kind of Eastern-sounding, delay-laden staccato guitar lines that feature most prominently in Disintegration‘s ‘Lullaby’, and the timbre and tonality is so similar that at various points during Kodama, it is difficult not to find one’s mind completing melodic phrases with sections of that track, so strong is the resemblance. This is not to say that Alcest’s re-configuring of this particular sound is not used to great effect though, and the title-track is perhaps the best example. Following a familiar song structure for Alcest, the song moves through a couple of verses and choruses, distinguished mainly by the menacing clipped bassline that dominates the former, while a tranquil chorus neatly resolves the unsettling feel of that which precedes it. The latter half of the song then transitions into a lengthy instrumental section, in which glorious, but unusually stark, guitar figures construct an atmosphere of fierce yearning in the absence of the layers of synths that usually characterise the band’s arrangements. The mellifluous woodwind that adds texture and mystery to the track is yet another nod to Princess Mononoke, giving ‘Kodama’ the air of an alternative soundtrack to the film, something that continues throughout the rest of the album.

‘Kodama’ is an enthralling start, but the album reaches its apex at the halfway point with the stately brilliance of ‘Je Suis D’Ailleurs’. The chord progression is in the Alcest sweet spot of being both vaguely recognisable, but just different enough to stand alone, and the sweeping melodicism contributed by the use of Neige’s higher register in the vocals is wonderful to behold, and possibly marks the only point during the album in which the listener is truly swept away from the quotidian in the way that they might have been continuously by ‘Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde, or ‘Les Voyages De L’Âme‘. Where ‘Kodama’ deployed a skeletal fragility though, ‘Je Suis D’Ailleurs’ reaches heights of both aggression and grandiosity that the listener may have feared were a thing of the past for Alcest. Initially strongly redolent of Agalloch playing the kind of Cascadian black metal that has been such a popular strain of that particular sub-genre during the last fifteen years, the track ultimately erupts into an utterly majestic and windswept blast, carrying the song forward on waves of tremolo riffing and long-form lead guitar melodies, while continuing to incorporate scales and intervals that tie the track back into the overarching Japanese aesthetic, all of which makes for an absolutely breathless and memorable pinnacle for Kodama as a whole.

Frustratingly though, these heights are so vertiginous because of the fact that they rise to such prominence relative to their surroundings, not unlike Mount Fuji dominating the horizon, overshadowing the Aokigahara Forest which surrounds it. The biggest issue with Kodama is that it is formulaic. Each track follows a similar structure. A downbeat, but still dreamy chord progression lopes its way through verses and choruses, before giving way to several minutes of gradually unfolding instrumental interplay, and the melodies and instrumentation is very similar from track to track. A charitable interpretation of the somewhat repetitive nature of the album would be to suggest that it enhances the way in which Kodama could be seen as an unofficial soundtrack to Princess Mononoke, a companion to the film, in which individual songs are less important than the overall impact of the music, and the way in which it represents the animated images. Seen in this light, with some of the musical motifs of the soundtrack finding their way into the album, Kodama does a credible job of bringing the work that inspired it to life. But purely as a metal album, divorced from a context that many listeners will be unaware of at best, and uninterested in at worst, even across the relatively short running time, there are sections of Kodama which are fundamentally turgid and unmemorable. The vocals bear a considerable amount of the responsibility for this. Alcest’s best songs have always been led by the guitars and (to a lesser degree) the synths, but strong vocal hooks are what elevate them above the ordinary, the counterpoint and complexity of additional harmonic interplay compelling the interest of the listener, as well as providing the unexpected moments of delight that attest to Neige’s mercurial brilliance. These moments of delight do still arise during Kodama – the controlled delicacy of parts of ‘Untouched’ that sound almost as if they have been played by the feathers and bones of dead birds, taking on some of their former beauty; and the final two minutes of ‘Oiseaux De Proie’, a post-apocalyptic minor chord jangle-blast that is utterly magnificent, and would act as a far more suitable conclusion to Kodama than the ambient experiments and backwards masking of ‘Onyx’ which instead closes out an enigma of an album.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that with the band’s indie itch well and truly scratched, Alcest’s return to the sound that suits them so well would be be an unmitigated triumph. It is not, but it is no failure either. Unlike its predecessor, it is a cohesive album, and inarguably delivers Neige’s vision for a Japanese-inflected iteration of their blackgaze sound. There is much to enjoy in the fact that this vision is rendered in starker, more monochrome tones, and it is fascinating to hear Alcest try and deliver the same escapist outcome as they have previously, but via an alternative route. These attempts are not always successful, but they are successful enough that we do not need to write all of Kodama off as a failed experiment, and quite possibly the embryo of future triumphs has been planted in some of the more enjoyable parts of an album that is at times enthralling, even while it verges on tedium at points. One hopes that this is indeed the case. It is, however, difficult to escape the conclusion that Alcest’s most exciting era may already be in the past though, and as such, although Kodama sees an improvement in the calibre of the band’s releases relative to the previous record, it is an improvement that cowers in the looming shadow of their best work.

Score: 63%

Aerosmith Primer – Under-appreciated & Overlooked

Author: BD Joyce

Following the Hits Primer that virtually chose itself, a playlist of deeper Aerosmith cuts is a considerably more interesting selection of songs, purely because of the joy to be had in the novelty of hearing something a little different to their many staples of FM radio. That said, a necessary dose of realism reminds us that, at times, it is lacking a little in quality. Unlike some bands of a similar stature, where there is frequently as much joy to be had in exploring the furthest reaches of their discography as there is in hearing their most well-known tracks one more time, the Venn diagram of Aerosmith’s best and most popular songs are two heavily overlapping circles. Still, pleasingly, there are some gems to be found among the album tracks of their better releases, alongside a few intriguing experiments, most of which can be found in the playlist below.

SongAlbumYear
Make ItAerosmith1973
Lord Of The ThighsGet Your Wings1974
Toys In The AtticToys In The Attic1975
Round And RoundToys In The Attic1975
Last ChildRocks1976
Nobody’s FaultRocks1976
Get It UpDraw The Line1977
Bright Light FrightDraw The Line1977
ChiquitaNight In The Ruts1979
Three Mile SmileNight In The Ruts1979
Joanie’s ButterflyRock In A Hard Place1982
Heart’s Done TimePermanent Vacation1987
Young LustPump1989
The Other SidePump1989
Eat The RichGet A Grip1993
Hole In My SoulNine Lives1997
Full CircleNine Live1997
Under My SkinJust Push Play2001
Never Loved A GirlHonkin’ On Bobo2004
Out Go The LightsMusic From Another Dimension!2012

Knock yourself out on Spotify right here:

Aerosmith Primer – The Hits

Author: BD Joyce

An Aerosmith hits primer is aptly named, as they are a band that found and then re-found fame primarily on the back of a series of hit singles, rather than on the strength of consistent albums. Indeed, it is only really during the middle phase of the band’s career that, bolstered by the contributions of external songwriters, they briefly developed the ability to produce a truly coherent album that offered more than the obvious highs of the key singles. Even their twin classics, Toys In The Attic and Rocks, were dominated by the biggest and most successful songs in their canon, and to a degree owe their reputation to the monumental quality of tracks such as ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Sweet Emotion’. And after a brief phase bookended by Permanent Vacation and Nine Lives, it might be argued that Aerosmith ceased even to be a singles band, producing a succession of somewhat dull albums, rarely enlivened by anything approaching a hit, and for this reason they are naturally under-represented on both this playlist, and the Under-appreciated and Overlooked Primer which will follow.

SongAlbumYear
Dream OnAerosmith1973
Mama KinAerosmith1973
Train Kept A Rollin’Get Your Wings1974
Seasons Of WitherGet Your Wings1974
Walk This WayToys In The Attic1975
Sweet EmotionToys In The Attic1975
Back In The SaddleRocks1976
Draw The LineDraw The Line1977
Let The Music Do The TalkingDone With Mirrors1985
Rag DollPermanent Vacation1987
Dude (Looks Like A Lady)Permanent Vacation1987
AngelPermanent Vacation1987
Love In An ElevatorPump1989
Janie’s Got A GunPump1989
Cryin’Get A Grip1993
CrazyGet A Grip1993
AmazingGet A Grip1993
Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees)Nine Lives1997
PinkNine Lives1997
JadedJust Push Play2001

The Spotify link for the playlist can be found here:

Afghan Whigs – Congregation

Author: BD Joyce

Afghan Whigs – Congregation
  • Artist: Afghan Whigs
  • Album: Congregation
  • Year of Release: 1992
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Sub Pop
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: SPCD 130 / 98787-0130-2

Congregation is Afghan Whigs’ third album, and their second on the pre-eminent label of grunge, Sub Pop. Despite being in the right place at the right time though, and despite the album itself receiving considerable acclaim on release from a broad range of publications, it failed to catapult the band to the kind of gigantic success enjoyed and endured by some of their contemporaries. In 2020, it is largely a footnote in the history of that particular era of rock ‘n’ roll, even if lead Whig Greg Dulli went on to enjoy a certain amount of low-key success after the band split, temporarily as it transpired, in 2001. This came firstly with the critically-adored Twilight Singers, and then also as half of The Gutter Twins with kindred spirit Mark Lanegan, whose career has followed a similarly circuitous route to its current esteem. Although their music shares many of the traits of their more popular contemporaries, the fact that Afghan Whigs failed to so much as hitch a ride on the coattails of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney in the early 90s is fairly easy to understand. Congregation is simply too scrappy and difficult, striking out in numerous directions and containing plenty of moments of inspiration, but lacking either the pure thrill of the white-hot punk rock riffage employed by the bands at the heavier end of the grunge spectrum, or the broad melodic appeal of Pearl Jam or Pixies, the record found no natural audience, and as such Afghan Whigs were ever-destined to exist as the outsider’s outsiders.

A low-key intro sets the tone for the rest of the album, a sparse drum beat emerging from the silence quickly joined by a crash of brittle, discordant guitars, and the haunting voice of Miss Ruby Belle intoning the menacing lyrics “Eat my imagination / Taste my imaginary friend / I know your ass is fine / But I’m the only one who can say… / That it’s mine”. Belle is reputedly personifying the opiate pull of heroin, and Dulli’s dark, fascinating and even confrontational lyrics are one of the most intriguing elements of Congregation as he explores the darker sides human intimacy in a way that sets the Afghan Whigs apart from some of their more quotidian peers. The brief ‘Her Against Me’ segues directly into the thematically similar ‘I’m Her Slave’ which casts off any ambiguity, making very clear that the ‘Her’ of the title is most certainly not a lady that one should involve oneself with, and perhaps one that Dulli can never untangle himself from: “Get off that stuff, she said / And I’ll stone you instead / Unchain yourself said she / And tie yourself to me”. It’s unclear to what extent Dulli is performing a role here in terms of the sometimes dissolute characters that he inhabits across the album, but there is a gritty authenticity to his delivery that suggests that Dulli is writing from at least a modicum of experience. If ‘Her Against Me’ prepared the listender for an album of gothic folk, in the vein of Chelsea Wolfe, this notion is quickly disabused by the ultra-90s sounds of the first track proper. A scratchy, swirling guitar figure combined with a tom-heavy tribal drum feel makes for a percussive verse, leavened by a tender chorus, and the obvious touchpoints are Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, and any number of early 1990s bands rushing into the open space in the mainstream cleared by the the incipient alternative rock revolution led by Nirvana, Janes Addiction et al. It’s a curious phenomenon that in a 21st century rock scene that sometimes appears dominated by retrogressive sounds, the kind of noisy, but vaguely tuneful off-kilter rock pedalled by the Afghan Whigs has fallen dramatically out of favour, and as such, Congregation cannot help but sound rather dated, not that this lessens its considerable appeal.

The element of the Afghan Whigs sound which really separates them from the pack is the unusual influence of funk and soul, snatches of which bubble to the surface from time to time. Their love of these forms of music is not an affectation – the band followed up Congregation with Uptown Avondale, a covers EP including versions of Supremes and Al Green tracks among others, as well as incorporating other standards into live sets – but we should also not overstate the presence of these influences in their music either; this is not a Nation Of Ulysses or Minutemen album after all. On Congregation at least, the band’s noisy guitar scree dominates proceedings, but there is a subtle use of clipped funk guitars throughout some of the more interesting tracks, the rhythm guitars channelling Nile Rogers. This serves to highlight the Afghan Whigs ability to assimilate a wider array of sonics than the average grunge band, whose listening habits start at Black Flag and end at Black Sabbath. To be clear, there are worst bands to emulate than Blacks Flag and Sabbath, but it is refreshing to hear a band that is able to deploy a broader modes of expression, as it expands the emotional range of the work. It is no surprise that the songs that in many ways define the album are both the most successful at synthesising the various facets of the band’s sound, and also the most dynamic in terms of volume and melody.

The first track that makes a lasting impression is the splendid ‘Conjure Me’. Once again, a funky guitar line, this time run through a wah-pedal, is practically ever-present, and the guitar lines of Dulli and Rick McCollum dance across each other constantly, tracing deceptively clever patterns, weaving the “web of conspiracy” of which Dulli sings, suggesting one perspective of a tempestuous relationship. For the first time of the album though, ‘Conjure Me’ really takes flight when it reaches the chorus. The way in which Dulli’s wounded wail breaks as he sings in a higher register gives it an especially heart-breaking power, before a more spacious and open bridge section releases the pent up tension of the song, the band collectively releasing a breath that they didn’t know that they were holding. The title-track is even better, the highlight and centrepiece of the album in fact. ‘Congregation’ is an up-tempo driving beast, which gradually escalates to an almost celebratory chorus. Dulli is found here in full preacher mode, standing tall on the dais, hands raised invoking almight power, screaming “I am your creator!” It’s a thrilling moment, and demonstrates just how good a band the Afghan Whigs might become were they able to compile a whole album of songs of this calibre.

Unsurprisingly though, for a band that were clearly still developing their sound, Congregation contains a number of songs that are rather less impactful than the aforementioned highlights. This really starts to show during the mid-section of the album which drags horribly, as similar sounding songs begin to merge together, lacking the kind of memorable hooks or transcendent vocal melodies to distinguish them from one another. ‘This Is My Confession’ is the best track of this part of the record, Dulli’s all too honest lyrics adding an unsettling quality to a sparse musical accompaniment, which pairs intricate folky guitar lines with a more conventional, early REM-style song structure. Lines such as “I’m lyin’ now / I always do / I know my way around the truth” certainly open the band to accusations of misogyny, but I would argue that they are laden with enough self-awareness to suggests the possibility of redemption. ‘Dedicate It’ explores exactly the same sound, which is rather wearying, however, and at this point the listener may feel that they are ingesting a bland meal in which the base ingredients are all present and correct, but the chef is not quite skilled enough to add the right mix of seasoning at the right time to transform the dish into layers of interesting flavours. The slightly incongruous cover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Temple’ from Jesus Christ Superstar actually fares a little better, with the odd 7/4 time signature grabbing the listener’s attention due to it’s off-kilter rhythms, and a superb and wonderfully prominent bassline ensuring that the attention, once grabbed, does not wane.

The album concludes with ‘Miles Iz Ded’, originally a secret track, but thankfully upgraded to official status on the represses of Congregation, and this off-the-cuff tribute to the legendary Miles Davis is a fitting end to the album. In many respects, bearing no resemblance to the jazz man that it pays tribute to, it is the album’s most straightforward and succinct track. Raging crashes of chords provide a visceral and exciting backdrop to Dulli’s melodic yelp, repeating the chorus refrain over and over again – “Don’t forget the alcohol / Ooh baby, ooh baby”. Not quite as sophisticated as the more overtly poetic wordplay that peppers the rest of the album admittedly, but the immediacy of a hook reputedly based on an answerphone message left for Dulli on the night of Davis’s death in 1991 is perfectly suited to the grunge-punk fervour of a track that is every bit the equal of the kind of raw, but melodic, punk that Nirvana, Fugazi and Mudhoney were purveying at the same time. ‘Miles Iz Ded’ is a good argument for intuition over conscious thought when it comes to rocking out, and suggests that perhaps Congregation might have been a better album had the band let rip with a little more freedom a little more often. As it is, Congregation is a more than solid album that is at its best when it fuses discordant rock with infectious melodies, and plays on the band’s ability to infuse their slightly offbeat indie-punk with shards of funk, folk and strafing slashes of noise. There is plenty to enjoy here, but no songs strong enough to really transcend the context of the album in a way that might have given the band the kind of underground hit that could have raised their profile at a time when they were within touching distance of mainstream popularity. Congregation reveals talent and potential in abundance, but not the songwriting nous or focus to fully capitalise on either. As such, it will likely remain a good example of credible 1990s rock, but will also remain undisturbed by adventurous rock fans looking for overlooked albums ripe for rediscovery.

Score: 68%

AC/DC Primer – Underappreciated & Overlooked

Author: BD Joyce

Hot on the heels of the Hits primer comes an arguably more interesting AC/DC playlist, given the ubiquity of some of their biggest songs. Of course, their discography inevitably contains a certain amount of filler, and some of the mid-80s albums are of value primarily to completists or the most dedicated genre obsessives, but beyond their most well-known tracks lies a tier of great songs that are in some cases every bit as good as the hits, and also reveal dimensions of a sound that can be more diverse than they sometimes get credit for.

SongAlbumYear
High VoltageHigh Voltage1976
Let There Be RockLet There Be Rock1977
Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To BeLet There Be Rock1977
Rock ‘N’ Roll DamnationPowerage1978
What’s Next To The MoonPowerage1978
Touch Too MuchHighway To Hell1979
If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)Highway To Hell1979
Let Me Put My Love Into YouBack In Black1980
Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise PollutionBack In Black1980
Inject The VenomFor Those About To Rock We Salute You1981
Evil WalksFor Those About To Rock We Salute You1981
This House Is On FireFlick Of The Switch1983
Nervous ShakedownFlick Of The Switch1983
Ruff StuffBlow Up Your Video1988
Let’s Make ItThe Razors Edge1990
Cover You In OilBallbreaker1995
The FurorBallbreaker1995
Money MadeBlack Ice2008
Miss AdventureRock Or Bust2014
Kick You When You’re DownPWR/UP2020

A Spotify link to this playlist can be found here:

AC/DC – PWR/UP

Author: BD Joyce

AC/DC – PWR/UP
  • Artist: AC/DC
  • Album: PWR/UP
  • Year of Release: 2020
  • Country: Australia
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Digipack CD
  • Catalogue Number: 19439744632

The manifold difficulties experienced by AC/DC during the last decade are enough to fill a badly written unofficial biography, but more importantly, had surely rendered any hope of the band ever releasing a follow-up to 2014’s solid Rock Or Bust redundant. That they have made an album at all is an achievement worthy of acclaim, but to come back in such spectacular style with something as magnificent as PWR/UP is as wonderful as it is surprising. The title, a faintly embarrassing bid for modernity many years after the first bands started utilising textspeak for their own works, is the worst thing about the album, and something that can be quickly forgiven, particularly as it is thankfully no indication that the band’s music has followed a similar path. It’s well-documented that PWR/UP is the first AC/DC album to be made without the reliable presence of Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, following his death in 2017 after an earlier dementia diagnosis, and although the band thankfully avoid any descent into mawkish sentimentality, the album functions as a fitting tribute to Malcolm’s understated genius. And Young is not just there in spirit. He continues to be credited as a songwriter on all AC/DC tracks, and while one imagines that this may be in part a perpetual doff of Angus Young’s schoolboy cap to the incalculable influence of his brother on the band’s sound, Angus has stated that he continues to mine Malcolm’s home recordings for ideas. Although it’s impossible to know which of these ideas made it as far as the final version of PWR/UP, it’s clear that even after his death, Malcolm continues to be a significant part of the band’s present.

For a band that many would (quite fairly) consider to be the epitome of good time rock ‘n’ roll, the soundtrack to alcohol-fuelled revelry and endless nights of loud music and shouted conversations, it’s notable that tragedy and hardship seem to have been the catalyst for some of their very best work. The thematically dark Powerage was made with Bon Scott very much down on his luck and apparently considering it something of a last throw of the dice in terms of his musical career, Back In Black famously appeared only months after the doomed Scott’s death, and PWR/UP fits neatly into this line, sharing many of the same qualities as these other landmark albums. AC/DC seem to be at their best when an almost imperceptible layer of solemnity is injected into their music, with the songs taking on a slight underdog quality, celebrating life, while simultaneously aware of its fragility. PWR/UP exudes this exact feeling, and perhaps also because of the tough time during which it has been released, it seems like the music that we not only want right now, but actually need.

There are a handful of knowing nods to some of their earlier classics on PWR/UP, and the album itself starts with one of them, the backing vocals introducing opener ‘Realize’ reminiscent of a similar line on ‘Thunderstruck’, but the similarity ends there, as an archetypal rugged, but sparse guitar riff, backed by the same steadfast rhythm section that built the indestructible backbone of Back In Black, drops in, and everything feels instantly familiar, including the huge chorus that crowns a superb start to the album. AC/DC have a gift for conjuring songs out of the ether that display such outrageous simplicity that it seems implausible that they don’t already exist, and as such, the speed at which new tracks assimilate themselves into your consciousness is lightning quick. Of course, it would be disingenuous not to note that part of the reason for this is that clearly their music continually reconfigures itself from a relatively small number of components, but of course, if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it. They have been through phases during which contemporary production touches have added layers of extraneous sound, or altered the guitar tones, or the overall final mix, but it’s not unreasonable to state that AC/DC sound best when the production is minimal, and we are left simply with the warm, barely distorted tone of Angus and now Stevie Young’s guitars, with Brian Johnson’s inimitable wail adding the high end, sounding perpetually as if he has gargled shards of gold, and washed down the remnants with a fine single malt. That is exactly what we get here, along with one of the band’s leanest, meanest and most brutally concise set of songs ever released, and it’s a joy from start to finish.

History tells us to be prepared for a front-loaded AC/DC album that starts with a bang, only to peter out somewhat, as we approach the middle of the record, but PWR/UP is remarkably consistent, with a magical opening run of songs which ensure that not only are we eight songs in before we discern the merest hint of filler, but which also stake a reasonable claim to be the band’s best clutch of songs since the peerless and filler-free Back In Black. Few of the tracks have the monster choruses that so decorate the best tracks on that album, and it is probably this that holds PWR/UP back from all-time classic status, but instead the songs are insidiously catchy, clever hooks burrowing their way in almost unnoticed, until each track is transformed into an un-skippable masterpiece. The major exception to this is the first single, ‘Shot In The Dark’, which contains all of the dextrous rhythmic and melodic brilliance of its neighbours, but also bolts on a gigantic singalong chorus, purpose-built for opening the band’s live show, as and when they are finally able to take to the stage once more, or alternatively commence an extensive tour of New Zealand. If one could follow a formula to create the perfect AC/DC song, ‘Shot In The Dark’ would be the result. Never guilty of stringing things out unnecessarily, the playful blues lick that becomes the central riff of the track is played by Angus Young, unaccompanied, to create a miniature intro, the rest of the band joining with thunderous stabs of chords on an open-chorded cadence that completes the guitar figure, before settling in unison into the kind of mid-tempo groove that almost any rock fan would immediately recognise as AC/DC. Even better is the way in which the feel of the groove is deftly altered by a variation of the main riff utilised for the pre-chorus, adding a single beat of space at the start of the lick, a perfect example of the kind of attention to detail that bridges the gap between good and great, and all that is left is to transition seamlessly into an unforgettable chorus, pulling everything together into a song that could comfortably slot on to Back In Black without lowering the stunning calibre of that particular album. The lyrical message of the song seems to be that nothing of value comes easily, and no doubt sounding this effortlessly brilliant is tougher than the band make it appear, but it requires little effort to enjoy the fruits of the band’s labours, over and over again.

On a lesser AC/DC album, such as Fly On The Wall, or Blow Up Your Video, the magnitude of a song such as ‘Shot In The Dark’ would cast a long shadow across the remainder of the album, but so strong is this collection of songs, and so cleverly do the band work through all of their subtle variations of hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll, that this is not the case here. ‘Through The Mists Of Time’ is an immediate change of pace, and something of a departure, the palm-muted major key guitar line suggesting an indie feel, although the glam-rock tones of the chorus ensure that things do not get too introspective on what is intended to be a slightly oblique tribute to Malcolm. Lyrically, this tribute is not overly explicit, but the nostalgic reflection on the band’s halcyon days is nevertheless oddly touching, and a sweet tribute to their erstwhile brother and guitarist, without descending into cloying sentimentality. As the mists of time dissipate, and with a perfect sense of sequencing, the band don’t dwell too long on the past, ramping up the pace again with the raucous ‘Kick You When You’re Down’. This is a hugely memorable highlight of the album, pairing a pounding 1950s-style tom-tom drum pattern with a fiddly blues riff and riotous chorus, which incorporates muscular gang-vocals and the kind of efficient chord sequence that the band have made a long and successful career from.

As already mentioned, there is some filler – ‘Wild Reputation’ and ‘No Man’s Land’ are both plodding rather than pulsating, and lack sparkle in terms of the vocal melodies – but even the worst songs are considerably better than some of the material used to pad out the albums that they released during the trough section of their popularity curve. They are also swiftly forgotten, due to the calibre of the closing one-two punch of ‘Money Shot’ and ‘Code Red’. The former contains a brief snatch of laughter presumably captured in the studio during recording, as the excellent riff that the rest of the song is built around is introduced. It’s a relatively well-worn device that has been used by other bands to briefly break the fourth wall, but it’s an entertaining inclusion here, as the band’s joy at their own creation mirrors the listener’s, and also brings a welcome note of humanity into the final product, furthering the connection between AC/DC and their audience. The latter is an immaculate closer, musically vicious and aggressive during the verses, but changing tone with the full and stately chorus, which offers lyrical allusions to ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), with references to battle stations firing, and drawing a clear line between PWR/UP and the band’s acknowledged classics.

It’s not unwelcome of the band to highlight this, but it is unnecessary – the album makes its own case, and makes it in style. The only legitimate question mark hanging over PWR/UP is whether my own desire to hear one more great AC/DC album is artificially enhancing the perceived quality of the record, meaning that I hear what I want to hear. It’s not unprecedented for this kind of wishful thinking to combine with the novelty value of a new album and cause a listener to temporarily inflate their opinion, creating a kind of inverse nostalgia. Metallica’s St Anger, and Roots by Sepultura are both albums that wowed me on release, only to diminish a little in my judgement over time, as I have come to re-evaluate them in the context of the bands’ overall output, and there is a danger that I will one day feel this way about PWR/UP. However, it is also noticeable that each listen reveals a new favourite track, or throws up a new moment of ingenuity (the bass line that lights up ‘Witch’s Spell’ for example) that had previously gone unnoticed, and in my experience this often tends to be the sign of a good album. It may well be that the coming years add or subtract 5%, and make the difference between PWR/UP being considered a good album or a great album, but for now it is sufficient to say that not only is this an album that many of us thought we would never hear, but that it is also a masterful exhibition of economic songwriting which exceeds every possible expectation and demonstrates the ecstatic and timeless appeal of rock ‘n’ roll.

Score: 89%

Aerosmith – Music From Another Dimension!

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Music From Another Dimension!
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Music From Another Dimension!
  • Year of Release: 2012
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 88725 44281 2

A once prolific band, Aerosmith released their only album of the 2010s as 2012 was coming to a conclusion. The band had not been especially productive in preceding decade either, with only a single album of fully original material hitting the racks, together with this album’s predecessor, 2004’s Honkin’ On Bobo. The latter was ostensibly a covers album, although it did contain a single new composition, the mediocre ‘The Grind’. Before that came the band’s worst album, the mostly terrible Just Push Play, on which the band tried and failed to update their sound for the 21st century. The strained circumstances surrounding the writing and recording of this album did not bode well, speaking of a band who had possibly even lost interest in writing and releasing new music altogether. In an era of declining record sales, hastened by both the illegal downloading and file-sharing booms of the early 2000s, and then the nascent streaming industry that has now come to dominate music consumption, it is certainly the case that Aerosmith had no imperative to push themselves through the rigmarole of the recording process, only to put out an album that would most likely be derided as significantly inferior to their classic 1970s output, purely to create an excuse to tour the world playing the greatest hits set that they had been hawking for the best part of 20 years already. Still, after years of internecine conflict and solo activity, during which the future of the band itself was in doubt, one imagines that perhaps Aerosmith felt that they did have something to prove after all, and so we were gifted Music From Another Dimension!

The awkward exclamation of the title is a fairly good guide to the musical content of what is currently Aerosmith’s final album. Including the rather clichéd artwork, the package is supposed to evoke a B-Movie aesthetic, but the conceit only really holds as far as the brief, and faintly embarrassing, snatches of dialogue which bookend the album, portentously announcing that the listener is now to surrender their control to some kind of extra-dimensional force. It is understandable that towards the tail-end of the band’s career, they are seeking a new angle, looking to break out of a particular way of doing things, but the issue specifically with the direction that Aerosmith are taking here is simply that they do not have the compositional capability to match the musical content to the artistic concept. There are, of course, numerous bands that have adopted the language or sonic signifiers of space rock or metal, embracing the endless possibilities offered by the evocation of the infinite. However, the likes of Hawkwind, Cave In and Pink Floyd were fundamentally more ambitious and eclectic than Aerosmith’s more earthbound sound, forever rooted in the traditional structures and harmonic ideas of rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and the idea of Aerosmith being able to cast aside the shackles of 40 years of operating within a relatively narrow set of parameters to embrace the free-wheeling experimentation required to live up to the billing of this album’s title is inconceivable, and so it proves. Of course, an alternative possibility might have been to adopt the kind of camp, rockabilly sound deployed so effectively by The Cramps to create their schlocky style, but the sort of authentic grit and grime required to embody the sort of low-rent perversity needed to make that believable at this stage of the band’s career is unsurprisingly beyond them.

Also beyond them, more disappointingly, is the ability to construct a coherent album, and Music From Another Dimension! is a bafflingly schizophrenic album, which frequently sounds like a compilation of disparate bands. Musical schizophrenia is often something to be encouraged, and indeed for many bands, the diversity of their sound is the very reason for their success. However, there are a number of bands, Motorhead, AC/DC and of course, Aerosmith, who have built a career from staying in their lane and maximising small variances in a core sound, developing gradually, if at all, over a prolonged period of time. Here though, Aerosmith offer simply offer a collection of songs with little in common, that does little more than expose the clear divisions between the members of a careworn band. Even more perplexing, a small handful of the tracks included on this album are among the best that the band have produced since Pump, and to hear these co-existing with some of the worst tracks the band have ever put their name to underlines just how much of a mess this album is.

To deal with the better tracks first, it is no surprise that Aerosmith sound most convincing when operating in ‘rudimentary rock’ mode. After the sluggish and lifeless opener ‘Luv XXX’, which repeats some of the production mistakes that so marred Just Push Play, even despite the presence of Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair, the rolling boogie of ‘Oh Yeah’ is a total bolt from the blue. Up-tempo, deftly augmented with subtle horns, not unlike The Rolling Stones’ ‘Bitch’, ‘Oh Yeah’ attains an effortless cool that Aerosmith have rarely exuded since they cleaned up their act in the mid-80s. It’s not the blockbuster hit it might have been, had they managed to affix their once customary huge melodic chorus to the more than competent verses, but the uncomplicated delight of hearing them sound so spontaneous and off-the-cuff creates a nostalgic glow that atones for some of the more tedious moments of the album. ‘Out Go The Lights’ is even better – the band building up a huge head of steam via a thunderous, strutting slice of funk-rock. The production sounds suddenly clear, the guitars are gigantic, and the drums swagger like prime ZZ Top or Clutch, the chiming cowbell always a signal for the kind of full-throttle good-time rock ‘n’ roll that one feared was a distant memory for Aerosmith. Tyler’s staccato vocal delivery perfectly utilises the acres of vacant space left by the instrumental arrangement to pull everything together into a latter-day classic only let down by an interminable outro that threatens to undo all of the good work with nearly 4 minutes of unnecessary and unproductive jamming.

‘Legendary Child’ follows, and strangely opens by reprising the vocal melody from ‘Out Go The Lights’, shifted to the guitars. This is presumably intended to give the album the feel of an uninterrupted and improvisational live show, but in keeping with the half-arsed nature of the overarching concept of Music From Another Dimension!, this is the only such instance of creating a segue between songs on the record, and therefore adds little. When the song proper commences, the instantaneous reaction is to be swept up by the unstoppable syncopated groove, of the kind that Aerosmith have rarely executed so convincingly since the better songs on Get A Grip. Slowly, however, comes the realisation that the groove sounds rather familiar, and eventually the listener is able to identify Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Wanton Song’ as the source material, just one of a number of similarly monstrous tracks on their magisterial Physical Graffiti. Of course, Led Zeppelin themselves were well-versed in the lifting of riffs and melodies from folk and blues, although they were also adept at transforming that kernel of inspiration into something greater. The shadow cast over the otherwise splendid ‘Legendary Child’, is that almost all of the thrill and excitement of the track is derived from the component that is stolen, apparently uncredited, from another band. It’s possible that the similarity is coincidental, but it’s also hard to imagine that no one involved in the recording process noticed, and clearly the band decided to carry on regardless, and it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth that lingers to the conclusion of the album.

It takes some time to get to this conclusion. Since the advent of the CD, Aerosmith have rarely missed the opportunity to use all of the available running time (although thankfully we’ve been spared the double-album), and Music From Another Dimension! is no exception. Had the album contained the handful of excellent songs already described, together with a couple of the middling efforts – ‘Street Jesus’ with its enjoyable Wildhearts / Jason & The Scorchers hybrid, combining twanging riffs and ringing open chords in a heads-down race to the finish, plus the ramshackle, grizzled blues of ‘Freedom Fighter’ would do just fine – before cutting off at 40 minutes after the obligatory pedestrian ballad, the album could easily have been considered an adequate offering, if not quite deserving of the ‘return to form’ description. The remaining 9 or 10 songs of unremittingly dreary material, which generally finds the band in ‘country ballad’ mode drags the album down below the waves, however, and the humane thing to do would be to attach weights to it, say farewell, and gun the motor towards the shore.

The dreadful nature of much of the worst parts of the album would almost be amusing, were there not so much of it to trudge through. ‘What Could Have Been Love’ is a painfully forgettable ballad, which is indistinguishable from the kind of fare that could crop up at random on any FM country & western station in America. Not only that, but where previously Tyler’s vocal character and multi-octave pyrotechnics might have pulled the band unscathed through their more monotonous tracks, the years have finally caught up with him and he sounds strained in the higher register, as he also does on the lazy pop-rock of ‘Beautiful’. Shortly after ‘What Could Have Been Love’ comes yet another attempt at perfecting the country ballad, this time with country star Carrie Underwood on board. It’s not really what this particular listener wants from the band, but in comparison to much of the rest of the tracks on the album, it at least boasts a strong vocal hook, and a solid performance from Underwood. However, it is ultimately too far from the band’s core sound to fit even within the expanded repertoire that they have slowly evolved into over time, and should probably not have been released under the Aerosmith banner.

Nearly a decade after the release of Music From Another Dimension!, it appears increasingly unlikely that we will enjoy the dubious benefit of another Aerosmith album. While Joe Perry has kept fairly busy, releasing material both on his own, and with his ‘all-star’ band Hollywood Vampires, the musical bent of these ventures is very much the blues / rock ‘n’ roll that Perry has leaned towards throughout a career in which he has sometimes been critical of the band’s less hard rocking material. With Tyler releasing a solo country album during the same period, this only serves to reinforce the apparent disparity between what one imagines Perry wants to be playing, and Tyler’s more varied musical vision. As such, and bearing in mind the reduced importance of the album as a cultural artefact, it is entirely possible that this will be the final musical statement of Aerosmith, excluding the continuing stream of live albums, reissues, compilations and box sets that will surely never end. If it is their epitaph, it will be a disappointing one. It may not duplicate some of the worst elements of Just Push Play; it’s mostly not embarrassingly unbecoming of their history, but it is mostly too slick, too one-paced, and just too uninteresting to merit repeated listening. One can only hope therefore, that Tyler, Perry et al can indeed get it together for one final time before they hang up their gear for the last time, if only to ensure that they have an opportunity to go out with a bang, and not the anaemic whimper of this album.

Score: 40%

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%

Aerosmith – Nine Lives

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Nine Lives
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Nine Lives
  • Year of Release: 1997
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: COL 485020 3

Aerosmith’s twelfth album, Nine Lives, saw them back on original label Columbia, presumably keen to get in on some of the sweet multi-platinum action that they had missed out on since understandably failing to foresee the band’s incredible resurgence in popularity. It is appropriately titled – as well as surviving years of substance abuse, Aerosmith had managed to navigate their way through the vicissitudes of musical fashions to retain their position as one of the true giants of rock ‘n’ roll. The huge global success of Nine Lives also helps to bust one of the enduring myths of rock in the 1990s, that which holds that the advent of grunge ‘killed off’ 80s hard rock. Not unlike the similarly reductive suggestion that punk sounded the death knell for progressive rock, the idea that the 80s giants were redundant the moment ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hit radio is simply not borne out by the facts. Grunge and alternative rock more generally may have shifted the zeitgeist and reset the boundaries in terms of what was and wasn’t relevant with respect to popular culture, but while Nirvana, Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction were earning the critical plaudits to go with the sales, Aerosmith, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Bon Jovi released some of their most popular albums, and continued to be a huge draw on the live circuit. Indeed, it is an amusing coincidence that Nevermind and Get A Grip were released by the same record label, and they probably have a little more in common than many fans would like to admit. I would concede that at the turn of the decade, the likes of Cinderella, Warrant and Poison certainly did fade from view, but this was surely more of a verdict on the staying power of their own low quality musical output than because they were rendered unfashionable by a legion of Seattle-based opiate enthusiasts.

It probably helped that Aerosmith were adept at, not exactly moving with the times per se, but definitely flirting in their general direction. The band were content to adopt the slick, glossy production values favoured by many of their peers during the 1980s, and also successfully diversified their sound, allowing them to find a more broad-based popular appeal. As the tide turned between the release of Get A Grip and its successor, while avoiding walking into the Motley Crue-sized trap marked ‘Ill-Advised Grunge Album’, the band clearly adopt a much noisier and scuzzier sound this time round, as opposed to the pristine sheen of its predecessor. While this production is at times unsuited to the band, and at other times plainly irritating, the songs themselves are mostly very good. In fact, following the patchy and uneven set that had comprised Get A Grip, the release of such a strong and consistent group of songs is an impressive achievement.

As Aerosmith albums invariably do, Nine Lives starts at full tilt with the excellent title track. There’s no discernible riff, but the agreeable rumble of the guitars combine with a sneaky melodicism, and occasional bursts of serrated chords, to construct an understated throwback to their early days, when spontaneity and energy trumped studious songcraft. It’s a courageous move to choose this as the opener, when the obvious choice would have been the more ostentatiously catchy first single ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees)’, which immediately follows. This track is much more standard modern Aerosmith fare, but is structurally unconventional, going straight into the huge and uncharacteristically minor key chorus, before dropping into an economic verse underpinned by some spidery rhythm guitar work, perhaps consciously aping the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic so beloved by the alternative rock that had seeped into the Aerosmith sound. Both melodically and lyrically, Tyler hits all the right notes on this track, adopting an amusingly self-deprecating form of wordplay that is a rather becoming, given the band’s advancing years. Indeed, it features one of his most riotous lines in “Don’t give me no lip / I’ve got enough of my own”.

‘Hole In My Soul’ continues the golden run at the start of this record, a pleasingly authentic ballad, which recalls the earthier sound of Get Your Wings-era Aerosmith. Not for the first time, the band plagiarise their own classic, ‘Dream On’, transposing a version of the piano line from that track into the guitars here, and welding the whole thing to yet another gargantuan chorus. The way in which Tyler works himself to fever pitch in a deliberate move to tug the heartstrings is undeniably overwrought and utterly cheesy, but the melody so adroitly weaves its way through exactly the path that the listener wants it to take, that this can be easily forgiven. Quite apart from that, ‘Hole In My Soul’ creates enough space in the verses to showcase some elastic bass playing from Tom Hamilton which adds another dimension to an already stellar song. The rhythm section are very much the unsung heroes of Aerosmith. Hamilton and Kramer provide a never-less-than-reliable foundation for the more flamboyant talents of the Toxic Twins, but frequently offer a subtle inventiveness that never overwhelms the guitars or vocals, but often function as either an interesting counterpoint or complementary support that perfectly match the requirements of the song.

Remarkably, for a band that have a long history of releasing patchy albums, there are relatively few missteps to be found on Nine Lives. Across 14 tracks, there is of course some filler, most of which can be found in its customary position in the middle of the album, as the excitement of the initial rush of adrenaline wears off. Even these songs are mostly palatable though – ‘The Farm’ intrigues with its Britpop chords and bounce, ‘Attitude Adjustment’ deploys a Stone Temple Pilots-style churning riff to demonstrate that Aerosmith are capable of successfully co-opting new sounds into their framework without it appearing too gauche, and even the mostly predictable and pedestrian ‘Kiss Your Past Good-Bye’ is not a total failure, with a stately guitar lick dominating a majestic outro. Even the most questionable song to be found on the album is imbued with a certain amount of naive charm that ensures that what could be embarrassing is instead oddly endearing. ‘Taste Of India’ is ultimately a well-meaning but flawed song, before we even get to the reductive cultural insensitivity of using a whole nation as a shorthand for the exotic. Rock bands have of course been doing this ever since The Beatles first sought to expand their own minds in the 1960s, and Led Zeppelin’s seminal ‘Kashmir’ has ensured that any rock band that seeks to evoke free-wheeling mysticism and open-mindedness will continue to utilise the Eastern-sounding scales that immediately transport us to a vision of an India that may or may not have ever existed. Aerosmith’s own version is somewhat half-hearted: the sitars and lush-sounding Bollywood strings track the main riff during the verse, as Tyler floats around microtonal melodies intoning laughable lyrics about “vindaloo” (honestly!) and the “tantric priestess”, but perhaps losing a little confidence in their opulent vision, the really rather enjoyable chorus ditches the pseudo-Indian elements altogether for a more straightforward sound, and the awkward compromise of the whole thing renders the track a hot and spicy mess. Even this is better than the horrific pop-country ballad that closes the original version of the album, ‘Fallen Angels’, where the tritest of lyrical content dooms a song that should really have been strangled at birth.

Lyrically, Nine Lives absolutely exhibits the best and worst of Aerosmith. The aforementioned ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) is amusing, and ‘Full Circle’, another highlight of the album, excels in a different way. There’s something extremely touching about an ageing band acknowledging the passage of time, and the naked vulnerability of this track (“Time, don’t let it slip away / Raise your drinking glass / Here’s to yesterday”) sounds authentic and affecting coming from a band who know that their fiercest and best days are likely behind them, but are committed to the only life they really know, the road and the stage. Such is the rich melodicism of the track, that they manage to negotiate the potentially disastrous cod-Irish folk of the musical accompaniment with aplomb and flair, something that it would be hard to imagine Aerosmith pulling off 20 years previous. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Pink’. Musically, there’s not too much to dislike, and the hook contains enough musical sorcery to ensure that even the most concerted effort will not shift it from the listener’s memory. The lyrical content, however, is dreadful. To say that “Pink, as the sheets that we lay on / Pink, it’s my favourite crayon / Pink, when I turn out the light / Pink, it’s like red but not quite” is the worst kind of 6th Form poetry does a disservice to schoolchildren the world over who are quite capable of producing more interesting and nuanced work than Aerosmith manage here. The only saving grace is that there is a certain comfort in knowing that the bottom of the barrel has been reached, and the only possible direction for here is upwards.

The reissued version of Nine Lives that is the subject of this review closes the album with the monster single ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, which was written by Diane Warren as part of the Armageddon soundtrack. It’s easy to criticise this kind of middle of the road ballad, which was intended by the composer to be sung by Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, but despite the fact that it resolutely refuses to rock, Tyler’s theatrical and sky-scraping performance carries an unforgettable melody as well as any multi-octave diva could, and the song deserves the popular acclaim that it found, even if it has since been rather over-played. It’s a curious conclusion to a slightly curious album. Nine Lives could live without the cluttered production that leaves the guitars sounding synthetic and processed, and continually threads unnecessary electronic sounds and effects into tracks, all of which add nothing other than a layer of white noise. The panning of all of the guitars into one speaker during the chorus of the otherwise raging ‘Crash’ is the most egregious of a number of strange decisions that undermine the strengths of a band who are at the best when they sound live and spontaneous. These decisions are also totally pointless – Nine Lives is a splendid and consistent album that stands tall on the strength of its mostly superb songs, and is more than good enough to ensure that this cat was far from ready to be put to sleep forever.

Score: 81%