Album Review: Strawbs – Settlement

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Strawbs: Settlement (Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red Records)

The Strawbs are one of those bands where the term “rock royalty” might easily apply. They began in 1964 as The Strawberry Hill Boys, named for a region in their native England where they originated and frequently played. In 1969 they shortened their title to Strawbs and released a debut album that same year. The abbreviated moniker seemed to follow their musical shift from a strictly bluegrass and folk-oriented trio to a quintet that integrated more rock and progressive sounds. The current lineup of the band features founder David Cousins (guitars/vocals) and long-time members Dave Lambert (guitars/vocals), Dave Bainbridge (keyboards), Chas Cronk (bass/vocals), and Tony Fernandez (drums and percussion). Guests include former Strawbs regular Blue Weaver on keyboards, mastering and production, with another long-time associate John Ford on guitar and vocals, Irish singer Cathryn Craig and South African bassist Schalk Joubert.

Strawbs – Settlement

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Strawbs have traditionally blended many musical styles, with always provocative and socially relevant lyrics. Conceived during the early pandemic months of 2020, Settlement is a full-length collection of well-crafted songs that rank with some of their best. Cousins’ reedy tenor envelopes the very topical and driving sentiments of the kick-off title track “Settlement.” He sings like a man possessed, “There comes a time when every settlement is due. No compromise, no other point of view.” Cousins is letting you know from the get-go there is some urgency to his message and he means business. And then he expresses thoughts born out of quarantine and a sense of a bigger picture, “Strapped down in a cold town, dying to pay the rent, what the masterminds are selling you is Heaven sent, ring around the rules, we’re nobody’s fools.” The weight of robust acoustic guitars mixed with mellotron, slide guitar and organ bring things to a fever pitch.

“Strange Times” follows and is another Cousins track that shifts, in mood and style, to more poignant and reflective. Again, the songwriting is totally on point as Cousins makes observations on occurrences in the present day, “Times of glory, times of pride, times for conflict set aside, times of danger, times of grief, such are these strange times.”

“Judgment Day” has a percolating, funky underbelly to it. Again, it’s a blend of acoustic and ambient sounds where Cousins is able to sing with pause and purpose. The song is a commentary on what social distancing has done to humanity on an emotional level. “Walk down the street, people I meet, step away as I pass by, know how I feel, down at heel, been known to break down and cry.” But the tune is not without a bright side, “Try to forgive, learn how to live, know in my heart where I’m going, hope and pray, on judgment day, they reap all the seeds they are sowing.”

John Ford collaborates with Cousins on the track “Each Manner of Man.” It is spiritual and observational, with a classic sound and a haunting quality. It’s a song that seems to address the humanity that connects us all. Ford and Cousins sing, “If ever the doubt shall still remain, the days gather pace like a mighty express, reminding us all to reflect on our ways, nothing more, nothing more, nothing less.”

Lambert’s “The Visit” sounds like a traditional Celtic folk song. It’s a story tune featuring shimmering mandolin and acoustic guitar, with a catchy chorus. This leads into his brief instrumental “Flying Free” that expands on an indigenous U.K. vibe.

“Quicksilver Days” is a vivid and somewhat somber ballad. It has a Gothic quality that stands with classic highlights like their own “Hero and Heroine.” Its fluid and surreal imagery is made even more relevant by the timeless Beatle-esque/King Crimson-like flute mellotron passages throughout.

Cronk’s “We Are Everyone” features splendid harmonies by himself, Cousins and guest vocalist Craig. It’s got a slow burning build that addresses the universality of the human race. The lyrics are simple and undeniably direct as they sing, “All bear witness, we are not lost, come together, join together, we are everyone.” It’s a goose bump-inducing piece that’s followed by Cronk’s dramatic and austere instrumental “Chorale.” It’s got a rousing Bach/Mozart pomposity that really makes a statement and brings the vinyl portion of the album to a satisfying close.

The CD version of Settlement contains three bonus songs under the heading “Off the Beaten Tracks.” They are the mini-epic boxer scenario “Champion Jack,” the seemingly auto-biographical “Better Days (Life Is Not a Game)” and the hopeful “Liberty.”

With multiple songwriters and vocalists in the band this is surely a true collective effort. It’s an amazing achievement considering it was created, in large part, through virtual means. Bravo!

Album Review: Sumo Cyco – Initiation

Sumo Cyco

photo by Francesca Ludikar; photo courtesy of Napalm Records

Album Review of Sumo Cyco: Initiation (Napalm Records)

Sumo Cyco has moved in and out of my awareness over the years, always attention-grabbing while clearly honing its sound with each successive release. Sumo Cyco is a heavy rock band with a raw metal edge and a punk attitude. Sonically, the band has the aggression and speed of many bands in its musical neighborhood with a world-class lead singer (Skye “Sever” Sweetnam) capable of bringing a level of tunefulness and softness to the mix, exploiting the ability to provide greater contrast to her raw, roaring metal vocals. In other words, range. The ability to achieve that range provides interesting contrasts within individual cuts but also the capacity to deliver a broader range of songs within an identifiable Sumo Cyco heavy rock style, satisfying core heavy rock fans while appealing to perhaps a broader demographic, particularly on individual tracks. Of course, “Sever” isn’t achieve that range of musical styles all by herself. Serious props to the rest of this band: Matt “MD13” Drake (lead guitar), Matt “Trozzi” (drums), and Oscar Aneset (bass). You all know by now how much I love versatile bands like this, and upon sampling a couple of songs on the new album, Initiation, I knew Sumo Cyco had delivered a musical collection I needed to write about.

Sumo Cyco – Initiation

image courtesy of Napalm Records

Like any good heavy rock band, Sumo Cyco kicks the album off with a couple of its most aggressive songs, appropriately greeting listeners to Cyco City with “Love You Wrong”. This track begins with a crash and rawly shouted vocals, and throughout the song the tempo and vocal aggression suggest mosh pits and a frantic, fear-filled confused rampage, but the lesser-instrumented verses and monster hooky chorus more welcomingly reel the listener in. Yes, the chorus is primarily “Not gonna love you, not gonna love you wrong” repeated several times, but damn, it’s an earworm. With each successive listen, this increasingly becomes a favorite. Then again, that’s true of so many of the tunes on this disc.

Perhaps the next-most-rough-edged song on the disc, “Bystander” aggressively urges actively taking part in your life, as if you couldn’t guess from the title. Worth noting is the rhythmic drum-driven bridge that accompanies the lyrics “We are uninvited, watching from afar. We are all misguided, divided, falling apart.” The most infectious part of “Bystander,” though, is its unrelenting, insistent pace.

Next up, “Vertigo” shows shades of Lady Gaga-meets-Gwen Stefani through the lens of a ’90s pop-punk-influenced mainstream heavy rock band. It’s all beat and rhythm atop grinding guitar and a wall of staticky background vocals. Very effective… and sound effect-ive.

Sumo Cyco

photo by Francesca Ludikar; photo courtesy of Napalm Records

The end of “Vertigo” flows sonically directly into “Bad News,” with rhythmic vocal verses ultimately combining with another one of those monster hook choruses. Actually, something you might find at a dance club in a vampire movie, an intense, energetic rock track with a sort of underlying club mix vibe.

Next, “No Surrender” thrashes tunefully, before “M.I.A.” follows with a rhythmic spoken-song effort that, of all the songs on Initiation, most closely resembles one Gwen Stefani would perform. But, of course, Sumo Cyco-style. Lyrically, you’ll find yourself hooked on “Do you remember? ‘Cause I forget.”

The back half of this album begins with “Cyclone.” The speed-guitar runs and aggressively, sneakily melodic verse are among this track’s standout features, though the softly sung “I can’t help myself I’m falling, in a downward spiral I’m falling…” will also pleasantly catch you off guard.

There’s a reggae-esque opening to “Run With the Giants”… up until the ripping guitars and sirens. But you can hear and enjoy the meshing of reggae and hard rock throughout – an enjoyably, intentionally harsh transition between the styles at times, smoother at others. The driving chorus is supported by a full, distorted heavy rock sound while implanting in your brain the memorably repeated “Gotta run with it, gotta run with it, yeah we’ll run with the giants!” You’ll be singing along by song.

“Overdrive,” next, has a serious funky rhythm and dancefloor vibe that almost overrides (overdrives?) its rockin’ guitar line, while “Power & Control” has just a hint of a soul-rock vibe, especially where Skye/Sever lets her voice soar a bit… with, you know, a much thrashier music bed.

One of the most memorable songs on the album, though, is “This Dance is Doomed.” You’ll frantically sing along with “doom da da da doom da da da day,” sometimes hours or days after you actually last heard the song.

The album closes with bonus track “Awakened,” which you’ll not find on every release. This song opens catchily with a tuneful “My heart’s been awakened…” It then flows into a classic-cool heavy rock vibe, yet still a bit sidewinding, befitting Sumo Cyco’s trademark style. It’s a fun, energetic way to end an album, though the prior song, if that’s the last on your version of Initiation, also provides a great final sendoff. They both encourage another listen. Immediately. Over and over.

In the end, Sumo Cyco is a unique band. One of a kind. The kind of band whose music deserves a spot in a well-rounded playlist. If you love it loud, you’re gonna love this heavy rock masterwork, Initiation – some songs immediately while others will grow on you like a fungus. But you won’t have anything else quite like Sumo Cyco’s music in your collection, and once you’ve heard it, you’ll occasionally crave it.

I’m hoping to get a chance to catch Sumo Cyco live one of these days. They do a great job of transferring their energy into their recordings, but I can only imagine how much they must rock to room live. For those of you in the UK, there are some dates listed on the “events” tab of the band’s Facebook page – a late October/early November tour with Wednesday 13. As always during a pandemic, double-check event status before leaving the house.

Post-Publication Addendum: It looks like the Sumo Cyco/Wednesday 13 UK tour has been postponed until 2022, per this Facebook post. COVID-19 strikes again. Yep, always a good idea to double-check (ahead of time and even day of show) before traveling any distance to a concert during a pandemic. -GW

Album Review: Laura Meade – The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Laura Meade – The Most Dangerous Woman in America

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Laura Meade: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (Doone Records)

Laura Meade is a vocalist with the modern New York-based progressive rock band IZZ. Coming off her 2018 solo release Remedium, Meade returns with a powerful statement tailor made for the #MeToo movement. The astute and perceptive singer-songwriter summarizes her latest release this way: “There have been so many people throughout history – many of them women – who stand up for themselves, stand up for what they believe in, and experience great pain and suffering for doing so; their memories lost along the way to gossip and rumor. I hope that this album, in some small way, honors and gives voice to the forgotten.”

What began as a concept album exploring one singular female icon’s struggles and challenges in life became a series of songs that address the body politic of women, at large. Meade is joined on the album by fellow IZZ counterparts John Galgano on guitars, bass and keyboards, Tom Galgano on keyboards, and Brian Coralian on drums and percussion. Following a brief sound byte “On the Shores of the Seine,” the track “Leaving” addresses the price of fame and sticking up for oneself and one’s convictions. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t proposition for the subject in this song as Meade sings, “Back against the wall, kind of had no choice, I knew it would be right, I knew it would be wrong.”

“Burned at the Stake” suggests reference to Joan of Arc in this song, as the protagonist feels the pressure of being under the public and media microscope. “Watching you, watching me shouting out so critically,” states Meade. “Scared like rabbits on the screen hiding out, embarrassing. I took the risk, I took the dive, iconoclast I have arrived, cut my hair, designed my taste, I can’t come out I’m such a waste.”

“Iconoclast” follows and seems a continuation of the storyline and emotions established in the previous track. Again, this addresses the dark side of fame. Meade sings, “Now that I’ve made it, every single glance is a perfect glance, and the way you walk isn’t left to chance. Destroyer of convention, a lover never mentioned. Forty times around the sun and no one paid attention.”

“End of the Road in Hollywood” is the diary of a generic movie star, or anyone that tries to buck the system and not sell out. Interesting sound design and rhythms frame the stark words and images in a very cinematic and self-reflective manner.

“Doesn’t Change a Thing” is all about picking up one’s personal spirits and carrying on in life. The chorus says it all: “Every day is another day to choose, every day is another day I win or lose, every day is another day to see, every day is another day I learn to be.”

The title track “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” is deadly serious, yet somewhat tongue in cheek as well. If being dangerous is synonymous with being resourceful and learning how to survive then that correlation makes sense. There is a sense of desperation and bravado in Meade’s voice as she sings: “There’s no way out of this alive, a glimpse of the ghost of me that survived… They say that I’m not tame, using my weapon for fame, It’s your obsession to blame, I control the game!” The music matches the tension in the lyrics, with a rapid up tempo keyboard pattern reminiscent of neo-noir cinema meets ‘80s synth-pop.

“The Shape of Shock” further explores a woman standing tall in the face of adversity, with the declarative chorus “I’m Still There!” The bank of keyboards and fullness of sound recalls early Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Genesis mixed with an enveloping wash of electronica. Meade embodies the character of the song when she sings: “The shape of shock is worthy of a face, just the type you’d like to see erased.”

“Forgive Me” is, perhaps, the most overtly prog-oriented track, with driving piano-fueled grooves, orchestral textures and oscillating synthesizers. Again, the protagonist here is trying to make a stand and represent her place in the world. Meade sings: “This is getting out of control. I wish I was younger, I wish I was older. No one here can love or comprehend me…Boisterous winds and Neptune’s waves have tossed me to and fro, and far below.”

“Tell Me Love” builds to a dramatic coda that shifts from solemn to revelatory. Meade concludes with cool observation and sage advice: “Don’t believe my biography, it’s just gossip, a ghost of me. It saves time, prevents us from thinking.” And later in the song she asks: “What should I do? Give in or stand fast? Live a long life or die young, burned at the stake? Tell me, love!”

Laura Meade has created an insightful and very personal piece of work here. Like all great music and literature its intentions and message will make their impression and resonate with the listener for a long time to come.

Looking Ahead

Though no live dates are currently listed, you can find future performances, when they’re scheduled, listed on the “Shows” page of Laura Meade’s website or the “IZZ Live” page of the IZZ website.

Album Review: District 97 – Screenplay

District 97

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of District 97: Screenplay (MindScan/Cherry Red Records)

District 97 is a progressive rock band from Chicago that has been on the international scene since 2006. They started out as an instrumental group but really began to flourish as a more melodic entity after they brought singer-songwriter and American Idol semi-finalist Leslie Hunt into the fold. The current lineup of the band also features guitarist/vocalist Jim Tashjian, bassist Tim Seisser, keyboardist Andrew Lawrence, and drummer Jonathan Schang. The group has released a series of studio and live albums since 2010. Their last studio recording Screens dropped in 2019. The current one here is a double disc that serves as a curious document of various live performances – both original and cover songs – dating back to 2011, with Disc One a live track by track rundown of their Screens album performed at a venue in The Netherlands in 2019.

Disc One opens with the track “Forest Fire.” It is a multi-layered piece blending dense vocal harmonies, fluctuating tempos and Tashjian’s experimental noisy guitar riffs. The result is an exciting balance of dissonant and consonant sounds.

“Sheep” is a Sessier/Hunt composition that seems to address portions of society that tend to follow more than lead. The somewhat obtuse and fanciful lyrics perhaps make a comment on media consumption and compliance: “You’re living your best life. The blue glowing light redeems you, feeds you, numbs you… The blue glowing light has changed you, claimed you, drained you. It’s counting you as sheep.” Hunt rides a smooth vocal wave here as Tashjian and Sessier offer tasty guitar and bass breakdowns, respectively.

District 97 – Screenplay

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

“Sea I Provide” is somewhat of a straight-ahead rocker, with prominent cascading key passages from Lawrence. Metal-tinged guitar provides a thick wall of crunch that gives way to jazzy chords in the bridge. “Bread & Yarn” features sophisticated vocalizing between Hunt and Tashjian. It’s kind of a song cycle, with several thematic sections that drift from sedate to thunderous. The band deftly stacks a bunch of ideas in very compartmentalized fashion. It’s a real spotlight for the whole band.

“Trigger” keeps you on the edge of your seat, with its catchy harmonies, ear candy melodies and intrepid unison legato guitar and keyboard lines. The bass instrumental “After Orbit Mission” is a brief Jaco-esque vignette that leads into the aptly named “Shapeshifter.” With its many evolving musical detours and mind-bending lyrics the song indeed takes on a myriad of forms. In it, Hunt sings: “Blend with paper walls, I’ll change into something more comfortable to ignore. While you’re waiting for the form you’re expecting, but haven’t prepared for blow your lover has stored. Fully formed, you’re not who you were before.”

“Blueprint” starts out as a mellow and jazzy type of tune. Hunt sings surreal and dark lyrics through a barrage of altered changes, chords, and layers of sound. This one is not so much about blazing solos as stitching a number of vocal parts and thematic dynamics together smoothly.

The sides longest and final track is an ominous one called “Ghost Girl.” The 13-plus minute piece plays out as a short supernatural and suspenseful horror story. Hunt sings “How’s a girl to sleep at night with demons all around? They encircle me and then my bed lifts off the ground. They suffocate me, lacerate me across my naked flesh.” But then the supernatural sensibility hits home in, perhaps, a very real double-edged commentary on child abuse: “Mother, oh mother; I’m starting to see who was behind what happened to me. What was a little girl meant to do, when mother the only demon was you.”

Disc Two is a mix of live dates, from the U.S. and Europe, featuring early original songs from the band and an extensive covers set. In particular, District 97’s choices of artists and songs span an interesting and historically reflective gamut. The set list, assembled from several performances over the last decade or so, comprises a laundry list of key progressive and classic rock gems from the ‘70s and ‘80s. And the list is not without a few surprises. Jim Tashjian sings a very convincing solo version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” The band also covers a brilliant take on U.K.’s “Presto Vivace.” There are a couple back-to-back Bill Bruford songs that make the cut.

A real showstopper is a 2013 performance featuring District 97 backing the  legendary John Wetton singing lead on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” But the absolute curveball in this whole package has to be an unlisted bonus rendition of that ‘80s perennial “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. It’s a faithful studio cut they tack on at the end of Disc Two that legitimately rocks! Who says prog bands can’t cut loose from the norm every once in a while? Highly recommended!

Looking Ahead

District 97 has a few upcoming concerts listed on the “Shows” tab of the band’s website. On October 28th, you’ll find them at the Brass Mug in Tampa, FL. On October 30th, they’re scheduled to perform as part of Progoween on the Ranch at the Crimson Sky Ranch in Masaryktown, FL. They’ll be back at their home base in Chicago, IL, on November 19th, at Reggie’s. And District 97 is scheduled on the Cruise to the Edge May 2nd-7th, 2022, departing from Port Canaveral, FL. For additional details and new dates as they’re added, keep an eye on the District 97 website and its Facebook page. (The Facebook page, for example, lists a November 1st gig at the Sweetwater Bar and Grille in Duluth, GA.) As always – and especially during a pandemic, when calendars and policies are constantly changing – double-check with a reliable source before heading out to a concert.

Album Review: Carl Verheyen – Sundial

Carl Verheyen – Sundial

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of Carl Verheyen: Sundial

There was a time when more rock ‘n roll albums blended catchy melodies and progressive guitarwork, energetic hook-driven tunefulness and meandering noodling, rock ‘n roll with both a soft touch and a musical passion. Carl Verheyen‘s Sundial harkens back to those ’70s and early ’80s albums on which rock music wasn’t as stylistically compartmentalized, especially when featuring a lead axeman capable of such guitar wizardry as Verheyen.

Carl kicks things off with the fun title track. “Sundial” recalls a Stranger-era Billy Joel tune, but with progressive rock-style guitar occupying the solo and bridge slots, constrained within the package of a broad-appeal pop-rock song. It’s a very cool, groovy, cheerful tune with a great big sound.

The cheerfulness carries on into the following song, the bright, happy, energetic guitar instrumental “Kaningie,” a song with a catchy beat and plenty of character. Something about the energy of this track reminds me of the sorts of energetic instrumentals Bob Malone sneaks onto his albums, daring you to notice – rarely on the first listen – that there weren’t, in fact, any lyrics.

You can hear the funk meet the blues in “Clawhammer Man,” a true ’70s-styled funk-rock attitude-filled gem.

Carl Verheyen

photo by Rainer Hosch; photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

“Never Again” seems like a song you might have heard from Styx. A forceful musical beginning opens into a softer, lush, musically smooth chorus. If it were a Styx tune, I’d expect a faster tempo, while “Never Again” has a more blues-based, takin’-its-own-sweet-time vibe, but the blend of guitar and organ mix and verse-to-chorus transition “well, never again” recall something one might expect from the aforementioned Second City rock heroes.

“Garfunkel (It Was All Too Real)” maintains that same laid-back tempo, but it returns to a style in the neighborhood of late ’70s radio-friendly soft rock, recalling those nostalgic numbers that seemed to be telling a story in black and white. This track features plenty of keyboard but also leaves ample room for Verheyen’s guitarwork to dance through the melody, as well it should.

Verheyen cranks up the energy again on his cover of the Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free.” Mixing a ska rhythm, a faster-than-the-original tempo, and overriding rock guitar lines and vocal wails, this fun reimagination comes across as a completely different song than the original.

Next up, “Sprial Glide” is a tightly-structured, well-composed, mellow, progressive soft rocker, a 7-minute epic with recurring note-bending guitar and keyboard hooks holding it together before and after the mid-song guitar solo. “Sprial Glide” is the sort of musician-based masterwork you think of when you hear the phrase “album-oriented rock.”

“Michelle’s Song” is more of a crossover pop/soft rock number, the sort that used to dot pop-rock radio playlists, a song where folk-structured lyrics meet pop songwriting sensibilities and rock ‘n roll musicianship.

“No Time for a Kiss” is the last full-length song on the album, a progressive rock-flavored not-quite-ballad designed to showcase a melancholy wailing guitar line that complements the similarly-pained vocals.

The last track on the album is the minute-and-a-half “Sundial Slight Return,” tying the album together with the instrumental melody of the opening track, putting a bow on the release as you’d expect from a thoughtfully assembled album. Also, coincidentally, it offers an opportunity for prepare you mind to return to song number one, particularly helpful if you’re playing Sundial on repeat. And why wouldn’t you?

Looking Ahead

Carl has a lot of gigs scheduled this summer and fall, beginning in Westlake, CA on August 29th, followed by September 4th and 5th gigs in Seattle, a couple more California shows, and then a European tour. You can find details about upcoming dates on the “Tour Dates” page of Carl’s website or on the “Events” tab of his Facebook page.

Album Review: Zanov – Chaos Islands

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Zanov: Chaos Islands

Pierre Salkzanov (aka Zanov) is a French electronic music wizard who has been on the ground floor of the synthesizer-driven music field since 1976. From 1977 to 1983, he produced three albums for the Polydor and Solaris labels. After a 30 year absence from the scene, he returned in 2014 with the album Virtual Future and in 2016 released Open Worlds. Both of these recordings came out on his label Zanov Music.

Zanov – Chaos Islands

image courtesy of Rock Rose Music

This latest release is a continuation of electronic exploration and sound design that is cut from the same cloth as fellow artistic comrades such as Tangerine Dream, Maurice Jarre, Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze and Eberhard Schoener. As is the tradition with much of progressive and experimental music of this type, the album follows a conceptual path. That path is comprised of seven signposts or tracks that are built around the perspective where order and chaos combine to generate surprising beauty. Hence, each track is rooted in melody and rhythms, but there is a pervasive serendipity and unpredictability there as well.

Track one is called “Edge of Chaos Island.” According to the liner notes, the tune describes Chaos Island as a region, or state of mind, where “creative and decisive changes are taking place in the transition from order and chaos.” Zanov’s synthesized wall of sound envelopes the listener from all directions. What keeps the music flowing and together is an oscillating mid-tempo loop that ebbs and shifts, with changing themes and melodies.

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

On “Inception Island” there is a surreal soundscape that’s created inspired by the cult film Inception. Nothing is what it seems with this track. It’s kind of cerebral, with fractal bits of thematic material and obscure sounds weaving in and out. Subliminal sounds permeate underneath other sonic layers on top.

Track three is called “Strange Attractor Island” and has an almost meditative or sci-fi feel to it. The mid-section is in ¾ time while various melodies emerge, build and fade away. But as soon as one melody diminishes, a counter theme develops.

“Three Body Island” sounds semi-classical. It’s rather slow and pensive, with mood shifts at the half mark that surrender to multiple counter melodies and arpeggiated chords.

On “Phase Space Island” the liner notes state: “At a glance one can see all possible states of a system, leaving out time.” The piece is a nice mix of a swirling sonic wash, with recurring themes and bubbling rhythms. True to its title there is the swell of phase shifting here.

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

“All roads lead to bifurcations, some of them leading to perpetual change,” on “Instability Island.” To a degree this is true. But the overall track harbors a smooth and calming melody that is woven within. This provides an anchor that keeps the entire piece intact.

In regards to the seventh and final track “Emergence Island,” Zanov states it is “very complex and beautiful where surprising structures can emerge from a very simple iterative process.” This piece sounds somewhat reminiscent of German outfit Kraftwerk’s early work on their international hit “Autobahn.” There is a strong rhythmic undertow that consolidates this whole conceptual package in an assured and mechanized manner.

Zanov creates music that is lush, fills your speakers, expands your mind and transports the listener to another level of consciousness.

Album Review: Steinar Karlsen – Destination Venus

Steinar Karlsen

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Steinar Karlsen: Destination Venus

Norway’s Steinar Karlsen knows his way around a guitar or two. He mixes a number of different styles together to create a unique brand of spacey and cinematic-based instrumental music. Picture an early Pink Floyd meets The Ventures mash-up for a taste of this super Scandinavian’s sonic vision.

All twelve tracks seem to tell a story that touch on various aspects of a journey through outer space. The album opens with “The Goodbye”’s slow and brooding minor key sounding Mediterranean blues. Right from the get-go Karlsen demonstrates impressive flamenco-sounding flourishes on electric guitar.

The fuzz-toned electric riffs of “Night Flight” blend elements of jazz and rock. It contains a meaty industrial strength-infused melody supported by spastic drums and a loose jam feel.

Steinar Karlsen – Destination Venus

image courtesy of Rock Rose Music

Karlsen shows his semi-classical side utilizing exotic modes and motifs in “The Karman Line.” Martin Langlie employs tasteful dynamics and snare-driven rhythms that really propel the piece into the band Focus territory.

“Weightless” is an interesting segue into experimentation that sets up a nice interlude for “Picnic on the Moon.” As the title suggests, this has a bright and light-hearted feel to it. The melody leans toward vintage surf rock, with modern overtones like Los Straightjackets.

The band goes on caravan for the exotic and cool “Space Camel.” The tune has a symphonic/gypsy vibe, with an obvious Middle Eastern quality.

“Monsters” swings as if Les Paul and Link Wray met and wanted to form a band. Eerie Theremin-like warbly saw sounds transport you to some bad B-movie sci-fi soundtrack music.

“The Trip” features really dense and animated drums and percussion. As the title indicates, you feel like you’re on an interstellar journey. The Farfisa-like organ gives it a cool retro feel that rips in an open and funky manner.

Another brief interlude called “Red Skies” leads into the signature track “Venus.” It’s got a catchy and danceable groove that spotlights a smooth breakdown between guitar and bass.

The mood alters slightly for the mellow “A Billion Stars.” Karlsen crafts a very lyrical and rich melody that harkens to one of Jeff Beck’s early instrumental fusion albums.

The voyage to Venus is concluded with a track called “Acid Rain.” It is an experimental Hendrix-like piece that dramatically pivots to an abrupt drum-induced finale.

Steinar Karlsen has released a successful series of guitar-oriented instrumental albums. This is certainly one of his best, with a playful and colorful blend of earnest, pop-induced melodies, thoughtful experimentation and brilliant musicianship. The perfect soundtrack for your resident billionaire’s next rocket ride through space.

Album Review: Cactus – Tightrope

Cactus

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of Cactus: Tightrope (Cleopatra Records/Purple Pyramid)

Classic hard rock from a bunch of veteran musicians who know how to make great music and still love rockin’. With that recipe, you just can’t go wrong. The new album from Cactus, Tightrope, hit stores on April 2nd. It’s album-oriented rock that straddles the ’70s and ’80s styles, with screeching guitar solos, instrumental mid-song jams, high-pitched vocal wails, a significant blues influence, and the inimitable drumming of Carmine Appice.

Cactus was an early 1970s classic rock band, founded in 1969, that released three albums from 1970 through 1974. An incarnation of the band continued to perform in the later ’70s. The band then disbanded until 2006, when it was resurrected by its original drummer, rock legend Appice. On this album, Appice is joined by longtime members Jimmy Kunes on vocals and Randy Pratt on harmonica. They’re joined by new members Paul Warren (lead guitar, vocals) and James Caputo (bass). Guest appearances are made by legendary rock vocalist Phil Naro (whose music I used to review regularly back in the ’90s when I published Geoff Wilbur’s Renegade Newsletter) and original Cactus guitarist Jim McCarty.

Beginning to end, Tightrope reminds you why that era of rock ‘n roll is timeless – why it persists to this day and was the foundation upon which the rock ‘n roll of my teens and twenties was built. With Tightrope‘s tricky beats, heavy rhythms, and sidewinding ways, Cactus also proudly displays the heavy blues influence that underpinned its lane of the ’70s classic rock superhighway.

Cactus – Tightrope

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album-opener “Tightrope” kicks things off with grinding guitar, stop-start rhythm, and edgily insistent vocals. Very classic ’70s rock with an uneven beat that stops each and every groove just as it’s getting started, purposely delivering an uneasily energetic ride balanced on a (as you may have guessed) tightrope.

The band takes that edginess into its next song, a growling, bluesy-wailing, juke joint-recalled rendition of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Yowza, what a kickass cover!

“All Shook Up” begins all jangly with hints at Beatles-esque harmonies before digging in with crunchy guitars and a slightly gritty blues rock vocal wail.

“Poison in Paradise” follows, a slowly thumping, testifying, sad blues number, positively dripping with despair and regret. It’s a sign of the depth of the blues’ influence throughout this record that such a pure rockin’ blues number slips so nimbly into this collection.

“Third Time Gone” restores the energy, with a scene-setting blues rock harmonica piece helping get things rolling and steering the song, with some energetic fretwork that’ll appeal guitar aficionados, and a kickass, harmonica-accompanied Carmine Appice drum solo toward the end.

“Shake That Thing” is another heavily thumping blues-heavy rock number, followed by “Primitive Touch,” which leans back into the sort of off-balance rhythm that’s the opening title track’s calling card.

“Preaching Woman Man Blues” returns the collection to the blues fold – in this case that of the relentlessly rhythm rockin’ blues variety – interestingly after an intro that seems significantly more classically-driven than blues-based, the first such strong appearance on Tightrope, though it’s pretty brief; still, it serves perhaps as foreshadowing that a bigger style variation might await.

But not yet. Indeed, the next track “Elevation” thumps away, as drums-and-harmonica driven as “Third Time Gone,” though with a vastly different rhythm line. I’m also quite fond of how “Elevation” ends so suddenly in a very live rock ‘n roll way.

Next is the longest song on the album. It’s one of my favorite 7-plus minute songs, a rarity for me as I tend to get antsy somewhere between four or five minutes. Indeed, “Suite 1 & 2: Everlong, All the Madmen” has some progressive rock leanings, and that’s not primarily a reference to it’s length; rather, my comparison is due to the song’s meandering ways. There is, in fact, a break point halfway through that serves as a dividing line between the “Everlong” and “All the Madmen” portions of the song, a great transition that rescues you, sonically with a bit of a circus or carnival musical flair, just as you think you’ll never get the hauntingly gurgling, otherworldly chorus of “Everlong” out of your head. It’s an inspired sound pairing, one that continues to improve after repeated listens.

“Headed For a Fall” picks up the tempo and delivers Tora Tora-esque blues rock that feels as if it’s delivered with a wink and a smile.

“Wear It Out” closes the disc with another slightly stylistically different take on the blues-rock that permeates Tightrope. As if a nod to the ’80s heavy rock that paid homage back to its ’70s roots, this is a song with a vocal line that might be found in a Honeymoon Suite song, though it might be some of the instrumental stylings that leads me to that comparison. Still, it’s dipped in and dripping from a purer blues and blues rock pedigree, augmented by judicious harmonica use and, as everywhere on this Cactus disc, driven by Carmine Appice’s intense rhythms that are simultaneously complex and straightforward, as only few drummers can accomplish.

I struggle to choose a standout track, with a different favorite upon each listen (but only just barely). “Suite 1 & 2: Everlong, All the Madmen” is always toward the top for me, in part because it’s such a unique song, but rarely number one. Simply put, this is a solid, cohesive collection of classic blues-based hard rock that’s an enjoyable listen every single time. My favorite way to experience Tightrope is beginning to end; I’m guessing that’ll be your favorite way, too.

Looking Ahead

There’s a “Cactus on Tour” page on the band’s website, but it’s currently devoid of dates. Be sure to check back periodically.

Album Review: Merry Clayton – Beautiful Scars

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Merry Clayton: Beautiful Scars (Motown Gospel/Ode Records)

Go back and listen to some of your favorite tunes over the years – The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, or Ringo Starr’s “Oh My My.” Or maybe check out early recordings by Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt and Coldplay. All these classic songs and artists have one thing in common – Merry Clayton. She is, arguably, one of the most recorded session vocalists in pop music history. Her soulful and big booming voice has been a part of the soundtrack of our lives since the ‘60s.

In 2013, she starred in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. As a result of appearing in that film, she bounced back into the public spotlight. But then, in 2014, tragedy struck in the form of a serious auto accident. As a result of trauma from the crash she lost both legs from the knee down. However, Merry Clayton is an amazing testament to the power of prayer, personal fortitude and purpose. It never kept her down. And it’s her faith in God and a higher power that brought her back full circle in making Beautiful Scars.

Merry Clayton – Beautiful Scars

image courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Multi award-winning producer Lou Adler partnered with his long-time friend Clayton to bring this album to light. And what an incredible album it is! It’s a blend of the sacred and the secular where the bottom line is all about positivity and praise. For instance, the album opens with a classic song by Leon Russell called “A Song for You.” The song is a pensive ballad focusing on dedication to a significant other, whether the “other” is a lover, the listener, or The Lord himself. Clayton’s beautiful interpretation of this song transcends earthly parameters and is, simply, pure love.

Sam Cooke’s wonderful “Touch the Hem of His Garment” is a stirring tune that is a prime example of an artist that could walk that secular/sacred line. Gerald Albright really shines here on sax and adds spiritual weight to Clayton’s reverent delivery.

The title track was written by celebrated composer Diane Warren. Although it is dedicated to Clayton’s late sister it certainly encapsulates the rise from adversity that the singer has experienced herself. In it Merry Clayton sings: “These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart, these are beautiful scars that I’ve made it this far. Every hurt I’ve endured, every cut, every bruise, wear it proud like a badge, wear it like a tattoo.”

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

“Love is a Mighty River” was written by Coldplay’s Chris Martin. It’s a modern gospel tune, with a strong Mahalia Jackson feel. Kudos on this track go out to the brilliant voices of the Soweto Gospel Choir.

A simple message of looking to God for all things is expressed in keyboardist Terry Young’s funky “God’s Love.” It’s a catchy number that recalls something Chaka Khan might do. Some of L.A.’s finest session/side players show up and show out on this track.

Another Terry Young standout is a track called “Deliverance.” Clayton sings: “Deliverance is yours for the asking. Ask Jesus and I know he will deliver you.” There is a comfort and assurance in the singer’s words that should hit home with anyone with a pulse. The song is a powerful multi-dimensional piece that builds to a soul-stirring finale.

“Room at the Altar” has a lot of rhythmic vibrancy and really swings. It’s a rousing call and response number between Clayton and members of “L.A.’s Finest Choir.” Clayton sings: “Just call his name, ‘cause I know he answers prayer. I’m standing on the promises of God.” This is some of that old-time gospel that is sure to get you on your feet!

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Music director Terry Young’s “He Made a Way” is a mid-tempo pop tune that is sure to connect on a visceral as well as spiritual level. The song states: “Oh, what a friend you are to me, when I was bound you set me free. There’s no one like you, you brought me through… You’re always right there for me.”

The great Herb Alpert appears on “Oh, What a Friend.” It describes the definition of friendship and gets a decidedly light-hearted treatment via Tijuana Brass alum’s classic gossamer-toned trumpet.

Clayton and Adler’s blend of the secular with the sacred really comes together on the album finale “Ooh Child Medley.” In it the suite transitions from classic soul tune “Ooh Child” to the spiritual “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and concludes with the Jackie DeShannon joining Clayton for the uplifting “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

Beautiful Scars is a perfect album on so many levels, not the least of which is the great Merry Clayton’s return from the ashes to the recording world. Here’s to many more and fruitful years for this inspiring and essential artist!

Album Review: Sheila Landis and Rick Matle – Walkin’ After Midnight

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

photo by Bill Dwyer; photo courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Sheila Landis and Rick Matle: Walkin’ After Midnight, feat. George “Sax” Benson (SheLan Records)

Sheila Landis is a Detroit-based multi-award-winning jazz vocalist and composer whose career spans 45 years. Rick Matle is a guitarist’s guitarist and composer, with a musical resume nearly as long, having played in big bands and combos throughout the metro Detroit area. Together, since 1991, they’ve released a number of unique albums exploring all aspects of jazz, blues, world music, funk, and everything in between.

“Walkin’ After Midnight” is not only the title track of the album but was a signature hit for country crooner Patsy Cline. Landis, an ardent maven of Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and all the greats, puts her gossamer spin on a classic singer and song. Detroit woodwind virtuoso George “Sax” Benson offers up some nice tenor work, with Matle ushering in cool bop lines. This is a well balanced mix of pop and swing courtesy of frequent collaborator Karen Tomalis on drums.

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

image courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

Louis Jordan’s “Knock Me a Kiss” is textbook vocalizing for Landis. She injects the suave and sexy tune, with just the right amount of playful humor and wordless scatting. Benson answers her phrasing by responding with smooth tenor shadings. “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” is a Duke Ellington classic. It gets a funky treatment here as if James Brown or Curtis Mayfield were arranging. Matle’s Wes Montgomery-like  guitar, along with Benson’s muscular sax, make this sizzle.

“Something Wonderful” is a Landis/Matle co-write, and it recalls an old-school R&B flavored tune. Growing up in the ‘60s and ’70s, they were both heavily influenced by the contemporary sounds of the day. This is their loving tribute where Landis sings, “The music of those Motown artists really touched my soul.”

Acclaimed poet Maya Angelou’s work was the basis for “Phenomenal Woman (Inner Mystery).” Afro-Cuban rhythms fueled by drummer Gayelynn McKinney make the vamp-like groove sparkle. The harmonized trumpets of David Thomas recall Hugh Masakela or vintage Herb Alpert.

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

photo by Andre B. Thomas; photo courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

From there they bring it down a tad for a tune popularized by Peggy Lee, and written by Little Willie John, called “Fever.” Recorded in 2017 at the Arts, Beats & Eats festival, this is the kind of stuff Landis can really sink her teeth into. It’s appropriately cool, bluesy and mellow, with outstanding chordal guitar solos by Matle. At that same festival, a medley of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and a poem set to music called “Bold as Love” take the sound and spirit of the guitar legend to amazing and noteworthy heights. The rhythm section of bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Tomalis interact with Matle and Landis for a true and authentic re-creation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience band. While they are somewhat faithful to “Little Wing’s” original intent, Landis takes liberties with it in a suitably psychedelic manner. The original Landis poem “Bold as Love” is not only a fitting tribute to Hendrix, but it is a showcase for all her formidable and incomparable vocal and lyrical skills. She beatboxes, scats, utilizes word play, and straddles the stratosphere with her incredible range. Meanwhile, led by Matle, the rhythm section takes a journey through a collage of sound referencing Hendrix’s catalog of hits. About Jimi’s legacy Landis recites: “He has the psychedelic showmanship of Louis Jordan in the Age of Aquarius.”

They return on that same concert to some mainstream jazz for an oldie but goodie “It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing.” The Duke Ellington number never sounded so lively and fun! And it really does swing where Landis mimics a muted trumpet, among her many vocal iterations.

They conclude the album with a novel and unusual track, recorded live in 2017 at the Detroit Jazz Festival, called “Kazoo Who?” It’s kind of a jamming sort of situation where the moral of the story is that everything goes better with a kazoo. Drummer David Taylor and bassist John Lindberg lay down a jazzy hip-hop-type groove as Landis raps about her love of the kazoo, leading to an impassioned solo on said instrument. You just gotta hear it to believe it! It’s cool and one kids young and old can really dig into.

Sheila Landis and Rick Matle are a great team in the same family as Tuck and Patti and artists of that ilk. The combination of Landis’ sturdy modern bop roots, with Matle’s sense of guitar experimentation and rock sensibilities single-handedly take  jazz in new and exciting directions.

Looking Ahead

Sheila and Rick have several upcoming shows this month around metro Detroit. This weekend, they’ll be at the Village of Rochester Hills Gazebo on Friday, July 9th and at Johnny’s Speakeasy on Royal Oak on Sunday, July 11th. For additional details on these and other live dates, be sure to check out the “Shows” page on their website.