terça-feira, 29 de junho de 2021

HELLOWEEN (GER) - Walls of Jericho (LP, Noise, 1985)

RATING: ****

(It's been a while since I wrote the first instalment of this particular series. Still, I just read that review and think it still reflects my feelings about the record, so there's no need to rewrite it at all - let's just keep things going, so hopefully I can make all the way through Helloween's large discography in the coming months. Oh yeah, their new album is out and it's quite a kickass record, but this blog was never about contemporary reviews as you can see, and I'm pretty sure no one else reads it regularly but myself, so I'm not in a rush. Let's just enjoy the ride while it lasts!)

After an impressive (but slightly uneven) debut with a self-titled mini-LP, the German entity known as Helloween wasted little time (no pun intented) before putting together a set of songs to comprise their first full record. Given the encouraging response to their earlier efforts (that including the two songs on the "Death Metal" split album), it's fair to say that the pumpkin was taking off in a strong fashion, and expectations around the group were understandably quite high. And Helloween did the trick, you can bet your ass they did. Produced by Harris Johns and recorded at the now near-legendary Music Lab in Berlin, "Walls of Jericho" is easily one of the groundbreaking albums to come out from Germany in the 1980's, with a mixture of melody, heaviness and fast delivery that was very close to revolutionary - a record that pretty much spawned the entire European speed metal scene, and still a milestone thousands of bands are forever indebted to.

After a unimpressive (but also perfectly tolerable) self-titled intro, "Ride the Sky" comes exploding out of your speakers - and this is perhaps the song that better represents Helloween's huge (and often overlooked) contribution to speed metal. It's all obviously very fast, but you won't mistake it for thrash metal, for instance: fast picking is a fundamental feature for both subgenres, but early Helloween's impact isn't that much based around the riffs, but rather comes from the drive, dexterity and astute use of melody and harmonies all along. The core elements of power metal are all there, and this is perhaps what differs Helloween (and like-minded followers like Blind Guardian and Paradox) from bands like Agent Steel or Razor: they never lose their grip on emotion, and there's always a feeling that something grandiose (and not simply fast or aggressive) is going on. This is perhaps more tangible in the near arrogant solo section, a showcase of Kai Hansen and Michael Weikath's prowess that takes you to every possible place  while also creating a majestic, almost otherworldly atmosphere. This song is a monster, one of the strongest cuts ever penned by this band, and it's enough to make you sure, from first listen, that Helloween were destined to greater things. 

Next comes "Reptile", and it's a song that, despite not being half as impressive as "Ride the Sky" (it's my third less favorite here, actually), gets much closer to what we would hear from the "Keepers" onwards. Things are not insanely fast, the lyrics are laughable (in a good way) and the song as a whole seems to say "crank it up and crack a beer, let's have fun" rather than "yeah, we kick major ass, listen to what we can do". It's a song written by Weikath, and I have a theory about him and Helloween that I will keep under wraps until the right time comes ("Keeper 2", coming soon) - but it's another of his contributions, "Guardians", the one that (to my ears, at least) more strongly hints to what would be Helloween's signature sound, the template that would turn them into a truly innovative and even revolutionary band for the metal universe. I mean, it's perhaps the first song that completes the route towards what would later be known as melodic power metal. It's not that different from "Ride the Sky", mind you, but it's a more friendly, uplifting approach to the same basic formula, and it really takes the melodic side of things up to the next level. This is the blueprint that bands like Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica and Angra would follow in later years, a truly tremendous track that still ranks among the all-time classics from an entire genre.   

Let's take a minute to laud the abilities of the five musicians involved with this record, shall we?The twin guitar work is no less than amazing: Weikath is a technical player with a keen ear for melody, while Hansen is a more ferocious, roaring beast whose contributions add something of an instinctive heaviness to the proceedings. A bit like Glenn Tipton and KK Downing used to do in Judas Priest, if you really need a comparison. I truly enjoy Kai's voice BTW: I know it's a truly divisive subject (some love it to death, others hate it with a passion), but his raspy, nasal, kinda malevolent delivery fits quite well into the sheer intensity of this particular repertoire. Ingo Schwichtenberg is a force of nature really: his pace is robust and relentless, with truly impressive levels of stamina (seriously, just listen to what he does during the opening of "Heavy Metal (is the Law)"), and some of his fills are no less than superb, even moreso when you consider he's playing at machine-gun speed most of the time. And Markus Grosskopf should be a way more lauded bass player if you ask me: his basslines are simply something else. To me, he is easily one of the greatest bassists in metal, and it has a lot to do with his ability to fill every possible (and some seemingly impossible) spaces with well-crafted, sometimes quite complex, but always smooth and ear-catching arrangements. In Helloween, the bass isn't exactly a backbone (as in, say, '80s Judas Priest), neither a showcase of impressive, but rather tiring technical prowess (yeah, most prog metal bands, I'm talking to you): he just knows exactly what the song needs, every single time. It needs fast, he goes fast; it needs groove, well, there it is; it needs some quirky melody, and lo and behold, he just nails it once again. I can only think of Steve Harris when it comes to this incredible understanding of what a bass is supposed to do in a metal song, and "Walls of Jericho" makes Markus' merits clear in amazing, nearly exhilarating fashion. I'm a lifelong fan, and you'll read me wax lyrical about his work many times through the forthcoming reviews, but let me tell you this: the guy is a master of his craft, and this album kicks even more serious ass because of him.

This could have been a near flawless LP when it comes to songwriting, but I feel that "Phantoms of Death" and "Gorgar" didn't age that well and are of a minor calibre when compared to the rest of the package. Despite having an opening riff disturbingly similar to Iron Maiden's "2 Minutes to Midnight", "Phantoms of Death" simply lacks the hook to make it really interesting - the guitar work, albeit quite busy, is mostly a variation around the same few notes, and the instrumental section tries to achieve the same levels of awesomeness of "Ride the Sky" (or "Victim of Fate" before it), but only manages to sound aimless and kinda bloated. And "Gorgar" tries to be a heavy-but-funny song about a guy addicted to videogames, but it just never takes off really, with rather unimaginative instrumentation that plod along with the silly lyrics and chorus. These particular tunes are the ones where the rough edges in songwriting are more evident, and, though not really bad by any stretch, are enough to prevent "Walls of Jericho" from getting an even higher rating.

But fear not, my friends. Even when they're being cheesy as hell (as in the double death-to-false-metal anthems "Metal Invaders" and "Heavy Metal (Is the Law)") they still bring it home in major fashion, and many bands out there would sell their mothers to have an album closer as strong as "How Many Tears": masterful, inspiring, lightning fast in places, but still immensely melodic and able to conjure a spellbinding atmosphere of commitment and power. Granted, the production may be a bit muddy in places, and the artwork is not exactly my cup of tea, but seriously, who cares? It begins with a classic, it ends with a classic, it has a third classic in the shape of "Guardians" and a lot of tasty donuts along the way: what else could any of us want? "Walls of Jericho" is a landmark release for European speed metal, a forerunner of melodic power metal in places and oh yeah, an undisputed classic from the 1980's, full to the brim with replay value to this day. And it's just their debut full-length LP, you know. If you don't have it, stop making questions and go get it straight away.

Kai Hansen (V/G), Michael Weikath (G), Markus Grosskopf (B), Ingo Schwichtenberg (D).

01. Walls of Jericho (Weikath, Hansen)
02. Ride the Sky (Hansen)
03. Reptile (Weikath)
04. Guardians (Weikath)
05. Phantoms of Death (Hansen)
06. Metal Invaders (Hansen, Weikath)
07. Gorgar (Hansen, Weikath)
08. Heavy Metal (Is the Law) (Hansen, Weikath)
09. How Many Tears (Weikath)

Have you been involved with any of the bands mentioned here? Have any extra info and/or corrections? Please e-mail me (drequon@gmail.com) and let me know!

quinta-feira, 24 de junho de 2021

FUZZY DUCK (UK) - Fuzzy Duck (LP, MAM, 1971)

RATING: ****

Some things seem to be destined to remain as mysteries, I guess. It's a truly difficult challenge for me, for instance, to understand just how could Fuzzy Duck be so cruelly overlooked in the early 1970s. It's not only that they were good, you know - they were actually damn awesome, more than capable to hold their own against the strongest competition in the heavy rock scene of the time, something which is an achievent in itself. Unfortunately, their undeniable collective talents could only take them so far, and their sole LP became an ultra-collectable as decades went on - a status that pretty much remains to this day, though some licensed reissues (including my personal copy, a remastered CD issued in 2012 by Esoteric Recordings) are also out there, for the benefit of those who can't spend a full month's salary to buy an original pressing.

Fuzzy Duck emerged right at the heart of then-very-successful MAM label, as something of a super band in the shape of Mick Hawksworth (B/V, ex-Andromeda and Five Week Straw People), Grahame White (G/V), Paul Francis (D, who performed with ex-Searchers' Tony Jackson and also handled the sticks for Tucky Buzzard) and Roy Sharland (K, ex-Spice and seemingly also involved with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown). Seen as a quite promising prospect at the time, they were almost immediately taken to a studio to record their debut album - which curiously just came out after the original quartet was no more, with Grahame White being replaced by Garth Watt-Roy, who also took all vocal duties for himself. The band's sole LP was released as it was recorded, though - and it was a good thing in fact, as the chemistry between the original four-piece is quite remarkable and it would have been such a shame if these tapes were shelved, languishing for decades on end in some dusty archive. 

Surely influenced by then-rising bands such as Uriah Heep and Deep Purple, Fuzzy Duck were still keen to add generous pinches of personality and experimentation to their cauldron, creating an inventive, energetic, somewhat jazzy, very individualistic variant on prog/psych music. All the musicians involved kick major asses in their respective instruments too, something that add extra levels of aural pleasure due to the top notch musicianship. In a close-knit bunch of musicians, Roy Sharland and Mick Harnsworth somehow manage to shine a bit more than the rest: the keyboards, though very prominent, are always tasty and engaging (reminding me of the very best moments of bands such as Caravan), and some of the basslines (as in "Mrs. Prout" and "More Than I am") are a joy of their own, highlighted by a generous mix that gives it a lot of space to shine.

The opening salvo with "Time Will Be Your Doctor" and "Mrs. Prout" is no less than outstanding, most of all due to the second track, an immensely inspired piece of songwriting that manages to be both quirky and catchy without losing any impact along the way. Similarly, tracks such as "Afternoon Out", "Just Look Around You" (with a twin-guitar work to make Wishbone Ash jealous) and the truly outstanding "In Our Time" are sure to make happy all those who enjoy the 1970s approach to heavy music. Some may not enjoy the comic value of album closer "A Word from Big D" (a semi-instrumental tune with 'vocals' by someone impersonating a duck, no less) but, apart from this slightly questionable move, there's hardly a stinker in sight, and the replay value of this self-titled LP is extraordinarily high.

The CD reissue I'm working with includes four bonus tracks taken from singles, all from the the Watt-Roy period - and, although far from disappointing ("One More Hour", for instance, is quite a good song), they somehow lack the high-spirited enthusiasm of the LP cuts. It's not very surprising to learn that the band didn't manage to last for long after the original line-up went their sepparate ways, Fuzzy Duck's lifespan amounting to little more than a year in total. The main factor seems to have been the poor sales of their sole LP (most probably due to poor distribution, as MAM didn't put much effort in a record they seemingly deemed unrepresentative), a situation not helped by the lukewarm reception to their later singles. Whatever the case, Fuzzy Duck's legacy is quite a respectable one when you take only the music in consideration - and it's the music that matters, right? Don't be afraid to spend some money on it, most of all if you enjoy some 1970's prog/psych rock in your spare time.

Fortunately, most of those involved found good employment elsewhere, with Graeme White joining the ranks of Capability Brown and Krazy Kat, while drummer Paul Francis later teamed up with Tranquility and also handled the drumsticks to Mick Ronson (he's still active to this day, as a live and studio player in the British jazz scene). As for latecomer Garth Watt-Roy (a common feature in the studio super group The Greatest Show on Earth, incidentally), he recorded vocals for Steamhammer towards the end of their career, and also worked with acts such as Limey, The Q-Tips and East of Eden in later years. Mick Hawksworth would join Alvin Lee's Ten Years Later in the latter half of the 1970's, subsequently being enrolled by the Mick Clarke Band as well. More recently, the gifted bassist recorded a handful of obscure (but pretty cool) CDs with an outfit called The Flying Pigs. When it comes to Roy Sharland, I honestly just don't know - but don't be shy to drop us a line or two if you do, as I love his contributions here and would be delighted to know more.

Grahame White (V/G), Mick Hawksworth (V/B), Roy Sharland (K), Paul Francis (D). 

01. Time Will Be Your Doctor (Francis, D. Brown, N. Graham) 5:06
02. Mrs. Prout (Francis, Sharland) 6:45
03. Just Look Around You (Hawksworth) 4:20
04. Afternoon Out (Francis, Sharland) 5:20
05. More Than I Am (Hawksworth) 5:30
06. Country Boy (White, Francis, Sharland) 6:00
07. In Our Time (Hawksworth) 6:49
08. A Word from Big D (White, Hawksworth) 1:51

Have you been involved with any of the bands mentioned here? Have any extra info and/or corrections? Please e-mail me (drequon@gmail.com) and let me know!

quarta-feira, 23 de junho de 2021

T34 (UK) - Computer Dating (7'', Divage, 1981) plus Rock On (7'', Galaxy, 1982)


Sometimes, writing about a given band's music can be a truly challenging (not to say very confusing) mission. The entity that once roamed the Earth (well, London and its thereabouts, actually) under the name T34 is a very illustrative example in this regard. Though often credited as a NWOBHM outfit (including the authoritative NWOBHM Encyclopedia by Malc McMillan), it has but a passing resemblance to the genre if we're to be honest here, and the fact that so many people consider it to belong on the same shelf where you would put, let's say, a Satan or Sweet Savage record is somewhat puzzling, to say the least. Yeah, I know NWOBHM is something of an arbitrary definition right from the start, and many of the bands labeled as such are no stranger to some crossover potential, being equally appealing to punk, power pop, new wave, prog and pub rock audiences, to name a few. Still, I consider T34's case particularly intriguing: it's not that they didn't deserve to be mentioned at all (let's face it, if a 7'' like Brands Hatch's "Teacher Teacher" can be regarded as a NWOBHM collectable, then nearly everyone else can), but it is surprisingly difficult to decide whether to attach the NWOBHM tag to them or not. I'm still on the fence myself as I write this piece, you know.

Some may still not be fully aware of this, but T34 (a name that has something to do with war tanks, I guess) is an offshoot band from none other than Smiler - yeah, that Smiler, the London-based blues rock group that became something of a legend due to its connection with Iron Maiden. It's common knowledge that guitarist Mick Clee was a direct descendent from Smiler, but vocalist Steve Williams (nothing to do with Budgie) also lent his talents for the old combo in the early 1980's, including a brief period when they assumed a more punk-rockish outlook under the name Vic Rubb and the Vapours (not to be confused with British power pop band The Vapors, whose single "Turning Japanese" entered the charts in 1980). When the other half of the Clee brothers (guitarist Tony Clee, that is) decided to take a break from music in early 1981, Mick and Steve kept working together towards creating a different entity, way more attuned to contemporary trends than Smiler seems to have ever been.

After a series of well-received gigs in and around London, the band got into the famed Spaceward Studios in Cambridge and recorded two tracks for the purposes of a debut 7'' single, released by their own Divage label. "Computer Dating" (a somewhat intriguing concept really, as networking technologies like the Internet weren't really a thing back then) is a somewhat bizarre number, with half-spoken vocals and sedated arrangements interspersed with some unexpectedly heavy guitar chords and solos. It's surely the closer we get to NWOBHM territory around here, but the chorus has more of a new wave / punk rock vibe to my ears, so I'm not entirely convinced they had anything more metallic in mind while writing and recording this one. A perfectly good rock song all the same, though, and the same goes to flipside "Mind Your Own Business", a melodic rocker with a truly catchy chorus that somehow reminds me of a collision between Girl and The Police (yeah, me neither). Maybe those aware of how bands as Jeddah, Midas ("Can't Stop Loving You Now") and Masterstroke ("Prisoner of Love") sound like will get a better picture of what is going on around here. The guitar work is very creative throughout, and I also like the way Steve Williams sings this one, with something of a controlled raspiness (whatever that is supposed to mean) that really adds some extra charm to the proceedings. All in all, a very nice listening experience, and a slice of vinyl you'll do well to add to your collection, even if it's nowhere near a full-blown NWOBHM assault. It's also not regarded as an ultra-collectable, which means it can be located rather easily and usually offered for a fair price. Most copies come out without a picture sleeve, but it's not exactly the most eye-catching artwork ever printed, so I reckon you shouldn't mind that much if your best option is to buy this 7'' in a generic sleeve.

Though this limited, privately-pressed slice of vinyl didn't exactly turned T34 into national superstars overnight, it did serve its original purpose, securing a few appearances in magazines such as Kerrang and selling reasonably well at gigs. A further 7'' would come out towards the end of 1982, but I won't delve too deep into its contents, as it's a far more commercial product and will hardly appeal to anyone but the most dedicated (obsessive?) NWOBHM completists. Their version of "Rock On" (yeah, the David Essex song) is barely passable if you ask me, but "Looking After Me (Looking After You)" is a well-crafted synth-pop number with considerable replay value for those who enjoy such musical avenues. No longer our cup of tea, that's for sure, but it seems to have been an honest attempt to write more chart-friendly music, and this 7'' single (issued by Galaxy Records, most probably another self-financed affair despite the deceptive GAL007 catalogue number, and with a pretty artsy cover sleeve) could have opened the way to greater things if only T34 could find the right management and/or financial backing. This was not to be, though, and (despite some radio airplay for "Rock On" and a string of well-attended live appearances) the group would fold unspectacularly in late 1983, apparently unable to get back on their feet after Mick Clee decided to make an extended break from the scene.

Most of those involved with T34 seemingly kept a low profile in later years, pursuing activies outside of music for the most part. I know for a fact that drummer John Baker used to play electric jazz with a band called The Anthologists, but they disbanded in early 2015, and I couldn't find any connections involving him ever since (it was hinted that the same John Baker played drums for early 90's indie rockers Ship of Fools, but I don't have any solid ground to confirm it just yet). Never heard anything from the other guys, though, and I'd surely love to know more - so, if you happen to have any information to share, I would be more than happy to hear from you. 

Steve Williams (V), Mick Clee (G), Colin Stuart (B), John Baker (D).

01. Computer Dating
02. Mind Your Own Business

Steve Williams (V), Mick Clee (G), Colin Stuart (B), Wayne Baker (K), John Baker (D).

01. Rock On
02. Looking After Me (Looking After You)

Special thanks to Discogs for picture sleeve scans!

Have you been involved with any of the bands mentioned here? Have any extra info and/or corrections? Please e-mail me (drequon@gmail.com) and let me know!