Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Cro-Mags - In the Beginning (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

So many bands have emerged out of the shadows over the last couple of years, if not from completely out of the blue, but I shouldn't be too surprised to see the Cro-Mags among them, given how often they've split up over the years and how often they've got back together again, in one form or another. They have something of a reputation for internecine feuds, as if all the clichéd New York gang movies are somehow true to life.

This, however, marks an official shift of the band away from its incarnation under John Joseph Bloodclot, who led the Cro-Mags for the last decade in his fifth stint in the band, and to the band's founder, Harley Flanagan, who is now on his fourth. It was Flanagan who sang on Revenge, the band's previous album, which was released only three weeks into the year 2000. They've been gone from the studio, if not the stage, for a long time.

While some of the folk in Joseph's new incarnation of the band, Cro-Mags JM, have decades of service in it, everyone in the current line-up has time with the Cro-Mags dating back at least three stints going back to the nineties. I see Rocky George from Suicidal Tendencies on guitar; he was on that previous Cro-Mags album too. With Flanagan on bass as well as vocal duty, that leaves Gabby Abularach on the other guitar and Garry Sullivan on drums.

I first heard the Cro-Mags in 1986 when my favourite band had changed from Iron Maiden to Nuclear Assault and I'd become fascinated by the new merger of thrash metal with American punk. I'd dug deep into thrash but knew almost nothing about punk at that point. What I quickly discovered was that I was a metalhead not a punk but I did like a lot of the pioneering crossover bands, including the Cro-Mags, D.R.I. and Bad Brains.

In the Beginning is more of a metal album than The Age of Quarrel was back in 1986, with Flanagan's vocals deeper, more controlled and far more mature, and the two guitarists providing a real crunch. The punk side of the band is more obvious in the rhythm section. Just check out the energetic bass intro to No One's Coming, which is possibly the best song on the album and surely the most important too.

For instance, it's at that point that we realise that we haven't even been listening for ten minutes yet, but we're already onto track five. The band simply blister through the first four songs, none of which make it past the three minute mark and one of which only just sneaks past half that. Over the album as a whole, fully half a dozen songs wrap up in fewer than two and a half minutes. The entire run of thirteen is done and dusted in under forty.

It also shows some real imagination. Not only does it last long enough for a guitar solo in the middle, which doesn't remotely slow the blitzkrieg riffs and bludgeoning drums that drive the song forward, but it adds another sound later on. We start to hear more beats than G-Man ought to be able to provide and we realise that they're not his. It sounds like the band are rocking out in an underground garage and the audience is joining in by banging whatever they can find against the wall. As it wraps up, we realise that this is all in effective ethnic rhythms.

There is one longer song and that's also interesting, because it ditches the vocals. It's Between Wars and it's entirely instrumental for its almost six minutes. It's not really rooted in thrash at all and it's the drums that are most obvious, shining far brighter than the guitars, G-Man doing a glorious job as the apparent octopus behind the kit.

So that's two highlight songs that I've praised the drums in. I should point out that the guitars are generally everywhere here, providing ever-reliable crunch and riffage. The more we focus on them, the more we realise just how tight this band is. PTSD is absolutely textbook crossover—no nonsense, balls to the wall, bludgeoning energy—and so is The Final Test, with its fantastic speed up at the halfway mark; only its vocals do somewhere different, being surprisingly subdued for a not remotely subdued genre. I like.

The most punk song is probably Two Hours, which is vehemently up front and threatening. It's less a song and more an angry musical punch in the face, the lyrics preached rather than sung or shouted and the music slower as if it's background texture to something visual than the backing to a song. Is there a video to this one? If there isn't, there ought to be.

Not everything holds up to the best songs here, but nothing lets the album done. It's a powerful statement of intent for a band who haven't released a studio album in twenty years. Welcome back, folks.

Nighthawker - From Wither to Bloom (2020)



Country: Netherlands
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

I got caught by surprise by this second album by Dutch rockers Nighthawker and I've been listening to it a lot to figure out what's happening in their sound. It's clearly rooted in southern rock, but it's quieter and much more subdued than the usual Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet influences. They're surely there, but there's as much Crosby, Stills and Nash to lighten it all. There's easily as much late sixties here as seventies and on.

Instead, the guitars carry some unmistakeable fuzz with them. As bluesy as a song like Dishwasher Blues gets, with Mischa van Dalsen providing some tasty harmonica licks, there's always a connection to more modern stoner pop/rock and that's even more obvious on ongs like Night of the Hunter. The Moonlight Rider takes us back to the late sixties but it sports a psychedelic vibe not a hippie one. I could imagine this played by a band supporting the Doors at the Fillmore.

This versatility impresses me but it's really pretty straightforward. While we're used to bands going back to a point in time and playing everything in the style of that time, Nighthawker are a great example of a band who don't stop at that point in time but work forward from it in a direction that's a logical one for them, creating their music from that thin slice of influence going back through the decades. I just love bands who explore those slices.

The core of the band is four musicians, two male and two female, the latter not being relegated to the roles you might expect. I don't think any of them shine over any of their colleagues, but that's because they work so well as a cohesive band. While the songs here are created by four people, they sound like they're really created instead by a single unit with eight arms and the requisite other bodyparts to do the job right. That helps provide a sort of live feel, as if the various instruments can't be separated and can only be performed together.

There are guests too, with a saxophone on this track and congas on those two but it's the guest vocals that stand out most. Three of the band members are credited with vocals: guitarist Steven van der Vegt on male lead and drummer Kiki Beemer on female lead, with Brandon Spies adding backing vocals to his bass duties. Only guitarist Gwen Ummels doesn't sing, but she provided that gorgeous cover art, so I ain't complaining.

The two songs featuring guest vocals are The Rabbit Hole and Sundown. The former features the talents of singer/songwriter CelineShanice, which I believe is one word not two, and she does a fine job as a complement to van der Vegt. She's even better singing lead for Nighthawker on a cover of Led Zeppelin's What Is and What Should Never Be, which can be found on the band's website. It was the unique voice of Edith Spies-Wawrowska on the latter that really blew me away, though. Her main band is Violet's Tale, who are apparently an old time country outfit for whom she sings lead, and I simply must find out what they sound like, but she fits superbly here as well, even if her voice stands out enough to make it obvious that she's a guest.

It does feel odd talking about vocals here, because Nighthawker are a guitar band, just with subtle guitars for folk with such an overt love for southern rock. There's only one real chicken scratching guitar jam, for instance, at the end of Leaps of Faith, though Mountain Bridge does think about it. Other songs highlight just how varied the guitarwork is here, from Ummels and van der Vegt. They both play acoustic and electric, while the latter also adds a real flavour to the closer, That Train Left the Station, on slide.

This appears to be Nighthawker's debut album, following a couple of 2018 EPs called Escape the Hornet's Nest, named for sides of an LP rather than parts of a continued release. I'll have to track them down along with my expected side journey into what Violet's Tale are doing. And I'll add this band to my "want to see live but probably never well" list. I'd love to experience the feel of a live Nighthawker gig because I have a feeling it might be special.

Friday, 12 June 2020

BPMD - American Made (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating:
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

Having recently reviewed an album of all original music from what used to be a tribute band (Fragile, in case you're wondering), here's a counter: some major names teaming up to cover a bunch of American rock classics from the seventies. The project started with bass player Mark Menghi of the groove/thrash supergroup, Metal Allegiance, and he created another tight side band here with an accomplished set of musicians.

The band name is the initials you might expect, with Menghi the M. The B is Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth, lead vocalist of New Jersey thrash outfit Overkill; the P is Mike Portnoy, former drummer of Dream Theater; and the D is former Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel, who's now with Violence. For a line-up of mostly thrash musicians, they treat these songs as rock songs, heavying them up a little but rarely speeding them up. This wasn't about reinventing them in a thrash style.

Apparently, each member of the band chose two songs to cover, with the final two being group decisions and it's interesting to see who picked what.

Mike Portnoy's two choices show up first and they're a fantastic way to kick things off. They're well known songs, so everyone can sing along: Wang Dang Sweet Poontang, originally by Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic. The former gives Ellsworth a great opportunity to introduce the band in the sort of rapid fire rhyme that Nugent used to famously introduce the song on Double Live Gonzo! My favourite of these two is the latter, though, because it's similar to the Aerosmith original but more vicious and in your face.

Menghi's choices are iconic numbers too, including the one that sparked the band and album to begin with, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Saturday Night Special. The other is ZZ Top's Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers and it was here that I realised how true to the original tempos BPMD were being. There may be a couple of extra notes in Saturday Night Special to give it a little more emphatic crunch but the band don't attempt to reinvent the song, just give it more urgency.

Ellsworth and Demmel plumped for deeper cuts, especially to my British ears, given that my seventies rock education was from bands that Overkill acknowledged on their Coverkill album: Black Sabbath, Motörhead and Deep Purple more than Cactus, Mountain and the James Gang. Overall, my favourites here were the more obscure numbers, with the exception of We're an American Band, the Grand Funk Railroad standard. That's a song everyone knows and the one that I looked forward to least here, but BPMD do a superb job of making it seem new and filling it with fresh life.

Ellsworth's choices were Evil, the Cactus version of the Willie Dixon blues number and Never in My Life, a Mountain song that I don't know. Strangely, I would call the former the least successful choice here but the latter one of the most successful and for much the same reason. I don't think the band are able to catch the groove in the former and Ellsworth's vocals overwhelm it, but they absolutely nail the groove in the latter and Ellsworth shines, his snarl really fitting the style.

That leaves Demmel, who to my way of thinking is the backbone of this album, as utterly reliable as Portnoy and the others are but let loose to shine on a more frequent basis. He gets to play in quite a number of styles, provide both the lead and rhythm and to do the job of two guitarists on his own. His contribution to Toys in the Attic sounds very different from what he brings to Never in My Life or his own choices, which are Blue Öyster Cult's Tattoo Vampire and Van Halen's D.O.A., but he's excellent on each.

Both could be called deep cuts, even though the originals were on albums as famous as Agents of Fortune and Van Halen II, and, while other songs on them spring quickly to mind, these didn't for me, perhaps making these versions a bit fresher inherently. BPMD really dive into both songs though, with a wild guitar from Demmel. Tattoo Vampire feels like such a gimme for a thrash band that I'm surprised I've not heard it covered by one before and the latter is so quintessentially Van Halen that anyone not knowing the original would not be in doubt as to who originated it. Both are real highlights here.

That leaves a couple of bonus tracks, selected by the band as a whole, with We're an American Band the closer that leaves us happy but wanting more, as indeed all closers should. The other is another deep cut that's a highlight for me, the James Gang's Walk Away, which everyone shines on, including some slightly less sneering vocals than usual from Ellsworth.

I really dug this album, a lot more than the last covers album I reviewed, a much more predictable affair from the Ron Keel Band. This is just as fun and even better performed but it's not remotely as disposable. Beyond bringing fresh life to a few songs so well known that it's difficult for anyone to do a good job in the modern day, they also shed new light on a bunch of lesser known songs that listeners are absolutely going to seek out now.

I think part of the success is the clear passion this band has for this sort of material but part of it also is that, whoever chose a particular song, it took the whole band to bring it life and, with the one exception of Evil, I would say that everyone shines on everything. I've listened to this through a few times and whatever instrument I focus on, it's heartfelt and strong. I would love to see a follow up to this album whenever the guys are ready for it.

Shakedown Suzies - A Business Doin' Pleasure (2020)



Country: Sweden
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter

I love exploring subgenres old and new to see where bands are taking sounds in new directions. Sometimes, though, I just like to sit back so that a back to basics, no frills, good old fashioned rock 'n' roll band can kick my ass and Shakedown Suzies definitely fit in that category. There's nothing new in their sound at all, outside the cool carnival music that bookends Delicious Vice, but they do what they do very well indeed and, what's more, they do it with an infectious energy that's hard to resist.

They play hard rock with a emphatic glam edge, that approach led by the lead singer who goes by Ricki Rascal, but it knocks on the door of metal rather a lot. Jonathan Mortensen's guitar is metal through and through, so much that I should probably call it an axe. It slices through the air far more deeply than a regular hard rock guitar would. There's also metal in the energy and the pace and the sheer wall of sound.

Much of this reminds of Dr. Feelgood era Mötley Crüe, Mads Mattsson's drums pounding away like thunderbolts as the rest of the band parade a solid array of riffs and hooks past us. Best of Me is probably the closest to that sound but it's riddled throughout the album. However, when the band kick into high gear, they end up in Motörhead territory. Check out the beginning of Savage Hearts or the end of Alibi, let alone the whole of Hair of the Dog.

All this makes for an energetic sound that's both more raw and more vicious than the pure energy of, say, Airbourne. If I had been played this blind, I would have conjured up a telling line-up in my imagination. The vocals feel like a fifty fifty mix of Michael Monroe and Sebastian Bach. The guitars are an alternating combo of 'Fast' Eddie Clarke and Dave Murray. The back end is the gritty, ever-reliable pairing of Duff McKagan and Tommy Lee. And that's a supergroup in my mind.

Most importantly, the Suzies don't let up. This isn't the longest album I've ever heard, its eleven songs running just over forty minutes, but they don't let up at any point. Even a brief intro suggests that we might be in for the inevitable power ballad, like Rascal Remedy, the band quickly kick it up and find a tougher vibe, in this case ending up as an interesting cross between Thin Lizzy and Asomvel. The closest to a ballad that the band get has to be the closer, I Don't Do Regrets, and that's still no ballad. It merely avoids high gear and lets Mortensen and bassist Agust Ahlberg strut their stuff in Guns n' Roses style.

While the mix gets the instrument levels right, this material demands to be played loud but, when I turn it way up, it distorts a little at the top end and that's not good when each new song just wants me to turn it up further. That distortion is the worst thing about this album, which speaks volumes on the band's consistency.

I should emphasise that I'm a fan of how raw and energetic this sounds and, like all the best rock 'n' roll, it stamps a reminder onto the inside of our eyeballs that we have to see this band live. I haven't because they're from Jönköping in Sweden, so I don't know how they are on stage, but they leave the impression that they'll dominate so much that a good chunk of the guys who never ever leave the bar will find their legs and move up front to join everyone else.

It's also worth mentioning that glam metal often sounds great the first time through, as the hooks catch us, but gets old after we've heard them far too often. I've had this album on repeat for a few days and I haven't tired of a single song yet. In fact, the album just more and more consistent. My choice of a favourite has changed so often that I'm not even going to give you one to go on. Just buy the album. I promise you won't do regrets.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Centinex - Death in Pieces (2020)



Country: Sweden
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 29 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's another old school death metal band who were formed around the point where I was getting bored of old school death metal. They're Centinex, from Sweden and they had what looks like an impressive run from 1990 to 2006, at which point they split up. With eight albums behind them, they reformed in 2014 and have added three more since. On the basis of this one, I'm a fan but...

To be fair, the present Centinex isn't remotely the original Centinex. Bass player Martin Schulman seems to be the heart of the band; he's not just the only original member, continuing with them throughout, he's the only member who's been in the band more than about five minutes. Drummer Florian Rehn is the new fish, having only joined this year, while vocalist Henrik Andersson and guitarist Jörgen Kristensen came on board last year.

While I doubt there's a heck of a lot of past consistency when Andersson is the band's seventh lead singer and Kristensen the seventh lead guitarist, I like the current sound and, for right now, that's all that matters.

They get right down to business, each of the eleven songs on offer a short, sharp shock. Not one of them exceeds four minutes and five clock in at under three, but the style really suits that length. It's lively death: up tempo but never full speed, dark but never outrageously downtuned, deep and growly but never so far to strip Andersson of the ability to intonate. It's heavy anyway and it's even heavier because of an excellent mix.

There isn't much space in this sound for intros or outros or much in the way of dynamic play. I could call Pieces a song featuring a rare intro for this album, but, to be brutally honest, it's nothing more than an intro. Sure, it happens to be a really good one but, by the time it's ready to kick into top gear, it's over and we're into Cauterized, which happens to be a relentless highlight. Centinex just knuckle right down and deliver the goods, over and over again.

What that means is that, while I like this a lot, I'd probably only like it a lot in certain circumstances. For instance, each time I've thrown this on for a listen, it's been after something completely different: prog rock and garage rock, nothing extreme. This worked well as a counter and I enjoyed an hour or so each time of being hammered into submission by listening through a couple of times. I think I'd dig this band as a reliable top support band live, focusing in after all the local guys that had gone before and getting us firmly in the mood for the headliner.

However, I don't ever think I'd throw the Centinex back catalogue on loop as I'd probably get bored pretty quickly. I'd love to listen to the band's next album but I probably won't throw this one on again. They're tight enough and consistent enough to kill live but, if the band in the top support slot did anything unusual at all, they'd probably be the one I'd leave reflecting on rather than this bigger name band at the top of the bill.

And that lack of variety is why I'm dropping this down to 6/10. I enjoyed it a great deal but, outside of perhaps the chorus in Cauterized and the core riff in Sacrifice, if you asked me for the best track or my favourite song or any other moment for special mention, I'd have to ask you to pick a card, any card. They're all simultaneously the best and the worst, because they're interchangeable and whether you see that as a good thing or not will shape your appreciation of the band and this album. If you're a Centinex fan, add at least one point back on.

Clavicule - Garage is Dead (2020)



Country: France
Style: Psychedelic Garage Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jun 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Garage is dead, say Clavicule, releasing what is really a psychedelic garage rock album. The results tell me that garage is far from dead and nobody has even nailed it to the perch. It's clearly alive and well in Rennes, up there in the northwest of France, where Clavicule have mixed it with an intriguing array of sounds. There's Hawkwind in here but Danzig too and Dick Dale and, quite frankly, I never expected to write those names in the same sentence.

This looks like their debut album, though it features the three tracks made previously available on a self-titled EP last year, including the opener, a sensitive little ditty entitled Asshole. This starts out with some surf rock in the guitar but restrained surf against a lofi garage rock backdrop. As it hits full stride and the vocals come in, they're punky in the vein of Glenn Danzig. That's an odd mix but it works really well and it hooked me.

There's no Danzig in the second song, Special Trip, because there's a layer on top of the vocals that gives it a spacy effect. With the vibe generated a hallucinogenic one and the beat an emphatic one, it's not difficult to hear some old school Hawkwind in the song and hey, that works really well too. It shows some neat versatility in the band, even though the two songs aren't as far away from each other sonically as I may have suggested.

Today feels more like garage pop, just as emphatic and just as raw but with a slower Beatles vibe in the construction. There's indie rock in here too, a genre I don't know well enough to highlight comparisons to, but that's where garage rock usually fits so it shouldn't be too surprising. The rhythm is an emphatic old school dance rhythm and the middle eastern sounds in the solos help it to sound almost flamenco.

If that's a wide set of influences, it's a tasty one and Clavicule mix them up over the rest of the album. My Time might start out like an Adam Ant demo but, when it speeds up, it does so with a wild garage flamenco transition. I live for moments like that one. CAB has a flamenco rhythm too, but goes deep into the surf sound three minutes in, which becomes neatly intense, and that sound gets even more delightful when the riffs shift over to keyboards. I'm a big fan of the bass too when the song breaks down towards the end.

Garage bands don't tend to play long songs, but there are two here, with CAB being the first. At 7:19, it's double the average length of the rest, but it never outstays its welcome because it's constructed in phases. Strangely, if CAB is one of my highlights here, my least favourite song is the other long song on offer, Jericho, which closes out the album with an uncharacteristic patience for 6:25. It's the only piece of music here that doesn't take me anywhere, except during its ethnic sections.

I know next to nothing about the band, though Facebook tells me that they're a four piece, with two guitars. Marius plays one and also takes care of the vocals, while Kamil plays the other. Ian handles an occasionally funky bass and Alexis brings an often punky vibe to the drums, or more appropriately in French, the batterie. I have no idea who's responsible for the castanets in the second half of Vertigo, when everything goes garage flamenco again.

While my favourite songs, like My Time and CAB, can be found at the heart of the album, moments like the beginning and end of Vertigo are also highlights and there are plenty more of those. The Race has a particularly epic ending, while The Monkey starts out like Mark Knopfler has stepped in on guitar. I'd given up by that point on any expectation that Clavicule wouldn't just keep on surprising me. I don't think their styles work as well on a ballad, but I won't complain, especially given that The Monkey goes suitably nuts to close.

I really dug this, because it sounds both accessible and highly inventive, a mixture of styles I hadn't heard before that suddenly sound natural together and ought to be mixed more often. Now I really want to hear Clavicule live, maybe alongside a band like The Villainz. That would make for a particularly wild night, hopefully in a tiny but utterly packed club, especially if they join forces at the end of the evening to jam.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Shok Paris - Full Metal Jacket (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Jun 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

Here's yet another band returning from completely out of the blue, cementing 2020 as following in the footsteps of 2019 for surprising resurrections. The old band with new life this time are Shok Paris, who I remember from a 1987 album called Steel and Starlight, though not only for the music; it featured a highly memorable album cover. That was their second eighties album of three and this is album four, because the only studio album they've released since 1989 was a reissue of Steel and Starlight with its heavier original mix.

I actually listened to this back earlier in the year because it was due out at the beginning of February but it got delayed, so I'm returning to it now. My thoughts in July are pretty much what they were in January, namely that I like this but took a while to get used to it, because of the vocals; that it has every bit of the life and energy that a first album in 31 years ought to have; and that it gets better as it moves along.

Maybe Shok Paris never went away but merely hopped through a portal in time from 1987, because the title does indeed refer to the Stanley Kubrick movie. There's an intro called The Creed, which, if you've seen the movie, is what you think it is, merely recreated musically rather than sampled. That leads into the title track, which is decent anthemic hard and heavy stuff that's a throwback to the band's heyday without ever sounding like they don't mean it just as much today.

I should introduce the band, who are led by original guitarist Ken Erb, who co-founded Shok Paris back in 1982 and has been them throughout, except for the two decade gap that ended with reformation in 2009. The other musicians joined in 2010, after the other former members promptly soured on the idea of getting the band back together again. Ed Stephens is the name, because I think he's played bass in every rock band in Cleveland since the James Gang. Well, except Nine Inch Nails. The reliable drummer is Donovan Kenaga and the second guitarist who weaves solos so well with Erb on songs like Fall from Grace is John Korzekwa.

That leaves vocalist Vic Hix, who joined in 1984 and, like Erb, has remained with the band throughout. Unlike Erb, he did release other music during that two decade hiatus, putting out some albums with Philly-based Aftershok. He's the hardest aspect of this album to get used to, though I did get there. He has old school air raid siren vocals with an odd accent and what sounds like a frequent difficulty in catching breath. He has a distinctive enuncation, a trademark that gets overt on These Eyes with its Crimson Glory vibe.

The first half of the album is decent stuff, songs like Nature of the Beast, Metal on Metal and Brothers in Arms enjoyable if never outstanding. It's at the halfway mark that things start to really reach full gear, initially with Black Boots and especially with Hell Day, which reminds of the late eighties when heavy metal bands had sped up in response to the speed metal bands and often found a really cool balance point between power and speed.

I like the second half in general more than the first but the other gem is a power shanty called Symphony of the Sea. The wild vocals of Vic Hix keep it away from pirate metal bands like Alestorm but the melodies flow in much the same way. After that is only the closer, Up the Hammers, which may not mean the same thing in Ohio that it does to Steve Harris. With Stephen's bass on the gallop during the opening, I presume it's a knowing nod to Iron Maiden, for whom 7:14 wouldn't seem particularly long. Hail to the gods, indeed.

This is a decent album, not the impossible to miss comeback album the band's members might have hoped it would be but a very palatable return that makes me look forward to the next one. The current line-up has been stable now for a decade, even with this being its first release, so I presume they're both getting on as a band and getting a good response from the Cleveland audience which is not a minor one. Let's see where they go from here!

Fragile - Golden Fragments (2020)



Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

I have a love/hate relationship with tribute bands. I understand the draw of being able to see the equivalent of bands live at a fraction of the cost of the real thing and in a much smaller venue, especially when the originals no longer exist, at least in the form that we might want. AC/DC with Bon Scott in your local club for ten bucks? A tribute band's your only option. My big problem is that many of these bands nowadays feature musicians who are damn good at what they do and I'd love to hear their own music instead of another take on someone else's.

Case in point: Fragile, who have evolved from their origins as a Yes tribute band to be an "original band paying tribute to Yes in our own unique way". I see that they've been around since 1998 but this is their debut release with original music and I'm really happy that they've evolved to that point, even if it also means that they're no longer playing live.

These musicians also aren't nobodies. For instance, the female vocals come courtesy of Claire Hamill, who's sung for Fragile since 2013. She may not be a household name, but she's guested on albums by Wishbone Ash, Steve Howe and Jon and Vangelis. As a solo artist, she was signed by Ray Davies of the Kinks as far back as 1973 and her solo career has lasted just as many years as I've been alive. Eva Cassidy covered her.

The others may not have Wikipedia pages of their own, but they're clearly as able as they'd need to be to play in a Yes tribute band. There are also some guest vocals from Clive Bayley, who formed Mabel Greer's Toyshop way back in 1966, the band which gradually hired Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Jon Anderson and the other musicians who would soon rename the band to Yes.

While this is clearly music inspired by Yes, mostly from the classic era you might expect from the band's name, Fragile have found their own sound too. I believe having a female lead vocalist helps, especially given that her voice is mostly pitched a little lower than Jon Anderson's. With both Bayley and a regular male vocalist, Max Hunt, of course, even lower, there's little fear of us mistaking the bands.

The Yes influence does extend to the structure of many of these songs. Four of seven are actually pairs of songs that last for up to twelve minutes and change, with a wide use of dynamics and an even wider profusion of lengthy instrumental passages. The closest song to Yes may be Time to Dream/Now We are Sunlight, but aspects of the Yes style can be found throughout, whether through quiet guitar interludes like Open Space or fullblown imagination in musical form like the second half of Surely All I Need.

The latter is itself the second half of a song pair with When are Wars Won? and it opens the album in very lively form. At its most imaginative, it's an instrumental attempt to take us into a landscape such as the cover art might hint at. Put yourself in that position with that point of view and then turn around 360° and imagine what you see. That's Surely All I Need, even if the delightful lyrics suggest at a different vista, and it's easily my favourite piece of music on this album.

While Hamill sings the first two pairs of songs, Five Senses shifts Hunt up to the mike to sing lead and it's telling that the song doesn't feel at all like a different band. Sure, Hunt's voice is in an echoey lower register and his songs hint at space rock, but Fragile never turn into Hawkwind, even on Heaven's Core. The earlier songs are all exuberant pieces of music, with the band building layers of sound until they're unstoppable forces.

I listened to this a lot because it's highly immersive stuff and I came to a few realisations. The obvious one is that, while the guitar of Oliver Day is notable, this is driven a lot more by its keyboards than it is guitars and those are a further contribution by Max Hunt. As he also plays the bass and dabbles in guitar and percussion, along with being the primary male voice, I assume that he's the band's driving force nowadays, even though I don't see his name listed as a founding member.

Others are less obvious. The album, which runs a decent fifty minutes, moves throughout from exuberance to introspection, so that we're initially caught up by the rush of it all and conditioned to that by the time Open Space and Time to Dream come around and the folky vibe of Old Worlds and Kingdoms. I love Claire Hamill's vocals but only gradually realised that, while she's an outstanding lead vocalist, she's also an outstanding backing vocalist, which I ought to have assumed once I realised where I've heard her before. Now I'm intrigued as to where she is on The Friends of Mr. Cairo.

I know this isn't the first tribute band to release a strong studio album of original music, because I reviewed Stripwired last year and I'm sure they were far from the first, but I do wonder how prevalent the approach is nowadays. I hope I see it more.