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 clich├ęd 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.