Friday 22 January 2021

Jason Bieler and the Baron von Bielski Orchestra - Songs for the Apocalypse (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 22 Jan 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Chris Franklin took me aback with a recent instalment of his excellent Raised on Rock radio show. One song he played leapt out at me for its quality and for how much it sounded like Saigon Kick, who top my personal list of bands I wish had made it but never quite did. That song turned out to be by Jason Bieler, lead guitarist and vocalist of Saigon Kick, taken from this album, which I naturally sought out immediately. It comes out today.

Saigon Kick always got lumped into the hair metal bucket, which isn't entirely unfair because of songs like Love is on the Way, their biggest hit, being a hair metal ballad. However, if you actually look past that one song by say, listening to their Water album, you'll find that they were one of the most varied and versatile bands anywhere on the planet. The only other release I can compare to that for variety is Queen's Sheer Heart Attack, another one with a safe spot in my all time top ten.

This isn't as varied as Water or, indeed, the press release's suggestion that the album's sound is like "if Neurosis got stuck in a blizzard at a Wawa with Supertramp, then Jellyfish showed up and they all decided to do Barry Manilow covers in the style of Meshuggah, but in waltz time with slight country underpinnings." It is varied though, but more subtly, with songs veering into different styles rather than adopting them throughout: the tuba parts of Crab Claw Dan, the funky guitar in Down in a Hole and the bluegrass intro to Beyond Hope, not to mention that song's wildly varied vocals, don't stop them being hard rock songs.

The core sound is consistent. Vocals that are always catchy, whether they're singing a chorus, verses or just vocalising for effect. Drums that are always lively, often by finding unusual rhythms that match a vocal line (or not: Annalise feels thoroughly unusual, mostly because of what the drums are doing and they're not doing what the vocals are doing). An audible bass that sometimes takes the lead. Guitars that slide back and forth between melodic pop/rock and a heavier, grungier sound, plus everywhere in between. There's even a jazzy instrumental called Horror Wobbles the Hippo, the guitar set against an ominous backdrop.

There's no band here, it seems, Bieler providing everything except what a variety of guests chip in on. On Annalise, everything is Bieler except the bass, provided by the versatile Kevin Scott, while Beyond Hope features Dave Ellefson from Megadeth on bass; vocals from Skindred's Benji Webbe; a solo from Bumblefoot, ex-Guns n' Roses and currently Sons of Apollo; and Saigon Kick's Ricky Sanders on drums. The long list of guests includes names as varied as Devin Townsend; Todd LaTorre of Queensrÿche; Jeff Scott Soto; Extreme's Pat Badger; gypsy jazz guitarist Emil Werstler of Dååth; Clay Cook, formerly of the Marshall Tucker Band; among others.

My biggest disappointment was that there's very little here playing into a "roll up, roll up" carnival mindset promised by the album's design and publicity. That's mostly confined to the tuba sections of Crab Claw Dan, with seaside ambience and a manipulated vocal, even what sounds like a kazoo, but the song keeps returning to an exquisitely layered rock vocal anyway. I could suggest that some songs are stronger than others, but I won't fall into that trap because I know from Saigon Kick albums that even my least favourite songs might become my favourites later.

Right now, after three runs through and a lot more cherrypicking repeat plays, I have a whole host of favourites. Apology is a pristine opener, with solos from KMFDM's Andee Blacksugar. Bring Out Your Dead is exquisitely catchy, with a neatly heavy bass from Dave Ellefson and a fantastic solo from Devin Townsend. Down in a Hole features some wonderful guitarwork, courtesy of Bieler and Stephen Gibb, who's played with Crowbar, Black Label Society and Saigon Kick, but is currently working with his dad, Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. Beyond Hope reminds me of SuperHeavy, a mix of very different styles in a glorious fusion. And Annalise is thoroughly unusual, so much so that it shouldn't work but it does, refusing to leave me alone.

This is a peach of an album for Saigon Kick fans and if you aren't one of those, why not? I'll be playing this one to death, enjoying immediate earworm catchiness but also exploring its substantial depths. I apparently also have a heck of a lot of Bieler solo material to check out, as he's all over Bandcamp like a rash, with a slew of solo EPs and work under the name of Owl Stretching. I've always felt that he was one of the greatest musicians that nobody's ever heard of and this underlines that. Thanks, Chris!

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