Friday, September 23, 2011

Tracer - Spaces In Between

Homegrown rock out of the land down under, Spaces In Between, the new album by Tracer promises to become the biggest Aussie rock export since the Young brothers paraded AC/DC out for the world to see. Not too surprisingly, Tracer is fronted by the two brothers Brown, Leigh and Michael, who have been knocking out the rock together since early in this century. These fellows certainly do sound as thick as thieves - as if they've carved out a chunk of granite and made it home.

Everything I've heard concerning the band seems slightly off the mark - many comparisons to the desert fueled fires of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, and then jumping to nineties grunge - I hear much more primal metal, a slight nod to Budgie styled boogie, and classic 80s crotch rock. They exhibit none of the tentative sloppiness that hounded every band that emerged from America's Northwest in the 90s, and damned little of the ADD inspired structure changes and forced complexity that has left me scratching my head at many of the Stoner ilk. Tracer are as tight as tight can be - an even cursory listen will have you humming, nodding, and seeing quite clearly where these guys are coming from, and where they're going. They're going on tour, they're going to rock the world, and they are going to get laid. Let's just hope that along the way, they sell some records, sell out some shows, and get paid.

Too Much is a great lead track, firing off with an insistent riff, and a vocal that is mixed perfectly to punch through the dense drums, and the Brown brothers' riffery. Reminds me a bit of the effect Def Leppard's first album on me, many years ago -  it's instantly obvious that these guys came to play. The track jumps out of the speakers, and takes you exactly where the band wants you to go. Michael Brown's wah soaked solo will have the guitar fans' attention - these guys can play. No, this isn't the depressed, pissed off nineties, nor the vagueness of most stoner rock - Tracer goes directly and effectively for the target.

Smart boogie? You bet. It happens every so often that a band will inject a dose of danceable boogie onto a track, and not come off sounding hokey, or unintelligent. Foghat did it in the seventies by whipping out dual slide guitars that proved slides were not the sole property of the American South, and throughout the nineties, Raging Slab did it with ferociously cool guitars, and some seriously good songwriting. Tracer bring some serious swing to the album's second cut, Push, but they transcend the pitfalls of the genre, and move it on from the southern funk to some silky metal moves in time for the chorus, which features a killer riff that moves under the vocals fantastically. I'm guessing the Brown's are big fans of the King of The Riff, Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi. They've learned their lessons well.

Walk Alone is a huge riffer that will have audiences loving these guys live. It tromps along quite nicely before it slows down into a thoughtful psychedelic break that is filled with great tones, notes and fills from both of the Browns. Michael's guitar drives the band through most of the turns, but his brother Leah's bass is never far away, adding interest and a ton of muscular support. Andre Wise provides a rock solid foundation on the drums - he's flashy and  hard hitting, but always right for the song.

The vocal on Louder Than This will have you thinking Ian Gillan, but the Browns avoid further comparisons as the tune itself is just more inventive rock writing - the art of writing a riff is one of rock's toughest tasks, make no mistake about it, and these fellows write great riffs. The changes here aren't jarring or a surprise, instead they are subtle and at times almost subliminal in their transparency. They just sneak up on you, and you smile. There are myriad examples of the bands' creativity on every track - they never play it dumb, and they keep it interesting and stimulating all the way through.

Devil's Ride is a fairly standard sounding chunk of hard rock, made more interesting by some clever background vocals.

Powerful, straight ahead rock continues with The Bitch. They have the decency to never say "the bitch" anywhere on the tune, which redeems the weak title. The song is the one place on the record in which I'm reminded of the Seattle sound, as the vocal has a definite Chris Cornell vibe, but the Northwest kids were never this succinct, or as competent with their instruments. Leigh Brown's background vocals on this tune are awesome - he sings very well, and maybe even more importantly, he's very creative with the parts he chooses to add. I would have turned him up a bit in the mix, in fact. He always brings something interesting to the party, and it should be heard!

Voices In The Rain sees Tracer slowing things down, and again the band's chops and arranging skills do much to prop up what is a rather straight ahead rock radio sort of song. The rhythm section move things around nicely, and the refrain from The Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter keeps easing into my brain, though they suggest it more than they parrot it.

The album's title track gets things back on track, beginning with a whip-snap riff that is razor sharp, which then is replaced by a wonderfully fuzzed out bassline that drives the verses. Michael Brown's strong vocal moves things along briskly as the band adds horsepower at every turn. There's more instrumental discourse on this than any track yet, and here the band shines as the tune breaks into a Mid-Easterm motif before returning with a brutal dose of noise rock. The Spaces In Between is exactly where this band shines. Their excellent use of background vocals, great guitar layering, and inspired ensemble playing keeps them a head above the herd.

Leigh Brown's bass line rings in Dead Inside, as brother Michael weaves a tale of deception with no redemption in sight. The band builds loudly alongside the singer's anger until he brings it back down with a more pensive guitar solo, then returns with a final anthemic verse and chorus to wrap things up.

Tracer makes a lot of noise for a three piece, that is for sure. They clearly have put their all into writing a record that avoids the traps that haunt three piece rock bands - boredom and repetition. Never more so than on Save My Breath, which sees the band doing what they do best, taking basic riff rock and making it both interesting and compelling.

All In My Head is a great track - kind of a rock bolero thing, with a slinky, sophisticated guitar melody that underpins the verses nicely before the big chords come back in for the chorus. Michael Brown's guitar playing on this one is exceptional, as he changes tones, styles, and tempos without ever sounding forced. This is Tracer at their most melodic, and their most creative - greatness lives on this track.

The album wraps up with a strong rocker, Won't Let It Die (Run Mary). The band pulls out every trick they've turned, and after a slight dip through the mid-section, they're solidly back on track, and you're again thinking that this is a damned fine band which just could become a great one.

Spaces In Between is a winner, of that there is no doubt. These guys are doing it right, and I'm guessing they're about another year of touring and writing to land themselves in the bigs. In the meantime, if you like you're rock on the classic heavy side, you can't go wrong here.  

Thanks to Peter Noble and Tracer.

Spaces In Between - Out October 3rd on Cool Green Recordings/Mascot Group
To Pre-Order -

Monday, September 12, 2011

The London Souls - Sensational Synergy

The London Souls are a much needed breath of fresh air. For much of the last few years, most everything I've been writing has been in regards to bands and artists that have been around for nearly as long as I have. This New York City three piece writes cool songs, sing well, play the hell out of their instruments, and sound as if they spent a great deal of time diligently working out arrangements for their excellent debut release.

Led by guitarist/vocalist Tash Neal, the band plays like they've not left the rehearsal studio since they met. Joined by the incredible Christ Saint on drums, and bassist/vocalist Kiyoshi Matsuyama, The Souls are a tight, and exceptionally dynamic aggregation. They spent three years gigging before they laid down their first long player, and it shows. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios by Ethan Johns (yes, that would be Glyn Johns' son - yes, Glyn Johns, who recorded and engineered The Who's Who's Next), the record is a wonderful reminder of the studio's grand history, yet is completely contemporary in tone and mood.

The London Souls - what an appropriate moniker for a bunch of upstarts that sound as if they were nourished and nurtured by the voice of Stevies Marriott and Winwood, the guitars of the James -  Hendrix and Page, and the rhythm section of the aforementioned Who.These boys destroy the faux posturing of so much fake reverence for vintage rock that appears these days, and show how to properly pay homage, without being some mass marketer's transparent puppet. This is no phony fantasy, this is real rock.

She's So Mad opens the record with a holy communion of Zep-like riffery married to little Stevie Winwood's childhood glory, I'm A Man. They push and pull the beat around as if they defy it to get out of control, with bassist Kiyoshi, and drummer Saint jousting to see who can do a better job of keeping Tash on his game. It's a glorious mash of classic rock that suggests what The Yardbirds may have accomplished with decent sonic capabilities. Tash Neal doesn't have amazing chops, but what he brings to the table as a guitarist is an incredible knowledge of rock history, and taste. You'll find yourself smiling and happily agreeing with the choices he makes throughout the record.

A swaggering rock intro rings is Someday, before Christ Saint arrests the beat and slides into a ska-scape that has Neal loping through the first verse, only to return smartly to straight swagger for the pre-chorus and refrain - these guys play it as smart as a Brooks Brothers suit on Wall Street. These arrangements are so good they piss me off. So young, so good. I bow in gracious appreciation.

If Curtis Mayfield had ever written a song with Sir Paul, the result surely would not have been far from She's In Control. The walls of Abbey Road surely shuddered with a nod to the past when this bassline was laid down. Did the studio bring on this Taxman re-write, or did these guys bring it with them? Either way, it sounds great, as they obviously borrow, but without being crass - they do it right, and add lots of their own artistry - Christ Saint is the best new drummer I've heard in ages, and he excites me tremendously. He is a fabulous dervish of energy and creativity.

This bunch clearly have worked their collective asses off to keep things interesting, and moving. Parts and song sections combine elegantly and sympathetically - Future Life winds through change after change without ever tripping, or sounding stilted - it breathes as it strolls by, including some wonderfully complex vocal sections and harmonies.

Old Country Road comes out choogling, with a loving nod to Fogerty's CCR, but they only suggest the past, never quoting, only paraphrasing. This song swings and struts like crazy as again the rhythm section is once more magical - these guys play with time like they own it. They manage to sound casual as they display musicality far beyond the reach of normal mortals.

The ghost of McCartney past again raises its head on the wistful acoustic number, Six Feet. From the fingerpicked underpinning to the loping bass line, this wouldn't sound at all out of place on an early solo Paul outing, with a happy dose of Ronnie Lane's days in The Faces thrown in. Even here, Saint and Kiyoshi never let down their guard for even a single verse. You won't find a single tune on this disc with a static, staid rhythm.

A great mixture of Southern soul and 70s stadium rock is up next. Stand Up shows signs of the righteous soul poetry of James Brown and the grandstand antics of Grand Funk Railroad. Cool twists and turns have this one whipping around like an amusement park ride. Tash Neal rips off some really greasy leads and fills as he keeps abreast of Saint's stop and go drum display - this sounds like a lot of fun was had in the recording of this romp. Nothing tentative to be found here, The London Souls strut.

Sequencing an album is hard work. When to speed up, when to slow down, when to not break a mood, when to break up a mood. Between producer Johns and the band, they pretty much nailed it. This record flows so easily that if you told me that this was a band that had been making records for twenty years, I would not doubt it for a second, or bat an eye. I truly love being this jazzed by a new band - great stuff.

Tash Neal is an incredibly musical individual. As a guitarist he relies on smart changes, slick double stop fills, and an admirably encyclopedic knowledge of rock guitar history. He's learned all the lessons and assimilated them into a unique style which never sees him succumb to overindulgence. His vocal prowess is equally skilled - he is melodic and clever with his phrasing - he's no belter, never gonna be a Plant, or a Daltrey, but he's a great songwriter who delivers his message with creativity and confidence.

His playing and singing on Easier Said Than Done is a grand example, as he plays killer rhythm and sings a melody that is both catchy, and intelligent. When he gets to the bridge, he introduces an change in tempo and interesting melodic chord changes that suggest he's listened to his share of XTC and Cheap Trick - this is good, good songwriting. He breaks it all down with a reprise of the chorus that becomes pianistic and choral before he whips the tune back into his rhythmic intro and a stutter stop ending.

I Think I Like It brings the band back to bombastic rock before slowing down for an impassioned verse with call and response vocals that are instantly endearing and will have you singing along whether you intend to or not. Nash tears it up with a brief, slashing solo, then the band rejoins with a refrain that rides out the tune. This is certainly to be sang by audiences for a long time to come.

Abbey Roads raises its history again as some Sgt. Peppery keyboard flourishes appear on Dizzy, another slice of pop/rock that sees Christ Saint worship at the alter of Keith Moon - this guy is the coolest rock drummer to come down the pike in a while, and is alone worth the price of admission.

The album wraps up with a couple of arena rockers, Under Control, and The Sound. The latter may just be the coolest track on the record, with more call and response vocals from Tash, and Matsuyama, and some stunningly sweet and clever harmonies. I can't say enough about how impressed I am with the time they have taken to put together an album that could have easily ridden on the strength of the songs alone -  but this crew went way above and beyond what has become acceptable, and have delivered an album worthy of the grand room in which it was recorded.

A stunningly good debut, and a band that is going to be one to watch. Buy this today! 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chickenfoot III - Keeping Carter Happy

When I first heard that Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani had formed a band, I had this notion of what I hoped it would sound like. Quite selfishly, I had Hagar singing in a lower, more resonant register, and Satch boogieing in a less technical, more song oriented style. What I wasn't prepared for was a second studio outing (Chickenfoot III being released September 27 in the US) that delivered my dream in spades and far transcended my hopes for this group.

Chickenfoot III is a great band album - filled with satisfying songs that speak directly to our times, and ensemble playing that finds everyone in the band contributing not just equally, but sympathetically. Maturity is a beautiful thing, especially when applied to virtuosos who have been historically very heavy on the gas. Hagar has transformed his persona into that of a gracefully aging superstar who has turned his attention from the high life to the realities of 21st century America. I never thought that I would hear myself say that Sammy has written a lyrically important record, but he's done just that.

If the idea of Sammy Hagar singing vitally crucial and world weary rock in a soulful, smoky voice is a surprise, wait until you hear perhaps the most sophisticated guitarist in rock ease off the accelerator  and deliver spare, muscular riffs, and melodic and often brief (but wonderfully exciting and melodic) solos. Without question, Satriani is a remarkable musician - he's been consistently pumping out incredibly complex, and original instrumental rock since arriving on the scene with Not of This Earth in 1986. His playing on III is still filled with surprising turns, and stunning solos, but for all his amazing technical prowess, here he sounds like simply a great guitarist, playing great songs on a great record.

Before I get into the songs, I have to speak about the rhythm section of Chili Pepper Chad Smith, and the soul of Van Halen, bassist/vocalist Michael Anthony. Michael Anthony sings with the voice of an angel, and his high pitched background vocals are as distinctive a sonic signature as exists in all of rock history. They are completely unique and he's a master of placement and style - he somehow manages to never wear out his welcome, nor appear cliched. His partner in the pit, Chad Smith supplies a powerful engine that keeps things roped in and rock steady. He's super solid, plays what is needed with great energy and enthusiasm, yet none of the over playing that too often has become a fixture in heavy rock drumming. Their performance throughout the disc is superlative - perfect for the task.

The hard charging Last Temptation jumpstarts the album, as Satriani manages to channel everything that was cool about guitar playing in the early 80s - this isn't Free-styled simplicity, and it steers away from any sense of overindulgence.This mid tempo stomper will immediately have you hooked. Hagar could easily have over-sang this. He could easily have turned to his trademark over the top wailing, but his strong tenor sounds superb - no shortage of lung power or range, and a more controlled, both feet on the ground, kind of performance. Producer Mike Fraser's mix is a thing of beauty - great presence, separation, and superb tones. He got the absolute best out of the band on this record.

Alright sees Satch channeling himself from 1988, when he toured with Stone alone Mick Jagger. Smith counts it off, and who would have ever thought there would be a brilliantly Stonesy Chickenfoot number? Hagar and Anthony nail the chorus with vocals that remind me of Mick and Keith doing Motown. Come solo time, Satriani sounds like he spent some serious time wood-shedding the Band of Gypsies catalog, and he abuses his wah pedal superbly before he cuts loose with some melodic sizzling that leads beautifully into an elegant and majestic bridge that sees Sammy rapping out a little Jagger-esque commentary to his resisting lover. The writing far transcends the first Chickenfoot album, and sounds like these guys are now living in the same neighborhood in terms of marrying lyrics to riffs and melodies.

Chickenfoot music emerges. Different Devil sounds like Chickenfoot, and nothing else. It's a lovely, commercial piece of rock that has Hagar and Satriani sounding completely in sync, and then Sammy and Michael Anthony deliver a chorus that sounds both new and familiar - you know the sounds, but the melody is new - sincere, and synergistic. Satriani turns the composition around with a new set of sweet chord changes for his fuzz drenched solo, which actually leaves you wanting more. Different Devil is unapologetic commercial pop, but it is well written, well played, sung beautifully, and produced perfectly.

This is Chickenfoot as I had envisioned, and hoped for when I heard they were throwing in their collective lots. They have combined all of their obvious benefits, tempered their histrionic tendencies, and surrendered none of the fire that gave their past's such passion and acclaim.

I'm calling this review, Keeping Carter Happy. John Carter was Chickenfoots' founding manager, and he passed away in May of this year at 65. He assisted Hagar in originally putting this band together, but before that he had been an industry legend for over forty years. Carter’s career began in 1967, when he wrote the lyrics to Incense and Peppermints by the Strawberry Alarm Clock – a group he renamed by picking words from song titles on the week’s Hot 100 chart. He later went on to be integrally involved in the careers of Bob Seger and Steve Miller when they were at their biggest. He produced much of Tina Turner's huge comeback, including the mega-hit Private Dancer.

Up Next is Hagar's tribute to Carter, and it marks a return to big rock. Featuring a great purplish, hazy, modulating riff by Satriani, the rhythm section stomps hard on this one, as Sammy proselytizes on marching to the beat of your own drummer, and being your own man. Hagar is convinced that he is taking his act right on up to heaven, and checking in. True to the intent of Hagar's lyrics, Joe Satch tears off a solo that reminds you that he is Joe Satch - whammy bar wizardry and heavily effected hammering, combined with some fantastically imaginative mixing that will have you grabbing your headphones and listening to this repeatedly, wondering how he does it. Carter is smiling....

For all their firepower, you wouldn't expect Chickenfoot to do a number that would not sound a bit out of place on a mid 70s UFO album, and yet Lighten Up would indeed not be out of place as a long lost Schenker/Mogg track. I've a huge love for the creative team that made UFO one of the greatly undervalued hard rock bands of all time, so to say this is not to damn with faint praise, but rather to sing some glories. Satriani sounds like a combination guitarist/organist throughout, and Sammy is singing in a strong, confident tenor that makes it sound much more impressive when he does choose to go to a higher register. Satriani riffs like a classic Brit-rocker, and Smith and Anthony make like a Panzer tearing through the desert. Just goddamned good rock.

A troubled love song for our times is next on the queue, and while walking a difficult path in difficult times is not what we have come to expect as Hagar's forte, Sammy has stepped squarely on the American Zeitgeist with Come Closer. Singing in a smoky, soulful baritone, the red rocker turns troubadour, and he wears it like a crown. A poignant bridge again has Anthony singing amazing harmonies, and it all leads to a Satriani solo that has the six stringer beautifully arpeggiating synth-like lines. Michael Anthony's bass work is languid and loping, a magnificently sizzling and sexy underpinning.

Sammy Hagar constructed the verses of Three and a Half Letters from actual correspondences he has received from downtrodden and suffering fans, who did their part for a country that chose not to return the favor. If this doesn't move you, you are one cold mother. I have not been able to hear it without choking up as of yet. The song ends with Hagar singing, "The last letter said, 'I'm nine years old and I'm homeless.' Fuck!" Satriani's solo is perfectly angst ridden and angry, and again the band nails the vibe beautifully. This should become an anthem of our times.

Sammy Hagar has never sounded better, or written with anywhere near the emotion and empathy that he delivers throughout this record. In an interview with Music Radar (, the issue of both Hagar's vocals and Stariani's guitar playing were discussed:

"During the initial stages of writing, Satriani issued a directive to Hagar - sing differently: 'I had my reasons,' the guitarist says. 'It struck me that, whenever we would work together on songs, just the two of us, Sam would sing in a lower register. It was intimate, so full of soul. I thought, Wow, nobody has ever heard this quality in his voice before. He and I agreed that the new material would allow him to explore those other sides to his range.'"

At the same time, Hagar turned things around to Satch and told him that he wanted the guitar virtuoso to play his instrument in a new way. 'He wasn't as specific as I was,' says Satriani. 'But we did agree to take our creativity somewhere else. For me, it was something of an open canvas. It was hard at times, but ultimately it was very rewarding.'"

Big Foot began as a working title of one of Joe Satriani's demos for the record, but Hagar kept it, and built his lyrics to fit the concept. For me, this is the track that borrows the most from the band's past glories, and will keep longstanding fans in line for tickets. It's the one song on the record in which the singer can still not drive 55, and he's in fine classic red rocker form here.

Sophisticated, simmering blues is on tap with Dubai Blues. Driven by Chad Smith's super solid back beat, and Anthony's pumping bassline, the tune features Hagar singing a classic tale of the blues, that has the protagonist singing that he has everything in the world that he could want, but not the love that he needs. I absolutely love to hear this band groove with such muscle, and skill. Mike Fraser is a master in the realms of record production, and he makes this sound like an instant blues rock classic. A fabulous display of the incredible skills at play on this one.

Acoustic guitars, banjos....what do these have to do with Chickenfoot? I'll tell you. They wrap up an album that solidifies the fact that Chickenfoot is a band, not just a super-group project. The title is Somethings Gone Wrong, but the song is all right. If harkens back to the days when Paul Rodgers would own a room with his soulful pipes, and here the band have embraced that tradition, and added a few tricks of their own. Satriani plays against character here, but I believe that it may be just another facet of the same rock, one that has taken some time to ripen.

To say this album shocked me is an understatement. I read the interview on Music Radar, and Satch made it sound so interesting and good that I had to give it a whirl. These guys have made a great record, and have become a great band. They are now all they hoped to become when they joined forces. Indeed, Carter would be pleased....

You can pre-order Chickenfoot III at iTunes now.