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Infamous Albums: Black Sabbath’s Born Again

Infamous Albums will be a new series of articles where Alternative Nation writers take a look at albums that are normally panned by the bands fan base, to see if they are as bad as their reputation. To celebrate their final tour this first installment will focus on metal pioneers Black Sabbath’s 1983 album Born Again.

Black Sabbath is a band that needs no intro. Formed in 1968, Sabbath is highly regarded as the “Godfathers of Metal”. Their distinct sound quickly got them fame with albums such as Paranoid and Master of Reality. However, towards the end of the decade the band would release a few flops and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne started losing interest in Sabbath. Finally, in 1979 Ozzy left the band. He would be replaced by former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. The next year they would release Heaven and Hell. This record would give the band a more updated sound helping them compete with big releases from Judas Priest, Saxon and Ozzy’s solo act. After releasing the next album, The Mob Rules, Dio would also leave the band, leaving Sabbath to find yet another vocalist.

They recruited Ian Gillan who, at the time, was out of Deep Purple. When this line up, was announced the hype was pretty big.  A rock legend working with the founders of metal? How can this go wrong? Well, to a majority of Sabbath fans it did. Though the album sold well, it was panned by critics and fans alike and is still considered to be among the band’s worst. This is the only album to feature Ian Gillan and the last one to feature classic drummer Bill Ward.

The first thing one notices when checking out this album is the cover which features a red baby with yellow finger nails and teeth. This awkward cover sets the tone for the album… whether it was intended or not.

The first track,”Thrashed”, kicks off real well until Gillan’s scream comes in. Ian Gillan is a great vocalist and his screams were the best parts of Deep Purple tracks like “Child in Time” and ‘Highway Star”, but here it sounds forced and out of place. The lyrics are pretty cool and have an anti-drinking and driving message. The riffs are pretty catchy even if they are a little simple by Sabbath standards. The production on the track is really poor, as the bass cannot be heard at all and Bill Ward’s drumming sounds very processed as if it were done by a drum machine. These same production problems are present throughout most of the album. Flaws aside, “Thrashed” is still an alright track.

Next track, “Stonehenge”, is two minutes of nothing but random sounds. The third track, “Disturbing the Priest”, is an odd one. The melodies, riffs and production on this song are actually pretty well done, but the vocals are some of the worst on the whole album. Like on the first track, they don’t fit and Gillan’s random laughing parts just sound plain ridiculous,, making what could have been a great track only average.

“The Dark” is another track of random noises this one just 45 seconds long. This brings us to the album’s most well known track, “Zero The Hero”.  Gillan’s vocals actually work here and the chorus is very catchy. The intro is dark with its creepy opening riff and ominous bells. The main driving riff is very atmospheric and sounds like nothing the band has done before. The lyrics are about being mediocre which is ironic since this is a solid track and the best on the album.

The next track “Digital Bitch” starts side two of the record as well as the album’s downward spiral. The song has an okay typical 80’s metal riff that is ruined by both the production and Gillan’s vocals (there seems to be a trend here). His attempts at Rob Halford-esque screams aren’t very good and the lyrics are pretty corny.

The title track is a power ballad, something Sabbath has never done before this point. Guitarist Tony Iommi, who is known for writing some of the best riffs known to man, just plays the same generic chords through the whole track. The lyrics feel like they were made up on the spot and the track just feels dull.

“Hot Line” is an attempt at a straight up rocker. The songwriting is very run of the mill and every issue this album has can be heard on this one song.

The final track “Keep It Warm” opens up with a good riff and Gillan sounds surprisingly good. For a second the track sounds a bit like Deep Purple. The track goes downhill fast though as Gillan’s vocals get worse and the production and songwriting problems start to show.

All and all Born Again is not a good album nor is it a terrible one. There is one solid track and two okay tracks keeping the album from being completely bad. Many good ideas can be found on this record though are ruined by the poor production, unfitting vocals and in the case of the last three tracks, lazy songwriting.

Ranking: Worth a look for fans.

Review: Silversun Pickups’ Better Nature

The Silversun Pickups are a long way from Swoon’s “Panic Switch,” which translates to about 6 years (or one bachelor and master’s degrees’ year’s worth of study). Better Nature definitely has a more restrained and thoughtful sound and feel about it, as one might expect of an older, more thoughtful and educated in the ways of the world and human nature, group of musicians. The only problem is that all that thoughtfulness, which leads to airy musical atmospherics as opposed to grungy grounding, has caused Silversun Pickups’ sound to regress instead of progress. Better Nature is thoughtful sonically and lyrically, but to the detriment of the intensity and unique supersonic, yet grounded, sound of their early albums-a sound that made Silversun Pickups something truly inspiring musically and emotionally.

Most bands don’t want to write the same songs over and over, even if some bands (Metallica, U2, and Pearl Jam) encounter great success doing so. Bands like Pearl Jam deviate very slightly, if at all, from what makes their songs and sound so powerful, yet manage to feel fresh and unique with every album released. Silversun Pickups were well on their way to the same type of unique and powerful sonic status with Carnavas and Swoon. Then came Neck of the Woods. The more straightforward 90s alt-guitar rock which swayed from shoegaze to an individualistic take on Billy Corgan’s “grunge in furs” fuzz buzz obviously owed much to artists like Corgan, but Silversun Pickups’ Brian Aubert made the sound all his own with his unique vocals while drummer Christopher Guanlao’s staccato smacks distanced the band from Smashing Pumpkins-like rhythms nicely. Then came Neck of the Woods

…and now we have Better Nature, for better or worse. There is much that made Silversun Pickups what they were on Carnavas and Swoon present on Better Nature, but it’s now lost in a swirl of synth-pop atmospherics and techno beeps and boops. The Silversun Pickups of Better Nature have more in common with Eurythmics and Depeche Mode (once they discovered the guitar) than Smashing Pumpkins or My Bloody Valentine-hence the sonic regression. There was a good bit of this type of sound on Neck of the Woods-hence the disappointment with this album as alluded to above-but there at least the darkness of the overall musical atmosphere lent itself to a certain weight that kept the album grounded. On Better Nature, too often the synths send the songs spinning out of control and off into a glitter spangled twilight that is just a little poppy and colorful for a band that once had such a natural world grounding (a la grungy) sound.

One of the better moments on Better Nature is “Connection” with its sly social commentary on our society’s social media additions and its interesting guitar work that is reminiscent of early Silversun Pickups. The dance backbeat makes “Connection” a pop rather than rock song though-for better or worse. “Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)” is the album’s best moment. A steady beat, contributed vocals from the wonderfully talented Silversun Pickups bassist Nikki Monninger, plenty of acoustic and electric guitar lines that interweave nicely, and just enough restraint to create the proper tension necessary to cause the listener to crave the release the band hints at in the song’s final movement all come together to recreate and, more importantly, advance (by building upon the band’s greatest musical momennts: “Lazy Eye,” “The Royal We,” “Panic Switch,” “Little Lover’s So Polite”). Sadly, it’s only one of a handful of these moments. Better Nature would have benefited from more.

AlternativeNation.net’s Review of Lesser Key’s Debut EP

Yes, Lesser Key, the new musical project from ex-Tool bassist Paul D’Amour, sounds alot like his former band mates’ albums, but Lesser Key is not Tool.

D’Amour left Tool after the release of Undertow, and while many of Tool’s defining songs came after Undertow, D’Amour will forever be linked to Tool’s sound because of his intro bass line to “Sober.” Here, D’Amour demonstrates that he still has the bass playing chops to come up with a dark, yet catchy, bass line while surrounding himself with talented musicians in order to create a powerfully complete sound. The opening of “Intercession” can’t help but remind the listener of “Sober”’s opening moments, and vocalist Andrew Zamudio’s voice wavers between Maynard-like ambience and Chino Moreno-like crossiness. Bret Fanger’s guitars are lighter than Adam Jones’ though. They cast more of a hazy atmosphere than a slicing clang. In short, Lesser Key is simply not as good as Tool (and who really is?), at least not yet, but is a band that Tool fans (including this one) has high hopes for.

The greatest thing about Lesser Key is that they are just getting started. Tool’s sound changed pretty dramatically from from Opiate to Undertow to AEnima. It remained hard and thick throughout, but became more atmospheric and clear as the albums went along while never losing it’s metallic core. Lesser Key starts out atmospherically and a bit more proggishly than Tool did, so as they develop and expand their sound perhaps the heaviness will come to the fore.

This isn’t to say that Lesser Key AREN’T a heavy band. On “Folding Stairs,” one of the EP’s standout tracks, Fanger lays down some pretty heavy guitar chords intermixed with some interesting repetitive soloing that doesn’t sound like anything on modern rock radio right now. “Parallels,” which is reminiscent of Tool’s “Parabola,” in its sound and it’s lyrical thematics, is another heavy riff laden track. “In Passing Through” unfolds not unlike Lateralus’ “The Patient” and takes the listener on a trip through a sonic landscape that is spiritually related to many of the tracks off Lateralus.

It really isn’t fair to continuously compare Lesser Key to Tool, but the comparisons are so myriad that it’s almost impossible. Lesser Key is in no way a Tool rip off though. They are a group of talented musicians who have created a sound that is all their own, even if their bass player helped to define the sound of one of the most popular and enigmatic bands of the late 20th Century. Simply put, if you like Tool, then you’ll like Lesser Key, but Lesser Key’s best work is yet ahead of them, as it should be.

Overall score: 7.5 out of 10
Plenty for long suffering Tool fans to sink their teeth into, and admire as Lesser Key are just beginning and already have a sound that echos ex-Tool bassist Paul D’Amour’s former band without aping it.

AlternativeNation.net’s Album Review of Supersuckers “Get the Hell”

The self proclaimed “Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in The World” is back after five long years with their new album Get the Hell. Returning to their hard/punk rock roots, the Supersuckers blast out twelve hard rockin’ tracks sure to remind listeners of the days before they lived up to their name and really super sucked. The guys haven’t sounded this good since The Smoke of Hell (1992). Guess there’s something about Supersucker albums with the word “Hell” in their title.

Seriously though, Get the Hell is their best collection of hard/punk rock tracks since their Sub Pop debut album. While the albums released by Supersuckers between 1992 and 2014 had their moments, the blazing silliness of tracks like “I Say Fuck” and the hard punk of “Coattail Rider” really haven’t been matched until now. Some bands can experiment and get away with it (a la U2), and some bands are meant to pound out power chords and alternatingly silly and serious lyrics. Supersuckers are definitely in the latter category of bands. Kudos are due to the Supersuckers cranking out what can arguably be considered one of, if not the first, alternative country album with 1997’s Must Have Been High, which really wasn’t that bad of an album, but it was country album…ya’ know? (Even if “Juicy Pureballs” is a great song.)

Silly experimentation laced with brilliance aside, Supersuckers are at their best when they are rockin’ out. Get the Hell is full of rockin’ tracks like title track “Get the Hell,” which powerfully announces that the hard/punk rock is back, and back in a big way. “High Tonight” is the type of pure pop-punk that would make Green Day proud, but with more elaborate soloing. With “Pushin’ Thru,” Eddie Spaghetti and the boys channel not only Mike Ness’s vocal stylings, but Ness’ riffs as well. It’s almost like the “Pushin’ Thru” is heartfelt Social D tribute track, and it’s one of the album’s stand out tracks because of it. The band’s covers of Depeche Mode’s (yes, Depeche Mode’s) “Never Let Me Down Again” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock On” are surprisingly solid interpretations. Supersuckers covering Depeche Mode…whoda’ thunk it?

So while the “Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in The World” might not always put out the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records in the world, they get pretty darn close to doing so with their latest release. Hopefully, the return to their tried and true roots will stick this time and we’ll get more rock and less country from the guys in the future. Again though, where would alt-pop star Darius Rucker be if Supersuckers didn’t blaze that “rock to country” trail…

Overall score: 9 out of 10

AlternativeNation.net’s Review of Reignwolf’s “In The Dark”

Canadian/Seattle based grungy blues/rock artist Reignwolf’s (AKA Jordan Cook’s) new single “In The Dark,” which according to the artist (via Rolling Stone) is based upon a 13th Century Romanian novel, is the latest offering from the interesting (relatively) new artist, and if it’s an example of what we can expect from Reignwolf on his upcoming LP then it’s sure to be worth a listen.

Keeping in tune with his previous single “Are You Satisfied?,” “In The Dark” delivers more of what the concert festival buzz of the last year (generated though Reignwolf’s inspired live sets) promised: stripped down, grungy/bluesy hard rock, filtered through very little studio production (although I do hear some overdubs-but as Butch Vig told Cobain “even Lennon did it.”).

Reignwolf’s guitar playing, which also sounds a bit like a heavier, bluesier Neil Young at times, is reminiscent of Jack White’s playing, but where White has opted to to indulge in the use of many instruments, Reignwolf keeps it simple, to the advantage of the music. No one note organs needed, thank you.

Being a sort of one man band, Reignwolf does indulge in the the solo kick bass drum here and there. Mostly the tool of hipster bands like The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons, Reignwolf rescues the practice and makes it cool for hard rocking bluesmen again. Honestly though, if “In The Dark” is, again, an example of what is to come from Reignwolf’s forthcoming LP, then he’ll be rescuing the type of grungy blues that we used to hear from The Black Keys (but alas no longer) FROM The Black Keys. I, for one, say amen to that.

Overall score: 9.5 out of 10

AlternativeNation.net Review of Mazzy Star’s “Seasons of Your Day”

Paisley Underground darlings Mazzy Star peaked commercially with So Tonight That I Might See (1993) and that album’s semi-hit “Fade Into You.” Fortunately, Hope Sandoval (vocals) and David Roback (guitar) continued to have enough of a cult following to keep making music, at least for a little while longer. Sandoval and Roback haven’t released a Mazzy Star album in 17 years, with Among My Swan (1996) being their last proper full album release. Sandoval continued to make music under the moniker of Hope Sandoval and The Warm Inventions, and Mazzy Star seemed all but put to rest. With Seasons of Your Day though, the slow psychedelica and folksy reinterpretations of Zepplin-esque blues, Doorsian atmospherics, and Floyd-ish psychedelics  that made Mazzy Star unique are back (Yes, Gutter, there was music made BEFORE 1989).

Mazzy Star doesn’t stray one bit from that unique sound here on Seasons of Your Day. Hope Sandoval’s smoothly hushed vocals and Roback’s beautiful acoustic and electric guitar playing are just as solid as they’ve always been. The years have done nothing to diminish them. Unfortunately, if you were looking for Mazzy Star to get experimental or expansive with their sound then you will be disappointed. That isn’t the point of Mazzy Star though. With Sandoval and Roback, less is more, and both are so good at their craft that Sandoval’s voice and Roback’s stripped down playing are all you really need from a Mazzy Star record.

Season’s of Your Day‘s lead single, “California” is a quiet Zepplin-esque acoustic trip that plays to Roback and Sandoval’s strengths. “I’ve Gotta Stop” thrives on Roback’s bluesy and Floyd-ish slide guitar. “Does Someone Have Your Baby Now?” reignites the quiet Zepplin-esque feel that permeates the album. “Lay Myself Down,” with it’s slight country/western swagger is the album’s most upbeat track. “Spoon,” one of the album’s standout tracks, is filled with some wonderfully jangling and sliding acoustic guitar playing that is simply beautiful. “Flying Low” showcases Sandoval singing as loudly as she does on the whole album over top of some of Roback’s best grungy delta blues electric guitar playing.  It’s the album’s strongest track.

Mazzy Star never was, and thankfully never will be, the band that you cranked up and moshed to. They are the band that you put on during those rainy afternoons of quiet contemplation and continuously admired for Roback’s solid musicianship and Sandoval’s velvet voice. They still are all that, and much more.

Overall score:

Stream the entire album at NPR.org here.

AlternativeNation.net’s Review Of Surfer Blood’s “Pythons”

Surfer Blood made a splash on the indie music scene in 2010 with the release of their debut album Astro Coast. The album was tinged with a sort of nautical feel; from its shark emblazoned cover to John Paul Pitts proclamation that the subject of “Floating Vibes” should “learn how to surf”, the band carved a niche for itself in the indie community. The band released its first E.P., “Tarot Classics”, in 2011, building on the sound that made the band noteworthy in the first place, and opened for the Pixies on their Doolittle tour. They even recorded a pretty cool version of Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” for SPIN’s Nevermind 20th anniversary cover album.

Things were looking optimistic for the band. Of course, that all changed when a true hipster’s worst nightmare occurred, and Surfer Blood signed to Warner Bros. in 2012 to record their second full length album. Naturally, like any true sellout, the band cut their hair and sold their soul to the devil. Their were becoming what no indie band should ever strive to be… radio friendly. They had the audacity to dream bigger.

All facetiousness aside, Pythons is an okay album, thanks to the solid production of legendary producer Gil Norton, who helmed classic albums such as The Pixies’ Doolittle . Sure, the band’s trademark sound as established on their first two releases is eschewed for a fuzzy Weezer-esque twang on many of the album’s songs, but when the album is at its best, its pretty fun. “Demon Dance” kicks off the album with a country-esque jangley guitar riff and silly lyrics like “Me and you are apples in trees”. “Gravity” is an unabashed pop tune this side of “About a Girl”, while “Weird Shapes” is an introspective anthem marked with Frank Black-esque yelps in the choruses. These three songs are potential hits for rock radio in this day and age of cookie cutter electro-pop.

In this case, you have to give credit where its due. What sets Surfer Blood apart from other indie bands nowadays is their ability to strive instead of being content with being… well, indie. Time will tell if their effort will be a success.

Overall score: 5 out of 10

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AlternativeNation.net’s Review of Crash Kings’ “Dark Of The Daylight”

I had only been casually familiar with the Crash Kings before seeing them open for Stone Temple Pilots last year at Bethel Woods; my local radio station constantly spammed their breakout hit “Mountain Man” around 2009. It was a pretty good track, but I was never inspired to listen to their album. The band took the stage on time, unlike STP, with vocalist and keyboard player Antonio Beliveau, bassist Mike Beliveau, and drummer Tom Rosla filling the ranks… but, conspicuously, no guitarist. That’s right, Crash Kings are probably one of the first hard rock bands to not include guitar in their music.

That didn’t stop the band from knocking the ball out of the park live: Antonio used a whammy bar on top of his keyboard to emulate the guitar sound, effectively pumping out shredding guitar solos without an actual guitar. They ended up being the highlight of the show (no disrespect to the always awesome DeLeos and Kretzel). I was quickly motivated to give their debut album a listen, which is a solid effort for a new band, a lot mellower than their live show, with many piano-driven ballads that seem to build off the sonic blueprint laid out by Jack White on the classic album Get Behind Me Satan.

After four years, the Kings have finally released their sophomore album, Dark of the Daylight, funded in part by Kickstarter. The band’s label decided to cut their funding and left them out in the dust; the band said they wanted to reclaim their industry and give the fans what they wanted. Evidently, they had a lot of fans: the album quickly reached its target goal of $15,000 in a 24 hour time period and ended up accumulating a total of $48,000 by the time the crowdfunder expired, money which (I  believe) went straight to them to use at their own will.

Thankfully, the album is a solid effort that pays respect to the band’s original sound while pushing it in new directions. Overall, Dark of the Daylight is a (no pun intended) darker affair than the band’s first record; the first three tracks and “Shameless Little Monkeys” are supercharged with a Zeppelinesque stomp. Beliveau’s Robert Plant-like vocals are enveloped by a ferocious rhythm section, and you wouldn’t believe that these songs didn’t have guitar in them. That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its mellower, more introspective moments: the fourth track, “So Many Ways”, has an airy, almost soulful but funky vibe that sounds unlike any song the band has put out before. “All Along” is a climactic sounding piano-driven powerhouse sure to please fans of the first record, “Lonely War” possess a catchy, bluesy sway, and “Hesitate” is a soulful ballad.

Overall, Dark of the Daylight is a sign of maturation for a fledging band, who are definitely forward thinking and injecting some creativity into your standard fare hard rock music. However, on a somewhat more important level, it signifies the shift in power that is taking place in the music industry right now, with the band following in the footsteps of pioneers like Trent Reznor and Radiohead who are attempting to give music to their fans without the hassles of a record label. Sure they may not be the first band to go the way of Kickstarter, but their success is still commendable.

Overall score: 7 out of 10

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