Musical Epiphanies: The Thrill of Discovering New Artists and Sounds

Being confined to working from home since 2020 gave me a lot of time to explore films, books and music from directors, authors and artists I had previously no exposure to. As much as I love my old favourites, and I look forward to their latest work, there is a special joy in discovering a new filmmaker, author or artist whose work is different but just as enjoyable.

That certainly has been the case with music in the past few years during which I have published a series about new music from old favourites (2020 Parts 1 and 2, 2021 Parts 1 and 2 and 2022 Parts 1, 2 and 3). But now I really need to do justice to all the new sub-genres, albums and artists I’ve fallen in love with during the same period. There are fifteen bands in this post, covering the gamut of stoner rock, desert rock, psychedelic rock, prog rock, math rock/djent, drone metal, classic metal, pop-rock, synth-pop and big band jazz.

Band: 35007 from Eindhoven, Netherlands
Personnel: Bertus Fridael (guitar), Mark Sponselee (synthesizer), Michel Boekhoudt (bass) and Sander Evers (drums)
Album: Liquid (2002)
Genre: Stoner rock/space rock

The band's name "35007" spells the word "LOOSE" in beghilos, i.e., "calculator spelling", in which numbers entered into a calculator with a seven-segment display, can be read as English letters when the display is turned upside down.

The Dutch band is no longer active, but was known for its instrumental space rock/stoner rock albums in the early 2000's. I like the 2002 album, Liquid, particularly the tracks Evaporate and the trippy 13-minute-long Voyage Automatique. Think of them as a spacier version of American instrumental band Russian Circles, with distorted guitars and synthesizers, built on a foundation of drone metal drumming.
Band: Earth from Olympia, Washington, USA
Personnel: Dylan Carlson (guitars), Don McGreevy (bass), Steve Moore (piano, organ) and Adrienne Davies (drums)
Album: The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (2008)
Genre: Drone metal

Earth is sometimes referred to as the slowest heavy metal band in the world. The band's sound is defined by founder Dylan Carlson's distorted guitars and Adrienne Davies' slow, deliberate drumbeats. Carlson's Black Sabbath influences are evident, particularly on their signature album from 2008, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull. The title track is my favourite, but the entire album is so sonically cohesive that one can treat it like a single 53-minute composition and listen to without a break end-to-end.
Adrienne Davis and Dylan Carson from Earth
Band: Caligula's Horse from Brisbane, Australia
Personnel: Jim Grey (vocals), Sam Vallen (lead guitar), Zac Greensill -> Adrian Goleby -> n.a. (rhythm guitar), Dave Couper -> Dale Prinsse (bass) and Geoff Irish -> Josh Griffin (drums)
Albums: Rise Radiant (2020), In Contact (2017), Bloom (2015), The Tide, the Thief & River's End (2013)
Genre: Prog rock

I've written in detail recently about C-Horse's mind-blowing 2017 concept album, In Contact. The band are not a one-trick pony ( however, having shown promise way back in 2013 with their second album (also a concept album) The Tide, the Thief & River's End, and getting better with every release. The band seemed to veer off into a more pop-oriented sound with Bloom in 2015, before doubling down on their prog-rock origins with their next two albums, culminating in 2020's Rise Radiant. This last album features two outstanding, though contrasting tracks - the explosive and cinematic Valkyrie, and the thoughtful and evocative Autumn, with one of the most beautifully written and sung bridges I've heard: "Leading time to river's toil as the hollow takes shape || Leading myth to mother soil || Being made and unmade || Oh, and change has always been this way...". Jim Grey is among the finest rock singers in the business today, and it's really his falsettos that elevate this band's accessible, melodic output above that of many other prog rock bands with equally proficient musicianship. I can't wait for their next release.
Band: The Olympians from New York City, USA
Personnel: Aaron Johnson (trombone), Dave Guy (trumpet), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Sugarman (saxophone, flute), Leon Michels (multiple instruments) Nicholas Movshon (bass, drums) Homer Steinweiss (drums), Evan Pazner (drums), Fernando Velez (percussion), Anja Wood (cello), Antoine Silverman (violin), Megan Conley (harp), Thomas Brenneck (guitar) and Toby Pazner (keyboards, vibraphone)
Album: The Olympians (2016)
Genre: Jazz/Soul instrumental

The Olympians comprise musicians from the Brooklyn-based indie funk/soul record label, Daptone Records. The band was created by keyboardist Toby Pazner who, while touring in Athens, apparently had a dream in which a toga-clad figure asked him to retell the great tales of Ancient Greece through music. He came back to New York City and pulled together his musician friends from the label to work on this project. I love this album and its groovy, cinematic, big band sound.
Band: Yawning Man from La Quinta, California, USA
Personnel: Gary Arce (guitar), Alfredo Hernandez -> Bill Stinson (drums), Mario Lalli (bass, vocals) and Mathias Schneeberger (keyboards)
Album: The Revolt Against Tired Noises (2018), Rock Formations (2005)
Genre: Desert rock

Yawning Man have been around since 1986, and along with Brant Bjork and his band Kyuss, were the founders of the Palm Desert Scene, a collection of bands whose "generator parties" gave birth to the desert rock/stoner rock sub-genre. Characterized by elements of psychedelia and art rock from the 60's as well as grunge and sludge metal, the music is deliberately slow-paced and hypnotic. The band's signature track is the 3-minute-long Catamaran, which kicks off with a catchy, jangly guitar riff, segues to a spaced-out verse that could have been sung by Jimi Hendrix, then abruptly switching to a grunge-heavy chorus. The band has been performing the song live for years, but it was only in 2018 that they finally recorded a studio version for The Revolt Against Tired Noises album. Other tracks on the album like Black Kite and Misfortune Cookies could well have influenced the psychedelic aspects of bands like Khruangbin. On the other hand, the instrumental title track on their 2005 album, Rock Formations, sounds like an homage to Dick Dale's 60's surf sound. There's a lot to unpack from the music of these living legends, who continue to record new material, with a studio album, Long Walk of the Navajo, due out in June.
Band: Arc de Soleil from Sweden
Personnel: Daniel Kadawatha
Album: Bocosaurus EP (2021), Train of Liberation EP (2021), Libertalia EP (2020), The Thief in Marrakesh Got Caught in Amsterdam Trying to Escape EP (2019)
Genre: R&B/Soul/Rock instrumental

Arc de Soleil is one of the many musical projects by Sri Lankan-born Swedish musician Daniel Kadawatha, who released a number of EPs under this stage name between 2019 and 2021. The music sounds a lot like an instrumental version of Khruangbin (with the exception of the Casino Funk EP from July 2022 which has, well, a funky sound). I love the "Khruangbin clone" eastern rhythms and I am happy to put Arc de Soleil on shuffle and listen to anything from these EPs, especially the three tracks from the EP, The Thief in Marrakesh Got Caught in Amsterdam Trying to Escape.
Band: Thank You Scientist from Montclair, New Jersey, USA
Personnel (on Terraformer): Tom Monda (guitar, shamisen, sitar, synthesizer), Salvatore Marrano (vocals), Cody McCorry (bass), Sam Greenfield (saxophone, clarinet), Joe Gullace (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Faye Fadem (drums)
Album: Terraformer (2019)
Genre: Prog rock, jazz-rock

The first thing that struck me on listening to this band's acclaimed 2019 album was that vocalist Salvatore Marrano sounds uncannily like Rush's Geddy Lee or Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez. In fact, the best description for the band would be "Coheed and Cambria with a horn section" although that doesn't do justice to their genre-defying inventiveness and sly sense of humour. It's not surprising that the band were signed on by Sanchez to his Evil Ink Records in 2012 and have toured with Coheed and Cambria. The band have released three albums, although I've only listened to their most recent release, the double-album Terraformer, which is an hour and a half of unpredictable fun. The album has a mix of straight-up modern jazz tracks like Wrinkle and Chromology, pop ballads like New Moon, and epic prog rock tracks of 8-10 minute length like FXMLDR (pronounced "Fox Mulder"), Everyday Ghosts, Life of Vermin, the cinematic Anchor and the awesome title track Terraformer. Chromology features an extended violin solo that reminded me of L. Shankar's work with Shakti.
Thank You Scientist
Band: Trip the Witch from multiple locations in the US
Personnel: Dean DeLeo (guitar), Tom Bukovac (guitar, keyboards) plus Steve Mackey (bass), Sean Claire (violin), Dave Eggar (cello), Matt Rollings (keyboards) and Ian Fitchuk/Jason Sutter/Chris McHugh/Shannon Forrest (all drums)
Album: Trip the Witch (2021)
Genre: Neo-psychedelic rock

Trip the Witch is a predominantly instrumental band that was formed during Covid; the musicians recorded their respective music without ever meeting in person. Dean DeLeo is well known to rock fans as the guitarist of Stone Temple Pilots and Tom Bukovac is a highly regarded sessions guitarist. The album is filled with delightful, easy-listening tracks like Wall of Sound and Surfside Lounge. The only track with vocals is the album-opener, Saturn We Miss You, featuring none other than the legendary Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, whose vocal cords are in fine fettle at the age of 78.
Band: The Dear Hunter from Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Personnel: Casey Crescenzo, (lead vocals, guitar, organ), Nick Crescenzo (backing vocals, drums & percussion), Maxwell Tousseau (backing vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion), Robert Parr (backing vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Nick Sollecito (bass)
Album: Antimai (2022), Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional (2016), Act III: Life and Death (2009)
Genre: Prog rock

I've still not recovered from my month-old love affair with The Dear Hunter's 2022 album, Antimai. I've also listened to three of the band's earlier releases which form part of the Act series of concept albums, recorded over a 10-year-period from 2006-16. I haven't enjoyed the harder, rock-opera sound of the Act albums as wholeheartedly as Antimai, nevertheless the third and fifth albums have some fantastic songs. In Cauda Venenum from Act III, which switches between raucous screaming vocals and soothing a capella could well have been something recorded by The Mars Volta for their 2005 album, Frances the Mute. Act V, released in 2016, is more mainstream characterized by songs like Cascade, Gloria and The Fire. This musical direction eventually brought the band to the richly orchestrated and exuberant Antimai in 2022. I look forward to the sequel album, titled Sunya, rumoured to be released some time this year.
Band: Sumerlands from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Personnel: Arthur Rizk (guitar), Brendan Radigan (vocals), John Powers (guitar), Brad Raub (bass) and Justin DeTore (drums)
Album: Dreamkiller (2022)
Genre: Heavy metal

In the midst of the dozens of evolving rock and metal sub-genres, Sumerlands presents a refreshing throwback to the classic metal of the early 80s, reminiscent of bands like Dio, Dokken and later iterations of Black Sabbath and Rainbow, with chugging uncomplicated riffs and clean high-pitched vocals. At just over half an hour, even the length of their two albums, Dreamkiller (2022) and Sumerlands (2016) harks back to the limitations of the pre-digital era. I've mainly listened to Dreamkiller, and enjoyed the album opener Twilight Points the Way, but by the time I got to the third or fourth song, the sameness of the music had me zoning out. The second last track, The Savior's Lie, grabbed my attention, sounding a lot like a solo Ozzy Osbourne song from the 80's. The band is the brainchild of rock producer Arthur Rizk.
Band: Polyphia from Plano, Texas, USA
Personnel: Tim Henson (guitar), Scott LePage (guitar), Clay Gober (bass) and Clay Aeschliman (drums)
Album: Remember That You Will Die (2022)
Genre: Prog Rock/Math Rock

Tim Henson and Scott LePage are frequently included in lists of the most talented rock guitarists in the world today, along with the likes of Plini, Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders), Misha Mansoor (Periphery) and Yvette Young (Covet). All these virtuosos have a highly technical guitar playing style that is now classified under the sub-genres of math rock and djent. Henson and LePage have been creating guitar magic with their band Polyphia since 2014 and have released four albums so far, steadily building up a fan following. Their most recent album, Remember That You Will Die, features guitar god Steve Vai on the mind-blowing Ego Death. Unlike other math rock and djent bands, Polyphia have introduced elements of EDM, funk and hip-hop into their music, making it quite difficult to categorize them. With a heavier emphasis on syncopation vs. melody, this is music to admire and be awed by, rather than to hum to. Henson cuts a striking figure with his neck tattoos and androgynous look and is fairly active on his Instagram handle.
Scott LePage and Tim Henson from Polyphia
Band: Covet from San Jose, California, USA
Personnel: Yvette Young (guitar), Jon Button (bass) and Forrest Rics -> Jessica Burdeaux (drums)
Album: catharsis (2023), technicolor (2020), effloresce (2018)
Genre: Math rock/Prog rock

As mentioned in the Polyphia section, Yvette Young is one of the rising stars in the rock guitar firmament. Learning piano at the age of four led to her developing her own unique finger-tapping technique for the guitar. Young came into the public eye in 2009 when she started posting YouTube videos of herself playing guitar, which led to a solo tour of Japan and eventually the creation of her own band, Covet, a trio with a bassist and drummer. Unlike Young's predominantly acoustic solo work, Covet is firmly ensconced in the prog rock/math rock genre, as evidenced by their albums, technicolor (2020) and effloresce (2018). With a new bassist and drummer on their latest album catharsis, they have pivoted to a brighter, chirpier sound, best represented by the delightful track firebird.
Band: Elder from Massachusetts, USA
Personnel: Nick DiSalvo (vocals, guitar), Jack Donovan (bass), Mike Risberg (guitar, keyboards) and Georg Edert (drums)
Album: Innate Passage (2022), Omens (2020), The Gold and Silver Sessions EP (2019)
Genre: Prog rock/Stoner rock

Elder is one of my most recent discoveries. Their 2022 album, Innate Passage, has featured in a number of Best Prog Rock of 2022 lists. Their long meandering songs, relaxed pacing and slightly distorted guitars remind me of Wishbone Ash tracks like Persephone from their self-titled 1974 album. All the tracks in Innate Passage are at least 8 minutes long with Merged In Dreams - Ne Plus Ultra topping off at nearly 15 minutes. Guitarist Nick DiSalvo is also the lead singer, and it's obvious from his limited range that he is not a specialist vocalist; this is part of the appeal the band has for me, as the sound harks back to the rough-around-the-edges rock bands and unpolished studio production of the late 60s. Although their current sound sits firmly in the stoner rock sub-genre, their 2008 self-titled debut album leaned much harder into doom metal, before drifting towards stoner/psychedelia with their follow-up Dead Roots Stirring in 2011. I've really enjoyed my first passes through their 2019 EP The Gold and Silver Sessions and the 2020 album Omens, so there's clearly a lot to explore in this band's back catalogue.
Band: Djo from Massachusetts, USA
Personnel: Joe Keery
Album: Decide (2022)
Genre: Synth-pop

Fans of the Netflix hit Stranger Things will be familiar with actor Joe Keery, who plays the character Steve Harrington. Keery also releases music under the name Djo, and his second album, Decide is an absolute delight, tickling all my musical taste buds which were left bereft by the retirement of Daft Punk. This album was on high rotation on my Spotify playlist soon after it was released in September 2022, and is still my go-to for sophisticated synth-pop, with winning tracks like Runner, Half Life and Climax.
Band: Phoenix from Versailles, France
Personnel: Thomas Mars (vocals, drums, percussion), Laurent Brancowitz (lead guitar, keyboards), Christian Mazzalai (rhythm guitar) and Deck d'Arcy (bass, keyboards),
Albums: Alpha Zulu (2022), United (2000)
Genre: Pop-rock/synth-pop

A couple of years ago, I chanced upon an energetic pop song titled Too Young by a French pop-rock band Phoenix from their 2000 album United. Another track Honeymoon also caught my fancy, but somehow I forgot all about them and didn't explore their subsequent albums. Fast forward to a few months ago, and critics were abuzz about their latest studio release, Alpha Zulu. The 35-minute long album is a real tour-de-force, filled with a number of synth-pop confections. The opening title track grabs your attention right away with the infectious and mischievous chorus: "Woo ha, singing hallelujah || Pray to your God, cover your lies || God or guru, hey hey hey". The second track, Tonight follows in the same energetic vein. The next song, The Only One is perhaps my favourite from the album, with strong musical references to Daft Punk, as is also the case with the keyboard riff from another song, Artefact. After Midnight and Season 2 are the other notable songs on the album. Incidentally, band frontman Thomas Mars is married to celebrated director Sofia Coppola.

Nothing beats the joy of serendipitous discovery; I love that moment while listening to new music, when something clicks inside and there is a realization that the song is a “keeper”. Then comes the fun of diving deeper into the band’s music and the dawning recognition that it’s all just as good, if not better. Next comes the research into the band’s composition, history, back catalogue and critic/user reviews. Spotify and the internet at large have created a treasure trove for music lovers and and avenue for talented musicians to find their audience across the world.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 13) – In Contact by Caligula’s Horse

About a year ago, I chanced upon a song named Firelight by an Australian prog rock band called Caligula’s Horse. The lead singer’s stylized syllable emphasis, intonations and falsetto vocals made for a unique and delightful sound, with the sweeping guitar solos and distinct bass line all adding up to an appealing package. I quickly scoured through the full album, Bloom, and found another song called Daughter of the Mountain which I also liked. For some reason, I moved on to other music and forgot all about the group.

Last week, while browsing lists of best prog rock albums from the past decade, the band’s name popped up again. So this time I listened to four of the five albums in their discography, and came away a full-on fan. I started with their breakout 2013 concept album, The Tide, the Thief & River’s End, then moved on to listen properly to the aforementioned Bloom (from 2015) which featured a lighter, pop-oriented approach that had clearly appealed to me with those two songs from last year. Next came another concept album, In Contact (2017), and finally their 2020 release, Rise Radiant. Each album had a strong suit of songs, all showcasing Jim Grey’s amazing vocal range, lyrical depth, and remarkable technical proficiency. While parts of their early music reminded me of American rock band Incubus, they have evolved their own style since Bloom.

Eventually, the album that I kept coming back to was In Contact, for the nuance of the concept behind the album and the breadth of song-writing quality across all tracks.

Caligula’s Horse in 2017, from left to right: Josh Griffin (drums), Adrian Goleby (guitar), Jim Grey (vocals), Sam Vallen (lead guitar), Dave Couper (bass)

Artist: Caligula’s Horse (referred to as C-Horse by fans), comprising Jim Grey (lead vocals), Sam Vallen (lead guitar and all other instruments), Adrian Goleby (guitar), Dave Couper (bass) and Josh Griffin (drums). Guest saxophone solo on Graves by Jørgen Munkeby.

Album: In Contact (2017)

Narrative type: Metaphysical musings

Album theme/concept: An exploration of human creativity; the motivations, hopes, triumphs and tragedies of artists.

Best songs: Will’s Song (Let the Colours Run), The Hands Are the Hardest, Love Conquers All, Songs for No One, Graves, Atlas – revisited (bonus track).

What makes it special: Jim Grey’s soaring, frequently plaintive, falsetto-fueled vocals differentiate the C-Horse sound from that most contemporary rock and metal bands. The lyrics (written by Grey) have real depth and the music written by lead guitarist Vallen is technically complex, featuring a tightly interlocked rhythm section, comprising Adrian Goleby’s machine-gun guitar riffs, Josh Griffin’s precision drumming and Dave Couper’s varied bass playing styles.

The 10 tracks on the album are clustered under four chapters, To The Wind, The Caretaker, Ink and Graves, each of which describe a different artist.

The four songs in the first chapter, To The Wind, follow the fate of an alcoholic painter in decline, who must fight his addiction to save himself, or succumb to the demands of fans and indulge his weakness to produce one more great piece. The album’s second track, Will’s Song, is a standout, exploring the painter’s self-imposed pressure to excel in his craft; fast-paced drumming and a staccato guitar riff bookend the verses, but the real standout is the vocal-guitar-drum combination that accompanies the post-chorus line: “Let the colours run!“; what a pity it only appears twice on the song. The next track, The Hands Are the Hardest, is a mellow, melodic tune that begins with a distinctive riff and features vocals that recall ’80s American singer Christopher Cross. The song perfectly captures the theme of the chapter, depicting how the painter’s alcoholism is gradually robbing him of his artistic abilities. The chapter closes off with a short epilogue, the softly sung, Love Conquers All, as the artist thinks back to his life and his decisions: “If only I had the time, If only these hands were mine”…Jim Grey’s heartfelt delivery of these plaintive words gets me every time.

The second chapter, The Caretaker, about a musician who wants his songs be used for good, contains two songs. The first is an anthemic track that is sure to be popular in live performances, Songs for No One, with Grey’s falsetto reaching new highs in the chorus. The second track, Capulet, is good, but relatively speaking, not one of my favourites from the album.

The third chapter is Ink, and contains three songs which tell the story of a cynical poet named Ink (modeled on the fictitious gonzo journalist, Spider Jerusalem, from the Transmetropolitan comics) who works with his brother to improve the corrupt cyberpunk city they live in. Many reviewers have commented on the 3-minute spoken word track Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall, a piece of poetry written by Jim Grey. It takes some courage for a rock band to do this, as they are sure to be labeled as pretentious by some critics. I am not a fan of poetry, so I typically skip this track whenever I listen to the album, but admittedly, it’s an interesting recording, with the passionately delivered monologue spiced up with whispers and sound effects to accentuate key phrases. The third song in the chapter, The Cannon’s Mouth, is perhaps the heaviest track in the album, signposted by a hulking, oh-too-short, goosebump-inducing riff after the first chorus and another one after verse 5 at the end of the song.

And that brings us to the final chapter, Graves, which contains one song, a 15-minute-long opus of the same name, that I just can’t get enough of. The song is about a sculptor who is plagued by anxiety and the delusion that there is a rival stealing his work. It is constructed of four distinct parts, subtitled Faint Heart, A Few Peaceful Years, The Boy and The Broken Wheel and Hands Shape Stone. The opening riff of Faint Heart is truly cinematic and sets the tone for the rest of the section, with the urgency of the three verses conveying the sculptor’s anxiety, followed by a beautiful musical interlude that reminds me of some of Robert Fripp’s best solo work. This brings us to A Few Peaceful Years and the poignantly sung, deeply emotional chorus:

"We are the fire that whispers our mother's words
Help me, love (Help me to finish it)
We are the soil that joy gave form, you, oh
We are the dream and these are my father's hands
Help me, love (Help me to finish it)
We are the soil that joy gave form, ooh
Help me finish it"

The third section, The Boy and The Broken Wheel, switches down the pace further with an a capella bridge, leading to three beautifully written verses, before ending with the “We are the fire…” chorus from the previous section. The final section features a short saxophone solo by Swedish musician, Jørgen Munkeby. By this time, at the 12-minute-mark, I’m so emotionally exhausted that I use the climax crescendo to recover and slowly tune out, as the opening riff comes back to close out this amazing track. Graves was originally written to be released as an EP, and apparently was an arduous effort, taking two months to write and record, and leaving Sam Vallen creatively spent and dealing with writer’s block afterwards. It’s well worth the effort and no doubt will become one of the defining tracks of the band’s career.

The album ends with a bonus track, a re-recording of Atlas, a song from their 2013 album, The Tide, the Thief & River’s End. Having heard this new version first, I prefer its fuller production values to the original version. The lovely, wistful chorus feels like it could carry you away on the wind:

"The ocean at my window
Here, here I find myself again
All broken bones and eyes that wear their age
Like going home is etched on every page"

Given this was the first album for Adrian Goleby and Josh Griffin (they replaced Zac Greensill on guitar and Geoff Irish on drums respectively from Bloom), the cohesion between the musicians is extraordinary, as if they have been playing together all their lives. It’s been three years since their last album Rise Radiant came out (also, extremely enjoyable), and I wait with bated breath for their next release.

Here are the other bands/albums featured in this series:-

A Criterion Channel journey, films #91-100

This is the tenth entry in my series of thumbnail reviews of films I’ve been watching on the Criterion Channel streaming service since September 2021. I watched these ten films in April 2022, which means I a a year behind in writing about them! Whereas the majority of films I’ve watched on Criterion have been from the mid-twentieth century, there were coincidentally a number of contemporary films in this set.

The films include a French-Belgian comedy-drama, a Japanese anthology about love, a Danish drama that won the Oscar for best foreign film, a Mexican film that delves into the little-known lives of hotel maids, the 1978 adaptation of a famous Agatha Christie novel, the sequel to one of the best-known blaxploitation films of all time, an early directorial effort by celebrated Italian screenwriter Pier Paolo Pasolini, a classic American romantic drama from the pre-Code era, a Palm d’Or winner from Romania, and the screen adaptation of a classic Jack London novel.

My Worst Nightmare / Mon pire cauchemar (2011): If you are looking for a lightweight film featuring heavyweight actors, this movie is worth your time. 16-time Cesar nominee, Isabelle Huppert, pairs off with Belgian multi-hyphenate, Benoît Poelvoorde, in this pleasing but formulaic comedy-drama. It seems to me that Huppert typically choses to portray characters who are stern, cold or uptight, and that’s certainly the case here, as she plays a perfectionist art dealer Agathe, who lives with her son and her partner in a wealthy Parisian district. Into their lives arrives Patrick (played by Poelvoorde) a fun-loving, skirt-chasing, building contractor whose irreverence and free-thinking approach upends Agathe’s orderly lifestyle. Director/co-scriptwriter Anne Fontaine introduces some twists and turns to keep this typical “clash of the classes” romance from becoming too predictable. Fontaine previously worked with Poelvoorde in the 2005 drama In His Hands and more recently, was widely celebrated for the 2016 film, The Innocents.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy / Gūzen to Sōzō (2021): Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi hit the headlines in 2021 for his slow-burning and thoughtful Oscar-nominated drama, Drive My Car. It was actually his second feature release that year, with the first being this engrossing three-part anthology spotlighting three different female characters experiencing intensely emotional interactions with other people. In Episode 1, Kotone Furukawa plays a model who discovers that her best friend is in love with her ex-boyfriend. In Episode 2, Katsuki Mori plays a woman who agrees to participate in a deception to help out a friend, but her actions have unintended consequences. In Episode 3, Fusako Urabe plays a woman who is at a train station and has a chance encounter with an old school classmate; their reminiscing leads to the unexpected dredging of long-buried, unresolved feelings. Hamaguchi does not take sides in his storytelling, his lens is an objective watcher of people, using a filmmaking style hewing closely to Dogme 95, the now discarded Danish filmmaking movement which eschewed the use of props, background score or artificial lighting in films. It allows us to focus entirely on the conversations and emotions of the characters; well worth the effort of a patient viewer.

In a Better World / Hævnen (2010): Celebrated Danish director Susanne Bier won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for this fascinating story that straddles two worlds connected by its pacifist protagonist’s response to violence. Anton (played by Mikael Persbrandt) splits his time between a Sudanese refugee camp and his native Sweden. He witnesses unimaginable horrors inflicted by Sudanese warlords on innocent civilians, but is compelled by his principles to offer his services to both victims and perpetrators. His furloughs home are not stress-free either, as his young sons find it difficult to reconcile their father’s pacifism to their first-hand experience of bullying. From this helpless situation, Susanne Bier and her frequent writing collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, bring Anton’s narrative threads together to a satisfying resolution. Jensen incidentally directed the entertaining 2020 revenge drama Riders of Justice starring Mads Mikkelsen. In the past decade, Bier has expanded her footprint into some impressive English-language thrillers including the post-apocalyptic Bird Box and two mini-series, The Night Manager and The Undoing.

The Chambermaid / La camarista (2018): Much as the maid Cleo occupied the moral and narrative center of Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning Mexican drama Roma in 2018, another film from the same country in the same year took the audience on an insightful journey into the life of a hotel housekeeper. Lila Avilés graduated from small acting roles to directing short films to this extraordinary feature directing debut. The film could easily be a companion-piece to HBO’s The White Lotus anthology series, as it lays bare the lives of the privileged as seen through the eyes of the hotel support staff. Gabriela Cartol portrays housekeeper Eve, toiling to cater to the exacting whims of the hotel management and its wealthy customers, while striving to make incremental improvements in her own life during her off-duty hours, many of which are spent in the bowels of the hotel; one can’t help but think of the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. With absolutely no melodrama, Cartol’s stoicism quietly tugs at your heartstrings; well worth the watch.

Death on the Nile (1978): I am an unabashed fan of actor-director Kenneth Branagh‘s two sumptuously produced Agatha Christie adaptations – 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and 2022’s Death on the Nile. Having watched the latter upon its release on Netflix in early 2022, I was curious to know how the 1978 version compared. As with all Agatha Christie adaptions past and present, this film too boasts an all-star cast, with Peter Ustinov playing Poirot, supported by Mia Farrow, David Niven, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury and cultural icon Jane Birkin. The only characterization that I found annoying was Indian actor I.S. Johar’s portrayal as the obsequious Mr. Chaudhury. Of course, with source material of this calibre, the film is wholly serviceable, but I must admit that the eye-popping production design of Mr. Branagh’s modern adaptation (along with the equally noteworthy cast) has an advantage, and its his version which pops up in my visual memory when the name comes up. The 1978 version was directed by John Guillermin, one of the go-to directors for big-budget adventure films of that era, having helmed The Towering Inferno and the King Kong remake in the preceding four years.

Shaft’s Big Score (1972): Confident in the success of Shaft, their seminal 1971 blaxploitation film, MGM had already contracted writer Ernest Tidyman, director Gordon Parks and star Richard Roundtree to return a year later with another adventure featuring the tough-talking, hard-loving private detective, John Shaft. The result is Shaft’s Big Score, which like all sequels has more of everything, but naturally loses the spontaneity of the original. However, the film delivers on the strength of Roundtree’s charisma, the action set pieces (cars, boats, helicopters), the big brassy 70s score and of course the obligatory nudity; in fact, the character was marketed as a brash American version of James Bond. In between the two Shaft films, writer Tidyman had won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The French Connection, with which the Shaft sequel shares a few action beats. One year later, John Guillermin directed the next entry, Shaft in Africa, after which the character moved to the small screen with a TV series and TV movies.

Mamma Roma (1962): Pier Paolo Pasolini was a giant of Italian 20th century art and politics, with a body of work that spanned novels, poetry, essays, theatre and film. He co-wrote the screenplay for the Fellini classics, Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita, and other well-regarded dramas such as Il bell’Antonio and Girl in the Window, before launching his own directorial career in the early 60’s. I had read so much about Pasolini and enjoyed watching the aforementioned films which he had written, so I was looking forward to watching something directed by him. I had also heard a lot about the film’s star, Anna Magnani, known for portraying boisterous, earthy characters. That’s certainly the case in Mamma Roma, in which she plays a prostitute who leaves her profession so that she can bring up her teenage son in a more wholesome environment. As with most Italian neorealist films, one shouldn’t expect a happy ending. Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the film with the unsympathetic characters (particularly her son) and the depressing subject matter putting me off, which was surprising, given I’ve felt intense empathy while watching many other neorealist tragedies.

Morocco (1930): Marlene Dietrich shot to fame with The Blue Angel directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1930. The film’s success in Germany brought her to the attention of Paramount studios, who put her under contract, and quickly paired her opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco, with the same director. Morocco thus became the first Marlene Dietrich English language film released in the US in 1930, and created the famous on-screen Dietrich persona of an exotic and daring femme fatale (the English language version of The Blue Angel was released in the US the following year). Dietrich was cast as a night club singer in both these films, giving her the opportunity to show off her singing and performing talents. In particular, the night club sequence in which Dietrich performs wearing a man’s formal evening attire and kisses a female member of the audience was considered scandalous for its time (this was before the Hays Code of self-censorship was adopted by Hollywood in 1934). The film is set during the late 1920’s in Morocco and focuses on a unit of the French Foreign Legion, coming into town after a military campaign. Gary Cooper plays a hard-living, womanizing soldier in the unit, and needless to say, sparks fly when he meets Dietrich’s character at a local night club. Their relationship is complicated by romantic entanglements that each of them has with other partners on the side. Various twists and turns ensue putting their relationship in jeopardy before the inevitable melodramatic ending.

Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich in Joseph von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days / 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile (2007): I have had this film on my watchlist for years, ever since it won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The film is set in an unnamed Romanian town in 1987 during the period of communist rule; at this time, the country had an abortion law, Decree 770, that made it very difficult to get a legal abortion. Naturally, a black market emerged for illegal procedures, resulting in medical complications and thousands of fatalities over the years. These are the circumstances under which a young woman Găbița (played by Laura Vasiliu) finds herself pregnant, and enlists the help of a close friend Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca) to find a doctor willing to perform the abortion. The two women then enter a downward spiral involving bad luck and bad people. I struggle to find the right words to describe their harrowing experience, and the uncaring social underbelly that exploits their need. This hard-hitting drama is more relevant today than ever before, and a must-watch for any cinephile or student of the human condition. Director Cristian Mungiu‘s career will probably be defined by this film, although he has continued to win awards for his subsequent efforts like Beyond the Hills (2012), Graduation (2016) and R.M.N. (2022).

The Sea Wolf (1941): Jack London’s classic 1904 adventure story got its fifth screen adaptation, this time helmed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Bros. studio. Powerhouse actor, Edward G. Robinson, is aptly cast as sadistic boat captain Wolf Larsen, a learned man with the heart of a beast, who makes life hell for his crew. Larsen’s boat picks up a man and a woman from a sinking ship, and the captain incorporates them into his on-going psychological games, driving his crew further to the edge of mutiny. British actress Ida Lupino and character actor Alexander Knox play the two hapless rescuees, Ruth Webster and Humphrey Van Weyden, while John Garfield switches on his standard on-screen brooding persona as George Leach, one of the mutineers. The film adaptation deviates from the original novel to dial up the adventure angle, and creates a romantic relationship between Ruth and George, whereas none exists in the novel. I can’t say that I “enjoyed” the film, as there was a bit too much melodrama and negativity for my liking. Director Curtiz had previously delivered several Errol Flynn hits such as Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Adventures of Robin Hood and his next film Casablanca, would make him a Hollywood legend for all time.

Here are the links to the previous thumbnails: #1-10, #11-20, #21-30, #31-40, #41-50, #51-60, #61-70, #71-80 and #81-90.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 12) – The Dear Hunter’s Antimai

Every now and then, I come across an album that completely blows my mind, as it seems perfect in almost every way. The last such album I listened to was The Mars Volta’s self-titled 2022 release. A few days ago, I was browsing a list of albums on my Spotify home screen and randomly clicked on one with an interesting cover design (I am eternally grateful to their recommendation engine for many such chance discoveries).

The album, Antimai, was a July 2022 release from an American prog rock group called The Dear Hunter. I was surprised that I had never heard of them, considering they have been around since 2006 and that almost all of their nine studio releases have been concept albums; I regularly conduct searches for “best concept albums of the year/decade” or “latest concept album releases”, and somehow hadn’t picked up their name from the search results (although I subsequently validated that they do show up!). Although they clearly have a loyal fan following, and their releases are covered in dedicated sites like The Prog Report and Prog Archives, it’s a crime that the band are not better known, given the quality of their music.

The main body of their work is a series of concept albums known as the Act Series, with five albums released between 2006 and 2016, and the sixth and final instalment still awaited. Antimai is the second album in a new narrative series, whose story kicked off with the 2021 EP, The Indigo Child and an accompanying short sci-fi film called “The Indigo Child: Prologue: Cycle 8” | DUST.

From left to right, The Dear Hunter: Robert Parr (backing vocals/guitar), Maxwell Tousseau (backing vocals/guitar/keyboards), Casey Crescenzo (lead vocals/guitar), Nick Sollecito (bass) and Nick Crescenzo (drums)

Artist: The Dear Hunter, comprising Casey Crescenzo, (lead vocals, guitar, organ), his brother Nick Crescenzo (backing vocals, drums & percussion), Maxwell Tousseau (backing vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion), Robert Parr (backing vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Nick Sollecito (bass). Additionally a horn section features on several tracks.

Album: Antimai (2022)

Narrative genre: Post-apocalyptic fantasy/science fiction

Album theme/concept: The fictional city of Antimai is built in concentric circles, with each ring occupied by a separate caste and organized in a social hierarchy. Each song represents one of the eight rings of the city.

Best songs: Ring 8 – Poverty, Ring 7 – Industry, Ring 6 – LoTown, Ring 5 – Middle Class, Ring 3 – Luxury, Ring 2- Nature.

What makes it special: Listening to Antimai is like drinking a new wine and having your taste buds tickled by notes from old favourites. I could get hints of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, The Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station, Mayer Hawthorne and even late 80’s Miami Sound Machine. The tracks have the shifting song structure that is typical of prog rock, but are also infused with elements of Jazz, R&B, funk, Caribbean and Latin rhythms. All of this is expressed through lush orchestration and elevated by delightful vocal harmonies.

The album kicks of with a song about the outermost ring of the city of Antimai; the track is named Ring 8 – Poverty, and the opening bars felt like the soundtrack to a thriller film; in fact I started visualizing these notes playing over the tense opening scene of the 1958 Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil.

Ring 3 – Luxury is perhaps the most ambitious track on the album and is essentially a two-part song, with the first part titled Hall of the Guides, kicking off with spoken verse like in a stage musical, which then segues into a melodic song. But the real beauty is the second half, titled Cream of the Crop, which features a delightful nine-note riff before each verse, played on a marimba or xylophone (or perhaps it’s a Caribbean steel drum).

My favourite track is Ring 2 – Nature, which I have listened to more times than I can count. I love it for its heartfelt melody and evocative, and sometimes playful lyrics:

“Then there arose those intent on moving
And like a miracle, they kept improving
Then change begat the tail
begat the fin begat the fist
Strength enough to subsist”

In my listing of Best songs, I’ve excluded only 2 out of the 8 tracks, and that’s only because those two don’t appeal to me quite as much as the other six, in a relative sense. Many other reviewers consider the closing track Ring 1 – Tower, as one of the best on the album.

Antimai is the gift that keeps on giving, as every subsequent round of listening reveals new sounds embedded in the many layers of music. I look forward to its sequel titled Sunya which is due out some time this year.

Here are the other bands/albums featured in this series:-

A Criterion Channel journey, films #81-90

This is the ninth entry in my series of thumbnail reviews of films I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel streaming service. I finished off this set of 10 films between February and early April 2022. It includes three films featuring Harry Belafonte in the cast (including his film debut), another satire from Spanish auteur Luis Garcia Berlanga, a Swedish drama with Ingrid Bergman in her first lead role, an all-time Hollywood classic from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a Douglas Sirk melodrama, an Italian farce about sexual impotence, a truly unpleasant rural drama from the great John Ford, and an Italian anthology film featuring Silvana Mangano.

Island in the Sun (1957): Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Marta, this star-studded film is an adaptation of Alec Waugh’s novel of the same name. The ensemble cast includes James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Dorothy Dandridge and Stephen Boyd. The story revolves around the members of the wealthy plantation-owning Fleury family and the intersection of their lives, both romantically and politically, with others on the island. These include an ambitious black union leader (played by Belafonte), a retired war hero, the island’s governor, and his eligible bachelor son. Another sub-plot involves a romance between an aspiring young mixed-race woman (played by Dandridge) and the progressive-minded aide of the island’s governor. With two interracial romances portrayed in the film, it was controversial enough to be banned in some parts of the US; to put it in perspective, this was ten years before the Sidney Poitier starrer Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The plot and commentary on race politics was a key reason that Belafonte chose to be cast in the film. And of course, he gets to sing the song, Island in the Sun, which turned out to be one of his greatest hits. This was the third film of Belafonte’s career and coincidentally, he had costarred with Dandridge in all of them. Director Robert Rossen had previously received a Best Director Oscar nomination for All The King’s Men, and a few years later would go on to direct Paul Newman, The Hustler, one of the landmark films of his career.

Bright Road (1953): Since it was Harry Belafonte month on Criterion, it was inevitable that I would watch, Bright Road, his film debut. Belafonte establishes himself as a charismatic on-screen presence, even in a small supporting role as the principal of a rural black elementary school in Alabama. Most of the screen time however, goes to the legendary Dorothy Dandridge and the child actor Philip Hepburn. Dandridge plays an idealistic new teacher at the school, who takes it upon herself to encourage a problematic student to realize his potential. This big-hearted, low budget film is based on a short story and sticks to the source material, avoiding unnecessary padding, and coming in at a runtime of just 69 minutes. The following year, Dandridge appeared in the musical, Carmen Jones, and became the first African-American to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Her two other notable screen roles are in Island in the Sun (see above) and the immortal Porgy and Bess opposite Sidney Poitier. Sadly, these watershed films did not help her career, and she died in 1965 of a drug overdoes at the age of 42.

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): My third Harry Belafonte film in a row was this emotionally-charged noir crime thriller which ranks as one of the finest examples of the genre. It stars perennial bad boy Robert Ryan as Earl Slater, a racist criminal hired by a crooked ex-cop to pull off a bank heist, and partnered with a black man (Belafonte), who he naturally detests. Slater’s prejudice is so deeply entrenched that no rational argument or element of pragmatism can overcome his hatred towards his partner. Belafonte’s character is no pushover either, and gives as good as he gets. Naturally, the tensions, bickering and threats come in the way of the meticulous preparations required to pull off the robbery. Director Robert Wise invests as much time in fleshing out the characters and their back stories, as he does in the tautly filmed heist sequence. The standard aspect B&W cinematography adds to the claustrophobic feel of the film. Wise’s next effort was the diametric opposite in every way – West Side Story, for which he won Oscars for directing and Best Picture. He repeated the trick a few years later with The Sound of Music. One of the most versatile directors in Hollywood history, he was equally proficient with action, horror and sci-fi genres, but notably started his career as a film editor, with an early career highlight being the Oscar nomination he received for Citizen Kane.

The Executioner / El Verdugo (1963): The ever-entertaining Spanish thespian José Isbert stars in this amusing drama as Amadeo, a public executioner whose approaching retirement will make him ineligible for government accommodation. His solution is to convince his daughter’s fiancé to replace him, assuring the man that there are hardly any executions conducted and he will never actually have to do the deed. Things don’t quite work out as planned for the ill-starred fiancé-turned-husband, played by Italian acting icon Nino Manfredi. Isbert, as the highly persuasive and garrulous father-in-law and Manfredi, as the hapless milksop are a treat to watch together, while Spanish actress Emma Penella plays the daughter trying to make the best of the situation. The final act features some striking and symbolic imagery by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who went on to work on three Sergio Leone films. This was the third of director Luis Garcia Berlanga‘s films that I found on Criterion, and I am so grateful to have been introduced to this remarkable director’s oeuvre. The film was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Intermezzo (1936): This Swedish drama was 20-year-old Ingrid Bergman’s first lead role in a film; her luminous performance brought her to the attention of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, leading to its English language remake in 1939 and her rapid climb to international stardom. In the film, Bergman plays a Anita Hoffman, a piano instructor who provides home lessons to the daughter of a famous concert violinist, Professor Brandt (played by Gösta Ekman). Impressed by her talent, the violinist invites her to accompany him on his next concert tour. During their travels, they fall in love and Anita Hoffman must choose between following her heart, or sacrificing her love to safeguard Prof. Brandt’s family. Bergman was a few years away from maturing into the beauty that the world fell in love with in Casablanca, but she certainly lights up the screen with her presence. The chemistry between her and her older costar heralded her future screen pairings with the leading men of Hollywood, including Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant.

All About Eve (1950): All About Eve usually finds itself included in the lists of “greatest films of all time”, and rightfully so. The narrative centers around the power play between a successful Broadway actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), and an ingénue (Anne Baxter) who tries to insinuate her way into Channing’s personal and professional life. The supporting cast includes veteran character actors Thelma Ritter and George Saunders, and future star Marilyn Monroe in a minor role. The script is packed with acerbic dialogue and melodramatic scenes, which provides the perfect sandbox for the seasoned cast. Hollywood loves movies about showbiz, and typically rewards them with Oscar glory. But even by those standards, this film was an extraordinary success, garnering a record 14 Oscar nominations, and winning six, including one for Best Picture and two to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Directing and Best Adapted Screenplay. He had won the same two awards the previous year for A Letter to Three Wives.

Imitation of Life (1959): The last of Douglas Sirk’s amazing run of 1950s melodramas, addresses complex themes of racial identity and white guilt. The plot of the film involves multiple dysfunctional relationships, particularly involving parents and their children, a recurring theme in Sirk’s films. The acting is top-notch from Lana Turner (as a struggling single mother Lora Meredith, who becomes a Broadway star), Juanita Moore (as Annie, her black housekeeper and confidante who enables Lora’s success) and Susan Kohner (as Annie’s fair-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who is able to pass as white, and is ashamed of her mother). I appreciated the film for its tackling of difficult subject matter, but I found the unrelenting negativity to be heavy going as a viewer seeking “entertainment”. Moore and Kohner received Oscar nominations for their emotionally charged performances as mother and daughter. Incidentally, Koehner is the mother of Hollywood directors Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz.

Il bell’Antonio / Handsome Antonio (1960): Sitting firmly in the genre of Commedia all’italiana, Marcello Mastroianni stars as a small-town playboy with a big secret – he’s impotent. His parents, proud of their son’s macho reputation, marry him off to the local village beauty (Claudia Cardinale), but their son’s inability to consummate the union leads to disbelief, shame and consternation for the entire family. A scathing commentary on gender politics and the unabashed patriarchy of Sicilian society of the time, the story was adapted from a novel by celebrated playwright and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Mastroianni is his usual deadpan self, an acting style which suits his disingenuous protagonist, and Cardinale is magnetic as the blameless young woman who must fend off insinuations that it’s all somehow her fault. The film was directed by frequent Pasolini collaborator, Mauro Bolognini, whose body of work included five films nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Claudia Cardinale and Marcello Mastroianni in Mauro Bolognini’s Il bell’Antonio (1960)

Tobacco Road (1941): I was searching for movies by directing legend John Ford, and chanced upon this inexplicably unpleasant film set in rural Georgia. I discovered that this so-called comedy was a significantly toned down adaptation of a novel and Broadway play, so I can only imagine how much worse this film could have been. The plot of the film centers around farm owner Jeeter Lester’s desperate attempts to prevent the bank from possessing his unproductive farm. His schemes are upended by the unpredictable behaviour of his grown-up children – a bumbling son and a nearly feral daughter. It’s difficult to describe how disagreeable every character in this film is, and how desperate I was for its 85 minute runtime to come to an end. Clearly I am in the minority, as the film was a box office success, and the only complaint from critics of the time, was that the film was too sanitized compared to the play! Vivacious actress Gene Tierney and dour leading man Dana Andrews both appear in supporting roles, a few years before they hit the big time as the leads in the 1944 film noir, Laura.

The Witches / Le streghe (1967): This anthology film consists of five segments, each directed by the cream of that era’s Italian filmmakers – Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini and Vittorio De Sica. The film was financed by uber-producer Dino De Laurentiis and all five segments starred his wife, acting superstar Silvana Mangano. The stories also feature well-known actors Alberto Sordi, Totò and Clint Eastwood (this was his next screen appearance after the Sergio Leone trilogy). As expected, some segments work better than others – the weakest was De Sica’s story, An Evening Like the Others, with Eastwood; Visconti’s segment, The Witch Burned Alive was intriguing for its exploration of fame and narcissism; the most annoying was Pasolini’s over-the-top fable, The Earth Seen from the Moon. The anthology format found great favour in the Italian film industry in the 50s and 60s, with films like The Gold of Naples (1954), Yesterday Today and Tomorrow (1963), Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1963) and Boccaccio ’70 (1970) attracting the top directors and stars of the time.

Here are the links to the previous thumbnails: #1-10, #11-20, #21-30, #31-40, #41-50, #51-60, #61-70 and #71-80.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums (Part 11) – Styx’s Paradise Theater

Following on from my last entry in this series nearly a year ago, which covered Mastodon’s many critically acclaimed concept albums, I take a look at Paradise Theater, the 1981 concept album from Styx, a band that rode the Album-oriented Rock (AOR) wave of the 70s to become one of the biggest stadium rock acts of its generation. Even non-fans couldn’t have escaped the heavy airplay enjoyed by their catchy soft rock/rock opera tracks like Mr. Roboto and The Best of Times, and power ballads like Lady and Babe. The release of Paradise Theater would take them to the top of the Billboard charts and was their biggest hit.

Styx in 1981: (from left) Dennis DeYoung, James Young, Tommy Shaw, John Panozzo and Chuck Panozzo

Artist: Styx, comprised of Dennis DeYoung (vocals, keyboards), James “JY” Young (vocals, electric guitars), Tommy Shaw (vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocoder), Chuck Panozzo (bass guitar, bass pedals) and his twin brother, John Panozzo (drums, percussion). Additional horn section featured on some tracks.

Album: Paradise Theater (1981)

Narrative genre: Ups and downs of an economic cycle

Album theme/concept: Fictional account of Chicago’s Paradise Theater, from its opening in 1928 to its closure thirty years later.

Best songs: A.D. 1928/The Best of Times/A.D. 1958 (three tracks sharing the same melody), Rockin’ the Paradise, Too Much Time on My Hands, She Cares.

What makes it special: To be honest, there is a relatively light connection between the songs and the story of Chicago’s Paradise Theater. This is a great album, with outstanding songwriting, arrangement and production values; period.

Musically, the songs are constructed around the band’s trademark three-part vocal harmonies, contributed by Dennis DeYoung, James Young and Tommy Shaw. The alto vocals and falsettos on the album comes from Dennis DeYoung, who took on the lead singer duties on all the tracks that he wrote. DeYoung also played the keyboards, which are integral to all the songs. The musical arrangement gives enough room for Chuck Panozzo’s bass licks to peek through the tight rhythm section.

The short opening track A.D. 1928 sets the tone right away with DeYoung’s keyboards and vocals, segueing seamlessly into beautiful harmonies of Rockin’ the Paradise. The highlight of the album is the anthemic The Best of Times, which is the quintessential Styx song, combing the vocal harmonies, keyboards and rhythm section into the perfect singalong package. Both the opening and closing tracks, A.D. 1928 and A.D. 1958 are effectively extensions of this song.

Too Much Time on My Hands is one of two songs written and sung by Tommy Shaw on the album. It kicks off with a twangy keyboard riff played by DeYoung, after which John Panazzo’s snare drum jumps in with a punchy beat. Although Shaw does not have DeYoung’s vocal range, his singing on this track and on She Cares (one of the unknown gems on the album) is effortless.

The second half of the album is not as strong, with the only notable tracks being She Cares and Lonely People, the latter’s horn section reminding me of of course, of that other famous (and eponymous) band from Chicago!

Two years later, Styx released another concept album, Kilroy Was Here, which featured the smash hit, Mr. Roboto. Soon after, this incredibly talented line-up had run its course due to creative differences, and the band broke up for several years. They reformed in 1990, but by then, their brand of rock had been replaced with heavy metal, which itself would soon give way to alt-rock and grunge.

Here are the other bands/albums featured in this series of my favourite concept albums:-

A Criterion Channel journey, films #71-80

This is the eighth entry in a series of thumbnail reviews of films I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel streaming service. I finished off this set of 10 films in January 2022 (yes, I’m terribly behind!). Compared to my usual fare of 40s and 50s Hollywood classics, this time around I had a British WW2 film, a Taiwanese period drama, a low-budget Western, an unusual family drama set in rural Italy, a feel-good Christmas movie from the 40s, two films from prolific German director R.W. Fassbinder, two films from legendary American screenwriter-producer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and a Douglas Sirk melodrama.

Green for Danger (1946): The lists of great English-language films of the twentieth century are inevitably dominated by Hollywood productions, with relatively few British films making the cut. This was probably because many of them did not benefit from the distribution might of Hollywood studios, and were unavailable to international critics until the VHS/DVD era. One such hidden gem is Green for Danger, a murder mystery set during the V-1 bombing attacks on England in 1944. The film is headlined by British thespian Trevor Howard in one of his early roles, and filled out by a cast of skilled stage and screen actors. On the night of a V-1 attack in rural England, one of the injured villagers unexpectedly dies on the operating table. The anesthetist, played by Howard, is charged with negligence. Subsequent events indicate foul play, and other hospital staff are added to the police’s list of suspects. The ensuing mutual distrust among the staff is exacerbated by workplace conflicts and romantic entanglements, with everyone’s nerves strained to breaking point due to continuing bombing attacks. Director Sidney Gilliat had previously worked with Alfred Hitchcock, co-writing The Lady Vanishes in 1938, and he certainly picked up some tricks from the great master in ratcheting up the tension. Incidentally, the film title provides a clue to the modus operandi of the murderer.

A Bright Summer Day / 牯嶺街少年殺人事件 (1991): Set in Taipei in 1960, this is a slow-burn coming-of-age story of surly teenager Xiao Si’r. The boy has his hands full, attending night school to make up for poor grades, whilst navigating the politics of two rival gangs out on the streets. To further complicate matters, Si’r finds himself obsessing over Ming, the girlfriend of one of the gang leaders. All this plays out against the backdrop of raids by the Taiwanese secret police to root out sympathizers of the Chinese Communist Party, with one such investigation targeting Si’r’s father. Director Edward Yang incorporates everyday slice-of-life moments into the narrative to provide relief from the tension; child actor Wong Chi-zan in particular, has a few memorable scenes as Si’r’s street smart best buddy, “Cat”. Xiao Si’r is played with tragic authenticity by 15-year-old Chang Chen on his acting debut; since then he has risen to international fame, with key roles in Happy Together, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Red Cliff I and II, and most recently, as Dr. Yueh in the 2021 scifi epic, Dune. With a running time of about 4 hours, it’s possible to watch this absorbing drama episodically, like a mini-series. Nearly a decade later, Yang scaled similar heights with his contemporary family drama, Yi Yi: A One and a Two…; both films deservedly featuring in the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll at #78 and #90 respectively.

The Shooting (1966): This low budget Western was directed by Monte Hellman, a protégé of American B-movie guru Roger Corman. In 1965, Hellman shot two Westerns back-to-back, The Shooting and Ride in The Whirlwind (both featuring Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins), which have subsequently achieved cult status. The films have been retrospectively categorized as “acid westerns”, a term coined by film critic Pauline Kael in a review of the 1970 Mexican film, El Topo. The expression refers to a Western that subverts the genre by incorporating metaphysical themes and a hallucinogenic tone into the narrative, giving audiences the sense of being on an “acid trip”; something that was very much a part of the late 60s zeitgeist. In The Shooting, a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) hires two men to escort her to a town across the desert; during the journey they are pursued by a black-clad assassin (Jack Nicholson). There is no attempt to explain the woman’s motives nor the purpose of her expedition, with her cryptic (and unpleasant) behaviour adding to the sense of intrigue. With a crisp 82-minute runtime, the absence of a plot doesn’t bog the narrative down too much, with the stark imagery being a key contributor to the entertainment factor. Hellman’s greatest achievement is considered to be the 1971 road movie, Two-Lane Blacktop, while Nicholson went on to decades of mega-stardom following the release of Easy Rider in 1969.

The Wonders / Le meraviglie (2014): This unusual drama centers on a family of beekeepers living in rural Tuscany. The film’s events are seen through the eyes of the teenager Gelsomina, the eldest of five sisters living on the farm with their mother and ill-tempered bully of a father. The initial scenes depict the typical hardship and monotony of rural life, but then their drudgery is interrupted by an unexpected sequence of events. These disruptions activate the natural restlessness of the youngsters and brings them into conflict with their father, a man firmly resistant to change or external influence. His behaviour led me to reflect on the psyche of people who are trapped in a way of life which they cannot escape from, even when given the opportunity. The Super 16mm film used by the filmmakers gives the interior shots the raw, intimate feel of a home movie, while the 1.66 aspect ratio does justice to the beauty of the Italian countryside. For its documentary-like realism, it reminded me of another Italian film – Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Director and scriptwriter Alice Rohrwacher was only 23 when she made The Wonders, and received a Palm d’Or nomination at Cannes. Her follow-up, Happy as Lazzaro, won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes a few years later.

Holiday Affair (1949): Tough guy and film noir specialist Robert Mitchum made a brief genre switch early in his career, co-starring with Janet Leigh in this Christmas-themed romantic comedy. In the days leading up to Christmas, single mother Connie Ennis (Leigh) buys a toy train from Steve Mason (Mitchum), a war veteran turned department store salesman. One thing leads to another, and the two become romantically involved. Of course, there are many hurdles to be crossed before we can get to the mandated happy ending. Gordon Gebert, playing Connie’s precocious young son, and sad-faced character actor Wendell Corey, as Connie’s doomed-to-failure suitor, are part of an entertaining ensemble cast. The same year, Janet Leigh played Meg in Little Women, but she’s probably best known for the role of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho, and for being the mother of versatile actress, Jamie Lee Curtis. Before switching to a career in directing, Dan Hartman had already garnered two Oscar nominations for scriptwriting, including for the celebrated 1942 Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy, Road to Morocco.

The Merchant of Four Seasons / Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (1971): Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema movement, and one of the most prolific directors of his generation. Having never watched any of his films, I was gratified to discover all his well-known works on Criterion. I opened my account with this, his twelfth feature, which also represented his international breakthrough. It’s a rather bleak story of a fruit vendor (colloquially referred to in Germany as “a merchant of four seasons”), who just can’t catch a break in any aspect of his life. Fassbender’s incisive exploration of an uncaring and selfish modern urban society, is as unsentimental as the community it depicts. The circumstances and emotions depicted are even more relevant in the present day, given the rising number of broken marriages and general trend of weakening familial bonds. The film’s international success brought Fassbinder to the notice of domestic film critics who had previously ignored or dismissed him. It led to ten years of high profile film and TV projects before his untimely death from a drug overdose at the age of 37.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul / Angst essen Seele auf (1974): I immediately opted to watch another Fassbinder film, and perhaps his most highly acclaimed work. Many commentators consider Ali: Fear Eats the Soul to be an update of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, but that would be like saying Star Wars is George Lucas’ remake of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress; in both cases, the director has remade the film for a different era altogether, and added unique new elements that make the film all his own. As if tackling one social taboo wasn’t enough (young man falls in love with much older woman), Fassbinder decided to make the relationship interracial as well, an understandable choice given how race politics had become so central to Western society in the late 60s (and continues to be so). One rainy evening, Emmi, a lonely German widow meets Ali, a young immigrant worker from Morocco in a bar. The chance encounter eventually blossoms into love, but the couple’s attempts to live a normal life together are thwarted by the disgust and contempt they face from friends, family and society. The way Fassbinder portrays the impact this has on Emmi and Ali, is heartbreaking. The film is as powerful today as it was 50 years ago and it deservedly features (at #52) in the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.

5 Fingers (1952): This outstanding thriller is based on the true story of a spy (codenamed “Cicero”), who leaked top secret documents to the Nazis, while employed as a valet to the British ambassador in Istanbul during World War II. James Mason plays “Cicero” and French actress, Danielle Darrieux plays a key role as his confidant, an exiled Polish countess named Anna Staviska, whose late husband had ties with the Nazis. The film contains some of the most witty dialogue written for the screen. Take for example, this bit of small talk between Countess Staviska and German ambassador Count von Papen; the Count says: “Countess, why did you leave Warsaw?”; her droll response: “Bombs were falling, I felt I was in the way”. And later, to clarify her feelings towards Nazi leader Hermann Göring, she says “I refused to invite Göring <to hunt at our estate>. I couldn’t tolerate his killing a wild pig; it seemed too much like brother against brother.” The plot is full of fantastic twists and turns and keeps you glued to the screen right till the end. The film was deservingly nominated for Best Screenplay and also garnered a third Best Director nod for Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Mason had just moved to Hollywood after a successful film career in England, and this was one of his early successes; two years later he would receive his first Oscar nomination for The Star is Born.

James Mason and Danielle Darrieux in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 5 Fingers (1952)

A Letter to Three Wives (1949): After watching 5 Fingers, I turned back the clock three years to this Joseph L. Manckiewicz film, one of his earliest successes as a director. While we are familiar with “high concept” sci-fi and action films, here we have a social drama powered by a high concept. In fact, the pitch is in the film’s title – one morning, three well-to-do women who are about to leave on a boat trip receive a letter from Addie Ross, a common acquaintance, informing them that she has run off with one of their husbands, but not specifying which one! Stuck on the boat, the three friends frantically try to figure out which of them is the unlucky one. A series of flashbacks reveal the dynamics of the three marriages, all plagued by self-doubt and friction, exacerbated by the demands of the “social ladder” rat race. One common source of the three wives’ insecurities is the their husbands’ unanimous admiration for Addie Ross, the epitome of social success in their local community. High drama ensues in the final act, as the women rush home after their boat trip to uncover the culprit. Although considered a Hollywood classic, I found the film a bit dated, and not something I would be inclined to watch again. The drama won Mankiewicz an Oscar each for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Picture. Kirk Douglas, who at that time was considered a fast rising young actor, plays one of the husbands; a few months later, his lead role in the sporting drama Champion represented a turning point in his career, garnering him his first Oscar nomination.

Written on the Wind (1956): Douglas Sirk was the king of the Hollywood 1950s melodrama, whose films I suspect, influenced a number of Indian directors of that era. Sirk formed a strong personal bond with Rock Hudson, with Written on the Wind being the seventh of nine films they collaborated on at Universal Pictures. The story revolves around Kyle, the self-destructive son (played by Robert Stack) and Marylee, the love-starved daughter (Dorothy Malone) of a Texas oil billionaire. The brunt of their actions are borne by Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a senior employee and close friend of the family, and Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), an office secretary who is drawn into the family politics. The plot involves themes of impotence and promiscuity, and the overt depiction of these on the screen reflected the steady decline of Hollywood self-censorship (aka the Hays Code) in the late 50s. Under Sirk’s direction, these ingredients serve up a high octane melodrama, whose emotional beats have echoed down the years onto shows like Dallas, Dynasty and Yellowstone. Dorothy Malone deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal of the emotionally fragile heiress Marylee, whose ill-judged actions are a result of her failure in love. A sad footnote for one of the stars – the film was released just weeks before Lauren Bacall’s husband, film icon Humphrey Bogart, died of cancer.

Here are the links to the previous thumbnails: #1-10, #11-20, #21-30, #31-40, #41-50, #51-60 and #61-70.

Old favourites release new music in 2022: Part 3

Continuing on from Part 1 and Part 2 of my 2022 music review, here are the final 8 albums released this year by some of my favourite artists.

MegadethThe Sick, the Dying… and the Dead (2nd Sep): This band from LA was formed in 1985 following founder Dave Mustaine‘s exit from Metallica, and were considered one of the “big four” thrash metal bands, along with Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer. I think their best work is 1992’s Countdown to Extinction, which came out at the tail end of the metal era, just as grunge was taking over the world. Their 1994 follow-up, Youthanasia, had some good tracks too, but I’ve struggled to get through any of their subsequent albums; I think this is partly because they have stayed true to their brand of high-speed thrash metal, while my tastes have changed. That remains the case with this, their sixteenth studio album; diehard fans will probably love tracks like Life in Hell, Sacrifice and Killing Time, but they didn’t do anything for me. Night Stalkers with legendary rapper Ice-T and This Planet’s On Fire with Sammy Hagar on vocals both bring some variation to Mustaine’s limited vocal range. Although the album has received praise from music critics (it has a Metacritic score of 78), I don’t see myself going back for more. I’ll just have to be content with Capitol Punishment: The Megadeth Years, their excellent greatest hits CD from 2000.

Ozzy OsbournePatient Number 9 (9th Sep): The prolific rock vocalist continues to stay relevant at the age of 74, releasing his thirteenth solo album, just two years after his previous well-received effort, Ordinary Man. That 2020 album was notable for collaborations with a host of well-known musicians like Post Malone, Elton John, Slash and Charlie Puth, some of whom I would never have imagined recording with the former Black Sabbath front man. Osbourne continues in the same vein on his latest release, with a mouth-watering line-up of some of the greatest guitarists in rock (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Mike McCready from Pearl Jam and former Sabbath bandmate Tony Iommi), and a similarly impressive array of drummers (the late Taylor Hawkins and Chad Smith of Red Hot Chilli Peppers) and bassists (Metallica’s Robert Trujillo and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses fame). Does it all add up? Well, it’s received an incredible 4 Grammy nominations – for Best Rock Album, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance (both for the title track), and Best Metal Performance (Degradation Rules). The songs are immaculately arranged and produced, but do not explore any new musical ground. The only two songs that I would feel like listening to again are Nothing Feels Right and God Only Knows. Frankly, I would rather go back to Ozzy’s first three solo albums from the 80’s – Blizzard of Oz, Diary of a Madman and Bark at the Moon; they still set my pulse racing.

Vieux Farka Touré / KhruangbinAli (23rd Sep): Boureima “Vieux” Farka Touré, the son of legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré who passed away in 2006, released his self-titled debut album in 2007. I was captivated by his distinctive guitar play and the underlying groove of songs like Ana, Wosoubour and Courage. However, I lost track of his subsequent albums, and then was pleasantly surprised to discover that he had partnered with one of my current favourite bands, Khruangbin, to release Ali, a tribute album of his father’s cover songs. I hadn’t previously listened to Ali Farka Touré’s music, and had no point of comparison for these cover versions. So I ended up listening to each song twice to understand how they had been updated in this new collaboration. Essentially, Ali Farka Touré steps in for his father’s guitar and vocals, while Khruangbin adds a dubstep groove; the result is similar to the DJ remixes of old Hindi songs, which really works for me. It’s a crisp 37-minute-long album with 8 tracks and I really loved Lobbo, Tongo Barra and Alakarra. This is Khruangbin’s second collaboration of the year, having already released an EP titled Texas Moon with Leon Bridges in February.

QueensrÿcheDigital Noise Alliance (6th Oct): Queensrÿche’s 1988 magnum opus, Operation: Mindcrime is frequently included in lists of all-time great metal albums, and it also features in my own series of favourite rock/metal concept albums. The band went through a tumultuous phase following the dismissal of lead singer Geoff Tate in 2012, leading to a dispute around the rights to the band’s name. In 2014, a court decided in favour of co-founders Michael Wilton (lead guitar) and Eddie Jackson (bass), following which Tate (unsurprisingly) named his band Operation: Mindcrime. In spite of all the ups and downs, Queensrÿche have kept up a steady output and this, their 16th studio release, is their highest charting album since their glory years. Vocalist Todd La Torre does an impressive job of replicating Tate’s amazing vocal range, and the twin guitar attack from Wilton and Mike Stone ticks all the boxes on tracks like In Extremis, Lost in Sorrow and Out of the Black. The obligatory power ballad, Forest, unfortunately does not have the epic scope nor emotional depth of their classic Silent Lucidity. The album ends with an enjoyable cover of Billy Idol‘s Rebel Yell. Overall, I would rate Digital Noise Alliance as one of the best mainstream rock/metal albums of the year.

Skid RowThe Gang’s All Here (14th Oct): Skid Row was among the last of the “hair metal” bands that rose to fame at the end of the 80’s, enjoying massive success with their self-titled 1989 debut, driven by the singles 18 and Life and I Remember You. Lead singer Sebastian Bach had an impressive set of pipes, and became a hard rock sex symbol, following in the footsteps of other rock vocalists like David Lee Roth and Axl Rose. The band went off the radar with the rise of grunge and alternative rock, and hadn’t released an album for 16 years, until returning this year with their sixth studio album. Three of the original members remain – guitarists Dave Sabo and Scotti Hill, and bassist Rachel Bolan (all 58 years old) – and are accompanied by 35-year-old Swedish vocalist Erik Grönwall. The band still packs a punch, and songs like Hell or High Water, Time Bomb, Resurrected and When the Lights Come On evoke the American heavy metal sound made famous by bands like Mötley Crüe. The only disappointment is the 7-minute-long power ballad, October’s Song, which meanders along without any catchy hooks or riffs. The album peaked at a respectable #14 on the US Billboard charts, indicating there is plenty of appetite for more from the reconstituted band.

JojiSMITHEREENS (4th Nov): George Kusunoki Miller (aka Joji) is a former YouTuber turned singer-songwriter, who I came across a couple of years ago via his poignant duet Afterthought, with New Zealand singer-songwriter BENEE. The song featured on Joji’s introspective and somewhat dark 2020 album, Nectar, and his new release SMITHEREENS, continues with a set of similarly thoughtful and melancholic tracks. Joji’s music can be described as lo-fi pop; the songs feature minimal instrumentation – essentially some synthesizer lines and a drum machine – delivering simple but appealing melodies. All the action revolves around Joji’s heartfelt vocals, which I would describe as a “baritone-edged tenor”, with falsetto used quite effectively as a hook on some lines, and electronic enhancement used purposefully elsewhere. Most of the praise from reviewers has been focused on the lead single, Glimpse of Us, but in fact, I enjoyed almost all the songs on this short 24-minute album – Feeling Like the End, Die For You, Before The Day is Over, Dissolve, NIGHT RIDER and BLAHBLAHBLAH DEMO (like the album name, some song titles are styled in all-caps).

Bruce SpringsteenOnly The Strong Survive (11th Nov): “The Boss” is back with his 21st studio album and this time he’s recorded covers of his favourite R&B and soul songs. Given that Springsteen has built his career on “blue collar rock”, I admit I was surprised to learn that he is so fond of the R&B genre. Needless to say, the songs are all well-established classics, effectively a Motown greatest hits collection with nothing to dislike. The lead single is a delightful cover of Frank Wilson‘s Do I Love You, made all the more enjoyable by the high-energy music video. I got goosebumps listening to the second single from the album, a rendition of the CommodoresNightshift. The music videos for all four singles (the other two being Ben E. King‘s Don’t Play That Song and Tyrone DavisTurn Back the Hands of Time) capture Springsteen’s live performance energy. I do like the way the arrangement on most of the songs incorporates a string (violin, viola and cello) section. What an amazing gift from the legendary 73-year-old musician.

Smashing PumpkinsAtum: Act One (15th Nov): Smashing Pumpkins was a high-profile poster child of the alternative rock movement, churning out critically acclaimed albums Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in the 90’s, before fading out of mainstream pop culture over the next two decades in spite of regular recording and touring. They have returned with a bang with their latest project, Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts, an ambitious concept album which acts as a sort of sequel to the albums Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Machina/The Machines of God, continuing the story of a rock star named Glass. The album is being released in three instalments of eleven songs each. The first instalment, Atum: Act One was released last month, The opening track is an instrumental named Atum (pronounced “Autumn”), which starts off slow, but ends with a sense of grandeur. It is followed by three outstanding tracks – Butterfly Suite, The Good in Goodbye and Embracer – the last of which will definitely end up on my 2022 playlist. The compositions revolve around Billy Corgan‘s distinctive, heartfelt vocals and catchy keyboard riffs, with Jeff Schroeder‘s and James Iha‘s twin guitars and Jimmy Chamberlain‘s drums all interlocking beautifully. The remaining seven tracks continue in the same vein, although I didn’t find any that I loved quite as much as the first three (although Where Rain Must Fall has been rapidly growing on me). Overall, this is a mature, highly accomplished effort and I am definitely looking forward to Act Two scheduled for 31st Jan, 2023 and Act Three due on 23rd April, 2023.

That concludes my snapshot of 24 new albums released by my favourite artists in 2022. In 2023, I look forward to new releases from Uriah Heep, Metallica and Dream Theater, as well as the remaining two instalments of Smashing Pumpkins’ rock opera.

Old favourites release new music in 2022: Part 2

Continuing on from Part 1 of my 2022 music review, here are another 8 albums released by old favourites in 2022.

James LaBrieBeautiful Shade of Grey (20th May): Canadian singer James LaBrie is better known as the long-time vocalist for American prog-metal band Dream Theater. All members of the band are constantly busy with solo projects or supergroups when not recording and touring together, and LaBrie is no different, with Beautiful Shade of Grey being his fifth solo release since 2005. This time around he pivots away from melodic death metal to a more mellow and accessible sound. His 24-year-old son, Chance LaBrie, whose band Falset launched their debut album in 2020, is the drummer on the album. Italian guitarist, Marco Sfogli, who has been a regular on previous LaBrie solo efforts, shines throughout, especially on the tracks, Devil in Drag, Hit Me Like a Brick and the beautifully arranged What I Missed. Many of the tracks, shaped by LaBrie’s characteristic vocal style, sound like the softer songs from recent Dream Theater albums – pleasant, but somewhat formulaic; the ballad, Supernova Girl and the predominantly acoustic Give and Take, are typical examples. Wildflower is a notable exception, with its vocal harmonies elevating it above the ordinary. The note for note cover of Led Zepellin‘s Ramble On sounds great, but is an incongruous presence vs. the style of the other songs. This 48-minute-long album is definitely worth a try for fans of the Dream Theater sound, or anyone looking for mellow metal.

Harry StylesHarry’s House (20th May): The English singer-songwriter is a pop culture phenomenon, emerging actor (Don’t Worry Darling and My Policeman both released this year) and style icon all rolled into one. His third studio album was released earlier this year to similar levels of acclaim as his sophomore 2019 effort Fine Line, and has just garnered Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album. I admit I haven’t listened to much of Styles’ music other than the ubiquitous Watermelon Sugar, and some hits from his One Direction days, but I count myself a fan of his sound and style, and so I was already positively predisposed to the new album. It certainly doesn’t disappoint, with a collection of songs that have depth and texture, exemplified by Music for a Sushi Restaurant, Late Night Talking, Grapejuice and the hit single As It Was. Then there’s Cinema and Daydreaming, both of which have a great R&B/soul vibe, with John Mayer on guitars on both songs (and what sounds like a Nile Rodgers riff at the end of the former track). The beautifully contemplative Boyfriends has the great Ben Harper on acoustic, electric and slide guitars. These delightful variations, including Styles’ falsetto on the chorus of Satellite, are the little surprises that make this album such a joy to listen to. One can only imagine what else this talented 28-year-old has in store for his fans in the coming years.

Def LeppardDiamond Star Halos (27th May): Def Leppard has a special place in my life, as Hysteria was the first rock album I listened to, and fell in love with, back in 1987. I chronicled this a couple of years ago in a four-part series describing my journey through rock and metal. The British band has continued to remain active through the years, although they are not the chart-topping sensations they were in the late 80’s. To their credit, they have tried to experiment with their sound on albums like Slang (1996) and X (2002), but with mixed success. Their 12th studio album returns to their 80’s template, continuing with the same line-up of the past three decades – vocalist Joe Elliot (now 63 years old), Rick Savage on bass, one-armed drummer Rick Allen, and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell (who replaced Steve Clark after he died on alcohol poisoning in 1991). The throwback sound with their signature vocal harmonizing, works perfectly, particularly on the early tracks Kick and Fire It Up. On two songs, the band collaborates with Alison Krauss, who brings her country vibe to This Guitar and the slower Lifeless. The band has had great success in the past with ballads and acoustic songs like 1992’s Two Steps Behind, and they land a couple of winners here with Goodbye for Good This Time and Angels, enhanced by a piano and strings arrangement. Overall, this album is well worth listening to for fans of Hysteria and 80’s hair metal/pop rock.

Michael Schenker GroupUniversal (27th May): I have to confess, MSG barely qualifies as an “old favourite”; I do own their best-selling live release, One Night at Budokan, but have never listened to any of their studio albums. Band leader Michael Schenker (who started his career at age 17 as lead guitarist for Scorpions with brother Rudy) has been the constant through the years, accompanied by a revolving door line-up of respected musicians. The band had released 10 albums until 2008, and then after a gap of 13 years, came out with Immortal last year and Universal this year. Both feature top class Chilean vocalist Ronnie Romero, who has also been singing for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow on their live shows since 2016. The creative energy on Universal appears to be directed towards vocal performances rather than guitar pyrotechnics, given the other high-profile guest vocalists on the album – legendary Helloween frontman Michael Kiske brings his distinctive pipes to the Ronnie James Dio homage, A King Has Gone (the Rainbow connection is strong here as the track features Rainbow’s former bassist Bob Daisley, drummer Bobby Rondinelli and keyboardist Tony Carey); highly regarded metal vocalist Ralf Scheepers growls and shrieks on the ferocious Wrecking Ball; former MSG lead singer Gary Barden and Romero share a duet on The Universe. If you want a dose of late 70’s no-frills guitar shredding and rock vocals, then this is the album for you.

Coheed and CambriaVaxis – Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind (24th June): This is the American prog-rock band’s much anticipated sequel to their 2018 release, Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures. It’s the latest in their long-running sequence of concept albums based on The Amory Wars, a space opera graphic novel series written by 44-year-old band frontman Claudio Sanchez. At four years, this is the longest gap between album releases in the band’s twenty-year history. The synth and Auto-tune elements have been dialed up on this release, and the intros to A Disappearing Act and Bad Man would not be out of place in a 90’s pop album. I have unconditional love for this band, but in this case there are only 4 out of the 13 tracks that I would put on my repeat listening list – Comatose, Liars Club, the outstanding Rise, Naianasha (Cut the Cord) and the epic 8-minute suite Window of the Waking Mind. That’s still a better hit rate than the 2 tracks I loved on Vaxis – Act I, so I have no complaints overall and I look forward to many more years of exhilarating output from this amazing band.

Of MontrealFreewave Lucifer f<ck f^ck f>ck (29th July): The prolific Kevin Barnes, the man behind the band Of Montreal, has released three albums in as many years, with the latest being his 18th studio album since 1997. I was an unabashed fan of his delightfully effervescent 2020 release, Ur Fun, but surprisingly I couldn’t get any excitement out of I Feel Safe with You, Trash released last year and likewise, no vibe whatsoever from this year’s 33-minute long album either; after listening to it twice, there’s not a single song that I like. The music is too esoteric, experimental and freewheeling for my taste.

Russian CirclesGnosis (19th Aug): This Chicago-based instrumental rock trio has been quietly accumulating a legion of fans since 2006 and this is their 8th studio release. I fell in love with their highly acclaimed 2013 release, Memorial, and thereafter listened to their previous album, Empros. I lost track of their subsequent three releases and sadly also missed their live performance in Kuala Lumpur in 2015. What I find particularly attractive about their music is Dave Turncrantz‘s slow drumming cadence, which produces a heavy, brutal, almost primitive sound, around which the bass and guitars are structured. There are few surprises on the 40-minute-long Gnosis, with the band sticking to its tried and trusted formula. My favourite is the title track highlighted by guitarist Mike Sullivan‘s eastern-style rhythms. The songs do start blending into each other after a while, although the one-two switcheroo of the lullaby-like Ó Braonáin, followed by the aural assault of Betrayal, did jar me out of my trance (neither song appealed to me!). Overall, a good effort which will be of interest to hardcore fans and first-time listeners, but nothing exceptional if you’re looking for some variation from their previous releases.

The Mars VoltaThe Mars Volta (16th Sep): In September, I wrote a full review of the band’s new self-titled album, their 7th studio release, which marked their emergence from a self-imposed ten year retirement/hiatus. Two months later, it continues to be top of mind; in fact, Spotify’s year-end wrap-up of my listening choices acknowledged that Vigil was my top song of the year. There’s not much more to be said beyond that, except to express my deep frustration that the band didn’t get a Grammy nomination. This is definitely a contender for my favourite album of the year.

That brings us to the end of Part 2. In Part 3, I will cover albums from Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin, Queensrÿche, Joji, Bruce Springsteen and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Old favourites release new music in 2022: Part 1

The past couple of years has seen a surge in new album releases from veteran bands. Typically, artists in the twilight of their career focus on monetizing their back catalogue through regular touring. The Covid lockdowns and inability to travel gave these bands the time and energy to write and record new music.

During this time, I’ve experienced the joy of listening to new albums from old favourites like Stone Temple Pilots, Deep Purple, Kansas, Yes, My Morning Jacket, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne and of course, ABBA, with their thrilling return in Nov 2021 after a 40-year hiatus with the Grammy-nominated Voyage. Irrespective of the quality of these albums, the experience of listening and re-listening to them, identifying musical influences and shortlisting the best songs, has been immensely rewarding.

Having done this for 2020 (Part 1 and Part 2) and 2021 (Part 1 and Part 2), I was excited to see an even larger number of familiar names on the release list for 2022. As we close out the year, here are thumbnails of new albums from some of my favourite bands/artists, the majority of whom are rock and metal.

Jethro TullThe Zealot Gene (28th Jan): I haven’t listened to a new Jethro Tull album since 1989’s Rock Island, a decent follow-up to their outstanding 1987 release, Crest of a Knave (which upset Metallica‘s …And Justice for All to win the inaugural Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Grammy). Fast-forward more than three decades, and 75-year-old founder Ian Anderson has returned with an all-new line-up (essentially the musicians he had been touring with over the past decade) to release the band’s 22nd studio album. Anderson’s flute-work is the DNA behind the album’s unmistakable “Tull” sound, while the songs themselves flit between Tull’s mid-70’s folk-rock sound and late 80’s rock-pop phase. The opening track, Mrs Tibbets, falls into the latter category while Sad City Sisters and Where Did Saturday Go? are examples of the former. Other notable tracks include Mine is the Mountain, The Zealot Gene, Barren Beth,Wild Desert John and the lovely, acoustic Three Loves,Three. The album does have a few filler songs, during which one tends to “tune out”, but then a good track comes along and grabs your attention. The closing song, The Fisherman of Ephesus, has a storytelling cadence which bears a passing similarity to some of Al Stewart‘s classic songs. Overall, the album is definitely worth a listen, and it’s really commendable that Mr. Anderson is still writing all the music and lyrics himself after all these years.

Steve VaiInviolate (28th Jan): My first exposure to Steve Vai’s virtuosity was on David Lee Roth‘s 1989 album, Skyscraper. One year later, his lead guitar magic on Whitesnake‘s Slip of the Tongue made it my favourite album from the band. And his 1990 solo release, Passion and Warfare (still considered his best work), yielded my favourite guitar instrumental track, Sisters. I am less familiar with his subsequent albums, although that didn’t come in the way of a mind-blowing experience watching him live in Kuala Lumpur in 2014. The 62-year-old released his tenth studio album in January, and it carries his instantly recognizable playing style, particularly what I refer to as “the sitar sound”. The standout track on the album is the first one, Teeth of the Hydra, which manages to sound relaxed and incredibly complex at the same time; the music video showcasing his new custom triple-neck Ibanez Hydra guitar is a treat to watch. My other favourite tracks are Little Pretty, Candlepower and Avalancha; all are melodious and have catchy hooks, not something one can take for granted with guitar virtuosos, who sometimes get carried away creating technically challenging music that may not necessarily be fun to listen to. No such issues with this amazing album.

Steve Vai with his custom Ibanez Hydra, featured on his 2022 album Inviolate

Scorpions Rock Believer (22nd Feb): German rock band, Scorpions, released their 19th studio album seven years after their previous effort. Incredibly, three of the stalwarts from their glory years are still with the band – diminutive vocalist Klaus Meine (now 74 years old), rhythm guitarist Rudy Schenker (also 74) and lead guitarist Matthias Jabs (67 years old). On the new album, the band has revisited the formula that has delivered hits over the years and made them a popular live attraction – punchy riffs and hooks, a standard rock drum beat, the occasional guitar solo, and Meine’s distinctive nasal vocals. But for that very reason, it felt a bit dated and I struggled to stay focused through the first four tracks. Then come two consecutive songs which really stood out. Shining in Your Soul has a reggae/ska beat, reminiscent of their 1979 hit Is There Anybody There. And then came Seventh Sun, perhaps the best track on the album – the underlying slow drum beat gives the song a heavy feel, but there’s also variety – a plucked guitar intro line, a light catchy chorus and a guitar solo. The final track, When You Know (Where You Come From), is the obligatory ballad, but doesn’t have the same magic as Wind of Change. The deluxe version of the album has 5 additional tracks adding another 20 minutes to the album, but honestly none of them grabbed my attention.

D’Virgilio, Morse & JenningsTroika (25th Feb): The prolific prog-rock singer-songwriter-musician Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, The Neal Morse Band), is out with yet another album, this time a collaboration with drummer Nick D’Virgilio and vocalist Ross Jennings. This highly pleasing one-hour-long release is filled with easy listening songs, which are strongly influenced by, and pay tribute to, the music of CSN. Every track delivers a combination of delightful vocal harmonies and beautifully coordinated musicianship. There’s no question that the acoustic ballad, Julia, is the standout track of the album, and is sure to be a staple of future live shows; listening to the track gave me echoes from Dream Theater‘s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, particularly Solitary Shell. My other favourite songs are Everything I Am, You Set My Soul on Fire, One Time Less, Another Trip Around the Sun and My Guardian. I’ve named more than half the songs in the album, so it’s pretty clear that I really enjoyed it! At the age of 62, Neal Morse shows no signs of slowing down, with more than 40 studio albums under his belt, as well as countless cover albums, live recordings (including one with Yellow Matter Custard, a Beatles tribute supergroup) and compilations.

SabatonThe War to End All Wars (4th Mar): Swedish heavy metal band, Sabaton’s tenth studio recording is yet another concept album revolving around war, and serves as a sequel to their 2019 release The Great War – both commonly used terms for World War I. I’ve previously written about The Great War album, in my on-going series about favourite rock/metal concept albums. Fans of the 2019 album know what to expect from the sequel – Joakim Brodén‘s elaborately descriptive lyrics, set to Hannes Van Dahl‘s militaristic drumbeat, and highlighted by catchy singalong choruses; the best examples are Stormtroopers, Dreadnought, Soldier of Heaven and Lady of the Dark. The opening and closing tracks – named Sarajevo and Versailles respectively – are a pair, built on the same musical structure. There are two tracks that deviate (pleasantly) from the established template. One is Hellfighters, which with its chugging rhythm guitars and lead solos, sounds very much like something that could have been written by Iron Maiden. And the other is Christmas Truce, which kicks off with keyboards and is sung in a suitably poignant tone. There’s no question that Sabaton continue to evolve musically, while staying true to their chosen military metal sub-genre.

BENEELychee EP (4th Mar): New Zealand pop singer BENEE (aka Stella Rose Bennett) is the youngest of my “old favourites”, given that I first listened to her only in 2020. Her two excellent 2019 EPs, Fire on Marzz and Stella & Steve, and her first full length album, Hey U X, from late 2020 were very much on repeat play on Spotify at that time. I really enjoyed her brand of bubbly pop with a hint of melancholy in her soulful voice, and included her in my post, Favourite female singers of the decade. She released her third EP earlier this year, containing 7 songs and clocking in at 25 minutes. It’s bit of a mixed bag; the lead single, Beach Boy, definitely delivers the catchy pop hooks that I enjoyed so much in 2020. Soft Side continues in the same vein, with some Auto-tune vocals thrown in. The third track, Hurt You, Gus would be classified as “chilled out background music”, rather than achieving sing-along status. From that point onwards, the songs felt progressively less distinctive, and the final song, Make You Sick, which is nearly 7 minutes long did absolutely nothing for me. Still, three songs out of seven isn’t too bad, and hopefully the 22-year-old will explore interesting musical avenues with her future efforts.

Joe SatrianiThe Elephants of Mars (8th Apr): Joe Satriani has been a mentor, friend and elder stateman to the rock guitar community for decades; both Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett were students of his, and credit him for the techniques they learned in their formative years. Certainly, his virtuosity was in no doubt on his iconic breakthrough albums Surfing with the Alien and Flying in a Blue Dream in the late ’80s, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the sameness of the compositions. I therefore hadn’t kept up with his subsequent (and regular) output over the years. And so I was incredibly surprised by the maturity, variety and the sheer joie de vivre shining through on this 18th studio album. Pretty much every track is amazing and different; I tried listing my favourites and it looks like I’ve covered most of the songs in the album – Sahara with its eastern rhythms, the cinematic thriller vibe of The Elephants of Mars (in spite of the sudden interlude in the middle which I didn’t like), the contemplative and moving “Vai-like” Faceless, the upbeat and funky Blue Foot Groovy, the epic-sounding Sailing the Seas of Ganymede, the tabla intro and mystical rhythms in Doors of Perception, the bright tonal colors and jazzy groove of E 104th St NYC 1973 and the party-themed electronica-infused Night Scene. A special shoutout to all the artists on this album – Kenny Aronoff (drums), Bryan Beller (bass), Rai Thistlethwayte (keyboards) and Eric Caudieux (keyboards, sound engineer and record producer). I am indeed contemplating declaring The Elephants of Mars as one of my top instrumental albums of all time!

Kirk HammettPortals EP (23rd Apr): What a coincidence that Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett all released solo albums in the same year – the key difference for Hammett is that this is his first ever solo effort after more than 40 years as Metallica‘s lead guitarist. Although the release is an EP with just 4 songs, they are all pretty long and the album clocks in at nearly half an hour. The first time I listened to the album, I couldn’t get a hang of it, but I then read an interview with Hammett in which he said that the songs are “soundtracks to the movies in your mind”. I felt that context was critical, and the second time around I was able to appreciate the music better; and it also explains the track titles – Maiden and the Monster (Hammett is a horror aficionado), The Jinn, High Plains Drifter and The Incantation. In comparison with the easy accessibility of the first six albums in this list, I needed to work harder as a listener in this case. The musicianship is unquestionably great, but I suspect the only times I will play this album is when I need some background music, or to test the acoustics on a pair of headphones.

In Part 2, I will cover 2022 album releases from James LaBrie, Harry Styles, Def Leppard, Michael Schenker Group, Coheed and Cambria, Of Montreal, Russian Circles and The Mars Volta. And Part 3 will have albums from Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin, Queensrÿche, Joji, Bruce Springsteen and The Smashing Pumpkins.