And business is good, whether your thing is punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock and their various spinoffs and offshoots. Our guarantee to you: no Nickelback allowed. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
“Rock & roll is dead!” has been screamed out in print and online so many times in the last ten (twenty? thirty?) years it’s as much of a cliché as its polar opposites “Love live rock” and “rock & roll is here to stay.” It’s both true and false. If we’re talking about the time when rock set the cultural bar for the music business, that time is long over, unlikely to ever return. But if we’re talking about the music itself, no way. Even if rock & roll rarely hits the commercial heights of Ye Olden Dayes (and every generation has its own take on what YOD are), it thrives onstage, on record and in people’s hearts. Just dig a little deeper than what the Billboard charts, hip music rags or coolhunters claim, and it’s there, fingers still bleeding. And that’s the music this column concerns itself with – the bands who never stopped believing and never stopped kicking out the jams, motherfuckers, no matter what hills need climbing, barriers need smashing and eardrums need shredding.
But what do we mean when we say “rock & roll?” After all, rock bands still chart from time to time – Nickelback still sells a gazillion records, and the Foo Fighters aren’t hurtin’ for cash or poontang. We dig the Foos (not Nickelback – there’s a special circle in hell reserved for the powers that be that foisted that abomination onto rock radio), but what they do isn’t quite what we’re talking about. We’re looking not only for riffs and melody, but groove and attitude, and an awareness of rock history beyond the rise of Nirvana. Punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock and their various spinoffs and offshoots are this column’s meat. Our patron saints include Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones, the Faces, the MC5, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Who, T. Rex, Cheap Trick, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Ramones, the Clash, the Saints, Rockpile, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the Plimsouls, Hanoi Rocks, the Dogs D’amour, Nikki Sudden and the Nuggets and A Fistful of Rock ‘n’ Roll compilations. Current and recent practitioners include the Hellacopters, Turbonegro, Diamond Dogs, the Wildhearts, Biters, the Happen-Ins, the Bluebonnets, the Hormones, the Breakers, the Jim Jones Revue, the Blessings, Les Breastfeeders, the Paybacks, JD McPherson, the Supersuckers and on and on and on. We may not be able to define it precisely, but we know it when we hear it.
Enough exposition. Get out your air guitars, stretch your hips and let’s dig into some rock & records…
When Swedish rock godhead the Hellacopters split, leader Nicke Andersson didn’t stay idle for long. Imperial State Electric started as a one-man-band, but quickly evolved into a four-headed monster featuring Datsuns frontdude Dolf de Borst, among others. Honk Machine (Psychout/Sound Pollution), ISE’s fourth album, bursts with the kind of straight-shooting rock & roll nuggets you’d expect from such an aggregation. With Andersson in charge, it’s no surprise that the Hellacopter aesthetic – a finely-crafted mix of Detroit power rock, garage rock and rootsy arena rock – dominates, which means “Guard Down,” “Let Me Throw My Life Away” and “It Ain’t What You Think (It’s What You Know)” balance air guitar riffery, singalong melodicism and ass-kicking mojo in just the right ways. But, contrary to initial impressions, ISE is not Hellacopters II. De Borst takes center stage on the garage popping “Maybe I’m Right,” while guitarist Tobias Egge pens and sings the power popping “Just Let Me Know.” Andersson himself steps outside his usual boundaries, adding a heavy dose of winsome melodicism to “Lost in Losing You,” “Colder Down Here” and “All Over My Head.” He even indulges his soul jones (already displayed in his Scott Morgan-fronted side project The Solution) for the raw R&B ballad “Walk On By.” The first ISE record to equal those of the band from whose loins it sprang, Honk Machine is more than the sum of its parts while still remaining in the wheelhouse of its beloved primary creator,
Outside of his own music, Andersson also lets his influence trickle down by producing likeminded acts. Under Andersson’s watchful eye, his fellow countrymen in Black Trip practically give themselves a makeover on Shadowline (Steamhammer/SPV/Threeman). Whether it’s by virtue of Andersson’s distinctive production style, which emphasizes clarity over crunch, or simply an evolution in songwriting, the Swedish quintet moves away from the ‘80s street metal of its debut to a melodic strain of earthy hard rock via “Die With Me,” “Subvisual Sleep” and the title track. “Clockworks” and “Berlin Model 23” keep throwing some of the original horns, but otherwise this is a definite shift, one that suits singer Joseph Tholl well. Andersson also co-produced Heads Held High (Century Media), the second LP from Dead Lord. Inspired by Thin Lizzy and like minds, the (imagine that) Swedish foursome shares some aspects of the Andersson rawk vision – riff-oriented, melodic, burly without steroid abuse. But leader Hakim Krim has his own vision, not to mention a distinctive vocal style, letting “Farewell,” “When History Repeats Itself” and “Cold Hearted Madness” sound like Dead Lord more than Nicke Andersson Presents: Dead Lord.
The Swedish rawk revolution continues via Honeymoon Disease, now unleashing debut album The Transcendence (Napalm) following last year’s Bellevue Groove EP – both co-produced by Andersson. Led by guitarists Jenna and Acid, the Gothenburg quartet adds a pinch of garage rock spice to its Detroit/London stew, bashing out the basics with talent and verve. Powered by catchy riffs and Jenna’s controlled howl, “Fast Love,” “Gotta Move” and “Bellevue Groove” will get bodies and air guitar hands in motion. Amazingly, Andersson isn’t involved with Spiders on their latest EP Why Don’t You (Spinefarm), but that doesn’t stop all three songs from rocking righteously, particularly the title track and a shockingly crunchy take on ABBA’s “Watch Out.”
A class- and practice mate of Gary Clark Jr., Eve Monsees, like her old pal, has never been a stickler for blues orthodoxy. You Know She Did (Serpent), her third album with her band the Exiles, uses the blues and R&B as a base, but this is definitely a rock & roll record. Opneing trio “One Glass,” “Follow the Thread” and the title track sound like unearthed gems from a lost era – you could put them on Nuggets and they’d be highlights. The quartet also distinguishes itself with country (“Footnote”), pop (“Easy to Be Sorry,” Jackie DeShannon’s “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me”), Bo Diddley bop (“Rock, Paper, Scissors”), an approximation of the Band ( the Glen Clark-Delbert McClinton tune “I Received a Letter”) and, of course, the blues (both parts of “Mr. Devil”). Simple, straightforward songs performed with skill, taste and verve – rock & roll done right.
Dirty Streets has a similar strain of deep blues running through its DNA. Like the Exiles, however, the Memphis trio uses it as part of the foundation, not the building, on its fourth record White Horse (Alive Naturalsound). Rather than essaying the heavy garage blues of previous platters, the Streets polish big-ass boogie rock, driven by the meaty riffs and plainspoken soul of frontguy Justin Toland (no relation). “Good Pills,” “Think Twice” and “When I See My Light” blast beautifully, and the ballad “Dust” provides an appropriately mystical alternative. Nikki Hill draws more for the classic R&B era, from Sam Cooke to Etta James to Irma Thomas, but with a serious streak of rock & roll blood. Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists (Deep Fryed), the New Orleans diva’s second LP, pours traditional soul chops through a rawk filter, resulting in rippers like the Chuck Berryesque “(Let Me Tell You ‘Bout) Luv,” the butt-rockin’ “Hotshot” and the burning title cut. Keep an eye on this kid – she’s gonna kick all kinds of ass.
With a title like Out of Space (SRA), you’d expect Hound to be a cosmic affair. Instead the Philly trio seems more interested in Harleys than spaceships – the band’s second album riffs on roaring biker rock (“Emotional Collapse,” “Super Junkie of Being Free”) and heavy blues (“Stone Carvin’ Man,” “Cold Blooded”). The record nods to metal in the doom-mongering “Over the Edge,” but otherwise gets the motor runnin’ and heads out on the highway. Off to the west in Detroit, Against the Grain hops its turbocharged hog for fourth LP Road Warriors (Self Destructo). The quartet seems to be mainlining anything with an electric guitar and high bpm, mishmashing Motörhead, Black Flag, the MC5 and Iron Maiden into a reckless rush of raging riffery. “Til We Die,” “Coming In Hot” and “What Happened?” waste no time blazing from one end of bad road to the other. Breathless.
Sonny Vincent comes from the punk ‘n’ roll end of the spectrum, but he’s got as much Little Richard in him as Sex Pistols on Bizarro Hymns (Get Hip). Recorded in 2011 with the late Scott Asheton, Vincent kicks out the jams old school, bashing out bent romance on “Forgive You, Forget You” and “Till There Was You,” getting wistful on “Picture Book” and “Crystal Clear” and raging against the universe on “Faster Pussycat” and “Don’t Give a Fuck.” Vincent’s been amazingly consistent over the years, in part by sticking to exactly what he does best, and Bizarro Hymns nails his vision perfectly. (Go HERE to check out a live video of Vincent that we posted not long ago.) Like a meaner, sleazier Foo Fighters, British foursome Turbowolf takes its punk roots and injects them into the post-Nirvana rock world on second LP Two Hands (Spinefarm). The band’s thrashing energy elevates “Invisible Hand” and “American Mirror” far past generic AltRock-o-Rama status, and its willingness to play with more danceable rhythms on “Nine Lives” and “Solid Gold” gives it an intriguing versatility. Chris Georgiadis’ glam-damaged rasp doesn’t hurt, either. Gentlemans Pistols, meanwhile, don’t have a single strand of punk rock DNA in them. But the Leeds quintet bashes out Hustler’s Row (Nuclear Blast), the difficult third album with similar no-fucks-to-give ‘tude. Straight-up hard rock and boogie are the order of the day, given a smartly melodic kick by leader James Atkinson and ear-bleeding muscle by guitarist Bill Steer of Carcass. “The Searcher” and “Personal Fantasy Wonderland” lay it all out.
Australia has a lock on rock thanks to being the spawning ground for both AC/DC and Radio Birdman (and their various progeny). The Vendettas, interestingly, don’t sound much like either branch of the rock & roll tree on Bystander & Destroyer (self-released). The band avoids the sleaze and metallic blues of the former and the punk-infused BÖCisms of the latter for straightforward, turbocharged melodic rawk with a mean streak. Attempts to keep balls from the wall meet with mixed success (thumbs up to “Anyone Can See,” not so much to “Blackened Heart”), but pedal-to-the-mettle rockers “Wasted,” “Hard Times” and “Wake Up Call” kick groovy ass, and Stevie Reds’ soulful howl puts even mediocre tracks over. British outfit the Jokers puts forth a similarly bullshitless brand of neo-classic rock on Hurricane (Steamhammer/SPV). Adding some 80s sleaze to the 70s revivalism of bands like the Black Crowes, the foursome kicks through “Lockdown,”sways through “Summer Time” and trips through “Dream.” For that Aussie hard rock charge, plug into Rolling in Town (Steamhammer/SPV), the second album from Argentina’s 42 Decibel. Sounding like Bon Scott fronting Rose Tattoo, the band betrays no innovative impulses, but pulls no punches on boogie blasters “Rude and Fast,” “Short Fused” and “Burning Down the Road.”
While never exactly hip, Southern rock ebbs and flows in popular appeal, usually depending on whether a current act nails it. After a few records trying to please both classic rock and modern country audiences, Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke finally quits worrying about it and just does its thing on Holding All the Roses (Rounder). That means some country (“Lay It All On Me,” “Woman in the Moon”) and folk (the quite lovely “Randolph County Farewell”), but mainly the band just gets down to rock & roll business via songs like “Let Me Help You (Find the Door),” “Fire in the Hole” and the title track. No muss, no fuss, no nods to contemporary production or guest stars – just old-fashioned rawk Southern style. While genre cops might argue whether or not the Bottle Rockets deserve the Southern rock tag, the band certainly has its fans in that camp. (And hey, they covered Skynyrd’s “Gimme Back My Bullets” the first time I saw them play.) The Festus, MO quartet’s latest album South Broadway Athletic Club (Bloodshot) maintains the band’s standards: good songs, performed against various rootsy backdrops, with a lack of pretentiousness that makes Bruce Springsteen look meta. Check out the jangly “Big Lotsa Love,” the folky “Smile” and the grungy “Building Chryslers.”
As plenty of wackjob TV preachers would tell you, rock doesn’t have to be metal to let the devil ride shotgun. Guitarist Thomas Sciarone lived that concept as part of the late, lamented Dutch act The Devil’s Blood, the melodic hard rock pathfinder for current Satanic panic revivalist Ghost. Teamed with singer Milena Eva, Sciarone dispels some of the brimstone stench from the Blood with Gold. That’s not to say No Image (Profound Lore), the band’s second album, wouldn’t make a good soundtrack to The Sentinel or Rosemary’s Baby, but dark rockers “Old Habits,” “Taste Me” and “Tar and Feather” aren’t nearly as obsessed with Luciferian shenanigans as Sciarone’s previous employer. Though not as soaked in Olde Worlde Magick as Gold, Satan’s Satyrs still give off a distinctly devilish vibe on Don’t Deliver Us (Bad Omen), the Herndon, VA trio’s third LP. Seemingly unable to decide between garage rock and proto-metal, the Satyrs instead spew out quirky nuggets of fuzzy doompunk, sifted by bassist Clayton Burgess’ glam-inflected whine. Boogie back to Beelzebub via “Germanium Bombs,” “Creepy Teens” and “Full Moon and Empty Veins.”
Michael “Denim” Toland, from Austin, got a fresh pair of ripped Levi’s for Christmas this year. He also authors the BLURT feature & blog “Throwing Horns,” our recurring roundup of new metal albums.
YOUR AUDIO-VIDEO TIP SHEET:
Against the Grain – Road Warriors bandcamp:
Blackberry Smoke – “Too High”:
Black Trip – “Berlin Model 32”:
The Bottle Rockets – South Broadway Athletic Club bandcamp:
Dead Lord – “When History Repeats Itself”:
42 Decibel – “Midnight Teaser (Evil Woman)”:
Gentlemans Pistols – “The Searcher”:
Gold – No Image bandcamp:
Honeymoon Disease – “Higher”:
Hound – “Over the Edge”:
Imperial State Electric – “All Over My Head”:
The Jokers – “Run For Cover”:
Satan’s Satyrs – “Germanium Bomb”:
Spiders – “Why Don’t You”:
Turbowolf – “Rabbit’s Foot”:
The Vendettas – Bystander & Destroyer bandcamp:
Sonny Vincent – Bizarro Hymns teaser: