Tag Archives: CD Review

Blood Ceremony – Living with the Ancients

Canadian four-piece Blood Ceremony have been making a bit of a stir recently, as much for the theatrical nature of their shows as for their records. But as this disk shows, the actual music more than stands up on it’s own.

It’s all quite heady stuff. It’s got doom-laden guitar riffs, bewitching female vocals, folk-inflenced flute, and swirling Hammond organ. The result is a sound like a cross between Black Sabbath fronted by Angela Gordon, and a dark twisted version of Uriah Heep.

There’s a very strong 1971 feel of the whole thing, albeit with slightly cleaner production. Guitarist Sean Kennedy is clearly a disciple of Tony Iommi, and one or two of his solos could have come straight off “Black Sabbath Vol 4″. The rhythm section also has the same slightly jazzy groove of early Sabbath. But vocalist, flautist and organist Alia O’Brien turns them into far, far more than a Black Sabbath tribute act. If her haunting lead vocals aren’t enough, her flute and especially her sinister-sounding organ end up defining the band’s sound. Her keyboard work reminds me a lot of Ken Hensley.

With Song titles like “The Great God Pan” (not a cover of The Waterboys’ song) “The Coven Tree”, “The Witches Dance” and “Daughter of the Sun” as a paean to the 1970s horror movies from which they take their name,  the end result comes over as the soundtrack for the best film that the Hammer House of Horror never made.

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Uriah Heep – Into the Wild

Uriah Heep have never had the recognition they deserve in their home country. In continental Europe just about every metal band with a keyboard player seems to cite them as a major influence. But in Britain they’re a cult band, all-too-often thought of as 70s also-rans, best known for being one of the principal inspirations for “This is Spinal Tap”.

They have undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. After the constantly changing lineups of the 70s and 80s, leaving just guitarist Mick Box and bassist Trevor Bolder from their 70s glory days, they’ve enjoyed many years of stability, with vocalist Bernie Shaw and keyboard player Phil Lanzon members of the band for well over than half their four-decade career. Studio releases have been infrequent, but the sheer quality of albums like 1995′s “Sea of Light” and especially 2008′s excellent “Wake the Sleeper” showed a band who weren’t ready to turn into their own tribute band like so many of their contemporaries.

And now, forty-one years after their debut, they’ve gone and delivered one of the best albums of their career.

From the opener “Nail on the Head”, onwards this is a very much a hard rock album with a classic 70s vibe. It’s got the combination of searing guitar and Hammond organ that defines the quintessential Uriah Heep sound. But just as on “Wake the Sleeper”, ‘new’ drummer Russell Gilbrook has upped the energy level considerably, resulting in a very hard-rocking Heep indeed.

While there is a definite echo of “Lady in Black” in Trevor Bolder’s “Lost”, the nearest thing to a ballad on the album. there’s not much of their acoustic side on display, and very little trace of the Americanised AOR that characterised a lot of their 80s output. There is, however, noticeably more of Phil Lanzon’s keys used as a lead instrument. I don’t think I’ve heard this much Hammond organ on a Heep album since the days of Ken Hensley. The album closer, the epic “Kiss of Freedom” ends with a magnificent solo, each crescendo more extravagant than the last; nothing less than a “Comfortably Numb” of the Hammond B3.

Few bands can come up with an album this good in the fifth decade of their career, and even fewer come up with albums that rock this hard. But Uriah Heep are one of those bands.

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Chantel McGregor – Like No Other

I first saw the young blues guitarist Chantel McGregor at the Cambridge Rock Festival last summer, when she appeared low on the bill fronting a blues-rock power-trio, and simply blew everyone in the crowd away.

Her long-awaited debut album is not quite what I expected. While her talent as a virtuoso guitarist ought to be clear to anyone who’s seen her live, this album shows just as great a talent as a singer-songwriter. It’s hugely varied record; with nine original numbers and three covers, she doesn’t just do blues, but also does hard rock, delicate acoustic work, and some quite catchy pop-rock with choruses that get stuck in your head after a few listens.

The production is quite stripped down, giving her voice and guitar a lot of space. with subtle and sparing use of Hammond organ and cello to add additional instrumental colour. Some of her vocals remind me of Heather Findlay, with a similar natural warmth, beauty and earthiness. There’s certainly an Odin Dragonfly vibe with the acoustic numbers. The guitar playing, as expected, is fantastic too; enough spectacular pyrotechnics to satisfy any fan of great lead guitar, but like all truly great musicians, she also knows exactly when to rein it in and keep things simple.

Of the original numbers, the rocky “Free Falling” really deserves to be a hit single, and I love the angry “Caught Out”, a song for which I can definitely identify with the lyrics. The instrumental “Cat Song” is great fun too with slide guitar imitating the meowing of a cat. Another standout for me is “Screams Everlasting” which starts at as at atmospheric acoustic number and ends with a magnificent slow-burning electric solo. Two of the three covers are vehicles for extended guitar workouts, with the version of Robin Trower’s “Daydream” clocking in at not far short of fourteen minutes. But the third is a stunningly beautiful acoustic interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”.

This is an album which ought to have something for everyone who appreciates great music played by a real musician. It’s about as far from Simon Cowell’s karaoke factory is it’s possible to get.

It’s available direct from Chantelmcgregor.com.

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Heather Findlay – The Phoenix Suite

Shortly after leaving Mostly Autumn a year ago to embark upon a solo career, Heather Findlay stated that her musical ideas were coming out in too many different directions for it all to sit comfortably together as a coherent album. So instead, she outlined plans to release a series of EPs, each with a very different feel, quite possibly featuring different backing musicians as well.

The Phoenix Suite, produced by former Mostly Autumn colleague Chris Johnson, it the first of these. It features Roger Waters’ guitarist Dave Kilminster, bassist Steve Vantsis and drummer Alex Cromarty as well as Chris himself on guitar. A blog from Heather stated it would be “Bohemian, vibey and rocky”. While there’s been quite a bit of discussion, occasionally quite heated, regarding Heather’s relationship with progressive rock, her songwriting for Mostly Autumn has always been the straightforward rock numbers and heartfelt ballads rather than the big symphonic epics.

The five songs that make up the suite are very varied indeed. The EP opens with the grunge-flavoured hard rocker “Red Dust, sounding absolutely nothing like anything she’s ever done before. Then the brooding title track follows rather more familiar territory, with more than an echo of “Unoriginal Sin” from “Glass Shadows”. “Cellophane”, on the other hand is a spiky pop-rock number. The EP closes with the slow-burning “Seven” and the almost but not quite epic “Mona Lisa”. Much of the EP displays the highly melodic songwriting style that ought to be recognisable to anyone familiar both with her own songs for Mostly Autumn and her work with Odin Dragonfly. The lyrics are intriguing, laden with metaphor, and significantly darker than before.

Sonically it’s very different from what many existing fans may have expected. There’s a sparse, dry sound and very stripped-down arrangements, and while there are other influences there’s a strong alternative rock feel. No keyboards; in a few places there are guitar effects where piano chords or synth fills might have been the more obvious choice. One disappointment for me is there’s very little of Dave Kilminster’s lead guitar to act as a foil for Heather’s vocals; there are a couple of brief indie-style bursts, but at no point does he really cut loose.

The closest comparison I can think of would be with singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore, and there are moments that remind me of quirky 90s rockers Ordinary Psycho, or Polish goth-rockers Closterkeller. There’s also a hint not only of Panic Room but also of Anne-Marie Helder’s EP “The Contact”. There are certainly one or two places where Heather’s vocals sound like a lot those of her former band-mate.

The arrangements come over as a deliberate intent of sounding distinctly different from her previous bands. On songs like “Red Dust” or “Cellophane” this approach works very well, but in other places it does feel as if the songs would have benefited from a little more instrumental depth, especially given the capabilities of musicians working on the project.

It’s certainly a brave move away from the sort of sound she’s traditionally been associated with. Time will tell whether or not Heather has succeeded with the difficult balancing act of broadening her appeal to mainstream audiences while keeping her existing fans on board. I can imagine a few dyed in the wool classic rock fans struggling to love this record, even while they respect her desire to do her own thing. On the other hand, she could well pick up new followers among alt-rock and indie fans who might never have been prepared to give her earlier work a listen.

But for me, no amount of misgivings about the production or arrangements can overshadow the quality of the actual songs. I’m very much looking forward to hearing the whole thing performed live when she plays festival dates with the full band in the summer. This is still a record that deserves to be appreciated for what it is rather than condemned for what it isn’t. And with Heather suggesting the next EP may be electronic and experimental, I think she’s going to be taking us on an interesting and challenging musical journey over the coming months.

The EP is now on general retail release, but it’s still also available direct from the artist here.

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