Sunday, December 31, 2017

VintageRock.com's Top 10 Albums Of 2017

Another year, another batch of studio releases from veteran rockers still pumping it out. Well, at least, most of them as two of the entries on our Top 10 list are no longer with us. Nevertheless, as long as the music keeps coming, we'll keep listening. And with that, here's 10 albums that stood out and shined in 2017.

***

Paranormal

Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper’s Paranormal, his 27th studio album, sees the man who originated “shock rock” collaborating with producer and songwriter Bob Ezrin, U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and members of the original Allice Cooper band — bassist Dennis Dunaway, drummer Neal Smith, and guitarist Michael Bruce. In addition to 12 new tunes, the last six tracks are live versions of Cooper classics performed with his touring band.
The album’s title track features Glover’s simple bass lines chunking through the verses, while Gibbons applies a country-flavored strut on “Fallen In Love.” Mullen plays harder and more aggressively than he usually does throughout. “Private Public Breakdown” represents a flair of sardonic wordsmithing Cooper does better than anyone. Ezrin, who helmed the production reins for Cooper’s biggest albums of the 70s, knows how to deliver the music with just enough style, panache and collaboration to make everyone feel right at home.
“Genuine American Girl” and “You and All Of Your Friends” reunites Cooper with Dunaway, Smith and Bruce. The former is a straight-ahead rocker about a brazen and tough, while the latter is a warning that the Alice Cooper is coming to take over your world — just like they did way back in the early 70s. The album’s final six songs are from a May 6, 2016 show in Columbus, Ohio. Cooper and his current crackerjack band run through near-perfect renditions of timeless classics like “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” and “Only Women Bleed. As a package, Paranormal is heavy, fun, even quite dark at times. The bottom line is Alice Cooper and company — and what a company it is — sound like they’re having a ball.

~ Ralph Greco, Jr.      

***

IV

Black Country Communion

When Black Country Communion came out with their self-titled debut in 2010, it was just the blast of fresh blood rock and roll needed. You had vocalist and bassist Glenn Hughes in the middle of a creative resurgence; vocalist and guitarist Joe Bonamassa exploding ear drums on the blues circuit; drummer Jason Bonham, neglected of any further Led Zeppelin shows, firing on all pistons; and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, having played with Dream Theater and Alice Cooper, ready to be part of something bigger and better. The supergroup recorded three albums, toured the States and Europe, and were primed to put real music back into perspective. Scheduling conflicts with other pursuits created enough tension for the group to call it a day in 2012. And for all intents and purposes, it was assumed that was the last we’d hear from the English-American quartet. But then they announced Black Country Communion IV. One spin through, and you’ll be convinced the five-year break might have been exactly what they needed to make the best album of their catalog.
The desire to regroup was initiated by Bonamassa. The guitarist’s solo career has been on fire since 2002, but apparently he decided he wanted to rechannel Jimmy Page with Hughes, Bonham and Sherinian once again. So they all agreed to record a fourth Black Country Communion. To make it official, producer Kevin Shirley, who originally brought the four musicians together and manned the knobs for the first three records, was invited to give IV its sonic wings. Whereas the previous records took flight, IV soars into the stratosphere. The songs have a more cohesive feel, Bonamassa’s to-die-for riffs are edgier and tenaciously defined, Sherinian’s keys are brought up in the mix, Hughes sings like a force of nature, and Bonham pounds through the mightiest performance of his career. The minute “Collide,” the album’s opener, shifts into gear, you know you’re in for the ride of your life. The driving crunch of Bonamassa’s chords and leads gives way to Hughes’ immortal pipes, Sherinian’s shifty Mellotron and Bonham’s exquisite drum work. The hammer comes down and the tone is set.
Hard rockin’ tracks like “Sway” and “Love Remains” are carved out of Zeppelin-like licks played with swift, unabashed urgency. “Awake” takes it even further as Bonamassa punches the turn-arounds, Hughes and Bonham push the rhythm, and Sherinian lets his fingers dance along in syncopation. This album provides far more air time for the keyboardist, who adds sly dashes of stylish piano to the more subtle “Wunderlust” and “When The Morning Comes.” Although IV is a showcase for Hughes and his massive, untainted voice, Bonamassa takes the microphone for “The Last Song For My Resting Place,” a rather rustic, almost folksy tune that sounds at once completely out of place and totally appropriate. This is classic Black Country Communion — hard and heavy for the most part, light and airy in places, transcendent and utterly brilliant all over. At press time, plans to promote and play IV live are limited and dictated by each player’s schedule. If and when they come anywhere near your town, my advice is to find a way to witness one of the most exciting rock and roll bands of the 21st century.

***
inFinite

Deep Purple

How do you follow up your best album in three decades? If you’re Deep Purple, you enlist the same producer (Bob Ezrin), pray the muse is still on board, and stay the course. Four years after Now What?! showed the world Deep Purple still had the roar, riffs and raunch to piece together a cohesive rock record, comes inFinite, the band's 20th and quite possibly final studio album. As they embark on their “Long Goodbye Tour,” one can only speculate that if this is, in fact, Purple’s final lap, they apparently want to go out with a bang. Rising to the occasion, cast in all its glory and gumption, inFinite strives to leave a savory taste in everyone’s membrane, right to the very last drop.
If you pick up the CD/DVD version of inFinite, the 90-minute ‘From Here To Infinite’ documentary offers some remarkable insight into how the album was made — from writing and molding the songs, to recording in Nashville and Toronto. It’s a revealing examination of the process, Ezrin’s role in tying it all together, and the exceptional musicianship of Deep Purple. The chemistry is the foundation of Purple, and to see and hear it breathe and exhale from one song to the next is why the album, as bassist Roger Glover notes, is the best format for this band to summon their magic.
There’s a bit of whimsy and humor on tracks like the pedestrian “Hip Boots” and the more than slippery “One Night In Vegas.” Perhaps this helps balance the material for the heavier, proggier numbers blooming with drama, flair and sheer heroics. It’s easy enough to wrap yourself around the melody of “Time for Bedlam,” thrill at Don Airey’s keys on “All I Got Is You,” and raise your fist to drummer Ian Paice’s Zeppelinesque muscle on “Get Me Outta Here.” The scattered majesty of “The Surprising” pulls you in from the heat before “Johnnie’s Band” lightens the mood with a loose rock and roll tale of survival.
You’ll notice, at this point, that at the core of the band’s perilous sonic assault are Airey and guitarist Steve Morse — each punctuating the music with an indelible stamp all their own, while staying ever so mindful of the imprint of their predecessors. Nowhere do the elements coalescence so beautifully as they do on the album’s most ambitious tome, “Birds Of Prey.” Built on a monumental riff from Glover, singer Ian Gillan delivers a fervent, controlled vocal, Paice sets a definitive tempo, and Morse’s guitar sings over the home stretch with all the breadth, grandeur and passion of Carsuso. You really have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off after this one. Then a cover of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” comes tumbling across as an afterthought — and an unnecessary one at that.
Nevertheless, if this is the last big sendoff, inFinite stands as testament of Deep Purple’s immense power and prestige. If you listen to the record’s drive and intensity, your first impression is that this doesn’t sound like a band ready to retire. It sounds more like they’ve caught their second wind and could carry on for another 10 years. You hear it all the time about groups calling it a day, only to make a comeback the very next year. The Scorpions announced their retirement in 2010 and they’re still going strong. Countless others see no end in sight. With extensive touring plans ahead and momentum in the works, Deep Purple’s long goodbye could very well be inFinite.
~ Shawn Perry

Southern Blood

Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman’s entire 50-year career was built on grit. Whether he was aching musically or physically, he always sang and played through the pain he felt. The result yielded a musical fighter, one whose distinctive vocal roar soldiered on despite everything from band member losses, to breakups, to addictions, to health scares. At the same time, the singer always flirted with the notion of “the end,” going all the way back to “Dreams” in 1969. Finality, of course, was a core theme of the Allman Brothers Band even though the band didn’t officially end it all until 2014. And then, tragically, Allman’s time came on May 27, 2017, at age 69. Fortunately, we have his eighth solo album to revel in and honor this legend. A collection of covers and down-home favorites, Southern Blood is not the work of a sick man fighting for every note. Rather it’s a peaceful album — one where Allman sings with a new kind of tenderness inspired by the icons he strives to emulate.
While some tracks, like the bookend opener and closer “My Only True Friend” and “Song for Adam” are somber in their approach; others are simply sweet. “Once I Was,” for example, is a tribute to a longtime influence and folk troubadour Tim Buckley. Here, the typically grizzled Allman turns his drawl into a croon, leaving his rasp behind for good. The result is nothing but powerful. Having recently read Alan Light's tell-all, oral history of the ABB “One Way Out” (chockfull of Allman's ailments and demons), it's refreshing to hear this icon sound fresh and energized. Clarity is the defining element of this album as Allman eases back and simply enjoys himself. The blues standard “I Love the Life I Live” is a swamp boogie, while a take on Johnny Jenkins’ “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” and “Love Like Kerosene” are down-home good musical eating. “Willin’” is a wistful take on the Little Feat classic but a strong one nonetheless.
Time will tell if more music from the Allman vaults (solo or ABB) will reach the surface. If Southern Blood proves to be Gregg Allman's musical farewell, he's headed to the angels with ease as he leaves behind something truly heartfelt and memorable for those who love him (fans included). It's evident after listening to this work, he has put every drop of his southern blood into making this a success. My hope is it will be.

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie

Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie is the first-ever full album collaboration from Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. Surely the two have worked on lots of music together, but this marks the first time for an exclusive duet from these two giants of hit making.
After coming back into the Fleetwood Mac fold in 2014 for a concert tour, McVie took tentative steps worked to write and record with Buckingham. The stalwart rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie came in to add to some of the music the duo was working on. All along the intent was to have Stevie Nicks join in this process to create a new Fleetwood Mac album, but she headed off on her own tour. McVie and Buckingham decided to carry on without Nicks, and this album is the result.
What we get, whether you consider it good or bad, is lots of Buckingham. To be sure, the man is a great songwriter, consummate guitar player, wonderful producer, and a unique singer. His heavy hand is felt throughout the album’s 10 songs (he is either co-writer or sole writer of six songs). “Sleeping Around The Corner,” a tune that appears as a bonus track on Buckingham’s 2011 solo album Seeds We Sow, suffers from the overuse of drum programming, with lots of kinetic guitar picking and more of that signature Buckingham breathy vocal than McVie’s warmer tones. I couldn’t help but feel that for a good percentage of this record, it’s more like a Linsey Buckingham solo album that Christine McVie just happens to be guesting on.
“Red Sun,” with McVie’s vocal upfront and Buckingham’s guitar placed effectively but not overrunning the production, is one of the true collaborations, while “Too Far Gone,” the heaviest song on the record, sees lots of Buckingham’s guitar under a McVie vocal. This mélange brings us back to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk days. “Game of Pretend” could have been a gorgeous, McVie piano ballad, but it doesn’t truly spark. “Carnival Begin” is probably the best song on the album with McVie singing lead and Buckingham breaking out with a wailing lead at the end that actually fits in well. If you’re wondering what a new Fleetwood Mac album with the classic hit lineup might sound like, it’s hard to say if Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie is it. Until then, if ever, it might be all we have.
~ Ralph Greco, Jr.

The Visitor

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real

When a polarizing figure like Donald Trump becomes president, you can almost guarantee an equally polarizing figure like Neil Young is going to weigh in. He had a go at George W. Bush in 2006 with Living With War, so there was no way Trump was going get a free pass. The Visitor, Young’s 39th studio album and second with Promise Of The Real, certainly doesn’t hold back in greasing the wheels and going after the culprits of America’s current political divide, left or right, right or wrong. For a rich Canadian like Neil Young, you may wonder what he stands to gain marching into the eye of stormy political hurricane. Then again, you have to grasp the notion that artists like Young thrive in chaotic storms like this.
Musically, The Visitor bounces from the rugged and raw (“Already Great,” “Children of Destiny,” “When Bad Got Good”) to the achingly refined (somewhat), (“Stand Tall,” “Carnival”) to the savory sublime (“Almost Always,” “Change of Heart,” “Forever”). You could say this is a Neil Young album that covers more ground than usual, where heavy guitars are embedded alongside the strings and acoustics. That might have a lot to do with Promise Of The Real, featuring Lukas and Michah Nelson along with Corey McCormick, Anthony Logerfo and Tato Melgar. This is a band that offers more sonic breadth and room to roam than the ragged, yet consistently lovable Crazy Horse.
The real meat of the record, however, is in the lyrics. Young challenges Trump’s mantra of making ‘America Great Again’ with “Already Great,” prefacing that “I’m Canadian by the way,” before declaring an undying love for all things America, and bluntly lighting the fuse with “No wall…No ban…No fascist USA.” You could almost say it’s more of an appeal to America than an attack on Trump. However, things get decidedly more pointed on “When Bad Got Good,” when Young chants “No belief in the Liar in Chief…Lock him up…He lies, you lie.” Neil Young knows how to jab when he feels the need.
Fortunately, it’s not all so black and white as the singer barks “the daring young lady…In the greatest show on earth” during the atmospheric “Carnival,” and muses “Earth is like a church without the preacher…The people have to pray for themselves.” Young has always been able to turn a phrase in his own, quirk way — be it profound or poetic. No matter who’s running the show, Young’s heart seems to revolve around the human condition and the planet that keeps us living and breathing. You don’t necessarily have to agree with the side of the fence he’s on, but you can’t deny the man who thought even Richard Nixon has got soul his aim isn’t true and that he still believes in hope, “trying to fit in pieces of dreams”…even he will forever be viewed as an alien, an outsider, a man with no say in what is happening, and always The Visitor.

Carry Fire

Robert Plant

Robert Plant’s 11th solo album, Carry Fire, begins with a heavy percussion and acoustic guitar swirl of a tune whose title was certainly lifted from the singer’s past: “May Queen.” Using the Sensational Space Shifters once again as his backing band, Plant is mining a number of different styles — folk, Celtic, Indian and West African on the album. His soft delivery is well-suited to the varied sounds presented across these 11 tunes.
The heavy guitar swipes on “New World” rock, though Plant is still whispering so the tune never gets all that rockin’ — though it does sport a catchy “oh oh” chorus and a lyric of some substance about the immigrant experience (Plant comments on post-Brexit, Trump and many other modern concerns). It would be a great kick-off single if those are even considered anymore. With a piano backing, we get a heartfelt vocal on a “A Way With Words,” while on the title track. the band lets loose with a wild brew of Middle Eastern tonalities featuring a sizzling lead on the acoustic oud, followed by a violin that comes to prominence — as it does often across Carry Fire.
At times one might imagine they are back in the midst of the softer moments of Led Zeppelin III, but the Sensational Space Shifters dig deeper veins than even Jimmy Page did in his most prolific days. In a nod to current U.S. policies, “Carving Up the World Again … A Wall Not a Fence” presents some nasty electric guitar work that puts us in hillbilly rock territory over what sounds like a machine-set percussion. This might be Plant’s strongest vocal on the record.
Metallic “blurps” under distorted guitar sound like Nine Inch Nails soundscapes on “Bluebirds Over The Mountain.” Plant duets with Chrissie Hynde on this Ersel Hickey cover, but frankly other than the beat, Plant’s distinctive moans, and a fiddle attack, I’m not sure the mix of the two voices is all that memorable. Much has been made about how Plant has been the hold-out for a possible Led Zeppelin reunion, but he sounds quite comfortable right where he is — serving up a smorgasbord of exotic flavors and twists with the Sensational Space Shifters on Carry Fire.
~ Ralph Greco. Jr.

Is This The Life We Really Want?

Roger Waters

It only seems logical that Roger Waters would want someone like Nigel Godrich to produce his 2017 release Is This The Life We Really Want?. The Pink Floyd lyricist and bassist hasn’t released a solo album since 1992, and he needed some fresh blood to make this new record sizzle and pop — not a sad attempt at relevance. Given the good ears and nuanced sensibilities of Godrich, who has made a name for himself working with Radiohead, a band often associated, in one way or another, with Pink Floyd, the possibilities seemed endless. It may take a few spins to get at what Waters is trying to say, but gradually it all begins to sink in and make sense. Well, as much sense as you can take away in the vitriol and often ominous tones that encompass the record.
It’s almost too easy to think Waters' fifth solo album is yet another attempt to capture the lingering ache that resounded so powerfully on The Wall. After playing that album live in its entirety for three years, something clearly rubbed off — hard-boiled cynicism, distrust of politicians, uncertainty at every turn. Sonically, Is This The Life We Really Want? draws more than a few Floydian flavorings for inspiration — staticky radio and TV talking heads, late-night phone conversations, bombs, blasts, machinery, pan effects. In between are 12 songs, plaintive, responsive, driven by ebullient piano work, tight drumming, layers of keys, heavy orchestration, stretches of guitar.
“Déjà vu” is a moody, dramatic piece that eventually unfolds into a smoldering hotbed of Waters’ commentary on everything from religion to politics and whatever else falls in between the two. “The Last Refugee” offers up as much heavy guitar as you're going to get, whereas “Picture That” balances on a simple, sharp riff, so as to put the focus on Waters’ insolent lines — “Picture a leader with no fucking brains…” The synths, cast very much in a Floydian mode, only make the song more engaging, especially as the tempo comes to a crawl and a spacey, stormy ambiance swallows it to a close.
The title track opens with a Donald Trump sound byte, so you can only imagine where it goes from there. The steady flow held down by Waters’ impressive bass runs only makes the grim and pain-evoking lyrics that have it out for ants and the current president of the United States less choleric. It all falls into a woeful barrage of broadcast announcements, before “Bird In A Gale” explodes over the airwaves like a leftover from Animals. At long last, things lighten up somewhat on “The Most Beautiful Girl,” then the mood shifts for the more pointed “Smell The Roses,” which seems like a natural fit on the setlist of Waters’ 2017 Us + Them tour.
The album’s most solemn number, “Wait For Her,” was inspired by an English translation by an unknown author of "Lesson from the Kama Sutra (Wait for Her)" by Mahmoud Darwish. For all the madness that comprises much of the material, this serves as a reprieve. Songs like this make you wish Waters would make more music. Before it all comes to a crashing finale, “Part Of Me Died” piles on hard-bitten lyrics, supported by an able-bodied band, and it all works out in the end. Is This The Life We Really Want? is truly everything you really want in a Roger Waters album — profound themes, brimming with cultural references, stark imagery, special effects and aural trickery. If nothing else, it goes to show that Roger Waters has, at 73, yet to mellow, rest on his laurels or squander his golden years. He’d rather make noise, crank his views, and prop up his mortal remains.

10x10

Ronnie Montrose

When I interviewed Ronnie Montrose in 2011, one comment he made resonated to my core: “I realized that early on that your muse is very important to follow.” Even in my darkest hour, following my muse has kept me on track. That’s how it worked with Montrose. He could have easily rested on his laurels from the acclaim for his band's self-titled debut. And to a degree, he did as his sets in recent years overflowed with material from the album. “These 40-year-old songs that I penned when I was in my 20s are still loved by people,” he said when I asked him why he continues to play “Bad Motor Scooter, “Rock The Nation,” and “Rock Candy.”
Yet there was so much more to Ronnie Montrose. Four albums with his second band Gamma whet his appetite to expand on the hard rock idiom. Numerous solo records, most prominently 1978’s Open Fire, provided an outlet for experimentation. And now we have 10x10 to show the world that push to explore sonic landscapes was something Ronnie Montrose pursued to the very end.
Styx bassist Ricky Phillips and KISS drummer Eric Singer, who began the project with Montrose in the early 00s, are behind the long-awaited release of 10x10. It was built on a simple concept: Record 10 songs with 10 different singers. Conflicting schedules and commitments presented challenges to finishing the record, and so it sat uncompleted after Montrose’s untimely passing in 2012. Undeterred, Phillips and Singer decided, with the blessing of Montrose's widow Leighsa, to pick up the reigns and put it to bed. Altogether, 10x10 serves as a fitting epilogue to Montrose’s storied journey and features an array of friends and followers to lend a hand.
In addition to the vocals, the songs needed lead guitar, something Montrose apparently never got around to recording. Which isn’t to say he isn’t playing the guitar; he provided the “main guitar” on every track. Like everything he’s done before, that distinctive Montrose tone drives the whole record. Still, most of the songs got an extra kick with a guest soloist. Y & T’s Dave Meniketti takes the album’s first solo on the opening “Heavy Traffic,” which features Mr. Big’s Eric Martin wrapping his high-energy pipes around Montrose’s biting riff.
For “Love Is An Art,” Montrose told Edgar Winter, “I just want it to be real,” and, once you hear it, you realize Winter got the message. This slow, roving blues number has Winter caterwauling the lyrics during the verses, booming out the chorus, then trading licks on the sax with Rick Derringer’s guitar. Sammy Hagar goes deep on “Color Blind,” another blues-based tome that gets a lift from Montrose's drawling chords and Steve Lukather’s spine-tingling solo. Glenn Hughes, with a little help from Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen, delivers the goods on “Still Singin’ With The Band,” and Tommy Shaw efficiently covers both the vocals and guitar solo on “Strong Enough.”
Things heat up when Grand Funk Railroad founder Mark Farner takes on “Any Minute.” Montrose’s framework allows the once mighty shirtless wonder to belt it out and strut through a sizzling lead. The same can be said about “The Kingdom’s Come Undone,” which has Phillips singing, playing bass, guitar, and keyboards, pushed ahead by Singer’s incessant drumming, Montrose’s inimitable shredding, and Joe Bonamassa’s stinging solos. Former Foreigner Bruce Turgon offers up an impressive vocal on “One Good Reason,” but the song is really a showcase for Montrose’s steady rhythm and Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford leads. Gamma singer Davey Pattison and guitarist Marc Bonilla make the most of “Head On Straight,” another track with an insatiable Montrose chord progression that must have had the other players salivating at the chance to be part of it.
10x10 winds down with “I’m Not Lying,” which features keyboardist and singer Gregg Rolie, a founding member of both Santana and Journey, on cruise control, his smooth voice traversing around Montrose’s sleight-of-hand guitar work, inspired by Robin Trower and suspended by Foreigner’s Thom Gimbel and his soulful sax. It would be difficult to spin through this collection without recognizing Montrose’s genius at bringing out the best in other musicians, even when he isn’t there. It’s no wonder 10x10 is the ultimate testament to Ronnie Montrose’s legacy as a man who continuously followed his muse.
~ Shawn Perry

The Night Siren

Steve Hackett

The Night Siren, the 25th solo album from former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, is a thing of sublime beauty. Featuring a global cast of musicians, the album features 11 songs that run the gambit between full-on workouts, to catchy run-throughs, to guitar featurettes, to heartfelt love songs and commentary on timely world events.
“Behind the Smoke” is a Middle-Eastern flavored tomb, addressing the subject of refugees with Hackett’s low vocal on top of the heavy strings and expert sitar and electric guitar entries. “Martian Sea” has Hackett playing more sitar and singing with Amanda Lehmann on a track that sounds, dare I say it, almost like a Monkees song!
The centerpiece “In The Skeleton Gallery” delivers a “Kashmir”-like plod. The harmony vocals, Gulli Briem’s heavy snare, strings and gated, single-note Les Paul licks that take the listener back to Hackett’s turns in Genesis. Rob Townsend takes a horn solo mid-way through, and Hackett riffs and wails with full vibrato-bar madness that plays off the horn, making the jam positively nutty.
We’re left with “The Gift,” which reveals that Hackett hasn’t lost his expressive touch one bit. The string keys layering provide the perfect backing to those high passionate notes flying into the stratosphere. As a whole, The Night Siren finds Steve Hackett at the top of his game.