Monday, December 7, 2015

Top 5's of 2015 - Tim Durling!

2015 Year in Review

Wow, December again…that means it’s Top 5 time…now last year, Brad humoured me and let me post a bunch of KISS stuff rather than an actual Top 5 album list, so this year I’ll play along.  Also, as opposed to 2014, this year some of my longtime favourite artists came out with some of their finest work in years…in my opinion of course.  I’m also going to be completely shameless again, and under each of my reviews post a link to my Tim’s Vinyl Confessions show on each topic.  (Sorry, Gene Simmons is getting to me, self-promote, self-promote, self-promote….)  These aren’t really in any particular order.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES – Hollywood Vampires

This is basically a new Alice Cooper album with a lot of special guests to say the least.  It’s also mostly a covers album.  You could even call it a concept album.  The core musicians here are Alice himself, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, and actor/musician Johnny Depp, whom I have to admit, I had no idea was such an accomplished guitarist.  The album was also produced by longtime Alice collaborator Bob Ezrin, who was partially responsible for refining the sound of the original A.C. band and getting them on the radio (conversely, Alice Cooper’s albums also made Ezrin a hit producer which led to him producing Kiss, Pink Floyd, and countless others.)  The name of the album and the “band” stems from a group of celebrity drinking buddies dating back to the 1970s, of which Alice Cooper was a member.  That group had a fluctuating lineup including some honorary members; notables like John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Mickey Dolenz, Bernie Taupin, Keith Moon, etc.  A lot of the “vamps” including their guests are now dead of drug abuse and/or alcoholism so this album was intended as a tribute to, as Alice lovingly refers to them in one of only two original songs on here, “My Dead Drunk Friends.”  The album kicks off with a grand narration from Sir Christopher Lee (in his last recorded performance on musical album) which is just perfect.  Some of the other covers aren’t exactly within the Vampires membership, but deceased musicians of the same era, for instance they cover Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” in memory of John Bonham (complete with co-lead vocals from AC/DC’s Brian Johnson.)  Alice has referred to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison as his “big brothers” when he and his bandmates first came to Los Angeles, so they are saluted with covers of “Manic Depression” and a medley of the Doors’ “Five-to-one/Break on Through.”  Some other cool things happen along the way, for instance another “Sir” appears, Paul McCartney, though not covering a Beatles or a solo/Wings tune.  No, Macca provides vocals on a version of Badfinger’s “Come and Get it,” which only seems odd until you’re reminded that he wrote that song.  A lot of the covers have already been part of Alice’s set, for instance his mashup of his own “School’s Out” with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” which also features another appearance by Brian Johnson. 

I honestly wasn’t overly excited about this release when I first became aware of it, but being a huge Alice fan I picked it up and it is growing on me.  My one gripe is that I wish there were more original tunes on the album.  At a running time of 48 minutes and change, another 3 or 4 brand new songs would have improved the overall package, but it’s still worth checking out if you’re a fan of any of the artists featured here.

THE DARKNESS – Last of Our Kind

A group that elicits “love ‘em/hate ‘em” responses for sure, Lowestoft’s The Darkness returned in 2015 with a fantastic new album.  Justin Hawkins’s over-the-top falsetto singing is still intact, so if those vocals turned you off when you first heard them back in 2003, not much has changed.  But if you’re like me and got past that hurdle, this band has provided some of the best hard rock of the new millennium.  After their second album One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back in 2005, they splintered off into various projects, reuniting in 2012 with the just-ok Hot Cakes, and now…they’re back with an album that is in my opinion every bit as good as their first two.  A loose concept abounds here telling mad tales of Vikings and whatnot, but don’t let that throw you…just put this on and marvel that so few bands write songs like this anymore, hard rock yet melodic, with great choruses and good, solid production.  “Roaring Waters” sports a drum sound right out of the mid-80s AC/DC catalogue, with a funky guitar riff that Joe Perry would be proud to have written.  The title song reminds me of Boston, specifically “Peace of Mind.”  That quirky Darkness sense of humour remains, with the opening track “Barbarian” sporting a chorus of “waaa-ahh-ahh-ah-ah-ah-AH-ah-AH-ah-AHHHHH” give or take an ‘h,’ “Mudslide” simultaneously makes me bang my head and laugh (“it’s hard to find the upslide of a mudslide”) and “Mighty Wings,” which starts off with a majestic synthesizer melody straight off an 80s soundtrack, and goes into one of the heaviest riffs and complex time signatures of their career.  They’ve also retained their knack for great balladry, with “Wheels of the Machine” and the album closing “Conquerors,” curiously and competently sung by bassist Frankie Poullain. 

I’m glad they’re back.  Long Live the Darkness.

WHITESNAKE – The Purple Album

When is a covers album not a covers album?  Well, when it’s a remakes album…except when it isn’t…exactly.  Vocalist David Coverdale and his ever-shifting lineup of Whitesnake released this earlier this year.  For fans of Whitesnake not familiar with David Coverdale’s earlier musical career, the title of  this album might seem odd.  Indeed you might also think these are all brand new songs.  But Coverdale began his professional career with what was at the time, one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Deep Purple.  He recorded three studio albums with Purple, Burn, Stormbringer, and Come Taste the Band before they disbanded in 1976.  He then recorded two low-key solo albums, the first of which was titled White Snake – yes, two words.  The backing musicians on those albums more or less formed the backbone of what would become a “band” called Whitesnake.  Two of Coverdale’s Purple mates, drummer Ian Paice and keyboardist Jon Lord eventually became ‘Snake members as well.  Sadly Jon Lord passed away in 2012, leading to David Coverdale reaching out to erstwhile Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore with the goal of making amends for past animosities, and possibly re-recording some of the classic Deep Purple songs as a tribute to Lord.  The two could not come to an agreement, but Coverdale had already begun preparing new arrangements on some of the Purple songs.  When discussions with Blackmore hit a wall, Coverdale’s wife suggested recording the songs and releasing them as a Whitesnake disc.  Thus was born The Purple Album.

Now, I have been a fan of Whitesnake since they came onto my radar with their blockbuster 1987 album (which gave the world “Still of the Night,” “Is This Love,” and the hit remake of “Here I Go Again”) and had gone back and rediscovered the previous Whitesnake albums, which musically were very different from the flashy, loud, in your face sound captured on the 1987 album.  Eventually I decided to check out Deep Purple, a band revered by so many of my favourite bands, not least of which Metallica, Def Leppard, Kiss, Aerosmith, etc.  Buying a random Purple compilation introduced me to the original versions of “Burn” and “Stormbringer.” 

I have been very critical of David Coverdale over these past few years, while remaining a fan.  His vocals have sounded pretty beaten up as of late (I’ve seen some youtube performances that literally made me cringe) and although I purchased the last two new Whitesnake albums and enjoyed them overall – his lyrics have simply become cut-and-paste jobs from previous songs.  Having said all of that, I was intrigued about this album upon hearing about it…and what do you know, I absolutely love this collection of songs.

The early Whitesnake (and Deep Purple) catalogue is a good example of great songs buried under the production of the day.  Example: “Here I Go Again” was a worldwide #1 song in 1987, but it was originally recorded in 1982.  Same song, same arrangement, but listen to the two versions and it’s pretty obvious why it took the ’87 version for the song to get its due.  Well, that’s kind of what’s going on here.  It isn’t that there were no good sounding rock albums to emerge from the 1970s, far from it.  Roy Thomas Baker’s production work with Queen has stood the test of time (which is one reason why “Bohemian Rhapsody” became a hit all over again in 1992 and didn’t sound the least bit out of place on the airwaves), Ted Templeman’s masterful production job on the debut Montrose album from 1973, Jack Douglas made Aerosmith sound absolutely huge on 1976’s Rocks, etc.  But the Purple and Whitesnake stuff?  Extremely dated.  Which is why I’m so enamoured with this new Whitesnake album.  In many ways these are new songs.  Even though most of the songs have had to be lowered in key to accommodate Coverdale’s voice, these new versions have supercharged what are some good songs that deserve new life.  Keep in mind as well, that the Coverdale years in DP came at the tail end of their initial run, and are not the songs that generally come to mind when the words “Deep Purple” are mentioned.  So to hear this band of musicians (including one of my favourite guitarists, Reb Beach of Winger and Dokken fame) tear through the likes of “Might Just Take Your Life,” Love Child,” “Comin’ Home” (possibly my favourite song here, and the biggest improvement over the original version), “Lady Double Dealer,” and really the whole collection, is a joy.  Even though they are remakes of songs from 1974 and 1975, The Purple Album just might be my favourite release to come out in 2015.

QUEENSRYCHE – Condition Human

The story of Queensryche since 2012 is a pretty long and convoluted one which I won’t get into here, indeed follow the link below this blurb where my good friend Matt Phillips (whose writings you’ve seen here) and myself go through the ‘Ryche saga as of late.  No, let’s just talk about this album here.

This is the 2nd Queensryche album from the Todd La Torre-led band, a follow-up to their excellent 2013 self-titled release.  And this is every bit as good, if not better.  Continuing the trend started last time around, Queensryche have for the most part shed the eclectic tendencies exhibited on the previous Geoff Tate-led albums which led the band further and further away from their progressive metal roots.  This one is basically old-school metal with tricky guitar riffs and time signatures, and strong, high vocals from La Torre, who still sounds enough like Geoff Tate to pull off the classic material but does have his own sound. 

I was one of the fans who took part in the PledgeMusic campaign started last year to help fund the making of this album.  It took a little longer than originally expected, but starting this past summer, pledgers started to receive free downloads of the albums first three songs, “Arrow of Time, “Guardian,” and “Hellfire,” all good tunes.  The rest of the album did not disappoint.  This has been in my car for weeks now, and grows on me with each listen.  The album is heavy, but make no mistake they haven’t lost their knack for melody.  A couple of fine reprieves from the heaviness with the delicate “Just Us” and the all-out power balladry of “Bulletproof” fit right in with everything else here.  Fantastic guitar work, great drumming from the always busy but never over-playing Scott Rockenfield, and superb vocal work including harmonies…what more could you ask for in a Queensryche disc?  I know some fans have chosen to take sides and have either planted their feet here, or in the Tate/Operation: Mindcrime camp.  Like Van Halen/Hagar/Roth, I remain fans of it all. 

DEF LEPPARD – Def Leppard

A late entry into this year’s list, but good enough to zoom into my personal top 5!  For the first time in their history, Def Leppard have simply called their latest album, Def Leppard…and really, that just about sums it up.  If you’re a longtime fan, there’s simply nothing here to be disappointed about.  The pressure on a band of this vintage, especially one who had so much success in the 80s, is to come up with material that is anywhere close to the same quality and excitement level.  In fact, this album almost wasn’t.  Originally the plan was to put out a 2-3 song EP, possibly just to i-tunes, which to an old man like me, isn’t very appealing (I like having a physical album in my hands!!)  As writing sessions went on, 2-3 songs turned into the 14 we get here.  The first new Def Leppard since 2008 and far and away the best thing this band has done in decades.  Always one of my favourite bands, the prospect of a new Def Leppard album in the past has left me uneasily purchasing, listening, and really searching for positive things to say.  That isn’t to say there hasn’t been decent material along the way, I just found you had to dig for it.  Not the case here.  There are moments I would have done differently myself (such as the somewhat Taylor Swift-ish “whoa-oh-oh-ohs” in lead track and first single, “Let’s Go”) but for the most part, this is everything a Def Leppard fan could have hoped for in 2015, just a strong collection of songs.  Sure, if you’re one of those metalheads who are stuck in the “NWOBHM” phase you won’t like this, but then you haven’t liked anything they did since 1981 anyway.  An affliction I’ve always felt that the band has suffered from, really ever since the early 90s (a horrible time for melodic rockers like themselves) is that they’ve overthought the songwriting process and produced music of some quality, but not much excitement.  None of that appears to be happening now, these are for the most part, melodic, anthemic pop-rock songs with all the usual Def Leppard hallmarks; vocal harmonies galore, guitars galore, and above all hooks that stay in your head.  There is some experimentation here, such as the very “Another One Bites the Dust”-ish “Man Enough,” the Led Zeppelin-esque “Battle of My Own,” and the Billy Idol meets Psychedelic Furs new wave rock of “Invincible.”  But “Dangerous,” “Wings of an Angel,” ”All-Time High,” “Broke ‘n’ Brokenhearted,” all classic Def Leppard songs in the best of ways.  This longtime fan is very pleased, and plans on shouting this album’s praises to all who will listen.  Well done, lads.

P.S. My version of this album came as part of Classic Rock Magazine’s Fan Pack, including a deluxe magazine featuring interviews with all five band members, reviews of all their albums, a section dealing with the various side-projects the guys have done over the years, even an article on the “mysterious genius” that is their longtime producer “Mutt” Lange.  Plus some art prints and a couple of keychains, not to mention a couple of “bonus tracks” on the disc itself, granted they’re simply alternate versions of songs that already appear.  It’s also available in vinyl and, get this, cassette versions but I settled for the CD version…a little something extra for the Def Leppard fan who wants more than the album itself.


Europe – War of Kings

Stop snickering, yes it’s the same five Swedes who brought “The Final Countdown” to the world, but since 2004 they’re back, leaner, heavier and this year released a great disc.

Bryan Adams – Get Up!

Vancouver’s favourite son teams up with Jeff Lynne and the result is basically a Traveling Wilburys album with Adams on vocals…short, sweet, to the point, and best of all no boring ballads.

Operation: Mindcrime – The Key

As mentioned above, I’m still following what the original Queensryche singer is doing.  This is the first album under the O:M name and although it’s not as good as what his former band is doing, it’s still a decent release with a few standout songs.


Bon Jovi – Burning Bridges

I’m an old-school fan, I thought that maybe, just maybe they remembered how to rock.  They didn’t.  This is a 10-song waste of time.  Not worth the cheap cardboard sleeve it’s housed in.  (hangs head)

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