CD Review: Oliva – Raise the Curtain

CD Review: Oliva – Raise the Curtain
AFM Records
All Access Rating: A-

Oliva - Raise the Curtain 2013
Jon Oliva makes a grand entrance on Raise the Curtain. Out of the shadowy wings of the stage he steps, drinking in the triumphant, twirling synthesizers and well-sculpted guitar lines of a grandiose title track that could introduce royalty at some gala event. 

In a voice as radiant and angelic as Jon Anderson’s, the Savatage co-founder and vocal wizard demands the crushed velvet drapes be pulled aside so the drama can begin. Somebody’s been listening to Yes, the Rick Wakeman era in particular.

Oliva’s solo debut, Raise the Curtain is a great experiment, a wildly diverse progressive-metal epic that combines all of Oliva’s musical tastes in one extravagant movable feast, where the keyboards are as prominent as guitars and Oliva's theatrical indulgences are properly sated. On the menu is a generous helping of ‘70s prog, heaving surges of power metal and flourishes of jazz – the colorful and ebullient “Ten Years,” with its full-throated horns, being most reminiscent of the Broadway-style arrangements found on Savatage’s transformative fifth album Gutter Ballet.

Some of the most compelling material on Raise the Curtain also happens to be the heaviest stuff, such as “Soul Chaser” and “Big Brother.” The bass lines in both are remarkably strong and thick, circling around and around with sinister intent as driving guitar grooves push the action forward. An evil carnival of apocalyptic images, doom-laden sounds and crazily spinning instrumentation, “Armageddon” is by turns majestic and hellish, but “Soldier” is an affecting, melodic ballad, fleshed out with heartrending flute and piano, that sympathizes with a warrior finding it difficult to return to normal life. “Can’t Get Away” is similarly cast, but a little bluesy and more wistful, a modest cut with subtle charms.

Delighting in subverting audiences’ expectations with completely unexpected twists and turns, Oliva and crew – including Jon Oliva’s Pain drummer Chris Kinder – pull off a bait-and-switch on “Stalker,” as the mellifluous intro gives way to thorny, menacing verses that hack their way through incredibly intricate guitar work. And it continues to go off into different directions, once again becoming a wonderful flow of keyboards and six-string magic. Somewhat more Gothic, “The Witch” embarks in a similar journey, going down strange and wonderful paths and then running off into dense sonic thickets before emerging in bright, expansive clearings.

Composed and created with the help of friend Dan Fasciano and born of his still lingering sadness over the death of Jon Oliva’s Pain guitarist Matt LaPorte in 2011, Raise the Curtain also purges the vault of Criss Oliva’s final writings. Although it comes off as unnecessarily fussy and overblown on occasion, the album’s sheer bombast is awe-inspiring, even brilliant. Amid the prog pageantry are powerhouse riffs and forceful, evocative vocals that ground these shape-shifting works. Take a bow, Jon Oliva.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Pat Travers Band – Can Do

CD Review: Pat Travers Band – Can Do
Frontiers Records
All Access Rating: B+

Pat Travers Band - Can Do 2013
Nobody’s found the switch yet to turn out the lights on Pat Travers. Approaching age 60, he can still coax beautiful melodies and electrifying power from an amplified guitar and get it to speak fluently in multiple tongues, such as powerhouse hard rock, hot funk and cool soul grooves, smoky blues and emotional balladry.

His conversations are simple and heartfelt these days, like those conducted in a dark, lonely tavern between two used-up people who don’t have the heart to lie anymore. Here’s one more for the road.

Lively, gritty and at times stylish, with spotless production, Can Do finds the Pat Travers Band talking in simple languages everybody from the hopeless romantic to the working-class slob can understand, setting hooks that have a firm grip and an easy logic. The latest studio album from the Toronto-born guitar slinger is by turns thoughtful and reflective, as the glassy serenity and breezy warmth of “Diamond Girl” and the wistful “Wanted (That was Then/This is Now)” so effectively illustrate, and vigorously defiant, shaking his fist at Father Time in rugged, driving rockers like “Stand Up/Give It Up,” “Armed and Dangerous” and “Long Time Gone,” a nod to Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” where his clearly defined guitars are searing.

Nowhere near as explosive or as sweaty as the classic Live! Go for What You Know concert LP and somewhat reserved in parts, Can Do is still mostly a spirited romp through Travers’ past and present circumstances, as the feverish title track surges and smolders in the heat of a summer night and the sparkling “As Long As I’m With You” unabashedly wallows in the joys of a real, warts-and-all love. Reinvigorated by his new relationship with Frontiers Records, Travers brings together a band of brothers that includes bassist Rodney O’Quinn, second guitarist Kirk McKim and the prodigal drummer Sandy Gennaro on drums, and they serve the songs well.

It’s a tight unit that’s in perfect sync with Travers’ many moods, weaving wonderful harmonics together in lovely figures when the occasion calls for it and then shifting into riff-heavy rock ‘n’ roll overdrive on Travers’ command, sliding comfortably into the utterly infectious blues grooves of “Dust & Bone,” a delicious bite of tasty blues-rock Aerosmith would have given up heroin for in the ‘80s, and allowing the melodic movements of “Waitin’ on the End of Time” to breathe.

Want to hear Travers stretch out and really show the kind of diversity and creativity he’s capable of? The beguiling instrumental “Keep Calm and Carry On” explores every facet of his skillful, classy playing, displaying a deft touch, cleverly executed maneuvers and a nice warm feel that are as apparent in the quieter, softer moments as they are when volcanic eruptions explode from his instrument. Is slide guitar your thing? He can reel off steely licks in his sleep. And if you want this Canadian to channel Lynyrd Skynard and fry up some high-energy Southern rock, there’s the boisterous “Red Neck Boogie” to scratch that itch. The charms of Can Do will bloom, just not right away. Wait for it. Your patience will be rewarded.

– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: King Kobra – King Kobra II

CD Review: King Kobra – King Kobra II
Frontiers Records
All Access Review: B

King Kobra - King Kobra II 2013
Sentencing standards sometimes vary wildly from state to state, but it’s hard to imagine anybody getting 14 years in the hoosegow just for disturbing the peace. 

That’s what the whisky-guzzling, drag-racing, cop-baiting subject of “The Ballad of Johnny Rod,” a smoldering, swaggering chunk of Great White-style boogie-rock off King Kobra’s latest meal of meat-and-potatoes, working-class heavy metal, gets for raising a little hell. The judge should brace himself to be overturned on appeal.

Evidently, Johnny Rod, who also happens to be the band’s bassist, was given work-release privileges to rumble and roll through King Kobra II, the second LP released by King Kobra since the hard-nosed ‘80s metal underdogs reunited for their 2011 self-titled barroom brawler. Carmine Appice, King Kobra’s founder, had a hand in producing the new record; so did powerhouse vocalist Paul Shortino, the only non-original member now in King Kobra, having replaced singer Mark Free – now Marcie Free, after dealing with her gender dysphoria and coming out as a woman. And while modern recording technology was almost certainly used in bringing King Kobra II to life, the album feels as if it was not made for these dull times.

A throwback to the ‘70s hard rock of Deep Purple and Montrose, it’s got guts and integrity, with a blue-collar work ethic – courtesy of Shortino’s sweaty soulfulness and gritty rasp – and a thirst for raw, dangerous excitement, the kind that’s probably illegal and found only in the bad part of town. Appice’s drumming is purposeful, clever and propulsive, driving forward the chugging, locomotive opener “Hell on Wheels” with a steam-powered pace, before strutting with all the painted confidence of a burlesque queen through “Have a Good Time” and breaking rock like a chain gang on “When the Hammer Comes Down” as the circling guitars of Mick Sweda and David Michael-Philips crack the whip.

Toughening up their melodies, with six-string riffs and leads that sting like alcohol poured into a bullet wound, King Kobra comes out swinging on “Knock Them Dead” and “Running Wild” – the reference to a “raging bull” in the latter track a particularly apt image. When they want to dance, they grab girls of loose morals and do a little bump-and-grind in “The Crunch,” with its down-and-dirty guitar boogie, but underneath that stained, sleeveless denim-clad sound beats a vulnerable heart, broken to pieces in the regret-filled “Got It Coming.” In desperate need of repentance, King Kobra trudges down to “Deep River,” a mesmerizing, crunching Zeppelin-like epic, to wash away its sins with gospel background singers and climbing guitars that sear one’s conscience like guilt.

That’s as ambitious as King Kobra gets on the straightforward II, a sturdy, if unspectacular set of tracks as burned-out as the most desolate parts of Detroit. A dimly lit corner bar of a record sound-wise, it’s riddled with metal clich├ęs, devoid of real imagination and yet it is built on solid, though somewhat bland, songwriting ground. And the performances are tight, welding together strong hooks that have a firm grip, like a steelworker’s handshake. 

Too often, though, the choruses are ineffectual and uncertain, although that’s not the case in the well-constructed closer “We Go Round,” a fully formed pop-metal diamond that sparkles in the right light. II may sound like a bunch of old friends getting together to relive the glory days and bang it out in the garage, but there’s a certain amount of charm to that. A round of applause then for King Kobra, a band who refuses to bow to what’s trendy and keeps on doing what feels good.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods

CD Review: Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods
Metal Blade
All Access Review: A-

Amon Amarth - Deceiver of the Gods 2013
There’s a special place in Valhalla reserved for AmonAmarth. Brandishing guitars like gleaming, freshly sharpened blades, the Swedish death-metal war party and Iron Maiden descendants have earned it with an admirable body of brutally heavy wet work.

Obsessed with Norse mythology, Amon Amarth is known for drawing scenes of bloody battles forgotten by history and paying tribute to courage in close combat on rough terrain strewn with stinking, decomposing corpses. Gird your loins once again, because the relentless Deceiver of the Gods has come to pillage and plunder with songs armed to the teeth with beast-like riffage, hell-spawned vocals and strong, dynamic melodies forged in steel that survive massive storms of transfixing sound and fury. 

The squishy, gurgling noises of a man bleeding out and breathing his last after being stabbed is heard right before the rampaging “Blood Eagle” storms whatever territory it is that Amon Amarth must take by force, and it is sobering. A revenge song, replete with the ghoulish moaning of Viking ghosts, “Blood Eagle” is typical of Deceiver of the Gods, thick and intense, but always serving its conflicted masters of shifting, tightly wound harmonies and immense power surges.

Nothing on Deceiver of the Gods has the massive tonnage of “Hel,” a death march that slogs through mud and gore to find the glory of war, if there is such a thing. Immersed in traditional metal and doom elements, “Hel” is a black mix of different vocal textures, comprised of Johan Hegg’s usual hoary growl, deathly background wailing and the operatic histrionics of Candlemass guest singer Messiah Marcolin, who sounds like Bruce Dickinson’s evil twin. Those thick, burly guitars that smash “Hel” into kindling also crush “We Shall Destroy,” and they come in mammoth waves. But it’s the melodic spirals of guitars that lift the soul of that track above the instrumental chaos and violence on the song’s terra firma that really astound, as they do on the pummeling closer “Warriors of the North” and the punishing, explosive “Shape Shifter.”

Known for his ability to heighten the impact and sonic aggression flooding out of his client’s amplifiers, producer Andy Sneap increases the voltage of Amon Amarth on Deceiver of the Gods. Electricity courses through the veins of these tracks, riding old-school power chords into the night. Their grooves are somehow even more muscular than ever on the turbo-charged “Father of the Wolf” and the title track’s furious thrashing, and the melodic parts – see the intro to the fast progressive-metal maze “As Loke Falls” – are assertive and magical, almost spellbinding at times.

The devilishly playful Norse god Loke inhabits this indomitable fortress of metal, and Amon Amarth only encourages him, following his melodic whims and destructive tendencies. Similar in character to previous releases, Deceiver of the Gods finds Amon Amarth sticking to a formula that works for them, adding power and definition to every unexpected, expertly executed maneuver and rich tonality to their remorseless attack. This is a well-plotted battle plan, the likes of which Rommel might have conceived. Whatever game of thrones Amon Amarth is playing, they are winning.
– Peter Lindblad

Laura Wilde sells her soul for rock 'n' roll

Young Aussie rocker making a name for herself
By Peter Lindblad

Laura Wilde is touring with Ted Nugent
and recording an LP in 2013
Winning over a crowd that’s come to see Ted Nugent is no mean feat. 

By sheer force of will, Aussie spitfire Laura Wilde and her band of sleazy, glammed-out rock ‘n’ roll outlaws did it, and she was asked back.

Wilde may not be a household name in the States, but she’s quickly gaining the kind of bad – that’s “bad” as in really, really good – reputation that Joan Jett has cultivated over years and years of musical rebellion. At 23, she’s already opened for the likes of Shinedown and Fuel, and when she was only 19, she moved to Los Angeles and recorded her debut album, Sold My Soul, a platter released by the Vice Grip Music Group that had a swagger and an attitude that older artists would give their eye teeth to get back.

A native of Melbourne, Australia, Wilde was a presenter for the Down Under TV show “Beat TV” and played in the “Australia’s Got Talent” house band, but she needed to spread her wings. Her desire to be a serious songwriter and performer was too strong to resist.

Influenced by the likes of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Suzi Quatro, Wilde is looking forward to getting back in the studio later this year to create the follow-up to Sold My Soul. And there are plans for her to write a song with none other than Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler.

So get ready world. Wilde, chosen in 2012 as one of the 25 Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock” by Revolver magazine, may look all sweet and innocent, but she plays a mean guitar and those who underestimate her do so at their own peril. Wilde talked about her background, touring with Nugent and her plans for world domination in this recent interview.

The rest of 2013 promises to be pretty exciting for you, what with you planning on recording the follow-up to Sold My Soul and touring again with Ted Nugent. Are you where you thought you’d be in your music career by age 23?
Laura Wilde: I feel very grateful for the opportunities that I have had so far in this musical journey. I am so privileged to have been able to release my debut record last year and do three national tours opening for such amazing artists.

Where are you at in the process of making the next LP? Can you give us some idea of what it will sound like?
LW: I'm still in the writing phase of the next LP, continuing to add to the pool of material to select from. With the next record I'll be drawing more from my older influences but still keeping the punk-rock 'n' roll-glam fusion. 

You’re going to be writing a song with Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler. How did the idea for this collaboration come about? What excites you most about working with Geezer?
LW: I have been a huge fan of Black Sabbath for as long as I can remember. Their material is legendary and has stood the test of time. It's such an honor that he would consider collaborating with me.

When did you know you were going to be a songwriter? Does the process come easy for you or is it a struggle in some ways?
LW: I have been writing songs since I was about 8 or 9 years old; they weren't exactly fabulous, but I have always used the songwriting process as a creative outlet. I find that some songs can pretty much write themselves if you're really in the zone, but otherwise, it can be a struggle. For me, it's best to just let the process flow naturally and come back to something later if you get stuck.

Listening to the song “Sold My Soul,” you seem to have fallen in love with America. You moved to this country when you were 19. What was that experience like, and how did it influence that song?
LW: It was so freaky leaving for the airport and pondering the fact that I had a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and would be over there indefinitely. I was so excited to be moving over to the United States; however, nothing can really adequately prepare you to leave behind your family and friends. "Sold My Soul" was written in that euphoric state that I was in after moving to America and mentions all of the places that i wanted to visit whilst on tour.

Being from Australia, what do you think of the rock ‘n’ roll scene in this country, as opposed to your homeland?
LW: The Australian pub culture brings along certain elements of a rough-and-tumble camaraderie that is very conducive to writing rock music. Australia has given birth to rock 'n' roll greats such as AC/DC, Jet, Wolfmother, Silverchair and INXS. America has a different history and different influences entirely. Also, America has a far greater population and therefore a greater mix of different genres.

Australia has such a fascinating musical history, but it’s one that’s always been a bit of mystery to Americans it seems. If there’s one thing U.S. audiences should know about Australian rock ‘n’ roll, what do you think that is? Do you feel any kind of responsibility to open doors for other Aussie acts in the States?
LW: Australia, over a long period of time, has amassed a cultural fusion from many different parts of the world. This, of course, applies to our music scene, too. Our rock 'n' roll has a certain sound that is inherited from many different influences. Our Australian rock 'n' roll forefathers certainly paved the road to international success for the rest of us, so there is naturally a responsibility to pay it forward to other Aussie artists. 

You’ve toured with Shinedown and Fuel. What did you learn from those experiences?
LW: Being selected to open for Shinedown and tour with Fuel was such an honor, but with such incredible opportunities, the pressure is really on! It makes you really step up and work a lot harder to deliver a high standard if you are going to be sharing the stage with such industry greats. 

What’s your favorite memory of touring with Ted Nugent from the first tour? Is he at all different from the public persona we’re used to seeing?
LW: The best memory of touring with Ted Nugent last summer would have to be the Ohio Rib-Fest in Maumee. We were able to sample all of the delicious local food and the turnout for the show was huge! I think they counted about 15,000 people. Being able to perform to that sized crowd was the most amazingly surreal experience. Ted is a larger-than-life character who is passionate about music and has been a pleasure to work with. It has been an honor to share the stage with him.

How did the Nugent crowd receive your material?
LW: Initially, last year it took the first half of our set to win over Ted Nugent's audience. Usually, by the end of the show, everyone was getting into it and having a great time. This year we have had a far warmer reception from the start of the set, which has been a lot of fun!

Talk about the making of Sold My Soul. What was the toughest song to record and what song most represents what you’re all about?
LW: Sold My Soul was recorded over a four-year time period. The first song, "All Alone," was recorded in 2008, when I had just finished high school in Melbourne and the last track, "Sold My Soul,: was done in Los Angeles. The title track, I found, was the most challenging as I played all of the instruments and produced it myself. But overall I really enjoyed every step of the process, from writing the songs to recording demos to the production of the whole thing.

You’ve done some TV work, playing in the house band for “Australia’s Got Talent” and being a presenter on “Beat TV.” What did you enjoy about it, and ultimately, do they help turn people on to the kind of traditional rock ‘n’ roll that you love? 
LW: These opportunities were such a wonderful experience as I was able to stretch myself musically by playing a vast range of styles and having the chance to experiment with different sounds. It was great to be able to see the scene from a different perspective by interviewing other artists.

How did being included in Revolver magazine’s “Hottest Chicks of Hard Rock” 2012 affect your career? 

LW: Being selected to be in Revolver magazine's "25 Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock" was such an honor, especially when I saw the company I was in! It was very helpful in increasing the awareness about my music and the tour schedule at the time.

You’ve cited Jimmy Page, Slash, Hendrix and Suzy Quatro as some of your influences. What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to, and who do you wish you’d seen play live in their prime? 

LW: Dave Grohl's Sound City Players' concert was one of the best live shows that I've seen so far. It was the coming together of so many different legendary artists, everyone from Dave Grohl to Stevie Nicks to John Fogerty and many more. I would have loved to have seen Elvis in his prime. That would be an epic show! He remains the "King of Rock 'N' Roll."
What’s the plan beyond 2013? How do you envision your career unfolding from here on out?
LW: That's the funny thing about life ... it's all a big mystery! The current wish list is just to be able to expand on what we've done so far. To be able to write and release more music and perhaps even eventually tour internationally would be a dream!

CD Review: Whitesnake – Made in Britain/The World Record

CD Review: Whitesnake – Made in Britain/The World Record
Frontiers Records
All Access Review: A-

Whitesnake - Made in
Britain/The World Record 2013
David Coverdale is not a man without a country. He calls two of them home.

Always the charming rascal, with lust in his heart, a bawdy sense of humor and the restless, romantic heart of a drifter – the type of character he seems to identify with the most – perpetually looking for true love, Coverdale is English through and through, even if he now has dual citizenship in the United States. He probably stills takes his tea in the afternoon.

Taken literally, the title to the new package of rousing live recordings from pop-metal warhorse Whitesnake is self-explanatory. Undoubtedly it refers to material culled from a massive 2011 tour that included nine sold-out U.K. shows and as many as 87 other concerts from around the globe for the boisterous, pulse-pounding Made in Britain/The World Record, but it could just as well describe Coverdale the man – worldly, cultured and yet clearly a product of his native environment.

Ever the likeable rogue, Coverdale is in his element on the 25-track, two-disc Made in Britain/The World Record, singing with surprising clarity and as soulfully as ever – especially on wistful, beautifully rendered versions of “Fare Thee Well” and a softly acoustic “One of These Days,” the warm rasp in his voice dripping with nostalgia and longing. Time hasn’t ravaged his voice one bit; it still rings out clearly amid the bluster and charged electricity this Whitesnake outfit brings to classics like “Fool for Your Loving,” “Bad Boys” and an exuberant, testosterone-fueled “Slide it In” that practically reeks of cheap sex – just as Coverdale intended.

Radioactive meltdowns occur as Whitesnake takes on Deep Purple’s “Soldier of Fortune” and a satisfying medley of “Burn” and “Stormbringer” to end the set, but they mean business when they grind away, like a desperate stripper short on rent money, in “Lay down Your Love” and “Snake Dance.” Much like those two STD-infested sonic brothels of pure bluesy nastiness, both of them sleazier and more infectious than the originals, “Can You Hear the Wind Blow” certainly smolders and “My Evil Ways” smokes, with mean, biting riffage courtesy of guitarists Reb Beach and Doug Aldrich, whose slide guitar work in the intro to “My Evil Ways” has an edgy drawl and sharp aspect to it.

Without their heaviness, their feel, their stylistic diversity, their vibrant tones and rich variety of orgasmic solos, Made in Britain/The World Record wouldn’t be nearly as vital or as fiery, and when melody and harmonies are called for, as they are on “Here I Go Again,” “Love Ain’t No Stranger,” “Is This Love” and “Give Me All Your Love,” Beach and Aldrich play with style and taste, making their presence known but not in an overbearing manner. The songs are allowed to breathe, as the six-string killers sneak around stealthily under dark, spellbinding atmospheres, like that which envelopes parts of “Still of the Night.” They make the epic arrangements of “Forevermore,” off the 2011 album of the same name, soar, but without the remarkably dynamic drumming of Brian Tichy, a definite star in the making, they would go nowhere.

A worthy and quick successor to Made in Japan, an equally dazzling, if not quite as expansive, Whitesnake live album released earlier this year, Made in Britain/The World Record will seduce and overpower longtime fans and new converts alike with superb sound and indefatigable instrumental vigor.
– Peter Lindblad