Monday, 23 April 2018

W.E.T.'s 'Earthrage' - Album Review

While the Italian record label Frontiers Records puts out a lot of collaboration albums that are firmly in the melodic rock/AOR camps, often involving different combinations of a fairly small roster of musicians and singers performing the songs of an even smaller group of 'in-house' songwriters, the AOR 'supergroup' W.E.T. is one of the label's more well-known collaborations. Formed by three big hitters of the melodic rock world - singer Jeff Scott Soto and multi-instrumentalists Erik Mårtensson and Robert Säll - in 2009, the band's self-titled album was extremely well-received in the rock press and was quite a big success for the label. Named after the bands the three main participants are best-known for - Work of Art (Säll), Eclipse (Mårtensson), and Talisman (Soto) - W.E.T. play melodic rock music that is very similar to that of the 1980s big hitters of the genre. This is very typical of the 'Frontiers sound', and is similar to many of their other project releases, but the calibre of those involved helps this rise above many of the middling albums released by the label over the years. Mårtensson's Eclipse are one of my favourite modern AOR bands however, and W.E.T.'s songs are very similar to those found on Eclipse's albums. Unsurprisingly, Mårtensson is also the driving force behind W.E.T. and has co-written the vast majority of their material to date. The band's second album Rise Up was released to strong reviews in 2013, but fans of the band have had to wait five years for a follow-up. This third album, titled Earthrage, was finally released last month and fans of the band, as well as Mårtensson's songwriting in general, will not be disappointed. Soto got involved with the collaborative process of the songwriting during the Rise Up sessions, and has become a key co-writer on Earthrage too. It may surprise some to learn this, but he has never been one of my favourite singers. I do not dislike him, but I have never really been grabbed by his voice as I have by many other singers. That being said, Soto is still a very talented vocalist and is a perfect fit for the smooth melodic rock that W.E.T. produce. The material is very similar to Eclipse's, but Soto's voice is lower and smoother than Mårtensson's which helps to distance the two bands from each other. Mårtensson does take the lead vocally occasionally throughout Earthrage, but for the most part Soto shines with an excellent vocal performance. Mårtensson is responsible for much of the instrumentation, handling most of the guitar, bass, and keyboard work throughout. Two Eclipse alumni, guitarist Magnus Henriksson and drummer Robban Bäck, return to once again contribute to W.E.T.'s music and help to add some real classic rock strut throughout. Säll's contributions, which have always been seemingly quite limited, seems even more of a passenger here. On the previous two albums he was quite active in the songwriting, but he is not credited with co-writing a single song here. His sole contribution to the album seems to be 'keyboards', but with Mårtensson also credited for playing the keyboards it makes you wonder just how much Säll actually contributed to Earthrage. Considering he is seen as one of the band's core members, this seems strange and it is a shame that his talents are not heard more widely throughout this release.

The lead single Watch the Fire opens slowly, with slow atmospheric guitar chords and marching drums before Mårtensson takes the vocals for a few lines before Soto takes over. Their two voices mix well together, and the smooth backing of the growing verse suits the slightly crooned delivery. By the time the chorus is reached the song really opens out. Soto proves why he is so well-liked in the melodic rock world with a plethora of polished vocal melodies. This is nothing original, but this is a chorus that really grabs hold instantly with its sophisticated pop metal melodies. Those familiar with W.E.T.'s other albums will feel at home right away, and when Henriksson launches into his short, but powerful, guitar solo the song really feels complete. Mårtensson is one of the best modern writers of AOR music, and this song is another classic to add to his canon. Burn is a Mårtensson/Soto co-write, and it opens out with a strident keyboard riff which dominates the song even after the tough guitar rhythms are added into the mix. The pace is more immediate here, with a driving verse filled with plenty of strong bass playing and a somewhat heavier chorus with big ringing chords and Bäck's punchy drums. While not as immediately memorable as the opening number, Burn shows a slightly tougher side to W.E.T. while still focusing on the big AOR melodies that fans are used to. Bäck is a heavier player than your average AOR drummer, as his stint with Sabaton should tell you, and he makes his mark felt here with a powerful performance, including a few flurries of double bass pedal. Kings on Thunder Road is more typical of the band's sound, and takes its cues from the opening number. The verses here are sparse, with a simple beat and a subtle keyboard arrangement, but the choruses explode with pure joyous melodies. The chorus to this song is probably my favourite on the album, as it has all the hallmarks of the great AOR hit singles of the 1980s. Soto's lower voice might not soar like other AOR singers', but he still manages to really get behind the chorus - and it is his performance that makes the song such a winner. Mårtensson takes the guitar solo here, but sadly it is mixed quite low in the song so it does not make the impact that it should. Elegantly Wasted is a fun little song, which opens with grand orchestral keyboards and is centred around a Queen-esque ballroom-filling chorus that is filled with classy melodies that probably are not fit for a song titled Elegantly Wasted! At under three minutes in length this is the shortest piece on the album, and actually feels like those quirky 'filler' pieces that Queen wrote for their first few albums. It works well, with enough AOR trappings to ensure that it does not really stand out, but it never has a chance to really establish itself as it is over so quickly.

Urgent is co-written by, and contains a guest solo by, Thomas Larsson (Baltimoore; Glenn Hughes). It is another heavier song with a spiky guitar riff, augmented by dramatic synths, and a strong chorus. It might just be my brain making associations where there are none, but I do feel that the chorus to this song is a little too close to the Foreigner song of the same name. This is a heavier track for sure, but something about the chorus melodies just feel a little similar. Dangerous is pure 1980s nostalgia however, and really reminds me of the good-time summer music that Brother Firetribe specialise in these days. The keyboards sparkle throughout, adding a little halo of pop when it is needed, and the bass-led verses allow the focus to all be on Soto as he croons his way through the lyrics. The chorus raises the energy levels however, and are complete with some excellent wordless vocal sections that are sure to go down well live if the band ever performs live again. Those eagerly awaiting new music from Brother Firetribe should check this song out, as it will certainly tie you over until those Finns get back in the studio. Calling Out Your Name also opens slowly, with pulsing keyboard melodies that create a fairly dense atmosphere for an AOR track, but once again builds towards a powerful chorus. The formula should be familiar to all now: slower verses that build up towards and explosive pop metal chorus; but it works so well each time with melodies that really stick - so it seems pointless to complain about the lack of variety. This is another of my favourite choruses on the album, as it is just packed full of perfect AOR melodies. Henriksson also shines with a shredding guitar solo that adds a little injection of energy when it is needed. The guitar work throughout this album is mostly rhythmic and as a backing to the vocal melodies, but Henriksson's occasional flurries of metal lead guitar help to keep things interesting.

Heart is on the Line is the first true ballad of the album. It is actually quite surprising that it has taken until the eighth song to get to the first ballad on an AOR album, but it comes along at the right time to add some gentle acoustic guitar and slightly mournful vocals just when everything was getting a bit too jolly! As far as power ballads go, this is a fairly standard example of the tried-and-tested formula, but it works as intended and allows Soto to show his softer side and lets Henriksson throw in a few bluesy lead licks every so often for emotional effect. I Don't Wanna Play That Game picks up the pace again after the ballad and opens with a great guitar melody that mixes in well the keyboards to create something straight out of the 1980s. Again, the verses are bass-led - and again the choruses explode from this verse with Soto belting the lyrics out at the top of his voice. By this point anyone who is expecting anything different should turn the album off, as variety is not about to present itself, but those who are happy with the party anthems should just get one with the job of enjoying the huge melodies. The Burning Pain of Love is similar (surprise, surprise) but it does slow the pace down a bit with those classic crunching AOR guitar rhythms as the keyboard sparkle around them. The chorus is another good one, despite some twee lyrics, and really oozes out of the speakers in a really soothing way. Some of the best AOR has slightly moody overtones at times, with a bit of darkness creeping in around the soaring melodies, and this song is a perfect example of that. The closing number The Never-Ending Retraceable Dream picks the pace up for a final rock out before the album closes out. Jaunty keyboard melodies are found all throughout the song, and Soto turns in one of my favourite vocal performances of his yet. The smoothness of his voice during the chorus shows that he is made to sing this type of music, and Henriksson's guitar leads that pop up throughout are full of zip and energy. There is a great section towards the end where he plays a very simple repeating lick that Soto then starts to join in with and this combination is surprisingly powerful. It is a classic 'closing' song, and ends the album on a real high. Overall, Earthrage is a strong third album from this AOR supergroup. There are no songs that stand out as being poor, and with a couple of really stunning tracks it makes for a very enjoyable listen indeed. This feels like a real summer album, and I can see myself playing it a lot as the weather starts to improve.

The album was released on 23rd March 2018 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Watch the Fire.


Monday, 16 April 2018

Judas Priest's 'Firepower' - Album Review

It could probably be successfully argued that Judas Priest were the very first bona fide heavy metal band. While many other bands, most notably Black Sabbath, helped to pioneer heavy music prior to Judas Priest's commercial breakthrough, few bands did more to truly establish the traditional heavy metal sound and look than the band formed in West Bromwich in 1969. Black Sabbath's doom-laden blues epics certainly forged the fire that made the metal, but Judas Priest's razor-sharp riffs and the screaming, high-pitched vocals of frontman Rob Halford certainly created the blueprint for what traditional heavy metal would sound like from that point onward. After their late 1960s genesis, Judas Priest gradually grew in stature throughout the 1970s, until really smashing through into a big leagues with 1980s seminal British Steel. In a retrospective review (which I cannot reference as I am unsure who wrote it!) of British Steel which I read a few years ago, the reviewer made the statement that it the first metal album that not really be based in blues. There is probably some truth in that claim, and there is definitely a buzz and sheen to that album that few had before it. Since British Steel's release, Judas Priest have, quite rightly, been regarded as one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time. While they may not be quite on the level of their peers Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden these days, with those two bands being able to fill much larger venues than Judas Priest when they tour, Judas Priest remain the favourites among many die-hard metalheads. As a result, a new album from the Birmingham five-piece is always an event in the metal world and when their eighteenth studio album Firepower was announced last year the band's fan base was unsurprisingly excited. It had been four years since the band had last released an album, and 2014's Redeemer of Souls (which I reviewed here) was somewhat of a distant memory. Despite not being a classic, the 2014 album contained plenty of strong songs and was well received by large portions of the metal community. Criticisms were levelled at the production however, which lacked punch, and that is the one striking difference between Redeemer of Souls and Firepower. While the former attempted at a more organic sound, the latter sounds like a powerful metal album with great guitar tones and punchy drums. This is thanks to the production duo of Tom Allom, who produced many of the band's classic 1980s albums, and Andy Sneap, who is one of the most-sought after modern metal producers. This production quality, mixed with a glut of metal anthems from the modern Judas Priest songwriting triumvirate of Halford and guitarists Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner, has really made Firepower a great piece of work. For a band which is nearly reaching their 50th anniversary, this is no mean feat. Many bands loose their fire over time, but Judas Priest seem to not be loosing any of their passion for creating heavy metal.

Opening with the furious speed metal of the title track, Firepower gets off to a powerful start. A choppy riff from Tipton and Faulkner drives the song, and when Halford opens his mouth to start singing he sounds better than he has for years. He has always remained strong vocally throughout his career, but the performance throughout this album is outstanding for a man of his age. His high-pitched screams really shake the cages as they used to in the early 1980s, and his lower register has a slightly harsh edge to it which helps him to compete with the rolling drums of the chorus. A great Ritchie Blackmore-esque classically-inspired guitar melody helps to add to light to the shade part way through, but overall this is a true metal anthem and Judas Priest have not sounded this heavy since the Tim 'Ripper' Owens-era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lead single Lightning Strike is more of a mid-paced track, with a driving guitar riff and a punchy drum track courtesy of long-time drummer Scott Travis. The simple chorus could have easily found a home on one of the band's early 1980s classic albums, and the screaming guitar leads that appear at regular intervals really pour out of the speakers with true venom. While many metal bands rely on speed, and in fact the previous number shows that Judas Priest also excel at this, Judas Priest have always been more at home grinding out mid-paced stompers. Lightning Strike is a great example of this style, as is the heavier Evil Never Dies that follows. A simple guitar riff leads the charge, while Ian Hill's bass underpins everything with a powerful rumble, and Halford can be found spitting out the lyrics with the power of someone half his age. His King Diamond-esque shrieks during the chorus are particularly chilling, and contrasts well with the melodic, 1980s-inspired pre-chorus. Evil Never Dies completes a perfect trio of heavy opening numbers, which really sets the tone for the album and shows from the off that Judas Priest really mean business with this release. Never the Heroes has more of a classic rock feel to it than a heavy metal one, and definitely reigns in the heaviness a little in favour of a simple arrangement. The song is still built around a massive riff, but the verses have a sparser arrangement with chiming clean guitars and a simple drum pattern. Despite this more overly-rock sound, the chorus has a strong Blind Guardian feel to it with a strident, harmony vocal-driven sound that is instantly memorable. After three heavier songs, Never the Heroes pairs things back a little and demonstrates something a little different.

Necromancer regains the heaviness right away, with an evil-sounding riff that sounds like something a thrash metal band would use for a demonic break down, before exploding into a pacey anthem with some gritty vocals from Halford and a pummelling chorus with some excellent drumming. After a somewhat more restrained sound of the previous number, this one really hits hard. The main riff is probably one of my favourites on the album, as it conveys such a dark feel so effortlessly, and the slightly cartoony sorcerer-based lyrics fit in perfectly with the music. Children of the Sun is another excellent track and was one of the ones that stood out to me when I listened to the album for the first time. It is still one of my favourites, and has one of the album's best choruses that sticks with you instantly and just demands to be sung. This is also one of the more dynamic pieces on the album, with a slower clean passage in the middle that allows Halford to show off a slightly gentler side to his voice before the song ramps back up towards an explosive guitar solo. A short piano-based instrumental piece Guardians acts as an extended intro for Rising from Ruins, another crunching mid-paced number that mixes powerful riffing with beautiful verses that have somewhat of an atmospheric feel with ringing clean guitar chords. Judas Priest do not do atmospheric often, and in truth this song is barely that, but compared to their usual fire and brimstone sound - the verses here certainly help to create a bit of a different mood. The chorus is business as usual however, and sounds all the more powerful after the relatively relaxed verses. Up to this point the album has maintained an extremely quality, but Flame Thrower sees the first real dip. While certainly not an awful track, it just feels a lot less interesting than everything that has gone before it. The main riff lacks the spark of all the others, and Halford's vocals sound like something from the relative metal wastelands of the 1990s - there's just little of his usual razor sharp edge. There are redeeming qualities however, including a pretty powerful chorus, but the plodding verses always seem to go on for a few bars too long. There are few missteps on this album, but this has to go down as one of them. Spectre, which in another world could have been an excellent Bond theme, gets things back on track with a great groove and a screaming riff that forms the basis of an intense chorus. The pace of this song is slightly slower than the average found throughout the rest of the album, but that allows it to have a fantastic groove. Groove is not always something that Judas Priest make strong use of, but it works really well here for them - with Hill's bass helpfully high in the mix. It is this that makes the song stand out, and it is an extremely powerful number that hits relatively late on in the album's run.

Traitors Gate opens slowly, with a doomy guitar melody, before exploding into a another fairly fast riff that contains all of the hallmarks of a classic Judas Priest riff. It is this riff that goes on to define the song, with urgent verses mixed in with staccato choruses that see some of Halford's best vocals on the album. He sounds pretty consistently-excellent throughout Firepower, but there is something about this chorus that just really sounds so good. Few have mastered that raspy, yet still clean, sound like Halford and he remains a really beacon for heavy metal vocals. The short No Surrender is bit of a throwaway piece, but it still manages to rock hard with another strong riff and plenty of infectious melodies. At under three minutes long, it is the shortest proper song on the album and it is over almost as quickly as it begins. It is certainly less interesting than many of the other songs here, but its short length and fairly simple structure makes it a decent addition to the album. Lone Wolf is a crunchier, slower track that at times makes me think of 1990s Metallica. The opening riff certainly sounds like something they could have come up with, and the leaden drum style also sounds like their usual style. Along with Flame Thrower, this is probably my least favourite piece on the album. While the chorus is quite good, the laboured feel of the rest of the song does not have the energy or zip that the rest of the album has. This is an album that thrives on creating an strong energy, and this song does little to add to that. The slower, bluesy guitar solo does not really help either - and only adds to the plodding feel that comes from the song. I am sure that many will disagree with me, but I have never been a big fan of Judas Priest's slower songs. Lots of metal bands excel at writing 'ballads', but to me they have never really delivered the goods on that front. The album's closing number Sea of Red definitely has a feel of a ballad - the only one on the album - but this time they seem to have hit the nail on the head. The subtle acoustic intro suits Halford's vocals nicely, and the slightly folky melodies throughout are surprisingly catchy. While the song does build over time, adding heavier guitars, the tempo and folky melodies remain. It definitely becomes heavier than your average ballad towards the end, but the synthesised choirs that are employed towards the end help to add an epic end to a dynamic piece that works well to close an album that has been pretty heavy throughout. Judas Priest have excelled at writing a slower song here, and it brings Firepower to a slow-burning end. Overall, Firepower is essential listening for heavy metal fans. While some bands of Judas Priest's age scoff at the idea of recording new material, they have put out their best collection of songs for quite some time - at least since 1990's Painkiller - and I can see it troubling a lot of Album of the Year lists around the internet come December.

The album was released on 9th March 2018 via Columbia Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Lightning Strike.


Sunday, 15 April 2018

Marillion - Birmingham Review

I have now been fortunate enough to see one of my favourite bands Marillion three times in as many years. In 2016, not many months after the release of their latest album Fuck Everyone and Run, I caught the band in London at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town. This was an excellent show, that featured much of the new album as well as plenty of older favourites, and really whetted my appetite for the show that was to follow last October which saw the band play a triumphant set to a sold out Royal Albert Hall. While the Forum show was great, this Albert Hall gig was one of the best concerts that I have ever been to, and it is one that I still think about regularly. It felt like a real career high for the band, and it will probably be the evening by which all their other shows are now judged. Before even getting to the Albert Hall however, I had already bought tickets to yesterdays show - a Saturday night in Birmingham at the Symphony Hall. The Symphony Hall is not a regular gig destination for me, as not that many rock bands often play there, but I had enjoyed Heart's gig there back in 2016. Marillion shows are always special occasions however and I had no doubt that, even from my seats high up in the Grand Circle, that the band would still mesmerise me as they always do. While the show was officially sold out, there were still a few empty seats around, but there was still a good amount of people packed into the tall venue. All-seated shows can often produce strange atmospheres for rock shows, but Marillion's dense, atmospheric music suits the seated halls. Marillion's is music that needs to be immersed in, which is best done sat back where the visuals, light show, and music can all be taken in perfectly. All-seated concerts do not work for all bands, but I think Marillion are one band that can make it work.

Before Marillion took to the stage, and while the crowd was slowly finding their seats, Riccardo Romano (vocals/keyboards) and Jennifer Rothery (vocals) entertained the punters with half an hour or so of atmospheric music that was based mainly around piano melodies and Rothery's smokey voice. While at times she definitely sung quite flat, there were other times where she sung wonderfully and displayed a considerable vocal talents. Some of the songs played where her compositions, and some were versions of songs found on Romano's album B612. Acts with limited instrumentation can often become dull fairly quickly, as everyone begins to roll into one after a few songs, but at half an hour their set was spared that. There are, of course, Marillion connections for both as Rothery is the daughter of Marillion's guitarist Steve and Romano plays keyboards in his solo band. Despite the fact that this sparse singer-songwriter type of music is not the sort of thing that I would usually listen to, Romano and Rothery's set passed half an hour pleasantly enough, but I cannot say that anything they played really took a firm grip.

Marillion took the stage at bang on 8:30pm and played right through to 10:45pm, delivering a career-spanning set to the large crowd of die-hard fans. Given that Fuck Everyone and Run is still relatively new, a large portion of it was played with older numbers - some of which relatively rarely-played - interspersed in an attempt to represent as much of the band's sonic tapestry as possible. The first of Fuck Everyone and Run's lengthy multi-part pieces El Dorado got things off to a dark start, with Steve Hogarth (vocals/guitar/keyboards/percussion) often remaining stationary to deliver the chilling lyrics, while the rest of the band formed a rich tapestry of sounds around him. What was evident from the off was just how good the live sound mix was. It was one of the clearest sounds that I have heard in a while, with every instrument really given space to breath. Pete Trewavas' (bass guitar/vocals) bass was quite high in the mix, and Hogarth's vocals were never buried under everything else. Even when he strapped on his guitar for one of his rare forays with the instrument it made an instant impact, often bulking out the sound in a meaningful way. El Dorado whizzed by, and it was followed by the equally dark Power and the slightly funky Quartz, which is a fairly erratic song by the band's standards and based around a big bass riff from Trewavas. One of the early highlights for me was the epic title track to 1989's Seasons End. I had not heard the band perform the atmospheric song live before, and Mark Kelly's (keyboards/vocals) keyboard textures instantly helped to create a powerful wall of sound for Hogarth to sing to. The song contains one of Rothery's finest guitar solos, and the entire mid-section of the song is taken up by it. While Rothery does not always solo as much in the newer material as he did on the older albums, it is always a treat when he launches into one of his trademark, emotional lead sections. His guitar tone is always spot on, and this show in Birmingham was no different.

Another highlight of the set was the emotionally-charged Real Tears for Sale, which saw Hogarth delivering the lyrics with real firey passion. The Leavers is my least-favourite of the three longer pieces from the new album, but it works really well live. It contains some more excellent lead guitar playing from Rothery, and comes to an end with a joyus, rousing coda that saw much of the crowd singing the lyrics with Hogarth - being 'one tonight' as the lyrics state. A couple of sections from the lengthier Goodbye to all That acted as an extended intro to Afraid of Sunlight, a real crowd favourite that also had large sections of the crowd singing along. The song always has quite an uplifting feel to it, and is packed with a stadium-sized chorus for good measure. The darkness returned for the main set closer however, with The Great Escape taking the set to a powerful climax. Not one but two encore sections followed, which saw the band go back in time. Easter, with another huge guitar solo, was lapped up by the crowd before the energetic b-side The Release created something of a party atmosphere down in the stalls. Another quick run off stage was followed by howls for more, and the band came back and went right back to the early 1980s with the bouncy Garden Party and their first ever single Market Square Heroes. Songs from the early Fish-era of the band are not played live that often, so the crowd seemed to take the chance to rock out with the band gleefully. After a relatively downbeat set, with lots of longer, emotionally draining pieces featured, having a few party rock anthems at the end helped to give everyone something to dance to before heading out into the dark Birmingham night. The setlist was:

El Dorado - Part I: Long-Shadowed Sun
El Dorado - Part II: The Gold
El Dorado - Part III: Demolished Lives
El Dorado - Part IV: F E A R
El Dorado - Part V: The Grandchildren of Apes
Power
Quartz
The Party
Seasons End
Living in F E A R
Real Tears for Sale
The Leavers - Part I: Wake Up in Music
The Leavers - Part II: The Remainers
The Leavers - Part III: Vapour Trails in the Sky
The Leavers - Part IV: The Jumble of Days
The Leavers - Part V: One Tonight
Goodbye to all That - Part I: Wave
Goodbye to all That - Part II: Mad
Afraid of Sunlight
The Great Escape
-
Easter
The Release
-
Garden Party
Market Square Heroes

Marillion shows are always special occasions, and this one was no different. While I am not sure that any show of theirs will ever top the masterful display at the Royal Albert Hall last year, this was a powerful evening of some of the band's densest, most emotional music - that ended with an upbeat bang. The UK has now been spoilt for Marillion shows over the past couple of years, so I would not be surprised if it was a while before they came around again, but I am already looking forward to their next tour.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Ian Anderson - Bristol Review

I was a relative latecomer to Jethro Tull. Folk music generally does not do a lot for me, but after giving a proper listen to the band's 1971 opus Aqualung on a train journey sometime in 2012 I slowly became hooked. It is always fun to get into a band with such a vast and varied discography, and there are still Jethro Tull albums I am yet to hear, but they have become one of my most-listened to acts over the past couple of years during which my Jethro Tull fandom has increased hugely. Jethro Tull have not been active since I began properly listening to them, but the band's founding member and principle songwriter Ian Anderson (vocals/guitar/flute/harmonica) has been busy touring his new solo albums alongside Jethro Tull classics. While his recent solo albums have been very well-received, and have no doubt sold well, I would imagine it is the classic Jethro Tull material in the sets that continue to attract people to his concerts. Not long after the official disillusion of Jethro Tull in 2012, it seemed that Anderson wanted to distance himself somewhat from the Jethro Tull name. I remember and interview from around the time in which he stated that everything he did from that point on would be under his own name, and even hinted that he never liked the name Jethro Tull for a band anyway. He seemed to slowly renege on this over the years, with 'Jethro Tull' often creeping to the marketing for his albums and tours. This culminated in a fairly ludicrous concept to rearrange classics from the Jethro Tull catalogue into a rock opera celebrating the life of the real-life Jethro Tull, an 18th century agriculturist. I did not attend of the shows on that tour, so I cannot attest to its quality, but I always found the idea ridiculous, and nothing more than a shoe-horning in of the Jethro Tull name in order to shift tickets. 2018, however, seems to find Anderson willing to finally re-embrace the Jethro Tull name fully once again to undertake a world tour in celebration of the band's 50th anniversary. This tour contained a healthy amount of UK shows, and I opted to buy tickets for the one at Bristol's Colston Hall - a new venue for me. I had not seen Anderson before, so was looking forward to the show immensely - despite reading plenty of negative reviews of recent shows that heavily criticised his current vocal powers. Whether the five men on stage in Bristol yesterday are now 'Jethro Tull', or whether they simply remain Ian Anderson and his backing band as they have since convening in 2012, is unclear - Anderson himself has not really give any clear answers. It could easily be argued however that Anderson is Jethro Tull, so it hardly seems to matter.

Anderson and his band hit the Colston Hall stage at 7:30pm on the dot and immediately started playing My Sunday Feeling - the first song from Jethro Tull's 1968 debut album This Was. Given the reports I had read regarding Anderson's voice, I was fearing I would have to open this review a probably ill-advised pun about him being 'too old to rock 'n' roll' after all. Thankfully, that was not to be the case as Anderson sounded fairly strong throughout the first half of the set. The show was split into two, with the first half mostly covering the band's first three albums, associated stand-alone singles, with a couple of numbers from Aqualung thrown in at the end. This early, blues-based period of Jethro Tull has never been my favourite era of the band, but it seemed to suit Anderson's limited vocals the best. The band, who certainly created a tougher sound than was found on those early albums, also shone during these early numbers. Florian Opahle (guitar) in particular stood out, as he churned out those bluesy riffs with ease and jammed with Anderson's playful flute lines. Throughout the evening, former band members and musical peers were shown on the big screen, often 'introducing' the next song in the set. Former bassist Jeffery Hammond-Hammond introduced, appropriately, A Song for Jeffrey, and founding guitarist Mick Abrahams made it known that he thought that This Was was the definitely Jethro Tull album - which brought a laugh from the sold-out crowd. An early highlight was the explosive instrumental piece Dharma for One which contained a drum solo from Scott Hammond. While Anderson's voice is quite weak these days, his skills as a performer and a flautist have not diminished. He is still the best flute player in rock, and often danced around the stage, flute in hand, ready to peel off the next folky melody. His between-song chats were entertaining too, his legendary wit still very much intact. The tough blues rock of A New Day Yesterday was another highlight, with Opahle nailing the iconic riff and Anderson just about getting away with it vocally. A medley of With You There to Help Me and The Witch's Promise fared less well however, with Anderson's voice really letting him down on the latter which was not helped by some poor harmony vocals from the band. The two Aqualung songs that finished the first set off, My God and Cross-Eyed Mary, were somewhat better however - with John O'Hara's (keyboards/vocals) growling organ mixing in well with the heavy guitars and breathy flute melodies.

A fifteen minute interval followed, before the band trooped back onto the stage for the second set - which focused on the 1970s and 1980s Jethro Tull output, which could be described as the band's 'golden' period. While many of the songs performed during this part of the show were real favourites of mine, it was also this part of the night which really put Anderson's voice under the spotlight. To his credit, at times he sounded rather good - such as during an excerpt from 1973's excessive concept album A Passion Play; but elsewhere he sounded rather poor indeed. An excerpt from the better-of-the-two concept albums, 1972's Thick as a Brick, got the second half off to a strong start. O'Hara particularly shone here, with a stunning organ solo part way through the piece, and Anderson shows he still knows his way around an acoustic guitar. A Passion Play was an unexpectedly strong moment too, as was the anthemic Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die! with its snaking guitar leads. Sadly however, the following Songs from the Wood was a bit of a mess. The song relies on tight vocal harmonies, and neither Anderson or his band seem capable of this. The flute solo was performed to perfection however, which helped save the song from falling flat on its face. The slower Ring Out, Solstice Bells fared better, but the real highlights of the second set were the two numbers that followed. Heavy Horses, a personal favourite from the Jethro Tull catalogue, sounded remarkably good. The choruses featured a lady on vocals, which was played over the PA and shown on the screen, which was somewhat odd but I believe it was a hangover from the rock opera that told the story of the inventor of the seed drill. This strange theatrical element did make the song stand out, but what also made it standout was just how good it sounded. After a couple of weaker numbers, it really put the set back on track and received a big cheer as it finished. The other highlight was the atmospheric 1980s folk of Farm on the Freeway, the newest song in the set being culled from 1987's Grammy-winning Crest of a Knave. There was plenty of flute to enjoy here, and Anderson (who sounded vocally strange on the original anyway after throat surgery) almost nailed the vocals. There was a final number before the band left the stage, and that was Aqualung - probably their best-known song. The version played was nice and heavy with plenty of excellent guitar work from Opahle, include the famous guitar solo. The song also featured vocals (again, virtually) from Ryan O'Donnell who toured with Anderson on his Thick as a Brick 2 and Homo Erraticus tours. O'Donnell's virtual presence only highlighted just how much Anderson needs his vocal support these days however, and it was a shame that he was not part of the band for this tour as I thought he and Anderson showed great chemistry on a recent live DVD. Despite the negatives, the band left the stage to huge cheers before coming back for one final number, Locomotive Breath. O'Hara nailed the classically-influenced piano intro, and the band and Anderson rocked out one last time to strong results. The setlist was (N.B. all of the below, unless otherwise stated, are Jethro Tull songs):

My Sunday Feeling
Love Story
A Song for Jeffrey
Some Day the Sun Won't Shine for You
Dharma for One
Living in the Past
A New Day Yesterday
Bourée [Johann Sebastian Bach cover]
With You There to Help Me/The Witch's Promise
My God
Cross-Eyed Mary
-
Thick as a Brick
A Passion Play
Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die!
Songs from the Wood
Ring Out, Solstice Bells
Heavy Horses
Farm on the Freeway
Aqualung
-
Locomotive Breath

It would be extremely easy to be overly-negative about this show, but that would be unfair to a man who, despite his painfully obvious vocal limitations now, is still a great performer and musician. There were a couple of songs during the evening that were pretty bad, but there were plenty of other moments that were truly excellent. While it was sad to see his voice fail him so miserably at times, it was also great to see him jump across the stage as if it was 1978 again playing his flute. I am very glad that I went to this show, despite the negatives, as I got to see one of my current favourite musicians celebrate 50 years of his unique brand of music.

Epica - Bristol Review

While symphonic and power metal does not play as big a part in my life as it once did, there are still a handful of bands of that persuasion that I will always make time for. The Netherlands' Epica is one of those bands, as their progressive brand of symphonic metal always resonates. I first became a fan of the band probably around ten years ago, and first saw them in Nottingham in 2011 supporting their Design Your Universe album. While the band's albums are not always an easy listen, with a lot going on in each song, they are a band that rewards perseverance and I have come to enjoy all of the band's seven studio albums to varying degrees. 2016's The Holographic Principle is the band's most recent studio offering, and it is one of their most impressive yet. The production is top notch, and the songwriting is dense, heavy, and beautiful - mixing their usual mix of progressive, symphonic, and death metal for a powerful outcome. I saw the band last year in London, which was the only UK date of their co-headline tour with Powerwolf. While I still enjoyed the show, it was not the best of the four Epica shows I had witnessed up until that point. I was stuck in a rather poor part of the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, so had a bad view of the stage for most of the night. This, combined with the fact that it seemed that many of the crowd were there to see Powerwolf, made for a rather muted evening out. Epica come around fairly regularly however, and towards the back end of last year the band announced a UK headline tour which would bring the material of The Holographic Principle to cities of the UK that were not London. I opted for their show at the O2 Academy in Bristol, which is always a good place to watch bands. I have rarely had a bad experience at the venue, although sold out shows can feel extremely over-cramped, and this was to be no exception. While the band are pretty popular here in the UK, they are not in danger of selling out a multi-date tour of decent-sized venues any time soon. Despite this, there was still a decent-sized crowd for a Sunday night packed onto the venue's floor (the balcony was closed off) and the good turnout helped to make for a good atmosphere without ever feeling too cramped. I managed to get down quite close the front, not something that I have managed to do at either of the last two London shows, which gave me a great view of everything that was going on throughout the evening.

The first band of the three band bill were the Texas-based progressive/doom metal act Oceans of Slumber. They only had half an hour on stage, but made a good fist of their brief slot to demonstrate their murky, technical sound with a handful of their songs. Sadly however, the sound mix was not great which meant that the intricacies of their music was totally lost. The keyboards were totally inaudible, and frontwoman Cammie Gilbert's vocals were often pretty hard to hear. She seemed to be a pretty quiet singer, and indeed talker going by her extremely brief inter-song speeches, which certainly did not help - but Dobber Beverly's extremely loud drums was the main culprit in drowning her out. This sort of poor sound is sadly still common for support acts however, and as a result I feel that I was unable to really get a proper measure of Oceans of Slumber's music - as it seems to be the sort of music that requires all of the nuances to really be heard. That being said, there were plenty of off-kilter and technical guitar and bass riffs throughout, which certainly impressed, so on the strength of these I will probably look to give the band a proper listen at some point in the future.

Up next was Myrkur, the atmospheric black metal persona of Danish musician and actress Amalie Bruun. Black metal is certainly not my favourite genre of music, and any kind of strange off-shoot of it is not likely to impress me either. Even after a day or so to reflect on Myrkur's set however, I am still not really sure what to make of her music. It is certainly atmospheric, with the guitar there mostly to create strange sonic tapestries with the liberal use of effects pedals rather than to churn out traditional riffs, which allowed Bruun to use her siren-esque voice to good effect to wail atop the dense soundscapes. The bass, and percussive drumming, provided the main driving force of the music; which made each song have quite a staccato, tribal feel. There is clearly quite a big influence from Nordic folk music in Myrkur's sound, as was made clear at the end of the set when a version of a traditional folk song was played with Bruun's voice only accompanied by drums and percussion, with plenty of wordless vocal melodies mixed into the swirling sounds. It is hard for me to form an opinion on Myrkur really, as her music is so far removed from the type of thing I usually listen to. I am glad I managed to catch her live however, as seeing different things is always an interesting and educational experience, but I cannot really say that any of what was played resonated with me in any way.

After two support acts that did not really hit the mark for numerous reasons, it was down to Epica to really put their mark on the night. They hit the stage at 9:20pm and played through until the 11pm curfew, treating the crowd to a career-spanning set that included a fair chunk of their recent album and a good selection of older numbers. The short, sharp Edge of the Blade got things off to a powerful start, with the dramatic gothic orchestrations and pin-point guitar riffing filling the venue from the off. Frontwoman Simone Simons has become one of the best female vocalists in metal in recent years, and she sounded fantastic throughout the set. Her approach is far less operatic now than it was in the band's early days, but I think this actually works in the band's favour and allows her to really power through the material. While I would say that there are some songs in the set that really could do with being dropped in favour of lesser-played ones, including the second number Sensorium which is ever-present at Epica shows, the setlist was mostly a strong representation of where Epica are at this point. The tough Fight Your Demons, from last year's EP The Solace System, was an early highlight, with Isaac Delahaye (guitar/vocals) and band leader Mark Jansen (vocals/guitars) churning out the mechanical riffs with ease as Simons owned the melodic chorus. Another early highlight was The Essence of Silence, another relatively new number, which allowed Jansen to really shine vocally with lots of devastating harsh vocals. A key facet of Epica's sound has always been the vocal interplay of Simons and Jansen, and this is one of the rare songs that sees Jansen really take the lead with some crushing verses - before the epic chorus comes along for Simons.

One thing that was apparent from my position near the stage was just how much fun the band were having up on stage. This is always the case for Epica, but being so close this was much more palpable. The band members often played each other's instruments and just generally joked around with each other a lot which was good to see. So often, bands of the symphonic and power metal genres can take themselves all-too seriously so it was refreshing to see Epica having a blast. A couple of tracks from The Holographic Principle: Dancing in a Hurricane and Universal Death Squad; made for a powerful duo as the set entered it's second half, but it was the oldie Cry for the Moon that proved to be one of the best-received songs of the night. This is another ever-present song, but it is one that allows the crowd to take part during the choruses. Everyone in attendance was singing along, including one of the security guards standing near at the front of the stage, which made for a powerful moment. The song came to a close with a short, explosive drum solo from long-time drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek and he unsurprisingly received a big cheer for his efforts. The main set came to a close with the dynamic Once Upon a Nightmare. The song starts out as a ballad, led by Coen Janssen's (keyboards) piano melodies, before building up towards a powerful conclusion. The band left the stage to chants of 'Epica', and of course it was not long before they were back for an encore. Sancta Terra and Beyond the Matrix were rolled out fairly quickly, the latter containing some excellent bass playing from Rob van der Loo, before the evening came to an epic end with the lengthy Consign to Oblivion. Simons instigated a wall of death at the song's beginning, and Jansen took the opportunity to shine with lots of lengthy growled sections. When the song was over the band took their bows to big cheers and, although the place was not sold out, the noise that came from the crowd could have fooled anyone! The setlist was:

Eidola
Edge of the Blade
Sensorium
Fight Your Demons
The Essence of Silence
Storm the Sorrow
Ascension - Dream State Armageddon
Dancing in a Hurricane
Universal Death Squad
Cry for the Moon (The Embrace that Smothers - Part IV)
Unchain Utopia
Once Upon a Nightmare
-
Sancta Terra
Beyond the Matrix
Consign to Oblivion (A New Age Dawns - Part III)

It is always great to see bands of Epica's ilk doing full UK tours rather than just the usual token headline show in London. In fairness to the Dutch band, they have usually made efforts to take in more of the country than just the capital, and I hope this continues going forward. They seem to come around twice with during each album cycle now - once during the initial tour which just covers London, and once again the following year with a proper UK tour - so there is always plenty of opportunities to see them.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Quireboys - Bristol Review

I am starting to run out of superlatives to describe The Quireboys. Since first discovering them properly back in 2013 when I caught them supporting Saxon at Nottingham's Rock City, the British rock institutions have become one of my very favourite live bands. As luck would have it, they are also one of the hardest-working bands on the current touring circuit, regularly playing shows up and down the UK. Despite only seeing the band as recently as last December, when four of the band brought their excellent unplugged set to The Hub in Plymouth, I was excited to catch the full band in Bristol supporting their latest release White Trash Blues - an album of covers of some of their favourite blues classics. This latest UK tour is the first full run of electric shows since releasing the album, so the band's setlists promised to include a few of these blues cuts alongside many of the usual Quireboys favourites. The venue for their show in Bristol was the excellent Thekla, which is an old cargo ship moored in the Mud Dock area of the city. I had previously been to the venue twice, catching Tyketto and Eclipse there last year, and had been very impressed with the venue both times. Both of those shows attracted healthy crowds and rewarded those who attended with great sound, and this concert was no different. With the doors opening fairly early, at 6:30pm, the crowd was initially a little thin on the ground, but by the time The Quireboys hit the stage at 8:30pm the boat was pretty full.

Before The Quireboys' set however, the growing crowd was treated to half an hour of heavy rock from Australian band Black Aces. Hailing from Australia, it seemed inevitable that they would contain more than a little of an AC/DC influence - and this was indeed the case as their back-to-basics hard rock proved. Fronted by Tyler Kinder (vocals/guitar), the band raced through a handful of songs with barely a pause for breath. With Kinder handling the guitar solos, Jazz Morrice (guitar/vocals) was left to hold down the rhythms - which he did with ease as he smashed out those big open chord riffs to drive the band forward. While Black Aces' sound was not all that varied, or indeed all that original, they were full of energy and impressed throughout with many of their simple choruses staying the memory after they had left the stage. The Quireboys have not always had the best support bands at the gigs of theirs that I have attended, but Black Aces were certainly enjoyable and garnered a decent reaction from the crowd as they left the stage.

After half an hour or so's break, The Quireboys took the stage to little fanfare and immediately launched into the sleazy blues rock of Too Much of a Good Thing. While this has become a setlist staple for the band in recent years, this was the first time I had heard it used as a set opener. It worked really well in this position however, and proved to be the first big sing-a-long of the evening, with the ever-smiling frontman Spike often holding out the microphone to the crowd during the choruses. Speaking of Spike, the man was on top form despite wearing a medical boot along with his usual gypsy rock 'n' roll attire. He seemed in his usual good spirits despite this obvious setback, and joked with the band and crowd throughout as usual. Misled followed, with Keith Weir's (keyboards/vocals) big piano solo, before the old blues classic Going Down was wheeled out. This was the first of three blues standards of the night, all of which rocked and really allowed the band's two guitarists - Guy Griffin and Paul Guerin - to show off their skills with multiple solos. Despite the rest of the set consisting of many of the band's usual favourites, there were still a few surprises thrown in. It was good to see that the swampy romp Gracie B retain its place in the set. The song is quite different from the band's usual riff-driven feel, and the darker piece was an early highlight with lots of great organ playing from Weir. Mona Lisa Smiled, despite being omnipresent, was another real highlight. Spike sings the song with such passion and emotion that it is hard to not get drawn in to him. It provoked a big reaction from the crowd, as did the lesser-played number Hello that was wheeled out not too long after. I had only ever heard the band play this song during their acoustic shows before, so it was great to hear the full band version. The simple chorus was really latched onto by the crowd, and it became an unexpected hit in what was otherwise a fairly hard-rocking set. The other breather was the band's biggest ballad I Don't Love You Anymore, which has become one of my favourite power ballads ever, which definitely was one of the best-received songs of the night. The choruses saw Spike often being drowned out vocally, and again both guitarists had chances to solo as the song was dragged out for an extended instrumental outro. Another lesser played number The Finer Stuff got a welcome airing, before many real favourites, including the boogie hair metal of Tramps and Thieves and the band's biggest hit Hey You, seeing plenty of movement aboard the ship. Slim Harpo's I'm a King Bee gave the band a final chance to show their bluesy credentials, before Spike whipped his harmonica out of his pocket to play the main set out with a stomping version of the barroom classic 7 O'Clock. There were of course howls for more, and the band obliged by coming back out for a couple more. Both songs in the encore were from the band's much-hailed 1990 debut album. Spike's 'country honk' of Sweet Mary Ann was the last time for a real sing, before the down and dirty Sex Party gave everybody one last chance to rock, as the band crashed to a triumphant finish. The setlist was:

Too Much of a Good Thing
Misled
Going Down [Freddie King cover]
There She Goes Again
Gracie B
Leaving Trunk [Taj Mahal cover]
Mona Lisa Smiled
This is Rock 'n' Roll
Hello
I Don't Love You Anymore
The Finer Stuff
Tramps and Thieves
Hey You
I'm a King Bee [Slim Harpo cover]
7 O'Clock
-
Sweet Mary Ann
Sex Party

This was my twelfth time seeing The Quireboys, and they were as good as ever. I do not think that the band are capable of putting on a bad show, and I am already looking forward to catching them again in the summer at Steelhouse Festival.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Myles Kennedy's 'Year of the Tiger' - Album Review

Since forming the American hard rock juggernauts Alter Bridge with three members of the then recently-broken up Creed in 2003, Myles Kennedy has become known as one of the best modern rock vocalists. While he had been active in bands throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly with the alternative rock band The Mayfield Four, he was catapulted to almost instant fame with Alter Bridge. The band's sophomore album, 2007's Blackbird, has almost become a true rock classic; and they have continued to release well-received albums fairly regularly since. While still struggling to truly break into the big leagues in their native America, over here in Europe Alter Bridge are a big deal. The band have been filling arenas in the UK for the past few years, and their popularity only seems to be increasing. I am sure that it is only a matter of time before they are headlining the continent's biggest rock festivals - and this would be an honour well deserved. Kennedy has also been singing in Guns N' Roses' guitarist Slash's solo band since 2010, and has co-written two studio albums with the top hat-wearing axeman. While his work with Alter Bridge has brought his music to a younger audience, his work with Slash has also made older rockers take notice of talents. It is no exaggeration to state that he is probably one of the most well-known modern frontmen in rock, both for his likeable stage presence and his extremely powerful voice. While remaining extremely busy over the past few years with both Alter Bridge and Slash, Kennedy has always spoken of the wish to record and release a solo album. Various reports have surfaced over the years which claimed he was working on one, but nothing concrete was ever confirmed. This was the case until a few months ago, when Kennedy announced that his long-awaited debut solo album Year of the Tiger was to be released in March 2018. He had often hinted that the album would be quite different to the work he was known for with both Alter Bridge and Slash, and the album's first single proved this to be the case. In contrast to the modern, sleek hard rock of Alter Bridge, and the sleazy classic rock of Slash's solo work, Year of the Tiger is a more stripped-back affair, packed with lots of blues and classic 'singer-songwriter' tropes. While not exactly an 'acoustic' album, acoustic instruments feature prominently throughout and this allowed Kennedy's vocals - quieter than usual but no less powerful - to really shine. Thematically, this is a very personal album for Kennedy as it deals with the feelings surrounding his father's death in 1974. Kennedy tells the tale of how his deeply-religious father refused medical treatment for a serious illness in the belief that God would save him. Kennedy questions this mindset throughout the twelve songs on Year of the Tiger, as well as lamenting on his father's passing and all of the dark feelings that naturally go with that kind of subject matter.

The album opens in a laid-back bluesy way with the acoustic-based title track. Kennedy, who plays all of the album's guitars, strums the main melodies on his acoustic guitar; all while adding in some mandolin lines above; while a percussive stomp is added by Zia Uddin - who plays all of the drums and percussion instruments throughout. In many respects, this song is a microcosm for the rest of the album, and sees Kennedy clearly setting out his stall for the following 50 or so minutes of music. He instantly manages to distance himself from his main band with the warm, acoustic stylings of the piece - but Alter Bridge fans will recognise his powerful vocals from the off. He sings this song with his usual power, something which is not always the case throughout Year of the Tiger, which helps to add some early grit. The Great Beyond is one of the album's highlights for me, as it takes on an immediately much darker tone, complete with a dramatic string section. This is probably the song on this album which is closest in sound to Alter Bridge, with tremolo-picked guitar leads and a few high-pitched vocal wails from the man himself. While not a heavy track, the dark tone throughout reminds me of some of Alter Bridge's songs, and the powerful string section really bring the best out what would otherwise be some very simple melodies. After such a dramatic track hitting early on, Blind Faith definitely helps bring the album back down to earth with a really organic acoustic blues sound that, in parts, sounds like something that could have been recorded in the 1930s - albeit with modern production qualities. There is an abundance of slide guitar work throughout this piece, which helps to reinforce the bluesy hallmarks. While the song does slowly build up, with slow-paced percussive drum beats helping to fill the piece out later on, it never looses its acoustic heart. A simple chorus is probably the first real earworm of the album, while the continued use of slide guitar also helps the song to stick. Devil on the Wall is similar, and sticks with the delta blues feel of the previous number. It starts off slow and murky, but soon explodes into a real rocker with Uddin's driving drums and a big wall of acoustic guitars. Despite being an energetic number this is not a heavy rock track, although electric guitars do make an appearance to add colour and a few subtle leads throughout. The acoustic instruments still dominate. This is a song I can imagine working really well in a live setting, with a crowd really moving to the upbeat rhythms and powerful chorus.

Ghost of Shangri La is a much sparser song which contrasts with the rockier elements of the preceding couple of numbers. Kennedy makes use of plenty of guitar leads throughout, which provide the main melodic focus of the piece while the drums provide a shuffling beat beneath. Looking at the album's cover, with Kennedy playing his resonator guitar all shrouded in black, this is exactly the sort of song I was expecting to hear. Despite his big rock credentials, Kennedy proves he is more than adept at the 'singer songwriter' stuff, and this piece of bluegrass is evidence of that. Turning Stones is another understated piece, with Kennedy adopting an uncharacteristic mumble to his voice, which works well in conjunction with the atmospheric guitar melodies and the prominent bass playing from Tim Tournier. While he opens up vocally during certain parts of the song, for the most part he really goes into his shell. This is very different from his usual style, and I feel that anyone with any pre-conceived ideas of what Kennedy should sound like vocally will get a shock when listening to him here! Haunted by Design is similar to the album's title track, with a bluesy stomp that allows Kennedy to spread his wings vocally while plucking out a simple guitar melody. There is a bit more darkness here however, which manifests itself in some strange guitar swells - which contrasts nicely with what otherwise seems like quite an upbeat track. The drum pattern is quite jaunty, and the song has an upbeat folk rock feel, but the creeping darkness throughout creates an interesting unease. Mother is quite a dense song with quite a lot going on throughout. Many of the songs here have quite uncluttered mixes, with simple melodies, but this song is built of layers that all fit nicely together to form a warm whole. There are leads throughout that sound like they come from a banjo, and walls of acoustic guitar fit together to provide a rich tapestry for Kennedy's slightly tortured-sounding vocals. For a song that talks about the love of his mother, which you may expect to be a more touching ballad, this strange song feels somewhat at odds with it's subject matter. It still just about works however, and feels like something unique.

Nothing But a Name is another standout track for me, and features what is probably the best vocal performance on the album. From gentle vocal lines to piercing screams, this is a song that shows just what a great vocalist Kennedy is. The verses see him at his most gentle, with him singing atop a simple guitar and drum pattern, whereas the tougher choruses really see him let rip with some big harmonised notes. This is also the song which seems to deal with the album's core subject matter the most vividly, and as such the lyrics are extremely powerful and poignant. Kennedy has become known for his emotionally-charged lyrics through his work with Alter Bridge, but this is probably one of his best in that regard so far. Love Can Only Heal feels like the antidote to the previous number, and has the feel of a true ballad with some gorgeous guitar melodies throughout and a very heartfelt vocal performance. While there is a slight percussive stomp throughout, for the most part this song features just Kennedy with his guitars. Layers of guitar sounds are created throughout, along with some keyboards courtesy of producer Michael 'Elvis' Baskette, which help to build up to a rich whole. Towards the end of the song, Kennedy lays down some beautiful wordless vocals which really help to carry the melodies of the piece perfectly. This is another song I can see working really well live, with a crowd taking over for the wordless vocal sections. Songbird returns to what I feel is the album's 'core' sound, with a percussive sound and Kennedy's upbeat guitar lines driving the song with a strong folk feel. The chorus feels like something that Alter Bridge might use for one of their ballads, and in fact the whole song has a slightly Alter Bridge-like feel throughout. There is certainly more of a traditional rock ballad feel here, with more 'normal' sounding drums as opposed to the more hollow feel that is often present throughout the album. It is another standout piece for me, and is packed with one of the most memorable choruses here. The closing number, One Fine Day, is a simple little song which seems to close a fairly dark and emotionally charged album on a lighter note. The chiming acoustic guitar lines really jump out of the speakers and compliment Kennedy's lighter vocal performance. While the song does build as it moves along, the simple acoustic feel never truly leaves. As a result it is a really nice closing chapter to this album, and helps to alleviate some of the darkness throughout. Overall, Year of the Tiger is a really strong first solo effort from Kennedy that deals with some pretty deep emotional issues while still being melodically accessible. It is always great when a musician's solo project is pretty different from their day job, and this is exactly the case with this album.

The album was released on 9th March 2018 via Napalm Records. Below is Kennedy's promotional video for Year of the Tiger.