There have been quite a few releases coming into my inbox, my mailbox and hard drive these last four or so months. Some are new and great studio releases by the likes of Washed Out, David Bowie, and Clutch, while others are worthy reissues I just had to seek out (the deluxe editions of The Postal Service’s Give Up, and Smashing Pumpkins’ The Aeroplane Flies High). Picking which to write about wasn’t easy, but I’ve decided to do a round-up of reviews, something I haven’t done since my college days. It will feature releases in the hard rock/heavy metal department. So without any further delay, here are some full-lengths I think are worth checking out.
Saxon – Sacrifice
Though not nearly as celebrated and popular as Iron Maiden, Saxon is well respected in the world of heavy metal, having been one of the most successful bands to come out of the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) movement of the 1980s, especially in their native England. With Sacrifice, their 20th studio album, these metal vets have taken on a new, refreshing ferocity, with heavier and faster songs than recent full-lengths like 2011′s more hard rock-based Call to Arms.
Key tracks include the blistering title track (which lyrically pays tribute to the ancient Mayan/South American cultures), the badass, double-kick drum-fueled ”Warriors of the Road,” and “Guardians of the Tomb.” The record will at times remind many fans why Saxon was such a big inspiration to thrash metal icons like Megadeth. After Clutch’s Earth Rocker, this is my favorite hard rock/metal record of the year so far.
Dust – Dust/Hard Attack [Sony Legacy Edition]
Every heavy metal fan can tell you the long list of English groups that started the genre or were highly influential to it: Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Beatles (“Helter Skelter”), Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, Queen (“Ogre Battle,” “Stone Cold Crazy,” “Brighton Rock”), Budgie, Judas Priest, etc. But tracing the American origins of the heavy metal sound gets a little bit harder after initially listing Jimi Hendrix and bands like Mountain and Blue Cheer. Not well known are hard rockin’ groups from Brooklyn like Sir Lord Baltimore and Dust, a band that issued just two albums in 1971 and 1972 before members moved on to bigger success.
If there’s one thing I love more than discovering great new music, it’s discovering great old music – songs or albums that were either overlooked, under-appreciated lost gems, or previously never released. And so, to my great surprise, I received the re-mastered, re-released CD compilation of Dust’s only two albums, 1971′s self-titled debut and the following year’s Hard Attack not too long ago. This group’s output has gotten new exposure courtesy of Sony’s Legacy Recordings label, and it is a true gem that can no longer be considered “lost.”
Influenced by The Beatles, and recalling a healthy mix of other influential peers, including Sabbath, The Who, and Mountain at different times, these two records sound like a product from its time but are still highly solid releases featuring an impressive display of talent and songwriting depth by a group of young musicians. Keep in mind that the loud and explosive drumming comes from one Marc Bell (aka Marky Ramone), who was just 16 years old in 1972!
“Love Me Hard” (1971) definitely hits hard and heavy like “Paranoid,” “Chasin’ Ladies” (1971) starts out like “Mississippi Queen”-era Mountain before carving out its own aggressive direction, and “All in All” from Hard Attack is a first-class rocker with a killer, groove-rock instrumental midsection and guitar solo. It should be a staple on FM classic rock radio. Another highlight from that album is the slow and slightly psychedelic long jam, “From A Dry Camel,” one that stoner rock/Sabbath fans will surely appreciate. Elsewhere, though not my cup of tea, the Paul McCartney influence is apparent on the light and strings-aided number, “How Many Horses.”
It’s a shame that a power trio that featured future Ramones drummer Marky Ramone, future Kiss producer Richie Wise (here on lead vocals/guitars), and future in-demand bassist/pedal and steel guitarist Kenny Aaronson (Bob Dylan, Billy Idol and Brian Setzer) didn’t get properly recognized for such astonishing recording achievements as these, especially at such a young age. Hopefully, this year’s re-release of these two releases will change that. Without question, it is one of 2013′s very best reissues.
Dio – Magica [Deluxe Edition]
Good versus evil. Wizards and spells. The tragic loss of a wise elder. The youth as hero and savior of his world. These themes are all incorporated by the late, great Ronnie James Dio into a PG-rated, easy to follow sci-fi concept album called Magica. Originally released in 2000, Dio’s plan was to eventually make a trilogy of albums, but other projects, and touring with (non-Ozzy) members of Sabbath as the band Heaven and Hell, took precedence. But then tragically, he passed away in 2010 from stomach cancer, and thus, the world lost one of it’s most gifted singers of this or any era.
The 2013 deluxe edition of the album is a 2CD package consisting of the original album on CD1, while CD2 contains several live tracks and what was left of the Magica sessions, which wasn’t much. “Electra” was recorded for “Magica 2 & 3″ according to the back of the CD package, but other than that, the only other extras are a previously released Japanese edition-only bonus track, “Annica” and “The Magica Story,” as narrated by Dio himself.
Musically, the album isn’t groundbreaking but is a treat, with cinematic strings warming over the sound barrier on “Magica Theme” before they give way to the midtempo metallic pulses and guitars (courtesy of Craig Goldy) of “Lord of the Last Day.” The overall feel of the album is definitely old school ’80s metal, but with modern production. “Eriel” (also the name of one of the story’s main characters) has the familiar “Holy Diver” rhythm down pat, but the true highlight is the long, dark, and rather quiet first half of the metal ballad, ”As Long As It’s Not About Love.” With minimal instrumentation and some reverb, Dio’s vocals soar so powerfully – before the full band kicks in – that you may get a bit emotional just listening to that enormous voice of his and how much you miss it. In all, Magica is not Dio’s very best, but a worthy addition to your collection if you consider yourself a longtime fan.
ASG – Blood Drive
This North Carolina band’s fourth album is also their first for Relapse Records. While guitar tuning-wise, they are as heavy as fellow stoner rock/metal bands like The Sword and fellow Tar Heel state icons Corrosion of Conformity, Blood Drive isn’t as intense or aggressive as those two – “Hawkeye” aside. Instead, it blends radio-ready choruses (see “Scrappy’s Trip,” the Torche-eque “Stargazin,” and the title track) with its brand of heavy, southern hard rock/metal. But they are not a one-trick pony. (This is a band that names the likes of Ween, Queens of the Stone Age, and the aforementioned Torche as influences.)
The gloomy-then-loud “Earthwalk” and the slow “Blues for Bama,” with its cold, dark and low-key vocals and overall sound, stand out from the pack, as does the lovely finger-picked acoustic parts of the otherwise driving, powerhouse rock of “Children’s Music,” and album closer ”Good Enough to Eat.” The latter features a mandolin and sounds as if Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees/Mad Season) is singing lead vocals, and therefore is my personal favorite. Overall, this isn’t a release that will revolutionize hard rock, but for those looking for southern hard rock that is heavy, loud and accessible without being bland, you might dig this CD.