Friday, 28 December 2012


Okay, so here's something different - a guest post at

Off the Tracks is a good site with a million more hits than mine, and it's author has kindly linked Radio Nowhere on his facebook page and on his blog, so please help me return the favour by clicking the link above. Also, check out his book, On Song.

And in case you're wondering what it is about, it's about this...

Tragedy - Hanoi Rocks

Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) - Digable Planets

A More Perfect Union - Titus Andronicus

Livin' In The Future - Bruce Springsteen

Hold On - Alabama Shakes

Thursday, 15 November 2012

REVIEW - On Song by Simon Sweetman

A beautifully presented discussion of twenty nine of the finest songs to 
ever come out of New Zealand, and a track by Scribe.

TITLE: On Song - Stories Behind New Zealand's Pop Classics
TOPIC: Classic New Zealand pop songs
AUTHOR: Simon Sweetman
RELEASED: October 2012

There probably won't be a lot of coverage of New Zealand music on this blog, but the recent release of NZ blogger/music journalist Simon (Blog on the Tracks) Sweetman’s  first book, On Song, seems like an opportunity to acknowledge both an excellent book, and some of the best songs you could ever wish to hear.

Ostensibly musings on thirty songs that the author is at pains to point out do not constitute any sort of definitive list of kiwi classics, On Song is a 250 page hardback that’s too in-depth to be classed a ‘coffee-table’ book, but beautifully presented enough to warrant a fairly hefty price-tag.

The Way I Feel - Jan Hellriegel

The writing itself is not at all lightweight, but the book is an easy read, consisting of thirty short pieces and a handful of artist profiles, and likely to be consumed in pieces rather than read cover-to-cover. Apart from a brief introduction, there’s no particular attempt to force the songs together under any naff common theme, which is probably good, as creating any artificial linkages between such a diverse range of tunes would do the artists in question, and New Zealand music in general, a great injustice. Having said that, Sweetman's approach to each tune is insightful and there are plenty of recurring themes that readers themselves will be able to filter through their own experiences of New Zealand music, granting the book enough coherence to be considered a work in full, not simply a collection of articles.

Jesus I Was Evil - Darcy Clay

The selections themselves are largely uncontroversial. Sure, there are a couple of bands missing that the reader might feel deserve inclusion, and a couple of song choices that might seem unusual (I’m not convinced that if left to choose one Split Enz song, it would be Spellbound) – but that’s the author’s prerogative, and certainly there is nothing eyeball-rollingly out of place. Indeed, the less-obvious inclusions are the book’s best moments in some respects, gently reminding the reader of all the great music that sits outside the Flying Nun/Finn Brothers dichotomy. The willingness to include a couple of more recent (Lawrence Arabia), less heralded (Space Waltz) and downright unfashionable (Scribe) acts is laudable too.  Sweetman may be a notoriously opinionated blogger, but On Song is an inclusive book, as anything with the word ‘pop’ in the title really ought to be.

Slice of Heaven - Dave Dobbyn w/ Herbs

If there’s a missed opportunity, it’s that it might have been nice to supplement the author’s and composers’ views on each song with a few choice quotes from other acts. Sweetman opines on the influence of certain artists and songs, but hearing it straight from the horses’ mouths might have been fascinating. Given the book’s layout, such an approach would have been easily accommodated and would have provided further insights into the evolution of New Zealand pop music and the minds behind its greatest moments.

Pink Frost - The Chills

However, all the selections are well researched - many the result of interviews with the composers - and none are anything short of interesting. And, if a book on music is to be judged on the extent to which it makes you want to visit or revisit the subject matter, then On Song is certainly a success.

But seriously dude, what about Trippin'?!


Don't Dream It's Over-Crowded House/Gutter Black-Hello Sailor/How Bizarre-OMC/For Today-Netherworld Dancing Toys/Anything Could Happen-The Clean/Counting The Beat-The Swingers/Slice of Heaven-Dove Dobbyn feat. Herbs/E Ipo-Prince Tui Teka/Not Given Lightly-Chris Knox/Pink Forst-The Chills/A Thing Well Made-The Mutton Birds/Death and the Maiden-The Verlaines/The Beautiful Young Crew-Lawrence Arabia/(Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy-Shona Laing/She Speeds-Straightjacket Fits/The Way I Feel-Jan Hellriegel/Drive-Bic Runga/In The Morning-Anika Moa/System Virtue-Emma Paki/In the Neighbourhood-Sisters Underground/Chains-DLT feat. Che Fu/Victoria-The Dance Exponents/French Letter-Herbs/Screems from tha Old Plantation-King Kapisi/Not Many-Scribe/Out on the Street-Space Waltz/Can't Get Enough-Supergroove/Nature-The Fourmyula/Jesus I Was Evil-Darcy Clay/Spellbound-Split Enz

Trippin' - Push Push

Saturday, 27 October 2012


ARTIST: Slayer
ALBUM: Reign In Blood
RELEASED: October 1986

Angel of Death/Piece by Piece/Necrophobic/Altar of Sacrifice/Jesus Saves/
Criminally Insane/Reborn/Epidemic/Postmortem/Raining Blood

An album needn’t be the best example of something to be deemed a classic, nor even the first to do what it does, but it has to have captured the imagination, and somehow proved itself to be ‘important’.

And important is basically how one might best describe Slayer’s Reign in Blood. Revered as one of the definitive moments in thrash metal,[1] and even as the greatest metal album of all time by some, Reign in Blood is without a doubt a very good album. However, it is not the greatest heavy metal album ever made. Nor it is the best trash album ever released. In fact, it’s not even the best Slayer album (Paranoid, Rust In Peace, South of Heaven, before you ask).

What it is, however, is a stone-cold classic, respected by metal-heads and (somewhat amazingly) mainstream critics alike.

Raining Blood

Raining blood from a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood 

1985-86 was the golden era of thrash metal, with all the genre’s major players peaking within a year or so of each other. There was Metallica’s epic Master of Puppets, Megadeth’s vitriolic Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? and Anthrax’s personality packed Spreading the Disease (if it sounds like I'm damning Anthrax with faint praise it's only because I don't think they were that good). Throw in an endless stream of underground classics also released during that period and it's hard to imagine a single album setting itself apart so thoroughly as Reign in Blood seems to have in the eyes of many.

But it did. How?

Music isn't a competition for me. I certainly think some bands are better than other similar acts, but I'd never argue that is what defines them. Pearl Jam are good because they're good, not because they happen to be a shitload better than Creed. However, there has always been a tendency amongst metal fans to try to quantitatively assess the speed, heaviness and musicianship of bands - to rank and define them. The thrash scene was defined in part by being heavier than the hair-metal scene. Motorhead were defined in part by being faster than Black Sabbath. Reign in Blood holds its place in people's hearts because established wisdom has it as being faster, heavier and darker than anything that came before it.

Thing is though, it really wasn't. Sure, it was darker and harder than anything the other 'Big 4' bands were doing at the time, and sure it was played so fast the final recordings of the ten songs set for inclusion clocked in at less than 29 minutes. Its solos are abrasive squalls, it’s lyrics are uncompromisingly unpleasant. It’s a distillation of what thrash metal set out to be. But was it really that much heavier than what was happening at the time? I'd argue not.

Angel of Death

Apart from anything else, fellow first-wave thrash band Exodus's 1985 release Bonded by Blood is arguably every bit as heavy, as were European releases of the same year from the likes of Kreator and Celtic Frost. And besides, the sort of extremity in evidence on a mid-80s thrash album has long been put in the shade by proponents of death-metal, black-metal and the like – so why did Reign in Blood have such an impact at the time, and why has it endured?

A big part of it I think is Rick Rubin's production. Reign in Blood just sounds good, and in this genre at that time, that was a big deal. Early to mid-80s metal bands pushing the envelope were doing so on a shoe-string budget, with producers, engineers and equipment often ill-suited to realizing their visions. Many of the great early thrash and death metal albums suffered from horribly chaotic productions, with little or no low-end, poorly mixed vocals and guitars that sounded more like angry bees than hammers of the gods. Of course, this was all part of the genre's underground charm, but it diluted the intensity of the music. What set Reign in Blood apart was a clean, clear precise sound that, perhaps for the first time, truly captured a thrash-metal band in full flight. Quite a calling card for a producer who had previously produced the Beastie Boys and would go on to work with everyone from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Johnny Cash.

For all respect you cannot lust 
In an invisible man you place your trust
Indirect dependency
Eternal attempt at amnesty

That's not all of course. Working within their limitations (with the exception of drummer Dave Lombardo, no member of Slayer is particularly noteworthy as a musician), Slayer released an album of singular focus. On the one hand, playing as fast as you can for the sake of it, and being as offensive as you can be for the fun of it, may be a terribly self-indulgent approach to making music, but the fact is that Reign in Blood is otherwise an extremely restrained album in its way. There's nothing superfluous in sound or arrangements, no riff that overstays its welcome, no hooks that are fallen back on one too many times. Just what needed playing, played fast.

My rage will be unleashed again
Burning the next morn
Death means nothing there is no end
I will be reborn

Ultimately Reign in Blood sounds like nothing that came before, and an awful lot that came since. The squalling solos. The chaotic bursts of speed that crash headlong into inexorable, juddering grooves. The disjointed lyrics that sound like some sort of demented haiku. The shouted, hardcore-style vocal approach. There’s a little bit of Reign in Blood in half the metal albums made after 1986, from the death metal genre (pretty much in its entirety) through to Pantera and more contemporary acts such as Slipknot. For as great as some of the bands it influenced are though, its hard not to listen to Reign in Blood and feel that, no matter how fast or how heavy they may be, those acts are a dilution of something that had already been done.

Criminally Insane
At their best, that was what separated Slayer from the pack, and what makes this album a classic. It’s a distillation of everything its genre was about and a foundation for much of what was to come. In a genre often vilified for self-indulgence, it’s an album that carries no fat. 1988s South of Heaven was better. It was more nuanced, more varied, and it rewards repeated listening far more thoroughly. However, it’s not nearly as pure a statement of intent. 

But then, very few albums in any genre ever have been.

 Get Thrashed - Documentary

Raining Blood - Tori Amos

Next Edition: A golden god across the water.

[1] Thrash metal could be a blog post in its own right, but for the uninitiated, it was a sub-genre of metal that first flourished in the early-mid 80s. Building on the work of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motorhead and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, bands sought to develop a faster, more aggressive sound influenced in part by the simultaneous evolution of hardcore punk. Thrash would take hold in the mid-80s as the established alternative to more pop-focused hard rock of Motley Crue et al. A remarkably well-defined genre that most notably flourished in California, New York and Germany, most proponents were quite happy to self-identify as being thrash. It was led by a well-defined big 4 consisting of Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. For an excellent documentary (one of the best I've seen on any scene/genre), check out Get Thrashed.

Monday, 9 April 2012

REVIEW - Blues Funeral - Mark Lanegan Band

There are no surprises on Mark Lanegan's excellent new solo album, unless you've previously failed to notice that guy from the Screaming Trees quietly becoming one of the best singer-songwriters of his era.

ARTIST: Mark Lanegan Band
ALBUM: Blues Funeral
RELEASED: February 2012

The Gravedigger's Song/Bleeding Muddy Water/Gray Goes Black/
St. Louis Elegy/Riot in My House/Ode to Sad Disco/
Phantasmagoria Blues/Quiver Syndrome/Harborview Hospital/Leviathan/
Deep Black Vanishing Train/Tiny Grain of Truth

There is, it would seem, some justice in the world after all.

It can't have always seemed that way for Mark Lanegan though. In the early 90s, his band the Screaming Trees were repeatedly labeled the next big thing. On the back of albums like Uncle Anesthesia and Sweet Oblivion there was an assumption that they would follow Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Nirvana and Pearl Jam to the top of the grunge heap. That they never did must have been disappointing for Lanegan. That he had to watch the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, and even Candlebox steal what might have been his thunder must have been frustrating beyond words. But so it was to be, with any hopes for the Screaming Trees' excellent final album Dust inevitably crushed under the weight of shifting trends and an imploding band.

With Lanegan caught in the grips of some fairly serious narcotic habits, it could have all ended there, with vague memories of an also-ran band and another tragic hero for Generation X . Fortunately, Lanegan harnessed his demons tightly enough to avoid becoming a footnote. Instead he transformed himself into a singer-songwriter and voice for hire, releasing a string of solo albums and undertaking collaborations with the likes of Greg Dulli (of the Afghan Whigs), Isobel Campbell (of Belle and Sebastian) and Queens of the Stoneage.

However, while the last decade was primarily spent jumping from one project to the next, nothing cemented Lanegan as a songwriter and performer more than his last solo effort, 2004's sublime Bubblegum. It was an album as good as any released in the last decade, and it saw justice done as Lanegan stepped out of the shadows of his more successful peers and into the role of a critically acclaimed solo artist.

The release of Lanegan's first solo album since that career defining moment is therefore cause for considerable interest. Certainly more interest than anything Gavin Rossdale of Bush might have done in the last ten years (Gwen Stefani notwithstanding).

Bleeding Muddy Water

In a lot of respects, Blues Funeral is Bubblegum II. It's another slice of gothic Americana, with the same blend of maudlin musings and more upbeat rock n roll moments and and the same inimitable baritone. If you liked that one, you'll probably like this one, and if it's not quite as good, then that can be forgiven, as very little is. Taken on its own merits however, this is an undeniably excellent album.

At 47 years old, with a voice that can make anything sound profound and a knack for crafting lyrics that navigate some fairly dark territory, Lanegan could have eased his way through a mature, slow-burning album and it would have been a fine release. However, part of what made Bubblegum so great was Lanegan's willingness to regress (if one could strip the negative connotations from that word) to his grungy roots and introduce a little bit of punkish vigor to proceedings. On Blues Funeral Lanegan again proves that one of his greatest strengths is his ability to draw on his ragged rock past in the same way Nick Cave's best work will sometimes draw on the anarchic fury that was the Birthday Party's stock in trade. So it is that opener The Gravedigger's Song underpins a tale of biblically bad romantic entanglement with a throbbing baseline and guitar squalls that border on the psychedelic. It's not rocket-science, but it's a lot more engaging than your average 'man and his acoustic guitar' scenario.

The Gravedigger's Song

Of course, it's not that more rocking tracks such as the Cult-like Riot In My House are necessarily the best things on the album - early highlight Bleeding Muddy Water eases into a timeless, folky drone that owes little to Lanegan's rock heritage. It's simply that variety, and the convincing manner in which that variety is delivered, is such an important part of what Lanegan does on his solo albums, if not always in his collaborations with other artists.

Quiver Syndrome

The result is an album that's more exciting than Lanegan's recent (and still well worth investigating) collaborations with Isobel Campbell and it's ultimately hard to imagine fans will be disappointed by anything other than how long it has been since he set sail under his own flag. That said, Blues Funeral not as revelatory as Bubblegum was. There's nothing new here save for a horribly cliched title and some reasonably tasteful electronica inflections. Otherwise, it's really just more of the same from Lanegan. However, while countless other Morrison-esque rock frontmen have threatened to make albums like this over the years, Lanegan hasn't threatened, or wavered, he's simply delivered great music. Again. 

Regardless of the circuitous root his career has taken, and despite the disappointments he may have experienced, Blues Funeral once and for all proves Mark Lanegan deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Nick Cave and Tom Waits – accomplished, established, and finally getting his due.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

REVIEW - A Different Kind of Truth - Van Halen

Just when you thought it was safe to reintegrate the M&Ms! Better than might have been reasonable to expect, and sure to make the fans happy.

ARTIST: Van Halen
ALBUM: A Different Kind Of Truth
RELEASED: February 2012

Tattoo/She's The Woman/You and Your Blues/China Town/Blood and Fire/
Bullethead/As Is/Honeybabysweetiedoll/The Trouble With Never/
Outta Space/Stay Frosty/Big River/Beats Workin'

Told ya I was comin' back...
Say ya missed me...
Say it like ya mean it!

If ever an album was all about the numbers it's A Different Kind Of Truth. It is, after all, the first Van Halen album in 14 years and the first Van Halen album with David Lee Roth in 28 years.

There's a group of music fans (and a fairly big group at that), for whom these facts are a BIG DEAL. The original Van Halen lineup were the definitive California party band of the late 70s and early/mid 80s, and despite their subsequent success with Sammy Hagar on vocals, there's not a Van Halen fan that hasn't imagined the return of David Lee Roth every day since 1985. Just look at the 10 million copies their last album together sold, or the public response to their first public appearance together in 11 years at the MTV music awards (in 1996, a ludicrous 16 years and one awful album with Gary Cherone before the reunion would finally bear fruit).

Believe me, David Lee Roth has worn far worse outfits than that.

Apart from anything else, it is exciting to find Eddie Van Halen's inimitable guitar (actually imitated by everyone and their dog since 1980) and Roth's over the top persona in the same place once more. It's a combination that gave the band a uniqueness and personality they could never recapture with Hagar, and it's almost surreal to hear them paired up again after so many years, and so many false starts.

And while it would be fair to suggest he may have lost a step or two over the years, Eddie sounds nothing like the sad, drunken mess he appeared to be for much of the last decade. That alone will make A Different Kind of Truth a winning proposition for some, and it's certainly a thrill to hear the man playing again. Likewise, it's a treat to hear Roth back at the top level after a fairly underwhelming two decades of diminishing solo returns. The voice is a little strained, an it's impossible to hide the fact that Roth is not a young man anymore, but there's enough of what once was to fire the memories of anyone who cares.

And the lyrics? They're ridiculous, but as a lyricist Roth has always had a talent for the stoopid (as in, dumb fun) where Hagar was too often guilty of the stupid (as in, this bullshit right here). Sure, by not inviting original bassist Michael Anthony back into the fold, they've lost the distinctive backing vocals that were arguably his biggest contribution to the band, but at the end of the day, this is still clearly and utterly a Van Halen album.

You and Your Blues

It doesn't entirely gel though. The songs are a mixed bag, both across the album and even within themselves. There's nothing truly awful, bar perhaps the cringe inducing chorus of opener Tattoo, but things don't always flow as well as they might. Sure, it sounds great at any given moment, but too many of the tracks fail to equal the sum of their parts, the transitions a little awkward, the writing apparently a little rusty.

Maybe this shouldn't be surprising however. For as many great moments as the classic Van Halen line-up had, they were never the greatest song writers. Excepting the odd true gem, much of their best material was carried by Roth's personality and Eddie's revolutionary playing – often slammed together, rather molded with any great craftsmanship. Both those pieces of the puzzle are in place, but time and context have drained some of the x factor. Tellingly too, a number of tracks have been built upon dusted off demos from the band's golden era. It's a connection with the past they're trying to recapture, but also evidence inspiration may have been thin on the ground.

(they must have spend dozens on this video - and yes, it doesn't synch up very well, does it?)

Another fly in the ointment is the production job undertaken by the band in conjunction with John Shanks. Where the classic Van Halen albums had a simple, spacious sound, A Different Kind of Truth has a thick, full, modern production that gives the whole affair a cluttered, busy feel and generic sheen. There seems to have been a desire to rock harder than ever, but Van Halen were always about more than the low-end rumble, and the net result sometimes sounds worryingly like Eddie Van Halen playing on a Godsmack record. It's hard to understand why a band so clearly set upon recapturing their glory days wouldn't have called on Ted Templeman, the producer of their classic Roth-era albums

Blood and Fire

Ultimately though, this is an enjoyable album, and the fans it is targeting will no doubt contentedly crank it to ten and marvel at the fact it even exists. It's far better than one might have expected, but it's also hard to imagine it being in heavy rotation three or four months from now when the thrill of the new has diminished.