Clutch – Sunrise On Slaughter Beach review

Clutch are one of the most consistent and hard working bands in rock and roll. The Maryland Stoner Rock outfit released their thirteenth full-length studio album, Sunrise On Slaughter Beach, in 2022. It was produced by Tom Dalgety (Ghost, Royal Blood, Pixies) and released on the band’s own Weathermaker Music.

I think its fair to say Clutch have never made a bad album, and although some albums are more popular than others, if you like Clutch you are probably in for the long haul, enjoying something off of each of their varied but always distinctly Clutch-sounding albums. Sunrise On Slaughter Beach is a great album. I mean, of course it is, it’s a Clutch album, that almost goes without saying, you know you are going to get a couple of songs you’ll remember for the rest of your life, a load of clever quirky memorable lyrics, some cool guitar/bass lines that get stuck in your head for weeks and exceptional drumming beyond all of their peers… but even for a Clutch album, and the inherent high standards that implies, this is a strong outing.

The first two singles from the record, “Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone)” and “We Strive For Excellence” were so ridiculously strong, so profoundly catchy, so superbly satisfying and intensely memorable that I was convinced this would be in the top their of their discography before it was even released. For weeks (or is it months, my memory is failing) I’ve been listening to those songs multiple times daily, and got into a ritual of not getting out of bed until I’d heard them. With songs this strong, I was guaranteed to love the album, and sort of envisioned another Earth Rocker / Psychic Warfare style all killer, no filler, heads down, hyper focused hard rocking affair.

Their previous album, The Book Of Bad Decisions, was also excellent, but if there was one criticism to be laid at it, this would be that it was perhaps a bit too long and one or two songs could be cut to make it more streamlined. ‘Slaughter Beach seems aware of this, and clocks in at barely half an hour long, with songs that are concise, succinct and have not an ounce of fat on them. Contrary to my initial expectations however, it isn’t the heads don’t pedal to the metal rager I thought it would be, but rather is arguably their most diverse and exploratory album in a decade and a half, although crucially, having learned the lessons from their focused period, this is not bloated, self indulgent or superfluous experimentation the way some critics of the second halves of their longer records might previously have accused them of, the album is a best of both worlds, allowing the band to stretch their wings and broaden their horizons without sacrificing the flow of the album, the efficiency of the song writing or the patience of the more sober listeners. There are some really cool touches, such as soul singer backing vocals, theremin, vibraphone. However, its still just half an hour of the utmost, cleverly crafted, high-quality bangers, rather than the loosey-goosey jamming of say, Jam Room.   

There are only nine songs, so its hard to sit here and pick out highlights, as there isn’t a single one I wouldn’t want to hear live or have in a compilation (in fact, on a recent livestream at time of writing, they played every single song from it live, amongst classics from various eras of the band’s history, and it all fit so well), but if forced to pick some stand-out tracks to recommend to new commers, the first three singles are all utterly essential for all new Clutch fans forevermore. A clever blade-runner and pandemic-conspiracy inspired utter fist pumping banger, a truly triumphant tale of young kids building a bike ramp that sounds like the very best moments of the first three QOTSA albums filtered through Fu Manchu’s most catchy moments and Pure Rock Fury’s personality (the bass groove when the cowbell kicks in makes me grin like a schoolboy every time), and a groovey as hell Sabbathy stoner anthem title-track that educated me about horse-shoe crabs having blue blood overused by the pharmaceutical industry to the point of threatening extinction on the species.

Tales of D&D twelve-sided die and chaotic evil, or being accosted in space by an unknown menace to rumbling drums and expansive sounds almost match this for quality, as do ghost and witchcraft stories that are more moody and diverse, but the other real highlight for me is the enormously catchy “Three Golden Horns” with its almost Thin-Lizzy-esque lyrical story telling and super catchy “Jazz Music Corrupts The Youth” chorus. The album ends on a more sombre note, about previous heroes/legends being cast aside as criminals/tyrants by future generations that seems to subtly reference recent turning in political tides towards previously lauded forefathers who are now viewed less favourably due to their problematic deeds, with an almost folky slow drum beat and ghostly guitar lines that sound like the emotional climax of a movie.

This is an album I’ve been listening to on repeat, listening to every day since its release at time of writing, and which I will absolutely rinse for the next few years, if not forever. I couldn’t recommend it enough. Just put it on, get into the vibe, and repeat until in love with it. More highly recommended than water or oxygen!

Parkway Drive – Darker Still review

To say I was highly anticipating this album would be something of an understatement. Australian metalcore turned stadium band Parkway Drive’s 2015 album Ire had been my album of the decade, their 2018 album Reverence was a very strong follow-up, and when I saw them live it was and remains to this day, the (no exaggeration) best concert I have ever seen. Better than Rammstein, Alice Cooper, Slipknot, Ghost, Tool or any other famously good live band I’ve ever got a chance to see. Since those two concerts I saw from that tour (one at Download Festival and one in Cardiff headlining) my estimation of the band has only been higher and higher over time.

When I heard the first single from this album, “Glitch,” I was a bit underwhelmed to be honest, but then the second single “The Greatest Fear” got me properly excited, and having listened to “Glitch” so many times since then, I actually really like it now too.

Now, realistically, I can never expect this album to be as good as Ire, literal album of the entire decade, but if they could make something even half as good as Reverence then I’d still be a very happy customer, and it would still be an album of the year contender. The first time I listened to the record in full, it didn’t totally land with me. Part of that was my fault, I rushed in right as it came out, listening to it for a song or two in the shower, then a song or two when I was getting ready for work and the kids were screaming, and then listening to the rest at work in one earphone only whilst preoccupied.

My initial gut reaction was something along the lines of “Oh, they’ve gone too clean, too commercial, too stadium and the good bits of Nu Metal that they’d mixed into the last two albums have been replaced with the bad bits of Nu Metal.” However, I’d paid for it, so I was damn well going to listen to it again and again, in all sorts of different conditions, walking, driving, working, resting, on in the background and hyper focused.

…Well, I’m glad I put the effort in and didn’t go off my initial disappointed reaction, because this album is a delight. Its definitely more of a grower and a slow burn than the instant gratification of Deep Blue or Ire, and its less an obvious natural progression than Reverence was, but the more you listen to it, the more you see why this was absolutely the right album for them to make.

There’s no getting away from it, Parkway Drive are a massive band now, who play big stages to big crowds, and they just couldn’t get away with Killing With A Smile-level heaviness anymore… it just wouldn’t sound right on those big stages. While my initial assessment that this album is cleaner and more commercial than previous records, and that there are more touches of Nu Metal in the sound, it is in all the right ways. This album is an album to jump up and down to, an album to sing along to, an album to have a good time with, an album that sounds like a party, perfect fodder for big concert fun. The songs are deliberately designed to worm their way into your memory and make you want to move.

I wouldn’t say its been dumbed down, its been stream-lined for maximum fist pumping. Songs like “Soul Bleach” and “Like Napalm” just feel good. Dynamic, catchy, crunchy and bouncy. ‘Napalm also has some really tasty lead guitar lines that would feel at home on a European heavy metal festival. I love how Parkway mix that element in more and more as their albums go on.

Its not all festival bopping bouncy fun though. The album does feature some diversity, a few slower more contemplative, darker moments. There are strings, moody moments and a touch of class. The title track is quite understated and subtle (well, at least until the huge November Rain music video mountain top style guitar solo bursts out), and the closer “From The Heart Of Darkness” tries to be a hybrid of the heavy and quiet ones and succeeds really well, with the violins adding a really triumphant feel.

I could talk for hours about this album, but at the end of the day, I think the take home message of the entire review is going to be, “don’t listen to your cynical first impressions, just let it wash over you, accept it for what it is, and with repeat listens it will seriously frow on you.” I really love it now. I find myself singing “Imperial Heretic” in the shower or when doing the dishes without even realising it.

Megadeth – The Sick, The Dying And The Dead Review

2022’s The Sick, The Dying And The Dead is Thrash Metal legends Megadeth’s 16th full-length studio album. At just shy of an hour, the Mustaine / Chris Rakestraw produced record is a nice, easily digestible slice of modern Megadeth.

The album’s backstory will doubtlessly overshadow the music (you know it all by now, Dave’s triumph over cancer, Ellefson’s removal from the band, Steve Di Giorgio’s stepping in etc). The music probably won’t be talked about as much, especially in a few year’s time.

Stylistically, its sort of the same direction the band have been doing since United Abominations. There are some pretty strong tunes that fans will love “Soldier On” “Celebutante” and “Night Stalkers” are all quite memorable, but there is a little bit of filler and like the previous album, Dystopia, its a lot of the right style with great guitar and drums, but slightly forgettable actual songs, that don’t live up to say Endgame or the first six albums. 

The special digital edition of the album ends with two cover tunes, a Dead Kennedys B-side and a Sammy Hagar tune where Sammy himself actually provides guest vocals. A nice bit of fun as a bonus to round out the album and send you on your way. They end up being two of the most memorable tracks on the record. I would recommend this version.

TSTD&TD is an absolutely fine modern Megadeth album, and there are three or four songs from it that could make it into the live show for a short time, which at this stage in their career is really all you can ask for. Ranking it against their back catalogue, it feels kind of around the same tier as maybe Thirteen. Go in with tempered expectations, and you should have a good time. Just don’t expect an absolute career highlight. It’s the best album you can reasonably expect… just remember to have reasonable expectations.  

I Went to see Rammstein at Cardiff Principality Stadium on Thursday 30th June 2022

This was my first concert, gig or night out at all since the pandemic. I actually got the tickthts for this as a birthday gift in 2019! 

Other bands who I had tickets for pre-pandemic, like WASP castagencelled their gigs, some postponed theirs until it wasn't possible for me to go anymore, with work or around the birth of my second son. One, I was just straight up was too anxious to go, having been stuck inside too long and I eneded up chickening-out and just giving the tickets away for free to a random fan on the internet. 

I still didn't really feel ready for this gig yet either, and thought about cancelling many times... but the idea of it being a birthday gift, and of having the tickets for basically three years now, kind of made me feel obliged to go. 

In the run up to the event, I had seen news peices about how Cardiff wasn't a good city for stadium gigs, with travel chaos and inadequate infastructure, people missing gigs due to being stuck in the car etc, which didn't help my trepidation any. 

Despite me only living a 25 minute drive from Cardiff (35 until parked and out of the car), I only arrived at the stadium exactly 40 seconds before the band played their first song, having had a ridiculous commute with lots of shenanigans, including taking of 40 minutes to drive down a road no longer than 200m that I drive through in mere seconds any other time I visit the city, then getting to my usual car park to find it full (but the "full" sign is not visible until you already enter the building, thus being totally pointless, and condeming you to a 5 minute loop de loop to get back to the very start of the road, and thus sufffer another 40 minutes again to get down the same 200m you just drove). 

After accidentally going down a one way street, missing my correct turn due to a psychotic taxi driver tailgaiting me too aggressively for me to safely turn, I then proceeded to get stuck in a residential street whilst trying to lose the taxi guy as any more beeping of his horn and I would probably get out of the car, murder him and end up in prison. After deciding prison didn't seem like the best option,  I trued to do a 3 point turn in about 18 turns, then finally make my way to an alternative car park after some more shenanigans involving a train track, and finally hoof it across the city to the stadium.  
The Welsh flag, as the intro music played

After a quick trip to the bathroom, I walked out onto the stadium floor, and 40 seconds later, the band started playing.

The band taking the stage, hard to see because the ground had adverse camber

The setlist was mostly drawn from their first 3 albums and their newest 2 albums, with approximately 3-4 songs from each, and then just 1 song each from LIFAD and Reise Reise, plus nothing from Rosenrot at all. Mostly hits and fan favourites, maybe 1-2 unexpected songs, but with a crowd this size that’s exactly the right call.

Pyro

This was the first gig I had ever attended at the stadium, and I am not too impressed with it as a music venue. It is clearly a sports venue, and the flooring they put into it to protect the grass was weird, at the wrong angel, slippery, and made it hard to see the band as it felt like you were downhill, and hard to keep your footing (I saw so many people fall over compared to normal gigs in clubs and theaters, or even arenas). It definitely wasn’t the ideal place for a rowdy metal crowd who need firm footing.

That being said, the venue wasn’t all bad – the staff were very friendly and trained, the bathrooms were good, and best of all the sound was very good, probably the best thing about the stadium experience.

Rammstein’s pounding, simplsitic, mostly mid-tempo industrial style suits a big arena sound, its not too busy for the sound system. Big gigs often have poor sound, but I was very happy with this, I could hear every thing – every drum, every bass line, every guitar chord, every word.

Light show

As you have no doubt heard if you pay any attention to metal music, Rammstein put on a good stage show.

There were all sorts of things to make the show visually interesting. Lights, lazers, confetti, foam, explosions, sparks, flames, fireworks, a flamethrower-guitar, band members using different parts of the stage or an alternative stage at times, lots of props, an elevator, a treadmill, musicians going out into the crowd. Basically, it wasn’t low-effort.

Sparks shower
Keyboardist Flake ascending into the sky on an elevator for a DJ set.

Of course other bands do big shows too, in the last few years I’ve seen Alice Cooper and Ghost do props and confetti, Slayer‘s final tour did pretty good pyro, and Parkway Drive do the flames and sparks and elevator plus going out to a second stage and going in the crowd, Slipknot do the cool stage set and treadmill. I didn’t see it with my own eyes because I didn’t want to spend the money at the time with Vince Neil’s voice being bad and with me not having time off work, but I know Motley Crue do the flame-thrower (bass) guitar thing, you can see it on their The End DVD.

Rammstein was kind of like seeing all of that in one show. It didn’t quite seem like it was living up to the hype for the first few songs, they started off without much spectacle, but they built more and more over the course of the show, and by the time it went dark outside, and they played “Sonne” I was starting to think maybe this was at least bigger than anything I’ve seen.

The band on an alternate stage in the middle of the crowd doing a piano ballad reimagining of early hit Engel.

The crowd were pretty decent where I was standing, no crowd-killing, everyone respecting eachother’s space, drunks and pot smokers just merry – not falling down or vommiting or fighting. Quite respectful of wheelchairs and mobility scooters too, which wasn’t always the case in previous gigs I’ve been to. The crowd didn’t seem full or sold-out, but there is a pandemic and the show was rescheduled twice, so they did well to have it quite full.

Because I was deliberately trying to hang back at a quite spot with lots of breathing room and space for pandemic reasons, and not getting up and sweaty, I didn’t really buy into the atmosphere of the gig, and it was mostly just an “ok” gig for me, rather than something amazing or life-changing, but the music was good, the sound was good, the stage show (if not something I’ve never seen before) was still good, and the band’s performance was pretty decent. They definitely put a lot of thought, planning and effort into it, and they did well to fill the size of the venue.

Was this the best show I have ever been to? No. Was it nice to be back at a concert after two years? Yeah, kind of, but I just worry I’ve contracted Covid after being so careful and avoidant for such a long time (time will tell). Would I go back to this stadium for any other band? Probably not, unless it was something really special that I couldn’t see anywhere else, like AC/DC maybe. Would I see Rammsteing again? Definitely, but only if it was in a better venue, in a city with better infastructure. If this same show was in the same place at the same time next year, I’d give it a miss (and I wouldn’t say that for Slipknot at the Motorpoint Arena for example).

The way home was luckily much less eventful and chaotic – just a nice orderly queue for a very long time, then a clear shot home. Once I got out of the city centre, I was arguably home faster than during my normal work day commute.

Had this have been in the Motorpoint Arena instead, or had it been in a pre-pandemic world, I probably would give it an absolutely gushing rave review, but all the stress and the feelings or risk and the subpar venue took a little bit of the rose tint away for me personally.

Don’t get me wrong though, great band and I’m glad I went, I’ll probably just not be in the mood for this sort of thing the same sort of way I used to be for another year or two. I’m currently debating whether to go to any gigs at all this year (there are some tempting ones, like Machine Head, Parkway Drive and Volbeat coming to Cardiff at various points this year) but I’m still a bit uncomfortable being outdoors or in crowds at present.

Smashing Pumpkins Albums (And some notable EPs/Compilations) Ranked:

This list feature is based on my subjective personal opinion, not fan consensus or journalistic research. They are ranked from best to worst, best being simply “my own favourite” and worst being “the one I personally like the least.” I know it is customary to rank from worst to best, but I prefer to lead with the positive. Check out the rankings home page for more albums-ranked lists.

Today I’ll be discussing Chicago’s own genre-defying, ever-evolving, hard to define band, The Smashing Pumpkins, and their somewhat intimidating discography. (Feel free to add your own ranknigs in the comments).

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1. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993) – Its quite hard to pick a number one album when the band have two of the most definitive albums of the 1990s, both of which are always featured on every list and retrospective of the most important / most iconic / most famous / best albums in every book, magazine, website, blog etc. that you can think of. (Almost like Pink Floyd having both The Wall and Dark Side Of The Moon in their catalogue). Which one you will prefer will ultimately come down to personal choice: Do you want a tighter more direct ride to your destination? Or do you want the more scenic diverse route that covers more ground, and gets you there in a slower but more colourful way?
I like every album the Pumpkins have made so far, but it is fair to say the most famous two are the most famous for a good reason, and the two best starting points for a new fan. I was almost tempted for half a minute not to pick either the perfect-flowing Siamese Dream or the epic double-album Melon Collie’ for first place, but ultimately decided that was just being deliberately awkward, and inaccurate. After deep consideration, I do honestly believe Siamese Dream is my favourite Pumpkins album and deserving of the top spot, even if it is an obvious choice.  

Great drums, heavy moments, soft moments, grungey moments, occasional proggy tinges and some very memorable hits. Enough has already been written about Billy Corgan’s masterpiece that I won’t write too much steamy praise here, but if you haven’t heard it yet, I’ll just echo the hundreds of voices online that say it absolutely lives up to its reputation, deserves all the plaudits, and gets better on each listen.

And to think, I took a strange dislike to this band as a teenager due to the song “Today” and its music video, and didn’t give the band a fair listen until my brother got me this album as an unrequested gift, only about 4 or 5 years ago. All that time wasted, not realising how good this band are. Oh well, guess I’ll have to make up for it now.

Best hits: “Cherub Rock” & “Disarm”

Best deep cuts: “Silverfuck,” “Geek USA” & “Hummer.”

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2. Smashing Pumpkins – Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (1996) – As hinted above already, this huge sprawling eccentric record is another masterpiece, and has an equal chance of being thought of as their finest hour. It is almost difficult to take in during one listen, there’s more creativity and ideas popping off here than in some of their peer’s whole discographies.

It takes all the ideas of their previous two albums, amplifies them, expands upon them and then introduces dozens more new ideas on top of that to create a two-hour voyage through numerous facets of rock, pop and metal music with a loose dreamy passage of time theme, some trippy artwork, and some very evocative lyrics. There are songs for every mood you could be in, for every type of rock fan – perhaps that’s why it was such a monster seller?

Speaking of its sales, I almost find it hard to believe that such a borderline reckless album with seemingly no creative restraint ended up being so financially successful (gold, platinum, multi-platinum and diamond selling, in different territories). Sometimes it doesn’t even seem to know if it wants to be Smells Like Teen Spirit, Pink Moon, Colony Of Slippermen or Enter Sandman. Then again, a few listens, and you get to see how good the songs are, and as mentioned above… there’s something for everything, so I guess it makes a lot of sense.   
 

Best hits: “Tonight, Tonight,” “Zero” & “1979.”

Best deep cuts: “An Ode To No One,” “X.Y.U” & “Where Boys Fear To Tread.”

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3. Smashing Pumpkins – Gish (1991) – This is one of the band’s tightest, most efficient, consistent and succinct records to date. Whereas the next two albums made a great success out of being broad, expansive, and diverse, this album’s strength is in its relative straight-forwardness and cohesion.

That’s not to say the album is boring or repetitive, there is a mixture of hard rockers, ballads and sleepy psychedelic moments – its just focused, flows well and has a clear direction. I know the band started off in the ‘80s with a bunch of goth and New Wave influences, but by the time they got into the 90s, their debut album sounds more like early Monster Magnet and peak Kyuss to me than it does like New Order or The Cure. Maybe that’s just my ear. Rock fans who have only heard the big singles like “1979” and “Today,” or “Tonight, Tonight” might be quite surprised with the fuzzed out attacking moments on this record. If you like your “Demon Cleaner” with a side of “Dinosaur Vacuum” – check this one out, you might be pleasantly surprised.

In terms of a well-crafted album, this is pretty damn great. The others are just trying to be “more than an album” and, arguably succeeding. Still, in such a long and very varied career, with members coming and going, with exploration into all sorts of different musical territories, through various breakups and comebacks… whichever album managed to come in at third place behind the two obvious always going to be number one or two shouts must be pretty must-hear, right? Well it is. I feel like every music publication in the rock world will tell you to listen to Siamese’ and Melon Collie, but if you have even the most passing interest in the band, you need to get some Gish in your life too, at an absolute minimum.

Best songs: “Bury Me,” “Siva” & “I Am One.”

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4. Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist (2007) – This album usually features pretty low on critic’s Pumpkins album ranking lists, but I don’t care. This blog isn’t about the common consensus, this is just my own personal taste, and personally, I love this record.

The Smashing Pumpkins have one of the most frustrating and hard to please fanbases in the rock world, and the critics seems twice as unpleasable as that. This album was already written-off by the press before it was even released because bassist and guitarist D’arcy and James were gone, and then upon review, the specifics were added in. It was poo-pooed for being too metal and too simple, despite critic’s favourite Pumpkins albums being full of highly metallic songs like “Zero” and “Bodies” and “Quiet” as well as despite critics previously poo-pooing parts of Machina for being too experimental and proggy, on top of the fact that D’arcy and James contributed the least musically to all the albums the critics do like… its just a weird bandwagon for everyone to jump on.

When the Pumpkins came back with a cool striking artwork and theme (that carried through to all the merch and singles and videos and stage image etc), and a vague promise in interviews to return to the immediacy of Gish, and kept the two most important members of the band, in hindsight it just seems a little weird and off that this album is thought of by so many people as a stinker.

Imagine being Billy Corgan in 2007, or even nowadays looking back at rankings and seeing this at or near the bottom. What must he be thinking? “You’re mad at the Pumpkins because they’re being more simple, like you wanted them to, and writing more metallic songs again, like you wanted them to, and because the band members who make the least difference to the overall Pumpkins sound are gone – but the really noticeable drummer and the voice and writer of 90% of the music is still there…the guy who physically played all the bass on Siamese Dream anyway? – And on top of that, this record and marketing campaign are both really cool and that’s all being ignored in favour of those really nit-picky complaints?”  Yeah, ok, I wouldn’t know how to process that either.

When I personally listen to the excellent music, which has some great Hard Rock / borderline metallic bangers ala the best moments on the first three albums, as well as some great melodic modern moments that rival or even exceed the best moments on Machina (“That’s The Way My Love Is,” “Bring The Light” etc), and even a near-ten-minute Tool-sounding drum fuelled epic (“United Stated”)… I definitely get what I want from the Pumpkins.

I guess some people wanted Dream Pop, or Shoegaze or New Wave or Avant-Garde, and fair enough, those aspects are in shorter supply here, so if that is what you were expecting, those elements aren’t as well represented this time, and if that was the actual criticism, I could respect that. But don’t try and tell me with a straight face that “Death From Above” is a bad song, or that you can really hear the lack of D’Arcy on this album.

Some people don’t like the production, especially on the vocals, and fair enough, that’s personal taste. I can get if you don’t want all the overdubbed vocals and effects. For me, personally, the production here still sounds a lot better than Adore or either volume of Machina did, so its not a deal-breaker level bad production to my ears.         

Best songs: “Doomsday Clock,” “Tarantula” & “United States.”

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5. Smashing Pumpkins – Shiny And Oh So Bright’ (2018) – This eight track album (initially called Volume 1, although there seems no sign of a volume 2 at time of writing) is the Pumpkins’ shortest album to date, at just over half an hour.

While other Smashing Pumpkins albums tend to have a hook or angle of some sort (eg. broad, diverse, eccentric, arty, commercial, electronic, heavy, quiet, proggy, back to basics, etc) this one just seems to focus entirely on “good song writing” which for my money, is a very admirable goal.

There are only eight songs here, but all of them are a winner, nothing is skippable, all are immensely memorable.     

The Rick Rubin-produced affair sees the return of guitarist James Iha (absent since 2000) and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (absent since 2009), which makes for good headlines, although early bassist D’arcy Wretzky is still absent, which rankled some critics, so I guess you could only consider it a partial reunion… kind of like Guns N’ Roses getting Slash and Duff back in the band, but not Adler.

Oh well, if the results are this good, I can live without the optics of a full reunion.

PS. I don’t mean to come across like I dislike D’Arcy or anything, not at all, I just really don’t understand when some people online or in the media come out with a real hard-line “No Pumpkins album without D’Arcy is any good” attitude. I just don’t see it. They’ve released some spectacular work without her.   

Best songs: “Seek And You Shall Destroy,” “Marchin’ On” & “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts).”

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6. Smashing Pumpkins – Machina II: The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music (2000) – Smashing Pumpkins are years ahead of their time. They gave an album away for free on the internet more than half a decade before Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails made it cool. They had some alternate-reality marketing before a similar idea made Reznor look like a genius. Hell, they even had the idea of an animated band before the Gorillaz.
If you are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, have a good old read online about the stillborn double album Glass And The Machines Of God. Ok, it wasn’t all completely original…  the idea of a rock opera about a rock-star thing had already been well explored by bands like WASP and Savatage a decade prior, and of course by Pink Floyd over a decade before that. But the they handled/were going to handle it, seemed like quite a cool update / twist on the basic premise.   

When the record that was initially to be a double eventually morphed into two separate records, Machina 2, (the one that didn’t unfortunately get a proper commercial release and which you have to listen to online or via dodgy bootlegs), was actually the better of the two, with the best songs, the best ideas, and the most clear narrative.

Until this eventually gets rereleased in some glorious deluxe edition, you’ll just have to search-engine your way to a trustworthy copy, and the sound won’t be perfect, but for the tunes its worth it.

Although it has such an interesting backstory, it is not a mere gimmick, and if it was just an album you could always get in the shops just like anything else, it would still be one of their best. I can’t even think of the Pumpkins without thinking “Shattering fast…”  

Best songs: “Glass’ Theme,” “Cash Car Star” & “Dross.”

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7. Smashing Pumpkins – Monuments To An Elegy (2014) – This album has the somewhat weird distinction of having Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee on drums. As odd a pairing as that is on paper, Lee actually fits the music tastefully and you wouldn’t even know he was there unless you were told.

Similarly to Shiny And Oh So Bright, it is barely over half an hour in length. With the exception of the quite rocking opener, the musical direction is quite upbeat, poppy, synthy. It’s a very pleasant listening experience.

If you want blistering guitar solos, throat rending screams, and gen-x angst, you’ve very much picked up the wrong disc, but if you want to hear the band in a more contemplative, mature, less aggro space, this is a nice diversion. Simple, elegant, understated. I guess you could see it as Billy exploring what songs you can write at the polar opposite point to the complex, ostentatious, over the top end of the spectrum that brought us Melon Collie. I wouldn’t like them to live here full time, I love it when they go big, but as a one off album, I really love that this exists.

Best songs: “Tiberius,” “Drum + Fife” & “Anaise!”

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8. Smashing Pumpkins – Pisces Iscariot (1994) – Ok, this isn’t a real album, its actually a B-sides compilation, but its as good as most band’s real albums. In fact, there’s many a Pumpkins fan who would place this as their second or third best record, almost up there with the top tier classics.

Its well sequenced, and flows like a real album, moreso than a compilation, and if someone told you it wasn’t just their second album between Gish and Siamese Dream, you could easily fall for that line.  

For that reason, I’ve decided to include it on the list here. If you’re using this list as a buyer’s guide, seriously treat this compilation like a true album, its unskippable.

Best songs: “Frail & Bedazzled,” “Pissant” & “Starla.”

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9. Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania (2012) – 2012’s Oceania is the first full-length Pumpkins album with Jeff Schroeder officially on it, even though he’s actually been in the band since the comeback shows of 2007.

After the press and even a lot of the fans unceremoniously took a dump on the fantastic Zeitgeist album, in which the band had tried to be simplistic and go back to basics, but also took a dump on the live shows of the time in which the band tried to be creative and progressive and boundary pushing, (see the excellent documentary / live DVD “If All Goes Wrong” for context), then also ignored their ahead-of-their-time, creative new “we don’t do albums anymore, we’ll just release stuff online” approach of the next few years… the Pumpkins were at a bit of a cross roads. People aren’t happy when the band go back to their roots, people aren’t happy when the band making progress… the only thing people can really seem to ever agree on is liking  Siamese Dream. Everyone likes Siamese Dream. So, Billy and company decided with Oceania to deliberately try and remind people of Siamese Dream. Not so much obvious retreading, but “capturing a vibe.” Well, I say not obvious retreading, but you’d have to try very hard to find a review of this album that doesn’t mention “Cherub Rock,” or “Disarm” or maybe even “Spaceboy” and “Luna” …everyone is tripping over themselves to hear hints of Siamese Dream on this album, and tell .

Its not all Siamese-nostaliga though. You can actually hear as much were they would be going on future albums like Monuments’ and Cyr in some of the poppier and synthier moments as much as you can riffs or drum rolls that remind you of the glory days.

In terms of ranking it, it is a pretty strong album, but a bit of filler holds it back from the absolute top tiers. If it had either been a tad more adventurous, or else a tad more succinct, it would have been even better. As it stands, its just pretty good, but not an utter classic.

Best songs: “The Celestials,” “Inkless” & “Quasar.”

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10. Smashing Pumpkins – Teargarden By Kaleidyscope EPs & Singles (2010) – As mentioned above, after the music journalists savaged basically everything Billy and his merry band did since they returned, the decision was made to abandon the traditional album format, and instead just release digital EPs and singles.

This was quite forward thinking, but like Lars was right about Napster at the time, and people are starting to realise it in hindsight, but it seemed crazy at the time and people just didn’t rally around it like they should have. It seems like the whole “lets eschew albums in favour of just digital singles or short but frequent EPs” mostly idea is more relevant today than ever. You can’t switch on a music podcast these days without some artist or industry insider pondering about whether the album format is old fashioned in the era of streaming and downloads.

Technically, Oceania and Monuments’ are part of this overarching project too, but they work as well (if not better) as distinct albums, so for this entry, I’m just talking about the rest of the material. If you take the EPs The Solstice Bare & Songs For A Sailor plus the rest of the Teargarden single tracks, they basically all add up together to form a third album’s worth of material, and so for ease of organisation, I tend to just think of them as one album, and have actually just formatted them as one album in my music library. A sort of missing album between Zeitgeist and Oceania if you will.

You know how they say don’t look a gift horse in the mouth? Yeah, well, considering these are totally free tracks, it’s a very enjoyable set. Alright, if you want to get your critical analysis skills out, sure, it isn’t as accomplished as the upper half of the list, but for a free record, it’s a heck of a lot better than you’d expect.

Best songs: “Song For A Son,” “Freak USA” & “Cottonwood Symphony.”

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11. Smashing Pumpkins – Cyr (2020) – The newest album on this list at time of writing, Cyr is a double disc synth-pop album. It was talked up as being their attempt to create something modern, but to me it sounds like ‘80s worship. I wonder is this in fact closer to the vision inside Billy’s head when they started the band, than a genuine attempt to be modern?

At first, I wasn’t quite as into this record as most of the others. My main concerns were basically, “What’s the point of having a drummer as good as Chamberlain back in the band if you are going to have programmed beats and restrained songs?” and “what’s the point of having a double album if its all sort of one pace and all sort of one duration, with no peaks and valleys?” but from repeat listens, it has really grown on me. At the end of the day, a good song is a good song. Yeah, it isn’t as heavy and aggressive as I like, or as proggy and weird as I like, or as acoustic and beautiful as I like, or as diverse and surprising as I like, or as virtuosic and instrumentally impressive as I’d like… but do I spend a lot of the week humming choruses or melody lines from it… so Billy must have been on to something.

Best songs: “Ramona,” “Anno Satana” “Tyger, Tyger” & “Wyttch.”

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12. Smashing Pumpkins – The Aeroplane Flies High Boxset (1996) – Originally this was a box set collecting all the singles from Melon Collie, but nowadays you can just get it on iTunes or Amazon etc, and if you ignore the hit Mellon Collie songs, its kind of works like a (less-good) follow up to Pisces Iscariot. In contrast to that very wonderful compilation though, this doesn’t flow like an album, isn’t consistent all the way through, and isn’t a must-have. If you love the Pumpkins and just want a bit more, it is worth seeking out, and there are some great tunes on it, but it is definitely uneven and for-fans-only.

Best songs: “God,” “Pennies” & “Marquis In Spades.”

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13. Smashing Pumpkins – Machina / The Machines Of God (2000) – I really like the album, but I’m going to have to try and justify putting it so far down the list, lower than things that aren’t even real albums, between albums you can’t even buy on CD and between albums without most of the original line up. Far below albums many critics outright panned. It would be easy to just say “personal preference” chalk the whole thing up as a good job, and knock off early for ice cream, but I suppose I better try and come up with a rationale anyway.

The production on this one has a bit of a harsh sheen on most of it, and sort of hurts my ears. It’s a bit too bright, brittle and loud.

The record is also a bit overlong and although there is some diversity and some totally new ideas, it suffers a bit from filler in the middle and so unfortunately feels like it doesn’t justify its length.  

The heavy, energetic, intensely memorable opener is one of the best songs in the band’s history, and there are some nice trippy experimental moments here and there, but most of the album is a bit too syrupy.

Also, for a concept album / rock opera, the narrative doesn’t really come across as clearly as you would expect.

If either they had combined this and Machina 2 into one giant epic, or else they had trimmed this down to its best moments, and toned down the production a bit, then perhaps it would be a bit higher up the list, but as it stands, it is a good Pumpkins album, but not a great one.

Best songs: “The Everlasting Gaze,” “Try, Try, Try” & “Wound.”

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14. Smashing Pumpkins – Adore (1998) – It feels harsh having this album last, and indeed it will be utter blasphemy to some fans, but something has to be in last place, and although I like it, it is unarguably my least favourite. The songs, for the most part, aren’t just quite as good as the Pumpkin’s best. There’s definitely good stuff here, but there’s better stuff elsewhere.

I don’t mind them not playing hard or metallic, I don’t mind them not having Chamberlain’s drums, and I don’t mind them using synths or being gothy elsewhere, so don’t think I’m some kind of luddite just rejecting this album because it was a big sonic shift for the band.

Its just a bit plain, unadventurous and dreary when compared to the Pumpkins’ bigger more beloved albums, and also not as memorable, concise and well-written as their lesser well-known material. Even compared to their other ‘80s and electronic tinged album, its not as fun.

I’m sort of making it sound as though I don’t like it, but that is not the case, I do still like it… I’m just trying to explain how it can be last on the list, so the hardcore fans put down their pitchforks and flaming torches. It has some memorable moments, a unique aesthetic in the band’s catalogue, was historically important. I’m not denying that. It is an interesting portrait of a dark, bereaved time for the Pumpkins and confused time for the music business. But its just not as much my cup of tea as all the others.

Oh wait, did I essentially just say “personal preference” and knock off early? Woops. Anyone for ice-cream?

Best songs: “Ava Adore,” “Blank Page” & “For Martha.”

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Also, the EPs American Gothic and Lull deserve honorary mentions. You can do with “Slunk” and “The Rose March” in your life if you like good Pumpkins.

Ghost – Impera review

Swedish Rock/Metal band Ghost return in 2022 with their fifth full-length studio album, Impera, an empire themed three-quarters-of-an-hour journey through various musical twists and turns. There are three brief intros/interludes and nine “real songs” including epic stadium-destined power balladry, weird creative diversions, and some big bouncy anthems.

No two Ghost albums are alike, and this album doesn’t sound much like their previous album Prequelle, nor indeed any of the albums that came before that either. They have evolved markedly over the course of their career, and you could make a solid argument for any one of their albums being their best one.

If you are expecting a St. Vitus or Pentagram album, because someone once mentioned the word “doom” or “occult” to you in reference to Ghost several years ago, then this album might be a bit of a shock. This album is perhaps their brightest, shiniest, most “stadium” sounding record to date. The media has been quick to throw out Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Van Halen comparisons, and in all honesty, those do seem fairly close to the mark. They don’t sound specifically like any one of those bands, but there are tinges of the feeling they evoke – just mixed with dozens of other influences. Ghost are such a melting pot and no two listeners will describe it exactly the same way. You’ll be picking up hints of all sorts of different reference points, from ‘60s and ‘70s Psychedelic and Prog music, to that ‘80s MTV sound, to classic Hard Rock, and maybe even bits of Ozzy and Dio, and all sorts of other things. In addition to all the rock and metal, Tobias has also always had a big ear for pop music, and the 70s/80s pop stylings are dialled notably up. The producer, Klas Åhlund, has worked in various capacities for people like Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, the Sugababes, Paloma Faith and numerous others. I’ve heard it described in all sorts of different ways, from Dr. Feelgood by way of “Mama Mia,” to Mercyful Fate covering “Panama,” to the alternate reality where Rabin-era Yes wrote The Black Album.

The mixture of pop, rock and metal has always been a cornerstone of the Ghost schtick, and the ratio and specifics change slightly each time, but it always sounds like Ghost. I would be hard pressed to say you would ever dislike this if you liked any of their previous work, even if it is sonically quite a far cry from Opus Anonymous.

It is hard to pick highlights, because there are only 9 real songs, all of them serve a specific purpose in the journey, three of them were singles anyway already (at time of writing) and none of them are skippable. Its quite a tight, succinct, well-paced, fat-free affair. Definitely the kind of album you listen to in one whole sitting from start to finish. That being said, I’ve always loved the obvious “hits” like “Square Hammer,” “Kiss The Go-Goat” and “Rats” from other releases, so “Hunter’s Moon” is very noteworthy for me. The opener, “Kaisareon” doesn’t fit that previous “hit single” mould, but its supercharged hook after hook after hook approach (its almost like it has 4-5 different album defining choruses in one single song) is a standout in a whole new way. From the reaction it is getting in the media, I can foresee “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love” being a massive concert favourite, and every time I listen to it, it feels important somehow, like some sort of milestone moment.

As usual, Ghost deliver a great new album that gives more of what we want, in quirky and unexpected ways, and sounds exactly and uniquely like themselves while both never repeating themselves and also sounding like a Jukebox of dozens of other disparate things you like or at least recognise from elsewhere. As usual, Ghost deliver a top notch set of songs that will stick with you for years to come, that you are desperate to hear in the live setting, that you couldn’t imagine a playlist without. As usual, within the first few listens, you’ll be convinced its an album of the year contender.      

Clutch Albums Ranked:

This list feature is based on my subjective personal opinion, not fan consensus or journalistic research. They are ranked from best to worst, best being simply “my own favourite” and worst being “the one I personally like the least.” I know it is customary to rank from worst to best, but I prefer to lead with the positive. Check out the rankings home page for more albums-ranked lists.

Today, I’ll be discussing the studio albums from the one of a kind, eccentric and diverse Maryland Rock band, Clutch.

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1. Clutch – Earth Rocker (2013) – This is one of those albums like Dr. Feelgood or Permanent Vacation where it seems like someone sat the band down, sobered them up, got them into a laser-beam focus, and said “ok, you have to make the biggest album of your career now.” Its one of those career defining albums like Back In Black, or British Steel or The Black Album where it feels like the band were making a concerted effort to “step up.” Its one of those albums like “Paranoid” where the album plays more like a greatest hits compilation than a single album and almost every song could have been a hit. Its one of those albums like Formation Of Damnation or Hordes Of Chaos that come later in the band’s career and somehow set a new standard for excellence and start a new golden age for the band. Its all of those things and more. It’s the biggest, boldest, liveliest, punchiest record of the band’s career; with a level of quality control, focus and singular-vision that makes this something truly rare, truly special….a perfect record!  

It’s the band’s supercharged, hyper-focused, ultra-consistent, perfect-all-the-way-through, “THIS.IS.CLUTCH.” defining statement.

The album just explodes out of the speakers, crackling with life, bursting with colour, oozing personality, throwing gem after gem after gem at you and never letting up. “Coming at you in all 3-Ds.” Its larger than life, its almost too good to be true. Its Earth Rocker, muthafucker!  Blurgh-haw-hah-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Best songs: “Earth Rocker,” “Cyborg Bete,” “Crucial Velocity” & “Unto The Breach.”

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2. Clutch – Blast Tyrant (2004) – This thing could be described as “Personality, the album.” This record is the refinement, crystallisation and then expansion of everything the band had been building up to until this point. This album forever set Clutch aside from the pack. All the way up until Earth Rocker (almost a decade) this must have been their Ace Of Spades type “cannot escape the shadow” album. This album is like a colourful alternate reality dreamworld. Lots of little Funk, Soul, Gospel, Gogo, Southern Rock and Blues tinges mix with a bombastic foundation of high energy Hard Rock, filtered through boundless creativity in an effortless air of cool. The band clearly tapped into an embarrassment-of-riches vein from the mine of earworm choruses, toe-tapping beats and make-you-smile riffs n’ basslines. Every musician is like the best musician in any other band.

Add to that an outrageously good opening run of six classics, some diversity with a smoky ballad, an instrumental and some virtuosic jamming. Its packaged up in bizarre memorable artwork and a gorgeous clear vibrant production job… mix it all up and you’ve got a straight up classic album on your hands.

Frontman Neil Fallon also seemed to take this moment to ascend from cool singer with quirky lyrics into a God-tier contender for best rock frontman in history. If this guy had been around in the ’60s or ’70s when the history books were still unwritten he would no doubt be up there in the top-10 with the likes of any icon you dare to name. Its like he did some soul searching, figured out what his “best qualities” were, then just made his whole being the best bits, and then upped his game tenfold again! Remember the idea of how Dimebag decided to make every riff “the money riff”? Here its like Neil decided to make every verse, chorus and bridge the vocal equivalent of “the money riff.”

As if all that if that wasn’t enough…. they then also managed to write “The Mob Goes Wild” …which for my money is unarguably one of the best songs in human history. If you don’t love that song, you are no friend of mine! The fact that it isn’t talked about daily in the same breath as “Smoke On The Water,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” is nothing short of a crying shame.    

Best songs: “The Mob Goes Wild,” “Subtle Hustle” “The Profits Of Doom” & “The Regulator.”

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3. Clutch – Clutch (1995) – The band’s “real” debut in the eyes of many, and for many their crowning achievement. Self-titled for a reason. This is one superb set of songs let me tell you and a real genre-classic for the Stoner Rock scene. (I mean Clutch are a weird, unique outlier for the scene and more than just Stoner Rock, but its definitely a part of the sound, particularly on this record).

It was great enough for them to play it in its entirety for a live album, and they have always played a hell of a lot of it live over the years.

This is such a humongous step up from Speedway’ and the early EPs. The same DNA is there, but the results are very different. For example, the bounce of ‘Marcus can be heard updated on “Animal Farm,’ the groove of “El Jefe” can be heard evolved on “Tight Like That.” The clever lyrics and badass attitude of “12 Oz Epilogue” and ‘Monster Trucks can be heard evolved on, well… all over this album. This album takes the best most charasmatic and memorable moments of the last a builds a whole album out of the cream of the crop.

If you have this as your own number-one in your own rankings, I’d totally get it. The only reasons I can think of to knock it down lower are personal preference issues, and just because they’ve released better stuff since. If I was to try and justify it not being first like so many online Clutch rankings would have it, all I can come up with is that the production is a bit rough, the vocals are a bit unrefined, the last few songs could have been cut for a tighter experience… but all that is just nitpicking and I love this record. At the end of the day, it does have some of the band’s finest tracks, is a fan-favourite and really helped define who and what Clutch are, and it is chocked to the brim with charm.

Best songs: “Texan Book Of The Dead,” “Escape From The Prison Planet” & “Animal Farm.”

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4. Clutch – The Book Of Bad Decisions (2018) – The band’s newest album at time of writing, and the one that has grown on me the most over time. Every single time I listen to this I like it more and more, and I liked it plenty when it was released. If you deleted tracks 2 and 3, I think you could even bump this album up another place, as it would then be close to perfect.

It almost goes without saying, since we are talking about Clutch, but this album is so big, fun, memorable, and full of personality, with such unique lyrics and charismatic vocals, immense drumming, and stick-in-your-head-for-weeks basslines & riffs.

How many bands twelve albums deep (and numerous EPs and compilations more) into their career are still putting out one of their best albums and seeming more relevant and exciting now than when they broke through? It’s a pretty exclusive club.

Imagine being decades into your career and still being able to knock out a song as memorable, powerful and immensely fun as “How To Shake Hands” …that’s almost unfair, leave some quality for the rest of the bands in the world! I never get tired of imagining president Fallon flying around in a UFO.

Best songs: “Ghoul Wrangler,” “Paper & Strife” “In Walks Barbarella” & “Hot Bottom Feeder.”

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5. Clutch – Robot Hive/Exodus (2005) – Blast Tyrant was like their equivalent of coming out with The Blackening years after Burn My Eyes. It can’t have been easy following that up. No matter what you do it won’t have quite the same impact for most fans.

Despite gigantic shoes to fill, Robot Hive’ is a superb follow-up and near as good. Its more diverse, more eclectic and tries more things, and sacrifices a little bit of focus for variety, but it is certainly worth it and much more hit than miss. Bazumph.

I always think of this and Blast Tyrant as a set, and often don’t listen to one without the other, so it is purely academic ranking them or having one higher or lower than the other. You need to buy both, it’s as simple as that.

Best songs: “Burning Beard,” “Circus Maximus” & “The Incomparable Mr. Flannery.”

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6. Clutch – Psychic Warfare (2015) – Like Robot Hive’ is the follow-up companion to Blast Tyrant’s excellence, so too is Psychic Warfare the worthy follow-up companion to Earth Rocker’s perfection. This album is pure class, the only reason it isn’t higher being it had to follow up a surprise world-beater. If this had have came out first and Earth Rocker never existed, then this would be talked about in much the same way as Earth Rocker is.

Certainly they were on a fine run on form, and you can take the albums from Earth Rocker onwards as a set, and it would be an absolutely fantastic set, a golden era. This is what the phrase “its like someone lit a fire under their ass” was made on. Few bands ever have (or ever will) released three such strong albums in succession.

Best songs: “Sucker For The Witch,” “A Quick Death In Texas” & “Your Love Is Incarceration.”

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7. Clutch – Strange Cousins From The West (2009) – Most fans might have this one a bit lower in the rankings, but its one of my favourites, and I have an emotional attachment to it as it was the first “new” Clutch album in my time as a serious fan. ‘90s fans would probably want to slap me for having it above Elephant Riders, but hey, this is my list, make your own list if you want this lower. This album is the band’s blues-iest, roots-iest album to date, perhaps leaning hard in on the success of “Electric Worry” and doubling down on it.

It’s a far cry from the days of “Impetus” and “Pitchfork” style face-smashing, and instead sits in a “the world’s greatest bar band” territory. Its like John Bonham, Jimi Hendrix and a coked-up gospel preacher decided to play at your local blues bar and knock out some of the most good-time music they could. It also has just fabulous, Monster-Magnet quality, memorable, unique, quirky lyrics.

This album is all about the feel. Its all about being in the pocket, in the groove, in the vibe. It’s the idea of Jam Room for the new millennium, but the execution is a thousand times better. If you dislike this, I have a hard time taking you seriously.

Best songs: “Struck Down,” “Freakonomics” “Sleestak Lightning” & “50,000 Unstoppable Watts.”

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8. Clutch – The Elephant Riders (1998) – “Uneven” is a very harsh, pedantic and easily counterargued criticism for the album, but short of just having all albums be “joint first” and calling it a day, there has to be some way of differentiating the albums and ranking them…even if having this one lower than some of the others might be blasphemy to many fans.  

It is painful to have this album so low, but we are into the ultimate “they’re always brilliant, how do I choose?” splitting hairs territory now. This album is an absolute classic of the subgenre, one of the best albums of the 1990s and contains some of my personal all-time favourite songs ever written by anyone.

In fact, if the whole album was as good as the highlights, this could have a shout for being one of the best albums of all time. Yes, I do like other records better, but I still consider this still “must-have,” and still recommend it to all fans no matter how casual.

Best songs: “The Elephant Riders,” “The Soap Makers” & “The Yeti.”

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9. Clutch – From Beale Street To Oblivion (2007) – If any other similar band put this out, it would be the greatest achievement of their whole career. Sixty Watt Shaman, Five Horse Johnson and Monster Truck will never, ever release anything even close to this good, so the fact that it is so low down on this list makes me feel very conflicted.

An album with an opening three song run as good as this, or a moment as joyous and infectiously mood-lifting as “Electric Worry” can’t honestly be ever considered one of a band’s “lesser” albums can it? Well that’s just testament to how ridiculously good Clutch are.

Sometimes I will hear people talk negatively about this album and it just seems offensive to me. If this was a one-off album by a band that broke up afterwards, it would be such a beloved cult classic. Ok, its their ninth best album, but its better than 90% of the albums in whole subgenre.

Best songs: “You Can’t Stop Progress,” “Power Player” & “The Devil & Me.”

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10. Clutch – Pure Rock Fury (2001) – This album was a bit of a hit, due in no small part to the rap-rock satire of its most famous track. It also contains the title track that became the does-what-it-say-on-the-tin badge that all fans and journalists use to describe the band with when they go a bit harder and faster. It is very well liked by fans of a certain vintage. It is however, just a bit “different.”

A lot of this comes down to the fact that it has a very different production for the band, seemingly going for the opposite of their loose, groovey Stoner Rock stylings of their previous three albums and attempting something more fitting in with modern Metal productions of the era. The results are a tighter, stiffer sound than any other Clutch record before or since.

Musically, this is also a transitional album that doesn’t fit neatly into any era of the band’s varied discography. It is heavy in places and dark at times, but it isn’t the punishing bruising hardcore dirge of the early days, it isn’t the funky stoner mashup of the preceding albums or the unique career defining new direction of the albums that follow it. It is an island.  Its still 100% Clutch; the musicianship, the exploration, the blue-collar vibes, the wit and humour of the lyrics, the variety and eccentricity of the vocals… and yet it is also kind of nothing like they’ve done before or since at the same time. Unique.

If you check out the Live At The Googolplex live album, these songs sound much more like Elephant Riders/Self-Titled era songs live, stripped of that tight stiff production, and similarly, if you look at the demo version of “Sinkemlow” on the 2004-reissue of Jam Room, you can really get an idea of what a difference the producers (the pseudonymed combo of “Uncle Punchy” and “Machine”) made here.

All talk of production jobs and stylistic directions aside though, this is a solid collection of good songs, with some really high highlights that make the overall package even better.  

Best songs: “Pure Rock Fury,” “Red Horse Rainbow” & “Careful With That Mic.”

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11. Clutch – Jam Room (1999) – The band’s “we’re sick of record label disappointment, let’s just jam in a garage and have a good time” type album. It is a lot looser, more “live” sounding, freer and “jam”-feeling than any of the albums that preceded it (and certainly the one that followed it). The band weren’t trying to write hits, the band weren’t trying to win over legions of new fans, the band weren’t trying to make a definitive magnum opus, this is just four dudes knocking out some music. For what it is, Jam Room is a complete success. The only reason it is so low on the list is that Clutch are one of the best bands to every pick up instruments and this album isn’t as good as their usual output by comparison. It’s a deliberately low effort, low brainpower, unrefined version of the band, and gloriously so, but the fact remains, they’ve done better. Definitely not “skip it” but don’t let it be your first Clutch album either, wait until there’s almost nothing else you haven’t tried before giving it a go.   

Best songs: “Raised By Horses” “Big Fat Big” & “Who Want’s To Rock?”

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12. Clutch – Slow Hole To China  (2003) – This list doesn’t cover some of the band’s catalogue, such as the various early EPs or reissues and compilations thereof, the mid career Basket Of Eggs EP, various live albums, the Weathermaker Vault series, or spin off material like The Bakerton Group.  

However; there is one non-studio-album release I felt needed to be included – the B-Sides album, Slow Hole To China. Slow Hole’ is sequenced and arranged like a real album, features many fan favourites that the band still play live and have been on live albums and generally, compared to other bands this B-Sides compilation is not just random loser-material for superfans only, but rather an “essential album” for all but the most casual of fans. Ok, its not Earth Rocker, Blast Tyrant or The Self-Titled… but it is worth your time.

Best songs: “Hoodoo Operator,” “Willie Nelson” & “Easy Breeze.”

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13. Clutch – Transnational Speadway League’ (1993) – The band’s debut album is stylistically quite different than most people’s idea of the Clutch sound. When I first got into the band, I didn’t like this album at all and have very-gradually warmed to it over the years. When you hear songs from it live in amongst songs from Elephant Riders or The Self-Titled you sort of “get it” a bit more, and because the music is pretty dense, thick and sludgy it takes a lot of repeat listens for it to sink in.

It’s the band’s heaviest, nastiest, most aggressive album to date (all usually things that make an album my favourite) and some of the band’s trademark wit, humour and inventive lyrics/vocals are starting to come through, but the reason this album sits in last place is that only about half the songs are what I’d describe as “good” and only about a quarter of them are what I’d describe as “fun” so basically, I usually listen to the very good band Clutch and have a fun time, but when I listen to this album all the way through in one sitting, I’m only getting that part of the time. Instantaneous this is not, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of quality.

Best songs: “A Shogun Named Marcus,” “El Jeffe Speaks” & “Walking In The Great Shining Path Of Monster Trucks.”

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Bullet For My Valentine – Self Titled (2022) album review

Bullet For My Valentine are one of those bands that everyone seems to hate, who get no respect, who get a critical savaging, and yet somehow have a huge fanbase (so many times I’ve heard them described as “the biggest British metal band since Iron Maiden“).

After their career momentum aggressively stalled and their fortunes took a major downturn with the ill-fated Temper Temper album from 2013, the band have seemed a bit lost, constantly searching for the next idea to bring them back to the biggest of the big leagues. They released the fabulous, mature and relatively heavy (for them) Venom album (and the especially superb Live From Brixton live album) to much lower sales than usual and seemingly total critical indifference, and then released the much cleaner and more commercial-sounding Gravity album to increased live-draw-status but critical savaging, comment-section-joke-status and loss of core-fan respect. It seems like the band just can’t win, when they do well artistically – it feels like no-one cares, they do well commercially – it feels like everyone hates them for it.

This time around, BFMV seem to be chasing respect and credibility moreso than their own artistic fulfilment and what you’d expect the original fans liked about them (Venom) or indeed moreso than commercial success (Gravity). It feels like the plan is that they want to be liked in the comments sections online instead of being the butt of all jokes by self-professed “true” Metalheads (basically, imagine if Blink-182 wanted people in GBH and Exploited shirts to stop slagging them off).

As such, the band known to haters for their pretty-boy watered-down overproduced overtly-commercial sound (the opinion of the trolls, not me) and immature lyrics (a fair criticism for their first four records) are going to try and win over people who probably would never like them anyway, and consequently have made their heaviest album to date and have dialled down the melody, muddied up the production and generally released something uglier and more abrasive than usual.

The results are a qualified success. The album certainly achieves its mission of being the ugliest, dirtiest, heaviest thing the band have put out to date and if it was the first thing a new band who had no reputation put out, no-one would pile the hate onto it the way they hate on BFMV usually. However, it does loose some of what makes BFMV stand out from the crowd usually… I can’t see the masses of teens and lighter rock fans digging it. If hypothetically it didn’t have their name attached and was a totally new release, I don’t think anyone would particularly care about it at all. In this hypothetical world, all I would say to this new band is qualified-congratulations, sure hard to please neckbeards in Waitain and Sarcofago shirts aren’t trashing it anymore, but now no one is talking about it at all.

Ok, that’s enough about the story of the record, what about the music? Grittier vocals, dirtier production, twice as much double-kick drums as usual, noisier guitar tone, guitar solos in every song.

After a much too long intro, the album starts of with the very angry “Parasite” which is the heaviest album opener Bullet’ have released to date. This is followed up with “Knives” which is the nastiest single Bullet’ have released to date. Mission acomplished on the new-look heavy Bullet. This opening one-two throat punch makes you think the album will just be a one-dimensional bludgeoning, especially with the media promises of no soppy ballads, however luckily the album does open up more as it goes along.

At first listen, I felt like the album itself was a bit forgettable and the songs were a bit unmemorable. On repeat listens however it has grown and grown on me. There is a lot of depth to the record that only reveals itself over time. There is some diversity with the more memorable, rhythmic “Can’t Escape The Waves” or the multifaceted “Rainbow Veins” and the slightly more dynamic album closer “Death By A Thousand Cuts.” There are moments on the album that are reminiscent of Devildriver (The first 30 seconds of “No Happy Ever After” for example) and quite often the lead-guitar reminds me a lot of Chimaira (especially as several songs break into a groove for the lead guitar moments, rather than have them over the faster parts).

On the postive side, the record doesn’t outstay its welcome, it is tight, concise and filler-free.

On the negative side, the production is a bit of a mis-fire for me. It doesn’t sound crunchy, metallic and satisfying to please the heavier crowd they seem to want to impress, it isn’t clean enough to satisfy their core audience, instead it is a sort of thin, noisy, tinny sound that would suit a chaotic hardcore band better, but which doesn’t really fit either what Bullet actually are, or what they are trying to be. I can’t entirely shake the feeling like this was a misjudged attempt to please non-fans instead of the more logical doubling down on what seems to have worked for them before.

The band have talked about the start of “Bullet 2.0” and this record shows a lot of potential, if they continue in this direction I think the next album will be the real winner, once they’ve got the kinks worked out (and especially if they figure out the right production sound for this type of material). While I still hold my position that this record will probably not win over a single hater, and is quite at risk of alienating sections of their fanbase who actually like their previous output… I do think this is a relatively strong album for what it is. I’m glad to have this consistent, succinct and unexpected record in my collection.

Volbeat – Servant Of The Mind Review

2021’s Servant Of The Mind is Danish Rock/Metal band Volbeat’s eight studio album, it was produced by Jacob Hansen (with Michael & Rob from the band) and follows up 2019’s Rewind, Replay, Rebound album.

I first got into the band after seeing them live on the cycle for Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie, and fell in love instantly, then devouring their back catalogue and becoming obsessed, listening to them more in one year than it takes me a decade to listen to most other bands, but when it finally came time for me to get in on the ground floor with a new release; 2019’s Rewind’ was a bit of a disappointment for me (especially at first, but to be fair it was a grower), as it initially felt like it was missing a lot of the charm, variety and quirkiness of their earlier work, and also was significantly less heavy or metallic than my favourite side of Volbeat’s many sided style. For me, Rewind’ leaned much too heavily on the band’s radio rock side. That’s always been a part of their sound – but not the whole sound, and to me Rewind’ just focused on it too deeply, too often.

Servant Of The Mind by contrast seems to be very conscious that the previous album was a bit too far away from their metal side, and is a pretty hard and deliberate course-correct towards heaviness. There is much more speed, power, groove, crunch, umph, tiny bits of Thrash-esque moments here and there, even one cheeky Death Metal riff hidden in there once.

Tracks like “Becoming,” feel built for fans who like the band’s heavier material (think “Slaytan”), while “The Devil Rages On,” “Step Into The Light” and “Say No More” more than make up for the previous album’s lighter touch. Heck, “The Sacred Stones” seems to be a deliberate tribute to Black Sabbath’s “Heaven And Hell.” In addition to Metal though, they’ve also always had a bouncy punk tinge at times, and “The Passenger” covers that side of them as well.

While I may be banging on a bit too much about the metal; Volbeat have never been entirely all about heaviness – it is an important part of the puzzle, and it is nice to see it get enough focus again, but it is only part of the bigger picture. For those fans who like the bigger, catchier moments, the album does still have some nice radio rock moments, for example the single “Dagen Før” (featuring Alphabeat’s Stine Bramsen doing guest vocals) covers that kind of “Cape Of Our Heroes” or “Last Day Under The Sun” melodic vibe, and the choruses of even some of the heavier tracks lean into big American radio rock at times (its still there, its just blended better on this album).

Volbeat have also always had a fun side, and while I sort of make it sound like I didn’t like their previous album, it certainly had its great moments. This record takes some of those great moments and builds upon them. Single “Wait A Minute My Girl” has a jaunty saxophone solo, kind of like the fun “Die To Live” from the previous record, while “Step Into The Light” with its reverby twisted surf-rock guitar lead feels like a sequel to the previous album’s “Sorry Sack Of Bones.”  

Now, while I have spent most of the review describing the album’s stylistic decisions, being heavy, or melodic, or bouncy or fun is pretty pointless if the album isn’t actually good. Luckily, the material is really strong. There are riffs that will stick in your head for days, choruses you’ll be dying to sing along to, memorable fills and a very clear production job. More than three quarters of the album I want to see live, I’m spoiled for choice over which songs I’d include in a best-of compilation or playlist.

While I wouldn’t make an argument that it is their all time best album, it is certainly in the top half of their discography, pleasantly surprising, and I would whole heartedly recommend it.

Ps. If you can, try and get the edition with the bonus tracks, the extra cover songs are brilliant!

Black Label Society albums ranked:

Hate list features? Feel free to skip this article and others in this series.

Here I’ll be ranking the albums by certain bands in order from Best (actually my subjective favourite) to worst/least good (subjectively, in my opinion). Number 1 is obviously the best. The lowest number is my least favourite.

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1. 1919 Eternal (2002) – As an outsider you might think BLS would just be a giant excuse for guitar solos and all style over substance, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out they are a proper band who write proper songs, that just happen to feature amazing lead guitar, and write proper albums that just happen to include a few guitar solo tracks. This was the first BLS album I ever heard and even though I didn’t actually love it on first listen, it has wormed its way into my good graces over the last decade. I think this is a classic album not just for the band, not just for the subgenre, but for metal in general. If you only buy one BLS album, this is the one to get. I feel like this album gets the balance between hard rock, heavy metal, stoner, groove and acoustic moments just right (other albums tend to lean too heavily in one direction, whereas this is the perfect synthesis of all their various directions), and the song-writing is simply the best of the band’s career. If you want a catchy, memorable, balanced album where the metal songs have umph and the acoustic moments shimmer, look no further.

Highlights include: “Battering Ram,” “Genocide Junkies,” & “Life, Birth, Blood, Doom.”  

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2. The Blessed Hellride (2003) – Following hot on the heels of 1919 Eternal, ‘Hellride is another solid and memorable album with some of their career highlight songs on board. If the band had split up after this, I’m sure they would go down as an utter cult classic band. The production here is a bit less dated than the previous 3 albums, without becoming over-produced. You could make the argument that the lead guitar work here is even better than 1919 Eternal. It might be the first time in their career you could say “Hmm… perhaps one ballad too many” but again, not egregiously so. There is also a tiny bit of filler creeping in here compared to the previous record, but nowhere near as much as later in their career.

Highlights include: “Funeral Bell,” “Doomsday Jesus” & “Suffering Overdue.”  

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3. Order Of The Black (2010) – I debated having this album so high in the list, because there is quite a bit of filler on it and it is a bit too long, but the highlights are just too strong to have it any lower in the list. If you took just the best songs from this album and had them as an EP, it would be the best thing the band ever did. As it stands, it is still about the 3rd best BLS release to date. Some people tend to write the band off after the first 4 albums, but to do so is to miss out on this fine album.

Highlights include: “Parade Of The Dead,” “Godspeed Hellbound” & “Crazy Horse.”  

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4. Sonic Brew (1999) – A very strong debut from the band. If I was to offer one minor criticism, like Order Of The Black it is a bit too long. Other than that, everything you want from BLS is represented here. It may lean a bit more into the stoner side than the three albums which follow, but it is nicely balanced with an acoustic guitar solo and ballads for contrast. Its quite a chunky and satisfying album while it is on, and I’ve seen lots of people online and in print say it is the best BLS album, and very much one of the first albums you should buy if you are going to get more than one.  

Highlights include: “Bored To Tears,” “Born To Lose” & “Spoke In The Wheel.”

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5. Stronger Than Death (2000) – A worthy sequel to the debut. I would say this is probably the band’s most metallic and consistently heavy album to date, but the flip side of that is that it is a bit less diverse than the album before and after it. I do rate this quite highly in my mind, but the other albums above it in my rankings have higher highlights, and really notable singles, whereas this one is solid all the way through but maybe missing out on the flashiest moments.
Stylistically; If you are more of a rock than Metal fan, this might not be the best album for your introduction to the band, if you come to the band (not unreasonably) expecting something that sounds a bit like No Rest For The Wicked and No More Tears or indeed if you expected something doomier after you caught a Zakk Sabbath tribute show, then you may find this album a bit of a shock, because that isn’t really the sort of direction this album goes in. I would almost say this is more for fans of Pantera and Machine Head than ‘Sabbath or Ozzy. The production is also probably the harshest of any album in their discography.

Highlights include: “Aint Life Grand” “Superterroriser” & “13 Years Of Grief”

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6. Mafia (2005) – There are a segment of fans online who will either call this the beginning f the end, or else the straw that broke the camel’s back so I can understand if you are reticent to give the album a shot. However; I also know it has a ballad dedicated to the memory of late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell that causes  plenty of casual fans who only want that one song who artificially pump the reputation of this album higher than it maybe truly ought to be and so you might also see it called the best thing they’ve ever done (or only thing worth buying) which is too far the other way. The truth lays somewhere in the middle. A little bit of a step down after the excellent first four albums but still worth a go. It definitely feels a tiny bit too polished, a bit more watered down, a bit more lightweight and the ballad focus is upped slightly… however, it still works. It’s the start of a change, but it isn’t all the way down the slippery slope just yet.

Highlights include: “Say You Will,” “Electric Hellfire” & “Dirt On The Grave.”

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7. Hangover Music (2004) – This is the stripped back semi-acoustic album. I has a mixture of tempos, a mixture of acoustic guitar, piano, full band or solo type songs. It has some upbeat yet acoustic tunes, some southern-rock moments and some slow mournful ballads, there’s also a cover song. I can see the effort they put into making the album as diverse as possible, but its main drawback is still that it can feel like a gimmick album. You get the sense of “Its not a proper album, it’s the acoustic one” which while a bit harsh and unfair in some ways, does ring true in other ways. Its perhaps a bit too long for its own good, and even though there are some wonderful moments, as a whole it isn’t easy to sit through as a whole and listen to front to back. They might have been better saving the best songs from it as the diversity moments for the next few albums (the best songs here are probably better than the acoustic moments or ballads for the majority of the rest of their career). Objectively, it is very well made, but it will never be my favourite.

Highlights include: “Steppin’ Stone,” “House Of Doom” & “Crazy Or High.”

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8. Grimmest Hits (2018) – In contrast to Stronger Than Death, I would say this is probably the band’s most rock album, and the people who don’t want things getting too metallic can switch the places of those two albums in the rankings. If you like Skynyrd & Blackfoot’s quiet moments, but also want some Ozzy-era Sabbath rockers now and again, this tries to be the middle ground of those. I’ve seen a bit of retroactive rewriting of the history books recently, with people saying this is one of the band’s best moments and all the people pleasantly surprised by Doom Crew Inc are getting directed to check this one out too, but I think this is an OK album at best, and I remember the overall vibe at the time being “nothing wrong with it, but BLAS have settled into a formula now and this is for fans only.”
I did end up listening to this album quite a lot in the car, and it is definitely not a bad album by any stretch, but it isn’t really special, I couldn’t hand on heart call it a career highlight. For fans only seems pretty fair. Like a late career Hatebreed album or a mid-career Motorhead album, it gives you what you need but I feel like it wouldn’t really win over new people (although, obviously I am wrong about that given the aforementioned “also check out Grimmest Hits” tsunami online at the moment).   

Highlights include: “A Love Unreal,” “The Day That Heaven Went Away,” & “Room Of Nightmares.”

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9. Catacombs Of The Black Vatican (2014) – Like Grimmest Hits except with a bit of an Alice In Chains twinge, and less memorable, Catacombs’ is one of the weaker albums in the band’s career and I would go so far as to say “For Completionists Only.” Its not worthless or anything, and there is one or two songs I really like (the “Angel Of Mercy” guitar solo into post-solo-chorus-with-extra-emotion combo is spine tingling), but its more of an album I listen to in shuffle with other things than as a whole on its own. Perfectly inoffensive background music, but definitely shouldn’t be the first BLS album anyone goes for. It does get better the more you listen to it, but then again, so do the classics.    

Highlights include: “Angel Of Mercy,” “Heart Of Darkness” & “Believe.”

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10. Shot To Hell (2006) – Something had to be in last place, and I don’t think there would be too much public outrage if I chose this as the least best-album being discussed today. I don’t know if they were just running out of steam after so many albums in quick succession without a break in between, or if the move of record labels somehow impacted it, or if its just coincidence that they happen to have written better songs in other sessions, but whatever the reason, this is the BLS album that does the least for me, and which I would recommend the least. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it rubbish (not least for fear that gigantic frontman Zakk Wylde would break my face) but lets just say I am not shouting its praises from the rooftops on a daily basis. I can’t foresee this going down as a classic album.
Highlights include: “Devil’s Dime” & “Blood Is Thicker Than Water”

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Ps. New album Doom Crew Inc (2021) hasn’t been out long enough to fairly place it, but on first impressions, its probably between Mafia and Hangover Music. I don’t know how I’ll feel in a few years, but it does seem like “one of the better ones” of the post-2003 albums so far.