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MICHAEL DES BARRES -
Rock 'N' Roll Santa
MDM Immedia 2012

Oh dear reindeer! Marquis rips the Yuletide marquee to the confetti shreds.

2012 should be marked in red in Michael Des Barres' calendar. With hardly a week spent without gracing the stage, the artist's comeback to the music realm resulted in the magnificent "Carnaby Street" and its album's Grammy nomination, so how else can the California-based Englishman finish the year if not in red? Which, of course, is a Santa Claus color, together with white. And if the only Union Jack part missing from this palette is blue, Michael delivers it by speeding up his seasonal blues to its titular descendant.

It's easy to imagine Des Barres himself dressed as Saint Nick, even without watching this funny video, as he jives around telling a story of the chimney-crawler who decided to be fit and stylish. Infectious groove and top-notch vocals conspire here with "Brown Sugar" lick to make the chorus irresistible and the whole song a perfect family carol. Or a call for a healthy way of life. A winner on all fronts.

*****
SALMA GANDHI -
The Quest For Nonsense Never Ends
Transubstans 2012

Ab ovo and ad hoc: add an addiction and psych out on the "they don't make them like that anymore" paradigm.

It must be chilly Swedish air that's been blowing the collective spine of this quintet since 2005. Their first mindchild, "Salma Hayek's Delayed Mexican Ultra Nipple", neatly packed the band's retro-futuristic zigzag in a mix of exotic cyberpunk cinematicity, but it took some time to fashion a full trip. More shapeful than AMORPHOUS ANDROGYNOUS and less blissed-out than Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's lookout, "The Quest" is an interstellar bumpy ride with a direct line to ground control that weaves the Soviet announcement of Gagarin's endeavor into the riveting "Marshmallow Space Station Track 8 B Or 381 C", high on electric piano, to stitch it to the elegant, if almost jazz-less, fusion of "Santa Da Luna Pa Ruskie", yet for all the lysergic humor there is the ensemble actually rock - with rather varied groove.

Thus, "Polish Rodeo For Drunken Teenage Midgets" rides on a psychobilly twang, whereas "Why Does Matt Damon Always Say Matt Damon" crawls idiosyncratically over dials tuned into the Great Nowhere. But in "Paranoid Cow On A Mushroom Lawn" High Hoe Silver's drums provide a solid skank for Hank The Wife and Hof Hoffa's small axes before Baron Von Herring's organ starts roaming in the heavy blizzard buzz. With "Intro", "Outro" and interludes, there must be a story to it all which, in absence of vocals, apart from theatrical snippets of voices, remains beautifully nebulous, albeit not devoid of intensity that accumulates in the acid-echoing "Dr Steveroll I Presume" only to relax, through reggae and beyond, once again. Still, even though "Linus Plus Minus Linus" takes all the elements and shuffles it over a 14-minute mark, its FLOYDian pull gets too diluted to fully engage. And this is the point of the whole journey: to enjoy it while it lasts.

****
SYNICAL -
Quit While You're Behind
Deadlight Entertainment 2012

After thirteen years on the run to California, the Georgian troupe dance their thunder away.

Never since KISS married their riffs to disco beat on "I Was Made For Loving You" have electroclash and metal clang had such a ball, but it was a long time rolling. Singing tech wiz Brian Haught formed the band back in 1989, and it's only now, when two of the friends he lost to MURDEDOLLS are back - guitarist Eric Griffin for a full stay, - that his vision turns tangible. More so, there's a whole myth-making in the grooves between the sleek "Never Meant To Last" and nervy "True Hollywood Story", and once the Herbalife's slogan "Lose Weight Now, Ask Me How" kicks in with "Low Quality Guy", where ex-SOULFLY Roy Mayorga hits the skins, the handclapping grip on the listener is so tight that the music's pulse becomes one's lifeline.

Melodies as memorable as death on the dancefloor, the arrangements are lush and approach both deadpan and emotional save for occasional DEPECHE MODisms, yet even them work the chill out of "Bad To Worse". And if the glacial "Way Of The Future" sculpts a grand semi-acoustic glide from a ballad pulp, the drift careens to stadium glam sometimes, like in the wild "Learn To Love It", and "Come Down" with the NIN associate Alex Carapetis on drums shoots from a perfect percussive angle to kill the after-hours fatigue for good. Serious and funny at the same time, this album was worth cooking so long. Next one, please.

*****
SAVAGE -
Sons Of Malice
Minus2Zebra 2012

The third coming finds NWOBHM stalwarts in fine fettle and as tight but loose as in their halcyon days.

You can't go wrong with this band, and their erstwhile tour mates METALLICA knew it too well to have picked a SAVAGE track for their early demo. Shot down twice but phoenix-rising nevertheless, after 10 years in limbo now, the Brits' sixth album, which features two veterans - singing bassist Chris Bradley and guitarist Andy Dawson - as well as two young guns, bears all the genre's hallmarks to please any dynamic-starved purist. And even though more than a half of the devil's dozen tracks start with a left-channel riff, from the opener "The Rage Within" on, such repetition works well, what with the quartet's bluesy slant on the sweetly viscous "Monkey On My Back" and "Black N Blue" that, given the harmony howl, stand the veterans apart from the pounding pack.

With the right dose of aggression, they wear sensitivity on their sleeve in the acoustic thread and cinematic attack of "The Hanging Tree", so while the title cut may outstay its appeal despite the highly hummable chorus, there's much to love here. The twin-axe sharpness gets mistily blurred for "Waking The Dead", yet "Blow" has a modern ring to it without abandoning the group's fiercely swinging roots, its panache a part of the live appeal, whereas "Choose Revolution" harks back to the '70s' hard rock and is one of the best SAVAGE's creations. As, in fact, is the album in its entirety.

****
SIDEBURN -
IV Movement
Transubstans 2012

Out of a black goldmine and into the fire: Swedish quartet plumb the depth of days of yore and take it to the future.

There's a smile in the stomp of songs like slick "Tomorrows Dream" and slower "Fire And Water", but they're not covers of heavy blues classics, rather a full-on hint at what's going on beneath the elegant surface. Painting over a BLACK SABBATH template (incuding direct lyrical quotes) with a modern frame, the meld most obvious in "The Last Day" with its jazzy solo, this foursome supply a thick lava on their fourth album, as Morgan Zocek's guitars rage over the interlock of Martin Karlsson's bass and Fredrik Broqvist's drums, and Jani Kataja's vocals are passed on to be split in harmony. Shimmery in "Diamonds", the riffs hit melodic zenith in "Bring Down The Rain" where the anger subsides, while the speedy momentum is retained, so for all its tension the space is breathing here. That's the mode in which the monotonous flow of "The Saviour" pulls and loosens the reins following the tune's lead, and the folk tincture of the "Silverwing" saga bares the band's soft, potentially orchestrated underbelly. Closer "Monument" ties all the strains in a tight bunch and adds a cosmic layer to it, and if this is a pointer to the ensemble's next record it might get huge.

***4/5
NEW RISING SON -
Honey
Deadlight Entertainment 2012

Gothic groove on a higher ground - intense and inspired, with a legend attached.

Doesn't matter whether the NRS main man Matthew Roberts is indeed a son of Charles Manson or it's just a tall story told in the messianic slow-burn song "New Rising Son", but it takes some guts to claim such a link, and the same goes for the singer's VELVET REVOLVER audition. And these guts are vividly spilled here, on a dozen of cuts that marry metal to a dancefloor, as shimmering electronica jolts Quinn Moore's heavy riffs. It's there, in the choppy imagery of opener "Welcome To The World" where Roberts' voice shoots to the sky solidifying the contradictions of his sharp verses, and in the contagious, toe-tapping funk of "Holy Ground" with its spiritual guitar solo. So if "Rain" sounds a bit too industrial for its devilish nursery rhymes, the techno-folk drive of "Gaslighting The No Exit Zone" blows the cobwebs off, before the pure piano of "The River" brings on a romantic zombie lullaby.

Once this scene is set, the steamroller that is "Neverending Dream" unfurls its hypnotic tune, with an acoustic undercurrent to up the classical buzz of theatrical proportion, which fee‚Ż into the ivory-led chamber grandeur of "The Sting Of A Vampire's Sweet Embrace", where the singer plumbs the lower register of his voice. Sensual as it gets, the unadorned sexuality comes packed in the slithering "Reptile" that goes, "I wanna fuck until I die". Rising it is, then, despite the "down, down, down" bop, a grit for an almost 8-minute rave preceding the glam of "Monkey" to polish it all. A darkly sweet trip.

****
ATKINS / MAY PROJECT -
Valley Of Shadows
Gonzo 2012

Fearing no evil and bearing no burden, an ex-JUDAS PRIEST screamer and a righteous axeman walk the crooked, yet adventurous, path the second time around.

The initial congregation of Brummie metal god Atkins and reverend sessioner May proved to be the testing of their chemistry. Fortunately, the punchline our "Serpent's Kiss" review - "the project's next opus will exceed their debut's limitations" - turned out prophetic. Off with the obligatory genre conceptions, the two follow the songs' dictate here and do what the feeling, rather than expectations, suggests.

It's never more obvious than in "Bitter Waters", where the exquisite acoustic guitar sets off the epic beat and the tempered rage of the voice, and in the memorable chorus of "Enslaved To Love". Quite surprising, given that the scene-setter "Welcome To The Nightmare" caters to the singer's core fanbase who'll love this sharp salvo that wrap the vocals in the shiny foil of riffs and hooks, but the progressive sprawl of the eerily atmospheric title cut, preceded with an almost orchestral instrumental "Messiah", opens a new dimension to the duo's talent pool. In the same fashion, "Not Ready To Die" and "Harder They Fall" are sleek slabs of monumental, memorable rock 'n' roll, while "No Ordinary Man" builds a small classic on the arresting blues foundation, and "The Shallowing" may be the best ballad Atkins's ever served up - penned, as are the rest of the songs - by May. A solid statement from the masters of their trade.

****2/3
MARTYRS -
Every Day...
Deadlight Entertainment 2012

Fast and furious sacrifice with much ado about the ride.

One can't help but marvel at the dexterity of these French guys who shoot through their second album with a breakneck speed but refrain from a gore detail of their idols SLAYER and prefer to hide it under a simple black wrap. It's fiendishly gloomy in there, the opener "Slaughter" beckoning the listener to spill their guts on the floor, even though the only word decipherable on the nine machine-gun missives is "satisfied". Which is positive, of course, given that for all the muscularity of the band's delivery it doesn't pack much threat, and "Growing To Kill" is rather memorable, while the limited quantity of tricks in their booklet make most of the tracks outstay their welcome with a regular piece duration under the 4-minute mark. It's the repetition that murders the likes of "Negative Faith" despite many a piledriver chorus, most prominent on "The Plague". A little bit more versatility coupled with the snarky assault of "Dream vs Reality", and MARTYRS may rise above the ground.

**3/4
THREE SEASONS -
Understand The World
Transubstans 2012

Wish coming true, three alchemists from Sweden purify their winning formula.

Innovation isn't this Swedish band's forte who are all the better for it. Singing guitarist Sartez Faraj, bassist Olle Risberg and drummer Christian Eriksson firmly seize their own - and the kindred spirits' multitude's - thirst for classic hard rock devoid of its later metallic restrictions and deliver exactly what might quench such desire on an epic scale. From the organ and guitar unison of "Set In Stone" on, the trio harness the soulful panache of bell-bottom swing and never shy from a catchy chorus inside a swirling wigout. So if there's some repetition in the wah-wah-smeared "Searching" or the instant hit "I Would Be Glad", it only reinforces the songs' live feel, especially when the groove slows down.

But it's in the ballads that the group's melodic verve shines the brightest, as "Far As Far Can Be" wraps its delicacy in acoustic web that, almost invisibly, turns into a gilded, Hammond-rattling cage. The bars forming a sharp riff, "Ain't Got Time" is the heaviest piece on offer and can easily challenge any old time stomper for the sheer memorability of interplay which intensifies blissfully and switches the rhythmic gear until its climax leaves the listener begging for more. And the more comes with the wordless magic of "Maria" and title track where the lucid electric gauze thickens into a picturesque, layered folk tapestry with a dose of acid fizz for dramatic effect, before the highly charged "Can't Let Go" brings things to a close with a loose bluesy drive. It's as irresistible as it gets, so the worldly understanding is mutual.

*****
MANTRIC MUSE -
Mantric Muse
Transubstans 2012

Shaping order from chaos, Danish foursome go on the transcendental trip and land with unscathed wonder.

While their British half-namesakes navigate the mainstream borders of cosmic rock, this Copenhagen quartet explore its far recesses, and sometimes fly too far out: not so surprising given they're involved with the international ORESUND SPACE COLLECTIVE. But if similar works are often hard to grasp, elusiveness doesn't dwell in the band's second album, separated from their debut EP "Picks In Space" by whopping 14 years, which makes it's almost impossible to believe the seven pieces inside are cut from the endless improvisations. Jams tend to have rogue element, yet if such monsters teem in "Deep Sea Cheops", its Frippertronic drift relapsing into the warm swarm of opener "Nanoid", most of the melodies here are clear and hypnotically captivating. Ola Eriksson's synthetic buzz crawl unobtrusively under Magnus Hannibal's slithering guitar to operate the listener's brainwaves on subconscious level - with beauty always in the line of sight.

Thus, the low-toned undercurrent of "Sindbad Sofareren" infuses its shimmer with Alhambra arabesques that only the Scandinavian cool of Michael Kroglund's bass keep in flowery check, while the raging virtuosity of "Azur" adds fuel to the solar fire. Similar dynamic exploration in "Cinope" results in magic alloy of weighty riffage and sun-kissed fusion adorned with the splinters of Oriental vocals, but although there's a titular predictability in the "Sfunx" spreading into vibrant funky pastures, it grazes at the same time at the prog field. It's this perpetual shift that keeps focus afloat to release the hidden tension only in the fluttering "Gnoxience", the most transparent composition in the scope which leads straight into the intense climax. A chameleon-like beast, "Mantric Muse" is an ever-satisfying experience.

*****
LONGSHOT -
The Judgement
Moving Target 2012

Buy the CD

French prog heroes make more than welcome return: the battle rages on.

True to their name, not much has been heard from LONGSHOT in the decade that's passed since "Asylum" open its doors to the public so impressively. But now the project mastermind Thierry Guilleminot comes up with another "A" class story, "Armageddon", and prefaces the "Act 1: From Hell" album with this epic single. And here, "single" is a key word as, for all the implied narrative of "The Judgement", which is instrumental work, it's played by one musician, the author's friend Michael Reese, a fixture of the band's previous releases.

A solid prog rock creation, it bears more of the genre's traditional signs than neoclassical strains, and quickly solidifies the initial folky flow into a shiny edifice where organ waves crash against guitar plonk until the straight lines blur into something more adventurous. The beat ebbs to and fro, and synthesizers weave a delicate, if firm, net of a tune - on a multi-layered large scale, where rock borders with raga - that ends right as it peaks emotionally. Totally lacking the threat of its title, here's a real teaser.

****2/3
FOCUS - X
Eastworld 2012

Putting the "X" in hex, the Dutch legends catch eternity in the cross-hairs.

Ten years after their acclaimed comeback, forth flies FOCUS' tenth studio opus, their third in this era, to finally show the full force of Thijs van Leer's reinvigorated ensemble. For all the traditionalism of naming the records in numbers and throwing an appropriately piece, here the pellucid "Focus 10" to the lions, "X" is full of surprises. Roger Dean's artwork isn't one of them, though, its "Welcome to the prog elite club" message misleading on many levels, as the Hollanders have always stood a bit aside from the pack, but those moments are firmly grounded in the band's past. With no yodel within earshot, the hard rocking "Father Bachus" leads into the present tense / tension and also harks back, in familiar way, to "Mother Focus", while the antiquity arc is thrown far into the spacey "Hoeratio", its wild recital lifted from Horace's "Ars Poetica", yet the record's scope runs much wider than all the classical traces.

Van Leer's Hammond and flute in place and Pierre van der Linden's drums as panoramic as ever, guitarist Menno Gootjes ups the fusion quotient high on elegant pieces like "Amok In Kindergarten" and "X Roads", where the leader's piano also stars. They soften in flamenco fashion and harden again for "Le Tango" where the velvet croon of Brazilian legend Ivan Lins infuses the titular rhythm with bossa nova smoothness. Yet every gracious and serious composition such as stately "Message Magic" or "Victoria" shines an adventurous light that switches to shameless fun in the riffy funk of "All Hens On Deck", a sly descendant of "Sylvia", low-pitched shouts replacing erstwhile falsetto flights. Many an unexpected turns over these 10 tracks, FOCUS regain their aim and sound fresh again.

****2/3
FORD / LLOYD -
There's A Party Going On
SPACE DRAMA -
I'm The Nightmare In Your Dreams
Whole Shot 2012

Classic horses present new tricks - or, rather, treats - in time for All Hallows' Eve but ready for a round-year dancing.

At the first glance, there's not much in common between John Ford and Ian Lloyd, save for the fact that their respective bands have STRS in their names. Yet both STRAWBS and STORIES plumbed the same depths of fun back in the '70s when seriousness walked hand in hand with a smirk and a smile on one's sleeve. Now the veterans joined forces and bonded over a brace of projects whose first produce are these Halloween singles, both full of memorable hooks but with slightly different, if groovy to the hilt, stylistic agenda.

"There's A Party Going On" is as straightforward as the duo's name suggests: a nicely rocking electric charge with a glittery, if punky, edge and an infectious chorus. Weaving Frankenstein, his sidekick Igor and champagne plus a coffin in the context, it's an irresistible slab of (v)amped-up psychodrama that will have rockabilly cats cut the rug alongside disco ravers. In fact, the piece's melodic appeal is universal, and guitars do an elegant skeleton dance on this one.

SPACE DRAMA comes on as Ford's personal crusade into the techno realm with Lloyd joining the parade that has all the solemnity of a traveling circus ride. More electropop in the PET SHOP BOYS' vein than house in its purest, the song's softness contradicts its own title for the maximal impact, and additional effects work out an additional theatrical dimension where piano waltzes around the rhythm track and the shadow of Alice Cooper lurks. Still, it's the same party piece as on the other single, even though the "Club Mix" tag is just an illusion, because it's totally alternative recording, which feels less magnetic than its rocky counterpart.

Halloween or not, by delivering these cuts Ian Lloyd and John Ford proved their perennial relevance. Yet to ground it firmly, a full-blown album would be more than welcome.

****1/2 / ***
V13 - Traqueurs
Deadlight Entertainment 2012

Gallic metallic: a French quartet fashion a peculiar take on the heavy genre, with Steve Albini manning the desk.

If the face of Rufus, who starred in "La Cite des Enfants Perdus" and "Delicatessen", suggests a comedie noire slant of this band's sophomore offering, its blackness doesn't project much humor. The interest is piqued once the third track, "21 Grammes", unfurls its slide guitars for a blistering bluesy snare, yet in order to get there one has to sneak through the snarl of "Ricardo Klemente" and "Personne m'attend" which nicely bulldoze the BLACK SABBATH formula with punky hysteria spat out of Laurent Carrier's vocals. French lyrics provide an interesting contrast to Olivier Duclos' riffs, sometimes quite shallow but never dull, while the classic chanson feel is revealed in the romantic, tremulous "Veleiteire" and "Nuit Blanche" that feature strings where one would expect the accordion sound to join the squeal. The titular chase is quite an exciting proposition, then.

****
QOPH - Freaks
Transubstans 2012

The stonking Swedes return with a time warp - wicked and weird but beautiful.

Six years between their debut and its solid follow-up, then eight years between "Pyrola" and "Freaks": let's hope there won't be a decade-long gap before QOPH produce their fourth record, yet this one was worth the wait. Since 2004, the Swedish band have been making a fine regress, which in out hollow times means reconnecting to the source of inspiration and taking the listener back to 1970 when guitar fuzz was all the rage. It's on the surface of "The Weirdness To Come", but heavy squeal announces the comeback from the off, from "Hearts & Sorrows", but the humor seeps through the cracks be it with a "Black Sabbath" lick in the stoned jive of "Feverland" or a T. REX riff of slightly hysterical "Ride" where claps and stomp are joined by a mad sax.

Guitar effects often boiled down to simple amplification, "Remedy" and "Seconds & Minutes" rise on strum and vocals hooks that will capture any self-conscious festival goer, as will the titular skeleton jam , while in "In Your Face" Rustan Geschwind's voice dances around Patrik Persson's bass in a theatrical way as the tension grows and the "Deliver me" refrain gets weight and harmony. In a twisted turn, the grand finale "The Devil Rides Out", which picks up this plea, is full of psychedelic light that embraces Filip Norman's six-string flight and Federico de Costa's drum diapason. Mindwarp and smile guaranteed, "Freaks" comes on as the warmest out-there albums of the year.

****3/4
TODD RUNDGREN -
Live At The Warfield -
10 March 1990
Esoteric 2012

The torture stopped: Hermit opens the doors and throws a party. His archives break open, too.

After the fruity '70s, next decade seemed to dry Todd's creative juices out, until 1989's "Nearly Human" set him back on organic track, and on the ensuing tour Rundgren followed his dream of having a rhythm-and-blues review on stage. It resulted in the most vibrant performances of which this album, the artist's best, is a wonderful document. Bringing alive his latest record here, seven songs off it, Todd justifies its title with rough, yet so warm, vocal delivery and periodic dismissal of the 11-strong group in order to face the public intimately as he does with the barebone hard-hitting "Love Of The Common Man" or the totally unexpected revealing of "Cliche". Thanks to such approach, the sense of vitality prevails, and when the veteran engages the crowd in the 15-minute finale of "I Love My Life", pre-faced with a moving classic "Hello, It's Me", carnival emotions come over.

Eschewing for the most part the obvious hits, save for the pale "Can We Still Be Friends", Rundgren unfurls his soulful flow starting with "Real Man" from "Initiation" to get down with a Marvin Gaye medley, smacked right in the heart of "Lost Horizon", but not before having another go, full ensemble in tow, at "A Cappella" with the infectious "Something To Fall Back On". More so, Todd doesn't limit his revisiting of the UTOPIA domain to the fans fave, wildly rocking "Love In Action", and dusts off a pair of "P.O.V." groovy gems, "Secret Society" and "Mated", yet "Rock Love" kicks a magic glitter in. In this context, new compositions - smooth "Parallel Lines", darkly dramatic "Hawking", the gospel-shaped "Can't Stop Running" - take even more honeyed, if sweetly rawer, taste than in the studio environment, and in their sincerity slightly contrast the tortured music hall of "Compassion", while the second "Healing" obscurity, "Tiny Demons", drowns its dry run into the eerie electronic FX from Lyle Workman's guitar.

Surprises at every turn, there's not a dull moment here, and as Todd is not well-served with regards to live albums, if you want to have only one, this is surely it.

*****
NEKTAR -
A Spoonful Of Time
Purple Pyramid 2012

The art rock brigade dive into the rehashing ocean but keep their tab in check.

When these Brits delivered "Remember The Future", they hardly envisaged things to come in such variety. Tackling other people's work is a double-edged sword as you have to leave your own handprint on classics without mangling them unrecognizable. Yet casting Billy Sherwood not only as bassist but also a mix master means running a risk of diluting your input: he comes aboard with a baggage of stars whose contribution brings about both wider attention and narrower viewpoint for a main artist. Yet NEKTAR play safe, perhaps too safe, as their chosen covers source the same genre the veterans have always been exerting, and here Roye Albrighton's team excel mostly when the focus is on the least expected material.

It's a genius move to have Rick Wakeman roll his piano over the poppiest of these 14 songs, 10CC's "I'm Not In Love", whereas "Blinded By The Light", despite Ginger Baker's dynamic drumming and NEKTAR's six-string blizzard, lifts Manfred Mann's arrangement of the Springsteen evergreen wholly, and THE DOORS' "Riders On The Storm" takes off only when Rod Argent unleashes an organ solo. By the same token, save for tasty picking, Albrighton's guitar virtuosity adds little to FLOYD's "Wish You Were Here" and leaves the space exploration to Edgar Froese, as the TANGERINE DREAM mastermind takes to synthesizers, but on ALAN PARSON PROJECT's "Sirius" Roye's electric blindingly tops the ivories melody led by SYMPHONY X's Michael Pinnella. And if TOTO's "Africa", where Bobby Kimball himself handles vocals, comes quite close to the original, even with Patrick Moraz new age flight, the bastardizing of RUSH's "Spirit Of The Radio", stripped of its sheen, and, conversely, polishing Steve Miller's "Fly Like An Eagle" with cosmic keyboards from Geoff Downes and BRAINTICKET's Joel Vandroogenbroeck, sound fresh.

The sidemen complement NEKTAR the best on the soulful folk of Neil Young's "Old Man" which gets extremely tremulous when David Cross's violin enters the frame - urban, not barnyard - as Jerry Goodman's one does for Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver", and BLIND FAITH's "Canít Find My Way Home" where Steve Howe and Mel Collins bring their own kind of magic to Albrighton's fruity table. More so, THE O'JAYS' "For The Love Of Money", spiked with Ian Paice's groove and Nik Turner's sax, allows the band indulge in their least celebrated art, catchy funk, while another HAWKWIND's alumnus, Simon House, shoots his bowed swing into the heart of ROXY MUSIC's "Out Of The Blue". They should avoid magistral ways: experimentation, in the usual way, suits NEKTAR just fine.

***
ALICE COOPER -
Old School:
1964-1974
Special Edition
Universal 2012

Chockfull of treasures: the past of eternal joker and his compadres reveal the secrets of their desk.

Their 2011's induction to the Rock 'n' Roll of Fame served as timely reminder that there are ALICE COOPER the band and Alice Cooper the singer, and while it's the latter who keeps on getting the accolades, the Cleveland ceremony glorified the former. As does this set, a layman's version of yesteryear's deluxe package, stripped of the most paper and vinyl embellishment but essentially the same. "Essential" would be the right word here as far as the fans are concerned: an interview disc aside, there's a vintage concert recording in its entirety and two CDs expanding on the pre-"Nightmare" part of 1999's "The Life And Crimes" box with a whole array of rarities.

The earliest one, 1966's "No Price Tag" by THE SPIDERS, presents the future motley crew heavily influenced by such British purveyors of rhythm-and-blues as THE YARDBIRDS yet already having their own venomous bite and a melodic hook which, in 1972, was lodged into "School's Out". A demo of this perennial smash, an instrumental live take on it and a session snippet showcase Alice's tender way with children - and their adoration of his comic persona - as well as the genius of producer Bob Ezrin who would apply that experience to "Another Brick In The Wall", totally devoid of Cooper's humor that's all over the innocent "A Train Trip", an embryo incarnation of "Sing Low, Sweet Cheerio" from the group's debut as ALICE COOPER. The singer's devotion to the kids' cause, boosted with the collective-cooked drama, gives tension to "Dead Babies" that comes to the box from the St. Louis stage of 1971, while the tentative, if fully-formed, run-through of "Halo Of Flies" exudes a different kind of artful energy, topped with an eerie organ march from Michael Bruce. His guitar counterpart Glen Buxton nails the ensemble's caricature sleaze in "Is It My Body" in front of Seattle's public pushing to the fore the most infamous aspect of the group's oeuvre.

There's no "No More Mr. Nice Guy" on "Old School", which takes the chronology up to the "Muscle Of Love", its title cut bleeding rough from 1972's Rio gig, yet doesn't omit a pre-production slaughter of "I'm Eighteen", its viscous, harmonica-oiled origins to be soon overshadowed by the solo Alice's hard rock. It's sharp and on-the-money in the wild delivery, also from St. Louis, of "Under My Wheels" that the quintet turns into a contagious theatrical spectacle, and this magic had never been reproduced since, no matter how big a cultural figure Cooper would become. You can't go back to your old school, indeed. It's out.

*****
BEGGARS OPERA -
Promise In Motion /
Mrs. Caligari's Lighter
Ricky Gardiner Songs 2012

Stitching their past and their future to the present, the veteran art rockers run for divergence and unity.

They come in pairs now, but these albums couldn't be more different than 2010's "All Tomorrows Thinking" and "Suddenly Ahead Ahead" - or so it seems when "Promise In Motion" massages the callous soul of those who've been rankled by the current band's appropriation of BEGGARS OPERA's name. Opener "Lions" flowing into "Her Hand In Mine" throws a direct arc to the times of yore, as it's all about progressive moves on the classical base, for now it's Virginia Scott's organ that roars and purrs under her nonchalant-to-dramatic voice to propel it all forward, while Ricky Gardiner's guitar underpins her piano in both sharp and atmospheric ways. He lets it rip for "Clyde", shredding the harmonic serenity to bits, yet minimal drumming keeps the songs grounded which works wonders in "The Edible Woman Again", its acoustic-tinctured and electronics-tainted charge as modern as it's ancient in the tribal bass department; and such rave leanings, although less transparent, feed into "Mrs. Caligari's Lighter".

Much more adventurous rhythmically, the samba of its lead track reeks of surrealism but detaches vocals from the music as does the fusion flight of "Doris", whereas "The Comforter" drags on with little sense of purpose until its kitchen-sink romanticism seeps through. Still, cuts like "You Just Don't Get It", despite their psychedelic passages, careen too dangerously to the demo side to contradict such title and fully engage the listener; at the same time the club appeal of "You Have To Watch You Know" is undeniable, its riffs creating a tasty dancefloor fog, and the dry run of "How Long Before The Machine Rusts" gets colored not only with the six-string Spanish brush but also with a female/male singing interplay. New layers being revealed with repeated spins, the close "So Long" links "Lighter" back to "Promise", which makes their coupling a genuine diptych - not even but interesting throughout. These beggars don't stand still, and their progression is very much afoot.

**** / ***
ARI SHINE -
Songs Of Solomon
Meticulous 2012

A crooked path and a leap of faith reap a harvest of success.

There's no face value with Mr. Shine. 2011's "Ghost Town Directory" hid an electric buzz under its homespun cover, yet if the lettering of Ari's third album suggests pure glory, its source leads away from the temple and close to the Big Pink now. This time the artist roams not a rocky but a rootsy road to amazing grace that quickly placed "Songs Of Solomon" on the Grammy shortlist in the Americana category which, with heart-tugging ballad "Least I Tried" made most poignant by Jewish lament, feels deservedly. Those who hoped for a charge might feel disappointed, and it takes some time to breathe in the airy arrangements and hidden vistas of songs like the steel-guitar-smoothed "Almost Alright" that, and here's a paradox, hits harder than the glitter crunch of "Don't Know" or "Goddamn Glorious".

Still, having joined the folk flock, the singer-songwriter hasn't lost an iota of his appeal, and the tune woven between his acoustic guitar and harmonica of opener "Ninety Nine" gets under one's skin as deep as the social soul-inquiry of its lyrics. Actuality seeps into a deceptively traditional tune "Pauper's Grave", while the melody takes over the message in the infectious chorus of "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie", but "Wear And Tear" comes as intimately confessional as it gets to end it all with a heartbeat. Exuberance gone now and, with repeated spins revealing new layers, the youthful maturity takes over.

****1/4
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