Like many other publications, Classic Rock Magazine ends each year with an issue compiling the best and worst of the past year. In years past, I purchased my monthly copy of CRM from a bookstore and avoided this issue assuming it would be a rehash of articles from previous issues. With the closing of my usual bookstore outlets in both Houghton and Marquette, getting my monthly dose of music news meant finally breaking down and getting a subscription. If you are thinking ahead of me here, then you know what comes next: the first issue received was, of course, the 2017 summation issue that would not have been purchased had it been encountered in a bookstore. Undaunted, the cover was cracked and I poured over the issue while harboring no illusions about what would be found inside.
If one remembers the old adage about those who ‘assume’ (“Never assume because you make an ass out of u and me” (author’s note: I am not sure who said this first, but I first heard it on TV on an episode of The Odd Couple when Felix used it to win over the jury in his attempt to get out of a traffic ticket)), it must now be admitted that my assumption was wrong! While most issues of CRM can be read in a matter of days, this one is stilling hanging in my reading pile a month after it arrived. Thanks to this issue, there are now a number of bands and albums that have joined the “need to check them out” list (and a few that were shuffled off to the “not my cup of tea” list).
Two of the bands that hadn’t registered on my radar until this issue were Little Steven’s Disciples of Soul and a new band called the Milligan Vaughn Project or MVP for short. The Disciples new album (Soulfire) was eighteen years in the making and I hadn’t heard word one about them previously. Being a sucker for horn rock bands, the album was on order before the entire article had been read through. If Little Steven’s work with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes is any indication, the Disciples of Soul will carry the New Jersey Sound well into the future. “Milligan” hit me right away because singer Malford Milligan has been a favorite singer of mine since I first heard him performing with Storyville, a band that included the late Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble band augmented with two new guitar players. Milligan has now teamed up with Tyrone Vaughn, son of Stevie Ray’s older brother Jimmy. Given the Vaughn pedigree and Milligan’s excellent voice, this album was also ordered toot sweet. Others must also be interested as it is ‘out of stock’ but will ship as soon as it is available.
The name Cats in Space has appeared here and there in the trade magazines, but this is the first time information about the band itself has been given in any detail. Ten years ago, guitarist Greg Hart left a Thin Lizzy tribute band called Limehouse to form a band whose sound he described as, “classic seventies-style rock band in the Lizzy/UFO mould embellished with AOR (album oriented rock) harmonies. It was okay, but it remained nailed firmly to shop shelves. The plan needed rethinking.” He restructured the band to include original drummer Steevi Bacon (ex- Robin Trower and also a current member of the Marc Bolan tribute band TooRex) and vocalist Paul Manzi (whose CV includes some time spent with The Sweet and appearances on the soundtracks of the rock musicals Phantasmagoria and Space Family Reunion). Keyboard player Andy Stewart is a veteran musical director for a slew of rock musicals (Hair, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera) and bass player Jeff Brown came from the NWOBHM (new world order of British heavy metal) bands Wildfire and Statetrooper. Guitarists Dean Howard (T’Pau, Ian Gillian Band, Bad Company) and Hart (Asia and his own band Hartless) round out the line up. Their 2017 release Scarecrow is only their second release but Cats in Space have clearly moved beyond Hart’s original Thin Lizzy/UFO concept.
Hart says, “I think rock became frightened to smile’ and he owned up to being inspired by the ‘nudge and wink’ style of Justin Hawkins’ band, The Darkness. Hart’s current plan is to have Cats in Space bring back a certain amount of humor and pomp to rock music, perhaps even bordering on Spinal Tap’s territory. “If less is more, how much will more be, if more is more?” is how Hart describes where he sees the band headed. Even the name is designed to make one pause: “Love it or hate it, at least people will talk about it.” We haven’t laid hands on Scarecrow yet, but it will show up in the WOAS schedule sooner than later.
Marilyn Manson has a new album out (Heaven Upside Down) but we will have to pass on that one for the WOAS playlist. While the former Brian Warner can be a thought provoking interview subject, there are only so many F-bombs one can drop in one interview (or in the lyrics on one album) that give us pause to even take a listen. Marillion also has a new album out (F.E.A.R.) and that is another one that won’t be playing anytime soon. The ‘F’ in the album title doesn’t get them airtime (see Marilyn Manson above), but mostly they are just one of those bands that never clicked with me. They do passable anthem type rock, but try as I might, it just doesn’t make me anxiously await their next album. Same can be said of Josh Homme and his work with Queens of the Stone Age (whose album Villains was named the CRM Critics’ Choice #1 Album of the Year), Them Crooked Vultures, Screaming Trees and Kyuss. All are bands with a good following, but with so many musical choices to make in any given year, I tend to not spend a lot of time bands that don’t make me sit up and say, “Oh, yeah!” That is okay, because when I used to confess to being a big fan of The Moody Blues, some people would act like I had just declared I had leprosy. How about Steel Panther (whose single She’s Tight with Robin Zander of Cheap Trick is found on CRM’s Ultimate 2017 playlist)? While the musicianship on most of their albums is great, they tend to wear thin pretty quickly because a) the one note ‘We are the only Hair Metal band left’ schtick gets old and b) they also like to pepper their lyrics with less than radio friendly chatter. The English language contains millions of word combinations that can be used, but too often bands retreat to George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television or worse. These are not the types of albums that get airtime on WOAS-FM.
Enough about what we won’t be programming. Let us wrap up this discussion with some albums that we will give a share of our airtime and let you decide how you feel about them. Charting at #50 on CRM’s top Albums of the Year is The Mission by another of my perennially favorite bands, Styx. The band’s press release pumped this new record as a throwback to their glory years by comparing The Mission with both The Grand Illusion and Paradise Theater. The music is solid but the storyline is built around a future space mission to Mars and if one doesn’t listen while reading along with the liner notes at least once, it will be a little hard to decipher. Nevertheless, we will give it some spins and see if it grows on us. Cheap Trick is a band that rarely disappoints me but CMR’s #17 album (We’re All Alright) came off a little one dimensional. Oh, a Cheap Trick head like me will still play it, but in this case, the writing and production have kind of a phoned in quality. The same can be said of the #2 album, Black Country Communion’s long anticipated BCCIV. I was happy with their previous work together before Joe Bonamassa and Glenn Hughes had a parting of the ways. It would be hard for me to not like a band with Jason Bonham holding down the drums and Derek Sherinian’s keys flavouring the music created by these two gifted song writers. There are some stellar tracks, but alas, they have seemingly mined the depths of their collaboration and found the gold bearing veins petering out. I like the album, but not as much as their debut CD.
Deep Purple has hinted that Infinite might be their album together (CRM # 12). Okay, I will grant that it isn’t exactly Machine Head but it isn’t a bad album by any means. Ian Gillan’s vocal range has diminished some, but with keys player Don Ayrie and guitar player Steve Morse filling the critical holes left by the departure of the late Jon Lord and the mercurial Ritchie Blackmore, they can still craft a fine album. Spot #11 on the CMR list goes to Thunder. I knew nothing of Thunder until they showed up on a special insert CD in a volume of CRM two years ago. Based on what little I have heard of this veteran British band, we will no doubt pick up Rip it Up and see what they are up to these days. We have already spun Ray Davies’ Americana (CMR #33) and find it to be one of his stronger solo albums from the past decade. Other notable entries that we haven’t previewed yet but hope to include #49 Eric Gales (Middle of the Road). #44 Walter Trout (We’re All in this Together), #38 Alice Cooper (Paranormal) and #8 Black Star Riders (Heavy Fire).
Let me wrap up this 2017-2018 transitional musical tour with the Robinson Brothers. Black Crowes fans are still lamenting the acrimonious split the band experienced and the hopeful are still relying on the power of ‘never say never’ that they will all come to their senses and work it out. I don’t see it happening because the brothers Robinson seem to be going in different directions musically. Lead singer Chris and his Chris Robinson Brotherhood (#37 Barefoot in the Head) are making music that it is hard to categorize and in come cases, recognize. The album leans heavily toward the jam band/psychedelia side of the record rack. The band is good and the songs are okay, but rather pale when compared to Robinson’s back catalog with the Black Crowes. Call it back sliding if you will.
Younger brother Rich Robinson has gone the other direction. With his new band, Magpie Salute, he has assembled a great band. Their first release is a collection of covers and one original (Omission), but it hints at how great this band will be by the time they put out an album of all original material. In the Crowes, Rich was always overshadowed by the more flamboyant Chris. Rich’s solo catalog has been solid, but his maturation as a songwriter, musician and band leader are clearly evident with Magpie Salute. Every six months or so, I get a CD lodged in my car player and it gets played until I get a little tired of it. Last spring, this resident CD was Joe Bonamassa’s Blues of Desperation. You won’t be surprised to learn that it got bumped by Magpie Salute and I haven’t found anything to warrant a change as 2018 rolled into sight.
Naturally, this is the highly condensed version of the ‘good and the not so good’ albums that will carry us into the new year. We didn’t even get to the new stuff coming out from Bob Seger (I Knew You When), Iron Maiden (The Book of Souls: Live Chapter) or Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and his side project Down ‘N’ Outz. Tune in to WOAS-FM 88.5 and we promise you will hear as much of this music as we can play. Perhaps we can revisit the topic again next January, right after next year’s (now eagerly anticipated) year end summary of Classic Rock Magazine arrives.
Top Piece Video: Magpie Salute’s Omission