SKY HIGH
Freedom
Grooveyard Records

Those unfamiliar with Sweden’s rock hard blues trio Sky High should know Freedom is their 12th record since forming in the mid-Eighties. That means you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Though relatively unknown in the US, they are a sensation overseas having played before literally millions including two-dozen TV shows and movie soundtracks. Masterminded by blues/rock guitar legend Clas Yngstrom (known for his uncanny ability to mimic all things Hendrix) and joined by bassist Arne Blomqvist with drummer Mats Ostensson, the trio waste no time setting the bar with “Back To The Start” – a wicked 12-bar blues shuffle in the vein of George Thorogood. Sure it’s just blues but man, does it cook!

Having jammed with ZZ Top, it’s only natural some of that mojo would rub off and in the Tush-like, “Boogie For Peace” and the chugging, “You Can’t Break Me” the similarities are electric. Yngstrom’s sings in a higher register than Billy Gibbons, but his emotion is just as engaging. Pair that with his unique ability to merge with his Fender Strat like a freak appendage that weeps ungodly amounts of colorful tonal shades and you’ve got the idea. House rockers like “Go On Home”, “I’m Still Rockin’” and “I Ain’t Beggin’” dance dangerously close to metal in much the same way Walter Trout, Gary Moore and Joey Bonamassa do. Just listening to Yngstrom play rhythm and lead at the same time is spine-tingling.

The spirit of Hendrix is all over this disc. From its title cover “Freedom” (which the band absolutely blaze on) to “All Along the Watchtower” and the originally-penned tribute “Jimi,” the soul of the man is supporting Sky High. You can hear it in the little fills of “Bluestown” or the closing moments of “Restless Love.” Then, just to stir it up, we get the country picking of “I Want You” and the retro Mountain-esque grind of “Evil Eye.” Yngstrom wouldn’t come off near as well without his rhythm section, who are not only incredibly tight – but perfect in-the-pocket players. They follow, support and sometimes lead the guitar as it roars along. Nicely done. 
 
 Website: Grooveyard Records, CD Baby

DIO
Holy Diver Live
Eagle Records

There is only one way to match the awesome power of a masterpiece – do it live. Ronnie James Dio is without question one of the greatest hard rock/metal singers of all time. Anyone in the genre knows and respects the man. His achievements include three distinct pinnacles of his career; Rainbow Rising (although Long Live Rock and Roll is a close second), Black Sabbath Heaven and Hell and Dio Holy Diver. This unique and thrilling disc has elements of all three. Recorded last fall on the heels of his Master of the Moon tour, Dio decided, for a select few dates, to do the entire Holy Diver record front to back. A feat never done before – in fact some of the songs had never even been played live.

So it was, at the famed Astoria Theatre on London’s Charing Cross Road, that RJD and his merry band of pied pipers created history…once again. From the start, the singer is in the shape of his life. His voice sounds powerful as ever and delivers an electric shock that runs right up your spine. Guitarist Doug Aldrich (standing in for Craig Goldy) is obviously a crowd favorite and has the presence and finesse needed for such classics. His playing is thunderous, yet subtle, agile and spontaneous. Simon Wright and newcomer Rudy Sarzo keep the bottom-end thick and meaty while Scott Warren fills in the keys.

Of the 2-disc set, the first is Holy Diver in all its glory. “Gypsy” is especially nice with a prime drum solo from Wright as is “Shame on the Night” when Aldrich really lets it fly. “Caught in the Middle,” one of the lesser known tracks, as well as “Straight Through The Heart” and “Invisible” sound amazing live. The second disc Dio rolls out his historical catalog launching full on into Rainbow’s “Tarot Woman” easily matching the original. Other Rainbow highlights include ripping versions of “Gates of Babylon”, “Long Live Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Man on the Silver Mountain” – an obvious treat for keyboardist Scott Warren. Sabbath is well represented in “Sign of the Southern Cross” and “Heaven and Hell” before Dio’s own “We Rock” closes the night. Absolutely brilliant!

 Website: Dio, Eagle Records

NIXON NOW
Altamont Nation Express
Elektrohasch Records

First off, excellent cover! The buzz is these four German lads are going to reinstate 1972 with their MC5 meet Stooges hurricane of fuzzed-out, punked-up rock. Named after the Nixon campaign slogan of that year – they latch onto it - not for its political reference, but for what it symbolized to music. The band claim the best rock music ever written was between the late Sixties and early Seventies, and are hell-bent to prove it. “Revolver” is a nice way to get it started. Three guitars and a drum with one hell of a hooky melody line get your attention quick. Stripping back and keeping the songs tight and raw definitely has its advantages especially when applied to “Shake”, “Burning Down The Neighborhood” and “Fastest Thing.”

Fans of the Who and Union Carbide Productions, have taught the band how to harness the power of a two minute song, keep it catchy and still function with a rapid-fire delivery. That works not only for their cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Rocker,” but also a beefed-up version of the disco hit “Car Wash.” The occasional spin on lyrics keeps the atmosphere jovial in “You & Me” (killed the Kennedy) and “Brian Jones” based on the ex-Stones guitarist. Stoner elements creep in, sometimes heard in the feedback other times more up front like in the plodding “Bad World” or the tuned down instrumental “Electric Teenage Nurnberg.” Yet it always comes back to a glorious garage rock-fest. Highlights include “Altamont Nation Express” and “Madman” for their massive riffage, sledgehammer beat and solid pissed-off delivery.

Websites: Nixon Now, Elektrohasch Records

MASK
Heavy Petal
Nova Distribution

Calling to mind the eloquence and sophistication of Enya and Clannad, Mask marks a memorable merging of talents between Sonja Kristina (Curved Air, Acid Folk) and ambient cellist/violinist/producer Marvin Ayres (Mille Plateaux). Some might wonder why an ambient, new age-type mood record finds its way to the pages of this rockzine. It’s quite simple – we like it. Also Curved Air’s 1973’s Air Cut is a personal favorite of this reviewer (even though it was considered by some to be their weakest offering). Kirby Gregory’s guitars and vocals were quite in line with Lindisfarne and Jethro Tull.

Mask however, keeps its mix seductive and intoxicating with only the use of voice (Kristina), violin, cello, percussion, electronic keys and assorted ethereal sound elements. As expected, much of the record moves in waves of texture and color. One can’t help but hear an orchestra tuning up as the disc begins with “Dark Murmur.” It then weaves through several peaceful dimensions before landing on the Celtic-layered “Paean.” The closest song to a single would either be “Fall So Hard,” or “Blue Words.” Both have an intoxicating melody wrapped around Kristina’s mesmerizing vocal (remember, this is the same voice that graced the UK production of Hair in ’69).

Electronic beats, sometime aqua in nature, sculpt songs like “Shelter Skelter” and “Walking the Dream” where as ghostly haunts echo through “Living Inside My Head” and the chilling “Healing Senses.” Yet, the beauty is in the buildup and nowhere is that more apparent than the strings of “Beloved.” Ethereal and magnificent! The album ships as a dualdisc with a 15-track music CD on one side and an elaborate visual extravaganza DVD on the other. The film was done in collaboration with audio-visual artist Outerbongolia and visionary artist Davide De Angelis (designer for David Bowie).

Website: www.mask.uk.net

THE NEEDLES
In The Red
That’s Right! Records

From out of North Carolina (Wilmington to be exact) and straight into your veins comes the high-octane, volatile madness of The Needles. Loaded with 11-songs of true rock grit about “Running Wild”, “Beggar Man’s Blues” and “The New Enemy,” this dangerous little four-piece is absolutely the fix you need. Three records into their career, The Needles know exactly what you want and hand it to you in big AC/DC meets Muddy Water sized slabs. Check out the massive riffage in “Too Hot” and “Down the Line” – total Angus Young. Then there’s “Seersucker” which throws just enough Nugent on the fire for a well-roasted guitar barbeque. Incidentally there’s a hysterical video for “Seersucker” on the band’s website.

Lethal doses of speed-freak punk kick in about a quarter of the way through the record starting with “Jetsetter Extraordinaire” and hitting “New Enemy” and “Tune In Tokyo,” the latter possibly being the best track on the disc with “Running Wild” coming in as a close second. Produced by Dick Hodgin, (Corrosion of Conformity) In the Red could easily stand next to anything the majors could come up with. It’s got the muscle, attitude and craftsmanship. Big fat hooks help – and it’s loaded with ‘em. A beefy backend keeps the whole thing thick and groovy. Independents that have balls like this are worth supporting – hunt it down and buy it.

Website: The Needles, That’s Right! Records

FULL BLOWN CHAOS
Wake the Demons
Stillborn Records

For a full-length debut, this one definitely cuts the mustard –especially on the hardcore / metal guitar side. Having released a couple EP’s and catching the eyes and ears of Hatebreed front man and MTV2 host Jamey Jasta, FBC have been getting quite a bit of ink lately. Opening for Super Joint Ritual, Sepultura and Hatebreed has only added to their spreading spotlight. There were a lot of comparisons to Hatebreed when Wake the Demons first came out, but really it’s more akin to Slayer or Pantera with its blood-thirsty riffs and bone crushing drumming. One listen to the chainsaw guitar in “Unlearn”, “Red Tide” and the monster “Judged” and you’ll hear the difference.

Lead vocalist “Ray” writes from a very aggressive place, but keeps the melody an important component of the music. His voice reflects his take on life as he growls through a range of emotions. There’s also a respect for classic structure, like the Fate’s Warning elements in “Fore Warned,” the bass-heavy “This Fight” or the Celtic Frost-like “So Cold,” which keeps the band from falling into the rut of just another hardcore act. The production is tight, giving the whole thing a larger-than life, almost live sound. Which means it’s heavy – like a ten-ton truck. Hostile in parts, but well constructed and played with honesty and conviction.

Website: Full Blown Chaos, Stillborn Records

SMOKIN’ JOE KUBEK and BNOIS KING
My Heart’s In Texas
Blind Pig Records

Hailing from the Lone Star state, Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King have been tearing up the blues circuit since ’89. Yet, this unique New Year’s Eve (2005) show marks the pair’s first “live” recording, and clearly demonstrates how magical the two play off each other. Hosted at J&J Blues Bar in Fort Worth and produced by Edward Chmelewski and Jerry Del Giudice, My Heart’s In Texas is remarkably clean considering it was taken from a room full of die-hard “roadhouse” fans. The rapid tap of the snare in “Burnin’ to the Ground,” the sizzling lead swap in “Where I Want to be” and the home cooked traditional blues melt this treasure into pure gold.

The gauntlet gets thrown down in the souped-up country/surf rock of the title track, “My Heart’s In Texas” complete with some dirty feedback in the solos. The chugging, “Tell Me Why,” goes out to “all the ladies in the house,” and finds its prowess in a jazz/blues mix that captures a seductive rhythm with just enough danger in the guitar to keep it smoldering all night. The duo throw a couple covers in the mix starting with a roaring version of Freddy King’s “Boogie on Down” followed by the slow burning James Lane’s “That’s All Right.” Bassist Paul Jenkins and drummer Ralph Powers keep the whole thing weighted with just the right balance between the back of the stage and the front.

Website: Blind Pig Records

POPA CHUBBY
Stealing The Devils Guitar
Blind Pig Records

Another record, another tattoo for blues bad boy, Popa Chubby.  Stealing The Devils Guitar is the big man’s sixth platter for Blind Pig and comes out of the gate horns down and dust up. Uncompromising in his determination to combine elements of rock, rap and hip hop to a blues structure makes Chubby one of the few true innovators of the genre. This is not your traditional 12-bar blues record; rather it’s an eruption of styles and influence that capture the imagination with blues as an undercurrent. There’s the Hip Hop of “Smugglers Game” which could easily have come off a Santana record. Then, just to stir it up, he tosses in a country spin with helicoids picking in “Buffalo Chips” or the Charlie Daniels-like story telling of “Young Guns.”

Chubby’s love and respect of Seventies music lends itself to the R&B “Right On” with a hip swivel and shake. Yet, to fully capture the decade, he stretches out for the Rolling Stones garage rock of  “Virgil and Smokey” and “Kinda Dicey” before nailing the hard rock of “Slide Devil Man Slide” or the more metallic, “Long Deep Hard and Wide.” Having played everything from Freddie King, to punk with Richard Hell, to exchanging riffs with Pierce Turner, or jamming funkadelic with Bernie Worrell, the guitarist taps that inner reservoir where a thousand different styles are stored. What’s amazing is how, time and again, he can pull up the chops that make a blues song so melodic across so many different genres. Stunning really.

Websites: Popa Chubby, Blind Pig Records

AMERICAN HEARTBREAK
American Heartbreak
Liquor and Poker

Sometimes you can tell what a band is like just by checking out their photo on the back of the CD. The group shot on the reverse side of the new American Heartbreak disc shows five scruffy lads sporting classic t-shirts by UFO and Aerosmith – that alone sold this reviewer. The San Francisco quintet first put their name on the map with 2000’s Postcards from Hell LP sounding like a toughened-up Cheap Trick. Formed with Jetboy’s Billy Rowe and former Exodus bassist Lance Boone, the band fought through a couple years of personal changes until finally releasing a second disc You Will Not Be Getting Paid (2003) featuring five live songs, five acoustic tracks and six remixed songs from their debut EP What You Deserve.

Taking their act to Europe in 2004, the five-piece experienced a healthy rise in their fan-base pouring gasoline on their upward flame. After playing support to everyone from Queens of the Stone Age and Buckcherry to the Scorpions and Dio, the band settled in to pen their second full-length opus, the self-titled American Heartbreak for Liquor and Poker. Well polished and co-producer by Rick Parker (BMRC), the record ignites with loud, catchy rock supercharged with buzz-saw guitars, pounding rhythms and stadium anthems. Celebrating their influences, we hear a UFO bass riff in “Unhappily Ever After,” a bit of Cheap Trick in “Crawling” and an ode to ‘70s rock in “21 & Easy” where they slip in everything from David Essex to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deed Done Dirt Cheap.”

Having opened for the Hellacopters in Las Vegas this past month only validates their notoriety and respect among their peers. They have since marched up and down the West coast playing every pond, whiskey and tiki room converting the masses to their twin guitar melodies like the ones in “Love Your Abuse,” “Raise Up Your Hands” and the power-chord infected, “The Last Of The Superheroes.” Combining powerful song structures with an aggressive edge not only bolsters their craft, but proves they can write with the best of them. American Heartbreak is seasoned, tasty and easily digestible.

Websites: American Heartbreak, Liquor and Poker

CRUCIFIED BARBARA
In Distortion We Trust
Liquor and Poker

Finally, an all girl group that can seriously rock. Drain STH was the last time Sweden gave us a real powerhouse band of chick rockers – then their lead singer, Maria Sjöholm I think it was, married Tony Iommi and they fell off the face of the planet. Crucified Barbara hail from Stockholm and have been compared as a cross between Motorhead and The Runaways. I’d also have to throw in a little Girlschool with Iron Maiden around the guitars. Though all under 25, bassist Ida Evileye and guitarist Klara Force have been playing together for ten years. In 1998 they were joined by drummer Nicki Wicked and later a second guitarist, Mia Coldheart who then became their lead singer. Moving from punk to metal to straight-up rock, the four-piece have finally landed on a triple-threat combination.

This is first and foremost a guitar-driven record. With two guitarists, they thicken up the sound and get some gnarly leads and super dense riffage. A sledgehammer rhythm follows step grinding the whole thing into shards of metal and fragments of steel. Yet, amidst all the noise and clatter, CB doesn’t forget the melody. In the title track “In Distortion We Trust,” death metal elements clamor and clang in chugging guitars and guttural background bellows but still remains friendly. “Losing The Game,” “Play Me Hard” and the pile-driven “Motorfucker” ransack through ‘80’s bombastic carnage. Somewhere around “I Need a Cowboy from Hell” and the killer “My Heart Is Black,” the girls turn the corner and hit the pedal.

Suddenly the amps are blazing with massive chops and a Motley Crue attitude. “Going Down” has this “Kick Start My Heart” lick that turns it into one of those perfect party songs. It gets better the louder you go. Follow that with “I Wet Myself” and the immortal lyrics “I wet my pants/and it’s fun/you should try it too” as only a girl can deliver. They polish the whole thing off with Motorhead’s “Killed by Death” proving their balls are just as massive as the big boys. Liquor and Poker are kind enough to include three of the girls’ videos (Losing the Game, Rock’n’Roll Bachelor and Play Me Hard) just so you can check out what you’re missing by not living in Sweden.

Websites: Crucified Barbara, Liquor and Poker

DIXIE WITCH
Smoke and Mirrors
Small Stone Records

A tremendous change in sound greets the ears on Dixie Witch’s new disc Smoke and Mirrors. Not only has the production gone up a notch (thanks to Joel Hamilton) but the songs are well crafted and memorable while still keeping the whole thing nice and heavy. This being the band’s third outing, it’s interesting to note they are sounding less like Motorhead and more like Bachman Turner Overdrive with a southern twang. The guitars sound more structured, beefy and bad-ass. Give “Out in the Cold,” “Getaway” and “Thursday” a whirl, and you’ll hear the comparison. Huge riffs that propel over the top of a crashing rhythm section is clearly the order of the day, while a tighter fit justifies the trio taking three years to put this monster together.

Impressive is the way “Shoot the Moon” and “S.O.L.” kick in with drummer/singer Trinidad Leal determined to destroy his kit. His fills sew up the bass and snare like drying leather while his voice paints a dark, melodic hue. Bassist Curt Christenson is hot on his heels in the groove of “Getaway” and “Bridges.” The four-stringer lies down like Vermont molasses. Maturity is the key here and in the road-warn ruts of “Ballinger Cross,” we hear Clayton Mills’ Sabbath-like dirge eating the soul. Whereas, “What you Want” complete with whiskey-bottle slide, gives a whole new meaning to dirty blues. Stick around for “Last Call,” the nine-minute opus that closes this mother out. One of the best ‘70’s tracks recorded! It’s slow and easy, psychedelic and burned out with just enough organ/guitar jam to fill the air with the sweet leaf-smell of Capricorn Studios in Macon, Georgia.

Websites: Dixie Witch, Small Stone Records

FIVE HORSE JOHNSON
The Mystery Spot
Small Stone Records

Ohio’s Five Horse Johnson are back at it with a fist full of Skynyrd meets Aerosmith blues. Granted, their version of the blues is stretched over ZZ Top muscle and Page’s Zeppelin-like grease. This has got to be the fifth or sixth release for this corn-fed three piece, and by all accounts their best and most cohesive. Few bands have the knack for embracing a roots-driven vibe like these guys. Clutch and COC come to mind, but 5-Horse are right in there. Maybe it’s the harp played over a straight-ahead rocker like “The Mystery Spot” or the massive bass riff in “Three Hearts” or even the catchy bumpity bump in “Ten Cent Dynamite.” Wherever they find their gin and whiskey, it’s all consuming, completely raw in texture and very addicting.

Fans of big hooks will find their fix in “Feed that Train,” “Keep your Prize” or “Call me Down.” That’s where Brad Coffin finds his euphoria, belting out solid, dense chords with backwoods warmth and tone. And even though Eric Oblander’s voice is still reminiscent of a young Lemmy (or Ted Nugent in “The Ballad Of Sister Ruth”) he finds enough originality to claim his own. Clutch drummer, Jean Paul Gaster sits in on the skins bringing in a militant-like drum fill in “Rolling Thunder” and “Gin Clear.” He and bassist Steve Smith lock down one of the heaviest rhythm sections alive. Killer grooves and grinding guitar make this one of the best blues-rock records since Louisiana’s Potliquor had their heyday in 1973. Don’t forget to check out the cover and other stunning artwork by artist Mark Dancey.

Websites: Five Horse Johnson, Small Stone Records