Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We’re Gonna Rise Above

England’s Rise Above Records has long been one of my favourite labels. Proprietor Lee Dorrian has great taste in working with bands that, while not exactly being “retro”, usually embody old-school values in recording and presentation. Spanning styles from the whimsical minstrelsy of Circulus, to the musty proto-metal of Witchcraft, to the agonizing doom of Moss, Rise Above bands make records that sound live and natural.

Although the label started as a way for Dorrian to stay off the dole and release 7-inch singles by the likes of Napalm Death and SOB, it soon began to specialize in doom, via the Dark Passages compilation (left), and picking up bands like Orange Goblin, Sheavy, and Electric Wizard along the way. (See Terrorizer #177 for the full story.)

These days Rise Above releases bands representing a handful of different scenes: metal, prog, stoner rock, folk, and (as ever) doom. And whatever scene a given Rise Above band represents, you know they’re going to have that “X” factor of individuality, quirkiness and coolness that inspired Dorrian to sign them in the first place.

Rise Above releases have usually been difficult to track down in stores. A couple years ago, selected new titles got picked up for distribution via Candlelight USA. Now they appear to have a full partnership with Metal Blade for North America, making the latest Rise Above releases affordable and easy to find in mainstream places like HMV.

Over the next couple days, I’ll reviewing four Rise Above albums I’ve picked up recently.

Firebird—Grand Union
Five albums in, and Bill Steer and co. never fail to rock righteously. Grand Union is another satisfying album of power-trio blues/rock that’s beautiful in its simplicity and lack of pretension—guitar panned left, bass coming through the right, drums and vocals up the middle. The nine originals and three covers explore the usual Firebird territory, which resides in the 35-year-old parameters drawn up by Robin Trower and Humble Pie. Grand Union is a little more blatantly bluesy than 2006’s Hot Wings. For every outright rocker like “Blue Flame” (love the cowbell) and “Jack the Lad”, there’s a laid-back shuffle in the form of “Release Me” or “See the Light.” While it’s all effortlessly enjoyable, I sometimes worry about Firebird’s lack of obvious progression. Steer’s guitar playing certainly keeps improving—the slide work on “Silent Stranger,” “Release Me” and “Caledonia” is impressive—and his turn on the harmonica during a rip-roaring cover of Duster Bennett’s “Worried Mind” is very cool as well. He might mess with the formula by working with guest vocalists, or keyboards, or doing a live album of new material. Really, though, as long as Steer’s into what he’s doing and still releasing albums, I’ll take Firebird any way I can get them.

Astra—The Weirding
Man, Astra sure saw me coming. This kind of low-tech psych/prog gets me all hot and bothered. Earlier this summer I complained about Wobbler’s songwriting shortcomings. Astra have many of the same sounds at their disposal, but they deploy them much more carefully, devastating as they go. I can best describe them as a hybrid of Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. The 15-minute title track is one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, combining pastoral vocal melodies, masses of Mellotrons, some jamming reminiscent of “Echoes,” and heavy guitar riffs. It’s Meddle meets Master of Reality, and it slays. Not all the following tracks have as much to chew on. “Silent Sleep,” for example, milks its components to create an epic when it could have been a perfectly serviceable album track in the style of “Seven Stones” by Genesis. “The River Under” plods a bit as well. “Ouroboros” is the other key track, opening with a strong theme of Goblin-esque Mellotron choirs before segueing into a space jam—kudos to the guitarist(s) (sorry I can’t ID the chap—three band members have guitar listed as their first instrument) for keeping it moving forward to its final movement, which sounds like Opeth of all things. Great ’70s-obsessed minds think alike, I guess. It’s hard to believe that Astra are from California, as The Weirding sounds like it was hatched in a Welsh forest. There’s a whiff of a creative anachronism society about it (the drums in particular sound purposely primitive), but the woody I pop every time I play this album does not lie—they're for real.

No comments: