2015 Preview: Von Hertzens, Black Star Riders, Alice Cooper, Nightwish

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From returning heroes Black Star Riders to Finnish prog rock upstarts the Von Hertzen Brothers, here are four must-hear albums set to land in 2015.

VON HERTZEN BROTHERS

Finnish prog’s first family promise a new album that shuns those epic 12-minute songs in favour of ‘straightforward rock’.

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Mikko Von Hertzen is a long way from home. We catch up with him at The Warehouse, Bryan Adams’s studio in downtown Vancouver, some 4,600 miles from his native Helsinki. This is where he’s overseeing the mix of Sunday Child, the final piece for the Von Hertzen Brothers’ as-yet-untitled sixth album. “We’re running a marathon here,” he says, chugging his second coffee of the day, “not the hundred metres. We’re that kind of band. Eventually I feel all this hard work will pay off.”

That’s a feeling shared among the Von Hertzens’ ever-swelling fan base. Finnish siblings Mikko, Jonne and Kie have been plugging away since forming in 2000. Their consistent upward trajectory lately saw their excellent Nine Lives album nominated for Album Of The Year at the 2013 Classic Rock Awards, and the progressive impetus that distinguishes their catchy, anthemic rock has also assured them regular praise in Classic Rock’s sister magazine, Prog.

That said, they’ve changed stylistic tack on album number six. All three brothers have brought songs to the table this time, and Mikko says there was one cardinal rule: “Avoid the twelve-minute song! If you have a good idea, make a nice tight package and use the other ideas for other songs. Because of our nature we slipped a little from that, but this is going to be the most straightforward rock album we’ve ever done.”

Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were influences, but as a teenager Mikko was also into the Seattle scene, and especially The Posies. “They had such great harmonies, and Frosting On The Beater – what an album. That power pop/grunge influence is more on this album than the previous. [New song] Hold Me Up has a strong Posies influence, and Long And Winding Road too. Jonne has a big, indie, Sigur Rós thing going on, and he loves Crosby Stills And Nash. The Destitute is one of his. It’s this trippy, jammy, 70s psychedelia thing combined with a little Red Hot Chili Peppers. Randy [Staub] has done an awesome job mixing it. He’s a cynical guy, but even he was like: ‘This is a great fucking song, man!’”

As well as bringing in seasoned mixer Staub (whose past clients include Metallica and Bon Jovi), the brothers were led to Canada by their choice of top-of-the-line production talent. “We came up with four names, and decided on Garth ‘GGGarth’ Richardson,” says Mikko. “We knew Garth from the Rage Against The Machine albums he did in the early 90s, and the Biffy Clyro records, and we knew he could bring more of an edge to what we’re doing.”

Richardson spent two weeks in August 2014 in Helsinki with the band, pre-producing 16 of the songs they’d written while on the road. Just two weeks later, the band – along with regular VHB keyboardist Juha Kuoppala and drummer Mikko Kaakkuriniemi – were tracking in the producer’s own Farm Studios in Vancouver.

Most importantly, this will be the first Von Hertzen Brothers album to get a full worldwide release, and the first to get a proper push in the ever-crucial US. “It’s a big world and I’m excited that this’ll be coming out everywhere,” says Mikko. “This is a big step for the band – a world-class producer and mixer, all these different aspects are finally coming together. But if we do get bigger, I know we’ve paid our dues.”

The Von Hertzen Brothers’ album is due for release in March 2015 on Spinefarm Records.

NIGHTWISH

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Expect orchestral grandeur, Irish bagpipes and Richard Dawkins on album number eight, say the Symphonic Finns.

So, you’ve pioneered symphonic metal for nearly 20 years, your arrangements have become increasingly lavish, your stage shows look like a set from Lord Of The Rings, and you’ve eaten your way through multiple leading-lady vocalists. How do you give your eighth LP that certain je ne sai quoi? You get militant atheist Richard Dawkins involved, for some spoken-word fun.

“Tuomas [Holopainen, founder/songwriter] is a fan, and part of the lyrics are inspired by the way Dawkins writes and thinks,” explains Nightwish’s latest vocalist, Floor Jansen, previously of progressive metal acts ReVamp and After Forever. “So they contacted him and explained what the songs were about, and he agreed to do it. The guys went over to meet him and record. It’s very special and exciting.”

The album, titled Elegia and recorded in Nightwish’s native Finland, is slated for release in March 2015. It builds on classic Nightwish staples, but with everything “a little different, a little bigger, a little more. I think it’s heavier as well,” Jansen adds. “But there’s a lot of diversity, orchestral stuff to very raw stuff…”

The ‘orchestral stuff’ has been part of the band’s sound for years. For Elegia they relocated to London to work with a 45-piece orchestra, an adult choir and a children’s choir. Everything was arranged by ex-Status Quo producer Pip Williams, and layered with exotic drums and traditional percussion. “Basically, a set of the greatest, weird-looking things you can hit,” Jansen says, laughing. And Nightwish’s British recruit, Troy Donockley, has enhanced their folk side by bringing in uilleann pipes (traditional Irish bagpipes). “And the way we do three-part vocal harmonies with Troy, Marco [Hietala, bass] and me makes the sound very folky.”

ETA: March 2015

BLACK STAR RIDERS

They’re breaking away from Thin Lizzy, insist Ricky Warwick and Scott Gorham.

Scott Gorham and Ricky Warwick believe that the second album from Black Star Riders, The Killer Instinct, sees the group sounding less like Thin Lizzy than on its 2013 predecessor, All Hell Breaks Loose. Instead they’re moving forwards with an identity of their own. “It’s much more diverse than the debut, far less reliant upon that Thin Lizzy sound,” states ex-Lizzy guitarist Gorham.

“I believe it will please both sets of fans,” reckons vocalist/guitarist Warwick. “We’ll never lose that Lizzy vibe while Scott’s in the band. But without the pressure of writing for a Thin Lizzy album [which was the case before evolving into BSR] things were much easier for me.”

Both men speak warmly of Nick Raskulinecz, the Grammy-winning producer they hired when Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott had to pull out due to scheduling issues. Although it’s surprising to hear that until Raskulinecz’s name was raised by BSR drummer Jimmy DeGrasso, Gorham had never heard of him. “That’s a bit embarrassing,” Gorham admits, “but Nick gets a big, deep sound with a lot of energy.”

It helped that, in stark contrast to All Hell, which was recorded in just 12 days, this time there was the luxury of three weeks, plus seven days of rehearsal and pre-production with Raskulinecz. The Killer Instinct, which includes the tracks Soldierstown, Sex, Guns And Gasoline and You Little Liar, arrives in February 2015, in time for a co-headline tour with Europe.

ETA: February 2015

THUNDER

They said they’d never make another album. They told a porkie.

Six years ago, Thunder swore off making records for good. Given that we’re talking about a band who have retired twice, only to reunite a few years later on both occasions, it was wise to take that proclamation with a pinch of salt.

And so, in a not-entirely-surprising turn of events, the Londoners release their tenth album, Wonder Days, on February 16. In fairness, singer Danny Bowes initially declined guitarist Luke Morley’s suggestion that they return to the studio and make a follow-up to 2008’s Bang, until being worn down by a process of attrition.

“I told Luke that I’d listen to some songs, but unless they were great I didn’t want to know,” Bowes says. Most were excellent but, for the first time in a four-decade collaborative friendship, Bowes sought some rewrites: “It was a bit of a punch-up, creatively speaking. But it was worth it.”

Thunder certainly seem to have rediscovered their songwriting spark, if the likes of the Zeppelin-esque title track and epic ballad Broken are anything to go by. And there’s good news on a personal level too: guitarist/keyboard player Ben Matthews, who was forced to sit out recording while he underwent treatment for cancer, has now been given the all-clear.

“He’s over the moon, as we are,” says Bowes. “He’s still quite poorly, but all he has to do is concentrate on recovering his energy and strength.”

ETA: February 2015

ALICE COOPER

_ Covers album due from the shock-rock godfather._

Alice Cooper’s long-awaited covers album is tentatively titled All My Dead Drunk Friends and will be produced by Bob Ezrin. It’s a homage to some of The Coop’s deceased influences and former members of his notorious mid-70s drinking club known as the Hollywood Vampires.

Some of the songs covered have already featured in Cooper’s recent live shows. “I gave the audience a little taste of what to expect,” he says. “Alice gets his head cut off, they wheel him out on a gurney, and in the next part of the show he wakes up in the graveyard of the Hollywood Vampires. The gravestones come up, and it’s Jim Morrison and you do [The Doors’] Break On Through (To The Other Side), then it’s Jimi Hendrix, Foxy Lady, Keith Moon [The Who’s] My Generation and John Lennon [The Beatles’] Revolution.”

As Alice freely admits of his dead drunk friends, “there are a lot of them, from Marc Bolan, Arthur Lee, Harry Nilsson… There are only three survivors from the Hollywood Vampires: myself, Bernie Taupin and Mickey Dolenz.”

However, Alice remains frustratingly tight-lipped when it comes to revealing the album’s apparently impressive dramatis personae of A-list guest stars. “I wish I could tell you who’s on this album,” he insists, “because it’s a kind of a Who’s Who of everything, but they won’t let me talk about that yet. I can say it was a really satisfying album to make. People kept calling up saying, hey, I wanna play on this or I wanna play on that, and it just started snowballing.”

ETA: Early 2015