If you're looking for proof that rock has kept rolling throughout 2023, you've come to the right place. Six months into the year and there's no shortage of doozies.
There's been new collections from big hitters like Foo Fighters and Metallica. New favourites from old favourites like Jethro Tull, Rival Sons, The Damned and Iggy Pop. Youthful exuberance from Arielle, Those Damn Crows and Babymetal. Wisdom from Lucinda Williams and Taj Mahal. Unexpected Album Of The Year contenders from DeWolff, Avenged Sevenfold and Ian Hunter. Crown Lands made the best Rush album not made by Rush, Extreme roared back into action, and Def Leppard got themselves an orchestra. It's been great.
So here they are: the young bucks and the old stagers, the guitar wranglers and the prog noodlers, the blues greats and the mysterious religious types. All life is here, and it sounds good.
As 17 Top 50 UK singles and six million album sales worldwide testify, Mike Peters’ strength of character is matched by an unerring ability to create music that raises the spirits and stirs the soul. So while stadiumsized rabble-rousers Next and Whatever are delivered with trademark intensity, it’s when he drops his guard that Forwards really shines.
This album is the sound of a band with nothing to prove to themselves or anyone else. They’re not trying to challenge you, or to reinvent the wheel, they’re just conducting emotion, a raw feeling, and communicating it beautifully to their audience. And that’s why they slot in so neatly alongside the blues-rock giants that came before them – not because they’ve forensically studied and replicated their predecessors, but because they know instinctively that it comes from the heart, and that’s something that can’t be forced.
There are young ‘old souls’, and then there’s Arielle. A bone-deep analogue junkie with her own signature Brian May guitar, '73 is a pocket-sized Aladdin’s cave of 60s and early70s colour: all Stevie Nicks charisma and Allmans sunshine. ‘I was born with different roots,’ she sings. No kidding. That's Arielle's own 1973 Volkswagen bus on the cover.
Whether it’s the shimmering space opera of Cosmic and its dalliances with everything from Pink Floyd to Elton John, Beautiful Morning’s hazy, psychedelic pop crashing into grinding, Dimebag-esque riffs, or Easier channelling Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Kanye West and, er, Space Invaders in less than four minutes, this is the sound of Avenged not just casting off their own shackles but also the shackles of modern metal itself.
Japan’s Babymetal have survived 13 years in showbusiness without any essential deviation from their extraordinary mission plan, although The Other One, their third album, sees the band refining their sound with slightly more thoughtful chord changes, contemplative voice-overs (“Maybe what you see is all an illusion”) and moments of harmonic progression, but not too many. This is the maturing of 'cute metal', and it’s still nuts.
Wasting none of the momentum of their self-titled comeback album a couple of years ago, Can’t Die, Won’t Die is an effervescent love letter to rock’n’roll at its most joyous and uncomplicated. There’s a cheeky nod to Faith No More’s Be Aggressive on Destroyer, and an outbreak of shimmering, T.Rex-perfumed glam rock on Make Me Bleed – tasty Easter eggs hidden in among starbursts of gleaming, old-school metal riffs and timeless, feel-good hard rock attitude.
The mood is mostly joyous, and the guitars chime on demand. Ricky Warwick remembers tough times in Glasgow and Belfast, even weaving the city vernacular into a love song, Catch Yourself On. His home base is Los Angeles, but the warrior sentiments are Celtic; the track Green And Troubled Land is a bristling rebuke to political doublespeak at home and the morbid hand of history.
Tales Of Time comprises the New Yorker’s most compelling live collection to date. 2021 album Time Clocks finally gets the airing it deserves, and at Colorado’s striking Red Rocks Amphitheatre, these songs radiate with bluesy majesty. Notches and The Heart That Never Waits are both irresistible with devil-may-care swagger and Bonamassa’s fiery flourishes.
Somewhere amid the turbocharged funk (Turn It Up), sledgehammer riff-rock (One And Only) and vein-bulging barroom boogie (Let’s Get Wild) you get the sense of a band revitalised by the months on the road. A meditative Pain, in which Todd sighs ‘Some would say I threw it all away’, offers a glimpse of the emotional consequences of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, but the joie de vivre returns for a raucous rendition of Bryan Adams’s salacious jukebox perennial Summer Of ’69.
Slaughter Beach, Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone) and Nosferatu Madre represent the brand-spankingly fresh, while the deeper, older cuts make for a pleasant surprise. Escape From The Prison Planet kicks off the evening and we get Rats, Impetus, Green Buckets, 7 Jam and A Shogun Named Marcus. The band tear through the set with such fervour it feels like the wheels might fall off during the excellent double whammy of X-Ray Visions and Firebirds!. Sounds like one helluva gig.
Inspired by the Delta pioneers but not trying to mimic them, Voices is full of stories and oldworld darknesses, contrasts that haunt, move and entertain. Thematically it plants the genre in contemporary soil, showing that the blues needn’t be an exercise in pre-written nostalgia. Nothing But The Blues is an exhilarating update of the old ‘woke up this morning’ adage, while The Joy peers into the bittersweet passage of relationships – a bit like hearing Hendrix’s Little Wing revisited by Alice In Chains.
The record’s peppered with great songs, even their 18-minute opus (a word you feel they’ll enjoy) glides along beautifully, and the second half of the record pulls off some daring feats of pomp pop and rock. Dreamer Of The Dawn tears along with real panache, The Shadow has a wonderful, stuttering feel and a great overarching melody that is pure joy. Lady Of The Lake is prime Zeppelin at their woozy best, and The Citadel is lovely, lilting pomp complete with dreamy piano and a melody line that puts you in mind of early Queen.
Darkadelic is fairly breathless stuff. Captain Sensible is both savage and articulate on guitar, be it the Stooges-like blowout Follow Me, a merciless takedown of celebrity culture, or the ferocious Leader Of The Gang, a thinly veiled account of Gary Glitter’s fall from grace. All told, Darkadelic is a vital and reassuringly pugnacious return.
Comprising a trio of current and former members of Danger Danger – bassist Bruno Ravel and guitarist Rob Marcello always worked so well with Paul Laine, a singer whose voice was born to grace radio rock – it would be tempting to say The Defiants exist to fill a gap left by Danger Danger’s reluctance to create new music, but they’re much, much better than that. Each of these 11 tracks exude confidence, cockiness and character.
Always diligent guardians of their catalogue, Leppard are enhancing it here. Some of producer Mutt Lange’s layers have been sacrificed in order to de-clutter and accommodate the orchestra, but there are additions too. There’s a new guitar backdrop to the timpani-fest that is now Animal. And when in the third verse of Too Late For Love (which briefly threatens to break into Carmina Burana), the Joe Elliott of 2023 duets with the Joe Elliott of 1983 it’s spine tingling.
At times feeling a bit like the Blues Brothers gospel choir scene, the songwriting chops on display are astonishing, not least during the 16-minute soul-’n’-rock opera that is Rosita, the album’s undeniable jewel in the crown. From start to finish there is zero filler to be found here, everything from high-octane opener Night Train, via the slow blues of Mr Garbage Man and Stax horns-flavoured Message For My Baby, to psychedelic closer Queen Of Space & Time is carefully considered and delivered with passion.
Less funk out, more crunching, brightly produced hard rock, matched with some very cleverly arranged vocal parts, that veers between pop and metal but never sounds misplaced. They rattle – the excellent X Out, the Velvet Revolver-like Banshee – and hum on tracks like the delicate Hurricane and the classic pop-ballad twist of Other Side Of The Rainbow.
When it comes to pedigree, Fake Names are the Best In Show rosettewinners of the punk world. Featuring Dennis Lyxzén of Refused and The [International] Noise Conspiracy, Brian Baker of Minor Threat/Bad Religion/Dag Nasty, Michael Hampton of SOA/Embrace, Johnny Temple of Girls Against Boys, and Brendan Canty of Fugazi/Rites of Spring, their second album is a blast.
Grandfather Courage, an acoustic reimagining of 2022’s acclaimed White Jesus Black Problems recorded with his touring band, re-tells the story of the love affair between his seventh-generation Scottish grandmother and AfricanAmerican grandfather in 1750s Virginia. Oh Betty is the biggest benefactor from this strippedback approach, its feverish howl of anguish ever more potent as a rootsy funk lament.
After her graceful gearshifts between blues and country, Samantha Fish’s hugely promising partnership with Texas renegade Jesse Dayton drags her further towards the dark side. This smoke-blackened courtship dance peaks on the honeyed crunch of No Apology, Fish drawling into the mic like a rodeo queen fallen on hard times.
With But Here We Are, Grohl spends the bulk of Foo Fighters’ eleventh studio album battling to come to terms with Taylor Hawkins' death. Opener Rescued comes roaring out of the blocks as a stunned Grohl screams: ‘It came in a flash, it came out of nowhere/It happened so fast, and then it was over’, before hopelessly admitting: ‘I’m just waiting to be rescued, bring me back to life’. This is followed by the brilliant Under You, a song which sees the Foos revert back to the raw emotive sonics that painted The Colour And The Shape belter Monkey Wrench.
Ghost’s success is built on theatrical blasphemy, winking provocation and some blockbusting tunes. The masked Swedes’ third covers EP ticks all three boxes, even if the tunes belong to someone else. As always, singer and conceptual mastermind Tobias Forge has chosen five songs that fit his band’s worldview while fusing their musical DNA with his own.
Obviously there are riffs – where would Gov’t Mule be without them? – but more thought has gone into how the song will develop around them. The guitar riff on the opening Same As It Ever Was is perhaps the most melodic that Warren Haynes has come up with, coupled with a sublime descending bass line from Jorgen Carlsson. It expands into a Yes-style prog sequence with keyboards and drums piling in to create a glorious cacophony.
The central conceit here is that of mortality. And while that might seem simple enough, the band start with death and work backwards across two slabs of vinyl (or 10 CD tracks) to the wonderment of birth. Among the characteristic chugging rock of Rama (The Prophecy) and The End are three instrumentals that find Hawkwind stretching out.
There are harmonies from Todd Rundgren on the majestically Dylanesque Don’t Tread On Me, there’s a track featuring, impossibly, Taylor Hawkins, Billy Bob Thornton and Billy Gibbons, and there is the epic Angel, a ballad as good as anything Hunter has ever done, with the haunting line: ‘When we move, I hope we go to your place.’ Nobody but Hunter has the power, at this point in their career, to sound so fresh, so new and so exciting.