Saturday, August 31, 2013


Ax Inferno
Rainstorm Records (2013)

There is a scene in Casino Royale where James Bond is getting dressed for his big high-stakes poker showdown with Le Chiffre. He picks up a tuxedo jacket from the bed and glares at it. He struts into the bathroom where his fellow provocateur, Vesper Lynn, is applying make-up and exasperatedly claims "I already have a dinner jacket." She calmly replies "There are dinner jackets and dinner jackets…this is the latter." How does this relate to the new CD from guitar wizard Paul Speer? Well, yeah, Paul does wield his guitar with the same aplomb as James Bond does with his Walther P99…but here's what I am getting at. There are guitarists and there are guitarists…Paul Speer is the latter. There are plenty of guys and gals who can rip off stinging leads and thunderous power chords, displaying blindingly fast technique aplenty. However, there are much fewer who know that it takes more than flash and fire to impress a discerning listener. It takes discretion and wisdom to know when to strut and when not to; it takes brains and heart to compose killer hooks, catchy melodies, and infectious rhythms without making it sound commonplace or commercial. Paul Speer has all those qualities - and then some.

In an email exchange, when I told Paul that I appreciated what a great song writer he was and how he didn’t just thrown in flashy solos everywhere, he told me this: "Based on your comments, something about my playing and writing that may be of interest to you is how I structure what I do is influenced mostly by singers and horn players, not so much guitar players.  Many guitarists ramble on and on whereas singers and horn players need to breathe.  Hence, I feel they put more thought into each phrase.  Listen to what I play with that in mind.  I take breaths....."

Now, after all that, I'll start out this review by letting my inner child out - THIS ALBUM ROCKS AND ROCKS HARD! Whether Paul is playing with ace drummer Ron Krasinski or managing the beats and rhythms on his own, this baby will kick start your engine into high gear pronto. This music is lean, mean, and out for blood; a pulse-pounding mixture of instrumental rock, hard core electronic, progressive fusion, and floor-thumping techno. Ax Inferno is not what you listen to when you need to chill. Paul's guitar playing (and, by the way, he also plays bass and synthesizer) is a brilliant mixture of jaw-dropping but always tasteful (not aimless noodling) solos, solid rhythm guitar accompaniment, and melodies that grab you instantly, making you want to hit "repeat" the instant the song ends.

"Contents Under Pressure" makes a statement right out of the gate, as Speer fires off rapid staccato chords and Krasinski lays down a rock solid backing rhythm. Pulsing synth bass beats and keyboard blasts circle around superb lead lines that Speer lays down, juxtaposed by those chattering rhythm salvos. It's immediately apparent that Speer's solos and leads are pared to the bone for maximum efficiency with no waste whatsoever. Every pealing note soars into the stratosphere with a purpose. Ping-ponging synth chords (on headphones) pan from ear to ear dialing up the tracks' adrenalin rush to "11." This is only the first song! Rapid pulses of synth bass pepper the opening of "Accelerator" while Krasinski pounds away on the tom toms. Speers' lays down both a repeating motif and also soars with sustained echo notes and then tosses in chattering chords, adding even more fuel to the fire. If you play this album in your car, you may look down and see your speedometer read 100! "Tornado Warning" (the first track where Speer goes solo and the rhythms are programmed) shows that even without real drums, Speer can still rock the house. Here the mood is mysterious and eerie, with an undercurrent of swelling minor key synth pads and fast tempo drum kit rhythms with Speer offering up short, intense guitar leads. You can almost picture streaking across the flatlands of Oklahoma, in the heart of tornado alley, in pursuit of "the big one," grey skies threatening overhead and your blood racing with equal parts excitement and fear. Judicious use of sound effects (thunder, wind and a severe weather siren) only increase the palpable sense of danger in the music. Next, "Vortex" erupts with spacy synth effects anchored by seriously powerful drum work by Krasinski, followed by mournful sustained echoed leads by Speer.

The rest of the tracks include the subdued power pulses and flying fretwork of "Helion Prime," the pumping oomph bass rhythms and lush, flowing synths of "Powerglide (not to mention the delicious organ riffing alongside more superb guitar work), and the rock steady drum playing and stinging guitar fireworks of "Megatron" including some wah-wah wonder. To finish things off, Speer takes "Contents Under Pressure" and "Accelerator" and retools them for the dance floor, labeling each as the "Techno Mix." Take the already high energy of these two songs and now put a 125-140 BPM rhythm underneath it (for "Contents Under Pressure" while "Accelerator" clocks in a bit slower) and throw in a few more synths, plus strip out the drum track and substitute electronic beats.

Fans may have dreamt of an album like Ax Inferno after Speer released Hells Canyon with drummer Scott Rockenfield back in 2000. That was certainly a good album, but Ax Inferno is on an entirely different, and higher, level. Everything on this disc is polished to perfection (all booth tasks, i.e., production, engineering, mixing, were done by Speer). However, I’ll bet no one could have imagined the brilliance that Speer has captured on this recording. Seldom does this kind of electric guitar fire and fury get unleashed in such an accessible and, funny as it sounds, civilized manner. Paul Speer has brains, brawn and skills…kinda sounds a little like James Bond, huh?

The CD is available from, iTunes or from the artist.

REVIEW: BILL LESLIE - Scotland: Grace of the Wild

Scotland - Grace of the Wild
Greycliff Music (2013)

Bill Leslie (along with wife Cindy and son Will) traveled to the ancestral home of the Leslie clan recently and despite this being Bill's third visit to Scotland, for some reason, he saw the land with new eyes and a deeper sense of appreciation, fondness, and love for this country of rugged beauty, friendly people, and landscapes that are truly breathtaking. As he wandered taking photos just before and after dawn, some of the songs on this CD began to take root and grow in his mind. Scotland - Grace of the Wild is the eventual end product that sprung from those early morning walks as well as other travels during that trip. All I can say is we are fortunate he decided to get up early each morning. Leslie has blessed us with what I think is his finest album to date, a recording to cherish through many playings.

Having reviewed several earlier recordings by this talented multi-instrumentalist (guitar, whistles, piano, organ, keyboards), I knew the artist had a special affinity for Gaelic/Celtic music (there are usually some Celtic-influenced tracks on each album). I have commented more than once on how he and the accompanists (always hugely talented) he plays with sometimes resembles the pioneering Celtic fusion group Nightnoise (one of the founding artists on Windham Hill). On Scotland - Grace of the Wild, this comparison to Nightnoise reaches its zenith. Not in any way as an imitation, but as an evolution, continuing the same music magic that Mícháel Ó Domhnaill, Billy Oskay, Tríona Ní Dhomnaill and Brian Dunning started with their band. It goes without saying that if you are a fan of albums such as At the End of the Evening and Shadow of Time, you will likely love this record.

Scotland - Grace of the Wild features fourteen tracks, five of them traditional and nine of them original compositions by Leslie. Taking over a lot of the piano playing duties is long-time friend Bill Covington (who also did the piano arrangement and co-produced along with Leslie and John Plymale; Plymale and Wes Lachot mixed the album, and did a splendid job). Joining Leslie and Covington (who, by the way, also plays accordion on the CD) are Jennifer Curtis (violin), Nancy Green (cello), Will Leslie (percussion), David Oh (cello) and Melanie Wilsden (oboe).

Most of the music on the album is low-key, sometimes somber and reflective, other times warm and romantic. There are a few sprightly moments here and there, e.g. the light-hearted traditional tune, "Ye Banks and Braes" and the last third of the original song "Jonathan" which is where the Leslies, joined by Curtis, Green and Covington tear it up, playing with an outpouring of joyfulness and good cheer. "Flowers of Edinburgh" (another traditional piece) features a subdued but noticeable jauntiness and the song sounds like it has been around for a long time with an almost Renaissance feel to it (a brief online search credits its origin to 1740).

Many selections capture, in music, the very essence of a country with haunting moors shrouded in fog, sheer, mountains of rock, mysterious lochs surrounded by rolling hills, castles which have stood for hundreds of years, and charming towns and villages. The focal point of much of the album is Bill Leslie's evocative whistle playing, and while all the participating players contribute at one time or another, it is the lilting tones of his whistle that resonate deepest.

I wish I had the space to detail every track, as all are worthy of mention. The title track is a gentle meditation on which every artist takes a turn in the spotlight (whistle, violin, cello, oboe) and then come together as a group, finishing with piano and guitar in the spotlight. "Loch Lomond" is emotionally rich and heartrendingly beautiful, featuring a particular nice piano arrangement by Covington. "Dunnottar" features ambient keyboards underneath a plaintive whistle melody accompanied by guitar, piano, accordion and violin (the latter which also takes the lead at times). The only solo number on the disc is the closing "Across the Moor" which brings the CD to a perfect ending, evoking the titular fog-shrouded landscape via deep echo on the Low D Michael Burke whistle and a subtle yet effective drone underneath.

One thing that has to be emphasized is how much of an ensemble affair Scotland - Grace of the Wild ultimately is. Leslie has always been an excellent band leader, never being selfish and hogging the spotlight, but giving everyone their opportunity to take over a song and put his or her stamp on it. While his whistle may seem to dominate the recording, it's only because the sound of the whistle is so deeply connected with Scotland and Leslie is such an expert player. Every single artist who is on this disc deserves credit, so if I have made it seem otherwise, my apologies. However, since Bill Leslie penned the originals, he does get an extra nod and tip o' the hat.

If you come to love Scotland - Grace of the Wild as much as I do, the only hazard you face is a hungry longing to travel there and witness its beauty and charms in person. Still, I suppose that's what our imaginations are for…traveling without traveling. With music this wonderful, all we need do is close our eyes. 

NOTE: This CD will officially be released in mid-October. Links to sale outlets will be added to this review the album is available for purchase. Past Bill Leslie recordings have been available at Amazon, CDBaby and iTunes.


When Dreams Come True
CMMP (2013)

It didn't take more than a minute or two into the first playing for me to realize that Curtis Macdonald's When Dreams Come True was something special. After the first four songs, I also realized that the album was clearly one of my favorites of 2013. After getting through the entire recording, I sat there and my main thought was "Why oh why have I not heard of this guy until now?" This is Macdonald's 17th release! Why was this guy not on my radar? Well, he damn sure is now!

Macdonald refers to this album as being centered round romance. "A collection of memorable relaxed rhythmic ballads that is emotional and tender with reflections of love, hope and remembrance." However, from my perspective, When Dreams Come True is more than just what Macdonald describes. It's a world class assortment of chill-out/downtempo tunes that are polished to a chromium sheen; this album, my friends, is why the term "ear candy" was coined. The melodies (almost always featuring piano in the lead) are one killer hook after another and the rhythms and beats are ultra-smooth and ridiculously infectious. Production values are flawless. The mix (by Tony Ugval) places everything in perfect location in the sound field and is superbly balanced. Every note, every ambient texture, every keyboard fill, every beat and pulse  is recognizable as being separate from everything else, yet the blending is such that while you can pick out the individual instruments, you can also just melt into the total package of each of these 12 luxuriously chilled tracks.

As I absorbed the music deeper through my ten-plus playings of this CD, I came to "hear" that, yes, romance is a lynchpin of the recording. It's not just exemplified in the song titles ("Holder of My Heart," "We Have Each Other," "With a Love like Ours") but also in the melodies which are always of a smooth, flowing nature with rich, usually with warm major key lead refrains. However, this emphasis on "love" does not detract from what is the album's musical strength, i.e. extremely catchy tunes enhanced with spot-on application of assorted "lite electronica" and buoyed by chill-out/downtempo beats that add catchy, toe-tapping rhythms without ever veering away from the overall good-nature of the music itself. When Dreams Come True should evoke comparisons to contemporaries such as Dave Mauk, David Wahler, and Ryan Farish, and to a lesser extent, Davol. Macdonald is never as revved up as some of these artists (especially Davol), so this CD is a must-play for those who are hungry for late night chill-out tuneage with a dash of sophistication, a mellow vibe, and just the right amount of sensuality to be noticeable but not overpowering. Whether you are courting someone new over cocktails in your downtown loft at midnight or renewing a long-time love in front of a roaring fire in a cabin up north, When Dreams Come True will fill the air with an air of romance without one ounce of schmaltz, syrup or overkill.

Singling out individual tracks for inclusion in this review is a tough call. The opening "All Roads Lead to You" starts with a reverbed piano line over fluid, flowing synth washes before the mid-tempo chill beats emerge and percolate away, bringing to mind the image of cruising down a country highway with the sun setting against rolling hills in the distance. Somber synth strings kick off "Holder of My Heart" and the quasi-glitchy beats and melancholic piano melody drape a veil of subdued romance over the prelude, while the main body of the song amps up the rhythms with some thumping bass. Macdonald has an unbelievable knack for writing melodies that sound heartfelt yet accessible, sweet but never sappy. Buzzing, whirring retro synths open "Diamonds in the Night Sky" along with Sputnik-ish bleeps, then the piano comes into the picture, as well as the midtempo trap kit beats, and the evocation is of walking underneath a canopy of stars, perhaps along a tropical beach. "Through a Painter's Eyes" starts off low-key with just piano and bass - very ballad-like - but a semi-lounge motif is introduced via various keyboard sounds and subdued but faster tempo rhythms.

Well, I could go on and on. However, in some ways, words can't convey that, while the literal written description of each track may infer that each song sounds somewhat the same (piano lead melody, synth textures, midtempo chill-out beats), each track is absolutely distinct and different. Because each track is structured around the same core elements, the album's continuity and cohesion are tight and solid. When Dreams Come True can be enjoyed either piece-by-piece or all at once. The main thing, though, is to pick up on it and start enjoying it!

The album is available from CDBaby, and iTunes.