13 August, 2013

Album Review: Blanco Diablo - Attack the Fire

No review of a record of this sort would be complete without a backstory.  And my backstory for this review is pretty extensive.

Back sometime in 2006 or 2007 I was invited by a friend and local music promoter, Chris "Big Daddy" Serrano to join him at Zakk's Coffeehouse in Murfreesboro, NC to go see "House of Lords", a rock outfit featuring Jimi Bell on guitar.  Jimi Bell had been considered the shoe-in to take over guitar duties in the Ozzy Osbourne band after Jake E. Lee's ouster... right up until Ozzy was introduced to Zakk Wylde.

Also featured on the bill that night was a metal band out of Richmond whose lead guitarist eventually became one of my closest confidants in the regional music scene, Ed Savoy of "Bullistic".

The third band was a three-piece outfit called "Blanco Diablo".  I had never heard of them before, but the venue wasn't too filled, so I took a space up front just before I had my face torn completely off.  Blanco Diablo is fronted by Jamie Ray who, if you squint just a little, could be a perfect doppelganger for the aforementioned Mr. Wylde, circa Pride & Glory.  Long, flowing blonde hair, whispy, barely-there beard stubble, cleft chin, Les Paul slung insanely low, cockney swagger, road-worn faded jeans - and chops.  My God, this guy could play.  I have been listening to rock-and-roll music for almost three decades and this was only the second or third time I actually felt like I was witness to something phenomenal, remarkable.

At the time I was also promoting shows in the Hampton Roads area at a club called "Steppin' Out" (a location now occupied by The Jewish Mother) and I absolutely HAD to have this band come and play one of my shows.  I wanted EVERYONE to hear what I had heard in this band.  Their first record "Paper, Poison, Revolution" was exactly the raw, raucous, uncompromising, "snarling firepiss rock-and-roll" that I felt the scene desperately needed to light a fire under its butt.

I invited them to come headline one of my shows and they agreed.  Between then and the date of the show I nearly wore their CD out, listening to it over and over again, mesmerized by the songwriting, the arrangements, and the intensity they managed to inject into every song.

In the ensuing handful of years I had Blanco Diablo back to town a half-dozen times, sometimes playing support to other bands, sometimes headlining on bills where I only wanted the opportunity to hear them again.

Their sophomore effort "Killing Kings" was a lesser-publicized release and did not see a lot of fanfare or resultant airplay on terrestrial radio, though the title track was picked up by a handful of streaming radio stations online.  To me "Killing Kings" seemed like it was never intended for mass consumption.  The copy I was given contained no liner notes, no gatefold; only a CD with a black-and-white inkjet-printed label in a compact jewel case.

But I listened intently because I was hungry for anything new I could get from them, and I was not to be disappointed.  "Killing Kings" was what I would call "studio raw".  It sounded almost unfinished, like a record that got put out before being sent to final mastering; demo tracks.  But that's the sound I like from bands, when their sound is CAPTURED rather than manufactured.

Over the years, the Blanco Diablo lineup has consisted of guitarist/singer/frontman Jamie Ray, bassist Patrick Jason Boswell and just enough different drummers for me to lose track.  Prior to the recording of "Killing Kings" drummer Bradley "B-rad" Snipes took over the hitherto ephemeral position and made it his own.  That lineup is the same one which we hear on the third release, "Attack the Fire".

In casual conversation with Jamie (who along with the rest of the band I now consider PERSONAL friends) I congratulated them on their new record, produced by the legendary and incomparable Chris Tsangarides (Anvil, Bruce Dickinson, Y&T) and Jamie asked me for my address.  About a week went by and (as I had expected) a copy of the new album arrived in my mail.

I have to make an aside here: I WANTED to like this record immediately... but I couldn't.  My head just wasn't in it.  I told Jamie about my misgivings and he responded "Yeah, bro, it's not Paper, Poison.  That's the thing.  There can only be ONE Paper, Poison.  We're proud of that record, man, but this is the record we did this time, and we're proud of this one, too."  Jamie is a godd*mn warrior poet.  What he said wasn't the kind of bulls**t you hear from musicians all the time who make a great record and then follow it up with another record that sounds so exactly the same that you forget which record you're even listening to.  It was a real statement about Blanco Diablo, and it made me put the album on and spin it over and over and OVER again.  It made me go back and give it the kind of listen that ANY record deserves.

The production values are what you would expect from a world-class engineer like Tsangarides.  At times though, I can almost hear him in the background demanding one more take or one more track to overdub into the mix.  As a result, "Attack the Fire" is very clean and polished and that amount of lustre tends to take away from the rawness, the grittiness of the experience.

Jamie's guitar tone hearkens back to that mid-heavy, chugging mid-to-late '80s sound of players like Jake E. Lee, Dave Meniketti, Sammy Hagar, Tommy Shaw, etc.  It is meaty and cuts, unlike a lot of today's super-scooped, detuned tone hacks.  His setup has ALWAYS been very minimalistic, and I have deeply respected him about that, being able to coax most of his sound out of just his hands, a chunk of lumber and strings.

And, to be brutally honest, some of it is quite amazing... but some of it, well, here goes:

Track No.
  1. No More Promises

  2. This song has a catchy hook, but ultimately fails to deliver as a "great" song.  Somewhere along the way the lyrics, especially in the chorus, just kind of disconnect.  I can't place my finger on it exactly, but if I was to try and say what I didn't like about this song it would be that it doesn't really have anything about it that stands out to me.  This song reminds me of something I might have written and then tried to force-fit to an existing arrangement, rather than write a entirely new song.

  3.  All I Know

  4. This song starts out with a kind of Slade, "Run Run Away" vibe to it and then almost becomes a surf-rock song.  The transitions remind me of Gary Hoey, particularly his earlier stuff off of "The Endless Summer II" soundtrack and "Animal Instinct".  It is a very up-tempo, jingly song, something you can really tap your fingers to when you're out on a drive.

  5.  Combination

  6. Listening to this song makes me wonder what the name of the girl is who pissed Jamie off.  It's obviously an ode to someone, but who?  This is one of those tunes that is either one or the other of two things:

    Inspired by a bar brawl.
    Intended to start one.

    Whoever the antagonist is, she's a real mean catch.  Like the girl in Y&T's "Keep on Running".

  7.  Monsters

  8. Now we're getting somewhere.  "Monsters" starts off with what sounds like a nod to Black Label Society, segueing into a Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains) type melodic riff before really taking off.  I believe this song was intended as a "single" and has received some advance screening and critical acclaim in the music industry community.  That being said, "Monsters" is an inside-the-park home run.  Well, maybe ground rule double.  It has a slickness and production that wouldn't scare off someone listening to Blanco Diablo for the very first time, but is certainly genuine enough to tantalize long-time fans.

  9.  Trouble Walkin'

  10. This track starts out with a classic AC/DC-style boogie riff and settles in to a steady groove throughout.  One of the standout parts of this song is the solo.  There is slide.  Slide, slide, slide.  My ex-guitar player used to play a lot of slide.  Killer slide.  I could never get it down, but he had it.  Damn, I miss it sometimes.  In this song Jamie goes to the slide and unleashes a torrential downpour of unassuming, rotgut, cajun deep-south blues.  It's a rollicking little ride, but it's one of those rides where you don't feel like you're going to fall off and get hurt... but just barely.

  11.  No Prophet

  12. This song has all of the trimmings of a mid-career Led Zeppelin tune.  I hear "Dancing Days" and "The Crunge" (both off of Houses of the Holy).  The progressions are very mid-'70s without being overly nostalgic and there's that kinky fill which makes me want to ask someone where to find that confounded bridge.

  13.  Shadows of Angels

  14. Track 7 turns the "blues" knob down a notch while turning the "rock" knob up.  It actually sounds a lot like any number of songs that I've written but could never get to come together, always missing the mark by a lick here or a transition there.  Jamie must have found those missing pieces and put this song together.  I'm glad somebody finally did.  I always wondered what it would sound like finished.  And I would be remiss if I did not point out how much I dig the solo in this song.  The first movement sounds like something my old boy Dave Coleman would have written.  I mean, I can almost even hear him playing it.  The middle of the solo is a bit disconnected and sounds less rehearsed, while the last movement is Dave all over again. 

    Seriously, listening to this song made me kind of wish I HAD written it back in my old band so I could have heard Dave write this solo.

    Additionally, and while I cannot be absolutely sure, it sounds as if Jamie clicks over to the neck pickup for the solo, a-la Alex Skolnick (Testament) in one of my all-time favorites, "Electric Crown".

  15.  Hot July Damnation

  16. This song, of all the ones on the record, is the one that has grown on me probably the most.  There is an eerie "wubba-wubba-wubba" thing going on under the guitar in the very beginning which kind of reminds me of "Legs" by ZZ Top.  But the main riff; very heavy, almost like a thick treakle.  It is syrupy and sticky... but not in the way that makes you want to wipe it off like, say, a Nickleback riff.  It remains heavy throughout and that drives the song like a coke-addled long-haul trucker trying to sneak past one more weigh station so he finally crash.

  17.  Season in Hell

  18. "Season in Hell" is the obligatory slow song.  Every record seems like it has to have one, and this is theirs.  I don't have much of an opinion either way on this track.  It starts out like a brooding, sad ballad-ey kind of thing and then becomes more of a dirge.  Overall it was hard for me to follow because it is the one track that really sticks out to me as being the odd-man-out.  It just doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the record.

  19.  Pretty in Pieces

  20. And then.  And then.  Now that I have listened to this album AND watched the video produced for this song... every listen to this record leaves me wishing more of the songs were like this one.  It is attributed by Jamie Ray to be a kind of ode to the television show "Dexter" which features the main character leading a double life as a blood-pattern splatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department and, alternately, as a serial killer.  There are so many things this track brings to mind.  In one moment I recall the first time I heard "Painkiller" by Polish metal band "Mech".  Crushing.  Brilliant.  Terrifying.  In another moment I can hear Chris Tsangarides channeling John Lord on a Hammond B3.  In yet another instance I can make allusions to key components of a song my band is in the middle of writing, except now I have to double-up and make sure I don't end up writing this song again by accident.

    If I only had one song on this record that I could choose to try and explain to someone what I thought Blanco Diablo was about, this would probably be the one.  I said there were some songs on this album that were truly amazing.  This is their granddaddy.

    "Pretty in Pieces" is that naughty girl you could never bring home to mother.  The whole "madonna/whore" complex.

  21.  Locked and Loaded

  22. If you can believe it, this sounds like a poppier version of Van Halen's "Feel Your Love Tonight".  Now that I've said that, I dare you to listen to this song and not hear it.  It's not necessarily a bad song, I just wanted to mess with your head a bit.

  23.  Walk On

  24. This tune has a main riff reminisce of Ozzy Osbourne's "Bark at the Moon", a song I KNOW I have heard Jamie cover and one I myself used to noodle with from time to time.  It's kind of a "goodbye" song of sorts in its lyrics.  I really like the solo break in this song despite that nagging sensation that there's something missing and I just can't put my finger on it.  It may be that I know Jamie's style and it is apparent he wrote multiple guitar parts for one [each] song, knowing full-well he can only play one part or another at any given time.  In those instances, since I haven't heard any of these songs live (yet!) I hope that Patrick steps up to the plate and fills the gaps.
So there you have it.  My in-depth and completely 100% incontrovertible and inarguable opinion of the third salvo from Blanco Diablo.  Ultimately, because I love this band and think that overall, they are STILL one of the best bands I have ever heard, this record deserves a spin or two from any fan of hard rock and heavy metal, if for no other reason than to give Jamie, Patrick and B-Rad the motivation to keep slugging it out in the clubs and bars, to keep writing, and to keep recording their brand of snarling firepiss rock-and-roll.  Because, dammit, I'm already looking forward to their next album!

12 August, 2013

Gear Review: GAMO Whisper

I bought this rifle from Cheaper Than Dirt knowing VERY LITTLE about airguns and having only a few friends to pry for help on the subject.

The "Whisper" is a .177 caliber, single-shot, break-barrel rifle.  It requires some 30-35 lbs to breach and load.  There is an integrated safety and it comes with fairly well-mounted fiber optic sights and scope, as well as a 50rnd tube of GAMO "Raptor" PBA (Performance Ballistic Alloy) ammunition.  I paid $175 plus shipping.

Online reviews for this rifle and similar ones from other manufacturers were wildly disparate. Some heralded the gun as a brilliant shooter while others bemoaned it as clumsy and poorly built. Still others claimed the scope was complete garbage.

None of the latter were experienced on this end.  I sighted the gun using the included PBA ammo and it made a "crack" like a .22 when fired.  Not very "silent" at all.  However, inside of seven rounds I was able to soundly hit a 2" target at 25 yards using just the iron sights.  Now, I have a reasonable amount of experience with modern firearms, and I practice with some regularity, so shooting is not a foreign activity.  Once I had the irons where I wanted them, I mounted the included scope and I must say, for a "cheap piece of junk" as some reviewers elsewhere have suggested, I was blown away.  The tube appears to be extruded aluminium mounted in the typical airgun version of a Weaver rail.  The reticle has seven (7) focal lengths (3-9x40) and reads as a wide-duplex type.  Considering that, the lines are crisp and tuning it was very simple, requiring no tools.  Even shooting the PBA ammo I was able to deadeye my 2" circle inside of seven rounds to my satisfaction.

Red Circles = iron sights; Blue Circles = scope On my way home from work the following day I picked up some Crosman Destroyer ammo and aside from the telltale "pop" of the air expelling, there was almost no noticeable report.

I bought this weapon for target shooting, teaching and varmint control on my property.  Squirrels have just been devastating my birdfeeders.  The rifle arrived at my office on a Thursday afternoon, I sighted it in on Friday evening and the hunt was on.  Saturday in my AO brought WICKED downpours.  Sunday was a much better opportunity and I was not let down.  Around mid-afternoon the little rascal was marauding about the back yard terrorizing the finches and wrens.  I crept around the corner of the house and took a knee.  He must have spotted me briefly, because he took off for cover of a stack of pallets another 10 yds away from the feeder.

He paused briefly and it was all I needed.  One shot, one kill.  When I paced it off it was a clean 25 yard shot.

The only reason I could not give this gun a top rating is that it is quite heavy (though cradles easily) and does not come with any way to mount a conventional sling.  I understand that there are a number of airgun slings out there, so I will have to investigate that shortly.  Also, the report is quite loud when using non-lead ammo.  A great shooter I hope to get many good years out of.

Another drawback based solely on my reason for purchase is that it probably would not make a good instructional aid.  This rifle is just a bit much for a young shooter, I think.

On all other counts I would definitely recommend a member of the GAMO "Whisper" line to anyone looking for a powerful, accurate air rifle.