‘Cause Heaven’s Full

At the beginning of this month-long project I mentioned how most of us sought out our own “comfort music” to deal with all the upheaval and stress that 2020 brought us, and the next few days, including today, focus on three different themes of comfort music that truly shaped my 2020.

One interesting thing about 2020 was that it was the year the “metal” genre vanished from my most-listened to genres on Spotify. Of course, a lot of what people call hard rock today was metal back when I first started listening to it, but I can’t fight it. If Iron Maiden isn’t metal, well, you can go die on that hill while I scoff at you like the 50 year-old dinosaur that I am. Another big shift, on the other hand, was how I instinctively reached for ‘70s heavy metal, hard rock, and rock during the pandemic. I spent three very difficult months working in an empty building at my day job, and although it was horrible dealing with the righteous indignance of mildly inconvenienced white men day in and day out, part of my self-preservation instinct compelled me to crank the entire back catalogues of my favourite bands for seven or eight hours, and even a few bands I wasn’t as familiar with. One day would be Bob Seger, the next would be King Crimson, the next would be Talking Heads. I still regret not doing a Genesis day, but maybe I’ll do that during the next lockdown. Anyway, because I had this music going on all day long for three months, I formed quite the obsession with vintage rock, and by the time my own Spotify Wrapped came out, my top five artists were Blue Öyster Cult, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, and Rush. Say what you will about Spotify’s algorithms, this year was deadly accurate in my case.

Old man likes old man music.

I was perfectly happy listening to all that old music. After all, it’s wonderful, and heartens back to an era where the big arena bands had a mystique to them and if they didn’t look like gods, they sure as hell sounded like gods. Today the surviving members of those five bands are all in their 60s and 70s now, and there’s no reason at all for them to prove themselves with new music this late in their career. They’ve done enough. But lo and behold, three of those bands put out new music that, much to my huge surprise, turned out to be incredibly rewarding and fun.

Deep Purple is obviously best remembered for their work from the late-‘60s through the mid-70s, and to a lesser extent their brief but fruitful reunion in the mid-‘80s, but they never stopped making music, and their post-millennial music has turned out to be surprisingly strong. 2005’s Rapture of the Deep was a big surprise for me, I was very fond of 2013’s Now What?!, and 2017’s InFinite was solid. This particular lineup – mainstays Ian Gillian, Roger Glover, and Ian Paice, as well as guitarist Steve Morse and keyboardist Don Airey – has become a really solid unit for a couple decades now, and their 2020 album Whoosh! is that lineup’s best work to date. They’re a much different band than the ‘70s and ‘80s; the days of the long, explosive, extended jams is long gone. The arrangements are tighter, the aggression is dialed down to a comfortable pace, and the music is much smoother these days, but they always have so much fun together, and that sense of joy permeates this album. It’s playful, soulful, wistful, and contemplative, musically drawing from a lot of their late-60s work, with blues, classical, and psychedelic influences creeping in from time to time. Gillian remains one of the most underrated lyricists around, and he’s in superb form on Whoosh!, dealing with his advancing age with good humour. This record is charming from start to finish, and whenever I reach for something I want to bring a smile to my face, Whoosh is often the album I choose.

While a good new Deep Purple album was not a surprise, I had zero expectations regarding Blue Öyster Cult, and these guys are one of my absolute favourite bands. I never blamed them for leaning on their back catalogue, nor for taking the safe route playing the feeder-pleaser circuit, often at state fairs and casinos. They made good money at it, and were happy. Besides, 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror wasn’t exactly a sterling effort, and I was perfectly fine with their 1973 to 1988 output (with 1998’s sporadically-great Heaven Forbid Thrown in). But then I saw them in the summer of 2019 and they blew me away: Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom were in good form, the set list was adventurous, the band was tight, and guitarist/keyboardist Richie Castellano was really the glue in the band, his younger energy compelling the rest of the band to keep up the pace. When they announced later that year that they were working on their first new music in nearly 20 years, I thought, well, maybe this just might work after all.

My cautious optimism was swept clean away as soon as I dove into The Symbol Remains. In fact I am still stupefied at just how much I love this album. First of all, it’s not perfect. It’s about three songs too long, and Castellano has a bad habit of going “Whoo” on two of his songs, but the great majority of The Symbol Remains is crazy good. It’s diverse, too, drawing from blues, to garage rock, to slick AOR balladry, to some pretty robust metal. The band has always employed great lyricists (seriously, BÖC has some of the greatest rock lyrics ever written) and fantasy author John Shirley turns in some terrific material on three of the album’s best songs: the ominous “That was Me”, the playful “Box in My Head”, and the clever “Florida Man”. Bloom sounds fantastic on his material, especially on the aforementioned “That Was Me”, and Castellano does a great job on his three tracks, especially “Tainted Blood”, an audacious power ballad on which he channels his inner Joe Lynn Turner (in a good way…really!). But Donald Roeser, aka Buck Dharma, is the star of this record. Not only is he in terrific vocal form, but his guitar work is so fluid and expressive. The guy is one of my favourite soloists, and he sounds so rejuvenated here, whether on the jammy “Nightmare Epiphany”, the rollicking “Train True”, or the gorgeous “Secret Road”. Blue Öyster Cult had no business making an album this great, but they did, and I’m grateful to them for making my 2020 a lot better.

And speaking of bands we really didn’t need new music from, AC/DC had nothing left to prove. Black Ice was a nice late-career peak, and Rock or Bust was a good effort in the wake of Malcolm Young’s death. And the way things transpired after the release of Rock or Bust (Brian Johnson was forced out due to hearing loss, Phil Rudd had legal problems, and Cliff Williams decided to retire) led many, including myself to believe the band had finally run its course. But then word came out that the band was sneakily doing some recording in 2018. My good pal, and esteemed writer and musician Kyle even staked out the session in East Vancouver where Rudd was laying down drum tracks, and I’ll never forget his giddy phone call where he gushed about being threatened by Rudd’s personal assistant. So we all knew some sort of new music was on the horizon, but a year passed, and most of another year passed, with neither hide nor hair of a new release.

Then it happened. Power Up was released, and just like Deep Purple and Blue Öyster Cult, I couldn’t believe how great it was. I really have to stop allowing myself to be surprised like this. It’s a bad look. Anyway, clocking at a neat and tidy 41 minutes, Power Up is concise and to the point, 12 songs that focus on what the band has always done best: bringing the balls-out rock ‘n’ roll. Angus Young is in great form as usual, and Stevie Young does a fantastic job emulating his uncle Malcolm’s rhythm guitar sound. Johnson, meanwhile, hasn’t sounded this great in ages. He’s the one guy who had plenty to prove on his return to the mike, and he brings some melody and soul to his trademark growl on standout tracks “Through the Mists of Time” and “Witch’s Spell”. The real hero on this record, in my opinion, however, is Rudd. He’s an absolute master of groovy drumming, and his loosey-goosey swing is all over Power Up. That loose hi-hat groove is his trademark, and you can practically envision the cigarette in his mouth as he drives these dozen tracks, from the opening “Realize” to the higher-energy “Demon Fire”. Brendan O’Brien adds his usual polish to the album, but if I was going to compare the feel of Power Up to a past AC/DC record, it’d be 1983’s Flick of the Switch. Vastly underrated to this day, that album was a no-nonsense return to simplicity after the overwrought For Those About to Rock, and you can hear that similar drive on the new album.

I’m always willing to go gentle on my musical heroes, to not demand that they sound exactly like they did 40 years ago, but at the same time, if they want to kick things into high gear one more time, I won’t ever say no. Good on all these boys for making great, passionate music and showing everyone that you can still sound relevant as your career and life winds down. All three of these albums are huge inspirations. Don’t burn out. Don’t fade away, either. Just keep on truckin’ and don’t lose your passion for life and your art.