Live Review: Steel Panther, Auckland, New Zealand

It’s a joke in itself when a band becomes as big as those who they parody, but that is exactly what has happened to Glam Metal rockers Steel Panther who were so convincing during their performance at The Powerstation last night, it was 1981 all over again.

The band started off life as a turn of the millennium in-joke playing on Los Angeles Sunset Strip until their savagely accurate satire garnered the band opening slots with Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, and Judas Priest, which catapulted them to fame in their own right. Judging on the turn-out last night they have a lot of diehard fans enthusiastically wearing terrible wigs, contraception-inducingly tight pants, and enough leather, studs, and leopard print to make Rob Halford blush.

Openers Blue Ruin provided a full tilt gritty rock n’ roll performance evocative of The Runaways at their best, all whilst looking like a hyperbolic homage to X Ray Spex, and a fitting band to get people in the mood for the headliners, who burst onstage to the opening riff of Eyes of the Panther. For the next hour and a half, Steel Panther showed a prodigious attention to detail. Sequins, spandex, and wind machines were abound, as well as the perquisite sparkly smaltz of Satchel’s guitar work that beautifully set off Michael Starr’s impressive falsetto wail. Bassist Lexi Foxx who has the most enviable eyebrows and cheekbones, managed to keep a rhythm, maintain a duckface, and reapply lipstick and hairspray between songs. It was ridiculous, it was pompous, but they were musically tight, as Satchel highlighted during his five minute guitar solo that took us through a history of metal (and a rendition of Doe a Deer that was somewhat lost on the crowd).

The sleek musicianship  and relentless energy of the band was juxtaposed against admittedly period appropriate misogyny, sexism, and racial insensitivity, which no-one seemed to take umbrage to, much to my surprise. Songs with names such as Fat Girl (Thar She Blows) and Asian Hooker were met with whoops, cheers and metal horns as the audience sang along to every word. They were clearly in on the joke and loving the brazen caricature of the band. It got so tropey to the point where two girls dressed in studded bustiers and claiming to be twins jumped up onstage, and after getting spanked by Starr proceeded to make out with enthusiastic awkwardness. All of the band took turns throughout the evening to make salacious comments and gestures at various women who took it in their stride. None of the songs are going to blow your mind with their eloquence and wit, rather they are all dumbass tunes about getting drunk, getting high, bodily excretions and various sex acts- much like the very bands they are emulating.

It’s probably the most puerile performance you will ever see, but that doesn’t stop it being incredibly fun, and technically brilliant pastiche. Steel Panther may only be a one-trick pony, but they are fantastic at making that one joke last all night long. They would probably say that that makes them a stallion. I’m inclined to agree.

Album Review: Kristen Kontrol ‘X Communicate’

Regardless of medium, one of the hallmarks of a true artist is that they are unafraid to stretch themselves creatively and look to push, redefine and even break down the neatly compartmentalised barriers they find themselves in. They are constantly in a state of flux, and relish exploring creative tangents. Kristin Welchez is one such artist. Shedding the skin of Dee Dee, (the heavily fringed lead singer of The Dum Dum Girls, a girl group inspired by the scuzz of 1960s garage), she has transformed into Kristin Kontrol, a slick amalgamation of nostalgic references on her debut solo album X-Communicate.

The album itself could be seen as a glimpse into the act of metamorphosis. Throughout the first half of the album, she makes references to her previous efforts.  Songs such as White Street heavily draw on the perpetually swirling, disorientating fuzzy guitar, which we hear again in Show Me. There is also a welcome hint of Siouxsie and the Banshees in Face 2 Face’s pompous pop sensibility overlaid a post-punk riff. It felt like she was trying to draw the same audience in, and as you fall deeper down the rabbit-hole she strips away the more familiar elements, leaving herself primed for complete transformation for the album’s title track. And what a triumph it is.

As a single, X Communicate is quite simply a masterclass in how to write a good pop song. Restrained repetitive beats allowed Kristin Kontrol to exercise her impressive vocal range to full effect, which she unleashed with joyous abandon over her ridiculously catchy chorus of hypnotically Gothic atmospherics, making this an unabashed pastiche of everything 1980s. Appropriately, this track was followed by Skin Shed, a homage to EDM and Disco and evocative of Goldfrappe at their dazzling peak.

But the album isn’t without its dubious moments. The pseudo-Socratically titledWhat is Love initially seemed like a well-timed moment for some romance. But by the mid-tempo 80s power melody of the chorus of Kristin belting out “What is Love, Did I Ever Know” it feels that Kristin has dug too deep into her influences, and comes off sounding cheesy and overworked, while Going Thru the Motionslives up to its name.

Overall, even despite the growing pains, X-Communicate re-establishes Kristin Welchez’s talent as an artist within a completely new genre, which is something to be admired- and she produces some fun, well written songs in the process.  Let’s hope she can build on them.

Album Review: Zayn ‘Mind of Mine’

Stop me if you have heard this before. Objectively attractive male that can hold a note joins manufactured pop-band and spends a few years being the fantasy boyfriend of millions of teenagers around the world enamored by their cookie cutter perfection. Citing “a lack of artistic freedom” amongst other issues, our hero becomes disenchanted with such a rigid mould, so breaks out amidst a flurry of publicity and legions of heartbroken fans.

Wanting to metamorphose into a “real artist” he rebels against his roots with an “edgy” new look and an album that serves as a mid-tempo R n B laced  public service announcement that he has had sex and liked it.

I am of course talking about former One Directioner Zayn Malik, and his debut album Mind Of Mine, who in this record now fits neatly into the mould of “teen pop star all grown up” with blandly clinical precision.

Here’s the thing. Like all of the members in every constructed pop band ever, Zayn had a place and a personality in One Direction. He was the one who possessed a surprisingly good falsetto and whose broody, introspective personality acted as a (relatively) mature counterpoint to his excitable bandmates. Stepping out on his own meant that Zayn had to establish himself as less of a trope and more of an artist, and there are many well-documented examples of musicians doing this with aplomb. Justin Timberlake’s 2002 album Justified confidently fused Latin guitars with Neptune’s produced party beats. Prior to that, Michael Jackson went from reciting his ABC’s to creating one of the best disco records ever laid to tape.

In contrast, Zayn has broken no new ground in Mine Of Mine. Malay the producer of Frank Ocean’s sensational Channel Orange has crafted some slickly minimal beats throughout this record. While this sounds promising on paper, rest assured that they are one of two highlights on this album, and even these lose their charm after a few songs. In order for this minimal pop style to work, you need a confident voice and there are several moments where Zayn’s voice is lost in the haze. By the end of the album, all of the songs have blended into one mournful racket that oscillates between strained falsetto and mumbled attempts at feeling.

Lyrically this album is a smudgy caricature of adulthood that is so paint by numbers I almost cannot blame him for how embarrassing they are. When Zayn isn’t drunk or on drugs, expletives stand in for introspection, while masculinity equates to a hyper sexual and vaguely misogynistic swagger. Ironically, Zayn spends so much time biting his lip asserting that he’s a bad boy that it just sounds childish. In TiO he asserts “You get me off its like cheating” which is one of the albums many, many attempts to sound ‘sexy’ or ‘seductive’ that end up sounding clumsy and hollow. His confusing wordplay peppered throughout gives the impression that although he wants to be taken seriously both as a man and as an artist he doesn’t know what it is to be either of them just yet. The one standout song Flower sung in Urdu, is all too brief at just under two minutes long, and the only real flash of uniqueness on this otherwise disingenuous record.

Mind Of Mine is a bland rather than bad album that shows Zayn as one dimensional. A missed opportunity for both him and his fans.

Live Review: Will Wood, Tourettes,& Tom Cunliffe, The Wine Cellar, Auckland, New Zealand.

Last night, The Wine Cellar transformed into an antipodean answer to New York’s Gaslight Café with the performances of Will Wood, Tourettes, and Tom Cunliffe. Their performances echoed those that took place in the bastion of the counter-culture movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Performing to a sold-out crowd, this trifecta of acts proved that the combination of heartfelt folk songs and acerbic spoken-word poetry remains a potent creative force in the 21st century.

The constantly metamorphosing Will Wood was up first. Having previously seen him in the punk outfit Parents, the first five minutes were an unnerving listen as this reviewer adjusted to the unflinchingly personal lyricism and nuanced finger-picking. Once this unease had settled, it was a beautiful, keenly felt set that drew heavily on his latest record Magpie Brain and Other Stories, an  album that is intimate yet universal in its themes.

Beginning with just himself and his guitar, Wood steadily built up the depth of his sound, inviting a bevy of performers onstage with him as his set progressed. The inspired addition of vocalist Reb Fountain to several songs evoked the dynamic of Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan circa Desire, while Hopetoun Brown’s Nick Atkinson’s performances on saxophone and clarinet added the perfect backdrop to Wood’s mournfully witty brand of raconteourship.

Wood has been touring with Tourettes, who is one of the finest wordsmiths currently creating in New Zealand. Having made his name in the hip-hop community, he has released a glut of truly excellent albums and more recently, a debut novel which he drew on in last night’s spoken word performance. The combination of Wood and Tourettes together harps back to the Gaslight Café, where folk artists performed alongside Beat poets, each espousing their existential angst with breath-taking eloquence.

Throughout his set Tourettes railed against the government and nepotism, shone a spotlight on his heart, and sneeringly mocked national pride and our penchant for rugby. Like Wood before him, his sincerity and biting sense of humour enamoured the audience.

The final act of the night was Tom Cunliffe who was celebrating the release of his debut album Howl and Whisper which was recorded at New Zealand’s mecca of folk music Lyttleton Records. Overall he took  a much more traditional approach to folk music than the previous two acts, offering a timely counterpoint. Raucous ballads that told the tale of a mining disaster were juxtaposed against hauntingly innocent songs such as Just Kids and Cunliffe’s lilting voice rarely faltered.

A rousing rendition of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic was a highlight of the set. The evening ended with all of the artists onstage radiating a joyous energy as they led the audience through several rambunctious song choices. It was a fitting end to a scene that relies so heavily on each other for support. Lyricism and storytelling delivered without a shred of posturing was at the heart of every performance last night, making for an engaging, humorous and sometimes poignant evening.

Live Review: Glass Vaults, The Wine Cellar, Auckland, New Zealand

‘Transcendental live show’ is a phrase often used but seldom warranted within music journalism. But last night’s performance by Glass Vaults at the Wine Cellar was a masterclass in it.

Opening act Boycrush is the solo project of Ruby Suns drummer Alistair Deverick, who picked up a NZMA Critics choice nomination last year off the strength of his second EP Girls on Top. His high energy brand of electronic glitch-pop has always been a crowd favourite, so it was a shame to walk in and see the audience with their backs pressed resolutely against the Turkish rug covered wall. But it wasn’t through lack of trying on Boycrush’s part.

Throughout his set he expertly intertwined sweetly angular rhythms with his elegantly sardonic vocals, not even letting technical issues get in the way of delivering some deliciously danceable electro-pop. Boycrush is an understated live performer, which is fine, but given his chosen genre and style, it would have been good to see him embody his sound a little more which may have alleviated the aforementioned problem. Madeira provided vocals for his closing song Flirtwhich this reviewer last heard at the NZMA Critics Choice awards and Madeira appeared to be racked with nerves. That wasn’t the case last night, and although it was wonderful to hear, it was a disjointed end to an otherwise relatively streamlined set.

By this stage, an increasing number of people were pressed around the outskirts of the room as they awaited the headlining act. Since 2010 Glass Vaults’ Richard Larsen and Rowan Pierce have amassed a loyal fanbase  thanks to the release of a series of singles and three glorious EPs; Glass (2010), Into the Clear (2011) and Bright (2013). Last year they released their gem of a debut Sojourn, which was nominated for a 2016 Taite Music prize.

Long-time listeners of the band are enamoured with the way that Glass Vaults built walls of sound that are awash with glittering sepia soaked guitar. It is music that is to be felt and heard at frequencies that vibrate your very being. It is music that ebbs and flows, twists and collides with a delicate grace and joyful abandon, so to hear it performed with equal passion live was truly special. The rest of the audience appeared unmoved, nodding appreciatively with their arms folded, aside from one lone dancer covered in body glitter artfully slipping up the front in his slightly oversized Chuck Taylors.

But two songs in, something quite remarkable happened.

A young woman draped in black dashed out from the crowd and threw talcum powder on the ground and began dancing with him, twirling her hands along to the rhythm of West Coast. “Like Tinkerbell at a rave” my friend observed. One by one, the audience members became enchanted by the air that was a heady mix of lilacs and pretty distortion. A kaleidoscopic reworking of Sacred Heartundoubtedly added to the fervour. New songs blended seamlessly with established ones, and by the time their last song Brooklyn “inspired by the Fruju ad when they are in the boat” came on, everyone was in raptures, beaming as they swayed as one. The evening ended with a stirring rendition of Ancient Gates.

Both Boycrush and Glass Vaults are great examples of the level of talent we have within the unsigned scene in New Zealand. Their commitment to their craft is obvious and should be supported. An elative night out.

Live Review: Common and Talib Kweli, The Power Station, Auckland, New Zealand.

Conscious Hip-Hop acts as a counter to the violent, materialistic, bling infused cookie cutter music that dominates the airwaves. As a genre, it rails against social injustices with deadly precision. Artists such as Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar may have brought the concerns of Conscious Hip-Hop to a whole new generation of fans, but nothing is born in isolation and last night The PowerStation played host to the two Godfathers of the genre Common and Talib Kweli. Combined they have worked with some of the most respected names in the business, including the aforementioned Kendrick, J Dilla, Mos Def and Pharrell.

Opening act Talib Kwalei managed to craft a set list that spanned most of his impressive twenty year career and showed off his lyrical dexterity and quiet aggression. Kweli has always been an MC’s MC and his energetic performance simply cemented it in this reviewers eyes. Thoughtful lyrics and old-school turntablism was at the heart of this performance, which merged classics flawlessly with newer material. Standouts included the RZA produced trackRocket Ships and Never Been In Love. He somehow managed to pay homages to both Prince and Bob Marley without slowing down the frenetic pace of his performance. By his closing song the keening jazz-funk fusion song Get By’ the crowd was heaving and primed for the evening’s headliner Common.

Common has a significantly different style to Kweli. He felt bigger, brasher, and bolder and that is not a criticism. He to capture and maintain the audience’s attention with his magnetism throughout the hour and a half set. His flows were relentless and perpetually good, opening with People and weaving some of his biggest hits with deeper cuts, including The Corners, I Used To Love Her, and ending with an excellent cover of Nas’s The World Is Yours. Collaboration is at the epicentre of Hip Hop and this concert was no exception, and arguably provided the evening’s highlight when Kweli joined Common onstage and they performed Blackstar’s Respiration. Kweli’s cool stage presence acted as a good counterpoint to Common’s earnestness. Common is as sincere as they come- his impassioned Black Rights Matter and imploring to love and respect each other was beautiful, necessary and heartfelt. However, things got a little smaltzy when he brought a woman up onstage and began freestyling and dancing with her onstage. While it undoubtedly showed off his genius, and his love for his fans appears genuine, it came off feeling a little too Boyz II Men for my tastes and disrupted the otherwise flawless flow of his set.

It was an honour and a privilege to see two Hip-Hop heavyweights share the stage for an evening that was a celebration of collaboration, commonality, and community. Top marks.