This combined effort from singer Kirsty Mac, multi-instrumentalists Paul Ayre and Tony Draper, known collectively as Alive in Theory, has a lot going for it. There’s some great playing, the vocal performances are pretty powerful and the songs are mostly pretty strong, so where do we start? At the very beginning, it’s a very good place apparently. Actually the opening song “Alive in Theory” isn’t a bad summary of the album; it’s full of drama, it has a wide dynamic range and a sense of menace. The intro has a feel of “Radio Gaga” and, strangely enough, there’s a little guitar fill which is pure early seventies Brian May. The vocals across the album hint at a Gothic Kate Bush, with maybe a little hint of Kim Carnes in there as well (the eighties drums and brooding synths of “Lightning” have a strong feel of “Bette Davis Eyes”). Now that wasn’t too bad for you was it? But it’s not the whole story because there are a few reservations.
Musically, “Unconditional”, isn’t bad but it demonstrates a few of the album’s downsides. The lyric has a feel of a rhyming exercise that doesn’t convey too much meaning, the vocal is a bit melodramatic and it follows a format that’s repeated through the album of a gradual layer-by-layer build-up of songs. It’s not that any of these things make it a bad album, more that without them, it could have been a better album. Glad we got that out of the way.
On the upside, the driving power of “Bethany” and the combination of distorted guitars and synth sequences works well and would fit in well in a vampire TV series while using an apocalypse as metaphor for a broken relationship in “We Are All Alone” is fairly effective. The album’s closer “The Other Side” stays just the right side of the bombastic line with channel-hopping synths, pumping bass, some Doors-style piano and a final dramatic held vocal note. If you like a bit of drama, musically and lyrically, you’re in the right place.
“Abandon” is released on Friday March 3 on Ultraviolet Records (ULTRA001-2017).
Layla Zoe blurs the distinction between rock and blues; although this live workout has shades of quieter emotion too (“The Lily” for example, which brings out the sweetness in Zoe’s voice). The set relies heavily on her most recent work, 2014’s “The Lily” and unfortunately, the Belgian crowd seem unfamiliar with those tracks. However she kicks off with ‘”I’ve Been Down” where she sings ‘… gotta get my act together…’ in what could be a tribute to either Janis Joplin or The Doors (“Been Down So Long”), she then seamlessly slips into forward gear with a 180 degree turn to “Pull Yourself Together”, a vehement musical rant that shows Zoe’s voice to full effect. Another angry highlight is “They Lie”, ‘They’ being the political establishment; if not exactly nailing her colours to a particular mast, Layla and band remind us that there are plenty of reasons to wake up and protest and you can almost hear her long hair whipping the microphone.
The difference between this album and the last is not just its alive quality, but that “The Lily” co-writer and axeman extraordinaire, Henrik Freischlader is absent, instead replaced by Jan Laacks. It would have taken a skilful and confident guitarist to audition for such an intricate set of tunes, but I have to say, if I had doubts previously, Laacks more than manages lead guitar duties, even if he tends toward more straight-ahead rock sensibilities on the whole.
It’s a big listen, clocking in both discs at about the same length as a feature film, and maybe a brave release given its coverage of her most recent album, only a few of older tracks and ending with three covers (Lennon/McCartney’s “Let It Be”, “Yer Blues” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” with a more relaxed jazz vocal in places; it’s twenty minutes long). But thankfully it’s not a “Greatest Hits: Live” which can so often result in overworked arrangements to stop the band nodding off. “Live” is a great listen but you might want to take it in in halves. As often happens, with live sets, three of the tracks come in at over ten minutes, for which you maybe had to be there. However, this outing on disc certainly makes me hope that she does a dedicated UK tour sometime soon.
It feels like this release is more of a confirmed fan’s date; newcomers should certainly dip into this album, but I’d probably recommend an earlier studio session or to just buy a ticket and get lost in the bluesy world of Layla Zoe.
“Live at Spirit of 66” is out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-46).