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Thursday, 18 April 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Atkins/May Song by Song...



The second album by the Atkins/May Project is a definite step forward. I enjoyed the first album, but this second record takes them off into the stratosphere. Some months ago I went through the first album track by track, (HERE and HERE) and then sent my deliberations of to Al and Paul for their comments. I meant to do the same thing with the second album about a week later, but - as the late John Lennon said - life is what happens when your busy making other plans, and my particular life, both professionally and personally, got rather complicated.

I see, to my embarrassment, that it has been something like five months since I did the aforementioned article. However, better late than never. And it is a job that I have been particularly looking forward to; listening to music, and then having the chance to hold forth about it. What's not to like?

Valley of Shadows was released last year, and it has taken the heavy metal fan community by storm. It appears far more cohesive than its predecessor, and at times almost appears to be some sort of narrative, although, if it is, the plotline is obscure. However, the basic concept, seems to be that this music the is the result of the synergy caused by a collaboration between Christian guitarist Paul, and his old mucker Al, who comes from the far more conventional heavy metal background (he was the original singer for Judas Priest).

This state of affairs always reminds me of the character of Genesis in the Preacher comics by Garth Ennis; a being synthesised from the forbidden love between a daemon and an angel A being of incredible power, but one that is almost impossible to control.

1.Welcome to the Nightmare (04:36)
The opening track begins with a riff to die for, and a monologue (presumably from Al) which craftily references a late 1970s album by Alice Cooper. The strange thing about this particular song is that it keeps on dropping hints that it is going to go in one of several retro stylings, and then does nothing of the sort and goes off an entirely different direction. This is an intriguing and clever way to start the album.

AL: Paul and I both chose the same song to open up the album which is ʻWelcome to the Nightmareʼ, a great rock/metal song that bites you down to the bone!!!

PAUL . Yes this track is bit like a runaway train hurtling down a hill with no brakes! lol. It rumbles along nicely and where the subject covers a very serious state of affairs.... thats for the listener figure it out .

2. No Ordinary Man 04:34
The British Midlands saw the birth of modern heavy metal music back in the later 1960s with bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Blackfoot Sue, and others who did what surprisingly fewer people working within the genre have managed since; they successfully married riffs so heavy and monolithic by that they sounded like a herd of bull elephants on the stampede, with a very real pop sensibility. They produced truly catchy and memorable pop songs that sounded like they were going to take off the top of your skull. Surprisingly few heavy metal artists have managed this since.

The genre has divided into two; pretty tunes with a wimpy attitude, and a doomsday racket that sounds like somebody with laryngitis in a burning church, screaming out challenges to the Almighty. Of course this is a wicked generalisation - there's been a lot of good metal music produced over the past 40 years, but in the same way that there was something in the air of the Thames estuary in the first half of the 1960s which allowed a generation of middle and upper class young white men to successfully channel the psychic energies of a previous generation of working class black men from the poorer parts of United States, and synthesise it into something new and exciting, there was something in the zeitgeist of the Midlands a few years later which
produced a generation of heavy metal bands which has not been bettered.

Somehow Paul and Al seem to have tapped into this zeitgeist, and are producing music which is heavy as
Hell, but is truly catchy and could be danced to without resorting to head banging. This song opens with another deceptively simple guitar riff, but one which upon investigation is actually fiendishly difficult. These complex mathematical guitar patterns are part of the Atkins/May mojo, and are fast becoming one of their signature styles. Over the top of this is a keening bluesy guitar which taps into something primal like a mad dog howling at the moon; an effect so unsettling that when Al finally starts to sing, and tells us all that he is "no
ordinary man", it isn't hard to believe him.

AL: ʻNo Ordinary Manʼ follows in the same vein as some of the tracks on our successful debut album ʻSerpents Kissʼ (another metal rocker with a modern sounding twist to it).

PAUL I really enjoy this track, I love the groove its got, its simplistic but not simple, with a powerful declaration of Identity.

3. Bitter Waters (07:43)
This next song is a very pleasant surprise; it sounds like a 21st Century analogue of something that could have been produced by the MkIV version of Deep Purple in the mid 1970s. I have always been impressed by the slightly funky edge that David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes brought to them, and this epic song, based - surprisingly - on a slightly Spanish sounding acoustic guitar phrase manages to recapture that specific rara avis.

This band were always good, but they are getting better all the time. The drums are much more emphatic on this album, and this adds a crisp urgency to the music. About half way through the songs something extraordinary happens. Overlaid on top of the brutal crashing guitars is a solo acoustic guitar passage which sounds like something straight out of the spaghetti western (Joe Strummer's undeservedly obscure soundtrack for Walker to be precise). However these Morricone-like stylings work incredibly well within a
heavy metal idiom, and I wonder why no one else has done this before. This music is incredibly emotive, and I think that these two dudes should think seriously about doing some film music.

AL: ʻBitter Watersʼ has to be one of my favourites of all Paulʼs songs so far that he has written and it suits my metal/ bluesy/ gravel toned vocals....soulful but heavy as fuck (Off the scale this one).

PAUL “This definitely one of my favourite tracks, I love the drama and emotive content, it also has a personal touch LOL! And particularly the whole feel with all the elements of light and dark involved, its a bit of on epic weighing in at around 8 mins and I think Al did a masterful vocal on this one! and i really enjoyed soloing on this one.

4. Enslaved to Love 05:57
The opening figures of the song are so unutterably sleazoid that it sounds like the soundtrack to a graphic depiction of a pagan sacrifice in a Kenneth Anger movie. Over the years many people working within this style of music have paid lip service (at least) to the work of Aleister Crowley - this is the first record that actually sounds like they have the Great Beast playing guitar for them, and the Ape of Thoth on vibes. The lead guitar is sinuous and evil like a giant snake crawling out of darker areas of your subconscious in order to devour your soul, and the relentless thudding sacrificial drums underpin it all perfectly.

The peculiar thing is that the boldly multitracked lyrics are surprisingly tender. It is a love song, but whether to a girl or to God remains unclear.

AL: ʻEnslaved to Loveʼ this is another killer track looking into Paulʼs sleazy mind for the lyrics ...love the tube wah guitar sound that Paul selected for this one...

PAUL: I wanted to project a sleazy sinister type sound for this track, covering the addiction many face to the sleazier aspect of love. Hmmm ?

5. Stronger Is the Grace 03:42
This is the first of several songs which is basically a hymn, albeit a hymn presented by Atkins in a terrifyingly brutal manner. The relentless guitars and drums hammer at the senses until one is almost at overload. Then along comes another one of Paul May's nifty little melodic bridges, and you are in the middle of another cleverly crafted chorus.

`Crafted` is almost the watchword for this whole album. Because even at the most anarchic moments, when the guitars and drums seem to be hurtling towards oblivion at breakneck speed, it is just an illusion. The boys know perfectly well what they are doing, and Paul May - the master of making something horribly complicated appear to be ridiculously simple - is always in control.

Here I think a few words about the general sonic integrity of the album is in order. It is much more assured and confident than on the debut. It is as if the two men are getting comfortable with each other's abilities and personalities, and are ready to take some bold steps into the unknown. The next few albums will be interesting.

AL ʻStronger the Graceʼ is a Christian/ metal track with a message. (Love it)

PAUL Message is pretty straight forward! but hopefully sounds like a bowling ball hitting you in the stomach whilst standing in a wind tunnel!! Ha!

6. Harder They Fall 04:32
Lyrically this seems to be a fairly simple morality play; a 21st Century rock and roll version of a medieval mummer's play. But there are so many guitars! Paul May has always done more overdubs than most, but here he utilises the sonic possibilities of the technique to the maximum. What many non-musicians don't realise is that when you play one instrument over another, a new harmonic structure emerges, and Paul has used this phenomenon very deftly. Some of the guitars on this track actually sound like a completely different instrument.

The production on this track is also particularly good. It is good to note (for example) how sparing they are with the use of delay. So many bands smother the vocals with delay and reverb, but on this track in particular the effects are only used to highlight certain words or phrases; a bit like aural punctuation. Fantastic

AL: ʻHarder They Fallʼ ..I really enjoyed singing this one, itʼs one you can get your tonsils round if you get my meaning, what can I say? (Another great song)

PAUL Pretty much a Macho “donʼt mess with me” type song but has many Biblical aspects to it.

7. Not Ready to Die Today 04:58
This is the wittiest song so far. They cleverly reference one of the first rock and roll songs, (Blue Suede Shoes) and turn the words upside down, deftly subverting the meaning. "You can shoot me down/You can spit in my face/ You can trash my name/ In the sacred place" sings Al. Hearing this it is impossible not to give a grin of empathic appreciation.

But the tune is great as well. Many of the reviewers have picked up on the fact that the music on this disk is a mixture of various heavy metal and hard rock influences, but - as far as I am aware - I am the only person to see the poppiness of it all) particularly this track). The tunesmithery here is as spot-on as Slade or one of the bands of that ilk were in the early 1970s. If it wasn't for the fact that the world has gone bloody mad, and that the more commercial end of the music business seems to revolve almost entirely around TV Talent Shows, I would say that this was a hit single.

AL: ʻNot Ready to Dieʼ is like Jonathan said, itʼs one of the most commercial sounding tracks on offer here (Metal Personified Pop).

PAUL funny enough this track nearly didnʼt make the album, but has turned out to be one of the most popular commercial rockers on there! You never can tell!

8. Messiah (Prelude) 04:46
This instrumental track once again shows off Paul's prowess as musician, as producer, and as composer. It is another multi-layered jobbie, and I actually tried to count how many guitar lines there were on here, and gave up after about 16. It is a glorious neo-classical pastiche that actually sounds surprisingly stately despite the frenetic drums which clatter along majestically like an out of control locomotive.

AL: ʻMessiahʼ shows off Paulʼs guitar playing at its very best, very Maiden-esque and a very metal instrumental track...

PAUL I wrote this instrumental as a bit of a concept thing, to be a prelude.... an announcement if you will, and thought it would create that ʻspaceʼ of anticipation for the next track. I tried to keep it very Classic British Metal in feel and I think I got that.

9. Valley of Shadows 08:21
And now a complete change of pace, as we are treated to a heartfelt ballad. The theme is redemption, and the sound draws a little on Pink Floyd and even Queen but is nothing less than pure, classic Atkins/May Project. This is probably Al Atkins' best vocal on either of the albums, and it is good to see him have the opportunity to stretch his vocal abilities somewhat. This is again, basically a hymn, and occupies much the same spiritual territory as does Blind Faith's Presence of the Lord which I have always wanted to see sung in church instead of all those tedious Graham Kendrick dirges.

Sadly this song needs to have a singer as accomplished as Al Atkins to perform it, so it is unlikely to be sung in church on a sunday morning. But I can dream can't I?

AL ʻValley of Shadowsʼ is quite a long song and the title track which takes another turn on the album to the rest of the songs and we see a very melodic heaviness that again suits my vocal style (A very dark and powerful song). EPIC!!!

PAUL This is a Prayer. Throughout the album a variety of subjects are covered, from manipulation, to discovery, bitterness, pornography, never giving up, standing your ground, from bad reputations to the Chosen One! … a rockʼn'roll collection if I say so myself! … ha ! but on a serious note the title track “Valley of Shadows” is a very honest track in as much as its about that “dark night of the soul” that finds us all in our life time and its the experience of calling out for help, a prayer for God's deliverance through that darkest time … it emulates the emotions conveyed in the Psalms 23 and 91 that meet us on a personal level … deep stuff dude!

10. The Shallowing (Return) 04:08
The last few notes of the previous song decay like the sound of a lonesome train whistle across a wide prairie, and then we are confronted by something we have heard before. This was the song which opened the first album. It was the song on which Atkins/May set out their stall, or rather in which they strapped their listener down, sawed off the top of his/her head and used electrodes to brand an image of the stall right into their cerebral cortex. Now here it is again, as a gentle reflective ballad. Starting with subtle acoustic guitars overlaid with an electric guitar pattern so heavily processed it is almost unrecognisable as a guitar.

Again Al sings tenderly and beautifully. The Mediterranean vibe that has been in the back of my mind all the way through this record is still there. One of Paul's guitar parts, pics away with harmonics that sound like an Italian mandolin player in a movie about The Borgias. I use that analogy deliberately, because there is a sinister and disturbing undercurrent to this final track. Beautiful though it is, there is something nasty lurking behind the corner, although I suspect that we will have to wait until next time to find out what it is.

This album is beautifully crafted to the end; the fade out on this song is exquisitely trippy, and almost ambient, and as you listen to it you can imagine the sun setting in the middle distance.

A bloody good album, gentlemen. Well done!

AL: ʻThe Shallowingʼ(return) Paul and myself have been asked to record an unplugged album by our record company which I had reservations about but we gave it a try by recording ʻThe Shallowingʼ from ʻSerpents Kissʼ with acoustic guitars and you know what!!! I think it sounds pretty cool so you could see a lighter side of us on CD soon. (But hopefully not too light).

PAUL This was a way to show a little of our progressive side, using only guitar sounds to create the ambient atmosphere and allowing Al to use his vocal talents to full extent. This CD was a pretty much a maturing of our style, I enjoyed this album and am currently working hard on the third and fourth, one of which will be a more acoustic ambient prog-rock affair the other violent assault by way of metal!! Rock! )

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