Wolfgang Van Halen’s Mammoth WVH Effort Solid, But Questions Remain; Liz Phair as Good as Ever with First Album in a Decade

As the world seems to come out of the COVID pandemic and the shutdowns that occurred (and hope they do not return), the music world is beginning to emerge from its 18-month slumber. This means that plenty of these artists and groups are looking to get out on the road and, perhaps more importantly, release the music that they might have been sitting on for some time (Garbage, for example, was planning on releasing No Gods, No Masters in early 2020; it just came out in June).

This is a cause for celebration, because both new artists and older ones are beginning to emerge from the coronavirus-induced lockdown. Two of those artists we are going to be looking at today, the son of the late Eddie Van Halen, Wolfgang, and his “band” (more on this in a moment) and the outstanding return of everyone’s favorite alternative darling from the 1990s, Liz Phair. Both of these new releases are well worth inclusion in your CD racks (or your digital downloads), bringing some great sounds to the rock world.

To say it has been a tough year for Wolfgang Van Halen would be a massive understatement. He has had to bury his father, the iconic Eddie Van Halen, in October of 2020, and it has fallen on his shoulders to try to carry on the family name. Wolfgang has done that through the creation of a new “band,” Mammoth WVH (the “Mammoth” moniker was the original name of Van Halen), and the release of a self-titled CD.

Let us start with the good stuff from Van Halen and Mammoth WVH. The reason we have quotation marks on “band” is a simple one: Wolfgang played all the instruments on the album. Wolfgang shows that he is an excellent multi-instrumentalist, more than adequately showing his proficiency across the board, and Van Halen also wrote all 14 of the tracks that appear on the disc.

By far the best song on the record is the current release “Don’t Back Down,” which had a video that showed Van Halen playing with himself on each of the instruments on the track. The tune itself is a driving, inspired rocker that is a perfect for a summertime drive. Another excellent track is “Horribly Right,” which starts off with a chugging sound reminiscent of some older grunge acts.

The biggest thing to note about the tracks on the CD is that Wolfgang is in no way trying to use his father’s success to get a leg up (although there are plenty who will accuse him of this). Musically he stays a wide distance from the Van Halen band musical styling. If you did not know he was Van Halen’s son, many people would be crowing about how good this record is.

Here is the downside of the album, however. It is reported that Wolfgang began work on this album in 2015. That is six years to perfect the record, a luxury that many young acts do not have, and Wolfgang certainly will not have when it comes to trying to duplicate the success of this record (it is also understandable that he didn’t want to release the record while his father was going through his issues). Wolfgang’s vocals are also a bit weak; his voice is OK, but it is nothing that blows you away with quality or strength. If he is going to continue as the vocalist for the group, he would need to improve that aspect of his game.

That said, his dad did pretty well for not singing, didn’t he?

Expect to see a lot of Mammoth WVH this summer and fall, as Van Halen is putting a band around him to serve as a headlining act. It is well deserved, but I am going to be extremely interested in seeing what he does when he doesn’t have the years to work on something. Mammoth WVH is an outstanding first salvo, however…let’s see what comes next.

You can be forgiven if you do not know the name Liz Phair. After all, her last studio album Funstyle was released over a decade ago (2010). But if you ask your older sibling or perhaps your mother or father, they can regale you with the stories about the blisteringly smart work that Phair did in the 1990s, from her debut Exile in Guyville (her reply to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street) in 1993 to her equally outstanding follow up Whip-Smart.

After drifting too close to the sun for some of her fans – or, as the case may be, trying to be too popular, in their opinions – Phair’s success began to wane. Her label at the time, Capitol Records, forced her to work with songwriters who had penned tunes for Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne, which forced a more poppy sheen to her recordings. This didn’t sit well with Phair or her audience and, after 2010’s Funstyle, Phair stepped away from the recording industry.

Phair first began to emerge from her self-imposed exile with the compilation Girly Sound to Guyville, a 2018 25th anniversary celebration of her early work. That compilation, which brought some of her straight-to-cassette work on what was called the “Girly Sound” sessions, seems to have been a spark for Phair. In June, Phair released Soberish, arguably her best work since the Guyville/Whip-Smart 1-2 in the early 90s.

Always one who had a deft turn of phrase, Phair has not lost any of her talents in the decade-plus of wandering that she has taken. One of the more charming songs from the record is “Hey Lou,” her ode to the late Lou Reed told from the angle of his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson (the video also featured a unique interpretation of the song featuring Reed, Anderson, and Andy Warhol puppets). The lyrical storytelling of Phair is priceless in the song, touching on not only the relationship of Anderson and Reed but also Phair’s appreciation of the duo.

By far the best song off the CD is the title track, “Soberish.” It is a confession from someone who is struggling with their sobriety but is taking the big step of getting back into the dating scene. Phair’s character in the song knows that it is not the thing that she should do, but she also knows that a little something from the bar will help to quell the questions dancing around her head. It is the story of the little inner battles that we all have faced at one point or another in our lives, sometimes in a romantic situation or sometimes elsewhere.

Lyrical dexterity spreads throughout Soberish like a rich tapestry, and the disc should be something that is in every record collection. “I meant to be sober, but the bar’s so inviting…” and other jewels abound on the disc, and it leaves you wanting more by the time you reach the end. Her voice is still tremendously resilient, showing the same toughness and delicacy that drew the music world to her back in the 1990s. We can only hope that Phair does not take another decade-plus sabbatical, because that would be a waste of an incredibly special treasure.

Who is The Greatest Hard Rock/Metal Band of All Time, Second Round Part 1

HardRockMetal

Rather than delve into the delusion that currently is supposed to oversee this country (and trust me, there’s plenty to call the Tangerine Ignoramus out on simply from this last weekend alone, such as his slashing of the Department of Interior budget by $1.5 billion while donating his first quarter’s pay for sitting on his ass – roughly $70,000 – in the White House to the National Park Service), I’ve decided to start something that will be much more fun. Since college basketball just recently completed the NCAA Basketball Championship, I thought it would be fun to do the same but in a different arena – the genre of hard rock/metal music.

What are the criteria for consideration? First, the band/singer would have to have some sort of longevity to their career – you don’t see many bands or singers that are considered “legendary” if they were only around for a couple of albums (Amy Winehouse is a rare exception, but that’s a discussion for another time). Second, the band/singer would have to have an impact on the genre – did they do something particularly noteworthy or notorious that put them into the annals of the genre’s history, a song or “behavior” that was historic. Third, just how popular were they when they were in existence – a band or singer that was wildly popular with the fans might get some leeway over a critical darling OR vice versa (depending on tastes). Fourth, what accolades did they receive – awards, gold records, and recognition by the industry (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, hello?) are all under consideration here. Finally, was the band/singer influential on future generations of music – have they helped shape the genre since they have left the sphere?

The first round of the four “regions” – the 1960s/70s, the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s/2010s – is complete and there were some big surprises. It’s now time to move into the second round of two of the regions who will match up in the Final Four of Hard Rock/Metal – the 1960s/70s and the 2000s/2010s – and work them down to one half of the Sweet Sixteen. As always, cast your vote and/or opinion on who should win each battle by commenting here or on one of the many social media outlets where you might read this.

Without further ado, here’s the 1960s/70s second round:

Led Zeppelin (1) vs. Rush (8)

The Zep was not even challenged by their first-round matchup against Steppenwolf, but now they might have a fight on their hands. Surviving their first-round battle against Queen, Rush is primed to take down the legends from the U. K. One of the things that might sway some voters is simply the longevity issue; Rush is still around to this day, more than 40 years after their creation. Led Zeppelin, however, still has the panache as one of the most influential bands in music history (how many kids learned “Stairway to Heaven” as their first tune?). Plenty to think about when it comes to this matchup.

Motorhead

Judas Priest (4) vs. Motörhead (12)

Fresh off their upset of Black Sabbath in the first round, Motörhead is loaded for bear with another tough battle against another legend. This is going to be difficult because both bands have longevity, influence and popularity on their sides. It is arguable that the Priest have had more of an impact on the genre than Motörhead, but it is an argument that Lemmy lovers would love to fight over. Mark this one down as “too tough to call” and let’s see where the voters take it!

AC/DC (2) vs. Van Halen (7)

Another matchup that will raise the ire of fans of both bands. AC/DC has an iconic sound that, while simplistic in its three-chord approach, is still as good today as it was when they started back in the early 1970s. Not to be overlooked, Van Halen worked through the latter part of the 70s, made an adjustment to the MTV 80s, stayed popular into the grunge 90s and still is viable today (although some might say that Eddie Van Halen and Co. have fallen from their lofty perch of late). Perhaps the deciding factor? AC/DC’s three vocalists have been the late Bon Scott, Brian Johnson, and Guns ‘N Roses’ Axl Rose. Van Halen? David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, and Gary Cherone. Who wins that comparison?

TheWho

KISS (14) vs. The Who (6)

Three upsets in the first round for the 1960s/70s! KISS took down Deep Purple in the first round, but the second-round match against The Who is going to be a bit tougher. The two bands are quite similar, with duos at the lead (Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons for KISS, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend for The Who) who basically became the faces of their groups. They had iconic members (Ace Frehley and John Entwistle) who were virtuosos on their respective instruments and members that had issues outside of the band with drugs and/or alcohol (Peter Criss and Keith Moon) that either killed them or nearly did while in their prime. Influence might be the key here – who had the greater influence on the history of hard rock/metal?

And now, here’s the second round for the 2000s/2010s

Disturbed (1) vs. Black Label Society (8)

Chalk for the top of the second round as Disturbed pushed aside the assault of Killswitch Engage to get to the second round and BLS got past Mudvayne in a contest decided by longevity. Black Label Society might not go any farther, however, because Disturbed is looking like it might be a juggernaut in this region. Nothing against Zakk Wylde and the members of Black Label Society, but Disturbed could very well be the band that is representative of the early part of the 21st century.

Halestorm

Halestorm (4) vs. Godsmack (5)

Emerging from the matchup of the female-led bands in defeating Evanescence, Halestorm now gets a shot at Godsmack – or is Godsmack getting their shot at Halestorm? The big point that may sway voters in this competition is that Halestorm is still getting their engines revved, with Lzzy Hale simply getting better with each new CD. Godsmack left their label in late 2016 and it doesn’t appear that any new music is coming out of the band in the immediate future. Things like this – how visible you are and how popular – sometimes will be the tipping point in these competitions.

System of a Down (2) vs. Avenged Sevenfold (7)

Avenged Sevenfold took down the old guard Deftones in round one and it faces another legend in round two. System of a Down has long been regarded as one of the preeminent bands of the past decade and a half, at the minimum, selling 40 million records. That type of popularity is tough to overlook in a match where the two competitors are so evenly matched up.

FiveFingerDeathPunch

Five Finger Death Punch (3) vs. Slipknot (6)

And chalk holds true for the entirety of the first round in the 2000s/2010s. This matchup, however, is different in that both bands are similar in their musical stylings and have equal impact and influence on up and coming bands. Slipknot has had some periods of inactivity that are tough to overlook, but their record at the Grammys – ten nominations and one victory – push them past FFDP. It is tough to overlook a band that is still performing strong, however, and FFDP is doing that.

That closes the second round for these two regions. Be sure to get your votes in on who deserves to move on to the Sweet Sixteen! And don’t forget that we’ve got the other side of the bracket – the 1980s and the 1990s – coming soon. We’ll determine the champion, hopefully next week, as to who is the greatest hard rock/metal band in history!

Who is The Greatest Hard Rock/Metal Band of All Time, Part 1- The 1960s/70s

HardRockMetal

Rather than delve into the delusion that currently is supposed to oversee this country (and trust me, there’s plenty to call the Tangerine Ignoramus out on simply from this last weekend alone), I’ve decided to start something that will definitely be much more fun. Since college basketball is deciding the 64 teams (OK, 68 teams because of those simply idiotic play in games the NCAA conducts) that will compete for their championship, thought it would be fun to do the same but in a different arena – the genre of hard rock/metal music.

As it is one of my personal fortes, hard rock/metal music is essentially celebrating its 50th Anniversary since the release of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” which contained the lines “Get your motor running/heavy metal thunder.” With this in mind, I’ve put together a compilation of the top 64 hard rock/metal bands from four different eras – the 1960s/70s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s/10s – and split them up in accordance with those eras into “regions.” We’ll break down the matchups in each bracket and, with hope, readers will make their own comments and vote on the matchups and perhaps they’ll be some sort of prize at the end – the management here (re:  me) is still trying to come up with that prize.

What are the criteria for consideration? First, the band/singer would have to have some sort of longevity to their career – you don’t see many bands or singers that are considered “legendary” if they were only around for a couple of albums (Amy Winehouse is a rare exception, but that’s a discussion for another time). Second, the band/singer would have to have an impact on the genre – did they do something particularly noteworthy or notorious that put them into the annals of the genre’s history, a song or “behavior” that was historic. Third, just how popular were they when they were in existence – a band or singer that was wildly popular with the fans might get some leeway over a critical darling OR vice versa (depending on tastes). Fourth, what accolades did they receive – awards, gold records, and recognition by the industry (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, hello?) are all under consideration here. Finally, was the band/singer influential on future generations of music – have they helped shape the genre since they have left the sphere?

RRHallofFame

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown of the 1960s/70s bracket, with the seeding by each band/artist name.

Led Zeppelin (1) vs. Steppenwolf (16)

Led Zeppelin as the #1 seed was about as much of a lock as you could expect. They never had a #1 song and they might lack the longevity of some of the other competitors (Zeppelin’s heyday was 1968-80, only a scant 12 years). But they make up for those deficiencies in every other area under consideration – their “tour behavior” became the stuff of legends and they had the musical chops to back it up (“Stairway to Heaven” is widely accepted as one of the greatest songs of all time), their popularity was outstanding and they were inducted into the R&R HOF on the first ballot in 1995 (minimum of 25 years after first album release). Although Steppenwolf coined the term “heavy metal,” Led Zeppelin lived it, thus they should move to the next round.

Rush (8) vs. Queen (9)

These are the fun matchups where the smallest thing can push one of the competitors past their opponent. Throwing these two against each other is roughly akin to picking a favorite child as both are outstanding and legendary groups that click all the boxes. Rush pulls ahead slightly on the longevity front – they’re still active today, while Queen disbanded after Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991 after a two-decade career, but Queen has the epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” that is arguably better known than any Rush track. Queen is arguably more influential than Rush, especially given Mercury’s soaring vocals over Geddy Lee’s vocal individuality. Both have their accolades to lie back on, but Rush waited quite some time before being inducted into the R&R HOF. Deciding a winner here could come down to a few votes.

JudasPriest

Judas Priest (4) vs. Scorpions (13)

Some may debate ranking Scorpions that low in the region, but it goes to demonstrate how tough it is to even get on the rankings. The Priest has been a monolithic machine that has rumbled since the early 70s (and are still at it today, albeit with an adjusted roster), while Scorpions have been up-and-down since the latter part of that decade. As far as the definition of “heavy metal,” Judas Priest for many would be the template to go with – the “leather and chains” look was patented by Judas Priest front man Rob Halford. What may tip the scales is that Judas Priest is in the R&R HOF; at this moment, Scorpions have not even been considered. It’s unfortunate that one of these giants of the genre doesn’t get to move on in the competition, but which will it be?

Black Sabbath (5) vs. Motörhead (12)

The 5/12 matchup is always one ripe for an upset and this battle is no exception. Black Sabbath were extremely influential on burgeoning metal bands, but Motörhead has their own legion of followers. The front men for both bands are iconic, with Ozzy Osbourne as the first singer for Sabbath followed by the legendary Ronnie James Dio and Motörhead featuring the late, lamented Lemmy Kilmister. Sabbath never got the critical recognition that Motörhead did – yes, if you’re asking, hard, fast, and loud can be critically appraised! – but Sabbath has been recognized with more accolades than Lemmy and Co. Perhaps Sabbath might win for their “Stonehenge” moment, but it will be a tough fight between this twosome – and, once again, a travesty to see one out of the competition.

thinlizzy

AC/DC (2) vs. Thin Lizzy (15)

Critically acclaimed Thin Lizzy had a handful of hits (“Cowboy Song,” “Jailbreak,” “The Boys Are Back in Town”) before decadence and the untimely passing of leader Phil Lynott ended their run in 1983, but they are running into a buzz saw coming from “Down Under.” AC/DC is still going strong 45 years since their creation, although some might think the road has come to an end without Brian Johnson’s vocals (and, prior to him, Bon Scott) heading the riffs of lead guitarist Angus Young. Influences? Accolades? Longevity? All the clicks go in the corner of the Australians over the Irish in this one, but we’ll see if an upset is brewing.

Van Halen (7) vs. Aerosmith (10)

Another difficult matchup between two U. S. bands that have been part of the backbone of the genre. Both have influenced the “up and coming,” especially Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s sound (it is arguable he might have had an influence on a young David Lee Roth from Van Halen), while band namesake Eddie Van Halen is recognized as one of the great guitarists of all time (no shame to Joe Perry for coming up second-best in that comparison). Both bands have awards and accolades, critical respect, and longevity as seminal parts of their being – who can come out on top when the competitors are almost dead equal?

KISS

Deep Purple (3) vs. KISS (14)

For some reason, I smell an upset brewing here. KISS has been around it seems since the dawn of time, but Deep Purple was one of the formative bands of the hard rock genre in the late 60s and 70s (and even a bit into the 80s). Deep Purple’s constantly shifting lineup, however, might be a detriment to them…KISS has kept two of its four members, singer/guitarist Paul Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons, intact since its creation and, for the most part, has had all four original members (lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss) for a sizeable segment of the band’s history. KISS has had more of an influence on perhaps the stage performance side of the equation that Deep Purple didn’t have, but Deep Purple had the critical love. Which will be enough to provide the edge in this race?

The Who (6) vs. Jimi Hendrix (11)

There might be some chirping from the crowd on these two picks but, for their time, they were considered as “hard rock” as you can get. The tipping point in this battle may be the longevity question – The Who lasted well into the 1990s (for better or worse), while Hendrix’s stay was short-lived (he only released three albums while alive with the Jimi Hendrix Experience; his work with the Band of Gypsies was released posthumously), which should push them ahead (Hendrix arguably was Winehouse of the 1960s). But when you’re running up against the man the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame calls “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music,” you’re going to be in for a fight.

That’s it for the first “region” of our tournament. Later this week, we’ll look at the 1980s and over the weekend perhaps we’ll delve into the 1990s and the 2000s/10s (and be thinking of who could be the #1 seeds for those “regions” – would love to hear those opinions). Don’t forget to vote by replying here and I will compile the responses – and maybe award a prize once a champion is crowned to a reader!