Tuesday, May 7, 2013

U.D.O. - Steelhammer - Dirkschneider The Unstoppable and Company Invades North America

Udo Dirkschneider is back and he is as vital as ever - he's unleashed a new lineup of his long running U.D.O., who have just completed a successful and sold out tour of the United States and Canada (their first in 12 years!), he's set to release a new album, Steelhammer in just two weeks, and things couldn't look better for the German metal field leader.

The last year has presented several challenges that would have slowed down, if not stopped a lesser man - first, the band lost their longtime second-in-command, guitarist/songwriter/producer Stefan Kaufmann, who has had to go on an extended hiatus given to health problems related to the onetime Accept drummer's back injuries that have long hindered Dirkschneider's musical partner of over three decades. Then, on the eve of recording the band's 14th studio album, guitarist Igor Gianola resigned after nearly fifteen years with the band. Certainly, no one could have blamed Dirkschneider for hanging up his boots at this point, after so many seasons of lineups changes, band breakups, and the incredible downturn of the industry at large, but Udo is back with a vengeance.

The first matter of business was to promote longtime bassist Fitty Weinhold to co-producer/songwriter, and the fifteen year U.D.O. veteran has stepped up and delivered in exemplary fashion. He and Dirkschneider have taken a look back at the band's history and returned to a looser, live feel that fits the outfit like a glove. Next was the matter of replacing the guitar team. After receiving more than 300 audition tapes, the pair decided upon Andrey Smirnov - the Russian metal veteran has performed with such notables as Paul Di'Anno, Blaze Bayley, and his own modern metal outfit, Everlost. Smirnov supplies all the guitars on Steelhammer, and it's obvious that the band has made a great choice. He's joined by Kasperi Heikkinen from Finland, and judging by the seamless success of the new guitar team on their first tour, U.D.O. has never been in better hands.

As Dirkschneider told me when we spoke just before the tour began, after Kaufmann's departure he re-thought the direction the band had been going in for several years, and came to the conclusion that it was time to return to a more organic situation in which the band recorded together in a more live scenario. Drummer Francesco Jovino is one of the best drummers in the realm of classic metal, and in no need of quantized computerization. Weinhold proves himself to be a solid riff writer in the tradition of Udo's history with both U.D.O. and Accept. In a world in which Dirkschneider and Wolf Hoffman may never see eye to eye or share a stage, it's great to have two bands still doing solid work.

As a live act, U.D.O. seems a little looser (in a very good, rocking way), a little less militarily regimented these days, and judging from the crowd reactions - it's working. It was disappointing to see them only include one song from Steelhammer, but as Udo explained, AFM Records would not be too pleased to see the whole album up on YouTube as live videos before the albums release, so I concede the point and add that after a twelve year absence it's great to have the band back on North American soil playing at all. U.D.O. completely tore the roof off of every house they played and every fan went home thrilled to the bone - what more could you ask for? The tour can only be called a huge success, and the band's management is already hard at work making plans for the band's return after the summer festival season, which will see them busy in Europe and Russia.

Until then, Steelhammer should thrill those who weren't able to see any of this tours shows. As soon as I heard the new single, Metal Machine, I knew things were well in the house of Dirkschneider - the Germanic riff, the classic lockstep bass and drums grabbed me, and they held me. Udo is in fine voice, and this would have fit on any classic Accept album, or U.D.O. record. The real gift is Andrey Smirnov - the Russian veteran is new to American ears, but he's been honing his amazing chops for many seasons -  he's equally adept at churning out the metal rhythms and embellishing them with melodic solos and interludes. The new guitar team came together on tour, but the album is the work of only Smirnov, and he did a fantastic job.

Photo: Woodwick Photo Services 

Along with the mass of metal we've come to expect from U.D.O., Steelhammer contains some surprising treats, such as the piano and strings ballad Heavy Rain, or the Basque inspired Basta Ya. This record primarily oozes classic heavy metal. Track after track finds the formula working to great effect. Weinhold's writing stands proudly beside anything in the Accept/U.D.O. catalog, and tracks like Metal Machine become instant classics.

Lyrically, Dirkschneider and Fitty continue the tradition of 'band versus the powers that be' to great effect. This spoken word rant comes in the CD's opening track, Cry Of A Nation:

"Good Evening:
More important news on the global meltdown.
The Governments of the world have issued the following statement:
'All persons with less than 2 million of their local currency, yes, that's less,
must report to their local Euthanasia Department for disposal,
women and children first.'
You heard it here first on Global Meltdown.
Good evening."

Udo is in fine, fine voice - how does he do it, year in and year out? The man is amazing - Cry of a Nation is a great opener, and it displays the band's wares in fine fashion. Smirnov is off and running as his billowing bursts of melodic fill and his nimble fingered soloing announce a new hero. And Udo's voice - you either love it, or hate it, but it is as distinctive as ever - he remains alongside Judas Priest's Rob Halford as my favorite voice in classic metal.

Photo: Woodwick Photo Services

When Love Becomes A Lie is a departure for the band as they tremendously succeed at venturing into an area their German brethren The Scorpions mined so successfully for so long. Melodic romanticism is the game, and this is one of the strongest examples I've heard since Schenker and Meine unleashed The Rhythm of Love back in the late '80s. After Weinhold's I Give As Good As I Get played out so well on the band's last outing, I'm glad they've chosen to keep exploring this style.

Book of Faith - this tune is shiny, new, and brilliant. It starts off with spoken word jazz, if you can believe that, and it is uber-cool - Dirkschneider doing an incredible turn as the master of ceremonies, as he describes the tale of man's fall into the hands of false prophets. Then a Link Wray approved moment of staccato single string plucking dissolves into some of the best produced Udo vocalizing I've ever heard - he then reminds us just how much we miss Bon Scott as he channels the AC/DC frontman for the tune's verses. The tune finally drifts off into the sunset via a magnificent musical travelogue that becomes increasingly, dare I say it - beautiful. Smirnov's gorgeous guitars, Weinhold's powerful baseline, and Jovino's always perfect and precise drums sidle on alongside some magnificently arranged synths and strings.

Metal Machine is the album's lead track, and as I said, it has instant classic written all over it. When I saw the title, I almost fell over with disbelief that this perfect title had not previously found its way into the Dirkschneider catalogue, but he was obviously saving it for something special - this tune may be the man's new anthem - of course, there is no superseding Balls To The Wall, but MM defines the band's new chapter. The writing is again brilliant, and the tune's teutonic swagger captured audiences across the continent on the band's just completed tour. When the song's chorus erupts into the classic gang vocals, we're hooked. Andrey Smirnov's solos and fills are magnificent as the new guy manages to combine old stylistic trademarks with his own single string manifestations - he sounds like he's been waiting for a chance to expose his playing to a worldwide audience, and he certainly makes the most of the opportunity.

Steelhammer is filled to the brim with quality rock - the band seems to have completely reinvigorated its creative muse, and this album comes across as a greatest hits album you've never heard. If you love classic lineup Accept, and you're a fan of U.D.O., you are going to be completely thrilled by the content you'll find here.

Photo: Joe Lohr

Udo Dirkschneider has once again proven to be an unstoppable, and apparently unbreakable force in the world of hard rock/classic metal. The world has a new guitar hero in Andrey Smirnov, Fitty Weinhold has stepped up audaciously as a writer and producer, and Francesco Jovino may be the best drummer in his genre. There is nothing to not love about this record if it's up your alley.

U.D.O. Steelhammer release date: May 21 (may be pre-ordered now on Amazon)

Thanks to Udo Dirkschneider, Fitty Weinhold, U.D.O., AFM Records, and Dustin Hardman.

No comments: